Artists Space

The Demonstration of Capitalist Realism

September 12, 2014, 7pm

In the mid-1960s the coining of the term “capitalist realism” by Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter emerged from the ideological divide of a post-war Germany, with the authoritarianism of Stalinism in close proximity to the aspirational boom of the West German “economic miracle.” For particularly Lueg, Polke and Richter, a turn to realism suggested both the weight of a moral imperative to represent historical and social conditions, and the staging of the artist as economic subject. They sought not to simply depict the subjects or objects of capitalism, but to demonstrate the reality that capitalism itself presented. In the words of Richter: “I am fascinated by the human, temporal, real, logical side of an occurrence which is simultaneously so unreal, so incomprehensible, and so atemporal. And I would like to represent it in such a way that this simultaneity is preserved.”

A pattern consisting of blue prints of delicate flowers repeats across a white surface. The image resembles wallpaper.
[A pattern consisting of blue prints of delicate flowers repeats across a white surface. The image resembles wallpaper.]

Fifty years later, and after the fall of the Berlin wall, the term capitalist realism has been re-defined by cultural theorist Mark Fisher “as the belief that capitalism is the only viable (“realistic”) political economic system.” Here, the notion of a realism that reveals the insensible facets of capitalist society, only serves to reinforce the sense of such inequities as an inevitable part of “reality.” Capitalist ideology has become naturalized, and what Fisher has described as a “business ontology” is installed in every aspect of society.

This two part symposium, programmed as an epilogue to the exhibition Living with Pop. A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism, addresses the term capitalist realism through both the specificities of its art-historical usage, and a contemporary theorizing of capitalism and the "real." Through a series of presentations from art historians, philosophers and theorists ranging from close-readings of capitalist realism as employed by Kuttner, Lueg, Richter and Polke, and later the gallerist René Block, to considerations of the ontological shifts that have accompanied the ascendancy of neoliberal capitalism, the event will trace the movements between realism as artistic strategy, and as mediated by pervasive ideology.

On Friday evening, as a prelude to these presentations, the Goethe-Institut Wyoming Building will screen three films by the influential German post-war documentarian Peter Nestler, introduced by Artists Space curator Richard Birkett. Seldom seen in the US, the films Ödenwaldstetten, 1964, Mülheim (Ruhr), 1964, and Rheinstrom, 1965, map the rapidly changing socio-economic and industrial landscape of West Germany that formed the backdrop to capitalist realism.

Howie Chen is a New York–based curator involved in collaborative art production and research. Chen is a founder of Dispatch, a curatorial production office and project space founded in New York City, later transitioning to a peripatetic exhibition model. In 2010, Chen co-founded JEQU, a research project assessing how sociological and cultural economic approaches to art world debates can augment artistic critique. He holds a degree in economics from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and attended the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program as a Helena Rubinstein Curatorial Fellow. Chen currently teaches critical theory at the New York University Steinhardt School and Parsons The New School for Design. He is a lecturer and research affiliate at the Art, Culture and Technology program at MIT.

Doreen Mende lives in Berlin and works internationally as a curator, lecturer and editor. Her concept-driven projects involve often research with image archives in relation to economics, display practices, non-western internationalisms, non-aligned histories, solidarity and geopolitics. Recent institutional collaborations include University of California Santa Cruz; Generali Foundation, Vienna; Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Seville; Arab Image Foundation, Beirut; ETH, Zurich; Netsa Art Village, Addis Ababa; Qalandyia International, Ramallah; and Raven Row, London. She has taught at the Dutch Art Institute since 2010. Mende received her PhD from the Curatorial/Knowledge program at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Evan Calder Williams is a writer, artist, and theorist. He is the author of Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, Roman Letters, and, forthcoming next year from Verso, Against the Flood: The Italian Critique of Gender and Capital, a collection of translations and writings. He writes for Film Quarterly, Mute, the Criterion Collection, World Picture, La Furia Umana, and The New Inquiry, among others. Next month he will premiere his new film and performance with musician Taku Unami, The Glass Map, at the Festival de Nouveau Cinéma, Montreal.

Mark Fisher is the author of Capitalist Realism, 2009, and Ghosts of my Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, 2014, both published by Zero books, where he is now a Commissioning Editor. His writing has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Film Quarterly, The Wire, The Guardian and Frieze. He is Programme Leader of the MA in Aural and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London and a lecturer at the University of East London. He was a founding member of the influential Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the Philosophy Department of University of Warwick, Coventry in 1995.

Susanne Rennert works as a curator and writer based in Düsseldorf with a research-related focus on the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Her scholarly studies comprise monographic work with a deep interest for the overlooked as well as for the social, economic and political contexts of art. Among her most recent curatorial and co-curatorial projects were Living with Pop. A Reproduction of Capitalist Realism., Kunsthalle Düsseldorf / Artists Space, 2013/14 (with E. Evers, M. Holzhey, G. Jansen, R. Birkett and S. Kalmár); Nam June Paik, Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf / Tate Liverpool, 2010/11 (with Sook-Kyung Lee). In Spring 2013, Rennert copublished the first book on Jean-Pierre Wilhelm, an early promoter of Nam June Paik and pioneer of intermedia art scene with Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne. She recently contributed text to Dorothy Iannone, This Sweetness Outside of Time, Retrospective of Paintings, Objects, Books and Films, 1959-2014, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, 2014.