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Hearing through capital’s illusions

Tiarney Miekus: Liquid Architecture, Capitalist Surrealism


Brandon LaBelle Brandon LaBelle
photo Keelan O’Hehir
The exhibition statement for Capitalist Surrealism is the ultimate in sponsorship acknowledgements: “this program of lecture-performances by sound artists is brought to you by the new cultural logic of capital—real, but honestly, also kind of surreal.” A one-night event, Capitalist Surrealism aimed to assay capitalist social formation by thinking through the surreal processes and possibilities that are our economic life. Held at the National Gallery of Victoria and curated by Liquid Architecture, Capitalist Surrealism encompassed nine lecture-performances that engaged, wrestled with and thought beyond our capitalist present.

Brandon LaBelle

The opening performance by Brandon LaBelle, an American-born and Berlin-based writer, artist and theorist, established the event’s theme. Titled Confessions of an Overworked Artist, or, Strategies for an Impossible Practice, LaBelle’s performative mixture of spoken word and visuals reflects the social structures the artist works within, while also attempting to work beyond them. From the beginning he presents himself as the third-person ‘every artist’: “he often imagines what might be possible, the horizon of ideas and solidarities.” The forcefully charismatic LaBelle delivers a stream of consciousness avalanche of ideas: flight details, questions about the republic, budget concerns, application deadlines, democratic crises, theoretical quandaries…. The larger concerns of aesthetic practice are interspersed with lines humorously referencing the quotidian life of the artist, as LaBelle says, “and what of cognitive capitalism? Have to pick up the dry cleaning.”

LaBelle’s quick and urgent recital captures both his own permanent restlessness and further mimics a world determined by speed and information overload. Yet no matter how abstract or conceptual LaBelle’s thoughts become, the accompanying photographic slideshow features scenes and objects that unavoidably entwine the artist with the social world. However, Capitalist Surrealism is rarely directly evident in LaBelle’s words and images; instead he subtly positions art as something social rather than purely money-related, echoing the notion that we live in a society, not simply an economy. The piece finally builds to the central paradox that concerns LaBelle as he asks, “Overworked? Or the work that sets us free?” The answer, of course, is both, LaBelle’s performance portraying the artist as perpetually moving through a social life of competing ideas, relations and possibilities.

Saskia Doherty

In the Miner’s Companion, Saskia Doherty takes to the stage to recite a list of seemingly unrelated words in alphabetical order, signalling for some of the audience a possible test of endurance, but the performance reveals an acute and noteworthy logic. Doherty’s long list is extracted from a 1920s South African mining lexicon that translates words from English to a South African dialect, Fanakalo. This lexicon, likewise titled The Miner’s Companion, ensured communication between English-speaking miners and the South African workforce—but through a dialect that only references the technical components of machines, extraction processes, injuries, money and the barest of quotidian terms. The dryness of the list is made evident by Doherty taking large, exaggerated breaths and then proceeding to whisper as many words as one exhalation allows. This process repeats until every term in the lexicon is extracted: a process not unlike mining itself.

Doherty’s recitation is meaning-laden, but my attention is foremost on her voice and whispering, her delivery mimicking that of a miner who has developed pneumoconiosis—miner’s lung. By evoking the body, voice and language of the miner and broadcasting it, miner’s lung becomes a form of communication which speaks of how the material basis of capitalism disadvantages certain voices and bodies. In thinking through the linguistic and bodily processes of capitalism, the virtue of the performance resides in its recuperation of a mining history that is rarely acknowledged, perfectly conveying the violence of mining and by extension capitalism. The contemporary relevance of the performance is subtler, prompting reflection on our own language and how it is unconsciously determined by capitalism.

Tom Smith

What might an artist do with Pro Tools, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, online costume stores and fast cars? The answer is found in Tom Smith’s The New Spirit, the highlight of the evening. Armed with a laptop and headset, Smith interprets The New Spirit of Capitalism, a book centred on how contemporary capitalism appropriates the ideal of freedom as the basis of its networked logic. Smith renders the book’s sentences as sound, evoking the generic nature of contemporary music by producing a sound work using only the most familiar drum beats, rhythmic patterns and post-production processes of a culturally dominant MP3 sound world. Consequently when he speaks the authors’ words he renders them generic, signalling a loss of agency and political meaning—words becoming auto-tuned beyond aesthetic control. Networked capitalism feels natural and seems to offer agency, while mainstream music may likewise feel like it empowers artistic creation, but perceived freedom is lost to generic convention.

As Smith plays his sonic creation, he simultaneously peruses the virtual aisles of dress-up costumes and luxury cars and humorously attempts to purchase fake SoundCloud ‘listens’ to use in his own music. Importantly these signal new capitalism’s illusion: that we each operate as free agents who maximise our own interests and build ‘unique’ identities through consumption of generic items.

These lecture-performances don’t realise Capitalist Surrealism’s critical ambition, to imagine ‘horizons’ beyond the naturalised surrealism of capitalism. Rather each takes a particular facet of capitalism we are not necessarily conscious of and shows how it naturalises the actually surreal everyday. For these artists thinking of another ‘horizon’ begins by first thinking through how capitalism works on us.


Liquid Architecture, Capitalist Surrealism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 24 Sept

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2016 pg. 48

© Tiarney Miekus; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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