Karl Marx, born in Trier, Germany and buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery, never visited the U.S. himself. Nearly a third of the 38 artists included in the Marx@200 Show in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are from outside the U.S. This provides powerful global context to a show that was born from a hunch that the 2008 global financial crisis had turned many artists toward Marx in a concentrated way. Curators Kathy Newman and Susanne Slavick – Carnegie Mellon University professors of literature and art, respectively – have brought together an impressive array of visual artworks themed around the figure of Marx, his writings, and capitalism’s depredations.
In Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens (2016) the first and last shots of the film are of the Buzludzha monument in Bulgaria – constructed by the Communist state to commemorate the secret formation of its forerunner, Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, in 1891. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, it was abandoned. Today its vast chambers, statues and mosaics are crumbling.
Geyrhalter’s 90 minute film is composed entirely of stationary shots of human-made buildings that have been abandoned to the elements. Shopping centers in Fukushima, abandoned theatres in Detroit, nondescript hospitals, office buildings, shoreline amusements parks flooded by the tides.
Artists, radicals and radical artists have always looked at the future, the horizon, and seen a telos of emancipation. From modern-day left-accelerationism to 90s anarcho-cybernetic to prog-rock’s discovery of the synthesizer, the future has been an emancipatory muse. Owen Hatherley’s Chaplin Machine engages what could be termed an early example of left-accelerationism: the Soviet avant-garde’s absolute fascination with America. Indeed, going with Hatherley’s beautifully written and sometimes cheeky account with this fascination that, to be frank, sometimes borders on mystification, one can even reverse the aphorism of Earl Browder, the old social-patriotic leader of the American Communist Party, “Communism is 20th century Americanism.” This is to say that to those in the early Soviet avant-garde, and indeed cultural producers in general, Americanism was 20th century communism.
We are born. It should be a start, but it is in fact a non-start; for we almost immediately have our full agency and autonomy as human beings robbed from us. We spend a lifetime trying to grasp it back from beneath a growing pile of rubble.
Rubble is literally at the center of Ilya Kabakov’s Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album). A large installation among many included in the Tate Modern’s exhibition of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s work, it is a spiral of long hallways reminiscent of Soviet era communal apartment buildings.
When I was a kid, I read a spoof in a nickelodeon about what it was like to watch a World War Two film with a German Shepherd. The punchline was that the dog always rooted for the wrong side. Viewing Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 sci-fi novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, I couldn’t help but to think of all the viewers who were sharing a sofa with friends, family, and lovers, who, openly or not, may view Gilead, the theocratic, dystopic, man-scape setting for the story, with a palate falling well short of the distaste intended by the filmmakers.
The opening page of War Primer contains a short, four-line poem:
Like one who dreams the road ahead is steep
I know the way Fate has prescribed for us
That narrow way towards a precipice.
Just follow. I can find it in my sleep.
Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is the much-anticipated sequel to the 1982 cult film directed by Ridley Scott. Like the original, 2049 is a visually stunning depiction of our potential dystopian future; one that if we read it in its historical context provides for us a detailed cognitive mapping of the continued decline of unfettered multinational capitalism. Also, like the original, the new film provides a surface level portrayal of the world that, if read in spatial terms, maps for us many of the contours of the rhizomatic networks of contemporary capital...
In early 1940, just before he attempted to escape to Spain from Vichy France, the Marxist theorist and art critic Walter Benjamin penned his Theses on the Concept of History. In twenty numbered paragraphs, Benjamin sketches his vision of the task of the materialist historian. In contrast to the historicist, whose method consists of merely adding “a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogeneous and empty time,” the materialist historian employs a “constructive” method (XVII), piecing together the “tradition of the oppressed” (VIII) from the rubble of the catastrophic past into a “constellation” (XVII) that most accurately reflects the fragmented character of modern reality.
In 1970, the famed “New Journalist” Tom Wolfe wrote an article, and later a book, lampooning a dinner party held by the progressive composer Leonard Bernstein for the Black Panther Party. Fresh off of decontextualizing the Merry Pranksters and Bay Area counterculture in Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Wolfe, a cheeky, fresh-faced conservative, now was on a mission to show the silliness of what was not yet called “identity politics.” Poking fun at the very idea that a member of the BPP would enjoy hors-d’oeuvres; painting one dimensional figures of the Panthers and liberal intelligentsia in one swoop...
In 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King was assassinated. In the immediate aftermath, a wave of riots broke across America. Known as the Holy Week Uprising, this was a largely spontaneous outpouring of rage and sorrow. Far from the Movement collapsing, it marched forward with renewed fury and determination. To paraphrase Stokely Carmichael, what the crowds had started saying was “Black Power”, and they were to keep on saying it. In the midst of this ferment, black artists and activists searched for new answers to the questions that cut across the African-American experience.