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!]
Everyone, it seems, in neoliberal camps, in maker-collaboratives, in venture capital firms (although, I admit, in very different ways) is swooning over the figure of the entrepreneur. We, in contemporary U.S. culture, like the start-up company. We applaud the risk-taker. We cheer on people with big ideas and little capital who make things in their garages no matter what the naysayers, well, say. (And no matter that the ‘garage’ is likely not a garage at all).
I like productive outliers and do-it-yourself-ers. I like ambition, too. Don’t get me wrong. But I have developed, of late, a resistance to the rhetoric of entrepreneurialism. This will not be surprising to many among my (small in number but totally glorious) readership. And they will already understand why I want a way of describing creative, novel intervention that knows the banner of entrepreneurialism is a very clever way to obfuscate the facts of contemporary labor: that is to say, that it hides the logic of precarity by suggesting creative work (without pay, or with only meager compensation) done in one’s leisure time is an individual and social good. And, of course, by suggesting that those among the entrepreneurial ‘creatives’ who do their work well will both change the world and grow spectacularly rich doing it. The fact that very, very few entrepreneurs ever get rich seems to consistently escape popular notice.
What may be worse, however, is that the kind of entrepreneurial ‘spirit’ we seem so vocally to root for is never about real, culture and world-altering public good. (Which, by the way, we expect to just emerge and never to pay for.) What we want is for the entrepreneur to wow us with his new, exciting gadgets, social media platforms, and sexy, quick solutions to slow, difficult, problems. Such problems are not per se technological in nature but are instead enmeshed in social and political networks as much as they are in the world wide web.
The discourse around the entrepreneur has also sucked the marrow right out of creativity. ‘The creative’ has become equated with the entrepreneur. Producers of art are only ‘creatives’ if the result of their labors can be monetized. That sleight of hand, to swallow up creativity and spit it out as not a way of engaging in the world, of connecting with others, of authentically expressing desires and hopes and political critiques and inviting sustained thought and reflection, but rather as a way of getting investors is more than a trick. It is a violent foreclosure of alternative futures in favor of one, endless, awful reproduction of the capitalist status quo.
We may be deeply compelled by the ingenious creatives among us, but maybe, as Benjamin Bratton (in this very engaging and smart anti-TED TED talk) among others have suggested, we need not uncritically celebrate the idea man without an accompanying, difficult, slow and well-grounded critique of his ideas and of the idea of the ‘creative’ itself. That new gadget now being developed, we should all have learned by now, is not going to save us from ourselves and it absolutely will not save us from global capital.
Fine friends and comrades! Forgive yet another long lapse in posting. I have, however, for those patient readers among you, not one but two fabulous plays of the days. They are as follows:
1.) You know how I love cities, obviously, but did you know that I, along with two talented architect/academic/urbanist types, recently founded a little research and design collaborative? Well I did. It’s called SPEC. See our nascent projects and older works here!
2.) You know how I love gainful, secure employment?* Well I do. And am proud to announce that in January of 2016 I will be joining the faculty of the department of Modern Languages at the University of Miami as an Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and Modern Languages. HUZZAH!!! Looks like this little itinerant lady will soon be learning to love a new city!
And that, oh dear readers, is all. At least for now.
*Love is too strong a word. But I love gainful employment a lot more than I do the precarious labor that is de rigueur in the current instantiation of Integrated World Capital.
Driving into Cleveland on 71 North, you might happen to take the Quigley Road exit. As you head down the hill and toward West 7th St. you will be confronted by two, side by side and asymmetrically striking, architectural disasters. These are not the vistas of Cleveland’s sometimes impressive urban landscape any seeking to sell the city would offer. The first is the sprawling, drab, junkspace* that calls itself “Steelyard Commons.” Housing a Home Depot, a Target, a Walmart, and a number of unremarkable and similar big and not-so-big box stores, this shopping mecca/dystopia (like literally countless others of its ilk) is, at best, a convenient stop for locals who need to pick something up on the cheap. At worst, it is an eyesore, an annoyance, and a terrible reminder of the increasingly global homogeneity of commercial space. Just next door to Steelyard Commons is, in fact, a still-functioning steel mill. This is our second disaster (though, it is perhaps more aesthetically pleasing, thanks to a kind of abysmal, hipster nostalgia). One of the last of its kind, it poses a threatening, anachronistic, theatrical counter to the “commons” to its west.
When I first drove into Cleveland I ignored the ignoble shopping center but was awed by the behemoth mill, even charmed by it. The reason folks like me (educated, cultured, relatively ‘upper’ in the class structure) can be wowed by such mammoth markers of a bygone industrial age is because they indicate an economy that no longer holds real sway and because they seem to anchor us to a material world we fear may be losing its purchase on what we experience as reality. The mill is a marker of a vanished boom of not just industry but of politics: once, says the steel mill, there existed a viable labor movement, the possibility of a living wage, and accessibility to middle and working class status. There were things to be made that required materials and hands to shape them. The wild abstractions of the contemporary global economy must have seemed to many, in the heyday of industry, an impossible future.
The contrast of these two ‘steelyards’ encourages an aestheticizing of the age of Ford and Taylor, of blue collar culture, and of the things that workers, we’re told, were well paid to make. The monster mill, at the very least, demands a kind of attention the dull, flat banality of the strip mall does not. I have to admit, I swooned. So far from Los Angeles, I thought, so close to real production.
And while Steelyard Commons (which is by no means a commons of any sort) has become the more appalling, but also the more accurate and ubiquitous indicator of the state of things in Cleveland, the steel mill still rumbles in the neighborhood nearby. Affective (and precarious) labor of the sort done by the Walmart greeter may be winning the day (and making the rungs of the class ladder more slippery than ever), but there are workers of all sorts, everywhere, who still build, make and shape. And affective labor is labor. Make no mistake about it.
I want to suggest that in Cleveland, the side-by-side existence of these two not-quite dichotomous forms of labor (and the troubling architecture that houses it) may offer to the city’s residents and passersby a kind of critical opening.
This kind of remarkable juxtaposition, in fact, happens more in the rust belt, at least in the U.S., than it does in the world’s global capitals. And the story Cleveland is telling about the U.S. and, likely, the global economy, is one that scholars, activists, architects, designers, citizens and immigrants of all sorts should not ignore.
If you look, as you literally can, at Cleveland’s past (the steel mill) and its present (Steelyard Commons), you will feel pretty hopeless. The old model failed, the new model is deeply invested in an economy that seems forever insistent on increasing the gap between the rich and the poor as it whittles down the former to a tiny few. Neither the industrial nor the service models have been good to people of color or women. But, miraculously, what Cleveland has is its failure. Steelyard Commons points, without knowing that it does so, to the trouble of the industrial economy indicated by the big, smoking, impossible mill still burning to its east. And the misery the shopping center, itself, indicates isn’t lost on workers (or on the hipsters and city boosters who would prefer a very different sort of architecture by which to careen on the highway). Steelyard Commons, by signaling its neighbor, also accidentally reminds us, if we look harder than simply at its structure, that bubbles burst. That you cannot bank, indeed, on any totalizing view of what it is we do when we work, or what it is we live in when we live in a city.
That Steelyard Commons pretends so audaciously to belong to the common may seem at first to indicate the foreclosure of alternative possible futures. But what if instead of nodding our heads in that direction, sorry that we haven’t a salve to our savage desire for a commons that might actually belong to all of us, we actually offer material alternatives? What if in the swaths of abandoned spaces and infrastructure, vacant land and empty buildings, we build to suit for neither economy, but instead for us? Weekend roller rinks in the flats. Art-trading fairs in old book factories. Discoballs dangling above dance parties on underutilized bridges.
The Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (among others) has offered indeed some of these very same solutions through their Pop Up City interventions, but I want more. I want a built environment that seeks a future more equitable, more sustainable than the one we seem to be hurtling toward. Perhaps we cannot yet point to the developer willing to add a third sort of structure, somewhere between the two steelyards, that looks further into the future than either. But if we don’t ask for it, it will never appear.
A recent article published on alternet echoed a sentiment to which I strongly hold: “Struggling US cities of the rust belt and heartland lack the investment of coastal contemporaries, but have in turn been spared the rapid displacement of hipster economics. Buffered by their eternal uncoolness, these slow-changing cities have a chance to make better choices – choices that value the lives of people over the aesthetics of place.” If you’ve read this blog, you will know that I’ve been saying more or less (despite its coolness, though, rather than because of its uncoolness) the same thing about Cleveland since I moved here. Cleveland does not have to do what it did in the past. It doesn’t have to keep doing what it is now.
I want to sail into Cleveland on 71, one day, and see, growing from the ruins of the industrial and the service economies, a different model of urban building. I want a material manifestation of that imagined utopia that is truly common. Too much to ask? Perhaps. But I am asking anyway.
*See the compelling and sometimes polemic Rem Koolhaas’s exceptional essay, in which he coins the term: Junkspace.
**For a brief history of labor movements in Cleveland, check this out.
Fine friends and readers!
The play of this post-Thanksgiving day is a little schoolie treat. I offer to you the chance to hear itinerant me talking urban sprawl and network technologies in an interview I did with the editor of the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies. My article on Buenos Aires Libre will be published in the journal’s upcoming issue. Check out the podcast of our conversation about my work here.
And that, comrades, is all.
My sincerest apologies, dear readers, for my long absence. The perils and pressures of the academic job market and its accompanying existential dread have kept me away from you. The other thing that has kept me away from you is the subject of this post. I have, to the shock and dismay of many of my friends and loved ones across the country, become a Browns fan.
Before moving to Cleveland I knew nearly nothing about professional football, nor had I ever, excluding my attendance at the occasional super-bowl party (driven in large part by my intense desire to consume chicken wings and queso dip), bothered to watch the sport on television.
But Cleveland is a football city. It is populated by long-suffering, devoted, blindly faithful lovers of the Browns. And such fervor, despite abysmal evidence of the team’s inability to succeed, does much to woo the uninitiated. The sheer commitment Clevelanders are willing to offer the Browns is astounding. So astounding, in fact, that in less than a year its pull was strong enough to put me on a bar stool in front of a screen, screaming and weeping and drinking, to watch the opening game against the Browns’ long-time nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It did not, initially, go well. As I sipped my second beer, I watched the Browns crawl into half-time down a painful 24 points. This was a familiar sort of awful for fans. Since the 1999 season, the Browns had lost 27 games to the Steelers. Cleveland’s most beloved team has also logged a painful ten years since they managed to win an opening game.
But in the second half, we (you see how bad it’s gotten… ‘we’?) pulled it together to close the Steeler’s lead. Quarterback Brian Hoyer (an Ohio boy making good) won 230 yards—this includes a glorious 9-yard touchdown to Travis Benjamin. It was beautiful.
Yes, Browns’ punter Spencer Lanning was literally kicked in the face by the Steeler’s Antonio Brown. And yes, when all was said and done, we lost: 27-30.
But for a minute, it felt like we might win. And I’ve never seen anything like the manic, if still somewhat cautious, joy that filled that bar. Never. I swooned in that second half. I was moved. I screamed. I became a Browns fan.
I think the charm of sports (though I myself have never played or followed until finding myself at that West side bar, in this odd Rust Belt metropolis) is in the way they help us tell stories about ourselves. And the story of the Browns is compelling because it seems so well-matched to the story of the city the team inhabits.
Cleveland has deeply felt the the blows of the post-industrial economy. The city was among the hardest hit by the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. It was, long before that, devastated by the fall of industry. It, in short, has had a very hard time figuring out what it might take to win in a world that is quick to turn from the gifts it has (and has been asked) to offer.
The Browns’ history parallels the city’s own suffering. Like Cleveland, the team had its hey day. In the 50s and early 60s they were the league’s premier franchise. And then, the crash. Since the team’s last championship victory in 1964, its showing has been meager. A friend of mine told me that apparently their loosing streak is so bad as to be statistically, strikingly anomalous. It would be easier to accidentally win a championship than it would be to lose as often as the Browns have lost.
But this city loves them anyway. And so do I. Maybe because the one thing a city needs to survive the wild ups and downs of the shifting market is the same thing it needs to support a perpetually losing football team: hope. If we make different choices, if we build a future out of the stuff of our battered dreams, however implausible, maybe we might have a chance.
I am not a fan of the speculative capitalist economy. I’m not a fan of the Steelers. These negative statements share a foundation in the belief that the way things have been does not foreclose their possible futures. Change is possible. Cleveland could win.
And, if you’ve been following, they just might. The Browns’ played the Steelers again on October 12th. Final score? Browns 31, Steelers 10.
And nobody got kicked in the face.
The future, my friends, for our cities, for all of our teams, is wide, wide open.
David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, is set in an imaginary Cleveland.* One of the suburbs of this almost real city, East Corinth, resembles, when viewed from above, the profile of Jayne Mansfield. Foster Wallace’s Cleveland is also bordered on the south by the man-made Great Ohio Desert (or G.O.D.). Built of black sands, it offers “a point of savage reference for the good people of Ohio. A place to fear and love.”** And in his Cleveland’s downtown the skeletal remains of General Moses Cleaveland himself are buried in the shadow of the Bombardini Building; “his rest thus largely untroubled save by the pole of a sign which jutted disrespectfully out of Cleaveland’s left eye socket, the sign itself referring to a hugely outlined parking space in front of the Building and reading: THIS SPACE RESERVED FOR NOMRAN BOMBARDINI, WITH WHOM YOU DO NOT WANT TO MESS.”***
I love the intense and bizarre version of Cleveland Foster Wallace offers the world. I love it in part because somehow it manages to be close to the very real Cleveland in which I now live.
Of course, his imagined landscape contains within it some of the extant features of the city—the freeways, for example, are indeed those that criss cross this terrain. Lake Erie, too, plays a key aesthetic role in the text. Shaker Heights remains in the novel not unlike what it is in the actual, everyday Cleveland. What Foster Wallace gives to his readers is another way to shape the space, to charge it with humor and meaning. The fiction, even as it keeps some of the material stuff of the city, alters the genuine article.
As far as I can ascertain, Foster Wallace had spent virtually no time in Cleveland when he wrote The Broom of the System. That doesn’t mean he, like the rest of us, didn’t know the city in some way. Cleveland, despite its peripheral status in the pantheon of U.S. American cities, still looms large in the country’s imagination. Cleveland means something to people, even to people who have never had the pleasure of roaming its streets.
Much of the popular conception of Cleveland has to do with its grim fall from economic grace in the post-industrial era, but its image has also been marred by a few key media events as well, chief among them the infamous moment when the Cuayahoga River caught ablaze and made the national news in 1969.^ Mayor Perk’s own hair followed suit on live TV just a few years later.
I think these bursts of troubling publicity about Cleveland are likely what allowed it to serve for Foster Wallace, and for many, as a middling epitome of U.S. American life in the 20th century. Its sometimes sparsely populous sprawl, its defunct mills as well as those that still belch big black plumes into the Ohio sky, its blue collar culture and its ceaseless striving to be reborn into the contemporary abstract economies that rule the planet—all of these things help make it as beautiful as it is often absurd. Cleveland is both a ‘here’ and an ‘elsewhere’ of the urban in the United States. It is able, like Foster Wallace’s Cleveland, to be both entirely real and wholly fictional, entirely our own and entirely other. In other words, Cleveland wields the strange and compelling power of most cities: somewhere in the balance between its actual landscape and its imagined construction it holds the contradictions of city life and of ourselves.
I think Cleveland, though, does this better than most cities. Not because it is more flexible in the imagination than a Los Angeles or a Chicago, but because what it lets us project onto it is harder and darker, but perhaps also more hopeful, than what we aim at other urban worlds.^^ We may not all be capable of creating the kind of Cleveland Foster Wallace so engagingly did. But we do all, in the city or elsewhere, make it up. And in that way, we make it our own. In order to survive in the world we need good city stories to tell ourselves. We need bad city stories too.
A sense of place never comes only from geography or architecture. It also always comes from those who inhabit it, speak about it, picture it: in all the ways it is, it isn’t, and the ways it might be. Urban fiction is thus both a way to know our cities anew, and to change them.
*First published by Viking Penguin Inc. in 1987. (My edition: New York: Penguin Books, 2004).
^The river has actually lit up like a Christmas tree on at least 13 separate occasions. But it is not alone. Fires fueled by industrial waste were sparked in rivers across the United States throughout the 20th century.
^^Where, you ask, is your supporting evidence for this claim? Troll my previous Cleveland posts for some anecdotal proof. Otherwise, you will just have to choose whether or not to trust the instincts of Itinerant Me. Always a gamble in cases such as this, for my Cleveland is, of course, like yours–always the product of real space and of some imagined place, both elsewhere and here.