Unreal Nature

June 16, 2016

The Pawn

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… the subject ultimately is the one who must navigate a minefield of participation and control, discovering those small opportunities where conformity breaks down and possibility, even if fleeting and limited, accrues.

This is from the essay ‘Dependent Participation: Bruce Nauman’s Environments’ by Janet Kraynak, found in Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader edited by Tanya Leighton (2008):

[ … ]

NAUMAN: … I have tried to make the situation sufficiently limiting, so that spectators can’t display themselves very easily.
SHARP: Isn’t that rather perverse?
NAUMAN: Well, it has more to do with my not allowing people to make their own performance out of my art. Another problem that I worked out was using a single wall, say 20 feet long, that you can walk around, If you put a television camera at one end and the monitor around the corner, when you walk down the wall you can see yourself just as you turn the corner, but only then. You can make a square with the same function — as you turn each corner, you can just see your back going around the corner. It’s another way of limiting the situation so that someone else can be a performer, but he can do only what I want him to do. I mistrust audience participation. That’s why I try to make these works as limiting as possible.

Similarly, in another interview, Nauman disdains the creation of open-ended situations, which, he complains, reduce art to a form of ‘game playing’: ‘I don’t like to leave things open so that people feel they are in a situation they can play games with. … I think I am not really interested in game playing. Partly it has to do with control, I guess.’

[ … ]

Touraine argues that technocratic society, unlike earlier eras of industrialism, is contingent not upon exclusion but upon widespread inclusion. Participation is axiomatic to this system, but it is coerced. Moreover, its manipulative power rests upon the relative ‘success’ of the system, as well as its deviousness: the benefits and pleasures it affords and, as such, the needs it seemingly fulfils, all the while eschewing overt oppression.

[line break added] Whereas in Marxian theory economic exploitation of the workers or working classes results in their social alienation, in the programmed society, Touraine maintains, those of relative affluence — and, as such, with greater ‘participation’ in social, political and economic life — are nevertheless subject to the lure of propaganda, advertising and consumption. In short, in addition to the traditional oppressed classes, new ones are formed that cross a broad social strata, all becoming passive participants in their own domination.

Technocratic society, therefore, sees a dramatic shift, in which participation leads not to self-determination but, paradoxically, to alienation. ‘Ours is a society of alienation,’ Touraine writes, ‘not because it reduces people to misery or because it imposes police restriction, but because it seduces, manipulates and enforces conformism.’ In other words, alienation is wrought by complicity and conformity, which ultimately serve to nullify or ‘manage’ dissent. The programmed society, Touraine argues, amounts to an insidious yet potent system of ‘dependent participation.’

… it may appear that this essay is proposing that Nauman’s installations constitute embodiments of techno-rationality. Quite to the contrary, however, I am interested in the point at which the rationalization of society comes under pressure. Rather than the realisation of reason, in other words, Nauman’s ‘performance’ environments speak to the moment of reason’s collapse, when technological change ushers in an acute crisis of legitimation …

… In Nauman’s manipulative yet pleasurable spaces there is also a cautionary tale, one regarding participation as a panacea, a message that resonates perhaps even more intensely in contemporary culture where dependent participation is increasingly the reality — and even the operative principle — of a global information society. Advanced information technologies, such as the Internet, afford endless opportunity for interactivity: but hidden — and not so hidden — within them, are ever more insidious mechanisms of manipulation …

… That the body of the spectator in Nauman’s environments is the actor through which these dramas and conflicts are played out is not surprising. As a historical agent the individual is still the cornerstone, the pawn of a technocratic system that increasingly markets ‘individual’ desire and which, despite providing less autonomy and choice, proffers a fantasy of more and more.

[line break added] Likewise, in Nauman’s installations the subject ultimately is the one who must navigate a minefield of participation and control, discovering those small opportunities where conformity breaks down and possibility, even if fleeting and limited, accrues.

My previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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