Watching a Werner Herzog Film on Kickstarter: On neoliberal creativity, the logic of business, and the regime of art.
[A little while ago, Shama Khanna invited me to her experimental project Flatness, a website which tests the possibilities and limitations of the web as a creative site and space for viewing. This is what I wrote.]
For one second you see the product, then Werner Herzog’s voice over sets in and starts to embrace this 2:17 min short film with his rolling ‘r’: “Angelo Garro is a San Francisco blacksmith and artisan”. We hear the scratching noise of an early recording of Italian Opera music. We see Garro at his furnace hammering some iron. Cut. We see him at the stove cooking food, and learn that he makes it all himself, “like a medieval man”. Cut. The German art house film director is in his elements. Known for his obsessiveness since the making of Fitzcarraldo (1982), he seems to explore in this little film his beloved topics, the borders of our existence and what it is to be human. Apart from the length, there is no difference to his other documentaries Grizzly Man (2005) or Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011). The film Omnivore (2013) displays everything we love about Herzog: we are confronted with raw pictures, a strong narrative, and a voice over caught between two languages. Then you hear his voice saying: “his philosophy of cooking brings us back to the timeless essentials of organic food”. Flushed by the word “organic”, not at all a timeless but a rather timely concept of food, you realize that Herzog doesn’t explore the borders of our existence and what it is to be human. Instead, he advertises the “organic” salt “Omnivore” and the film is made for Kickstarter, a platform that helps creative projects raising money via crowd funding.
As it is surely recognizable from my description, the film – or to be precise its ‘mode of existence’ – fascinates me. In the following text, I’ll try to show that it is part of a deformation of culture we all live with for quite a while now: the rise of the creative industries. My thesis is, however, Herzog’s film makes apparent that by now this deformation is taken to a next level.
The deformation of culture so far
The spell of creativity has up till now been referred to as the incorporation of artistic concepts into the ‘creative industries’, and a conflation between the techniques of art and business. Trenchant studies of Angela MacRobbie (2003), Boltanski and Chiapello (2005), and others bring this to light. Simultaneously an economization of cultural institutions like museums, libraries, and universities has been critically noticed, for example in Hal Foster’s book on “The Art-architecture Complex” (2011). More recently, Claire Bishop has pointed out how this shift affects artistic tendencies in “Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship”, on which she comments wonderfully dry as follows: “Through the discourse of creativity, the elitist activity of art is democratised, although today this leads to business rather than to Beuys.” (2012, 16). While creativity became an economic asset, however, this beautifully indefinable thingy which elusively makes its time warp through the centuries called “art”, it escaped; I am not alone with insisting on this. Catalogues, blockbuster exhibitions, prohibitive auctions, and curatorial trends much like new talk of towns, Frieze art fairs, or it-boys and girls, all these will leave their marks in our view of an artistic performance, film, concept, or object. But all of this won’t change that this thingy called art can’t be tamed completely. Art is doomed to claim independence, a following and breaking of self-imposed rules that has often been described and performed ever since Kant discussed it in §49 of his Critique of Judgment: in order to be art, the thingy has to follow and break its self-imposed rules.
This implements an interesting withdrawal reflex within art regarding its economization. Of course, art is object to speculation. It is invested in, and can be dealt with as a financial transaction – Andrea Fraser’s bold work “Untitled” (2003) for which she recorded her sexual encounter with a private collector in a hotel-room brings art’s conditions of what is being saleable to a head (Trebay 2004). Still, from the perspective of art there is a problem with commissioned work. When it comes to art, the hiring and paying for the creation of a piece is delicate. Fraser’s work would have been different, if the sexual encounter would be commissioned by the collector, and not part of her concept. As the circumstances and the contexts of a work play a part in the creation, it is always worth inquiring who is the commissioner, and what is his or her intention with the commission. When it doesn’t follow its self-imposed but a paid for logic, commissioned art is starting to stumble the stronger the commissioners’ suggestions are.
On the other hand, a commission can deliver a useful topic: In Lucrecia Martel’s film MUTA (2011) presented by the fashion brand MIU MIU, the commission gave the excellent Argentine director a reason to explore the idea of top models cinematically: In the 6:27 minutes long film, we find a surreal setting. We see insects, a river, then a drifting yacht on which strangely moving females appear. Their faces are hidden throughout the film by their hair, sunglasses, gas masks, or the camera that blurs the view or looks the other way. Eclectic elements of narratives appear lend from horror movies or a jealous drama, for example when one girl slaps the other. The models never speak (like in real life) but communicate in strange hissing noises. The movement of their bodies is emphasized by sounds. They strike a mobile phone that vibrates in a fabric handbag – or is it a small animal? In the end, their bodies are suddenly gone with the noise of birds that fly away as if their time has elapsed, leaving behind the clothes. Again we see insects.
When we compare how Herzog’s and Martel’s film are situated, we find a small but important difference not hard to notice. Other than Martel’s film, Werner Herzog’s wasn’t financed and produced by anyone else. It isn’t a commission but a self-commission. Maybe one can put it like this: while Martel’s film is advertising made by an artist, Herzog’s film is art as an advertisement. It is a reversible project situated in art and advertising at the same time. Let’s look at it again and analyze how this can happen.
Art and … wait, which public is it again?
The Werner Herzog film was published on the digital platform Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a New York based company founded in 2009 that has created a crowd sourcing service which allows people to back but not to invest in creative projects. The approach has been controversially discussed and commented on; sites like yourkickstartersucks.tumblr.com or feakstarter.com are the outcome of this. Still, it is widely acknowledged to allow cultural projects to gather funding in a new way. But there is another problem: the digital public and the artistic public are two different publics that online get confusingly mixed up. And their confusion is the reason that digital platforms are a challenge for art – that there is indeed a rift has been elegantly pointed out by Claire Bishop’s essay “Digital Divide” (2012). One reason for this rift is the strong relation between art and the public in our culture, which gets mixed up when going online. The important role of publicness for our current cultural concept of art manifests itself in the public museums and art-architecture complexes that sit enthroned in the centres of our big cities, but it can also be found in each work of art: impatiently waiting for its beholder, besides journalism art has the rare power to create publicness. For this, as Rancière has pointed out, the “esthetic regime of art” breaks down other regimes. Of course, there are works of art that illustrate the different publicnesses and explore how the regime of art works. Marcel Duchamp’s notorious “Fountain” is an important piece which marks the regime of art, while a less known work is the ½ mile of landscape claimed art by conceptual enterprise N. E. Thing & Co. Founded by Ingrid and Ian Baxter in the sixties, they simply put up signs: “Start viewing” and “Stop viewing”. However, with the internet the creating and marking of artistic publicness has changed. For once, now you don’t need to be an artist (or a journalist) anymore to create a public. You can simply use a digital platform, and there it is. Only when artists use digital platforms, exactly this creates an interesting confusion.
If an artist creates something in public it is art. Of course, this is still the case after the rise of the internet to a mass medium. But what happens when artists use digital platforms? Marina Abramovic, for example, who can also be found on Kickstarter. In order to create a performance and education center, a “home to long durational work and the Abramovic Method”, the performance artist pledged for $600,000. With the help from a naked Lady Gaga practicing the Abramovic Method, she got $661,452. But in order to get it, Abramovic was all over the internet to promote her project, among others on the bulletin board system Reddit. There she posted “I am performance artist Marina Abramovic. Ask me anything”, and then answered questions of backers, for example about her former partner: “What passed through your head when you saw Ulay at The Artist Is Present at MoMA?”. Or what she thinks of Damien Hirst: “Good artist, incredible business man”. Or what makes her cry: “Lies.” While invoking a celebrity feeling (including the celebrity boredom), we encounter the brutal directness and exhibitionism we know from her other naked performances. Is Abramovic turning Reddit into a performance? Or is she just selling herself for her art center? Again, the project is open to both readings: it’s reversible. If this is the case, however, we need to conclude that the regime of art doesn’t bring down the other regime – business. Art is reversible to advertisement – and this, of course, causes trouble for the regime of art.
Summing it up
As neoliberal forces warp culture, the once playful pleasure of the mind called ‘creativity’ has become entangled with business to follow the logic of the economy. Until now the work of art, however, was spared. While art was sold as a commodity and we willingly pay an entrance fee to see it, the monetarization was ideally around it, not within it. Art might have followed trends, but until now the neoliberal monster hasn’t managed to turn the artwork itself into a more efficient and useful tool good for business. This has changed. With Herzog’s Omnivore and Abramovic’s Reddit Intervention, we see that the logic of business has entered the artwork itself. Not so long ago New York art critic Jerry Saltz (2012) wrote that “art is in the process of changing, shedding dead skin, reorganizing some of its structures, and steering its palliative way out of the overheated period we’ve been in,” but for now it looks as if the heat will stay around for a little longer. Capturing an important moment in our time, Herzog’s film will hopefully soon be screened in a museum displaying the art historical shift we have to be aware of from now on. The project he supported has been funded with $141,467 (way more than the goal of $30,000). I am one of its backers.
Claire Bishop 2012, “Digital Divide,” in: Artforum September 2012, New York, S.434–441.
Claire Bishop 2012, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso.
Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello 2005, The New Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Gregory Elliott, London, New York, Verso.
Hal Foster 2011, The Art-architecture Complex, Verso.
Angela McRobbie 2003, “‘Everyone is Creative’: Artists as Pioneers of the New Economy?,” available at www.k3000.ch/becreative.
Jerry Saltz 2012, “Leaving Babylon. The Whitney Biennial’s curators consider the post-crash afterlife,” available at nymag.com.
Guy Trebay 2004, “Sex, Art and Videotape”, from The New York Times, 13. June 2004, available at www.nytimes.com.
Marina Abramovic, “I am performance artist Marina Abramovic. Ask me anything”, available at www.reddit.com.
Andrea Fraser, “Untitled”, 2003, 60 min.
Werner Herzog, “Omnivore”, 2013, 2:17 min Watch.
Lucretia Martel, “MUTA”, 2011, 6:27 minutes. Watch
Omnivore Salt. Yes, the project got funded. I didn’t like the salt.