Cauleen Smith

The difficulty of communicating visually to effect political change in late-stage capitalism. Advertising is our predominate visual language. Images compete for attention as if they are goods in a market. Artists, anxious to sustain their careers and probably equally sincere in their political ideals, navigate between responding to crisis and making a novel product. What they produce ends up being somewhere between an advertisement/product (what are they advertising?), an actual attempt to move toward a more just society (however so defined), and something of a pop-culture folk craft.

Of course we’re going to get creative with face masks. But why would the sharing of that activity be expressed in the language of advertisement? Why would we compete to be identified as having done something novel with the face mask? The result looks like an attempt to capitalize on a crisis, which would obviously be in bad taste (not to mention revealing that capitalism has no conceivable limit), but is that the intent? In an attention economy, where algorithms determine which images are popular enough to stand out, how could anything other than a glamour shot representation of the face mask emerge? Could it be that artists who don’t speak in the language of advertisement risk having their voices stifled, thus eliminating their ability to express themselves politically in the first place?

Well that would be discouraging…

Both of the two above images were used to protest the Vietnam War. One is an advertisement. The other is not.

Last Saturday, the stress really got to me, so I tossed my phone on the bed, left my Apple Watch on its charger, and went to the basement, where I made a cozy nest of blankets and put on some headphones. I proceeded to play Animal Crossing: New Horizons on my Nintendo Switch for the next 12 hours straight. It was the best thing I’ve done for my mental health this year.

It could be easy to frame Animal Crossing as an indulgent way to avoid reality, especially sinister insofar as it is, ultimately, just a product. First, off, It is never wrong to take care of your mental health. Second, as much as we should always be engaged in the effort to reach a more equitable society, what exactly is the proper form of work right now? Staying at home and not going out is, currently, a social virtue. What should people be doing at home? If they should be engaged in some form of cultural labor for the betterment of society, what form should that take? In this exhibition, I choose to be utopian and focus on the possible good to be found in a post-COVID world, but I’m not even convinced how transformative this will actually be (though I always think it’s worth putting something out there). I don’t know if anyone could convince me that the path forward is clear for anybody. What is clear is that we are normally a hyper-individualistic society and that we are work-obsessed. Right now we can’t work as we had before and we can’t organize gatherings in social space (unless you are a Republican and you believe reality actually is a video game in which you are the protagonist). So… I’m not seeing it as the worst thing in the world that a large number of people are actually experiencing what it’s like to stop working, and that Animal Crossing in particular is a game that simulates (a very specific version of) the social. And Animal Crossing’s success seems to be paralleled by an increase in web hang-outs. Honestly, I’ve been in contact with more friends since the quarantine started than ever before. It seems the circumstance is causing people to consider the value of community now that it’s elusive. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone. Without being focused on one’s individual projects, it’s more likely one will call a friend. What we’re being asked to do is to stop being productive. Can we cope with that?

Anyways, Animal Crossing is beautiful. Let people enjoy things.

Whenever one curates, s/he expresses his/her own sensibility. It’s possible to work to repress this sensibility as much as possible where negating the subjective is intended to realize a specific goal, as is the case in Encyclopedic Museums, however even here it’s not possible to achieve actual objectivity, despite the intentions of attempting to do so. A great way to overcome the dominance of the individual is to work collaboratively, an approach for which I am a strong advocate. Personally, I’m still working to learn how to mobilize others and to find spaces where collaborators are needed so I can join the team.

In the case of the present exhibition, events occurred in such a way that my individual sensibility is very much on display. I feel a great deal of responsibility right now. This exhibition is not a response to something arbitrary, and it should be evaluated with a due degree of scrutiny. But then again, I would never consider a project of mine to be something like a finished product, nor an authoritative assertion. Still, it is a public statement, and the public’s response is all that matters.

To be clear, people are actually dying due to COVID-19, and marginalized communities of which I am not a member are hit the hardest. Actual businesses are closing and real people are losing their income. I’ve never considered my practice to be non-political, but I know I am not capable of intelligently combating systemic inequality (yet). Any feedback in regards to projects that better respond to these conditions (and do so directly rather than symbolically) is highly encouraged. In fact, if you know of such a project, I want to hear about it.

What is clear is that COVID-19 has made overt that systemic inequality will become even more visible as crises emerge. Considering the ongoing environmental crisis, for which COVID-19 is the trial version, it is evident that racial minorities and lower-income people will be the first and the worst hit (and that’s not even considering people outside the US). The environmental crisis will emerge as an economic crisis before its true form of existential crisis emerges. The harm experienced particularly by black Americans is not something that should be considered contained in an isolated community. The harm they endure is the consequence of the United States’ fundamental shortcomings in regards to income inequality and its implications with a history of racism (which is why racial justice is emphasized in the language of the Green New Deal). However, so long as enough of the populace is shielded, even if artificially, from the effects of a crisis, we will assume no fundamental flaw in how we are socially organized is to blame and we will continue business as usual until it is too late. Imagining that which affects people of color as distinct from that which affects the nation at large is extremely dangerous for everyone.

I’m aware that we all have a responsibility to respond to this reality. But I do not think any of us have absolute responsibility. That outlook would be too individualistic. I’m going to lay out where my focus is, and I want to give support to those who are covering other bases.

Here’s where my focus is:

-Information overload has political consequences. Figures like Donald Trump intentionally produce information overload. Thus, learning how to operate in a dense media environment is necessary.

-The binary between nature and culture is no longer useful. Our culture is currently producing nature, like bees produce hives. Environmental action is different now that the pale blue dot is just an image among so many others. Further, COVID-19 demonstrates the capacity of so-called “nature” ( a better term is “non-human agents”) to affect culture. Learning how humans and non-humans are implicated is vital.

-No symbolic representation. Symbolic representation of individual figures inherently reinforces hierarchy and reduces human organisms to symbols.

-Community is vital. Creating platforms where community can be sustained is politically vital.

-Fun is at the heart of community. Fun is not an indulgence and sternness is not a virtue. Just because people are having fun does not determine that they do not regard the topic at hand with the appropriate seriousness.

-Collaboration is necessary. The strength of another is not a competitive threat, but an opportunity. Admitting our shortcomings precedes collaboration.

Happy about this opportunity to focus on what the internet brings into our lives- the type of culture that the internet produces and to which we need to respond. Physical infrastructure is still the end game, and the internet can only add it to rather than compensate. I miss going out.

Cauleen Smith

Many experts said one likely result of this outbreak will be an increase in populist sentiment. But it is not yet clear whether it will be leftist populism, in the style of Senator Bernie Sanders, or conservative populism, in the style of President Donald Trump. Leftist populism will likely emphasize the common struggle of the laid off, the low-paid, and the workers derided by their bosses as expendable. Meanwhile, “right populism will ask white working-class people to be in race solidarity with rich white Americans,” Betsy Leondar-Wright, a sociologist at Lasell University, said. It will perhaps lead to the scapegoating of Chinese people and other foreigners.

Which path we go down depends, first, on whom workers brand as the “elites.” Will it be the corporate CEOs who have put them in that position, or the middle-class account coordinators who have had envious quarantines by comparison? If workers’ ire is aimed at companies, they may be forced to change corporate policies accordingly. But if America’s working class decides the enemy is the professional class—the $50,000-a-year Bushwick bloggers—we may see more misplaced bitterness toward “elites” who really aren’t.

Olga Khazan, How the Coronavirus Could Create a New Working Class, The Atlantic

It is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal…to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.

H. RES. 109
Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.

Cauleen Smith

Skin has become inadequate in interfacing with reality. Technology has become the body’s new membrane of existence.

Nam Jun Paik
Nam Jun Paik, TV Buddha

“Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” -Fredric Jameson