Those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands. They are, and here it comes, in this sense irrelevant. The contemporary, in its more radical sense, does not mean to be in time, to be fashionable, on the top 40 or in the magazine. No way, the stuff that ends up in the festival program is there precisely because it has slipped out of the contemporary with a one-way ticket to those ordinary things that can be evaluated. The contemporary is precisely that which is beyond good and/or bad, that has yet to gain a position in the landscape we call history, or perhaps even time. In the contemporary there are not fifteen minutes of fame, not even fifteen seconds in the light. The contemporary is brief, very brief, and this brief moment is scary, very very scary.
Why do rock stars drink and shoot up? Because they are under pressure, forced to go out there and make the audience experience the contemporary, the now, that presence, night after night. I don’t think so. It’s not because they are stupid or “live the dream”. The real deal is that they are mourning, mourning the contemporary that made them and is forever gone. Once popular there is no contemporary.
The rock star engages in the self-medication called Jack Daniels, and the manager adds social everything, including the blondes, which makes the situation even worse. What the star mourns can not be healed with party, conversation or good-company. It is the opposite; he mourns the exuberant loneliness of the contemporary. The contemporary indeed is a moment that lacks identity, where the individual is sovereign and hence not conditioned by any law. The contemporary lacks any orientation points, any addresses or stabilities. The contemporary is smooth and mind you, there’s not even a horizon. Sounds boring? Well, it is and it isn’t, the contemporary doesn’t concern itself with such categories exactly because they are based on valorization, comparison and forms of representation. The contemporary could almost be thought of as an Artaudian concept, because indeed the contemporary is cruel: it is absolute horror and absolute bliss. It’s death, orgasm and pure immanence.
Somewhere Michel Foucault writes that one should be happy if during a lifetime one has just one or two unique thoughts. I think Foucault was right, although up until now my understanding was that not even super smart people think unique things on a daily basis. But what if Foucault meant the opposite? Praise the lords that unique thoughts don’t pop up on a regular basis, because unique in its radical sense coincides with the contemporary, and the contemporary hurts. The moment when you do end up in the festival program or fashion magazine, I can assure you that the pain you will feel will be conventional, and your sole agony is of being kicked out.
Lewis Carroll granted the world some serious knowledge in his poem “The Hunting of The Snark”, in which a curious captain and researcher is about to set off on an excursion to hunt the mystical Snark. Naturally a map is needed. After extensive inquires the captain returns and presents the map for his crew, that after having worried, now celebrates their captain’s faculties for bringing a map that is an absolute blank. Because, as they concur, conventional signs such as equators and poles, longitudes and so on, with certitude will not bring them anywhere remotely close to an adventure, even halfway to where the Snark hangs out. An adventure is a journey to you-don’t-know-where.
As the poem proceeds we get to know that the Snark is rarely observed and that narratives of encounters with the mystical creature are even more uncommon, not least because it is said that any person making eye contact with a Snark is transformed into stone. What if Snark is another word for the Contemporary?
Institutions can by definition not be contemporary, but are always out of time, fastened to history by clusters of more or less recognizable rules or codes of conduct. Yet, institutions persevere exactly as long as they are gratuitous for some kind of society or context. It is of course we, each of us as individuals and groups that grant institutions their existence, simultaneously institutions provide context for our existence, granting us identity and consistency. Without institutions, in a broader sense of the word, we wouldn’t be able to communicate, collaborate or have conflicts. So, as much as we find ourselves trapped by slow and heavy institutions reeking with bureaucracy and alcohol smelling paper turners, we should value our institutions for what they enable. They enable constraints. Institutions provide us with a sense of consistency or safety that enables movement, dynamism, navigation: a safety that grants the possibility for differentiation.
Jacques Derrida (OMG, this piece is developing into a literal tsunami of name dropping), as the indecent post-structuralist that he was, proposes that nature doesn’t exist, but that there is only naturalization and denaturalization. Nature as such operates outside discourse, outside culture, and we humans have no access to it, and therefore nature cannot exist, or if it does we can’t know about it. Perhaps it is somewhat a shot in the dark to argue that institutions are non-existent (text indeed being one), but it might possibly be generative to consider, however paradoxical, that there is only institutionalization and deinstitutionalization. The alphabet provides a frame for a production that deterritorializes it, similarly to how the museum offers a frame for the possibility of transformation of aesthetic experiences.
It is in any case far too easy to blame institutions for anything at all, but as institutions propel some kind instinct to survive, which of course will become even stronger considering that sustainability also must apply to institutions, or worse: recycling, it can not not propose itself as a oneness, a unity. This, I believe, is crucial and a malady of the ignorant, if institutions are understood in respect of, so to say, Existence, i.e. as static and “eternal”, and as a one, what is left is only to lie down and die. But if on the contrary understood as temporary and as constructed, i.e. a multiplicity, there is unlimited potentiality in both institutionalization and deinstitutionalization. It is all up to you or us, but remember it will be an easy battle because it is fought only, and this is axiomatic, through conventional signs, and remember again, institutions feed on, metaphorically speaking, fossil fuel (so passé), whereas you cultivate the contemporary, which is pure intensity.
Beware of those who complain about the evil of institutions, most probably they are sponsored by them, or being hired as double agents in institutional espionage. Those are the forces in society that produce the institutions’ static, especially considered within a neo-liberal regime where complaints have been rendered a commodity.
In the late 70s the same Michel Foucault wrote a short note on, what he called, a new time of curiosity: a time when a ubiquitous social democracy would give us individuals some slack, when homogenization would be past tense, the free spirit would flourish and institutions would let go of our lives. Today, some thirty years later, Michel Foucault’s words, however grand, have acquired new meaning and resonate like a neo-liberal manifesto, a call for an unconditional individuality that needs no interventionist state, no institutional consistency. What neo-liberalism wants from us, and I mean in particular from cultural producers, is minimal effort and maximum revenue. This is rendered through a minimum of institutional bodies, considering The State as an institution and consumption as its opposite, and, further, revenue as always already conventional and hence measurable. Thus neo-liberal governance is by definition in time, or, in other words, the absolute enemy of the contemporary.
Long live our institutions! They make possible the anachronism of the contemporary.