Making alternative futures: Instituting in a ‘weird’ world, part one
“Have you heard that reality has collapsed?”
— Erika Balsom, The Reality-Based Community
In a now infamous exchange with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press, when asked why the then-press secretary Sean Spicer had attacked the media over their coverage of crowd numbers at the 2017 US Presidential Inauguration and falsely claimed “the largest crowd in Inauguration history,” White House aid Kellyanne Conway was unflinching. “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood […] Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
Participation in the narratives of history (or of the present) is crucial to their purchase on reality. Defining the terms for representing reality, how these are told/shared and, therefore, made (and who gets to authorize them), has been at the heart of the western artistic and humanist canon for millennia. Today, however, a broad spectrum of challenges now confront that basis for these terms, making the relationship between representation and reality evermore fine-grained and relational. Whether it’s the reappraisal of the phony histories of nationalism and nativism; the expanding horizon of what new visualisation technologies make it possible to ‘perceive’ and how these new ways of seeing are impacting post-humanist philosophy, computing and big data; the fracturing of previously dominant linear versions of world history; the uneven effects of globalization; or user-driven participatory citizenship (to name just a few), the effects of these slippages (positive for some, negative to others) on often violently guarded stable categories of ‘the real’ are genuinely ambivalent — and certainly ‘real.’
When all existing critical perspectives show institutions and constituencies to be fragmented and contingent enough to allow these kinds of slippages as to what is ‘real,’ art with its long-running, but precarious engagement with the narrative that is ‘reality’ is a good starting place for contemplating the construction of flexible realities. Indeed, this context is the new unstable ground from which to consider what agency, and so what power, instituent practices that critique the cultural construction of ‘the real’ are likely to be confronted with when threaded through the institutions of art.1 Considering what power does to ‘reality’ (and the negotiation between representing or intervening in that reality), this three-part text aims to consider instituent practices by artists and organisations as they seek not to just represent the real, but actively to (re)make it. Specifically, I want to draw out the potential of what writer Marina Vishmidt has called infrastructural critique. Here I will tailor this proposition through the form of scripted or scripting reality to explore critical practices that have enabled various artists and art organisations to both remodel the realities of the present through participation, and to work on the future by intervening in what that reality is.2 In the first part, I will follow a shift from representation to participation, in the second how we might look to art practice for ways in which the particularly digital modes of participation can be reformed, and in the third, I’ll look to the practice of social intervention.
Scripted Reality Part One: Community-based realities
When reality seems to shift so quickly, and often with such little concern for so-called objective truths, is there any point left in searching for more stable ground by critiquing the institutions that once defined it? Where does one even begin when the Emperor doesn’t care that they’re naked? From another perspective, we might even say that seemingly objective representations of reality have simply been made obsolete by now openly interested and contingent worlds. Interested as they are, they offer (or demand) participation in narratives that redefine the present enough to bring in to being impossible-seeming futures – like reality TV stars as world leaders. In this reality, it would seem that TV’s most recently contagious formats, reality TV and scripted reality, are not just products of this world. They make it. To explore what this has to do with instituting, it’s perhaps best to begin with that relationship between narrative and reality.
The revolution of the Internet was supposed to be that information would become ever more accessible. Newly-empowered, digital-citizens would directly access the facts once hoarded by governments, corporations and institutions and make better, more life-affirming decisions we could all benefit from. But in even attempting to keep up with the news today, two challenges to that idea quickly emerge. First, the (online) bubbles that filter which information is most available are fortified by ever-more sophisticated personalization and granular grouping of interests by marketers and online influencers; and second, those governments, corporations and institutions who were once the protectors of knowledge, are, on the surface at least, losing their interest in being — or capacity to be — connected to stable and identifiable ‘facts.’ In particular, it has been the now-fully-detached and instrumentalized concept of reality itself, especially its connection to recorded and mutually agreed facts, that has become both the subject of the news and focus of dissensus.3
In her text, “The Reality-Based Community” London-based writer Erika Balsom sums this up with the troublingly rhetorical question: “Haven’t you heard that reality has collapsed?” Citing “post-truth politics, the death of facts, fake news, deep-state conspiracies [and] paranoia on the rise,” Balsom describes a panic around what has come to constitute and define what we call reality. The anxiety around these exacerbate and reproduce the very loss of reality they decry, at the same time lifting “the heavy burdens of gravity, belief and action, [and] effecting a great leveling whereby all statements float by, cloaked in doubt.”
This uncertainty has been long in the making. In his 2004 article “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” written for the New York Times, veteran political journalist Ron Suskind details the faith-based decision-making of the former US president George W. Bush which he argues was driven by gut instinct buried deep within a messianic belief that he was doing the will of God. He describes a creeping normalcy in which, instead of relying on data, research or expertise, Bush would berate anyone who questioned his “God-given” authority. Fearful of reproach, those around the president quickly fell in line. So much so that at its height Suskind recounts how a deputy chief of staff derided him for his own attachment to the facts. Mocking Suskind, and those like him who believed that solutions come from a “judicious study of discernable [read earthly] reality,” the White House staffer infamously chided: Suskind was “in what [the Bush administration] call the reality-based community.” But, as the staffer went on, “that’s not how the world really works anymore … we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” And while those in the reality-based community are busy trying to make sense and make visible that reality, “… we’ll act again, creating other new realities… We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Today’s events seem would bear this coming-reality out.
With decreasing institutional and intellectual clout in the face of such messianic-capitalist Imperialism (as well as its own, now spurious, claims to progressivism thoroughly undermined by right wing and alt-right elements surfacing in its own midsts), it’s also not hard to see that art has not only not escaped the power vested in shaping reality, it has also played its part – something Balsom aims to make especially clear.4 Among other possible culprits for its role in the slipping real, Balsom targets the exploration of documentary cinema in art. Rejecting an “observational mode,” for Balsom, much recent documentary filmmaking (from Trinh T Minh-ha to Werner Herzog) has favoured a “perverse suspicion” towards the constructed nature of ‘the real’ in documentary. After postmodernism’s emphasis on the nature of cultural simulation and mediation, the interference in documentary processes in digital post-production has only compounded a critical narrative of scepticism that has become all too familiar for Balsom: “I, too, attended all those graduate school seminars in which we learned to deconstruct Enlightenment principles and mistrust empiricism, but given the state of things, it’s starting to look like they might need salvaging.”
Expressing the fear that we might be heading down a path in which no truth is ever stable and in which its impossible to believe in anything except power (as well as simply fatigue with such deconstructive games), Balsom offers a counterclaim. A new political objectivity – set in the vein of films by Harun Faroki and Eric Baudelaire – it calls for a reconnection with the so-called “reality based-community… an imagined community founded in a practice of care for this most fragile of concepts.” And while art’s fascination since postmodernism with challenging the grounds on which truth claims are made could be partly to blame for such credulous acceptance of falsity and paranoid conspiracy, for Balsom art also offers a route out through its participation in the language of recording and observations, a key she believes to effective political action in a critical history reaching back to the Sceptics. In this scheme, art needs to reconnect with its function as a producer of knowledge. Not as a return to disinterested notions of objectivity centred by a liberal and western humanism, but for Balsom, a knowledge that is situated by what has actually happened regardless of how this might confound the identity or ideological positions motivating it: a return to the “power of cinema as window, however dirty and distorting its panes may be.”
When discussing the imagined community in this context, it’s difficult to ignore the role fake-news and alt-facts have played in the reaffirmation of ethno-nationalism and fascistic state narratives and actions. In 1985, Benedict Anderson wrote Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, in which he argued that, among other dynamics (including the break up of dynastic powers, the vernacularization of mono-linguistic religions, and the beginnings of European colonisation), the nation came into being as a self-aware community of people through literary forms, such as the novel and the newspaper, and what would come to be understood as the nation grew economically and literally. The novel not only acted as widely dispersed (and purchased) cultural commodity crucial to the expansion of print capitalism, but as Anderson argues, as a narrative structure based on asynchronous events (distinct from previous, linear epics following their hero verbatim), it also allowed for multiple-co-existent subjective timeframes to be imagined in parallel. As a means of narrating the spatial and temporal coexistence of many lives, the novel laid the foundations of the national imagined community.
Similarly, where religion or those you might meet physically once shaped the edges of one’s cognitive map, the events within the editorial purview of national dailies would come to shape and unify the nation as a shared sphere of relevance rooted in their often national geographic. Together, Anderson argues, these formats engendered the sense that all those separate events happening in a newly formed geographical regions – the nation – were connected in time and space, even if their protagonists and readers would never see each other in their lifetimes. Crucially, Anderson continues, these forms contributed to a sense of national-self that not only included those considered its members, but excluded those not part of the national narrative, as well.
While I don’t have the space to fully explore this here, if another important characteristic of Benedict’s proposal was the effect of media on shared time, the question today is what (if any) forms of narrative and politics could shape existing and new imagined communities. This is particularly pertinent when communities formed around the non-consensus-based realities, or alt-facts, are central to the resurgence of increasingly fragmented as well as nationalistic agendas. As much as scripted reality requires a participation in its present, it also acts on the future. In this sense it is a form that chimes with both Balsom’s call for a community whose task it is to rebuild the future of truth and is suggestive of the kind of narrative mechanism, as described by Anderson, by which imagined communities are able to make themselves. Thus, beyond offering an aspirational model that blurs the boundary-spaces between viewer, participant and character, the question remains; Does scripted reality truly constitute the basis of a new imagined community? Or is it the method of its manipulation?
To begin an answer: in simply focusing on the what, rather than the how reality is constructed, is perhaps where such a new reality-based community might be missing the point, especially when ‘the real’ has become so polarized around the truths one chooses to accept. Here then is a counterclaim to Balsom’s reality-based community to help explore this further: a community-based reality.
One immediate question is: which community is the basis for this reality? The answer should, of course, be both none and all. It must also take into account how communities understand themselves through time and space in narrative forms. The point of this inversion is that a community-based reality refuses to begin from a known, a reality that is not taken as given or foundational. It can only be generated dialogically. To be sure, this suggests a certain ambivalence: in what a communal understanding of reality shapes, and the futures that are possible in it. Which brings us to scripted reality.
Scripted reality, a television format that demands a particularly participatory community to form around it, could be said to be the cultural companion to fake news, alt facts and future-oriented forms of contemporary governance. In the opening sequence of The Only Way is Essex, one of the UK’s most popular examples of the genre, the show’s narrator reminds us, “Their tan lines may be hidden but these people are all real, although some of what you see has been snap, crack and popped for your pleasure.”5 Developed during the mid-noughties, scripted reality, like reality TV before it, appears to follow the lives of “real” people in their usually-romantic daily trials and tribulations. But with its disclaimers and circuitous, exaggerated action, always miraculously caught on camera, it is clear that what appears ranges between lightly and heavily scripted, produced and staged action. As British broadcaster Grace Dent described it, the genre centres on showing “real people in modified situations, saying unscripted lines but in a structured way.”6 From talent shows to character-driven dramas, other examples of the format range from ITV’s X-factor, Britain’s Got Talent to Keeping up with the Kardashians on E!; and MTV’s The Osbournes, The Hills, The Real World, Jersey/Geordie Shore, to Made in Chelsea on Channel 4.
While the TV format relies on an openly spurious realism (scripting only what looks like documentary or reality TV from behind the scenes and often taking place in real-life streets, clubs, or restaurants), what I’m keen to draw attention to here is how they set up conditions in which “real” action takes place. Adjusting these throughout the filming or a series (often with audience interaction such as votes), they generate and reach a produced outcome or scenario that, without a whiff of cynicism, overlays or intervenes in the social realities the programmes claim to document. Considering the known constructedness of documentary, Balsom explains that the scripted scenarios on screen, though only appearing like real effects of real causes, at the point of their consumption are as good as real. Further, by increasing viewer investment in its construction (such as in the voting on Big Brother or Love Island), or with “characters” having “real-world” social media accounts (such as Kim Kardashian), scripted reality sutures the gap between public experience and staged performance. In this way, its narrative is as much participatory or performative, as it is documentary. Constructed through a web of reality-shaping platforms (fabricated scenes and real life situations), it makes that narrative a part of how the cultural and social world is itself formed. We come to understand ourselves if not through, then among, these narratives — as part of communities that, tangled in the creation and suspension of those realities, might imagine themselves as much a part of the script as those acting it out. At this stage, such a framing of a community-based reality might not suggest much more than a lens through which we could consider the already fraught connection between culture and national identities, and certainly this is not one which would be meant to rebuff Balsom’s rightful critique of the alt-facts regime as a new locus for state power.
Yet to draw on Anderson’s study of the mechanisms by which imagined communities were formed, and reflecting on the increasingly participatory platforms and narratives of today’s scripted realities, the next section explores a different critical approach to simply searching for the better facts.
This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK.
- That is, drawing on Gerald Raunig (and Stefan Nowotny) a critical attitude of institution forming, away from present conditions but not without them: “Flight and exodus are nothing negative, a reaction to something else, but are instead linked and intertwined with constituent power, re-organizing, re-inventing and instituting.” Gerald Raunig, “Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming,” Transversal Texts (January 2006), available at: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0106/raunig/en/base_edit ↩
- Marina Vishmidt, “Beneath the Atelier, the Desert: Critique, Institutional and Infrastructural,” In Hlavajova, M., Holert, T., (eds) Marion von Osten: Once We Were Artists (A BAK Critical Reader in Artists’ Practice) (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2017). Infrastructural critique develops the site-specificity of institutional critique. It makes visible the many interlocking and intersecting conditions, protocols, structures and materials that make the institutions possible. Grounded by this visibility, it also works on these infrastructures, intervening, redistributing or rebuilding the various flows, mobilities, or dispositions that enable them to repeat or reproduce themselves. ↩
- See for instance, The Guardian’s “The Cambridge Analytica Files,” The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/series/cambridge-analytica-files ↩
- See the protests around the London gallery LD50, which for a time attempted to provide intellectual weight and space to the so-called alt-right movement: https://shutdownld50.tumblr.com/; and an attempt by right-wing activists to stage an exhibition in support of the incoming president, https://hyperallergic.com/328846/this-is-not-parody-fuck-trump ↩
- Opening sequence, The Only Way is Essex, ITVBe (23 October 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khvQyGSszfM ↩
- Grace Dent, “Grace Dent’s TV OD,” The Guardian (23 October 2010). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2010/oct/23/tv-od-the-only-way-is-essex ↩