2018-2019 HTDTWT Seminar Ghalya Saadawi - Contemporary Art and Discontent


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Contemporary Art and Discontent - from month to month

About Ghalya Saadawi


“Contemporary Art Regime is in fact in the process of replacing Human Rights Regime as the dominant force on the global ethico-political terrain precisely because of its ability to equate indeterminacy (i.e. resistance to overdetermination and filled in centres) with the inherent virtue of liberalism.” -- Victoria Ivanova, Two Lives One Order (2015)

“[…T]he news was (is?) that the past is now also the present […] You’ve got to reach far, far back, she explained, into the past (hence the arms), and you’ve got to make sure that when you reach back thusly you still understand everything back there in the exact manner in which you understand things presently. -- Zadie Smith, Now More Than Ever (2018).

“The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” -- Karl Marx, Preface: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).


This series of seminars will re-examine the claims that contemporary art can do anything. In spite of and with the aid of the idea that art criticism is under the hold of self-declared, continuous ‘crisis’ (Osborne). The invitation “How To Do Things with Theory”, to think art after theory, was already extended as far back as the middle of the last century, and even then it was asked “what is ‘theory’” (that is, if not critical theory)? (Horkeimer). In the context of an art school, and in the turn of the phrase ‘do things with theory’ and not, ‘do things for art’, an interest in art belies an interest in the world. We know about the old relation between ‘art and life’, much less how long we have been struggling with the if and what we can make of ourselves and the world. Moreover, which theory, and then counterform, could render adequately this social totality? That is a task (Jameson). 

It is not hyperbole to list that we are in the midst of changes wrought by complex computational turns in governmentality, and concomitant transformations in theories of the subject; we are at a curve in the impact of financial capitalism, neoliberal ideologies and technologies on the experience and structure of (contemporary) time; we are monitoring the iceberg of extreme right-wing global nationalisms, at least in their current rotation. The iceberg that is not melting, that is. How much have things really ‘changed’? How much has the narrative of coupure persisted despite calls to the contrary, and how much is attributed to the business-as-usual of the current iteration of capitalism at large? 

When was modernism/whose modernism, what and whose formalism/realism, were posed seriously within decades-long Marxist debates on art. They were battleground questions. Today they are (are they?) being re-injected with adapted philosophical conceptions of time, of realism, of object, subject – and critique. If we are to insist on the persistence of said critique, for a keeping in check that has not been recuperated as contemporary art’s criticality-as-value, what grounds for the critique of contemporary art as one cultural crystallization of the state-market nexus, in current climate and infrastructure, are prescient? Who/what are its authors, subjects and objects? What are some of its central principles and axioms? How does one effectuate it in spite of the edicts and practices of contemporary art that resist structural definitions and binding clarity? How does it extend from, or not, modern art’s positions and paradoxes around art and the commodity form; art’s social function; art’s alleged freedom from the law of value, from wage-labour, from other domains.

We witness a category called contemporary art, one that has long been debated: a style, a style at the end of styles, an epoch, ubiquitous to each epoch, eschewing from the temporal category of the contemporary, a cultural logic, a form of capital, needs to be understood through set axioms and operations, too heterogenous to acknowledge as existing at all (and which will be argued for some over others throughout the seminars). Some have conjectured that these questions were dealt with when we closed the file on postmodernism and globalization. Those files are not closed. 

Nonetheless, it as an operating system that is fluidly co-extensive with forms of late capitalism today. Contemporary art as a field, is a symptom and a desire of global liberal machinery, and its governing axioms have proliferated over two or more decades, coinciding with broader political and economic shifts. Yet, contemporary art is at a juncture where it requires a systemic reevaluation. It paradoxically, however, believes it is the critique. All the while escaping regulation, forcing atomization, ignoring the possibility that it is the morphological present of art pasts (coalitions, unions, solidarities, modes of production, even political-economic critiques), facilitating neoliberal operations through its institutions, while its complex dominion could be weaponized – for those across disciplines who care to so and who do attempt to do so – through various strategies including collective design, visualization, regulation, and other devices. To understand and to confront some of the paradoxes at the heart of transnational art today, we diagnose and evaluate in the seminars a number of authors and art players already engaged in this due process.

Since Marx, there have been attempts across disciplines to resolve what characterizes the base-superstructure relation between economic, material substructure and political, legal, artistic, and ideological subsequent edifice. We attempt to transpose this methodologically to contemporary art. We chime in with those proposing a rethinking and critical assessment of contemporary art, its transnational globality (i.e. depots, fairs, biennials, spaces, galleries, transnational capitalist class), its relation to time (futurity, hauntology, pastiche) as well as its declared and undeclared edicts (indeterminacy, openness, globality-locality, criticality, post-‘historicality’, and so on). We engage with the temporal, philosophical and political-economic elements of these propositions, and direct them away from ‘criticality’ and towards collective historical pull and yes, a universalism. 

In this seminar, we will re-evaluate and confront some operations that underpin the category of contemporary art, and we will do this through various interconnected nodes, which will be later subdivided in detail: the time of the contemporary; contemporary art’s axioms and their form(s); contemporary art and globalism; contemporary art, strategy and regulation.

Former HTDTWT tutors (Baroni, Lütticken, Vishmidt) have offered seminars on theorizations of form, speculation and intervention, and their history and traction in thought, in art and beyond. We wish to extend these contributions through a different model in these seminars. The course will be a combination of lectures, close seminar readings, case studies, and group projects, while paying attention to the art pedagogy at stake, its entanglement, the infrastructure in which it occurs, and its/our implication within the operations and economies of contemporary art.


Preliminary reading list (open to changes as the course proceeds)

Avanessian, Armen and Suhail Malik, ed. The Time Complex. Post-Contemporary. Miami: [Name], 2016. 

Beech, Amanda. “Last Rights: The Non-Tragic Image and the Law.” In The Flood of Rights edited by Thomas Keenan, Suhail Malik and Tirdad Zolghadr. New York and Berlin: Bard College and Sternberg Press, 2017.   http://www.sommerakademie.zpk.org/fileadmin/user_upload/2015/PDFs/Reading_list_by_Bassam/Amanda_Beech_Tragic_Image.pdf 

Brassier, Ray. “Prometheanism and Its Critics.” In #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader edited by Armen Avanessian and Robin Mackay. Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014.  

Cox, Christoph, Jenny Jaskey and Suhail Malik, ed. Realism Materialism Art. New York and Berlin: Bard College and Sternberg Press, 2015.  

Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: On Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. London: Zero Books, 2015.

Franke, Anselm, and Eyal Weizman. Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin and London: Sternberg Press and Forensic Architecture, 2014.

Iles, Anthony and Marina Vishmidt. “Make Whichever You Find Work.” Variant 41 (Spring 2011): 54-59.

Ivanova, Victoria. “Art’s Values: A Détente, A Grande Plié.” Parse Journal 2 (November, 2015).http://parsejournal.com/article/arts-values-a-detente-a-grand-plie/ 

Jameson, Fredric. “Aesthetics of Singularity.” New Left Review 92, (March-April 2015): 101-132.

Lee, Pamela M. Forgetting the Art World. MIT Press, 2012.

Khatib, Sami. “No Future: The Space of Capital and the Time of Dying.” In Former West: Art and the Contemporary After 1989 edited by Maria Hlavajova and Simon Sheikh. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017.

Malik, Suhail. On Art’s Necessary Exit from Contemporary Art. Falmouth: Urbanomic, forthcoming.

Malik, Suhail. “Ape Says No.” Redhook Journal, June, 2013. http://www.bard.edu/ccs/redhook/ape-says-no/ 

Mansoor, Jaleh. Marshall Plan Modernism: Italian Postwar Abstraction and the Beginnings of Autonomia. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016. 

Osborne, Peter. Anywhere or Not At All: The Philosophy of Contemporary Art. London: Verso Books, 2013. 

Sewell, William H. “The Temporalities of Capitalism.” Socio-Economic Review 6, (April 2008): 517–537. 

Singleton, Benedict. “(Notes Toward) Speculative Design.” In Speculative Aesthetics edited by Robin Mackay, Luke Pendrell and James Trafford. Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014. 

Steyerl, Hito. “Duty-Free Art.” E-flux Journal #63, March 12, 2015. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/63/60894/duty-free-art/

Toscano, Alberto and Jeff Kinkle. Cartographies of the Absolute. London: Zero Books, 2015. 

Williams, Raymond. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” New Left Review I-82 (November-December 1973): 3-16. 

Zolghadr, Tirdad. Traction: An Applied and Polemical Attempt to Locate Contemporary Art. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016.