Innovations in Exile

Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture

Pluto Press, 256pp, £17.99, ISBN 9780745327525

reviewed by Theo Reeves-Evison

For 2011’s annual charity gala at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary art, Maria Abramovic hired six female performers to re-enact her signature work Nude with Skeleton (2002). In contrast to the original, filmed performance, in which Abramovic lies under a replica skeleton made to the dimensions of her body, for the gala event performers were hired as decorative table centrepieces under strict instructions to ‘remain in the performative’ even if that meant enduring physical or verbal abuse. For many, the most troublesome aspect of the event was not the price that tickets fetched (as much as $100,000 each), or even the museum’s insensitivity to shifts in context and meaning, but that 800 women, mostly artists, put themselves up for audition.

The configurations of value and cultural capital that make possible such self-willed exploitation is one of the principal targets of Gregory Sholette’s Dark Matter. Using a raft of Marxist and post-structuralist theoretical resources, Sholette unpacks the issues embedded in his chosen case studies, ultimately asking what would happen if the bottom of the pyramid were to be removed: if hobbyists stopped buying art-supplies, amateurs stopped taking classes, and if the tens of thousands of art-students graduating each year started to set up alternative systems of symbolic exchange, instead of propping up the star system that guarantees only a select handful success.

The idea of dark matter is variously defined in the context of creative production as an ‘obscure mass of failed artists’, ‘an unseen accretion of creativity’, and a ‘mark or bruise within the body of high art.’ Despite the obvious, and in some ways constitutive fuzziness of the term, Sholette mobilizes it to probe the political economy of contemporary art and enterprise culture in general. For readers familiar with the work of Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière the idea of dark matter as an ‘internal exile’, or ‘a part with no part’ declaring itself to be visible will not seem like much of a theoretical innovation. In fact, it could be argued that the apparent influence of these authors on Sholette’s argument is the subject of a foreclosure in its own right. Concepts that have a properly ontological grounding in the work of Badiou and others are either assumed as axiomatic or reduced to motifs. The pay-off for such an approach is that the artworks discussed are given more granular attention, and analyses are expanded to take in a broader sweep of relevant philosophical and social critique.

On a less abstract basis, Dark Matter is also a book about innovation itself and its relation to adaptability. For Sholette - as for many of the Marxist scholars that inspire his approach - it is not simply that the majority of ‘emerging’ artists are willing to work for free, happy to make do without employment rights, pensions, or a guaranteed income; often working second or third jobs to support their practices, but that this paradigm is increasingly becoming the norm in other spheres of economic activity as well. The figure of an artist as a flexible, creative entrepreneur; self-promotional and at ease with instability, has become a model for employees in general under what Boltanski and Chiapello call the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ in their book of the same name. The freedom to transform, to re-train, to remain in perpetual motion, today takes the form of an imperative. For the author of Dark Matter, the guiding question is how to make critical art in a world that welcomes it with open arms.

In search of answers, Sholette assumes the role of an archaeologist in order to unearth artworks and instances of informal creativity that he sees as antagonistic to the forces that seek to co-opt them. The works discussed range from an impromptu collage of detritus pieced together by a group of factory workers in Pennsylvania to sophisticated forms of tactical media and culture jamming that mimic existing organizational structures in order to disrupt and infiltrate them. Uniting these two poles is the idea that it is still possible to create something outside of the symbolic hierarchies of the official art-world, a construct that the author eyes with justified suspicion. Moving chapter by chapter through various case studies, Sholette lingers on art-works made collaboratively by groups such as Temporary Services and The Critical Art Ensemble, reserving praise for projects that seem to have the capacity to disrupt while disengaging with the forces that would seek to recuperate them.

Structured more or less in a chronological fashion, Dark Matter opens with a lengthy discussion of Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D), a project that archived, and – as the name suggests – distributed politically engaged artworks and ephemera between 1980 and 1989. In this chapter, and at later points in the book, this archive is drawn upon as a means of reactivating historical sediment and allowing its material to disturb the present. Other case studies allow Sholette to engage with a range of issues from Major Giuliani’s ‘clean sweep’ of New York City in the 90s to the various efforts by groups like the Art Workers Coalition and the Artist Pension Trust to secure employment rights for artists. Bringing his analysis up to the present day, Sholette ends with an appraisal of the now widespread turn towards tactical media, pedagogical forms of intervention, and the mock-institutionalism of groups such as The Yes Men, the Bureau of Inverse Technology and the Critical Art Ensemble.

The fact that Sholette devotes two lengthy chapters to artist groups of which he himself was a part may strike some readers as rather opportunistic for a book devoted to the subject of enterprise culture. Is Sholette really landing a punch on the body of high art or is he trying to make sure his name gets into its history books? A more generous way to look at this would be to consider Dark Matter as a textual extension of these projects, or as a kind of self-appraisal, no less committed to the activist ideals than the work it draws upon. In any case, Dark Matter is not a book that could have been written by an outside observer or by the recipient of a three-year research grant. Within its pages there lie insights that speak of a lived engagement with political art stretching over thirty years. Sholette describes his book as ‘an attempt to infect the “lawfully” embodied systems of exclusion and visibility’. As well as achieving a great many of its aims, the most infectious aspect of Dark Matter proves to be its author’s passion and commitment to the issues at stake.