The Photographers' Gallery, May 1999

Great Newport Street, off Leicester Square tube, sometime in May ‘99.  The usual west-end cross section of late-nineties London; fashion retail girls grab a sandwich with their midday cigarette, stressed media execs jump into cabs, clockwork parking attendants give directions to errant tourists, and Soho stylists on mobile phones are already busy planning the coming weekend’s spontaneities. In the pubs, pizza-pasta cafés and neo-coffee bars, widescreen CNN/MTV dribbles a double shot of ‘news’ and ‘culture’. Sandwiched between the pop-promos of rebellious youth, regular updates of a Just war being fought elsewhere.

 Meanwhile, at the Photographers’ Gallery, something almost, but not quite similar, is going on.  Inside number 5, past a vitrine displaying Mao’s little red book, to the howl of Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile, monitors present documentary footage of somewhat more rebellious youth of Les évenements, the chaos of the Vietnam war, riots and civil unrest from the ‘sixties to the present. Further on, past the Sega Impressions machine where gallery-going parents and their kids are busy producing personal portrait rubber-stamps, visitors sit around watching the home videos of eco-protesters, reading the Unabomber’s manifesto, or following the email exchanges of Brixton School kids with their peers from around the world. Part art show, part social history document, part community arts project, part interactive theme-park, this is MayDay.

Curated by Jeremy Millar, MayDay: Communities and Communication ostensibly examines the part that communications media play in bringing people together through a shared understanding of reality (the creation of ‘communities’), and the equal potential of the media to distort, corrupt and with-hold that reality from individuals.  Whilst the ideas rehearsed in MayDay are hardly new, their reinvestigation comes at a time when the relationship between the media and the communities and institutions which they mediate, has undergone profound transformation.

The mass media, and by extension mass-culture, have long been a matter of concern for critics of the status quo.  Post-war theorising, from Barthes, Debord and the Situationists, through Chomsky to Baudrillard and others, has persistently focused on the complicity of the mass media in maintaining and reproducing the current form of social order.  Notions such as the ‘society of the spectacle’ and ‘consumer society’, are two parts of a familiar couplet amongst a generation of leftist radicals; on one hand, it is said, the control of culture by the mass media and the culture industry presents people with a distorted but self-affirming view of reality, on the other, the material comforts and increased leisure time of consumer society militate against the desire to engage in social transformation.  As Guy Debord, in full-on Marxist mode, declared in 1957, ‘the ruling class has succeeded in using the leisure the revolutionary proletariat wrested from it by developing a vast industrial sector of leisure activities that is an incomparable instrument for stupefying the proletariat with by-products of mystifying ideology and Bourgeois tastes.[1]  Debord may not have been right about very much, but his analysis chimes with the post-war left’s frustration with the masses’ incapacity for, or indifference to revolutionary change.

Locating part of the problem of social change in terms of the totalising effects of culture and the media, meant that intervention in that scene became a valid form of resistance to the status quo for those concerned with political engagement and its relationship to culture.  For artists, the transformation in culture’s status allowed for a serious re-evaluation of the nature of art’s political dimension. For whilst the inter-war years were marked by debates over art’s ‘engagement’ with politics, and although critics on the left such as Benjamin and Adorno saw the regimentation of mass culture as a political issue, such questions remained, in the tumultuous conditions of those years, subordinate to the ‘primary’ activities of contesting social and political power.  The institutional manifestation of art tended to fall outside the terms of the debate, for those interested in politicising the already existing forms of artistic practice. However, with the onset of the cold-war, and the left’s failure to bring about revolutionary change, cultural intervention came to acquire, in the minds of many radical intellectuals, a status equal to political and social contestation. After all, if part of the failure of the left was an inability to respond to Capital’s domination of culture, then both the content and structures of culture had to be reclaimed, regardless of the success or failure of more traditional political interventions.  Many of the more radical artistic practices of the sixties characterise the pressure to integrate art into a radicalised culture; the enthusiastic appropriation of new technology, the investigation of collective practice, the transformation of performance into happening and of happening into urban intervention, all signalled art’s new found relationship to a culture where any act was potentially political.

Although the events of May ’68 didn’t bring about the overthrow of the cultural, social and economic status quo that many had hoped for, the critique of the content and techniques of culture continued to develop throughout the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, energised by the struggles of the feminist, black, gay and third world movements. But the disintegration of the militant labour movement by the mid-eighties effectively brought to an end the radical trinity of cultural, social and political opposition.  In the guise of the ‘politics of representation’, the representation of identity politics had, by the eighties become at cliché of contemporary art, the academic cultural studies movement, and  politically correct mainstream culture.  Moreover, with the final collapse of the old politics and agencies of social change, the critique of the media retreated bitterly into the abnegation of the real itself.  Unlike Vietnam, the Gulf war did not take place.

The turn of the ‘nineties marked the end of many of the elements that had made up the political and social context of the preceding three decades.  The end of the cold war and the narrowing of any distinction between left and right, even on fundamental principles of economic and social organisation, has compounded the sense of disorientation.  At the level of the individual, the disappearance of traditional communities and solidarities based on stable economics and coherent social institutions (Trade Unions, the Church, political parties etc.), have forced many to seek new mediums of exchange and new forms of collectivity.  In this respect, a key aspect of late-nineties culture is that as those traditional forms of social mediation have declined, the pressure on culture and its media to act as locations for social exchange and collectivity has increased.  For a society defined by the relationships between nomadic and isolated individuals, the flexible and temporary structures of cultural forms offer the promise of ‘new communities’.

The disappearance of the old formulations of political and cultural intervention based on the politics of the cold-war, and the changed function of culture in society, has renewed the question of the relationship between culture, the media and the agency of the individual.     The phenomenon of the internet, as much as the rhetoric that surrounds it, currently embodies the persistently utopian belief that the democratisation of communications media will enhance peoples’ ability to form associations and channels of exchange, and so make unprejudiced and rational choices about how to act. Central to this position is the defence of the Internet’s mutual-democratic format from (you’ve guessed it) the encroachments of big business.  Everyone, from Eco-protesters to a new generation of art-interventionists, recognise the Internet’s potential for mediating audiences and activists in ways not previously thought possible.  But if the implicitly political question of structural autonomy is peculiarly analogous to the net’s own technical specification, the autonomy of systems of exchange has also become a renewed preoccupation for those involved with culture.

Certain recent debates in British art have focused on this particular formulation of autonomy; one that has often has little to do with aesthetics.  The discussions around ‘artist-run’ or ‘alternative’ spaces, the recognition of the disproportionate market power of certain dealers on what gets shown, and the encroachment of corporate and media interests in the activity of art institutions and galleries are all symptomatic of a desire to renegotiate the question of social agency and its relation to culture.  The solutions to these problems are by no means evident now, but an exhibition such as MayDay goes some way to pointing out the pitfalls ahead.  Whilst the opening up of communications media to democratic and mutual forms of organisation may threaten the power of the established media in dictating who sets the agenda, there is no certainty that of itself, this development will necessarily generate any clearer understanding of what the agenda should be.  Reading the Unabomber’s deranged denunciation of all that is wrong with society and technology, I couldn’t help thinking that any old shit turns up on the ‘net.  Similarly, whilst watching the Undercurrents compilation video of Eco-protest actions from around the world, I was struck by how many political activists these days are barking up the wrong tree, even if the video had come to me via an independent network of distribution, courtesy of the (relatively) autonomous Photographers’ gallery.  Carey Young’s funny-but-serious video, documenting her valiant attempt to lecture the punters at speakers’ corner about the value of communications skills, whilst the various zealots and lunatics in the background got on with drawing the crowds, made me realise that autonomy is nothing without agenda.  The revolution may indeed be televised, but the medium is definitely not the message.

[1] Guy Debord, in Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knabb, California 1981, p54



Published in Art Monthly no 227 June 1999 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated