The Space of Flows (Bruges Triennale 2018)

Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend!

– Bruce Lee, The Lost Interview (1971)

We hear these words spoken by Bruce Lee at the beginning of Hito Steyerl’s 2014 video work, Liquidity Inc. The 30-minute film is a free association on the notion of liquidity, in relation to contemporary economics, the precarious conditions of post-Fordist labour and climatic catastrophe, drawing parallels between recent financial storms, the flow of people and turbulent weather systems circulating around the planet. In part, it tells the story of Jacob Wood, a financial analyst who lost his job when investment bank, Lehman Brothers, went under in 2008. Born in Vietnam and a war orphan, Wood was brought to the US under Gerald Ford’s Operation Babylift. He got into banking during the dotcom boom of the 1990s, but when the economic crash hit in 2008 he switched fields to fight professionally in Mixed Martial Arts. Speaking of his experience, Wood says,

There were purges every year because of the economy. Large financial companies have had a lot of pressure, and its normal every year to lay off a certain amount of people. That’s why you gotta position yourself, be defensive, be ready for those shocks. Have a shock-proof portfolio. You gotta adapt to whatever’s happening in the market. It’s like if you are fighting, you gotta adapt to your situation. It’s very fluid, kinda like fighting. What you saw is people became hybrid fighters. They became versed in everything. That’s what is so exciting. That’s what keeps things liquid, fluid.[1]

jacob woodHito Steyerl (2014), Liquidity Inc.

Liquidity, in today’s global network society, is a primary metaphor for an emerging ‘space of flows’, encompassing the accelerated movement of people, of global capital, of digital images and of information generally, now circulating around the planet. Zygmunt Bauman described these precarious conditions of fluidity and flux as a ‘liquid modernity’, writing ‘in simple language […] liquids, unlike solids, cannot easily hold their shape.’[2] Arising from this inchoate world, a new invasive strain of communicative capitalism is actively redefining subjectivity. Time-honoured hierarchies are subject to powerful eroding forces, dissolving long-standing institutions and their associated value systems. We are entering a new era of formlessness. The question arises, how can we begin to describe our contemporary condition in such a fluid state? Or, as philosopher Giorgio Agamben put it, ‘What is the contemporary?’[3]

Sociologist, Manuel Castells coined the term ‘a space of flows’, in his book The Rise of the Network Society, as a way of understanding these new conditions, emerging from the all-pervasive flood of digital communications. With the acceleration of globalisation, the rapid developments of information technology and the relentless advance of neo-liberalism over the past twenty-five years, many disparate worlds have become interconnected and contemporaneous with each other. This multiplicity is characterised by massive demographic shifts, diaspora, labour migrations, rapid movements of global capital and speeded-up processes of cultural hybridization. Thus, ‘the contemporary’ could be said to refer to a worldwide situation, the most definitive characteristic of which is the experience of being immersed in a deluge of information, marked by an unprecedented diversity and depth of difference, by the coexistence of incommensurable viewpoints and by the absence of an all-encompassing narrative (such as modernity) that will enlist the participation of all. Within this confluence of multiple temporalities, many different currents compete for ascendency, but with no clear vison of the future. The flow of time has accelerated to such an extent that we seem to be locked in a perpetual present, described by Castells as a ‘timeless time’, in which ‘the space of flows […] dissolves time, by disordering the sequence of events and making them simultaneous, thus installing society in an eternal ephemerality.’[4]

With the shift from the modern to the contemporary, and the rapid convergence of different worlds, the conditions for experimental arts practice have radically changed too. Whereas modernism required an avant-garde to constantly critique and refresh it, as a key part of its future-oriented progression, the future-less present of the contemporary can no longer support such a utopian rationale. Philosopher, Peter Osborne writes, ‘if modernity projects a present of permanent transition, forever reaching beyond itself, the contemporary fixes or enfolds such transitoriness within the duration of a conjuncture, or at its most extreme, the stasis of a present moment.’[5] The driving forces of twentieth century art and politics were beholden to the temporal promise of the future, and to the continual transformation of society for the better. It was a great and empowering myth, but few believe in such a utopian vision any longer. Instead, Osborne says, contemporary art now functions as an expression of the ‘disjunctive unity of present times.’[6] Or, as Hito Steyerl puts it,

contemporary art shows us the lack of a (global) time and space. Moreover, it projects a fictional unity onto a variety of different ideas of time and space, thus providing a common surface where there is none. Contemporary art thus becomes a proxy for the global commons, for the lack of any common ground, temporality, or space.[7]

In this global condition of flux, the idea of a common ground from which to reflect upon the passage of time, along with traditional notions of the self as grounded in a communal sense of place, is being washed away, replaced by a network culture of shifting meanings and values. In such a fluid state, meanings and values no longer derive from individuals or places, or from fixed intrinsic qualities, but rather they are contingent and relational, generated by interactions in the space of flows. Effectively, the nexus of social relations has shifted to people’s place in time rather than in space, defined by dynamic movement rather than by static location. The question arises, how will the singularity of the artist function and change in relation to these new conditions? What happens when the subjective self is set adrift on the space of flows, without any collective vision of the future, drifting in the wake of utopian imaginaries – as Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi put it – ‘after the future’[8]?


Hito Steyerl (2013), How Not to be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File

With the end of modernism and the rapid penetration of the network society into all aspects of our personal lives, the new invasive form of communicative or ‘cognitive’ capitalism that now prevails is actively redefining subjectivity in relation to immaterial production. Where the processes of subject formation arising from modern industrial societies required a disciplining of the body (for physical labour), the development of post-Fordist modes of production take the mind, language and creativity as its primary tools. In the sphere of digital production, exploitation is exerted essentially on the semiotic flux produced by human time at work. It is in this sense that the term immaterial is applied. As Bifo Berardi writes, ‘Language and money are not at all metaphors, and yet they are immaterial. They are nothing, and yet can do everything: they move, displace, multiply, destroy. They are the soul of Semio-capital.’[9] Under these contemporary conditions, genuine subjective singularity can only be a hindrance to the smooth operation of immaterial production (at least, until it has been recuperated and co-opted back into the neo-liberal narratives of the so-called Creative Industries). Berardi describes the process of redefining subjectivity as desingularization:

Desingularization of living thought and activity is mandatory for access to the network. In the global network there are not working persons, but an infinite brain-sprawl, an ever-changing mosaic of fractal cells of available nervous energy. The person is nothing but the residue – therefore precarious – of the process of valorization.[10]

Subjectivity and desire are constantly disciplined by the semiotic flux of communicative capitalism. Our relationship to language, and thus to others, is mutated by the demands of the network, ‘more and more to do with inorganic connection, and less and less to do with the body of the mother.’[11] Berardi goes on to illustrate what happens when access to language is separated from the body and from affection, reduced to mere ‘interoperability’ between machinic elements of an emotionless exchange:

Let us think of the crowd of people sitting in the subway every morning. They are precarious workers moving toward the industrial and financial districts of the city, toward the places where they are working in precarious conditions. Everyone wears headphones, everybody looks at their cellular device, everybody sits alone and silent, never looking at the people who sit close, never speaking or smiling or exchanging any kind of signal. They are travelling alone in their lonely relationship with the universal electronic flow. Their cognitive and affective formation has made of them the perfect object of a process of desingularization. They have been pre-emptied and transformed into carriers of abstract fractal ability to connect, devoid of sensitive empathy so as to become smooth, compatible parts of a system of interoperability. Although they suffer from nervous aggression, and from the exploitation that Semio-capitalism is imposing on them, although they suffer from the separation between functional being and sensible body and mind, they seem incapable of human communication and solidarity; in short, they seem unable to start any process of conscious collective subjectivation.[12]

Within this universal electronic flow, attention is the primary unit of currency. As Matthew Crawford writes, ‘attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it.’[13] If economics is the study of how a society uses its scarce resources, then it is attention rather than information that is most in demand. We are drowning in information, but it means nothing if it cannot command our attention. Herbert Simon first defined the concept of an ‘attention economy’ in 1971, writing ‘in an information-rich world […] the wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the over-abundance of information sources that might consume it.’[14] Michael Goldhaber goes further and speculates that transactions of attention will rapidly replace monetary exchange:

attention can ground an economy because it is a fundamental human desire and is intrinsically, unavoidably scarce […] People trade attention at work, at home, and in between, day in and day out. Anyone tied into the Web might make hundreds of such transactions a day, far more than the number of monetary transactions they are likely to be involved in.[15]

trevor paglen

Trevor Paglen (2015), Under the Beach (Tumon Bay, Guam)

Artist, Trevor Paglen documents the physical infrastructure of the internet, photographing the fibre-optic cables under the sea which transport digital information around the planet, demanding our attention. He describes how the early utopian ideal of the internet as universal cultural commons has been turned into ‘the greatest instrument for mass surveillance in the history of mankind.’[16] 98% of the world’s data now travels under the oceans and, as these cables make landfall, the flow of digital traffic is ‘tapped’ by government security agencies at strategic ‘choke points’. At the same time, older forms of state surveillance (literally ‘watching from above’) have been replaced by social media as the primary means to monitor our personal lives. This new distributed form of power is based upon active personal participation, acting as a kind of internalized surveillance system (or sousveillance), where state control is effectively out-sourced to individuals and relies upon their own self-policing in relation to the values of the crowd.

The torrent of digital images now being produced for the internet is a powerful force in the emerging space of flows. Speaking in 2017, Paglen speculated that ‘probably more images have been made over the last three or four years than in all of human history combined up until that point.’[17] However, Paglen says, the nature of images and of seeing in general is undergoing a fundamental transformation.

We are at the point (actually, probably long past) where the majority of the world’s images are made by-machines-for-machines. In this new age, robot-eyes, seeing-algorithms and imaging-machines are the rule and seeing with the meat-eyes of our human bodies is increasingly the exception. Machines-seeing-for-machines is a ubiquitous phenomenon, encompassing everything from infrared QR-code readers at supermarket check-outs to the Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras on police cars and urban intersections; facial-recognition systems conduct automated biometric surveillance at airports, while department stores intercept customers’ mobile-phone pings, creating intricate maps of movements through the aisles. Beyond that, the archives of Facebook and Instagram hold hundreds of billions of photographs, which are trawled by sophisticated algorithms searching for clues about the behaviours and tastes of the people and scenes depicted in them. But all of this seeing, all of these images, are essentially invisible to human eyes. These images aren’t meant for us: they’re meant to do things in the world; human eyes aren’t in the loop.[18]

machine readable hito

Trevor Paglen (2017), Machine Readable Hito

How do we begin to think about the implications on society at large of this world of machine-seeing and invisible images? How might the singularity of the artist’s world view contribute to a process of conscious collective resistance to the homogenisation of the global network culture? How can the artist help to re-introduce a poetics of empathy into the emotionless space of flows, reconnecting language with the ‘body of the mother’ and affection? In short, why should we continue to pay attention to the artist?

According to Berardi, in order to resist the process of desingularization, we must first combat the principle of exchange value that dominates neo-liberal culture, through a poetics of intimacy. Re-introducing affection and ‘the body of the mother’ into social relations, through the counter principle of sharing (and its corollary, the commons[19]). Different from any mode of economic or symbolic exchange, the principle of sharing eludes a simple reduction to equivalence, as it is based upon forms that yield no return because they remain outside of exchange and, indeed, cannot be exchanged. Georges Batailles referred to this ‘excess’ as ‘the accursed share’ – that which can no longer be exchanged but must be expended – including the arts, as an example of ‘non-recuperable surplus energy within the general economy’[20]. Sharing runs counter to the rationalist assumption about human behaviour, that individuals tend to act out of purely selfish motivations, which means that most behaviours can be understood in terms of exchange (‘we give something in order to get something back’, ‘we do something because we get something out of it’). To the contrary, sharing actively resists the establishment of equivalencies between values, and cannot be grasped in terms of exchange.

According to Wolfgang Sützl,

Unlike exchange, sharing is primarily about being and only secondarily about having. Whenever we share, and no matter what we share, our being and that of others comes into play. Unlike exchange, which can be carried out between anyone, sharing affects the being of those who share.[21]

The ‘existential’ nature of sharing is based upon the fact that we give freely of ourselves in our own lived ‘real time’. We cannot share without communicating, and without putting our own selves, our own being, into play. It is this connection to intimacy, and with the limitations and fragility of our own bodies, that also represents an inner limitation of sharing. So, while sharing as a political act limits exchange, it is itself limited through the finitude of existence as well. Thus, according to Sützl, the act of sharing is an ‘existential experience’, in which ‘being dominates over having’, reminding us that ‘the world, and the meanings we generate by virtue of having a world, is already a shared world’. In fact, ‘it is quite impossible to think of the world in any other way […] No one can exist as a cultural being and not share.’[22] After all, we all already know the intimacy of ‘the body of the mother’ in our very being.

These anti-economic, political and existential meanings make up the core of sharing. They make it an activity in which we create ourselves as communities of beings before we do anything else.[23]

Thus, intimacy can be understood to be an antidote to the desingularization of the contemporary space of flows, and the act of sharing our existential singularity, in lived real-time, as part of a process of conscious collective subjectivation. What Jean-Luc Nancy describes as ‘being singular plural’[24]. Perhaps this might also begin to explain the renewed significance of the artist today?


[1] Steyerl, Hito (2014). Liquidity Inc. (video work)

[2] Bauman, Zygmunt (1999). Liquid Modernity

[3] Agamben, Giorgio (2009). What is an Apparatus, and Other Essays

[4] Castells, Manuel (1996). The Rise of the Network Society

[5] Osborne, Peter (2013). Anywhere or Not At All: philosophy of contemporary art

[6] Ibid.

[7] Steyerl, Hito (2015). Duty-Free Art

[8] Berardi, Franco (2011). After the Future

[9] Berardi, Franco (2009). The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy

[10] Berardi, Franco (2011). After the Future

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Crawford, Matthew (2015). The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction

[14] Herbert, Simon (1971). Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest

[15] Goldhaber, Michael (1997). Attention Shoppers! (Wired magazine)

[16] Paglen, Trevor (2016). Deep Web Dive (The Creators Project online magazine)

[17] Paglen, Trevor (2017). The Future of Art (Artsy online magazine)

[18] Paglen, Trevor (2014). Safety in Numbers? (Frieze magazine)

[19] The term ‘commons’ derives from the traditional English legal term for common land. In modern economic theory, the commons have come to refer to the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. [Source: Wikipedia]

[20] Batailles, Georges (1949). The Accursed Share: an essay on general economy

[21] Sützl, Wolfgang (2016). Being with one another: Towards a media phenomenology of sharing

[22] Sützl, Wolfgang (2015). On Sharing

[23] Ibid.

[24] Nancy, Jean-Luc (2000). Being Singular Plural

== Text by Tom Trevor published in the catalogue of the 2018 Bruges Triennale ==

Image: Liquidity Inc. (2014), Hito Steyerl


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