When Art Mirrors Marx

By Karina Zavidova 

“When Art Mirrors Marx” reflected on the subject of money as a social technology and presented the array of tools, techniques and methodologies, designed to transform classic philosophical thought into applied practice. It was moderated by Stephanie Rothenberg, who highlighted the abundance of economy-related artistic projects and asked the participants and the audience to reflect on this phenomena by posing a question of the effectiveness of an artistic practice in dealing with economic problems. During this panel, five speakers from the art field presented their work, visions and strategies.

Stephanie’s introduction was followed by a talk by Steyn Bergs, who is an art critic and researcher.

MoneyLab #3 Failing BetterTitled “Imagination and Intervention: The Double Legacy of Marx in Art”, Bergs explored the appeal and the disadvantages of the ideology in connection with artistic practice. Despite the fact that marxism has been used to fuel such a catastrophe of humanity as the Gulag, the ideas of Marx are still widely circulated. Bergs argued that the text of Marx is so appealing in the 21st century, because he still presents the most radical critique of commodity fetishism and the capitalist mode of production. Bergs is interested in the categorical and the pragmatic sides of Marx reinforcing each other and refers to Robert Kurz’s analysis of ‘esoteric and exoteric’ Marx. As an example of the practical use of Marx thought in contemporary art, Bergs presented a project by Adelita Husni-Bey, called “White paper: The Law”, realised in 2015.

In this collaborative project Husni-Bey uses the legislative text to criticize the commodification of living space.

In this location-based project the artist brought together squatters and legal professionals to write the new law on the housing and property rights in Europe.The artistic method, used in this project, is demonstrative of applied Marx theory in artistic practice. The outcome is a text, which is both an artwork and a device for social and political change – the purpose of such projects is to not only to appeal to the creative imagination, but to facilitate new practices and tactics to arise.

The second project, presented, was “Das Kapital – Distillation” by Dan Mihaltianu. Mihaltianu is an artist, concerned with the social, political and transcultural sides of phenomena.

For over thirty years, Mihaltianu has worked with distillations, using the technique as a metaphor. Currently he is working on the subject of liquid economy – production, consumption and alienation in art. During MoneyLab #3 Mihaltianu distilled pages from Das Kapital, approaching the chemical process as a performed process, where the public was invited to take part and to digest the pages of the book. In his talk, the artist explained the process of distillation and played some video documentation of previous distillations.

The video showed one of the performances, where the artist invites visitors to chew on pages of Das Kapital and to have a shot of vodka. A visitor spits out pages of the book, mixed with alcohol and saliva, so Mihaltianu can start the distillation process. After the video finished playing, Mihaltianu spoke about the relationship between the medium and the content and concluded, that he wanted to focus on people, digesting the message, not on the medium.

MoneyLab #3 Failing Better

The next project was a “Transition to Perpetual Parade” by Tori Abernathy. She began her talk by introducing herself as an activist, artist and human being, excited to collaboratively create images of the future and to implement them. She illustrated the introduction with the footage of her house being demolished in 2011, which provided the motivation to initiate the TPP project. Abernathy believes that a mobile collective group of people can embody the spiritual binding of a physical space / location and this idea manifests into a public parade. Artists, who used to live in the demolished buildings, formed a resistance and in order to deal with the situation, she organized events, where people could talk on the impact of housing crisis with local residents. Furthermore, she started to use these gatherings to collectively visualize the perfect housing. Opposing the camping ban, they were marching the streets, setting tents and handing out blankets, also making sure that camps remained secure.

In order to expand the network Abernathy introduced workshops to the project so that anyone could contribute to the direction and imagination of the collective project. During these workshops people gather to draft the perfect housing, and to collectively design the strategy for the distribution of resources, such as gas or oil. She is currently busy with doing such so-called “retreats”, where people reside in the woods, build shelters and have workshops on sustainable living.

Next speaker, Jeroen van Loon, presented his work “Cellout.me” in which Van Loon auctioned his entire DNA sequence data online and sold it to the highest bidder.  Van Loon began Cellout.me with an  interest in the value of big data, and the novelty of this concept in the artistic practice. He spoke about the shift, which happened, when the unique containers (such as tape and film) became obsolete, and information begun to be stored as code.

Transitioning from the container to code raises copyright issues, which is a particularly interesting topic when it comes to storing a human DNA genome in computer code. The tricky part of digitizing personal information is the possibility of giving someone else the power to copy and paste it. Also, the interesting aspect of selling a DNA is that this information is not purely personal, since it is shared with all the person’s relatives, which makes the issue of selling it more problematic.

Van Loon presented his work, which is his complete DNA sequence, as a most contemporary form of a self-portrait an artist can make. Van Loon explained the process of sequencing and noted that the quality of his data was superior – in order to the get the most accuracy, it has been sequenced 30 times. When the data has been transferred from the medical center to his private server, the artist started a no-contract, no-reserve auction.

This project asks fundamental questions about data, identity and property. One of the most remarkable parts of it is the evaluation of the artwork by experts from different fields, such as medicine, art and cyber security and is available on the project website. Currently the the artwork is on display at Verbeke foundation, who had the highest bid by the time the auction was over and is currently the owner of van Loon’s data.

The last speaker of the panel was Anne Breure with the topic  “Ethics in Aesthetics: Towards a Fair Practice in the Arts Sector”.

Breure is an artistic director of Veem House for Performance and a part of Transitiebureu – an initiative which focuses on facilitating the transition to the fair practice in the arts sector. Fair practice means assigning a great value to transparency, solidarity, diversity and sustainability within the institution. It also means that the institution is concerned about the circumstances of production. The goal of the initiative is to make these issues public, and also to develop a strategy which won’t cover up the lack of budget but will make the practice sustainable. Giving a fair practice label could be a way to facilitate the cultural governance. Practicing what the institution preaches, in that sense, means combining the left-ish values of solidarity with the values of the market, which is a very difficult task. What would be a fair practice strategy for an institution, which has received less funding but still needed to pay the workers? Some institutions may solve the problem by producing less.

Breure faced this problem herself, when her theatre received cuts to their funding. Instead of closing or letting go members of staff they decided to operate for only 100 days a year, rather than a full year. Such a decision helped to sustain the Transititebureu with a fair practice label and offered organisations struggling under austerity politics alternative ways to finance their institutions.