The Aesthetics of Failure, An Introduction; Too Late.

Robby Herbst

For Easter 2007, I found myself at a hot-springs retreat in Northern California. What I witnessed there could be some one’s punch line for a joke involving sprouts, peace signs and patchouli. In the vegetable garden above the domed meditation temple a Wiccan solstice and rebirthing ceremony for the earth was held. Topless in yoga pants, or those Zubas things that professional wrestlers and dudes from heavy metal bands wore when they kicked it by the pool, a conglomeration of sexy seniors and twenty-something’s chanted, “we are all part of the goddess and from her we shall return like a drop of rain”. Like a non-improvised drum circle the head witch (or priestess) began the chants, which the coven (I guess that is what you call it) responded. From the Wiccan’s young offspring to the biker dude who perhaps found their goddess upon kicking meth and joining the loving circle, everyone performed the ritual of life with enthusiasm mustered. Using their own bodies they balled up as seeds, than shaking that out became a glorious plant, then withered-dying, ceaselessly-crumpling to the green-grass of the spring sun-dappled hillside. Behind each seed, a partner felt and massaged the seed to life and than comforted it through its cycles, alternately moaning and cheering with ecstasy upon completing a growing phase. Next, like a square dance, each member of the coven paired up and then cast off so as to meet up with every other member of the gathering. Hyper- speed dating, they stared into each-others eyes intimately, literally flirting with the goddess with a bless you a wink and than moved on.

I observed the religious ritual from the steps, at once repulsed and inspired; giggling not fully comfortable with this display of love and pseudo-religious ideology, otherwise known as a form of satanic praxis. Praxis, because for the gathered Wiccan’s this was actual belief, not ritualized and alienated performance qua-goddess worship. Let’s assume together that the unicorn posters over their beds are real- the rainbows and warlocks are not a game or sign for hip aesthetic gesture. Though the ritual clearly was made of theater, the actors all performed without a mask, embodying the roles of apostate well, remarkably without irony. Beyond this context, you would have no idea that that these only slightly-groovy people are heretics. I imagine for some this truth is creepy. Later, the afternoon had my wife and I furtively observing a coed-naked yoga class held very-publicly in the roadside meditation garden. The wife and I checked out at the front desk, had a final cup of cucumber infused lemon water, and got into our car, Leaving, our parting sight was the yawning asshole of a tanned and resplendant yogi performing an expressive Natarajasana pose. His buttocks and hairy legs forming the stage for his limply hanging penis before the curtain of his impotent gold-loin clothe. He was a believer.

In putting together this Failure book with Nicole and Colin, I was frequently asked why are you interested in failure? A more judicious question might be, why be interested in “success”. The long view of history holds that in the end we all are mortal and everything fails. Capitalism’s becoming is its undoing, the fuels of progress burning into smog eventually killing the machine of humanity. The weight of successful belief systems gaining power and materialistic clusterfucks of bureaucratic baggage becoming hegemonic worldly law becoming cause for hereticism becoming an undoing. I believe that the Wiccans have this entropy fairly right.

In spite of this potent/impotent goddess worship, it should be evident that there are humongous and active dialectics within culture that maintain a hierarchy of winners and losers, how else can you explain Donald Trump’s un-ironic celebrity? The two dialectics of victory and defeat immediate to me as an artist/activist are supposed “democratic” politics practiced within corporate/capitalist society and the trend driven art market.

The speculative art-market is fashion oriented. In this game there are shining Art Stars and everyone else. This equation should not be a surprise to anyone, and although the artist Anne Hamilton did represent the US in a recent Biennale I wouldn’t be surprised to flip through a contemporary art magazine or publication and see absolutely zero column inches devoted to instillation art, much less kinescopes and fresco painting. Today’s artist winners are tomorrow’s losers. There styles dust in the wind. Do you wonder if Robert Gober is happy now? How does Barbara Kruger perform outside the spotlight?

I have had several memorable conversations with artists peers a generation or so older than me. This conversation holds that when they were younger “political art” felt so distant, unachievable or policed. The political arts stars of their day held hegemony of control over their social-aesthetic imagination- formalizing a system of appropriate political expression and a converse dictionary of illegitimate forms of expression. Consequently these peers felt little or no compunction to work in any kind of politicized sphere. For me these conversations describe many attitudes including the notion that in 1991 there was only one “political art” and that its hegemony was so complete that artist in strong-reaction to it worked to conceive of a creative practice far from it; success breading failure.

I am fond of considering the summer that I spent in Eugene Oregon in 1993 as the best summer of 1967 I ever had. Of course I didn’t jump into a time machine or anything but to the best of my ability I embodied that space. I have absolutely no idea what other 20 year olds were doing then, what music they were listening to, what movies they were watching, what foods they were cooking- because that summer I was busy forming a guerrilla theater troupe, experimenting in co-housing, integrating people of color into my life, kissing and discovering that bags of marijuana really were handed out for free in the park right across from the White Bird Clinic. Evident by this headspace, is the fact that acceptance of spatial-temporal-hegemony is a personal thing. Given the will, we can make our scenes regardless of social reality.

In her 1997 book “Lure of the Local” the art-critic Lucy Lippard (another person whose projects was once the center of the art world, but today is generally regarded as a fringe figure) talks about artists who work outside of mediatized art worlds, but who work at and in places, responsive to there locales, their communities and contexts. Many of the artists in her book are not successful- they haven’t quit a day job and probably never ever will, but there practices are successful in that they describe places that otherwise lack a descriptive vocabulary or representation otherwise. She talks about what can be classified as folk art, regional art, or place art. This type of work frequently embodies something that is invisible to larger mass-communities, describing the small towns from which they come, a community theatre of local symbols and forms. Alternately penetrable and impenetrable to outsiders.

Political failure, this is something altogether different; it can be the difference between dinner and hunger, life or death. But here too we can begin to upend the idea of projects finality. Take for example the case of LA’s South Central Farm. In the aftermath of the LA riots an expression of a community formed with an earthwork that was both political and formal in nature. The fourteen-acre community garden developed an ecosystem reflective of the colonized and militarized homelands of the immigrant farmers that came to work the land between the warehouses of the industrial Alemeda Corridor.

The immense garden made up of 100 plus plots helped maintained a culture meaningless to US agribusiness and invisible elsewhere, but indigenous and life-sustaining to the Central American émigrés of North American. Like the secret Mayan nation of Aztlan functioning incognito undisturbed even by conquest, the farmers carried North with them knowledge and practice, performing it for the ground and their stomachs’, despite both a hostile city and land claimant. Another thing that the farmers carried with them from Central America, upon fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Southern Mexico was an active knowledge of how to organize sympathetic and other wise powerless communities effectively. Though the Socialist revolutions of the Sandinistas and Daniel Ortega and the FLMN were crushed by the cold-war and Neo-liberalism, its failed subjects in LA succeeded stunningly well in keeping the tractors at bay in LA for 14 years. In additions these a-capitalist skills of collective organizing have been recognized as vital implicit tools contributing greatly to the victories in labor-rights for the underclass in LA in the “Justice For Janitors” and SEIU hotel workers campaigns.

With the book Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices and further in an exhibition we held at Los Angeles’ Park Projects, we hoped to promote the presences of these “failed” subjects. Critical theorist Herbert Marcuse gives us the language to look for those outside of society creating counter-cultures while Franz Fannon talks about the repressed identities of the colonized subject. Yet largely to my knowledge we do not have much of a language to talk about these individuals and groups who successfully continue to live their lives actively in cultures which dominant culture and “political reality” has deemed as illegitimate, ludicrous or simply failed.

In many ways we can discuss these subjects as queer. There identities operate in this manner, un-conforming by nature, biological or otherwise. Jose Munoz a professor of performance at NYU- when talking about the art group “My Barbarian” at a 2006 panel discussion on contemporary performance art framed them as “failures” because they have failed to normalize their performance of self to straight capitalist norms. Simply a failure to show up. There is not a resistance to conformity, but more spectacularly a normalization of non-conformity. A failure to participate in the straight world. And while My Barbarian perform a form of camp; their camp fails to perform the ironic distancing evident in the high camp of Dynasty or Drag.

As we all know donning the feather boa is no longer a radical symbolic act of detornemont upending the class and sexual morays of the cultural elite, but rather a hollow symbol for deviance. Writing within issue #3 of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, My Barbarian make space for a divergent notion of camp beyond the abjection of irony invested in standing behind personal acts of power, rather than ridiculing them with campy outrage. Making musicals in the Video art piece “Pagan Rights” -the group dances its way through the otherwise campy activity of communal tree hugging protest, earnest smiles marijuana tie-dyes and all that, in a manner of celebration, rather than derision.

I would like to conclude by making a didactic statement, in this spirit of embodying un-popular strategies. I would like to conclude by stating that the contemporary aesthetics of failure are not at all about abjection or a solipsistic irony as they may have been in the past. They are not about dialectics of Success and Failure. Rather they are about embracing ones uncomfortable, ill-conforming, impulses and histories and embodying them in studied ignorance of deadening realities. In these a-hegemonic spaces, real social dreaming can occur.

We never ask a dentist why he continues to drill teeth when kids continue to get cavities, but artists and political activists are frequently asked how they can continue producing in hostile environments. When one begins with the understanding that our positions within culture are highly contextual, that our powers frequently only manifest within certain magical contexts, that failure is a given, the answer is simple. You just do.