Artists and planetary urbanization

By Andy Merrifield

Andy Merrifield is author of several books, including Magical Marxism (Pluto), The New Urban Question (Pluto), The Wisdom of Donkeys (Bloomsbury), and The Amateur (Verso). This article is written for PICTURE Budapest – Østfold: Investigating the Role of Artistic Interventions in (Post-)industrial Environments, for which he gave the keynote presentation during a two-day symposium in Moss and Fredrikstad, Norway.

In the late 1980s, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze did a series of quirky filmed interviews with Claire Parnet, a journalist at the French daily, Libération. Eight hours of documentary footage emerged, an Abécédaire, in which Deleuze extemporises on all things A to Z, Animal to Zigzag. Here Deleuze is perhaps at his most fascinating best. We get a rare glimpse not only inside the life (and living room) of a notoriously media-shy thinker; we enter inside his own head, too, inside his own thought-process, watch him ad-libbing, smiling and ruminating, unrehearsed before the camera. It’s something refreshingly different from today’s canned, bland TEDx gabbing.

Deleuze is always inspiring, and I like to watch him when I’m feeling down about the world. After the Trump election result, hot on the heels of a Brexit backlash, I decided I needed Gilles again. So I checked out his Abécédaire, homing in on the letter “G,” for “Gauche”—“Left,” wondering what Left might still mean today. “What does it mean for you to be ‘Left’?” Parnet taunts Deleuze. “I’m going to tell you,” he says, “that there’s no government of the Left. A government of the Left doesn’t exist, because to be Left isn’t an affair of government.”

But let’s start with what it means not to be Left, Deleuze says. This is to think of the world “a bit like your postcode. You begin with yourself…the street where you live, the city, the country, other countries further and further away.” On the other hand, “to be Left [être de gauche] is the direct opposite.” It’s to perceive the horizon, to move inwards from the outside, to imagine the planet, “the continent, your country, region, city, street…you.” “Left,” says Deleuze, is an affair of perceiving that horizon, of keeping your vision of yourself and the world expansive, large. It’s to live with the vastness of the planet, with its immensity.

Deleuze here isn’t only offering an antidote to the pervasive narrow-mindedness of our bigoted toxic times; he’s also stressing, I think, the importance of what planetary urbanization should be, has to be: an affair of perception [une affaire de perception], a vision that begins vast, at the horizon, and sees particular parts (including your own particular part) comprising an interdependent totality. Somehow, we’re all in it together: we can either affirm or deny it, be a yes-sayer or naysayer. To be a yes-sayer is to recognise the interconnectivity of our existence, a larger, more inclusive narrative; it’s to understand that the above “somehow” requires critical interrogation not visceral abrogation.

Perhaps this is what that other French philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, had in mind when he announced the coming of “urban society” in 1970. When Lefebvre spoke of “the complete urbanization of society” I don’t think he ever imagined that urbanization would be everywhere, that concrete and bricks, freeways and highways would predominate every which way, that all green space would turn grey; nor was he saying that “cities” would quantitatively overwhelm the planet. (That’s why he’s radically at odds with the empirics of UN-Habitat and its “Urban Age” thesis.)

Rather, he was heralding the closing of the circle of a particular form of capitalism that defines itself less through a model of industrial or agricultural production and more through the production of space. It’s a system that now produces planetary geography as a commodity, as a pure financial asset, using and abusing people and places as strategies to accumulate capital. This process quite simply embroils everybody, no matter where.

In this reading, the urban doesn’t so much spread as it becomes the vortex for sucking in everything the planet offers: its land and wealth, its capital and power, its culture and people—its dispensable labour-power. It’s this sucking in of people and goods, of capital and information that fuels the urban machine, that makes it so dynamic as well as so destabilising, because its energising and totalising force “expulses” (expels) people, “secretes” what Lefebvre calls a “residue.”

Residues are remainders who live out the periphery, who feel the periphery inside them, who identify with the periphery, even if sometimes they’re located in the core. Residues exist in the world of work: precarious and downsized workers, informal and gig economy workers, workers without regularity, without any real stake in the future of work. Residues are refugees rejected and rebuked, profiled and patrolled no matter where they wander, people forced off the land, thrown out of their housing (by impersonal property markets and violent eviction), whose homes have been repossessed, whose living space teeters on the geographical and economic edge.

Plenty of artists likewise fill the ranks of residues and now know how capitalism’s cutting edge is frequently a bleeding edge for art. True, high art can be exploited as super profitable cultural capital; but progressive art, Left art, leaves many artists—painters, installation artists, performance artists, writers, poets, etc.—out on the margins, struggling to earn living inside the meanness and aggressive bluster of neoliberal capitalism.  

Artists have special needs for space, not only for living space but for spaces to create, display and perform their art in, spaces to practice their art in, and that’s why artists have historically been very vocal in demanding their “right to the city,” since they feel the pinch in urban areas alongside other modest means people. And that’s why artists often find affinity with these other people. Artists have been forced to think about their place in the world, in the city, about their links for other communities, about their relationship to the class system. Urban areas offer artists access to markets and to audiences, to fellow-traveling artists, to like-minded creative people. Yet urban areas with soaring rents and property values also put intense pressures on artists that makes them sometimes wonder whether they’ll ever have the means to create at all.

Meanwhile, political demands are now placed on artists. Indeed, artists can make a crucial contribution as residues, because their art can help other residues recognize one another, find one another. Artists can open up lifelines where residues can encounter one another. Artists can create spaces (including spaces of the imagination), events, objects and happenings that give expressive form to the vortex of planetary urbanization, helping residues navigate and survive in this vortex. Radical art can do this by formulating forcefields of resistance, creating new ways of perceiving those planetary horizons that Deleuze said Leftists should perceive.

Deleuze knew that all great art was about creation, was about formulating new concepts of Becoming, about how Leftists never really cease “becoming minorities” [devenir-minoritaire]. In his Abécédaire, he says that, maybe, this implies minorities are never actually going to make up the majority. To be Left, and be a Left artist, is to affirm your Being by Becoming a minority, alongside other minorities, other residues, be proud of it, wear it as a badge of honour. It’s to assemble and form an ensemble with your fellow minorities, to express your becoming out in the world together.

The poet Charles Baudelaire long ago suggested that the modern artist should aspire to become “a spiritual citizen of the universe,” that they should create a cosmopolitanism which doesn’t only touch the horizon: occasionally, it pushes beyond that horizon, opens up new doors of the perception. Baudelaire drafted what might well be the greatest single definition of what art should be: something only completely true in another world. This sets the tone for artists today, for the artist as marginalized creator, for the artist who’s equally a truth-teller, a rebel, a he or she who isn’t afraid to stand up to the corrupting forces of money and power, and who, in many ways, has nothing to lose. Truly independent artists are free to let us glimpse—and maybe even grasp—that other world. Before us now lies a massive expansion of urban life across the planet, an opening up of our urban horizons and frontiers, matched by a closing of the political mind, a withering of the established political will.

Ruling forces seemingly everywhere appear intent on blowing this planet apart, cowering before provincial smallness rather than embracing cosmopolitan vastness. Art can keep things large and intact. It can create visions expressive of a mutually shared planet in which people who look different, who talk different from one another, who don’t know one another, who may even hate one another, have more in common than they might think.

This likeness is an ever-growing mutuality of disadvantage, of despair, of suffering and, perhaps, of hope. There’s affinity here even if it’s rarely acknowledged. Art and artists can help us identify how this affinity might get recognised, how it gets mediated, undermined, upended by forces upending the planet, forces that conspire together, that throw everybody into a scary mix. The hope against hope of art is that it can help inspire a new urban sovereignty in which people strive to become wholly human.

31. March 2017

Visit Andy Merrifield’s website: https://andymerrifield.org/