Roving Eye: All the Worlds a Stage


Consider this quality day trip. Head over to MoMA and let the combination of the Harun Farocki and Francis Alÿs shows bowl you over. These are artists who, using completely different approaches, touch upon a condition of the 21st century—that “all the world’s a stage.”

Watching Farocki’s films, one is immediately attuned to Shakespeare’s truism. The artist edits found footage into critiques of virtual war, remote missile guiding systems, prison surveillance and military training programs-all the footage in the world  already exists; the filmmaker need only find and edit it. Farocki narrates the conditions of power already present in the image itself. It’s a powerful recontextualization.

The flâneur of Mexico City, Alÿs possesses a Beckett-inspired approach to daily life. From pushing a block of ice through the streets of his adopted hometown until it melts down (Paradox of Praxis, 1997) to having a red Volkswagen Beetle hopelessly attempt ascending a too-steep hill (Rehearsal 1, 1999-2004), his performative experiments capture the magic of failure. Both shows accomplish a simple criteria I have for good art: after viewing it, I see the world differently.

I also headed to e-flux gallery on the Lower East Side to see a project organized by Anton Vidokle and Hans-Ulrich Obrist in homage to Gustav Metzger. From stacks of thousands of newspapers, visitors are encouraged to cut out articles pertaining to the themes “Extinction,” “Credit Crunch” and “The Way We Live Now.” I’m a sucker for participation, so my wife and I cut through papers in the gallery’s little air-conditioned basement.

There is something ironic about cultural production in Manhattan. Walking around the Lower East Side, I couldn’t help but be exhausted at the sheer quantity of galleries selling small works, hoping to make it all work out. I’m not blaming anyone specifically, but, seen all at once it feels primarily like gentrification. Somehow the corrosion of cultural energy in this neighborhood feels especially apparent. I’m part of the problem. Creative Time, where I am curator, has a project opening in the Lower East Side in September at the Essex Street Market called “Living as Form,” and it certainly should address this historic collusion-not the first of its kind-of privatization and cultural production.

I couldn’t help but notice the construction being done on the BMW Laboratory [opens Aug. 1] designed by Atelier BowWow on Houston Street. It will travel to cities across the world as a nomadic community lab, but this particular iteration is themed “Confronting Comfort”  and is meant, says the press release, to “[explore] notions of individual and collective comfort and the urgent need for environmental and social responsibility.” I don’t want to sound cynical, since discussing social responsibility is certainly critical, but having a corporate sponsor in the title of the project presents an obstacle off the bat. It makes it hard to go on to an analysis of power and capitalism, and the pursuit of social justice. We might also ask what degree has cultural production assisted low-income residents of the Lower East Side?

Later in the day I had a nice break with artist Dmitry Vilensky of the St. Petersburg-based collective Chto Delat. He was in town for the opening of “Ostalgia” at the New Museum, which I have yet to see. Chto Delat means “What is to be done,” and comes from a pamphlet written in 1901 by Lenin. Dmitry highly anticipates the upcoming Berlin Biennial organized by artist and provocateur Artur Zmijewsky, whose political platform will be rife with the kinds of contradictions and tensions endemic to Perestroika, with all its highs and lows.

The world is insane, Dmitry says, but at the end of the day people around the world need a plan. That’s what Lenin implored, upon considering what kind of world we want to live in and how to make that happen. If all the world’s a stage, we need to make it a stage worth living on.

Harun Farocki, Still from I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts. 2001. Two-channel video installation re-edited to single-channel video (color, sound). 25 min. © 2011 Harun Farocki. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York.

Francis Alÿs, Still from Rehearsal I (Ensayo I), 1999–2001. Video (color, sound), 29:30 min.The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2011 Francis Alÿs