If You Are So Smart, Why Aint’ You Rich?

Conceived of as a parallel exhibition to the 5th Marrakech Biennale, the group show If You Are So Smart, Why Aint’ You Rich?  sought to examine, as the title suggests, the growing discrepancy between the nebulous notion of quantifiable knowledge (as well as its production and dissemination) and the individual loss of economic value thereof in the so-called global Knowledge Economy.1

The show’s title is borrowed from minimalist composer Julius Eastman’s 1977 piece. The African-American artist was active from the early sixties until his death, in near obscurity, in 1990. The titles of his compositions became increasingly provocative, politically engaged and downright angry in the late 70s, with names such as Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla. However, the titular reproach the curators quoted in this show could very well have been something the ingenious composer directed at himself; despondent about the precariousness of his profession and the lack of opportunity or greater recognition, Eastman developed a fatal dependency on alcohol and substances, and experienced a devastating low point when he was forced into homelessness and joined the derelicts in Tompkins Square (NYC).

First and foremost, as curators Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and Pauline Doutreluingne stated, the show paid homage to Eastman. Sound was featured as a key element in the exhibition. However, beyond the direct homage to the recently rediscovered and newly appreciated composer, the choice to focus on aural experience also dovetailed with the challenges posed by the exhibition’s—indeed, the entire Biennale’s—location itself; especially for visitors, the city of Marrakech offers abundant overwhelming visual and other-sensory distractions—and it is loud. Many of the participating artists effectively implemented sound to represent chaos, creating aural tapestries that reflected the elusiveness of the idea of quantifiable knowledge, or the attempts at its valorization.

But before approaching the individual positions represented in the show, it is useful to point out some of the concerns attached to the notion of a knowledge-based economy. The global economy, currently transitioning into a knowledge-based economy, favours innovation and technology as the driving forces of the markets, and thus qualifies the type of knowledge that carries substantial market value. In a global economy still coping with the aftermath of recent financial crises, the rise of a precarious class, the so-called “Precariat” can be understood as a warning sign of what’s to come if a straight line is drawn between knowledge and capital. The term “Precariat” became a buzzword with the publication, in 2011, of Guy Standing’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,2 and has come to encompass, in popular culture, the lack of financial security felt by both freelance and migrant day workers. However, while the Precariat doesn’t make sense as a class, as it eliminates differences between economic circumstances and interests, it is nevertheless effective in establishing empathy and in embracing a critique of labour under capitalism.

Naturally, there are positive sides to the idea of flexible work, and it is precisely the attempt to find an economically viable new ideal of labour that is the challenge. Flexibility, as Brian Holmes3 outlined, entered critical discourse early on. Holmes’ use of the word “flexible” alludes directly to, in his words, “the current economic system, with its casual labour contracts, its just-in-time production, its informational products and its absolute dependence on virtual currency circulating in the financial sphere. But it also refers to an entire set of very positive images, spontaneity, creativity, cooperation, mobility, peer relations, appreciation of difference, openness to present experience.” It is the negative effects of flexibility, namely precariousness and placing value on culture that is unnerving.

What, the show asks, will be the place of culture in a society that would search for the cash value of creative thought? The term Knowledge Economy itself was popularized in the 70s by American sociologist Daniel Bell,4 and already then, Bell problematized the expectations placed on culture in capitalist consumer society. More recently, artist and thinker, Martha Rosler, argues in her analysis of the uneasy relations between culture and capital titled Culture Class5 that “Space […] has displaced time as the operative dimension of advanced, globalizing (and post-industrial?) capitalism.” The so-called culture class, she posits, has been the unwilling (and precarious) driving force behind gentrification, effectively pushing itself out of urban areas it has helped to make attractive for realtors. Culture has thus in recent decades been recuperated to serve private economic interests. Her research takes a direct stab at Richard Florida’s6 2002 identification of a rising socioeconomic class he had dubbed the “creative class”:

“In reviewing the history of postwar urban transformations, I consider the culture of the art world on the one hand, and, on the other, the ways in which the shape of experience and identity under the regime of the urban render chimerical the search for certain desirable attributes in the spaces we visit or inhabit. Considering the creative-class hypothesis of Richard Florida and others requires us first to tease apart and then rejoin the urbanist and the cultural strains of this argument. I would maintain, along with many observers, that in any understanding of postwar capitalism, the role of culture has become pivotal.”

In addition to the growing scarcity of affordable space in urban centres, and the resultant disappearance of a culture class from those areas, the exhibition If You Are So Smart, Why Aint’ You Rich? also considers the notion of knowledge as heterogeneous, cross-cultural and subjective. Knowledge, in the context of the exhibition, was not limited to scientific production but open to a broad epistemological diversity and legacy.

 

Installed in the art academy L’École supérieure des arts visuels de Marrakech, the exhibition meandered through the institute’s second floor and courtyard. Nigerian sound and video artist Emeka Ogboh’s work formed perhaps the most direct connection between “alternative” knowledge and mercantile tendencies. His piece, Oshodi Stock Exchange (2014), combined sound, experimental music and an LED display, which showed the Lagos street hawking sales index retrieved from fictional and non-fictional companies. A field recording of Nigerian street hawkers shouting to attract customers is overlaid with a musical composition made in collaboration with composer Kristian Kowatsch. The parallel economy of the Lagos street market, known as System D, is governed by its very own rules, and requires a specific kind of local knowledge. Itinerant, flexible and unregulated, it is a crucial survival means for many. Minimal yet bustling with information, the installation expresses certain appreciation for the utopian notion of an informal sector, for the resistance it puts up to the “regulated” stock market, which speculates unscrupulously even with the price of food.

Another treatment of alternative economies was manifested in the sound and video installations of Younes Baba Ali. His Carroussa Sonore (2012) takes its cue from the traditional carroussa, a wheel-cart customarily used as a movable market stand for the sale of CDs with Koranic verses. Baba Ali’s carroussa, on the other hand, was made of found material and emanated experimental soundscapes as it passed through the streets of Rabat. Without its original purpose, it drew awareness to the isolated aural characteristic of the device, and its shaping, through  sound and spectacle, of momentary interactions on the street. The path of the carroussa drew an ephemeral network of curious passers-by (including men in uniform) who picked up the handout about the cart.

The productive force of chaos, resistance to regulation and existence outside of and parallel to governable models in society were thematic concerns expressed in many of the works on view. Artist and cultural theorist Brandon Labelle highlighted the need to establish self-organized networks for disseminating useful knowledge. His installation in the school’s courtyard resembled a shantytown, and was titled Hobo College for Itinerant Studies (Confessions of an overworked artist), (2014). The work makes reference to Hobo College founded in 1908, in Chicago, by physician, reformer and anarchist Ben Reitman. Amid Chicago’s street missions helping migratory workers, the college offered itinerant workers a place to congregate and exchange useful information. The college even held lectures on everything from philosophy to personal hygiene, vagrancy laws and politics.

Labelle suggests that the contemporary Precariat is not dissimilar to the figure of early 20th century Hobos. He cites Nels Anderson, who stated, in the 1920s, that to deal with the Hobo “society must deal also with the economic forces which have formed his behaviour.” Yet, Hobo culture was also a thriving wellspring of anarchist thought, social organization, and political protest that sought to negotiate the demands of work with the spirit of the road – the Hobo was a figure in search not simply of employment, but of a mode of freedom. Labelle covers the makeshift tents scattered around the courtyard with slogans such as “Precarious Art Dog” or “Creative Workers Unite.” An audio piece plays a fictional conversation between artists-as-hobos, discussing questions of labour, leisure and freedom. While the work is perhaps tongue-in-cheek, it is by no means far-fetched and certainly echoes key arguments voiced by the Occupy Movement.

It goes without saying that several participating artists also dealt with themes of surveillance and Big Data. However, the topic was approached indirectly, through romantic albeit touching quests for invisibility. Marco Montiel Soto’s installation shows a display table with a map of Morocco and assembled tokens, amulets, tickets and ephemera from his journey through the Maghreb country. Two videos show material collected on the road, with all of the curiosities the region has to offer, from snake charmers to enchanting music. Entitled Memories are Made of Chance and Mistakes, Archaeology of a Journey in Morocco, (2014), the installation presents a dream-like place where, in this day and age of ubiquitous satellite surveillance, one could still get lost in the maze of the medina, in the haze of the desert or in the hands of a dodgy “guide.” A passage from William S. Burroughs’ Junky, describing a high, serves as a stand-in for the hard-to-pin-down, romanticized notion of Marrakech that Burroughs’ generation helped to shape. By incorporating this quote into the work, Soto could be asking whether the search for individual freedom inherently means opting for a life as an outcast or putting oneself in danger?

Lukas Truniger and Ali Tnani are a Swiss-Tunisian artist duo, and their collaborative work, Crackling Data Machine, (2014), is an absurdist DYI experiment in artistic hacking. Appropriating questionable techniques of data collection, they’ve constructed a machine that transforms data culled from surrounding wireless networks into sound. The sound is reproduced in the exhibition on a metallic object that’s both a sculpture and a musical instrument. The installation gives physical and aural representation to immaterial, digital matter. The work is somewhat heavy-handed, but it’s precisely its gawkiness that drives the point home – immaterial, digital information determines almost every aspect of our (economic) lives. Attempting to attach tangible, graspable value to it falls short.

Lastly, the show touched on Edouard Glissant’s notion that history cannot be left in the hands of historians alone. Admittedly, incorporating post-colonial thought into the framework of the Marrakech Biennale is a hot potato of sorts, and the biennale’s main show often suffered from too-literal representations of such theories. However, this show’s focus on sound helped it segue into showing how artists are re-visiting established historical narratives and widely accepted views of the past, while posing question about ownership and control of information.

Gilles Aubry and Zouheir Atbane thus approached in their piece, and who sees the mystery, (2014), the repatriation in 2010 of the Paul Bowles Collection of Moroccan traditional music from Washington to Tangier. Their collaborative research work tested the reception of these recordings, dating from the late 50s to the 70s, in today’s Morocco. Presented as a video and sound installation, the work seeks to destabilize the politics of invisibility by establishing a mirroring network of Paul Bowles’ self-presentation as an “invisible spectator,” the veils the women musicians wore as a strategy of resistance against colonialism and the Pythagorean curtain of French acousmatic music.

Duk Hee Jordan explores guilt as a formative element of society’s culture and collective memory. Jordan works with stones, which she regards as mediums that witness and store historic information – it is us who have to figure out how to extract this information from them. Two stones from the US-military Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan are held in a metal contraption. Chaffed together, they produce sound and dust, invoking notions of mortality and time. The work, Obsidian (2014) features a volcanic rock picked up from the mountains in Iceland after the Eyjafjöll Volcano erupted in 2010. A quartz crystal mechanism slowly grates against the obsidian. In a hundred years, we’re told, it will polish the obsidian’s surface to a mirror.

What the economic conditions of labour might look like a hundred years from now is a matter of speculation. However, the attempt to align flexible work models with financially viable artistic and creative work is an idea that emerged, as Holmes argues, over half a century ago, in the 60s, and is now again seeing the rupture pithily summed up in Eastman’s 70s title If You Are So Smart, Why Ain’t You Rich. The fact that most of the participating artists, as well as the show’s curators, are based in Berlin is perhaps telling; the city fosters creativity, or so goes the hype, largely due to its affordable rents. If space has displaced time as the operative dimension of capitalism, as Rosler claims, it also has become the condition for time flexibility. The show thus hits the nail on the head by expressing a paradoxical challenge: on the one hand, it’s vital to resist the recuperation of so-called creative hubs into growth curves, and on the other, to contest the allocation of knowledge production rendered financially “unviable” to the margins.

 

Hili Perlson is an Israeli-born writer and critic who has been based in Berlin since 1999. She received an MA in American and French Literature and Media Studies from Berlin’s Humboldt University. Her fields of interest include representations of hybrid identities, trans-cultural artistic production and theoretical discourses of fashion as a (sub-) cultural carrier medium. From 2010-2014 she was deputy editor of Sleek Magazine and her writing on art, culture and fashion has been featured in numerous exhibition catalogues and publications such as Artforum.com, Art in America and Osmos. She is also a co-founder of the online magazine META and a certified Pilates teacher.

 


  1. “If You Are So Smart, Why Ain’t You Rich?”, 28 february – 22 march 2014 : école supérieure des arts visuels de Marrakech – Marrakesh. Artists : Gilles Aubry and Zouheir Atbane, Younes Baba Ali, Tal Isaac Hadad, Anne Duk Hee Jordan, Brandon LaBelle, Marco Montiel-Soto, Emeka Ogboh, Lukas Truniger and Ali Tnani, Paolo Bottarelli, Evgenija Wassilew. Curators: Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Pauline Doutreluingne Assistants curators: Gauthier Lesturgie, Anneli von Klitzing.
  2. Guy Standing, The Precariat : The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury, 2011.
  3. Brian Holmes, The Flexible Personality, For a New Cultural Critique, http://eipcp.net/transversal/1106/holmes/en, 2002.
  4. Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. A Venture in Social Forecasting, New York: Basic Books, 1973.
  5. Martha Rosler, Culture Class, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013, p. 74-75.
  6. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class : And how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life, New York: Perseus Book Group, 2002.