Victoria Sobel and Casey Gollan are artists based in New York. They are currently Vera List Center Fellows at The New School and visiting artists at The Cooper Union. They will present new work as part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial.
Christian Hendricks: I want to open the discussion on the matter of process. Keller Easterling in her new book lays out a call to action for activists to abandon old modes of resistance and dissent in favor of co-opting and adapting to the same measures that governments and corporations have begun to take:
“Just as many of the most powerful regimes in the world find it expedient to operate with proxies and doubles in infrastructure space, the most familiar forms of activism might similarly benefit from using undisclosed partners or unorthodox auxiliaries, if only to soften up the ground and offer a better chance of success. An unorthodox auxiliary entertains techniques that are less heroic, less automatically oppositional, more effective, and sneakier—techniques like gossip, rumor, gift-giving, compliance, mimicry, comedy, remote control, meaninglessness, misdirection, distraction, hacking, or entrepreneurialism.”
What do you two think about this co-opting that she’s proposing?
Victoria Sobel: I'm intrigued that anyone could suggest there's any set way. There's something about her provocation that’s both too discrete and too open-ended. Thinking back to when we were students, working as part of Free Cooper, which was a free-associative constellation of people, we were employing a lot of those same means of “co-option” strategically and wantonly across the spectrum. But it required a non-commitment to the idea that these tactics would be a safeguard or an answer. Some strategies will work, but not all of them all the time. In that sense, there’s a danger in naming these things as possible ways, repeatable methods, or a framework for anyone to inhabit now.
The first part of that quote talks about how governments and other actors use these means in their own ways, but it’s “asymmetrical warfare” because the accessibility for systems agents to use methods of co-option is so different than the means of an individual or a small group. So for us, over the course of our practice, I think it’s been one of many strategies, but I’ve found that it’s been a losing proposition to stake so heavily into co-option, and I’ve seen a lot of times how that belief can take something which is potent and make it commonplace. Perennially, you could take the example of culture jamming, something which in unpredictable times might have a very strong resonance, but quickly comes to be understood and codified and defanged by language and aesthetics, only to come back into use again at a later unpredictable context. So for us it’s more about constant shapeshifting, and to understand that what should and shouldn’t be co-opted are not static.
CH: I’m interested in culture jamming, although I see it as an even medium between where we’re going now and older forms of protest. Culture jamming was still very explicit, it has its roots in agitprop, and you can see that; it is a form of co-opting, but it still functions within a more traditional realm of political aesthetics. And what’s happening now – you said shapeshifting, which is a really good word – is getting to be so far removed from traditional ideas of aesthetics and any sort of “jamming.” In fact, you said that you were worried about whether this results in anything – I would actually argue that we don’t care right now, and part of being a new paradigm is that we don’t know what it’s going to result in at all. There is no product – if you’re shapeshifting constantly, you can move on from a project or an idea or an intervention without totally finishing it. And I think that’s part of shapeshifting.
VS: I love that you’re putting it in that way, and I think from the perspective of someone trying to navigate “art” and “politics” that it’s so important early on to understand how and when as individuals and collaborators to make those moves to shift, because I think in our specific experiences there’s so much of a pressure towards the inert, to do something, get a little bit of results, and repeat it. For us that has meant negotiating with institutions, or working within bureaucracy. So you might start off doing something more along the lines of culture jamming, and then you’re extended an olive branch, so you’re all of a sudden working within but still against, and then it slips and slides. But I think what you’re saying is that a commitment to a type of shifting can avoid that, it's just one of those things that's not always communicable, especially once things start to scale. Casey was telling me yesterday about the hacking of the Muni, the public transit in San Francisco, that made it free for a couple hours but with no immediately articulated demand, and that to me is such an interesting action. It throws a wrench and makes a provocation, even if in the end, it’s contextualized as an act of “extortion.”
CH: That’s a part of the larger phenomenon of “shadow casting” which could be an interesting place to take this now, shadow casting and ambiguous proxies. Are you concerned that when you start losing a list of demands or any very clear motive that it becomes almost everything and nothing? You start to slip into this realm that’s like art for art’s sake or hacking for hacking’s sake or something; so if it is politically motivated but it gets somersaulted into the shadows themselves, does it lose its grit?
Casey Gollan: The work we’re involved in definitely slips in and out of legibility. So I think it’s possible to care deeply and be intentional about shapeshifting within a chaotic system, understanding that it can be strategic or nonstrategic to explain what you’re doing. Just because the hacking of the Muni wasn’t immediately claimed by anyone doesn’t mean it’s not part of someone’s ongoing thing.
CH: Is it then a puzzle piece falling into place later for the larger structure?
CG: Maybe, but I think not necessarily trickily; for me it’s the difference between a prank and deep engagement. I like what Jill Magid said, that a prank is when you throw something into the mix to see what happens, almost like trolling. And I can see how, looking at one piece of an unknowably larger project at a time, it’s difficult to parse commitment from a string of pranks.
CH: Yeah there are different categories of trolls; from the watch-the-world-burn troll to the more long-game insidious troll, but on the surface it’s impossible to distinguish them.
CG: And then, thinking back to Keller, someone who’s attempting to co-opt or utilize “trolling” from outside that spectrum.
VS: I want to go back to this question of the articulated demand, or the non-demand. It’s such a pivotal question for someone like me who came into adulthood in the midst of global and local movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, seeing these really large mass mobilizations break with the history of the articulated, clear demand. So since 2011, going back and forth between the demand and the non-demand has become a really good prompt. It was very much at the forefront of the thinking within Free Cooper, if it would be strategic to articulate a demand, and if so how. We were talking about if it would be legible to issue a sort of non-demand, given that the school hadn’t begun to charge tuition yet, and what we were doing was to raise awareness, and activate not only the local community, but create a platform that could speak to other issues. What we came up with was a list of demands and principles – principles that couldn’t be satisfied via the demands being met. Because in this day and age the articulation of demands can often lead to an undue burden on organizers to satisfy their own demands: “You’ve articulated that you want this so why don’t you go do it yourself? It’s not the system that’s broken, it’s you that needs to work harder!” The script can often be flipped.
CH: Free Cooper was a very concentric and visible effort, is what you’re doing now drastically different? Or is it just that the format is different?
CG: As people who passed through Cooper during its transition from “free” to charging tuition, we’re still thinking a lot about what that even means. “Free” is a word that means different things to everyone. And then there’s the question of “getting back to it,” as in, “getting back to free at any cost,” so nostalgically returning to what “free” meant to someone else in some other time, and “at any cost,” a financialized metaphor that suggests having to make decisions because they’re economical, instead of because they’re right.
Free Cooper was, to me, always the idea of playing a third party to the dichotomy of “free” or “not free.” Setting ten other goal posts, to say, “this may be framed as a financial problem, but it’s cultural. And really, there’s other stuff going on in the world that this is linked to: agency, governance, and all these things.” It felt, back then, like it was time to move the goalposts, and since then it’s always continued to feel that way. So our current work comes out of this experience, but it feels distinct. For us, right now, it looks like doing deep research on the materials — literally the brownstone — of Cooper; or organizing the school’s annual block party in a way that calls attention to real estate redevelopment and artificial intelligence; or pulling together a temporary space to host community-wide conversations that had been flattened out for lots of different reasons; or being visiting artists trying to support students finding their own forms for these questions in the classroom, as artists still working through all of this for ourselves.
We were doing an interview about our work with the woman who writes content for Cooper’s website, and we ended up talking for five hours about incommunicable or untranslatable ways of working, and it turns out that her own research on architecture and national identity around Brasilia had led her to a phrase, “O Jeito,” which is something like taking pleasure in finding the ways around. Anyway, the tape recorder ran out of batteries and the interview was never published but somehow it made sense to have encountered that one expression.
CH: Do you want to talk about the election? I’m pretty fatigued, although it may be a missed opportunity for this discussion to not contextualize political art here in the recent wake.
VS: I think the most relevant thing for us has been conversations; which our practice has a lot to do with, ongoing conversations and space for questions that might have no answers. I think it’s going to take a long time for things to bubble up and take different forms, I already see some percolating, and old work being recontextualized. What I’m struck by is how instructive things feel, as to what constitutes meaning or sense in this time. A lot of this feels like a knee-jerk reaction towards getting back to a place of sensemaking that may have felt more intact before the election—but for whom did things ever make sense? What’s happened is an amplification of all the structural inadequacies and prejudices that our country is founded upon. An idea we’re trying to think through during our time as fellows with the Vera List Center at The New School is that you can only really suppose a “post-democratic” state if you subscribe to an idea of a democracy to begin with. “Post-democracy,” however, is a little bit of an inaccessible term, so we’ve been thinking about it more in terms of Paradise Lost, which similarly supposes some paradise that could ever be lost. For me these ideals can tie back to Cooper, and the idea of whether it could be “free” as in “liberatory” or “free” as in “financial,” or neither.
CH: You said you see people who feel like we need to get back to where we were before the election, but I think a recalibration is needed which is a total scrapping of the master narrative.
VS: I was thinking about election cycles, and the speed at which things are normalized or subsumed within US electoral politics, and the immense but controlled space-time that it all takes up. Something happens, things fall apart, we have to focus on fixing what happened, and soon enough we’re recalibrating towards the next cycle. That’s the type of recalibration that I feel like I’m used to, but going back to your first question, you’re gesturing towards a co-opting of the word “recalibration.” What you’re talking about is a very interesting, agentic, resistance-style recalibration. Our word for that is “nonstop.” It’s a spirit, or an intensity of desire that could never be explained. We fandomly encountered it via the actions of a group of people in Ohio who fought to preserve Antioch College around 2008, and it’s become such an important part of our vocabulary.
CG: Recalibration is something that I hear people calling on others to not do right now: “Don’t normalize this.” Goldman Sachs and all these investors, however, are already saying, “Well, maybe it was terrible that this happened, but you should get the best investment returns out of the tax breaks that we forecast are coming,” so investors almost automatically calibrate to new economic conditions, as if isn’t up to them. Ursula Franklin said that her sense of ethics or morals is something she tunes — like an instrument — over time. An electronic tuner that’s calibrated could measure if an instrument is in tune, but really the range of an instrument is infinitely more complex than what a machine could understand. Ultimately it’s beyond measurement.
All images courtesy the artists.