Country Club Europe
In November 2009, we received a message in Buenos Aires from the Chamber of Public Secrets (CPS), an artists/curators collective inviting us to participate in the European Biennial of Contemporary Art Manifesta 8, which was to take place in the Murcia Region in Spain in late 2010. Specifically, we were commissioned to carry out an artistic intervention in an archetypal segregated, protected space: a jail.
We – Marcelo Expósito and Verónica Iglesia – countered with a proposal for a broader project, which would focus on various contemporary typologies of spatial segregation, border division, and control of the movement of people, based on the overlapping of different security logics. In this counterproposal, our intervention in Murcia jail – in the form of a photography workshop which would, as proposed, involve the participation of a mixed group of male and female inmates – would be just one element in a larger ensemble. And while it would be autonomous as a stand-alone, collective project, its results would be exhibited afterwards in juxtaposition with other components of a more wide-ranging photo-text project.
In terms of deciding how to approach the issue of the scope and articulation of security logics today, and their implementation in new forms of spatial division and border systems, we wanted our project to avoid lapsing into the distant and objectivising analysis of an external point of view that issues criticism from an unsullied position. Would it not be impossible – we asked ourselves – to deal with contemporary geographic segregation and the way in which it crystallises new forms of social fragmentation and brings about new forms of control over the mobility of populations, without foregrounding or examining our own experience as subjects who are also shaped and pierced by these dynamics?
Text for the project "Country Europa":
Networkers in the Control Society
Recently some friends invited me to an outdoor barbecue at their new place, a former forklift repair shop in a mixed residential/industrial district of downtown Baltimore. We had just finished a seminar on electronic finance and the slow-motion crisis of global capital. The last rays of the sun glinted on silvery clouds of razor-wire, installed on top of cyclone fences by the forklift dealers to protect their inventory. Later on, as drink ran free and the conversation drifted across the face of the earth, police helicopters came to rake the surrounding ghetto with spotlights. That’s the drill in Baltimore, they told me. Our conversation continually returned to my friends’ new space and what might happen there – whether the role of “urban pioneer” was an avoidable fate for community activists or an inexorable destiny for white rebuilders in a crumbling black neighborhood. The gentrified districts of the city center were just a few blocks away, across the freeway bridges.
Luxury enclaves with security walls and guards at the gate are an omnipresent feature of today’s urban and suburban scenes. What I want to focus on is not that landscape of privilege, but a parallel headspace where images of glittering barbed wire mingle intermittently with the pulsating light of communications networks. In the decade of the 2000s the middle-class love affair with digital nomadism resolved into a highly ambivalent awareness of the new precarity faced by today’s productive subjects, the postmodern multitudes whose desires were supposed to warp freely across planetary tangles of fiber-optic cable. The real-estate collapse that touched off the current wave of DIY urban pioneering has left its protagonists with a sharply intensified sense of the economic and existential limits that traverse the “smooth space” of financially driven globalization. Networks have become razor-sharp in our era. The zones of inclusion and exclusion they define are as agile, as mobile, as hyper-individual as the worlds of calculated risk they configure. The question in my head is whether common places can be created in this landscape of private domains and insulated, criss-crossing signals.
How this ambivalent consciousness came to be is worth remembering, because mentalities, like technologies, are path dependent. They lock into ideological forms on the basis of relatively arbitrary decisions made early on, at a time when other horizons were still wide open. A decade ago, in a text called “The Flexible Personality,” I tried to retrace the subtle turnabouts whereby the counter-cultural values of the sixties and seventies, emphasizing spontaneity, creativity, cooperation, diversity and openness to present experience, were gradually naturalized as the desirable attributes of an entrepreneurial labor force able to generate a profit from the linguistic recombinations of the knowledge economy. What emerged in the eighties and nineties, as a kind of compromise-formation between cultural critique and corporate demand, was the ideal-type of the intellectual and affective worker, smart, friendly, mobile, connected, inventive and nominally autonomous, while in reality closely tethered to a digital infrastructure that enables both heightened productivity and ubiquitous on-the-job surveillance. Of course, the flexible worker was also an eager consumer, notably of the networked informatic technologies on which the “new economy” was founded.
This figure of the flexible prosumer was the deliberately cultivated brainchild of managers and advertisers; yet it was ardently desired and passionately lived by thousands and then millions of people who were no longer willing to accept the mix of discipline, restraint and hypocrisy that had been required of former generations of industrial and white-collar workers. The outrageous gestures of sixties – particularly in the domains of sexuality, personal expression and cultural eccentricity – became coded signifiers in a symbolic hierarchy of economic power where “creativity” was the magic formula, the key that opened every door, mediating as it did between the entrepreneurial concept of innovation and the bohemian image of artistic freedom.
In a hi-tech economy with sophisticated consumer markets, entrepreneurialized creativity was directly productive in fields like design, image-making, advertisement and entertainment, as the Italian autonomists began to observe in the mid-nineties. Yet this direct productivity – the hybrid, theoretically uncontrollable basis of Toni Negri’s “ontology of living labor” – was only part of the picture. At the outset of the globalization boom, individual creativity was also the wild-card signifier of potential future earnings, the human-capital equivalent of a promising patent, a hot stock or a maverick start-up. To “be creative” was to stage this human potential for the benefit of a speculative gaze, like a fashion model parading on a runway or an aspiring young painter hanging work in a downtown gallery.
Queer theorists in the wake of Judith Butler had used the notion of performance to define an embodied singularity, at once ethically charged and elusively perverse, open to multiple becomings. But the activity of subjective performance took on a whole new valence under the hothouse conditions of financially driven globalization, where cultural display becomes the signifier of a possible monetary value. It was increasingly obvious that waves of real-estate investment could transform an entire urban core, whether sunk in industrial decay like Manchester or Buenos Aires, or mired in crime and underdevelopment like Rio or Mumbai or Lagos. So local elites began to deliberately cultivate the hothouse flower, through the targeted transformation of demonstration districts inhabited by tantalizingly exotic creatures. Once installed, a few baubles of gaudy postmodern architecture could provide the urban theater for a potentially endless series of speculative performances, in which aspirant subjectivities courted the tremendous virtual wealth now flowing through the computerized circuits of global exchange.
The new economy crash of the year 2000, followed by the terrorist crash into the towers of world trade, put an end to the first big speculative cycle of the globalized era. A different ideal-type – the dark doppelgänger of the flexible personality – emerged from the ashes and has continued evolving up to the present. This new figure is the “super empowered warfighter” heralded by the networked Al Qaeda operatives and durably incarnated by the Anglo-American intelligence agents, hi-tech mercenaries and special forces troops of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, whose equipment, budgets, missions and supportive institutions all underwent tremendous expansion in the course of the last decade, not only in the UK-USA but all over the world. The same decade saw an industrial boom in every imaginable kind of security system, for applications not only military but also corporate and civilian. Even more ominously, the design of driverless urban vehicles and weapon-wielding robots began to catch up with the already ubiquitous production of pilotless drones. Machines and human beings were now perfectly integrated elements in a flexible machine-system that operates not on desires but on coded orders. Yet the pliant and appetitive subjectivities of the eighties and nineties are at antipodes from the resurgent discipline of the warfighter, no longer simply animated by the fluctuating signals of cybernetic technologies but imbued to the core with their relentless, target-seeking purposes.
At the outset of the Bush-era wars, theorists on both the left and the right began proclaiming the advent of a new imperialism, accompanied by a profound restatization of the economy that would consign the fevers of cosmopolitan finance to oblivion. The pendulum seemed to have swung from immaterial labor to boots on the ground, or from a newfangled electro-capitalism back to the old expropriating and extractive one. As we know, however, the interruption of the speculative boom was only temporary: the stock markets soon resumed their wild ride, and during the phase of “mega-gentrification,” from 2003 to 2008, the hidden connection between the urban grounds of real estate and the abstractions of virtual finance became obvious to everyone. No less obvious is the violence with which the aesthetic desires and acquisitive aspirations of millions of precarious performers can be dashed in an eyeblink, while the cyborg traders just go on raking it in, like croupiers at a casino table where the house always wins. It is as though the expansive, opportunistic trend of contemporary capitalism were inhabited by a predatory double, cutting back against its own grain. How to understand the seemingly contradictory principle that has governed the global political economy over the course of the last decade?
An answer could be sought in the concept of “safety-and-security devices” (dispositifs de sécurité) introduced by Michel Foucault as far back as 1978, in Security, Territory, Population, the first of his two courses on the genealogy of neoliberalism. By examining eighteenth-century treatments of plague, famine and above all, urban circulation, Foucault discovered a logic very different from that of the disciplinary institutions which had preoccupied him in the early years of the decade. What he realized, just before the arrival of Thatcher and Reagan to power, was that a liberal art of government could be founded on the statistical analysis of a population in its freedom, when certain commonly chosen behaviors (pleasurable, profitable or healthy ones) are reinforced by the creation of regulations and infrastructures designed to permit their expression in purified and optimized forms. Thus, vehicular traffic through a city should not be restricted or constrained in the name of discipline or sovereign command, but instead, encouraged in its fluidity and discreetly channeled into the pattern that generates the greatest amount of profitable trade and allows for the clearest and most predictable dynamic of urban growth. Deviations from this pattern should not be punished systematically, but rather analyzed for their degree of disruption and simply ignored if they are inconsequential. Only the directly harmful behaviors are interdicted and their authors repressed, not on moral or ideological grounds, but according to strict criteria of functionality and accountancy. The aim of liberal governance is not to punish, transform or even save individuals, but merely “to reduce the most unfavorable, deviant normalities in relation to the normal, general curve.”
Foucault goes so far as to say he was wrong when he claimed, just years before, that the disciplines were the coercive “dark side” of Enlightenment liberties, the effective mechanisms of power beneath the idealistic surface of liberal theory. Instead he now maintains that “freedom is nothing but the correlative of the deployment of security devices.” This paradoxical claim, formulated with extreme irony, has been verified in the logic of the policing paradigm introduced by the anti-terrorist campaigns of the Bush era. That logic was immediately extended, often by private security firms, to every kind of “deviant” profile, in a rationalized witch-hunt that has come to represent a significant economic sector in its own right. Control itself is a growth industry, a pattern to be optimized. What Foucault did not foresee is how cancerous such a pattern would become in our period, now that the neoliberal “art of government” has entered into crisis. For even as police operations multiply, predatory financial strategies which also depend on an analysis of statistical patterns in the population are becoming equally invasive, generating economic ruin among the former middle classes and precipitating more and more individuals into positions of potential deviance, requiring further police control. What’s astonishing is the quasi-instantaneous propagation of this vicious circle throughout the world network, with intimate consequence for the multitudes of individuals involved. With each fresh outbreak of chaos in the circuits of exchange, the paradoxical and increasingly painful feeling of being caught in a barbed electronic flow can only intensify – to the point where a hardened entrepreneurial ideology is finally ready to explode, scattering into the heterogeneous disarray of its separate human components.
It is at moments of chaos, panic and disarray, when a hegemonic figure of the self begins to fall apart, that the question of what might be held in common becomes intensely political. Such a question now arises for the precarious networkers, whose physical and social mobility brings them into contact both with predatory finance and with the rationalized insanity of the police and the military, especially but not only at international borders. For artists who find themselves in these vicinities, the exploration of hybrid productivity (or even less, of personal creativity) is no longer the central issue. The ontological potential of living labor can all too easily be channeled, “optimized,” turned back against itself. What comes instead to the fore are processes of resubjectivation – that is, the shaping of another self – through the establishment of solidarities, or at least, of experimental cultural exchanges across lines of class, race, nationality and all the other barriers of rank and privilege that have multiplied in recent years. The projects of Marcelo Expósito and Verónica Iglesia (but also of the Baltimore Development Cooperative to which I briefly alluded at the start) can be approached in this contrasting light. With a warm spirit of generosity and a sharp awareness of the contradictions slicing through their own positions, members of the former middle classes are now working through the fractured urban territories and labyrinthine patterns of controlled circulation that are the legacy of a neoliberal governance in serious decline. The pathways they will take through these ruins depend no longer on the foreclosed models of the past, but on the fragile yet open conditions of cooperation in the present. As though the utopia of other possible worlds could only be built from the existential knowledge of real places, and of the people who inhabit them.
All images are from the project “Country Europa”
by Marcelo Expósito and Verónica Iglesia
presented at Manifesta 8 in Murcia – Oct 7 2010 – Jan 1 2011