Just Don't Get It Dad, So Fuck Off!
Gardar Eide Einarsson
One of the classical headaches for "alternative" (avant-garde) practices has been how to avoid seeing these practices co-opted by more (commercial) mainstream forces, in order to be remarketed to a new audience/consumer group, a strategy of emulation that seems to serve a double purpose for the institution: continuing the late capitalist quest for newness while at the same time making the original discourses and practices less functional as tools for articulating critique.
The institutional threshold of pain is continually raised as institution(s) comes to want a certain transgressive critical naughtiness every now and then, and a significant amount of work is produced that thrives on this expectation, feigning a critical attitude while operating safely within the framework of the institutional (mobile) status quo. Rather than introducing significantly other values into the institutional artworld this work has a tendency to reconfirm the at core conservative values of this hermetic system, servicing it in a more or less conscious way.
In the corporate world one has long been aware of how knowledge and information
can be understood as a commodity to be protected and traded - corporations
now monitor discourses in and around "cutting edge" cultural
production, and are willing to go to great lengths to tap into the know-how
that can be accessed from these discourses. As market research firm Sputnik
writes: "The most obvious link to the future is to uncover the trends,
the cultural or social movements that are brewing- not what is oversaturated
and noticeable everywhere today. ".
In the corporate world establishing relationships with (and often funding)
"alternative" and "critical" practices is a time tested
method of gaining this kind of access.
Examples of these processes of parasitation abound, from the "First Tuesday"- inspired corporate executive -cultural worker dating services described in Anthony Davis and Simon Fords text Culture Clubs , through the mock fanzines created by companies such as Nike, Warner Records and Urban Outfitters -who use the underground aesthetics of zines to communicate with a more and more sophisticated group of consumers suspicious of "big business"-, to Tate Moderns attempt to co-opt Infopool pamphlets for the show Century City .
One of the problems of trying to maintain a critical practice then, is how one should react/relate to these mechanisms of parasitation on, and of mainstream repackaging and reselling of, alternative initiatives. To what extent should a lesson be learnt from corporate treatment of discourses and the knowledge inherent in them as commodities, and a counter-tactic be devised to protect these commodities from being adopted and/or perverted by outside forces?
An example of a highly developed sense of protectionist strategies is to be found in the martial arts world. Here information [discourse] is in a very practical way seen as a weapon and is often circulated only within a select group, the logic being that the exclusivity of the fighting technique gives its practitioners an upper hand on potential enemies. (When asked by the L.A. Sheriffs office to teach police officers the legendary underground fighting style of 52 Blocks- supposedly originating from Brooklyn-based gangs incarcerated at Rikers Island in the seventies -outlaw martial arts scholar Dennis Newsome replied: "I ain't teaching you shit. You know why? I know how you gonna twist it." )
With lessons drawn both from artists who have been more or less bypassed by history (often times as the direct result of co-optation of their practices by other artists/cultural workers) and from recent experiences of attacks on, and infiltration of, political protest initiatives, many of those involved in alternative/oppositional cultural practices now seem to move towards similar strategies of closed circulation.
However in many cases the most interesting initiatives are driven maybe less by an idea of a conscious protection against or antagonism towards the institution(s) that so wants to incorporate or co-opt them (although that in many cases does play a part) and more by a mere disinterest in taking part within the framework of these institutions. Rather than rebelling against the institution while still entertaining the idea that the institution is the main framework for the presentation of the work (" in the positivity of the negative perhaps, but also in the nothingness of the positivity."), these initiatives seem to just stay clear of the institution based on a realisation that it does not really have all that much to offer- or at least not in every field- and that there is no reason to bother with it unless there is actually something to be gained from it.
Examples of similar strategies of consciously choosing to steering clear or on the side of mainstream forces are to be found successfully within smaller specialised music scenes (hardcore, black metal, industrial music etc.) as well as in other industries where the idea of "street cred" is valued (such as skateboarding, surfing, to a certain extent snowboarding and certain forms of fashion). Contrary to many experiments in alternativity and self-sustained systems carried out in the contemporary art world, these initiatives have managed not only to build but in fact to sustain over long periods of time a functioning platform outside of the mainstream parts of their industries, remaining in control of the production and distribution of their own output. Often the different interest based initiatives that dominate these industries (or sub-industries) are connected in a system of collaborations and mutual benefit switching on and off and taking different shapes at different times, forming what Manuel De Landa describes as a meshwork situation- a rhizomatic, non linear quasi-grid of interconnection .
Indeed it might here be of some interest to invoke the tired and admittedly often rather shady concept of the division between alternative and oppositional (?). Rather than flagging themselves as explicitly oppositional these practices seem to step outside of and reject the idea of counter strategies happening within the system, opting instead to build their own alternative outside of it.
The institution of the artworld is of course a relatively amorphous entity (or collection of entities) and operating completely outside of every part of this system in every part of one's production might not be very easy (if that production is still to function as art), or indeed very desirable. What seems to be desirable however is to stop perceiving of one's function as an artist as being always bound up in this system, always having to relate to the traditional idea of the artworld and always having to position the critique of this system squarely within that very same system.