For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, between May 9 and July 13, 2014. Here is the eighth installment of this 10-part journey.
VII. Enjoy Please Poverty
Renzo Martens has become known over the last decade for two documentary works in which he plays a central role. In Episode I (2003) he travels to Chechnya, ostensibly to document the fallout of the war between Russian soldiers and Chechen militants. To make the feature-length Episode III, he spent two years in the Congo, one of the world’s most ravaged and impoverished countries, and set out to prove that poverty is in fact the region’s greatest resource. The films each function as Western meditations on Western narcissism, with Martens uncomfortably intervening in the action, making the subject of the film as much himself as any of the material conditions he is investigating.
The press release accompanying Martens’s 45-minute film Episode I began as follows:
Renzo Martens pushes his way into Chechnya—alone, illegal, and carrying an Hi8 camera. He takes the role of the ubiquitous, yet forever undefined, television viewer whose attention everyone is fighting for. Against a background of ruins and bombings, he does not ask refugees, UN employees, and rebels how they feel. Those stories are already known. They already play a role. Instead he asks them how they think he feels.1
Martens spends time with NGO workers, wanders the refugee camps interacting with people, visits the city of Grozny, and surveys the ruins. At a checkpoint a Russian soldier laughs at the impertinence of Martens’s question, “What do you think of me,” responding, “You’re just an idiot looking for adventure.” Clearly an outsider in the situation, the artist exploits his own position as a documentarian to gain access to people, homes, and situations, with the subjects of the film assuming that he is there with a “theme” in mind, an approach that will at the very least raise awareness, create images to join the countless others that reveal the trauma to viewers elsewhere. Used to being hailed as victims, the refugees are both understanding of the mechanisms of aid and the need to be viewed within a regime of humanitarianism, and also tired of it all, suspicious ultimately of the intentions of those who capture them within their pixelated prison and depart satiated.
As indicated in the release, Martens is not presenting a fly-on-the-wall documentary, with its implicit call and response to the subject to narrativize their exploitation and misery for a sympathetic audience in lands far away. His is more personality driven, bordering on the fly-in-the-ointment characteristics of a Michael Moore, Louis Theroux, or even Werner Herzog. Yet, unlike these directors who seek ultimately to use their personalities to drive forward a theme that will prove elucidatory in some way, either revealing a deep universal truth about humankind (Herzog) or raising awareness around a tangible issue (Moore), Martens makes the subject of his films himself. By extension, he is the consumer, because his distracted, narcissistic behavior becomes a correlative for persons who engage with television or film as just one of many incidents throughout their day, for whom the documentation of trauma is conceived as both an address meant to raise awareness but also a form of entertainment, a mode of communication that always constructs the viewer as somehow outside looking in, rather than implicated and somehow always also responsible for that which is being viewed.
One strand of Martens’s writing and speaking about his own work is to insist on its lack of ability to promote social change, to emphasize the work’s status as an artwork that self-referentially points out the structure of its own making. It’s virtually a modernist assertion, which cleaves to some notion of autonomy—the medium pointing out its own construction, self-reflexively reaching for the nadir of a documentary that reveals its own structures. Never mind, it seems to suggest, the content or the subjects who fill it are just paint and canvas; it’s what you do with them that counts. But of course what he means by the film being about the conditions of its own existence is simply that it points out the social, political, and economic function of reportage. Or more pointedly, it reveals the ethics of looking and recording rather than assuming that these things arise from a transparent intention to show. For him, autonomy is not predicated on lack of reference to the outside world, but rather:
I think something can also become autonomous if it somehow folds back onto itself, if the piece somehow becomes accountable for its own existence in the world. And that’s something that is often missing in contemporary art’s documentary practices. The position of the piece vis à vis what it’s depicting is often not included into the equation. I’ve somehow tried to make a work of art that shows something in the world by virtue of dealing with its own mode of production and representation. The piece investigates itself and in a way it’s precisely this self-referential quality that makes the world visible.2
And here is some of the complexity of Martens’s project, the insistence in various interviews on its lack of social effectiveness, while also constructing an ethics of self-reflexivity that is after all a pedagogical tool of laying bare the hierarchies that govern and direct representation and notions of the visible.
In Episode III, the artist goes to the Congo, and over two years documents a series of encounters. The essential through line is his thesis that poverty is the greatest resource of the Congo; it leads to the huge influx of NGOs, the mass media’s infatuation with images of conflict. Co-opting the language of neoliberalism, Martens insists that all that is needed is for the locals to take control of the means of production of this poverty, to become entrepreneurial spirits in the mediation of their own oppression, an exercise that he attempts to direct. He tries to persuade young Congolese photographers that they can make more money through images of suf- fering than by photographing happy weddings in between the inevitable conflicts that sweep through their village. In one of the film’s many vignettes, the artist stands in a suit before a blackboard, like countless colonialists before him (or for that matter, the father of social sculpture, Joseph Beuys himself), seemingly educating the natives on the nature of their oppression: pointing out the basic economics that privilege images of rape, malnourishment, or trauma. It’s a self-aggrandizing role, painful to watch, steeped in irony: “I just try to teach them some of the basic laws of capitalism: create the most added value possible, using the natural resources you have at your disposal.”3
At a hospital, they photograph malnourished children while Martens points out the special features that will improve the digestibility of their images for an international audience. As a conclusion to this strand of the film, Martens accompanies the photographers to a Médecins Sans Frontières encampment in an effort to secure press passes. A man goes through the prints and rejects them based on the lack of aesthetic virtue in their inability to capture the essence of trauma but merely to represent it, and what good is that? After all, the international trade in such images, unless amateur shots of, say, a bomber on an airplane, is predicated on a certain regulatory premise, the standards of professionalism of a well-taken image. There is something very uncomfortable about Martens’s process that militates against one’s understanding of right and wrong. And indeed there is a utilitarian sensibility to his work, an approach in which the ends justify the means. The exploitation of the individual is necessary to approach a much more structural analysis of ways that media and representation function within a global image world wherein the means of production are largely held by vested interests ranging from the corporate media to the NGO industry.
The various incidents of the film have been well documented elsewhere; just Google it and you’ll receive multiple vantage points and perspectives.4 The artist travels to a remote village, accompanied by porters who, it turns out, are carrying a giant neon sign, which he debuts at a gathering. It reads “Enjoy Please Poverty,” with the “please” flashing, politely insistent. A French-speaking villager asks the artists if “poverty” is misspelled, to which Martens responds that English is the language in which the film will be consumed, as the international lingua franca of the art world, the economy of distribution for which the film is destined. Earlier, the artist trails international press photographers who themselves follow in the wake of NGOs who can offer greater levels of security. They document bodies of militants lying decaying in the long grass. Martens befriends a European photographer and the following conversation ensues:
Renzo Martens: Who is the owner of these pictures?
Press photographer: I am the owner. I can use them if I want to make a vernissage, or a book. Not with any money … how do you say?
RM: You don’t have to pay for that. Yes. And the people that are on the pictures. The people you have photographed … are they the owners of the pictures, too, or not?
RM: You are the owner. And the people on the pictures own nothing?
PP: No, because I took the pictures…
RM: You took the pictures…
PP: So I’m the photographer, the author of the picture.
RM: But they organized everything that is on the picture. You just came and made the picture.
PP: What do you mean “organized?”
RM: Well the situation that you made the picture of, they made the situation.
PP: But not due to me …
RM: No, not because of you…
PP: No, yeah, sure. But, it’s me that made of that situation a picture…
PP: There are thousands of situations. But it’s me. I choose the one that I think will make a good picture. And that makes that picture mine.
What Martens has done is perhaps a demonstration of the politics of representation that every media studies student understands de facto, but there is something devastating in this sequence. People are the resource that the photographer exploits, even as the international corporations exploit those people’s natural resources. It’s true that the film’s relentless concentration on exploitation makes little room for hope or individual agency, and there are few moments here where the subjects of the film display some aspect of personal autonomy or differentiation. Everyone, from a plantation owner to NGO workers to the young photographers, is depicted through Martens’s relentless world view. Even the artist himself is given 190 short shrift, or at any rate the Renzo Martens of the film, who may or may not be the Renzo Martens who fed me baguette and Camembert during my first visit with him (one gets the sense when meeting Martens that the cameras are still rolling, which perhaps is the point).
What is perhaps difficult about Martens’s work is that he crosses a basic line from satire to real-life instrumentalization. He has cited as an influence Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which the man of letters proposed that Irish children be served up as food on English aristocratic dinner tables as a means to deal with the problem of poverty in that country.5 Martens goes one step further than this foundational text of political satire, and seemingly nibbles on the children to prove his point, in that he implicates real people to drive home his message.
To Martens’s credit, he rarely retreats from an opportunity to discuss the work, defend its motives, and discuss the themes that arise from it. Screenings of the films are frequently accompanied by conversations with the artist. Indeed, in his essay “On Leaving the Building: Thoughts on the Outside,” curator and critic Dieter Roelstraete has noted, with frustration, that in such talks the artist seems to accept all criticisms and inure himself to them. Referring to Episode III, he writes, “For if one of the film’s core themes is guilt (and, correspondingly, responsibility), the problem encountered by anyone seeking to challenge some of the project’s critical assumptions with regards to the cultural exploitation of guilt, is that Martens gladly and emphatically assumes all responsibility for it.” Martens has, from Roelstraete’s point of view, created the ultimate cynical artwork: “If ever the postcritical era in art (which most people seem to agree we inhabit) would need an inaugural, manifesto-like artwork, this could well be it.” This, because “it” conjures a totalizing world of late capitalist globalization, a world of complicity and implication to which there is no outside, no possibility of escape. In the context of Episode III, Martens’s world implicates all. To continue Roelstraete’s critique:
We all have blood on our hands—in the Central-African context of Enjoy Poverty that means, among other things: we all eat chocolate, we all use Coltan- enhanced electronics, we all shrug our shoulders at the sight of yet another crying malnourished baby—and all (i.e., not just the least) we can do is hold those bloody hands up in front of the camera for all (but first and foremost our- selves) to see.6
Roelstraete’s essay is a cri de coeur for what he calls “theology”—not the belief in God necessarily, but the belief in an alternative here arrived at through a conviction in the notion of distance, of an ability to move beyond implication into a space that, al- though not quite pure, at least has the capacity for action, response, and agency. He finds this ultimately in the act of making, the creative action of writing, for example, as a means to construct hitherto unheralded readings/realities. Against Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that there is no alternative outside the new world order of global capitalism with its inevitable privatization and therefore fencing in of all modes of interaction, Roelstraete adamantly insists that the commodification of thought it- self can be resisted. He likens Martens’s work, in which his presence is such a natural- ized inevitability, to the contemporary vogue for immersive artworks (replicating the interiority that is itself a construction of capitalism, wishing to perpetuate the notion that there is no alternative to itself). Or to the cult of the artist’s presence as found most cogently in Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present performance at MoMA in 2011, “one of last year’s biggest box office hits in the Western world’s postwar art capital—a powerful sign of the general audience’s thirst for the artist’s ‘presence’ in these personality-starved, yet celebrity-obsessed, times.”7
Perhaps it is with Abramović that it is useful to part ways with Roelstraete and his insistence that Martens proceeds through cynicism to immobility, that the acknowledgment of implication and complicity is in itself a form of self-inoculation to the possibility of action, rather than a necessary first step toward it. Complicity is an important word for this exhibition because its acknowledgment is not an end game, a surrender, but a necessary process of recognizing reality in all its complexity, not purifying it or proposing some magical thinking alternative. Contrast Martens’s project with Abramovic’s.8
She becomes a mythic being, a queen in a gown relentlessly engaging the viewer, hour after hour, day after day in a durational performance that is documented and then edited for HBO and other outlets in order to show the sentimental highlights: her confrontation with Ulay (surely anyone who watches this cannot help but be moved to tears, especially when the violin soundtrack commences); her resilience and ability to reset the gaze for each new encounter, each new deeply personal trade-off with a viewer who has lined up for hours for this privilege of making eye contact with her.
She is, in effect, some kind of “theology,” elevated above the status of mere mortal, institutionally set on a pedestal, constructing her own outside, which is in truth more deeply implicated and complicit than anything that might arise through Martens’s work. Sitting opposite her, making eye contact with her, is its own form of collabo- ration, with no observation of the structural components of that transaction. A purified affect elevated to the beyond, totally consistent with the relentless drumbeat of self-empowerment, individual transformation, the personal “you” addressed by pop civilization that Mosquito has also identified. Yes, it’s true that in Martens’s projects the artist is present, but what an artist is and the function of art is key to his investigation, and his conclusions might well be cynical, but it is a cynicism born of anger, and that anger proceeds from one project to the next, honing its message and means, laying the artist bare, certainly, but so much else besides.
In the endless cycle of press, interviews, accusation, defense, and self-justification that followed the debut of Episode III, it was assailed for various reasons, most of which I’ve outlined already, and even among its defenders led to much soul-searching and interrogation. Martens himself could be variously sensitive and obnoxious; rarely more of the latter than when explaining the significance of Episode III, the unfinished film in this trilogy, which he describes as the middle of a triptych, the prime central panel on a medieval altarpiece. Apparently, the “outer panels” (Chechnya and the Congo) show “earthly narratives,” and lead to the production and consumption of images that contribute to “confusion,” rather than “truth or beauty.” Whereas, with the as-yet-unrealized middle panel, Martens hopes to “somehow create a fountain that sprinkles its love and clarity over the two outer panels, and thus change them on a cellular level.” This prospective third panel, then, will function as the theology that renders the outer panels palatable by way of a romantic love that spreads its fairy glitter on the other panels, revealing an “outside” that envelops them in its sense of wondrous possibility.
His project, as articulated, is of course a form of institutional critique, driving home the narcissism of the art world and the artist through the arrogance and audacity of his wishing to shape this material into the wings of a drama at the center of which is his own personal love story. Yet the realization of this Gesamtkunstwerk dedicated to demonstrating, whatever the cost, the essential narcissism of contemporary production and consumption seems to have been sidetracked by Martens’s experiences in the Congo, and his journey with the film’s reception. Life gets in the way.
Currently the artist has taken a rather monumental detour, departing on a five-year gentrification project on a plantation on the Congo River some eight hundred miles north of Kinshasa. He has spent the last few years establishing the Institute for Human Activities (IHA), building funding and corporate sponsorship for an exercise that strikes at the heart both of art’s claims for its own criticality and broader questions to do with the dematerialization of labor and accumulation of capital. The IHA’s newsletter, present in this publication (page 68), does a decent job of outlining its mission and raison d’etre, so I won’t go into much detail here. Taking on art’s claims for its own criticality, the IHA’s activities take place on a former Unilever plantation, where workers were paid subsistance wages for the production of palm oil that went into Unilever soap. This British-based multinational has been until recently the primary sponsor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall projects, which often feature artists renowned for their critical or conceptual edge, such as Ai Weiwei or Tino Sehgal. Martens has become interested in asking the simple ques- tion, “Why does critical art always perform itself at the site of art’s critical reception rather than at the location that serves as the subject for its criticality?” Obviously the distribution and reception of Episode III is one such example, exhibited as it was in galleries in Europe for the most part. This reality is one for which Martens hopes to make amends, albeit with something of an edge.
The proliferation of art fairs and biennials throughout the globe has been attended by an invigorated understanding among city planners, politicians, sheiks, and may- ors of the positive benefits that attend the arrival of cultural capital for the image of a city or state: attracting tourists, skilled workers, companies, and other forms of investment. This benefit has been well documented, most notably by the neoliberal urban theorist Richard Florida, author of the seminal book The Rise of the Creative Class.9 In this publication, he extolls the virtues of cities, towns, and villages that attract a class composed of artists, designers, gay people, musicians, technology workers, etc. According to Florida, these people form the backbone of productive, appealing communities, helping to shape the places where other people, who actually make money, might want to live. This is because they encounter a proliferation of cool institutions; pleasantly kooky coffee shops; and nice creative atmospheres where happily civil-partnershipped and cuddly-looking gay-daddy- bears and delightfully tattooed graphic designers pass them cheerfully on the neighborhood crosswalk as they stroll the pedigreed pooch they picked up at the local, flower-muraled, lesbian-owned dog-rescue center. (Well, something like that.) On the slightly sinister side, it is the places that fail to make a comfortable environment for such “high bohemians” (as Florida terms them) that will become the wastelands of the future, populated by people who are just not that wealthy and just not that interesting.
In essence, what Florida advocates is essentially using the creative class as an ad- vance guard for urban regeneration, aka gentrification. A negative value if you are your average discursive art-world denizen (critic, philosopher, artist, or what have you). And here is the perplexing thing: the success of a contemporary art fair or biennial is largely dependent on it being perceived as having a certain degree of critical chops; its hosting panels, conversations, and symposia by people who are critical of gentrification itself because it is a means by which poor people, artists, and others are driven from their communities, forced out by rent hikes, and other such indignities. Martens’s idea, and the mission of the IHA, is to reverse this rather odd affair. Why not bring critical art to the site of its intervention, not its reception, and turn the possibilities of gentrification into a positive value: the creative classes coming as the vanguard of regeneration in the Congo? Why not indeed? To launch the IHA’s activities, an opening seminar was held at the site last summer, and high- ly respected critics and philosophers were in attendance. While Florida could not make it, he did have a keynote conversation with Martens via Skype, he in his office, Martens sitting outside in the bracing humidity. To facilitate the conversation, the IHA cleared several trees and put a satellite dish with generator on top of a shed. The edited transcript is available in this publication. As an expert on these issues, Florida provides some real words of encouragement. While he knows it won’t be easy, he really feels it best not to just complain, and to get things done with gusto.
1Renzo Martens in conversation with Niels Van Tomme, “Enjoy Poverty:Disclosing the Political Impasse of Contemporary Art,” Art Papers (September 2010): 22–27.
4See, for example: Els Roelandt, “Renzo Martens’ Episode 3: Analyses of a Film Process in Three Conversations,” A Prior Magazine 16 (February 2008), accessed June 10, 2013.
5Irish writer Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick was first published anonymously in pamphlet form in 1729.
6All quotes are from Dieter Roelstraete, “On Leaving the Building: Thoughts of the Outside,” e-flux journal 24 (April 2011),
7It should be said that Roelstraete makes this point in a footnote to his essay, but it proceeds with his usual (and very enjoyable) aplomb, so it might as well be in the main text.
8Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present was a performance accompanying her retrospective of the same title at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from March 14 to May 31, 2010, which was curated by Klaus Biesenbach. The artist sat in the atrium of the museum for a celebrated durational performance in which members of the public would line up and one by one sit in a chair at a table across from the artist. There were many dramatic moments, none more so than when Abramović’s early collaborator Ulay showed up and they had a transcendent moment with a large portion of the New York art world coincidentally in attendance. This was a highlight in the recent HBO documentary about the project. See a clip at EDW Lynch, “The Dramatic Reunion of Performance Artists Marina Abramović & Ulay,” YouTube video. In the HBO version, the moment they make eye contact a violin soundtrack starts and then they reach across the table.
9Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002).