Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
We travel to Washington D.C. for the first edition of our When In…series.
The When in… series takes you to some of the world’s most fascinating cultural hubs through the lens of local creatives and thinkers. Each edition highlights experimental sounds, powerful photography, and immersive literature.
We begin the series in…Washington D.C. where a pulsating mix from local G-House DJ, Julius Jetson, accompanied by a letter from the DJ himself, takes listeners through a history of the local music scene. Following this, a curated selection of images from local photographers presents some of the District of Columbia’s iconic landmarks and hidden spots.
Established in 1790 as the United States capital, and named after arguably the most famous American to ever live, Washington, D.C. – also styled D.C., or The District – is a city that remains an enigma for many. DC was designed by French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant who took inspiration from some of the great cities of Europe for his plan of the city. Situated along the Potomac River, the District exudes a coolly understated presence, which radiates throughout the city’s architecture as if it were guarding a deep secret.
The heart of the US federal government, D.C. is home to countless international organizations and provides the space where politics inevitably takes center stage. Despite this overwhelming presence, a defiant creative streak continues to run through the pulse of the city, which is a national center for the arts. From the winding streets of Georgetown to the jazz cafe’s of Shaw, inspiration is abound wherever you choose to look.
Bissy Riva presents an examination of the physical and emotional world of the body through textiles.
These garments are the answers to a stream of reflective questioning. They are emotional responses to various anxieties and to the impact of those stresses on the body. The apprehensions I address are products of the societal pressures that females face when success is demanded and composure is a command—the destruction and physical repercussion when one informs the other. The pieces I have created are costumes. They are personal to me as an artist. I worked through a period of trying to articulate abstract feelings from which this collection of sculptural textile grew. The intention of each garments is to give the incommunicable form these anxieties instill in us, bodies of their own.
“Here I am
reworked until I don’t
I mean nothing
there are no words
revealed to you”
Bissy Riva is a fine artist, poet, and textile student at the Rhode Island School of Design. Bissy manipulates traditional textile techniques to create sculptural garments. Her interest in poetry serves as a narrative to her art work. Bissy will complete her BFA in textiles this June.
Maku López’s photo-series examines false realities, power structures, and surveillance.
This photo series offers a contemporary portrayal of society while asking: What does it mean to live in the shadow of power?
I wanted to sketch a vision about the fragile boundaries between our actual reality, social reality and fiction, and how power structures in an unconscious lifestyle can program us to assume roles, consume things and make us behave in certain ways.
Part of our panoptic society is the potential of constantly being observed. In today’s ever-connected, cobweb-like community, the notion of privacy turns into something much more complex: There is no difference between private and public life, there is no limit between reality and fiction.
How should we distinguish what’s freely chosen from what has been imposed on us? Society’s unwritten codes can seduce us into identifying with them. Social ambitions and political objectives constantly influence our daily desires and pleasures, even if subconsciously.
This series marks the first step of an ongoing project in which I look to activate ways of thought and explore unabashed human emotions. At its core lies the eternal tension between reality and its symbolic dimension, between notions of power and notions of freedom, following the concept of a “simulacra” as defined by Jean Baudrillard:
“A simulacra is an object that does not refer to any underlying reality, but claims to be this reality itself”
Fashion photographer based in New York.
Maku began her career in Madrid. In 2011 she created Monster Studio and started to collaborate with different publications in fashion and commercial photography.
Since 2012 she has been a teacher in the Fashion Design Degree at the Polytechnic University of Madrid and in the Véritas University of San José, Costa Rica.
Currently she lives in New York City as a lens-based visual artist where she is working as a commercial photographer and developing her personal projects.
We sat down with Brian Dailey six years into his journey with the WORDS project (2012-2018).
We sat down with Brian Dailey six years into his journey with the WORDS project (2012-2018), capturing single-word reactions to thirteen nouns from over 1,500 participants in more than ninety countries around the world.
WORDS is a complex work that, in its form as a multiscreen video tower, evokes both the biblical Tower of Babel as well as the digital billboards in New York City’s Time Square. The cacophony created by the sound of thirteen spoken words on thirteen monitors echoes the Babelian confusion of the tongues. Yet WORDS does not linger on this multiplicity of tongues; the confusion functions on a purely auditory level, since each word is accompanied by a subtitled translation. Instead, WORDS functions on multiple semiotic levels: the words spoken by the participants in their native tongue; the image of a flag behind each participants paired with the display of each country’s name; and finally the noun to which each participant is responding. These three semiotic levels bring to mind the three levels of translation proposed by the eminent Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson in 1959:
1– Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language.
2– Interlignual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of some other language.
3– Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of nonverbal sign systems.
In Dailey’s work, the first level of translation takes place when each participant, after having been prompted with one of the thirteen nouns translated by a local facilitator into his or her native tongue, utters a one-word response in the same language. The second level of translation proper occurs twice: first, when the local facilitator translates the English noun into the native language of the participant; and again, when the response given is translated in postproduction into an English-language subtitle. The third level is added when the green screen behind each filmed participant is replaced in postproduction with an image of the flag of the participant’s choice.
According to Charles Sanders Peirce, pioneering American philosopher, logician, and mathematician, a symbol is a “Representamen [a sign involving a plural relation] whose Representative character consists precisely in its being a rule that will determine its Interpretant”. Words and images of flags are such semiotic symbols. Dailey’s WORDS, however, despite its title and the aforementioned semiotic complexity, also functions as a filmed portrait of the World at a particularly critical time, marked by the rise of nationalism and calls for national independence that have led to a crisis of the European Union and the United Nations.
The sheer diversity of faces in WORDS taking turns on the thirteen displays is mesmerizing. Were it not for the brief pensive moments or emotional expressions that draw us back each time to the words themselves, the dynamic participants almost make you forget the original word prompt to which they were responding. In WORDS, Dailey presents language as a “thought-signs,” to use Peirce’s expression for the fact that “man is a sign” because we think in signs.
Six years in, WORDS is still an evolving artwork. As Dailey reflects upon the experiences and lessons gleaned from his global immersion into the matrix of concerns with which this project engages, he continues to prove new questions that can further illuminate different facets of this endeavor.
WORDS is a powerful visual expression of the challenges faced in communication across linguistic boundaries and national borders in today’s world. The picture that emerges when taking in the totality of the project is the tenuous nature of words in conveying any universal meaning, further underscoring the inextricably interwoven relationship between language, culture, and environment in our global age.
“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Text adapted from: Klaus Ottmann, “The Life of Words” and Wendy A. Grossman, “The Power of Babel: The Poetics and Politics of Language.” Exhibition brochure, 2018.
Chantal Brocca surveys the fashion industry in 2018.
The world is strewn with ambitious disruptors, game changers and pioneers, the ones that question their realities and look at the world differently, hoping to subvert the status quo and shake entire industries up onto their heads. The world needs these disruptors, it needs breaks from predominant ideologies and processes in order to evolve and bring about change – and change, as noted by Hannah Arendt, can only come through violence. She was of course, referring to the overarching reality governing battle that is geopolitics and its many modern day soldiers; global cross cultural and cross border battalions taking the form of sociopolitical ideologies, the world war of our generation.
When it comes to fashion, the playing field is no different. Numerous analogies can be made with the fashion industry, a natural representative of its wider social context: game changers in fashion are no less important than game changers in politics. Fashion is politics. It’s politics masked as idle indulgences, peripheral consumables, a match of illusions for the wealthy and those who aspire to look it.
In truth, there are few things so inherently political as fashion, music and art. They are the dresses donned by powerful social ideas, beautiful and enchanting as they are distracting and deceptive, hiding a breadth of cultural cues and deeply significant ideologies that shape and influence on a mass scale. Magazines like Vice and i-D aren’t just a collection of the latest street born fashions, the defining carriers of counterculture, but are powerful vehicles of ideas targeted at the future leaders and game changers of the next generations. As much as Vogue illustrates the latest trends in the pages of its glossy magazines, it projects aspirational lifestyles and identities imbued with multiple layers of social conformity cues. What seems innocuous at first glance, the industry of fashion and play, has seeped deeper into the modern industry of manufacturing of meaning as the world got larger with globalization and digitization, curling its roots insidiously around other powerful mediums of culture such as music, dance, literature and entertainment to strengthen the charge of its message through emotional marketing.
What follows, we learn, is that fashion is inherently manipulative. Such a powerful medium of persuasion is easily nothing short of propaganda. The mainstream fashion media have the ability to sway public opinion through the image of legitimacy they have created over the years, and hence, hold a lot of power over which brands rise to influence and to triple digit profits and who don’t, representing a great opportunity for emerging talent struggling to succeed in the industry. And if we recognize that the modern ubiquity of brands translates into the fact that brands are carriers of identity, of ideas and of social conformity – as numerous academic papers and articles have theorized – it is not a power to underestimate. Yet, what we naturally recognize in politics, we routinely fail to remember when we indulge in the amusement of fashion: the game is rigged, and it is an opaque system of power relations and advertising spending power, and not one of meritocracy, that dictates who wins.
Fashion publishers, journalists and brands are locked into a closed, self sustaining circuit that relationally affects the entire industry, offering up an impossible barrier to entry into the fashion system for those unwilling to play the game. When the pages of a publication are filled with thousands of dollars of advertising revenues from major brands, it is safe to say that both its editors and its writers steer clear of any form of criticism, lest a furious creative director at the helm of an iconic fashion house pull its “contribution.”
In this way advertising spending acts as an investment – the investor is always looking for a return. As journalist Tamara Pearson notes in an article for Truth-Out, journalism is dead and content marketing has taken its place. It is a tacit agreement between entities to scratch each other’s back to the detriment of the final consumer, hoodwinked into buying into facts with no real foundation in scientific analysis and objective reporting, and into products lacking in all the value adding attributes they promised to bring.
In 2016, British Vogue was estimated to have made £25 million per year in print advertising alone, commanding just over £70,000 for a double page spread. Yet print isn’t the only channel that commands advertising – between Vogue.co.uk with 2.16 million users, Youtube channels that span around 2.6 million subscribers for the brand overall and 17.6 million followers on Instagram, we can just imagine the vast potential for profit, its tempting shadow quelling any and all qualms about journalistic integrity. This is of course does not yet count annual festivals, sponsorships, fashion competitions (indoctrinating future fashion generations into the sycophancy demanded by the industry’s modus operandi) and all the sister publications with their own distinctive channels covering target markets of every size, income bracket, age, culture and niche.
Not surprisingly, the idea that informational reliability can coexist harmoniously with a model that relies on advertising revenues rests on shaky ground. And yet, this idea is aggressively defended by its perpetrators.
Stephen Quinn, Vogue’s publishing director since 1991, held his head high when the September 2014 issue was criticized for carrying more ad pages than any other September issue in the magazine’s entire history. So did Jefferson Hack, founder, publisher and director of Dazed and Confused Magazine, when he was questioned on the hypocritical commercial underpinnings of his self-proclaimed status as an independent publisher, in an interview by Lou Stoppard for SHOWstudio in 2014. With deep pocket brands such as Chanel, Nike and Gucci’s backing, and as a media conglomerate that spans AnOther Magazine, Dazed Digital, AnOther Man, and NOWNESS, the latter on LVMH’s payroll, Hack’s anti mainstream stance as an independent voice for this generation’s rebellious counter culture is laughable, if not downright despicable.
What is alarming isn’t just the obvious prostitution of the media, a discourse that has now become common knowledge, but the shameless appropriation of a populist guise, complete with zine trimmings and political (albeit vague) calls to action in order to serve his very corporate, and very mainstream, interests. Here we begin to tread into waters that are much more obviously political to the eyes of the layman – just look at Vice Media, so commonly taken by millenials in creative industries as a hub of intellect, pop culture and populist street style instead of the highly political news media agency that it is. Give me one student from Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion that doesn’t make Vice, i-D, Dazed or AnOther Magazine their source of news.
The effect is disastrous – the hypocrisy of a system that demands the best of both worlds, donning the veil of truth whilst selling out to the highest bidder, destabilizes our collective ability to think critically and independently, and normalizes a system where wisdom is undermined in order to accept happy illusions in the place of ugly realities. Michel Clouscard called it back in the 1960’s, stating that a world that so heavily relies on advertising is a world that bastardizes the significance of reality and truth and their place in our social hierarchy of values. The manufacturing of concepts is as devious as it is persuasive, which is why initial theories and studies of mass communication focused on its usage for mind control, beginning with American two time Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Lippman’s novel Public Opinion published a century ago in 1922. A quick read of a couple of excerpts will soon bring the horrific realization that rather than a cultural analysis, Public Opinion acts as an elitist guide on how to steer the masses, referred to as a ‘bewildered herd’ incapable of reasoning in their best interests and in that of the world’s. Interestingly, Lippman is also one of the founding fathers of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), one of the world’s most influential foreign policy think tank.
Michel Clouscard understood the seductive importance of the spectacle, underlining how marketing worked so well because it operates ambiguously between the opposite realms of truth and falsehoods, a strategic positioning that enables appearances to easily annihilate reality, the superficial replacing any form of depth in one swift blow.
The age of influence coincides with the age of entertainment, perpetrated by a static power structure; an ingrained set of interconnected factors that hold it all in place, shaping the face of the fashion industry at will in a vicious cycle of self affirmation, executed in large part by the consistent filtering of information through multiple channels of censorship.
A brief overview makes this clear. Like Hack, editors will play on the fact they only publish what they like, omitting that what they like is heavily edited to conform to prevailing narratives. Fashion journalists and writers innately know how to turn a blind eye to their objectivity by relying on techniques of propaganda such as omission of information and usage of emotionally charged descriptions in order to maintain their status within the publication and the industry. PR agencies loom threateningly behind any exchange of information between brands and the outside world, their presence alone signifying implicit censorship. Bloggers and influencers, the people’s solution to the pervasive infiltration of marketing and image in the goings of ordinary life, enter into a tacit mutual understanding with the brands that pay them to direct their social media posts to their trusting immediate social circles. Runway, launches and private fashion party invites are handed out to industry insiders that are known to garner only positive buzz for the brands that host them. Public personalities and celebrities become brand ambassadors legally bound to non disclosure and coerced positive promotion so stringently it borders on identity ownership. Models, the faces and main promoters of the industry, are selectively picked from within the system maintaining an incestuous circle that naturally eliminates most of the threat of ideological defiance. Stylists and photographers work with hyped brands with wide reach that garner high publicity in order to make their way into the big dog’s good graces, get higher exposure and get paid for their associations to high status. Retailers stock the brands with the highest buzz to increase their chances of selling and maximizing revenues. Fashion interns swarm in the thousands to big, buzzy fashion houses, offering up their expensive graduate degrees, promises of free labor and fresh creative ideas to be plagiarized in the hopes of jumpstarting their careers. And finally, brands need to mass produce novel content by attracting high quality creatives on a budget in order boost profits further, showcase attractive growth metrics to investors and shareholders, and maintain their imperial position through aggressive branding and advertising with influential publications, closing the loop.
“The manufacturing of image and consent have become such powerful tools they have even managed to topple logical directions of power hierarchies among industry players.“
The effects of a system built to applaud itself for its own grandiosity through the careful filtering of yes-sayers has direct consequences to consumers and the non fashionable inner workings of garment production. The quest for shock worthy, perpetually avant garde content has translated into runway designs more noteworthy as artistic sculptures, manifesting a combination of designers’ self importance and deeply embedded pressures to deliver on the hype promulgated by the fashion press, rather than into clothing consumers would want to or could afford to wear. That the fashion industry is heading straight for the brink of burn out is a topic well discussed, but the cracks keep getting paved on with short term solutions that only aggravate the problem. The high social and environmental cost of fashion has recently become a hot topic, yet institutions still tip toe around big brands, knowing better than to bite the beast too harshly and call out human rights violations by name for fear of being shut out.
The manufacturing of image and consent have become such powerful tools they have even managed to topple logical directions of power hierarchies among industry players. When Alexa Chung released her first collection, a buyer for a prominent luxury multi brand retail store decided against stocking the nascent label because it fell short of luxury standards, only to be later called up by infuriated representatives of the brand to demand how she dared not spend her allocated budget, and to undermine her position by threatening to report her insolence to Vogue. One can only wonder at the deeply ingrained mechanics of coercion, so authoritative so as to turn a brand’s relationship with a purchaser upside down.
The extortion goes in multiple ways. Jacques Hyzagi published an article with the Observer in 2016 where he denounces Elle Magazine for the hijacking of a brilliant unprecedented interview with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, one of the most interesting designers alive today, in the name of content branding and petty power meddling.
Predominantly, we’re looking at a system that not only discourages critique and opposition, but downright banishes it into non existence, closing the door on any player at any level in the fashion industry hierarchy that refuses to play the game, throttled of their voice through the simple act of exclusion from networks and their monopoly on publicity channels, whose absolute power is cemented as the primary filters of any and all information generated on a global scale. If cultural codes are fixed and the process by which they shed and gain meaning controlled, everybody is inclined to think the same, bringing forth a secondary channel of censorship enforced by individuals onto each other and new entrants, who are then forced to confirm to prevailing narratives in order to gain any sort of credibility in the system and gain access.
The closed fashion industry circuit feeds back into itself in a never ending cycle of hype-feeds profits-maintains status figures’ legitimacy-feeds hype, blocked from any form of evolution that isn’t a direct extension of its internalized logic. The industry mimics the workings of a chessboard; all industry insiders acting as pawns forced to play by the conditions imposed by the game. The only way out is to choose not to play, in which case you’re out. And the game continues.
In its appraisal of self censorship in the realm of fashion writing, Vestoj brings forth Noam Chomsky’s arguments with regards to the elite domination of mass media news reporting, which it illustrates as fundamental in garnering voluntary compliance with the dominating forces in the industry, naturally applicable to the fashion industry microcosm.
What we find is that propaganda has had the leeway to flourish and ingrain itself into internalized rationalization on an individual level, shifting conformity from external forces into voluntary internal obedience, for the simple reason that we all need to work and make money in order to survive. Few will be able to hold their stance before succumbing to its debilitating limitations, and few, as Chomsky notes, will have the time, energy and commitment to carry on the battle to break from the illusions we perpetuate that keeps the system alive.
This censorship isn’t exclusive to the realm of fashion, but to other fields that rest, whether fully or in part, on the realm of ideas, the driving forces behind our behavior, conformity, and direction and process of evolution. When the source of all social drivers, no matter how diverse in principle and thought, is one and the same – and in this case we are referring to the capitalist model – then thriving naturally enters into the complex, murky waters of gray areas. Principle, integrity and righteousness are naturally subverted for survival. We all need money to live, and we are all driven by the socially ingrained definition that success is measured through material wealth and individuality. Individuality may seem out of place, but it is in fact fundamental, bringing public recognition, the ultimate cultural driver in a society running on image fumes, as well as allowing for the private ownership and aggregation of wealth.
Historically, the real disrupters of cultural mainstream conventions starved. They were outcast, ostracized, ridiculed and impoverished, only to gain notoriety post mortem, refueling an ideology where life goals are measured by publicity and wealth. Few contemporary artists wouldn’t want to hold the same weight of Van Gogh; however, even fewer would want to accept the same conditions with which he earned that weight. Counter culture is now a multibillion dollar industry, its proclaimed disruptors glorified, revered and marketed as such, fueling a bubble of hype, publicity, higher prices, and monetary gain.
The most important subcultures throughout history have been plagiarized to give carefully constructed branding the appearance of price inflating edginess. Through appropriating the visual codes of political movements and reinserting them into contradictory, superficial contexts, the fashion industry acts as a machine of deconstruction, stripping away their depth and power in a manner that ultimately dilutes their argument. Whether a natural occurrence of the processes by which the system survives or not, some would recognize that as a form of social engineering.
In all of this, modern consumers of counter culture stop looking around and stop questioning. Fashion’s current façade interestingly centers on one of the most important issues of our time: the disparity of wealth. While we engage in class battles, the driver of our global foundation, money, is quietly siphoned into the bank accounts of a small group of top dogs, leaving very little for the rest of the world to use to address the numerous ills of modernity. Behind this, the normalization of global economic crises is largely contributed to by bourgeois interests swathed in worker class fashions, marketing the idea that poverty is cool by placing democratic clothing like white tees, hoodies and jeans in elitist contexts and price tags. All we have to do is take a look at brands like Vetements, Balenciaga, Off White, Supreme, and any other brand that appropriates populist uniforms to give couture priced and marketed products the appearance of counter culture coolness, littering their branding channels with pictures of shanty towns and low income workers that would never be able to afford the products they promote.
Populist fashions and trends with an authentic call to action lose all of their righteousness the moment they are donned by celebrities in a highly publicized, exclusive runway and sold higher than the price of a worker’s monthly wages, yet that does little to discourage the swarms of millenials ready to buy into the adventure of living in the shoes of a poor man for a night.
What any historic political subculture, be it Dada, Beatniks, Punks or Mods, originated for, what beliefs, lifestyles and calls for action they stood for, were picked apart and remodeled to fit the commercial interests of the capitalist model, where the counter culture ideas they once represented, such as freedom of expression, independence from a system perceived as suffocating and the drive to create new channels of political expression that beat new paths out for others to follow, whether originally authentic or not, are used, cultural code by cultural code, to perpetuate a systematic circular path of indoctrination back into the system, to serve the appealing, yet dependent, consumerist industries of frivolity, entertainment, fashion, leisure, and as Michel Clouscard notes, the commercial monopolies of sex and drugs.
Dazed and Confused was originally a true, independent voice for fashion students and other stakeholders at the bottom of the industry barrel, yet with growth and success, it inevitably morphed from a driver of change into an upholder of the mainstream. Satirical derivatives of logos popularized on merchandise to make important social statements that were initially sued by the brands they defiled for the sacrilege of image desecration, now in turn sue newly created derivatives by third parties having entered into the corporate ethos of maintaining profits and the status that upholds it. Even the Dalai Lama is a brand whose ideology has been used to sell innumerable products, hollow of the ideas that originally may have motivated their creation. There are no outsiders when it comes to industries with image fabrication at their core, the powerful cultural drivers of society. Here, image is power, and those who seek it will eventually have to pay the price of authenticity. I too, as a product of my social context and an individual working in the fashion industry, am inextricably linked to its behavioral and relational power structures.
Herein lies the real problem: can we ever escape the inherent catch 22 of the societal model we’ve erected? When it comes to culture, voluntarily denying ourselves monetary gain and success, and hence, power, in the hopes of maintaining our integrity, would only lead to the unfortunate position of lacking any resource or means to bring about the new forms of cultural expression we envisioned. In our current framework, such an ethical consideration could never work, ultimately revealing that all roads lead to maintaining the positions of power held by established cultural tastemakers.
The fashion industry will continue to operate within its current framework, unchallenged, its endemic system of censorship acting as an impenetrable fortress to any conflicting ideological revolutions that could threaten its very foundations. Postulating solutions inevitably border on the radical, on violence of the kind identified by Hannah Arendt as the only real substance a revolution that ever brought in an entirely new system was made of. And here we open, by default, an entirely new can of worms.
In an issue on power, Vestoj astutely questions that if fashion reflects society, then does this mean we are staring right at the ugly face of our society’s inherent paradigm? In other words, do the structures and hierarchies that we erect around us simply mimic the political dynamics symptomatic of human nature? We are reminded of an Orwellian dystopia, one whose fictional prophecies resonate much too closely with reality. It is also the premise of determinism, which stipulates a series of logical cause and effects from which humanity cannot escape.
With such scenarios in mind, we are forced to question nature’s part in the co-creation of corrupt systems with the power to be self-sustaining. Discussing solutions that do not delve into the dual nature of reality rely too heavily on vague affirmations. In an Orwellian world, a revolutionary upheaval of the chessboard would be redundant, simply buying us time until a new static power structure takes its place; the deterministic trap made unavoidable by humanity’s natural relational dynamics with power.
Perhaps the answer lies not in toppling a system, but in rewriting its rules, replacing the static justifications that maintain the power hierarchy with new, malleable ones able to intermittently prevent abuses of power.
In the fashion industry microcosm, the static pillar is that of multi-branched censorship. As a violation of identity and possibility, the right to own our own thoughts, and to express them to like-minded peers, our social circle or the world, whether by written word or speech, becomes the most critical right that we have. The right to question. The right to transparency. The right to truth; and if that’s too much, then the right to seek it.
Ultimately, in a world governed by a system of manufactured meaning and glorification of image so rooted in our collective perceptions and reasoning we have long lost the natural ability to identify what lies behind the smoke screen, if these illusions are what allow us to face reality, if entertainment is what fills the hole in our existence that the unanswerable universal questions of our time have left, the real question we have to ask ourselves is: can we really ever escape the system, and do we want to?
An interview with Mise Maher and Oscar Briscall-Harvey on the back of their Eviction Notice exhibition.
On February 10th 2018, Arts University Bournemouth students Mise Maher and Oscar Briscall-Harvey hosted ‘Eviction Notice’, a mixed media exhibition featuring a curated selection of local artists, in their own home. Inspired by the real life brutality of being evicted from their student house due to a bankrupt landlord, the exhibition shines through as an inspiring example of how art can confront unjust abuses of power. Our interview with Mise and Oscar seeks to explore the process of putting on such an exhibition as well as expand upon the potential transformative power art can possess for young people.
Could you tell us a bit about both of your backgrounds in the art and design fields?
(Oscar) My arrival to the art and design field was quite a jump, going from studying three essay-based subjects at A Level to an undergraduate degree in Visual Communication at AUB (Arts University Bournemouth). In my final year of study, I’ve found a strong passion for branding and poster design, which lends itself well to the production of visuals for the Eviction Notice exhibition.
Having lived with Mise for the entirety my time at university I’ve found myself often delving further into practice that may be considered closer to art than design. I think this has certainly aided my work, allowing for a viewpoint on a project that I may otherwise not possess. I believe we positively influence each other’s work and it’s one of the reasons working together to curate the exhibition was such a success.
(Mise) My internship at Charlie Smith London (Shoreditch) was a pivotal moment in my artistic practice and knowledge. Since then, my work has mainly consisted of painting and sculpture. I am highly influenced by the writings of Grégoire Chamayou, more precisely Oceanic Enemy. It makes one think of the limits of surveillance and the advanced secretive forms that are available to people. I am also in my final year of study at AUB, aiming to continue to achieve a master’s degree.
How was the process of curating and putting on an exhibition in your own home? Did the space present any specific challenges to your creative vision?
The most obvious challenge in terms of curation was the issue of space. Although the property is fairly spacious, with an upstairs lounge area, giving six pieces enough space to stand out individually was definitely an obstacle. On top of this, we’ve never had more than three guests in the house before this event, therefore over thirty attendees were quite tricky to accommodate.
In addition to this, upon moving in we discovered nearly all of the handles for doors were either missing or non-functioning, thus ensuring our personal possessions were safely out the way was challenging. To get around this problem we stored everything in a single bedroom with the artwork Preparing For Protest positioned so that it hung over the door.
Scouting for suitable exhibitioners was achieved by Mise, hand-picking artworks from AUB Fine Art studios. The primary theme for such works was reaction to authority or abuses of power. For example, Charlie Pritchard’s performance, Loophole, was an attempt to use the voice to mimic a moment at which the eb and flow of symbolic value imperceptibly surging through the world as we speak oscillates and gyrates to a halt. In this performance, Pritchard evicted the attendees to the forecourt and performed from the warmth of the inside of the property, as rain and wind battered the audience.
” For me, art would not be as exciting to create if there were no challenge to address. I thrive off having a voice through what I produce.”
Mise, what was the thought process behind your curation for the exhibition? Could you tell us more about the artists and works on show?
Upon entering Eviction Notice, the viewer encounters miscellaneous objects showcased above the stairs; such as broken handles and a malfunctioning shower head which represented the landlord’s disregard for the property. To juxtapose this, personal ephemera in the form of moving in greetings cards from friends and family to celebrate a milestone in life of finally living together as a couple. These new-found artworks were shown above red fabric which formed a consistent theme throughout the exhibition, a prominent element of Maher’s work.
Upon entering the bathroom, the viewer is met with walls lined with copies of the eviction notice served by Bournemouth court. The aim of this display was to enable the audience a unique view into the mind of the tenants and the scale of how this single sheet of A4 paper affects their lives. The work of Jack Hughes, Untitled (Remember Diego Time), was placed in the bathroom to reflect the content of the painting. The work depicts a figure consuming an unknown controlled substance, an act which is commonly undertaken in a concealed environment such as a toilet.
Exiting the bathroom, the audience is met with Emily Everard’s Preparing For Protest, a large white bedsheet marked with the phrase ‘not up for grabs’. The technique of the writing reflects emotions of anger and frustration, and the wording could be interpreted by the viewer dependent on the circumstance of placement and environment. For example, on a bed, the work may be conveyed in a sexual manner, whereas in the context of Eviction Notice, it is a direct hit at the court, bailiffs and forms of power seeking to take the property from the tenants.
Upstairs, From 29 With Love, by Mise Maher, is precariously stacked similar to the shape of a caltrop. At first glance, the works appear to be sculptures, but are in fact 1:1 scale hellfire missile spray-paintings. From a curation perspective, the positioning interacted with the audience as they viewed the work of Patrick Drake.
Drake’s work, The Jarsdel News Report comprised of a satirical commentary ‘diss-track’ aimed at fictional pharmaceutical company ‘Jarsdel’. Also being presented through video was Georgie Ryan’s Shadowplay, which explored ideas of processes devoid of human contact, similar to how the tenants had no contact with the landlord or human contact with the power serving the eviction notice.
The story behind Eviction Notice is heartbreaking and represents an all-too-real problem of young people, especially students, being forced to the margins of society. How were you able to turn such a profoundly negative experience into an outlet for creativity?
The eviction was served at an incredibly important time in our education, both working towards our final year in our respective courses. We felt letting such an event, completely out of our control, simply leave us with solely negative consequences and emotions would be an incredible waste. As students we had neither the time nor money to challenge the decision of the court, therefore utilised our resources as creatives was the next best option. It is not uncommon for artists to turn incredibly negative moments and emotions into beautiful and expressive works of art, and we feel as if we acted in a similar manner.
Do you feel a certain responsibility as young people in creative fields to tackle injustices in society through your work?
(Oscar) I think we definitely do have a responsibility to some degree. In terms of design, I’m conscious of the fact no one will change the world with a poster. I think young people often utilise creative responses when faced with injustice, as authority and power in society often reject their challenge when it takes the form of what they are familiar with. Reprisal against power-holders utilising something they are unfamiliar with may have a higher chance of a response or correction to injustice.
(Mise) For me, art would not be as exciting to create if there were no challenge to address. I thrive off having a voice through what I produce.
Eviction Notice very clearly has close ties to some of the topics that our prompt ‘Living in the Shadow of Power’ seeks to explore. Could you offer your own short interpretation of the prompt with regards to the exhibition?
An important element of the exhibition was how the solicitors of the party seeking repossession of the property outright rejected the request to extend the eviction date due to such a request being deemed ‘unreasonable’. The right to apply for a delay of up to two months is stated in the Protection of Tenants Act 2010, but the solicitors were well within their rights to deny the request, it essentially balances on the humanity of the repossessing party.
The tenants of the property undeniably lived in the shadow of power from the moment the eviction notice entered the letterbox. The threat of eviction transformed the place they once called home into merely four walls and a roof, an unfamiliar stack of bricks and mortar waiting to be reclaimed by the authority of the court and sold on to another member of the same unjust society.
Isaac Authus examines the increasingly indistinguishable line between technology and sociology.
I tried to write an article that would speak to a certain view of the exercise of power. At first, I sought to address violence as it related to the psychological displacement that many feel in this racial climate. Something that should, as our minority populations grow, lead to wider inclusion within and diversity of how we see and experience community.
In the wake of recent events, like the shootings at Parkland, Michigan State, and a host of others, the violence that we have witnessed is not only a problem of gun-ownership or psychological fitness. Instead, this violence arises from the manner in which we construct and perpetuate institutions that alienate the first-person “actor” at the expense of others. Others may be seen as impediments to our desires for more immediate satisfactions for sex, violence, or other catharses.
Violence has thus become an outgrowth of how we practice digitization in our time of techno-capitalism: The passage of an era where the digit had more to do with utility rather than quantification. The utility for a living organism, rather than a proliferation of numbers.
In terms of our current technology, we often wish to go hands-free and speak commands instead of picking up the phone, pressing a few keys, or even going outside to acquire goods. Are we entering an age in which our very handy-work will have nothing to do with our hands? That the root of digit will truly be dead? Maybe only for some.
Many have written about techno-capitalism to describe corporate relations to the state, to describe the social influence on and felt from emergent technologies, and how that affects the flows of investment. Let’s begin with what many have: intellectual property. We can’t forget that every click, bit, pixel, digit not only bears a numerical expression but also is imbued with intrinsic value: what we might call an expression, whether visual, aural, syntactic, or numeric. The very number also is imbued with a value not of that which it expresses, but of how and of what expresses it, its own enumeration as well — in other words,he difference between the function and its effect. This, essentially, is the habitual behavior and systemic nature of techno-capitalism.
One example of such behavior can be found in stories of adventurers who scour the earth for rarities in far flung regions, something medicinally useful maybe. They study the enzymes and chemical compounds and patent it, regardless of from where they came or whose back-yard they are tromping around in. Following, there is also a drive for the accumulation of numbers, a hoarding.
Another aspect of such behaviour involves how that same value-seeking worldview affects the wider social sphere. Catharine MacKinnon has long talked about the dangers of pornography, how the media through which we experience and learn sexuality can tinge our lived experience if not behaviour. We have long been warned of the violence expressed in video-games, different from allegorical violence, should be noted. In video games, violence has become ever more immersive and real-like. This isn’t to say that all pornography is bad or that all video games are bad. However, it informs us of a basic instinct that oftentimes ought not to be promoted. Take for instance the relation of a “first-person shooter” and a “lone wolf gunman.” Even if experiencing virtual carnage may relax some, for many it serves to desensitize and inspire cynicism, even if they wouldn’t buy one themselves. The prevalence of real violence committed using AK-47 and semi-automatic weapons is twinned by their virtual components in these games with surprising realism. I have childhood memories of playing Wolfenstein and Doom, experiencing the carnage, and being a voyeur of staged violence that might make someone “uninitiated” to that culture wince. It’s no coincidence that trolling started as a gamer habit, and now has become a high political issue, as has been seen in the accounts of Russian mis/dis-informationists, and the dissemination of post-factual statements.
So it’s not that we have somehow forgone “utility” in technology altogether, even if in some ways we have. As humans, and as a highly evolved species, we make and use tools, often with and on other tools. I do not write to question “utility” in the abstract sense, but rather to ask to what ends are we using these tools? We cannot mark an ideology with the same stroke that we use to mark an actor, so we must ask what commands we are given, and who are they that are expressing rules of use around technology. Is the experience that technology gives us through media, through online communities, through video games preferential to what we live in “ordinary” life? We also have to ask, what happens when we choose a worldview that is less connected to something valued, and more closely related and built upon other valuations, when we see green. For those wishing to monetize this, we ask what is convenient, what is exciting, and what is efficacious, while never asking what convenient, exciting, or efficacious means in that syntax. After we look into those questions, we will better be able to understand what is at risk when we watch movies like The Terminator and The Matrix.
I do not seek to tout a conservative bent either, although I think it is important to ask ourselves where we find our entertainment and to what end our consumption serves. It’s a perfectly good question to ask why we would want to be violent, and if that is a natural way to release a human instinct, how that violence is exercised. Whether in politic or virtuality. I don’t think, however, that any psychologist would agree that if “first-person shooters” went away, we would suddenly see a rise in gun violence. I think people would just find a different way to be entertained, and maybe a more healthful one.
In light of this, perhaps we can situate the human in an increasingly complex, although ultimately closed cybernetic field; if we cannot say that of machine learning en toto, we can at least say this when value is pegged to an economic unit. I believe that if block-chain and crypto-currency saturate the market to the fullest, we will see more clearly why this is so. We are leading towards an era where not only everything will be counted; everything will have an economic value, even if for those more ephemeral items, the value quickly approaches zero.
This type of abstraction is more violent than what those have called a “naming” or declarative function, for it bears no name or thing beyond enumeration. For this reason we have responded to calls of storytelling and witnessing.
The World Health Organization (WHO)’s adoption of Quality Adjusted Life Years — as opposed to Disability Adjusted Life Years — represents one change in the function of enumeration when applied to health statistics. The latter places value upon the upper bounds of a population’s life expectancy given certain factors, like disease. The former asks how the population might feel about their own health at any given time. Even here, when quantifying a “happiness” expression, problems abound. A citizen of an underdeveloped or highly indebted nation may feel satisfied with two meals a day and with fewer amenities, but that does not mean that the same individual, after having experienced a change in lifestyle, will feel that way ad infinitum. It also does not mean that the very same person will not criticize others for neglect of healthful distribution of resources either
We also cannot forget that we do not live in a vacuum, and that we experience events [political, scientific, psychological, artistic, or otherwise categorized sic. Alain Badiou], whether everyday or momentous; and that those events affect our behaviors. We have seen something in American politics about which has been long written: a “cult of personality.” But technology has both changed how we exercise our freedom to spend and has borne an influence on what we value or choose to seek when we spend. More and more, we follow a moto of “you can’t make money, if you don’t spend money.” No wonder that we have also heard that “there’s nothing better than spending other people’s money [especially on yourself]”.
We can look at the recent tax codes the same way: Those who benefit from these breaks may well spend in order to earn more.he underlying message given is that when we spend unwisely, we won’t make money and someone else will. This perspective ignores how spending money does always involve receiving immediate or even latent satisfaction. Sometimes spending money serves to enrich the community on a wider scale. Nietzsche writes, “First change culture, then see what philosophy can do.”
The accompanying discourse and disciplines around achieving said liberty is seen in an increasing financialization of our lives and of the things around us. This is an inherent imperative of techno-capitalism. Yet we gloss over it with a guise of neutrality. Take for instance a commercial ran a few years ago for ING: Its message was, “a number is just a number.” We don’t care how much money you have; you can still bank with us, and we will provide a caring service by watching after your financial security. True as that could be, it’s a commercial. If you want to saturate the market, of course you want anyone and everyone to feel as though they are being served in the manner a concierge might. The implication is that your number doesn’t matter as long as you bank with us.
What falls out of this new-fangled experience of the market, more rapid, more intense, more seemingly neutral. “Don’t politicize the market!” someone once said to me. Guy Lyotard writes, “The spectacle preserves unconsciousness as practical changes in the conditions of existence proceed.” Through a history of roaring markets, calamitous crashes, the emergence of increasingly sophisticated technologies, those who have survived and thrived must be…titans, lucky, or wear parachutes. In this way, Trump is not anomalous, Trump should have been expected.
The more we see green, the more the dollar sign has become a totem of our culture and a constitutive element of the American psyche. It should not surprise us that, amidst these speeding cycles of media frenzy and market turnover, we seem to forget a lot: events that impact our wallet until we start to live high on the hog again; lost loves who we would rather remember to spurn ourselves; what we might have dined on just yesterday, however exquisite. Even though the Credit Crisis of 2008 gave birth to a good amount of regulation, “sub-prime” still exists as “near-prime”, and “non-investment grade / high yield” has become “below investment grade.” In news media too, we see an onslaught of images to gawk at, looking for similars, and forgetting how what the last image presented us with. We have lost an amount of concernful circumspection, and adopted one of voyeurism. And because we forget so much (every downturn, cyclical or “great” depression, and crisis) or the horror stories that we see in the news, we feel we can always right ourselves, or that the market will return to its normal or profitable mechanic, never asking who really got the short end of the stick–which, in the end, we have just experienced. But what happens when we take off the green-tinted glasses and virtual reality gear? What happens when we realize that this is not a game? That showmanship is explicitly not what a President does when she or he governs. And should we perchance remember, maybe by some hypnosis or self-searching power, we ask for whose shame had that history passed?
What now will be our conditions of existence? What now has our world-view become? Can we change the channel on legislation as we might have after we finished watching people get fired? When we look to an administration that failed to staff leadership positions for our country, and when we see appointments made for reasons of “loyalty,” we have to ask to what ends are those offices now serving? Those who have been given the now colloquial “You’re fired!” seem only to care because they are now cast out of a golden city in which dollar signs rule more than does communal equity. Under the present administration, it seems that the city may have just as well been wrought of lead. And we wonder, why have we elected a “King of Debt” rather than a “Secretary of Goodwill”?