On hipster art, capital, and bodiesPosted: September 2, 2015
Not long ago, oh kind followers, I went to see an installation at the Cleveland MOCA. The piece was “The Visitors” by Ragnar Kjartansson. It was astounding. Spectacular. And maybe a little bit upsetting.
I loved it. I really, really loved it. So much so that I went back a second time with a friend and demanded we sit in the dark room, surrounded by nine large screens, for the full 64 minutes. And, were the installation something more akin to a band on tour, I would follow it around the country. I would sit again and again, mesmerized by the house in Hudson in which the work was filmed, and by the ridiculously attractive musicians who, in real time, sing and play on their various instruments.
The piece is deeply affecting, in part, I think, because it does such work on the viewer as a body in space. Surrounded by screens that you cannot see simultaneously you have to move around, to choose where to rest your gaze. You also have to habituate yourself to being in more than one space, that of the gallery and of the house in which the piece was filmed, at once. The surrounding speakers and the music and other sounds they loudly deliver contribute to this effect, asking you to be both very much in your body and elsewhere.
Kjartansson seems to like to lull his audience in this and other ways. Repetition and reference are among his well-employed tools. But more than the dirge-like quality of the music, or the strange way his work both fragments and aestheticizes physical space, disorienting the viewer as it charms her, what threatened me by “The Visitors” was that it hit too close to the mark of my own aesthetic sensibilities. Kjartansson has been called a ‘hipster artist’ before and here he delivers something one wouldn’t be amiss to link to that banal (if slippery) cultural class. So I wondered if, perhaps, my love of the piece had something more to do with my data body in the ebbs and flows of late capital than it did with my own theoretical and aesthetic training, or my embodied experience sitting in the gallery*, or the strange pathways that led me to the piece to begin with.
There may be, though, a way in which the pleasures afforded by works like “The Visitors” aren’t just the same commodified and commodifiable aesthetics of hipsterdom (which is to say, of avant garde consumerism).
The answer likely lies in emerging theories of how to locate aesthetic practices in the contemporary moment. Nicolas Bourriaud has tried to trace such trends under the umbrella of the “altermodern,”** but I think I prefer the “metamodern” offered by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker.*** In their exploration of contemporary cultural objects they point to an insistence in many works on oscillating between irony and sincerity, between cynicism and utopic speculation. Kjartansson’s work does this to great effect. A kind of ambivalence might, in certain cultural contexts, prove critically potent.
If there is something I would want to add to the theories of contemporary art elaborated by Bourriaud, Vermeulen and van den Akker, it would be a closer look at the somatic. Hipsterdom can’t entirely conquer such terrain. My hope is that capital can’t either. And perhaps one way to read “The Visitors” is less to worry about the ways the viewer is interpolated by capital, and more to grab tightly onto the somatic joys the work offers her while still clinging to critical awareness.
I’m quite sure that capital can and does do its own metamodern work. And it’s worth worrying about the ways metamodernist art can and is appropriated by ideological forces to which I and many among us stand opposed. But perhaps there’s still an exploit for us somewhere, perhaps even somewhere in the ways our own bodies inhabit their environments and experience their worlds. I’m not sure. I’m cynical. But I am also moved, hopeful.
*I both laughed and wept. Seriously.
**See Bourriaud, Nicolas ed. Altermodern. Tate Publishing, (2009).
***Vermeulen, Timotheus; van den Akker, Robin. “Notes on Metamodernism”. Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Vol. 2 (2010). pp. 1–14. [Special thanks to the talented Jeff Kruth for turning me onto the piece!]