cflow journal - issue 2013-2

Creative Assemblages – When aesthetics meet the economy or what do they have in Common?

Elodie Pong

After The Empire

HD video loop, 13:50 min, 2008.

In this video, face-to-face conversations between late icons of popular culture and political and historical heroes – including Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Batman & Robin, Karl Marx – are orchestrated. Surrounded by a post-apocalyptic set, the actors embody their character’s individual and symbolic extremes, longings, and ideals in simultaneously humorous and elegiac ways.

Elodie Pong confronts what is happening both in language and in representation, and the very regime of production and consumption of images, as they all work in a simultaneous regime, circulating in a temporal scheme across time with “simulation models.” She builds her characters, figures, representation and dramatization on fictive and historical images. The artist tests language and its linguistic existence as speech act starting with the film’s script, playing with meaning between the lines of the actors, their performance and the visual material. The film raises the question of whether there are any utopian socialities in a time of fragmented communication, and whether the mediatic and the virtual constitute an ideal reality or a mutilated reality.

The film looks at how media and technology transforms the construction of history, and especially what is called historical time, which has been devalued and absorbed by “deep time” in which there is no longer a before and after, in which the forms of knowledge about the past as something objective fade out because in digital media everything happens in real but speculative time. This is a real accelerated time, with a striking economic effect on real life as the realization of “just-in-time” and “just-in-case” production and the financial markets.

After all, the mass media and cyberspace are a grandiose mixer in real time of history and fiction coming from the most varied sources in virtual space, from advertising, popular culture, representation and images in real time in an artificially created 3D, as well as those sources that write themselves.

As an aesthetic revelation of our fears linked to discourses of the end the film opens a view on desires of exodus, of escaping from the factory model and the old political economy. After The Empire is a complex, intense look full of humor onto the post-Fordist economy of language and affect, an economy of flexible labor in no need of fixed identities, onto fluid and metamorphic regimes of precarized existence.

Even if the figure of Sigmund Freud makes no appearance in the film, his shadow extends throughout the scenes as a metaphorical presence as the third in the triangle of the flirtatious meeting between Marilyn Monroe and Karl Marx. It seems that emotional labor with its melodramatic effect and immaterial principles overcome factory production. Media and virtual space are more appropriate to psychoanalytic events and psychoanalytic production, which sweeps away the principles of political economy. The characters created by the artist, through their exploration of an emotional capacity of affecting and being affected, lead us to the end of material history, to a time of “erotohistoriography” in which nostalgia and the spectacle mark “the discreet charm of second order simulacra” (Baudrillard) in which utility and pleasure, and culture and economy, merge in the real time of circulation.

From the first motion pictures, whose lives are extended to infinity, to those created in real time, there are no longer any authentic images, since their codes are appropriated from the past. All are transformed into specters of abstractions, which marks not only a “historical break” but also an “iconic break” with “the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction” signified by “technological sweetness” in a scheme of attraction and attention. Eroticized, seductive, shining, perfect in their entire technological charm and the glory of cyberspace and media space, they are nonetheless ghostly figures of “obsessive fixation” inhabiting the cold space of technology. After The Empire looks at the perception of history as something erotic, a “romantic era of historical sensibility.”

In a time of surveillance and web cameras, spectators have experience from both sides of the camera. This is why the artist places the characters in an over-exposure of their performances, who are at the same time all too innocent in their dream-like exhibitionism. With this approach Elodie Pong reflects on the medium itself and existing discourses around the mediatization of the gaze. The artist creates a kind of gap between the statements of her characters and the position of the viewer in order to underline that position in a double affirmation. The viewer loses the pleasure of viewing itself as it becomes rather a process of labor than a leisure activity. Viewing becomes tiring, and the viewer distracted and disinterested, overdosed by the shocking flux of images rushing into their eyes. The artist pursues the idea of returning the pleasure to viewing as she rehabilitates the viewing subject confronted with their own discomfort of viewing from the position of the contemporary subject, subjected to long processes of deconstruction regarding the politics of representation. Pong confronts these discourses, the production of images as well as their consumption in what can be seen as her own appropriation of the feminist critique of a historically male constructed voyeurism in order to turn it around once again, including the différance of the “feminine gaze” and jouissance from viewing. Here the artist takes an unexpected leap that slips into “a crisis of masculinity” in the disintegration of which the crisis unfolds. Something “homoerotic” emerges to disturb gender stereotypes linked to the politics of the gaze, in order to invent an alternative gaze.

The performing of the subjects in After The Empire follows the cyclical scheme of a karaoke machine as a signifier of the very internal structure of the film. The artist makes use of theatricality with its narrative repetition, in the manner of songs coming out of the machine one after the other, which you may choose to follow or not – but even if you leave, it continues working, “running idle” until the end of the program is reached. I am using this metaphor of the big mixing machine, of the type which requires repeatedly inserting a coin in the slot so it continues working, in order to underline how identity is no longer a matter of construction but can be created, invented and constantly re-composed. And yet it is a matter of a business transaction. If you want to be a sovereign subject you first need to realize yourself financially. Every identity is commercial, conforming on the one hand to personal consumption, on the other to the commercial principles of market exchange. Indeed the immaterial economy open a new economic cycle in which the meaning of consumption and production reverse the direction of their flow and closes them in a cycle opposite to the one that existed before. We consume ourselves in the process of producing immaterial consumer goods as “a mass civilizing medium,” the end of production and reproduction after post-production in the new order where every image is first consumed and can then be re-produced. In such a mediatized precarization, its subjects are unable to socially recompose in any meaningful way as there is no communication between them. Because they are isolated, separated in their own parallel capsules, their intimate places, Pong places each character in its own cell of simulated environment and simultaneous existence, which can be read as a reference to the beginning of moving images and the first apparatuses for animating movement and projection such as Eadweard Muybridge’s zoetrope or Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope, where the viewer had to look as if through a keyhole.

How does the spectacle construct everyday life? Think of the corporate construction of childhood by Disney, who turns out to exercise the social management of the media corporate manifestations of the representational imaginary. This reverberates in repeated echoes in After The Empire. Under the mastering of Disney, history turns into mythology as the culture of mystification conveyed by advertising and media puts an aureole on magic and media sensations not only in the past but also in what happens now, at the expense of cognition, leading to a conflict between the rational and the emotional. Like the gigantic Pinocchio, grown up but looking like an oversize baby, or Batman and Robin which have traded in their heroism for infantile manners, this same Disney determines our mimetic skills all the way to adult age. This is not only dehumanizing, but also animating, something ghostly that makes a bridge between real existence and something plastic which has reached all spheres of life and inscribes itself in the memory and dreams, and experience itself. The social manipulation of images no longer affects only the experience of children, but has hegemonic implications for American culture, producing what Baudrillard calls hyperreality, or the desert of the real. Our feeling for reality transforms into something synthetic and artificial.

There is an unexpected turn at the heart of the empire, even if the matrix strives to produce holograms and identical images in which all patterns and codes are determined as ready-mades and escalate in copy paste functions. Despite this the process becomes distorted and falls apart, as an emanation of combinatory algebra. There is something wrong because they are not in fact identical – similar but not identical. It turns out that at the heart of the empire there are no two identical things, no two Marilyns, while Marx is multiplying in diverging projections of his own heroic construction and Batman and Robin reinvent their relations. The very process leads to transformation, mutation, incompleteness and paradoxes in the production of a sweet new type of fluid subjectivities and their possible representations. “It is no longer a question of imitation,” not even parody. There is no longer such a thing as mass production and mass society.
The continuous dispersal of images and their regrouping as data, and their circulation as bits wears them out, making them impossible, wasted, absurd, depriving them from any direct application in a system of meaning. This process reflects directly the role of the image both as representation and as floating digits, a role that turns out to be that of constructs of both the virtual and of our existence as subjects. This is why Pong places her characters into the habitat of the technological unconscious where they are stimulated to invent themselves. The constant and accelerated recombination of codes produces mutations, and it would seem that Pong’s characters become all the more authentic and true to themselves, and incommensurable to their original source, as they resist psychoanalysis. These “outrageous” patients banished from the system of psychoanalysis in the past at the same time demonstrate how the semiotic and cultural “signs” create new value and new embodied experience in the regime of the simulacra. This is why it would be difficult to classify and arrange in an order these fluid subjects and avatars emerging from the depths, since it would be nearly impossible to identify which are mere avatars of something else, artificially generated, and which are “autonomous.” In the regime of the simulacra new mechanisms of power occur, new social subjectivities and the valorization of virtual material on the basis of the separation between sign and body. On the one hand these avatars and artificially generated existences consist of all sorts of post-human creatures, from cyborg identities to liberating avatars, or those who teach themselves how to write and develop their own virtues and social conflicts, like a plastic milieu in a virtual environment, but on the other this is a space that, through technologies, has interiorized social labor in the real working environment.

On the ruins of the Empire the artist maintains an optimistic view of her vision of discourses of the end and their speculative exchange. In her version the decay of the hegemony of the Empire is a dual process of forces both from inside from its own decadence and from the outside struggles that attack her fortified walls. Pong confronts metaphorically those two possible worlds, their respective comfort and their isolation in black boxes, and the idea that there is something else beyond the spectacle, something like the opposite of true reality and the daylight that streams in through it. The question that remains lurking in the air is whether liberation of its fluid, sweet and seductive subjects, beyond their shadowy technological existence, outside the technological matrix and their socio-temporal system of coordinates. If the end comes about one day after one of these ruptures, what is this the end of? Are they also trying, like the monster of Mary Shelley, to control their own fate? Or are they doomed like the monster because they are intimately linked with the past as dead labor. Or is it the end of humanity, “because it necessitates the world of essences in its separation between of false simulacra and the multitude appearance.”

Text: Dimitrina Sevova