It was very tempting this week for you to write about your own exhibition, which you hung at Leeds University’s ‘Wild Pansy Press Project Space’ and which can be accessed via this link (http://www.wildpansypress.com/) However, you are trying not to let your Blog become the kind of Blog that is used to grind a particular axe or to promote the work of family and friends. Rather you try to maintain a chance element regarding what ends up in your Blog and sometimes, in a busy week, that which is written about may simply be determined by the fact that it is the ONLY event you have managed to attend or the only show you have seen (apparently the seasoned NYC art critic couple Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz claim to see 30-40 shows every week, well, fair play to them, they are certainly not also both artists and busy academics struggling to pay high London overheads.
This week, as well as travelling to Leeds you also went out of London and travelled North and East to Norwich to contribute to a talk, organised at OUTPOST gallery by Martin Colthorpe’s ‘Modern Culture’, there to address the new film by Jennet Thomas titled ‘THE UNSPEAKABLE FREEDOM DEVICE.’ Other speakers were Oreet Ashery and Melanie Jackson. Thomas’ film sheds an extremely critical and satirical light on our present political condundrum. It tells a tale set in a future-medieval Britain where Margaret Thatcher is being revived as a guiding, visionary force manifest as a new technological device. The ‘device’ (a word whose etymology relates both to division / dividing and to Heraldic symbols) invokes our much-loved and ever-present smartphones, laptops and apps. Like them it promises to keep us consistently pacified while nevertheless consistently ‘prosuming’ as 21st century participants in a newly technologized form of increasingly depoliticised capitalism.
Of course this film is NOT about the past nor the future but really all about now. Our political system of supposedly representative democracy has – particularly since the Thatcher-Reagan era it might be argued – been increasingly opened up, compromised and supplantated by consumerism, technology and media with political ideas and social ideals reduced to ‘special offers’ and ‘have-now-pay-later’ deals, while political parties are reduced to messages and signs that are abstracted to such a degree that they become synonymous with little more than the predominant colour of their brand –Red, Blue, Green, Yellow etc.
However, as Thomas’ film reminds us, there is nothing merely current nor simple about the power and meaning of colours. When political messages are ‘reduced’ to colours we may be connecting to something irrational and difficult to articulate in sophisticated political language but simultaneously connecting with something ancient, animal and visceral that mysteriously motivates and accommodates basic needs and drives.
On the surface however, and for the time being, our politics claims to be a verbose contest of reasons, senses (‘common’ or otherwise), logics and arguments. The Right like to think that so-called ‘market forces’ (why must they be ‘forceful?) will always and ultimately do their best for us because they set us free to compete against one another, thereby improving our game. According to the Right (whose darlings do indeed include Margaret Thatcher as well as the even more assertive and socially destructive Ayn Rand) we can all have a go at rising to the top in society, by means of our own gumption and, of course, by exploiting and not caring about each other, if only we would shed our dreary social conscience and sensible long-term thinking and accept that life is no more than a game and the game of life is called ‘business.’ Once we are at or nearer the top any guilty conscience concerning all those we have used and abused to amass our wealth can ‘trickle down’ (as Thatcher promised) like manna from heaven in the form of ‘charity’ or volunteering, down to the less less adequate and less fortunate ‘beneath’ us (though where this confident and convenient vertical model derives from remains unclear and thus unconvincing.)
The (centre) Left, on the other hand, today tend to accept much of the above but believe in the intervention of well-meaning, rational and constructive checks and balances to provide ‘safety nets’ for the market circus and to set in place structures by means of which to at least aspire to greater equality, to more plural and more equal opportunities. But today any simplistic, 20th century-style dualism of Right and Left is rapidly fragmenting, dissolving, warping and synthesising. New colours are emerging to represent other nuances and to promote and prioritise other issues. Ideas that were once anathema to one party have become something they embrace, so that sometimes -as Thomas’ film suggests- it really does seem as if it is only colours for which we are voting for (if we vote at all) and not any kind of passionately held vision or belief.
In a climactic scene in Thomas’ film a comprehensively blued-out figure (only his eyelids and tongue remain a human pink) seems to occupy the dual role of a Steve Jobs / Mark Zuckerberg-like figure who evangelically proclaims to a revived Blackpool Conference crowd of blue-rinsed punters that Red, Blue and Green, when mixed results in a kind of uber or super Blue -the ultimate and simpler political solution, the only ‘way.’ His redemptive concoction is symbolised by and made available within the ‘Thatcher Device’ vailable as an ‘upgrade’ he is promoting. One rebellious member of the audience protests, scientifically and logically, that in-fact RGB mixed together produce White and not Blue, and yet, even in this short-lived moment of solitary triumph we, the audience also discern that White is just another colour, expropriated by commercial design and today representing the significant, apolitical and quasi-religious force of Apple’s purified gadgets and temple-like stores, where acolytes do indeed queue all night (as they might outside the Vatican) to be re-anointed and re-branded with each new ‘device’ that promises to further divide, rule and pacify.
Thomas’ film uses an artist’s special ‘lens’, ‘filter’ or perspective to see through our current complexity and remind us of the unpleasant fact that a democracy ‘hollowed-out’ by market, media and technology leaves us open to the likelihood that something other-than-democratic threatens to step-in to the resulting vacuum, promising to provide simpler answers and a ‘way’ ‘forward’ for a society that, despite its belief in shopping, technology and media remains in need of guidance, meaning and organisation, still reliant on some form of ‘vision’ and ‘representation’ to keep chaos at bay. Unless of course we really are so satisfied and replete with our current scenario that we are happy to see Apple, Amazon, Facebook etc. as a sufficient compensation and replacement for political representation (note the way in which ‘political’ is being changed into a dirty word, a troublesome way of thinking that intrudes on our consumerist dream-state.)
Let politicians do what they will, you are happy to spend several hours of each day uploading and exchanging details of your daily life, and this gradually becomes sufficient as a ‘voice’ and a mode of representation. You may not vote but you are being heard, seen and felt, and thus you are ‘represented’ in representing yourself. For better or worse, and religions aside, this state of affairs does seem to be a likely prognosis. Considering a history of technologies, marketisation and media, and considering the ways in which politics has been affected by them suggests threatens or promises that the near future of a soporific post-political, post-society may yet be more divided than ever by the individuating effects of consumerist devices that enter your pockets, ears and eyes, your home, lunch and entire life while subtly marketising, technologizing and mediating every minute and mode of your existence.
King-maker Rupert Murdoch determined to a large extent several of the most recent British elections which elected ‘business-friendly, quasi-Thatcherite leaders and policies. The current and future elections are more likely to be swayed by the legacy and influence of Zuckerberg, Jobs et al. And so, today, Jennet Thomas’ very entertaining, incisive, inventive and highly provocative (i.e. quietly seething) film suggests that the hyper-modern future promises us only something like a return to Baronial serfdom, in which we have lost or meekly surrendered the ‘modern’ privilege and enfranchisement of ‘democracy’ (won by revolution) and been returned to a ‘lumpen-proletarian’ state shorn of modern rights and voices and once again subject to a tiny, ruling, distant, invisible and untouchable elite (the baronial ‘1%’ of bankers, company directors etc.) Thus we once again buckle down to willingly wear marks, livery and brands, and to mindlessly repeat the slogans promoted by our more or less benevolent benefactors, without any mind or power of our own with which to hope to challenge or change the system or shape of our society.
Then again, ‘THE UNSPEAKABLE FREEDOM DEVICE’ also makes clear that, the image of Thatcher, now seared into the culture as a philosophy (consumer-ism) and as an iconic image, leaves us once-savaged-twice-shy, in that we may be no-longer able to trust in any such personality cults or promissory political narratives. Thankfully, resistance still exists and persists (albeit against great odds) in the deconstruction (Thomas’ film is one example) of all that is and the promotion of alternatives (the film ends with a continued journey and thus allows for hope.) Perhaps it is even welcome that a public so self-aware of the minutiae of its everyday life -as are today’s Instagrammers and facebookers- can no-longer take seriously the 20th-centry style postures and promises of politicians. Perhaps there is, after all, a kind of enfranchisement and empowerment, a kind of ‘immanent’ politics in that apprently mindless activity (some Asian religions spend a lifetime in search of such a ‘no-mind’ condition.) T
This is the 21st century crowd after all, no-longer a crowd led by ideas but increasingly individuated and led by sensations. This has to be addressed and accommodated by any ethical project that seeks to avert the disasters that have resulted from other forms of political vacuum. This is not the 20th century and Thomas is surely right that we are lost somewhere both pre-modern and post-modern and yet neither, but certainly bereft of modern orientations like a viable and reliable form of democratic representation. Things are changing very fast indeed, and not only in the research workshops of Silicon Valley. Thomas’ film, and the consequent discussion at OUTPOST gallery Norwich this week, go some way to forcing us to confront these difficult, urgent and important changes.