THE POLITICS OF THINGS
JOSHUA SIMON with Orit Gat
In the past few years, the Tel Aviv–based curator Joshua Simon has initiated a number of exhibitions, articles, and talks that engage his interest in communist perspectives and debating new materialist thinking, as described mainly by Jane Bennett and Quentin Meillaussoux. In a new book, Neomaterialism (Sternberg Press, 2013) Simon delineates a political reading of so-called thing theories in relation to contemporary art. Art Books in Review contributor Orit Gat talked with Simon about exhibitions, artistic production, the current economic situation, and the way the trio influence and energize each other.
Orit Gat (Rail): Let’s start with the theoretical background of the book. Why do you think the art world is so attracted to object-oriented ontology?
Joshua Simon: I think the art world is trying to activate anti-political thinking on art, which is something that is social in its inception. As opposed to the critique of exploitation, one can see in this interest another version of the critique of alienation: how do we communicate with things. This writing is so popular because we need to find a way to disconnect the thing from the reality in which it was created in order to turn it into a commodity. It would seem to me that this denial of the social is symptomatic of the art world post-2008 financial crisis.
Rail: How do you contribute to this conversation?
Simon: A dialectical reading that is not inherent to said conversation, especially in the insistence on the commodity as a category that precedes the actual thing. In Marx’s idea of the commodity, it has use and exchange values, but it is by definition the result of labor. It is the materialization of relationships. For example, the social relations between me and all the people who made the cell phone I use: the designers, the miners, and factory workers who made it, the guy who sold it to me. I don’t know them personally, but the commodity is the materialization of our relation. This originates in Marx’s Capital but on the other hand, my analysis also refers to Maurizio Lazzarato’s ideas of the current debt economy. These things are directly related to art. Take Marcel Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” as an example. He made it in 1913, the same year that Henry Ford invented the assembly line for the model T, essentially breaking work apart so that each person makes one part of the product and no one makes a thing. The readymade is born into the world of this rationalization of labor. Since no one can make something alone anymore, the moment of display—the exhibition—is when you can claim ownership to something.
Rail: And the outcome of this thinking is evident in contemporary art.
Simon: Yes, because if the substantial moment for the work is that of the display, then the artist needs a whole apparatus in order to make the thing that he or she makes into art. The fact that what an artist makes today can’t be considered art without a curator, an exhibition space, and institutions that validate through its display, an artwork led to the professionalization of art for artists, who now need a B.F.A. and M.F.A. for the residency circuit and to be considered professional artists. This also applies to curators, who now operate with the concerns of art history and the history of management. The readymade seemed liberating—because it freed the artist from the chains of specific expectations—but on the other hand, it also institutionalized us.
Rail: It seems logical to align the politics of professionalization with the history of labor.
Simon: The context of and the reality in which said professionalization shoots up is in the debt economy. The M.F.A. today also means student loans—the debt economy is inherently linked to the interaction between people and things. The thing is a plasticization of a negative space, that of debt, and no longer solely of alienation. I recently read a criticism of object-oriented ontology as a certain failure of the left, that our leftist thinking brought us to the point where even our subjectification is a way to subordination. So the object-oriented ontology becomes an expression of the idea that we failed in our critique of human beings. So let’s remove humans from the equation and look at something else. I think the way to look at these theories is as possible answers—now the task is determining the questions these theories are trying to resolve. For me, the questions underlining new materialist thinking involve labor, as it has moved from production to consumption, reaching beyond the employment market.
Rail: You mention post-2008. I would actually think about these things in the context of the Occupy movement and artists who work in the context of corporations, like Simon Denny’s focus on the tech industry or Haim Steinbach’s “It All Started with a Mouse” that reacts to Disney.
Simon: I totally agree. In these works, a certain interest and sensibility fits in the context of the Occupy movement. I read texts that suggest they are apolitical and convenient for a stylized popular reading as a sort of rehearsal for the barricade, a precursor for a revolution. In Occupy the Ports, which took place on the West Coast of the U.S. in December of 2011, for example, people used objects to block other objects. They blocked ships’ containers with barrels and plywood surfaces. It’s like the objects were at war—the barricade in front of the container. And it closely echoes Allan Sekula’s movie, The Forgotten Space (2010). Even if the new materialists had completely differing intentions, their work could be read as a symptom of the same animistic political economy that birthed the Supreme Court decision that corporations are nonhuman persons. The question is, “What is human?” The new materialists taught us that any object is a medium: vintage is a medium for a certain lifestyle, an iPad tells you about its owner’s aspirations, and so on. In Marxist theory this was always true because the commodity is a medium of the social relation with every person who made it.
Rail: Do you see a reflection of the current economy in contemporary art production?
Simon: We can no longer say that art represents the world. Art has, in a way, become the model of the economical-political reality today. In post-studio practice, the mode of production moved from something that is close to small-scale industry of the self-employed craftsman (the way a carpenter has a workshop where he produces things, the artist has a studio) to just-in-time production, where the artist works per project. So you must initiate the project and keep low-intensity collegial relationships with those in the art world who may help you bring said project to fruition. You then must get a project budget, produce the project within the budget, and also fund your labor. Many professions have moved this way and the art world was like a testing ground for these kinds of economic shifts.
Rail: In the acknowledgements of the book, you thank numerous colleagues who worked with you on a variety of curatorial projects related to the theme of the book. How has your curatorial work affected your thinking?
Simon: While this book is based on certain ideas that developed in the tradition of institutional critique, it’s not written in the tradition of this criticism, because institutional critique remains inside the art institution. The book is related to the art world by professional field. But I also see curating as related to Leninist ideas on the creation of a political reality. The readymade is a good example: when you’re showing something, you’re not showing the thing per se, something else appears in its display. “The Fountain” (1917) is not there in the context of a showerhead: Duchamp has taken it out of the history of plumbing and placed it in the history of painting.
ORIT GAT is a contributing editor (print and publishing) for Rhizome. She writes about art for other places, too.