Ashley Lee Wong – Artists as Enterprise: Dispositions to the Market

My research aims to investigates the relationship of art, technology and the economy to develop an emergent organisational practice to support artistic production. In an accelerated neoliberal global economy, there is a necessity for artists to work with and through the market rather than in opposition to it. By looking at the practices of artists who take the economy as a medium for their art, the relationship between art, corporations and finance, and emerging organisational models between art and technology, we can find ways of engaging more critically and effectively within the field. The research opens up to possibilities to reimagine the role of artists within the global creative economy.

Here I will briefly explore the shifting systems of value within the creative economy and the ways in which artists and cultural workers can reconsider their practice and relationship with the market. These systems are then brought in contrast to the context in China where many values and discourses may open up to new dispositions with the market.

The Self-Realised Artist-Entrepreneur

In context of what I call the ‘post-crisis creative economy’ is one in which former ideologies of the autonomy and freedom of the artists becomes a condition of self-exploitation, self-precarisation and self-branding within neoliberal forms of governmentality, as discussed by Gerald Raunig (2011, 200) on the work of Isabell Lorey [i]. The ‘post-crisis creative economy’ is one that is in ruins following the economic crash of 2008, which resulted in a scaling back of resources for the arts in Europe and the UK. Suggesting ruins also presents an opportunity to rebuild, reconfigure and reimagine the cultural economy. The ‘post-crisis creative economy’ is one that is characterised by the emergence of cognitive capitalism, the conditions of which present increased flexibilisation of the labour market [ii]. The result is that artists are pushed to become self-realised entrepreneurs who pursue their creative work out of passion. Silvio Lorusso uses the term ‘entreprecariat’ [iii] to describe the precarious conditions of entrepreneurs who are left to bear the risks of running their own business. Artists-entrepreneurs today also play a role in the processes of gentrification in urban centres, where they are later pushed out of the area by rising rents and property speculators. The rising cost of rent in major cities also means many artists and cultural workers need to juggle multiple jobs to sustain their living. As artists become central to the global creative economy, they are left disempowered and precarious at the throws of the market. The artist is no longer a figure of independent, self-determined individual but one that is left to bare the risks and responsibilities in a highly competitive deregulated marketplace.

As artists and cultural workers, how can we critically and effectively engage in the cultural economy in the current political and economic climate? Are there ways to leverage the contemporary systems of value production to find new modes of organisation to regain agency as creative actors in society?

Inoperative Modes of Resistance

Artists have often existed on the margins in the Romantic tradition, which has been celebrated as the site for creative autonomy. Following the uprisings of 1968 in Paris autonomy of the artist and the leftist aesthetics of resistance have evolved to the form of DIY political-ethical subcultures within art, music, and technology. However, as the self-realised entrepreneur became the ideal worker in the post-Fordist knowledge economy, ‘the independent’ artist becomes ‘the precariat’.

In the ‘post-crisis creative economy’ the modes of cultural organisation based on social critique, transgression and radicalism either becomes incorporated into the market or remain on the fringes barely subsisting and largely disempowered. Considering the rising cost of living in urban centres, to remain staunchly independent and anti-market can also suggest one’s privilege. Globalisation has created a new proletarian creative class in cities, yet has also alienated those outside of the cities in former industrialised towns that have emerged as the alt-right resulting in the current culture wars. Radicalism and modes of resistance begins to take new meaning as it is no longer solely associate with a revolutionary leftist tradition.

As culture becomes central to the global economy since the 1990s we can see the institutionalisation of critique and the co-optation of resistance. The aesthetics of leftist politics where expressions of resistance are glorified celebrated in advertising and branding initiatives (see Andrea Fraser’s The Revolution Brought to You By Nike [iv]). The examples here are fiction by there are countless real-world examples, such as Pepsi’s use of protests featuring Kendall Jenner [v]. What appears radical is used as branding strategy where modes of resistance become inoperative and rendered to mere spectacle.

Additionally, online tactics normally associated with the left have been appropriated by the alt-right neo-nationalist movements and to a greater effect. As Bernard Stiegler proclaims, technology is a pharmakon [vi], that can be used as both a remedy and poison. Tactics of hackactivist can also be used for racial profiling and online abuse by right wing groups, which has been made apparent by Angela Nagle [vii]. The attacks from the far right introduces a stark self-awareness of our biases and ideologies. This requires being sensitive to positions as educated, liberal populations living in urban centres and to understand the tensions and conflicts created by those left out by globalisation. Does the appropriation of modes of resistance and countercultural tactics by the far right and the market render them impotent, as they appropriate the means (memes) of production [viii]? Do we abandon these modes of organisation to find new ones? Is re-re-appropriation in an on going culture war the answer?

The Crisis of Critique and Creativity

At the same time, the art world and creative sectors are fraught with contradictions in which the more radical or progressive works gain value and recognition despite reinforcing the institutions that it may seek to undermine (see Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits”). Examples could be seen across art exhibitions and biennales stemming back to practices of institutional critique. Critique becomes institutionalised [ix] where as described by Marina Vishmidt, as a process of ‘homoeostasis’ [x] or maintaining and supporting existing systems of power that self-adapts to challenges to it. Contemporary art as described by Suhail Malik is caught in a bind in which after Duchamp art continually tries to challenge the notion of art itself and escape, yet continues to perpetuate it unable to provide an exit from it. “…as re-iterations of the logic of escape, these efforts also perpetuate and entrench the very limitations of art they seek to overcome. The resulting interminable endgame of art’s critical manoeuvres serves after a short moment to provide new paradigmatic exemplars for it, a condition of tamed instability that characterises contemporary art today…” [xi]

Countercultural values also provided the foundation for the emergence of Silicon Valley as a dominant economic force. The freedoms initially celebrated by early adopters of networked technologies as an enabler of revolutions through the use of social media not longer stands as a liberatory tool. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron discuss the emergence of the Californian Ideology founded upon radical libertarian counterculture together with neoliberal free market ideals [xii], which has resulted in the emergence of Silicon Valley as a dominant paradigm. Continually, technological innovation constantly searches to disrupt and revolutionise the industry without challenging the established systems of power. Sebastian Olma (2016) refers to Naomi Klein when he talks of “technologies of changeless change” [xiii] when we are trapped in simulations of progress where innovations that continue to perpetuate inequalities of wealth and power. Both the cyclical nature of artistic critique and techno-creativity that seeks constant innovation creates a homoeostatic loop with no means to escape. It becomes urgent for artists as creative actors in society to critically interrogate the economies in which they operate in without becoming complicit or subsumed by it.

Dispositions to the Market

Artists can take a multiplicity of dispositions to the market in which they can actively or passively engage or disengage with it. Disposition as discussed by Keller Easterling (2010, 250) is a “relationship or relative position…as the unfolding relationship between potentials, resists science and codification in favour of art or practice.” [xiv] Disposition is one that changes to different situations. To move between these codified relations is to also open up to a creative practice in relation to the market in a mode of play to open up to possibilities. Below are a few dispositions artists take with the market in which artists move and navigate in-between and to explore the extremes.

Engagement with Market                         <—->                        Disengagement from Market

Accelerate | Innovate | Hack | Exploit | Participate | Adapt | Resist | Cope | Withdraw

To briefly sum up the points along the scale, starting from the middle, to participate is the norm in creating works that are saleable, while to adapt is to find other kinds of work to support one’s living to maintain integrity of the work free from the market. To resist is to protest and lobby for fairer labour conditions including groups such as W.A.G.E in the US and Precarious Workers Brigade in the UK. To cope is to employ strategies including therapies and meditation which can be seen in works including Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) videos and therapeutic Virtual Reality (VR) experiences. To withdraw is to quit art all together famously Marcel Duchamp, or to remain on the fringes as an outsider artist or hobbiest. To exploit the market are those artists such as Andy Warhol, Shepard Fairey (Obey Giant), Xu Zhen (MadeIn Gallery) who turn their artistic production into brands and mass produced commodities. To hack or subvert the market is to create interventions or alternative economies. To innovate is to create new business models and innovative start-ups for art. To accelerate is to take innovation and marketisation to the extreme and to approach a post-work society in which artists would be free to create beyond the market. This model is not intended to be definitive but to help guide an understanding of the different strategies of artists to allow for one to explore the possibilities of economic relations within different social-economic contexts of contemporary capitalism.

Reality Check: Creative Economy as Cultural Imperialism

To step away from a western context and framing, we can gain broader perspective on these discourses that do not fully add up particularly in Hong Kong and China, where I am currently based. As an overseas born Chinese, I relented discussing identity politics in a desire to assimilate and to be treated as equal without difference. However, it becomes a necessity in today’s political climate to attempt to resolve the unspoken tensions that are now emerging in heated conflicts. Conflicts including recent protests against Omar Fast’s exhibition in New York’s Chinatown, which misrepresented the community [xv]. This follows the removal of three artworks from the Guggenheim’s exhibition Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World due to works that feature elements of cruelty to animals [xvi].

China remains largely oblivious to the culture wars in the west as the internet remains highly controlled by the Communist Party who essentially filters out any dissenting voices. Freedoms celebrated as part of the libertarian ideals of the early internet are taken for granted. At the same time market freedoms have allowed for Facebook and Google to monopolised and control all data and information and information in collaboration with the government to support mass surveillance. Control takes another form in democratic societies, placing power in the hands of corporations. China is a dictatorship yet the Chinese Communist Party understands the necessity for freedom and loose regulations to allow for innovation within informal economies to emerge particularly in Shenzhen, as one of the ‘Special Economic Zones’ [xvii]. Experiments with capitalism are then incorporated into national policies, however never undermining the socialist regime [xviii]. There is tension between chaos and control in an environment that allows for a more agile economy with lax labour and copyright laws.

While the economic crisis had an impact on the Asian economies as the demand for exported commodities declined, it did not affect the emerging creative economy, but rather it encouraged Hong Kong to move away from its dependency on finance. In China, the creative economy grew following the economic crisis, as a result of lower employment, people sought out cheap entertainment through online media and games. As a result the Asian economy put efforts to developing more creative content, which pushed forward the creative economies in the region [xix]. The creative economy has become a globalising force that drives modernisation in developing countries. Creative and cultural industries development becomes a form of imperialism, a hegemonic way of life and urban aesthetic – projected as an aspirational model towards a chance for a middle-class life there is hope in this new economy in which the pitfalls have already become widely apparent in the west. However, the political system and cultural values in China require another narrative and discourse to cultural development and the economy.

Precarity is a condition of post-industrial economies. While China’s economy is still largely industrialised, there is a shifting towards a knowledge-based economy. Precarity is a much larger issue for migrant workers in low paid factory jobs moving from rural villages to seek work in cities in hopes to raise their family out of poverty. Cultural work is for those who are educated and can afford to pursue creative careers. Confucian values of filial piety places great emphasis on the necessity to support one’s family. There are great pressures to seek full-time employment as a priority before pursing unstable creative forms of work. It is out of one’s indebtedness and responsibility to one’s family that will place financial security first and foremost. Issues of precarity within the knowledge economy continues to exist in urban centres like Shanghai and Hong Kong. The notion of ‘saving face’ becomes more important as conflict and disputes are often avoided or resolved privately. While discourses of identity politics in China remain invisible within a conservative culture that is strongly patriarchal, does not recognise gay marriage and oppresses minority populations particularly in Nepal and Western China. However, many of the values and guiding principals from Confucian and Taoist tradition help to maintain harmonious order in society.

EuroAmerican-centric discourses are presented as universal yet potentially blind us from possibilities and realities. The narratives on the late capitalist economy create a sense of fear, anxiety and uncertainty where freedom and democracy becomes dictated by the market. The context of China offers its own version of capitalism with Chinese characteristics (though not without its own pitfalls). It offers another political and cultural context that opens up to new forms of modernity grounded in a tradition (as suggested by Yuk Hui (2016) in his book The Question Concerning Technology in China [xx]) and potentially new dispositions within an emergent cultural economy.

Works Cited

[i] Raunig, Gerald. “Creative Industries as Mass Deception”. Critique of Creativity: Precarity, Subjectivity and Resistance in the ‘Creative Industries’. Mayfly Books, 2011.  p. 200.

[ii] Boutang, Yann Moulier. Cognitive Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

[iii] Lorusso, Silvio. “What is The Entreprecariat?” Institute of Network Cultures. 2016. Online at: http://networkcultures.org/entreprecariat/what-is-the-entreprecariat/

[iv] Fraser, Andrea. “The Revolution Brought To You By Nike”. Edited by Brian J White. Fireside Fiction, 2017. Available at: https://firesidefiction.com/the-revolution-brought-to-you-by-nike

[v] Wong, Julia Carrie. “Pepsi pulls Kendall Jenner ad ridiculed for co-opting protest movements”. The Guardian. April 6, 2017. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/apr/05/pepsi-kendall-jenner-pepsi-apology-ad-protest

[vi] Stiegler, Bernard. “Relational Ecology and the Digital Pharmakon”. Culture Machine, Vol 13, 2012. Available at: https://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/view/464/501

[vii] Nagle, Angela. Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. London: Zero Books, 2017.

[viii] Goerzen, Matt. “Notes Towards The Memes of Production”. Texte Zur Kunst, Issue 106, June 2017. Available at: https://www.textezurkunst.de/106/uber-die-meme-der-produktion/

[ix] Fraser, Andrea. “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique”. Artforum. Vol. 44, Issue 1. New York: Sep 2005. p. 278.

[x] Vishmidt, Marina. “The Cultural Logic of Criticality”. Journal of Visual Arts Practice. Volume 7 Number 3. Intellect Ltd, 2008. pp. 253–269.

[xi] Malik, Suhail. “On the Necessity of Art’s Exit from Contemporary Art
Suhail Malik”. Artists Space, 2013. Available at: http://artistsspace.org/programs/on-the-necessity-of-arts-exit-from-contemporary-art

[xii] Barbrook, Richard and Andy Cameron. “Californian Ideology”. The Internet Revolution: From Dot-Com Capitalism to Cybernetic Capitalism. Network Books, 2015. Pp.12-17.

[xiii] Olma, Sebastian. In Defence of Serendipity: Towards A Radical Politics of Innovation. London: Repeater Books, 2016. Kindle file.

[xiv] Easterling, Keller. Cognitive Architecture: From Biopolitics to Noopolitics. Architecture and Mind in the Age of Communication and Information. Edited by Deborah Hauptmann and Warren Neidich. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2010. p. 250.

[xv] Sayej, Nadja. “New York’s Chinatown hits back at Omer Fast’s ‘poverty porn’ art exhibition”, The Guardian, October 20, 2017. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/20/chinatown-omer-fast-art-poverty-porn

[xvi] Progrebin, Robin and Sopam Deb. “Guggenheim Museum is Criticized for Pulling Animal Artworks”. The New York Times. September 26, 2017. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/arts/design/guggenheim-art-and-china-after-1989-animal-welfare.html

[xvii] Lindtner, Silvia, Anna Greenspan, David Li. Designed in Shenzhen: Shanzhai Manufacturers and Maker Entrepreneurs. Aarhus Series on Human Centered Computing, [S.l.], vol 1, no. 1, 2015. p. 12.

[xviii] Wang, June and S.M. Li. “State territorialization, neoliberal governmentality: the remaking of Dafen oil painting village, Shenzhen, China”. Journal of Urban Geography. Vol 38, Issue 5. Taylor & Francis Online, 2017. pp. 708-728.

[xix] Wuwei, Li. How Creativity Is Changing China. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

[xx] Hui, Yuk. On The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics. Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2016.

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7 Comments

  1. Hi Ashley,
    
I’m very interested in the way you investigate and describe the relation between art, technology and economy in a contemporary context. More specifically I’m interested in the way you describe contemporary art as ‘caught in a bind’ – this condition that is called “tamed instability” by Suhail Malik. Could you elaborate and maybe give a more specific artistic example of this condition?

    In other words – in what ways does contemporary critical art more precisely co-produce this claustrophobic, homoeostatic loop that you are referring to, and what is the potential of a complete and accelerated engagement with the market? You write that it is necessary to “work with and through the market” and as I understand it you point towards an acceleration-strategy for artistic practices to do so – is that correctly understood? If it is, I’m very interested in hearing more about how this could lead to what you term a “post-work society in which artists would be free to create beyond the market”?

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  2. Hi Lea Laura, thanks for your comment.

    Examples of ‘tamed instability’ include the need for constant innovation within technology and pushing of boundaries within the art field. Malik refers particularly to the Duchampian moment in which the definition of art is redefined by placing a ready-made within the gallery. Since then art seeks to consistently challenge the notion of art itself which becomes the very definition of art in contemporary art. In terms of technology, this can be reflected in the tendency towards constant innovation to consistently ‘disrupt’ existing markets. Obvious examples include Uber’s disruption of the taxi sector or the need for companies to constantly update internal systems and processes.

    The question is how to escape the cyclical neoliberal economy without falling into esotericism / withdrawal but also not into a nihilistic acceleratiomism without promise of ever coming out the other side. Of course when I say ‘towards a post-work society’ is in reference to an accelerationist programme where in full automation, machines take over our jobs and in place there is a universal income in which we’re free to create beyond concerns of the market. Yet I do not think it is within reach at this moment in ways that it also does not fall into the control of a few tech elite. A utopian vision would be one in which artists are free from the market, yet in the meantime, we must work critically within it.

    What I am rejecting is a general ideological anti-market sentiment amongst a liberal leftist art community that has also been left largely disempowered through conditions of precarity. There is a need to work with the market to regain agency but also not to simply following or being complicit to it. Of course this is a tight rope to walk but there is also a need to reflect on our privileged positions as generally educated, urban populations to find ways to redirect resources, present models and ways of working within the industry that are both self-sustaining and fairly distributed. I am also trying to find opportunities to break away from western-centric narratives and historical understandings to reconsider relations between art, technology and the economy. Though at the moment there are more questions than answers in what these models or practices may look like.

    * Updated *

    Some examples I’ve been looking at of artist projects working with the economy through their practice are: Jeremy Bailey’s Lean Artist Project in which I am a mentor for the latest edition in Chicago. http://www.leanartist.org/about.html and http://www.leanartistchicago.com. Also other artists like Suhail Malik’s Real Flow project – http://diannbauer.net/real-flow/. Older projects of Superflex, Constant Dullart’s Dulltech project etc.

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  3. Nice. You are looking at some really interesting artists – I’m looking forward to hearing more about your thoughts on them. Also, I think your remark: “There is a need to work with the market to regain agency but also not to simply following or being complicit to it” is very powerful and interesting, and so, I’m looking forward to discussing the ways in which you nuance the relation between withdrawal and accelerationism, which are also highly relevant to my project.

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  4. Hi Ashley, first of all sorry for the late comment! I see a lot of common interests in our projects, so I’m really looking forward to the discussion next week. For me it didn’t really get clear, what you want to point out with the example of the chinese situation.”It offers another political and cultural context that opens up to new forms of modernity grounded in a tradition (as suggested by Yuk Hui (2016) in his book The Question Concerning Technology in China [xx]) and potentially new dispositions within an emergent cultural economy.” Do you think those dispositions can offer different potentials than the strategies you named above? What could that be? I would be curious what you took from Yuk Hui’s book in this context. It is still lying on my desk, wating to be read. 🙂
    I like, that you are working with Easterling’s notion of disposition, but I would say it is nothing an artist (or any other human subject) can activly bring somewhere, since it is already there (within the power structures, like the market): “Disposition is immanent, not in the moving parts, but in the relationships between the components.” (Easterling, Extrastatecraft. The Power of Infrastructurespace, 2014, 72) I think this is important, because otherwise we might accidently come back to the concept of the artist as the individual genius who fights the system. And one problem I have with Easterling’s work (and this is nothing you explicitly do in your text, but maybe a thing to discuss) is, that since she exclusively talks about infrastructure as software or as an operating system, the only way for activism is hacking (which of course is not limited to the hacking of technology), while she dismisses other forms like protests in the streets/on squares: »Activists who show up at the barricade, the border crossing, or the battleground with familiar political scripts sometimes find that the real fight or the stealthier forms of violence are happening somewhere else.« (ebd., 213)

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  5. Hi Ashley and thanks for a really interesting text that highlights how entrepreneurial ideals and expectations seep into creative economies. I really appreciated your report from China in the final section of your text, as well as the scale of dispositions you present. These dispositions provide a great and useful overview of present acts of resistance among artists.

    Your discussion on the post-crisis creative economy is also super interesting (and relevant), yet I wonder if it would be possible to situate these thoughts within a longer historical context. Couldn’t one argue that our current situation is a form of return to similar precarious historical situations? Haven’t artists always had to juggle rising rents in urban spaces, and combining their artistic practice with other types of labour? Would it be possible to place these discussions in a longer historical context? What is new about our current situation, and what remains an extension of older types of insecurities and struggles among artists?

    Reading your text I also started thinking about the relationship between interrogating market economies through art, and adjusting artistic practices so that they may work and sustain themselves within a market economy. You seem to suggest a radical potential in the latter, but I’d love to hear you expand on the relationship between art that uses the economy as the canvas/subject of art itself, and the possibilities of artists to develop strategies to master a highly precarious labor market. Which role/task is most urgent today, do you think? And is there a way of combining the two?

    Look forward to hearing more about your work!

    Like

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