Monday, 24 November 2014

Institutional Capture: How We Do It

OtherFilm Festival 2014 has asked us how would we capture the Institution? This is my answer. –> 

My father was a screw. He started with seemingly impossible ideals of social change in the Joh era and ended a very cynical, tough as nails, one-punch man. Thirty plus years later in 2014, we find ourselves in a ‘social turn’ of contemporary art,[1] where art is trending towards activism and our conservative governments are selling/leasing off public interests to private concerns. A private company working for profit could soon operate the jail my father worked in. I find myself unable to share my father’s righteous belief in the Law when the Law and (other Institutions like Art Institutions) are increasingly serving private interests and the accumulation of value. Working towards the contrary, other artists and I produce our art within the context of this ‘social turn’ to disseminate ‘the power over’ hegemony into ‘the power with’ community. Without the technocratic skills of hacking, I wish to interrupt the surveillance technology with community concentration. In doing so I ask Art to take a look at itself: what does activism from within the Institution look like, what does it hope to achieve and how can it do so without serving private interests.
Artists in the 2014 Sydney Biennale did the seemingly impossible task of removing a private sector investor, Transfield, due to its parallel management of Refugee Detention Centres.[2] The ‘power over’ which funded the Biennale as well as the inhumane detention of asylum seeking refugees, suddenly became a ‘power with’ as artists worked together, writing letters and boycotting the Biennale finally resulting in a seemingly impossible de-accumulation/divestment of value for the institution of the Sydney Biennale. ‘The Artist is Present’ examines this ‘power with’ as I sit with other artists of the OtherFilm Festival in a state of intense concentration. This exercise is designed to communicate our ‘power with’ each other, in respect to the ‘power over’ structure of the Jail’s architecture, the ‘power over’ status of government Arts funding and the ‘power to’ the artist-run organisation, OtherFilm Festival.[3]

In addition to the political elite, there now exists a technical elite – a technocracy, people with skills relating to science and technology. One visit to San Francisco would show you how this new form of elite is exercising their ‘power over’ fringe communities.[4] I reject the idea of elitism by inviting anyone to join me in a psychic concentration exercise. Anyone who can sit and stare, has the seemingly impossible ability to cause a post-recording disturbance or digital artefact. I have previously tested a group’s ability to manifest a psychic interference in technology and ‘The Artist is Present’ continues this investigation further.[5]

‘The Artist is Present’ asks the artist to look at another artist within the Institution. Not only is it a state of ‘us,’ the artists and ‘them,’ the institution, we are also the ‘us’ inside ‘them.’ So what does activism within the Institution look like? I formerly thought creating post-object art was the ideal answer to the commodification of art, however I find it increasingly creeping into the Art Institution as commodity and entertainment.[6] So therefore, I present a somewhat disturbed reflection of perfomer extraordinaire Marina Abramovic’s  2010 ‘The Artist is Present’ performance at MOMA. Gone are the stalwarts of our culture commodity; gone are one of the wealthiest Art Institutions in the world and the hyper-staging of the artist as celebrity – replaced with artist-run organisations and the staging of the artist in jail – ever-present is the state of intense mental and physical concentration between two bodies . In addition to the former changes, the crazy murmurs of a psychic ‘power with’ energy, recontextualises Abramovic’s performance and certainly alludes to the difference of a ‘psycho sub-tropic’ environment.

Before the Joh-era, my father also exercised his ideals in his work in indigenous remote communities but it was his stint as a screw that left him cynical. He could not find social change working within the confines of a large monolithic institution. I believe the key to social change in large institutions is mobilising the ‘power with.’ Artists have shown their ‘power with’ each other circumscribes the power of a large institution whilst even detracting dollar value from said institution. My work aims to continue keeping art socialised within art communities in order to enable the ‘power with’ to become visible between artists, rather than promoting artists as celebrity, elite, and commodities. We are on our way to capturing institutions.

[1] Anne Marsh. Performance Ritual Document (Melbourne: MacMillan, 2014), 20.
[2] Alana Lentin and Javed de Costa “Sydney Biennale boycott victory shows divestment works” The Guardian March 11, 2014.
[3] ‘Expressions of Power’ Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. Accessed Nov 24, 2014
[4] Andrew Umbel “San Francisco’s guerilla protest at Google buses swells to Revolt” The Observer January 26, 2014
[5] Nicola Morton ‘The Spider in the Machine’ Freerange Vol.8 (2014: 56-64)
[6] Reilley Bishop-Stall and Natalie Zayne Bussey “Putting the “Cult” Back in Culture: Power and Performance in Marina Abramovic’s New World Order”Passengerart June 28, 2013


Project Institutional Capture
Artists Nicola Morton
Year 2014
Origin Brisbane
Duration installation

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Dirty Yoga = Transcendental Nihilist

The second video in Transcendental Nihilist Series features Yoga in a dirty squat kitchen.

Conceptual Discussion for Transcendental Nihilist Video Series
“The true nihilists are the ones who oppose nihilism with their more and more faded positivities, the ones who are thus conspiring with all extant malice, and eventually with the destructive principle itself.” Theodor W. Adorno in Negative Dialectics[1]
If Adorno could meditate would he become a Transcendental Nihilist? Meditation atop a mountain or meditation atop a 6-lane highway? Stillness in Chaos becomes Extinction in Chaos. I empty my mind and meditate in scenes of our extinction, in an attempt to be a Transcendental Nihilist. Traditionally the three sounds of AUM represent form and shape; formless and shapelessness and neither form nor shapelessness.[2] This three pronged plug dissolving into the negative of negative and positive also symbolises Adorno's negative dialectics - there is negation, affirmation and something taking away from all of it. Nihilism refuses any religious or spiritual transcendence. However Ray Brassier introduces transcendence to nihilism by coding our thoughts as thoughts of extinction. So, my thoughts are not one with the universe but without (ie. extinction). I pursue Adorno’s true nihilism, the silent mantras fade in positivity over stasis and duration. The video series so far includes settings of a 6 lane highway, a dirty squat kitchen, cleared forest/pastures and a laundromat.
Adorno formulated negative dialectics as recourse to the paradox of a nihilist’s nothingness. Statements of reason are further opened by moving from a necessity of the whole to adding a statement with contingency, for example-instead of- ‘Human beings are a product of evolution (not creation)’ -Negative dialectics states- ‘Human beings are a product of evolution (but evolution is not there to create human beings).’ We simply have to make it an open rather than a closed process. Adorno’s problem with the ‘whole’ and ‘universal’ and ‘becoming’ nature of Hegelian Dialectics led him to formulate Negative Dialectics, an ‘un-whole,’ ‘retrospective’ unfolding of history.[3] Adorno’s ontological quest turns back on time and introduces contingency and subjectivity to how we got ‘here’. The video works between distinguishing and disappearing the moving and still forms, thereby symbolising the negative in the negative and positive space and opening a gateway beyond formalist reason of a ‘whole site.’ Whilst Adorno remained closed to transcendence (a form of religious idealism,) he does point to how it can come about, “People who sigh with relief when life shows some similarity to life, for once-when it is not, as Karl Krasus put it, kept going only for production’s and consumption’s sake – will eagerly and directly take this for a sign of transcendent presence.”

Ray Brassier, a contemporary social theorist and Nihilist, gets around the Nihilist refusal of transcendence by focusing on extinction. It is not a psychological death drive it is transcendental, because it is out of our human experience but it is also immanent – in how our extinction pervades our whole universe and thought.[4] Human thoughts stems not from being, but is driven from our extinction, “Thinking has interests that do not coincide with living.”[5] In the Transcendental Nihilist video series I modify my practice of meditation, emptying my mind, in order to connect with extinction not communion with the universe. The settings of the video series are ‘real world/immanent extinction’ – a pervasive apocalypse in the most boring sense of the real world.
Authentic culture directly resists commodification and punishes audiences for expecting to be entertained.”[6] This is another tip from Adorno on true Nihilism. The long duration, blurriness of the video series, Transcendental Nihilist and simple installation resists commodification, by resisting beauty, ease of manufacture and value added status. It also punishes audiences with its lack of visual clarity, duration and ‘boringness.’ The installed videos are consumed in an unsatisfactory/incomplete manner – the viewer could watch one or all for 2 -3 minutes with no sense of completion or satisfaction. The viewer’s thoughts are looking for aesthetic completion in order to fend off the pervasive extinction.
How do I signify the Transcendental Nihilist? The videos capture fading positivity by using a silent repetition of an idealist mantra; the setting, stasis and audio relay my fading positivity over a long (unconsumeable) duration, it culminates in my conspiring with the destructive principle itself, by meditating on Ray Brassier’s ‘thought is extinction.’ Noone could say if Adorno would agree with Brassier on Transcendental Nihilism, but my video series signifies a potential collaboration between the two. Using candor and callousness, identified graces of a nihilist,[7] the videos weave a blurry, fly-on-the-wall-with-nothing-going-on sense to guided meditations on the form of extinction.

[1] Theodor W. Adorno Negative Dialectics (New York: The Continuum 1973 Original 1966) pp135-145.
[2] Satyarth Prakāsh by Swāmi Dayānand Saraswati (1884) in “Aum The Origin of Life” by Srimad Bhagwadgeetamruta Geetyoga. Accessed Nov 3, 2014.; also in ‘Aum’ Wikipedia. Last modified Oct 25, 2014
[3] Theodor W. Adorno Negative Dialectics (New York: The Continuum 1973 Original 1966) pp35-45.
[4] Ray Brassier Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2007) xiii
[5] Ray Brassier Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2007) xi
[6] Theodor W. Adorno Negative Dialectics (New York: The Continuum 1973 Original 1966) p10
[7] Ibid p137

Thursday, 20 November 2014

'The Artist is Present' Performance and Screen Installation at Other Film Festival 2014

This Wednesday night, I present a performance at Boggo Road Gaol (Jail). My work is about discipline, about architecture and surveillance - panopticism - the minority watching the majority. Whereas you may remember my 'Legally Lolita' performance in Indonesia, which also redresses discipline via re-enactments of my father being a Corrective Services Officer, Policeman, Security Guard and father; this performance is more about Institutions and how they instil discipline.

Conceptual Discussion -
Currently our collective life force is shaped and organised by many institutions. Foucault argues the guiding force behind these institutions is the “culture of discipline,” a system of discipline honed within jails, the panopticon/panopticism, the unequal gaze, the observation of the many by the few. [1]  The prisoner could never be sure if they were being watched at any given moment, for one is less likely to break the law, if they believe they are being watched. My ‘The Artist is Present…’ performance and screen work repurposes the architecture of Boggo Road Gaol to redress the ‘unequal gaze’ in surveillance of the incarcerated, whilst at the same time introducing the possibility of psychic interference in surveillance, by sharing a special mental and physical state of intense concentration with each audience member. I sit in a single confinement jail cell and invite the audience to sit with me, one-by-one, in a non-verbal concentrated gaze.

Panopticism (a social theory devised by Michel Foucault) is a central concept of punishment in jails in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It is “the general principle of a new 'political anatomy' whose object and end are not the relations of sovereignty but the relations of discipline.”[2] The panopticon is represented by an image of single cells within a transparent, circular cage, with its high towers powerful and knowing; it describes a project for perfect discipline. Practically, it encloses the inmate from companions; it is lit up for the supervisor; the inmate is seen, but he does not see. The inmate is the object of information, never a subject in communication.[3] Hence the major effect of the panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power - “Bentham [founder of panopticism] laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.”[4] The Panopticon ensured the internalization of the disciplinary individuality within the bodies being controlled.[5]

Boggo Road Gaol’s architecture of the historic Number Two Division still holds the panoptic ‘culture of discipline.’ ‘The Artist is Present’ subverts the ‘culture of discipline’ in the jail’s panoptic architecture by opening up the jail cell to 1) holding an intimate moment between two people in a solitary space; and 2) presenting an external, non verbal one-on-one ‘equal gaze,’ opposed to the unequal gaze between the always visible prisoner and sometimes visible warden and 3) opening up the insides and circuitry of surveillance technology.

A one-on-one performance in a place which once confined an inmate in solitary reverses the tradition and function of the architecture of a jail cell. There is no punishment and no need to escape written within the walls, whilst it is also not a meeting place, a muted gaze indicates a place for communal reflection to remember the injustice of incarceration and acknowledge deaths and abuse in custody. 

An equal gaze suggests no hierarchy, no one is physically higher than the other, each person is equally lit, each person is in plain clothes and can see each other fully. This open disclosure of equality is a refreshing experience as we find ourselves herded in institutions by uniformed figures of authority or at worst in a jail, peered at by a visible but unverifiable figure of power. Are they really looking at you? Well, in ‘The Artist is Present,’ I am really looking at you but have no visible signs/symbols of power, in terms of your escape from the jail and punishment, I might as well be invisible..

The ‘culture of discipline’ in jails has evolved - zooming from 1901, when Number Two was built, to now -and panopticism in jails use technology for its surveillance, no longer using architecture. Boggo Road Gaol’s Number Two Division shut in 1989 and was not remodelled.[6] It’s panoptic discipline definitely lies in its architecture, but ‘The Artist is Present’ also redresses the panoptic control of surveillance. Currently in society, panopticism has advanced through technology and we have surveillance so tight we could predict what’s going to happen. The surveillance is hidden but we know it’s there, we have CCTVs everywhere, and even now, private Institutions (not the Government) monitor our purchases and whereabouts (increasingly by self disclosure, like Facebook). The screen work for ‘The Artist is Present’ uses a scattered plethora of deconstructed screens with exposed circuitry to present a recording of ‘The Artist is Present’ press-performance from the day before. In doing so, documenting a staged performance for media, rather than recording real-life transforms the function of surveillance to a dull entertainment in a classic V is for Vendetta, Fight Club anarchist movie plot kind of way. Therefore IRL, the baddies are getting away with it.

‘The Artist Is Present’ wishes to undermine the panopticon’s method of surveillance technology, and brings a handycam and audio recorder into Boggo Road’s Number Two. I believe we can cause spiritual (natural, non-physical) interference with these technologies so that we can see and hear things that the Warden, the Policeman, the Prime Minister, the Miner, the CEO do not see and hear. I believe this electronic interference is only observable post-moment. I have previously tested a group’s ability to manifest a psychic interference in technology.[7] To avoid disrespect and kitsch, no motto/model of any particular former prisoner will be used as a guide for psychic energy. So therefore, the audience is invited to simply sit opposite me. I posit the power of deep concentration between two people is enough to create a disturbance.  In the screen work, the surveillance is monitored for any electronic disturbance in the moment and post-recording.

‘The Artist is Present’ performance and screen work transforms panopticism’s ‘visible and unverifiable’ to ‘invisible and verifiable.’ The panoptic architecture’s and my own power function becomes invisible and the presence of two people at equal gaze, verifiable and re-shown as entertainment rather than surveillance; whilst a deconstructed panoptic technology is used to verify any electronic interference that was invisible/undetected at the time. Punishment turns into an act of psychic and physical creation, an intense physical and mental concentration between two people in a de-comissioned jail cell, in an art Festival in Brisbane, Australia. The subversion of panopticism’s architecture and surveillance technologies is paramount for those concerned with civil liberties in our neo-liberal environment. As we see these methods formerly used by Governments to punish are increasingly implemented in order to ‘manage’ us by Private Institutions in detention centres, schools, art museums, shopping malls and online security.

Physical Description:
‘The Artist is Present’ [Screen 30min] One-by-one I invite the other artists and media in Institutional Capture to sit opposite me in a single confinement jail cell. Our gaze is concentrated and non-verbal. An audio recorder, white noise generator and handy cam are present to document any electrical interference that may occur. The documentation is screened at Other Film Festival ‘Institutional Capture.’
‘The Artist is Present’ [Performance 30min] Audience members are guided one-by-one to sit opposite me in a single confinement jail cell. As we concentrate, I try to psychically manifest an electrical interference in the surveillance equipment that will be post-recording observed. A glitch in surveillance.

[1] Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977) pp200-228)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Bentham in Michel Foucault 227
[5] ‘Discipline and Punish’ Wikipedia. Accessed Nov 9, 2014.
[6] ‘Boggo Road Gaol History’ Boggo Road Gaol. Accessed Nov 9, 2014.
[7] Nicola Morton ‘The Spider in the Machine’ Freerange Vol.8 (2014: 56-64)