Interview with Critical Art Ensemble

published: 
November, 1997

Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) was interviewed about the text 'As Above, So Below', which they wrote with Faith Wilding. The collective included 5 people at the time: Steve Barnes, Dorian Burr, Steve Kurtz and, (not appearing in Ljubljana) Hope Kurtz and Beverly Schlee.

 

 

 

 

 

Q: Have all five of you been together for ten years?

 

CAE: Almost ten years, a little over nine. This fall it will be ten years since the first CAE event. We met at university, and shared the usual dissatisfaction with the art program and the cultural scene in general. We were interested in addressing political issues and constructing a different style of art practice. We were all looking to participate in cultural production and trying to find the most efficient way to do it. We decided a collective was the best approach.

 

Q: What was the first thing the collective produced?

 

CAE: It was a multi-media event at Club Nu--a disco in Miami. The up side was that we got to experiment with communicating with a party audience. We've always been looking for different ways of intersecting different aspects of cultural production and social activity. The downside was that we were fired the second night, and had to sue the club owners to get the money they owed us.

 

Q: What kind of media did you focus on first of all?

 

CAE: We never focused on any one media. That was part of our whole point. In the early days of the collective we would work any site that was open to us. Every event was site-specific, and hence we would use whatever media seemed to be best for that place and audience. We still follow this strategy to this very day. Early on we developed a number of tactics, which was possible for us because all the members of the collective had different specializations and skills. When we pooled our talents just about any medium was available to us. So we did performance, film and video, computer work. I can remember using mac classics (laughter) in some of our early works toward a hypertextual poetry. We were using photography and slides...whatever we thought would best blend with the culture; whatever we thought would have the greatest impact on the people that were most likely to look at it.

 

The performance that you saw here in Ljubljana was a work designed specifically for a very intellectual festival circuit. But we are just as capable of doing more guerrilla style work on the street. We've done community art, museum installation, gallery exhibitions, and telepresent actions. We have used pretty much any cultural model that you can name. If there is a good place for a medium, we'll use it. When it comes to different media or social space, we have no allegiances. Our only consistent pattern is resistance against authoritarian culture.

 

Q: In these ten years, has there been a shift in the media that you use? Have some media become more important then others?

 

CAE: There have been a few shifts. One of the shifts has been that we no longer produce our own events. In the early days, we did that a lot. Now we are primarily content providers to different situations, as opposed to having to build everything from the ground up. Total event production was very representative of our first five years, but has not been so characteristic of the second five.

 

I think another thing that changed (for all multi-media artists) is that the computer has become a much more significant tool in the production of work. After all, it's synthesizing all the various media into a single workstation. This has had an impact on our production process. However, in terms of the finished product, our practice is still very diversified. And the means for conceptual production has remained consistent.

 

Finally, some new options for addressing the public have emerged. For instance, when CAE first started, there was an Internet then, but the audience was so small and the artistic possibilities were so limited that we did not see it as a very attractive place to work. Now with the WWW and the great amount of people that are on-line, there really is a significant audience to address on-line using a variety of communication and production options. If access and bandwidth problems are ever solved, artists are going flock to the Internet.

 

Q: You seem to work very strongly from, let's say, political issues. Has there been a shift in that also? What kind of issues did you start off with and if they changed, how did they change?

 

CAE: I think our issues have remained reasonably consistent. This is because cultural production in and of itself has never really been our core interest. Looking at an artwork, especially under western aesthetic systems, is a process in which you look at the object, then reflect on it, and hopefully something good happens (aesthetic experience, intellectual insight, etc.) from that process. We were activities that engaged the immediate. Generally, such occurrences do not emerge out of art. They come out in other ways. We like Andre Breton's aphorism: "Beauty will be convulsive or not at all." Art has very few characteristics that are convulsive. Going to a gallery is more like going to church, since it's such a repressive environment. Now there are plenty of activities in the world that have to do with immediacy, direct sensuality, and extreme pedagogy; unfortunately, most of these activities, particularly in the US, are illegal. CAE's question was, how do we create situations through the use of cultural production that would somehow make cultural activity exciting and fun, while at the same intiating a radical political perspective? Of course standing in our way are the authoritarian structures of culture. This blockage led to a body of work aimed at either exposing or disrupting these structures, and to the creation of environments or situations in which authoritarian power (domination) would be diminished. So in a general sense, our mission has remained the same. In a particular sense, specific issues change as culture changes.

 

Q: And what do you call culture then?

 

CAE: Culture is the sum total of ideational and material social components such as values, norms, language, and artifacts. Unfortunately, specific forms of these categories become hegemonic. In turn, other categories are marginalized or eliminated. To act as agents for cultural anarchy (that is, maximum diversity) is another CAE goal. We want to either reveal and promote alternative perspectives or to produce a situation in which they can reveal themselves. For CAE, culture is a grand term that encompasses everything from the social to the political to the economic. We mean it in a very grand sense, not just in the sense of highbrow music, art, and literature.

 

Q: This urge to find some kind of 'perfect human' through bio-technology, and in other ways, like the 'perfect worker', seems to be your main issue at the moment, is that true?

 

CAE: Biotechnology is an issue that interests us right now, because we see it as the next "great leap forward." It's first in line for funding and development at this point. Other areas that are more traditional, like the development of vision for control of the social environment, have reached a temporary peak. The development of power as physical force has also reached a high point in the nuclear age. The sight machine and war machine are only going through points of refinement. The last frontier is body invasion. That's the only space that hasn't really been conquered and thoroughly dominated. It has been left, and I have to say this in quotes, "to the secrets of nature." So that leap forward is of interest, but you can never really divorce it from the technological developments that have come in the past; i.e., that is war-tech and telecommunications and information technology. We do see them as intersecting and we are building on our past work on telecommunications to go into this newer area.

 

Q: You compare the control the Christian church put on sexuality to what happens now within science and sexuality. You give all these beautiful examples: the figure of Mary, and then the opposite of her, the figure of Eve...can the whole history of sexual repression be translated to the present? Can it all be used as a metaphor for now? So for instance is there something like an "Eve" now, a bad example?

 

CAE: The first thing that we have to straighten out before we go into these questions is that the part of the text you are looking at now was written by a very brilliant feminist artist named Faith Wilding, It wasn't written by CAE. We did the second part on new eugenic systems and new developments in the separation of sexuality from reproduction. So CAE is not so much the expert on medieval history as the woman who wrote that section.

 

Now that that is straightened out: is there a new Eve? That's a really hard question. Can we find a point of original sin once again? We can only give an impressionistic answer. One possibility in US mythology is the welfare mother. Here is the mother that is truly looked upon as the fallen one; the one who has done something wrong: She is without a patriarchal counterpart. Her great sin is her sexuality, because that it has put her in the position of a single mother. In that sense perhaps there is a new Eve.

 

To describe for instance how the analogue begins, the first section, written by Faith Wilding, shows the paradoxical relationship the Church had to women's bodies. On the one hand, they could be the vessel of Christ: they could truly be the sacred object. On the other hand, the body in general, but particularly the woman's since it is assigned the role of temptress, becomes something to be scorned. Children were a blessing from God and considered soldiers for Christ, but the process of conception was the heart of original sin.

 

Capital shares a similar ambivalence about the body; on one hand it is an economic necessity. The labor/consumer force has to be replicated. Capital needs the product, but capital hates the process. When people are indulging in sexual pleasure, they are not consuming and they are not producing; they are not doing anything that is useful for the perpetuation of the system. The sooner that kind of useless activity can be separated out from the rationalized processes of everyday life, the happier capital is. New biotechnology is providing an opportunity for that separation to occur, in the same way that some notions of sainthood provided a means for women separate spirituality from sexuality.

 

Q: But at the same time they weren't liked for that, right?

 

CAE: This is one of the things we bring up as one of the really sticky issues. This is something we began writing about at the end of "Electronic Civil Disobedience." Some medieval women all of a sudden realized there was a powerbase in *excessively* expressing the separation. Women saints were sucking the wounds of Christ and having a variety of other ecstatic experiences. Needless to say the Church disapproved of these public displays of sensuality and autonomy, but did not know how to stop them. Punishment could not be used against a saint. In the case of the radical saint, the model of the perfectly spiritual woman as a great socializing device did not work so well. A few women managed to use it as a powerbase for the expression of their own personal desires. It was an incredibly laudable perversity.

 

Q: Where do you think this wish for perfection comes from and why does it still last in a time where there has been chaos theory and the knowledge that perfection and purely technical being are not healthy? It is destructive, not productive.

 

CAE: If your question is "Why is there a desire to construct an organic system that better reflects the values of the dominant system?", we may have an answer. It is partly because of *belief* in a one-to-one relationship between maximum efficiency and maximum production. The more efficient the body can be made in regard to its environment, the technological superstructure, and task orientation, the better for those who reap the benefits of a given system.

 

Q: I doubt that. For instance, consider all these workshops and courses that managers are following at the moment to be more creative and to create a more productive workingplace, etcetera...there seems to be some movement into another direction, of more freedom. Some freedom of creativity seems to produce more.

 

CAE: That's very true, but you also made our point too. Creativity does not exist without context. For example, among business managers, creativity is not a talent for recombination, divine inspiration, or a way of interacting with the undetermined. What they mean by creativity is how do you make the workers invent or recognize the means by which a business product or process can be improved. Creativity is very specific and focused in this case, and is only valued when directly applied to a business process. When thinking inventively about business, the worker is rewarded with a greater *workplace* freedom, but if this energy is directed toward any other activity, it is marginalized or punished.

 

That's not creativity. The solution is totally predetermined. "You need to make a better car. We want you to be creative about how you are going to make a better car, and thereby maintain the car market." The parameters of creativity are very clear and limited. The ends of this process are dictated by corporate imperatives, which come from the top down.

 

Q: This maybe connects to this idea of the new Eve. What do you think of the pressure that is on women that for instance have some kind of disease that they could pass on, to have their fetus checked, or pressure on women that have an invalid child: why did they have to have it?

 

CAE: There is no doubt that the pressures put on women right now in regards to various reproductive situations in which they may find themselves are quite intense. The problem here is that in this style of interview it becomes very difficult to answer that question, because there are so many social variables that construct the subject that would make that decision. Class, ethnicity, family relationships, educational background and so on--all play a causal role in this situation. Gender is by no means the lone causal variable at work here. To try and tease out gender from all these other issues is very difficult and will end in someone taking offense. To generalize about this such a hyper- emotional topic would in some way appear prejudicial. Your question requires a long, carefully stated answer, rather then the quick improvisations we are doing now.

 

Q: So we get to part two of "As above so below"... The first thing of course that strikes is that your confession is absolutely not pleasurable. The other one you read with delight.

 

CAE: Readers do not have the same distance from that confession as they do from the first, so its aesthetic qualities have not been normalized yet. However, I think we can have sympathy for a woman who has been told all her life that one of the most fulfilling things she can do is have a child, who has run into the frustrations of not being able to have one, and then through medical intervention is all of a sudden able to have one. For that person, a pregnancy that comes through scientific intervention has to be a very profound or ecstatic experience. It is in fact is described in religious revelatory terms. It's a scary quote. It circles back on the first quote and reveals its ugly subtext.

 

Q: Earlier on in the interview you mentioned this desire of capitalism to get the pleasure out of sexuality.

 

CAE: To get the pleasure out of reproduction, capital wants to eliminate sexuality. That's the goal. Sexuality is incredibly problematic, since it stifles efficiency, and reduces consumption. The US is, of course, the avant-garde in the elimination of sexuality, particularly in the middle class. That's the real focus--the bureaucratic and technocratic classes. Members of this class have to be "efficient" workers. The situation is easier for the working class, yet there are exceptions, such as the welfare mother syndrome we mentioned earlier in the interview.

 

Q: There are two important points about the elimination of pleasure: in the first place there is the pleasure industry, and that is also part of capitalism, and the second thing is that from long ago in history there has always something like the 'powers' giving the 'masses' some kind of room to play, just to keep them calm. I don't really believe they want to get rid of pleasure completely.

 

CAE: We hope that you are right about that, but we don't see that as the case. A lot of it comes down to how you want to define pleasure. Where should pleasure truly reside according the capitalist model? Pleasure should be displaced onto representation, or sublimated into consumption and production. A person can get pleasure from buying a product; however, CAE would suggest that going out and buying some object that capital has designed to be a pleasurable experience is nowhere near the direct pleasure that say sexuality in the flesh is. We don't see them as equivalents.

 

Pleasure should be a quality that arises out of emergent desire. The pleasure that arises out of excess consumption is manufactured and inserted by capital into individual consciousness through spectacle and other socializing processes. Normalized pleasure can best be described by the Situationist term "enriched privation." It's consumption without nourishment or satisfaction. Once someone goes through the process of consumption and takes the product home it never seems to be all that was promised. We know this feeling as "buyer remorse." There is always a traitorous relationship that emerges from the play activities that the system allows.

 

Q: Then there is also all these, in Holland at least, gigantic loveparties and sexparties and fetishparties...in every kind of discotheque, from the really scruffy to the really chic, in castles and in sporthalls, just name it. What is that? From your text it made me think this could maybe be something like drugs to the people, like something that is actually illegal or is supposed to beindecent, but at the same time it is allowed, with a half closed eye, by authorities.

 

CAE: Again, a really complicated situation. For one thing, we have to ask ourselves: who are the sex party participants? Is it representative of a grand majority of people? CAE thinks not, even though it seems to occur in all classes. We must also ask: Can a sex party be commodified or overcoded in such a manner that pleasure undermines itself? In order for a sex party to be secure and safe for participants, the activities are so overcoded that the possibility of true improvisation, or of true exploration in sexual process, is denied. Everyone knows precisely what's going to happen, the order in which it is going to happen, and it is sold in a very nice and neat package. Now there is also the possibility that a sex party can have a very resistant quality. It can function as a temporary autonomous zone; it can function as a protest against the boredom of everyday life, and it can function as a denial of the commodification of everyday life. That possibility is certainly there; however, the situation is somewhat conflicted. I would say in the majority of cases, and in the US without question, very few people can go out and have an autonomous sex party, because if your secret is exposed, you're going to be in some serious trouble. Or, if society allows (such as in Japan), you do it under economic sanction by going on a (overcoded) sex tour to Bangkok, Amsterdam, or Las Vegas. But really, could there be anything more boring or nonsexual than sexual tourism?

 

Q: I'm going to pick out one sentence from your article now: "in spite of the fact that having sex can yield a functional product, underclass women in the US are now increasingly being denied government subsidies for the necessary population production which they contribute to the economy".

 

CAE: To expand on that a little, because we mentioned this earlier on in the interview: this is a problem that feminist critics have complained about with great justification. Domestic work is not valued; nobody is paid for it. In the US that scenario is getting worse. For contributing domestic labor to the economy, poor single mothers are treated as if a child should be all the reward they need. The sacrifice of the mother's desires to socialize the child is perceived to be without value to the economy, and is perceived in no way to contribute to the expansion of capital. We know this is precisely wrong. These women should be paid for doing for their domestic service. If they are socializing a child, if they are bringing about the necessary production of people, and if there is any sense of fair compensation (which we know there is not), they should be paid for their labor. The amount of work that they are doing is really quite incredible and yet they are being completely screwed out of any compensation for their labor.

 

Q: You wrote something about sexual harassment and the policies around that in organizations and companies. These sexual harassment policies that are actually supposed to be very good for women, beneficent, coming out of the feminist struggle, are now working against all people, both female and male. Is it not possible to overcome it?

 

CAE: At this point, it's very difficult. Whether the problems can be overcome...the middle class is stuck with the policy. If upper class members are taken to court they have the money to buy their way out of it. They can get great lawyers, so they can pretty much walk away. They'll lose a bit of capital, but to someone that's wealthy that's not a problem. The lower classes don't have to worry because they can't be leveraged by civil law. If someone is sexually harassing someone else, what can be done: fire them from their job at MacDonalds? That is going to break their heart, isn't it? It's no punishment. The only people that can really get burned are those that can't either afford the luxury of a courtcase or to lose their job, because that means the loss of class status, in conjunction with the problem of never being hired anywhere else in a comparable position. The result is a generalized fear of this worst-case scenario, so middle class people become even more afraid to express their desires. The intensity of the problem is doubled in the case of what is called "victim-driven policy." If a person witnesses something that could possibly be construed as sexual harassment, s/he is required to report it to a sexual harassment investigator on the premises. If one witnesses, and does not report a potential infraction, s/he is liable in any forthcoming lawsuits. It's only at the middle class level that this occurs, whether corporate or bureaucratic. The situation thus demands that you not express desire in any way because you may be reported. And if found guilty, there is a zero tolerance policy. It's immediate loss of class position and wealth.

 

When corporations realized that women were going to be needed in the workplace in order to intensify production and consumption, there was also a great worry about how to stop counterproductive behavior (expression of desire) in the workplace. In a magic moment, a particular faction of conservative feminists offered the idea of sexual harassment. They turned to the Logos, the Patriarchy, the Word, and asked their exploiter to protect them, and in exchange they offered not only their own sovereignty, but that of all members of the middle class. The patriarchy took the offer. How could it refuse? It could intensify surveillance, crush uncommodified desire, and look progressive for doing so. The result is an intensely alienated workplace where institutional violence is at an all time high, but interpersonal conflict is lower in that it finds less expression. This was one of the most politically stupid moves of the latter half of this century. Never in this century has a minority been played for such suckers. They gave the corporations a way to implement an authoritarian policy that they were at a loss to deploy. We should mention once again that the feminist radical left, tried to do all it could to stop it. As true liberationists, they knew you never increase the power of the institutions that oppress.