An essay about public art, capitalism and affective responsibility.
Every artist wants to be felt and responded to through our work; to have the affects we create land in others and make some impact. This is extremely human. As sensing beings, perceiving our capacity to affect and be affected is interwoven with a sense of our innate capacity to influence our circumstances. Sending affects out into the world is a way of exercising power. But for artists, working with affect is an essential, intentional craft.
Performance artists choose the bodymind as their main affective transmitter. In this case, affect is conjured through presence in certain nervous system states. Artfully utilising gaze, vocal prosody and deliberate gesture, they practise in legacies of community members in cultures across the globe who wield affective capacities: shamans, healers, witches, preachers, rockstars, drag queens, strippers and hypnotic public orators of many kinds.
Historically, embodied affect has also been deployed interwoven with dramatic lighting, glamorous costume, and delivered in tandem with cultural signs and symbols in narrative context. It was also transmitted through venues that awed with their grand splendour, scale and cultural significance: the velvet and gold theatre, the ornate cathedral, the floodlit stadium, the sparkling night club, the natural amphitheatre nestled in the rock formation and soaked in the sounds of waterfalls. These venues conjured an altered state, a sense of the more-than-human (God, spirit, mystical, universal, creative, libidinal energies) which could be channelled by a skilled performance-maker. All of this amplifies the meaning that the performer delivers. It does so with affects that communicate, “Look at me. Look at what I’m saying. Notice me take up this space. I’m important. Pay attention. Come closer, or stand back; take it all in”. In these ways, affects can lower one’s boundaries and open up new subjective possibilities, as meanings are absorbed without the guardrails of our habitual protections.
Affects carry power. As sensing beings, our bodyminds value and are drawn to things that transmit certain affects, and implicitly assign importance to them. However, not everybody wields such power responsibly. Nato Thompson has described the theatrical and occult choreography of Nazi rallies, which grew exponentially with the party. “An Aryan nation-style rock opera on par with Woodstock, the Olympics and an Iron Maiden concert”, they utilised antiaircraft searchlights to produce what they called the “cathedral of light”, which would shoot 130 spotlights directly into the sky at the penultimate moment of oration. (1) It was a spell, which imbued the orator with implicit power through the senses, and would have felt wondrous to the receiver. But, they were just lights; no inherent meaning. Lights have no actual bearing on how powerful somebody is, nor how true or necessary or mystical their message is. Taken alone, they indicate someone’s affective conjuring skills, and access to the capital or resources to pull off the event. Unfortunately, however, affects don’t morally discern what they lend their power to: here, they were wielded to imbue propaganda with a sense of spiritual legitimacy.
Similarly, the predatory guru can hype a potential follower into a cataclysmic release through affects carried in rhythm, vibrational sound, incense, chanting, breathing, body postures, hugs and eye contact. All the while they declare: “see that sensation? That is not just a nervous system state. That is an experience of the divine. That is evidence of the power I have. That is because I know you, I know what you need, because I have access to planes of knowledge you can’t yet comprehend.” It feels to the receiver like love, benevolence, truth, transcendence. It is a trust-and-authority conjuring spell which opens up the follower to exploitation.
Affects have a strange and fraught relationship with their contexts. Affects are an intensity, and we seem to implicitly equate intensity with things like truth, authenticity, urgency, love or simply that liminal zone of something important is happening and something is about to change. This is a useful tool if you actually do want something to change for the better- it carries the potential for the affect to translate into action. Like the audience believing what you say to a greater extent, with a greater sense of urgency and importance, and thus following through on your pleas to take up the cause. Some of our most profound and important experiences also occur when the affects match up with their context: the love is genuinely returned, a spiritual experience is changing your outlook, somebody is speaking an urgent truth to power which hasn’t paid attention until the right affect could penetrate. Affects are a tool, but no tool is automatically innocent.
As my last event before Brisbane’s first Covid lockdown in 2020, I attended a day-long workshop with Emma Maye Gibson/Betty Grumble. Our obscene beauty queen who glamours the queer scene with tantric absurdities led us through a day of affective theatre practices. These included maintaining eye contact whilst slowly mirroring another’s movements, accessing automatic pre-conscious response to shouted stimulus and actions of our co-performers, the opportunity to run as fast as you can to the point of danger, taking a turn to stand in a circle of the other members to experience “seeing and being seen” before delivering a line of dialogue with gravity. At the conclusion, my affect receivers were activated and wide open. Beaming, buzzing, connected, spongy, extroverted and excited about encounters with the other, I could feel a thick potential for all manner of things to happen; for my ability to transform and respond as a situation might demand. I was altered. But, I remember the end of the workshop potently. She said, “we have done a lot of very powerful opening practice today, so it is very important that we zip up our energy portals before we go back outside.” An acknowledgement that being open is a space of potential transformation and of vulnerability. That not all transformation is necessarily positive, that not every scenario has your wellbeing in mind. It was a gesture of affective responsibility I had not encountered before and have not encountered since.
The affective, immersive experience has also appeared and grown as an aesthetic category in contemporary art. An exhibition model which draws perpetual crowds, it is a place where experiments in pure affect can be maximally distilled. A legacy of modernism’s arc of increasing abstraction and non-figurative exploration of singular mediums. In these artworks, there has been a progressive intensification of affect over the representational, with all of the orienting signifiers representational art historically contained. Couched in the ideology of artistic autonomy, artists are increasingly creating a “release of autonomous affects that are inseparable from [their] direct action on the nervous system”. (2) This was broadly celebrated in Modernism as an accomplishment, a kind of objectivity, the pursuit of aesthetic facts “liberated” from their dependence on context. However, Gilles Deleuze has famously described this as constituting a kind of violence: unmediated affect invading the body without meaning-making orientation to soften the blow.
A number of theorists are also coming to recognise that the quality of everyday existence has been affectively eroded as part of capitalism’s method, where the disruption of community means the fundamental, erotic pleasures of collectivity and belonging are ever-less available. Described by Berardi as the “loss of eros in everyday life”, (3) the semiotic environment becomes flattened, abstracted, simulated, pornographied. We invest further in work and consumption, where erotic qualities are perpetually promised but rarely experienced in fullness. All of this further entrenches an embodied sense of precarity and unsettledness that lacks any traceable source, but is the effect of a nervous system treated as a resource for extraction.
Josephine Berry thus aligns this artistic trend of distilled affect with a “generic strategy” of contemporary capitalism. (4) She remarks how, especially in public art commissioning, affect is coming to eclipse signifiers altogether. In Meanjin, this is expressed in how we’ve clad our state-run gallery in a light installation by James Turrell. Unveiled to excited media, Night Life (2018) renders the outside of the gallery in flat, shifting gradients of pure colour at grand scale. It complements another trend in our city: that of cladding buildings such as the casino in garish coloured spotlights, and placing neon purple cubes beneath the iron lion sculptures in the city square. Many of the public describe the Turrell work as stunning and awesome. However, I recognise in it Bernstein’s phrase (borrowed by Berry) that it is ‘bordering on the ghostly’; excised from it “the orientational significance of the sensory encounter, sensory experience as constitutive of conviction and connection to the world”. (5) In its size, hypnotic overwhelm and placement in public space I am forced into an encounter. How do I respond? Do I submit or numb?
Amongst the alternative crowds, this garishness is acknowledged as part of Brisbane’s dag. In your face, overdoing everything, no space for nuance, trying very hard to be contemporary but always just missing the mark. If it wasn’t for the sheer scale, the sheen of perfection, and the placement of the Turrell directly on the Gallery of Modern Art, one might not realise that one is by a world-renowned contemporary artist and others by local designers contracted by the casino or Council. Such works, along with light festivals such as Vivid Sydney, are innovating and propelling the trend of installing glaring, colourful affects in the city centre. In doing so, key aesthetic ‘hooks’ traditionally utilised by the carnival, the theme park, the trade fair, the festival, the mall and the casino make their way into our cultural precincts. They drive “a profound theatricalisation of space”, investing in it “oneiric, otherworldly qualities”. (6) Perfectly situated for extra amplification by the powerful affects of our “iconic” Brisbane river, they are a sensuous glamour which beckon us, and function to render the city strange. A slight dislocated, disoriented vibe in which we are more affectively vulnerable. As the carnivals and casinos understand, this is a fabulous strategy for creating a liminality that draws people to your space, and has them consume during their stay. In an altered state, people will stay longer and, crucially, spend more money. Thus, “the mortification of sensuous life finds its complement by commodification of the sensuous by the culture industry”. (7) It makes me wonder - were the commissioners who named Night Life nodding to commercialism intentionally?
The convenience of the strategy is also not lost on me. How artists and curators of profile along with urban planners and political decision makers have found a way to maximise aesthetic impact. All the while they circumvent the inherent risk and responsibility of commissioning something capable of initiating any kind of public discord, controversy or discussion in the community they serve and represent. In doing so, they have commissioned something generic, devoid of meaning and in no way relational or emplaced. These artworks, in themselves, mean nothing.
However, context remains, despite the efforts of artistic autonomy to deny it. What meanings arise when this work isn’t even pseudo-isolated in a gallery space, but situated in the commons of our cultural precinct? Whose power is the affect amplifying? I think it’s the economic power of the contemporary metropolis. I realise now that the practice of installing large-scale, abstract public works of pure affect by world-renowned contemporary artists is not intended as a public benevolence. Nor are they simply a profitable tourism draw. They are an affective flex: an aesthetic communication saying “look at our city in all its glamour, globalism and cultural contemporaneity… invest in us”. At risk of dramatics, I can’t un-see the work as a symbol of exploitation.
The negotiation of consent to being affectively shocked, awed and overwhelmed is complicated. We love and are drawn to affective experiences of all kinds, and willingly submit ourselves to them whenever we attend a rave or a horror film. Sometimes, genuinely positive transformation occurs as a result of our willing vulnerability to be affected. Vulnerability is a necessary condition for empathy, sensitivity and change. Affects also don’t need to be solely “positive” or comfortable to support collective wellbeing and justice. Occasionally, being affectively jolted can be productive and necessary for exposing a violation or hypocrisy. Being exposed to challenging things and pushed a little past our limits can also assist us to define our boundaries and ethics with more nuance. As Claire Bishop describes, the notion that no artist should insert themselves into another’s experience for fear of paternalism is generally too moralistic and lacks pragmatism. (8) This is a big part of what artists do, especially when working in the commons; an important democratic freedom.
Thus, I don’t suggest that things which push strongly to affect-driven response should not exist. Affects are inescapable. My friend Mary, a Buddhist psychotherapist, reminds me that we can’t control how our environments affect our nervous system, but we do have some power to have some awareness and some mindfulness about our internal reactions to them. This isn’t insignificant; it matters. There’s some freedom available to us here (as she tells me, in Buddhist psychology, the only true freedom). I find some comfort in this way of thinking. I also think that some kind of ‘affective literacy’ informed by such principles might help us to resist affective exploitation in the semiotic environment.
Nevertheless, I can’t ignore how affective disorientation, disruption and overwhelm is also increasingly deployed as a tool for profit. As our bodyminds become commodified and artistic methods are appropriated by the system, I wish for artists to take this context into account. Berry explains that, in these kinds of affective intensities, “we are unavoidably drawn into a network of “violent” sensations which trigger our reciprocity, whether we like it or not … [where] the viewer is physically activated, made susceptible and by extension responsible”. (9) We are already responsiblised at the point of impact and here is the injustice. We are forced into a constant flow of implicit little labours as we self-manage and self-regulate our internal experience while exposed to increasing environmental intensities.
Affective responsibilisation is everywhere, though oftentimes denied and disguised. I notice how the rationale for Turrell’s Night Life states that the artist “invites us into a realm of deep perception, asking us to question how our senses respond to light”. (10) I return with the question - installed in the commons, where, precisely, is the invitation and how much of your audience is practising mindfulness in response? Is it not more an insertion? How would I turn down this invitation? I’d like to ask for more. In an economic environment with autonomous affects constantly skimming energy off commodified nervous systems, I want public art that grounds my frazzled and whiplashed subjectivity with meaning, orientation and care. I want public art that takes responsibility.
(1) Thompson, N. (2017). Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life. Melville House Publishing. p. 49
(2) Berry, J. (2019). Art and (Bare) Life: A Biopolitical Inquiry. Sternberg Press. p. 90, quoting Gilles Deleuze’s description of a Francis Bacon painting.
(3) Berardi, F. “Bifo.” (2009). The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (F. Cadel & G. Mecchia, Trans.). Semiotext(e). p. 80
(4) Berry, J. (2019). p. 91
(5) Ibid. p. 115
(6) Edensor, T. (2017). Festivals of Illumination: Painting and Playing with Light. In From Light to Dark: Daylight, Illumination, and Gloom (pp. 109–138). p. 110
(7) Berry, J. (2019). p. 92-93
(8) Bishop, C. (2012). Artificial hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship. London : Verso, 2012. p. 238
(9) Berry, J. (2019). p. 133
(10) Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, 2018, emphasis my own
Image: Natasha Hearth, Source: QAGOMA Blog
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