The Commodity Catalogue
UHD, 2023, 14:18
Music: Ian Mikyska
The film is the second part of a trilogy about representation, art and politics. The first film, Signatures of Certain Things, explored the role of artworks and art institutions in society. The film asked the question of to whom art is actually addressed. In the second part, titled Commodity Catalogue, the author explored the commodified nature of artworks and the question of whether anything meaningful and critical can still be expressed in an environment defined by the all-pervasive power of money. The central motif is also the form of the film itself, based on the logic of commodified and multiplying images, lost in an indistinguishable flood of data.
When we watch films like this one, we are likely watching something we have already seen and heard at some point. We test ourselves: do we know these images, and where from?
We usually recognise them. Images work like sedatives. It is calming to see the same thing again and say: it was good. Even if nothing suggests that it was.
This is precisely what shows us what images really are. A sight intended for consumption. Frozen, old culture, including the domesticated repetition of its displays of negation.
Let us consider images as commodities. Commodities are synonymous with our social reality. And every commodity fends for itself; it does not recognise other goods; and it wants to assert itself everywhere, as if it were the only commodity. The commodity becomes the world, the world becomes a commodity.
This is comprehensible without the necessity of replacing the subject of the previous sentences with other words, such as images, people, or even the relationships between them.
Commodities that cannot be exchanged for money are useless, regardless of their particular qualities and the individual human needs they could fulfil. What counts is value expressed in money.
The present seems to be an enormous accumulation of images, in which everything that was used and experienced is alienated in representation. When commodification is at its peak, not only does every valued use disappear, even the nature of money itself changes.
The spectacle is money that can only be looked at – as with the spectacle, utility has been replaced by a final abstract representation.
d. Real Abstraction
Such abstraction is an objective illusion. Illusion means that in such a society, economic laws are enforced as natural processes that direct society as if by their own independent logic and will. That is, people are driven by the product of their own hands, and it is their own societal products that exerts the power of a natural process. In fact, social relations take on the form of relationships between things. One becomes lost in one’s own world only to find oneself within it once again, but this time with a price tag attached.
One of the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells the story of King Midas, who saved Silenus, a protégé of Bacchus, from the clutches of the Phrygian peasants. In return, Bacchus promised to grant him any wish he desired. The foolish king wished for everything he touched to turn to gold. Poor Midas thus transformed the essence of the world and all useful value into speculation. Gold is no longer the equivalent of things, but becomes potentially everything instead. Is the current financialisation of everything not another variant of this same foolish wish?
In August 1971, Richard Nixon cancelled the direct convertibility of the US dollar to gold. With this decision, the international monetary market, which is dependent on the dollar, lost its last formal link to anything real. It must be added that money is a loan based only on itself, and, as such, becomes everything.
If images are commodities and commodities can be exchanged for money and money is a loan and the loan is based on itself, we cannot exit this homology other than by negating it. Can art be such a negation? As we suspect, art follows the same logic as everything else, so it probably can’t.
There is one more analogy between art and money. It consists of the fact that both the value of money and the value of art arises from itself. Money generates more money via transactions on the financial markets. Art also generates further artworks via references to itself. It therefore contains the potential of its own autonomy.
Back when Nixon opened the door to the last stage of the financialisation of all reality, Peter Weiss completed his play Hölderlin. In it, he described something of the conflict that arises in someone who suffers to derangement from injustice and humiliation in society, and yet finds a practice through which this misery could be corrected. Hölderlin was considered deranged for half his lifetime. On the one hand, he could avoid making any social compromises, but on the other, he lived in the absolute isolation of the individual existence. At the end of the play, the fictional young Marx asks the old poet for a manuscript of his old play about an armed rebellion. Hölderlin does manage to find it, but that is just about everything that happens.
Unlike the ageing poet, today’s artists become a self-motivated creative work force that is increasingly stimulated to consider itself an investment, to model itself according to the infinite productivity of capital, and not labour. This capital is constantly expanding, hazardously and without limits, without having any resources at its disposal, or even any proprietary rights. The transformation of labour to human capital serves to remove it as one of the opposing poles on the capital–labour axis.
Even if only primitive poetic techniques were used, art could show a lot.
It can use rhetorical tropes, for instance, with words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs placed next to each other with each element as important as the others. This is similar to the manner in which products are exhibited one next to the other, that is, without mutual connections. Will we thus succeed in demonstrating that all life on this planet has become subservient to consumer relations? Is it possible to use such methods based on marketing to understand the global meaning of a reality covered by a layer of ideology?
j. Video Home System
To what extent is the approach of searching and combining similar to logic of consumerism? Are artworks merely derivates of consumerist habits?
Low resolution, distorted colours, and an obsolete frame rate. Errors and interferences. All of these are signs of VHS analogue video, which this film, of course, is not. It is merely a manifestation of consumerist aesthetics. Old images pretend to be new. New images pretend to be old. The form of art follows the logic of products and uses it to critique itself, but that is just about everything that has happened so far.