Kennedy Browne: How Capital Moves

City Gallery, Limerick

How Capital Moves (2011) brings you into a dark room where, in a brilliant performance by Tomasz Mandes, a man addresses you from a video screen – in Polish. The more you grow accustomed to the dark and the subtitles, and begin to tune in to the six characters he performs, the more familiar he sounds. The piece was shown by Limerick City Gallery of Art in Istabraq Hall, a gallery space in Limerick Town Hall, and curated by Annette Moloney. It was originally commissioned for and exhibited at the Łódź Biennale last year.
This is a well-crafted ‘video installation’, though increasingly I have problems with this phrase, as I explain elsewhere (see Vertigo online film journal, September 2011). One’s perception is immediately drawn towards the luminous screen where six accounts of the stark contradictions of capital (InTheKnow, FamilyGuy, BitterEnema, CallcenterGuy, Believed_in_company and Bluesky) generate a world with a language of its own: the characters refer to ‘huddle rooms’, ‘word clearing’, and ‘the cubes’ where real people work or worked before they were made redundant by ‘the Company’ – Dell – which relocated most of its Limerick business plant to Poland in 2009.
How Capital Moves is not a what if? but represents the lives of real people in well-documented situations. What is it like now for those among the 450,000 unemployed in Ireland in a capitalist-induced depression? How does uncertainty feel? ‘The stress of not knowing what the fuck is going on from day to day’, as one voice puts it. Or the anxiety of being ‘put on an action plan’, of recognising the duplicity of expressed tolerance and concern in the face of brutal hiring and firing tactics? ‘Hatchet man is coming soon. Mark my words.’
In this regard, Kennedy Browne succeed in recreating a world constructed through its own language, allowing us to see through to this ruthlessness, and the gap between what is said and what is done. Dell emerges as the absent character, as in a Pirandello play. In many ways, this is a very literary piece, because it is so reliant on words to reproduce the sense of disillusionment with the system: ‘a highway construction around the Company…. Bad, bad Feng Shui’; ‘we worked 12 hours a day, 5 days a week’; ‘the rules change from hour to hour. They call this Dealing with Ambiguity’. Inner contradictions? No, plain lies: Dell and its fellow global corporations share a pseudo-communist ideology of team dynamics, project-based networking and community-style business culture.
Why is the actor wearing pyjamas, cutting both a laughable and disturbing figure, like a tragic clown?Because in 2007, on a corporate lovey-dovey ‘Pyjama Day’, Dell laid off 200 workers in Oregon. The reference is cerebral, compared to the power of the moving image, so that the signifier floats off into mockery. Mandes’s outfits somehow contradict the genuine six voices which can still be heard over and above such camouflage. What Alain Badiou calls ‘the passion for the Real’ overcomes the lingering postmodern reservations about truth statements. When they are working together Kennedy Browne target what they refer to as the ‘irresistible narrative of neoliberal capitalism as a fiction’ and fiction and narratives are how they also describe the piece. But what you are faced with is raw evidence developed into an art project. The basis is the Real. Kennedy Browne home in on specifics, then step back to make broader connections, without falling into mere didacticism (the problem with many of the works championed by Brian Holmes) or even tokenism (to which Claire Bishop’s art criticism is drawn, I feel).
Fictions and narratives they may be because the artists say so in their catalogue; however, they are also effects of a single cause: late capitalism. While a liberal might point to the legalization of abortion, equal rights, gay liberation, feminism, as positive societal changes, ultimately, since the 1970s, the redistribution of wealth in favour of one part of society indicates that class inequality still exists. For, beyond capitalist propaganda, is what the French call la pensé unique and its weak argument: TINA (the mantra of ‘there is no alternative’) is the rejection of equality and emancipation. The Dell story of relocating plant to increase the extraction of profit and exploitation of labour is symptomatic of how capitalism exploits people, putting profit first. In this world, these voices of real people (not fictions, however fictional the final account might appear through its aesthetic filter) convey their first-hand experience working for a multinational corporation.
The piece re-materialises how the logic of profit conflicts with the logic of sustainability. The Dell casualisation of labour is part of a larger spectrum of new forms of social exclusion which include exclusion from European borders of non-Europeans (their treatment as criminals in fact), the ever greater privatization of knowledge on the Web, of the land and the human body.
The politico-economic world has moved on since the events described in Kennedy Browne’s piece. We are now witnessing the biggest rejection of capitalist policies since 1968, a popular revolution spreading from the Arab world into the mass dissent of tens of thousands of citizens from Tahrir Square to Madrid (May’s Real Democracy Now!) and Athens; the rejection of dictatorships and of their shady Western support, in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, as well as the forcing of IMF/EU Washington Consensus economics and its poverty inducing Structural Adjustment Programmes on Ireland. 2011 is bringing a new wave of IMF/EU austerity through vicious pay cutbacks on workers, and all to pay for bad speculation. Having privatised profits, as David Harvey explains in The Enigma of Capital (2011) capitalism socialises risks, now forcing private debt into public sovereignty.
Back in the 1970s, Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974) rejected post-war politically engaged art, which was under the spell of Adornian autonomy. Now, Kennedy Browne practise a very different kind of political art again, one which need not resort to apologies: not ‘dialogical’ (pace Kester Grant), nor ‘relational’ (pace Bourriaud et al), not even ‘agonistic’ (pace Laclau and Mouffe). It might be best named dialectical aesthetics. Yes, there are problems with art being praxis, which is why any art that attempts to be immediately political pushes away the change it seeks to advocate. But once you remove any apologetic framing from Kennedy Browne’s piece, there, beyond forced participation or dialogue, lies the criticality of their dialectics.
How Capital Moves ran from 24 March – 29 May 2011.