ESSAY | Everything is not alright

Martin Creed, Work No. 851: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT, (2009)

The ride from Main Street skytrain station into the downtown core of Vancouver traces a line through the city like a razor-thin scalpel. As the train drifts out from the terminal into False Creek, passengers take the place of an elevated group of observers in a surgical operating room. Watching from the gallery, commuters become unwilling observers to a surgery that all too clearly reveals the city’s scarred-and-gentrified body, parsed by unsure movements above a hard kernel of class stratification. The city’s undead organs—Vancouver’s Olympic Village, Concord Pacific’s presentation centre, Rennie Marketing headquarters, Rogers Arena, International Village—become the grossly cluttered death masks of a lifeless yet undead redevelopment process.

Above the skyline, lofted to the top of Bob Rennie’s brick-clad empire and floating amidst the sharp knives of nearly-empty condominiums, a natural sight emerges: Martin Creed’s illuminated sign “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT.” The view, delivered in striking fluorescence, is rushed yet conceptually smooth, providing an internal connection between different strands of empire: the thoughtless naïveté of imperial management, the physical dominance of urban gentrification, and the careless hammer-blows of consumption.

As Marxism has long taught us, the logic of class is a rhetoric of normative stratification and rigid placements. The voice of the oligarch—now invested in the purity of charity—is mannered, proper and unambiguous. In a resonating voice similar to a whisper, at times yelling, the oligarch speaks to you: Stay in your place. Remain silent. Continue working. And above all: Do not challenge my tyranny. One could naturally add to the series Martin Creed’s dictum: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT. The sharp tongue of the new managerial class mimics the bosses of old factories. Yet today, the factory has transformed right before our eyes into the global commodity-hungry metropolis. The present streetscape is littered with oligarchs. The same aristocracy as the benevolent landowner who will do everything to squash your thirst for justice. What else should you do? Freedom is work. Freedom is the freedom not to choose. Queue Bob Rennie: “Everything is going to be alright because we have no choice, we have no choice but to deal with the hand we’re dealt.” In other words, against the tell-tale signs of social cleansing, keep circulating. Do not choose to act against the unabated, unchallenged circulation of Capital. Creed’s words no longer take on the voice of naïveté but resemble the words of the police who want to suck every morsel of politics from your soul: “Everything is going to be alright—just surrender more power to us, your benevolent protectors.”

The basic thrust of antidemocratic politics is always—and by definition—the absolute demand that ‘things should return to normal’, that “everything is going to be alright” if each individual carries on doing their particular job. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT is the thirst for this depoliticization. In other words, Do not think! Do not be critical! Do not initiate an alternative. Creed’s voice echoes in the background, as in his text piece If you’re lonely… (2005): “Thoughts, thoughts, don’t come! Stop!” The drive for depoliticization re-frames social space as the privileged site of the police, whose control is secured in tandem with the free, unabated circulation of capital. As Jacques Rancière depicts, “the police say there is nothing to see, nothing happening, nothing to be done but to keep moving, circulating; they say that the space of circulation is nothing but the space of circulation.” At the point where corporate enterprise has ultimately taken complete control of artistic production and distribution, opposition and negation become totally foreign to artistic practice that aims to enter these support systems.

Kathy Slade, Is Everything Going to Be Alright?, (2010)

The thoughtless optimism of Bob Rennie was recently countered by Kathy Slade’s installation outside the Audain Gallery: Is everything going to be alright? (2010). Instead of a courageous negation of Bob Rennie’s unique form of social cleansing, or even an affirmation of the diverse and creative resistance to it, we are presented with a sarcastic, almost ambiguous reversal. In a word, Slade’s response is not a response at all, but a question. We must ask Slade, and the Audain Gallery for that matter, why the uncertainty? Why not an answer? Why side with ambiguity? Why not pose the question, and then an answer? Why no critical rigor? It is without a doubt that Rennie’s sure-fire project of class restoration is categorically not alright. It would be safe to assume that Slade is probably on side with this view, yet disorientation wins over affirmation and class struggle. The work gestures towards ideological critique, yet in the end, the piece remains uncommitted, mutating into a dizzying symptom of generalized disorientation.

The French Marxist literary critic Pierre Macherey claimed in the Theory of Literary Production (1966) that the aesthetic work is fastened to ideology not necessarily by the content of what it says, but rather through what it does not say. Ideology is not merely reflected in an aesthetic work, nor does it depend upon intuitive analogies in the work’s formal presentation. Instead, the spectral-yet-concrete presence of ideology is exposed precisely in the gaps, fissures and absences of the aesthetic text.

Ken Lum, I said No, (2010)

What then does Slade’s piece not say? Precisely that Rennie’s form of social cleansing, his thoughtless optimism, is not alright. Without dismissing Slade’s statement outright, the work should in fact be seen in dialogue with another commission by the Audain Gallery, Ken Lum’s No! / No No No / No / No! I said / Hell no / I said no / No / No way / No way Jose / No / No! No! / No bloody way. Lum’s response pulsates in staccato: a rapid and unequivocal voice of defiance. The piece is pure negation. Moving to and fro – from exclamation, to repetition, to emphasis and accentuation, to profanity, and back again to utter insolence and disobedience – there is no room for the viewer to rest in Lum’s quivering-yet-rebellious voice.

It is at this juncture, that we must move within the site of negation, the only starting-point of affirmation, because indeed, everything is not alright.