Jan Verwoert is a writer and educator based in Berlin. After a missed opportunity to buy his book, Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want (Sternberg Press, 2010), I looked high and low for the volume, eventually mail ordering it from a book seller in New York. When it finally arrived, and I read the first essay while at work, the Occupy marches in Portland were just beginning to take hold a few blocks away. In a recent conversation, Verwoert and I discussed Occupy, but it led to many other things. Throughout, Verwoert threads the idea of the commons, the shared, the public, and civic space. As we looked at various examples from the art, theoretical, and pop-cultural worlds, we attempted to circumscribe the tragi-comic mood of the commons, asking, Where does the power lie? And the funny thing is, it may be in the exchange.
Sam Korman One of the primary reasons I wanted to talk to you had to do with the Occupation Movement. After reading your essay, “Exhaustion and Exuberance”, I saw a lot of similarities. But now, I’m looking at it, and as the protests have progressed and been kicked out and returned, and developed all sorts of institutions within themselves, it doesn’t seem that it’s all just a denial of performance, as you outlined in that essay.
Jan Verwoert I’m never too sure from which position to comment on such political phenomena when arguably the right response would not be to comment, but to join, to participate. So, I feel that there is something inherently awkward about commenting on such things. Even calling them such things from a drawing room perspective. Yet, I feel I strongly sympathize with this idea of highlighting the value of the commons, common culture. That’s how I will understand the central concern of this Occupy Movement. To highlight the fact that the commons are being commercialized and destroyed at the very same time.
What I tried to formulate was the discomfort with the current working conditions and that maybe a denial or withdrawal was not the only option. Very often you have people analyzing the current state of our working conditions or the current state of capitalism, and we feel that we’re just wasting our intelligence on successfully describing the current conditions as without alternative and we finish the essay with a conclusive analysis and come to the conclusion that well, we’ve done our job and proven there’s nothing to be done. So, in that sense I try to gesture toward the limits of the Bartleby approach where you opt out of the given set of options, but at the price of depriving yourself of the potentiality to act. And that’s why I’ve called it “Exhaustion and Exuberance”, because on the one hand you see how the whole system pushes everyone into a position where we actually love to exhaust ourselves, but where on the other hand I would also want to defend the kind of exuberance, which is connected to a joy of acting that goes beyond all common measure. And that’s the point where I can only gesture toward the exuberant and then start talking about particular artistic practices. Within that practice, things suddenly look different, because people start to develop their own set of possibilities from within their practice.
SK And it seems it is that way that art is creating a very different space for protest.
JV Now, as we speak, I’m not even sure whether protest is the right term to use, no? When ideally you would not just be protesting, but you would be creating a different kind of sociability, like a different kind of micro-social contract, which I have to say, I love about art. The artists that I appreciate, they understand through the work that you negotiate a relationship to the viewer or renegotiate the relationship and not just in a heavy handed pedagogical manner—in terms of an obvious relational aesthetics kind of way—but also as a painter you have a million options to develop when it comes to negotiating a social contract with the viewer.
And, I don’t know, I am also working in Israel and a colleague of mine was camping out in similar camps all through the summer. And he was saying that the main point was that people realized that on the one hand capitalism exploits life but on the other hand doesn’t want to pay for life. That’s the strange thing.
SK Capitalism is writing a check its butt can’t cash.
JV Yeah. But also in the sense that people have discovered that the field we are working in, social communication is a goldmine if you only manage to transform all those activities into services. And then, basically, only allow those activities that have been converted in services to survive, because you are no longer supporting anything else. So society sells off its own commons and everything that cannot be sold off is left to its own devices. The question is how to position oneself against that when we are the one who are willing and ready to have ourselves exploited.
SK To return to your book, you employ popular culture in your work and place it on the same plane as theory or art historical examples. Sponge Bob or the Muppets, things like that. So that it’s not just a simple pitch, but, to quote the introduction of your book, it has “multiple forms of address.”
JV I would understand that as a traditional artistic capacity, as an artist or a writer living in an urban environment. To go back to Renaissance painting, you talk to different people at the same time and at the same time, you understand the commons, you relate to the commons, you are a part of the commons, you create the commons. I finally started to read Hannah Arendt and I’m totally enthusiastic about the thought she develops in The Human Condition, about the nasty world of human affairs, where politics originates in people exposing themselves to each other in multiple ways. I find there’s a great wisdom in that. Where of course you admit that things become very difficult to trace because you don’t have singular heroic figures or single acts that could be described in the history books as big turning points. There’s a multiplicity of communicative acts that make people relate to each other. In the end, what sustains the discussion we’re currently having, [and] what sustains those discussions, is not the big strategical accounts of gains and losses, but rather it’s a strange continuous exchange that is inspired, initiated, and kept alive by ever so many communicative acts.
SK In a lecture you gave at the CCA Wattis, you talked about the nature and necessity of doubt and that humor seems to be integral to that today. It doesn’t seem like a broad tragic narrative of doubt, but rather a humorous breakdown of culture. Can you speak to that?
JV For me, comedy and tragedy, I cannot easily separate those. The first thing is that you cannot capitalize on it. Talking about humor is very very difficult, because you cannot own it or you cannot declare your ownership over humor.
SK And it doesn’t translate at all. It’s so difficult to retell a joke.
JV When it comes to these social dynamics that structure an exchange in art and make it quintessentially social, humor is one of those qualities, because it is strictly in the exchange. You cannot reappropriate it as your own capital. I cannot say, “I am funny.” It is only in exchange that it’s funny by virtue of the fact that two people then laugh about a joke. In a way, it’s the same thing with philosophy. You cannot declare that what I am now going to say is philosophical. It’s a quality that inheres in an exchange and either it comes out and it shows or it doesn’t. You cannot own it or authorize it. And that’s why I think that it’s crucial as a sheer relational quality.
And another thing is that when we bring it back to the beginning, and the question of how power operates at the moment, it operates through constantly staging crisis. I have a feeling about the emotional dimension of how power is currently exercised in society; I think that mood, or setting the mood is very important. The intangible ways in which the mood in a society is defined through anxieties but in a manner that it’s never entirely clear who the author of that mood is because it suddenly seems to be everywhere. All around you, ubiquitous. Setting the mood is a power tool at the moment and you suddenly realize that the people who have the power to change the mood that is set by power are comedians. The biggest critical agency, especially in the U.S. lies with stand-up comedians. John Stewart’s The Daily Show is the only thing happening on television where you suddenly feel like you are confronted with a different mood. If the power in the system lies in its capacity to set the mood, resistance lies in the capacity to break the spell and change the mood.
SK I grew up watching ensemble casts like Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons who previously played the role The Daily Show might today. They had a chance to render dominant culture as absurd.
JV That and to establish a different sense of reality. I’m a huge fan of Deleuze and Guattari and this basic thought that accepting the reality principle as it’s imposed on you is already the first way of giving into that reality. Hence, I admire the first episodes and the first seasons of Sponge Bob, where you have a creature that lives in complete defiance of the reality principle. And also, when you look at The Muppets or Monty Python’s Flying Circus where you have a collective … you don’t even call it an endeavor or an effort, kind of a collective dynamics that suspends the reality principle by simply establishing other grounds of reality. There is a bit of a utopian dimension to it.
SK The scene I think of immediately is in Monty Python and The Search for The Holy Grailwhen the butts are blowing the ceremonial horns.
JV And you ask yourself, What is this world? And it’s the butts blowing the ceremonial horns.
SK It’s complete flatulence.
JV When you think about The Muppets, there [are] magical moments when some of the invited guests, they really enter this reality and interact with it. So it’s not just a world of fantasies, but it becomes this strange platform for interacting with creatures. And you see the guest doesn’t know which rules each of them necessarily follows. Where, as they interact, they makeup the terms for their interaction. The best episode, it’s really amazing, when Harry Belafonte is on The Muppets and you have the entire utopia of the 1970s in this episode, because they make it up on the go. You can actually see it in Belafonte, in how much he enjoys dealing with this strange, anarchic collective. It’s on the one hand, incredibly pragmatic, and at the same time entirely surreal. And the possibility of having an entirely different society is totally tangible. And it’s wildly dysfunctional!
SK How do you envision a similar contemporary practice developing?
JV I also remember once during a conversation with Vito Acconci, I asked him about interdisciplinarity in the early ’70s. And he said that it wasn’t that big of an ideological agenda, it just was a result of poets like him hanging out with visual artists and dancers and choreographers. When you suddenly realize that the tools that the others are using are similarly at your own disposal. So, I would also agree that some of these grass roots are examples of good models, at the same time, when you look at some of these crucial moments in recent art history, you could make a case that very often it was because different people not just started talking to each other, but started listening to each other. I would suggest that as an exemplary scenario for reading becoming writing or listening becoming speaking. I also believe that somehow the conditions of time are crucial.
I don’t know whether I am slowly getting paranoid, and I hope not, but it feels like the pressure to produce according to certain standards also implies that certain kinds of rhythms are being imposed on your daily life. How many emails you should answer or how quickly you should churn out the next product. For someone to really understand the social potentials of one’s work you need time, you need all these many exchanges to understand how you could actually interact with people. And if it’s all about deadlines and getting your thing ready … this is how the economy works, but I would strongly argue for the necessity of the commonsor a common world of exchanges that’s polyrhythmical. That’s why hip-hop is such a fantastic model for social exchanges, because it’s never just on one rhythm. How you talk is on the rhythm, against the rhythm and I think an urban culture in which art can develop according to its own sense of timing needs to be polyrhythmical.
SK A sharing of the spotlight.
JV Yeah, but according to a temporal logic that allows for many different rhythms. Something that starts in the art school and ideally continues in the public after that where people decide the sense of timing they will develop in how they relate to the social. To be able to do something quick and then be incredibly slow; that we shouldn’t be all on the same timeline churning out products. I would argue for scenarios that allow for reading to become writing or listening to become talking or looking to become making and for scenarios where there are multi-temporal approaches to engage with the social and what rhythm you want to give to those exchanges. These are the things I find most enjoyable about dealing with art.
SK It seems like it requires a sharing of support within that community.
JV How to talk about support? Personal support, institutional support, it’s difficult especially when you start making claims: To whom do you appeal when you make a claim? Do you appeal to the institutions, to the country, to the government, to the people, to the city to give more support?
To think to keep making this claim to whomever publicly that the commons matter and that art is not just a career avenue, but also a source of the re-creation of the commons is a necessary task. Not knowing to whom we’re actually talking to and we’re making this demand and we don’t know how successful it is, but to keep insisting on the commons not being reducible to commercial services. If that’s one of the goals of the Occupy Movement, I think we’re definitely in the same boat there.
Maybe one last footnote—we think about the conversation we’ve just had and ask ourselves: How does one consolidate the fact that one would like to highlight the value of the commons while being a recognizable individual? I get the opportunity to give talks, to teach, to write, because my name is a brand of sorts. And isn’t that a contradiction where someone who is a recognizable speaker would then speak about such issues. For me, the way to negotiate that contradiction is to say that it only becomes a contradiction when you look at it in moral terms, or when people look at an investment in the social, the political as something that would have a moral connotation. I strongly believe that it doesn’t have that connotation. When you are a musician, it is not a moral thing to join a band. You do it, because it’s more fun. On that level, I would strongly also argue for a pragmatic dimension of how you deal with the way the individual practice relates to the social. You just acknowledge the fact that that tie constantly exists. And it’s not about becoming more social or becoming more political, it’s about acknowledging that that tie does exist and otherwise you wouldn’t be in a position to speak as an individual or that a certain kind of cultural context creates and individual voice as much as that individual voice also assembles its own public.
There’s this interdependency, that, yes, I am a product of my own readers or the people who commission my essay in the same way that as an artist or as a writer, you also constitute a public through creating a voice that continues to speak and summon certain ideas as well as certain people. An individual voice has the power to create a communal situation while at the same time the communal situation sustains the individual voice or even makes it possible. On that level, there is an interesting interdependency, which is definitely not moral or not best described in moral terms. I sometimes think that we should start renewing our new age vocabulary and start thinking about it in kinetic terms, in terms of magical energy flows.
Usually, the moment you promise redemption, things become moral. And why would we want to be redeemed by the social? We know that the social is hell as much as it’s fun. The promise that there’s something redemptive to be found in the social or political is misleading. It’s just constitutive of certain energies. It’s not necessarily a particular manner that would make you a better human being.