The real drama in The Avengers (2012)—a summer blockbuster that united the most profitable superhero storylines of the Marvel comic book universe in a single cinematic adventure—isn’t its protagonists’ struggle against evil. The bad guys are one-dimensional aliens who want to wipe out humanity for the hell of it. The superheroes’ struggles among themselves, while just as predictably resolved, are nevertheless more interesting. Will Black Widow stick with the team? Will the Incredible Hulk control his anger? Can Thor calm down? The tensest rivalry pits Iron Man, the alter ego of billionaire tech CEO Tony Stark, against Captain America, who was engineered in a U.S. military experiment as the perfect soldier to fight the Nazis and then resuscitated 70 years later in a world that makes no sense to him. “I am not a soldier,” Stark tells him—and why would he want to be, when Iron Man’s indestructible cyborg suit embodies all the disruption and innovation of Stark Industries, empowering him to overcome enemies who could thwart whole armies?
The Avengers reads like a myth of corporate personhood. 1 Heroes personify corporate power in a world where the military-industrial complex needs to mutate to battle inhuman adversaries. In this world, Captain America looks weary and tired. His antiquated, taxpayer-funded beef-up isn’t as impressive as the rocket gear that Stark Industries’ R&D technicians provide to their charismatic boss as an executive perk, just as the state military power of the Captain’s 20th-century heyday seems quaint beside the authority with whom the Avengers affiliate themselves. S.H.I.E.L.D. (short for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division) doesn’t answer to a state; Nick Fury, a non-superhero and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director, addresses an international council of disembodied screen heads, shadowy representatives of an unelected elite.
In the Marvel universe, the apparatus of global power is invisible, omnipotent and responsive only to the Avengers, a caste of overmen whose bodies have subsumed the inhuman might of corporations. “Corporation” shares a root with “corporeal,” and “to incorporate” is to put one body in another. In business, that has come to mean the unification of many people into a profit-seeking entity with significant social and economic agency. There’s a vast corpus of literature describing the legal and political behavior of corporations, but a superhero tale elides the bureaucratic reality by fantastically infusing an anthropomorphic body with corporate muscle.
It isn’t entirely coincidental that superhero movies have dominated the action genre in the 21st century. These are times of civil rights for corporate persons—the starkest example of which is the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling on Citizens United, which granted corporations the First Amendment right to contribute to election campaigns like humans do. At least in the eyes of the law, corporations look more and more like better, stronger doubles of the human body. The insights about contemporary power contained in The Avengers are cut with a reassuring fantasy. At the moment of ultimate need these corporate overmen abandon their own agenda and unite with competitors for the good of humankind.
The art world has superheroes of its own, epitomized by the mega-gallery: Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner and Pace, as Jerry Saltz listed them in an October 2013 column for New York magazine. The mega-gallery isn’t so much a thread in a city’s cultural fabric as a diffuse global entity, materializing in displays to the global elite and taking the form of impressive stands at art fairs in Hong Kong or London. Mega-artists like Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami function as embodiments of their studio resources, much like Iron Man embodies Stark Industries. While the Avengers ride S.H.I.E.L.D.’s invisible airship, unbounded by the physical and political geographies that constrain normal humans, the output of the celebrity artist is often out of sight, packed in shipping containers and stowed in Singapore, Luxembourg or other locales even farther off the lowly tax collector’s map.
Plenty has been said about mega-galleries and celebrity artists. I won’t discuss them further. What interests me is how Saltz’s summary formula of the market’s logic—”The artist is a brand, and the brand supersedes the art”—scales to young artists, where little money is at stake. Professionalizing techniques learned in MFA programs—writing statements, chatting up dealers, whittling studio playtime into work sessions—help artists adjust to the art world’s apparatus, but the savviest students realize they can make the system reckon with them by affiliating themselves with other, newer forms of power before art-world institutions catch up. Fresh art school grads are already jaded from imagining a future of jockeying for solo shows and invitations to dine with collectors. Instead, they test an alternate path to success. Unable to ascend immediately to Jeff Koons status, they incorporate—they form collectives without the utopian principles of communal collaboration that art historians and critics have tended to associate with dispersed authorship. Let’s call them young incorporated artists.
Young incorporated artists are overtly managerial. They embrace cooperation as an efficient strategy for playing the art world to win. They build networks and create opportunities. There are lots of examples of young incorporated artists. 2 The London-based Lucky PDF has mimicked the operations of a TV channel, a party promoter and a fashion label. New York’s Bruce High Quality Foundation runs BHQFU, an educational program, and the Brucennial, a periodic group show. But the ones that interest me most are K-Hole and the Jogging, because of the way they operate online, leveraging the inexpensive power of telecommunications networks.
K-Hole publishes quarterly trend reports as PDFs that can be downloaded for free at khole.net. The art world reads K-Hole as cultural critics. Market researchers hire them as consultants. The PDFs have a distinctive look. They use stock photos of the sort found in any marketing agency’s PowerPoints, along with images taken from mass media and cellphone photos. What the art world might identify as instances of “appropriation” or “de-skilling” is business as usual in the trend-forecasting industry. Each PDF hinges on a buzzword neologism of the group’s devising. K-Hole Issue #1 was about “fragMOREtation”—the crystalline individuation of brands, which a parent corporation can use to lure consumers without looking oppressively monolithic. Issue #2 examined “proLASTination”—the maintenance of an audience as permanent potential consumers by rejecting, in the jargon of marketing professionals, static “brand events” for dynamic “brand flow.” The proLASTinacy analysis was complemented by an article on Piracetam, a drug usually prescribed to treat muscle spasms, but which the authors claim can boost associative logic for more effective multitasking.
K-Hole describes the predictability of the unsystematic, the systematicity of the spontaneous—the impossibility of anything outside the market’s ever-evolving logic. Huw Lemmey, an artist and writer who lives in London, said as much in “Mission Creep,” an analysis of K-Hole published on Rhizome’s blog in March 2013. He put the trend reports in the context of Capitalist Realism (2009), a book by cultural theorist Mark Fisher that describes “an environment where political antagonism has given way to managerialism, and where contestation is subsumed into a post-ideological framework of individual success or failure.” Capitalist realism is an exclusive realism—it insists on the unreality of anything other than itself, including what Fisher sees as the kabuki theater of partisan politics. “The visual language of the corporation is the language of the possible,” Lemmey continues. “Who structures our visual environment on a daily basis but advertising agencies working on behalf of corporations?”
Fisher and Lemmey describe in stark terms broad social and cultural developments that seem almost too perfectly aligned with K-Hole’s activities. Group members purport to live the trends they forecast. (This must be what tickles the art world, which eagerly mistakes self-referentiality for “criticality.”) K-Hole’s five members are all credited with full names at the end of each issue, yet their voices are indistinct. They speak in first-person plural. In Issue #3 they write: “‘What would you wear to a meeting with Comme des Garcons?’ a colleague asked over burgers at the Time Warner center. ‘Uniqlo and Nike,’ we replied simultaneously.” Any contingency can be accounted for within brand consistency, according to K-Hole, and all human interactions manifest the logic of branding. Elsewhere in Issue #3: “We designed the K-Hole Brand Anxiety Matrix over a couple of days in a quiet, comfortable place to help answer our questions about anxiety.” Any potential vulnerability—anxiety, stress, uncertainty—is treated with a cool negation of personality, an incorporated cuteness. In K-Hole #2, over a photo of snaking tire tracks burned into a country road, an admission in third person: “NEARLY HALF OF K-HOLE CAN’T DRIVE :‘( ” Can you sympathize? Relate? That’s brand engagement-the transmutation of feeling into branding, an impersonal expression that effects personality, the bond with a brand that shapes the affective impact of distributed power.
K-Hole publishes PDFs. The Jogging posts to Tumblr. The microblogging platform becomes a medium through which branding subsumes spontaneity. It’s a continuous stream of images—posted anonymously, or attributed indirectly with a glyph—that slowly recede to the white abyss of Tumblr’s infinite scroll. Any given image on the Jogging might make an interesting artistic statement but each post is ultimately lost in the ostentatiously nonchalant interface’s archive. The Jogging originated in 2009 as a collaboration between Brad Troemel and Lauren Christiansen when they were students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The posts were subtly altered found and taken photos, labeled “sculpture” or “performance”—an art-school joke, repeated ad nauseum, about the fluidity of traditional mediums and the unreliability of reproductions. Following a hiatus in 2011, the Jogging came back in the summer of 2012 with a bigger core group and an open submissions policy. Now, at least in theory, anyone can have an image posted to the Jogging. It’s as if someone in the group read a textbook on network theory and realized that distributed systems achieve maximum reach with a mix of weak and strong links.
A signature post of the new Jogging was Troemel’s image of a Doritos Locos Taco—a novelty foodstuff from Taco Bell—clamped shut with a combination lock. (It may take a while to find the image on the Jogging’s Tumblr now, but it is for sale as an object in Troemel’s Etsy store.) The locked taco looks like a lot of cool New York art made in 2013. It seems to address how bodies relate to technology by juxtaposing organic matter with a hard-edged, mass-produced commodity. But the unnourishing alliance of Doritos and Taco Bell is barely organic. The only signs of life—processed meat and flaccid lettuce—are locked down and already branded anyway. Other possibilities for the body are dismissed with a sterile sneer.
Most images posted to the Jogging last year mimicked Troemel’s style, but recently the site has developed into a clearinghouse for all sorts of strange and sophisticated digital image-making, with lots of cartoonish inside jokes about the Jogging itself. As I write this, the most visible presence on the Jogging is Edward Shenk’s. His collages use the white text, black ground and poor-quality images typical of the memes posted to raunchy image-sharing sites like 4Chan; Shenk’s collages draw outlandish connections among current events, taking ideas indiscriminately from the racist right wing, popular science and the occult. These look quite different from the locked taco, but what they share with it is a disavowal of language, a disbelief in the possibility of a meaningful utterance. Jodi Dean, a political philosopher, introduced the term “communicative capitalism” to describe a situation where telecom networks make every message equally valuable and equally worthless. When only connections matter, as Dean argues is the case in an online landscape where tweets and Facebook “likes” are the most powerful currency, signification becomes impossible. Dean’s way of thinking is too totalizing and deterministic for me. Words still mean things and now, as ever, the effectiveness of an utterance depends more on the speaker’s will and the listeners’ engagement than on whatever technologies and ideologies lie in the way. But Dean is right to point out that networks create and amplify noise, making it easier for people to harness their distributed power. The Jogging models and exploits the workings of communicative capitalism, and many of the individual posts, including Shenk’s nonsensical but much “liked” images, could be seen as illustrations of Dean’s pessimistic theory.
The Jogging doesn’t speak, but Troemel is its de facto spokesman. When he writes—and he writes a lot—he’s a consummate communicative capitalist. Meaning matters little to him; the production of texts is about building and reinforcing authority. I’ll give an example. In “The Accidental Audience,” published in the New Inquiry in March 2013, Troemel describes the circulation of images on Tumblr as “anarchy,” opposing it to “neoliberalism” because rebloggable jpegs are (supposedly) ripped away from forms of property. To reach this conclusion, he blithely ignores his own proprietary relationship to the Jogging, as the holder of its URL and the password needed to post on it, to say nothing of the Jogging’s status as a fragMOREtated brand of Tumblr. To call the JPEGs’ mobility anarchic obfuscates the real site of power: the network that makes this mobility possible, which is owned by Yahoo. Troemel’s borrowing of art historian David Joselit’s classifications “image fundamentalism” and “image neoliberalism,” from After Art (2012), to coin “image anarchism” echoes another object for sale in his Etsy store: DAVID JOSELIT AFTERART with apple desktop remote control and Flower (use it don’t lose it, kids). Inside a vacuum-sealed plastic pack, with the clicker and the dead plant, Joselit’s book is rendered unreadable—a cipher of cultural capital, not a means of accessing ideas.
K-Hole is the theory and the Jogging is the practice of capitalist realist conceptual cleverness. While the Jogging’s muteness—or incomprehensibility—subjugates language to the “notes” and reblogs that Troemel tabulates on the site and frequently touts, K-Hole uses language to build a totalizing structure that eliminates possibility outside branding. What K-Hole and the Jogging produce looks less like art than an aggressively hip viral marketing campaign for the means of distributed power. Damien Hirst’s international spot-painting extravaganza of 2012 was likewise closer to marketing than art, a showcase for the global spread of Gagosian Gallery and Hirst’s brand. If what K-Hole and the Jogging do feels fresher or more thrilling than that, it’s because they are closer to newer forms of power, to strategies of personal branding that continually refresh a contagious coolness. A decade ago, in his book No Collar, sociologist Andrew Ross described how tech start-ups borrowed art’s cocktail of work, play and personal life to create a new corporate culture around “self-actualization.” When young incorporated artists borrow this mix back—along with a toolbox of networking strategies—the result is a feedback loop. Business is branded by art and vice versa. What appears to be art is basically business. Nothing else feels possible.
The Avengers is more than a fantasy of embodied corporate personhood. It’s the real-world flexing of distributed brand power, the film as an apogee of Marvel’s massive branding scheme, comprising a dozen movies that have already been released or are currently in production: three Iron Men, two Thors, two Captains Americas, and so on. This fall it spawned Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a drama on ABC. The pilot concluded with the neutralization of Mike Peterson, an ordinary guy who bought black-market superpowers. Before he’s put down he tells an agent: “You said if we worked hard, if we did right, we’d have a place.” He continues, “You said it was enough to be a man. But there’s better than men. There’s gods. And the rest of us, what are we? . . . We’re what they step on.” The TV series zooms in on the human lives that would only belong to mass scenes in the big-screen quadrant of the Marvel universe, and shows its audience how humans reconcile themselves to the inevitability of dangers only S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers can tackle. Work for the good guys, get out of the way, or die—that’s all there is. K-Hole, the Jogging and other young incorporated artists present a similarly limited menu of options. Though their output may have less adventure, humbler special effects and sharper wit, the end game is the same—these artists identify social limits and reinscribe them in forms that are appealing in small doses but ultimately ineffectual. For a long time art has been understood as something special, a means of communication offering something that entertainment and marketing don’t. Art doesn’t just represent a system of power and the possibilities within it. It creates a system of its own while simultaneously suggesting other possibilities beyond it. To make art in that way now is to occupy a position in proximity to corporations, branding strategies and other systems of distributed power without becoming an imitator or a speculator. The slacker or the loser, the hacker and the user—these are some of the bodies making meaningful art now.
Brian Droitcour is an editor at the New Inquiry.