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by Marina Vishmidt

From Speculation to Infrastructure: Material and Method in the Politics of Contemporary Art


From the beginning of my involvement in the field of art and cultural production, whether I was practising as an academic, a writer, an organiser, an editor, my focus has always been, in one way or another, on conditions of possibility, whether those conditions are considered formal, social, economic, historical, or ontological. The conditions of possibility include the existence and allowances of a demarcated field of practice, and the practices that transpire in that field, which mean the conditions of legibility for practices to both register in that field though they might originate somewhere else, and for practices originating in that field to work transversally or away from it. So, conditions for and in a field, but also its composition, along the vectors of objective and subjective determination by race, class, gender, and relation to the law.

In other words, since before the beginning, my experience and thus my understanding of culture has been collective, with the social and personal dimensions always embedded in the conceptual. Because my entry to participation was at first in zine culture, which was very much defined by riot grrrl, punk, and infinite configurations of both projects and structures that were diy, the artistic and political, material and method, were co-constitutive; the milieu in its positioning was defined by antagonism, not just politically on specific issues in a right-wing cultural environment, but toward the modes of individualised celebrity and mystified creativity typical of mainstream culture. Thus, it was always clear that the ways of organising artistic production were as critical and political as anything that could be isolated as a work or as a product, and in fact the distinctions between these, which can also be read along the process/product binary, were always contingent and matters of practice and proximity.

So this was the 1990s, obviously, the last moment in capitalist modernity, especially in the West, or the imperial/colonial rich world, when something like a self-sustaining and oppositional underground culture could be said to exist, although even then the principles and practicalities of separation from what was then called the “mainstream” were starting to break down, which perhaps culminates in the contemporary obsolescence of the concept of “selling out” and the accompanying structure of feeling no less than the economic agenda of rugged independence it represented. Of course, many things are obvious now that would have been obvious to many also at the time; that is, as a dissident cultural milieu in the US, it was a sphere of privilege, or, in a more materialist vocabulary, a “resource advantage” in many ways—predominantly white, English-speaking—and thus exerting a disproportionate cultural influence even as a reference or a model of “underground” and independent musical, publishing, and artistic practice. And gender was a much more visible battle than other group identifiers ascribed for oppression and exploitation—at least in that milieu. Certainly, there were many other milieus in the “underground” (you only need to think of the Detroit techno collective Underground Resistance), so it’s important to come to this as only one instantiation of an antagonistic/self-sufficient cultural logic, again, both in terms of structure and composition. And it’s also not to assert that this is a logic that is extinct or has been made extinct by social media platforms and their powers of capital and attention concentration and fragmentation. Funded, unfunded, less-funded, variably funded—a lot of diy culture continues to exist, especially in poetry and artist publishing, to take just one local example.

The reason I wanted to start with this very contained flashback is perhaps to see if it can furnish a backdrop for explaining the research I went on to do, mainly in art theory and political theory, which approached the social existence of artistic and visual practice, the moving image in many cases, not as a thing in the world, or even as a process, but as a contradiction—the contradiction between its social conditions as an elite pursuit, an asset class, or a laundromat for hegemonic values, and its horizon as an articulation of emancipation, of material, cognitive, and aesthetic as well as social relations. I thought about this contradiction but also about the kinds of further contradictions that emerge from it, for example, the institutionalization of the latter—art as emancipation (and the institutionalization of that observation as critique) under the material conditions of the former—art as the index of class rule.  Given these emphases, in my scholarly work I’ve been much influenced by Adorno, consistently by notions such as his framing of the proposition of aesthetic autonomy in its relations of dependence on social heteronomy, the double notion of art as absolute commodity and absolute artwork (with “absolute” standing in for the imperialism of exchange value in a capitalist society that tells itself fairy-tales about artistic transcendence as art’s use value, or, in a more contemporary mode, conflating usefulness and criticality), and also, of course, by the relationship between artistic practice and the epistemic refusal that takes the name of “non-identity.”

This brings me to the approaches mentioned in the synopsis for this essay as setting the parameters for my work at present, as well as the recent past: speculation and infrastructure. Social and collective production as the smallest unit of meaningful analysis, with the implication that the “trans-individual” is the smallest meaningful unit of subjectivity, a dialectical and non-exhaustive approach suspicious of theoretical closures or inflations of all kinds. These methodological and political considerations led me to speculation as a way of conceptualising both artistic practice and the quantified, financialised, and extractive social reality it is working from and with, speculation as the non-identity between speculative thought and the social and political practices it makes possible – speculation as thinking art from the standpoint of its transformative capacities – and speculation as the closed loop of extraction and profit. And then to infrastructure as a way of understanding both what kind of structures repeat, as it were, in one definition of infrastructure, how they repeat across scales, and how the speculative force of aesthetics can clarify, open up, and re-purpose these infrastructures in investigative and/or transversal political situations, as well as dis-appropriate them or their constituent parts for other ends.

Having set the methodological scene for those two approaches, I’d like to move anti-clockwise, at least in terms of Marx’s plotting of a movement from the abstract to the concrete, to a more in-depth exploration of what I mean in working with the concepts of “speculation” and “infrastructure” as what I call “experimental totalizations.”

Initially, I take speculation in its character as a powerful logic of contemporary life whose key instantiations are art and finance. Both are premised on the power of contingency, the fluidity of temporality, and experimentation with the creation (and capitalisation) of possible worlds. Artistic autonomy, the self-legislation of the space of art, was once and often still is seen as the freedom to speculate wildly on material and social possibilities. The artist as a speculative subject is also seen as the paragon of creativity, the complete opposite of both a homo economicus obsessed with balance sheets and value-added and optimising investment, and a homo laborans, in Hannah Arendt’s terms, which we would have to expand from her gender-deterministic framework to include those whose lives are limited by the imperative to work and to reproduce workers in conditions where both that work and its results are controlled and accumulated by others. However, once social reality becomes speculative and opaque in its own right, risky and algorithmic, overhauled by networked markets in everything, what becomes of the distinction between not just art and finance, but art and life? In working with these premises, I also try to develop art historical methodologies that study specific practices as crystals of both ownership and dispossession, with all the strategic and ontological ambiguities that cluster around both of those poles. Basically, I aim to grasp the stakes of speculation as an issue for current and recent artistic practice, and to develop a transversal concept of speculation in doing so, one which departs from, but is not bound by, the lived ideologies of art and finance sketched out above.

The subjective drive to speculation as the generation of “new ideas” per se becomes codified as “creativity” in the neoliberal labour market. As a consequence, creativity becomes, paradoxically, a characteristic of abstract labour, which was Marx’s generic category for the social institution of wage labour in a capitalist society—“abstract,” because most labour relationships end up being indifferent to the content of the labour and are mainly used for acquiring money to live, or, if you are a capitalist or entrepreneur, to accumulate or speculate with. I argue that such a shift heralds the conversion of the fetishised creativity of art into a pre-eminent instance of speculation as a mode of production, since art becomes no longer just a commodity in the market or a gratuitous activity but increasingly a tool of socialisation into the speculative mode and an accessory to the re-valorisation of land and the displacement of populations, as in the well-known link between art venues and gentrification. It thus takes on a new instrumentality relative to the dialectic of autonomy and heteronomy assigned to art by Marxist critics such as Adorno. At the same time, this is an instrumentality which in turn speculates with the autonomy and creative freedom assigned specifically to art in an unfree society in order to ground both its ethical claims and its financial value, depending on the context.

As I outline in my book Speculation as a Mode of Production, the core structural analogy between art and money is that both constitute instances of self-valorising value, insofar as both are kinds of social mediation that are anchored in a self-referential, recursive, or reflexive circuit of valorisation. Critical value in art is generated from transactions within its semantic domain, much as in speculative finance—or “fictitious capital,” in Marx’s terms—money generates more money through transactions internal to financial markets, altogether avoiding the sphere of production, as it is usually understood. This homology between art and money that I am drawing, one which reveals both art and money as marked by the nebulousness and reflexivity of value claims, has been picked up by artists who collide so-called “critical value” with “capital value” in works exploring the social and formal correspondences between works of art and money. Max Haiven is a colleague who has done excellent work in cataloguing and theorising these kinds of practices in his recent book, Art After Money, Money After Art. But this discussion of a homology is also intended to illuminate another pole of art’s relation to the real abstraction of the capital relation, one which is constituted by the parallels between artistic subjectivity and a self-motivated and creative labour force increasingly encouraged to see itself as an investment, i.e., to model itself on the endless productivity of capital rather than labour, specifically a financialised capital which expands by means of (managed) risk. This is not just an elite labour force, of course, as the placebos of flexibility and self-management increasingly come to substitute for any employer responsibility, as evident in the gig economy.

From being at least hypothetically separate from the economy, the artist becomes a creative tasked with diligently optimising their quantified self, an increasingly abject and coercive situation, and the two senses of speculation—artistic thinking and financial operations—converge, something we have observed not just in the more familiar critical descriptions of the artist as entrepreneurial subject par excellence but in more recent developments such as crypto-art and NFTs, where the moments of artistic creation and market valorisation can no longer be kept apart, and neither can coercion and speculation in a stagnant, crisis-prone economy (freedom of finance, subjugation of labour). Here, a dependency and a resonance emerge between the open-ended processes of speculative thought and the profit-driven (or, in cybernetic terms, homeostatic) world of financial speculation. At the same time, however, we need to retain another sense of speculation, as the commitment to experimentation and non-utility, for social and political as well as aesthetic and cognitive reasons. As Henk Slager notes, “From an artistic perspective, it seems essential to start investigating the following methodological question: how could we engage in that assignment of reconsidering and revealing speculation in order to arrive at novel panoramas and ‘not-yet-known-knowledge?’” We can here also think of speculative philosophical propositions such as G.W.F. Hegel’s speculative logic, Theodor W. Adorno’s concept of non-identity—as already mentioned—or Denise Ferreira da Silva’s “difference without separability” as some conceptual and methodological touchstones. Art-historically speaking, when we work with these kinds of paradigms in our research, we can build on the extraordinary material and social sensitivity and concreteness of art history as a scholarly approach in order to contextualise artworks in their conditions of production and exchange in such a way as to be able to see artistic practices and materials in the social relations and histories they mediate, and vice versa, and see what ruptures, unknowns, contradictions, and affiliations can be found and developed. With a speculative approach, we do not need to define binaries, even in order to overcome them or integrate a devalued pole into a valued one (such as art and labour, art and life, art and politics, etc.) but to constantly redefine our terms with reference to the kinds of questions the material asks, and asks from us, and to see the divisions we encounter as themselves historical, needing to be explained rather than described, and explained often in terms of systemic as well as local social contradiction and specificity. Speculation, thus, as a method as well as a field of study and praxis, is one that necessitates a situated perspective, but also a readiness for that perspective to shift, both in light of its objects and the shifting problematics and imperatives of knowledge production in its social, historical, and economic relations and antagonisms. In this way, the “speculative” is brought into contact with the “materialist,” with the former the vector of transformation and the latter of social reality. As tendencies, as constitutive of relations rather than objects, and objects as temporary crystals of relations in a wider “social synthesis,” these comprise the touchstones for my project.

With all this in mind, there are a few, more granular, reservations. Speculative practices and fields of inquiry must be situated in their material conditions. Given the speculative infrastructure of contemporary capitalism, it is clear that the speculative capacity of both the science-adjacent “research- based” and a “fictioning” or narrative approach to art practice are both determined by speculative capitalism, which includes its market, institutional, and data articulations. A “forensic” aesthetics is no more, or less, integrated into the speculative (as, e.g., knowledge production) than a more material-, object-, or fantasy-based one. Indeed, it was a number of years ago now that Jacques Rancière noted that de-materialised art and de-materialised capital tend to rhyme: “The immateriality of concepts and images, instead of doing away with private appropriation, turned out to be its best refuge, the place where its reality is tantamount to its self-legitimation.” Here, we see that, as with labour, it is not the content of the art but how that labour is exchanged, distributed, and represented; that is, how it is inscribed into circuits of valorisation even when it is not directly “value-producing” in itself. Here, we could frame the key critical question in speculative terms, transposing Marx’s question about labour to art: it’s not that we need to find the value behind the social form of art, but to ask instead, why is it that in our society value takes the form of art?

To move now to a discussion of the role that the category of “infrastructure” has lately taken in my work, I want to start with a citation from Vilém Flusser, who talks about “envisioning,” by which he means “trying to turn an automatic apparatus against its own condition of being automatic.” In the context of my work, without a doubt, this implicates the automaticity of value valorising itself, what Marx calls the “automatic subject.”

Over the past few years, over the particular crises which have dominated our lives and awareness—episodes of climate collapse by fire and water, the pandemic, and the horrific military campaigns attacking the people of Syria, Palestine, Yemen, and Ukraine—we have also heard a lot about what is often called “critical infrastructure,” that is, the power grid, server architecture/internet, water supplies, all the semi-automated networks key to our survival that a depletion of supplies, a system fault, or a malicious hacking operation can render dysfunctional, with consequences that are potentially destructive as well as unpredictable, depending on how long such systems remain “off-line.” These are also scenarios that have, of course, taken place, wherever there has been a climate crisis-induced natural disaster such as flooding and fire, or as a consequence of war. Thus, the notion of critical infrastructure, and the resources and workers that keep it operating or are vulnerable to attack, came to mind in this project, which is an attempt to see how the category of critique needs to be revised when it is posited as operating on an infrastructural and not simply discursive level, as well as to see how the operation of critique can generate new relations between those discursive and infrastructural levels. But also whether indeed the discursive and philosophical notion of critique, which has been justifiably queried from so many perspectives over the recent period, is or isn’t a “critical infrastructure” for how organisational and political change happens in the space of art and how broader changes can resonate there.

Infrastructural critique needs to reckon with what it means that infrastructure is that which persists and makes possible, insofar as it also makes impossible, requiring us to align a thinking of infrastructure with Foucault’s discussion of regimes of governmentality whose purpose is to make live and let die. Infrastructure, then, is always specific: it is sustained and maintained to achieve certain biopolitical outcomes, to enable certain strategies of accumulation that are founded on destroyed infrastructure for some, insofar as it supports accumulation for others, that is, the extraction and waste disposal of labours, lives, and natures. A recent intervention in an online series on infrastructure and coloniality notes that “race is an infrastructure” which mediates access to resources, whose withholding is key to the population management key for efficient extraction—differentiated management of “infrastructural coercion” and “infrastructural neglect.” Death by infrastructure, as in large areas inhabited by communities subject to environmental racism, unfolds in the shadows of death by police violence, death by poverty, and deaths of despair; it could arguably even be said to serve as a precondition for all of these.

And yet, if infrastructure should be identified and historicised as the material basis for violent processes of racialisation, for a materialist analysis it is crucial as well to look at the other side of this argument. Who benefits? Notably, extractive corporations and the perma-colonial states in which they are imbricated, now reproduced at a global scale. For Zandi Sherman, infrastructural and ontological lenses are not opposed; “infrastructure is ontological” because it is the material basis for the reproduction of race. The social being of race is both produced by the operations of extractive infrastructure, and race is an infrastructure in its own right, legitimating the normalised violence that physical infrastructure both captures and extends.  

If we stick to the idea that race is an infrastructure, what else does it make possible as the converse of its pedagogy of abjection and disavowal? As thinkers such as Sylvia Wynter, David Lloyd, and Denise Ferreira da Silva have been elaborating, what it makes possible is the “human.” The human as the rational subject who creates and maintains infrastructures of progress and abundance where once there was only primitive subsistence and warfare. The human as the bringer of infrastructure to a chaotic nature, where infrastructure and property claims come into light in the same moment. As English-language predicates such as “humane” and concepts such as humanity and humanism demonstrate, the human marks the point of inextricability of domination and care which an infrastructure can be said to materialize. Can we jettison this figure of normativity while holding on to a notion of ethics, such as the “poethics” of existence without the “separability” that makes domination acceptable? Rather than trying to answer that knotty question immediately, I want now to keep moving through some more recent approaches to the infrastructural.

With the foregoing consideration of the relation between infrastructure and critical praxis, what has been elided so far are current debates around blockage, occupation, and sabotage and their efficiency in disrupting a capitalism wholly dependent on the functionality of supply chains, on the just-in-time circulation of objects, services, and data along waterways, pipelines, fibreoptic cables, and transport systems. This kind of practical critique of infrastructure has been extensively theorised in recent discussions, whether it’s in terms of struggles that include dimensions of decolonial and indigenous sovereignty, such as the multiple pipeline-blocking movements in North America since 2018’s NoDAPL, or the blockage of West Coast ports in the United States. Aside from the agency of organised pushback, of course, there are the ongoing significant logistical drags caused by the fallout of the pandemic such as labour shortages, high fuel prices, and back-ups in shipping lanes. More generally, theorists such as Joshua Clover famously contended in the mid-2010s that sabotage has gained an epochal salience in an era when capitalism’s secular tendency to flee from production into circulation (this covering sectors from transport to services to financialization) has made it not just more vulnerable to forms of logistical sabotage, but that sabotage, blockage, and riot were the modes of antagonism more relevant to this composition of capital.

It may now be the time to turn to some specific cases of art production or art institutions that can be thought under the rubric of “infrastructure.” It is clear that infrastructural critique has made inroads here, though it remains a minoritarian tendency when measured against the pervasiveness of representational and narrative strategies. We can discuss infrastructural critique with reference to movements around labour organising in arts institutions, such as the wave of unionising of art workers since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as social movements focusing on arts institutions which centre anti-colonial solidarity at arts institutions such as Decolonize This Place or Strike MoMA in NYC, to take two much-reported instances. These were instances that inhabited the gap between art institutions’ gestural benevolence and material violence in order to insert radical disruption in the form of solidarity with struggles elsewhere, predominantly around police violence, racialised gentrification, or the colonial war against Palestinians. Yet, infrastructural critique can also characterise specific practices of artists and institutions as a move that similarly takes their practice beyond the comfort zone of reflexivity and thus veers away from the “lane” allocated to it by institutional critique.

Cameron Rowland’s intensively researched and conceptually adroit projects zero in on the apparatus of racialised capitalism as a spectrum of real abstractions. These real abstractions, or, abstractions with deadly effects, include race, property, and value, as they work through prisons, police, and cultural and state authorities, now and in the abiding past. These abstractions in turn provide both formal and practical tools for an aesthetics that is not so much “forensic” as it is prismatic. On the point of involving the arts institution in a financial market venture, there is an echo of early institution-critical projects such as Robert Morris’s Money (1969). The difference is in the politics and the purpose; it’s not about disclosing something already evident about the art institution’s intimacy with speculative capital. Such an intimacy is only one symptom among many of the ties between culture and private property, with dispossession as the basis of both. There is often a pedagogical performativity involved which both presents a detailed historical array of texts and a selective summoning of artefacts at the same time as a real-time deployment of that same legal machinery which upholds the sanctity of property, present and past. A partial list would be 2020’s Encumbrance at London’s ICA, which involved the mortgaging of the royal building’s mahogany fittings, obtained in colonial trade; 2017’s Public Money, which required the Whitney to invest in anti-recidivism social impact bonds issued by a California municipality; Disgorgement (2016), the establishment of an insurance trust held in the name of Artists Space (since collected by MoMA), which bought shares in the slave insurance policies still held by a major global insurer, and which will pay out in the event of federal financial reparations for chattel slavery in the U.S.; and 91020000 (2016), which put on display the mobile infrastructure of the public realm in the state of New York—school and office furniture made by prison labour. Many of these objects cannot be sold to any collection but only rented, at cost—that is, the price paid at a police auction or to a prison-made furniture manufacturer—for a period of five years pending renewal or return to the artist. In much of Rowland’s work, a piece of infrastructure relates a history of property and de-humanisation through the way it functions rather than in what it uses artistic means to depict. This, in conjunction with the frequent implication of the institution as a “collaborator” (both with Rowland and the system he is highlighting), is what casts his practice as one of infrastructural critique.

In an essay by the artist and Distributed Cognition Cooperative member Anna Engelhard, contextualizing her project The Crimean Bridge, she contends, in line with Mitchell’s argument earlier on, that the politics of infrastructure are often cloaked by the image of utility, which, in the case of a bridge, assumes the even more benign trappings of connection, as opposed to the conflict signalled by a wall. The bridge constructed by Russia over the Kerch Strait between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula is analysed by Engelhardt as a de factor “wall” or border, facilitating Russian economic colonialism in Ukraine before, during, and after its 2014 annexation. This is a model of infrastructure as “war by other means” that she observes in the depiction of social media platforms such as Facebook as global engines of connection, even as they facilitate multi-scalar conflict—a trope familiar from 18th-century ideologists of capitalism who juxtaposed civilised commerce to war, blithely averting the gaze from the inseparability between them established by the several centuries of settler colonialism and trade in humans that had already elapsed by the time those texts were written.

Working with this example of logistics which communicates flow even while enforcing restriction and promoting repression in the guise of mobility, Engelhardt disassembles the bridge in her essay while an eponymous film uses volumetrics, crystallography, clips of RT reports, and other technical media to re-assemble it in all its dimensions as a species of “hybrid warfare” with ecological and no less than geopolitical impacts that unfold over several temporalities. Here, the infrastructural critique does not show the recursive volatility that comes from implicating its own material sites of enunciation as part of the object, as with Cameron Rowland’s work. However, the site of enunciation may get another spin here—it is not the art institution that is key, but digital platforms. It is the media-propaganda complex that combines advanced technology and crude manipulation, the logistics of war and the logistics of trade exemplified in the Crimean case. Infrastructure here is the real abstraction of communication which is at the core of violence, with property just one of its symptoms.

Finally, and in a change of key, it may be helpful to look at a few instances of organisational rather than artistic practice, with learning from artistic practice as its strategy: “Reconsidering Institutional Conduct (Almost Everything Still Remains to be Done)” at Kunstlerhaus Stuttgart last year. This project’s relation to infrastructural critique could be detected precisely in the “inward- and outward-facing” task it set itself, to revisit its protocols of institutional governance as a site of radical re-making in a wider social landscape that desperately required revolutionary change, and which could start with where it was as a site of implementation of that change, part of which meant rethinking the boundaries of its inside and its outside. While the long-term implications of this two-day process have not yet come into focus, it joins a number of “drafting” projects situated in arts institutions over the past decade, some of which have participated in or facilitated an institutional shift already underway, as with the drafting of a “Convention on the Use of Space” organised by Adelita Husni-Bey with local housing groups in 2018, or the initiation of a “Climate Justice Code” for arts organisations in 2019, both at Casco (now the Casco Art Institute – Working for the Commons) in Utrecht. This suggests that, at least for a fraction of smaller Western arts organisations, a self-perception of themselves as infrastructure—as a part of the functional social landscape—is starting to supplant a traditional concept of the institution as a detached container that displays aspects of that landscape. The repercussions of this type of shift may be variable and intermittent, and certainly local, with the “local” here addressing a context of reference that can be geographic but also discursive. No doubt there are risks of insularity if the drive for reflexivity leads to an over-emphasis on the agency of the institution rather than its conditions of possibility. While this is connected to, if not determined by, broader levels of social struggle, it is also influenced by the vision of political agency an arts institution chooses to embody and/or amplify in its own situation.

So, to conclude, all these questions point to the need to understand the concept of critique at issue in “infrastructural critique.” The shift argued for above cannot leave critique untouched in its own right, with its acknowledged genealogy in the unconditional autonomy of the isolated and European-identified Enlightenment subject informing most debates around the notion in the sphere of radical theory these days. This ensures that the history, no less than the potential of critique as a material practice of antagonism, gets sidelined, one whose subject, if it has one, is dispersive and collective. Critique is at its philosophical origins an analysis of “conditions of possibility,” but the analysis of conditions of possibility itself has conditions of possibility that are material and not epistemological—infrastructural, in other words. The resources necessary to flesh out this other practice of critique, in an apparent paradox, owe substantially to contemporary debates around “identity politics,” inasmuch as those debates can also intensify the salience of a relational non-identity and negativity to any notion of critique that would make claims on the infrastructure that provides it with its conditions, that is to say, with the material possibilities of critique as well as its object. When Hannah Black writes about “the self as historical and social material” in the space of art, a self that entails a non-identity with the “real structures of ‘identity,’” she is describing identity as a structure imposed on the non-white, non-male, cultural worker, whether it’s by liberal arts institutions looking to burnish their inclusion agendas or “identity critics” who consistently frame a reified notion of “identity” as distractions from class on the Left. In this crude concept of “identity,” which is identitarian at the same time as it identifies with “criticality,” and where critique is only possible in the embrace of the sotto-voce whiteness of universality, there is a contradiction between identity and non-identity that recalls Adorno’s Hegelian appropriation of the latter but also visibly Hegel’s own argument in the Science of Logic when he notes that, ‘‘Essence is mere Identity and reflection in itself only as it is self-relating negativity, and in that way self-repulsion. It contains therefore essentially the characteristic of Difference.” Conversely, an infrastructural critique is defined by the tension between the clarifying negativity of knowing who its opponents are and the differences that traverse its own speaking position. Critique is then the practice of non-identity, a self-relating negativity. It is the irreconcilability without end of social antagonism, which is invariably reflected in the institution of art and its real-world spaces, even as they programmatically commit to inclusion to undercut their own status, at least on some level, as infrastructures of domination. This antagonism is turned into an aporia, insoluble, and perhaps not even interesting, if confined within the framework of the institution—that is, at the level of programming—but as soon as it gains a transversal dimension by looking to the infrastructure, and sees itself too as infrastructure, there is a gain (one could even call it a “gain of function”?) in the capacity of critique to not only query its own conditions of existence but to see how the resources of critique itself can provide infrastructure for other fights which pull the institution—exhibiting, but also academic—into their vortex.

This is one way of thinking speculation and infrastructure alongside one another; what I am proposing is that the “means of abstraction” or speculation also need to be thought from the bottom-up and inside-out, in conjunction with social struggle, and the question of abstraction is not just about control but also can give us a relational view on artistic and economic practices as they constitute social forms: the smallest meaningful unit of a politically entangled art-historical, art-theoretical method.

Marina Vishmidt is a writer and educator. She is currently the professor of art theory at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Her work has appeared in South Atlantic Quarterly, Artforum, Afterall, Journal of Cultural Economy, e-flux journal, Australian Feminist Studies, Mousse, and Radical Philosophy, among others, as well as a number of edited volumes. She is the co-author of Reproducing Autonomy (with Kerstin Stakemeier) (Mute, 2016), and the author of Speculation as a Mode of Production: Forms of Value Subjectivity in Art and Capital (Brill 2018 / Haymarket 2019). Most recently she has edited Speculation for the Documents of Contemporary Art series (Whitechapel/MIT 2023). She is a member of the Marxism in Culture collective and is on the board of the New Perspectives on the Critical Theory of Society series (Bloomsbury Academic). She has taught at Goldsmiths, University of London and in 2022, she was the Rudolf Arnheim Guest Professor in Art History at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Her research has been funded by the DAAD, the European Social Research Council and the Swedish Research Council.

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Issue 58

Speculations: Funding and Financing Non-Profit Art

by Ronald Kolb, Dorothee Richter, Shwetal Patel

Editorial: Speculations: Funding and Financing Non-Profit Art