One of my popular childhood TV programs was the “snow show:” the afterhours black and white dots jumping around to the sound of white noise, signaling “it’s time to turn off the TV and go to bed!” Rejecting the bitter truth that the magical TV had no more content to offer, at times I would sit in front of it staring at the vibrating black and white dots, and soon there began to appear forms, faces and patterns. I rejoiced in getting lost in the molecular movement on the curved TV screen where I had the freedom to project my thoughts and images. The static noise occupying the TV screen for hours in a 24 hour cycle sounds like science fiction today where any surface at all times offers an infinity of swipeable content to keep the consumption cycle uninterrupted. Endless content also consumes from within, creating an emotional palette inside us which mirrors the chaotic nature of how different stimuli appear on our personal devices. Longing, loss, hunger, lust, awe and envy are felt in a few seconds of engagement with one’s phone and some simultaneously.
For artists and art world adjacents one of the streams in the endless sea of social media content is digital representations of contemporary arts, a field itself not exempt from projecting an uninterrupted production cycle. Artists and artworkers are constantly negotiating exhaustion, sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression while overworked and self-exploiting by wearing too many hats, doing too many things, traveling a lot, working for free, and juggling deadlines to either gain momentum, or if they already have it, not to lose it. Whatever position you may have toward the constant digital display of art (by artists, curators, writers, collectors, galleries, enthusiasts and fans) and the public reaction to it through digital PDA (of hearts, likes and emojis) there is no denying the relationship between the digital and the IRL representations are mutually affecting and defining each other.
Take Instagram for example, where the more photogenic a work of art and the more followers a user has, the more likely it is to gain praise when shared. That praise may be given in a fraction of a second amidst intense swiping of various content: from porn to photos of potential dates, messages from friends or family members, take-out orders, delivery and GPS updates, gifs and news headlines, among others. In this context, and in the absence of articulation, the value or importance of an artwork is assigned through the endorsement of its popularity. In the economy of praise expressed through gestures of hearting and applauding emojis, is the refusal to like or heart a form of antagonism or critique? The economy of likes, in smaller communities of artists, especially amongst minorities, or between minorities and allies, also works as an unspoken nod of solidarity: I have your back, I’ll promote your work, heart your content, expecting you reciprocate by promoting and hearting my work, showing your support, or considering me an ally.
“Like is the digital Amen.” writes Byung-Chul Han, “When we click Like, we are bowing down to the order of domination. The smartphone is not just an affective surveillance apparatus; it is also a mobile confessional.” * In his book, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power Han argues neoliberalism “has discovered the psyche as a productive force” to establish Psychopolitics as its order of governance, a turn from the disciplinary society’s use of biopolitics.† Psychopolitics does not seek to “prohibit, protect or repress” but to “please and fulfill,”‡ it “prospects, permits and projects.”§
When we zoom out of our smartphone’s screen, the system of indebted hearts is thriving in an extremely competitive art world where artists are constantly reminded of how limited the sources of funding, exhibition opportunities, reviews, interviews, and awards are. All opportunities are flattened in an economy of attention, while we are told, sometimes explicitly, they are “merit-based.” But besides some loose, often contradictory definitions here and there, there is no transparency as to what the merit is based on, and if there are deserving artists getting opportunities, what have the others done to be undeserving? Like neoliberalism itself, the attention economy of the contemporary art world runs on systemic ambiguity, and what only from outside of power looks arbitrary. “People who fail in neoliberal achievement-society see themselves as responsible for their lot and feel shame instead of questioning society or the system. Herein lies the particular intelligence defining the neoliberal regime: no resistance to the system can emerge in the first place.”¶
For those of us who cannot afford to accept there is no resistance to the system, the challenge becomes one of imagination: how to imagine and believe in an alternative way of creating and existing when artists don’t even have access to health care but they are advised to run their art like a business? Where competitiveness is destructive, solidarity and support are the the answer, but where are the spaces and forums where we can discuss the material ways we each hope to practice support, to hear our differences and the ways we disagree with one another? If not a semantic query, then a methodological question is how do we need to support our peers? Could criticism be a form of care and support if it is from within the voices of the field, and bottom up? Social media solidarity is no more than symptom treatment to the artworld systemic inequities if it is not sustained through a critical dialogue deeply rooted in, and practiced as care.
Difference creates friction, it is a lot more difficult to sit around a table for an hour disagreeing with close friends than it is to nod in agreement to a stranger. It takes time and effort to truly get to know each other, understand each other’s motives, to even come to terms with what we mean when we use words such as community or solidarity, success or failure. Isn’t this what the institution imagines us to be? interchangeable, agreeing, homogeneous: flat? “artists of color,” “disabled artists,” “queers,” “immigrants,” “Muslims,” “minorities,” abstract categories flattened by the iron of the white institution. Our marginality might bring us closer, but once we have come together we need to talk about our differences, unhappiness, frustrations, exhaustion and depression, in order to stay close.
When we consider the political implications of habituating to a culture of hearts and likes in the name of support, we are depriving ourselves of the essential tool of criticality and the liberating aspects of unpredictability. The more we behave a certain way on digital platforms, the more the algorithm can predict our behavior: the more we behave like the algorithm. How do we break out of the tutelage of the algorithmic mobius strip, set our own ground rules and begin to play? What we have left to oblivion in the homogenized economy of heart-based attention, is what Han calls a narrative form of knowledge, “represented by theoretical thinking and in contrast to the correlations that Big Data Generates.”#
As artworkers we need to recreate our narrative of the self by cultivating different temporalities of making, celebrating criticality and sustaining our field’s bountiful ways of knowledge production through the uncertainty of encounters and questions. We need to allow ourselves to get lost in the abstract abyss of noise on a screen without feeling like we are being left behind: irrelevant. “The point is not to render all things and ourselves transparent and legible, but to insist on the interpretive worth of margins of error; of accidents and serendipity, of uncanny resonances and speculative layering, of doubt and ambiguity as the foundations of an epistemology that does not have to ground itself in the dead habit of certainty.”**
- *Han, Byung-Chul. Psychopolitics Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. Verso, 2017, p. 12.
- †ibid, p. 25.
- ‡ibid, p. 36.
- §ibid, p. 38.
- ¶ibid, p. 6.
- #Han, Byung-Chul. Psychopolitics Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. Verso, 2017, p. 70.
- **Raqs Media Collective, It’s Written Because It’s Written, CA2M . Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo. MUAC . Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, UNAM. Fundación PROA, p. 145.