SUPERCONVERSATIONS DAY 34: ASHKAN SEPAHVAND RESPONDS TO DAVID HODGE & HAMED YOUSEFI, “PROVINCIALISM PERFECTED: GLOBAL CONTEMPORARY ART AND UNEVEN DEVELOPMENT”
Three Prompts for a Speculative Narrative Set in a Near-yet-Unspecified Future, Leading to the TOTALmobilization of the Supercommunity Towards an ENDimage
Shulamith Firestone, “The Dialectic of Sex” (1970).
The memories of war, occupation, insurgency, and the rise of the Islamic State are still fresh in most people’s minds, though the once-everyday brutal reality of ISIS and its acts of violence against people, things, and history itself has long disappeared in the realms of a unified Federal Republic of Bilad Al-Sham. Its capital rises as a New Baghdad, a massive developmental project overseen and executed by the South-South Alliance Trust and the Neo-Ottoman Future Foundation. On January 15th, 20th, a performance by the Iraqi-Australian artist Maskhara Al-Hayat is scheduled to take place at the newly inaugurated MANZARA Center for Contemporary Art, as part of the 3rd Baghdad Biennial’s Opening Program. At roughly 20:00, a group of seven individuals enter the lobby of the museum and begin chanting. An explosion of huge dimensions ignites in the foyer of MANZARA at exactly 20:03. A total of 579 attendants are killed, among them 38 high ranking, international art world professionals, including the co-curator of the 3rd Baghdad Biennial, Boro Digenaya. The local and international media are quick to portray this incident as the first act of so-called “terrorism” to directly target global contemporary art.
In an announcement shortly thereafter, the artist, who was not present at the controversial performance, makes clear that this assessment is false. A new art of the future has been announced, not in word, but in deed. “A truly political art tackles reality in its complexity,” reads a line of Al-Hayat’s now-historic statement, “and as politics invariably concerns itself with life, with ordering the right to life, which also means simultaneously negotiating the tentative relationship between who may live and who may die, then art can never be political unless it confronts death in an irreversible manner. We must die, and this must be artistic.” Further contextualization reveals that the performance was the result of a long-term collaboration with a New Baghdad-based collective known as the Pancosmic Whirling Dervishes (PWD), a group of self-identified “mystical scientists” whose members hail from a variety of disciplines. The PWD have refined a technique they term “catastrophic transubstantiation,” a method whereby a ritualized spatial intervention may alter the energetic components of a system and dramatically transform living matter at-will. Significant force is exhibited, a trace of life re-organizing itself on a quantum level. What took place in Baghdad was not a terrorist attack; it was a demonstration of the Pancosmic Manifesto’s fundamental principles: “things must be pushed to the limit, where quite naturally they collapse and are inverted. This is why the only strategy is catastrophic.” The rules of the game have changed – could this be the first step to the creation of “a radiant Supercommunity”? Or has art now become so real, it kills?
The historical shift began shortly before the middle of the century in Qatar, when the Curriculum Unification Committee of Education City decided to establish an inter-university Department of Living Strategies. The original goal was to streamline the pedagogical distribution of subjects between the various academic institutions, thereby shutting down most discipline-specific programs in the “Arts” & Humanities. One significant innovation to emerge out of this consolidating maneuver was a stipulation that the very word “art” no longer be utilized, except in reference to a very specific geo-historical form that had long ceased to exist.
A number of reasons served as motivation. First, the Qatar Foundation had successfully managed to consolidate the majority of the Western world’s historical “art” collections, a phenomenon exacerbated by two pivotal events: the disastrous break-up of the European Union and the concomitant devaluing of standard global currencies in favor of personalized, situational, open-source P2P currencies, effectively stripping all unique material objects of any financial value, as well as the emergency closure of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi and the transfer of its collections to the Qatar Museum Authority following the large-scale insurrections of guest workers in the United Arab Emirates (which, as a result of the Fall of the House of Saud, has since escalated to an ongoing nuclear war between the UAE, India, and Pakistan). Second, after decades of experiments in “art” instruction and exhibition organization, strategic analysts began to articulate a growing concern that for most Qataris, “art” meant nothing more than “pretty pictures” or “strange objects” to be casually observed or lackadaisically crafted. What is the point, then, to hire faculty, appoint curators, fund students, and budget exhibitions all concerned with enabling “art”, when the category itself serves no greater purpose than entertainment at best, or vanity at worst?
To identify as an “artist”, or to create “art” was effectively eradicated in Qatar. This is not to say that creativity was suppressed. Instead, the Department of Living Strategies introduced forms of collaboration, experimentation, and expression that could, indeed, fall under the rubric of what was once known as “art”, but which today no longer need to be bound down to those affective idiosyncrasies and ambiguous valorizations that “art” has never been able to articulate. Particularly in these transitory times, the notion of “living strategies” as an inclusive way to re-conceive how the imagination can be re-applied to innovate strategies for co-inhabiting the world has proven to have had far-reaching global appeal. What was initiated in Qatar is now common everywhere: “art” no longer exists.
It is the greatest collective undertaking humans could have ever envisioned. Of course, it took global civilization a long time to reach this moment. Living strategies had been articulated to maneuver through conflict and instability, with great creative prowess. Imagination had reached an unprecedented profusion. The constant fear of war and suffering no longer pressed down on the shoulders of individuals. A tentative calm had settled, and yet the storm could arise again at any moment. Humanity could, however, agree on one thing: we are exhausted. History has been tiring.
The Supercommunity Agency, a formal moniker for the millions of intricately networked, constantly mutating social constellations that composed the Government of Earth, transmitted its deliberations over a period of a few months, finally drafting a conclusive decision: humanity would mobilize itself towards the TOTALwork, the voluntary commitment to see through the extinction of the human species altogether. Everyone was to renounce biological reproduction – no more new generations, no more strife against the future, no more investment of desire to find itself better fulfilled in those to come. The species would die out together. Not as an accident of war, or an ill-fated consequence of the weather, but as a collective Gelassenheit, a being-with, letting-be, taking-breath, and enjoying the unfolding-of-time. Most embraced the idea. Some did not. A concession was made within the Supercommunity: for those who longed for a child, a new birth would be accompanied by the enforced sacrifice of the parents. Soon, even those children who grew up into the Supercommunity once the TOTALwork was well underway would no longer know that it was even possible to reproduce. Sterilization procedures had greatly helped. Sex was just that, sex. Work was creativity, without the anxiety of accumulation and inheritance.
Sure, there were markets and all, jobs and books and whatnot, but the mindset behind everything began to change – stuff happened, things were made, because people thought it’d be pleasurable, or funny, or weird. Because what else counts, if we are the last? Activity, for the sake of activity. Life, for the sake of life. Why had we not realized this before? Finally, relaxation without conscience. It was as if the entire world, as the oldest began to die out and the next in line took their turn, had turned into an image. The ENDimage. It was as if humanity had written a love letter to the cosmos: to whom life is an experience to be carried as far as possible, even unto death.
Ashkan Sepahvand is a writer, translator, and researcher. From 2012-2014, he was a research fellow for “The Anthropocene Project” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, where he co-edited the publication “Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain, Vapor, Ray” (MIT Press: 2015).