Arcana Imperii: Kenneth Goldsmith and Francesco Urbano Ragazzi’s “HILLARY: The Hillary Clinton Emails”
Emanuele Coccia in conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith and Francesco Urbano Ragazzi
On May 9, 2019, Despar Teatro Italia opened its doors to HILLARY: The Hillary Clinton Emails, a solo show by the US artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith organized by the curatorial team Francesco Urbano Ragazzi. The exhibition is held in what was, at the beginning of the last century, the second and largest cinema on the island of Venice. Following a meticulous restoration of its frescoes and a careful structural renovation, the building was converted into a supermarket in 2016. In this spectacular environment with its stratified history, Goldsmith reflects on the intermingling between private and public spaces in the age of mass digitalization. His starting point was a situation that, exactly ten years ago, changed irrevocably notions of privacy and transparency, propaganda and democracy, in Western politics.
It was 2009 when the first doubts arose regarding a private server that Hillary Clinton was using to send emails during her term as secretary of state. Although she was never incriminated or convicted of any crime, the episode certainly contributed to her defeat—and the consequent victory of Donald Trump—during the presidential elections of 2016. Using techniques of appropriation and collage as theorized in his book Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (2011), Goldsmith has made public for the first time in printed format all the emails that were sent from the domain “clintonemail.com” between 2009 and 2013. The almost sixty thousand pages of documentation are printed in duplicate and on display on the balcony and in the lobby on the second floor. They constitute an environmental installation that re-creates in a lo-fi format some of the furnishings of the Oval Office in the White House.
Here, philosopher Emanuele Coccia, whose writings on advertising as an ethical tool were a fundamental theoretical inspiration for this project, discusses the exhibition with Goldsmith and the curators.
EMANUELE COCCIA: How was the project born, and how did you develop the idea?
FRANCESCO URBANO RAGAZZI: The meaning of this exhibition was clear right from the start, since the autumn evening we met in Manhattan. It was 2016 and we had absolutely nothing, no premises, no occasion, no budget. All we had was one clear idea: the necessity to dedicate a monument to the word written between the screen and the page, celebrating poetry in and above every form of policy and politics. A new monument to the genius of uncreative writing. It was Kenneth who immediately thought of Hillary Clinton’s emails as the pages of an epic poem that could be printed and displayed in one single place. The idea was hard to pitch in the United States. Nobody wanted to show these documents. So we decided to launch HILLARY on the occasion of the Venice Biennale, and started searching for a venue in Venice. On a rainy winter day, while we were heading to the train station, Despar Teatro Italia offered an epiphany. Its reinforced concrete structure, its faux-Gothic facade, and its early twentieth-century frescoes perfectly represented the collapsed present of the digital realm. The vision became reality some months later, when we started meeting the company’s team at their headquarters in Mestrino, in the Veneto region. After a year and a half of negotiation, the Despar team became our museum team. We literally built every single part of the exhibition together, using their suppliers and production chain, from the furniture of the low-resolution Oval Office that constitutes the main installation, to the list of artists’ names from Ubuweb exhibited on the top of the refrigerators, to the exhibition guides designed in the format of supermarket flyers.
EC: For years, Kenneth, your work has focused on an analysis of the life forms of writing in the contemporary world. Other works you’ve made underline the fact that the advent of the digital has exponentially multiplied writing instead of making it disappear, in a quantitative sense but also in the sense of freeing it from traditional forms of creative subjectivity. One of the most interesting points of this work is the reflection on the multiplication of the experience of writing: the emails are the object of invisibility, then of vision as a stack of sheets, then of reading, then of consultation in the catalogue. As Andy Warhol showed via the serial transformation of the image, this work seems to meditate on the infinite modes of writing’s existence in our world.
KENNETH GOLDSMITH: In the digital age, there are no singularities, just multiplicities; hence there are no “correct” readings, only reproductions and possibilities. The result is that all interpretations are valid, simply because we can never be sure about which version is being interpreted. This of course is Warholian, but in the digital age, the permutations of Warhol feel singular and unique (sometimes referred to as “handmade pop”) whereas now the metrics are Borgesian and infinite. In this version of the show, the stack of emails—at one time invisible, stolen, moved, and redistributed—are now verifiably materialized, ontologically declaring proof of their existence. This is the “object lesson” of materiality in the digital age: if we can touch them, they exist.
EC: The installation is a real experience of the way power uses writing, living in and through it. Perhaps the most shocking outcome of this experience is to realize that the arcana imperii, the secrets that power strives to hide, concern everyday objects and experiences that have no political value: socks, photos, handshakes. It is an enhanced version of Orson Welles’s “Rosebud.” Why can’t power, when it writes, only write trifles? And in which ways do you think that the multiplication of writing has changed the nature of power today?
KG: Oddly, Hillary Clinton’s emails don’t look too different than what appears in our own work-related inboxes. So I’d say that the revelation of the emails is the democracy of digital experience. Once, one had the illusion that a certain type of power was inscribed with an air of authority, uniqueness, and elegance (I’m thinking of the ecosystem of regal seals, expensive paper, exquisite cursive, rarefied calligraphy), whereas after these emails, there’s an odd compassion for the drudge of minutiae that even royalty and power must contend with. In this sense, the emails really pull the curtain back on the mechanics of power as they relate to the written word in the digital age.
EC: Exhibiting Hillary’s emails in a commercial space causes a double aesthetic short-circuit. There is the effect of estrangement linked to the gesture of bringing an artistic installation to a place that art insists on excluding, but there is also an effect of estrangement and resonance linked to the possibility of reading long-secreted messages written by one of the most important women on the planet in a space of daily life. It is as if in this case bringing art into a commercial space would make this same space explode, but also the idea of separation that power normally tends to impose. For a moment, buying yogurt means having the chance to meet the arcana imperii.
FUR: Yes, HILLARY is about inclusion, exclusion, and the tilting of these two poles of contemporary narrative. It’s a sort of experiment in democracy, maybe even a populist one, in which the separation between intellectual elites and masses can hardly be applied. The authority of the former secretary of state, the one of Kenneth as an artist and a poet, the one of the historical venue in which the show takes place, and last but not least the authority of the market all converge and explode in real life. It’s our realpolitik, if you like. From the balcony of Despar Teatro Italia you can read Hillary Clinton’s emails; watch video fragments from Ubuweb; and contemplate the products and the people who are buying them. From downstairs you can walk through a scenographic library-like grocery store. All these actions are mirroring each other. You are looking into the mirror of consumption as a creative act—or, better, using Stan Brakhage’s words, as the act of seeing with one’s own eyes. Because creativity is neither in the exhibition nor in the Clinton emails themselves. Kenneth and we are just offering the base, the data, the pages as they are. You can see them with your own eyes. You can read and study them, or just leaf through them. You can even decide to ignore them: it’s your responsibility. From our point of view, HILLARY is not a show. No imagination here, no fantasies about the arcana imperii, which are not hidden among these emails. Still, if you want, you are free to produce them, to find your evidence. In front of you there is just an archive, like the internet and the supermarket: a livable hypertext.
EC: Despite the criticism of the white box, contemporary art seems to have never left the margin in which it’s located. Despite the efforts that design and architecture have made to include the ordinary, everyday, industrial dimension in art, the dialogue of art with consumption and commerce seems condemned to a downward spiral. HILLARY is your latest in a long series of exhibitions that claim the right and necessity for art to occupy these spaces. Above all, your practice calls into question the separation of the status of objects, reversing the Duchampian gesture. It’s not about bringing the readymade into a museum, but about bringing art into the temple of the readymade, the supermarket. How does your curatorial practice change the idea not only of a museum and exhibition space but also of an art object?
FUR: Maybe we don’t even need to reverse Marcel Duchamp’s gesture. In his Green Box (1934), the French artist notoriously wrote something like, “Use a Rembrandt as an ironing board.” He called it reciprocal readymade. Nowadays we can see plenty of them around the world: from “Apeshit” (2018), Beyoncé and Jay Z’s video filmed inside the Louvre, to the last Gucci Cruise fashion show at the Capitoline Museums in Rome in 2019. Two very complex ironing boards. Of course, the most logical response to this kind of phenomenon is to transform the supermarket, as much as any other portion of reality, into a museum space. We don’t want to do it ironically or with cynicism, which we both detest. We would rather like to claim that art is the institution of itself and can thus institute itself everywhere, no place excluded. I think that this idea comes from a personal reading of the Situationist movement and Fluxus. It’s not a coincidence that in 2015 we started our The Internet Saga exhibition series by inviting Jonas Mekas to show his online diaries inside a sixteenth-century Venetian palazzo that had been converted into a fast food restaurant. Jonas taught us to love reality for what it is, to enjoy every little detail of it.
Over the last century, contemporary art has worked to include in its own domain pieces of the world we live in: objects, relations, behaviors, knowledge, even corporations and their aesthetics. This is the process we want to reverse. We want art to be embraced and tested by reality with neither fear nor ethical Manichaeism. We want art and artworks to enter a dimension that we call “co-reality”—or, better, “re-reality.” We are working on defining this dimension.
“HILLARY: The Hillary Clinton Emails” at Despar Teatro Italia, Venice
until 24 November 2019