Commonist Aesthetics

Think Factories, Think Tanks and the Privatisation of Power

Introduction to a Work by Andreas Siekmann

Sven Lütticken

April 16, 2015editorial,

Within Open!’s research theme Commonist Aesthetics, artist Andreas Siekmann created a series of pictograms and a matching glossary to continue his investigation into the increasing privatisation of the public realm. The work is part of his larger ongoing project initiated in Berlin in 2012, The Economic Power of Public Opinion & the Public Power of Economic Opinion: Think Factories, Think Tanks and the Privatisation of Power. One can view and read Siekmann’s contribution by either clicking the underlined entries beneath the pictures in the slideshow, or by directly entering the glossary pages in which pictograms and texts combined are combined. Sven Lütticken wrote a short introduction to the piece.

Often working in collaboration with Alice Creischer, Andreas Siekmann has frequently investigated processes of appropriation, accumulation and privatisation with artistic means. Specifically, the artists have together revived the “picture statistics” methods developed by sociologist Otto Neurath and artist Gerd Arntz in the 1920s and 1930s to chart the complexities and inequalities of our global order. In addition to updating pages from Neurath and Arntz’s “atlas” Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft (1930), Creischer and Siekmann have instigated major projects such as The Potosí Principle (2009–2011), with Max Jorge Hinderer, which brought together baroque artworks from South America in the context of an investigation into the Spanish exploitation of the silver deposits in Potosí, Bolivia as a form of primitive accumulation (or, in a better translation from Marx’s German, “original accumulation”).

This type of accumulation is “not the result of the capitalist mode of production but its point of departure,” and for Marx its “classical example” was the “usurpation of the common lands” in England around 1500, a privatisation that resulted in the violent expulsion of peasants from land that had been in common use. In The Potosí Principle, the colonial appropriation of silver, the destruction of social structures and the separation of the indigenous population from their land is placed in conjunction with contemporary forms of “primitive” accumulation, for instance by foregrounding the situation of migrant workers in China. In their more recent duo project In the Stomach of the Predators (2013 / 2014), Creischer and Siekmann focused on rise of proprietary agricultural crops, which obliterates farmers’ control over the means of (re)production; the artists linked this to Marx’s early analysis of the Prussian state’s criminalization of the gathering of wood by peasants, which turned a customary common right into a crime. 

Siekmann’s project The Economic Power of Public Opinion & the Public Power of Economic Opinion: Think Factories, Think Tanks and the Privatisation of Power, Berlin 2012, continues this investigative strand with a focus on think tanks, or Denkfabriken (think factories) in German. The rise of think tanks and their impact on policy not only speaks of the increasing privatisation of the public realm — when policy in the age of think tanks aims at maximum value extraction from public goods, this is also a renewed wave of ursprüngliche Akkumulation. After all, when water supply is privatised, this is the selling-off of a public utility that is or should be a common good. One particularly telling image in this project shows an “Unilever conference” with the title Can the world feed itself, while the glossary adds that “Unilever is the largest consumer of palm oil in the world with 1.6 million tons each year, for which large areas of rainforest are destroyed.” The question has an inbuilt response: the world can feed itself if the solutions are corporate and large-scale, preferably involving proprietary crops, whether or not communities or indeed the conditions for life as we know it are destroyed in the process.

Siekmann’s pictograms here take formal cues from Arntz, but they do not function in the manner of Bildstatistik: the pictograms do not line up in rows to give us quantitative data, but rather function as baroque emblems in relation to the glossary. With the installation version that was shown in Bregenz parading the pictograms through a kind of conveyor belt (a mechanical Theatrum Mundi), here the entire set of pictograms and glossary entries has been reformatted for the web — and the elements do, indeed, form a web of references. The more one clicks, the more things begin to click.

Making literal the term Denkfabrik, Siekmann combines pictograms of the brain and of a factory. In bis “brain” emblem, the human brain appears as occupied by “think factories.” Perhaps this is ultimately the main form of ongoing original accumulation in this piece: the colonisation of the brain, of subjectivity. Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self is referenced in the glossary, and the pictogram for “Television” contains terms such as lifestyle, Lebenslanges Lernen [life-long learning] and Ich-AG, a German term that could be translated as “Me, Inc.,” denoting the transformation of the subject into a post-Fordist self-corporation perpetually (re)producing its own enclosure.

Sven Lütticken is a member of the editorial board of Open! Platform for Art, Culture & the Public Domain. He teaches art history at VU University Amsterdam; is the author of several books, including History in Motion: Time in the Age of the Moving Image (2013); and writes regularly for journals and magazines including New Left Review, Afterall, Grey Room, Mute and e-flux journal. At the moment he is working on a collection of a essays under the working title 'Permanent Cultural Revolution,' and editing a reader on art and autonomy. See further:

Commonist Aesthetics
Commonist Aesthetics

A spectre is haunting more than just Europe; or rather, an undead zombie is stalking the lands. The “Idea of Communism”, as the title of two high-profile conferences and books has it, is both profoundly discredited through its identifications with Moscow-brand socialism and profoundly necessary in an age of spiralling inequality and the accelerating destruction of the basis of life itself. Protests proliferate, but also quickly dry up, from the Arab Spring and Occupy to (farce following tragedy) high-profile British comedian Russell Brand coming to the conclusion that the current form of representative democracy is broken beyond repair and that a revolution is needed, only to be told by another comedian to “read some fucking Orwell”.

Alain Badiou provided the starting point for the two aforementioned conferences and books with a text in which he revisits the history and possible future of communism as an “Idea located in the field of emancipatory, or revolutionary, politics”, an Idea that can never be limited to or contained by any specific party-political agenda: “to be a militant of a Communist Party”, Badiou observed, “was also to be one of millions of agents of a historical orientation of all of Humanity. In the context of the Idea of communism, subjectivation constituted the link between the local belonging to a political procedure and the huge symbolic domain of Humanity’s forward march towards its collective emancipation. To give out a flyer in a marketplace was also to mount the stage of history”.1

As Badiou has noted elsewhere, May ’68 was the last moment when a certain version of communism seemed possible and almost plausible.2 The integration and disintegration of the traditional working class in the west made Bolshevist or Maoist attempts to forge this class into a revolutionary proletariat goaded into action by a steeled party cadre obsolete. The idea of communism morphed, mutated, sometimes beyond recognition. Ideas of autonomous self-organisation by workers became a more general idea consisting of autonomous action by students, intellectuals, the unemployed and labourers. The dream of autonomia resurfaced in later multitudes – Genoa, New York, Cairo – always all too brief, yet with protracted echoes. Now that the Party’s over, organisation is frequently haphazard and informal, and events refuse to follow conventional scripts – though the scenario of an event losing steam and everybody dissipating and waiting for some future iteration that will in turn peter out in the same anticlimactic manner is becoming depressingly familiar.

This temporality of the almost-revolutionary event is however offset, in a kind of syncopation, by different sorts of projects – that sometimes involve the same people. Silvia Federici has argued that the “apparently archaic” notion of the commons provides “a ground of convergence among anarchists, Marxists / socialists, ecologists, and eco-feminists” after the demise of the discredited “statist model of revolution that for decades has sapped the efforts of radical movements to build an alternative to capitalism”. While Occupy Wall Street turned policed and semi-privatised public space into a temporary commons, the project of protecting and creating common spaces is ongoing. As Federici continues, “the neoliberal attempt to subordinate every form of life and knowledge to the logic of the market has heightened our awareness of living in a world in which we no longer have access to seas, trees, animals, and our fellow human beings except through the cash-nexus. … (New) forms of social cooperation are constantly being produced, also in areas where none previously existed, as for example the Internet.”3

Meanwhile, in her proposal for a “commonist ethics”, Susan Buck-Morss warns that “we need to reject creating an -ism out of any political or theoretical orientation – no communism, no capitalism, no Marxism, no totalitarianism, no imperialism – no isms at all. These are cosmological systems, economies of belief that resemble the medieval Christological economy (oikonomia) in that all their elements are internally consistent and logically satisfying, as long as there is no contamination by facts or events that, like illegal aliens of some sort, enter from the outside.”4 For Badiou, we now only have the substantive of communism, the Idea, but no adjectives: no communist party, no communist ideology.5 Buck-Morss turns it around: only adjectives, no nouns. Or perhaps communism needs to be verbed, as with the notion of communization, which “requires that we start thinking communism from within the immanent conditions of global capitalism rather than from a putatively radical or communist ‘outside’” (Benjamin Noys).6 The commons, too, are conceptualised in terms of forms of commoning.

The Situationist International has always insisted that there is no such thing as Situationism, and heaped scorn on anyone who suggested otherwise. In practice, scholars and theorists who would not dream of referring to “Situationism” in print, use the word as shorthand in conversation. In art, the danger of isms has always seemed less their tendency to become ironclad ideological systems and more their status as packaged hot air, soon to be followed by the next fashion. As Marcel Duchamp once put it in a telegram to the magazine ARTnews: “Bravo! for your 60 ism-packed years”. Today, in the age of Speculative Realisms and New Materialisms, philosophy has adopted what used to be an art-world modus operandi.

Under the circumstances, we propose to entertain the idea (with a lower-case i) of commonism as shorthand not for one of Buck-Morss’ frightening conceptual-ideological prisons, but for a constellation of practices and lines of thought that produce productive tension rather than neo-Stalinist conformity? Incidentally: In the early 1960s Andy Warhol tried to establish the term “Commonism” as a name for the art movement that would become known as Pop Art.7 Conversely, the label introduced slightly later by Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter for their German version of Pop Art, Capitalist Realism, was recently appropriated by Mark Fisher for his trenchant analysis of contemporary capitalism.8

We will be presenting a loose series of articles on commonism here in Open! as the contemporary afterlife of the idea of communism; an afterlife after the Party, after the Proletariat as Revolutionary Subject, after the “statist” model of the revolution. The focus will be on commonist aesthetics, but here the aesthetic is obviously not conceived along the lines of aestheticism. The aesthetic pertains to the world of the senses – to a residually common world, as Terry Eagleton once put it. What “redistributions of the sensible” can aesthetic practice and theory imagine?

Commonist Aesthetics is a close collaboration of Open! with Binna Choi (Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory,  Utrecht) and Sven Lütticken.