marxism today and other stories

Oh sweet irony. Here’s Ubu’s takedown notice for Phil Collins’ ‘marxism today’. That’s the spirit, Phil: http://is.gd/Rfc7kY

-UBU Web tweet 21.04.2012

I subscribe to the website UBU web, a database of resources dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde. Stuff that you can only read about like artist videos and sound art as well as docs about it, are all here. The big problem with a lot of this art, esp the film stuff is that you can’t actually see it. It’s limited edition in collections and you can’t see it. Unlike normal movies they are not mass distributed.

So we have to take the word of the academics and curators that it is important., But we never get to see it, so how do we know?

Obviously this state of affairs cannot continue and UBU has stepped into the breach by offering the work on its website as a non-profit, advertising free, free to access, educational resource. Ubu’s website state right on the front page that “All materials on UbuWeb are being made available for noncommercial and educational use only. All rights belong to the author(s). UbuWeb is completely free. ” Examples of the riches on UBU – the films of Amos Poe, which I have been trying to get on DVD for years to no avail.  Or Merce Cunningham, Nam June Paik & John Cage talking about time and space concepts in music and visual art(1978) . I mean, wow.

It often happens that artist or their agents/representatives do request that UBU observe their copyright and take the work down.  This is quite sad because it means that people, especially students and researchers, can’t get access to the work. However it is their right, and rights are rights. Artist should have the ownership of their work, make no mistake. And if they don’t want to share it online, so be it.

Sometimes however, this creates unforeseen ironies, and it so it is in the case of the British artist Phil Collins, whose work “Marxism today” which purported to dissect the legacy of Marxist Leninism, and was shown together with a proper academic conference with proper british academics, at the BFI. Aside from the ludicrousness of the scenario it made me laugh that Collins’s interest in the theory of  use-value was limited to exploiting it, and the people he used in the film, for his own benefit. The film, well-supported (the BFI cites co-commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella, Cornerhouse, Abandon Normal Devices, Berliner Künstlerprogramm/DAAD and Berlin Biennale; impressive) has wafted around various art spaces, another glossy little addition to the spectacle.

But Collins and his gallery thoroughly objected to UBU putting this work online for all to see. As I said it’s their right, but if this work had ANY serious intent whatsoever, of  making any impact on any reasonably large number of people (for example those not in London) then the UBU option – low resoloution internet video as it is, could have done that – made people think: about socalism, about history about otherness etc. etc.

In a Guardian review the writer Stuart Jeffrey – who liked  the projecct – says “Perhaps this new work will deepen the renewed interest in Marxism prompted by our global recession and scepticism about capitalism. Maybe it’s all part of a movement championed by philosopher Slavoj Žižek in his new book The Idea of Communism. Žižek suggests that, now we’ve all had some nice anti-communist fun, it’s time to get serious again, time to get with the socialist programme.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/feb/06/marxist-visual-art-phil-collins)

But of course it’s not going to deepen anything, cos hardly anyone will ever see it.It’s a commodity, fetishised and for sale. Its an anaesthetic, whose purpose and effect is to fetishise and nullify the very ideas it purports to address. It is, in short, a disgusting artifact, precisely IN these times when we need to, as Žižek says  “get serious again.”

I quote The BFI website here:

Phil Collins’ works in film, video and photography deftly dissect the political and aesthetic implications of popular visual formats, and often provide a platform for the disregarded and the overlooked … (http://www.bfi.org.uk/whatson/node/20313)

Now I’ll come clean here. I have always felt Collins’s work to be unbelievably exploitative. His shtick is, to go seek out people who are having a bad time and then make a video of it. He pretends that by doing so he is “giving a voice to the powerless” but I don’t see how empowering it is for Palestinian teenagers to be filmed in a disco dance marathon (his piece They Shoot Horses*) , for the subsequent delectation of visitors to Tate Britain. Exactly what kind of empowerment is that? Collins himself said the point was that “We don’t think of Palestinians as people who can disco dance, which seems a little unfair. Know what I mean?” No, I don’t know what you mean, Phil. Actually I do. You say your work is about investigating “the othered.” Is it? Or are you just continuing to “other “ them with your own prejudices? The “othered” are the people who suffer from our presumptions – presumptions that Collins says he challenges. But does he? Does Phil know what it must be like to be a Palestinian teenager? Did his work try to work through that? I saw it, and no it didn’t. Like most video art, the visitors did not  watch the full 7 hours or even a fraction of that, they spent about 30 seconds and saw a bunch of tired dark-skinned kids dancing badly and being self conscious. Maybe I’m wrong though. Maybe they look back on that day when the British guy came and made them dance and maybe he told them it was for a video for the Tate and a lot of British people would see it and realise how oppressed they were and would make it better for them: give them jobs and education and hope. Maybe. Or maybe they forgot already. My question is, WHY would we not imagine that Palestinian kids can disco dance? Who are “we” to think that? Do “we” really get surprised when we hear about kids breakdancing in Egypt, or skateboarding in Calcutta, do we – these days? With the Internet and all?  Really?

In Collins’s Turner prize nomination show The Return of the Real (he didn’t win) he exploited people who had already been exploited, people who had been on reality TV and felt hard done by. But in the mock TV-studio he installed at the Tate there was no real serious discussion of reality TV and the way it marks people and shapes our culture. It was spectacle again. (I know someone who worked on it, and they admitted to me it was “all about the show). Meanwhile reality TV marches on, getting more and more exploitative shrill and vulgar.

Phil Collins is very clever and canny in identifying things which really are issues, important, brutal issues and confronting them. Stuff I wish more artists would tackle.** Yet what he makes is just more spectacle. He fails to engage in the subject and to get us to engage in it. He delivers spectacle, while pretending to critique the spectacle. The worst kind of charlatan.

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* yes, lazily named after the 1969 Sydney Pollack film about a depression-era dance marathon. How postmodern. But Pollack’s film had fully-developed characters, and a point.

** of course there is the wonderful work of Jeremy Deller whose projects on the Miner’s Strike, the Iraq War and popular culture are genuinely moving, revelatory and participatory.

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