Monetise Your Privilege With Schizo-Art Bollocks:
a review of Michael Portnoy at Liverpool Biennial EVENT, 8th March 2016.
“Class privilege, and the power it confers, is often conveniently misunderstood by its beneficiaries as the product of their own genius.” Gary Younge
Watching the Liverpool art establishment and their European friends snigger as a Citibank call centre employee was subjected to Michael Portnoy’s pompous art rhetoric was agonizing and dispiriting. It was uncannily evocative of the worst aspects of contemporary business practice, brought uncritically into the performance space as a joke at the expense of the cognitive worker.
Portnoy continually posed himself as wilfully blind to the oppressive political structures which his work took part in, despite invoking the language and names of critical thinkers who would be enlightening on such subjects — an oversight I will address here.
This “review” might appear overlong for what was simply an artist presentation, but as someone who also uses non-semantic language and linguistic ‘slippage’ in their work, I am interested in the deployment of nonsense here, its conjunction with themes of capitalism and labour, and how it might differ from what I consider to be the continuing radical potential of unconventional language works.
The work I saw however, has more in common with the divisive deployment of nonsense-speak by demagogues such as Donald Trump, using wealth to explicitly separate himself from the need to make sense — or contemporary marketing techniques which generate value from panic — than it does with the avant garde techniques of artists such as William Burroughs and Kathy Acker, the vulnerable, authentic linguistic response to a ‘mad world’ RD Laing observed in the schizo, or their techno-linguistic evolution in what I have previously described (here, here) as Glitch Poetics.
Below I portray the performance, and discuss the implication of its formal qualities.
ARTIST TALKER vs COGNITIVE WORKER
The personal wealth of the artist is important to the way the piece plays out, in a way only a wealthy person could ignore.
Portnoy is an internationally renowned choreographer and fine artist, concerned with “manipulating language and behaviour as a tool for world-bending”. He was accompanied for this talk for Liverpool Biennial by a retinue of curators and producers from the Biennial and the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, in Rotterdam where he had just completed a solo show. The rest of the modest audience were art students, and, in the majority, arts professionals. For this event we were informed, Portnoy would deliver a presentation of his own works to-date, as a live Skype call “to his personal bank”, Citibank. The call centre numbers Portnoy uses in his work, we are told, have a reputation for dealing with exclusively wealthy clients — of which Portnoy himself is one of the lucky few.
This personal wealth of the artist is important to the way the piece plays out, in a way only a wealthy person could ignore. The Citibank employees at the call centre by comparison earn around $14 an hour, and are empirically, not bankers. Nevertheless, for this performance, the call centre operative is serviced as the representative of the bank, and ridiculed for her inability to operate with the authority as such.
I am rich and you will listen
Portnoy’s position of “wealthy person who must be obeyed at all costs” is held over the worker, whose “stress position” is the true the subject of the work.
At the start of the performance, the audience were instructed not to speak (or rather, as it turned out, scoff) too loud during the performance. Portnoy then proceeded for around half an hour to present the audience with a series of slides of his work (the impressive fabrications a reminder, if it were needed, of his huge cultural capital), while speaking to the operative in an ambiguous hybrid arty-corporate jargon which he later described as being inspired by study of schizophrenic speech. He neither disclosed the nature of the call to her, nor explicitly addressed any discernible topic by which the worker might locate herself, but stuck doggedly to a script dictated by his powerpoint presentation, with additional notes on his phone and computer. It was the consistency and impassiveness of this nonsense-as-withholding strategy that was lauded by the responder from the Biennial team, but which I found to be the crux of the work’s ethical and aesthetic failure.
The most uncomfortable of these moments came when Portnoy demanded to know of the employee, like a lecherous boss, if “we made a connection”.
In this context, the call centre operative was reduced to the occasional “mm, hm”, “okay” punctuating the call. When Portnoy demanded to know if she understood, she had to give a swift yes or no answer, or be reprimanded by him. At points, Portnoy would play loud music, accompanying a video that the operative wasn’t privy to, playfully attributing this noise to his wife — and increasingly insinuating that this was a sign of the conversation being in some undisclosed way illicit. The most uncomfortable of these moments came when Portnoy demanded to know of the employee, like a lecherous boss, if “we made a connection”. Another was when he asked if she was “aware of the critique of Relational Aesthetics”, to which she said yes and was promptly cut off—incase she made an appropriate and therefore petulant contribution.
These null responses were symptomatic of a performance which fell flat on even the very limited latitude for failure which Portnoy risked — that the operative would hang up — while wilfully ignoring her own precarious situation — that she would possibly risk her job by doing so. The performance failed, not because Portnoy’s own limited physical interventions were clumsy and poorly executed (they were) but because the only performer-as-such refused to take part. (Her banal responses, Portnoy later commented in fatherly manner, was her being “good”, building on a long and unhealthy tradition of male artists aestheticising the doll-like qualities of women, from Cliff Richards back and forwards).
Some things that might have made this performance okay
Before I go into the detail of my critique, and with affordance to the audience who enjoyed this work, a little list of alterations which would make it slightly more okay to do so.
- If the artist had been speaking to someone he considered an ‘equal’ — a bank executive perhaps.
- If there was a risk that that artist could be fired, his life ruined, or that the curators would turn on him, should the work fail to deliver — which it did.
- If the ostensible purpose of the piece, to tell us about Portnoy’s work in advance of his Liverpool shows, had been achieved.
- If there was anything entertaining about Portnoy’s performance that didn’t have to do with the incapacity of the worker.
- If the performance had followed the track of the call centre’s script, or responded to her questions, and therefore engaged with the form of the bank phonecall in some way.
- If the employee were informed she was being recorded and part of a performance, before or after.
- If Portnoy or the Biennial acknowledged and addressed the position of financial privilege which made the work possible.
Anxiogenous Flows and Schizo-Culture
Rather than address the themes of finance and labour invoked by the form of this event — and that of Portnoy’s work more generally in his Relational Stalinism show — the work reproduced the generalised financialisation of psychosocial abuse which underpins current regimes of capitalism.
It was symptomatic of what Franco Berardi (who Portnoy invoked during his presentation) describes as “anxiogenous flows”: the way in which anxiety is used to generate value. It also played out with uncanny accuracy and amplitude the manner of psychic strains that have replaced physical hardship in the post-industrial age of a schizophrenic capitalism.
In a very real sense, it is not simply the case under neoliberalism that “money talks”, but rather that “money talks nonsense” and it is the cognitive labourer’s job to produce meaning-as-value from it.
Valorising the schizoid treatment of language has been a tactic of the avant garde for at least fifty years, but even at this point philosophers and artists were doing so with half an eye on the schizoid tendencies of capitalism itself. I have written elsewhere about the necessary evolution of schizo-literature in a context of corporate sponsored cultural convergence.
Deleuze and Guattari (1987) are the best known philosophers to engage the question of schizophrenia and capitalism, observing that the destructive treatment of codes is endemic in the way that capitalism operates:
“(capitalist) societies exhibit a marked taste for all codes, codes foreign and exotic…this taste is destructive and morbid. While decoding doubtless means understanding and translating a code, it also means destroying the code as such, assigning it an archaic, folkloric, or residual function” (245).
In these terms, the residual function of art-speak and continental philosophy codes is used to divide her/them as ‘not art’ from him/us as ‘art’, leaving none of the messy political or social implications or middle ground of the texts he invoked in place. Indeed, Portnoy’s understanding of basic assumptions of texts he cites seems altogether absent from his work. The stress generated by his deployment of authority in this context is the form of “the progressive and dispersed installation of a new system of domination” which Deleuze identified as a mode of crisis instituted by capitalism in the 20th century. In the present day, we know this mode of control has been integrally and inseparably linked to surveillance cultures, into which the performance also contributed.
The corporate and surveillance implications of this piece takes a concrete aspect if we consider the spectre of the Mystery Shopper haunting public relations work. The Mystery Shopper is a manager in customer’s clothing, who tests the performance of a member of staff by putting them into adverse situations and reporting back to the company infrastructure.
Rather than critics such as Adrian Searle and Dan Fox who have lauded Portnoy’s performances for their “sublime ludicrousness”, the call centre employee does not have the freedom enjoy the fact that the work does not make sense. Instead, she must continuously retain “Enthusiasm, Professionalism, Politeness, Positiveness and Honesty” — with the accompanying threat of losing her job if she doesn’t do so.
Her need to cope, revisited in the form of archive and feedback sessions, would therefore be refinancialised by both the Biennial and the Citibank itself, doubling the value of the worker’s time via the degree of virtuosity she would have to show during this half hour. The insinuation this is a victim-free tapping of the some kind of extra value produced by the banking industry is no more true than the notion that the sharing economy harmlessly turns ‘spare’ time, assets, rooms into spare money. Rather it is by these kinds of incursions that capital takes hold of territories which would normally constitute its limits.
The implications of a wealthy gentleman consciously objectifying a working class woman in a cultural space without her knowledge, might worry a lesser man
After the performance, the questioning ranged from the actively sycophantic, to the lightly admiring. But given the huge ethical problems at the heart of this work, it was hard for the audience to tip-toe their way around terms that might offend the artist. In one such mild response, an audience member asked if Portnoy considered the call centre employee a person or an object. The implications of a wealthy gentleman consciously objectifying a working class woman in a cultural space (ironically on International Women’s Day) without her knowledge, might worry a lesser man, but the artist simply looked thoughtful, and entered into a discussion of whether the “good” employee had been, truly, an “empath” for his thoughts — if she had indeed responded in appropriate way to his objectification.
Someone who enjoyed the performance responded to my misgivings by observing that Portnoy’s work can’t have been an abuse of power, because she herself was often much more abusive to people in call-centres. She said that she swears at them if her card gets cut off when she’s abroad on business. This kind of analysis is divisive and not sufficiently engaged in the kinds of questions that are raised when we as artists are afforded the privilege of speaking.
Art Bollocks vs Anti-Intellectualism
My critique is not the anti-intellectualism called out for example in Hito Steryl’s response to the International Art English furore. Indeed I recognise a long tradition of difficult poetics, absurdism and nonsense in the arts — perhaps most pertinently as it was taken into the public sphere by artists such as Augusto Boal. As one of the curatorial team observed afterwards, my own work can be quite appear pompous and purposefully difficult at times!
openings to new meaning or exit were held firmly clenched in this tight-arsed pantomiming of privilege.
However, the core strain of this tradition of nonsense and schizo-cultural practices is the openness to new forms of meaning-making — “lines of flight” from precomposed routes. And these openings to meaning or exit were the ones Portnoy held firmly clenched in his tight-arsed pantomiming of privilege.
The poet Keston Sutherland is among a number of well known practitioners who is often pressed to qualify the relation of his unconventional linguistic structures with themes of class and power. In these qualifications he first of all refuses to assume that working class people don’t understand difficult language — rather he prefers to engage with the questions of what can and cannot said within a currently understood framework of saying — and how this question constitutes our status as political beings.
Offered this nuanced engagement with meaning-making, Portnoy’s work prefered to remind us that the elite have the privilege of meaninglessness, and that all forms of behaviour are in advance advocated by their continued wealth, upheld by institutional structures — such as Biennials. It is solely in the context of this security offered by the Biennial and its curators that the precarious worker’s interest for survival could be monetised. The irony that ‘art jargon’ was the vehicle for this is nothing more than the morbid reductionism Deleuze and Guattari refer to in the passage above.
The Liverpool Biennial takes place in a city of people who might share more with the call centre employee than they do with Michael Portnoy. Over recent years, the festival has made strong gestures with its public work — these have either a utilitarian social focus, such as Homebaked or are aesthetically striking, critically bland projects with potential for large footfall such as Dazzle Ships. The division of these strands allows for the public work to be distinguished from its “international programme”, where established institutionally activated practitioners are displayed in more or less standard gallery settings emptied of their historical or social meaning — from the former Trade Union Building renamed “The Old Blind School” to hold an exhibition whose main work concerned middle-class boredom, to the social housing space St Andrews Gardens which was home to a video exhibition presented without any curatorial reference to the (huge) significance of its site (an oversight which was corrected by a subsequent visual work by Vicky Ellis).
The distinction between public (visible, striking, useful) and international (ambiguous, subtle, complex) programmes is undoubtedly helpful for funding and marketing programmes, and saves time on interpretative material, but there is a feeling even among the creative community in the city that it is leading to an impoverishment of the festival’s ability to communicate its best work. It means that the local audiences for the festival are having their intuitive relation to it — through history, class and material relation — sacrificed in return for context-free intellectual access by a smaller international coterie, even as audience numbers are inflated by aesthetically pleasing and utilitarian strands.
This tendency is something that a few newspapers picked up on last year, and I expect, evidenced by the apparent success-fetish which dripped from this event, will haunt the next festival too.
I’m @nathmercy on twitter
The next Liverpool Biennial opens on 9th of July and will be worth a visit. Follow them at @biennial on twitter.
 Such as ebay’s Valentines targeting tool http://www.themarketingblog.co.uk/2016/02/monday-8-february-will-signal-the-start-of-britain%E2%80%99s-panic-valentine%E2%80%99s-purchasing-ebay-advertising/
 A survey completed by Unison (in the UK) showed that 80% of call centre employees are under considerable mental and physical strain in part due to the culture of testing against these kinds of aptitudes.  http://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/health-problems-rife-among-call-centre-workers-claims-unison
Berardi, F. The Uprising: Poetry and Finance (2012)
Guattari, F. and Giles Deleuze A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1987)