Hopscotching, Traipsing and Waving in Passing: The Weak Ties of the Networked Art World and the Loss of Criteria

Your Everyday Art World by Lane Relyea
MIT Press, Cambridge, 2013
Ashley Hunt

In contrast to canons, databases are radically open-ended, they don’t tell stories, don’t have a beginning or end…. It is this particular logic of the database that weakens the ties with the museum’s collection, renders it more passive and informational, that transforms it from being a canon or a tradition or an ideology into being, simply, one’s personal toy box. —Lane Relyea, Your Everyday Art World1

Your Everyday Art World, by Lane Relyea, MIT Press, 2013.

My partner and I have just ushered in another new year by re-watching The Matrix. I know how that sounds. But not only do we, as people invested in practices of the body, enjoy watching the Cartesian split between body and mind overcome in the film’s narrative of a mind that has to negotiate both a physical and virtual body, we also enjoy entering each new year with the film’s closing lines:

I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change…. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world…without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible…2

In contrast to the way the film ages more glaringly year after year are the real ways that our contemporary world increasingly resembles the relationship to technology that the film allegorizes: where human relations are mediated more and more by machines; social relations migrate further into virtual worlds and through economies that scorch the sky; devices expand our senses in real time and actually respond to the movement and rhythms of our bodies, translating our biological processes into streams of data; and everything we communicate through these devices seems filtered through the policing algorithms of unseeable security networks, while we increasingly become capital for a larger machinery not our own.

Despite our romance for the resistance evoked by this ending monologue, my partner and I also recognize the naïveté of it, as taking power might never be so simple. The system that The Matrix allegorizes is not just technology spun Frankenstein-like beyond “our” control, it is a regime so deeply embedded in our world’s appearances that we can hardly recognize it, let alone analyze it.

If seen as a stand-in for totalitarian forms of government, it may recall secret police who, like the East German Stasi, were said to use the eyes and ears of one’s closest neighbors, family, and friends. If, on the other hand, the film’s matrix is seen as a stand-in for the machinery of late capitalism, then its deep, invisible power wouldn’t refer strictly to that of police or agents of a government, but to the larger formations of power that aggregate and expand without boundary, within what Felix Guattari refers to as a “semiotizing system”—one in which capital, rather than the hand of government, acts as the “integral of power formations.”3 Here, any and every thing can be encoded semiotically into capital, inscribed into the catalog of materials, the values and logics that form, justify, and naturalize the societal hierarchies that capitalism maintains. Paradoxically, these materials can include our very resistance to capitalism, our most private needs, tastes and dreams, the daily maintenance of our social lives and even our biology. “Capital,” Guattari begins his essay, “is not an abstract category, it is a semiotic operator at the service of specific social formations.”4

Today, this all-pervasive network would include the forms of “cognitive capitalism” that since the economic crises of the 1960s and 1970s have largely replaced industrial manufacturing in so-called “advanced economies”; where the social and intellectual knowledge that comprise what Marx referred to as “the general intellect” have themselves become a reserve of materials and productive forces, “the general productive forces of the social brain.”5 More and more, labor is based in mental activity, where according to political philosopher Franco Berardi, “labor has lost any residual materiality and concreteness, and the productive activity only exerts its powers on what is left: symbolic abstractions, bytes and digits, the different information elaborated by productive activity.”6 These phenomena are arguably what has allowed for the shifts we often hear about from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of production; where increasingly discrete elements of our daily lives and social fabric are tapped into, measured, and counted, and even monetized, so that our very performance of our self becomes a resource in sustaining capital’s always precarious value.

Similarly, sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello theorize in their 1999 book, The New Spirit of Capitalism, that this unwitting participation in capital’s reproduction has been facilitated by the broad dissemination of entrepreneurial ideologies—ideologies that interpellate us deceptively as “free agents” into an economy of increasing insecurity amidst flexible networks of modular production. Amidst a simultaneous erosion of a larger critique of capitalism, they suggest that “a different [capitalist] logic that we have dubbed ‘connexionist’ has finally found an instrument of representation in the language of networks.”7 In these changed relations of production, it was by instrumentalizing counter-cultural values of “autonomy and creativity” that “the new spirit of capitalism gradually took shape at the end of the crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, and undertook to restore the prestige of capitalism,” facilitating “a new, liberated, and even libertarian way of making profit” that would now allow for the “realization of the self and its most personal aspirations.”8

This set of historical and cultural changes provides the scaffolding upon which Lane Relyea builds the arguments of his 2013 book, Your Everyday Art World. Amidst these profound shifts in economy, in a world whose social formations and cultural infrastructure have been replaced by networks of individual “free-agents,” Relyea asks what they have brought to bear upon the Western art world, its institutions, its artworks, and its creative subjects. The result is an art world that has not only dematerialized in its objects and institutions but is, perhaps, crumbling apocalyptically into the very “ruins” that are the subject of his last chapter. At stake are a loss of criteria, critique, and the ability of artists to do much of anything but point to their own presence and the context in which they sit.

The book builds upon Relyea’s 2006 essay, “Your Art World: Or, The Limits of Connectivity,”9 expanding its questions into a larger analysis of network theory, theories of post-Fordist capitalism, and the drafting of a history that traces these shifts through a number of overlapping art scenes in North America and Western Europe. It also follows recent books, such as Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells (2012), that offer broad critiques of the social turn and relational logics in contemporary art.

Relyea begins by introducing Boltanski and Chiapello’s notion of a new capitalism, in which a paradigm of production based upon networks, databases, projects, and platforms has made its way into a restructuring of the globalizing art world. Our first image is of art worlders on the 2007 “Grand Tour” in Western Europe, all of whom are “hopscotching, traipsing, waving in passing, arriving, circulating, connecting, shuttling along pathways,” between Documenta 12, Sculpture Projects Münster and the Venice Biennale, “with ‘conversations’ that, always cratering, get further diverted by incoming calls and texts.”10 “The art world too,” Relyea describes, “like other major business sectors undergoing globalization…has grown increasingly decentered and far-flung.” He quotes David Harvey, who describes global industries becoming “ever more tightly organized through dispersal, geographical mobility and flexible responses.”11 While this “expansion of the contemporary art map since the 1990s” is by no means a new realization, Relyea digs into the substance of those lines in between, especially the routes, circulations and itineraries which themselves become value and content. The prestige formerly held by single cities, exhibitions and events, he insists, now accrue to “the routes of connection, distribution, and circulation that interlace the various centers and gatherings.”12

Rather than see this only as a new formal organization, Relyea locates within it mechanisms of Neoliberal economic policy, where disciplinary industrial management has been succeeded by “participation,” incorporating “individual ‘human capital’ and its embodied, improvised performances.”13 Like any mode of production, it prescribes our everyday roles, but in this case it deploys our inner subjectivities to an ever greater extent, hailing us into new modes of self, including “‘nomadic’ entrepreneurial lifestyles and ‘creative’ freelance temp work,” all of which help to form a “neo-entrepreneurial mythology.”

Pillars of this mythology are the do-it-yourselfer, the shift from production of singular objects to short-term “projects,” the world as a series of databases awaiting our interpretive labor, and the curatorial shift from exhibition to “platform.” According to Relyea, these pillars are taken as evidence of having thrown off the shackles of modernism’s institutional “enclosures,” the overdetermination of its grand narratives and the predictability of its canon elaboration; but this mythology, he continues, helps to induce us into performing the network circuitry of cognitive capitalism. Taking the DIY as an example, Relyea claims he is not resistant to it, as this punk-derived ethos can provide relief to “state and institutional overpresence,” but “after capitalism itself has gone punk,” it may not remain so oppositional, especially when placed in the growing context of “government underpresence” that characterizes Neoliberalism. Similarly, while “networks sound heroically resistant” to the modernist enclosure, Relyea suggests they become “less like defiance and more like the latest answer to capitalism’s constant need to overcome and reinvent itself.”14

The Weak Tied

Within this network circuitry, value follows the formation of connections and the interlinking of databases, where getting too deep into any one connection would prove a disadvantage, which Relyea argues encourages “weak ties,” a concept he borrows from sociologist, Mark Granovetter. “Much like the postmodern object or artwork, so too does the networking subject forego claims to autonomy in favor of dependence on context,” where “power accrues to those who do not succumb to either too much solitude or too much solidarity, too much individualism or too much group commitment, but instead depend on and utilize others via loose chains of informal yet intimate links and contacts.”15

Thus, just as the short-term “project” and the “artist’s exhibition” have replaced the single artwork as the “primary unit of art,” the artist as “lone autonomous actor” has been replaced by “a more social, extroverted figure, by a milieu,”16 visible in the seemingly endless stream of images of artists socializing that populate the pages of today’s art magazines, catalogs, and email blasts. The trafficking in such images builds upon what Relyea seems to regard as the worst of relational aesthetics’ influence, where Nicolas Bourriaud’s arguments17 have offered theoretical cover for artists and art goers pleased with their own weakly tied hangouts. Instead of enacting new economies of critical meaning and depth, the economy of the social milieu provides Boltanski and Chiappelo’s “connexionist” network with its capital. The result, Relyea laments, is an impoverishment of art’s critical capacities, and a predominance of contexts in which “focus migrates away from what is behind glass, spotlit, and framed on the wall…and toward the general mixing and atmosphere of the assembled throng,” where “[a]ttention is likewise dispersed and fugitive rather than centered,” at the cost of “metaphor and projection.”18

It is through this dichotomy of the weak versus strong tie that strands of social critique emerge within Your Everyday Art World, as this difference in “ties” is mapped onto existing hierarchies of mobile and immobilized subjects—onto the over- and under-privileged of the larger world. “The ability to deploy multiple, fluid identities in and of itself is a privilege of mobilization that has a specific relationship to power,”19 Relyea quotes from Miwon Kwon, upon whose theories he relies heavily. “The accumulation of prestige, contacts, and information,” he continues, “by those who are ‘international’ and jet around constantly is routinely won off the backs of those left behind, the assistants, adjuncts, and other lower-ranking and less well-known professionals,” including recent MFA graduates, he claims, and the pools of MFA applicants who, as a database, wait to “be picked through” by today’s art schools.20

This division of labor, he continues, reflects the fundamental difference between the network and the database, where the network is active and the database is passive. In one particularly important phrase that could easily slip by the reader unnoticed, Relyea states: the network is “the form that action gives to data.” Hence, the less mobile provide the bulk of the labor of the art world, and it is the mobilized who activate it as their own capital.

Continuity and Criteria

A sense of social justice does not seem to be Relyea’s driving motivation, however. Instead, he focuses on a loss of meaning and criticality understood in more disciplinary terms—mourning the loss of disciplinarity itself, the ordering of the West’s canon and its institutions, and the representational tropes that characterized much of the West’s understanding of criticality within the twentieth century. What was a representational paradigm, he argues, has been reduced to a “communicational paradigm,” where “rather than the old continuities of medium or canon…continuity is found in operational space and professional conformity, in ease of coding and recoding.”21 Locating this paradigm within the curatorial models of Charles Esche, Okwui Enwezor, and others, Relyea identifies a globalizing model of exhibition that echoes “the interchangeability of parts that was characteristic of earlier Taylorist regimes.” The “across the board compatibility” that this art world requires ultimately effects a homogenization of the spaces and objects of art—its exhibition forms, architectures, tropes, and methodologies; its educational models and the subjectivities that they appear to authorize.

In semiotic terms, what is ultimately sacrificed, according to Relyea, is the role of paradigmatic meaning—artworks’ access to metalanguage—jettisoned in favor of the perpetually syntagmatic. The weakly tied artist who jets from short term contract to short term contract is rarely situated in the space of a well-argued curatorial theme or a discourse outside of the work’s immediate space of reception. This denies access to what Roman Jakobson calls language’s “metaphoric pole.”22 “Metalinguistic and paradigmatic structures” thus “recede in importance, while more practical or functional enunciations, syntagms and metonymic effects…leap to the fore.”23 This is the crux of Relyea’s argument, where he observes a general weakening of art’s ability to respond to the very conditions from which the art world seems so certain it has liberated itself. “What metaphors remain popular today,” he continues, “are those that figure precisely this transition away from sturdy isomorphic attachments and extensions toward more loose metonymic glancing and proximities—that is, a rhetorical shift away from architectonics and toward flows and atmosphere.”

This critical framework and Relyea’s political economic analysis are the strands that structure Your Everyday Art World. He weaves them through an itinerary of recent art histories, charting genealogies of art scenes and curatorial projects in Glasgow, Los Angeles, New York, Cologne, and elsewhere in the global northwest, along with pedagogical and critical trends that have elicited these shifts—chief among them the discourses of site-specificity, institutional critique, the everyday, and relational aesthetics.

Whose Ruins?

What we are talking about is the struggle over cultural hegemony…which is never about pure victory or pure domination…it is never a zero-sum cultural game…it is always about changing the dispositions and the configurations of cultural power, not getting out of it. There is a kind of “nothing ever changes, the system always wins” attitude, which I read as the cynical protective shell that, I’m sorry to say, American cultural critics frequently wear, a shell that sometimes prevents them from developing cultural strategies that can make a difference… For, if the global postmodern represents an ambiguous opening to difference and to the margins and makes a certain kind of decentering of the Western narrative a likely possibility, it is matched, from the very heartland of cultural politics, by the backlash: the aggressive resistance to difference; the attempt to restore the canon of Western civilization.
—Stuart Hall, “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?”24

Despite the precision of Relyea’s critique and the clear resemblances he shows us between the networked economy and our everyday art worlds, I have to remind myself when reading that it does not automatically follow that a resemblance between the two indicates their equivalence.  Nor should the critique of one be applied to the other on the basis of their resemblance alone. Across the vast numbers of heterogeneous artists, scenes, discourses, and political economies that do in fact make up our multiple art worlds, there is a danger in presuming that their similarities must mean continuity and a stable set of meanings across their differences of context and history, or that if one kind of activity is taking place within this moment in capitalism, it can only have one relationship to capitalism. Yet this is where aspects of Relyea’s account can feel oversimplified, his important work reading post-Fordism’s effects on the art world applied too broadly and decisively to trends among artists and institutions, while leaving us little room or position from which to respond.

For artists today who build their meanings from a sensitivity to context, seeking their way out of existing institutional overdetermination and disciplinary orthodoxy, or who construct their meanings out of social objects rather than self-sufficient things, these would seem from Relyea’s perspective to be all communication and no representation—hopelessly metonymic, capitalistically complicit, and impoverished of criticality.

In accounts of work such as Andrea Fraser’s institutional critique and Douglas Gordon’s early projects in Glasgow, Relyea charts both syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes of meaning, achieving a deep analysis. Elsewhere however, he constructs too-easy binaries from the poles of open versus closed form, the performative and temporal over the static, the situated over the autonomous, and the flexible over the architectonic, leaving us with “the system always wins” conclusions that Stuart Hall cautions against above. This simplification is especially felt when punctuated by sardonic quips, as in the “personal toy box” left in the wake of the canon, quoted in the epigraph above, or the young artists who “marvel” in de Certeau’s “everyday.” In such instances, his tone makes me feel like I’m supposed to be in on an art world joke that I actually don’t find funny, for his analysis turns sharply toward generalization, sweeping up whole ways of working, modes of teaching, curating, geographical and cultural difference, and most importantly, the ways in which institutions try to open themselves up beyond their historical segregations.

This is also the case when we see that the broad strokes with which he paints “the art world” leave us with only one art world—which is apparently almost all white and relatively privileged—whose paradigm shifts are taking place only within North America and Northern Europe. This account comes at the expense of projects and discourses that are indeed following different paradigms and even different modernisms—where the “ruins” of Western modernity might mean something entirely different than they are presumed to in an art academy or museum in Cologne or New York.

At a time in which the hegemony of Western narratives and power are themselves crumbling, we see the anxieties of that power producing actual ruins throughout much of the so-called developing world, as well as in many communities of the so-called developed world. In response to these ruins, sophisticated conversations are growing, including new forms of cultural organization, intellectual invention and aesthetic thought, which are published, exhibited, distributed and argued over, and by no means obscure. These are as much a part of our globalizing discourses as the Neoliberal relations they seek to oppose, hence, their omission from an account that speaks in generalizing, if not universalizing, terms becomes conspicuous—untroubled by the paradigm shifts that, for example, Walter Mignolo prefigures in a “decolonial future”25; or the very different trajectories of institutional critique followed by a Luis Camnitzer, Audre Lorde, or Emily Jacir; or the work of a Ghana Think Tank or Project Row Houses, who push to decenter the dominant, Eurocentric presumptions that still color so much of our criticism; or the discourses cultivated in events as varied as the annual Creative Time Summit or World Social Forums, which offer up new literacies for works motivated by social and political rather than discipline-based criteria, altering our sense of who and what art can be for and challenging our critical and analytical presumptions.

In fairness to Relyea, I imagine that he has consciously limited the parameters of his argument, and perhaps for good reasons, but by not foregrounding those parameters, the generalist and sometimes flippant language of his conclusions are left open to a broader ambition, leaving the Eurocentric presumptions of often monolithic terms like “the art world” and “contemporary art” uninterrupted, if not confirmed by the delimiting of his observation. Perhaps he inherits this problem from much writing on post-Fordism, where dematerialized labor is made to appear the possession of a universal subject, forgetting that de-materialized conditions in one place depend upon highly material production in another, outside the purview of its typically European and North American critics. This universalization itself adds to the sense of a “zero-sum game,” which as Hall warns, gets in the way of charting out new positions and cultural strategies that critiques like Relyea’s could otherwise effectively mobilize.

These questions, and the more general ease with which Relyea passes many of his broader judgments, distract from the objectivity of his otherwise prodigious critiques of Western contemporary art economies, the art histories he drafts, and the valuable literacy he incites so that we might question our own unwitting participation in capitalism’s “new spirit.” By locating the effects, tropes and techniques of post-Fordist regimes upon our art worlds, its institutions, and subjects, Your Everyday Art World brings a healthy dose of skepticism to many of the modalities of contemporary agency that artists and art institutions presume and have come to rely upon, perhaps too optimistically. Despite the ways Relyea himself limits the application of this critique, the book offers a strong counterpunch to the neo-entrepreneurial ideology that does indeed shape too many of our institutions and our romanticization of a “network society.” As a result, Your Everyday Art World is a valuable text that should be taken up, argued over, and made use of.

Ashley Hunt is an artist who uses strategies of image, object, performance, and language to engage the ideas of social movements, modes of learning, and the relationships between our art worlds and the larger worlds in which they sit. His work is often concerned with questions of power and the ways that some people have more, others have less, and what can be done about that.

  1. Lane Relyea, Your Everyday Art World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013), 181.
  2. The Matrix, directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski (Warner Home Video, 2007), DVD.
  3. Felix Guattari, “Capital as the Integral of Power Formations,” in Soft Subversions, ed. Sylvère Lotringer (New York: Semiotext(e), 1996), 202.
  4. 4. Ibid
  5. Karl Marx, The Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Pelican Books, 1973, originally published 1939).
  6. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 75.
  7. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2007; first published as Le nouvel esprit du capitalism,
    Editions Gallimard, 1999), 345.
  8. Ibid., 201.
  9. Lane Relyea, “Your Art World: Or, the Limits of Connectivity,” Afterall 14 (Autumn/Winter 2006), 3–8.
  10. Relyea, Your Everyday Art World, 1.
  11. David Harvey, The
    Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1990), cited in Relyea, Your Art Everyday World, 2.
  12. Relyea, Your Everyday Art World, 4.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 9.
  15. Ibid., 54.
  16. Ibid., 53.
  17. See Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses Du Reel, 2002).
  18. Relyea, Your Everyday Art World, 76.
  19. Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity
    (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), cited in Relyea, Your Everyday Art World, 68.
  20. Relyea, Your Everyday Art World, 15.
  21. Relyea, Your Everyday Art World, 24.
  22. Relyea quotes from Roman Jakobson’s discussion of the paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes of language in Jakobson’s essay, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,”
    in Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).
  23. Relyea, Your Everyday Art World, 7.
  24. Stuart Hall, “What Is This “Black” in Black Popular Culture?,” in Black Popular Culture, Michele Wallace and Gina Dent, ed. (New York: Dia Center for the Arts, and Seattle: Bay Press, 1992), 24.
  25. See Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), for his discussion of decolonial options for the future.