Fillip 18 — Spring 2013

A Postscript to Creative Destruction
Liz Park, Tim Saltarelli, and Kristina Scepanski

Creative Destruction was an exhibition curated by Denisse Andrade, Liz Park, Tim Saltarelli, and Kristina Scepanski, Helena Rubinstein Curatorial Fellows of the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program from 2011 to 2012. Held at the Kitchen in New York, May 24–June 16, 2012, it presented the work of Melanie Gilligan, Hans Haacke, Alfredo Jaar, Liz Magic Laser, Raqs Media Collective, Kerri Reid, SUPERFLEX, and Fred Wilson. Over the course of the exhibition, five discursive events explored the term “creative destruction” and looked at three key areas—the realm of public space, cultural production, and economics—that were under critical public re-evaluation in the wake of the global financial crisis. This text provides an overview of the project and the curatorial process, as well as the occasion for continued conversations that have taken place between the curators and a number of artists who took part in the public programs.

Our curatorial process began in September 2011, a few days before a group of protesters started occupying Liberty Plaza in New York. Over the next few months, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) took shape as a movement and its activities not only fed discussions in the media and among the people on the street and in their homes, but also the development of our exhibition concept. Analysis of current events took up a large part of our weekly curatorial meetings, as did theoretical examinations of key critical concepts including ideology, articulation, and appropriation. In particular, we focused on the concept of rearticulation—a term British cultural theorist Stuart Hall elaborates in “Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates.”1 Hall’s theories of signification and representation provided a more nuanced outlook on OWS, along with the chants, signage, leaflets, and other modes of self-expression in circulation that we witnessed. These various forms of communication function in a process that Hall describes as an operation of encoding and decoding, which can be meaningful only within a shared set of codes. Hall proposes that the complex interactions of such signifying practices can be more productively negotiated in terms of articulation rather than as determined responses within a set of systematic and normative rules of society. He defines articulation as a necessary but arbitrary fixing of meaning in a discursive field characterized by a plurality of different social practices.2 This arbitrary fixing of meaning is highly ideological.

OWS provided numerous examples of negotiations that occur when one performs a particular articulation. For instance, the chant “This is what democracy looks like!” is an articulation in a Hallian sense. The nebulous term “this” (often referring to a mass gathering of people and their collective voice), the concept of democracy, and the declaration of its visible manifestation: these parts jointly perform an effective articulation of solidarity. Yet, leaving aside the much larger question of what democracy is or looks like, a gathering of people is not inherently democratic. It was rather the practice of articulating—the process of pinning down these vague terms through collective, physical actions—that gave the chant its power.

The central tenet of Hall’s text is that the process of articulation occurs within ideologies, which he defines, by paraphrasing Louis Althusser’s well-known thesis, as “systems of which men and their imaginary relations to the real conditions of existence.” Because there exist various ideologies, or systems of representation that contest one another, Hall argues rearticulation as a practice becomes a site of ideological struggle even as it operates within a field of shared common terms and points of reference. In rearticulation, a sign is decoupled from its referent, which is then put together in an unexpected context in the shifting chains of signification. It seemed to us that OWS’s greatest victory was garnered in discursive battles where phrases such as “We are the 99%!” and “Banks got bailed out. We got sold out.” clearly played off different systems of language—one of political economy and another of labour organizing. These rearticulations were effective in driving straight to the core of the problem that Occupiers were protesting: namely, economic inequality in neoliberal capitalism. This concept of economic inequality had become naturalized to the extent that common sense seemed to dictate that not everyone can or will have access to education, housing, or social and health care.

This theoretical discussion grounded our curatorial research in artistic practices that resonated with the political and cultural climate in New York at the time. In acknowledging rearticulation as a practice that can come from anywhere on the political spectrum, we focused specifically on the moment when this common sense unravels, and economic inequality is no longer in “the regime of the ‘taken for granted.’”3 In our research, we came across historical examples that the current economic situation echoed. One was a photograph of a May Day 1911 parade memorializing the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that claimed the lives of one hundred and forty-six women, mostly immigrants, who were unable to escape the fire because the building doors had been locked by management to prevent theft. In another, black residents wait in a food ration line in front of a mural depicting a smiling white American family and declaring, “World’s Highest Standard of Living,” in Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph The Louisville Flood (1937). These are two examples of the historical and contextual insertions we made in the exhibition and the catalogue. Presented in the context of our curatorial project, with OWS as its larger sociopolitical backdrop, these images, along with the texts that explicated them, became part of our contestation over the naturalized acceptance of economic inequality that divides along race and gender lines.

We titled this overall project of rearticulation Creative Destruction. Originally a concept described in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto (1848), creative destruction refers to capitalism’s inherent tendency to create new wealth by destroying the previous economic order and devaluing existing wealth. Taken up in postwar America by Joseph Schumpeter as a model of economic innovation through technological advancement,4 the term is evoked by neoliberals to legitimate such predatory practices as downsizing and restructuring to turn a profit at the expense of the workers. One of the key concepts missed by blind adherents of creative destruction is that it will run its perpetual cycle of devaluation and creation of new, greater wealth until the eventual collapse of the system itself.

The popular sentiment OWS expressed is that we have arrived at this point of collapse. It has been over a year since the movement started. Physically displaced and discursively dispersed, OWS has become a proper noun but no settled collective self-definition has yet emerged. Perhaps it never will. Some attribute the power of the movement to precisely this lack of definition. For the Fall 2012 issue of October, the editors solicited responses “to the character, effects, aesthetics, and politics of the OWS movement,” asking, “How has OWS affected your daily life and your political activities, and how have you affected it?”5 While this questionnaire attempts to delineate the contours of OWS, the polyphony of responses points to the difficulty of speaking about the movement that has yet to be put to rest. This difficulty also underlies the assessment of our own project, which we conceptualized as one of many countering voices that constitute OWS in its nebulous, mutable form.

This text, written six months after our exhibition, is in itself a rearticulation of the project. As the United States government was working on the fiscal cliff deal (a clear sign of the progressing instability of the current economic system), we resumed our curatorial meetings to discuss what aspects of the project continue to resonate or operate differently in the rapidly evolving languages of art and politics. Two quotes from the abovementioned issue of October stood out in our consideration. In her response to the questionnaire, art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson asks, “Which imaginings do we privilege” amid many searing images of the movement?6 In a roundtable conversation, Silvia Kolbowski states, “As an artist, I articulated the need to consider the productive limits facing artistic engagement” in the context of anti-fracking activities in her part-time community by the Delaware River.7 Taking cues from these judicious comments, we ask how we imagine our project, not only in the past, but in the current moment and thereafter. What are the limits to our curatorial engagement with the larger political question of economic inequality, and how have our imaginings intersected with what is happening globally at this moment in late capitalism?

We reached out to three interlocutors from the public program component of our project—Matthew Buckingham, Liz Magic Laser, and Graham Parker—to collectively explore these questions in conversation. Buckingham, Laser, and Parker perform, respectively, speculative history, collective re-enactments, and the transfiguration of subjects in their work. In so doing, they helped us look twice at the underlying politico-economic assumptions that govern the subjects of their work—urban renewal in Buckingham’s case, the public performance of labour and politics in Laser’s practice, and Parker’s attentive deconstruction to reassembly of scams such as SPAM e-mails into an artistic rearticulation. These conversations will appear online, while this issue of Fillip includes a transcript of Buckingham’s conversation with Marxist geographer David Harvey.

— Liz Park, Tim Saltarelli, and Kristina Scepanski

  1. Stuart Hall, “Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 2, no. 2 (June 1985), 91–114.
  2. It is important to note that Hall’s use of the term “social practice” well precedes the recent turn toward socially engaged art practice. By using this term, Hall refers to the need for a continual exercise or practice of one’s meaning-making faculty in order to think through the complexity of everyday language and actions within various ideological and structural determinations.
  3. Hall, “Signification, Representation, Ideology,” 105.
  4. Joseph Schumpeter, “The Process of Creative Destruction,” in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Routledge, 2003), 81–86.
  5. David Joselit and Carrie Lambert-Beatty, introduction to October, no. 142 (Fall 2012), 27.
  6. Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Response,” October, no. 142 (Fall 2012), 37.
  7. Silvia Kolbowski, “Roundtable: The Social Artwork,” October, no. 142 (Fall 2012), 75.
About the Authors

Liz Park is a curator and writer committed to creating discursive spaces and generating forums to engage an audience with discussions of contemporary political and social realities. She received an MA in Art History/Curatorial Studies at the University of British Columbia. In 2011–12, she was Helena Rubinstein Fellow in the Curatorial Program at the Whitney Independent Study Program. She recently received the Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellowship at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

Tim Saltarelli is a curator and writer who has organized exhibitions in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In 2011–12, he was Helena Rubinstein Fellow in the Curatorial Program at the Whitney Independent Study Program. Presently, he is a curatorial advisor to the Frame section of the Frieze Art Fair.

Kristina Scepanski received her MA in Art History, German, and English Philology at the University of Cologne in 2009. She has worked for the European Kunsthalle in Cologne, a discursive platform without a physical location, and the Kunstverein in Düsseldorf. In 2011–12, she was Helena Rubinstein Fellow in the Curatorial Program at the Whitney Independent Study Program. Since 2013 she has been Director of Westfälischer Kunstverein in Münster.

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