Notes from the Superstructure
By Power Ekroth
"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Lewis Caroll, Through the Looking-Glass
Art is rather peculiar. While art can be commodified, made into a spectacle, and has the ability to enhance the status of a proud owner of a particular piece – not only because it holds an economical value, but because it is embedded in a more difficult to define, “artistic value” – it can also mean the opposite of all this. It can be a condensation of ideas about accumulating thoughts, phantasms, dreams and alternate ways of life – hence the ultimate resistance to a consumerist society. It can be a beholder of an air of mysterious enigma and promises of future ideas and revolutions. Also, it can be the evidence of an owner's “bad taste”. Art is not only peculiar this way; it embraces these paradoxes.
Art functions both within the “base” and the “superstructure”. While lending the terminology from Engels and Marx which was originally used to describe the structure of human society, it is used here simply to visualize a structure; not the ideology. Everyday life where all transactions between people happens within the “base” where the forces and relations of production such as the division of labour and property exists. These are the relations into which people engage to produce the necessities of life. Then there is the “superstructure” which can be described as whatever else we need to make the base function: the laws, the economic structure, the ideology and the history of the society – how one regards oneself within the society is intertwined in here. The relation between the base and the superstructure is dialectic. If there are large changes within the base this needs to be reflected within the superstructure, and also (more uncommon) vice-verse. Take for instance the Internet, which belongs within the base. Because of this new invention, we now need to re-evaluate “copyright” and other laws within the superstructure that have become outdated. If very large changes happen within the base, it might lead to a revolution that will overthrow the whole superstructure and replace it with a new one.
The Queen lowered her voice and said in the most delicate manner “Now, do close your eyes and imagine that you are someone else, someone with a great deal of power and can decide upon all the rules and laws of the world” and then she cleared her voice and continued “Well, try not to imagine that you are me now, that would be too easy, instead imagine that you are not aware about what type of person you are at all”. Alice had already started to imagine herself in the beautiful white dress the Queen wore and wearing all her glistering jewelries, but halted immediately and asked “Why, what do you mean, I don't know who I am?” The Queen answered “Well, if you have a great deal of power and are about to decide over other people's lives it would simply not be fair to already know if you are red, white, black or yellow, if you have toes or eyes or not, or if you are a horse, man, mouse or cat. Imagine that if you knew you were a cat you would certainly make all the fishermen and all the cows work for only cats and not provide for the King's banquet at all, but were you a cow on the other hand, you might rule so that the cows did not give away their milk to any others than their calves, and that would not be fair to the King who can't sleep if he doesn't get his evening milk, now would it?” Alice halted the Queen with her hand in the air and said “Oh, I understand, I must be fair to everyone and not only to little girls with golden hair, I think I can do that.”
Art within the base is connected to the economy and used as a tool to trade, to invest; as a spectacle to lure people to buy something either to imitate a certain lifestyle, or simply as a means to decorate a home in a feel-good manner (and thus, make the owner belong to a certain class). This is a very easy-going approach towards art and life, at least in the western world. The superstructure naturally colors everything in our reality, our base, our lives, since it is here that we find ideology, history, economical system(s), ideas, humanitarian ethical laws, and hence also our ideas, ideas for the future, ideas for how we want the future (in the base) to look like or simply just a reflection on the state of things. This part is naturally more complicated.
If art plays the role of the only meta-structure of reality that we have, it seems more interesting to engage in the part of art that belongs within the superstructure than in the base; namely, the realm of ideas. From this point of view, art is nothing but philosophy come flesh. Art by itself does not create social change, and it is not in itself “useful” at all. It cannot be used and utilized without losing some of its own gravity or allure. One does not necessarily feel better after seeing an exhibition or watching a film, on the contrary. It is however easier to get engaged and involved if one has the insight, rather than if one is content, indifferent or simply unaware. A viewer may have changed the station, or mindset, when leaving the exhibition, theatre, or putting down the book. This, in spite or even because of being presented with a deeply problematic and politically charged setting. Admittingly, the white cube of a gallery, an institution like the museum or the biennial are by no means neutral grounds.
On the other hand, when art that does not leave space enough for different interpretations, it can be reduced to be only one opinion – or worse, to become propaganda – which leaves it flat and quite uninteresting. And the art that does not say anything at all, that has been reduced to some sort of recreational decorative pastime, says more about the society it was conceived in than anything else. This is absolutely not evident for a lot of the politicians in Europe today and elsewhere who keep cutting in cultural budgets and policies on the grounds that public means should not pay for something that would not be sold on a market anyway. Politics today generally seems to be much more about limits, borders, mortgage rates or about shutting things out rather than solidarity, ideology or caring about building a society of justice for all of its inhabitants. Cultural policies are generally either basically non-existing or about simply pushing the already “approved” and streamlined which will be able to survive within a society of commodities respectively a society of the spectacle. There is less and less space in today's cultural budgets for groundbreaking and experimental arts which might affect its own times or future generations. This unfortunate situation is gravely tainted by the in general neo-liberal times we live in, where even the “social democrates” and the environmental parties of the Nordic countries are pushing neo-liberal policies in the open.
The Queen asked “Now, tell me, how does it feel to be in command?” Alice replied with a whisper “Oh, it is very uncomfortable, I really don't know how to be fair and helpful towards everyone” The Queen impatiently said “I know it is not easy, there are always someone wearing a nicer gown than I, very unfair indeed.” Alice didn't think so much about gowns as she still was wondering how she could help the smallest children without a father or a mother in the world, afterall, she couldn't help think that since she didn't know who she were in this brave new world where she was the sole ruler; she might as well be an orphan herself and would need help. And she must also not forget that she might not be so smart or fast or strong as she felt she was at this very moment, because the Queen herself had told her that she must imagine herself as anyone in the world. Alice was perplexed. The Queen was starting to think of breakfast and was getting a little impatient by the long silence from Alice, so she asked “Now, what would be your very first thing to do?” Alice responded slowly, as if she was falling asleep “First everyone must have the same rights of course, then... then there must be equality among all, no-one must be left alone without anything...” As if suddenly awakened by a cuckoo clock, the last sentence came out rapid “And I definitely decide that those that has the worst must get it better before the one's that has it better gets it even better!”
Within the system of art, we see these new policies being issued by creating some normalizing systems, for instance the so-called Bologna-process for art students in Europe, or dismantling others, such as state stipends for artists. These policies encourage everyone that can walk and talk (in any trade of work) to produce and never to stop. Actually, the neo-liberal project forces us to produce 24-7 by simply engaging in the simplest tasks during our daily journey. In some parts of the world it is by being tied up to a sewing machine, and in others it happens when we start up our computer and log in to our mail accounts, or search for an image using one or the other search machines – all connected to different corporations to which we provide invaluable user statistics. It is highly difficult in these settings not to produce and thereby become undesirable in the marketplace. We are now driven not only by our libido or desire to consume, but also by the new normal: to be the production machines. This also includes how we produce and re-produce new knowledge and research to a “market” – and so-called “discourse” at a constantly increasing rate, to be consumed at the same heightened rate. The art world is naturally also completely embedded in this system, where what could/would have, made a critical statement is now engulfed within the system as soon as it is uttered – or produced. This leads to the daunting conclusion that the ultimate resistance today would be simply to stop acting or producing.
With the dualistic approach of base versus superstructure, the art fair for instance, belongs to the base, and the biennial would, at least in theory, belong to the superstructure as it is much less dependent on the economy and relations of trade (in the best-case scenario). The biennial has perhaps less funding to realize new works, and most often other interests connected to it – such as being a reason for tourism etc. but it has still a possibility to use the little window as a form of impact. Moreover, there are efforts. The seventh Berlin Biennial named Forget Fear curated by artist Artur Zmijewski and Joanna Warsza, for instance, made an interesting attempt to use the biennial format and the curatorial space for politics and for resistance, to use the biennial as a strategy for political change. One of the strategies in the biennial was to give a lot of space to the Occupy-movements. There was not much art in the traditional sense in the biennial, as they also explicitly encouraged every artist to give up their studio and “stop making art in these depressing neo-liberal times” and to go out on the streets to demonstrate and start a revolution from within the base. Art does not itself act or work – only people can act or work.
However, as inspiring it may sound with a revolution or a new system, there seems to be a systematic error in this argument. Especially considering the neo-liberal society's ability to incorporate anything that might look like resistance into its system. Much like when an artist working with institutional critique is invited to exhibit at an institution and the result is that the institution itself disarm and invalidate the critique. This situation demands very different methods that instead suggest that now would be the most important time for artists to make more art than ever. The more art, the more thoughts of the “impossible” and the more opportunities for alternative, creative and interesting ideas. Only in thought might new structures be imagined to which we may, or may not, change into. Thankfully, there is nothing that prevents people from both creating art and marching the streets or opposing the oppressive system.
“But what do you mean exactly?” asked the Queen with a demanding, almost shrieking voice “Do you dare to say that any riffraff off the street, well, like the mad hatter for instance, should be my equal!? Watch it young girl, you don't want to imagine too much or you will lose your mind! Or loose your head for that matter!” Alice understood she might have tripped on thin ice with the imaginative Queen, and that some of Alice's new-found imaginative power might disappoint a lot of people so she decided instead to tell the Queen about the next step in her vision “The most important thing is of course that everyone should be free and be able to use their minds for good, and if everyone is equal we can divide all the prosperity and common properties in a manner that are fair to who they are. The mad hatter would for instance most likely make more beautiful hats for you if he were to eat everyday, right?” The Queen who now, at least temporarily, forgot she was hungry herself started to imagine how good she would look like in a hat made out of stardust and moon-crust for several minutes. Alice was by now so excited about all the impossible thoughts that came to her mind faster and faster and she fell deeper and deeper into thought, so she didn't even notice when the Queen finally left her to find some old pizza in the fridge to eat. Alice continued thinking out loud “I think that my next law would be to decide that everybody has to stop with what they were doing and just think about why they are doing and for whom they are doing it for, and when they have given this a long hard think, they should start again, and do things better – for everyone and not only just for themselves. And then they should stop buying new things just to buy new things, instead they should wait until the old thing breaks before getting new things, and...” Alice stopped and remembered that the Queen perhaps didn't like this thought of not buying new hats all the time, but as she didn't hear the Queen's protest (she was having another slice), Alice continued her thinking with fervor.
Perhaps it is overly romantic to insist that art is of great importance to our society. But having the chance, it would be interesting to imagine the possibility to slow the wheel down a tad, to concentrate on the art and the artists and their ideas instead of demanding the next new thing, whether it be the new discourse, art or mobile phone. Some ideas and works proposed in the seventh Momentum might indeed be impossible, others problematic, others obscure or perhaps even idiotic. Some work might not suggest ideas at all; instead it invites the spectator to imagine something else than the usual for a while. The realm of art is a superb place in which to imagine the impossible. The biennial can be a space for the impossible to be shown to a wider audience, and it may represent a looking-glass into another world; deformed or deranged, a place where mystery and allure can be found, where one can lose oneself for a moment and exit with some new food for thought. The call to try to think of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast every day is most likely one of the most important activities one can engage in, something that may fuse resistance, innovation and perhaps even: change.
The Queen came back with a slice in her hand, saying to herself “Yes, this was yet another impossible thing I hadn't thought of, I have never had pizza for breakfast before! Why I can't imagine, the pizza tasted beautiful!” Alice was still deep in her thoughts and only heard the word “Beautiful” and thought about how beauty is important and that everyone should be able to enjoy it. “Why, we must of course make the entrance to the museums free and encourage the free art to be really free, and the very thought about censorship shall be banned” she said, sticking up her finger in the air. In a slightly better mood after having eaten, the Queen burst out “And free pizza for all” and Alice joyfully joined the Queen and cheerfully shouted “And free pizza for all indeed!”.
Post Scriptum: All text above, except for the initial quote by Lewis Carroll, is written by Power Ekroth who fabricated the dialogue between Alice and the White Queen inspired not only by Carroll, but also by philosopher John Rawls.