What are We to Do With All this Spectacle?

This talk was given at the Fachhochschule Salzburg on 24.11.11 with Subnet for multimedia students.

You can see the video version here: http://vimeo.com/34027299 on Subnet website.

We are at a point in history when consumption, reaction and re-representation happen at such a fast rate, it is often difficult to see where influences come from.  So we are faced with the emblems without the meaning.  This kind of dislocation of signs and symbols from what they signify creates at worst a kind of banal and superficial understanding of our cultural landscape.  Random symbols are put together for the purpose of spectacle, the stranger, the more that we can`t understand them, the better, or at other times, the more flashy and more expensive or glamourous the better.

 This is a condition of a Dystopia society that several books and films have depicted--and I am sure you have many examples of your own--such as Fahrenheit 451, where the novel presents a future American society where reading is outlawed and firemen start to burn books.  I chose this example in particular as the burning of books leads to a perception of knowledge as being composed of dislocated bits of information that have no reference to the context in which they were constructed.
As Cultural practioners here at the FH and when you graduate you have access to some of the most sophisticated tools of production representation presently available in the multi-media industry.  It is possible in the position that you guys are in now to re-create and re-represent material artefacts such as music, film,  books and games that will in turn influence the super-structure--which are the thoughts and concepts about society, social class, political structure, ideologies: legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophical. I would say that is pretty exciting.  However, with power comes great responsibility.
What I want to say before I go on is what Douglas Adams says on the cover of Hitch-hikers guide to the galaxy. Don`t Panic!  Like him, I am saying this because our current situation may seem insanely complicated, but also because I want to remind us all that there is hope.  This is not our final destination.
     So, this is where we are at now-here we are in cultural landscape that is operated by tiny men and women hiding behind an operation of smoke and mirrors of our cultural landscape, just like in the Wizard Of Oz creating illusions and scaring us to hide from ourselves and our collective history.  Arguably what we need is a cultural landscape and education that is able to reveal the “Wings” as Bertolt Brecht used to say.  Which means to lift the illusions and reveal the workings of our history so we can be an informed and critical mass otherwise we will keep going round and round in a kind of feedback loop, never really evolving and building upon what has gone before, only repeating.

I would like to now show you an example of some technology that "could" be just seen and used for spectacle, since they are using expensive equipment and working in the paradigm of a potential spectacle environment.  However, there are major differences which I will elicit.  I want to remind everyone that I chose this example particularly because it is working within the paradigm of  spectacle. We are to explore, what can be done if, we as cultural practitioners are working within this kind of environment or paradigm and what can be done to prevent a slippage into focusing solely on  glamour, superficialities and fetishisation of equipment.

        If you look to what is inside, then the possibilities for youth empowerment are large.  There are plenty of hi-tech spaces out there like this. Mobile or otherwise, they have advanced technology and so instead of rejecting, ignoring or sneering at it, let`s look at what we can do if we are in this kind of environment. 
     Many of us will, being cultural practitioners work with this kind of technology.  I also want to make the point that one of the reasons why I chose this example was because so often in Art Education we are given little hand-held cameras and one microphone between five people and small budgets, and told that art education is something on the side, something extra.
      It is difficult to get access into professional artistic environments and it is seen as only the realm of the professionals.  The "professional" equipment is seen as something that is an off limits to youth and youth do not get a look into this or chance to explore and re-represent the kind of media that is pumped out to them on a daily basis.
     Yet, it is integral, and if we give students the opportunity to work in a professional studio with high end equipment, with the guidance of art educators/mentors/producers, then they may have to the opportunity to have their hands on the equipment of the mainstream and to re-represent what they see in their environment. This would be rather than equipment being in the hands of a few who represent mediocrity or spectacle for them. 
    The technology and equipment is itself is not the actual spectacle, it is neutral and it has the potential to go several ways: In the direction of random symbols that are dislocated and don`t reference back to historical contexts in which the symbols were created within. Or to a pastiche of styles, influences, forms and symbols that DO have a political historical referencing.  This Education Tour Bus has the potential to go in both directions.  I am presenting this to you, to see how, if we are  working within this paradigm, how do we make it more to be about giving the youth a context that is about collectivity, empowerment and revolution, rather than just mindless consumerism or spectacle.
        Here we are presented with a professional music studio that has be reassembled with John Lennon symbols all around and inside it.  This is emphasised with the Peace tower that has been recreated in miniature that is ever present in the bus.  However, what I want to emphasise that is is not John Lennon alone that is the ultimate symbol of love and peace, this would be a false representation and as a couple of people mentioned in the talk, they have seen documentaries where John Lennon was not seen as being peaceful to his partner.  Like with all signs and symbols and this is a major point that should be noted and specifically relevant to this talk-John Lennon does not = Peace and Love.  It is the symbols that reference to a time when it was through the collectivity of the people against repressive social control systems and abusing technology as spectacle that gave way to a revolutionary period expressed through art, music, politics and education.  It is this dynamic that we as cultural producers, educators, practitioners have within our hands to bring to youths awareness.  It is not the focus on John Lennon = peace and love.  This is exactly what I am arguing against-a crude one thing equals another.  More it is that we need to think in terms of the symbols, such as John Lennon, ubiquitous throughout the bus as a historical indexing to a time that where a collective and unity in society was possible and one based on peace and love.   The symbols are emphasised and placed in context with the replica of the Peace Tower that revealed those dynamics and are placed within the bus, so that we can recreate this within the context of today, using technology of the mainstream today.  It was mentioned by people within the audience that this kind of historical context is not clear, perhaps that is up to the role of art educators, music producers cultural practitioners to utilise this historical indexing that is present on the bus and make it evident with the youth that come on board.  This can be done with the actual work that is done with the technology.  Working with the youth to create work themselves that have symbols that if taken from the past are put together in such a way that contain references to the time and meaning in which they were created within.     
             Recollecting is in Walter Benjamin’s terms also re-collecting, gathering together the broken pieces and fragments of a culture, not to forge out of them a new organic whole but create something new that includes the memory of their breaking within it.  The recollecting has to do with a flash of intuition (ein-blitzen), it has to direct us towards a certain moment, the moment where memory-traces become legible. One could almost say that they do not have a certain or concrete shape but are occasional. 
        It is difficult to think dynamically, because we have so often be educated and conditioned to think that one thing= another.  One perspective, a high bourgeois ideal.  However, it is really important to think in terms of how symbols dynamically interact with each other and it is ONLY through that dynamic interaction that meanings are created.  If symbols, such as the John Lennon emblem are recreated in this present context here in the bus, it is needed in the re-assemblage that there be a historically referencing to the time in which the meanings of peace and love were created through the dynamic interaction of many symbols, including, but not exclusive to John Lennon.  Fixing the meaning to just John Lennon is falling into the high bourgeois ideal of just one perspective and one belief in one symbol, icon or ideal.
     There are many that have gone before starting in the Renaissance and still present in today showing one fixed perspective or one fixed truth/viewpoint.  So consumer capitalism is always trying to make us identify with one point, one fixed identity through the fetish of objects, people or technology.  This is exactly what I am arguing against.  Through the combination of symbols this is indexing the cultural memory of a time when the meaning of collectivity and peace gained global mobilisation of which John Lennon was a part not the sole owner of this meaning.  This reassembaleage with historical indexing to that context that the meaning was created, breaks that singular identification and reminds us that it is the meaning of peace and collectivity that we are to recreate in our present context, not the idea of one man holding one meaning like a superstar.  

This kind of singular perspective wasn´t always always so prevalent.  In the medieval triptych there was the the multiple of perspective that disappeared, appearing only sometimes throughout visual history, fully emerging again, with Cubism and photography and not forgetting film from the multiple perspectives, where their relationship is ever dynamic, interconnected and the key thing here, historically influenced by each other.
Of course it is not always necessary to show hundreds of perspectives in one production, because you may need to go into depth viewpoint to to follow a story, but it is essential to show that there are others that could to be considered, so showing the context of the dynamics interacting with each other is important.   
For example you see here with the Breugel "Road to Calvary" painting is actually revealing the superstitious frenzy that is whipped up, giving quite a secular meaning, but if you isolate and just take one part of that, the meaning changes and it could seem like just an average devotional painting.  This ripping of one part of something without showing how that part is historically influenced in context has become common place in society and our cultural landscape.  
    So where did all this illusion and mass individualism come from?  Well yes, you guessed it, let`s take a look back in time.  Let`s go back to the French Revolution.  In 1840`s when there was the Europe Wide economic crisis of 1848.  It was the first clear crisis of unemployed surplus capital and surplus labour existing side by side.
with seemingly no way to put it back together again.  It struck particularly hard in Paris and the result was an abortive revolution on the part of the unemployed and the utopian Bourgeois who saw a social republic as the antidote to the capitalist greed and inequality that prevailed in the 1830`s and 1840`s.  The republican bourgeois violently crushed the revolution but failed to resolve the crisis.  This is when Napoleon Bonaparte who engineered a coup in 1851 and he became EMperor Napoleon in 1852.  This meant that to survive politically he had to find ways to absorb the capital surplus profitably.  Huge rebuilding in Paris went on with Baron Haussman so that workers felt like they were rebuilding something great, as well as authoritarian suppression of the aspirations of the Parisian workers, this became the primary vehicle of social stabilisation.  Paris became the city of Light, center of consumption and pleasure, the fashion industry, the opera and the spectacle of court life.

You may see similarities to today`s Occupy Wall Street protests. There was a great deal of euphoria when it first began that manifested on a global scale with the climax of October 15th with protests all around the world.  However, the story is quite different now as the police have been more repressive than ever in New York and London, smashing up the protest, finally removing the tents from St. Pauls   a policeman who is using pepper spray to peaceful protests in a so called “civilized” society so this is nothing new.  This happened again in 1942 in USA.  Moses then rebuilt the idea of New York not just in terms of the city but the whole surbanisation of the city and the surrounding areas.  In the US it led to an ultimate dependancy on foreign oil sources and perpetual involvements in Middle East politics--the ramifications of which we have seen today in the past twenty years including the Gulf that led to the Iraq War due to oil dependancy.   All this suburbanisation led to the hollowing out of city centers, so that there is little sustainable economic basis where minorities were now locked into the inner cities that had been denied access to both suburbs and new prosperity.  However, the suburbs also were not idyllic either.  The rise of individualism created soul-less everyday life.   At the end of the 1960`s feminists and youth that had been subjected to the discontents of this suburban life were now beginning to rise up in revolt that became the protest movements of 1968, burning down the bank of America and joining forces with other marginalised groups rallying against US imperialism-the Vietnam war.   The US dollar was collapsing under pressure of excessive pressure.  The solution then as it is now and before in 1852 was becoming the problem.  In 1975, New York with it`s sprawling affluent suburbs went broke.  So what was the solution?  The same as it had been in Napoleon's time and again in the 1940`s--A simple recipe: crush the power of labour, initiate wage repression, let the market do the work, while all the while putting the power of the state at the service of capital in general and of investment finance in particular.   This was the solution in 1970`s and lies at the root of the crisis of 2008-9.

So after the 1970`s came massive urbanisation.  Shopping Malls, Pleasure palaces of all kinds, newly minted cultural institutions along with gated communities and golf courses all debt financed in the midst of urban dormitories for labour reserves of people being mobilised from impoverished rural regions.  These huge urbanisation projects continued on such a global scale from New York to China to Dubai.  The spectacular became the main vehicle for mopping up capital surpluses arising from oil wealth in the most ridiculous ways such as an indoor ski slope in a hot environment.

This kind of upgrade in scale of specatular urbanisation, is similar in process to what Haussmann did in the Second empire in Paris.  This remaking of urban geographies entails huge transformations in lifestyle.  What became the main source of urban political economy in the Second Empire in Paris is still a major aspect of today`s political urban economy that has large effects on the culture, arts and education.  The city is a place where consumerism, tourism, niche marketing, cultural and knowledge based industries, as well as perpetual resort to the economy of spectacle, but this time, it is not just in the major cities, it is global.  It`s even in Salzburg!  Mass individualism, brand and consumer power have swept up femininsim, equality, freedom, the contradiction is they have even swept up the very artists who are trying to undermine the system and to use them in their campaigns!

So what can we do about it?
Well, as always, it`s in our hands, I think.  We are at a time when we have access to sophisticated technology to shake up these modes of representation, like I was saying before at the beginning, it is important to use the multiple viewpoints, without falling into spectacle that we have today in our common landscape.
       What I was illustrating with the example of the bus was that by historically indexing with a well known symbol that has represented peace and love-such as John Lennon.  We can look into the dynamics of that time in which it was created-1968 illustrated historically by the peace tower and attempt to recreate it in the present context.  So it is the dynamics of many actors.
   Jimi Hendrix, as you all know was a part of this wave and his music has been revisited by an artist that I went to see this last weekend Lenny Kravitz.   I found myself being reminded of Led Zeplin, Jimi Hendrix and Bill Withers all at the same.  This could be seen as a pastische that are many different ingredients of rock and soul.  What`s interesting is that the components are not only recognisable, but they also offered a similar meaning to the 1960`s love reveloution and also the fight for equal rights in the title Black and White America.  So the emblems have travelled across space and time to reveal the a very similar if not  same meaning in a different context and in a different way of being put together.  Soul came out of expression against repression of black equality.  So by historically indexing with these two musical genres through re-representation, it is possible to recreate the meanings of love and equality and reveal the dynamics that gave way to meanings and modes of expression.  This referencing back to different artists at different times, who were evidently living in similar times and similar dynamics of what we are right now, invites to be aware of the multiple perspectives and interconnectivity going on of people across space and time. 
     In Film last year there was Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen takes us back to 1920`s Paris where the writer meets his heros Hemmigway and Fitzgerald, in the reconstruction of this 1920`s time Allen reveals the dynamics-social, environmental , economical that made it possible for these artists to come together and create meaning such as Surrealism or the lyrical writing such as Hemmigway and Fitzgerald could, so if you try and see the artists as something great, you get in trouble, because it is the dynamics of the time that create the conditions to make them great.   So here in Woody Allen`s intertextual referencing he is also revealing the dynamics that gave birth great art such as surrealism in the first place.  The main character`s love interest is also questions the 1920`s as being the best time and challenges him by suggesting the Belle Epoque, the turn of the century was the best time, which they travel back to and explore. By doing this he revels that the process, or the dynamics, reveals the form, which in turn reveals the outcome.  Which undermines high borgeouis ideal that offers us a fixed perspective of the world from which your ultimate truth emenates.  It undermines the isolated romantic atomised soul that ready to “do business” with others.  So by using devices such as inter-texuality you can break away from spectacle and the high borgeouis repressive ideal.
       Consumer capital is always trying to make us identify with one viewpoint but devices such as inter-texuality and self-reflexivity is way to reveal that you are constructing the meaning.  Take Las Menina by Diego Velasquez 1656, he is playing within the techniques and conventions of Renaissance painting which held the one point perspective as the ultimate truth, however at the same time he undermined it.  As soon as you try and find one fixed point in the painting in which to identify you cannot find it the idea of ultimate reality given by the renaissance one perspective position has been shaken up and instead now the question of “reality”-meaning a singular sense of reality comes into question.  So as cultural workers we can use the conventions and technology that is in the present landscape of the spectacle, consumer society, just in the way that Velasquez did in order to undermine it.  The danger is then that it is not reused, as my early example with Barbara Kruger o advocate the very thing it is trying to undermine.  So, as with everything, when gaining the same tools that were used to reinforce, to undermine, we have to be careful that these are not then turned back on us double-fold. 

      Other devices that cultural workers and artists can use devices such as humour to reveal the repressions  and cultural amnesia of society.  In the 1970`s film Cabaret Sally Bowles and Joel Grey ridicule the glamour of the 1930`s Germany and the rise of fascism that loved elitism, money and power that went with it 
The cabaret originally came from a genre that was part of the burlesque cannon, now today when i say burlesque you may think of Christina Aguilera and her skimpy outfits, but what it actually originally was meant to be was a device for joke and ridicule from the Italian Burla.  However, things have been grossly distorted and you only see a cinderella type story.  Cabaret like Vaudeville used often several styles with absurd descriptions and grouping unrelated acts together. 
          One thing I want to end is what Shakespeare expressed in Henry 4th back in 1598 or the in reaction to the modern day Wiki Leaks fiasco which is please, "Don't shoot the messenger".  I do not intend to bring bad news, but I have intended  in the small time available to available to present a picture of our current cultural climate and how we can influence it, hopefully for the better using devices such as self-reflexivity, pastische, intertextuality humour through cabaret, Burlesque and parody.  I do not ask you to take my viewpoint as ultimate truth, as it is just one position of many, that, like others has been carefully selected and constructed.  I do not claim to hold any answers, just ideas which can be dialectically explored. I ask you to question and delve deeper into the areas that interest you.  I offer you a selection from which you may choose to go further. 
            I couldn`t find the quote, but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor professionals. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations - but if professionals are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution.  Now, in present time, in their/our garrets we have a laptop and broadband connection access to our own cameras, music studios and instruments.  Now is our time to break the cycles by historically indexing and re-representing into the unknown