Notes from the Inside

Carey Young

Artist’s statement produced for the exhibition catalogue for
‘Beck’s Futures’ at the ICA, London, 2003

According to the documentation of the World Economic Forum 2003, cultural and artistic initiatives were enthusiastically discussed as a form of ‘soft power’. This term, which has gained increasing currency within the lexicon of international relations, is defined as a form of diplomacy-by-influence, and as an alternative to notions of hard power, or military might.

The World Economic Forum is of course known as the venue for high-ranking delegates from the spheres of business and politics to congratulate themselves on record growth and to extol the wonders of the globalised economy. It’s an event at which most politically- or perhaps socially-motivated cultural artists would more happily remain outside the gates, placard in hand.

My recent work situates itself in a context in which there is no ‘outside’ position from which to protest, and nothing which can remain outside capitalist control structures for long. Thus, only an endless ‘inside’. In this ethical labyrinth:

1. Most corporations now operate in the realm of the dematerialised and the transient, their value gauged by intangible assets such as brand equity and intellectual property. Any protest aimed against them would be at its most powerful if conceptualised to operate within the same conceptual, electronic / digital realm. Hackers, as noted by Critical Art Ensemble, offer an often-overlooked model for those interested in effective intervention and critique.

2. No clear standards yet exist for ‘ethical’ products or services. Corporations typically seek to appear responsible via PR spin rather than taking on any morally or ethically-induced changes to their usual operations.

3. In uncanny echoes of the artistic avant garde, businesses proclaim their ability to innovate, and attempt to remain as ‘cutting edge’, as creative as possible in the attempt to reinvent themselves, regroup or to find new ways of cutting costs, in an era of shrinking markets and ever-swifter competition.

4. Dissent is commodified: companies aim to ‘manage’ or even recruit activists on to their company board in order to neutralise them; marketing to the consistent desire for transgression within fashion, an ad campaign for a fashionable brand of jeans features scenes of anti-capitalist protest; the most revered business thinkers exhort managing directors to think like 'revolutionaries' in order to become strong leaders.

5. Activists (and artists) still seem largely unwilling to learn or deploy the marketing and other business skills that would give them more influence without inherently co-opting them. A suit is great camouflage.

6. Conceptual art, the movement most intended to negate the commodity status of art, became a huge success in art market terms. The art market is mostly complicit with corporate concerns, and certain corporate collections, such as the Generali Foundation, specialise in conceptual and politically-motivated art. This leaves a tight corner for professional artists to operate within.

7. Self-censorship is still having a boom. This can be observed at the level of corporate sponsorship of the arts. As Hans Haacke noted, it is often the museum or institution director that acts as the censor rather than the exhibition sponsor.

My contribution to Beck’s Futures is informed by all of the above points, and was particularly inspired by a conversation I had with the Beck’s marketing manager after having agreed to participate within the show. There was, he stated, nothing an artist might do within the show that they might consider subversive, since it would undeniably offer return marketing benefit to them.

In terms of institutional critique, a clear binary position has already been explored by previous generations of artists and I am not currently interested in retreading that ground. Instead, I am attracted to exploring how the artist’s role, agency and identity could or might need to change in response to the collapsing categories between business, politics and culture. Soft power, a problematic but challenging descriptor, is one of those potentially useful terms that could offer an open door to those politically-motivated artists able to slip through the net.

© Carey Young, 2003