NUNO FALEIRO RODRIGUES: Crisis and Critique in Contemporary Art II

In April 2016, the national Portuguese broadcaster showed the last weather forecast presented by a meteorologist, following the overall trend in national television broadcasting of presenting it in a short, graphic way, similar to the schematic box used by the printed press. In contrast, since the arrival of the global economic crisis to Portugal, national mass media have been sweating in order to provide daily reports about the most recent ‘moods’ of the market in the form of daily accounts of the national debt interest rate, reports on the latest credit rates on government bonds by the major rating agencies and the most recent economic forecasts by the IMF, the European Commission, World Bank, OCDE and other main international organisations. Quotidian life is not like it used to be. Now, it is not so much marked by how the weather is going to be like tomorrow, but by market indicators about the near economic future.

Several parallels have been made between the current crisis and the crises that lead to the 1st and 2nd World Wars. The most persuasive comparisons make their case beyond economy, tapping into the fields of politics and culture. Yet, amid discussions about historical repetition and oblivion, there is a distinctive characteristic of the present situation that passes mostly unnoticed. This is perhaps the first grand scale economic crisis to be fully represented through the ubiquitous means of digital media. There is virtually not one single event pertaining to the socioeconomic hiatus that is not cast, disseminated, circulated, coded, decoded and re-coded by the means of digital media.  Two global critical phenomena have therefore emerged:  the ‘real’ crisis, which exists in the economic and social sphere, and another one, which reverberates the former in the global world of numeric information. This not to say, however, that the former corresponds to the authentic crisis, its true essence, and the latter is its double, a mere digital appearance. These are, on the contrary, the two sides of the same critical time. The so-called self-fulfilling economic prophesies have become a reality not just because of the concrete power of financial speculation and the real financialisation of the economy in contemporary capitalism, but also because “the medium is the message”, and it is everywhere.

Even if in a skewed way, the response of contemporary art to the current situation reflects the double mode of existence of the crisis. There are, on the one hand, artists who desire to change the material conditions of the situation in a direct way, proposing a concrete response to the ‘real’, i.e. economic, crisis; there is, on the other hand, an indirect, and less visible, approach that takes the representation of the crisis as its artistic material, engaging with the way in which it appears in images and texts.  As we have seen, such duality is partly the result of a schism inaugurated by the classic avant-garde, which, through its collapse, positions the political and the aesthetic as the two irreconcilable faces of visual art. Certainly, political art is necessarily aesthetic and there’s no purely visual practice completely devoid of a political dimension. But the politicization of aesthetics and the aestheticisation of politics are two different and asymmetric movements, resulting in contraposing artistic practices and artworks. Contemporary art practice is pushed to take one route or the other, and the past failure of the avant-garde in articulating both movements becomes a kind of actual negative image of the continuous feedback loop occurring between the socioeconomic and the digitally mediated dimensions of the crisis.

One must take, however, these two positions as the limits of a wide spectrum pertaining to contemporary art practice where more nuanced approaches are possible. Jenny Marketou’s video The Assembly in No Particular Order (2016) is a good example of an artwork that situates itself somewhere in the middle of that range, falling into the category of political art through a reflection on current modes of media representation of critical times.

This short video gathers a variety of media archive and recorded footage that relates to recent assemblies of people that occurred in public urban spaces in Greece and elsewhere. The editing is fast paced, chaining in less than 12 minutes a vast amount of material from different sources. This is a piece that follows a long tradition, which goes back to Russian avant-garde cinema, of configuration of a correlation between the power of film montage and the prospective power of the collective; the articulated assemblage of people and of images. But the Assembly makes sure that we do not take images for people, for such correlation operates through the irreducible difference between image-content and image-form. As Marketou notes, the video piece uses the aesthetic of the “poor” image as its visual material. It shows us not so much the precarity of the numeric image that, to use Hito Steyerl’s words, “is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution”[1], but its sheer resilience; the indestructibility of a low resolution phantom that sticks, never to go away. Unlike people, the image does not die. Within the economy of the poor image, format is a powerful operator that interweaves image-form and image-content. By drawing a connection between the low resolution digital image and the destitute, lumpen and the social renegades, Steyerl situates the political potential of the former within the strand of affirmation of  the precarious cinema that emerged against visual quality of media spectacle in the era of post-imperial imperialism [2]. Seen from this angle, Júlio García Espinosa’s Por un Cine Imperfecto/For an Imperfect Cinema and Glauber Rocha’s Uma estética da fome/An Aesthetics of Hunger mark a position that predates the digital epoch and, to some extent, anticipate the ubiquity, velocity and intensity of the pauperization of the contemporary numeric image. Through the politics of cut-and-paste editing and the aesthetics of the precarious image, Marketou’s video taps into, respectively, pre and post war avant-garde cinema practices in their critical relation to the industry of moving image representation. This connection is reinforced by the sound which, according to the artist, is “a mix from interviews about the ‘assembly’ syndrome [conducted by the artist] in US and Greece with philosophers, anthropologists, art historian and architects mixed with critical theory texts and fictional narratives” that fills the length of the video. The voiceover of theory and politics  ̶  in this case, a mix of textual excerpts superimposed over a collage of media images  ̶  echoes such films as P.P. Pasolini’s La Rabbia or G. Debord’s Society of Spectacle. But if in these examples the voice of the text, the cold voice of a script being read out, responds to the stream of images as if it were the voice of a distanced Reason or God, it acquires, in the Assembly, a heighten level of estrangement as Marketou uses a voice software from Google for the voice that embodies the text. The relationship between the said and the saying, the performative dimension of the voice-over, coagulates in one plane as the digital voice flattens and petrifies the text, mortifying the written word through numeric vocal decoding. The voice is the sound coming from depths of the soul, the affective incarnation of the written word, now immobilized by the number, frozen by the binary code.  As a video-essay, The Assembly in No Particular Order is a piece about the problematic nature of the film-essay form. The quasi mechanical collage of digital images and textual sounds makes it particularly opaque to a linear articulation between text-content and image-form, blocking direct channels of reflection, expression, illustration and information. Instead, what comes to the fore is a ‘blind’ sequential chaining of audio-visual material that treats the endless flow of digital information through the wickedness of a ‘industrial’ mechanics of montage. A new analogy is forged between the public assemblies of people and the assembly line (capturing the fluidity of numeric data).

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To be continued…     

Nuno Faleiro Rodrigues


[1] Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image” in e-flux journal 10 11/2009,

[2] Steyerl conceives the poor image as inherently contradictory: it is the image of the destitute and, on the other hand, of capitalist digital commodification and abstraction.

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