Visualize: The Inevitable Flow

As declared by the magazine’s name and symbolized by its eye-shaped logo, KALEIDOSCOPE is all about “ways of seeing” and decoding our times through the political act of vision.

 

“Globalization is a barbarity.” One could impulsively attribute such an ardent statement to an outspoken far-left progressive theorist like Naomi Klein, whose 1999 book No Logo was the bible of the so-called “anti-globalization movement.” To be fair, Klein was always keen to stress that the label was incorrect, as the movement was inherently internationalist, and what it opposed was rather a “ruthless strain” of global corporate capitalism.

But while the backlash against globalization at the start of the 21st century took the form of left-leaning collective protest, from the Seattle riots to Occupy Wall Street, what defines the current political landscape is a new variety of anti-globalization, embracing a populist, reactionary defense of national sovereignty.

Visualize6Exacerbated by the financial crisis, the decline of Western neoliberal economies, global migrations and government austerity measures, we have now officially entered the anti-establishment, anti-elite era. Within this context, it’s little surprise that the denouncement of globalization as “barbarious” is in fact credited to Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party. After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the ongoing French race is being narrated as another decisive battle of “the people vs. the establishment.”

From petitions in the UK to speeches at the Golden Globes, artists have been united in railing against this populist radicalization. Across the United States, women’s marches and protests against Trump’s xenophobic edicts in the first days of his presidency were endorsed by many influential cultural actors. For all of its good intentions, though, this formation’s newly awakened consciousness seemed in many cases skin-deep and last-minute, highlighting how the cultural elite itself remains a secluded island.

We have seen many similar displays of political engagement in the realm of contemporary art, which I will tentatively narrow down to two distinct positions. The first is a strategy of what we could call “conceptual embodiment,” as best exemplified by the latest edition of the Berlin Biennale, curated by NY-based art collective DIS. Tackling paradoxes such as “the virtual as the real, nations as brands, people as data, culture as capital, wellness as politics, and happiness as GDP,” the curatorial team insisted on a simple but radical proposition: “Instead of pulling talks on anxiety, let’s make people anxious; rather than symposia on privacy, let’s jeopardize it; instead of talking about capitalism, let’s distort it; instead of unmasking the present, this is the present in drag.”

Paris was the climax of a trend centered on subverting the opposition of high and low, aristocracy and subculture.

On the other end of the spectrum, the upcoming edition of the historical large-scale exhibition Documenta, under the artistic direction of Polish curator Adam Szymczyk, enacts a strategy of “critical activism”: “Acknowledging the crisis of the modern utopia of public space, as well as the unprecedented proliferation of counter-power movements within art, culture and society, Documenta 14 unfolds into a Parliament of Bodies, a performative structure that challenges the opposition between North and South epistemologies, normative thinking and subjugated knowledges, as well as gender, sex, race and class hierarchies.”

Distinguishing “conceptual embodiment” from “critical activism” is everything from aesthetics to methodology. What they share is an ideology of overcoming traditional barriers between art and its audience, between the medium and the message, that resonates with the paradigm shift occurring at a geopolitical and macroeconomic level. But while the lingo of contemporary art remains hard to decode for a mass audience, similar parallels can be found in other, more popular spheres of visual culture. With its surface tension, the fashion industry may offer the most graphic “visualization”—as seen last January during Men’s Fashion Week in Paris, presenting Fall/Winter ‘17 collections.

 

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Paris was the climax of a trend centered on subverting the opposition of high and low, bourgeoisie and working class, aristocracy and subculture, and bringing “the people” and “the street” to the runway. At the forefront of this phenomenon in the past couple of years have been designers and brands such as Gosha Rubchinskiy, remixing the imagery of ‘80s Euro casual sports style; Demna Gvasalia, sharply playing with the everyman cliché; Kanye West’s Adidas Yeezy line, with its signature blend of sports, normcore and high art; Hood by Air’s avant-garde, post-identity streetwear; and even Gucci’s new flamboyant, gotta-have-it merch.

The quintessence of this tendency was offered in Paris by what has been described as “the collaboration of dreams”: 19th-century France meets 1990s downtown New York. “The joining together of the world’s most valuable luxury brand”—Louis Vuitton—“with the world’s most iconic streetwear outpost”—Supreme—“is an act which throws out old ideas of hierarchy,” wrote Emma Hope Allwood in Dazed. “What remains? Something new. Menswear for today.”

Gvasalia, simultaneously at the helm of his brand Vetements as well as the Balenciaga house, pushed this daring statement even further. While his latest Vetements collection continues to play with archetypes, stereotypes and dress codes—appropriating the looks of everyday characters like the homeless, the soldier, the Parisienne, the pensioner, the broker and the “chav” (after all, the label’s name translates blandly as “clothes”)—his second menswear collection for Balenciaga featured forms of subversive branding. While some of his looks imitated the logo of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ election campaign (presumably a day-after homage to the politician that got away), other pieces showcased a conceptual corporate identity of Kering, the French conglomerate that owns Balenciaga. Invites to the show came in the form of business cards, and guests were seated in black office chairs, in a meta-parody of office wear reflected in an exaggerated ’80s power shoulder. For Gvasalia, the corporate world “is a reality, and reality is what my work is all about.” In another weird short-circuit between visual culture and global politics, we can almost hear Chinese president Xi Jinping’s first speech to the World Economic Forum at Davos last January: “Whether you like it or not, the global economy is the big ocean you cannot escape from.” Swim or die.

We see the mainstream becoming increasingly “main,” a single, inevitable flow that absorbs even its own “anti-”.

Visualize1The vast majority of cultural media have welcomed these disruptions of conventional categories in fashion as a rebellion against exclusivity, conveying a new sense of freedom and accessibility. But with a little shift of perspective, we can also see the mainstream becoming increasingly “main,” a single, inevitable flow that absorbs even its own “anti-,” swallowing any annexed sense of authenticity, identity, belonging and, in a way, the very idea of diversity. In his Antinomies of the Postmodern, American literary critic and Marxist political theorist Fredric Jameson states that “the paradox [of contemporary reality] is the equivalence between an unparalleled rate of change on all the levels of social life and an unparalleled standardization of everything.”

If even Coca Cola, the epitome of the “evil corporation,” devises an anti-Trump Superbowl commercial—the message “Together is Beautiful” almost literally sampling Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign motto “Stronger Together”—it really means the lines between the good and the bad guys are more and more blurred. The strategies of the global economy are becoming so sophisticated as to “perform our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity.” (RIP Mark Fisher.)

Of course, such operations of referentiality and aesthetic hybridity are nothing new, and appropriating elements of subculture and the everyday in high fashion—think of work wear, military uniforms and sports gear, for example—has long been common practice, with fresh and even revolutionary results. Raf Simons, now chief creative officer of Calvin Klein, mastered this game with his S/S 2000 collection, taking inspiration from Mensa students and the Gabba youth tribes. And looking further back in the days, very on point was the recent exhibition “The Vulgar” at London’s Barbican Centre, curated by Judith Clark, which investigated how motifs of popular culture have contaminated fashion since the Renaissance, challenging the limits of taste.

But today, the extent of this phenomenon seems pervasive enough to define the zeitgeist, translating into an all-look-alike, oppressively flat landscape of hoodies and dad caps. The neo-situationist, protest-from-within attitude of the likes of Gvasalia is witty and momentous—but looking at the big picture, there is a bitter aftertaste in realizing, per Slavoj Žižek, that “cynical distance is just one way … to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.” 



Alessio Ascari is KALEIDOSCOPE’s Publisher and Creative Director.