Michael Assiff “Pier 1” at Valentin, Paris
1. Imagine entering the abandoned set of a science fiction B movie. The scene depicts a foreclosed strip mall store called The Silk Road where rare antiquities trafficked out of conflict zones cross over the twilight in order to meet their mass-produced counterfeits. And even though there is plenty of evidence around the shoot to warrant a forensic analysis, it is not easy to immediately determine either the cause of the bankruptcy, or as to why the film shoot was suddenly stopped.
2. What motivates immigrant petit-entrepreneurs to decorate their hole in the wall with bright and colorful posters of historical monuments from their home country? The answer to this question might have less to do with ethnic pride and cultural preservation and more with a desire to lower the high price of subsistence in the free marketplace of geopolitical displacement. The real function of these monumental images as meagre mediums of survival can perhaps be found elsewhere in the restaurant’s more generic components like the furniture whose identical copies can be found in other under 10€ range ethnic restaurants. It is customary to imagine that it was only after modernity and the dawn of international trade that the global south began to mass produce its cultural artifacts for western consumption but in fact anthropology shows that the history of trafficking exotic objects to the west stretches back much further to the arrival of first Europeans in the Americas and Africa. It didn’t take the natives very long to discover that they could capitalize on their culture and customs and build a cottage industry around the Europeans’ interest. Perhaps what is different now is how this operation no longer has a single, clear geographical or cultural direction, with points of production, traffic and exchange now spreading on the surface of the earth in the shape of a cloud like the map of the Internet itself. Thus, why should it be surprising when Hobby Lobby, one of the largest providers of craft supplies and cheap decorative accessories in the US, is caught trafficking antiquities out of the Middle East? Shouldn’t it be obvious that the two seemingly separate economies of high and low productions of authenticity share the same metaphysical baseline? In this respect, the authentic objects of both high and low orders function as transportation technologies connecting us to unknown far away places and their temporalities.
3. A leitmotif associated with science fiction cinema is how the often realist layers of the plot are suddenly interrupted by a much more important development which causes the narrative to abandon or modify its original direction, revealing the main theme or the real dynamic of the film. In the case of Pier 1 this abrupt shift is manifested by the introduction of climate change and its crucial connection to the ornamentatal and representational. The reclaimed copper lamps, which simultaneously model various flower arrangements and greenhouse gas molecules also double as filigreed home decor. Just like how the environment, itself a natural substrate of planetary verve presupposes our political, cultural and technological lifeforms, the climate crisis has gradually become the foundation for all other human calamities which are presented in Pier 1. Thus the name Pier 1 functions as a generic space for the exchange of unnecessary objects between the everyday people from around the world as well as the naval point of exit and entry at the heart of both commerce and mass migration.
4. “If one takes globalization to mean the effacement of borders and the free movement of people, possessions and ideas, then it’s pretty clear that not only is the movement itself [anarchism] a product of globalization, but the majority of groups involved in it—the most radical ones in particular—are far more supportive of globalization in general than are the IMF or WTO.”
David Graeber, The New Anarchists, New Left Review, 2002.
Pier 1 reimagines the ambiance of the production, trafficking and exchange of global material culture. The elements in Pier 1 include carved wood frames depicting imperial statuary, silk pillows depicting trade-routes bedazzled and sequinned with invasive flowers, scattered cheap furniture and murals depicting destroyed and at-risk World Heritage Sites in Palmyra rolling off the walls of an ethnic eatery. Humour can barely hide the anxieties of having to confront a turbulent and ungrounded world. Underneath its playful surface, Pier 1 catalogues how the displeasing realities of globalization become increasingly more horrific than ever through endless wars, mass migration, climate change, and unfettered exploitation. Pier 1 displays the aesthetic clash of the 90s optimism about globalism and multiculturalism with their current manifestation of reactionary nationalism, chauvinism and identitarianism, showing how they might have always been the two sides of the same phenomenon. These shared contours are not much different than the dialectical bind between globalism and its Anarchist opposition.
Pier 1 presents the environmental, political and technological crises of our time to the viewers as the thin layers of a stack ripped apart by the sudden cosmic shift of its organizational logic. Elements from faraway places and distanced times which normally have a proportional relationship to each other in the axis of time and space appear out of joint. Small things are now gigantic and vice versa and the field of gravity has lost its familiar sense of pull.
Under life’s emotional and psychological pressure, we might experience dreams that either contain their own interpretation or are so coherent that require none. Trapped in the ever-shrinking space of symbolic value and under the suffocating burden of metaphoric substance, today’s art is in a desperate need to confront our turbulent world free from its desire for excessive references. In this respect, Pier 1, as in response to a contemporary inflation of meaning, hacks the arts existing space and normative understandings to renew its function.
Written by Mohammad Salemy
at Valentin, Paris
until 7 October 2017