Melanie Gilligan: Popular Unrest & Other Works

From The Neoliberal Self: Lectures, Interviews, Art

This trailer from Spectacle Theater introduces three video series by artist Melanie Gilligan, Crisis in the Credit System (2008), Self-Capital (2009), and Popular Unrest (2010). Gilligan’s episodic dramas, inspired by the genre conventions of contemporary prime time and cable television, shed light on the visceral abstractions that interact to produce the neoliberal subject—abstractions of the physical body, finance, and science, as well as the social abstractions of affect—maintaining it in precarious tension as ostensibly coherent and autonomous yet fractured and infinitely fissionable.

The four-episode series Crisis in the Credit System, released just after the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers, suggests some of the ways capitalist speculation both exploits and produces finance-industry workers as “human capital.” (Its theme song, “Crisis in the Credit System,” is sung by Gilligan herself.) The theme of human capital is explored in greater depth in Gilligan’s three-part video series of the following year, Self-Capital (2009), which examines connections between the collective “body” of capitalism and its isolated, precarious, overstimulated subjects. The protagonist of the story—Global Economy—is a psychiatric patient undergoing treatment for what one analyst describes as “severe post-traumatic stress” suffered after “a complete meltdown.” Global Economy personifies both the subject of capital and global capital itself as an agent that exhibits subject-like qualities. She also embodies the neoliberal subject as her own form of capital. Gilligan explores these layers of allegory in a film that draws parallels between the crises of subjectivity neoliberal capitalism gives rise to and the economic crises it produces.

Gilligan’s video series of the following year, Popular Unrest (2010), explores the ways capitalism works hand-in-hand with biopower, employing science—neuroscience, psychology, computer science, and forensics, as well as the economic, political, and statistical sciences—to visualize the subject in various ways through multiple forms of monitoring and analysis and to fragment all aspects of that subject into capitalist categories of value, as shifting data sets. In this five-part sci-fi tale, a diffuse, invisible system of algocratic control called the Spirit—a power that suggests at once biopower, financial capitalism, and the Hegelian World Spirit—monitors and documents its denizens’ every move and every thought, assigning them ratings based on their personal “market indicators” such as employment, “home labor,” energy output, and physical activity, punitively depriving those with lower ratings of opportunities and pleasures and fining them if they miss “weekly bio tests.” The Spirit is also an unsparing force that is out for blood, ruthlessly murdering people apparently at random with kitchen knives falling from above. While all the Spirit’s subjects are reduced to mere biological substrates, these victims are the subjects the Spirit calculates to be expendable. Everyone is governed by the Spirit’s whims as well as its merciless economic calculations. Yet the subjects of Popular Unrest are not simply puppets controlled by an all-subsuming power; they also learn to self-surveil, and they must cultivate themselves accordingly in order to survive. If they are “human capital” in the Spirit’s eyes, their every dimension broken down into ever-smaller exchangeable units, they are also forced to recognize that they are their own capital—their own business risks, enterprises in which they are themselves inextricably invested. Popular Unrest suggests that the potential for resistance lies in the dreadnought of the collective.

If, as Gilligan’s work implies, the contemporary subject is reaching the physiological and psychological limits of biopolitical control—of unremitting improvement, optimization, and maximization—and therefore is, paradoxically, increasingly unviable, that subject’s imminent breakdown may yet open up a path to a different world. Whereas the global financial crash ultimately failed to challenge the capitalist system, the looming crash of the worn-out, wearied subject, in collapsing the very infrastructure of human capital upon which capitalism depends, could produce surprising results.

Melanie Gilligan is an artist and writer based in New York.

April 23, 2016

Spectacle Theater

Curated by

Kate Steinmann