Toil and trouble

How art can create alternative spaces of resistance within the market logic of the globalised world. By Timotheus Vermeulen

ArtbubbleAnnika von Hausswolff, Unti­tled, 2006. Courtesy the artist 

Reading the papers these days, listening to lectures or podcasts, watching the news, it would appear that art has become globular – that is not a typo, not global, but globular, that is to say, bubbly or bubble-like. I do not know whether the phrase “art bubble” has ever been used to positive effect or even neutrally, but today it seems to connote above all the extent to which a progressively isolated, increasingly self-contained part of the art world has supposedly spun loose from the global solar system, drifting away from the other planets, a weightless, precarious pocket of air floating God knows where – until, of course, like all bubbles, it bursts. It most frequently pops up in reference to the inflation of the art market, to the soaring (indeed insane) prices of even the most mundane paintings and run-of-the-mill sculptures, which have reached, as the critic Jason Farago put it in the Guardian, “such stratospheric heights that the numbers seemed unreal”. In some cases, “bubble” is the designated term for an overhyped movement or network of artists. Scott Reyburn, for instance, used it recently in a New York Times article to describe the evanescence of a hip generation of abstract painters like Oscar Murillo, Lucien Smith and Mark Flood. A discussion in Frieze D/E some time ago invoked the bubble to denote the exclusivity of the Berlin art scene. There are even those who feel that the whole of the art world has pivoted, or perhaps ballooned out of control. The cultural critic Jonathan Jones has noted that the “vast and wealthy system of art, artists, galleries and collectors rests on such slender foundations of actual achievement of any kind”, while the curator Hans den Hartog Jager argued recently that more often than not artists’ outreach to the public goes unanswered – not because their gestures are not understood by the audience, but because, unbeknown to the artists, these gestures are no longer directed at anyone but themselves, like exhibitionists obviously jerking off in a park hours after the last joggers have finished their runs. Art, we are told, is globular – but it isn’t exactly a clean metaphor, less soap bubble than sodden blubber.

Peter Sloterdijk’s momentous study Spheres may not have yet been translated into English in its entirety, with its third and final instalment, Schäume (Foam), still to cross the Channel, but its message seems to have all but reached these shores. From discussions about the “South Africanisation” of social experience; about gated communities and communal ghettos; shopping malls and the decline of the high street; exclusive project developments and housing projects for the excluded; social networks and loneliness; to movies about parallel societies such as Elysium, The Hunger Games and even The Intouchables; to the David Foster Wallace novels and Miranda July short stories that address interpersonal isolation; to, indeed, the talk about the various art bubbles. There is a widespread understanding, if not institutionalised then intuitively, that our lives are lived increasingly in bubbles: precarious, spherical confines. 

In Spheres, Sloterdijk distinguishes between, or rather deterritorialises and reterritorialises, three globular modalities: the intimate bubble of “Dasein” or existence, the geopolitical macrosphere of the globe, and foam, the experiential register of modernity. The first, described in volume one, which was excellently translated by Wieland Hoban in 2011 as Bubbles, describes the extent to which we humans live, first and foremost, in space. We embody space, are already spatial, from our first moments in the womb to our last in the coffin, moving through space, sensing with space – “I” versus “other” – and thinking in terms of space, of here and there. We open up space, create “bubbles” for ourselves and our loved ones, metaphorically and literally, but also close them off, excluding the outside world. For Sloterdijk, “to be” means “to be there”: somewhere, in one bubble as opposed to others. As the Australian philosopher Jeff Malpas has put it, it is less an ontology than an “ontotopology”. 

The macrosphere of the globe, the central topos of the second volume, is Sloterdijk’s model for the globalised human, the metaphysical being that understands itself in terms of the globe: the ancient geometrist, the conqueror of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance cartographer, the 19th-century astrophysicist. Here, however, we no longer live in the bubble, in the sphere, as much as we are on top of it, calculating its circumferences, testing boundaries, measuring perimetres, computing its volume. If this model suggests a sense of power, however, it also implies a fundamental helplessness, the horizons of our existence widened to the point of becoming, as is especially the case with outer space, invisible and unimaginable. 

Sloterdijk develops the notion of foam, finally, to describe our current experiential register. Foam is a fluid, fluctuating “agglomerate of bubbles”. Here each of these bubbles, Sloterdijk writes, is connected, yet at the same time isolated from one another. Indeed, foam’s structure is premised on the very “co-isolation” of these bubbles: it dissolves if the cells lose touch with one another, but it liquefies if they merge, turning, in both cases, into oily water, flowing down the plughole. This unity principled on multiplicity, of related yet separated lifeworlds, what you might call a “between-bubble”, is the model for our contemporary reality. As Sloterdijk puts it, towards the end of the third volume, the “social conglomerates” of the macrosphere – Athens, Constantinople or Moscow’s grand narratives, Napoleon on his horse at Jena, Nazism – here are disassembled “into individuated, complex entities and the recombination of these into corporative ensembles”: the modern apartment, implemented with all the comfort of individual needs, compartmentalised according to one’s desires, as the whimpering end of history.

If Farago and Reyburn, Jones and Hartog Jager, the participants on a Frieze panel or I, myself, on many an occasion, compare phenomena or practices in the art world – even the whole of the art world – to a “bubble”, what they, or we, mean is that the laws of those phenomena and practices have been upended, rendering them meaningless, in the sense that they no longer abide by the rules of the world or galaxy. These phenomena, these practices, this world, so the argument runs, are at once averted, inverted and perverted: unaware of the galaxy, unconcerned with it and acting independently from it, like a wayward bubble stretching the fabric of the foam until it pops loose, ignorantly awaiting its own end. In Sloterdijk’s sense, however, if we were to speak about an “art bubble”, we would be talking precisely about the whole gamut of spoken and unspoken rules, spaces, operations, discourses and affects that constitute the production, distribution and reception of art. One might think here of debates about what art is, or rather, what art can be and what it is not at a certain moment in time, or in a particular culture. The “bubble” refers to a language, to the art jargon that producers and patrons of art employ when speaking with one another, but it is also about the places that allow for the production of this “art”, or its reception; it is about studios and galleries, public spaces and private – and privatised – institutions. It is equally about the relational monetary value of artworks and about the networks of curators, about taste and power, about art schools and Tumblr communities, about what renowned magazines feature and what they don’t, about the editorial choices of niche blogs. In other words, if we were to speak about an “art bubble” in this sense, we would be speaking precisely about the system of signification itself, semiotically and materially, socially and bodily – a world. What this means, I guess, is that if the “bubble” is the problem, it may well also be the answer. The question is whether art lives – or, perhaps, whether it thinks it lives – inside of bubbles, on top of them or between them: what is, from the position of the outsider and the insider, art’s function, or at least its possibility?

As I tend to tell my first year students (for better or worse), and as I’ve written elsewhere, if you enter an exhibition, in a museum, a gallery or wherever, you arrive at a distinct cosmos, one with, as it were, its own laws of “nature”: spatiality and gravity, lighting and rhythm, the relationality and coexistence of your body to the objects but also of the objects to each other. In some cases, the laws of this cosmos are clear. Upon entering a retrospective of Picasso, Breughel or Van Gogh, there will be, for most of us, a sense of the rules organising this world, rules of colour and of perspective, of the application of paint and the sensation of texture. These rules have been canonised, after all, have been written into set narratives of signification, in which specific aesthetic strategies call to mind particular meanings, in the same way that we are accustomed to the rules of, say, a Hollywood romantic comedy, always already aware of the plot twists about to, and unlikely to, happen. 

In the case of the contemporary art exhibition, the rules of the world are however, often unclear. You venture into a space not necessarily knowing what to expect, not sure how to read the signs, uncertain what may and what may not happen. Why does this installation stand next to that oil painting? What is the relationship between the pink in one sculpture and the pink in a video loop? How are media linked? Styles? Textures? Ideas? Indeed, the way I teach my students to engage with exhibitions (but again, this may be the worst advice) is as intergalactic adventurers (hopefully not in a colonial sense), arriving in an unknown world whose laws and customs they need to learn if they want to survive. Each visitor has to find his or her own strategy of survival: one reads the information cards, if they are there; another follows the path marked by the artist or curator; a third meanders back and forth between positions; some let themselves be led by aesthetics, by resonances between forms, textures and materials; while others choose to focus on conceptual questions. In most cases, your body will come to understand this world. Maybe you feel an instant click, or the connection might develop more gradually. Perhaps you find the world to be incoherent, its logic inconsistent, its structure uneven. In some cases, for all your efforts, you cannot immerse yourself in the world, which, depending on your character, you either assume is your fault or that of the exhibition. It might well be both; it may be exclusively the latter’s (the bubble that you hope pops soon). 

In any case, what these art bubbles, these art worlds, encourage you to do, precisely because they are unfamiliar, or because they may not make sense, is to reconsider the conventional notions you might have about what a world is, what it consists of, what it allows for – Schiller’s aesthetic education. It opens up the possibility of the alternative, including, one would hope, an alternative to the logic of the market. Art creates openings within the fluid fabric of the foam, spaces that cells can move into, allowing the other cells around it to switch place, restructure. Indeed, it is precisely because art is globular, enclosed and without solid substance, precisely because there is a virtual rather than an “actual” achievement, that it is able to open up. It may not offer a model beyond the globe or beyond foam, but it offers the notion that there may be such a model, precisely by continuously restructuring the very fabric of what foam is. 

I by no means wish to suggest, by way of this uneven, fitful and theoretically haphazard reconsideration of the notion of the “bubble”, of the possibilities it offers for thinking about art, that all art is capable of creating bubbles, or that, if it is, it does so successfully. There is art, if one should even call it that, which blows and blows but never creates its own bubble because its borders are porous. Or art whose boundaries lack transparency and allowing no one to gaze in. I have seen too much that made me nod in recognition of Jones and Hartog Jager’s arguments, however much I tend to disagree with them: there are too many privileged white guys mistaking, metaphorically or literally, the gallery space for their bedroom or toilet, publicly performing their peculiar masturbatory ritual, getting off on a misquoted Friedrich Kittler reference, orgiastically reciting an in vogue 19th-century poet about technology. But art that does manage to create bubbles, these globs of air that cannot but collapse under the weight of the other cells they open up to, is not insubstantial, but rather always already about to be substantialised, microcosms of how we might live, even, or especially, if those living arrangements make no sense at all. §