Hierarchies of hardship (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 15)
This is the fifteenth instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH
Hierarchies of hardship
By Sara Blaylock
I find myself taking walks to add variety to my day. After more than two years of living in my neighborhood, which is close enough to my job that I walk there multiple times a week, I am for the first time attuned to such things as the contents of my neighbors’ gardens or the stages of their house projects, the way the weather will change the behavior of our local birds, and the slow progress of spring as it appears on the deciduous trees. Chives come first, then rhubarb. Crows enjoy a grey day; seagulls prefer moisture. Grackles have black iridescent bodies, cluck a bit like chickens, and will eat small birds and minnows if given the chance. When it’s sunny, I can discern the scent of a magnolia tree from a safe social distance of six feet.
Of late, I have also found myself a regular visitor to a construction site. It’s a daily dose of theater to watch cranes as tall as dinosaurs lower steel beams onto platforms, front loaders unleash rubble into dump trucks, or cement mixers steadily turn.
I have come to think of the construction site as the major cultural touchstone of my day. Its subjects are riveting, the changes constant, and the mechanisms profound. Really: that brachiosaurus-sized crane puts time into perspective, making more tangible the way the world may have looked when it teemed with life at that scale.
My neighborhood is likewise more exciting when I allow observation to be not only a way to pass the time but a method to make sense of its passing. The yards are beginning to be raked and mulched, making way for daffodils and hostas. The fishing boats are filling driveways. The scent of charcoal has begun to waft from back decks and patios. The calls of ships as their captains hail the lift bridge have returned to our daily soundscape.
Within the smallest scale of my world, as the eyes of my twin newborns begin to widen, my toddler––at home with us full time––is gradually transforming into a little kid.
Even with all this change I’m freshly attuned to, I still find this time exceedingly repetitive. The certainty of how each day will pass contradicts the uncertainty of the future but gives little comfort when I am at my most morose. This is not a confession of depression. To the contrary, it is a confession of the embarrassment I feel at not being able to rise to the pandemic occasion with more grace and self-awareness.
I live in a mid-sized city in the northern reaches of the American Midwest. I have an objectively easy life. I am not threatened by the pandemic; I am inconvenienced by it. My boredom is a sign of privilege. This has become a daily mantra, a reminder that pulls me away from a listless moment and back to the lilac buds growing from a plant that only two months ago quaked under the remains of three feet of snow and ice.
May 9th, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02
Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”
Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”
Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”
Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”
Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”
November 7th, 2020
David Graeber (1961-2020) on What Would It Take (from his The Democracy Project. A History, a Crisis, a Movement, 2013, p. 193): “We have little idea what sort of organizations, or for that matter, technologies, would emerge if free people were unfettered to use their imagination to actually solve collective problems rather than to make them worse. But the primary question is: how do we even get there? What would it take to allow our political and economic systems to become a mode of collective problem solving rather than, as they are now, a mode of collective war?”
September 7th, 2020
T.J. Demos on why cultural practitioners should never surrender, via tranzit.sk: “For artists, writers, and curators, as art historians and teachers, the meaning-production of an artwork is never finished, never fully appropriated and coopted, in my view, and we should never surrender it; the battle over significance is ongoing. We see that battle rise up in relation to racist and colonial monuments these days in the US, the UK, and South Africa. While the destruction of such monuments results from and is enabling of radical politics, it’s still not enough until the larger institutions that support and maintain their existence as well as the continuation of the politics they represent are also torn down. This is urgent as well in the cultural sphere, including the arts institutions, universities, art markets, discursive sphere of magazines and journals, all in thrall to neoliberalism, where we must recognize that it’s ultimately inadequate to simply inject critical or radical content into these frameworks, which we know excel at incorporating those anti-extractivist expressions into further forms of cultural capital and wealth accumulation. What’s required is more of the building of nonprofit and community-based institutions, organizing radical political horizons and solidarity between social formations.”
August 21st, 2020