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by Yan SU

From an Imaginary Interview with Gregory Sholette

This semi-fictionalised interview is drawn from Gregory Sholette’s detailed written response to my interview inquiry sent to him. Due to scheduling restrictions, a real-time one-on-one interview was not possible. The questions in the following text are mostly retrospectively inspired by his informative response (with my edits and his consent), which includes references to some of his published works.

Yan SU (YS): Regarding today's art world and educational system, what are your thoughts on a “territorial” structure of “centre/periphery” in comparison with your “astronomical” structure of dark/light matters? Does occupying one space preclude occupying the other?

Gregory Sholette (GS): I think it is important to clarify a couple of questions about my concepts that you might have misunderstood because my dark matter thesis does not propose a simple opposition between centre and periphery.

In brief, artistic dark matter refers to the marginalised and systematically underdeveloped aggregate of creative productivity that nonetheless reproduces the material and symbolic economy of high art. Think of the way the majority of art school graduates will, ten years or less after graduating, find themselves working as exhibition installers or art fabricators, rather than living off the sales of their own art. That is, if they are still making art at all, since the majority will have ceased painting, sculpting, performing, and so forth. Or similarly, consider the countless artistic collectives and interventionist art practitioners who, over many decades, have added essential energy and ideas to the broader art world discourse and practice. And yet they have done so from the margins of high culture, while only a few of these ever gain recognition within the white citadels of that same world. Instead, most participants in high culture—the sphere of biennials, art fairs, auction houses, top-tier art galleries, and major museums—make up a necessarily redundant economy of artistic labour. Think of this as a residual agency that operates out of sight and from below, somewhere within a surplus archive of artistic hopes, possibilities, failures, and alternative practices. Think of this as the dark matter of the art world.

One of the key questions raised in my book Dark Matter,[1] therefore, is not only what this glut of artistic creativity consists of—after all, artists have regrettably constituted an unregulated, overeducated, and spectacularly over-productive labour force for decades—but instead what function does this seeming surplus play in the production of art world values estimated by some in the billions of dollars in sales. Is it a lightless backdrop to starry careers, a shadowy other realm over which the bright and articulate signal of success and value is superimposed? Or is there much deeper complicity between noise and signal? After all, any complex system in which the majority of practitioners remain undeveloped yet actively engaged in its reproduction must extract some hidden benefit from this so-called excess fecundity? What if, instead of forming a dark periphery, this missing mass suffused the normative art world’s institutions and discourse all the way down, sort of like striations in marble or the metal rebar that reinforces cast concrete?

In other words, my idea of artistic dark matter involves the entwining of both institutional and visible high cultural people and practices, as well as its necessary if unrecognised, though always in plain sight, shadow archive of redundant, surplus practitioners, ideas, projects, etc.

YS: What is the power dynamic between the “dark” and “light” matters in the contemporary art world for you?

GS: The argument I make in my book, as well as in my essays, is a proposition stating that this once marginal ‘dark matter’ force is getting brighter.

Gregory Sholette, Imaginary Archive, Germany. White Box gallery at Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen, 2015.

Imaginary Archive is a ‘traveling, mixed media participatory project’. From 2010 to 2015, Gregory Sholette invited participants from six countriesnand others from around the globe to produce ‘a collection of unknown, under-represented, dreaded and/or hoped-for “historical” materials’ that might ‘record a past whose future never arrived’. (For more information: http://www.gregorysholette.com/?page_id=2910)

Thanks to recent technological, ideological, and economic changes concurrent with neoliberal globalisation, a host of previously disconnected, informal, and non-market producers have begun to materialise, cohere, and sometimes even develop into thicker networks bristling with a self-conscious desire for autonomy. In other words, dark matter is getting brighter. And with this brightening emerges a very different type of creative productivity than that sanctioned by high culture. An ever more accessible technology for manufacturing, documenting, distributing, as well as pilfering, sharing, and fictionalizing information is ending the historical isolation of this shadowy sphere and in the process provoking fundamental challenges not only to orthodox notions of art, but also to established theories of business management, and traditional concepts of social agency. One reason for this turmoil is that dark matter partakes of heterodox methods of organising and collectivisation involving cooperative networks, non-market systems of gift exchange, and forms of collective production that are inherently unsettling to mainstream notions of aesthetic privilege, hierarchical authority, and individual success. Which is to say what I am calling dark matter often partakes of what Georges Bataille described as a “principle of loss,” a pathological economy of expenditure without precise utility.  In many instances, this system of gift-giving serves to level-off differences of power, permitting participation by individuals who would otherwise be marginalised by experts or insiders.

Darker by Gregory Sholette, Station Independent Gallery, 2017
With a nod to Leonard Cohen’s final song, 'You Want It Darker,' as well as to the sorrowful state of democracy in the US and the world, Sholette’s third solo exhibition at Station Independent Projects presented a series of ink, pencil and acrylic wash drawings portraying scenes of recent activist art and direct political resistance. (For more information: http://www.gregorysholette.com/?page_id=3158)

YS: Almost ten years have passed since you published your book Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. Do you see an evolution in your thesis regarding ‘dark matter’? Has it withstood the test of time?

GS: 2010 was the actual publication date of the book, but 2008 was the year I finished writing the book, just as the US and then the whole world economy was coming undone. Preceding the book, I wrote two essays, namely “Heart of Darkness” (2000) and “Dark Matter” (2002). They addressed the same concept and were published as chapters in books.

Much has happened since I first developed the thesis in 2000 and then focused my counter-art historical argument into the 2010 book Dark Matter after publishing several essays on this topic. I completed the book just as the financial crisis took down most of the world’s capitalist economies, but not yet in time to see the explosion of anger erupt on the streets and plazas and parks of so many cities. The Occupy Movement started with the Puerta del Sol in Madrid in 2011, then caught fire across the Middle East, and then lit-up Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park in my native New York City, and so on. But those occupying rebellions by the 99% marginalities and the suddenly jobless and futureless creative class cognitariats have also now sadly entered the surplus archive of a dark matter’s history from below.

Darker by Gregory Sholette, Station Independent Gallery, 2017

Either by coincidence or simply as a result of the same historical urgency that compelled me to write Dark Matter in the first place, an astonishing ripple of protests sped across Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. Those socially disregarded organised these protests by using social media, which soon inspired the movement known as Occupy Wall Street (OWS). But like similar protests in Spain and Greece, this was made up of a very different class of people: young 'creatives' who in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial meltdown realised they had become economically redundant. As these protests and encampments propagated, they dramatically re-imagined political agency in what was now a mostly privatised public sphere. They also animated ideas and discourses that thirty years of highly deregulated capitalism had sought to erase. Labour suddenly returned as a political issue. With the spread of the “We are the 99%” meme, it was often artists, especially those side-lined by the established art world, who emerged as key organisers of OWS chapters focused on working conditions including, in New York, the Art and Labor Working Group, Occupy Museums, and Strike Debt.

YS: If not in a scientific way, “dark” might evoke a somewhat sinister tone. However, I extract mostly positive traits from your description of dark matter in the art world. Is that your intention?

GS: I think this is very important to stress, not all of what I call “dark matter” is positive, progressive or pro-democratic in outlook. In fact, as this so-called “dark matter brightens,” it is reasonable to expect more and more far-Right formations to emerge.

I noted this point as far back as 2000, and then amplified in my 2010 book Dark Matter. For instance, in Chapter Four of the book, I discuss the US Militia Movement, which is a nationalist and often racist para-military endeavour by citizens near the border with Mexico and raises the question of Nietzschean ressentiment.

I just finished a new introduction to a Spanish edition of the book. I addressed this concern by focusing on my experience in Kiev, Ukraine, during the 2014 Euromaidan occupation.

The Ukrainian edition of Imaginary Archive’s participants belonged by and large to the small, liberal-Left intellectual sector. By one artist’s estimate, it consists of between seventy and a hundred people. Passionate though disorganised, seriously outnumbered, their brief presence on Maidan was easily foiled by men wielding clubs. Not surprisingly, many artists turned to the cultural sphere to express their resistance. But culture is hardly the province of progressives.

What is striking about the Ukrainian revolution is the degree to which a previously shadowy sphere of ideological interests rapidly cohered through acts of self-representation thanks to a combination of populist activism, networking technology, and a significantly weakened central state.

Negt and Kluge expressed in their book that, “Throughout history, living labour has, along with the surplus value extracted from it, carried on its own production—within fantasy.”[2] If we sympathise with their “counter-publics” thesis, then the surprised fantasies Euromaidan released were frequently laden with anachronistic and mythopoetic imagery often of a reactionary type.

Of course, the political economy of this imaginary production is never neat and orderly but is instead permeated with hopes as well as resentments. On Maidan, behind improvised plywood shields, men bore pitchforks and makeshift wooden maces. At one point, protestors constructed a Molotov cocktail-launching contraption that resembled a medieval catapult. On another day, babushka flash mobs sang quaint Ukrainian folk songs. Illuminated by pyres of flaming tyres, this brightening slew of unrestrained fantasies, some at least partially real, though all decidedly heroic, flared rapidly into visibility. Maidan’s imaginary archive was unleashed; Ukrainian dark matter was no longer dark. Everywhere one turns, similar acts of virtually militant self-representation are on the rise. On the Left. On the Right. And among an infinite number of spaces between.

YS: Let's move onto the global situation over the past few years. What happened to “dark matter” during these years? I refer to Adam Curtis's 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation—a word borrowed from a Russian historian to describe a feeling of being trapped in the sense of “total fakeness as normal” due to a lacking “alternative vision.”[3] You mentioned earlier that “dark matter is getting brighter.” Both of these ideas, to me, seem to relate to differently imagined realities. But yours suggests a dynamic progression, which is somewhat counter to Curtis's accepting a static normal.

GS: Regarding the uncanny political and cultural actualities of 2018, two years after Brexit and Trump, there are a couple of questions in my mind. Where does this new reality leave dark matter including us barricade builders, museum boycotters, and barricade busters? Where does it leave those of us who construct mock-institutional identities to slip between the interstitial spaces of an omnivorous culture industry, but also those of us attempting to paradoxically support social practice art while preventing it from becoming just another academic field?

Perhaps by refusing to construct our own absolutist mythologies, by keeping all notions of identity in play, we produce a kind of alternative “usership,” to deploy a smart, handy term devised by theorist Stephen Wright. He used the word to describe art that escapes its ontological conditions to seep out unrecognised into the everyday world.[4]

Still, there are always two distinct ways of interpreting the imaginary archive: with solemnity or without.

In one way, some people imagine their collective bodies grounded in a solidly reconstructed and glorious past. The mix of nationalist nostalgia and xenophobia-fuelled ressentiment is on the rise. We see it with the racist, misanthropic rallies and websites of the so-called alt-Right, but also amongst the anti-immigrant, populist Right-wing supporters of Donald Trump in the US, and with the pro-Brexit separatists in the UK.

It is a dangerous sentiment for outmoded notions of manhood and authority found in Golden Dawn in Greece, Five Star in Italy, Svoboda in Ukraine, Law and Justice in Poland, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary, the PSL in Brazil, and the government of President Ivan Duque in Colombia, among other countries, where the promise of neoliberal globalisation has failed much of the population, yet where a Left alternative seems unachievable, or lacks cohesion.

But then there is the other way of imagining collective identity as practised by those who openly and sometimes gleefully explore the ambivalence of identities whether past, present or future, such as Gulf Labor Coalition and Global Ultra Luxury Faction battling the mega-museum expansion of the Guggenheim into the human labour rights disaster zone known as the kingdom of Abu Dhabi, or the DIY superheroes from Spain known as The Reflectors (Los Reflectantes), or Russia’s balaclava-shrouded Pussy Riot, or the Aaron Burr Society in the United States, whose reinterpretation of America’s historic anti-tax Whiskey Rebellion stands opposite the effectively theological fundamentalism of the Tea Party Patriots.

May I suggest that you and your readers not miss the next special issue of FIELD: A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism in which the editors and I patched together over thirty reports from around the world discussing the state of art and politics since the 2016 elections in US and UK in particular. Issue #12 should be online sometime in January 2019: http://field-journal.com/.

YS: In the conclusion of your recent writing concerning the question of whether “a Turing test for activist art in a bare art world” is needed, you answer your question by stating: “There is no wall or barrier concealing anyone's identity. Our test participants are successful machines, just like their evaluator, and activism as a rehearsal of the future has become activism as a rehearsal of the present, in all its preternatural materiality.” Would you describe the current “bare art world” as somewhere that people, including those in the “dark matter,” perform diversely fragmented roles? Would that weaken the vitality of “dark matter”?

Peter Weiss’s book The Aesthetics of Resistance (Volume 1) presented during Gregory Sholette’s Darker exhibition, 2017
* The book was mentioned in the interview

We Are The 1%, Photomontage, by Noel Douglas
‘This image is an imagined demonstration of the 1% political puppets, our political leaders.’ Noel Douglas
(http:// www.noeldouglas.net)
Activist designer Noel Douglas designed a book titled It’s The Political Economy, Stupid (Pluto Press, 2013), which was edited by Gregory Sholette and Oliver Ressier.

GS: We have arrived at a moment of great possibility and equally great risk. There are remarkable, everyday acts of resistance in public squares and pro-human rights interventions into major museums, but there is also a foul populist uprush of unbridled resentment towards immigrants, women, transgendered individuals, and people of colour, especially those demanding their rights such as Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement. The rapid illumination of a missing mass simultaneously threatens and fascinates the world of politics, mass media, but also that of contemporary art, now increasingly subsumed within the sphere of affective capitalism, leaving high culture in a naked condition that I call “Bare Art,” following and tweaking Giorgio Agamben's phrase “Bare Life.”

Meanwhile, the socially conscious intellectual never surrenders questioning the substrate of his or her discipline, no matter how squalid its conditions, and never loses hope. Dark Matter is one name for this paradox. The primary thesis of my book is not why certain art practices, groups, and individuals have failed to register within the event horizon of the mainstream art world, but what the value-adding role this missing socialised mass provides to the narratives, institutions, and political economy of contemporary art.

The task that stands before the forces of progressive culture, therefore, is not one of eliminating ambiguity and ellipsis from the historical imagination as we see with the populist Right. What the task calls for now is a grammar of cultural dissent not willing to turn innocently away from the chaotic and delirious state of contemporary social realities, or the contradictions of dark matter within a world of bare art.  It needs a critical analysis that recognises this moment, this perilous moment, as ultimately historical in nature, and therefore also as a time and conflict that will one day be displaced, as all such moments are.

One significant weapon in this battle is the difficult and continuous collective development of the dark matter archive from below, that redundant agency made up of surplus memories, marginalised hopes, as well as defeats, passed on to us by the dead, and that we must now be certain to pass on to future generations.

YS: In your role as a professor in the Social Practice Queens program at Queens College, how do you explain to your students about their future “career”? How might they be able to make a living as socially engaged artists?

GS: The first thing I discuss with my graduate students is the economy of the art world, and how difficult their situation is and will continue to be, especially with a degree in art, which is not a readily employable accreditation. I very much wish you had taken time to read my book Dark Matter because these considerations are a central thread within the text. A recent essay from my 2017 book Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism[5] also addresses issues of student and artistic debt.

In his wide-ranging art, activist, teaching and writing practice, Gregory Sholette (American, b. 1956; lives in New York) develops a self-described “viable, democratic, counter-narrative that, bit-by-bit, gains descriptive power within the larger public discourse.” He is a founding member of Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D: 1980-1988, NYC); of REPOhistory collective (1989-2000); and Gulf Labor, an artists’ group advocating for migrant workers’ rights constructing Western branded art museums in Abu Dhabi (2010-ongoing). His recent art installations include Imaginary Archive at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania and the White Box at Zeppelin University, Germany. His collaborative performance Precarious Workers Pageant premiered in Venice on August 7, 2015.

While his individual art explores issues of artistic labour and political resistance via drawing, sculpture and mixed media, Sholette’s critical writing documents and reflects upon decades of activist art, much of which might otherwise remain invisible. He has contributed to such journals as Eflux, Critical Inquiry, Texte zur Kunst, October, CAA Art Journal and Manifesta Journal, among other publications. He is editor or author of seven published volumes including most recently Art as Social Action (edited with Chloë Bass: Skyhorse Publishers, May 2018); Delirium & Resistance: Art Activism & the Crisis of Capitalism (2017) and Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture (2011, both Pluto Press).

Sholette is a graduate of the Whitney Independent Study Program in Critical Theory. He is an Associate of the Art, Design and the Public Domain program at the Graduate School of Design Harvard University, served as a Curriculum Committee member of Home WorkSpace Beirut education program. He is also an Associate Professor in the Queens College Art Department, City University of New York where he helped establish the new MFA Concentration SPQ (Social Practice Queens).

Yan SU holds an MFA in Socially Engaged Art from Geneva University of Art and Design (2016-2018). Besides studio practices, he was involved in several social art projects, in which he played multiple roles. After obtaining an MA and BA in Digital Media from Communication University in China (2001-2007), Yan embarked on an online communication career at an international organisation. He enrolled on the MAS Curating programme in Zurich University of the Arts in 2018.

[1] Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (London: Pluto Press, 2010).

[2] Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere, translated by P. Labanyi, J. O. Daniel, and A. Oksiloff and contains a forward by Miriam Hansen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 32.

[3] “The antidote to civilisational collapse: An interview with the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis”, Open Future, The Economist, Dec. 6, 2018, accessed Dec. 29, 2018, https://www.economist.com/open-future/2018/12/06/the-antidote-to-civilisational-collapse.

[4] Stephen Wright, Toward a Lexicon of Usership (Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 2014).

[5] Gregory Sholette, Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2017).



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Issue 41

Centres⁄Peripheries – Complex Constellations

by Ronald Kolb, Camille Regli, Dorothee Richter

by Heike Biechteler

by Ella Krivanek

by Giovanna Bragaglia

by Francesca Ceccherini and Noriko Yamakoshi

by Paola Granati & Ronny Koren

by Domenico Ermanno Roberti