Beyond Metaphor, Mapping Social Systems

The following is a response to recent work by Dr Francis Halsall and Kelley O’Brien, carried out as part of their on-going collaborative project Beyond Metaphor, Mapping Social Systems. In particular, this text responds to some of the issues unpacked in their lectures delivered recently in the Philippines and in Detroit. Those lectures can be viewed here. I know the guys are keen to get a conversation going, so do feel free to leave any comments below.


In Todd Haynes’ 1995 film Safe, Julianne Moore plays Carol, a strangely disinterested south California woman. Carol fills her days by working on ‘some designs’ for her home, meeting similarly disposed women for lunch, and attending joyless aerobics classes. After one such class, a woman exclaims to Carol “you don’t sweat!” She responds, sheepishly, in the affirmative; “it’s true.” However this hint of atmospheric imperviousness is a red herring: throughout the film, we learn that Carol does not underreact to exterior conditions, but rather feels them with far too much acuity. Quickly and mysteriously, she succumbs to what is termed multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS): Carol is by all intents and purposes allergic to the contemporary world.

For Carol the boundary between self and world is rendered far too thin. I was reminded of this film as I listened to these recent lectures. For it is only through an appeal to a systems-oriented conception of the world that a case like Carol’s can happen – and whether her symptoms are made manifest physically or psychosomatically is absolutely beside the point. Something like MCS attests to the inchoate boundaries of human and inhuman, and of the absolute interdependence of these systems: it is in fact a kind of aestheticisation of it. Much like Jameson’s (or Deleuze & Guattari’s, or Baudillard’s) conceptualisation of the schizophrenic, the subject of MCS represents another actualisation of postmodern subjectivity – one radically ajar to the dizzying abstraction of contemporary life.


As Halsall affirms, the adoption of a systems-oriented conception of the world is troubling for a number of reasons. Preeminent among them is the necessary requirement to think in terms of overviews, rather than in terms of individuals or persons[i]: social systems, economic systems, technological systems – each of these does not start with the human per se. Instead agency is refracted and dispersed within a systems view of the world, and the body becomes instead a site of convergence. This has as its effect an inability to figure the vertiginous totality of the world to any coherent or binding standard. This foreclosure to (social) totality, to paraphrase Jameson[ii], results in the failure to imaginatively concretise, or ‘map’ it: by extension, the formation of a viable counter-image is stymied also. For Jameson, then, the inability to figure the totality of the system represents a fundamental impasse to the possibility of socialism, based as it is on a kind of imminently thinkable figuring of totality.

Capital is not thinkable: it is not a thing, but a process. Likewise, it is not located in any one place, but constantly shifts and morphs, traversing and binding other systems. How might it be possible to forge an alternative to it, or even any form of viable critique on which this alternative might be founded? And furthermore: how might a systems-oriented striving towards totality be capacious of holding such a critique? How do systems not simply reiterate the conditions of global capital?

The filmmaker Adam Curtis describes his practice as a means of creating – admittedly wholly subjective – narratives within a general atmosphere of contemporary abstraction. As he says: ‘I believe that it’s possible to make the world intelligible – however complex and chaotic it is. That is the progressive job of journalism. The other reaction – which is to say, ‘Things are just so complex and unpredictable that you can never make sense of them’ – is, I think, one of the main motors that supports the conservatism of our time[iii].’ I think, instead, that is not a one or the other choice – narratives and intelligibility can indeed be created, but only within a backdrop of unintelligibility. A systems view of the world can be sharpened and politicised – and I think Curtis’ work does this to some degree – but only within a schema of general noise. This view might be a means of thinking many things, simultaneously.

Jameson also refers to the preponderance of paranoid conspiracy theories as ‘the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age[iv].’ Certainly I don’t know how many people recommended Zeitgeist to me when I was in art college, but it was a considerable amount. Typically, there was a tangible excitement as they recommended it – like they’ve been granted access to a kind of valuable and sacrosanct Truth. And in many ways, this makes sense: these typically ludicrous confections imbue the world with a kind of ecstatically perceptible cogency – they provide an entry point, or a kind of pseudo-Copernican viewpoint on which to ground subjective existence. And, as Jameson says, they do in fact provide a kind of truth: the parameters of their untruths are grounded in the ‘degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system, whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer theme and content[v].’ The conspiracy theory embodies a particular yearning for sense: similarly, Jameson’s postmodern subject par excellence – the schizophrenic – is typified by the presence of apophenia: that is, the perception of patterns or connections within meaninglessness.

Within his lecture on system aesthetics, Halsall referred to three case examples: the first, the supporting of ‘immaterial’ technology, and its disavowed irreducibility to the body within the outsource centres of the Philippines; the second, the topographies of Detroit and the infamous practice of ‘redlining’; and the third, the container ships through which global consumerism is supported and perpetuated. All three present key sites of convergence – or indeed visibility – wherein particular systems meet, effectuating an almost grotesque material signifier. I would add another: the contemporary luxury storage facility, where a vast amount of art is currently stored. Here, global capital just stops. This is the obscene counterpoint created by contemporary capitalism: halting, stopping, and taking these goods out of a global economic system. Capital renders them spectral, like a landfill in reverse.

Contemporaneity is fundamentally inflected by the discourse of system: whether technological, economic, political, or subjective, each conceptual horizon’s parameters are dispersed to scopes almost sublime in makeup. The rub, as Jameson has affirmed, is that postmodern ideology is enacted on the basis of reality itself: a systems reality is thus arguably commensurate with the dominant – namely late capitalist – ideology. Now, this is just thinking aloud here, but: how productive is it, in this light, to think the world-as-system? It obviously is one: from what point can its critique stem? O’Brien’s modest (albeit time consuming) project in the Philippines offers one possible example. Having noticed the vast dominance of the national fast food chain Jollibee, over McDonalds, O’Brien went out to photograph each and every of the two hundred and fifty-six franchises in the national capital region. These photographs offer a cumulative affront to global capitalism, and a point of possibility. Within a system of global capital, blips happen – the system can create moments of idiosyncrasy, rather than simple abstracted homogenisation.

[i] Halsall & O’Brien (2015) Beyond Metaphor, Mapping Social Systems, University of the Philippines, available at

[ii] Fredric Jameson (1988) Cognitive Mapping, in Cary Nelson & Lawrence Grossberg, eds (1988) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 347-58

[iii] Paul MacInnes (2015) Adam Curtis: “I try to make the chaos and complexity intelligible’ The Guardian, 25th January 2015, available at

[iv] Ibid ii, pg. 356

[v] Ibid


Below is my text ‘Attentive Festivalisation’ for the January-February edition of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet, just in case you haven’t got a chance to get a copy yet. Some really interesting articles in it too, an interview with Duncan Campbell, and another particularly good one with Mairéad McClean. Very annoyed that I didn’t make it up to see her piece, ‘No More,’ in the MAC. Anyway, here’s the text. Back into my PhD-hole.

FESTIVALISATION, insomuch as I understand it, involves a specific kind of process or set of tendencies: it outlines a movement whereby singular events become exploded into a multiplicity of forms and platforms. Certainly it bears some relation to the art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s pejorative term ‘festivalism,’ which he uses to evoke a contemporary tendency prioritising temporary spectacle – particularly installation art – within large-scale exhibition making[i]. This, he describes as ‘festival art’: ‘environmental stuff that, existing only in exhibition, exalts curators over dealers and a hazily evoked public over dedicated art mavens[ii]. Here, permanence is sidelined in favour of ambitious but temporary projects: artworks, which are always already on the point of leaving. Logically, then, festivalisation names a process whereby strategies of festivalism assume dominance within the broader milieu: clearly, too, this denotes a set of processes in step with the contemporary tendency towards the short-term ‘project’, in lieu of permanent engagement[iii]. Contra this, I would like to affirm Saskia Sassen’s term ‘placeboundedness’ as an important conceptual horizon on which to base expectations, and to gauge the success of contemporary festivalisation within the discourse of global art [iv].

Festivalisation is of course culturally ubiquitous, and not solely reserved for the visual arts: partly an economic necessity, and partly representative of quantitative desire – i.e. to experience a lot, in an efficient manner – its effects are broadly felt: this year in Ireland there were more than two hundred cultural festivals[v]. Clearly, then, the festival is a thoroughly appealing format, something in it presenting an invaluable opportunity for the arts. Of key importance here are the whys of festivalisation, and thus to examine it materially as symptomatic of strategies of globalisation, and neoliberal capitalism more broadly. Does the festival format retain any space – interstitial or otherwise – within which to create something new and/or antagonistic, and not merely to reproduce the wider conditions of which it is a symptom? Put bluntly, is the contemporary festival-form now irrelevant as a form of exhibition making within the arts?

The short answer is, of course, no: globally, some of the best contemporary art is made specifically for art’s festival-form par excellence, the ‘biennale’[vi] (Documenta, Venice, Liverpool, etc.), and quite simply these events present the most efficient means of seeing a surfeit of exceptional art, not exactly under one roof, but close enough. What Schjeldahl terms ‘festival art’, too, is necessarily exceptional in character. Similarly, year-long festivals such as those staged under the auspices of the European (or UK) cities of culture often provide a much-needed boost – both economic and reputational – to the local environment. Indeed it appears as though these events, although of course positive in terms of artistic content, are even more beneficial by virtue of their powers in rethinking and rebranding, by altering perceptions and by imparting a degree of creative gravitas to a place. Indeed, in a sense the contemporary festival-form could be thought almost as a victim of its own success: in such a way, festivals are wont to evaluate their own achievements not on artistic merit, but rather by the extent to which they have fulfilled economic or political expectation – numbers of tourists, amount of ticket sales, secondary revenue, etc. As the sociologist Monica Sassatelli writes:

[T]he fact that a good proportion of the scarce literature on contemporary festivals has been driven by economic research focusing exclusively on economic returns, and thus on an instrumental vision of festivals, has also contributed to reinforcing the idea that contemporary festivals are – from a cultural point of view – of little relevance, as they are dominated by commercial, ‘inauthentic’ logics[vii].

Arguably, then, the festival-format increases in visibility to the extent by which it recedes in relevance as a cultural from. The more economically successful it is, the more its overall success is gauged solely on those terms. And yet at the same time this is inevitable: how do political departments or other funding bodies – often without real knowledge of art – gauge its value if not through economic criteria? As a result, a kind of unhelpful dichotomy persists with regard to the contemporary artistic festival: the commercial, ‘inauthentic’ festival, on the one hand: and on the other, the festival that resists commercialisation, in so doing opening up a space for some kind of ostensibly valid artistic gesture. This dichotomy, I argue, is hopelessly inconsequential. It is neither possible nor desirable to enact a festival on the basis of its refusal of the dominant appraisal of value; that is, monetary. Rather, new and supplementary criteria of gauging creative success should put forward, counteracting the homogeneity of solely economic reasoning.

Festivalisation, in this light, might be distinguished from biennales on the basis of an engagement with the above dichotomy: the former failing to do so; while the latter – when they are successful – acting to create new forms of value and engagement within the broader conditions of the late capitalist milieu. As such, the latter always runs the risk of slipping into the former, and so of merely unquestioningly reiterating these aforementioned conditions: temporary and cursory artistic engagement serving only to reiterate the self-same strategies of globalised, capitalist engagement. The biennale runs the risk of becoming pure festival, pure spectacle, in the absence of some attendant contradiction of capital. Given the language of sociality and exchange that pervades the socio-economic milieu, the contemporary festival fails to offer a point of intrinsic contradiction: structurally, it instead reiterates the grounds on which a contemporary understanding of (social, immaterial etc.) capitalism is predicated. As Peter Osborne writes;

Art is a privileged cultural carrier of contemporaneity, as it was of previous forms of modernity. With the historical expansion, geopolitical differentiation and temporal intensification of contemporaneity, it has become critically incumbent upon any art with a claim on the present to situate itself, reflexively, within this expanded field[viii].

Understood within such a horizon, the festival functions as an agent not only of neoliberal capitalism, but also of contemporaneity itself. Boris Groys describes the contemporary as a period of doubt and hesitation, indicative of a desire for ‘a prolonged, even potentially infinite period of delay’[ix]. Traditionally the festival is to be conceived analogously, by offering a means of subversion or a halting of daily quotidian life: a ‘time out of time’[x]. Thus both the concept of the contemporary, and that of the festival, foreground the possibility of the present moment as a point radically at odds with the homogeneity of time. As Groys affirms, in both, ‘the present is a moment in time when we decide to lower our expectations of the future or to abandon some of the dear traditions of the past in order to pass through the narrow gate of the here-and-now’[xi]. The contemporary, then, reiterates the traditional festival’s operation. Indeed we might think it as being inherently festivalist, but purged of the utopian impulse on which the latter was traditionally founded. The contemporary festival, then, does not inherently offer a break or rupture of the existing milieu, but only its formal intensification.

Here in Ireland there have been both successes and failures in negotiating this particular bind. To illustrate this, we might contrast two recent large-scale art exhibitions: Dublin Contemporary, with EVA International. The former was founded as a quinquennial in 2011, like Documenta: the latter, a Limerick-based biennale, first staged in 1977, with its latest iteration-taking place in 2014. In their differences, we can perceive the importance of placeboundedness within contemporary large-scale exhibition making. The problem with Dublin Contemporary was that it illustrated very little of it: aside from the actual physical setting of the exhibition, and the presence of some Irish artists, it remained only nominally place bound. EVA, by contrast, consistently appeals to a more local context, whilst nonetheless retaining the ambition and rigour present within the highlights of Dublin Contemporary. Given that Dublin Contemporary was staged during the 2011 Venice Biennale, it also badly needed a point of differentiation to foreground its necessity: largely failing to do so, it not only estranged tourists, but the local Dublin context, too[xii]. EVA feels more vital, more entrenched within its context; and although possibly more urgent or necessary – economically – in Limerick, does not appear to be predicated on only these grounds. Dublin Contemporary – and perhaps here it was a victim of taking place within the capital, rather than on the periphery – seemed indicative only of a desire to do something: arguably, this something failed to differentiate itself and was as much a result of branding, than any concerted effort to engage with the problems and inconsistencies inherent to Dublin, as opposed to anywhere else.

Certainly it is no coincidence that festivals – and in particular biennales – predominantly take place in cities: indeed as Richard Florida affirms, under current conditions it is specifically creativity that has become the preeminent driving force in capitalist expansion and growth, not only in cities, but in regions and nations more broadly[xiii]. This is apparent in cities like San Francisco and London, but indeed Dublin also: recent dizzy hyperbole surrounding the Web Summit serving only to emphasise creativity’s unparalleled valorisation as a force for contemporary growth. It is into this discourse that any conception of festivalisation must necessarily inhere. Understood this way – as a particular symptom and vehicle of economic growth – the festival format is almost naturalised as a product of global capitalism. Importantly, though, what is crucial is the means by which this creative growth takes form within the particular format, avoiding a situation that sees the festival estranged – as with Dublin Contemporary – from its own particular conception of place: here, San Francisco’s blacked-out tech-buses transporting workers from their city homes, to the valley, function as a fitting analogy. Capital has no responsibility to place; it has, instead, an ever-diminishing sense of what Sassen terms ‘placeboundedness’. In opposition, the arts and its attendant festivals might instead offer an engagement that is inherently fidelitous to place, seeking instead to affirm a ‘strategic terrain for a whole series of conflicts and contradictions’ [xiv]. These conflicts and contradictions of place might not all be productive – or at least not in economic terms.

In Forgetting the Art World (2012), Pamela M. Lee offers a trenchant affirmation of the ineluctable bondage of the ‘art world’, to the world ‘out there’. As she says: [T]o speak of “the work of art’s world” is to retain a sense of the activity performed by the object as utterly continuous with the world it at once inhabits and creates: a world Mobius-like in its indivisibility and circularity, a seemingly endless horizon’[xv]. For Lee the ‘work of art’s world’ is inseparable from the wider conditions of its making. Thus the city is of course the perfect site for a contemporary large-scale art festival – as it is for any kind of global capitalist exchange: the difference being, the latter necessitates no real engagement, aside from one purely economic in nature.

Festivals, though symptomatic and indeed catalytic of capital, should engage neither transitorily nor parasitically, but with a productivity that seeks to sharpen and foreground the gaps and inconsistencies of place. New criteria and evaluative tools must be put forward; at the very least, some engagement as to why, in fact, people will travel and spend money on art. Recent political furor has foregrounded the possibility that Irish politicians do not even want to understand art, let alone know why they should fund it[xvi]. But if art and its attendant festival form are indeed lucrative then surely politics needs to understand why they are so, in ensuring increased differentiation and thus revenue, in the future. Declan Long, writing recently in the Irish Times, asks a pertinent question: in light of Scotland, and more particularly Glasgow’s artistic achievements, is it possible to think that an Irish city might be thought of in similar terms, in the future[xvii]? What would need to happen for this to take place? Festivalisation, thought specifically and with attentiveness, might be one way of achieving this: neither negating nor appeasing the economic rationale that gives rise to it, but instead seeking to problematise its relative demand on place. To what purpose is art being instrumentalised; and to what ends?


[i] Peter Schjeldahl (1999) Festivalism, The New Yorker, July 5, 1999, pg. 85

[ii] Ibid

[iii] For more on the cultural significance of the ‘project’, see Lane Relyea (2013) Your Everyday Art World, Cambridge, Mass & London: MIT Press, pp. 4-6

[iv] Saskia Sassen (1998) Globalization and its Discontents, New York: The New Press, pg. xxiv

[v] For more information, see: (accessed 12/11/14). This figure does not include specifically commercial events, e.g. music festivals.

[vi] I use this term loosely: Documenta, for example, happens every five years.

[vii] Gerard Delanty, Liana Giorgi, and Monica Sassatelli, eds (2011) Festivals and the Cultural Public Sphere, New York & London: Routledge, pg. 17

[viii] Peter Osborne (2013) Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, London & New York: Verso, pg. 27

[ix] Boris Groys (2009) Comrades of Time, e-flux no. 11, Dec. 2009, available at (accessed 10/11/14), pg. 2

[x] Alessandro Falassi (1987) Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, Albuquerque: University of Mexico Press, pp. 1-10

[xi] Ibid iii

[xii] Certainly the local critical reaction was ambivalent at best. For examples, see Declan Long What Else? On Dublin Contemporary, The Irish Review, Issue 45, Winter 2012; and Francis Halsall It’s Hard to Satirize a Guy in Shiny Boots, Paper Visual Art Journal: Dublin Edition, November 2011

[xiii] Richard Florida (2004) Cities and the Creative Class, New York & London: Routledge

[xiv] Ibid, pg. xxv

[xv] Pamela M. Lee (2012) Forgetting the Art World, Cambridge, Mass & London: MIT Press, pg. 8

[xvi] In particular, I refer to the recent furore regarding John McNulty’s appointment to the board of IMMA, and the particular breed of political cynicism (or antipathy) suggested by such a move. The notes from the ensuing debate are highly illuminating in this regard, in particular Senator Marie-Louise O’ Donnell’s words: To me modern art has no explanation and at times we have hundreds and thousands of psychologists, sociologists and culturally aware people trying to explain it. When one has to explain things one is losing, as we know’. The debate is online in full here:

[xvii] Declan Long The artistic vision of Scotland’s golden generation, The Irish Times, 19th August 2014, available at (accessed 10/11/14).


Weaponising Speculation book

The book that documents the proceedings from the Weaponising Speculation conference, which was organised by the Dublin Unit for Speculative Thought (D.U.S.T) and took place in March 2013, has now been published. Edited and designed by Caoimhe Doyle, and published by Punctum, it contains some really great contributions from a variety of excellent people. My own perspective has probably shifted somewhat in the past year, but I think it’s important not to attempt to modify that. Anyway, the book is available to buy here. Here’s the blurb:

This book contains the proceedings from Weaponising Speculation, a two-day conference and exhibition that took place in Dublin in March 2013. Weaponising Speculation was organised by D.U.S.T. (Dublin Unit for Speculative Thought) and aimed to be an exploration of the various expressions of DIY theory operative in the elsewheres, the shafts and tunnels of the para-academy. The topics covered all come under the welcoming embrace of speculation, spanning a broad range: from art, philosophy, nature, fiction, and computation to spiders, culinary cosmology, and Oscar the Grouch. The book itself aims to be more than just a collection of essays and catalogue of artworks, but also a documentation of the event as a whole. An object that both those present at the event and those who missed it would want to own — bringing something new to both sets of readers.
The range of topics covered in this collection, along with the added elements of design and photography, result in a book that appeals beyond the (para)academic circle within which the Speculative Realist community currently resides. One of the original aims of the Weaponising Speculation conference, and by extension the book, is to expand what might be considered the expected reach of the subject, bringing Speculation to a new audience — artists, designers, fans of fiction, photographers, biologists, film theorists, comedians, culinary artists, illustrators, computer programmers, and individuals from any number of fields.
Before the storms the para-academic needs to equip herself. Not only with tools, but weapons. In this way this collection is not only a book to read, an object to own, or a tool for learning, but a weapon with which to break open academic discourse, to invade and conquer as yet unknown territory, and to aid thinkers in the siege to reclaim the real.
TABLE OF CONTENTS: Continental Realism and Computation: Turing’s Propaganda — Robert Jackson // A Seductive Union: Speculative Realism and Contemporary Art — Rebecca O’ Dwyer // Objects, Actors and Sites of Contingency — Alice Rekab // Taken from/Put in Oscar’s bin — Sam Keogh // How to Make Space-Time and Influence People — Isabel Nolan // ‘[os mentis] mouth to mouth’ with Nicola Masciandaro — MOUTH // Sweet Dreams Are Made of This: Speculation — Ridvan Askin // All That is Liquid Melts into Solid — John Ryan // Mutant: Infiltration of the Hallucinated Mountain — Rob Murphy // The Fossils of Sensation — Alan Boardman // restless tongues expending into rest — Teresa Gillespie // House of Sheaves: The Asymptotic Horror of Nested Nature — Ben Woodard // Spider Universe: Weaponising Phobia in Bataille, Nietzsche, Spinoza — Scott Wilson // + ARTWORKS by John Ryan, Rob Murphy, Alice Rekab, Andy Weir, Teresa Gillespie, Alan Boardman, and Ciara McMahon.

What do you expect from art criticism?

I know this took place about a month ago, but I have been too busy – and still am too busy, really – to write anything about it. Anyway, this event, with the massive question, What do you expect from art criticism?, took place at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios as a means of re-launching Paper Visual Art Journal under its new Dublin editors, Marysia WieckiewiczCarroll and Nathan O’ Donnell. Adrian and Niamh, now being based in Berlin, must now be editors-at large. I always wanted to be one of those.

The four invited panelists were critic and ACW coordinator Declan Long, artist and critic Jim Ricks, theatre critic Joanna Derkaczew, and myself. The discussion was firmly but sensitively moderated by visiting ACW/IMMA scholar Nuit Banai. Each of us in turn offered our thoughts on the question, which, although intriguing, was somewhat massive and could possibly have needed more pinning down. Certainly each of us came at the question from a different angle, using different criteria to base our respective interpretations of expectation on. Is it an aesthetic/stylistic or political expectation, or both? Is there a relationship between these different kinds of expectation? How do these expectations relate to the question of responsibility? Lots of aspects thus needed elaboration, not merely aesthetic concerns, but also the politics of display, dissemination, the kind of platforms used etc. Dennis McNulty, making a point later in the discussion from the floor, offered visibility as a possible entry into the latter questions, one as pertinent to the platforms of art criticism, and to the art critics themselves. In such a way, I would have liked to hear what Paper Visual Art had to say about the question. How do they see their role in making things visible, or indeed in omitting them from the frame? Critics, after all, write for platforms: journals, magazines, papers etc. A certain amount of snobbery continues to pervade our interpretation of editor-less art criticism blogs, and indeed rightly so: a good editor is invaluable. So, the art critic – if she values accuracy and rigour – will above all else aim to write for something, for an editor. Thus, the expectation of art criticism is one typically enforced by external means. It would perhaps have been interesting, then, to see what PVA had to say in this regard: not what they expect from art criticism per se, but, what do they expect of themselves as a bestower of value – visibility – to art criticism, and to the art it critiques? Unwieldy, I know, but perhaps one for the future.

To conclude, I must return to this topic another time. My vaguely confused answer to the question is to be found below.

Art criticism, by all accounts, should not even be a site of expectation at all. The gradual shattering of disciplines permitted – and arguably even demanded – by the action of postmodernity ensures that criticism, thought alone, cannot really do or think anything at all. The singular critic is actually a rare figure these days: instead she is the critic/artist, the critic/curator, the critic/artist/DJ/cheese maker…etc. Bizarrely, I have been described numerous times as a curator, even though I have never actively curated…

Being many things at once is of course not a new phenomenon, and yet for me, its contemporary omnipresence is indicative of a peculiar but pervasive imperative: to be one thing, and one thing alone, isn’t what’s required anymore. Peter Osborne describes this particular shift from disciplinary, to inter/multi-disciplinary, to the current trans-disciplinary, the advent of which he places in the 1970s. Disciplinarity affirmed the relative autonomy of the specific disciplines. Inter or multi-disciplinarity was then an exercise in reflection on the actual limitation of disciplines, thought autonomously. Trans-disciplinarity, in contrast, problematizes the very concept of the discipline, and, as such is symptomatic of a loss of faith in the political or transformative potential of any one discipline at all. The contemporary blurring of subjective positions – trans-disciplinarity – thus appears as a response to the political impasse facing criticism, which seeks to be overcome through its utilization in union with other, equally compromised, disciplines.

This trans-disciplinary impulse ensures that roles are fragmented and dispersed, and the critic is transformed into a split subject, never really capacious of speaking as a critic only. Of course, this shift was in kind a form of response to the monolithic authoritarian voice of modernism, and later, the October school, which sought to harshly demarcate the site of art from other disciplines. This form of criticism began to feel out of time, at odds with the plurality of roles and disciplines that pervade contemporary life. It didn’t really fit with expectations. The art professional ‘multi-tasker’ felt inevitably much more apt. And yet, I still expect something from art criticism, a thing nebulous and singular. And to expect anything at all necessitates a view that says criticism can, in fact, still do something.

So in my opinion to do rid with the singular critical voice – dispersing it with the ether of trans-disciplinary engagement – is but to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This voice would not need to be an authoritarian voice, but it does need to be a voice, holding the ability to speak on its own terms, as a critic. This, for me, necessitates a kind of dedication, or fidelity. That is not to say that doing the odd bit of curating on the side means that one is being ‘unfaithful’. I’m not moralizing here. Rather, I expect art criticism to be mindful of the conditions that serve to undermine it as a discipline. I expect the art critic to write like she does nothing else – whether she does or not is not really the issue at stake. Being mindful of the processes that threaten the practice, the discipline of art criticism, in my mind, should always exist as an affirmation of its own parameters, and right to exist.

Art criticism should not be authoritarian: it should not aspire to dogma. Rather, it should be open to change and contradiction. Even Rosalind Krauss, in later years, has radically updated – some might say overhauled – her views on the question of medium. Thus art criticism must be able to update and revise, and to admit it was wrong. To start every piece anew, in a way, parking the knowledge and self-assurance that experience brings: conceding, in such a way, what Krauss calls her ‘perpetual inventory’.

I do not really expect art criticism to do much apart from exist within this schema of fidelity and humility. I do not want it ‘put to use’. I wonder did we ever ‘expect’ anything tangible from art criticism, or is this merely symptomatic of its apparent redundancy, or crisis? What was it ever supposed to do, or is a neoliberal productivist logic simply slipping into the discourse that surrounds art criticism?


Clap your Hands! Work it!

I woke up today to an excruciating crunching alongside the left side of my neck. I am basically immobilised, and so the thought of sitting down to bash out any amount of my PhD seems increasingly unlikely. Instead, I want to ponder on some disparate topics, all of which involve the question of work itself. Perhaps, indeed, the fact of my not being able to work at the minute has catalysed these thoughts, a kind of FOMO writ large, and tangible. On the other hand, my writing about work, now, when I cannot, might in fact be symptomatic of the kind of tendency that underwrites the topics I want to explore here. All explicate a particular contemporary sensibility with regard to the domain of work, specifically, I believe, of the increasingly insidious – and to all intents ‘benign’ – permeation of a late capitalist schema of work into normative collective consciousness.

The first involves a television programme Mary’s Silver Service, which is set to air presently on Channel 4. Its objective is simple:

Mary Portas launches a pop-up employment agency to find jobs for Britain’s overlooked and under-valued pensioners.

I recently heard Portas – most renowned for making aesthetically pleasing, and thus profitable charity shops in another Channel 4 gem –  talk about the show with an not insignificant amount of pride, recounting in particular the joy of seeing an elderly barman (with a lifetime of high-end service behind him) returned to employment. Useful and active once again, and showing up youthful colleagues with his cocktail flair, it was hard to deny his obvious delight. I am not attempting to undermine what I’m sure was his keenly felt desire to be active again, and his obvious satisfaction in its fulfilment. Rather, I want to unpack what Mary’s Silver Service says to us, the viewers, about the domain of work itself.


Perhaps, indeed, I am being over sensitive. Perhaps, as many people would say, the show only serves to fulfil a desire to work: working on a case-by-case basis, it simply makes people happy by being back out working again rather than sinking into retirement, which is a disempowering and indeed lonely occasion for many. This cannot be denied and thus I do not mean to belittle the subjective happiness that the show in fact makes manifest. Rather, what I find unsettling is the ideology that the show insidiously represents: namely, that these people are able to work, and thus, by deduction, many more elderly people might be able to also. Why, it seems to ask, is it possible in the UK to be in receipt of a state pension at the positively youthful age of 61? More directly: why aren’t you working? For many reasons, I argue, preeminent being the fact that perhaps you’ve worked for 45 years, paid your taxes, and am entitled to retire if you so choose. Furthermore, if you actually wanted to continue to work, like these people in the show, wouldn’t you at least want to be guaranteed some stability and assurance? Arguably a ‘pop-up employment agency’ is exactly the wrong way to go about this, in that it precipitates the myth that says elderly workers would only gain employment on a short-term basis, with little rights and often, meagre pay. The tag-line used is ‘age against the machine’, and yet this implies that age is fundamentally opposed to the ‘machine’. I would argue the exact opposite: expanding the labour market to include elderly people would only further capitalist growth, given the exploitative potential contained therein. An older worker, desirous of a return to work, would arguably be an ideal proponent of an increasingly ‘feminized’ labour market. Furthermore, and crucially, Mary’s Silver Service disavows the fact that the people that choose to work post-retirement age often do so not out of choice, but of necessity, in so doing disguising the fact that for most people work is of the kind of intense alienation: they work to pay the bills, not because they like what they do. It is, in my mind, a particularly insidious manifestation of the late capitalist rhapsodization of work, a work so irreducible to your life that you cannot function without it.

The second phenomena, which I also think speaks to this particular conception of work, is the bizarre activity of pre-work ‘raves’. This isn’t as incongruous, sadly, as it would appear, with these kind of happenings popping up recently all over Western Europe. The one I saw documented took place in Shoreditch, and was mostly populated by workers looking for some kind of ecstatic release before work. Without of course, the ecstasy. Taking place from 6.30-10.30am, the club heaved with stone-cold sober revellers, who comprised of a large amount of IT workers, along with academics and other professionals. The club, Morning Glory, is based on one simple principle: ‘rave your way into the day’!

Indeed, all the signifiers of ‘rave-dom’ were present and correct: men wearing dresses; nostalgic-early 90s rave attire; some awful dancing and a general sense of ‘togetherness’ or communality. What differentiates Morning Glory from actual raves, however, is the counter-cultural import that set the latter apart, which existed on the margins of legality, and normative society more generally. Raves of the late 80s and early 90s were not meant to be at the service of productivity, but rather completely ambivalent towards it. With Morning Glory workers engage in an early morning rave in the hope of having a more productive day in its wake: thus, the availability of smoothies, massages and hugs – in an environment akin to Google’s workplace ‘fun’ zones, effectively just brought to their natural conclusion. Some of people who frequent these clubs would I’m sure have partaken in earlier, actual raves, and so to engage in these ones seems a natural and nostalgic progression. Stripped of their counter-cultural effectivity, however, it is but empty nostalgia, remaking the past in the light of a totally colonised present.

These two examples, for me, are representative of the near total colonisation of the space of non-work by work. Apparently no space is free from the imperative of productivity: not leisure, not even old age. I wonder what states will further be taken as possible spaces of productivity in the future. Will there be a way to make sleep productive, for example? (Have a look at Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 for more on this) Or children, perhaps? I’m sure we could get them to do something. 


A response

Below is a short text that I wrote recently in response to the work of painter Kathy Tynan. Her exhibition The Sky is all Changed, opens tonight at Hendrons Collider on Dominic Street Upper. It will be well worth adding it to the itinerary on this particularly exhaustive night of art openings in Dublin.  

It was a typical lunchtime in the year of my junior cert, I think. Just the usual hour passed idling in our classroom, which was in fact but one section of a larger room bisected, thriftily, to create two rooms from one. At certain times, we could hear the noise from the adjoining class come seeping under the thick plastic partition, which was plied open up from a central point for exams and the like. This lunchtime, as always, groups of girls huddled in clusters around small desks that cluttered the room, with a rustle of crisp packets and gossip. I sat in one of these groups. For us, conversation hinged on an affected ambivalence towards everyone else in the room: thus, music, alongside a smattering of noncommittal bitching about teachers and other girls, who had the ignominy to be oblivious of the Pixies. Negotiating the line between ‘studious’ and ‘studious yet nonchalant’ was a fine line indeed, and it demanded our constant and deliberate assertion.      

I can only guess this posturing to be key as to why, at a certain point, we came to talk of bombs. I’ll speculate that we arrived at bombs via politics, or a particularly memorable history class: the ‘how’ is essentially insignificant. One of my friends let the word slip in conversation, naturally and with utter ease: bomb. I will always remember it. I saw her lips move, could hear her say the word and make out its shape, and yet: nothing. I simply could not recognise the word; in that moment it was shockingly foreign. I asked her: “what’s a bomb?” She looked at me with a definite bewildered amusement; “yeah you know, a bomb? A bomb!!!’” Cautiously, I repeated the word over and over in the attempt to glean some shred of sense: nothing. My friend generously even mimed its action, with some wild gesturing and sound effects. The others joined in too, confident, I’m certain, that I was playing an inexplicably un-funny prank. But still I was at a loss: the word had merely ceased to mean anything at all.


After what seemed an eternity of grasping, its meaning of course came back. There were no triggers, no rationale behind it. I did not, for example, have any traumatic experience regarding the word, which spontaneously asserted itself, there in that lunchtime classroom. Rather, meaning – for whatever reason – simply broke down. In structuralist parlance, I can say now that the yoke of signifier and signified had, in that instant, become utterly eroded. The word held the uncanny ring of bare signifier: a brute senseless lump meaning nothing.

Rendered strange, the word at the same time became instantly more interesting. In its blankness, there was potential and a kind of vertiginous thrill. By appearing anew and in the absence of a past, the word – like the object and like the place – might be rethought as a site of latent inspiration, and of action. Things, places and even people can emerge, ‘bomb’-like, as it were, and ripe.