"Corpocracy,” currently at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, provides another opportunity to reexamine important questions of a genuinely militant and engaged art practice. The show features political, mostly contemporary work by artists such as Michael D'Antuono, Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, Packard Jennings, Eugenio Merino, Yoshua Okón, Stephanie Syjuco, and Judi Werthein. One arts collective is featured as well: the Beehive Design Collective.
Modeled on retro, aluminum signage, with chasing lights that flicker on and off in different patterns, Steve Lambert’s Capitalism Works For Me! True/False (2011) spells out the work’s exclamatory title. Akin to something on the Las Vegas strip in the mid-twentieth century, it evokes the era’s salesmanship. That exclamation is actually posed as a question, and a scoreboard, with traditional, seven-segment digits, displays vote results from the audience. Participants select “True” or “False” on a panel with two, giant, analog pushbuttons – as with a carnival game. (At the Station, sentiments towards the economic system were almost evenly divided.)
The technology looks vintage (and there are no worries about hacked software manipulating votes). The work evokes, at one level, the dualistic choice enforced by the US electoral system, between the “salesmanship” of the Republicans and of the Democrats; or, at another level, the binary choices of public opinion surveys and ballot referenda. It also evokes simplified, popular feedback mechanisms from a time prior to the internet and dominance of social media, before someone could post elaborate, 10,000-word, blog entries about the latest outrage.
Such simplification is widely criticized for limiting political discourse, which must, of course, at certain moments become much more complex. However, at other moments, a genuine, founding choice, “yes” or “no,” is necessary. That is still relevant today, when the attitude “There Is No Alternative,” i.e. to capitalism, still reigns. Complexity comes only after this basic first step within the “school of decision,” to use Alain Badiou’s formulation in Being and Event – with its fundamental, insistently binary concepts of presentation and belonging, based on mathematics of extensionalist set theory (149).
As Lambert has noted:
[C]apitalism is discussed every day using euphemisms like ‘jobs,’ ‘job creation,’ ‘the business climate,’ and discussing whatever ‘crisis’ is deemed relevant; a housing crisis, financial crisis, social security crisis, tax crisis, or fill- in-the blank [sic] crisis. But the whole is rarely a topic of frank discussion…. As a culture, we need the vision and boldness it takes to discuss the problem itself.
Dialogue around the “whole,” or totality, arises here through formal references – the design, fonts, and “low”-tech – to the 1960s. The decade is commonly (and incorrectly) assumed to be one of the last in which socialism had any popular support. (Key moves towards Marxism-Leninism, for example, actually began only in the 1970s, as with the failed New Communist Movement.) This obviously applies only until the prevailing downturn, which began in 2007-08, in the “advanced” capitalist economies; the subsequent re-ascendance of Marxism as a key, theoretical framework; and the current prominence nationally of socialists such as Seattle Councilwoman Kshama Sawant and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In video documentation of the performance Money to Burn (2010), artist Dread Scott stands on Wall Street, seemingly at the workday’s height and with businesspeople and tourists milling near the New York Stock Exchange building. Bills – ones, fives, tens, and twenties – are clipped to his shirt. Scott wanders through the throng, repeatedly and loudly singing out the phrase after which the piece is titled: “Does anybody have any money to burn?” He removes a bill and sets it alight; some spectators offer their own cash for the flame. Police eventually appear and hand out a ticket, presumably for “disturbing the peace.” The performance ends.
The song suggests street peddlers, of a long-gone past, who hawked wares such as newspapers. This vintage vibe is analogous to that of Lambert. These odd, “retrograde” forms have the effect of forcing at least a brief, mental estrangement from capitalism’s everyday reality, which is naturalized for most by its sheer omnipresence. This distancing, through conventions of the “sell,” is one approach for forcing that system into consciousness and developing a critical perspective.
The low-tech, physical approach – including Scott’s personal interactions with the crowd, and torching of actual, paper currency – is crucial for the piece’s ultimate meaning. Wall Street has routinely, and particularly during the 2007-08 crisis, destroyed in a flash billions of dollars in virtualized, digitized value. This is a norm, almost invisible, under capitalism. However, when that is manifested by burning dollar bills on the street, the cops show up.
One of the older selections in “Corpocracy” is by Mark Lombardi and is characteristic of his now-canonical works, made from 1994 until his death in 2000. Notating ultimately thousands of index cards, the artist would obsessively research assorted ruling-class institutions – the Vatican, “organized crime,” the Central Intelligence Agency, banks, etcetera – and their relations to “misdeeds,” whether scandalous or clandestine. That research included the hegemonic mass media, other public domain materials, and information Lombardi garnered by posing as an investigative reporter.
He would then create graphite-on-paper drawings that “mapped” relations between these players. The style is similar to interlock visualization, a convention used in trust-busting litigation (Goldstone 10-11). It is also very precise, with little evidence of the hand.
BCCI, ICIC, and First American Bankshares 1972-91 (3rd version) (1996) concerns the nefarious Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which collapsed in 1991. The drawing indicates that BCCI was involved with many ruling-class figures and had the purpose of, not profit, but covertly funneling money to US henchmen around the world. Their activities encompassed anti-communist, Afghan mujahedeen then fighting the Soviet occupation; contra counterrevolutionaries, fighting the progressive Sandinista government in Nicaragua; and the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega; among others.
While registering such relations’ basic existence, BCCI still leaves their exact nature quite vague. Each individual or entity is laid out, roughly, along a timeline and is represented by a circle in one of two, standard sizes. The connecting lines have a singular, standard thickness. Further shapes or sizing could have registered different types of connections. However, all of that is unclear, even with minimal, explanatory text next to some items.
The drawing, then, does not really communicate the information (presumably) in Lombardi’s trove of index cards. (The artist’s archive is not presented in “Corpocracy.”) It isn’t saying much to merely note that the Omani National Bank is “connected” to financier Bruce Rappaport; who is “connected” to 1981-1987 CIA Director Bill Casey; who is “connected” to then-President Ronald Reagan (his boss) and the Afghan mujahedeen.
This artwork’s form – versus its content – is more important. The lines of this “system” – I use that term guardedly – do not spill off the edge of the paper, going to an imagined “elsewhere.” Akin to certain paintings by, for instance, Jackson Pollock, this “system’s” overall shape is circular, closed, and insular. Further, the uniformity and repetitiveness of its separate elements suggest each has an equivalent importance or meaning for this whole; the effect is accentuated by the decentered, many-to-many network of relations. Any element(s) – “one thing after another” – seemingly could be added or removed, with no implications for that totality. BCCI provides little sense of how its multiple components actually function and are weighed.
US aggression, then or now, cannot be reduced to back-room deals between individuals like Casey, former Presidential advisor Clark Clifford, or former US Senator Stuart Symington, ad infinitum. The essential driver is systemic and impersonal: capitalism, with its laws of motion, begets imperialism. The particular simplifications (its minimal geometries) and complexities (its profusion of “stuff”) of BCCI are completely inadequate in grasping this dynamic.
Lombardi’s work is unequivocally a product of its time. The Reagan-era interventions against left governments in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and elsewhere were proxy-based and an open “secret.” This strategy was necessitated by the crushing US defeat in Vietnam and Indochina, and the mass, antiwar movement, all of which popularly delegitimated overt, US adventurism, at least until the early 1990s. Conversely, the war-drive of the past fifteen years has been quite open and accompanied by vigorous attempts to popularly re-legitimize such adventurism.
In a classic type of ideology critique, Lombardi wants to “expose,” “reveal,” or “illuminate” the “crimes” of the U.S. However, in 2015, these crimes are, by design, out in the open, for all to see. The imperialist offensive post-9/11 was a tremendous, qualitative escalation over the 1980s and was trumpeted from the rooftops by the ruling elites – particularly under Bush Junior. To apply Slavoj Zizek, a key thinker of this century’s transformations, to BCCI:
[I]t unnecessarily redoubles social reality, as if there were a secret Organization behind the ‘visible’ capitalist and state organs. What we should accept is that there is no need for a secret ‘organization-with-an-organization’: the ‘conspiracy’ is already in the ‘visible’ organization as such, in the capitalist system, in the way the political space and state apparatuses work. (170-71)
A mural by Ron English covers almost an entire gallery wall and recalls the US flag. The “stripes” are only generally in a red and / or white color scheme and are composed of dozens of culture-jamming riffs on common advertisements. Each has a lefty political spin and is sized comparable to a bumpersticker or crack-and-peel sticker.
A broad range of familiar issues is addressed: the Republicans (a GOP elephant logo pissing on the phrase “Trickle Down Democracy”); factory farming of livestock (“Force-Fed Caged Calf $9.99 lb.,” styled like an old, grocery-store ad); unhealthy fast food (“Biggie Burger,” a take on the Burger King logo); environmental destruction (“Put a Tiger on the Brink: Exxtinct,” based on an old, ad campaign for Exxon / Esso gas stations); the corporate war nexus (“Support Our CEOs,” a play on the “Support Our Troops” slogan prevalent during the early years of the most recent, Iraq occupation); and so on.
This barrage of diverse visuals – commensurate to those on mass media, social media, and the internet – overwhelms the content of any specific message concerning animals, food, ecology, or militarism, et al. While nominally critical of different aspects of our image-saturated society, the work ends up simply replicating – through its very, heterogeneous form – the effect of that saturation. The one detail that can estrange viewers from this potpourri of everyday life is the blue-skinned baby-monster, with washboard abs and bedecked in a loincloth, superimposed over the flag (an apt metaphor).
When Planter’s snacks created its Mr. Peanut advertising mascot in the early-twentieth century, his monocle, white gloves, and top hat were signifiers of wealth. In paintings by Clark V. Fox, Mr. Peanut drolly promenades across abstract, minimal backgrounds punctuated by a small number of symbols or slogans: “Who Would Jesus Bomb?”, dollar signs, and “Das Kapital.” Those gesture towards the very issues raised politically by, for example, English. Fox’s method is certainly more concise and homogeneous – and, comparable to other works in the exhibition, is dependent upon formal references to popular culture’s distant past.
Only infrequently is an artist’s work coupled tightly with their political undertakings. The two can be totally disjunct, and an artist does not even have to be an activist, organizer, or militant on the ground to make “political” art in the first place. The Beehive Design Collective, founded in 2000 at the height of the anarchist-inflected alterglobalization movement, is among those contributors to the show that make art in the closest-possible relation to their political work.
The Proyecto Mesoamérica is a (very familiar) “economic development” initiative launched in 2001 and now includes Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and the countries of Central America. Beehive traveled throughout the region and had extensive discussions with those most-directly impacted by, and struggling against, the corporate-centric Proyecto: indigenous peoples, rural communities, farmers, campesinos, social justice organizers, and many others.
Those grassroots stories are rolled into the unabashedly didactic Mesoamérica Resiste (2004-13) which took nine years to complete. The goal is to picture a system – how militarism, state repression, ecological devastation, economic immiseration, community disempowerment, and cultural homogenization are all interlinked. Therefore, as with other Beehive works, the drawing is allover and extraordinarily intricate. Aspects of the system, and episodes of peoples’ struggle against that, are metaphorized or allegorized.
The signs used are not random but have a close, organic relation to the overall political content. For example, ants in the real world aerate soil and are crucial for agricultural production; the Proyecto threatens all of this. Simultaneously, in Mesoamérica, ants of different species carry banners displaying Zapatista principles and personify indigenous peoples opposed to the Proyecto. Personification in general signals crucial intersections between the human, animal, and natural worlds. (The specificity of these signs stands in stark contrast to the minimalist standardization and repetition of Lombardi’s forms.)
Still, connotations of these signs are not always obvious. To guide viewers, the Collective writes long, illustrated pamphlets – helpfully available at the Station. They also do live, traveling presentations, sponsored by grassroots organizations across the US and most-directly impacted communities, with the graphic either hung in the space or projected on a screen. These materials and events teach a great deal about, not simply art, but the actual system and political campaign in question.
Beehive’s metaphors and allegories require patient explanation for audiences, a patience that is, certainly, also reflected in the lengthy period required for their artworks’ research, dialogues, and production. New meanings are constructed, not through standard museum or gallery settings, but through essentially political, organizing contexts. The process is transformative for both sides.
Among traditional dualities useful for conceptualizing art and politics, works in the show occupy very different positions. The one exception is, perhaps, the historical versus the contemporary: historically “outmoded” references are prevalent throughout the exhibition. These dualities include: the more spontaneously readable (Fox) versus the less (Beehive); an emphasis on systemic oppression (Lombardi) versus affirmative resistance to that oppression (Beehive); form overpowering content (English) versus a more organic relation between the two (Scott); complexity (English) versus the simplification of political decision (Lambert); virtuality versus a critical materialization of that virtual (Scott); and popular, subjugated knowledges (Beehive) versus hegemonic, state discourses (Lombardi).
Since its early-century founding, one of the Station’s core projects has been the in-depth presentation of politicized art. Some exhibitions have been quite adventurous, with art that most institutions would never dare to touch: by Palestinian or Iraqi artists, for instance. “Corpocracy” is a valuable addition to that ongoing project.
“Corpocracy” is on view until February 14, 2016 at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston.
- Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. London and New York: Continuum, 2005. Print. Trans. of L'être et l'événement. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1988.
- Goldstone, Patricia. Interlock: Art, Conspiracy, and the Shadow Worlds of Mark Lombardi. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015. Print.
- Lambert, Steve. “Capitalism Works For Me! True/False.” Visitsteve.com, Steve Lambert, Oct. 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.
- Slavoj Zizek. “Afterword: Lenin’s Choice.” In V.I. Lenin, Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917. Ed. Slavoj Zizek. London and New York: Verso, 2002. Print.