Remarks at Independent Convergence, Melbourne 22/5/15

I’d like to thank the organisers of this excellent gathering, as someone who works in universities I can say that they increasingly struggle to provide spaces for wide-ranging collective consideration of our predicament, and independent discussion is critical if we are to understand what we can do to change our world. I acknowledge our dependence on the traditional caretakers of the lands on which we gather uninvited. We can never be independent of this relationship.

A few questions about independence.

What would independence look like, when we are all dependent on each other? Which institutions are we independent from (for example, if our work relies on Facebook, is it independent, given the scale and reach of this firm?)

Is independence the same as self-reliance? The mythology of the creative artist is the lone genius, but it is typical for young contemporary artists to be involved in an artist-run initiatives as a way of evading the forces of market and state-sponsored scenes. How does collectivity relate to independence, is it what produces independence?

If one has dependents, how does this affect independence? Does working independently make it easier or harder to engage those with caring responsibilities, or to be a person with those responsibilities?

Is independence about being able to choose one’s collaborators? To what extent do independent artists reinforce exclusion through self-selection? If we work outside the government or firm, what governs our accountability to a larger world, all those who are not our collaborators?

Can one be an independent professional in the arts? As professionals are usually produced by institutions, or the profession becomes an institution, does the the adoption of a professional trajectory compromise independence?

Who does independence serve? Why would random citizen X, not involved in our projects or even our mission, appreciate our independence? Can independence be shared with them, and how? (In our workshop this morning we talked minimum wages – what forms of alliance are possible, to what extent do we insulate ourselves from other struggles for independence outside the arts? Marx’s concept of proletarianization proposes not a fixed distinction between artistic and non-artistic labour but a process that seeks to render all labour unable to shift its terms of employment. How is this process understood inconditions of austerity and financialisation, what common interests are produced with non-artistic labour, how can we become conscious of these interests?)

How do we engage the history of our independence? The filmmaker Lizzie Bordern, who directed the classic 80s feminist neorealist sci fi Born in Flames, put it this way: “Everyone knows nothing will work. But even if the questions are old, they must be renewed to mean something different today.” What we understand as independence is a term and concept handed to us from a prior world – as I know too well by marking too many essays on Robert Smithson – yet our new situation does not simply allow us to apply the same strategies, no matter how rightly inspirational they are, as the forces that compromise independence are different. How do the independent organisations of the past relate to us today? What does the devolution of town halls and other spaces into “private function venues” teach us about the kind of infrastructure that would support independence now?

[The next two points are not independent but are adapted from collaborative work with the critic Rachel O’Reilly]

Are the aesthetic models of the past too implicated in oppression to be independent? In the Critique of Judgement Kant described human’s aesthetic judgement as the production of independence – a freedom between the stern logic of the rational law and the constant unruly creation of nature. Yet beauty is not something we feel – it is not an affect – but a social judgement, a pronouncement of value, and so part of a labour relation, relying on the labour of others in an institutional way, if we think about ourselves as institutionally produced (family gender race etc). The critic Marina Vishmidt notes that the ideal Kantian subject who makes aesthetic judgements [the connoisseur?] is “instrumental in the ‘last instance’ …(that is) in so far as it forms a “universal subject” that is fully appropriate to the bourgeois era.” Indeed this is “the basic contradiction of bourgeois subjectivity – it is instrumental in its non-instrumentality, purposeful in its purposelesness” as it displaces the contradictions of capitalism that allow the aesthetic judgement to exist. How do we break the dependence of the arts on this instrumental labour relation?

Kant’s other aesthetic situation is the Sublime, where the independent human is confronted by something so massive that it cannot be recuperated into thought, yet we reflexively know that we cannot conceive of everything this entails. Classically, this can be manipulated by artists in their work – think of Kafka, who wanted a novel to affect us like a disaster, the death of a loved one, a suicide. But recent debates on arts funding have demonstrated how unthinkable disaster structures the means of artistic production through finance – for example, the profits that Transfield (mandatory detention) or Santos (CSG mining) redirect to the arts. How can we gain independence from the profits of death and destruction? What investments do we have in this model of support, what types of divestment are possible and desirable?

Foucault describes neoliberalism as not simply a change in governmental behaviour, but a reformatting of society to produce the individual as an economic actor, with each being the “entrepreneur of himself”, producer of his own value. To what degree do our concepts of independence reflect neoliberal ideologies? How could production find independence from this model? What independent production would be defective for this model?

Is the practice of independence the best way to find out exactly how dependent we are?

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