ESSAYS Mousse 35
Turn! Turn! Turn!
by Lars Bang Larsen
Illustration by Juan Perez Agirregoikoa
The following text is part accusation, part confession, part joke. By refusing to present an argument, the text hysterically mirrors the undermining of symbolic credit of which it accuses the objects of its critique. If imagination goes to the dogs in the culture industry (as Adorno and Horkheimer once wrote), maybe abject satire can at least stimulate some kind of revolt against restlessness and vanity?
The Linguistic Turn! The Cultural Turn! The Social Turn! The Spatial Turn! The Ethical Turn! The Historiographic Turn! The Affective Turn! The Narrative Turn! The Educational Turn! The Emotional Turn! The Aesthetic Turn! The Locational Turn!…
The headlines! The shows! The essays! The conferences! The anthologies! The panels! The theme issues of art mags! Feel the tectonic plates shift under your feet, the seismic rumble of the curatorial stampede! It began as a whisper, a Geheimtipp in a late night conversation deep inside a global city, where the innermost insiders pick up the first fragile ripples of the most promising trends of greatest potential. Now it’s a comet, a blizzard, irresistible, a law of nature… Forget what you have read and nix what you know because from this very minute that is all obliterated by a new Turn!
This is where the wave will break, people, and this is how it will keep on rolling: tune in, the Turn is on! Spin the wheels! Turn the screw and get carried away! The next intellectual free lunch has been served: here’s a handle on art—yes, on the entire package of visual art as it plays out right now, all over the place, in its total totality and most self-present contemporaneity! Take it! Lift it! Sell it! Move like Tina Turner!
I have traveled near and far, done the studio visits and sensed the distribution of the sensible. I’m the first to parse the sentence and you’re the first to hear it… You thought contemporary art was a bluff, a racket? No! It turns! It is alive! And who knows, maybe you are, too! It is just like history in the making…
There’ll be no escape. No matter what, you’ll have to answer to the inevitable questions from the floor: “Where do you position your work in relation to the Social Aesthetic Turn?” or, ”But hasn’t your entire argument been anticipated by the Occult Turn?” Nobody will remain unaffected—I popped a Turn in the mainline… And you’d better remember whom you have to thank for this… I go out with a Bang, not a whimper!
So hear my pitch for history: it is poetic and yet so specific. I picked it up first—before it actually manifested itself—but that only goes to show what a radar I’ve got: it’s so strong that it calls things into existence. You are the author of what, a book? A work? An exhibition? Aw, how cute… no, really, I love it, believe me. But hear this, I have authored a Turn! Don’t get me wrong: this is not Relational Aesthetics, not Kontextkunst (how dared they? How could they? Those were other times…) No, we’ve taken it to the next level with something much more respectful, inclusive, concise, and serviceable, an observation of a certain inflection on contemporary art, a tendency, a wee cosmogenuflexion, a Dienstleist Turn if you get my drift… But if we nurture it well, maybe it can grow into a paradigm shift… And the most brilliant thing is that the Turn doesn’t negate anything… (of course it eclipses and outdates any previous Turn, but that’s another story). It’s just as if everybody had suddenly started turning in the same direction—but hey, we could turn the other way, too—I’m easy, I’m all about keeping an open mind. Ask me again in ten minutes, you know, like, whatever.
Illustration by Juan Perez Agirregoikoa
Hey, this gives me an idea: did somebody do the Whatever Turn yet? Think about it: it’ll be the Turn that cannot be different than the way it actually happens, to each and every curator, in a radical state of being-in-communication, an endless conversation, there is a light that never goes out and all that? Grazie for that one, Giorgio, here comes my meta-Turn, into the night of institutions… It’ll trump all other Turns by being the Turn that bypasses the very expectation of a new Turn because it’s always already there…
Remember the 1990s? The Miracles? They were the sudden and unnatural events of contemporary art existing outside of the blessed sphere of circulation that ran through New York and Oh, de Cologne. We had the Glasgow Miracle, the Nordic Miracle, the Slovenian Miracle, and probably quite a few more (there was even a Finnish Miracle within the Nordic Miracle, dig?) the Miracles mushroomed like a fever, came and went in no time. Think of a the phone ringing off the wall in an editorial office with the distant voice of an itinerant curator from the boondocks of the world going “I’m in Copenhagen and it’s a miracle! IT’S A MIRACLE!! They have contemporary art! Can you believe it? In this dump? Let the cripples walk and the ill be healed, but how the Obrist did art happen here? I mean, have you ever been here? It defies reason! Write it up! Curate it! Clang the bells! Spread the news, grease up the infrastructure, fly in the friendly natives!”
But oh what a puny horizon, how feebly we understood our logistical universe back then, how small we thought… how coyly we picked up the voice of Geopolitics, and the Miracles were but small displacements from the Euro-American centers…. Why on this fully illuminated Earth did we go for Glasgow and Oslo when you can get Mumbai, Cairo, Beijing? Let them rot in their jock complacency and Scando docility up there… Hell, they are probably still trying to figure out what hit them back then—but it’s not going to happen, uh-uh… We’ve become fitter… Forget about that pseudo-Catholic Miracle nonsense: baptize a Turn instead and you’ll leave a discursive footprint as big as a freaking avant-garde from here to Mexico DF. It’s gonna go so big that it’ll be worthy of KLM News and Scanorama magazine, for all portable wonders and airborne art workers to consume on their planetary itinerations. Earn your wings, baby.
So let’s level, heart to empty heart… Here’s the deal: call it Miracle, Turn or Young British Artists, what it comes down to is the fact that I keep returning in new shapes and sizes and you, my hypocritical sisters and brothers, will be moving to a new tune each time. There is a little somebody between you and art—let me clue you in! All right, who am I: I’m your exemplary agent. I connect, I represent, I massify… I evaluate and allocate and give you access to the flows… I animate content, I mix up means and ends through easy exchanges. Let’s hear it for the culture industry! One, ah two, one-two-three-four,
So I have become the Middleman
The gray areas are mine
The in-between, the absentee
Is a beautiful disguise
So I keep my footlights shining bright just like I keep my exits wide
‘Cause I never know when it’s time to go, it’s too crowded now inside
The dead can hide beneath the ground and the birds can always fly
But the rest of us do what we must in constant compromise
So I have become the Middleman
The gray areas are fine
The “I don’t know,” the “maybe so”
Is the only real reply
It is the only true reply
Oh yeah, oh yeah! This is how I whittle down the dreams, folks… I have gutted entire disciplines and bodies of research for the quick fix… I have pre-empted worthy contributions of academics who have been at it for a lifetime—but too bad, you footnote-polishing dweeps, you just missed the boat there, didn’t you—and it’s not coming back in a lifetime… You’ll never get how it actually works, will you? You think you‘re just an observer? That you respond to what artists do, and they don’t consider the way that your peer-reviewed boredom affects their work? Oh my worthy researcher and deep-diving archivist, let me tell you that you’re a performer like everybody else—a poor player, but a performer all right. Here is what I can offer you: eat my dust, toca mis huevos, write a thousand words for my exhibition catalogue and turn, baby, turn. Once you wake up I’ll have turned a thousand times, and you’ll be left to inscribe my Turn into the annals. You work for me now…
Illustration by Juan Perez Agirregoikoa
The art world keeps on turning and it’s all about timing, timing, timing: the deaths, the Turns… the Turns, the deaths… Hey, even big Turns come cheap. It’s only a simulacrum of knowledge, so I know, why complain… Nothing smacks of rupture and progress like a Turn… The bumping you hear is Hegel having multiple orgasms in his grave as the world spirit is coming into its own, again and again, in the form of a Turn, bringing good news for journalists who pimp their brains for cash and lazy art school professors on the lookout for an easy syllabus. History is getting out of joint with all that turning, and some day soon it’s going to grind to a slow stop… But worry not, behind every death of art, every end of history there is a silver lining, a premature resurrection, squirt squirt.
So gather round you overnight experts and let’s show them how we leave no Turn unstoned by prostituting another virgin subject after two weekends of research, flaunting the keywords, making sure that nobody will touch this theme again come summer break.
In fact we ought to ritualize it even more: every six months, a new Turn. As simple as that. Like the biennials. They talked about the Linguistic Turn for 20 years, imagine that… Today the life expectancy of a new Turn averages five to seven art rag covers. Oh! Remember how the Social-Worker-Angel-Case-Load-Turn lasted only 37 days from beginning to end… Then all the editors had been there… She was the smallest, the quickest Turn so far—but menopause came early to the wee puss… Then she faded, turned gray and was left as a notch on the bedpost of the discourse mongers who used her to warm their beds the night before they took the next Turn. Got to keep it up to keep them coming, get a good turn-out for the next Turn… For every Turn there is a season, for every season a Turn. If you people had an attention span of more than ten minutes, how would I make a living?
So beware of the recoil… the sweet frisson of a brand new Turn will eventually turn old and sour. The bigger they come, the harder they fall… Just look at how the Pseudo-DionyZen-Dragon-Nach-Osten-Turn has now entered that phase of its life cycle when it is getting aped ineptly by badly dressed provincial curators who reproduce it out of tune like so many tired echoes fading into the global void from whence it came, a sure sign that it’s over, over, over… When Taschen move in and dump a coffee-table tome on a Turn we know it’s been done to death, its value dispersed, its allure spent, until it’s nothing but a distant peristaltic sigh in the backroom of eternal uneventfulness.
Turn, Turn, Turn—this way, then the other, because—oh, yes!—there is another one coming to you, and it is probably the Turn away from the one I just declared—to be written up by the same hacks… for all you folks out there on the turning circuit, let’s tune into the art world narrowband… Everybody up from your seats, now, and turn on all your communication devices, hook ’em up like you’ve never been connected before!… Feeling wired now? Ready to flex the networks? On? All right, let’s try to turn and spin so fast that we can accelerate into the hyperspace of amnesia, where there is no “before” and “after.” And when we’ve finally become incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time, we will be able to simultaneously re-experience every Turn that happened since 1989, over and over and over again!
I know, you’re all hungry now for a preview of what’s in the offing… We’re all planning ahead here so for once let’s nip those Turns in the bud before they are all over the place and up for grabs… Let’s aim for the crest of the wave: The Political Turn! And the I-Am-More-Political-Than-Thou-Turn! The Ten Thousand-Political-Curators-in-Tahrir-Square-Turn! The Neo-Participatory-Your-Name-Here-Turn! The Quasi-Curatorial-This-Term-Just-Had-To-Be-Invented-Turn! The I-Am-The-New-Alfred-H-Barr-Well-At-Least-I-Dress-Like-Him-Turn! Uh baby, this ought to be classified!
Illustration by Juan Perez Agirregoikoa
Let’s see if we can consume bigger swathes of information in yet smaller amounts of time… This is important! Not so blasé, I know you can do it: open up your mouths now! Wider! Unhinge your jaws like a python! Ye-ees! Now just stand there and enjoy being so… open-minded and receptive… Now bring in the KNOWLEDGE and eat your hearts out! There it goes, down the hatch! That was a big concept right there, a truth procedure, well done, Alain Badiou would’ve been proud of you, there is not a lot of truth to go around these days! And here comes a new materialism in a mélange with some leftovers from radical pedagogy with a touch of metaphysics – didn’t see that one coming, did you! Yummy! OK, faster now, faster, don’t let it take all day, there’s an art fair coming right up and they need ideas for their lecture program! Gobble it up! Uh, there is cyberfeminism back in vogue again! A little moldy, maybe, a little off, but let’s pretend it’s fresh from the oven! Good’un that was! And what’s this now? Therapy?! Fantastic! The most insufferable notion in the entire critical vocabulary! How did this get here? I can’t believe it! Amazing! It got smuggled in with art activism, how groovy is that?! They are good for something after all, those activists! Yes, yes, yes, heal the community, free the subaltern, that’s what I always say! Eat, eat! New Age contraband mixed with progressive politics, how could it get any sexier?! All we need now is, I don’t know, for religion to come back… retro-humanism big time… psychedelia… Jean-Paul Sartre… badminton, why the hell not… and Celery. Do I smell celery?
What’s this now—who’s that vomiting? Can’t you hold it down? Make a little effort here, will you? Oh no, over there, too? The first lesson in this game is CONTROL YOUR NAUSEA! Unbelievable! It’s the first lesson in the book! I thought I didn’t need to repeat it! Hey, you! Throw up on your intern, not on me! Suddenly everybody’s straining their guts, retching uncontrollably… A dozen vomiters in the front row from each branch of the Guggenheim are throwing up any old place… What terrible plummeting… Bouah! It’s all coming up again now, every bit of it… theory… advertisements… The silk scarf of an art critic lands wringing wet on the mouth of a stuttering moderator… Piercing screams are heard all around… We clutch each other…We embrace…We vomit on each other. It comes from all sides, like rising fountains of green… The horizon is littered with regurgitated discourse! A fierce Turn beats down on the seminar room and rises, gushes, rolls back, sweeps the archives for all they are worth… We swallow some of the bits that have been stirred and spun around… We spit them up again and recapture them once more in a wave of insipid press release lingo… This is the work of mediators, they’ll chew up everything once more even if it’s been puked out twenty times over, bless their hearts… their teeth are full of it… At every plunge the soul flies away and comes dripping from your nose… One greenhorn curator begs for mercy… She cries out to high heaven that she’s empty!… She has tried to vomit out her eyes and both of Harald Szeemann’s testicles… She strains her guts!… But there is not a single crumb, not a drop, she’s wrung dry, blue in the face and unable to breathe… She’s gagging so hard that you’d expect her throat to pop out of her mouth like a bubblegum flesh balloon… But no! Look at this! A concept for a group show comes up after all!… She picks it off the floor and examines it, goggle-eyed with ecstatic disbelief!… She thought she had nothing left, but there it is!…
Yes! We have symbolic credit! We’re in business!…
Lars Bang Larsen, with loans from Bright Eyes: The Middleman (2007), The Byrds: Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965), Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Mort à crédit (1936) and Ad Reinhardt: Portend of the Artist as a Yhung Mandala (1956).
Originally published on Mousse 35 (October–November 2012)