“The ruthless criticism of everything that exists”

He Knows

A friend posted a link to my blog post (and leaflet) You Are Nowhere on Facebook a few days ago. Many people commented on it. Below I will attempt to respond to some of the comments that emerged in the Facebook discussion. I’m not on Facebook so thanks to those who posted and defended or explained my arguments, and who also passed on this discussion.

Why did I write You Are Nowhere? I wrote ‘You Are Nowhere’ in order to present the related story of the Aktion Surreal group and the occupation of the ANU Chancelry in 1994. As opposed to the leaflets I put out in 2011 and 2012, which both directly criticized the You Are Here festival, I chose to offer a story from Canberra’s past. Indeed I believe that Aktion Surreal (hereafter AS) offers some insight into possible alternatives of artistic practice and presentation. But as I clearly indicate in the leaflet I am ambivalent about the ‘success’ (or lack thereof) of AS. Indeed as I also argued I would in no way wish to simply replicate or resurrect AS. For instance I do not believe, nor have I ever presented AS, as the dizzy heights of artistic practice in Canberra – as some have claimed.

It has been pointed out that the title ‘You Are Nowhere’ is implicitly critical of You Are Here (hereafter YAH). It would be churlish of me to deny that I have been, and am critical of YAH. However the title, apart from its obvious reference to YAH, has other purposes as well. I hoped that it would evoke the sense of rootlessness and alienation that goes hand in hand with the urban life of the capitalist city. Indeed I recommend that it be read alongside the title on the back of the leaflet as well; thus the complete title of the leaflet is ‘You are nowhere & we are lost…’. At the very least the ‘cover’ of the leaflet, with its détourned picture, would make a nice addition to your toilet wall gallery.

So what’s with the criticism, dude? Near the top of the YAH website you will find the following:


These words, more a mantra, are repeated from year to year. But what the hell do they mean? After all I’m a part of ‘Canberra’s diverse independent and experimental arts and culture’. A living artifact! A relic even, waving my magical stick of radicality and collapsing wave functions. But more to the point YAH presents itself as the Canberra ‘showcase’ of ‘experimental arts and culture’. However even the most cursory examination of the ‘experimental arts’ over the last century and more reveals a close family resemblance with the avant-garde. Karl Marx called it the ruthless criticism of everything that exists. I call it arguing for the future in the face of the past. And so I am simply stumped by those that argue I would be better off making my arguments somewhere else than YAH, or more bizarrely that I should not even be making them.

Should we refuse funding? Some have argued that I am opposed to YAH, or anyone for that matter, receiving money from Canberra CBD. That is not exactly correct. Let’s have a look at what I wrote in my previous blog entry:

“Artists at You Are Here must refuse to be associated with the likes of Canberra CBD. To be associated with Canberra CBD is to be a part of its “beautifying” mission and policing of all creative activities that fall outside the commercial “needs” of these property owners.”

Certainly a ‘refusal to be associated’ can manifest as the refusal of funds. But I would recommend, at the very least, that if you are going to accept funding from Canberra CBD and you also find their anti-graffiti policy wrong and palpably hypocritical (if we consider they are also pay some graff artists to “beautify” their commercial premises), then say so, publically. For me this is the absolute minimum required to ‘refuse association’ with Canberra CBD, or at least draw attention to their hypocrisy in public. Whether or not you want to refuse funding from them is another question. I would be a liar to say I haven’t accepted funding from ‘questionable sources’ (e.g. the Australian government, various companies I have had the misfortune to sell my labour-power to over the years, etc.). The point I was and am trying to make is that criticizing the social order that apparently ‘enables’ our activity isn’t hypocrisy; it’s when we refuse to do this, or go quiet because we are afraid of the consequences, that we slip into the murky realm of hypocrisy. By all means beg, borrow and steal what is required; it’s not as if we have got a choice in this regard – for the time being at least.

Anthony Hayes: who the hell? I am and have been a practicing artist in Canberra for most of the 23 years I have lived in this city. Apart from Aktion Surreal I have played in bands – Sex-Pol, The Piltdown Frauds, The Groovecats, Avatron, to name a few – and written and performed many poems and other less easily labeled ‘artistic interventions’ over the years. I have released my own zines semi-regularly (some of them are available on my blogs) and have collaborated with others throughout this time and continue to do so. I also make cut-ups and occasionally design posters. Often I have included social critique in my work. Almost all of my ‘works’ these days have some relation to the Situationist practice of détournement. I have even been involved in organizing and running performance nights. However I have always had a difficult relationship to the spectacle of art; and I have tried, as much as possible, to avoid commercial transactions, preferring to freely distribute the results of my artistic experiments.

Do I hate YAH? I have friends participating in YAH this year, as I have since it began. I have collaborated with some of the artists and organisers of YAH in the past. I have chosen not to participate in YAH (except ‘negatively’ perhaps). Even if I recommended or even demanded that people do not participate in the festival – something I have done in the past but am ambivalent about right now – it is hardly the coercion that some think is mysteriously embedded in my words. Unlike Canberra CBD I don’t report to or cooperate with the cops or any of the actual coercive powers of this society.

Is there an alternative? People have asked me what my alternative to YAH is, or have argued that despite my criticisms I offer no alternative. It is true that I offer no alternative way to organize the festival or even an alternative form of arts festival – apart from my suggestions about being critical of the society that ‘enables’ such festivals. The alternative I envisage isn’t an alternative art festival or a better version of YAH (if such a thing is even possible). Rather I am proposing an alternative to the present society, and I believe that an artistic critique of capitalist society has been and is an important part of such an alternative.

The ‘practice of art’ fulfils several functions in this society. One of its primary functions, unfortunately, is that of alibi for the otherwise dull, monotonous reality of everyday life: the reality of waged work and the not always unpleasant consumption of commodities. Because capitalist society offers the possibility of greater creative control of some aspects of life it can ‘gild’ the boredom and violence of the rest of it. It offers ‘compensation’ to the monotony and occasional terror of its rule in the form of the abundant spectacle of consumer goods and cultural commodities. But insofar as we have no real control over the way these things are produced, the compensation is illusory and unacceptable: we are reduced to the level of machines; mechanisms that have measureable and mysterious needs for eating and shitting and fucking and dying.

In contrast artistic activity has been and is used critically. Not only in the sense of theoretically criticizing the rule of capitalism, but also by practically demonstrating that there are different ways we can organize our everyday activity – more creative and collaborative ways. A central idea of artistic practice, that the individual or collaborators involved clearly direct and carry out the process and dispose of the results as they see fit, is in stark contrast to the rest of capitalist society. I believe that it is precisely this sense of creative control that makes art so interesting as well as makes it implicitly critical of capitalist hierarchies of ownership and exclusion. Indeed this is why capitalist society is so eager to marginalize artistic practice on the one hand while on the other harness it in order to disguise the naked chains of its domination.

The point in the end is not to just criticize YAH but to criticize a world. The rulers of this world, elected and unelected, use such things as art festivals to disguise the boring and often brutal reality which they manage and exploit. I will continue to demand that you join me in the difficult but necessary task of criticizing their rule and replacing it with something more human, creative and free; whether or not you recognize this demand is entirely up to you.


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3 Responses to “The ruthless criticism of everything that exists”

  1. antyphayes says:

    Reblogged this on notes from the sinister quarter and commented:

    A follow up to some discussion generated on Facebook in response to my earlier blog post ‘You Are Here’.

  2. Jeff says:

    Reblogged this on Recent Items and commented:
    This re-blog will interest anyone pondering what alternatives there might be to the ways in which ‘art practice’ is configured. What should the attitude towards funding be in any critical stance that claims to be ‘radical’? Furthermore, what alternatives should be proposed in this stance? These and other questions are taken up by this academic of Situationist work. Links to his involvement in and against an art festival are included. As you might expect, some pretty abrasive stuff here.

  3. Pingback: Aktion Surreal 1991-1994 |

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