Welcome to the Military-Emotional Complex. In two ‘docufiction’ films, Army of Love (2016) and Oceano de amor (2019), Alexa Karolinski and Ingo Niermann gather ‘propositional regiments’ to address a pressing but tricky need: to be loved. If you bring a group of diverse people together who want to give love, or receive it, or both, can you create a cuddle-cult to change the world? Half a century after the last wave of free love, desire remains a problem for any egalitarian project: there will always be some more ‘fuckable’ or ‘loveable’ than others. Desire discriminates despite the good intentions of its bearer – “I like men who have long hair and beards”, states one woman during one of the interviews in Army of Love. “I have an unusual body,” says a disabled man as he receives a massage, “and it’s fucking unattractive.” So can society, or art, make up for sensual injustice?
The ‘First Code of Ethics of the Army of Love’, developed during a ‘training camp’ held by the artists in Utrecht in 2017, and available at the exhibition, states that ‘soldiers have to offer love to people they might not like in the first place, [and] they also have to seek consent’. To give love that is fair and decommodified, you should give up on preference as well as exchange. But is asking people (even with their consent) to get over the specificity of their desire ethical or even possible?
The larger question of whether anyone has a right to sex (or love) is a fraught one. State-mandated intercourse is the stuff of nightmares, but kindness still exists, despite the best efforts of an alienating and individuating culture. Karolinski and Niermann push an activist approach, breaking with the passivity imposed by dating-app algorithms and consumer capitalism. Both films present interviews with the ‘armies’ about their various desires and opinions. In Army of Love, filmed with the participants in a fancy-looking indoor swimming pool, a sometimes-naked group of people carry each other in the pool, or hang about wearing fetish-gear, discussing, in often emotional terms, what they find attractive and what other people find attractive about them. (One blind man describes how women feel safe with him because he cannot ogle them.)
In the Cuba-based film, Oceano de amor, the lives of the ‘soldiers’ are more on show. We see army members at work, or caring for family, or fitness-training in the park. They are asked about their lives and about automation – the idea that robots will soon replace human workers, which might allow more time for love. Most of the participants are not keen on robots: “Maybe for the Japanese, but the Cubans are not into that”, says one. Another suggests that socialist Cuba has always had more time for love – not least because of all the blackouts. From a technophilic, capitalist point of view, Cuba’s socialist collectivism seems outmoded; but from a human point of view – from the standpoint of love – it is paradise: the final sequence of the Cuban love army dancing on the beach and playing in the sea is truly magnificent, and it is unlikely that robots, however sexy, would prove so moving.
But the audience is left with a question: why, after supposed sexual liberation, has sex and love become such a problem? Free love without larger social change will always remain a kind of pity-plaster. Can we admit that life and desire were unfair from the off, or that while we might succeed in the abolition of social inequality, this might not entail the surrender of the curious, singular and enigmatic specificity of desire?
Alexa Karolinski, Ingo Niermann: Army of Love, Auto Italia, London, 4 October – 8 December 2019
From the January & February 2020 issue of ArtReview