Ben Burtenshaw: Contemporary art and the Promethean Drive

Advisor/tutor: Bassam el Baroni
Independent reviewer: Hisham Awad
Arnhem, July 2015


Contemporary art and the Promethean Drive is interested in ways that art can use prometheanism to make meaningful claims on the present, without merely gesturing, as has become the mainstay in contemporary art. Prometheanism is used to describe the claim that humans can transform and enhance themselves using their own means and knowledge. These claims are made on the present, but by capitalism, whilst the left has refrained from it. This can be attributed to contemporary Marxism’s faltering promethean drive, or modesty. Here I expand this modesty to contemporary art, which we can see through its institutionalised indeterminacy. Using navigational philosophy I attempt to tackle these relentless ‘gestures’, in order to find practical examples of how contemporary art making perpetuates them, but art making itself retains the capacity to overcome them.


At the center of Burtenshaw’s thesis is a careful consideration of the philosophical, political and aesthetic affiliations, risks, and potentialities of the Accelerationist-Promethean-Rationalist project(s). Is prometheanism an emancipatory technological and philosophical endeavor or a vector of capitalistic expansion? Is the rule and norm-generating force of rationalism constrictive or constructive? Burtenshaw mobilizes a relational third term, navigation, in order to understand the space between the local and global fields of action and thought, and in order to distinguish between vacuous dromological drive—speed—and navigation as a strategy for exploring and constructing the space of concepts. Although the work, presented here, of highlighting rhetorical and structural similarities between contemporary Marxism and contemporary art, is, at times, congested, and a bit too reliant on secondary sources, it manages to gracefully coalesce into a reading of the “gestural” deadlock of much of contemporary art and the institutional framework that both bolsters and tames it. By twinning a reading of Suhail Malik’s identification of the intentionally indeterminate contemporary art and its calculated hesitance to make meaningful claims and take political positions, with Amanda Beech’s careful diagnosis of the potential politicality of the image, Burtneshaw turns to his own artistic practice—a project entitled Running on Cruise Control—and proceeds to draw out interesting connections that evade the model of applicationism. In discussing his project, the author goes beyond the typical discussions of ‘smartwear’ as an athletic prosthesis or technology of the self, and begins, instead, to speculate on what he calls “the goal-oriented imprints” these technologies leave on the mind. Careful not to call this development Promethean-Accelerationist proper, Burtenshaw nonetheless discerns in it a kernel, however instrumentalized and domesticated, for a transformative cognitive endeavor that exits the reduction of accelerationism to science fiction.