The Terror of Total Dasein

Economies of Presence in the Art Field

Hito Steyerl

Guillaume Desanges, A History of Performance in Twenty Minutes, June 10, 2010, performance-lecture, Guillaume Desanges with Hélène Miesel

Guillaume Desanges, A History of Performance in Twenty Minutes, June 10, 2010, performance-lecture, Guillaume Desanges with Hélène Miesel

“The International Artists’ Strike in 1979 was a “protest against the ongoing repression of the art system and the alienation of artists from the results of their work.” Djordjevic mailed invitations to numerous artists around the world, asking if they would be willing to take part in the general strike. He received thirty-nine, mainly unsupportive responses from the likes of Sol Lewitt, Lucy Lippard, and Vito Acconci. Susan Hiller replied: “I have, in fact, been on strike all summer, but it has not changed anything and I am anxious to begin work again, which I shall do very soon.” 1

“Dear Goran, Thanks for your letter. Personally I am already on strike of producing any new form in my work since 1965 (i.e. 14 years). I don’t see what I could do more – Best Regards (Daniel) Buren.” 2

When legendary conceptual artist Goran Djordjevic tried to rally artists to go on a general art strike in 1979, some of them responded that they were on strike already – i.e. did not produce work or new work. But it made no difference whatsoever. Clearly, at this time this seems to have confounded received ideas of what a strike was and how it worked. A strike was supposed to drain needed labour power from employers, who would then need to make concessions to workers demands. But in the art field things were different.

Today, the artist’s reaction seems obvious. No one working in the art field expects his or her labour to be irreplaceable or even mildly important anymore. In the age of rampant self-employment or rather self-unemployment the idea that anyone would care for one’s specific labour power seems rather exotic. Of course, labour in the art field has always been different from labour in other areas.

One of the current reasons, however, might be that the contemporary economy of art relies more on presence than on traditional ideas of labour power tied to the production of objects. Presence as in physical presence, as in attendance or being-there in person. Why would presence be so desirable? The idea of presence invokes the promise of unmediated communication, the glow of uninhibited existence, a seemingly unalienated experience and authentic encounter between humans. It implies that not only the artist but everyone else is present too, whatever that means and whatever it is good for. Presence stands for allegedly real discussion, exchange, communication: the happening, the event, liveness, the real thing––you get the idea.

Art Basel in Basel 2014, Conversations: Public, Private,  featuring. Andras Szanto, RoseLee Goldberg, Otobong Nkanga, Catherine Wood.

Art Basel in Basel 2014, Conversations: Public, Private, featuring. Andras Szanto, RoseLee Goldberg, Otobong Nkanga, Catherine Wood.

In addition to delivering works artists, or more generally content providers, have to perform countless additional services nowadays, which slowly seem to have become more important than any other form of work. The Q&A is more important than the screening, the live lecture more than the text, the encounter with the artist more important than the one with the work. Not to mention the jumble of quasi-academic and social media PR formats that multiply the templates in which unalienated presence is supposed to be delivered. The artist has to be present, as in Marina Abramovic’s eponymous performance. And not only present, but exclusively present, present for the first time, or in some other hyperventilating capacity of newness. Artistic occupation is being redefined as permanent presence . But in the endless production of seemingly singular events, the serial churning out of novelty and immediacy, the happening of the event is also a general performance, as Sven Lütticken called it, a quantifiable measure of efficiency and total social labour.

The economy of art is deeply immersed in this economy of presence. The market economy of art has it´s own economy of presence which revolves around art fairs, with their guest lists, VIP areas and performative modes of access and exclusion on every level. People have been saying that previews of mega-shows have become completely inadequate for HNWI´s (High Network Individuals). Really important people are only present for the prepreview.

There are some rational reasons for an economy of physical human presence in the artfield: physical presence of people is on average cheaper than the presence of works that need to be shipped, insured and/or installed. Presence puts so-called butts on seats and thus provides legitimacy to cultural institutions competing for scarce funding. Institutions sell tickets or even access to people – this is usually done in the scope of para-academic formats like masterclasses or workshops –and capitalise on people’s hope to increase the reach of their network or accrue contacts. In one word, presence can be easily quantified and monetised. It´s a thing that few people get paid for and a lot of people pay for, and is thus rather profitable.

Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl

But presence also means permanent availability without any promise of compensation. It is related to the function of zero hour contracts in other sectors, even though motivations for availability are not the same. In the age of the reproducibility of almost everything physical, human presence is one of the few things that cannot be multiplied indefinitely, an asset with inbuilt scarcity. Presence means to be engaged or occupied with an activity without being hired or employed. It means more often than not to be locked down in standby mode, as a reserved element for potential engagement, a crowd of extras to provide stochastic weight.

Interestingly enough, the demand for total presence and immediacy arises from mediation; or more precisely the growing range of tools of communication including the internet. It is not the opposite of, but rather the consequence of technology.

According to William T. Mitchell, the economy of presence3 is characterised by a technologically enhanced market for attention, time, movement – a process of investment that requires careful choices. The point is that technology gives you tools that allow for remote and delayed presence, so that physical presence becomes the scarcest option among a range of alternatives..

According to Mitchell: “Presence choice occurs when an individual decides whether face-to-face presence is worth the time and money”. Presence in fact becomes a mode of investment. It is not opposed to technology but it´s consequence.

The economy of presence is not only relevant for people whose time is in demand and who could basically sell (or barter) more time than they have, but even more so to those that must work multiple jobs in order to make a living or even not make a living. It is equally relevant to those who coordinate a jumble of micro jobs, complete with the logistical nightmare of harmonising competing schedules and negotiating priorities, or that are on permanent standby in the hope that their time and presence will become exchangeable for something else eventually. The aura of unalienated, unmediated and precious presence depends on a temporal infrastructure that consists of fractured schedules and dysfunctional and collapsing just-in-time economies in which people frantically try to figure out reverberating asychronicities and the continuous breakdown of riff raff timetables. It´s junktime, broken down, kaputt on any level. Junktime is wrecked, discontinuous, distracted and runs on several parallel tracks. If you tend to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and if you even manage to be in two wrong places at the same wrong time it means you live within junktime. With junktime, any causal link is scattered. The end is before the beginning and the beginning was taken down for copyright violations. Anything in-between has been slashed because of budget cuts. Junktime is the material base of the idea of pure unmediated endless presence.

Guillaume Desanges, A History of Performance in Twenty Minutes, June 10, 2010, performance-lecture, Guillaume Desanges with Hélène Miesel

Guillaume Desanges, A History of Performance in Twenty Minutes, June 10, 2010, performance-lecture, Guillaume Desanges with Hélène Miesel

Junktime is exhausted, interrupted, dulled by Ketamine, Lyrica, and corporate imagery. Junktime happens when information is not power, but comes as pain. Acceleration is yesterday´s delusion. Today you find yourself crashed and failing. You try to occupy the square or bandwidth, but who is going to pick up the kid from school? Junktime depends on velocity as in the lack thereof. It is time´s substitute: it´s a crash test dummy.

So how does junktime relate to a cult of presence? Here is a question to all the philosophers out there – and it concerns the title of this talk.

The question is: is this cult of presence revitalising Heideggerian ideas about Dasein in the age of task rabbits and Amazon Turkers? Is the cult of an embodied and engaged presence that cannot be copied and pasted an expression of the relentless quantification of everything within most contemporary occupations? Is it going hand in hand with the body count performed by institutions to prove their perceived importance by attendance numbers while simultaneously harvesting visitors data and preferences? Is the fragmented junktime of multiple occupations, the necessity of multiplying and juggling scraps and shreds of time, creating the conditions for some kitsch ideal of an unalienated uninterrupted radiating endless mindful awful Anwesenheit?

If some of you agree, I suggest to call this text: The Terror of Total Dasein. It sounds like an early movie by Christoph Schlingensief.

Let’s come back to the topic of the strike. In an economy of presence a strike necessarily takes on the form of absence. But since the kind of presence I tried to describe is in fact a range of grades of withholding absence, the absence that tries to oppose it also inversely has to integrate some form of presence. It might need to take on the form of a range of strategic withdrawals, or what Autonomia Operaia called absenteeism.

Let me describe a very simple model situation: A strike could take the form of a work called „The artist is absent“ in which there would be just a laptop on a table with a pre recorded and looped stare, or rather an animated gif of her. This is kind of banal, but then again the audience would equally be represented by similar props, because frankly it hasn’t got much time either. Or actually the much more elegant and, dare I say, standard solution for managing the economy of presence and making actual and real life presence choices is to check your email or twitter feed, while pretending to simultaneously listen to me. In this case you are using yourself, more precisely your own body, as a stand-in or proxy or placeholder, while actually, you go about your junktime commitments, which I think is perfectly fine as a form of absence management.

BODYBUILDING (excerpt, 2m46s) from Hannah Black

And I also think this is already a form of evasion from the terror of total Dasein.

This small example shows the role of proxies and stand-ins in a situation, in which basically multiple presence is required in many places simultaneously, but physically impossible. And this is where techniques of evasion, doubling, dazzle and subterfuge set in. They open up to a proxy politics, a politics of the stand-in and the decoy.

A stand-in or proxy is a very interesting device. It could be a body double or a stunt double. A scan or a scam. An intermediary in a network. A bot or a decoy. Inflatable tanks or text dummies. A militia deployed in proxy warfare. A template. A readymade. A vectorized bit of stock imagery. All these devices have just one thing in common: they help out with classic dilemmas arising from an economy of presence.

Here is an example of such a device. It is one of the simplest examples of desktop proxy and quite widespread. Everyone has seen this generic sample text:

“Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.”

Developed as a printer’s font sample, design proxy Lorem Ipsum was integrated into standard desktop publishing software as a random text dummy. It became a cornerstone of text-based digital industries and their forms of ADHD occupation.

Image by Caroline Ballegaard.

Image by Caroline Ballegaard.

Why is it used? Because maybe there is no copy. Perhaps the text has not yet been written or aggregated. Or there is no time or money to fill the space at all. Perhaps the writer is dead or asleep or busy on a different tab. In the meantime the space has to be designed. Advertisements have been sold already. The deadline swiftly rolls near. This is when „Lorem ipsum“ swings into action. It is a dummy providing yet another extension, catering to a demand for eternal and relentless presence.

But Lorem Ipsum is not only a dummy. One can also understand it as a text. It is a fragment of a treatise on ethics by Cicero4 called „On the Ends of Good and Evil“. In this treatise, different definitions or goods and evils are compared. And the precise fragment deals with pain: or rather a shortened down version of it namely „(pa-)in itself“.

Lets focus on the original sentence’s meaning. It reads: „Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet consectetur adipisci velit.“ It means: “Neither is there anyone who loves, pursues or desires pain itself because it is pain, but there can be cases where labour and pain can procure some great pleasure.“ So basically it is about sucking up for some greater good to arrive later. It is a classical case of deferred gratification, which would later constitute one of the moral pillars of the protestant work ethic of capitalism.

But what actually does the Lorem Ipsum version mean? It has been cut up to take away the gratification altogether.

It translates: in of itself, because it is pain, but circumstances occur in which labor and pain can procure him some great (…)

The Lorem Ipsum version has blithely cut off pleasure or reward from Cicero’s sentence. There is no more gratification. So now you are not enduring pain for some greater good or thereafter but just enduring it without actually knowing why. There may just as well be no outcome, no product, no pay, no end. In Lorem Ipsum pain is not means to an end but it just so happens.

Xavier Cha, Body Drama, 2011, Installation view.

Xavier Cha, Body Drama, 2011, Installation view.

Junktime, the fragmented time of networked occupation is to continuous time as „Lorem ipsum“ is to it´s original. It´s fragments are scrambled, cut up, shut up and confused in their sequence, spoiling the glow of uninterrupted flow of text and meaning. And every time I read Lorem Ipsums mutilated jumble, I cannot help thinking of Cicero’s head and hands cut off and ending up being nailed to the rostra on the Forum Romanum following his assassination.

There is an interesting variation of Lorem Ipsum on the website of Berghain gay sexclub laboratory. It shows some interesting differences to standard Lorem Ispum. First of all, it is on the rules of conduct site of the club, so that the Lorem Ispum sentences actually become the code of conduct.5

There are quite a few differences to the standard Cicero mash up. The word pleasure, or a variation thereof has been reintroduced in this version. It also goes on praising the virtues of physical exercise, which makes total sense in a place which has an athlete fetish party on offer. This version loops back between pain, toil as pleasure and physical exercise or sports.

The rules of conduct of the sexclub become an extremely stressful sounding set of instructions in which the pursuit of pleasure, labor and physical exercise forms an endless loop: you have to find pleasure through work, then work out and have sex in this order and without any break. Then repeat. It sounds like the junktime version of Churchill’s famous quip: If are are going through hell just keep going. Just now there is no more exit and if you keep going it just means there will be more hell ahead.

But the Lorem Ipsum set of rules of engagement could also be read differently. In the sense that the mix of pleasure, sports and pain is so exhausting, that one would rather send a proxy or dummy or Lorem Ipsum itself -, to have all the sex, pain, toil and sports on one’s behalf. Because frankly, to keep going in this mode is just too time consuming, and additionally, it might become slightly cumbersome to check your emails while you are doing it. So just leave it to Lorem Ipsum to take care of it on your behalf and manage your absenteeism.

Perhaps the preoccupation with stock footage, serialised stock photography of commodities, all sorts of templates for creative labour, copy and paste, aggregation but also the fascination with corporate aesthetics and the corporation as proxy could be seen as potentially responding to the need to be absent. All these are proxys that one can use on behalf of oneself or ones work. Is this some sort of applied absenteeism? A sneaky boycott of constant presence? Using stock footage and templates is kind of the equivalent of periodically saying “awesome” to pretend one is listening to an annoying conversation, while one has left behind laser cut stand-up displays to fake participation and attendance in actually several places.

The point is: people use proxies in order to deal with the Terror of Total Dasein or an economy of presence based on the technologically amplified scarcity of human attention and physical presence. Even Strike organiser Djordjevic started pursuing a form of proxy politics after the failed art strike.

He stopped making art under his name. Years later he remerged as technical assistant for a certain Walter Benjamin’s recent lecture tours and kind of has represented him ever since. Whether Benjamin himself is on strike is not known.

Guillaume Desanges, A History of Performance in Twenty Minutes, June 10, 2010, performance-lecture, Guillaume Desanges with Hélène Miesel

Guillaume Desanges, A History of Performance in Twenty Minutes, June 10, 2010, performance-lecture, Guillaume Desanges with Hélène Miesel

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