Let’s Get Cynical!

The American artists reinventing ‘enlightened false consciousness’

By Chris Fite-Wassilak

Darren Bader, Chess (I – V), 2016, dimensions variable, 5 variations each unique. Image: © the artist. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London Dena Yago, Pioneertown, 2015 (Wheel), 2016. Image: courtesy the artist Andrew Norman Wilson, Ode to Seekers, 2012, 2016, HD video, 8 min 31 sec. Image: courtesy the artist

We’ve been given more than enough reasons to be cynical recently, a small sample of which include: the world’s major cities continue to be handed over to developers who cater exclusively to a legion of Starbucks-sipping jetsetters; the electorates of several major democracies have seen fit to put maniacal autocrats in charge; and incredibly not everyone can agree on what caused 2016 to be the hottest year on record. The world’s going to hell, but what can we do about it? One answer, interestingly, might come from a group of seemingly cynical artists whose work is covertly engaged in reviving an ancient tradition of civic activism.

The typical modern cynic is intelligent, concerned; they’re not apathetic but simply realistic, in tune with a version of reality where ‘realism’ equates to ‘pessimism’. They know better, but, by and large, keep to themselves and remain productive, invisible. All this is in stark contrast to the original Cynics, a bunch of half-naked ascetics who lived on the streets of ancient Athens, lecturing on self-sufficiency and masturbating in public. The Greek word kynikos, meaning ‘doglike’, was intended to be an insult; but those labelled with it wore the term as a badge of pride, and took it upon themselves to make their lives a public display of their flaunting of normative social conventions. They saw themselves as social reformers, pointing the way towards a better polis: live simply, and shamelessly. By the time Edmund Burke labelled Rousseau a cynic in the eighteenth century, it was for different reasons: Burke saw Rousseau’s view that society had strayed from our nobler instincts as smug armchair criticism, opinions without action. That version of cynicism has become the norm. Nowadays, as any self-respecting cynic might point out, the antics of the ancient Cynics sounds like the performative preening of punks hanging out on London’s King’s Road during the late 1970s, making a show of their Mohawks and safety pins just to get a rise out of passersby. But the Cynics, like the punks, provide an imaginative rupture in the social contract; a movement that, even after being extinguished or reabsorbed into conventional attitudes, provides a necessary reminder of alternatives, a reminder to question how we might critique a society from within. Maybe, as philosopher Peter Osborne has pointed out, ‘the question is not whether to be cynical, or how to avoid cynicism, but how best to be cynical’.

In a world where being a citizen means being a consumer, they recognise that the modern individual, with all their quirks, accessories and likes, is itself the readymade

The recent work of several artists suggests that there might be a productive mixture of the two types of cynicism: wearing the guise of the modern cynic, skating on its surface of seemingly flat affect, while using it to enact the social criticisms of the earlier, more doggedly confrontational Cynical adherents. In the work of American artists like Darren Bader, Puppies Puppies, Andrew Norman Wilson and Dena Yago, symptoms of mass and corporate culture – health-food products, children’s television characters, skater shoes – become part of introspective installations, texts and videos. Behind a distant, almost cold, impersonal facade, there’s a sharp irony and personal conviction that moves beyond the explorations of distribution and contemporary production of artists like Seth Price and Cory Arcangel towards what might be called a critical neoliberal existentialism. While artists have for several decades taken on the role of the corporation or company – from Artist Placement Group to Bernadette Corporation, or more recently with groups like DIS, K-Hole (of which Yago is a member), MadeIn Company or Shanzhai Biennial – embodying, however ambiguously, a commercial structure, Bader, Yago et al focus more on those who use or rely on such systems: the shopper, the patient, the temp employee. In a world where being a citizen means being a consumer, they recognise that the modern individual, with all their quirks, accessories and likes, is itself the readymade.

Yago’s work revolves largely around photography and the written word, with fragmented, static poems that appear in books, performances or sometimes short phrases dangling like pendants along the bottom of framed images. She began writing during her time spent working in the IT department at a New York law firm; in the dead intervals waiting for computer operating systems to install or just to avoid talking to colleagues, she composed lines like, ‘Watching the horizon form along lines of hard bodies, / rosebowl dust settles at the stem of rose glasses. / Are you my hard drive?’ It’s reminiscent of Pilvi Takala’s ‘residency’ at the offices of the financial consultants Deloitte for her project The Trainee (2008), where for months she would sit in her assigned office simply staring into space. In one video, the Finnish artist spends a full day going up and down in the elevator: to anyone who asks why, she simply answers: “I’m thinking a bit.”

Andrew Norman Wilson described a more fraught occupation in a text for e-flux last year (which expanded on his video Workers Leaving the Googleplex, 2009–11): working as a video editor subcontracted to Google, reading Marxist theory and using photocopy privileges to make flyers while files would render. Encountering the relatively low paid workers who were digitising books but weren’t given any of the Google employee perks, such as food, access to guest talks and other freebees, Wilson attempted to document and discuss these disparities with them; he was promptly fired. In each of these cases, the company temp job seems to be a sort of formative cave, a space where the artist can reflect and begin to devise a set of responses before striking out as that apex of neoliberal society: the freelance, self-employed content creator.

In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), Michel de Certeau describes how we each individualise, adapt and transform mass culture. He put forward the idea of the perruque (wig) to describe the form of disguising that goes on when workers use time during which they are being paid to perform someone else’s labour in order to get some of their own stuff done. Almost 40 years later, as many of us willingly volunteer personal details to information-harvesting companies dressed up as ‘social’ platforms, updating images and statuses while sitting around on zero-hour contracts, is it even possible to ‘wig’ ourselves, on our own time, any longer? There’s a sense of disguise, sometimes literally dressing up, in these artists’ work, in their temporary inhabitation of popular characters, products and even stock emotions. In several performances by Puppies Puppies, costumes for Spongebob Squarepants or Olaf (the heat-loving snowman in the 2013 Disney film Frozen) have been the means to think about the death drive and the identities we secrete away, or try on for a spell. In a solo show in Berlin last year, Heck & The Divested Set, Yago included several images she had taken of Pioneertown, a few buildings in the desert of Southern California built by a group that included actor Roy Rogers to be a live-in Western set. In the text accompanying the show, she uses her fairly unremarkable images – a broken-down windmill, a church bell, a wagon wheel – to speak about how stock photography has been replaced by user-generated content. It’s as if, from this archetypal film set, she couldn’t have obtained a ‘unique’ image even if she had wanted to. Instead, there’s just the suggestion that behind the veneer of each generic photo uploaded online is the grain of someone’s personal, special moment; that, perhaps, one way to retain our individuality, when it’s incessantly co-opted and monetised, is to withhold it entirely from view.

There's a paradoxical rush that perhaps underlies this new cynicism: a garbled, energetic howl of the knowingly consumed, a double-feint of acceptance and celebration that seethes with unease

An animated scene in Wilson’s recent video Ode to Seekers 2012 (2016) poses our individual experiences more as an endless loop of commodification that has been biologically internalised: a CGI synthetic artery becomes a conveyor belt for a series of miniature mashed-up products – a bottle of booze with an airplane tail sticking out of the end, half a peach with a car engine sitting on it and a house linked up to a hookah pipe – each getting drained by a mosquito, syringe and an oil pump. Set to an a cappella version of Sheryl Crow’s 1996 hit If It Makes You Happy, it somehow manages to feel celebratory. It’s that paradoxical rush that perhaps underlies this new cynicism: a garbled, energetic howl of the knowingly consumed, a double-feint of acceptance and celebration that seethes with unease. As Wilson himself wrote: ‘Perhaps a progressive approach to commercial processes would be more like Death taking you by the hand at the best Sheryl Crow concert you’ve ever been to. Except even after you’ve accepted that this is what has to happen, it’s still hard to hold Death’s hand because he’s wearing Ring Pops on each bony finger.’ Whether you actually like Sheryl Crow or not isn’t the issue; we’re all at the concert already. But the best way to undermine it might be to take Death’s candy-ringed hands and dance a flamboyant tango to her middle-of-the-road country rock.

Peter Sloterdijk, in his 1987 Critique of Cynical Reason, labelled modern cynicism dismissively as a self-defeating ‘enlightened false consciousness’. With its hints of dressing up, camouflage and disguise, we could now adopt his phrase as a positive, using a deliberately false consciousness in order to critique current social conventions. These artists’ cynicism is, for want of a better phrase, a ‘life hack’; or, if we want to update de Certeau’s ‘wig’, we might rename it in honour of the new American president’s own method of covering his head, and term it a ‘weave’. It might have the appearance of the cynic’s sneer and a shrug, but within it is a blueprint for occupation and finding new identities woven from the bright advertising and product surfaces all around and inside us. It’s an invitation: get cynical today!

From the March 2017 issue of ArtReview