On Reality

On Reality. An Interview with Dr Angela Dimitrakaki.


Future State interviews Dr Angela Dimitrakaki, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Art History and Theory at Edinburgh College of Art about reading, writing, research and curatorial projects ahead of her keynote presentation at the Land│Labour│Capital conference at Limerick City Gallery of Art.

What immediate thoughts come to mind when you read the words Land│Labour│Capital and, going further, in what way do they resonate with your research interests and curatorial practice?

My immediate thought on ‘land labour capital’ is one word: reality. It may sound strange to say ‘reality’ rather than ‘production’, as land, labour and capital, drawn from an economics discourse, are seen as the fundamentals of modern production, but there is a reason why I prioritise ‘reality’. We live in an extraordinary time in the history of capitalism: the way production is being re-configured today is transforming the very consistency of reality. Production is changing – this is what we are experiencing in terms of an economic ‘crisis’. An entire way of life is being undone: the welfare state, pensions and time to get old, the link between capitalism and democracy, the consumer society as a Western society, the idea of the middle class, and so on. All this, and a lot more, is changing because capitalism is re-organising production. And in this context, certain questions become urgent: what is the role of labour in its struggle against the appropriations of capital? Is there an oppositional working class? What is its current composition?

My research , I suppose, tries to make art history (the art history of the contemporary) contribute to a broader effort, across disciplines in the humanities and social science, to answer the above questions. For example, I am very interested in how the institutions of art become productive spaces. Or how globalisation on the ground (the materiality of globalised space) becomes a production site for the contemporary artist. And I think it is now impossible to understand the deeper transformation of ‘contemporary art’ if we don’t consider the fact that in postmodernism (late 1960s to early 1990s) everyone talked about consumption, consumerism and the like. Now, in globalisation proper, suddenly everyone talks about production. The discourse changed because the material conditions we address as ‘capitalism’ changed. This is pretty much what Kirsten Lloyd and I tried to suggest in ECONOMY, a curatorial project we initiated in Scotland earlier this year.

You mention the ECONOMY exhibition that you curated along with Kirsten Lloyd of the Stills Gallery in Edinburgh.  Could you say a little more about the curatorial concept behind this ambitious group exhibition?

ECONOMY was an art historical show, based on research in the field of contemporary art. This means that it did not seek to just showcase new art attending to economy or art that responds to the so called ‘crisis’. Rather, its starting point was a reflection on the periodisation of contemporary art, a periodisation deemed necessary because of the changes brought about by capitalist globalisation. So, the curatorial project sought to identify and interpret an important shift within contemporary art overall, and this was realised in the two parallel exhibitions, the residencies, the events where specific issues were discussed with the public and also the website which, for example, includes a Reading Room and a public image archive documenting the many faces and meanings of ‘economy’.

The exhibitions brought together work from the past two decades, attempting a re-contextualisation of this work in hindsight. For instance, a well-known piece by Tracey Emin from 2000 received a different interpretation in the show. We paid a lot of attention to the captions accompanying each piece and to the information available in the exhibitions guide, because ECONOMY was a genuinely collaborative project among its two curators and it arose from extensive discussions, which led us to work together and develop a specific political position, which is what we openly presented. In ECONOMY, we explicitly identified Phase 2 of contemporary art (from the 1990s to date) with an economic turn witnesssed across the making of art, writing about it and in the curatorial field as well. The website Reading Room shows a notable increase in exhibitions and writings on questions of production, labour, class – subjects that were marginalised in Phase 1 of contemporary art known as ‘postmodernism’. And we wished to explore what this new economic subject was about, to the extent possible. I say this because we could have included many more artworks but in the current climate of funding cuts this was impossible. We had to be selective and opt for artworks that represented entire sub-paradigms – for example, artwork about ecology, or childhood or sex or work or love or migration or finance and so on. Our key question was: If economy was no longer just the economy, how did this become manifest in art?

But this ‘how’ did not just address thematic units but also the very transformation of artistic production, artists’ ways of working. For example, we looked at the fact that some art at least was no longer about display and representation but attempeted direct intervention beyond the art institution, to which it only returned as a social document. Or we ended up with many women artists, regrettably still an unusual feature of a mixed group show – and this despite decades of feminist critique in the art world. Funnily enough, we did not deliberately select more female than male artists but the importance of the gender divide for a globalised capitalist economy meant that much radical art recently was made by women – often women conversant with feminist politics. A telling example is Tanja Ostojic’s investigation of the sexualisation of the migrant in her Looking for a husband with EU Passport (2000-2005). And of course Eastern Europe was central to our argument as the region became the test ground of an accelerated implementation of ‘global capitalism’.

Of all the art works and films in ECONOMY, including Tanja Ostojic’s Looking for a husband with EU Passport (2000-2005) and Tracey Emin’s work, which you cite above, what piece or pieces divided opinion among the audience the most and why?

I wouldn’t say that a specific work truly divided the audience. But to the extent that I was able to discuss things with members of the audience, a lot of people were shocked by the situation presented in Jenny Marketou‘s video of children art collectors in New York. The video shows in unambiguous terms what ‘privilege’ means, and how it shapes the art world. Privilege shapes subjectivity, including the subjectivity of children. We were keen to show this video in the same space where a video by two Swedish artists portrayed the lives of other children as slaves. The two social groups, the offspring of New York financiers and the ‘other’ fiercely deprived children, exist in the same world and they are both ‘the future’. The fact that they are children, and so formally unaccountable, raises myriad questions precisely because the subjectivity of children is not associated with ethical responsibility. The subjectivity of children is where you can observe the true power of the economy, of an organised form of production and consumption and the abysmal divisions it relies on and perpetuates.

To the extent that we, as curators, invited a more concrete response by the audience, this had to do with the WochenKlausur residency and the paradigm of ‘socially engaged’ art. As is known, WochenKlausur have since the early 1990s pioneered this type of work as action, leaving behind ‘art as representation’ of social ills and moving on to art as a pragmatic, focused intervention in a given social context. In our case, the context was a deprived community in Glasgow. We organised a public forum to discuss the contradictions this situation entailed, and the artists were present. These contradictions have certainly divided contemporary art criticism, for example Claire Bishop and Grant Kester a few years back. We did not wish to bury these persistent contradictions under the carpet but rather confront them. For example, is this art a license for the welfare state’s withdrawal or a pioneering avant-garde practising citizen solidarity? It is very hard for me to summarise the different responses of the public to this work, but what I learned is that ‘the public’ is in itself a group divided by class, gender, political beliefs and so on, and this is as important in understanding a response as the work done, which is measured by conventional or not criteria of ‘success’. I also admired the resilience of the artists and their collaborators. My understanding of artistic labour changed completely after I had the opportunity to encounter this process of work. I hope the same holds for some members of the audience at least.

Turning now to your university research and writing, what academic text/s are you reading right now and why?

I recently read Peter Osborne’s Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art as I remain interested in the question of periodisation of contemporary art and in the criteria or terms deployed today to explicate what we mean by ‘contemporary art’ in the first place – or even just ‘contemporary’. Anyone who teaches ‘contemporary art’ as a subject at university level is perplexed by the fact that the contemporary is linked to duration and not to a soon-to-disappear moment. The constitution of the contemporary has become a theoretical problem in its own right – and a political problem as well. Suffice to think of how (hastily, and even mistakenly, in my view) some anti-capitalist theorists eagerly recognise post-capitalist practices at the heart of the capitalist enterprise today to understand how critical the imperative for a history of the contemporary has become.

I am now reading Nancy Fraser’s Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neo-liberal Crisis, a collection of her essays over many years. Reading them makes easy to grasp the fallacy that occurs when theories of capitalist globalisation, including those on its so-called crisis, disregard gender and its role in the extremely complex production process that global capitalism has become. I am interested in an anti-separatist feminism and Fraser’s writings help me see why.

And I am also reading an older book,from the 1930s, Curzio Malaparte’s Tecnica del Colpo di Stato, about the seizure of state power. I have been shocked by the anti-democratic tendencies of the current mode of production, the massive loss of confidence in representative democracy and the increasing erosion of the link between capitalism and democracy – a link that was very crucial, for example, in capitalist hegemony as served by Cold-War America. The production model promoted by contemporary capital where all time becomes work time leaves no time for being a citizen. And the massive poverty it generates turns people to religion, which is associated with a supreme authority in all its expressions. China’s success in the capitalist markets is demonstrating that contemporary capitalism does not need democracy, and this is a fundamental aspect of it. Yet the rejection of democracy seems to inspire at present both neo-fascist and progressive forces – although I despise any short-sighted and ideologically spurious attempt to establish any conceivable links between them. Yet I’m reading anything that has something to say about the rejection of democracy, as I am trying to understand where and when such a rejection emerges. And I am of course interested in contemporary art’s nods towards an anti-democracy impulse, although art remains too polite mostly and is disinclined from crossing health & safety lines – which, yes, does reveal something about its potential and limitations as praxis, as doing.

Aside from academic publications you have also sucessfully  published a number of works of contemporary fiction in your native Greek language.  What sort of fiction do you write and can we look forward to one of your works of fiction in English one day?

I published my first novel at 28, in the course of doing my PhD in England. I suppose this says immediately three things: that I found reading all this new (for me) theory inspiring, that writing fiction in Greek while abroad was a way for me to remain connected to my language, and – crucially- that I had time to do so in a broader context of intellectual stimulation. I stress this last factor because although I used to think that writing fiction and being an academic were compatible activities, the UK academia’s total control by a neo-capitalist ethos of ‘production for production’s sake’ and draining administrative hell leaves no room for anything else. I think a lot of us did not realise what we were walking into, and what our passive acceptance of a status quo has engendered. I sometimes want to point my doctoral students to an escape route.

I have written four novels, a collection of stories and various shorter works. I can’t possibly summarise here the themes (especially as I write stuff with a plot) but everything is written with Europe as its background, or even the world. There is a lot of movement, that’s for sure. And a lot of parody. And harsh language. I am interested in parents who abandon their children, in the opportunism that mediates human relations, and so on. One novel, The Manifesto of Defeat (2006), is a re-writing of The Magus by John Fowles but in a way that addresses the devastating impact on Southern Europe of its stereotypical rendering as a holiday land and as a land that belongs to an idealised past. Curiously, it is also a book about fascism and metaphysics, and a book that expresses a terrible opinion about the pretensions of art.

I mention this novel in particular because it gives the answer to your question whether my fiction is likely to be translated or not any time soon. If the answer is not obvious by now, let me cite the response of a German publisher to a Greek writer I know, just a few years back: ‘We don’t want Greek authors to write about Kafka, we want them to write about windmills’. That said, the new portrayal of Greece as a land of riots and capitalist drama may finally liberate us from the beach-plus-Acropolis curse…