“That’s not the way the world really works anymore… We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you will be left to just study what we do.”
The quote you’ve just read provided the title for my last exhibition, “You’re Studying That Reality… We’ll Act Again”. The statement was first published in 2004; it featured in The New York Times Magazine in an article by the American journalist Ron Suskind. Suskind was interviewing an, at the time unnamed, aide to the administration of George W. Bush, the quote was later attributed to Karl Rove, Senior Advisor and Deputy chief of Staff whose portrait featured in the show.
This statement is one that has stuck with me since becoming aware of it. When one ventures a futile attempt to comprehend the extent of unrest the activity and legacy of the Bush Jr. administration (in collaboration with our own government) has created in a global political context, the statement provides stark insight in to the implicitly imperial nature of mind set of the Neo-Conservative/Neo-Liberal condition. The fundamental dismissal of democratic process, empiricism and critical engagement that one hopes a political thinker of any persuasion would demonstrate is stridently cast aside to assert that the nature of power is essentially the strength of one parties will over others. Backed by whatever means, the ideological agenda of those who hold power is correct simply due to the fact that they are able to assert their position over others who cannot or do not challenge them. The statement is megalomaniacal to the point of seeming almost fictitious but is unfortunately very real, and offers the reader a glimpse in to the psychology of this mind-set and therefore the human reality of the idea.
The exhibition comprised of a series of 120 drawings. Portraits of a various celebrities, politicians, their advisors, economists, bankers, civil and labour rights activists, philosophers, critical theorists, popular, mainstream intellectuals, scientists, technologists, software developers, bankers, businessmen and science fiction writers. All of who in my eyes have had a significant impact in either shaping, describing, commenting on or predicting the shape of the political/ideological landscape we live in currently.
The portraits were rendered on paper gathered in 2011 and 12 when I was claiming Jobseekers allowance. These documents largely comprised of correspondence and guidance documents from Job Centre Plus and The Department of Work and pensions, they interested me on a number of levels. While the material is on some level personalized, the correspondence being addressed directly to me, divulging unique information such as my National Insurance Number possesses an inherently generic bureaucratic content and appearance giving the pages a paradoxical quality. They are the only concrete, material product of this relationship between the State and myself. However, as I thought more about these essentially unspectacular documents, their significance grew as I considered that not only were they the only material outcome from my exchange, they were also the only materially significant objects I had that were representative of a wider political discussion unfolding in mainstream parliamentary discourse.
In the post 2008 landscape characterized by global economic depression and wide spread concurrent civil unrest and political dissent, the welfare state in the UK has come under unprecedented attack. This rhetorical, legal and infrastructural territory has been used as an ideological battle ground which has served to define a substantial portion of the fundamental philosophical differences that describe the traditional dichotomy of right and left in British parliamentary politics.
However, with the gradual closure of the philosophical and ideological gap between the main parties that once defined this dichotomy that has progressed for around twenty years, this rhetorical space has acquired a stagnant nuance representative of a consensual deference to the abstract entity referred to as “The Economy”. The parties I refer to are of course the Conservative and Labour parties. Their lack of divergence in my eyes represents in some ways the point of Karl Roves statement makes, albeit in contextually different circumstances. This moribund discourse is symptomatic of a narrative being deployed to assert an agenda that has widespread negative consequences, under the auspices of a pragmatic or utilitarian course of action. The lack of alternative philosophy offered demonstrates that this supposedly pragmatic agenda posing as fact, for the benefit of the wider population only alludes to the extension of an established powerbase’s reach that cannot entertain an alternative program, because they have been totally subsumed by ideology and as a result their entitlement to exercise it. This lack of radical discourse or ideas reminds one of that old Thatcherite mantra “There is no alternative”. So it would seem according to Rove, or the men who presently dominate our House of Commons. However, it is impossible to accept this as true, history provides too many examples of overarching embedded values being replaced by new ideas to believe that any ideology is this stable, true or indeed real.
The fixation I acquired with this material compounded a sense that the entire exchange was fundamentally abstract. It was the product of someone else’s idea set, one that had been manipulated over time and applied by parties of numerous extension. As I continued to read these documents as being representative of something other than what they were directly intended to communicate, I realized that my disempowered status in the dynamic of the relationship was the product of a collective consensus. This consensus was one that validated the institution in which I sought financial refuge to help me comfortably participate and comply with prevailing demands of our culture. The prolific, yet insubstantial nature of the material by product compounded this sense of the abstraction that consensus had dictated at one time that the system held authority and has since become but a tool to exercise and assert power over others imposing, manipulating and creating my reality and the reality of others, to cite Rove. However it left me doubting how real any of this was, the limp materiality was only a projection of a collective deference to institutional authority.
In the 2003 documentary, ‘The Mindscape of Alan Moore’, the writer, occultist, musician and performance artist muses on the nature of consciousness and it’s role in our understanding of the world.
“I think the world is purely a construction of ideas, and not just the physical structures, but the mental and ideological structures that we’ve erected. That is what I would call the world, our political structures, philosophical structures, ideological frameworks, economies. These are actually imaginary things, and yet that is the framework that we have built our entire world upon. It strikes me that a strong enough wave of information could completely overturn and destroy all of that. A sudden realization that would overturn our perspective on who we are and how we exist.”
While I agree in principle with Moore’s proposition, I am doubtful that “A sudden realization” powerful enough to recalibrate our ideological compass can occur to affect such a shift with great expediency. However, through my own observations as a benefit claimant and wider reading, I reached the same conclusion as that which Moore proposes here. However, when one incorporates the will of characters like Rove, everyone is at the mercy of someone else’s imagination, entangled in a miasma of institutions and ideas that have no real author but are manipulated by few at various levels. This I believe is the fundamental strength and weakness of any ideological condition.
Nevertheless, this manifestation is not the sole product of any individual or indeed a small group of them, but rather as I see it, is the product of a cyclical relationship between a collective consciousness, of sorts, which is manipulated by a culture of authority, which both moulds, and is moulded, by this collective consciousness. This in turn provided the essence of my thinking behind depicting these numerous figures. In any instance, irrespective of their field of work, the implications their ideas have inevitably had consequences beyond their own comprehension. This is in part due to the fact that their control as authors does not extend to the application of their thought, that this application is invariably subjected to someone else’s selective or alternative reading, which must entertain and overcome cultural and technological obstacles not necessarily anticipated by the author.
Using Tim Berners Lee, the co-creator of the World Wide Web as an illustrative example from the series. I doubt that the idealism and technological determinism that drove him to instigate the digital revolution with his work would have allowed him to anticipate many of the specific cultural implications his invention would have such as the proliferation of readily accessible pornographic imagery. Nor would he have anticipated the nature of it’s subsequent cultural impact, introducing new fears for those of a traditionally conservative disposition or the effect this proliferation would have on debates around gender equality not to mention countless other political and existential dilemmas his work has evoked in relation to our collective transit from pre-net existence.
It is important to note that in the 120 personalities depicted, there are holes I identify in my own web of reference, and that the proposition the series communicates is in no way intended to be an authoritative or chronological account of how we arrived at the circumstances we are in today. Instead a relatively biographical quality is introduced whereby the subjectivity of my own analysis and selective reading emerges extending and reiterating the cycle of ideas being distorted through the application I refer to, albeit with negligible consequences, this was after all only a little art exhibition. I did not anticipate that anyone who came to the show would recognise everyone I had made drawings of and in turn would not have understood the subsequent relationships I extrapolated from my understanding of their work. I find this apparent failure in the work interesting, in that it emphasizes the subjective value of ideological interpretation functioning almost as a metaphor for the type of abstract constellation of ideas that I identify as the effect and consequence of the individuals incapacity to construct a holistic map of the understanding of influence. The weakness as I see it is reversed to strengthen the work, as it forces the reader in to constructing a selective reading of the work, reiterating the process which the project vainly attempts to interrogate. Ruth Benedict succinctly articulated this interpretive barrier; the American anthropologist described the fundamental problem her discipline faces in the 1934 book ‘Patterns of Culture’.
“No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking. Even in philosophical probings he cannot go behind these stereotypes; His very concepts of true and false will still have to reference to his particular traditional customs”
In her description of this problem Benedict summarises what I see as a crucial aspect of understanding the synthesis of ideas in the construction or development of a cultural, political and ideological landscape which I hope was somehow visually articulated in the show. Our objectivity is fundamentally compromised; we are always trapped in a subjective frame irrespective of ones level of compliance or dissent the nature of this frame is dictated by the prevailing ideological circumstances. The ideas of a philosopher or political thinker, technologist or otherwise, however radical they may be will always be defined relative to the context of their origin, and in this I see very little in the way of truth, rather an exercise in the force of ones will over another, or an acceptance of a prevalent abstract projection.
Roves statement iterates a position that identifies Suskind as someone who’s beliefs and methods, used to challenge the actions of his powerbase are ineffectual due to the fact that they rely on retro actively responding to actions that have already taken place. Just as Benedict’s statement summarizes the problem of truth with regards to cultural analysis as an objective proposition, Rove describes the turmoil that defines power struggle, by assuming a sense of entitlement and imperial authority he demonstrates how force is integral to the progress of ones agenda, whether it be rhetorical or violent in it’s manifestation, it is this very struggle which defines “customs and institutions and ways of thinking” Benedict refers to.
For example freedoms we now take for granted with respect to matters such as civil and labour rights were the hard won product of a collective assertion of will over the established authority where the force of the demands put upon the top tiers of hierarchy to capitulate, thus placing them in to the position Suskind represents as the party who responds retroactively. However, it is important to note that the nature of this response is most often taken under duress with the view to preserving as far as possible an established order. The cyclical nature of these types of development succeed by infiltrating the collective consciousness to a point where they prevail in transforming the shape of an established powerbase, after this point the intent is accepted as a cultural truth and the concept becomes embedded in a wider cultural landscape whereby a population will subscribe or enact a philosophy or idea set without necessarily being aware of the origins of the principle. Such instances of progressive enlightenment tend to let us believe we understand things better than we did, removing a mask that seemingly restores or bestows us with “pristine eyes”. Any progress like this always starts as an idea, whether the outcome is material or rhetorical, before it becomes real or socially manifest it is only ever the product of someone’s imagination, it cannot be destroyed. However, even the most radical proposition will only be founded on and in response to the dominant cultural conditions that give the author context. Thus an ecology of ideas and their progress is established, the welfare state is but one example of this ecology. It’s inception and subsequent transformation has been manipulated through countless parliamentary reforms. This institutional framework is far beyond it’s authors’ vision, it has incrementally evolved relative to technological advances and changing ideological agendas of those given the power to manipulate it.
By using the letters as material that already possesses a symbolic significance derived from the alterity of my interpretation, to then transcribe an image that has it’s own potency on to this surface I intended the collision to allow the two elements to simultaneously be subverted while retaining their undiluted significance. The parties represented are all arbiters of ideological evolution or description. They are defined by their actions, but also their influences on each other and their opposition to each other. While the documents are the product of one aspect of an imaginary, ideologically driven conversation which has shifted incrementally through time, they are still illustrative of a wider condition simply because they interrogate and express an economic condition derived from the politics of labour where an authority is empowered to determine the validity of a claimants actions. Just as the physical matter follows the inception of the idea, this institutionalised dialogue is representative of “the framework that we have built our entire world upon.”
Therefore, the force of will is crucial in the successful subversion of any material, even the most empirically validated information is compromised by interpretation through the lens of cultural conditions. And that because no authority is real, sorry Rove, but is empowered only within the sphere of ideas it is important to maintain doubt, bearing in mind that you are only the victim of consciousness and the will to maintain a prevailing ideological agenda, when viewed this way truth becomes a fungible commodity which gives a depth to the words of Homer Simpson who said “facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s remotely true.”