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Superconversations Day 15: Jessie Beier responds to Arseny Zhilyaev, "Second Advents. On the Issue of Planning in Contemporary Art"


Abstract composition of the skin condition known as dermatographia. (source)

The Planning Itch

Planning makes me itchy.

From a survival perspective, my itchiness is perhaps a carryover from the animal instinct to remove those parasites from my skin that might otherwise limit my future capacities. I itch in order to discharge alterity, dulling sensation in the process, much like I plan in order to reduce the overwhelming potential of life’s inherent precarity. Or, perhaps another possible explanation is that both itch and pain engage many of the same areas of the brain, and thus when I itch I am able to cause myself enough pain to re-live dying sensations, at least temporarily. Like planning for the future, itching thrusts past experiences into the here and now, in turn arbitrating future possibilities.

Regardless of how and why this itchiness comes about, I have been told that itches are best left unscratched. We must learn to resign from itching (even as the humiliating welts and contusions grow) for the gesture of itching will only lead to further inflammation, irritation, and discomfort, or in severe cases, infection.

It is from a similar “humiliating resignation” that Arseny Zhilyaev launches us forth in a consideration of the role of planning in the realm of contemporary art. Zhilyaev asserts that although planning governs much of our everyday interaction, the issue of planning in contemporary art has been limited to discussions of utility (in terms of activists’ creative work) and consumption (in terms of relational aesthetics). Perhaps these limitations are a response to the way in which contemporary art itself has become reified under particular philosophical constraints. If contemporary art is conceived as an exceptional difference engine — a celebration of indeterminacy — then planning might be understood, albeit commonsensically, as an impedance to contemporary artistic creation. Planning with indeterminacy at the centre is like coping with an itch that just can’t be scratched.

In response to the limited discussions of planning in contemporary art, Zhilyaev asserts that we must endeavour to expose how planning itself might create opportunities for new political and philosophical demands. To this end, Zhilyaev launches us into space, dismantling our sense of gravity in the process. Speculating through the eyes of an astronaut orbiting Earth in the company of Newton and Galileo, among others, Zhilyaev fabulates a vision of contemporary artistic resurrection that positions planning as a particular commitment to restoring, reanimating, and resurrecting past and present artistic projects as a way of “bringing the hopes of this art to real life” (Zhilyaev, para. 14). Put otherwise, Zhilyaev provides a launch pad from which we might fabulate alternative treatments to otherwise untreatable itches.

How might we treat the itch?

One solution I have come across is to place a band-aid (or scotch tape for the frugally inclined) over the site of the itch. This coverage works physically, limiting access to the site of infection, but also psychologically, by codifying the area as that which is ‘off limits’. The band-aid offers a kind of contingency plan, a certain form of risk management, a stop-gap measure that provides coverage while never fully addressing the problem at/on hand.

I have also come across the little trick of x-ing out the itch with your fingernail, as if to refute its existence in the first place. This strategy of erasure is said to disperse the protein around the infected area, in turn stopping the itch, at least for a while. This tactic provides a sort of deferral; by negating the itch, the need to treat its symptoms dissolves and we are left to carry on in spite of its existence.

Yet another strategy, backed by “science” has been cited as a particularly useful tactic for those itches that seem impossible to scratch.[1] ‘Mirror scratching’ requires looking in the mirror and scratching the opposite side of your body. Although not as effective as scratching the actual itch, this strategy is known to bring relief through the illusion of congruencies created between our intersensory perceptive signals. Here, we are able to ‘take control’ of the itch, even if that control is falsely attributed, by projecting our symptoms onto a mirrored Other.

Although each of these tactics responds to the itch in its own way, what they all have in common is that they avoid any actual itching. Perhaps these commonsense tactics are not too different to how planning is approached in contemporary art. As Zhilyaev points out, although abstention or “do(ing) nothing at all” (Zhilyaev, para. 4) is an option, it may not be enough to address the complexity of our current conditions. It is therefore necessary to treat our itches differently.

Scratching the itch.

Instead of resigning to perpetual itchiness, what if we were to indulge the desire to scratch? Perhaps this is what Zhilyaey has in mind in terms of planning. As Zhilyaey asserts, if we are to reimagine the site of contemporary art, or perhaps more importantly, what we want contemporary art to do, it is necessary to mutate the role of planning. It is not enough to recode existing contexts in order to create contingency plans (the band-aid solution), nor is it enough to actively refute or defer plans in spite of problematic symptoms (‘X’ marks the spot), nor is it enough to look to a projected Other as a model for how future possibilities might unfold (‘mirror scratching’). If an itch holds the capacity to reanimate past sensations, inflame current indignations, and infect surrounding areas, perhaps it is precisely through scratching that we might resurrect whole universes of potential. Put otherwise, and to echo Zhilyaey,

[p]erhaps uncovering the cosmos [the itch] as a space for restoring—or even inventing—order and the main goal of humankind’s efforts will give us another way to avoid the dark end of everyday contingencies (para. 7).

With this itch in mind, here are some questions we might consider further:

  1. What is the role of planning in the creation, distribution, and reception of contemporary art?
  2. How might we reformulate processes of planning in contemporary art towards new political and
    philosophical demands?
  3. How might technological intervention aid in the recapitulation of processes of planning in contemporary art?

[1] Got an itch you just can’t scratch? Try looking in the mirror to fool your brain, say scientists.

Jessie Beier holds a diploma in design and illustration, in addition to a Bachelor and Masters Degrees in Education from the University of Alberta, Canada.

@jlbeier, I think any contemporary art planning, which wants to be different from the already existing mafia-cybernetic model of public-private network of already existing stakeholders (Museum/University/Press/Awards/Biennale/Residency/Private gallery) needs to learn to exercise selection and in effect prejudice instead of succumbing to the diversity & multiplicity of the art’s media or meaning which today has become nothing but the human shield protecting the global elite in their secure posotion of the patron’s of art.

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Indeed! This reminds me of our conversations with Suhail Malik the other day: we worked through the text “Ape Says No” 1 and one of the things that came up was a necessary resistance to the more common response “Ape says meh…” Ha. Less “meh” more “no”! I think this is what the text really made me think of. How is it that we have become so resistant to planning, including the commitment to making specific decisions and selections?


@jlbeier There must be ways to remove this human shield and actually recruit it as a resource towards our post capitalist future.

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@anton Great historical text! I understand scenario thinking not as the binary opposition to planning but its evolution. Do I make sense?

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well that’s like saying that the evolution of socialism is capitalism… i think for liam scenarios are speculation, and speculation is bourgeois rubbish (in his own words).


The question I would raise here is to what extent there has ever been any kind of escape from planning at all, much less an exit. Planning is not something that happens rarely due to the ubiquity of the market, the market is itself a plan, one carried out by interlocking directorates and coordinated protectionism.

The important part of planning is responsive planning - responsive to situations, to constituencies, to desires, etc. I think there is also a kind of autistic planning, which what neoliberalism is. Not the lack of a plan, but a tightly blinkered plan, with no sense of the long-term.

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@anton, Sadly existing socialism (both in the eastern block and in the west) did evolve into capitalism! and in the arab world, socialist nationalism (not to be mistaken with nazism) devolved into Islamic fundamentalism and eventually ISIS.

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Evolved or was undermined by economic embargoes, military spending, corruption, corporate takeovers etc.? Not to keep mentioning Liam, but he has another good text about how Volvo factories in the 70s, at the height of socialist, planned and discursive ways of reorganizing production, were bought out by ford or Chrysler and returned to the traditional conveyer belt type organization of labor, even though this actually decreased productivity… That’s not exactly evolution per se, more like annihilation…


To my mind, “itching/scratching” is a funny but not clear metaphor for situation planning. If we talk about an “itching/scratching” reaction, we mean an instinct, non-active reaction here and now that avoids any kind of mediation. Let’s act right now, let’s express ourselves without any limits, but for the canvas edge, etc. When someone plans something, it is not an attempt to “reduce the overwhelming potential of life’s inherent precarity” but an endeavor to escape from the routine of precarious life limitations in the context of neoliberalism. And I absolutely agree when the contemporary economical system is interpreted as autistic planning. Can contemporary art be regarded as an alternative? Yes, this field assumes more responsibility but it’s not enough. That is why when people deal with repetition in art, it is perceived as a negative outcome of capitalism, as bureaucratization. “Oh look, capitalism leads us into the secrets of good art, let’s go find something else!” one may say. But probably it means that we can go further and start planning a post-capitalist future and an art which is much better than just good enough.


Yes, perhaps it is a funny metaphor (and not totally clear, but clarity is never my strong point! :slight_smile: ) The ‘instinct’ to plan is perhaps what I was thinking about here, but more how this so-called instinct is always-already indebted to a plan of the world ‘as is’. I am interested in the way in which we have become habituated to react/respond to the world in particular ways (vis a vis the market, for example), and how this habituation ultimately produces plans that are insufficient for new political demands, especially in the realm of contemporary art. The gravity analogies helped me to think through this. :slight_smile: What would it mean to alter our own sense of ‘grounding’, not as a way to avoid or resign from planning, but as a way to recapitulate plans into a more situation-based action? Perhaps this is where technology comes in (I didn’t get this far in the response!). I thought of Lucy Suchman’s work here on plans vs. situated actions. Suchman also looks at the organization and significance of action as derived from plans, and specifically the problem of human-machine interactions. Her thoughts on ‘situated action’ came to mind for me:

“Situated action as such comprises necessarily ad hoc responses to the actions of others and to the contingencies of particular situations. Rather than depend upon the reliable recognition of intent, successful interaction consists in the collaborative production of intelligibility through mutual access to situation resources, and through the detection, repair or exploitation of differences in understanding”

I thought about what astronauts do when they get an itch. (Space travel is hard enough without having to worry about itchiness). I even googled it. Apparently, astronauts have a few tricks when they are in their Extravehicular Mobility Units, including using the mic in their helmet as an improvised scratching post. Might we think of this as a sort of assemblage converter? A revision of ‘technology’ (if frivolous) towards a more situated response? Anywho… thanks for all your words everyone!

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I think that the Volvo parable is an instructive one. The marriage of Taylorism (time and motion studies) and Mayoism (the human resources dictum of participation leading to productivity) in some postwar factories is still not fully appreciated as a practice for expanding our capacities (in the broad sense) to shape ourselves. The practice of planning creates very specific ethical behaviours, such as a commitment to consistency over time. In some sense, it requires the freedom to give up one’s freedom, to make a promise to which the counterparty is a future self. This would be classical “freedom of contract”, but projective in one person.

If I remember right, one of the problems of the Volvo factories (or perhaps these were Audi factories in Flanders) was that by encouraging workers (as production experts) to workshop ways to reduce friction and increase efficiency, they gradually decreased their own necessity on the shop floor. The exercise of power always takes precedence over the increase in productivity which is supposed to justify its use. Also, would you please direct me to that essay? I’ve been looking for that writing, but evidently not hard enough.

@Dadabase I think that the speed and smoothness with which economies like Vietnam and China have integrated markets into the socialist states troubles the way you talk about transition between a socialist and capitalist mode. This received conceptual distinction is why (even though nobody finds it incongruous) the New Yorker still begins articles on the Chinese economy with a reflection on the incongruity of political centralization and economic liberalism. I feel like if you assume this distinction, then the difference seems self-evident, but why shouldn’t the fluidity of the transition suggest a deep and significant affinities between capitalism and socialism? Otherwise, the

@Percepticon I don’t think that the market is a plan. Yes, it requires certain planned infrastructure to exist, but I think that the distinction is meaningful. And the rhetorical discrediting of planning since the 1980s is undeniable—I don’t think that’s just a matter of words, but of real shifts in concepts. Even in HBR circles, the death of strategy is like (very like) the death of painting in ArtForum. I also appreciate your point that planning must be responsive, but neoliberal policies use this rhetoric of responsiveness and spontaneity: where would you make the distinction between a good and bad kind of responsiveness?

Also, we shouldn’t misunderstand autism. I think that people are hesitant enough, for whatever reason, to join these conversations without our making careless statements of prejudice.

To both of your points, De Landa’s identification of antimarkets and markets in capitalism is very useful, since it identifies what we would call the tension between institutional and market capitalism—at which point we can just take out the capitalism, and say institutions and markets. I prefer the term institutions to antimarkets since it’s not just a negation. I think, definitionally, institutions plan.

First of all, if capitalism has always relied on non-competitive practices, if the prices for its commodities have never been objectively set by demand/supply dynamics, but imposed from above by powerful economic decision-makers, then capitalism and the market have always been different entities. To use a term introduced by Braudel, capitalism has always been an “antimarket”. This, of course, would seem to go against the very meaning of the word “capitalism”, regardless of whether the word is used by Karl Marx or Ronald Reagan. For both nineteenth century radicals and twentieth century conservatives, capitalism is identified with an economy driven by market forces, whether one finds this desirable or not. Today, for example, one speaks of the former Soviet Union’s “transition to a market economy”, even though what was really supposed to happen was a transition to an antimarket: to large scale enterprises, with several layers of managerial strata, in which prices are set not taken. This conceptual confusion is so entrenched that I believe the only solution is to abandon the term “capitalism” completely, and to begin speaking of markets and antimarkets and their dynamics. [From Markets and Antimarkets]

if it was in fact planned processes like

that undermined the planned economy, strategy that killed strategy, then I think it’s good to ask: did planning plan to self-destruct?

I also wanted to cite Renata on autopoiesis as stepping outside the binary of planning/spontaneity that is emerging in this thread:

luhmann’s entire theory of social systems is based on autopoiesis, αὐτo (self) + ποίησις (poiesis, creation), a concept designed by chilean biologists humberto maturana and francisco varela. autopoietic systems are beyond control, and yet are about control. autopoiesis brings chaos to cosmos, and cosmos to chaos. from the idea of autopoiesis, to groys’ idea of absolutely superimposing state control to every aspect of life and to jason’s reversal implied in a vision of total control as the victory of the “communist cosmos” i’d like to add yet another possibility of reversal: the chaos of life itself as the only form of control. complexity science is here to show us that groys’ war between cosmos and chaos has always been an illusion. as katherine hayles has already explored in her book chaos bound, henri poincaré has made visible the deterministic order of the edge of chaos. complex systems remind us that there are limits to order, control and predictability, while chaotic systems remind us that the underlying fibre of chaos is mathematics.

@dxb i think its in this essay below. a more explicit discussion of volvo was a part of a talk he did in berlin, which this text is based on:

dear Jessie Beier, thank you so much for your response and analysis! I guess through “itching” and different models of treating it you managed to describe how contemporary art is functioning, at least as viewed by Soviet art theorists who developed the line of Lukács—Lifshitz. They believed that modernist art was not enough, as they could feel the itch of social injustice expressed in class inequality but would never scratch it, i.e. actually solve the problem. Instead, they would negate it smartly or try to respond rationally within the limits set by the art, such as by pointing to the problem in an innovative way, identifying its boundaries, etc.

The Soviet response was different. There was an abrupt transition from modernist innovativeness of deferral and leaving itches unscratched, through historical avant-garde, to vigorous scratching—perhaps, even hospitalization and surgical intervention, and subsequent non-itchy life in a perfect realist art. The problem was, the short-course treatment was insufficient, and the issues causing various itches did not disappear. However, instead of passing tests again and admitting its itches, the Soviet art found itself in the position of an astronaut incapable of solving this problem even with a microphone. Besides, the itch was officially recognized as treated, and no other itches, only itch of planing could appear in the Soviet Union.

It seems to me that the drama of the Soviet official art reflects the whole experience of planning in the 20th century. One of the core challenges here was rather a technical one, namely the lack of adequate information about what was going on, the lack of feedback. Maybe astronaut colleagues could help their counterpart who was in a tricky situation, but the armor concealed the true state of things. It is held that planned economy ignores one of the crucial analytical factors—prices as an indicator of the balance between demand for and offer of specific goods, i.e. ultimately the information about the state of things. If prices cannot reflect the real state of things anymore, another criterion should be selected. But what should it be? And how can we explain its objective indexing in technical terms if all figures should be justified ideologically, articulated linguistically, and not mathematically?

The Soviet planned economy suffered from the lack of adequate feedback, although it doesn’t mean this lack was irreparable. Thus, hardly will anyone argue the fact that we live in a world with excessive feedback today. Some time ago, I read an interview with Evgeny Morozov called Socialize the Data Centres! posted by New Left Review, which is interesting in the context of this issue. Particularly, Morozov points to the possibility of socializing the information accumulated by major corporations like Google and Facebook not for consumption or commercial profit for the limited group of people but for its subsequent usage by the society, for instance, for the purposes of social planning, development of public transport networks, education, or medicine, etc. without having to resurrect the Big Brother model. Therefore, we can say that we are much more ready in the technical sense today to get back to the idea of planning.


@Zhilyaev, how does the planning that you’re describing incorporate affect? It seems to me that one of the failures of socialist planning was an inability to sustain the initial utopian blush of long-term planning beyond a first few years, to harness that libido properly through songs and images and lessons. Do you know the work of Elton Mayo? He famously led a series of experiments where he derived data showing that the only significant predictor to worker productivity was whether or not they felt they were included and valued. He founded modern Human Resources. Despite the enormous amount of energy spent in socialist states on funneling citizen libidos into productive work, I am not so sure that the USSR was as effective in systematizing this practice as the USA. I will say that I think that the PRC developed unique and innovative techniques in the Cultural Revolution (as a direct and conflicted precursor to neoliberalism) for harnessing and unleashing social eros into set domains of revolutionary activity.

It seems to me that the mentions you and @jlbeier have disagreed over represent these two poles, of spontaneous response (itches) and planned action (scratches). If the rise of time management and then self-management (productivity apps etc) has shown us anything, it’s that we have lost the hierarchical separation of management and labor, a functional separation of administrative and productive work (Mayoism and Taylorism). Now we have time management, self-management, is the synthesis of these two more or less separate practices, briefly separated by the post-war ellipsis.

Does your account of planning include well enough Human Resources or revolutionary fervor, since you are focusing instead in true cybernetic fashion on informational feedback—and also what of the market as an extremely sophisticated kind of generative beast that the tamer-planner uses?


The metaphor is perhaps the bite of a mosquito. Or a bee. but no cause itchy, head, perhaps just paranoia itself. The psychological traits that hides a theory of paranoia, which is a boost of Thanatos. It seems that often subyase planning as a threat of soma - intuition. What stings is related to a self-conscious process that seeks resign. Consider the archetype of Jung in the computer revolutionary context and planning as self-genetic part of the process of myth. The dragon that guards the body of Christ is a virus in the chain of universal DNA, no Christ without his opponent gets up, but not without its protective beast, guardian of knowledge.

I think it’s not only Mao who succeeded in tackling social affect management issues. Overall, the Soviet tradition is characterized by dexterity of affect management. This point is most elaborated in Boris Groys’s The Communist Postscript, the bigger part of which is devoted to paradoxes of the Soviet dialectical materialism as an actual practice of government control. Thus, the theorist believed that it was the voluntary dissolution of the Soviet republics and the voluntary conception of capitalistic relations that proved the viability of the Soviet communist project, which could not be completed without co-opting its opposite extreme, capitalism, due to its tendency to dialectical totality. The Soviet history is replete with subversive governmental paradoxes attempting to be ahead of time and to make smart investments of energy of social affects, which were likely to backfire on the government itself if the latter waited too long.

However, it seems to me that skilful conflict management and paradoxical logic of political managers are not the exclusive prerogative of communist parties. The post-Soviet Russia, where ‘guided democracy’ has been used as a political method of governing, reveals the formal independence of management art from the social structure. The Russian version of managed democracy is a soft mix of the Soviet dialectical materialism and the methods of situationist international, of course without their original passion and conceptual contexts. This very logic feeds the fully controlled propagandist russian TV channels, where you can see an interview with Žižek about the double standards of capitalism adopted by the USA, or a patriarch’s sermon on how the economic crisis gives the country a unique chance to stop worrying about surplus value and start investing in real material well-being, or an hours-long film telling why the number of hospitals and the amount of free medical care should be reduced on because of more and more medical practitioners sponging on people.

With all the differences between the communist version of dialectical materialism, the art of guided democracy, and the affect management in developed neoliberal countries, we can say that their methods have something common. This proves that affectedness is an essential element of social production, but it’s separated from goal-setting, from strategic planning. Libidinal vibrations may nourish with equal efficiency the righteous hatred of young communists, or development of a space program, or the excitement of young economic reformers, to the universal triumph of public property privitizers and the ecstasy of virtual social communication, in the full glare of Silicon Valley guys.

An interesting thing Groys mentions in his The Communist Postscript is that the opposition of affectedness and irrationality of the human principle as a symbol of freedom against the machine-like rationality and bureaucratized life inside a utopia was applied both to criticize first the communist regimes and then the contemporary capitalism, since the 1990s. This being so, the issue of planning becomes first of all the issue of our intellectual attitudes and specific decisions as to the desired path of mankind’s development.

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