SPACES | APRIL 6 – June 10, 2018 (Pittsburgh)
It seems apropos that upon entering an exhibition celebrating Karl Marx’s bicentennial birthday at SPACES in Pittsburgh, one is greeted with the acrid stench of industrial smog and the clamor of grinding gears; after all, Pittsburgh—the tarnished buckle on the rust belt—is still haunted by William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” now long abandoned in favor of cheap international labor. Marx’s place in popular culture seems to oscillate between reductive claims dismissing his thinking as either a dated product of nineteenth century utopian thinking or a complete dismissal due to lingering and misplaced Cold War hysteria, while more common among many academics and artists is the tacit acceptance that pretty much all the worst shit he predicted has come.
Curated by Carnegie Mellon University professors Kathy M. Newman and Susanne Slavick, the ambitious Marx@200 exhibition contains an eclectic group of 37 artists and art groups that explore the ideas of this polarizing figure. Far more than a quaint recognition of Marx’s resurgent popularity following the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Newman and Slavick embedded their exhibition within a wider exploration of Marx’s legacy that was included among several events sponsored by the Humanities Center at CMU, comprised of several symposia, workshops, and performances. Including chronically underrepresented women and artists of color, numerous local and emerging artists of this diverse assemblage found company among the usual fellow travelers like Mel Chin, Cao Fei, Claire Fontaine, Coco Fusco, Alfredo Jaar, Steven Lambert, Raqs Media Collective, Pedro Reyes, and Dread Scott.
The ambient stink and clamor of industry that greets visitors aren’t remainders of the city’s manufacturing past but instead part of Blake Fall-Conroy’s contribution. Modeled after an incinerator in a low-income neighborhood in Baltimore, the matte black scale model of Factory Wheelabrator Baltimore (2017) belches out diminutive clouds of oily smoke in regular intervals, reminding us that environmental issues are inexorably tied to issues of race and class. Looking something like a Victorian-era arcade game, Fall-Conroy’s Minimum Wage Machine (2012) embodies the alienation of low-wage jobs. Besides emitting the sound of poorly meshing gears, cranking the handle doles out a steady and pathetic stream of pennies exactly calibrated to equal the $7.25 of Pennsylvania’s minimum wage. Popular with young audiences, whose useful enthusiasm for kinetic participation and seemingly free money soon evaporated, this piece enacted an almost alchemical demystification, transforming enchantment to alienated labor in the blink of an eye.
Around the corner from Conroy’s Minimum Wage Machine, one finds rust as both an indexical stain of time and as a material process in the work of Jina Valentine and Kiluanji Kia Henda. Growing up in Angola, Kiluanji Kia Henda documents the rusting hulks of abandoned ships he encountered on the beaches at Praia de Santiago. One such ship, the Karl Marx, Luanda (2006), was bequeathed to the then communist country of Angola to cement a collective fishing relationship with the Soviet Union. A large-scale photograph of the monolithic aft of the boat bearing the faded inscription of its name is sandwiched between two other close proximity prints of decaying metal surfaces, a ponderous reminder of communism’s very active history in the world. Valentine’s Memoranda (NYSE:GEO) reproduces three disturbingly banal memos that paved the way for the privatization of federal prisons. Printed on textured handmade paper, the memos document the incestuous relationship between private corporations and the carceral state, drawing attention to the racial disparities that are fundamental to correctional facilities. On the reverse of these revealing memos, delicate graphs written in iron gall ink trace the swelling earnings reports for these companies which, over time, will bleed through and oxidize, exposing the institutional complicity of this new era of Jim Crow.
Moments of levity abound, and several pieces, such as those by William Powhida, Michael Mallis, Christin Lahr, Tavia La Follette, Andrew Ellis Johnson, Ottmar Horl, Joshua Bienko, Imen Yeh, and Claire Fontaine, vacillate between absurdist humor and radical critique. Powhida straddles this balance in Solidarity Economies (2014), a suite of four elegantly drawn diagrams that proliferate with wonky hand-drawn fonts. These maps depict the artworld as a pyramid scheme that meshes seamlessly with neoliberal financialization, reproducing labor, class, and race divisions while also simultaneously pointing towards what an alternative system of solidarity could look like.
In CMU Professor Paolo Pedercini’s satirical video game To Build a Better Mousetrap (2014) you begin as an amiable but nervous mouse who, after putting on a cat mask takes up the mantle of corporate CEO, managing a complex ecosystem of researcher and laborer mice; give them too much and you go bankrupt, too little and they perform a cheerful chorus line dance while the word INSURRECTION flashes across the screen. Just as Marx pointed out, if you want to survive as a capitalist in the competitive marketplace, you are obligated to screw over your workers lest they endanger your profitability. That this lesson emerges slowly through immersive game play and endearingly cute animations made it one of the more popular and pointed attractions.
Committed to reframing the exhibition as a site of local engagement, Newman and Slavick invited representatives from Pittsburgh’s very active chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to host a series of public meetings in conjunction with the exhibition. As the largest socialist group in America, DSA membership during the Trump administration has increased by over 500% and they’re organizing councils and supporting candidates throughout the country. The emancipatory possibility of communism can seem like a tragic farce in light of the 20th century’s brutal history, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who believes that a communist utopia is guaranteed by dialectical materialism and the inherent contradictions of communism. However, properly freed from the chains of eschatology, hope—in the form of radical experimentation with everyday practices and affiliations—is an absolute necessity for reframing the horizon of possibility beyond capitalism.
Matthew Friday is professor of critical studies and graduate coordinator at SUNY New Paltz. He is also a member of the ecosystem design and consultation group SPURSE.