Frieze, Issue 133, September 2010.
IS THERE BEAUTY IN SUPER-HYBRIDITY?
It goes back all the way to Frankenstein’s monster: that which is a composite with the seams showing – rather than elegantly hidden – is considered ugly. Mary Shelley’s point was that in the artificially produced mind of the composite monster there is, sadly-ironically, a heightened sensitivity for beauty, for example the simple grace of a bird song. (On top of that, of course, in Shelley’s classic there is an argument of the monster’s ethical, ‘inner’ beauty versus it’s ‘inner’ ugliness of feelings of rage and revenge.)
Considering the super-hybrid ugly also seems to touch on another old mythical nerve: think of Medusa’s head – too many serpents bustling about. A classical male fear complex vis-à-vis the female. I think there is a kind if queer sensibility involved precisely in embracing that Medusa complex as beautiful.
Pick & Mix – What is ‘super-hybridity’?
This summer I’ve been listening to a lot of Gonjasufi, a 32-year-old, dreadlocked yoga teacher and ex-rapper from Las Vegas. Born Sumach Ecks to a Mexican, soul-loving mother and an Ethiopian-American, jazz-loving father, during college he studied Islam but, put off by jihadi fundamentalism, he turned to Sufi mysticism. Released earlier this year, Gonjasufi’s debut solo album, A Sufi and a Killer, includes lots of samples yet is analogue in feel; it’s a seamless flow of music made up of seams. The Abstract Expressionist, psychedelic blues of Captain Beefheart melds with brooding Californian hip-hop, moody Memphis soul and George Clinton funk; a soft bossa nova combines with sweet, Asian-pop na-na-na-na vocals, home recording-style crackling, distorted voices and percussion. One track, ‘Klowds’, is based on a piece of groovy 1960s Rebetiko (often described as the Grecian blues). Gonjasufi’s lyrics are a clash of psychoactive infusions and religious and romantic parables (a melancholic lion, for example, tells a tight-lipped shepherd that if he was ‘one of your sheep, I wouldn’t have to kill to eat’). To put it simply, Gonjasufi could be the poster boy for the phenomenon I have provisionally labelled ‘super-hybridity’.
Hybridity as a concept was developed in the 1990s by a number of post-colonial theorists, most notably Homi K. Bhabha. It describes cultural identity not simply as a product of tradition, but as a partly open, partly clandestine negotiation of in-betweenness. The concept has been variously accused of romantically overestimating the cultural agency of the colonized vis-à-vis the colonizers, while perpetuating conservative constructions of ethnicity and race; of largely ignoring the economic conditions that affect cultural interactions and of feeding into the pretentious academic posturing of a cosmopolitan élite. These are allegations worth debating, but mostly in terms of demanding a shift in emphasis or a broadening of perspective. More exasperating than these objections is the sweeping dismissal of hybridity that followed in their wake, seemingly expressing a nostalgic longing for Cold War-era ‘truths’.
Ironically, this dismissal occurred at the very moment when the cultural techniques of hybridization became ubiquitous, accelerated and diversified; it is lazier than ever to dismiss it as a quirky theory for self-indulgent intellectuals. This exponential increase comes courtesy not only of, unsurprisingly, the Internet (that a new generation of artists has grown up with) and the antagonistic, ravenous dynamism of globalized capitalism, but also of people’s desire to macerate the limits of oppressive traditions, censorship, xenophobia and perception itself.
The phenomenon of hybridity could be seen as a ‘mere’ quantitative factor. But, like most quantitative factors, this one also has a tipping point. Thus, ‘super-hybridity’: ‘super’ not because it’s superior, but as a reflection of how hybridization has moved beyond the point where it’s about a fixed set of cultural genealogies and instead has turned into a kind of computational aggregate of multiple influences and sources. Gonjasufi – and any contemporary artist similarly devoted to a trans-contextual approach – is neither a mere product of his background nor just another eclecticist; his sources are super-diverse, but are parts of a detailed puzzle forming the larger picture of a life between anger and equanimity, sociability and loneliness, city lights and desert, advanced tech-iness and the deliberately antediluvian. There’s method in this madness. (But is it really that mad?)
The phenomenon of super-hybridity hasn’t come out of the blue. It has been represented for decades in comic-book culture as, say, a powerful, elegant, brilliantly sculpted hero(ine) – or a decomposing monster rising from the swamps. Its more openly polemical – yet fragile – side was pioneered by artists who refused to take any medium, genre or discipline for granted. Mary Shelley, Alfred Jarry, Lina Wertmüller and Sigmar Polke are all super-hybridists avant l’Internet, but the question of what fuelled their methodical restlessness remains. Was it simply an eagerness to mimic capitalism’s restlessness? Yes and no (yes, because they’re fascinated by production; no, because they hate the business). Is it an adult form of child’s play? Yes and no (yes, because playfully testing perception is a part of it; no, because it’s too exhausting and risky for it to be just play).
So there must be more to it. Is super-hybridity driven by a kind of coldly rational conceptuality or, on the contrary, by a deeply moral discontent with the privileges of access and ownership attached to media and disciplines? Adrian Piper’s response would probably be that the answer can’t be either/or. Having recently re-visited her work both as an artist and philosopher, I realized – despite her decision to keep them separate – how complementary her two practices are. The ‘insane’ methodology of her artistic work from the 1960s to the present (taking photos determined by arbitrary time intervals; stuffing a towel in her mouth and riding a bus; programming computer-game-like animations of black and white dots interacting) sits well with her ‘sane’, Kantian enquiry into how rationality secures the self’s internal unity. Because these works involve testing the fringes of that unity, they elicit both rationalizing defense mechanisms in the viewer and the pleasures of intellectual inspiration and perceptual bliss. So if you were wondering whether that shape-shifting raft called super-hybridity is any good, and whether or not it comes equipped with an intellectual and ethical compass, Piper’s practice hints at an answer.
None of the above makes for a clearly distinguishable avant-garde; as long as it doesn’t regress into messy plagiarism trying to pass for magic, this could be its achievement.
A round table discussion led by Jörg Heiser on ‘super-hybridity’: what is it and should we be worried? With Ronald Jones, Nina Power, Seth Price, Sukhdev Sandhu and Hito Steyerl
In recent years, a number of artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers have dramatically increased the number of cultural contexts they tap into when producing work as well as the pace at which they do so – the younger, the faster, it seems. This phenomenon could be termed ‘super-hybridity’ and is obviously to do with the dynamics of globalization, digital technology, the Internet and capitalism.
It could be assumed that super-hybridity is simply a development of Postmodernism – the anti-historical pick’n’mix approach to genres, styles and histories – or of the re-Modernisms of recent years concerned with contradicting the supposed purity of classical avant-gardes: feminist or ‘tropical’ Modernisms, psychedelic and queer minimalisms, romantic or relational conceptualisms and pop abstraction. In these earlier movements, however, a controlled set of references could be decoded as signals of playful sovereignty (the Chippendale top of a skyscraper; the heavy-metal riff in a hip-hop track) or subversive criticality (the minimalist object exposed as gay fetish; the subversion of a pop logo’s meaning). By comparison, the aesthetic results of the super-hybrid process seem to be about accelerating the amalgamation of sources and contexts to an extent that they are atomized and transformed into the seed of the next idea. The emphasis is less on a certain style, or look, than on a method.
But why ‘super-hybridity’ and not simply ‘hybridity’? Since the early 1990s, a number of thinkers including Homi K. Bhaba, Néstor García Canclini and Stuart Hall have explored the notion of hybridity in the context of a postcolonial turn against western-centric, racist ideas of cultural purity and privilege. They have offered a complex understanding of how the ‘mixing’ of cultural and ethnic identities is not just a game, but something directly connected to people’s lives – through stigmatization and neglect, but also through productive creations of new aesthetic forms and new ways of understanding and resistance. Yet, in recent years, there has been a growing suspicion that the celebration of hybridity as a counter-force to the homogenizing and exploitative effects of global capitalism was blind to underlying power structures (for example, in free market capitalism the ideal of mixed, flexible identities is used as an excuse to abandon social security, or even to prescribe a western ‘cosmopolitan’ lifestyle for the rest of the world, to be enforced with military power). Moreover, there has been a return to the dogmatic purity of political doctrine and of universalist claims complete with an outright rejection of aesthetic notions of heterogeneity and hybridity (think of philosopher Alain Badiou, for example).
It is important to distinguish the superficial level at which cultural styles migrate across the globe from the way actual people migrate (usually controlled and governed by politics, capitalism and war). Nevertheless there seems to be a generational acceleration in hybridization. The hybrid influences in Spain during the middle ages – Islamic, Judaic and Christian cultures – were developed over centuries. The aforementioned theorists of hybridity write against the background of culturally mixed biographies that have developed over the course of decades. With the help of digital technology and the swift circulation of knowledge, time seems to have dramatically and suddenly compressed. Children seem to be growing up faster and have a rapidly changing relationship with (and access to) new technologies. As a side-effect, social and ethnic identities have become more complicated – but does that mean they’ve become potentially less entrenched? Or, as individuals try to deal with this complication with simplification, more so?
If one assumes that art, for better or worse, is a testing ground for super-hybridity, it makes sense to look at contemporary practice bearing these developments in mind. Is there a connection between the way super-hybridity simultaneously questions the tokenism of folkloristic concepts of multiculturalism, and seems to be incompatible with a clear-cut look or style? Could it even be claimed that work in the vein of trailblazing ‘hybrid’ artists such as Bruce Nauman and Adrian Piper, or of filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, or musicians such as Tom Zé, or writers such as Ishmael Reed could become dominant? Is there a methodological or situational holding structure for super-hybridity and can it be described in terms of an ethics, or concept of truth? Jörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze.
Jörg Heiser: Hito, in both your writing and your films, you address the connection between the circulation and storing of images and ideas, and the sensual, embodied experience of these very images and ideas. What, in your view, characterizes the experience of super-hybridity?
Hito Steyerl: Immersion, entanglement, affectivity, sudden rupture and repeated breakdown. In the realm of digital circulation it’s no longer about anybody being represented by something else – a culturally inflected image, for example – but about an embodied, dynamic continuum of bodies, sounds, images, actions, an audiovisual politics of intensity. These relations are aesthetic since they have to do with the senses, and they are political since they govern or channel feelings, perception and thus possible reactions. The 1990s were about decoding and understanding these relations but now it’s more about how to be immersed without drowning, or to be embedded without falling asleep and happily surrendering control of your feelings to a pervasive military-entertainment complex. I wish that we could leave the discussion about hybridity behind though; it tends to drag one back into hermeneutics and hapless discussions of origin. It’s inadequate for trying to come up with perspectives.
JH: From hermeneutics to a kind of ruptured immersion – that sounds both liberating and subjugating. But can we really develop perspectives without keeping the origins of things – whatever helped to form an artistic method or a political strategy – in mind?
HS: Why cultural origin? Why not simply material (political, aesthetic, historical) context?
JH: OK, to put it differently: can we look at things ‘simply’ as material with a certain sense of ignorance towards the intricate details of its respective history – to use a less genealogically loaded word than ‘origin’? Ronald, when people create environments (as designers, artists or urbanists) do they need a license to ignore, or would that ignorance be the problem? Ronald Jones: A license to ignore cultural origins? Sure, but I would qualify it as a restricted one, because early in the process of ideation you want to be leveraging fresh perspectives ignited by interdisciplinary ‘design thinking’ against deep expertise. You will want people involved who I would describe as T-shaped: very deep in one discipline but promiscuous enough to have the grace and confidence to move across disciplines in search of the hybrid or super-hybrid. The restricted license is the go-ahead for discovering that potential. In this context, what concerns me about Hito’s notion of material contexts is that they are all discipline-bound (political, aesthetic, historical) rather than themes (mind, networks, time, life etc.). In my experience, using disciplines as a starting point makes realizing the hybrid – whether interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary – more difficult. It’s an irrelevant first step.
Transdisciplinarity, which I would identify with the super-hybrid, occurs when an interdisciplinarity hybrid is no longer served by being reciprocal but transcends the limits of the original collaboration to create a third practice that is unforeseen and therefore entirely new. You don’t need to know everything about the cultural origins of whatever you use as material to construct and act, but at a certain point you need to be able to judge where your expertise will be relevant in exploiting and multiplying the existing value of an idea outside you own sphere of influence. It may be highly speculative work, but it’s not guesswork.
At the Experience Design Group in Stockholm, for example, we are collaborating with three palliative care centres in Sweden, developing an interdisciplinary research platform to understand how experience design can optimize sensory experiences. What we want to discover is how design might be relevant to identifying and fulfilling the criteria for a valuable, but intangible experience, ‘good dying’ (relief of symptoms, dignity, pain free, etc.) – with special emphasis on the patient, but with additional consideration to family and staff. That’s a hybrid. Let me assure you, patient-centred dying has its own culture origins. As we began to collaborate with the staff we had our restricted license to ignore their cultural origins, just as they did ours. This also allowed us to look with fresh eyes at old problems. The palliative care staff are not artists or designers and we are not nurses or doctors, but both sides began to learn and then integrate concepts and methods during that discovery process. A license to ignore cultural origins, during the climb-out phase of creating a hybrid, can be a good thing and, if used correctly, will carry you a long way. Sukhdev Sandhu: I’m with Hito in thinking that the language of hybridity might not be so helpful, lassoing us back as it does into the dead-zone of an academic discourse that still exerts too much influence on callow artists and students. I find it more useful to go back to Paul Virilio’s notion of dromology [the science, or logic, of speed] – here applied to the speed of transmission, reception, circulation in relation to contemporary cultural production. In terms of music, say, the Internet has played a transformative role in accelerating the speed by which particular rhythms, textures and recording techniques move through time and space, and, in the process, disrupted traditional understandings of influence and exchange, local versus global binarisms. Illegal downloading, the plethora of MP3 blogs, the way sound is compressed: these all create a dense, super-amplified, revved-up sonic landscape that resembles a battlefield (the sounds of pop music, rendered graphically, once consisted of a series of peaks and troughs; now audio-data, to make reformating for ring-tones etc. easier, look like a mono-dimensional battering ram, an acoustic equivalent of how the Israeli Defence Forces [IDF] might batter their way through walls of Palestinian buildings). It’s exhausting, makes you jaded and creates a situation where you feel you know a musician – or even a style (hypnagogic, Nu-Balearica, wonky) – even if you’ve never heard a note by them.
For musicians as much as listeners, the Internet represents plunderphonic terrain. As you’re drifting through Spotify, MySpace and The Hype Machine, it’s hard not to become addicted to the act of clicking rather than to the possibility of deep listening. But instant access creates a pseudo-proximity, stripping away from music a large degree of myth-making, otherness and opacity, the erotics of yearning. It lends itself to pick’n’mixing, glib citation – a bit of minimal-wave synth here, a few Afro-pop licks there. The natural culmination of this hypermarket aesthetic is someone like M.I.A. Lots of people talk about her music in a language of maximalist super-hybridity, the way it incorporates sonic and cultural references from all over the world; to me, it’s indistinguishable from catwalk posturing, an opportunistic assemblage of slogans and poses – see the way the video to her single ‘Born Free’ (2010) is a pointlessly controversial pastiche of Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park (1971), but one denuded of politics, shorn of any understanding or even curiosity about what Watkins was trying to do. Dollops of hip-hop, electro, dancehall, ‘attitude’ and radical chic mashed up together to create an affectless, purely gestural take on urban culture and on globalized identities. Alas, there’s a lot of that kind of stuff around these days. Seth Price: I’m trying to understand what the term ‘super-hybridity’ means. We’ve circled around some of its effects, like acceleration, fragmentation and exhaustion, but these are characteristic responses to the last century and to modernity, so they don’t help me understand what the term might mean beyond ‘more and faster’. Hito and Sukhdev both used militaristic language in describing experiences of media, and that’s intriguing. In your introduction, Jörg, you write about an increase in contemporary art’s use of disparate styles and histories, a new attitude towards one’s material. I wonder if this has something to do with the practice of making use of what’s at hand, which distinguishes some of the artists you’ve called hybrid, like Nauman or Godard. These are artists for whom working forms are typically determined by the production tools that are around. Nauman began taking photographs and casting when those technologies were available to him at school; when Leo Castelli offered him a video camera, he took that up too. Godard turned to home video tools as soon as they became available in the early 1970s, and later on, when he might not have had so much financial support, he started Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98), a radically appropriative work that was possible only because of the rise of commercial videotape distribution. With the Internet, the amount of material at hand approaches infinity, and using aggressively disparate material isn’t really a matter of taking things out of context anymore, because that step has already been done for you. I do wonder if we’re ultimately talking only about media, particularly digital media. In other words, does the term super-hybridity encompass sculpture and dance, or is it a term that really addresses the effects of the digital production tools that became widely available in the last 30 years, like the personal computer and the sampler?
RJ: Seth is correct to ask whether super-hybridity is a matter of crossing disciplines or if it just stems from the effects of digital production tools. If you consider The Golden Legend, the extraordinary three-hour dance piece by Christopher Williams, which premiered at Dance Theater Workshop in New York in 2009, Seth will have his answer. From where I sit, it’s about the integration of disciplines, digital production being the tool of interdisciplinarity.
I’m curious about the allergy Hito and Sukhdev have to the word ‘hybrid’, as if it represents some academic backwater where failed artists and their students tread water. When I look around, the most advanced versions of disciplines I see thrive as hybrids or transdisciplines. Has the art world, in recent years, produced anything that could sit comfortably alongside Daniel Kahneman’s pioneering work in psychological economics? I can’t come up with anything. The citation for Kahneman’s 2002 Nobel Prize tells us he won ‘for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science’, in other words, for the deep-seated integration of disciplines – hard and soft science – with low alignment. So is it this kind of hybrid the art world is allergic to? No, it’s the steep ambiguity of its own version of Postmodernism in general, and relativism. Who doesn’t want to shake it? We have arrived at a point where critical theory is being called upon to answer a basic question: what is the continuing relevance, value and productive potential of criticality or oppositional knowledge? The art world, from my vantage, is in a rather tight spot. I’m not sure how long we should grant artists special dispensation just because what they are producing is merely worthwhile. HS: There’s an interesting sub-plot going on here: in many of the examples cited (Godard, Nauman, Kahneman), a supposedly super-hybrid process is assigned to a single person. So whatever transcultural, transdiciplinary flows there are they end up being claimed and to a certain extent owned by one author. There is a disjunction between a desire for free sharing, unlimited exchange and generosity – and the reality of people and organizations staking out their claims and privatizing whatever bits they manage to grab. Hybridization turns into some new form of original accumulation. Perhaps this is also what the reference to the original keeps pointing at: not cultural or any other origin, but the repetitive contemporary reality of original accumulation, in the digital field, but much more importantly within neo-colonial ventures of the most different kinds – raw materials, genes, scattered remnants of former people’s property … The list is just endless.
Super-hybridity, in this sense, expresses simultaneously the desire to let go of property and origin, to combine and assemble, to create and merge, while keeping existing property relations (as well as the dire reality of immigration regulations, racialized class hierarchies, militarized and commodified affects, ongoing original accumulation, copyright issues etc.) completely intact. I am suspicious of the term hybridity because the discussion around it in the field of postcolonial theory never grasped these issues and also never managed to convincingly shake off its racial connotations, period.
JH: In my initial statement I also mentioned Adrian Piper, Ishmael Reed and Tom Zé as forerunners of a particular strand of artistic methodology, which I think has become more prevalent in recent years, and for which I have used the word super-hybrid. Perhaps a better term is simply ‘conceptual’? Seth has pointed out that what speed means here needs more clarification – a quantitative criterion does at some point change the quality of something (for example, ‘more and faster’ photographs become film). I agree that the discourse of hybridity of the 1990s was often too focused on ethnic identity and biography, which is why I used the term super-hybridity to suggest something beyond individual biographies (though they do continue to play a role in it). The theosophists of the late 19th century (from Helena Blavatsky to Rudolf Steiner) were highly eclectic and transdisciplinary in their use of occult or ‘exotic’ sources, plagiarizing everything from the Kabbala through the Upanishads to Christian Gnosis, usually presenting it as their own spiritual insight. The racism that they promoted – the messianic idea of a privileged race, more extreme later with Austrian ariosophists – highlights how much the ‘impure’ working method is channelled towards the presentation of a concept of supposed purity. Eclectic knowledge is turned into occult, privileged knowledge. Presenting the impure as pure and the plagiarized as genius invention is also a hallmark of Modernism. How can we move beyond it? Certainly not by claiming to have privileged access to pure concepts of truth, although we do need the parameters of verifiability that the theosophists so sorely lacked.
Nina Power: I agree with Hito’s concerns: all of the examples that came to my mind about what super-hybridity might mean are overwhelmingly negative. I think of The Royal Museum for Central Africa on the outskirts of Brussels, originally designed in 1898 to show the Belgian people just how backwards and strange the Congolese were (cases filled with randomly assorted ‘native’ weapons and musical instruments, photos of women with their breasts bared, and so on) which became a second kind of museum in the mid-20th century, one which attempted to make amends for the horrors of the first, colonial museum. The problem is, this hybrid museum (the bad, old kind and the good, new, self-critical kind) operate in tandem to create an overwhelming sense of horror – the second, apologetic museum is filled with evasions and semi mea culpas: ‘well, we did bring them literacy … even as we hacked their hands off.’ There is little sound from the Congolese side, either then or now. Another example follows from Jörg’s point about esotericism: of all 20th-century politics movements, which one was more ‘super-hybrid’ than National Socialism? A mishmash of ancient symbols (the swastika), occultism, warped Romanticism (the heroic death), modernization, capitalism, secularism and messianism, Nazism is as super-hybrid as you like. Terms like super-hybridity are disturbing to me because they have their own PR machine: who can deny that super-hybridity and transdisciplinarity sound sexy, exciting, cool? The language of financialization, of which the art world became highly involved in the past few decades, has lead to a seemingly endless proliferation of empty but libidinally charged words, a theory-babble that keeps the market moving, a kind of amniotic soup in which networks are formed and money shuffled around. The exclusionary nature of such terms is immense, all the more so for their supposed openness to other cultures, exotic objects, and so on. If I had to think of a super-hybrid filmmaker, I wouldn’t think of Godard, who strikes me as much more tied up with a dialectical framework – sound/image, production/reproduction and the economics of cinema. I would think of, say, Michael Winterbottom, who addresses ‘globalization, digital technology, the Internet, capitalism’, as Jörg puts it, in many of his films. In one of his films, Code 46 (2003), for example, everyone speaks a kind of hybrid language – a bit of French, Italian, Arabic but mainly English. The future is China, yet the majority of people are excluded from the system because they don’t have the right pass. But the outside is jolly and fun and people are so much more authentic, and don’t we on the inside wish we could be a bit freer sometimes? The problem with this neo-Romantic vision of a hybrid world is that it offers no understanding of the real networks of exploitation and exclusion – of accumulation by dispossession, as David Harvey puts it. Filmmakers and artists who attempt to cognitively map the actual material processes of distribution, exploitation, employment (Allan Sekula, for example), and attempt internal critiques of the aesthetic genres they use (Hito’s own work on documentary form in November, 2004, for example) seem much more relevant than work that, magpie-like, simply wants to reassemble bright shiny things from all over the place without paying attention to the routes by which ideas and objects arrive at your feet.
Finally, apart from the war and speed imagery that seems to be emerging in relation to the term ‘super-hybridity’ (are we back with the Futurists? Or just the IDF?), there’s a worrying emphasis on youth. Jörg suggests that children seem to be growing up faster and with a rapidly changing relationship with, and access to, new technologies. This presents a rather horrible image of fat, prematurely adult beings clutching mobile phones, computers and consoles. I realize we’re supposed to be in awe of these neotenous savants, with their remarkable ability to simultaneously listen to iPods, watch YouTube, talk on their phones and play videogames but, seen another way, this overloading of stimulus and the hyper-passivity it performs is rather depressing. There is nothing inherently positive about hybrid living if it means the uncritical acceptance of form, genre and content as one gloopy morass.
JH: I invoked the example of proto-Nazi esoteric movements of the 19th century not to identify hybridity as such as inherently fascist-Romantic – but to clarify what is fascist-Romantic: the strategy of passing the impure for pure, which is what the Nazis did. The problem is not that influences are hybrid – I would say anyone’s influences are, unless they’re cloistered in the Antarctic (and even then I’m not sure) – but how they negotiate their understanding of them. Do they hide their sources to create the vision of something powerfully pure, like magic (the inventor, the seer, the leader)? I think to neglect the hybrid aspect of art, politics or philosophy is wrong-headed. Similarly, kids are now different from earlier generations, for better or worse (while kids’ social media-savviness is not necessarily emancipatory, it’s not inherently depressing or reactionary either). The question for me is not that life has become increasingly hybridized but what it means for all sorts of things, especially ‘networks of exploitation and exclusion’. Don’t we run the risk, if we shove aside the question of super-hybridity as supposedly irrelevant or reactionary – it’s just Winterbottom, not Godard! – that we end up with a trench war over hybrid-as-fascist versus hybrid-as-emancipatory-and-liberating? My point is not to propose super-hybridity as inherently good, sexy or liberating. It’s often depressing, especially if it’s used as a tool in an ideological attempt to create something magically pure.
RJ: Given our current situation, where art has had such little effect on a world facing truly wicked problems, what I am proposing departs from relativism, the ambiguities of Postmodernism and fashionable pessimism for a new post-critical perspective. Bruno Latour has recognized why criticality has run out of steam. Post-criticality means an engagement for artists and designers with proactive strategies triggering entrepreneurial – not necessarily in the business creation sense – interdisciplinary, innovative and attainable solutions to our collective challenges; discrimination, corruption and starvation to name only three. While locking out nostalgia for an earlier and simpler time, post-criticality can mean retrofitting Modernism with what we have learned in the last century in order to begin engineering both methods and means for producing results across disciplines, not merely grandstanding jingoistic evangelism promoting a cause. From there the door opens onto inheriting the key parts of Modernism’s ambition for engagement, and setting agendas for action, without having to accept the ambiguity of Postmodernism. I agree with Nina that concepts like transdisciplinarity have created a great deal of theory-babble, and not least coming from the art world. But happily that charge no longer has its legs. For all the hype around transdisciplinarity and the sorts of hybrids they represent, research on their effectiveness is just reaching us.
If artists want to participate in reshaping political, social, economic and cultural agendas, they will have to think beyond the exhausted forms of radicalism and stylistic traditions that limit their practice to a form of critical belligerence and consciousness raising, and engage with the world. There are historical examples where artists provided post-critical and interdisciplinary hybrids that were artistic and pragmatic solutions to wicked problems. There seems to be agreement that the next war will be fought over water, so let’s begin with the problem of clean drinking water. Take Hans Haacke’s Rhinewater Purification Plant (1972) first exhibited at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld. Haacke’s project was a matter of direct engagement in grey-water reclamation. He pumped the foul water released from the Krefeld Sewage Plant though an additional filtration system, making it clean enough for fish to thrive in, and thereby making evident that the sewage plant was, itself, collapsing the Rhine ecosystem. Haacke designed a ‘post-critical system’ for water reclamation and not merely a work of art. He merged the metrics for success from two disciplines – art and ecology – into a third, creating an instrumentalized hybrid that actually had a measurable effect on public policy in Germany where clean drinking water was concerned. I understand that from the Nazis to the messianic occult the hybrid has been used for nefarious means. We need to remember that, we need account for it, and then we need to say that was then.
SP: People have raised questions about the implications of using material from different contexts and about awareness of the routes by which that material travels. A person today has many ways to raid disparate sources with unprecedented ease and speed, but I don’t see that any associated questions about the ethics of art production or manipulation have changed. In any case, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that art has a responsibility to do anything in particular, including using material in certain ways. I do like work which puts itself in a compromised position, which carries within itself conflicts of interest that even risk being self-defeating, and the possibilities for this kind of work might increase under the condition that Jörg has called super-hybrid. So an artist like M.I.A. falls into that category, if not always necessarily on purpose, and I differ from Sukhdev because for me that makes her work more interesting.
HS: I don’t mind shiny new things. As soon as they crash into something else, they end up looking pretty enough. And I adore sexy and exciting vocabulary. Libidinally charged conversations – can’t get enough of them! My disappointment with the terms we are using here is rather that they are lacking this dimension. All these composites (starting off with ‘post-‘, ‘hyper-‘, ‘trans-‘ etc.) in my view demonstrate the loss of faith in what they’re attached to, while failing to ultimately overcome it. Postmodernism is the ultimate example of such an expression – we’re scared of (or bored with) Modernism yet we can’t get over it. I deliberately did not include super- into the list, because to me it sounds like a lot more of the same. But I do agree with Jörg that the phenomena he identified and we’re trying to understand is very relevant. I’m keen to leave the era of the ‘post-‘ and ‘inter-‘ behind, and am hoping for someone to come up with an exciting term for this situation. A little more sex, a little less biology, please – and nothing cool, that would be just awful.
Nobody in this discussion seems to be opposed to or even impressed by mixing, merging, dislocating and recombining stuff. That’s what people seem to be doing quite casually now. But there seems to be several opinions as to how to go about it. Engaging with the world. Sure. But is the world anywhere else? Does ‘out there’ mean beyond the sphere of aesthetics and the art world? As Nina said, and I agree with her, this realm is hopelessly entangled with the dynamics of financialization. The realm of perception is heavily militarized, too, as Sukhdev noted. For me that’s real enough: a military-financial-art-world hybrid if you like. But let me take one step back and suggest that the waning of oppositions – such as real/representation; engaged/critical; object/subject – is an important part of the situation we are discussing. Haacke’s piece is great. But I can’t disentangle it from a gesture of criticality, just as the art world is dependent on the realities of speculation and the labour of artists as shock workers.
But the situation is not only marked by the integration of former opposites or their uneasy coexistence, but also by the persistence of the divide between above and below. The vertical level is not as integrated – quite the contrary. Which brings me to the second question (which brushes against your question of truth, Jörg): do we need to discuss an ethics of ripping, copying and appropriating? Ripping is productive as it provides new artistic and methodological solutions. But it’s also an expropriation from above, it’s the neoliberal groove thing and creates uncomfortable problems rather than solutions. So what could an ethics of ripping be? An ethics not in terms of imposing new truth regimes or disciplinary forms of behaviour and thinking, but an immersion into this stream of endless recombination. Of participating in its energies without completely surrendering to them. Or similarly an ethics of withdrawal, of holding your breath in the face of a continuing onslaught of intensity and injustice. As film scholar Kaushik Bhaumik recently remarked of the work of artists like Amar Kanwar, Kabir Mohanty and others, their work articulates an ethics of perception that revolves around the bare minimum of sensorial output. Elusive images that evade capture, fade out and flow across the frames – of discipline, culture or other forms of representation. Seen from this perspective, Haacke’s clean water is also a great aesthetic contribution, as it addresses the dimension of the bare minimum of subsistence and the social conditions of flows, streaming and their relation to property. The work is invested into the flows it examines and changes their course and even composition. Yet it also critically addresses its own conditions – water being owned, polluted, subjected to a so-called purification, which actually consists of mixing it with shit. Would it make any sense to apply these ideas to a discussion of an ethics of ripping? And isn’t engaging with the underlying desires a crucial part of this? Which brings me back to the suggestion that the debate could possibly use more sex, not less.
RJ: This electronic back and forth has become a tautology of the phenomenon Jörg first raised: super-hybridity. In that sense it has been engaging as a kind of thought-experiment. But then it becomes something else: a transparent and depressing period piece as representatives from the creative disciplines face up to how little consequence they exercise in the world, how little agency they have. Cornel West rightfully lamented the way critics and artists condemn themselves to manufacturing transgression against authority by consistently constructing alternatives as an escalation of radicalism rather than by inventing new forms. He is right to deplore our tail chasing. It’s not that the art world is moving at glacier-like speeds; oh no, it moves lightning fast, but just in circles.
NP: Critique is sexy! As is allowing things to speak for themselves. The theory-speak supplement that is implicitly demanded by exhibitions seems to create a need for neologisms and catch-all terms, regardless of whether there is any desire for them, or underlying them. Exhibitions with no signs, labelling or printed information, such as ‘In-finitum’, at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice in 2009, permit an immersive and truly engaging aesthetic experience, in which the thoughtfulness of the curating is properly revealed. You could say, ‘well, the show was still guided by a concept – that of the infinite’, and indeed it was: this maybe an old word, one of the oldest, yet the show was as fine as any collection of contemporary art could possibly be. Terms like ‘super-hybridity’ can often seem false, forced, like ad-copy scribbled down by tired cokeheads at 3 am. It’s not that we should stop talking about art, of course, or prevent the intermingling of concepts and images – it’s that the concepts are better generated from the works of art themselves and not poured on top like some kind of liquid lard to charm the ultra-rich collector or appease advertisers in art magazines. The new is frequently dull and often turns out not so new after all. Trying to keep up with the speed of exploitation may be fun, but it doesn’t eradicate the fact that the art world is frequently trying to catch-up to capitalism itself. Without critique, ethics and politics, this game is doomed to enter into an echo chamber of linguistic creative destruction in which every neologism is ultimately boringly equivalent to every other. I propose fewer, but better, concepts!
SS: I agree with Nina that critique can be sexy, but it’s also its own industry, a vast snarl of margin-seeking, bromide-dispensing bloviators – from academia to the art press to broad swathes of the blogosphere – hungry for professional and institutional capital, addicted to pissier-than-thou pontification. Embalmification masquerading as radicalism. Swivel-eyed joylessness. A world in which even the call to imagination – or to engagement – is seen as a position or, heaven help us, ‘an intervention’. In that respect, I understand Ronald’s weariness and his comments about the fetishization of criticality.
Of course, neologisms are fun. They can be galvanizing too: as tiny thought-bombs, torques of (re-)theorization, fissile forms of concept engineering. But I just don’t see that ‘super-hybridity’ describes anything more than a revved-up, technologically-enhanced, vaguely internationalist, superficially engaged version of Postmodernism. So pinky-perky, so happy-slappy: I can imagine Charles Saatchi using it as a catch-all for a corporate grab-bag of an Empty Event Show.
Like Nina, I’m increasingly drawn to work – filmic, cinematic, gallery-based – that isn’t easily taxonomized; that isn’t obviously the by-product of someone having spent a weekend reading (not very closely) photocopies of the latest buzz-philosopher; that aims for more modest, fugitive, unfamiliar modes of affect, aesthetics, politics.
Super-hybridity (I’m surprised it doesn’t come with an exclamation mark), like a lot of art discourse these days, is indistinguishable from spam (an affiliation that Stewart Home wittily brings out in his new novel Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie): it speaks to the inflationary, boom-time lexical economics that have characterized so much particularly Atlantic World artistic and discursive production. As such it reinforces the cartographic and curatorial status quo – and disables the rest of us who are hungering for other visions, other poetries.
JH: While Nina and Sukhdev react allergically to the term ‘super-hybridity’ (or with what they seem to accept it describes? It’s still unclear to me), I’m sceptical about calls for sex, visions and poetries (is it enough to just call for them?) paired with sweeping rejections of the art world as fundamentally corrupted (as if it exclusively consisted of, and existed for, self-important and obscenely rich collectors), and appraisal of cabinet-of-curiosities approaches such as the one put forth by the – certainly captivating – Palazzo Fortuny show. Seth rightly points out that without conflicts of interest, there is no interest. But I agree with Nina that we need fewer, but better concepts; in face of the way the world has changed since the end of the Cold War, I think the search for them has only just begun.