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In Search of a Recuperative Aesthetics

Kayla Anderson

In discourses about climate change, extinction, slow violence, and lingering manifestations of colonialism, to profess hope can seem questionable—a naive, placating gesture. However, some would argue that a well-informed sense of dread or hopelessness is an equally disabling position.

At a conference I attended on approaching the Anthropocene from a humanities perspective, an economics student delivered a paper arguing that discussing climate change made him and his fellow students depressed, and therefore we should cease doing so. Avoiding “eco-depression,” to use his term, is clearly not in anyone’s best interest. But how can we face the world—a world that has come to seem like too much—and really allow ourselves to rub up against its pains and contradictions in a way that does not leave us feeling simply devastated or defeatist?

What does it mean—in art and in life—to hold these contradictions in conjunction?

Deliberating on this question, I’ve been drawn to works of art that engage feelings of hope and hopelessness at the same time, that linger in complexity and complicity,1 that imagine life in capitalist ruins2 and stay with the trouble.3 These works position the viewer in relation to the histories and narratives in question at a point that seems both just in time and already a little too late. At once aspirational and elegiac, they neither offer solutions nor render us entirely helpless.

In “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity,” Terry Smith describes our post–-Cold War era as one in which we are confronted with a “nearly universal condition of permanent-seeming aftermath,” wherein “obsession with the past and concern about the complexities of the present have tended to thicken our awareness of it at the expense of expectations about the future.”4 And yet, amidst this “world (dis)order,” artists manifest “sources of creative coping” through “adaptable modes of active resistance and hopeful persistence.”5

This confluence of feelings is apparent in works like The Great Silence, a collaboration between artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla and science fiction writer Ted Chiang, in which endangered parrots living near the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico have an anthropomorphized but nonetheless heartbreaking and affirming conversation on human–-non-human communication. It’s in the work of artists that refract and shatter tools of the police state: the “blinking cursor of our silence” in Metahaven’s Black Transparency transforms into the police-light strobe of Danny Giles’s Lyric, Ruby T’s Club, and Brendan Fernandes’s On Flashing Lights. I see it in the work of artists who are replacing the plausible with the possible, subverting linear time and presenting the future: the community workshops and temporal experiments of Camae Ayewa and Rasheedah Phillip’s Black Quantum Futurism, the Museum of Capitalism by FICTILIS, the hyper-ruminations on collective resistance in Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun, and the alternative economies of Irena Haiduk’s Yugoexport.

These works owe their slippery stance to what Carrie Lambert-Beatty calls “parafiction,”: in which works wherein “real and/or imaginary personages and stories intersect with the world as it is being lived.” Oriented towards “pragmatics of trust,” rather than the dissolution of the real, these works “train us in skepticism and doubt, but also, oddly, in belief.”6 The contradictory state embodied in the works above lives also in the cringingly-comically elucidated histories of Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, the identity corrections of the Yes Men, and the slow -reveal of social truths embedded uncovered in war, disaster, and cultural extraction by The Atlas Group and Walid Raad. Like parafiction, the works I’m calling recuperative maintain (at least) one foot in the real. They utilize fiction, but not as a mode of escape. They face reality by allowing us to experience reality differently—as complex, malleable. They may look away only provisionally, gathering the strength they need to deal with the world.

These artworks carve out a space to feel—perhaps mourn—something otherwise wholly tragic and potentially immobilizing. As art that makes space for new forms of futurity, might these works exhibit what we could call “recuperative aesthetics”? To be critical now, suggests Bruno Latour in “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” now requires one not to “debunk” but to “assemble,” to build “participants arenas in which to gather,” to proceed with care and towards matters of concern.7 In the era of post-truth8 and alternative facts, it appears time for the bulldozer of postmodernism to be countered with a crane, for art to assess the ruins and build up anew. This is not an art of the lost cause.

—Kayla Anderson

Kayla Anderson acts as an intermediary between objects and ideas, and views art and design as practices capable of radical imagining. Her writing and research engages with concepts of speculative futures, non-anthropocentric ontologies, post-humanism, animism, and the Anthropocene. Her material existence is based in Chicago, Illinois.

1 Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

2 Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

3 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

4 Terry Smith, “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity,” Critical Inquiry Vol. 32, nNo. 4 (Summer 2006): 705– - 707.

5 Ibid.

6 Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility,” OCTOBER October nNo. 129 (Summer 2009): 54– - 78.

7 Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry Vol. 30, nNo. 2 (Winter 2004): 246.

8 “‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries,” BBC News, 16 November 16, 2016 .

December 21, 2018