First Meeting: THREE CRISES

September 20, 2011

The first session at Mess Hall was truly excellent. Thanks to all. The seminar materials, readings, recordings and a pdf version of this text are available here. As we spoke at on Saturday, protesters in New York made a move to OCCUPY WALL STREET! Give them your eyes and your ears and your support. As the police bash heads in NYC, Rivera’s great mural (detail above) is timelier than ever.


1. The Idea
On the third-floor balconies beneath the central dome of Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes – a Neoclassical wedding cake whose construction had been halted for decades by the Revolution – two murals stare at each other across a great divide. They were painted on state commission when the building was finally completed in 1934, by two rival artists who opposed each other in every way. Diego Rivera’s work, Man at the Crossroads, shows capitalist and communist pathways for the industrial mass production system that had emerged in the early years of the twentieth century. That machine system, as Rivera understood, was now in crisis. José Clemente Orozco’s mural, which he left untitled but has come to be known as Catharsis, is also about the power of the machine. But here it is a power of lust and disarray, of horror and murder, a force of pure violence.

Orozco knew very well what Rivera’s composition would be, and he responded directly to it. Both had just returned to Mexico from extended stays in the the United States, and in both cases, their work was informed by the US experience. Rivera’s multi-year travels from San Francisco to New York included a long stopover in Detroit, where he painted the technological and social articulation of the new Ford plant on the Rouge river: the prototype of the vast production complexes that would be built during the Second World War. As a communist, Rivera believed he understood the central significance of this machine system for the future development of life on earth. He reiterated that understanding in the initial version of Man at the Crossroads in New York, with a political framing that resulted in the work’s destruction by the man who had commissioned it, Nelson Rockefeller. As for Orozco, he lived in New York City from 1927 to 1934, where he attracted the critical attention and patronage of the historian, philosopher and urbanist Lewis Mumford, the author of Technics and Civilization. Mumford’s vision of the domination of Western civilization by the machine is visible in the fresco cycle Epic of American Civilization at Dartmouth College, in the juxtaposition of Cortez and the Cross with a crude and brutal image of The Machine. Orozco was a humanist, his cycle culminates with Man Released from the Mechanistic to the Creative Life. But he returned to the theme of domination in the late 1930s at the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara, where he painted the devastating portrait of a gigantic steel-limbed Cortez striding through the New World with a bloody sword.

I knew none of these details last fall when I returned to Mexico City for the first time since the 1980s and went to see the Rivera mural once again. I rediscovered the grand narrative sweep of the composition, which pits capitalist armies in gas masks against proletarians personified by wailing women in red scarves, and contrasts dissolute bourgeois gamblers to a portrait of Lenin clasping hands with workers of all races (the very image that had so infuriated Rockefeller). The rioters on the New York streets call for bread and the mounted police beat them down with clubs, as they still do to us today, while groups of people on either side look on through lenses prefiguring TV. Like everyone I was fascinated by the image of “man the controller,” thrust ahead into space by some sort of dream propeller whose surrealistic wings reveal macro and microcosmic dimensions. The Greek statue holding a fascia emblazoned with a swastika has its head cut off at the neck: I found it amazing that in 1934 Rivera had already foreseen that the enduring conflict would not be between America and Germany, but between West and East, capitalism and communism.

click for a larger image

Yet these were things I already new, histories you learn in school. Like a hungry tourist I circled around the balconies, drinking in the other murals, especially those by Siquieros and Camarena. Then I was stopped short by the strange and bloody painting of Orozco: the flames, the rifles, the guy getting knifed, the other assassin who seems to emerge headless from some twisting metal camshaft, and of course, the bejeweled woman lying legs outspread with a rictus of pleasure, the bank vault sprung open, the scattering crowds, etc. As I stared at this apocalypse and then back across the gap at the Rivera mural, I gradually realized these paintings were in dialogue, I was sure of it. In the mid-1930s, having seen the first major crisis of organized corporate capitalism along with the rise of both Nazism and Stalinism, the two artists were looking into dramatically different futures of the industrial system. Rivera’s confident analytical and ideological masterpiece was directly contradicted by Orozco’s premonition of mechanized horror – an image of what Lewis Mumford called “the new barbarism.”

click for a larger image

What I found so impressive about this historical site in Mexico City, so promising and challenging all at once, was the simple fact that individuals with diverging ideas and ideals, real people with eyes and hands and hearts, could stand within a great economic, social and technological crisis that affected them directly, that they could try to analyze it and assess it, and that they could use all the means at their disposal to engage a public debate about what would happen next – what kind of society would emerge from the crisis. In Mexico in 1934 that effort could be made monumental in a public institution: no one censored it, no one emended or moralized it, and even if there is no direct indication within the space today that the current caretakers really understand what was at stake in this dialogue, still the paintings are there for all to see. The public dimension, the absence of censorship, the effort of analysis, the courage to present an ideology and a cosmovision, and finally, the frank disagreement which is also a form of attention and respect, all that made me feel more alive, more in tune with the present, even if what I was seeing was only a relic, a historical ruin like so many others.

The question that struck me then, and continues to strike me now, is this: How could we do such a thing in our time, today? Are we not embroiled in a great historical crisis? Do we not perceive the major outlines of this crisis, at the same time as we are viscerally oppressed by the absence of any public debate? Doesn’t the direction that will be taken by our society, and indeed by civilization in the future, depend crucially on decisions that are being made now and that will be made over the next five or ten or fifteen years? Isn’t it high time to begin analyzing and assessing the present crisis, in order to find the means of expression that could lead to a meaningful debate and from there, to political action? But when and how and where to do such a thing? And above all, with whom?

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Visiting the Planetarium

September 8, 2011

Images of the Black World

Text for Trevor Paglen's show at the Vienna Secession


Clouds, fields, forests, country roads, empty skies: the video image shows you a landscape seen at random, or for purposes utterly unknown. Its shifting perspectives appear through the visual overlay of a targeting system, controlled by a distant operator. This is a drone’s eye view. The signal was captured from a satellite transmission, maybe intended for Creech Air Base, Nevada. We see a date and a local time, but the position remains blank—it could be in Kosovo or elsewhere in southern Europe. There’s something hesitant, furtive or even lost about the way the drone is scanning through the territory. Suddenly a large wall clock flashes up on the screen. Its face is emblazoned with a dragon-winged creature, threatening and strange, but typical of the emblems used by Air Force reconnaissance teams. Is it supposed to mark a significant moment, a planned operation, a hit? More likely it’s the cypher of some airman’s utter boredom, alone in a cubicle, glued to a monitor, staring at meaningless foreign landscapes whose very banality has become part of the secret.

The video was given to Trevor Paglen by one of his collaborators—people who are intensely curious about what goes on in the restricted zones of the Pentagon’s “black world.” It was then edited and folded into a larger body of work, to be shown in galleries and museums. Thus it has the status of a clue, an index, rather than a document strictly speaking. It points to a set of pressing questions that involve the uses of vision, the potentials of art and the bases of sovereignty. These questions coalesce around a major paradox: the existence of a secret world that is increasingly palpable, increasingly present. Why has the invisible become so banal, why does it crop up everywhere? Paglen does not answer individually. Instead, he seems intent on exploring—and, to whatever degree possible, on reversing—the social conditions of perception that allow multibillion-dollar weapons systems and vast clandestine intelligence networks to “hide” in the broad daylight of a democracy that is also an empire.

The work is investigative and journalistic, producing an impressive stream of books and articles. At the same time it is existential, leading the artist on journeys to countries like Afghanistan to look for military prisons, or on climbs up desert mountains to scrutinize forbidden sites. More recently it has revealed a deep involvement with the history of aesthetics, as he walks in the footsteps of nineteenth-century frontier photographers to make technically complex images of spy satellites against stunning natural backgrounds. The exhibition at the Vienna Secession takes this venture into aesthetics even further, with a cloud study recalling avant-garde photographer Alfred Stieglitz; a colorist abstraction that evokes the violent disorganization of visuality in the painting of Turner; or a grid of contact prints in the manner of Eadweard Muybridge. But what can such historicizing gestures bring to a contemporary politics of perception? Read the rest of this entry »

Got Plutocracy?

August 28, 2011

Americans like to keep things simple and direct, so here it is: they rule. For the simple reason that they (the ruling class) have all the money. The top 5% of US citizens own almost  2/3 of the country’s wealth, or 63.5%. Compare that massive share to 12.8% for the bottom 80% — that is, “the rest of us,” as Rhonda Winter puts it in the excellent article from which this pie chart is taken.

Now go a little further, into the research she drew her chart from — a briefing paper of the Economic Policy Institute called “The State of Working America” — and you find that the top 1% holds over 1/3, or 35.6%, of the country’s net worth. Elsewhere, in The Nation, you will find such interesting tidbits as “In 2006, the top 0.01 percent averaged 976 times more income that America’s bottom 90%” — a thousand-fold gap between “them” and “the rest of us.”

click it for the big picture

The whole point is, though, that very few people go any further, because very few people have any idea how unequal the United States has become. We are, apparently, a nation of idealists, which is a good thing. We are also, however, a nation of blind idealists, which is a pretty bad thing across the board. A couple of psychologists named Norton and Ariely did a study comparing people’s ideas of what inequality is and what it should be with the actual facts on the ground. Anyone interested in creating a more progressive political order should turn up the attention meter right here.

It turns out that in strictly economic terms, Americans are not full-on egalitarians, but on average, they think everyone should have at least a piece of the pie. They think the top 20% should have around 30% of the wealth, the bottom 20% should have around 10%, and so on according to a smoothly sliding scale. They realize it’s not true, of course, and they estimate that the top 20% may in reality be holding over half of the spoils. What they do not realize is not only that the top 20% swallows a whopping 85% of the pie (with, of course, the top 5% taking the lion’s share of that). Even more crucially, they also do not realize that the bottom 40% — what economists call the 4th and 5th quintiles — are for all practical purposes off the chart, simply invisible, because they (or maybe “we,” depending on who you are) own only 0.2% and 0.1% of the wealth respectively. Let’s put that in plainer terms. Almost half the people in this country get almost nothing from the deal.

                              source: Norton and Ariely, pdf here


I would draw two conclusions from this psychological study. The first is that the United States is ripe for (and even wildly overdue for) a political revolt against the plutocracy. No doubt you will reply, “But that’s exactly what the Tea Party is calling for!” And so they are, in part. But every day the newspaper shows that most of the Tea Party rage against Wall Street is being successfully channeled into rage against Big Government, while the resentment against taxation acts to preserve the massive tax cuts that for the past thirty years have overwhelmingly benefited the super-rich. An atavistic fear of Obama’s black skin and a constant barrage of ideology from Fox News and the Koch brothers’ think tanks and political action committees seem to be doing the job just perfectly for the plutocracy. However, as unemployment rises even while the profits of the super-rich increase, I am not sure this situation can go on indefinitely. Beware the day when right-wing rage from the red-state grassroots finds a serious political translation, because even if it castigates the rich, the sound of that vengeful and nationalistic voice will not be agreeable to your ears.

This leads to my second conclusion. We organic intellectuals on the Left — and this “we” is finally serious, I am speaking to those who might actually read this blog — are not doing our job. We don’t have no Tea Party. We are for equality, social democracy, outright socialism, a workers’ revolution, all power to the multitudes or whatever, but we are not getting the word out to the left-of-center masses. We have the information, thanks to studies like the ones I have been quoting, but we are not able to turn information into action, not even on the simplest of demands: tax the rich and control the banksters. Yet these very simple demands could lead directly onwards to more progressive policies that we are all support, such as cutting the military budgets, achieving universal health care, restoring public education and replacing the prison economy with job-producing community development programs. It’s clear that the Dems will not do these things, because in their vast majority they belong to the upper 5%. So we have to create the conditions for a political revolt from the grassroots, and we have to do it in a way that is not simply cooptable by smooth-talking people like the current president.

Here’s one idea, only one among many. Copy the image at the top of the article and take it down to your local button-making shop. Pick a fat button and ask them to put big letters around the bottom that say, “Got Plutocracy?” Get a whole bunch of those buttons, wear them, distribute them and start talking to whoever you meet about the facts and figures that are discussed in this blog post and in any of hundreds of readily available left-of-center publications. Start an open, public, regularly meeting group to discuss those facts and figures and many other things that make the present what it is. Do your job as a public intellectual, educate the people around you and learn from them, build grassroots awareness and rage wherever your roots happen to be. Hold the course in that direction as the unemployment figures rise, and make contact with as many similar groups as you can find. All of this will lead in very interesting directions. Keep it up and maybe soon we’ll all get together for a big ‘ole political banquet and finally eat the rich!




August 19, 2011

The social form of just-in-time-production

A map of global transport systems. Source:


This text was published in Open no. 21


The British sociologist John Urry has come up with an unusual idea: defining society by the ever-accelerating mobility of its members. To do this he proposes the concept of mobility-systems: “Historically most societies have been characterized by one major mobility-system that is in an evolving and adaptive relationship with that society’s economy, through the production and consumption of goods and services and the attraction and circulation of the labor force and consumers…. The richer the society, the greater the range of mobility-systems that will be present, and the more complex the intersections between such systems.”1 Urry devotes chapters of his book Mobilities to four infrastructural systems: pathways, trains, automobiles and airplanes. Interestingly, he suggests that these infrastructures are complemented by cultural systems serving to represent the movement of people and things, to communicate about it and to imagine its further possibilities. Yet strangely, in a book that gestures toward the concept of a technological unconscious, he says next to nothing about production and distribution. What’s missing from his “mobilities paradigm” are container shipping and intermodal transport, with their associated representational, communicational and imaginary techniques. What’s missing is the social form of just-in-time production.

Like Margaret Thatcher, Urry believes that in the postnational era “there is no such thing as society.”2 He’s against what has been called the “container theory” of the social, which relies heavily on spatially bounded categories, reinforcing methodological nationalism.3 In Mobilities he refers to Foucault’s concept of governmentality, observing that “state sovereignty is exercised on territories, populations and, we may add, the movements of populations around that territory.” In contrast he insists on the increasingly transnational movement of populations, and claims that “such a ‘mobile population’ is immensely hard to monitor and govern.”4

Urry is an innovative sociologist, seeking patterns of emergent order in the vertiginous circulations of neoliberal globalism. At its best, his work reads like a kaleidoscopic register of contemporary life. However, like other complexity theorists describing the dynamics of open systems, he fails to take into account the powerful drive toward closure that inhabits all large-scale system design. Thus he ignores the determinant social form of informational capitalism – as though, entranced by mobilities that exceed the capture of the nation-state, he had fallen into the very unconsciousness that contemporary technologies impose.

How to awaken from electric dreams? In this text I will describe both the technical and the cultural dimensions of what is arguably the major mobility-system of our time: the distributional machinery of intermodal transport that circulates commodities through the global economy. The vector I will use to approach this far-flung system is an imaginary one.

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Hershey Co. Exploits Cultural Exchange Students

August 18, 2011

Travel to exotic Palmyra, Pennsylvania, pay double market rate for a flophouse apartment and kill yourself lifting boxes in an outsourced chocolate factory



Our motto is “Founded on Friendship”. We believe that the world becomes a smaller, friendlier place when we build bridges across cultures. This is why we offer a wide variety of quality programs that enable students from around the globe to work, study, travel, and receive professional training abroad.


That’s the pitch on the flashy CETUSA website recruiting young college students from around the globe to work shit jobs in the US, on J-1 visas ostensibly for cultural exchange. In this case, CETUSA delivers the students to SHS Onsite Solutions, a temp agency furnishing workers to Exel North American Logistics Inc. The latter, a subsidiary of Deutsche Post DHL, manages all the labor and operations at the big Hershey warehouse, packing and distribution center. The students pay around $3,000 to get into the program, then earn around $8 an hour, from which exorbitant rent and other fees are docked till they get down to somewhere between $140 and $40 PER WEEK of intense factory labor. Check out the video above, the article in the New York Times and the formal complaint they just sent to the State Department. This is not just a national disgrace and a bitter disappoointment for all these kids who came here to make friends and see what’s great about America. It’s also an extremely graphic lesson in the kind of flexible exploitation practiced by Hershey and the corporate order in general, not only on foreign nationals but also on US citizens. Neoliberal capitalism doesn’t just steal the money in your bank account through financial crises; it grinds the younger generations into the ground with abusive labor practices. It’s hard to believe that such complex and sophisticated systems exist just to earn a few pennies more through temp labor, while denying local inhabitants a better job with a decent wage.

Obviously all this is coming to light because of a new collaboration between the AFL-CIO, the SEIU and an organization called the National Guestworker Alliance, which was formed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when guestworkers from around the world were kept in labor camps under unbearable conditions. Only this kind of organized protest can bring multinational corporations to account. Remember that Rosa Parks did not sit down in the bus by herself! She did it with immense personal courage as part of a vast and complex campaign to end racial discrimination. Today these kids from Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia are showing us how to fight back against a corporate system that exploits workers to the bone, impoverishing everyone both economically and culturally. It’s a chance for the unions to get back to real advocacy and it’s a school of solidarity across borders, against the transnational system. Let’s talk about it and let’s participate, to help these kinds of movements, to keep the big unions honest and to point beyond immediate goals, toward deep transformations of an unjust and unsustainable society. To see actions like this makes you realize that amidst the current crisis, the left can have a powerful future.



The Philosophy of Finance

August 12, 2011

Six Propositions


Text for the exhibition “Volatile Smile” by Geissler and Sann, at NGBK


1. Interaction

In his work on surveillance, Michel Foucault identified a characteristic relation of power. Its terms were these: distanced observationcoercive forceinternalization of the law. This disciplinary relation was embodied and exemplified by the Panopticon, where the gaze of an unseen warden gradually becomes part of the prisoner’s consciousness, alleviating or eliminating the need for forceful intervention by the guardians. The panoptic diagram spread throughout the Western societies: it molded productive subjects to the demands of a military and industrial order.

In our financialized era something new comes to the fore, redoubling if not entirely replacing the previous paradigm. Its terms appear as a dialectical reversal, and therefore a sublation of the discipinary relation. These new terms are: immediate participationenabling communicationreflective proliferation. The interactive diagram is embodied and exemplified at the desks of the high-frequency traders.

On the trading floor knowledge is no longer distanced, invisible, authoritative: it springs into presence on the waiting screens, always connected to a keyboard. Coercion has not disappeared from society, but at the desks it’s not an issue: communication networks exist to suggest and transmit every decision. No internalization of the law is achieved or even demanded by the flickering screens. What happens is a multiplication of self-reflections, an outpouring of subjectivity into electronic connections. Communication produces infinite variations on a single theme: an explosion of pulsating terminals that build cities around themselves, the mirror-architecture of contemporary capitalism. The screen-relation spreads throughout the globalized societies, at a pace with megagentrification. At each stop it releases smiling wizards into the expanding trap of their own creativity.

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Listen to a man from London

August 10, 2011


I don’t call it rioting, I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it’s happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment. — Darcus Howe


It’s shocking to the BBC, but to me it sounds like the reality of the streets.

As in Paris in 2005, entire populations of poor suburban areas have reached the limits of what they can bear: inequality, poverty, job discrimination, racism and brutal policing. This insurrection is not shocking: it’s the conditions of contemporary society that are shocking. This insurrection is a call for social justice. Those who write, who create images, who form representations and shape opinions, have a responsibility to interpret the positive content of social movements. Turn away in fear and you will only be greeted with more of the same. What this world needs is a transformation of the social deal, offering everyone the chance to flourish. It can’t be done by austerity, it can’t be done by bailing out the banks, it can’t be done by simple clashes with the police. But it can be done by transforming rage into political will. And that is what the media refuses. Respect for Darcus Howe. Take the time to listen to this man from London.


[Here is what I wrote in Paris, six long years ago:

“So now I want to suggest a kind of thought experiment. Next time you see images of fire, with smashed schools, burning cars, and confrontations with the cops, think about all that’s behind them, and try asking a few questions. What would it take for every group of people, with their faces, their problems, their qualities, their locations, to become visible to each other in a society that wasn’t sealed off into hermetic zones and dead-end streets? What sort of education could be an entirely liberating experience, that gives direct access to tools you can use? What kinds of mobility can be built into the urban fabric, and how do people find their paths through a society that has become radically unequal? Finally, what confrontations could be staged with the outdated forms of the state, that wouldn’t bring us face to face with the eternal return of the police?

“If it becomes possible to see the images of fire in this way, as a blazing language of unanswered questions awaiting their response, then maybe, just maybe, Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna won’t be dead for nothing – “mort pour rien,” the words you could read on the tee-shirts, as the witnesses walked silently through the city of Clichy-sous-Bois on Saturday the 29th of October, 2005.”



Gracias a los compañeros de desRealitat por habernos comunicado esta voz tan cargada de experiencia y de sentido. Hay algunos, sí, que hacen su trabajo de ampliación y articulación de las luchas.

Quote of the day:

July 4, 2011

“America’s zombie consumers need to repair their damaged balance sheets.”

Bravo Stephen Roach. Spoken like a true Morgan Stanley economist.


THREE CRISES: 30s-70s-Today

June 26, 2011

A self-organized seminar at Mess Hall, Chicago

Wisconsin protests, Feb. 15-17, 2011

The failure to achieve any basic transformation of the world financial system provides for just one outcome: greater chaos, deeper turmoil. Yet at some point systemic change will occur, as it did in the early 80s. What we got last time was neoliberalism. What will happen this time, under vastly different circumstances? Can we develop a political culture to inflect the change when it finally becomes inevitable? Those are the questions behind an autonomous seminar, to be held at Mess Hall from September to December of 2011.


GOALS: The seminar program seeks to develop a framework for understanding the present political-economic crisis and for acting against and beyond it. Historical study is integrated with militant research and artistic expression. The program is a first step toward a self-organized university, including Internet resources for sharing research notes and reference materials.

FORMAT: Eight two-part sessions, each four hours long with a half-hour break in the middle. The first part of each session will be a course delivered by Brian Holmes, with readings that may be done in advance or afterwards. Each installment of the course will be accompanied by another presentation, screening, artistic event or organizing session offering some parallel to or resonance with the material; these are developed by a collective working group. Readings will be posted on the web and full course notes as well as reference materials will be made available immediately after each session. Distanced particpation or parallel sessions in other cities are welcome.

CONCEPT: The development of capitalism is marked, every thirty or forty years, by the eruption of extended economic crises that restructure the entire system in organizational, technological, financial and geopolitical terms, while also affecting daily life and commonly held values and attitudes. In the course of these crises, conditions of exploitation and domination are challenged by grassroots and anti-systemic movements, with major opportunities for positive change. However, each historical crisis has also elicited an elite response, stabilizing the worldwide capitalist system on the basis of a new integration/repression of classes, interest groups, genders and minority populations (whose definition, composition and character also change with the times). In the United States, because of its leading position within twentieth-century capitalism, the domestic resolution of each of the previous two crises has helped to restructure not only national social relations, but also the international political-economic order. And each time, progressive demands that emerged from the crisis period have been transformed into ideologies covering a new structure of inequality and oppression. By examining the crises of the 1930s and the 1970s along with the top-down responses and the resulting hegemonic compromises, we will cut through the inherited ideological confusions, gain insight into our own positions within neoliberal society, identify the elite projects on the horizon and begin to formulate our own possible agency during the upcoming period of instability and chaos.


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Wu Mu Cosmology

June 8, 2011

Pathways through the Modern World-System


“China has one big advantage over the United States,” launched our friend and collaborator Dan S. Wang, as a closing provocation to the audience of sociology students at Wuhan University. “That advantage is, Chinese people don’t believe in God.”

It might have sounded out of the blue, wild n’ crazy. But that declaration followed earlier remarks on the wave of protests that pitted social-democratic activists against a union-busting Republican governor in Wisconsin. In the US we have many reasons to link right-wing religiosity with an unreasoned drive to the endless accumulation of capital. Dan sees the next chapter of Wisconsin’s activism as concerted opposition to the Republican-mandated opening of taconite mining activities in the north of the state. He was aiming to suggest the possibility – and the reality – of intensified grassroots opposition to mining in China.

His remarks sent a surge of feeling through the crowd, a good way to open up the questions about the lecture on Continental Drift (pdf here). But after the public session was over, our new friend from the HomeShop group, Qu Ge, came up to take issue with Dan’s materialist hopes for China in the 21st century. What he said, as I heard it anyway, was basically this: The lack of any other spiritual belief only opens the floodgates to intense consumerism, the lust for profit, infinite corruption.

We made no collective reflection on this debate, except to echo it, to recount it to each other, to wonder what it could mean. And it kept echoing beneath the surface, as we moved from Wuhan to the Lijiang Studio run by Jay Brown and a family of Naxi farmers in Yunnan province, near Lijiang city, on the edge of the Himalaya in Southern China.

Peach Paradise

What can be done with a non-profit arts organization and a ten-year lease on a traditional housing compound in the Lashihai basin, surrounded by apple trees, fields of corn, peas, potatoes, cabbages and whatever else the farmers can grow on small plots with ox-drawn plows, animal fertilizer and lots of human labor? The still-unfolding answer lies in a series of collaborations between the organizers, the local family, visiting artists and residents of the area, mostly of the Naxi minority (pronounce “Nashee”) who have lived here forever and seen their lands transform into a major Chinese tourist destination. Our connection to Lijiang Studio came through Sarah Lewison and her son Duskin, who worked here on an ecological project “illuminating the solar economy,” with hands-on public research into the cycles of growth and decay, mostly involving mushroom cultivation and beer-making work that eventually culminated in the hilarious World Heritage Beer Garden Picnic. Via Sarah we met Jay Brown, a soft-spoken and extremely capable Chinese-speaking American who has moved from art historian to events organizer and quiet advocate of Naxi culture. Standing alongside a car out in the ruins of Detroit, we agreed it would be great to go together to China. That’s how this whole adventure began. And now, after our seemingly endless travels through the mega-gentrification of the coastal cities, after the industrial and commercial sprawl of Wuhan, we were finally going to reach a longed-for destination: the countryside.

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The Great Boat Adventure

May 29, 2011

This woman lives in the oldest neighborhood of Hankou, in the tri-city metropolis of Wuhan, China. She can’t speak any English because she learned Russian in her school days. As she explained to our friend and host Gao Bei, one of her sons works for the Chinese navy, on submarine missiles. The other one works in Washington, D.C., for the Voice of America! She says that when they see each other, they are always joking that they can’t talk about their work, state secrets. I would say these are typical stories from modern Chimerica.

We set out from the Wachang side, crossing the Yangtze on a ferry. Our goal was to find a small boat, somewhere, and see Hankou and Hanyang – the commercial and industrial cities – from the water. So we set out walking towards the older side of town, where there was supposedly a market and some docks on the Han river, which meets the Yangtze here. Right where we began there was one of those blue fences covered with photos and slogans and I thought, there must be a big hole in the ground behind that thing. Further in the distance was a decrepit modernist building, Corbusier-style with a kind of control box at the top, which looked immensely intriguing. We went there with the desire to sweet talk our way to the roof. There was no one at the foot of the building. Jay maintained that looking for someone to ask was just multiplying the chances for them to say no: so let’s take the elevator. All these kinds of situations are immensely lackadaisical in Wuhan, you just do it and see what happens.

The sixteenth floor offered a narrow corridor, then an open view onto the city. They were destroying the neighborhood down below: but the roofs were still green with plants and bushes. The doors leading out to the roof were locked, let’s try the other side. A man in an apartment was looking, we gestured hello and went on to find more locked doors. Jay was speaking Chinese, then saying to us, he’s the manager. And he’s going to open the door for us! Which he did.

The roof seemed half-decayed, but in practice it was solid underfoot. The control box had no meeting room or party headquarters, just what looked like a water tank hiding behind some decayed windows and concrete. The view up there was amazing. Across the river were the endless towers of Wachang. Just below, the expected big hole in the ground was in fact immense, an open expanse worked here and there by backhoes. It was the future CBD (central business district). One building had been left standing in there, for workers’ housing. Huge half-finished towers rose in the back, with some storey-high Chinese characters and a yellow phone number at the top. Just call and I’m yours seemed to be the message.

Our more humble edifice, built in the eighties, was a danwei or workers’ housing estate, connected to the state-owned enterprise that manages all the traffic on the river. Rumors continually circulated that it would be torn down, but it still wasn’t yet anyway (this kind of information came to me from someone else, who had heard it from someone else – about half our group of eleven or twelve were Chinese speakers). Beyond the half-demolished buildings lay the oldest part of town where we planned to go. Once back on the ground, it seemed interesting to walk through the demolition zone.

It’s quite fascinating to be collectively bilingual. The foreign license of those without tongues gives freer play to those with them. It’s impressive to see gutted buildings, workers in the rubble pile salvaging bricks for reuse, bright red characters signifying “to be demolished” with other characters in black above them saying “not” – added by the inhabitants. Soon we were talking with those who still remained, despite it all, resisting. You get 6100 yuan per square meter for compensation, they explained. Approximately a thousand dollars, and there can’t be many square meters for each family. Obviously there will be no way for them to live in the city center (apartments near by are going from 16 to 20 thousand per square meter, we were told a little later). They were mad and they showed it, with dignity. Not so for the guy in the white shirt who came up to chase us off around that moment, gesticulating and threatening. We let him do it for a while, taking more pictures of the “not-to be demolished” characters and trying to look unfazed. Nothing doing, this guy was getting furious. So let’s cross the street and eat some noodles.

I was keen to go through an open iron gate and see what life was like in that older section, thinking it would be a glimpse of what was being destroyed. Actually the streets were winding here – not really the same environment at all. Behind every window it seemed that people were hanging out playing cards and mah-jong. Impossible to go fifty feet without striking up another conversation. There was a sweet and sometimes hilarious life in those crumbling two-story buildings. Shirtless old men next to boiling pots. Women knitting on chairs in narrow alleys. People leaning out to talk from second-floor windows. Bitter melon hanging to dry with the skivvies and the baby clothes. This was where we met the woman with the beautiful hairdo and the sons on opposite side of the new superpower divide. Such amazingly nice people.

She told us that she rented rooms, but since the people were so poor she didn’t ask much, otherwise how could they live? Another woman said she had come from the section that was now being destroyed. Another five years and this neighborhood would go, she claimed. Yet earlier, a well-dressed man had explained with pride that this was the oldest neighborhood in Hankou – not the oldest building but the oldest neighborhood, a continuous social relation. It used to be the richest, the fanciest neighborhood in the city. Would it come down soon? we asked. No, he said, it is not so easy as the buildings of a danwei, these are all private dwellings, it is much more complicated. I admired his confidence in a situation like that, where you have no power in fact, because at any law, convention or tacit understanding can be revoked just because they say. They say what? They say go away, we have business to do.

We could hardly tear ourselves away, the people were so friendly. I began to think that my naïve and romantic ideas about all that is lost in these waves of development are maybe not so naïve and romantic after all. There is something very different about those winding streets and the people who live for the sociable pleasures, so different from the bustle to get ahead and make a million, or at least a dime, which accounts for most of the ambiance in Wuhan. We found ourselves on the street of the garbage collectors, still looking for the boat, still looking for the market. Down that way, they said. Halal butchers with Arabic writing on the stalls. Suddenly a green painted mosque, set back from the street, with a friendly guardian at the open gate. Further on, amidst a market of plumbing fixtures and building supplies, the statue of Sun Yat-sen with a cane, engulfed by chaotic traffic and surrounded by blue construction fencing. Let’s go on, let’s go on. A big covered market, emptied, in the process of being revamped, upgraded, due to frequent fires in the storerooms, they said. It would all be display rooms soon enough, the same vendors would come back, they assured us. Progress again? It is hard to define and I am not being ironic.

Amazing, the things you can discover while looking for a boat. Old barges transformed into warehouses. Homeless people playing cards beneath the graceful new bridge. Floating apartment buildings, covered dories without motors, people who would come back tomorrow at eight and surely give us a ride for cheap. A poor man’s gambling salon on the water, with roses growing on the back and a man who gestured no pictures. A ferry dock with the usual ferry going back to Wachang. Did we want to take the tourist boat at 7:30? We had a powow and decided that in any case, it was time for a restaurant first. Another great meal ensued up on the second floor in some beat place where the glass noodles were the best in the world. We finally made it to the tourist boat at the last second. But it obviously wasn’t our dream. Let’s stay on the dock and keep the dream alive. Call it the great boat adventure.

Meetings at Womenjia Youth Autonomy Lab

May 29, 2011

Is Wuhan Really the Chicago of China?

The scene in the narrow corridor of the all-night train from Beijing was hilarious: small knots of freaky people talking, eating, drinking, laughing, slipping by each other to reach those further down the line. Emi, Xiao, CiCi, Gao Bei, Qu Ge, Desirée, Elaine, Gordon, Jing, Dan, Jay, Stephanie, Sarah, Orianna, Claire and myself, all celebrating Michael’s thirtieth birthday. Home Shop on the road with new friends.

We arrived at Wuhan in the early morning, somewhat the worse for wear and whiskey. For us, generous hospitality in the home of Gao Bei’s parents, thank you! A quick fifteen minutes rest turned into hours of profound slumber. Later on, delicious food in the “street of snacks”: dozens if not hundreds of street vendors with an amazing variety of edibles. We walked along the fortified river bank overlooking the Yangtze, near the Soviet bridge. A fabulous sight, expansive, breathtaking, beautiful, the river life in motion. We laughed and joked with an old man and his kite, floating probably half a mile up in the air.

Mai Dian arrived with all those staying out at the Autonomy Lab, then Elaine and the group lodged in some friend’s apartment much further to the south. We climbed the steps leading up to the bridge and found strange scenes of karaoke dancers singing Chinapop tunes to old men who would buy them reusable plastic roses. Behind the young starlets I noticed old ladies furiously counting one-yuan notes. Then suddenly a guy with a bucket throws huge fistfulls of bills showering over the young singer. The money shot! Meanwhile a man in dark glasses was very ostensibly photographing our camera-happy band of Western-Chinese tourists, as if to say, “Try it from this direction for a change.” Perhaps he is pointing at my portrait right now and laughing with his friends.

download the PDF of our presentation here

The first event was a lecture at Wuhan University, organized by the student union of the sociology department. Claire, Dan and I gave an improvised talk on experiments in collective perception, based on a slideshow organized by yours truly. Every time Dan transposed our extravagant concepts into Chinese the audience generously applauded, ’till we received a note reading “the students speak good English and they are saying maybe we could go faster without the translation”! This encouraged Dan to break into English and push the activist side of our interests, talking about the recent social movements in Wisconsin. It was an odd and fascinating moment, attempting to convince a bunch of sharp sociology students that our practice of drifting could be available to them. “Yes, but is it science?” they asked in sum. Still they really seemed to get it in the end. Mai Dian urged the public to come to the events the next day, and I think a few of them actually did.

Womenjia Youth Autonomy Lab is an anarchist house at the edge of a huge botanical garden (periodically we would see residents assisting visitors over the fence with wooden ladders, to reduce the steep 30 RMB entrance fee). It takes courage to organize such a living space, and to use it. Respect to Womenjia! Lots of people came for an excellent day of presentations, entitled Multi-Dialogs: Art, Society & Space. For most of us it was a unique experience in China, the fringe where art meets activism and people speak without self-censorship.

Most interesting  for me were the talks by a local art professor about a university gallery called the Yangtze Space, which seemed to transgress every usual limit and open up a wild contemporary art experience; and by Li Juchuan on the East Lake project, which was a call for artistic interventions and reflections on the OCT real-estate development that suddenly privatized a piece of public lakefront to make a residential complex and “Happy Valley” amusement park (for the controversy, see the China Study Group). There were over fifty responses to the East Lake call which was mainly about carving out the possibility for public commentary on the kind of lawless expropriation that typically happens in reform-era China, when local governments raise money for urban infrastructure by leasing public landed whose title is ceded to them by the state. Some of the artistic projects were very striking, powerful messages of defiance and discontent. It is impossible for us to fully understand what such a project means in practice and daily experience – but a sense of deep and continuing frustration with the limits of current Chinese politics was thick in the air.

That feeling formed the departure point for much of the conversation with Mai Dian on the following day. He explained that in the reception of the East Lake project by Western art circles, the critique always focused on the market and the corporations: but in China, they have many more problems to contend with. The market and the corporations, indeed, but also state economic planning, local corruption and maybe worst of all, majority opinions that support the kind of accelerated development that forms the status quo. This seemed to Claire and I like a perfect description of conditions in America.

There was some disagreement between me and Gordon about whether you could really maintain that there is a “mirroring” dynamic between China and the USA, as had been the case between the US and the Soviet Union. Do the two economic superpowers somehow condition, reflect, propel or contain each other’s development? Does the structural relation translate into any parallels on the political level? For sure, there’s no comparison with the degree of difficulty and privation suffered by activists in China. But as American democracy decays beneath the weight of state and corporate power, military abuse, financial corruption and the crushing assent of the majority, the feeling of failure is increasingly similar – at least from an activist perspective. The question is, how to survive after failure? How to create long-lasting and relatively autonomous communities that can develop contrary values and ways of living? Mai Dian explained that he had been to Europe and absorbed anarchist principles there; but on returning to China he found the need to develop “a new language.” Again this struck a chord. All of my work since returning from Europe has been about finding a new language for left politics and culture in the US context.

That afternoon we hopped a bus and followed the long winding causeways out to the OCT real-estate project on East Lake. Walked down the unfinished road, circumvented the barrier and entered the construction site in plain view of the security guard who did absolutely nothing. There was something pretty surreal about strolling alongside the work crews and the backhoes, talking art or politics or philosophy with any of twenty different people, while the more serious looking guys in red hardhats approached. Xiao claimed we were a group from Wuhan U who had planned this trip with the developer. Well then, call the university and have them deliver the clearance! Or if not, go away right now, not out the other end, but back where you came from. We took that advice and drifted back, right next to the workers this time, filming, observing, still talking about art and politics and philosophy…

Wuhan has been called the Chicago of China in some politician’s rhetorical phrase, and like the Midwestern giant it is in effect a crossroads of railroads, highways and water, a logistics hub for a continental boom. Ten million people already live here; and the sprawling metropolitan area is set to become the central node in a network of eight new cities, whose planning and construction is underway. It’s hard to believe all this can be achieved, that the energy can be found to support such an area, and perhaps above all, that the air would remain breathable if such massive quantities of coal and oil were to be burned every day. Even today there are bottlenecks in the coal supply, driving up inflation and pushing the power companies to burn anything available, however dirty. For a full hour’s drive outside the center, the new towers loom amidst choking clouds of dust and pollution. It’s almost impossible to measure yourself, your own human existence, against the endlessness of coastal Chinese cities.

After the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of Western markets for Chinese manufactures, something had to be done with the tremendous productive capacities assembled over the last fifteen years on the great coastal plains and up the Yantze valley: otherwise the growth engine of the world would experience an immense overaccumulation crisis. That something turned out to be a vast building campaign, not just mega-gentrification but mega-metropolitanization. What we are seeing is a “spatial fix” on an unprecedented scale: a government orchestrated transformation of circulating capital into fixed urban form. The destiny of all this appears radically uncertain. Under the disproportionate shadows of those unfinished buildings (symmetrical opposites of the deadscrapers in abandoned Detroit) the quest for small-group autonomy could appear microscopic, or totally meaningless. In a sense it is. But for those involved it is the one thing that matters, the existential necessity. In Wuhan I finally encountered what I never did find on my first trip: the sources of some kind of resistance to the present.

Being Beijing

May 26, 2011
looking into the past
(all photos by Claire Pentecost)


And so we moved from Argentina to the United States to China.

This bewlidering transition was not exactly planned, but it grew out of a proliferation of the enthusiasm for travelling in a group, seeking collective knowledge, widening the horizons. The project we are now engaged in was born of that desire, sketched out by a relatively large number of people, many of them living here, most of whom Claire and I didn’t know. Caught up in a process that expanded far beyond the initial conversations in the US, members of the Compass Group – inhabitants of the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor – have crossed the oceans to discover Chimerica.

Chimerica? What’s this word? In Argentina, our friend and collaborator Mauro Machado kept asking a question. How to go beyond espejismo, which is the condition of everywhere encountering your own reflection? To my mind Chimerica is a fundamental concept, condensing an unsustainable economic structure of trade and capital circulation with a delusional veil of reciprocal exoticism and mutual ignorance. Isn’t it vitally important to understand the social relations that sustain your own existence?

China is part of today’s horizon: wherever we live, we are all somehow living in China. The same was true of America generations ago. On the other side of the massive flux of products and dramatized news items there is a micro-mesh of daily life, a texture of experience. Is it possible to touch some of the realities that are changing the world? Can we discover how it is that wherever we live, we are always somehow living in China?

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Driftin’ in the “D”

May 23, 2011

w/François Deck in Detroit

all photos F.D.


Is there any way to answer such a question in America?

Back in Chicago we fell beneath the fascinating sway of the skyscrapers on Lakeshore Drive, then exited to the banalities of the freeway. François said: “Such a short stay in paradise.” It became a joke between us as we explored the steel plants and industrial ruins south of Chicago, continually bumping up against huge casinos that seemed calculated to catch whatever change a working man could earn in hell. François was shocked by the way everything on the roadside seemed to have a price (INJURE / KILL A WORKER, $7500 + 15 YRS). When we made it to the “D” it was finally clear. We’re always going to heaven and hell simultaneously.

Following are a series of photos that François took while drifting in Detroit.

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La bocca della verità

May 19, 2011

Derivando a traves de La Boca, Buenos Aires

Hay varios textos situacionistas sobre la idea de la deriva (él de Debord; él de Chtcheglov; etc.). Me parece que a todos les hace falta una teoría del mediador. ¿Sería que para ellos todo se inventa desde la soberanía revolucionaría — la ciudad y el camino, la sensación y las palabras para decirla? Para nosotros no puede ser así, imposíble. Que sean geográficos, políticos, artísticos, psíquicos, los viajes siempre tienen sus intermediadores, guías, figuras transicionales, coyotes. Voces diciendo no la verdad, pero su verdad, gente dialogando.

Fuimos a derivar a La Boca con un pequeño grupo de nuevos amigos, a la invitación de José Luis Meirás. Gracias à tí, José, y gracias infínitas a todos los que nos han acogido, guiado, introducido a sus problemáticas y a sus sueños, durante estes largas semanas en Argentina.

Fue emocionante subir la escalera hasta la casa de José, que conocimos antes cuando era la de Federico y Iris. Una casa de madera recuperada de las cajas contendores de mercancías aportadas en barcos desde Europa, no se sabe cuando ni por quien – al menos, es esto que me decían, o que recuerdo que me han dicho, o que me imagino por completo. Una sensación muy ligera, la de pasar horas charlando en alto de esta escalera, descubriendo universos singulares y desconocidos hasta aquel momento. Y nuevamente, esta misma sensación o algo parecido…

Sería interesante, ir más lejos con esta práctica de las caminatas, pasando por rincones muy distintos, con mediadores a cada vez diferentes. José nos ha preparado todo un programa, que no pudimos hacer por completo, lo pongo aquí:

1- encuentro en el bar de Víctor, tiene nombre y es Rivera Sur

2- calle Necochea, “la calle de las cantinas”, hoy ya no queda ninguna pero sí los rastros de su vieja opulencia “mersa” en frentes y letreros. Destino casi obligado de la clase media y media baja porteña para reuniones de fin de año laborales, despedidas de soltero y celebraciones varias, desde fines de los 50 hasta mediados de los 90. De culminación casi abrupta hoy es un cementerio de locales gigantes ocupados por centenares de familias. Lugar donde se podría decir que operó un fenómeno opuesto a la gentrificación.

3- Ascenso al cruce peatonal del puente Nicolás Avellaneda, vistas panorámicas:
a-  vista panorámica de Isla Maciel (viejo centro prostibulario, una especie de “villa-zona-roja abierta al público” (hoy impensable) de la clase trabajadora de Dock Sud, La Boca y destino de iniciación sexual y aventura juvenil para muchos jóvenes de los suburbios sureños, desde los 50 hasta los 70.
b- Vista panorámica del Polo Petroquímico de Dock Sud y la denominada Villa Inflamable (dicen que de algunas canillas sale agua que es combustible)
c- vista de la boca del riachuelo en su entrada al estuario del Río de la Plata, vista de la ocupación y construcción de villas en altura y su contraste casi imitador de las torres de puerto madero.

4- Caminata por la rivera boquense hasta el Pte. Pueyrredón “Viejo” recientemente reinaugurado luego de 10 años de clausura (en el camino el puente Barraca Peña y vista de todas las viejas “barracas” de curtiembres y laneras, así como las areneras al borde.

5- ingreso breve a Avellaneda (150 metros nada más) para ver el Bingo y el Mural de Darío y Maxi en la subida del puente Pueyrredón “nuevo”. Mirada al Cine Roca y al Cine Colonial, uno era fuerte en el soft core y las películas de Isabel Sarli “en continuado”, el otro pasaba Bruce Lee a full, destinos de “rateadas” púberes en los variados establecimientos educativos concentrados en el centro de Avellaneda, y los de la zona, hasta mediados de los 80 (cabe aclarar que esta programación especializada de cine no existía dentro de la Capital Federal.

(evitamos la estación Darío y Maxi a pedido de varios y adhiero, nos quedamos con el recuerdo de Bruce y La Coca, por ahora).

6- volvemos a Barracas por el viejo Puente Pueyrredón, previa vista desde allí del antiquísimo Puente Bosch, lugar donde se produjo la trajedia del tranvía 105 en 1930. Refrigerio en el restaurante El Puentecito, de muy buena cocina y uno de los pocos en la zona sur de la capital que abre las 24 horas.

7- Vista del frente de la Logia masónica HIJOS DEL TRABAJO (imperdible, fundada por el mismísimo Garibaldi, pum!). Subida a los andenes de la estación Hipólito Yrigoyen (aparece en decenas de películas pues es una locación única en la ciudad para el cine de época) vista de la General Motors abandonada, vista del lugar donde muere de Mariano Ferreyra (mártir del “precariado”, murió reclamando derechos laborales para los ferroviarios precarizados, sus ejecutores no fueron las fuerzas estatales sino una patota de la burocracia sindical-empresaria que se hizo millonaria en la era de las privatizaciones y desmantelamiento ferroviario). Ferreyra muere una semana antes que Néstor Kirchner y varias versiones provenientes del propio entorno presidencial señalan que su asesinato afectó sensiblemente al ex presidente.

8- terminamos en el Circuito Cultural Barracas y a una cuadra de donde funcionaba el call center de Atento, empresa encubierta de Telefónica y escenario hace unos años del más grande conflicto de trabajadores de Call centers ultra precarizados.

Lo del puente Nicolás Avellaneda fue reelmente interesante: una zona intermediaria entre puerto y habitaciones, una suerte de tierra de nadie o más bien, del Otro, con sus propios costumbres y leyes desconocidos por nosotros. Despues, larga caminata sobre el muelle hacía el puente Pueyrredón, que no alcanzamos. Antes había tantos barcos oxidados por acá, un puerto fantasma increíble, recién limpiado por los servicios públicos que no tienen ni idea de como limpiar las aguas del Riachuelo, pues han empezado con la única cosa que se podía llevar fácilmente. Dejamos al grupo hablando y tomando café en un bar, cogimos un taxi — con uno de estes chóferes porteños que te hablan de todo — fuimos a ver el puente y la pintura mural en memoria de Darío y Maxi, y eso fue el fin del viaje más fántastico de mi vida. La “Deriva de la Pampa”.

Gracias a todos y hasta pronto. ¡Volveremos!