the art of decadence: in east london

by Joe Thorne

I visited three exhibitions in a relatively small area of East London on Saturday.

The first, at Foto 8, was of photographer Robert Gumpert’s portraits from inside San Fransisco’s jails.  In their own right, the pictures are compelling: dark and confrontational.  Most prisoners square up to the camera blankly, bare chested and thick-muscled.  Tattoos loop around their arms and throats.  But if the pictures are dark, the social reality which they represent is darker.


The incarcerated depicted are overwhelmingly African American, and few are white.  By now, an African American man has a 29% chance of spending time in prison at some point in his life.  The majority are current or former drug addicts, and from the testimony many appear to have been abused and neglected as children.  Gumpert not only photographed his subjects, he recorded them, in speech of surprising tenderness: prison cookery, racism, verse, community, and much else besides.  As one of his subjects put it:

People don’t get a certain way in one night, and we can’t change in one night, time had did alot of things to me. . . I hope that people extend themselves outside, so that people like me don’t have to live to be 43 years old, facing 25 life sentences, for being an addict and being poor . . .

The politics is neither difficult nor accidental.  Gumpert has his roots in the social movements of the 1970s, is quite clear about the ‘racist society’ which produced his subjects as they are, and to judge by his blog remains politically engaged.

A short walk away, in the Barbican, a very different exhibition fills The Curve.  Cory Arcangel has got his hands on 14 different games-console bowling simulators, produced from the 1970s to the present.   Sequences from the games, in which the bowler fails to hit a single pin each time, appear projected, 20 ft high, onto the wall, in chronological order.  We pass from something that looks like pong-bowling, to 3D modelling which approaches the photorealistic.

To be honest, when I stood outside, I assumed I’d hate the piece: I’ve seen alot of fundamentally boring ‘digital art’, high on its own retro-aesthetic, and making vague gestures towards saying something, anything, about ‘technology’.   But actually, I think the piece is very clever.  Half way around, I asked myself why the artist had chosen bowling, since there are just as many simulators available for a number of other sports.  Why not golf?

A possible answer was that Arcangel is referencing Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s famous account of the decline of ‘social capital’ in the USA.

Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures . . . Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

. . . we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

Americans are getting lonelier.  Something similar is probably true here in the UK.  It’s not even that we’re bowling alone.  We’re playing computer games about bowling alone, in a house.  By ourselves.

Walking along the piece, as the graphics get sharper, and the underlying processors get more powerful and sophisticated, they only serve to depict more clearly the sadness which they represent.  The figures are most often alone on screen, but one of the more recent games features a sequence in which the camera pans behind the character: there is little glitz, just a run-down small town bar, with a few dog eared regulars lounging on the stools.  This rather depressing image now counts as something aspirational and remote: community.  As the human ingenuity underlying technological development ascends ever greater heights, its achievement, as depicted here, is: the expressions of defeat on the faces of the hapless avatars are more realistic.

The politics here are subtler, but Arcangel is probably as clear as Gumpter about his intentions.  “The working title of the piece, now called Beat the Champ, was ‘the decline of western civilisation’.”

Arcangel’s oblique reference to declining social capital is perhaps the stimulus we need to read more into Gumpter’s work.  The incarcerated subjects of his photographs are overwhelmingly the products of the fracturing, jobless inner city.  But the inner city wasn’t always like this in the US, and it isn’t like that everywhere today, although it is in very many places.  If we want to understand Gumpter’s subjects, we not only have to understand that US society is racist (which it is), but how it came to produce the particular inner city environment which produces convicts (white as well as black) at such a rate, and in such a way.  This process is described by the sociologist William Julius Wilson, in his classic study When Work Disappears.

In the 1950s, the US inner city was typically a mixed race environment, with enough jobs to go around.  Drugs were available, but addiction was not rife, and the buying and selling of narcotics did not define economic life for many.  Then, jobs disappeared.  US capital decided it didn’t need the inner city workforce (particularly one which had shown an ability to organise itself powerfully and militantly during the 1960s), and they were damned if they would pay for it to reproduce itself socially through welfare payments or alternative employment programmes.[1]  This process was powerfully augmented by the ‘redlining’ which encouraged racial segregation.  Social capital in the ghetto was destroyed.

But how much do these sorts of changes, which picked up pace during the 1970s and accelerated under Reagan, affect crime and incarceration? How far are these changes responsible for the lives of which Gumpert gives us a snapshot?  This much:

It’s the process which is already well under way by the time depicted in Boyz N the Hood (1984), and which is still going on in The Wire.  In Gumpter’s and Arcangel’s work, we have the most obvious losers, and the least satisfied winners.  Two sides of the same coin.

The third exhibition we visited was at Bloomberg SPACE, built into the offices of Bloomberg LP, who specialise in providing real-time market trading information.  (The curator is apparently very well respected, but has inexplicably hit Caps Lock half way through naming the gallery.)  The exhibition consists of two works, by two artists: ‘Marcellvs L.’ and Nora Schultz. To cut a long story short, the former videos stuff he sees when he’s out and about, and posts it to random strangers in Berlin, whilst the latter has made an ad hoc printing press out of old camping mats, and scattered the resultant prints over the floor.  There are also some bricks.  What the former is about is largely unclear, but apparently has something to do with Deleuze and Guattari.  The latter is about how journalists use the phrase ‘bricks and mortar’ to refer to property.  You see how that works?  Newspapers use print, a brick is a brick, so make some prints and put them next to some bricks.  Hey presto, that’s art.  Apparently.  Unclear?  Don’t worry, judging by the accompanying literature, the curator doesn’t understand either.  “The focus of the work is deeply psychological.  Its blankness is a strange interruption within a typical, daily, information-rich experience,” Michelle Cotton writes of Schultz’s work.  So, by virtue of saying nothing, it is “deeply psychological”?  We can only imagine the psychological depth which would be attained by Schultz were she to have something to say.  It would be positively Freudian.  Or perhaps Deleuzian.  Whatever that means, if it refers to a video of some rope.

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is the correlation between the reflective, financialised, corporate vacuity of the space, and its total absence of intellectual or emotional content.  Apparently Bloomberg want to ‘make artists’.  The artists they make say as much about the company as the art does of the artist.  If this seems like trite point-scoring, think of it like this.  Is it remotely conceivable that Bloomberg would have filled their lobby with the other two pieces?  Not at all.  It is completely impossible that pieces with the implicit politics of those described above could be promoted by Bloomberg.  It is impossible that their employees would be encouraged to absorb the sort of content depicted by Gumpert and Arcangel, which is implicitly – through its accuracy about human experience – critical of the system which Bloomberg plays an important role in organising.  Sterility is the condition of acceptance.

Capitalism not only destroys lives in the brutal and obvious manner written on the skin of San Francisco prisoners.  It stunts lives through loneliness and isolation.  Where it provides dynamic minds to some – such as the Bloomberg staff – it instrumentalises them entirely for the purpose of profit, and cuts them off from the possibility of genuine access to the ideas represented by the first two exhibitions.  This money pays for anodyne, pretentious, contrived art, and – insofar as it impacts upon the sphere of politics – is used to sustain the political parties which make of the inner city USA what it is.  In fact, the only thing that Bloomberg do, on Saturday’s evidence, to promote valuable art is to play a central role in sustaining the economic regime which devastates the social life of the United States, which in turn allows otherwise unrelated artists to depict this devastation.

As one well known and prescient commentator has put it:

On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire. In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary: Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it; The newfangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want; The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.

Anyway.  Then we went to some shit bar overlooking the City which charged £3.95 for a cider like a slush puppy.

Thanks to Fox and Squirrel for the walk which took us to the three galleries. 

[1] The documentary Bastards of the Party shows the transition from the inner city of the Black Panthers (whose strong hold was in the Bay Area) to that of the Crips and the Bloods.

2 thoughts on “the art of decadence: in east london

  1. Good article, but (being slightly pedantic) Boyz in the Hood was ’91. No-one knew who the fuck Ice Cube was in 1984!


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