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by Steven Henry Madoff and Brian Kuan Wood

We Would Prefer Not To

This issue of OnCurating takes political resistance and sanctuary as its subject, with Herman Melville’s nineteenth-century literary avatar Bartleby as its tutelary spirit. Bartleby is known only by his family name, thus a monocular unit, a nomination of single-mindedness, from start to finish. The act of civil disobedience is always one of immutably stubborn decision delivered through latency—that is, of time as an event of delay. Bartleby’s famous refrain, “I would prefer not to,” is understood here as an instruction whose pedagogical intent is to allay or even reverse by delay the victory of ruinous forces. As an avant-garde in the true sense of assault and defense from the frontlines, artists and curators have, of course, long practiced political critique, offering expressions of protest and resistance as both lines of attack and bastions of sanctuary. What this issue presents under the banner “We Would Prefer Not To” are essays, interviews with artists, and portfolios of images from artists and exhibitions, past and present, that have unleashed their trickster impulse in the name of circuitousness, in the name of politically fueled delay and dérive, in the name, so to speak, of Bartleby.

As we reach toward the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is inevitable that technology’s advanced forms of invasive visual control incite the critical optics of artists. In Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi’s speculative essay, “On ‘Shy Trump’ Voters and the Politics of Care,” he deploys the term “sousveillance” as a lever to pry open the governmentality of a punitive watchfulness from below that curtails freedoms insidiously. Citing the work of Hasan Elahi’s darkly humorous project Tracking Transience, he analyzes the overarching state of state paranoia that seeks to unveil citizen privacy as the warren of terrorism, while the artist’s diaristic unfolding of his every move offers transparency as a form of Denial-of-Service Attack, overwhelming the system with a deluge of detail.

Interviews with artists Zach Blas, Jesse Darling, and Nadim Abbas reveal even more so the ways that contemporaneity rhymes with a Bartleby-like infusion of seeping hostility toward the authors of our homogenizing and monolithic technological dystopia, whether through the adoption of surveillant means, as we see in the works of Blas, in the open rebuttal of Eurocentric patriarchal authority presented by Darling, or the existential entropy that Abbas understands as the birthright of the otaku heirs to Bartleby, whose sensibility he describes as an “immobility born out of a conviction that all choice is illusory.”

Essays by Jovanna Venegas and Patrick Jaojoco take polar views of how to step into the terrain of discontent and retort, with Venegas surveying the history of tricksterism, from the Archaic Greek “Homeric Hymn to Hermes” to Walid Raad’s love of political sleight of hand, while Jaojoco advocates for an aggressively direct curatorial forensics to expose what he calls the “blankness of location” that must be addressed through site specificity in order to overcome the capitalist absorption of place, its symptomatic erasure of history, and its mechanisms of marginalization. Jaojoco adds to this a portfolio of images for the issue from the 2015 exhibition, Don’t Follow the Wind, that speaks of place in another way. The exhibition was situated in the irradiated Fukushima exclusion zone—a show that can’t actually be seen by the public (other than a few images documenting its installation) and which therefore raises the exhibition to the level of an apophatic question: Isn’t the forced limitation of visibility as an embodied metaphorical strategy as potent a form of political critique as the freely seen? In the names of protest and posterity, what exhibitionary models can we employ toward cautionary and prescriptive ends?

Another portfolio, Vera Petukhova’s revisiting of the 1990 exhibition Between Spring and Summer: Soviet Conceptual Art in the Era of Late Communism, gives further evidence of the irony and implicit melancholy of tricksterism. Posing an unspoken parallel between the stagy incertitude of Bartleby and Soviet dissidence, we might find a saboteur intelligence lurking seriocomically at the heart of a towering and crumbling bureaucracy.

Such excursions into the past to commemorate and revive schemes of resistance are underwritten by pendant pieces of a more meta nature placed throughout the issue, regarding Melville’s story (Gilles Deleuze), exhibition-making (Hendrik Folkerts), and abyssal philosophy in black experience (Nana Adusei-Poku), along with pieces that speak to the usefulness of Bartleby as an exemplar of “disobedient” practices, both formally and politically. Bartleby remains, after more than one hundred and fifty years, the nearly mute and implacably sibylline force of an anti-authority as authority, of an eternal gaze into the power of a prodigious and fruitful No-thing.


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