Looking back at Transformation Marathon, p.2 (EST)

, 26 October 2015

The Transformation Marathon, hosted by Serpentine Sackler Gallery and curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, is a combination group show/art conference that, according to the press announcement “addresse[s] cultural, political and physical shifts, asking how significant change can be achieved today”. Watching and listening in Eastern Standard Time (EST), five hours behind London’s GMT, by way of the stream over the course of a 24-hour live event/radio show. That I could be present at the Marathon denotes a sort of institutional transformation in itself, the incorporation of digitality and broadening of artistic platforms –drawing on, to paraphrase, Marisa Olson’s idea that URL is IRL. But does technical change actually necessitate cultural and political shifts? In considering the works and presentations on show, one wonders just how transformative, how changed, this institution, these ideologies and these identities really are.

The 7 to 10 pm block (which I viewed at 2 to 5 pm EST) of the marathon began with art duo Gilbert & George’s take on the theme. They used their segment to spotlight –rather, appropriate –a third person, a Filipina transgender woman named Victoria. The transformation was twofold as it marked their becoming a trio, and Victoria was upheld as an example of, to paraphrase G&G’s interview, “the real transformation”. This notion of transformation is therefore predicated on two white men making a “living sculpture” of –that is to say, objectifying –a trans woman of color, by way of showcasing the popular and preconceived transition narrative. This, coupled with their discussion of their Banksy-level confrontational broadsides (reading, e.g. “Fuck the Planet” re: “people that want to save the planet,” to quote George), and the universalizing slogan that overarches their career (“Art for All”), set a tone that would follow the remainder of the live stream: mostly white participants presenting archaic, or humanistic, ideas or fallacies of transformation, while more marginalized artists exhibited radicalized ones, and effectively transformed the space.

Gilbert & George and Victoria @ the Transformation Marathon (2015). Photo by Plastiques. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.
Gilbert & George and Victoria @ Transformation Marathon (2015). Photo by Plastiques. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.

This was the dissonance in Bruno Latour’s participation, both in his lecture and in conversation with Obrist and Tino Sehgal. In his disorganized lecture, he argued that there was “no transformation without institution,” riffing on Whitehead’s interpretation of substance theory to say that institution is “subsistence” –i.e., is a transformative body –rather than “substance,” static. He concluded his segment with the idea that the art institution is “finally very weakened” because of those who are resistant to “critique,” reminding us that transformation is not limited to “the margins,” and that “science is one institution to cherish.” It is unclear, though, if in “cherish[ing]” the institution, we are to accept it as apolitical and ideologically neutral.

Neither Latour nor Sehgal (nor Obrist, who moderated) acknowledge this in their conversation, and instead reinscribe it through their values. Latour stated, to paraphrase, that hierarchy “has to be worked out gradually,” and defined his latest project, Reset, as “getting the politics out so that it is the human alone.” For someone like Latour to attempt to curate and/or facilitate a psychosocial “reset” universalizes the white man’s experience as the “human experience,” which is, in no way, transformative. Sehgal disapproved of the counterculture idea, similar to Latour alleging “transformation without innovation,” stating that no one can be “outside the market,” yet so much of what makes one “marketable” stems from how one is privileged by, to use bell hooks’ terming, the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Marketability, also, does not necessarily mean empowerment or freedom: case in point, G&G’s inclusion of Victoria as an object, while maintaining their own subjectivity as European men, references the topical media phenomenon of the ‘Transgender Tipping Point -the saturation of the public consciousness with consumable trans narratives -more than it recognizes her autonomy. It is perhaps more useful to think of “outside the market” in terms of lacking access, being more analogous to “outside the canon.”  Jeff Koons was brought up as having said that he has “2.7 seconds to create a sense of acceptance in the viewer,” and while the conversation fixated on time/attention, the depth of the experience, I think the more crucial question is whether art should seek acceptance at all, whether acceptance is but reinscription.

Rebecca Lewin and Gil Leung @ Transformation Marathon on Serpentine Radio (2015). Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.
Rebecca Lewin and Gil Leung @ Transformation Marathon on Serpentine Radio (2015). Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.

The same problems plagued the discussion of ecology and the so-called ‘anthropocene’. It is unsurprising that Latour’s humanistic sensibilities about art permeate his consideration of the earth: both he and Sehgal defaulted to the Foucauldian “technologies of the self”, paraphrasing Felix Guattari in agreeing there would be “no solution to climate change without a change in subjectivity”, without a change to the aforesaid technologies. Both also often used the collective ‘we’ in reference to responsibility, which must be interrogated: we, as Saskia Sassen pointed out earlier in the program, are not all equally accountable for the ecological catastrophe that comes with globalization. There are so many ideological loose ends to how this subject was treated. It is germane to compare Latour’s statement of “we are rocks now”, in the spirit of his and James Lovelock’s universalizing ‘Gaia’ idea, to Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr’s depiction of the refugee crisis in pebble art: these are not the same rocks, these are not the same ‘we’. The treatment of the earth in art, accordingly, is dependent on the artist: Keren Cytter incorporated images of earthly destruction in her film, Metamorphosis, to create danger within a nonlinear narrative, while Eyal Weizman used “physical clocks” for the purpose of reconstructing a day in the 2014 Gaza war. In contrast to ‘Gaia’, Lynn Hershman Leeson, in excerpts from The Infinity Engine, understands that “nature” is more constructed than transcendent, and “what was formerly known as nature” is no longer that.

Grace Wales Bonner with Moussa Dembele and Moussa Dembele @ the Transformation Marathon (2015). Photo by Plastiques. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.
Grace Wales Bonner with Moussa Dembele and Moussa Dembele @ Transformation Marathon (2015). Photo by Plastiques. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.

It was ironic, especially in light of Dorothea von Hantelmann’s lecture and the insistence that ecology is communal, to see this conversation meant to question the contemporary notion of ‘gathering’, via a platform that, as Sehgal pointed out, maintained the traditional subject-object distance between speaker and audience, juxtaposed with the fact that artists of color did actually transform the space. Jamaican-British menswear designer Grace Wales Bonner staged the musical composition ‘Everythings for Real’, named for her series of collages/zines, and performed by Moussa Dembele and Moussa Dembele. Nkisi closed the livestream with a DJ set. In both cases, to draw on the emphasis von Hantelmann placed on experientiality, there is a palpable liveness to these musical works: the range and collaboration between players in Bonner’s piece, the interaction of their personalities with the music (one performer ended on “shave and a haircut”); the curation of an interactive atmosphere through Nkisi’s ‘Occult Instability’. Both artists importantly forgo the institutional formalism by dissolving the subject-object separation. Accordingly, the audience did not seem to know how to interpret either performance, to some extent, with people clapping prematurely during Bonner’s piece, and some not being able to keep up with the crossfades in Nkisi’s sometimes abrasive, or unexpected, or “unstable” performance. This sense of temporal, atmospheric change through music was echoed in Jumana Manna’s broadcast from ‘A Magical Substance Flows into Me’, in which she referenced the idea of Palestinian music as “closely connected with the elemental forces of the universe [and] shap[ing the] harmony of the universe” –or, something that is at once “real” and “occult.”

Saskia Sassen @ the Transformation Marathon (2015). Photo by Manuela Barczewski. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.
Saskia Sassen @ Transformation Marathon (2015). Photo by Manuela Barczewski. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.

Andrea Crespo’s short film, “Polymorphoses (epilogue),” also accomplished the subversion, though by way of the subject-object dialectic. The film begins and ends with the sweeping of a clinical white line across the screen –a possible symbol, re: Latour’s “cherish[ed]” science, for the whitewashed normativity proposed by medical science, how it punishes neurodivergence; to quote the text of the film, “we become ‘sentient’ and/or sapient/so to speak”. The incorporation of public digital sources like DeviantArt and Wikipedia both creates and refers to community/gathering as much as it creates and refers to, as Anton Haugen wrote for Rhizome, “the malleability of the self”. The ontological multiplicity is a Foucauldian “technology” of its own, necessitated by institutional pressure and the advent of technology a la Leeson. It returns us to the pervasive question, also posed by Katherine Angel and Helen Hester in ‘Technosexuals’, of what is or is not a legitimate body or legitimate personhood. **

See here for ‘Looking back at Transformation Marathon, p.1 (GMT)’.

Transformation Marathon was on at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, running October 17 to 18, 2015.