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First Person: Massive Attack V Adam Curtis

Park Ave. Armory

above: The Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall, Photo by Susane Berger

The multi-media spectacle of the fall thundered through the Park Avenue Armory’s military airs with all of the pomp and circumstance of the pope arriving, or rather some great dictator, rolling through taking his victory lap, the press outlets blindly congratulating, the masses gathering, huddled together to hear the booming voice of certainty wash over them and make them feel secure, informed, and more than anything, that their hands have become just a little more clean after having heard the master’s commencement address. NOW FIND YOUR OWN WAY HOME read the final banner on the 9 massive screens, all among confetti raining down upon us, lamenting the conclusion to a supposed hard journey that we should congratulate ourselves for having been a part of.

The piece took place through vignettes, anecdotal stories of persons representing, to Curtis, the global shift toward a culture of management rather than dreaming, of protection rather than representation. We were introduced to a Russian punk band, Donald Trump, the assassination of the Ceausescus, an entire 5 minute segment of a pop-art machine gun firing, an introverted mathematician bailing out Trump, all among myriad deconstructed stories summing up Curtis’s perceived history of the past 50 years. Massive Attack would play intermittently as in a music video, adding decor to Curtis’s berating voice. Identical videos would play on each one of the nine screens surrounding us for the majority of the time until the very end, when white confetti falls from the ceiling.

I felt betrayed. I had long looked up to Adam Curtis as a formative influence in the way I considered my socio-political surroundings. His documentaries tracing the history of our current late capitalist zeitgeist, notably The Century of The Self and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, presented the contemporary condition as one manipulated by the near-dictatorial forces of capital, marketing, and banking. And he took his time with his documentaries, exploring a situation in full, leaving the spectator longing for more, longing to situate his or her personal narrative within the world that Curtis so profoundly explored. Massive Attack V Adam Curtis did no such thing. The entire piece infuriatingly employed the same tactics that it had been warning and preaching against, in an act of petty self-hatred more than anything.

An illuminating quote by legendary conceptual artist Adrian Piper is as follows: (Taken from A Paradox of Conscience, first published in The New Art Examiner 16, no 8, April 1989)

“Therefore the distanced critical perspective from which we were supposedly invited to consider the values inherent in this work could not have been an aesthetic one. These values — racism, sexism, philistinism, cynicism, manipulation, contempt — are morally vicious values, and therefore the critically distanced perspective from which the artist purportedly examined them must have been a moral one. But a distanced moral perspective that criticizes morally vicious values merely by expressing them is no more of a genuinely distanced perspective than would be one that criticizes child abuse by committing it. So it appears that this work can be understood only as having affirmed and advocated unself-consciously the moral pollution it so blatantly expressed. Indeed it deliberately ridiculed such values and reaped considerable professional rewards for the artist for doing so.”

Here are the tipping points that engendered not only my feelings of betrayal, but a rising fury that I feel very rarely for pieces of art.

  • That Adam Curtis launched his booming voice over a group of hundreds of individuals as if he had become their messiah, employing the same tactics of spectacle and over-stimulation that those whom he was critiquing felt at ease with. And the overall self-assured nature with which he presented his facts, never considering that his view of the history he showed us was just another subjective, self-involved perspective belonging to his own personal narrative as a white man from England, radical or not.
  • That it was suggested we were meant to escape from the control exerted on us as masses when in fact we were herded inside of a room, immobile, for an hour and a half like cattle. This is more of a critique of form beyond anything else, but let’s not joke around, placing a static group of hundreds of persons within a 270 degree video installation is not the cutting edge, and it is not the strongest method for generating self-reflection. If this was meant to resemble a call to arms or a call for a global awakening, it failed colossally. It is not the cutting edge of political critique nor is it the cutting edge of multi-media environments.
  • That the piece so poorly used all of the technical capacities of the Park Avenue Armory. Sure, it was very loud, the projectors were very bright, there was a clever interplay of lighting the band while still projecting video. In reality, however, the nine screens were just duplicates of the same video for 90% of the time. We wonder why this could not simply have been screened in a theater with a live score by Massive Attack.
  • That this is where we have come to. In terms of our rebellion, our radicalism, our political minds and hearts. That this was considered a remotely radical piece of art. That we conveniently shuffle into a theater with hundreds of other people and are preached to with the convenient ending of being told NOW FIND YOUR OWN WAY HOME. NOW FIND YOUR OWN WAY HOME?! Are you fucking kidding me?! This is the final instruction? This is the call to arms? Please. Please let’s find a more sustainable way to resist and survive these increasingly commodified times we are living in. Please there must be a better take-away: Go home and say hi to your neighbor from another country. Go home and reconsider what you are spending your money on. Go forth and tear out the bricks from the roads and throw them through the windows of the banks that are oppressing us. Burn the fucking dollars of our oppressors, dismantle the system that is turning us into statistics. Create alternative communities, economies, dreams. Rise up like brothers and sisters and create your own neighborhoods, your own histories, and your own truths, but NOW FIND YOUR OWN WAY HOME?! Dropping confetti on us as it finishes? For all the loving grace in the world, was it so necessary to masturbate your narrow, self-involved view of the world upon us and follow it up with small paper cum to shoot all over us? It is disgusting, I feel disgusted. It is an issue of catharsis, and as has become seriously clear to me over the these passing years, if we truly want to create a new awakened population, we cannot use the same tactics as our oppressors. It is a matter of 1. Creating open ended pieces that demand further thought and reflection within the viewer’s personal history 2. Restructuring this system of audience -> performer, it has been discussed forever and actually employed a few times, but please, let’s focus on this more 3. Possessing self-awareness as an artist and never giving up the question mark, never giving up the inquisitive nature and maintaining a profile of self-interrogation. I am afraid that Massive Attack V Adam Curtis did none of these. It was just another easy piece masking itself as intellectual, in the worst way.

And all of the frustration culminates with the problematic of catharsis. That this show was obviously over as soon as the lights shut down. That the piece made it very clear that OK, you made it! Now go home and go about your business as if nothing changed in you, but know that you have filled your quota of politically engaged art for the season. Your hands are now marginally more clean”

We are in an age of living on highways. Seen through the eyes of Jacques Derrida, the highway can take us anywhere in the world, but only as long as we stay on it, it provides the false assumption that we may at one point get off to get somewhere else, as if it is entirely within our own control to decide where it leads, but the truth is that there are greater forces at play, the geographers, the urban planners, the hidden money-holders who often dictate where the highway goes, the easily-digested creators of culture who bring us onto the highway instead of leading us into new worlds.

It is with great regret that I write this piece. As a young critic, (23) I am much more likely to write something along the lines of Oh, this one did not so much resonate within me, or Oh, I feel that these elements were left unexplored. However, Massive Attack V Adam Curtis generated such a stirring anger within me that I found myself at ends with my words. I am alienated by an artist that I very much thought was my indirect mentor, or even master.

I have lost faith in you, Mr. Curtis. It must be time for a new generation to bring new visions and create possibilities for change, though I am afraid that you are not a part of it.

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Raul Zbengheci is inspired by monolithic social housing left over after the Communist regime in Bucharest. These are buildings that speak louder than anyone who inhabits them, they are buildings that create visions and ghosts for anyone surrounded by them. For Collectif Experiencia, he uses these memories of monumental constructions to create stage spaces that serve as speaking skeletons, superficial and waiting to be filled by bodies and movements that will redefine the spaces themselves. When considering the stage, he uses light to redefine and reconstruct the space with the idea that a precise structure on the outside can allow for greater abstraction within the limits it has imposed. Zbengheci is also a photographer and writer. In photography, he uses the same ideas he expresses for the stage, composing spaces rather than capturing them. His first book, Tryin’ to Find Another Place, is in final revision. The project nicesentences aims to find a style of writing detached from context and minimal, visceral as well as aesthetic. He lives in New York where he is the Editor-in-Chief of Connectom, LEIMAY-CAVE's online artist network and publication. He is also the co-founder of Collectif Experiencia.

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