What, if anything, can we learn from contemporary art? Perhaps not much more than what is already in front of us, a world strange enough as it is. As Jean Baudrillard wrote in 2004:
Nothing now distinguishes [contemporary art] from the technical, promotional, media, digital operation. There is no transcendence, no divergence any more, nothing of another scene: merely a specular play with the contemporary world as it takes place. It is in this that contemporary art is worthless: between it and the world, there is a zero-sum equation.
All said and done, perhaps Baudrillard was right. We could think of contemporary art as a synecdoche for the lifeworld of contemporary capitalism, a kind of privately funded think-tank that reflects upon a reactionary present and on speculative futures. In a ‘post-truth’ world, it seems like contemporary art has returned to an idiosyncratic realism; one far removed from factual representation, but resulting from an effort to map the myriad fictions of social, economic and sensory experience. The following takes a recent video work by the German artist and essayist Hito Steyerl as a lens through which to understand the cultural and economic space that contemporary art occupies.
Hito Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc.
Liquidity Inc. (2014) begins with the sound of crashing waves. A computer desktop video shows Cinema 4D rendering an expanse of calm virtual ocean. The voice of Bruce Lee advises us, ‘you must be shapeless, formless, like water’. The film tells the story of Jacob Wood, a Korean-born financial adviser whose career began with the dotcom boom and ended with the Lehman brothers crisis. The same year he gets laid off, he takes part in his first Mixed Martial Arts fight, and later, he becomes a ringside pundit. We see Wood getting ready in his office—he is a calm, ebullient, solidly built; against the oncoming storm, he is strong, shockproof. A screen behind him displays a cooly rendered ocean surface as he explains the adaptability of a strong portfolio, the versatility of mixed martial arts and the hybridity of Bruce Lee’s fighting style—‘that’s what makes it exciting, that’s what keeps things liquid, and fluid’.
In Liquidity Inc, Steyerl pulls off something quite alchemical, weaving multiple fictions together to produce a documentary. As her eclectic on- and offline narratives co-conspire, they seem to grasp at the experience of living in a world that is intangibly digital, virtual yet deadly real. What, after all, does digitality have to do with climate change or finance capital, and what’s a martial artist supposed to do about it? The answers are in the water.
The philosopher Michel Serres speaks of how in each historical era, the world’s “matter” changes phase, taking on a new master-metaphor for its mode of reality. Steyerl takes water as her patron matter-state, exploiting it in all its manifestations, flooding the language and texture of the film with its semantic and physical logic. The polysemy of water—turbulent, vitalising, slippery—becomes a semantic rhizome through which Steyerl’s narrative threads knot and furl. Jacob Wood’s own story, the geographical, biographical and emotional trajectory of his emigration to the States as a baby during the Vietnam war, and the movements of his career with the tides of the financial crash, is diagrammed in the performance of a balaclava-clad weather reporter who warns us of trade winds ‘blowing people back to their homes […] blowing their countries back to their assumed origins’.
Referencing the 1970s militant-left group The Weather Underground, this terrorist-weatherman stands before a flashing tumblr GIF of Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, alluding to the torrential circulations of digital imagery. Wood recalls when times were good in the 1990s: ‘we thought everything would be internet-based and that we were entering into a new world’. Meanwhile, the voice of water (in the form of some undulating bubble-writing) tells us a far longer story of cosmic, material time: ‘I am not from here […] I run through your veins, your eyes, your touchscreen and your portfolios…’. Steyerl’s barely coherent montage of filmed, found and computer footage ties the activity of water to themes of virtuality, to global migration, to the origins of life, from the depths of the ocean to the vaporous technological imaginary of ‘the Cloud’. The film’s (non-)structure becomes a shapeshifting organism in which subjects, signs, and soundtracks (a pitch-perfect appearance by Arthur Russell’s Let’s Go Swimming! as an intermezzo) dissolve sporadically into one another. Sweaty rhythms of sparring fighters become a metaphor for financial liquidity, the flows and eddies of their choreography brimming with emergent violence.
In Liquidity Inc., Steyerl playfully maps out the affective co-ordinates of a rapidly unfurling reality. Evocations of elemental, geophysical movement and visual reference to fluid dynamics— that is, the practice of virtually representing and forecasting those ineffable forces — draw us again and again into topologies of stochastic systems, including the fluid systems of atoms and bits that constitute life itself. Like sheets of acetate, she overlays the structures of the global financial trading, virtual and new technological discourses, the affective sphere of leisure and labour, semiotic exchange via the internet, mixed martial arts, and indeed, the science of climatology. ‘Weather is water with attitude’, the reporter reminds us. The interconnections of finance and hydrology affect us all: weather is water plus history. Therein lies also the elemental alignment proposed by Steyerl’s montage, the corresponding fluidities of water and capital along the axis of history, each being the material substrate and lubricant of systemic and experiential flow. Anxiety is in the water here, not only because of the film’s post-crash moment, but because of the inherent volatility of all the systems to which it alludes. Finance, computers, waves—each comes crashing down with a tidal resonance over the system at large.
The transubstantiation of history into H20 pulls disparate narrative fragments into the artist’s lexical whorl. As ever, metaphors are essential: Steyerl evinces the structure of reality and experience as a confluence of material and immaterial systems. It’s not strictly a film about the financial markets, new technologies, nor the post-internet culture, yet its very composition is a patchwork of 3D renderings, mock economic forecasts and low-budget tumblr aesthetics. It’s a tangle of visuals in which water is a metaphor for metaphor itself, giving shape to the mutability of experience, permeating the metaphysical basis upon which we conventionally think and talk about reality as such—a ground turned unstable, aqueous. The double-entendre of ‘Liquidity Inc(orporated)’ draws together not only the cycles of water and of corporate finance, but also the metaphors of embodiment that underlie both. The fluid forms that populate the film—from a flood of memes to transpacific migrations—are all swelling skin-volumes vulnerable to ruptures within the system: the crashing of finance, the violence of martial arts, the breakdown of communications, the shattering of surface tension…
Two thousand and late
Reality started to smell a bit funny after 2008, and Liquidity Inc. feels like a promo video for that newly precarious world. It’s a world in which digitality has transformed the base of socio-cultural production as such that the superstructures are barely legible, operating at scales and temporalities we are still struggling to parse. In 2008, the artist Marisa Olson wrote an essay called ‘Lost Not Found: The Circulation of Images in Digital Visual Culture’ in which she coined the term ‘post-internet’. The slippery phrase is defined by curator Michael Connor as the situation in which ‘it no longer makes sense for artists to attempt to come to terms with “internet culture”, because now “internet culture” is increasingly just “culture”’. In a sense, all artists are post-internet artists now. Neither the ‘net.art’ of the 1990s nor simply ‘digital art’, the term ends up referring not to a genre, but an era of cultural production in which the internet’s combined and uneven global consequences have left nothing untouched. The artist Artie Vierkant made a helpful list of its constituent phenomena:
a result of the contemporary moment: inherently informed by ubiquitous authorship, the development of attention as currency, the collapse of physical space in networked culture, and the infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials.
2008 was also, of course, the year of the financial crash. The world ruptured a spleen, and neoliberalism, the legitimising official narrative of the global economic order came toppling down along with all its forecasts and models. 2008 was the year the iPhone 3G arrived and the Google Maps app was launched, 6 months after the release of Streetview. It was the year that Facebook hit 300m users and turned cash-flow positive for the first time. 2008 might be the year that signed and sealed the ubiquitously networked era of ‘there’s an app for that’ in which we of the Global North still live today.
To me, 2008 feels like the year that precarity took hold, on multiple fronts. An aggregative expression of economic, technological and social changes in the early 21st century. The world of finance collapsed and the global operating system of consumerist cyberspace was properly installed. Matrix-like, our environment started dissolving into data at an exponential rate, and an untenable dualism between the real and the virtual was pulled beyond breaking point. As Steyerl’s weatherman chants, ‘Weather is Time! Weather is Money! Weather is Water!’. Like one of Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, weather is the environmental phenomena we experience but can’t control. Either way the forecast looked turbulent.
For what it’s worth
What’s it got to do with contemporary art? As the art historian Julian Stallabrass notes, contemporary art is ‘bound to the economy as tightly as Ahab to the whale’. The art world is all symptom and no cure — a coterie of dealers, curators and validating institutions; a playground for oligarchs and a finishing school for their children. Meanwhile, the artist class, typically low on cash and high on cultural capital, is the de facto infantry of urban gentrification in bohemian garb. If you need a barometer for the cultural landscape of global capitalism, the art world gives you a fair picture.
At the same time, the best of today’s artists resemble a motley international forum of professional dilettantes and amateur philosophers, media functionaries and affect engineers. When it comes to cultural and technological change, they are early adopters, always amongst the first to misuse and abuse. While the machinery chugs on, artists are left trying to work out what it means to see, feel and filter reality through distorted looking glasses of new media and late capitalism. This is complicated, of course, by the fact that the latter forms the conditions of possibility for contemporary art’s continued existence, promotion and exchange.
Ultimately, we get the art we deserve. Contemporary art is the perfectly flawed arena in which to comprehend the interlocking systems of narrative that comprise our understanding of the world. Over-indulgence, corruption, complexity and sometimes sublimity. ‘Nothing of another scene’, for sure; frenetic imaginations like Steyerl’s afford us the empathy, clarity and inspirational respite we need to contemplate the mess we’re in. That the contortions of reality should be so deeply complicit with its representation speaks a twisted kind of truth to the whole situation. As Steyerl herself wrote, artists are always already ‘in the neoliberal thick of things’. Indeed, in a late capitalist society, what art could be more appropriate to Baudrillard’s ‘specular play’ than realism bankrolled by real estate? At the end of the day, it’s a reflection of the scene we’re in.