We are google-doc-writing this text on a Saturday afternoon, consuming overpriced coffee while we listen to the world-jazz-elevator-type music in a cafe in Amsterdam, trying to find the head space for reflective critical thinking amidst the flow of one production email after the other, running head first into a self-imposed deadline to deliver the final event of our programme at the Stedelijk Museum. Haven’t we learned anything from the premise and ideas stemming from Exhaustion and Exuberance?
In a way, Why Is Everybody Being So Nice? and especially Exhaustion and Exuberance are a paradox, and have been since the very conception of the project. The last few months allowed some time for us to reflect and consider our intentions and the outcomes of the programme. In the case of Exhaustion and Exuberance, our aim was to open up a space for people to come together and think through the issues raised in the homonymous text, written by Jan Verwoert in 20081. To look back on a text written almost 10 years ago for collective reflection through research and practices that in the years following the publishing of the text tried to defy in one way or the other the “pressure to perform”. Did we succeed? I don't know! I think one of the weaknesses of similarly composed programmes is the habitual nature of starting from scratch each time. In the search for the latest, most radical theoretical perspective, we tend to forget to look back and build upon pertinent discourse that already took place. In an attempt to evade this trap, perhaps we could try to reflect on some of the ideas that emerged during the panel, and define some key points of departure from which we, and the next Why-Is-Everybody-Being-So-Nice kind of project, can continue to work on in the future.
That’s true, since the very beginning Why Is Everybody Being So Nice? has been tainted by the contradiction of thinking collectively about how to counteract the pressure to perform in the knowledge economy, while indeed producing, staging (and now writing about) a project that relied on high performance itself. The constant state of pressure and busyness that we had subjected ourselves to, prompted us to keep circling back to the text and wonder whether we had developed coherent strategies in building up the project. Despite the constant self enquiry, I think the programme succeeded in opening up a space to come together and collectively breed tentative antidotes for the all too familiar and relevant situation described in Jan’s text. Definitely temporary antidotes, but potentially empowering as well.
Yes, the idea of suspicion that arose in the text and again during the panel discussion provoked even further consideration of our positions as culprits of the very system that we are investigating. However, we began to evaluate how self suspicion, and asking ourselves questions such as: Why do we keep working under these conditions? Are we still in charge? And are we still having fun? can help us better understand our transient positions and the choices we make within the same system that the project was created within – and funded by. Could the concept of “suspicion as a critical tool”, as Jan poignantly posed at the beginning of the panel2, be one of the antidotes you mentioned, something that we can try to apply to our everyday practice to reimagine our personal agency within the context of high-performance society?
I think the strength of “suspicion” as a practice is not only the awareness derived from questioning our own self-exploitation, in a potentially self-indulgent psychoanalytic session. It resides, particularly, in its painfully revealing power to address the structural privilege entailed by our own position: having the advantage of even being able to ask ourselves whether or not we are still enjoying what we do and being in the position to say yes, no or maybe, the position of negotiating something in between, is a privilege in itself. Both Vera Mey and Brian Kuan Wood addressed the idea of generational exhaustion and issues of race and diaspora, through the plight of the immigrant, where one generation exhausts themselves so that the next generation has the freedom to make one's own choices. Through fiction, Brian illustrated the idea of simulated productivity employing the motif of Bubble Rubble, a material invented by the architect protagonist, with the ability to project architectural spaces of desires and disappointments in The Story of Peter Green Peter Chang,3 while Vera reflected on this from a position of diaspora and the difference in time and expectation through the buddhist precept that life is suffering.
In the framework of the aforementioned generational dialectics, if we hypothetically shift our position from the perspective of the privileged generation to embody the role of the exhausted one, a legitimate question arises: for whose children are we going to exhaust ourselves, in the time of incoming global war and impending deadly ecological disaster? Is a utopistic third position possible? Yolande van der Heide brought to light the notion of the inbetween, of a space between the binary opposites of yes and no. Shifting the discourse towards the territory of the undercommons,4 we can learn to consider the possibility of opting out, the potential of escape beyond institutional professionalism and a lineage of refusal and scepticism that in turn creates an alternative space to be.
This is where the concept of unbelonging and the attempt to build a “fugitive” strategy for survival can come into play. Once we recognise the depressing reality that all the responsibilities of our current position have been transferred from the institutional apparatus directly onto our shoulders (you are the only one to blame for your inadequacy, poverty, failure), could there be a positive flip? The other side, in which our personal agency becomes the engine for the autonomous, corrosive practice of general antagonism? In other words, can a generalised disidentification with male, white-supremacist, capitalist culture become the foundation of dangerous subjectivities, acting from within the system itself? As Stefano Harney and Fred Moten would put it, could we be in the institution without being of the institution?
This question is strictly related to the issue of what kind of strategic, and perhaps criminal, withdrawals are available in post-industrial, pleasure-based economies, when the possibility of strike as absence is no longer an option. In this sense, I feel that Why Is Everybody Being So Nice? drew on elements of fugitivity in itself. As curators and “students” of a curatorial programme, participants are usually required to culminate the formative programme they had undertaken through the format of a curated “final show”. After a few months of semi-anarchist refusal, in which we negotiated the possibility of not having a final exhibition at all, we decided to use the opportunity of visibility provided by the institution to get together and reflect on the moral and behavioural conditions of the project itself, opening up for a wider investigation on ethics and etiquette in the knowledge economy. Why Is Everybody Being So Nice? feeds back into a self-referential reflection on reputation economy and funding politics, focusing on the conditions of the social contract between individual agency and bigger institutions themselves.
Speaking of unbelonging, I think performing secrecy could be a poignant practice to consider in our search for antidotes. For instance, the lecture-performance Air Talking5 by Ambra Pittoni and Paul-Flavien Enriquez-Sarano, that opened the evening of Exhaustion and Exuberance, presented a practical experiment that evolved from their research on "Presencelessness", the possibility of strike through absence, in an act of the simulation of presence. By using tactics of reimagination, rather than abandonment of the institutional and social pressures to “perform” sociability, Air Talking is a discipline that proposes a way of secretly cultivating withdrawal and latency, while apparently participating in the mundane rituals of presence.
This brings us back to the idea of exuberance through simulated productivity in Brian’s notion of Bubble Rubble. Exuberance as unexpected and incalculable energy can work as a decoy against authoritative impositions, triggered and nourished by a carefree distrust of the authority itself. However, when tactics of scepticism of the system (of the institution, of the university) have the potential to become a tool for survival, we are led to wonder what is left that keeps us going when we are too tired to project an over-performing simulation of ourselves, and instead seek out ways of non-performance. What can we do to hold on to our agency and power when we can’t trust the institution and we don’t have any exuberance left to provide? Vera proposed the idea of care as an alternative measure – when the institution can no longer provide validation, we turn to each other. In an act of withdrawal from the institution, we focus on what binds us together to figure out what needs to be done.
The notion of care was one of the core ideas that we wanted explore further through the panel. The quicksand politics of love labour, where in the words of Brian “what we can no longer get from the state, the party, the union, the boss, we ask for from one another. And we provide”, are an unknown and at times paradoxical territory to navigate, as the testified by the multiple points of view that emerged during the panel. On one hand, care is the unknown source of energy that you only discover when you thought that you had exhausted all your energy. In this sense, it is what Jan refers to in his text in relation to the position of parenthood: you think you can’t give anymore but you can, in a demonstration of limitless love. In a way, it could be said that the OFF-Biennale was built on a formula of limitless love. When we asked to Tijana Stepanovic why and how the organisation dealt with the voluntary work and the absence of state support, her reply was moving in its simplicity: there was no other option. The fatalistic quality of this reply can seem paralysing, but it contains an equally relieving strength, a legitimisation of practice through exhaustion and boundless affection.
The other position, that partly stems from the one you just described, is one of a systemic politics of friendship. As Vera said, when the government doesn’t provide, you work on the basis of mutual debt. Friends rely on each other to help make artworks, to learn things, to build institutions, to get things done. When working within a context where there are restrictions on what is publicly permissible, dependency on each other and forming a tribe becomes survival.6 The challenge becomes if and how these invisible webs of alliances can become ingrained within our daily life and allow the practice of the I care to leak into the modes of the I can’t.
Can we consider the potential of leakage between solid institutional structures and the cracks within the system as related to the concept of “care”? The politics of love as a process of osmosis that gradually erodes away at the surface while producing new matter? I think it could be an interesting experiment to juxtapose the friendship-based invisible tribe you just described with the description of “seepage” by Raqs Media Collective:7 “By seepage, we mean the action of many currents of fluid material leaching onto a stable structure, entering and spreading through it by way of pores. Until it becomes a part of the structure, both in terms of its surface and at the same time continues to act on its core, to gradually disaggregate its solidity. To crumble it over time with moisture”.
The strength of “smuggling”, as Irit Rogoff puts it,8 exists in the illegitimate relation to a main event or dominant economy, without producing a direct critical response to it, but rather sidling along barriers and bodies seeking out an opportune moment to breach the system. I think we can agree to end this conversation on the search for antidotes with a proposal to infiltrate the realm of high pressure society and its moments of friction through an attempt to research and embody criminality and care. Could a practice of fugitivity, bound with the support structure of the politics of care, be the next strategy to be researched and pursued?
Lucrezia Calabrò Visconti and Shona Mei Findlay
Amsterdam, June 2017