For someone born in the ’80s, the decade of the ’90s (and early 2000s) has become reference material of a special kind: while still being treated as historic material, from a contemporary perspective, the decade seems not to have been fully processed. Being a time people born in the decade after were too young to be part of and engage with, the ’90s Cool—references to the last decade before the third millennium changed—seems to be more popular than ever. At once defined by nostalgic feelings of reminiscing about the grunge age and its weird promises of freedom as slackness, the still somewhat <analog–digital> moment of the 1990s is seemingly providing a set of mechanisms that even in 2017 / 2018 pretend to dominate the current order of things. On another hand—purposely or not—one can doubt the applicability of these pre-set instructions. What kind of (his / her-) narratives are those that one may listen to without being left with a sore feeling of bare desperation—a feeling that gives off the sense that everything was better way back then—when now, apparently, there is nothing left to do … but commiserate? Do I really want to kill my idols? This text bears from absolutely personal observations and thoughts regarding the act of situating and relating oneself to the time we’re living in. Being torn between an absorbing fascination with historic materials and a refusal to dwell in them, this triggers thoughts on how time defines everyone’s life and how an understanding of time as a speculative parameter affects us on a daily basis.
In his book Miamification 1, the Austrian philosopher Armen Avanessian describes the complex system of our contemporary definition of time. In recent days, that is, before the 2008 financial crisis, our society seemed to be defined through the past: what happened yesterday was setting the rules for our tomorrow. By opposition, today, contemporary life is more and more defined through the future. This can be observed especially in tendencies where desire and consumptive behavior is formed or even created through forces that are forecasting individual needs and wishes of tomorrow. Sliding in the stream of your social media, advertising deploys product placement for things you might not have thought you needed, but will probably end up wanting—or even buying in the near future. These shifts in capitalist tactics tend to just increase, becoming aware of them feels disempowering. While not claiming to have found a solution, Avanessian argues for the development of a different approach to time. Making historical connections is inevitable as it helps to situate yourself in a context. But rather than still repeating a point of view of the past, we should actively build our present by using mnemonic strategies that are considered from the perspective of the future: that means shifting references through active evocation in order for us not to be passively controlled. Here a physical experience of time and temporality becomes more and more relative and our approach towards it turns speculative.
With the increasing complexity of social structures and political systems, the wish to be guided by structural orders of the past feels visceral—but grieving about the loss of a time when things were well-regulated feels more and more pointless! Isn’t it time we find new tools that define the relations through which we orientate ourselves in this contemporary disarray? Though I want to acknowledge that it sucks to constantly state a global change of times over and over again, finding and fighting for definitions has been an active ingredient of the cultural life of past and present times. Though it’s interesting for me to think about how we immerse ourselves in this current moment.
I’d like to take a closer look at my own field and areas of appliances. For me it seems intriguing to shape some thoughts on the idea of curation. As a buzzword it’s been well marketed in many areas of contemporary economic life. Earlier this year, I witnessed a housing complex in Downtown LA being pitched as supremely curated: i.e., not only will all facets of your life be covered, but also specifically selected and designed. No self-organization and effort is necessary anymore. Alexa can be switched on at a moment’s notice; your real estate can take care of your needs. Curation has become one of the new powerful tools that provide services in selecting the haute cuisine and tasteful aesthetics that exhibit individuality. It costs a fortune, but even the colors of the Empire state building can be curated; this can be the new party sensation that boosts one’s direct desire for wealth, power and style.
Information is power. With constantly overwhelmed brains sorting out information that has to be processed daily, we find new models of connoisseurship or nerdiness—and curating comes into play again. The curator as the new specialist takes over the function of the DJ model. I was told that back in the ’80s, it wasn’t really the cool thing to be an artist. People aspired to the status of rockstars and being part of a (successful) band seemed to be most desirable. The music industry still occupied the symbolic space of the booming cultural model, although the art market and its art stars were gaining steam (before crashing in the ’90s and untying themselves from moneydriven practices). The music industry holds the status of a functioning business model that nourishes the food chain from the makers to its markers. Coming back to 2017, it’s not so cool anymore to be in a band in order to market one’s individuality. Mainstream and underground have balanced each other out, along with art and music. As ways of strategizing about one’s career, in the music industry there’s hardly any money to be made and no promised land to be found. The true rockstar has passed away, whereas the idea of the artist still comes with the myth of a visionary persona; the figure of the genius hasn’t been wiped out of people’s brains. The artist is the new glam and with it comes a promised lifestyle on the horizon of self-realization.
In 2017 art programs are still booming and the model of the art school proceeds to remake itself into a corporate entity, fabricating artistic individuals that are trained in marketing and navigating the area of cultural production. At the same time, programs on curation are growing with the academic institutions. With these programs coming into play in the ’90s, a time during which practices were focused on self-organized critical knowledge investigations, nowadays the same factory is producing and, at the same time, standardizing these practices of learning and dealing with the new global art world and cultural weight.
As a consequence, it often feels everyone is digging and picking in the same pot—trying to find new narratives for the purpose of making them profitable for one’s own professional path in order to capitalize on them. Knowledge and information are used in a very selective (curated?) way: You better think twice about what you tell and share with your peers. The new currency is information. Of course, these dispositions are understandable… Everyone wants to make a living, and wishes to make an impact, participate in what is perceived as meaningful and find one’s purpose. Suitably linking your own activities to former history is a useful strategy as it grounds your practice, to further connect and immerse it within already established strands of culture. I don’t necessarily want to criticize this since on a basic level these strategies can definitely create interesting connections and insights. Nevertheless, I feel the need to comment on the fetishization of historical material and aesthetics. The vitrine can be seen as the metaphorical form in exhibition making, securing and mythologizing physical material—exposing but protecting it at the same time—while building a shield of historical gravity to create notability. Here, I have to ask myself what the true purpose of historical material can be. Tradition can be its own hot trend; repeating the canon is accommodating to audiences with an easy access and understanding of what can be uttered in the field of art. However, beyond the fact checking of the mandarin (or connoisseur), I often witness that historical material is used for the purpose of adding weight rather than connecting it in a productive way. This process of empty quotation can easily feel like a standardization that becomes the equivalent of a cemetery. So, why keep adding more cultural weight when we could probably use some weight loss? These forces promote a flatness in cultural production that is not unlike conservative opinions, given that it won’t allow the freaks to be freaks anymore. But aren’t the freaks from the past the very same people that we idolize today! So, why do we seem to be afraid of the contemporary? The current state of the arts and their market doesn’t make it easier. Former and especially not yet established models are struggling. Instability and insecurity prevents risk taking. In times of general instability, we seem to strive to secure our values, morally and fluidly. This is also reflected in systems operating in the arts and the cultural field. It seems like it’s only allowed to get it right, and that there’s no space for failure anymore. With that said, who’s deciding what’s right and what’s wrong besides the market’s power players and its financial streams? The market used to follow after cultural production, not the other way round.
At this point, I want to argue in favor of making ourselves vulnerable again, exposing that insecurity. Trial and error can be a very productive model for replacing a tiring operating system that just follows some blank patterns. History can be activated and this calls for defining curating more as a statement of making than just selecting. Curation can be meaningful and helpful to navigate through the cultural jungle—if it’s done well. But all described misleading tendencies are diluting the idea of what curation can and should be about. Curation is rarely seen as a statement anymore: especially thinking of group exhibitions which draw parallels between different bodies of work that have been previously neglected. But why this fear of risk-taking? Is there too much at stake? Engaging with one artist’s body of work is an important form of involvement, but, in current cultural programming, I’m missing bolder curatorial propositions. These approaches especially can fuel discussions and push things forward. It feels like arguments are only taking place behind the curtain, because, in 2017, you can be called out at any second and you’re not allowed to fail anymore. Every step is wisely set and well elaborated just to be politically correct. In short, it appears to me that we are almost too scared to say anything, hence we choose to say nothing. But if we take a look at a (curatorial) statement, it’s heavy with the weight of cultural history—this is the absolute knockout!
It might be helpful to remember the idea of speculative time as proposed by Avanessian. Referring to passed moments can be helpful to set the context and background of the situation. It is important to keep in mind and understand where things came from. I don’t want to postulate that we should get rid of the Historical. But maybe we can think about the use of historical / referential material, which could be more interesting from a different point of view. This means to actively work with it rather than shield it. So why not approach the history of our western civilization from a playful and ironic angle? It feels important to me to argue for a productive use of history rather than a fetishizing one. We shouldn’t be afraid of the contemporary, as it’s the only way to be part of the tomorrow, especially since capitalistic mechanisms are already beyond—we cannot stay behind! This is an investment everyone should be encouraged to take part in. If we don’t support the contemporary now, we won’t have a Yesterday or Tomorrow. Make your own life—again! 2.0
Avanessian, Armen: Miamification, Merve: Berlin, 2017.