08 March 2015

This Exhibition Is Closed To The Public

On the circulation and consumption of certain goods at a particular moment in time (i.e., ours):

"To brutally summarize a lot of scholarly texts: contemporary art is made possible by neoliberal capital plus the internet, biennials, art fairs, parallel pop-up histories, growing income inequality. Let’s add asymmetric warfare — as one of the reasons for the vast redistribution of wealth — real estate speculation, tax evasion, money laundering, and deregulated financial markets to this list. [...]

"It is defined by a proliferation of locations, and a lack of accountability. It works by way of major real estate operations transforming cities worldwide as they reorganize urban space. It is even a space of civil wars that trigger art market booms a decade or so later through the redistribution of wealth by warfare. It takes place on servers and by means of fiber optic infrastructure, and whenever public debt miraculously transforms into private wealth. ...Or when this or that regime decides it needs the PR equivalent of a nip and tuck procedure. [...]

"Seen like this, duty-free art is essentially what traditional autonomous art might have been, had it not been elitist and oblivious to its own conditions of production. But duty-free art is more than a reissue of the old idea of autonomous art. It also transforms the meaning of the battered term 'artistic autonomy.' Autonomous art under current temporal and spatial circumstances needs to take these very spatial and temporal conditions into consideration. Art’s conditions of possibility are no longer just the elitist 'ivory tower,' but also the dictator’s contemporary art foundation, the oligarch’s or weapons manufacturer’s tax-evasion scheme, the hedge fund’s trophy, the art student’s debt bondage, leaked troves of data, aggregate spam, and the product of huge amounts of unpaid 'voluntary' labor — all of which results in art’s accumulation in freeport storage spaces and its physical destruction in zones of war or accelerated privatization. Autonomous art within this context could try to understand political autonomy as an experiment in building alternatives to a nation-state model that continues to proclaim national culture while simultaneously practicing 'constructive instability' by including gated communities for high-net-worth individuals, much like microversions of failed states."

The latest edition of the e-flux journal is largely devoted to the topic of the Anthropocene. Of the few exemptions to this them is the essay "Duty-Free Art" by artist Hito Steyerl, adapted from a lecture/presentation she gave last year, devoted to — among other things — the recent boom in "secret museums" in the form of squirreled-away freeport art troves around the globe.

One takeaway: What to make of a condition in which we've gone from the notion of a "museum without walls" to a point where more and more art is instead going into the recesses of offshore "cages without borders" as tax havens. Another: The multifold historic irony of King Bashar al-Assad's disrupted plans for an overhaul of Syrian museums, when contrasted with origins of the first modern public art museum -- viz, the Louvre. (No need for me to explicate, figuring that that the historically-minded readers know this already.) This, dovetailing with what many can argues or complained about for year: That recent booms in the art market means that (the inflated value of) most artworks puts them far beyond the purchasing ability of most public art museums and institutions. Said artworks being gobbled up at auctions by wealthy persons the world over, who primarily consider art as an investment (albeit an extremely speculative one), quickly shuttling it away into some remote cubby or vault, thus retired from the culture/public sphere.

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