Ugly Enemies
Esther Gatón

The scientific worker of the future will more and more resemble the lonely figure of Daedalus as he becomes conscious of his ghastly mission, and proud of it.¹

In her striking essay Sunburns, Esther Gatón reinterprets the task of exhibition-making as a species of trap construction. In doing so, she’s clear that her interpretation extends beyond a certain immediately obvious interpretation, according to which the artist is a hunter, the viewer, prey, and the artwork becomes the trap that brings the two together. In such a reading, the significance of the trap would be as an object or situation that lures an audience under false pretences, so as to extract something from them—the metaphorical artwork-as-trap pulling in attention, say, with money in its wake.

More subtle and expansive than this (already interesting) perspective Gatón’s interest in the exhibition-as- trap-system is driven by the capacity of a trap to produce a plot twist: here we are, going along as we do, and suddenly, everything has changed, and we realise that what we thought was “the situation” is definitely not so. We have been, in whatever way, played. “The exhibition understood as a trap-machine”, she writes, “is not a system for capturing visitors created by the artist, but instead builds a shared environment full of deceptions, frauds and stunts, which everyone, including its authors, traverses without knowing how to proceed”; and this tends at its extreme to a space where “management has vanished and resolution becomes impossible, resulting in a situation where all that is left is the experience of being misled, and reactions to it”.2

The deployment of such a twist can catalyse various responses. For sure, one might be a transcendent moment of political and personal re-evaluation on the part of the viewer. But her approach, too, encompasses a broader spectrum of responses witnessed amongst gallery-goers, which somehow never seem to end up the cornerstone of pronouncements about art—experiences spanning mystification or boredom, through to betrayal and rage.

*

Totally contrary to Machiavelli’s portrait in The Prince of effective leaders as decisive and goal-oriented, eyewitness accounts describe Cosimo de’ Medici as an indecipherable sphinx.3

Political philosophy, especially in the West, has not in general liked to deal with gyres. Gyres are formed when a cluster of people become locked into patterns of pre-emptive manoeuvre with respect to one another. People watch one another, trying to guess their next move, locating points of interception or distracted inertia, fashion bait—the gyre is a shifting, flexing trapscape.

Gyres are social phenomena, always involving at least a two-person rivalry, but the upper limit is less clear; perhaps all human social forms contain a trace of them. Archetypal forms of gyre are the court, the corporate board, the depths of political parties, a crime syndicate, et cetera; even a group of friends. Western habits of thought tend not to prioritise a general analysis of the gyral dynamics of such situations, historically preferring instead to schematise more just alternatives to a specific gyre than to map the specifics of their vectors. The gyre therefore shows up as kind of negative impression, the thing a political programme wants to get rid of.

Accordingly, the gyre often becomes defined only partially, in terms of the proposed solution to abolish it, rather than being appraised as a structure in its own right. It is easy, from the perspective of a collectivist strain of thought, to see them as ultra-competitive, yet they gyres propel the creation of strategic alliances, just as much as they do betrayals. Likewise, advocates of individualism might observe that despite the gyre’s facilitation of deeply personal projects, they also involve, at a broad level, the abolition of individual identity, as each participant’s behaviour comes to be defined by others in the gyre. Competition and cooperation, no longer opposites, becomes secondary to complicity—ongoing, complex, partial and overlapping involvement—a phenomenon that has yet to attract its Smith or its Marx; and in the political- economic terms with which those thinkers were concerned, the gyre creates even more confusion.

Fans of a certain type of production-focussed worldview, be it capitalist or involving certain strains of communism, the gyre annihilates value, even as they form around concentrations of perceived wealth or status. While this latter point indicates the importance of hierarchy within gyres, they are also the locus of huge reversals of fortune, and therefore are able to embody a kind of revolutionary dynamic, or at least a flattening one. And while these revolutions and counter-revolutions may escalate to destroy a social system they expand within, they can also prove remarkably stable overtime.

To even think about a gyre is to be drawn into it.

Nonetheless, the principle lesson about the gyre is that it can exist around any substantial concentration of perceived power or advantage, regardless of the ostensible political tradition at work in it. Indeed, the sheer compatibility of gyropolitics with more overt political forms is not just remarkable, but also, it would seem, necessary. Which is to say that gyropolitical environments tend to swim thick with broad affirmations as to the glory of deities, kings, nations, the people, the family, or whatever else is elevated in the politics of a time and place. This is consistently noted in those rare volumes that speak to practitioners of gyropolitics directly, like the brutal Guiguzi and Kautilya, or the gentler, but still sharp, Art of Worldly Wisdom, which— despite the extraordinary distances in time, space, and culture from which they derive—converge on a small set of remarkably similar themes about how to prosper within one.

The leader should remain enigmatic, these rare and dangerous books advise. Ideally, be silent or speak sparsely, an approach which compels other people to reveal themselves by talking to you. Or achieve inscrutability through other means, such as presenting your contradictions with confidence or indifference, as though they possess a secret logic. Have people argue about what you really meant. Rise above criticism by allying yourself—as above—with widely perceived goods; do not elaborate a concrete vision of the future. Avoid committing to specifics that might make you predictable, or against which you might be accountable. Avoid blame, and let others blame each other for your displeasure. Do not just refrain from indicating your goals; do not have any. Compel others, instead, to strategise, occupying their minds with attempts to understand where you are leading them, or what you want from them, or what you will do next. Become a trap.

Consider: how many times have we heard an artist refuse to be drawn on a specific intent or recommended interpretation of an artwork? While expressing a desire for those objects or situations to provoke thought in the viewer—to challenge, to disturb, but above all engage? How many contemporary artists point to capitalism, technology, or the art world itself as problematic, with the full agreement of their audience?

When the art world is understood as a gyropolitical environment, art history itself begins to warp. In such cases, we’ve not come far from the artist as portrait-maker of the well-heeled patron, but the approach has tactically shifted from representation to impersonation.

Acknowledging that the contemporary art world is densely threaded with gyropolitical plots doesn’t mean that there is no countervailing moment. Notional critiques of the art industry come as standard in art discourse, and many reforming or revolutionary initiatives within the Western art world have failed to make much of a difference to it. Nonetheless, today we see signs of a fresh roster of alternative approaches—not least where artists working with advanced technologies are producing infrastructure that routes around the art-industry staples like collectors, curators, auctioneers, gallerists, etc. in which gyropolitics presently exercises some of its wildest forms.4

But what such initiatives do not automatically do is take up this kind of plotting as a subject matter in itself. This seems all the more important, given that the feeling of being trapped is now arguably as close to a universal experience as the planet can host, a veritable zeitgeist. And we see this reflected in the vast popularity of genre fiction that stages these kinds of interpersonal behaviours, from The Sopranos to Succession. This tends to remain, however, at the level of content, depicting, in better ways or not, some of these operations of power. If artists, as a rule, lack comparable budgets or distribution mechanisms, they also have an extraordinary creative latitude with which to work. The challenge, therefore, becomes how to work with these complex dynamics as a creative material, how to put them to work in new ways. How to collectively make something of them, rather than personally embody them.

~Epilogue: An Exercise~

A trapscape can involve multiple traps. How can traps be related?

Independence from one another is an option.

But traps can also be linked or stacked—enabling, for example, escape from a trap to serve as bait in another.

One consequence of this observation would note additionally that traps, at the terminal point, are ultimately binary structures: either one is trapped, or one is not.5

As such, the pattern of dependencies that exist between traps—for example, trap A is open when trap B and C are closed, or trap X is closed when either trap Y or trap Z are open—construct a series of logic gates, a basic processor.

What software can run on such hardware?

 


1 JBS Haldane, Daedalus, or, Science and the Future, 1923
2 Sunburns is an essay written by Esther Gatón in 2020, in which she reflects on exhibition making as trap making. An excerpt of this text was published at A*Desk in September, edited by Marta Ramos Yzquierdo.
3John Padgett & Christopher Ansell, Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434, American Journal of Sociology, 98:6.1993
4 See for example the Future Art Ecosystems programme, orchestrated by Serpentine Galleries R&D Platform and Rival Strategy. https://futureartecosystems.org

5 Curiously, this is a retrospective judgment; if the trap was escaped, then one was never trapped to being with. The time-structure of traps is fascinating, as are the prospect of continuous gradations of entrapment.

 

GYROPOLITICS, Benedict Singleton, 2020.

Benedict Demiren Singleton is a partner and Director of Design at Rival Strategy. His background is in design and philosophy; he was formerly an independent consultant, and taught at Strelka Institute and the Royal College of Art.

Dates        18.12.2020 – 31.03.2021