This is some thoughts on the exhibition of poster prints, Careers in Retail by a couple of friends of mine.
“Lets build quiet armies friends, lets march on their glass towers… Lets build fallen cathedrals and make impractical plans…” BBF3 – Godspeed! You Black Emperor
The beginnings for Careers in Retail (as written on the back of the flyer for it) has the two artist/ protagonists (collectively calling themselves Dexter Fletcher) with headphones on at school, ‘thinking of sex during maths’, reading the wrong things about art, revolution and anarchy. Dreaming of escape, of so many potential futures as made possible through pop music and a knowledge of the past and the world around. But in the space of a blink of time those subversions of the boredom of school now manifest themselves as escape from the tedium of a job behind a cash register.
On the poster for BBF3 a child gazes wistfully into the distance. From amidst a swirl of ideas they look away and imagine a future and an escape (or many escapes). Boredom is counter-revolutionary and we are expected to be bored everyday – to accept the containment of our desires within the strict orthodoxy of post-industrial capitalism. Here we sell our labour to have access to a series of ‘choices’ about how to spend our ‘leisure’ time that are contained within acts of exchange and consumption that cannot really meet our desires. Mostly we accept to continue to sell our labour out of the merest desire to survive.
And that is the terrain covered here. The replication of the same types of alienation from school days to work days – efficiently manufactured and maintained to leave us without any hope of escape. All the built up nostalgia and hope, the alienation and knowledge gained as those years have passed is here unrolled and thrown across 6 massive posters. Dexter Fletcher are cartographers of those spectral connections that Greil Marcus refers to in Lipstick Traces. In pulling together pieces of history, revolution, popular music, literature and of their own lives without attempting an obvious link between them, they suggest at subliminal influences that affect both the grand moments as well as the ordinary ones.
These connections cannot ever be entirely mapped, they are not tangible and any cognitive sense they make is fleeting and elusive but helps give us some idea of the systems that confine our lives and the possibility of ways out. In drawing the broad outlines of such a grid we can begin to think of the places beyond. This is the project articulated in the recent Crimethinc pamphlet Terror Incognita which explores strategies to break free from“consensus reality”, that is:
“The range of possible thoughts and action within a system of power relations. It is enforced not only through traditional institutions of control – such as mass media, religion and socialisation – but through the innumerable subtle norms manifested in common sense, civil discourse and day-to-day life.”
In understanding the contours of consensus reality, Crimethinc suggest ideas for moving off the map and into a revolutionary unknown where our constantly shifting desires cannot be recuperated and reified.
One block of words on the BBF3 poster tells us that “the necessity of producing has always been the enemy of the desire to create” but here is an example to the contrary – from the alienated hell of customer service Dexter Fletcher have created a small space from which to imagine the future. They start to piece together a jigsaw of ideas, of loose connections in the form of six posters from which we are to create our own lines of flight.
“Wherever I go you are there, you colour in the everyday” Look Outside – The Broadcast
The entire exhibition comes heavily weighed with a sense of contemplative nostalgia. Retro images of children studying, old machinery, Maggie Thatcher having a friendly sit-down chat are only interrupted by the barest colour – faded tones like old photos. It seems unlikely that this nostalgia reflects a yearning for the past so much as a yearning for the optimism of being young. Where the promise of escape existed unburdened by wage slavery and the problem of knowing too much.
The poster for Look Outside is the only one that isn’t centred on just one large image, collating a few of children and teens studying or having fun. The words around it suggest at the optimistic hope of escape – from the fantastic “he had strayed in fairyland”, to the everyday of “young people lose themselves and their problems in the compulsive, all-enveloping rhythms of the discotheque” to a revolutionary “seizing the broadcasting stations”. Together it is a cacophony of the past colliding with the present and leaving us clinging to our hope for change.
As a whole, the six posters are at first somewhat overwhelming to view, with ideas seemingly rolling out of them and taking up all the wall space. Their zine stylings, a cut ‘n’ paste pastiche with words and poetry strewn across the page, reflect the conflict of dreaming of revolution while trying to find any definitive political meaning in the lives we live. It speaks to those who are dreamers at the same time as cynics – rejecting the absolutism of defined political programs and trajectories as incapable of accounting for the contradictions of everyday life. Yet still trying to find those lines of flight out and away from our present situation.
The cut ‘n’ paste aesthetic serves as a dyslexic connecting of the dots – and invitation for you to find your own way through. Each poster is based on one song, and after the initial sense of being slightly lost, of having no centre to focus on, it is possible to pick your way slowly through each. Ideas emerge – some forcefully and some subtly – and they clash with each other and begin to overlap: alienation; work; art; pop music; escape; revolution. They don’t have a single story to tell, but they indicate a more complex and comprehensive picture, where a multiplicity of contradictory forces push and pull at the way we are able to experience our lives.
“Why do I give valuable time to people who don’t care if I live or die?” Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now – The Smiths
The moral and economic compulsion to sell our labour is one of the driving forces in our lives – it traps us into the work/ leisure dichotomy and mostly prevents us conceiving of, let alone actualising, desires beyond the spectacle of consumption and the spending of our wages. Raoul Vaneigem wrote in The Revolution of Everyday Life how “from adolescence to retirement each 24-hour cycle repeats the same shattering bombardment, like bullets hitting a window: mechanical repetition, time-which-is-money, submission to bosses, boredom, exhaustion. From the butchering of youth’s energy to the gaping wound of old age, life cracks in every direction under the blows of forced labour.” These are ideas evident in the Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now poster, which also brings into the equation the sense that art has similarly been reduced to a commodity with its production often replicating the same alienated processes as any other type of labour under capitalism.
Alienation, as experienced through the prism of wage slavery and functioning as a load-bearer for post-industrial capitalist society, is a driving force for the entirety of this exhibition. The profound detachment we experience from the products of our labour and creativity, the transference of our actual desires into the consumption of things, these are the everyday defeats that plague us and which scream out from these prints. With these running themes, Dexter Fletcher seem to be in cahoots with Vaneigem and the Situationists. On these posters we stare down “the monotony of the ideological spectacle” of neo-liberalism and feel “the passivity of life” mediated by the market and exchange. But with all this staring us in the face we can begin to imagine ways out. As Vaneigem asserted, “the imperatives of production are the imperatives of survival; from now on, people want to live, not just to survive”.
This is an exhibition brought to us from Dexter Fletcher’s lived experience of the drudgery of wage labour and their desire to escape it. Too often ‘art’ seems to do little more than reflect a particularly contrived version of real life. What is being viewed often struggles to escape the confines of gallery walls and re-route itself into the living, breathing sinews of the everyday. And this contrivance usually becomes even more pronounced when what is being exhibited is attempting to articulate any sort of radical politic. Art that believes it has something important to say tends to do away with the subtleties, confusions and nuances inherent to the way we experience our lives.
These posters reverse the standard equation. Instead of settling upon ONE BIG STATEMENT and trying to cohere that to our everyday lives, the artists start from their everyday lives – the banality and alienation of finding yourself getting older and still working retail jobs being the particular focus here – and imbue this exhibition with a version of politics drawn from that. And this leaves us with a wide-ranging, confused mess of reality instead of the presentation of a single coherent statement. That is to say, it provides a broad palette which is likely to at some point intersect with the lives and experiences of those viewing it.
“You will never understand how it feels to live your life with no meaning or control, and with nowhere left to go.” Common People – Pulp
POPULAR MUSIC/ CULTURE
The reflection of everyday life presented in this exhibition is framed by the contested space of popular culture and music – the memories it creates and the futures it makes possible. It is a contested space because we know that the rhythms of capital are as intricately bound up with the production of pop culture as they are with any any other industry. We all find some moments of liberatory potential and inspiration in music we like, but there is always a shadow over such hope – are we receiving an actual reflection of our desires or is it merely a carefully crafted mirage, produced post the moment of recuperation? And does it matter either way?
While Careers in Retail is not particularly caught up in such questions, it does provoke them into being by making these songs that Dexter Fletcher love a thread through the entire exhibition and the ideas it brings into play. Wearing matching t-shirts that say “What would Jarvis do?”, they position Jarvis Cocker as some kind of iconoclast preacher – “Brothers, sisters, can’t you see? The future’s owned by you and me” (from Mis-Shapes by Pulp and used in the introduction to the exhibition). While, in this context, the cynicism of such words (including the above lines from Common People) is unmissable, they also suggest an awareness that the terrain of capital that encompasses our lives has been revealed and that plans for escape must necessarily begin in its negation. In this way an act of negation can be the same as an act of hope by demolishing all known and enclosed ground so that new routes of escape may be possible.
Through it all, Jarvis Cocker takes on the mantle that Greil Marcus had laid at the feet of one Johnny Rotten – the pop music pied piper whose cynicism tears away the veil of satisfaction that covers the ugliness of capitalism. As Cocker looks out from the Common People poster with an ironic, accusatory stare, he could be the Johnny Rotten who “denies the claims of his society with a laugh, pulls the string on the history of his society with a shift of vowels so violent that it creates pure pleasure”. Cocker’s voice mightn’t have the gravelly coarseness or attitude of Johnny Rotten, but his detached wit pulls at the same string to unravel the fabric of middle-class, capitalist society. In hands such as these any question about the authentic relation of pop music to the struggles of everyday life is turned on its head as music becomes not just an outlet, but a fulcrum, for such antagonism.
Greil Marcus makes a point of framing Johnny Rotten as being a conjurer of numerous acts of negation, as opposed to merely some sort of nihilist, with the importance being that “negation is always political: it assumes the existence of other people, calls them into being.” That is, it works on the basis of understanding the world and how we experience it and calls all that into question. Pop music like this mightn’t be trying to be straightforwardly inspiring or even seem like much of a call to arms, but it more significantly:
“made a breach in the pop milieu, in the screen of received cultural assumptions governing what one expects to hear and how one expected to respond. Because received cultural assumptions are hegemonic propositions about the way the world is supposed to work – ideological constructs perceived and experienced as natural facts – the breach in the pop milieu opened into the realm of everyday life.”
In using Jarvis Cocker as they have, Dexter Fletcher ensure an underlying sense throughout this exhibition that, in some ways and in certain situations, pop music may just be salvaged and still be some sort of window into moments of rebellion and subversion.
“When she talks I hear the revolution. In her hips, there’s revolutions. When she walks, the revolution’s coming. In her kiss I taste the revolution.” Rebel Girl – Bikini Kill
One connection that is retraced throughout Careers in Retail is the definitive feminist argument of the personal being the basis of the political – that the everyday struggles and oppression experienced in women’s lives were the basis of a revolutionary feminist politic and not merely a side issue to ‘bigger’, abstract political questions.In taking up this idea, the poster for Rebel Girl seems to be the one with the most obvious unifying theme. The text collated on it speak about women confined in employment, at home, at leisure and most importantly by a whole myriad of subtle social expectations that dictate ‘proper’ behaviour – “all over the city, all over the country, all over the world, the men are patronizing and the women water the plants”. Like much in this exhibition, this poster also hints at the possibilities of escape from such confinement. That the poster is based on the Bikini Kill song Rebel Girl underlines the connection between music, politics and the personal that are brought together in lines such as “Grrls are the expansion of punk rock and we need no justification”.
The question of appropriation in pop music arises again however, when focus shifts from the direct revolutionary feminist politic that Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hannah articulates in her lyrics and interviews, to the more ephemeral suggestions of liberation and subversion in the music of a mainstream artist such as Lady Gaga. Any consideration of the broader role of Gaga – her music and performed persona – should not diminish the hope and potential of escape we all find in the music we like. And certainly the very fact of this exhibition conveys the importance held in those moments when a song we like taps into the pulsing rhythm of our lives and re-invigorates it.
Ultimately though, the question isn’t even one of authenticity and whether Gaga is a meticulously manufactured perfect storm of subversive desires in shiny packaging. The question is whether, from the context she is inextricably entangled in – at the very peak of the commercial pop cultural monolith – can her performance of subversive gender and sexuality actually shift dominant paradigms. Are the seemingly radical threads that are brought together here, the queer theory, the gender-fucking, the feminism, the general deployment of subversive imagery actually create a space from which people can begin to conceive of escape from normalised roles and functions of gender and sexuality? By bringing these together is Gaga not giving new meaning to old projects?
But we have to be careful of appropriation. Not because of some purist sense of hiding something radical from the cheap world of capitalist relations – there is nowhere to hide, there is no outside of capital, indeed many of the most striking moments of radical inspiration are borne deep within the belly of the beast. But recuperation isn’t just about the bringing of what is radical into a process of commercial transactions. It is more crucially about taking those desires of escape and completely inverting their meaning by allowing for their superficial performance to exist and be reproduced as praise for the all-encompassing virtues of capitalist society. For what is on the periphery, on the edge and maybe even outright oppositional to capitalism to still ultimately be considered part of the workings, of the push and pull, of capitalist democracy as opposed to a truly radical, ‘other’ space.
The fluidity and expansive nature of capital means its processes (no sinister connotations here – just the everyday processes of capitalism that we are all coerced into reproducing) are constantly recuperative, working towards reformulating it’s terrain – as most everyone can see, the domination, and reproduction, of capital most crucially now occurs away from the factory floor or workplace. In the essay, ‘Anti-Capitalist Movements’, The Free Association write about how capital has:
“Taken-on the counter-culture, commodifying what previously appeared unruly, and domesticating ‘dissent’ by making it a profitable and marketable asset in the burgeoning ‘culture industry’… Time for ourselves is increasingly time spent preparing for work or time spent engaging in ‘leisure’ – regimented forms of ‘free time’ that seem closer to break time at school then periods where we can decide what we really might want to do with our lives. In short, capital is now entirely social and its power is almost completely diffuse through every level of society.”
The enclosures in Europe that occurred at the dawn of capitalism were not just about privatising commonly-held land – they were about enforcing modes of discipline and behaviour onto the population that would ensure no aspect of life could be thought of as being outside capital and the market. It was a conquest of all space – both physical and psychological – that might suggest the possibility of something beyond the norms of capitalism. This is one lens through which we must view the role of pop culture and music in reflecting liberatory desires. It is not the only one that must take precedence over all the other things that pop music brings to our lives, but it is a position that seeks to ensure the lines of flights we envisage do not take a 180 degree turn back into the heart of conquered territory.
“They sang the red flag, they wore the black one.” Spanish Bombs – The Clash
The idea of escape that runs through this exhibition ultimately brings us to the impossibly ambitious, yet unavoidably anchored in the real world, idea of revolution. And we come to this idea through an assorted mess of music, hatred of boring jobs, everyday material conditions, idealistic dreaming, rejection of patriarchal expectations, rejection of competitive capitalist expectations, Jarvis Cocker, Kathleen Hannah and so on. The point being that any revolutionary potential that exists is influenced by the myriad human emotions and experiences of our lives and any attempt to navigate around or exclude these will leave only an empty, uninspiring shell of a political program. That is to say politics and revolution cannot be given some arbitrary ‘rational’ platform separate from the space of everyday life.
A particular focus on revolution is most strongly portrayed on the poster for Spanish Bombs and its references to the Spanish revolution of 1936. It is an historical event that provides a glimpse of the unrestrained potential that exists in the moment of revolution where passion, solidarity, escape and hope combine to overturn the established social order. It is, however, also a moment of brutal disappointment where the revolutionary struggle is betrayed and defeated. Taken as a part of everything else presented throughout this exhibition, the Spanish revolution has a particular resonance with all the ups and downs, the cyclical gaining and losing of hope and inspiration that affects how we conceive of paths out of the boredom of capitalist, consumer society and the drudgery of waged labour. In referencing it as part of this exhibition, Dexter Fletcher reassert its importance – as another thread or ‘spectral connection’ which might not have a seemingly direct affect on our lives, but which forms part of the grid of influences and knowledge that shape our perception of how we live and struggle. It is both a reason for hope and a reality check on unbridled optimism, a re-occurring contradiction that has a tendency to go hand in hand with most cases of gaining knowledge – the problem of knowing too much.
The pieces of knowledge pulled together in Careers in Retail, the music and pop culture, the personal experience, the incendiary quotes, the evocative prose and all else could be seen as overwhelming, a confusing unfinished picture, of having too much information to know what to do with. Yet our lives and struggles do not follow straightforward trajectories and this grid does not need the lines drawn in. Understanding the social nature of capital, it’s diffusion into all aspects of everyday life is not a reason for despair, in fact it ties very exactly into what is being articulated in the ‘personal is political’ argument – that structures of oppression, whether patriarchy or capitalism, take their hold and reproduce themselves most strongly in everyday expectations and so there are in fact many sites of struggle from which we can attack the hegemony of capitalist relations.