Interview: Armen Avanessian
Photo: Dirk Skiba
How can theory have an effect on the world? Armen Avanessian’s answer would be: only by making it go faster. With books and conferences on Accelerationism and Speculative Realism, as well as his participation in an art film earlier this year, he has attempted to free philosophical thought from the narrow bounds of the academy and bring the Left up to speed with financial capitalism. Why does he find the art world so appealing?
In a recent interview you spoke of your disillusionment with contemporary art: “It’s the companion to speculative finance capital,” “utterly directionless and characterised by endless vacuous innovation.” I almost get the impression that you’ve been inside and now you’re running out again swearing – just like you did with the university.
Not in the least. Our generation of philosophers and theoreticians is the first to enter the field of art with open eyes. The influential figures of the last three or four decades needed to be some eighty years old and had published ten books before they became popular in the art world. Most recently it was Alain Badiou, ten years ago it was Jacques Rancière. By contrast, the speculative realists and accelerationists tend to be of my generation, and 80% of them don’t have university jobs. So from the very beginning we’re confronted with the art world and have to find constructive ways of operating inside it, also in terms of our own production.
Where are the problems in the field of art?
The so-called Post-Internet generation, for instance, had a potential they never exploited. The project failed because it just turned back into marketable art that could fit comfortably into a gallery or a museum and kept on flowing through the same channels. I would like to avoid having something analogous happen to theory. In art as in theory, it’s not just about this or that content, it’s also – and this is how I measure the politics of a given practice – about shifting the positions of the speaker, and allowing unpredictable things to happen.
In his book Der lange Sommer der Theorie [The Long Summer of Theory], cultural theorist Philipp Felsch writes that theory is dead; it’s just still twitching a bit in the art field.
I wouldn’t agree with that. And I don’t regret working with art. The best thing about the art world is that unlike academia, you at least still get the impression that people are enjoying themselves. It’s just as corrupt, but you definitely have more fun with other people. Many of the collaborations I’ve done with artists or curators have of course started with someone wanting to put the artists and the philosopher together in front of an audience, or wanting catalogue texts, but I don’t do either of those things. Instead I prefer to work with artists over longer periods of time, so something new can emerge.
Criticising isn’t enough.
You seem to draw a large part of your intellectual energy from anger. Especially in your books on the university.
I think anger is a good thing. The problem with most people is that it makes them feel resentful, but I find it puts me in a good mood and makes me productive.
Does this have anything to do with coming from Vienna? The influence of Thomas Bernhard?
He was way too grouchy. This is one of Spinoza’s basic questions: Do you produce affects that are happy or sad? Do you produce resentment or new connections that help people develop further? Hito Steyerl said something that I thought was very important, something to the effect that in the art world people are constantly discussing the politics of everything, no matter how far removed, but their own working conditions are the one thing that’s never spoken about. That’s a crucial point, a political imperative.
So what forms of resistance work today?
What we’re seeing now is that politics, operating through institutions, the illusion that we can write political and theoretical texts which then have some kind of an effect, are no longer productive models. Roughly speaking, it’s about understanding, reprogramming, and manipulating existing technological conditions. Perhaps we’re all sleeper agents in our respective fields, who need to wake up, activate ourselves, and start helping each other. For me, theory is not separate from practice. I organised a summer school about this last year in Berlin.
Hyperstition, the film you made together with artist Christopher Roth is about this relationship between theory and practice. I’m reminded of a scene where several summer school participants are sitting in the Merve publishing house and hear that police are surrounding a building in Kreuzberg where refugees have barricaded themselves on the roof. The students would like to participate somehow. But all we see of this in the film is a theoretician standing outside this house while he tells us about some theory – something that has nothing whatsoever to do with what’s going on inside the building.
We wanted to show this sense of inadequacy, failure, and being under excessive demands, which is at the heart of all intellectual endeavours. I wouldn’t say, though, that what Steven Shaviro is saying has nothing to do with the situation. He’s reflecting on the fact that we can’t know what will happen from one minute to the next, but that there is still a degree of contingency, or at least a memory of one; that the present is not entirely predetermined by a fully automated future.
In a text you recently wrote about refugees for Die Zeit, you use the term “actual solution”. What do you mean by that?
One important criterion is whether you try to solve problems on a local level, where they can’t be solved, or whether you relate them to a global dimension, as Accelerationism does. Along with the issue of climate change, the refugee problem raises the question of our entire political system and economy. I think we no longer live under so-called political capitalism, but rather under a form of finance feudalism, where elections are held in a post-democratic manner.
Have you ever helped a refugee yourself?
Yes. I’m half-Armenian. For me, refugees were never an exotic or foreign other.
So you have helped yourself personally?
As you saw in the film, this question, “Are you actually, personally doing something or are you just doing theory?” is itself a false one. Of course everyone should be helping, but to what extent does that lead to a kind of ideology which, as Slavoj Žižek says in the film, leads to the abolition of theory? My father probably wouldn’t have been allowed to come here today, because the situation for the Christian minority in Tehran doesn’t seem bad enough for our politicians.
A lot changes the moment you actually start putting your body into play, your eyes and hands. Do you see yourself as a committed intellectual?
Yes. Every day I fight as best I can against the cartels in the art world and academia, and I do this by getting personally involved, not just by sitting at the writing desk. But of course that isn’t enough. I’m now going to let you in on an exclusive secret: Next year I’m going to publicly found an intelligence service, a new kind of secret service, and it’s going to be brilliant. But I can’t tell you anything more about it right now.
Why aren’t you cynical?
Cynicism is, if I remember Peter Sloterdijk correctly, enlightened false consciousness. Like when you keep doing the wrong thing, in the art world for example, even when you know it’s the wrong way. Instead of dialectics and critical reflection, I prefer to rely on recursion. I have to introduce new elements into my thinking and my practice, and these change both the parts and the whole. My speculative poetics are practiced through recursion. I’m working with others all the time, trying to contaminate them and myself, to alienate, to manipulate, and the result is that something different comes out of the process. That’s the main thing. It’s not about racking your brains with abstract thought.
The aim is not to think or perceive things differently, but to make things differently (poiesis) – otherwise you simply end up in a state of aesthetic cynicism.
You’re convinced that our present is substantially determined by the future. But were things ever really different? Why is this relevant now?
“The past, as one says, is unpredictable.” This sentence by Quentin Meillassoux first got me interested in speculative theory. Today most people think that we have difficulties taking control because everything is moving so quickly. My hypothesis, however, is that the nature of time has profoundly changed and we haven’t yet learnt how to deal with this asynchronicity; with the fact that time doesn’t come out of the past, but moves towards us from the future. Of course you can say that prices were always assumptions about the future which then retroactively had an influence on the present. But I think we’re living in a derivatives paradigm; the structure and the rhythm of algorithmic high frequency trading determine the nature of our time. The question is what kind of agency we still have as artists and philosophers under these conditions.
Could it actually be that you’re suffering from a sickness that might be called the vanity of the present, or neo-mania? We always seem to think our own time is the most significant, and that we’re at a crucial point in history where things are dramatically coming to a head – in reality, of course, that’s almost never the case.
I don’t for a moment think that our time is especially significant. But you do have to see that post-war capitalism, and with it the social market economy we’re familiar with, simply isn’t functioning any more. We no longer have any sovereign nation states, populations are increasingly on the move, and no one can seriously still believe that markets regulate themselves or that capitalism is necessarily attended by democracy. Like France in the 18th century and England in the 19th, the United States today is desperately trying to remain capitalism’s protective hegemon. The coming years will show whether something like the digital revolution will enable the system to organise and stabilise itself again, or whether the capitalist economy is finally over for good.
Isn’t a diagnostician of the times just as problematic, melancholic, and ridiculous a figure as that of the artist?
I don’t diagnose the times, I try to use research platforms to work from the future. I’m not trying to consider conceptual problems, but to produce something in practice. You can only change the present from the future.
But when I say the present, you can’t always say that you’re looking into the future.
What’s your understanding of time? That’s the art critic in you speaking, with his fantasy of a full reality or of an emphatic Now! What I see in this is the problem of the utterly aestheticised reality in which we live. The idea that there is a full, emphatic, whole Now, which capitalism, in its addiction to experience, is constantly leading us to believe – this was and is ideologically implicit in the oh-so-critical concept of aesthetic experience. That’s why I think all the aestheticised exhibition art at the fairs and biennales is just pure ideology. That doesn’t mean, though, that artists are ridiculous. There is some enormously interesting art which no longer refuses to bend to the art market’s attempts to critically limit its scope, and is instead charting new speculative horizons.
What comes after capitalism and after contemporary art?
Right now I’m working with Suhail Malik on a more precise cognitive map of our post-contemporary condition. That’s exactly the question we’re asking: What comes after contemporary art, which precisely characterises the temporal logic of speculative finance capital, in which every future present is reduced to a present future that has been calculated in advance. Because in the end this is exactly what has robbed us of both the present and the future. —
Translated by Nathaniel McBride
TIMO FELDHAUS is a writer and editor at Spike. He lives in Berlin.
Der Zeitkomplex: Postcontemporary (2016), edited by Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik, is out from Merve Verlag.
Discreet is a new kind of intelligence agency created by Armen Avanessian and Alexander Martos in collaboration with Christopher Roth and a stage by Markus Miessen. As part of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art it brings together experts from art, theory, technology, politics, law, hacktivism, and financing, from June 22 to July 11 at Akademie der Künste, Berlin.
Coming very soon: Art Leak 3000, an online forum for writing about art with the freedom that comes from anonymity. It is an art project by Spike, produced in response to an invitation from Discreet.
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