CRITICISM - Anneli Porri. Follow the Invisible Hand! - Studija magazine 74, 2010
“Visible Solutions LLC is a young and innovative enterprise of creative industry with international ambition, initiated by three young artists and entrepreneurs Karel Koplimets, Taaniel Raudsepp and Sigrid Viir. We were inspired by the state cultural policy that favours enterprising by creative individuals; in order not to fight with such policy we decided to play along and create Visible Solutions that invents, produces and markets successful culture products with business perspective and enormous export p-tential,” says the official web site of the Visible Solutions limited liability company (visiblesolutions.eu). Can you recognise the voice of a slick and well-trained salesman, painstakingly corresponding to right wing cultural and economic policy, success fantasies, desire for achievement and material welfare?
This institutional body is largely like an exercise of perception: what do we see? A group of artists doing a contemporary art piece, or a business corporation? They produce well-designed and well-crafted objects of contemporary art, but at the same time they characterise these as commodities, ready to quench the thirst for some practical or ideological need for status building. And that’s what all successful Nordic designers do, right? Except that these three are finishing their master’s studies in the Photography Department at the Estonian Academy of Arts.
An artist’s job, precariat1, employment, and labour unions are the latest topics in the discussions and works of Estonian artists from the younger generation. The artist duo Johnson&Johnson were the ones who entered from the artistic field into the field of economics, and registered themselves as an NGO in order to hire an employee to cover the employment gap for one month until Visible Solutions LLC opened their office in the Hobusepea Gallery this April.
Since this is quite a complex institution, we must dig into the philosophical background of the corporation. Visible Solutions is a genuine limited liability company co-owned by Karel, Taaniel and Sigrid, so when they are talking about the company, the audience should keep in mind that they are listening to an interested party who probably has some sort of an agenda. But this is the case with almost every speaker who speaks about their business. Visible Solutions LLC is a business company in a capitalist environment and therefore must follow the rules of the market. Young artists as individuals do not always agree with market-driven logic, yet a company may follow it.
They speak/write in the name of Visible Solutions LLC. These texts are written in collaboration, there is no single author. Visible Solutions LLC is the sum of the three of them, in a specific context. The texts produced by Visible Solutions LLC fall into two categories: texts about the company and product overviews. The latter are an integral part of the product, and should not be viewed separately.
Anneli Porri: Please describe your everyday practice as an employer/employee of Visible Solutions LLC.
Visible Solutions LLC: Right now, our time is spent mainly on product development and marketing activities. When it comes to product development, this process is continuous: we are constantly employing our methods to generate ideas for possible new products. Running the company takes up a large part of our time – we are working almost constantly.
To name a few of our activities: building the actual physical prototypes at workshops, loading and unloading the trucks transporting our office inventory and products, documenting the offices we have created, meeting and discussing future products, collaborative text production, finding finances and investors to keep the company running, explaining our agenda and methods to interested parties, bookkeeping, solving technical questions and so on. In short, it’s a tough job.
Our roles within the company are dynamic – there are no fixed job descriptions.
A.P.: You have dealt with the topic of the creative industries in Estonia, especially, during your studies, the policies of the Ministry of Culture. What did you find out?
V.S.: The investigation into the activities of the Ministry of Culture actually triggered the process that led to the founding of Visible Solutions LLC. The reason was quite simple – we wanted to see what this institution is actually doing, what the priorities of the ministry are and where and how visual culture fits in. Also in the background was our curiosity about the reasons for the ‘non-position’ of artists in our society.
We read the publicly available documents and did some statistical analysis. The result of the analysis was published as a longer article at artishok.blogspot.com/2009/04/analuusiv-sissevaade.html/. In short, we found out that visual culture and the visual arts are a non-priority. But the ministry was really active in pushing forward something called the creative industries. It seems that they are willing to put huge amounts of resources into developing this concept, and not only the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Economics are also involved in promoting this. After looking into the nature of the creative industries, it became clear that this is quite a global phenomenon. And it makes perfect sense when you look at current economic policy at large, not only in Estonia.
The estimated ideal growth rate of the capitalist economic system is about 2.5 to 3.5 percent per annum. The continuous demand for growth within the capitalist economic system stipulates a need for the continuous creation of new markets and sectors. One of the currently nurtured sectors is creative industries. A large part of the sector is focused on producing non-material goods and services. A good example of this is content production for all kinds of devices: desktop computers, laptops, palmtops, iPads, gaming consoles, DVD players, e-book readers and so forth.
So it is completely logical that in the currently prevailing discourse of neoliberal ideology, politicians are actively seeking ways to commercialize the sphere of culture even further, and thus are promoting the concept of cultural industries, as there is significant potential for economic growth. This, in turn, means that cultural production is more and more being subjected to the rules of the ‘free’ market, and the structures supporting cultural productions outside market logic are under the threat of being gradually torn down, or replaced by a system that is even more intertwined with the market. Also, a new class is forming as a result of this process: the creative class or creativariat.
It is important to note that we see the rise of the creative industries as a symptom of the capitalist system. It is part of the process where market logic is systematically embedded into the fabric of our lives, as new markets are created that commercialize social relations, creative activities and our intimate moments. So in this context we decided to create Visible Solutions LLC.
A.P.: You have stated that Visible Solutions LLC is an art project, as a piece of artwork/enterprise, and that it acts in the border zone of the artistic field and economic field, examining both of those fields as ideological spaces and languages. Settling in this border area, it gives an opportunity to translate elements and terms from one dialect to another. What do you mean by that?
V.S.: Visible Solutions LLC is an artwork enterprise that tries to preserve autonomy and create a platform for artistic analysis and production by placing itself in the border zone mentioned. So our approach is to be in between, and to examine the contradictions and similarities of the fields in question by trying to engage actively in both logics of conduct simultaneously. We do think that this position creates some unique possibilities for artistic analysis and production. It is also important to realize the intertwining of those fields – at some points they become indistinguishable. They are interwoven like the threads in a fabric, or even like two different electromagnetic fields occupying the same space.
We look at these fields as ideologized spaces and languages. In both fields there is a set of ways for describing reality, say, a set of languages or dialects. All of these languages or dialects have a specific vocabulary, which means that they are finite – there is a finite amount of things that can be said or thought about the world in each of them. And each of the dialects tends to concentrate on describing some aspects of reality that are of their interest. This is also the basis of value systems in these fields: what cannot be described or is unthinkable does not exist, nor does it have any real value in the context of a certain dialect. So what we have is a set of languages and value systems – a set of ideologies. Roughly speaking, in most cases the dialects within one field have more terms and values in common with each other than with the dialects of the other field.
We translate economic language to artistic dialect and vice versa, especially paying attention to the information that is lost or added through translation. This is one process we use to develop our products and company, which is the ultimate product of Visible Solutions LLC.
A.P.: Then you continue, “The conceptual artefacts/products will come into being as a consequence of analysis. Those new hybrid products will reveal the ‘error-spots’ of interwoven artistic and economical fields.” Please describe those ‘error-spots’.
V.S.: An ‘error spot’ occurs when there is a hidden but strong contradiction in the fields we operate. A kind of schizophrenic situation, when a superficial examination seems to indicate a single entity (term, agent,..) occupying both fields, but a closer inspection reveals a strong contradiction within this entity. The process of translation helps to reveal the situations when there is contradictory logic behind a single term used in both fields. A good example for this kind of situation is the different interpretations of the term ‘freedom’. Error spots are important, because when examined, the contradictions can reveal a great deal about the reality we operate in. They also provide Visible Solutions LLC with raw material for production.
At this point we think it is important to note that the owners of Visible Solutions LLC do have an ideological agenda, and they are by no means just neutral observers but actively engaged manipulators. We use the error spots for our production and within the ramifications of the products we do take a stand.
A.P.: What makes Visible Solutions LLC different from other artists as entrepreneurs, who produce expensive pieces with their unique signature and unique selling proposition? Or should I ask what makes any artistic production different from a commercial product?
V.S.: Attempts to differentiate between art and commercial production at a theoretical level seem to be quite impossible and also a futile task in today’s situation. Some attempts have been made also quite recently, there was an interesting discussion between John Molyneux and Chris Nineham which can be found in issues 80 and 82 of ‘International Socialism’, in the form of two articles: ‘The legitimacy of modern art’ by Molyneux and ‘Art and alienation: a reply to John Molyneux’ by Nineham. They tackle the question from the point of view of Marxist economic theory, using Marxist terminological apparatus.
To put it simply and briefly, Molyneux argues that art can be described as unalienated labour and Nineham replies that due to the unavoidable commodification of art the labour will still be alienated. We tend to agree with Nineham. There are, of course, several possible strategies for avoiding such commodification.
Visible Solutions LLC is taking another approach. In our mode of production we are quite clear about the fact that we are creating products for the ‘free’ (art) market. In a sense the commodification of our artwork-products is an integral part of the products themselves. By recognizing and using this fact, we hope actually to retain more control. Also, this positioning of the artwork-products is essential in the context of an artwork-enterprise, where the main method of production is the artistic analysis of economic and artistic fields. So we are actually focusing on the structures and the logics of our fields, instead of just following these logics. At the same time we are trying to feed the results of our artistic analysis back into the fields as artwork products, so we are following the logic.
A.P.: Nicolas Bourriaud describes an action where artists come together to constitute a company-like body as one form of post-production, a way how art reprogrammes the world. Artists use some ‘real world’ schema as a screenplay and act according to that. What can be the result of this reprogramming?
V.S.: Yes, Bourriaud said: “Contemporary art thus presents itself as an alternative editing table that shakes up social forms, reorganizes them, and inserts them into original scenarios. The artist deprograms in order to reprogram, suggesting that there are other possible uses for the techniques and tools at our disposal.” His statement describes the method and approach of Visible Solutions LLC on a very general level quite well. Also the concepts of postproduction and deejaying (or even veejaying) proposed by Bourriaud could be applied to our modes of operation.
In essence we could say that Visible Solutions is mixing narratives or screenplays. The goal of this is the knowledge and possibilities that emerge from this mix of ideological and contradictory narratives and also the information that is revealed when the screenplays clash.
A.P.: You use few extremely strong concepts as your starting platform: schizophrenia, independence/liberty, a neoliberal economy. I think all of those will need your definition as your idiosyncratic language.
V.S.: These are indeed the central terms in our vocabulary. By ‘schizophrenia’ we are simply referring to a situation where one single term, concept or some other entity contains several contradictory logics. This is the case, for example, with the concept of creative industries and the term ‘freedom’. The difference of interpretations of the term ‘freedom’ in the artistic-creative and economic fields is a good and important example of such situations. The term ‘freedom’ is of central importance in both fields. We are talking about the free market, economic freedom, artistic freedom, freedom of speech, individual freedoms and so on. Freedom is a highly regarded value in almost all fields of human activity. But we think it is of greatest importance to examine what is actually meant by the term when it is used in a specific dialect or theory.
The schizophrenic nature of ‘freedom’ is quite obvious. In the economic field, the term is referring mainly to one’s ability to act as a free agent in a free market. The radicalist belief (which, by the way, is the prevailing one) is that essentially all other freedoms are based on, or upheld by, the freedom of the market. This view essentially constrains the possibilities of all human development, on both individual and social levels, with the rules of the ‘free’ market. If we look at the interpretations of the term in the artistic-creative field, then we see something quite different: firstly, there is a much greater multitude of interpretations, but if we try to generalize once again, we could say that freedom is mainly considered as the possibility to construct one’s identity (in a very broadest sense of the word), there are of course many constraints. So if we do not agree with this hierarchical view of freedom currently prevalent in the field of economics and look at the two interpretations as a two equally important ones, then the possible logic of behaviour stemming from the interpretations is not only different, but in many very important cases contradictory. So what we have is a schizophrenic situation. Interestingly, such schizophrenic situations or error spots are often exploited by the capitalist system. When we look at the production of the creative industries we could say that not only is the concept itself schizophrenic, but also that creative industries is the sector where the continuous exploitation of this schizophrenic situation is of central importance. It is well beyond the scope of this interview to make an full argument here, but if we take one step further and agree that a large part of the creative industries production can be viewed as a modern alternative to propaganda, then we could also say that this exploitation of error spots is of central importance to the whole of capitalist society.
To understand the context in which Visible Solutions LLC is operating, we must also make a quick excursion into the ideology called neo-liberalism. A good definition of neoliberalism can be found in David Harvey’s book ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’, where he describes it as follows: “Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture.”
But this is just a dry description along the lines of what neoliberalism proclaims itself to be. We all recognize this rhetoric, as it is used by so many policy makers today, with the difference that they tend to also describe the wonderful benefits that implementation of this ideology will bring. This dry description of the basic ideological viewpoints of neoliberal ideology does not say much about the effects of implementing such a programme, nor does it shed any light on the motivations behind the implementation of the ideology.
Bourdieu proposes some answers in the form of questions in his essay ‘The Essence Of Neoliberalism’: “What if, in reality, this economic order were no more than the implementation of a utopia – the utopia of neoliberalism – thus converted into a political problem? One that, with the aid of the economic theory that it proclaims, succeeds in conceiving of itself as the scientific description of reality?” The agenda of this implementation of utopia is nicely summed up by Harvey in the book previously mentioned: “We can, therefore, interpret neoliberalization either as a utopian project to realize a theoretical design for the reorganization of international capitalism, or as a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites.”
The effects of the implementation of this ideology are widespread, one of the most important and drastic being the increasing dominance of market logic in all spheres of human activity.
A.P.: You participated in the open call for an Estonian entry to the Venice Biennale. We don’t know the results just yet, who will represent Estonia at Palazzo Malipiero, but could you share your critical vision and research about the Venice Biennale?
V.S.: Our goal in Venice is not to represent the Republic of Estonia, but to represent our company – Visible Solutions LLC. So we are simply trying to use the open call for gaining access to the context of the biennale. We would be willing to go there with the help of an institution or nation, as long as we were able to keep to our own agenda.
The Venice Biennale is an event where the concentration of artistic and economic fields is extraordinarily high – there is a huge amount of symbolic and economic capital in the one place. This is the ideal context for the operations of an artwork-enterprise. We do think that the issues we are dealing with and the questions we are asking are very relevant in this environment.
Also, the current nation-based structure of the biennale, once designed to reflect the distribution of power in the world, is more and more out of touch with reality, where 51 of the largest economies are corporations and the institution of artist is becoming increasingly nation independent. So the structure of the biennale is not really accurately reflecting the distribution of capital, neither the symbolic nor monetary capital. With our presence as Visible Solutions LLC we would also like to address this issue.
A.P.: Please elaborate on your visual imagery a little. You use the image of an invisible hand as your trademark.
V.S.: The invisible hand is probably one of the most vital metaphors within economic theory. Some authors even claim that Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand is the most important concept in modern social thought. The metaphor originates from Adam Smith’s ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ which was first published in 1776. The text laid the foundations of what is today known as the science of economics. In this comprehensive theoretical text that is some 800 pages long there is a paragraph that states the following: “By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pur-suing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.”
There are several essays detailing the use and interpretations of this metaphor, and there are different opinions about what Smith actually meant when he was talking about the invisible hand, and what were the constraints surrounding and limiting the effects of the invisible hand. But we can certainly claim that it has become an extremely important rhetorical device. When ‘free’ market ideologists and neo-liberal politicians need to justify further deregulation of markets they are usually using a crude interpretation of Smith’s logic, claiming that deregulation will benefit us all, and that through the workings of the free market (the invisible hand) more value is generated and also somehow justly distributed within society.
So the Invisible Hand can also be viewed as a mythological creature of extraordinary strength. By placing it by the national flags at our office locations we are simply giving it its rightful position. We think that in case of the invisible hand it is important to ask the simple questions of what it is, who is feeding it and who is fed by it.
A.P.: You also use clear allusions to images depicting or symbolizing revolutionary movement. Is hoisting a banner a ritual that inaugurates every new office of yours?
V.S.: Yes, in each new country our office comes into being through the ritualistic act of hoisting a banner. We are using the visual language of propagandistic revolutionary images for several reasons, one of them being the fact that a lot of what is generated by the creative industries can be viewed as a modern alternative to propaganda. We also see a continuous flow of affirmative culture that is supporting capitalist consumer society and a neoliberal utopia. So we are taking a step back in time and performing our ritualistic acts, using somewhat more obvious visual language. Also, each new office opening in each new country is a small victory and a conquest for Visible Solutions LLC.