The End is Night: Are we having the right kind of bad time?
I recently visited the lost city of Atlantis, invited to make an artwork there with local bodybuilders. I discovered the practice of weightlifting last winter, when I decided that the best way for me to become beautiful and strong was to lift free weights. I joined a gym in Kreuzberg, where, according to my perhaps ignorant schematic, there are two main types of users. There are young working class men of colour from the neighbourhood, and then there are young mostly gay mostly white men who, insofar as I can tell from the muted fashion signals of their gym clothes, belong to the international bourgeois or post-bourgeois class who are attracted to Berlin because it is cheap compared to other cultural centres, which is to say, because it is relatively impoverished. These people move according to differentials in wages, fluctuations in air fares and rent costs, and so on. I also belong to this class. The young men of colour train mainly in groups, standing over each other to spot bench presses; the international cultural workers train in ones and twos, sometimes glancing at each other to flirt. All the ambition and desire in the room passed over my shoulder; in a way, I don’t exist in the free weights room, and in another way, the free weights room was a place where I might become bigger and stronger, more and more existent.
Because I was already ignorant in relation to the men lifting weights; because I was already an outsider; because they practiced global and identical forms – I thought I could go to Atlantis and make context-free contemporary art about the context-free art of bodybuilding. But it turns out even if you go somewhere intending to discover your own ignorance, you are differently ignorant than you thought. The people of Atlantis are fascinated by blackness, and I was interpellated by their perception of what blackness means just by appearing on their waterlogged streets. The feeling I had in Atlantis, more clearly than elsewhere, was that I existed improperly, existed too little. Or it could be that the open staring and the many questions also showed that I existed more than usual, existed too much.
Why did they bring me so far underwater? It seems that western contemporary art is a necessary accoutrement of the Atlantis leadership’s attempt to recast their drowned world as a global capitalist city, a reimagination made possible by their oil reserves. If the city at the ocean floor looked fake to me or like something was missing in the middle, if the cost of basic goods could not be reconciled with the Prada outlets and fancy car showrooms, if the courteously aggressive paternalism of the men of Atlantis could not be fully reconciled with the curator’s demand that my work engage with contemporary theories of gender, I had to remind myself that I brought with me an above-water idea of authenticity and an above-water idea of middle. But as an artist I was also there as an avatar of the global dominance of whiteness, a whiteness enriched by strategic inclusions, a whiteness that is the animated face of the global flow of money, an abstract whiteness that flows thru the empty luxury apartment blocks of Atlantis and its deserted Olympic stadia.
The curator showed me around the space, gesturing to invisible artworks. I am the least famous and the least rich and the least well paid artist; I am paid partly in the fame of the other artists. I am paid pyrrhically in the currency of my desire to be seen on my own terms. My desire has almost as many social claims and credit operations on it as a straight man’s sexuality; it is supposed to justify the movements of capital that provide the basic infrastructure of contemporary art. Over-determined, my art-making suffers the fate of all socially appointed agents of desire: it becomes impotent, and terrorized by the threat of its own softness.
The Atlantis curator, seaweed in her long black hair, praised some of the works as “very political”, especially the work by Parker Ito that included the famous depictions of the tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib, images that not only are of torture but are themselves torture, an intensification of representational power that is understandably irresistible to the contemporary artist, like Parker Ito or myself, who, as my friend Max Fox put it, “understands that their social position is founded on massive violence, but wants to exonerate themselves thru critique”.
The mechanism, the banned spectre, of critique as self-exoneration, loomed very large in Atlantis, but the spectre is no less frightening in Peckham or Dalston, epicentres of black life in London brought into the cold white light of accumulation through procedures including art-making. In both places art’s position is essentially colonial, and the only threadbare ethics I could arrive at in Atlantis was that I would at least withhold from the violence of the gallery the satisfaction of my work being “very political”. My complicity will not wear the saving drag of critique, I told myself, but here once again I deploy my discomfort as material.
The mulatta, like the artist, mediates; she can be pressed into service as the image of a nonexistent synthesis. Must the insubordination of the mulatta take the form of a refusal of double agency? Or is it possible to multiply without it becoming only the exercise of a false freedom? Must the insubordination of the artist take the form of a critical refusal of critique, a retreat to the purely aesthetic, to the blind copy? Are we having a good time? Are we having the right kind of bad time? Perhaps critique is over and this is unexpectedly the era of joy, but, days after I leave Atlantis, I am still luxuriating in the feeling of shame.
Hannah Black is an artist and writer from London now living in Berlin.