Everyone is Bored, Everything is Boring
Posted by <Marie Larsen> on 2022-02-15
Co-founder of New Models, Caroline Busta, sees the disconnect between art and contemporary life as a result of the legacy institutions having lost the public's trust by 'failing to translate the mess of reality into a coherent, trustworthy story'(Footnote 2). As she watched the big award shows: The Grammys, The Oscars, the MTV Video Music Awards, she realised just how astroturfed these platforms had become. Winning an award from The Academy against a backdrop of volatile, surreal politics and a raging meme-space seemed to confer not a mark of validation – but of delegitimation. 'Why would you want an award from an institution that no longer understood how to read the wider world'(3)? I have been asking myself a similar question about the MFA I am doing at The Slade School of Fine Art. Why do I want a degree from an institution that does not keep up with current advances in technology, politics, and contemporary feelings?
In the following, I want to consider the role of the art school and art-making, culture, and cultural critique, at a time when just a few tech corporations wield more power than most national governments.
In 2019 I started my MFA at the Slade around the same time Tesla unveiled its Cybertruck. My interest at the time was to try to capture a part of the political climate and figure out how I was feeling about the things I saw happening in big tech and on Twitter. With its bulletproof body and windows, sealed enclosure, and hyped-up engine power, the Cybertruck foresaw a dystopian future where preppers and survivalists would become mainstream (4). A vision that seems a lot less crazy now than it did back then, as stockpiling resources and readying for self-sufficiency became the "new normal" during the first lockdown. With the launch of the Cybertruck, Tesla claimed to reimagine the car radically. But rather than doing so, it took the car industry's existing, deeply conservative ideas of individual freedom to new heights: pushing further the car's anti-social nature and its misguided promise of independence for everyone.
Amid that extremely alienated, violent context, I wanted to explore topics of frustration with the political economy, along with feelings of loss of agency. The project resulted in a couple of sculptures: two metal handbags in two different sizes, three oversized steel piercings, and a g-string wrapped around a smaller bag. These objects, particularly the oversized piercings, discarded on the floor, not piercing anything, were for me a way to work with a pointlessness I was observing in expression dissatisfaction and rebellion. In the words of Caroline Busta: 'Being counter-cultural no longer means being counter-hegemonic' (5). Contrary, personal expression, and counter-cultural activity have been turned into profitable content, highly lucrative for people like Musk, Bezos, and Zuckerberg.
In March 2020, as the world went into lockdown and all of higher education started transitioning into online learning, I decided to take a break from art school. The prospect of a totally lonely, remote art degree, the sloppiness of critical discourse through Microsoft Teams, connection issues, collective screen inflicted attention deficit, working from my bedroom, university administered logins and links – it all horrified me deeply. A year later, I returned to an art school in crisis: with one foot in the online and another in real life; the blended experience struggles to figure itself out.
Throughout 2020 cultural institutions that previously had little experience with virtuality were forced to move to online platforms to survive. And generally, they did not fare super well. Shumon Basar recently described on the Interdependence podcast how: 'we've been living with an art world that has made extraordinary claims over the last 15 years about being progressive, about being ready to encounter and face forms of radical change and the uncertain. But when the pandemic happened, most places did not step up' (6). In adversity, some find the strength to invent or try something new. But when faced with the pandemic, cultural institutions were not at all creative in restructuring themselves.
As the art world slowly reanimates after partially having laid dormant the past year and a half, it gets more and more clear that UK art schools are no longer able to meet staff (7) and students' basic needs. The Slade is riddled with rigid bureaucracy and poor handling of issues related to the post-peak-pandemic, post-Brexit, post-BLM world. According to UCL's website, the university is 'enjoying competitive dramatic growth, with a total income of 1.48 billion in 2018-19 and a 44% total increase in [its] main three income sources over the past ten years.' However, this growth has not translated into an increase in the quality of education. Contrary, staff's pay, pension, and work conditions have continued to worsen, while university bosses refuse to 'negotiate on issues like casualisation and the unbearably high workloads that blight higher education' (8) Academic staff is awarded less flexibility and safety and, as a result, are struggling to facilitate critical group activities of real quality.
Anyone, who has been in close contact with the workings of the bureaucratic machinery at the Slade, will recognise the following example from Mark Fisher's book Capitalist Realism about an anthropological study of local governments in Britain: 'More efforts go into ensuring that a local authority's services are represented correctly than goes into actually improving those systems' (9) Meetings between staff and students to address pressing issues caused by the pandemic or problems with basic facilities like heating, lighting, and studio hours, are frustratingly unproductive.
A big part of what many students hope to do while at art school is to make friends, build community, and be in regular contact with others' thoughts in progress and works-in-progress. An art degree (and cultural production at large) is a collective effort, more so than something you accomplish on your own. But the challenges art schools are facing at the moment are making it nearly impossible for them to offer spaces suited for this type of learning – both physically and digitally. And as a result, the pub has become a far superior space: allowing more people to gather for more extended periods of time – thereby facilitating opportunities for a type of reflection and connection the art school no longer can offer.
When I interrupted my studies, I started searching for alternatives to the community-focused model that initially had attracted me to the Slade. I started lurking in a couple of collectively run discord-servers in which people were discussing urgent topics of art, tech, and politics – away from the enormous, homogenised, public feed. One of these servers, the Sleeper Cell, was started by Joshua Citarella. In August 2020, he uploaded the syllabus that he used to teach at elite universities to Patreon, and a year later, he quit his job to become a full-time content creator. What had occurred to him was that the legacy institutions had little to offer compared to the independent, collectively run alternative "art school" that had assembled around him. On his Patreon, he wrote: 'Rather than facilitating art through space, funding, and expertise – the institutions have become parasitic upon the artists they purport to serve. While having limitless resources, they pay less, bring less visibility and censor the risky parts. All of this would be acceptable if there was some other promise further down the road but I don't believe in those myths anymore.'
Getting accepted to an MFA program was thrilling, but being enrolled in one has been less so. I have struggled to remain patient and sympathetic to the challenges placed upon the people in charge of running the Slade – by the pandemic and by the speed at which everything changes. As much as these things surely factor in, I am less convinced that they can fully explain why institutions, like the Slade, are stuck in a permanent echo, always falling behind the algorithmic feed when it comes to tracking a sense of contemporary feeling (10). It has surprised me how little creativity and courage there has been in responding to the current challenges, and to me, it has highlighted just how tired these institutions are.
Meanwhile, the Sleeper Cell and projects like DNR reveal a growing desire for more profound and closer connections among art students and young culture workers. Many of us have entirely lost hope in the traditional institution's ability to step up and reinvent themselves and are therefore looking elsewhere for both education and community.
In her book 'How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,' Oakland-based artist and writer Jenny Odell fleshes out an instructive, practical philosophy on doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy. Odell's primary concern is the commercial social media platforms and how they capitalise on our interest in others by keeping us trapped in an endless state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. As Nick Srnicek, author of 'Platform Capitalism,' she worries about the walls closing in on users on these platforms. Nick Srnicek argues that the platforms attempt to tie users and data down by funnelling data extraction into what he calls 'siloed platforms.' Users are locked in through dependency, inability to use alternatives or lack of data portability. He writes that 'the aim for Facebook is to make it so that users never have to leave their enclosed ecosystem' (11). Both Odell's and Srnicek's critique goes beyond what the platforms do to our lives online – and is equally, if not more, focused on how they affect our offline selves. Odell' sees people caught up not just in notifications, but in a mythology of productivity and progress' (12) As an artist, that part is particularly interesting to me. The way in which the 0.01 percent's relentless greed is directly obstructing our chances of sustaining a train of thought. Because art needs a certain degree of complexity, of daring to experiment, of comprehending larger amounts of context, and those things, in turn, demand the very time and space that is so hard for us to find.
Right at the beginning of the first lockdown (I suppose, in a state of shock by what had just happened), I began experiencing a type of interiority that I had not been able to access – let alone maintain, in a long time. Not having anything to do or anywhere to be, I could stare at the trees in my backyard for hours, not noticing time pass by. Doing nothing felt delicious and necessary – like a survival tactic, a new attunement to a new reality. Jenny Odell uses an example from 'Negotiations' by Gilles Deleuze to explain this urgency of doing nothing: (13)' we’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity’s never blind or mute. So it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying’ (14). He wrote that in 1985, but it seems more relevant now than ever. The means by which we stay connected, go to work and school, are the same with which we subject ourselves to insane amounts of information every day.
When Marx describes the social alienation of people from aspects of their human nature, he is basically talking about the problems of scale: whether it is the alienation of consumer from producer, citizen from elected, or citizen from citizen – the greater the separation, the greater the loss of humanity (15). We mistakenly think the more information we consume, the more signal we consume (16). Only the mind does not work like that. When the volume of information increases, our ability to comprehend the relevant from the irrelevant becomes compromised. That also goes for our social lives. According to the Dunbar number, (17) an individual human being can maintain stable social relationships with about 150 people. But most of us are currently linked to hundreds if not thousands of people on various platforms.
Along with this astronomical growth in context, the art market has also grown significantly over the past decade. We have seen an increase in Instagram-friendly works like Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirror Rooms, and it seems that more attention-grabbing forms of work do well under current conditions. 'Maybe, art is becoming a more spectacular experience. A faster experience, a more kind of punchy experience?' (18) Professor James Rushing Daniel sees the flipside of contemporary art becoming more available to the masses, as little more than a cash grab: 'In recent years, bankers, financiers, hedge fund managers, crypto bros, promoters, collectors, and at times artists themselves have aggressively vacated art's political projects, abstracted it from labour, and transmogrified it into a format ideal for trading and speculation. Even when it entertains political activism and critique, contemporary art is stifled by greed' (19)
Art has long been less attractive to traditional investors because of its volatility and the hassle of transporting it – but this is beginning to change with the speed and ease of minting NFT's on the blockchain. By now, it is clear that whether or not we like it, Web3 will change everything. On the one hand, it promises decentralisation, community governance, and shared ownership – and on the other, to integrate economic mechanisms everywhere in its infrastructure. To most people I admire and look up to, NFT's are nothing more than commodity assets, floating around a post-Mark Fisher hellscape, where everyone is bored, and everything is boring (20). At the same time, others are hopeful that NFT's can be part of actualizing the democratic and creative potential of artists on Web3.
It is difficult to tell what is stupid and opportunistic and what is genuine in the crypto space, but in an economy where most people work long hours and are struggling to get by – gambling with your money has become a kind of reasonable strategy for many. Teenagers today do not care if it is a good idea to accept this new reality. They are already in the discords figuring out how to make money on NFT's, 'flipping sneakers, trading on Robinhood, taking whatever little money they can come by' (21) So, in many ways, it is already less interesting to ask questions about whether or not to engage with these new technologies, and more interesting to figure out how to make sure to be in the room and be part of the moral and ethical discussions about how this new future is going to look.
You may wonder what all this means for me as an artist? And, to be honest, I have little positive to report. Contemporary art has been boring for a long time, and I have never believed less in its ability to help move us forward. I genuinely struggle to find reasons to produce work, but right now, the thing that I grab onto is the optimism, collaboration and genuine care in the communities I have encountered on discord. By wresting themselves away from the dopamine fueled clearnet and instead replanting their energy into a more private sphere, a non-algorithmic sphere – these groups of young artists are opening up gaps in the thick disorienting fog of the feed, in which it actually seems possible to do real anti-capitalist work.
However, the truth is that I am not convinced that another art world is possible. At the same time, I do not think I have ever felt better about my art practice. The art world is obsessed with what is and what is not art. But I have started to care less about whether or not something fits into current popular categorizations of art. Maybe 'doing nothing' while teasing out a longer timeline for observation, research, and context-mapping can be seen as ends in and of themselves.
2 Caroline Busta. (2021). Clearnet VS. Dark Forest: Notes On The New Psychogeography Of Art. UCLA Design Media Arts, YouTube.
4 Elizabeth Bisley. (2019). Cybertruck Represents a Highly Conservative Continuation of The Status Quo". Dezeen.
5 Caroline Busta. (2021). The Internet Didn’t Kill Counterculture - You Just Won’t Find It On Instagram. Document Journal.
6 Mat Dryhurst & Holly Herndon. (2021). Emotional Capitalism, The Extreme Self and New Art Institutions with Shumon Basar. The Interdependence Podcast.
7 Staff are experiencing a crisis of work-related stress with over half showing probable signs of depression.
8 Richard Adam. (2021). UK universities and colleges face three days of strikes in December. The Guardian.
9 Mark Fisher. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books. p. 42.
10 Shumon Basar talks about this ‘falling behind / echo’ with Mat Dryhurst & Holly Herndon in the episode ‘Emotional Capitalism, The Extreme Self and New Art Institutions’ on The Interdependence Podcast, 2021.
11 Nick Srnicek. (2016). Platform Capitalism. Polity. p.110.
12 Jenny Odell. (2020). How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Melville House. p.14.
13 Jenny Odell. (2017). How To Do Nothing. Medium.
14 Gilles Deleuze. (1997). Negotiations, 1972-1990. Columbia University Press; Revised edition. (Emphasis Jenny Odell’s, accessed on: Jenny Odell. (2017). How To Do Nothing. Medium).
15 Harsha Perera, Author of Machine Ego, on Twitter.
16 Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (2013). Antifragile. Penguin Books.
17 The Dunbar Number was first proposed in the 1990’s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size.
18 Simon Denny. (2019). The Future of Art According to Simon Denny. Artsy, YouTube
19 James Rushing Daniel. (2021). Art and Capital Have Become Nearly Indistinguishable. Jacobin Mag
20 Mark Fisher. (2018). No One is Bored, Everything is Boring. k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016). Repeater; New edition (15 Nov. 2018).
21 Dryhurst, Mat & Herndon, Holly. (2021). Emotional Capitalism, The Extreme Self and New Art Institutions with Shumon Basar. The Interdependence Podcast.