The Plot and An Economy of Means-being-means
"In the most learned translations, the word economy is rendered by different terms such as incarnation, plan, design, administration, providence, responsibility, duties, compromise, lie, or guile, as is relevant, without the reader being warned of the return of the same Greek word – oikonomia – in each case." – from Image, Icon, Economy by Marie José Mondzain
Storytelling feels like it’s been “out of fashion” for many years, perhaps as long ago as the late 1970s. At that time, political critiques began linking the form of narrative, on several fronts, to entrenched ideological structures. Using deconstructionist strategies to make these links, art and cultural theory produced reflections with anti-narrative sentiments that rippled long and strong. But there seems to be a tentative return to the narrative form in art, and if the artworks in The Power Plant’s exhibition The Plot are any indication, it’s not the deep structure of politics but that of economics at stake today.
In a generic sense, the phrase “economy of means” suggests making do with a small amount. To live frugally is to live economically, to carefully manage resources so they go as far as possible. In this sense, all of the artists in The Plot embrace an economy of means: their practices share a DIY aesthetic, the use of friends and family as actors, and homemade or ready-to-hand props. Without a doubt these choices are practical, but they are also aesthetically important for the set of values they imply, in particular the value of the experimental amateur over the convention-setting expert, and the frugality of video over the extravagance of film.
In the more specific context of art theory, the phrase “economy of means” suggests something slightly different. It describes a minimalist aesthetic that delivers big bang for its buck. (In this sense too, all of the artists deliver.) Perhaps the Modernists glorified this trait, but if they did so it’s because there is something inherently exciting – there is magic at work – when a little delivers a lot, when something small transforms into something big. If the generic sense of this phrase had a Protestant ring to it, this second one is much older, though no less religious in origin…
Made in 2005, Isabelle Pauwels’s Eddie is the oldest work in the exhibition, and it functions as a kind of didactic panel for the exhibition as a whole. Looking directly into the camera and in relative close-up (a diary-like aesthetic pulled right out of 1970s video art), Pauwels tells us the story of her sexual exploits with an unemployed black man, Eddie, and the moral conundrums she faced as a middle-class white woman, entering and exiting her one-night stand. While pointed and funny, this story is not the story here, as Pauwels uses her encounter with Eddie to argue a broader theme. Vertically scrolling text screens intercut installments of the Eddie story and serve to punctuate this theme:
“The economy of the story is the story of economy:
the transformation of less into more…”
In Eddie, through a conception of economy, story is revealed as a means, but the reverse is also true, and it’s true for all the works in the exhibition: through a conception of story, economy is revealed as a means, as a means to an end, as an end in itself and simply, and particularly, as a “means-being-means.”
“Means-being-means” is a term invented by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. He was researching the etymology of the word “action” and found it had not two, but three different meanings: there was, on the one hand, action meaning production – a means to an end – the way, for instance, a director makes a video but doesn’t act it. On the other hand, there was action meaning praxis – a means as an end – the way an actor “acts” a play but doesn’t make it. But then Agamben found there existed a third type of action, one embodied by the phrase “to carry on.” This is what he refers to as a means-being-means. In this kind of action, he says, “nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported.1
All the artworks in The Plot address means, both practically and conceptually, but it is the nature of the artists’ embodiment of this third type of action that interests me, the way they make visible the economy as a means-being-means. I should probably say, though, the fact that I see economy exposed in these works is not surprising given recent events. My looking at art right now is coloured, perhaps even pre-disposed, by the Occupy Wall Street protests. In Vancouver, where I live, the protest is occurring on the property of the art gallery (also our former courthouse), which has a long history of being the place for voicing dissent in the city. Last week, citing a law forbidding permanent structures, city officials ruled against the pounding of tent pegs into the ground, and as a result, the numbers have waned significantly.2
Nevertheless, despite the ruling and the winter rains, which arrived just days after the ruling, and despite, too, being regularly criticized in the media for not having a clear message, the die-hards are still there, weeks after the protests began. I’ve been quite struck by their action. Because there are no demands, when I pass them by (almost daily), I find I’m not contemplating the outcome of the protest – I’m not thinking about the protest as a means to an end. Nor am I thinking of protest as an end in itself, which is admittedly what I often do, mythically romanticizing the act of protest as a sign of democracy.3 Instead, when I pass by these protesters-without-message, I’m having an experience very similar to the kind I often have watching a performance art piece: duration and the lived body occupy my thoughts and feelings. In this case, I’m particularly fixated by duration on the lived body mediated, as it is here, by an economy that according to Eddie is based on a con:
FIRST LAW OF COMMERCE:
THE HONEST CON.
The dishonesty of commerce lies in the
very idea of honesty: that all things being equal,
and everything being on the table, each party
has a chance to make a fair trade.
But honestly, parties are not equal.
One party always gets more for less,
while the other party gets less for more.
Thus the basic condition of entering the game is:
you have to let yourself be suckered in, as you
must sucker in others; while acting as if
there is no cause for suckering.
Otherwise, no one’s got any business doing
Of course, in Eddie, this text doesn’t just refer to economics, it also refers to conventions of storytelling, conventions that are also visible in Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys’s 2010 work Das Loch (trans. The Hole).
Das Loch is a slapstick tragedy whose protagonist, Johannes, is an old painter who is dying. The quintessential romantic, every modernist myth of the artist has been served up to characterize Johannes: unrecognized genius, life-long struggle and a deep relationship to God. A 1950s postwar existential isolation marks our main character’s life, underscored in the video by “friends,” who feel much more like strangers than anything else, and by his wife Hildegard, who is perhaps best described as callous. (As Johannes is nearing death, for instance, Hildegard cruelly implies his career has been a waste, mourning the fact that he spent his life making paintings instead of videos.)
In this artwork, the artists take their style of brute realism to a new limit, although a superficial glance might cause my use of the word “realism” to raise eyebrows. For there is almost no set to speak of (everything is shot against solid-coloured walls); the “actors” are all just mannequin heads, also solid-coloured, adorned with a few identity markers (a pair of glasses here, a bit of hair glued on there); and the camera feels as lifeless as the ”actors” – the video progresses by moving from one long, still shot to the next, as if the camera was permanently propped up on a tripod, turned on and off now and again. In truth, nothing about the way this video looks is real. In fact, its aesthetic most closely resembles that of children when they play “pretend.” Everything kids use while playing is ready-to-hand, and they use just enough stuff to catalyze their imaginations and transform “pretend” into illusion. But de Gruyter and Thys always refuse this magic act. In their work pretend is always just pretense, and in Das Loch artifice gapes, revealing a realism with a chokehold on the work.
For me, this realism starts and ends with the way everything in this artwork is revealed to be a means, or rather more specifically, a tool – a means serving ends. The mannequin heads, for instance, don’t feel like representations so much as they do real actors stripped of everything but their usefulness.4 The set, the identity markers, the camera, they have all been reduced to their use-value. They are tools, and in this artwork tools are autonomous from people; they have an agency and don’t require us to activate them. Perhaps this is embodied most by the camera, which has been reduced to the functions it can perform without us: it can look and it can record, but it can’t move, and outside the climactic moment, that is all spectators see. The sound, too, falls into this paradigm. The entire narration in this video – the transformation from words on the page into the speech act – has been performed by a voice-generator that comes standard on Apple computers.
In Das Loch, tools have taken over the world and re-figured it in their own image.5 And it is through this image it becomes possible to find meaning in the long, mundane monologue by one of the mannequins who tells the “story” of a friend who tries to update his camera (a PT8024) by getting a new memory card because his old card didn’t have enough gigabytes, and so not enough memory for the high resolution photos he wanted to store on it, but then the new memory card doesn’t work in his camera, so his friend recommends he buys a different camera, a PT 9017c, but it is incompatible with his new memory card, so he goes back to the store, and the guy at the store suggests he buys… and it goes on and on and on, in that techy-talky way. In truth, it’s absolutely hilarious, but only because it’s devoid of humanity in both its form and its content. A mannequin, a vocoder voice-over, technological gibberish, and a motionless camera on sticks: only someone whose entire world revolved around the means/end binary could find this story worthy of note.
While funny, creative, insightful, and smart, only one tenuous thread holds me emotionally to this work. It’s the long duration of the unbearably still images. Duration is the one thing that is not “pretend” in Das Loch. Despite what at first might appear to be the case, this video is not a series of still photographs whose temporal life has been faked by adding time to the instant: duration – the passing being of being itself – has not been generated inside a computer. Someone was behind that camera for as long as I’m looking at it now. These are not still photographs, they are moving images and their duration is real. This duration is so powerful it fills up this two-dimensional world, it makes us care about Johannes and gives the artists’ brute realism reason and meaning. For real duration has no purpose, it can’t be reduced to a means serving ends. In duration, viewers and makers connect to each other; through duration humans being interrupt the steady reduction of everything into tools acting. In this one small gesture, de Gruyter and Thys present a world that is more than just an economy of means.
The word “economy” comes from the Greek word oikonomia which, in Aristotle’s Economics, described a means implemented with a material end in mind, though the word was generally understood in his day as implying the good functioning of domestic affairs, particularly as it related to profits.6 But from its first usage through to the Byzantine debate between the iconophiles and the iconoclasts, this word grew to include the administration and government of not just domestic life, but all of public affairs, indeed the whole world of human history.7
The meaning of the word oikonomia was greatly affected by the Gnostics in the third century BC, who were trying to figure out how their monotheistic religion could deal with the concept of the trinity. Giorgio Agamben relates their solution as follows:
God, insofar as his being and substance is concerned, is certainly one; but as to his oikonomia – that is to say the way in which he administers his home, his life, and the world that he created – he is, rather, triple. Just as a good father can entrust to his son the execution of certain functions and duties without in so doing losing his power and his unity, so God entrusts to Christ the 'economy,' the administration and government of human history.8
Through the Gnostics’ use of the term oikonomia, the concept of economy transcended its definition as a worldly system to become a sign of the incarnational plan and of divine providence itself. It’s through a concept of economy that the link is made between God and world, invisible and visible, image and flesh.9 As secular as we may have become, the concept of economy still has the meaning attributed to it through the iconoclastic crisis, and it is present and accounted for inKeren Cytter’s Avalanche (2011).
Avalanche is a scarcely narrative artwork in which prosaic and poetic image fragments piece together an alienated, psychological expression of social relations. Divided into four sections, each with its own title (viewed in any order), it is not continuity but contiguity that is the organizing principal in this cinematic experience. We often enter scenes in the middle of an event and leave before it’s over; emotional moments are perpetually suspended, cut off by the radically different scene to which the video turns. Characters seem as if they are not whole but dispersed into fragments, and heavy symbols (ie. an apple, a mirror ball) repeat frequently throughout the videos, each iteration carrying a different emotional tone. (Ripe with potential meaning, they, too, seem suspended, as if caught in mundane contexts which prevent them from fulfilling their potential.)
The videos play out in two simultaneous registers, the banal and the operatic. We see, for instance, a character deliver a dry consumer report on the Canon EOS 7D camera,10 but we also witness two people make love in a bathtub while blue petals fall all around them. This combination of qualities – mundane melodrama? – operates as a kind of machine in this work, proliferating images and turning each one into a cliché. But that’s exactly as it should be, for cliché is without a doubt Cytter’s material of choice in this beautiful fugue-like composition.11
Clichés mediate and circulate through the external world the characters inhabit and through their internal worlds as well. Through hallways and street corners, in coffee shops and apartments, flat, archetypal characters are stiff, detached from their own experience. They seem unconcerned by the events that happen to them, and when characters speak, it’s just lip-service (at times this sense is given literal form when they speak different languages to each other). Psychic clichés are the means by which characters think and feel, are thought and felt. In fact, the characters themselves are just clichés among others.
There is a strange equivalence to all the images in Cytter’s work and especially to her treatment of them. A leopard housecoat; a woman yelling “Encore, Encore!”; the sound of a rolling apple; a production assistant making artificial snow; a quotation from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: in a Warholian sense, they are all the same. We forget the power of rendering things equivalent. It is not an act of translation, but one of transubstantiation. A leopard housecoat and a woman yelling are essentially different. When they are rendered into image, and in this case also into clichés, their very substance changes. This is an alchemical process; an incarnation in the religious sense. Holding together a world without totality or linkage, clichés function in this piece as currency, embodying and transmitting the flow of capital.
Today’s capitalism finds its roots in mercantilism, an economic doctrine that dominated the 16th to 18th centuries, in which governments placed the utmost significance on controlling foreign trade, as it was linked to prosperity and security of the state. Mercantilism was a great motivator of colonial expansion and by the 17th century, the Portuguese, Spaniards, French, Dutch, and British all had their own empires. While the 19th century saw the pace of colonialism decrease, new empires were still being built, including the Belgian colonial empire, which existed from 1901–1962. The Belgian Congo was the largest of the three colonies and it is a subject in Isabelle Pauwels’s second piece in the exhibition, and the latest work in her practice.
In Pauwels's W.E.S.T.E.R.N. (2010) 8mm found film footage of “some place” in the Congo12 is intercut with banal digital video of a middle-class suburban home “some place” in North America. Divided into sections and sub-sections through idiosyncratic title cards,13 the piece moves back and forth from one location to the other, making comparisons. An extreme wide-shot of a giant waterfall cuts to a tilt down a drainpipe attached to a house; a pan of the landscape in the desert cuts to a pan of hedges in a backyard. Only the smallest fragments from one scene are presented before being interrupted by an image from its “other” – a snippet here, a snippet there – like skipping around 8x10s with a magnifying loupe, only a few grains can be seen at a time. And it is only over time that the barest sketch of a narrative becomes visible. This is not a comparison after all: there are not two separate stories being told; Pauwels’s own family’s story is on display, both its past and its present.
Of Belgian descent, Pauwels’s grandfather appears to have been an official of some sort, responsible for property in the Belgian Congo. Fleeting images in the re-edited film footage innocuously imply at first, and then practically begin to shout out, the power relations between whites and blacks.14 And the artwork’s audio track, made mostly from the sounds of the film projector, starts and stops abruptly, each time shocking, like the sound of gunfire. In so doing it foreshadows the revolution that we know – through history books – is about to come. (Referred to by Pauwels mother in the video, the revolution is, of course, the reason her family fled the region.)
But forgive this description; it is misleading, for this piece offers no easy critique of colonialism, as if it were something that by virtue of its being past could be turned into an object of study, captured in the frame (as so many documentaries tend to do). In fact, the past is not really present here at all, as the artist goes to great lengths to demonstrate. A longer, closer look at the video reveals that from beginning to end this work is contemporary. Even the 8mm film has been re-mediated by video and the present tense, made obvious by the fact that the film frame is often smaller than the video frame, allowing us to see what the film is projected against – a wall, white bricks or one of those 60s home-movie screens. These are all surfaces located in the suburban home where all this digital footage has been shot. No, colonialism does not exist in this piece; it subsists, it insists. It’s everywhere: in the sentimental objects Pauwels’ family owns, whose personal history her mother relates; in the art on their walls that we catch glimpses of behind the film screen; in the silent fact of this middle-class suburban home itself, in its very affordability. Economics is the unspoken term here, silently exposed as the means by which this family’s lives-are-being-lived.
Like the protesters-without-message, this video, and indeed all the works in the exhibition, are framing the concept of economy itself as a “means without ends.” In a silent discourse of revelation, all of these acts expose a being-in-economy. The difference between the artworks and the protesters, of course, is that in the case of the protesters, exposing economics as the means by which our world is administered and governed, is an act being done daily, by lived bodies, in the rain.
1. Giorgio Agamben. “Notes on Gesture,” Means Without Ends. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000): 56–57.
2. “No Tent Pegs” was okay while the fall sun was still out, but when winter rains came, the ruling took real effect. This official strategy is a familiar one in our fair city: six to eight months before the Olympics came, this same law was used to force the Falun Gong protesters to take down their shelter – a plywood shack that had been standing for longer than the fifteen years I’ve lived in Vancouver.
3. I did that with the Falun Gong people until their shelter came down.
4. Director Robert Bresson had a similar relation to actors; he famously referred to them derogatorily as models.
5. While I’ve characterized this work as slapstick tragedy, I’m pretty sure I could make a case for it being categorized as dystopic sci-fi flick.
6. Marie José Mondzain. Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine origins of the contemporary imaginary (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004): 19–20. Interestingly, Aristotle, states Mondzain, believed that without economics, there could be no social cohesion and “Without this prior cohesion, there is no place for politics… economics therefore comes before politics” (19). It may also be of interest that according to Mondzain, from the outset the concept of economy was “tied as much to material as to symbolic goods” and tied to service as well (19–20).
7. Both Mondzain and Agamben make this point.
8. Giorgio Agamben, “What Is an Apparatus?” in “What Is an Apparatus?” and Other Essays. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009): 9–10. He will go on to say: “Oikonomia therefore became a specialized term signifying in particular the incarnation of the Son, together with the economy of redemption and salvation (this is the reason why in Gnostic sects, Christ is called 'the man of economy'…)."
9. Mondzain argues this is done through the icon and the way it makes possible “relative similitude.”
10. Avalanche, Das Loch and W.E.S.T.E.R.N. all have this dry, technological description of the cinematic tools used to make the artworks.
11. A fugue is a musical composition in which a theme or subject is explored through successive imitations or repetitions in different pitches or voices.
12. Picture 1960s home movies meets National Geographic photography.
13. ie. “Reforestation, economic reconversion, water harnessing,” “Greenery” or “Finding time.”
14. Here is a sampling of images, in order of appearance, taken from the beginning, middle and end: Africans and Caucasians working together in a field; a Caucasian man sits behind a table, a long line-up of Africans on the other side; the same man on a divan carried by African men through the jungle.
Sharon Kahanoff is a filmmaker, artist, writer, and educator based in Vancouver and interested in ideas of time as expressed through the moving image. Her artwork has been exhibited in galleries internationally, and she has published writing in exhibition catalogues and art journals. She teaches academic and studio classes at Emily Carr and Simon Fraser universities, and is a board member at Cineworks Independent Filmmakers Society.