I’m a bit young to be at the forefront of a project deserving any critical retrospection, at least in the context of the art world. I have not yet finished university and I’ve never been outside of my home country or even on an airplane, so it is very strange to be talking to you all — art world foreigners, from my vantage — about anything.
But, frankly, in the context of online political discourse — a space that our project attempts to blend with some aspects of the artworld — I am a bit too old to be wielding any influence at all. The landscape has changed a bit in recent years, but for as long as the internet has had any effect on the culture war, young people, mid-teens and younger, have constituted both the avant-garde and the rank and file.
For most of my life I belonged to the latter, 15 years old and watching gamergate grow around me as I contributed likes and laughs and crude comments. Just years later I was on obscure leftist boards, watching the online culture wars get meta for the first time, anonymous anarchists and communists debating propaganda tactics.
And a few years later I gave up on politics entirely, after of course watching the massive online coalition that fueled Trump not only produce something divisive and impactful and terrible but also produce something that ultimately entirely failed them. Trump was a terror in the media, but in many ways he wasn’t so different from past presidents, in terms of things like violence done to migrants and forever war casualties. And he certainly didn’t get the unemployed Rust Belt industrial workers their jobs back, nor did he get the NEETS out of their basements.
After that point, as I began to feel that the memetic power of the internet ultimately fed radical energy back into the stultifying two party system, I got into art and literature for totally different, private reasons. But regardless, over time, the political charge of some art brought me back into politics, which ultimately brought me here, now one of the forward guards I once observed so keenly.
Part of the DNR project is the recognition that, as artists in the 21st century, we are also content producers. The ubiquity of social media platforms has, of course, made influencers of us all, but it is our hope that the artists — and other similarly critical and skillful types — can be especially critical and rigorous influencers, untethered from the mainstream news cycle and its easy dogmatisms.
But that is not the whole of our project at all. This image of the artist-as-footsoldier is a an image of unfreedom and grim necessity. In attempt to avoid growing weary with the culture wars, we take this project of influence and resonance to be a game. We have to play it as a game, play for the joy of playing. Compare the dull cloying of the Lincoln Project or the recent “vaccine influencer efforts” to the frenetic tenor of the alt-right — it’s clear that you need to want to play the game more than you want to win it, if you’re going to win at all.
So we’re playing a game, all of us in this project, joined together in a sort of guild appropriately centered in the gamer-chat app Discord. But, as any one who has ever been in a friend group centered around a game knows, one remembers the friendship better than the gaming. So while we came together through the memeing of this or that book or take, we have come to know each other as artists and students and teachers. Our meme page and Josh’s streams are our home, our central hub, and for many of our viewers or fans or whatever that is all we are — but by fully living in this strangely public culture war, we forge relationships, and moreover formulate theories and produce artworks that transcribe the boundaries of this effort, and by transcribing the boundaries we persist beyond this culture that binds us, these private platforms that contain us and employ us — or at the very least we point to how these things can be overcome.Because we want more than this, much more. Our project exists because institutions — the “artworld,” universities and museums and galleries and so on — are failing the people they are supposed to serve. And although we dislike the institutions as they are now — slow and enamored with repetition, bent on amplifying the same vague liberal complaints and tired gestures for decades — we are fighting for a day in which discretion and curation can one day return to the benefit of artists.
August 2020. Artist and researcher Joshua Citarella releases his syllabus through his Patreon. By that time, a small group had assembled watching his Monday night Twitch streams, where he broadcast his research practice. In September we held our first reading group. Following that meeting, Margo and I become fully immersed in leading the discussions and organizing the community. My undergrad education was falling apart and I was cruising through zoom school, splitting my time instead between my studio practice and preparing for the reading group. Between this and Joshua Citarella’s Twitch stream lectures, the community quickly established itself as a peer-to-peer school for artists.
The books we read opened up our political imagination, and offered a name to something that I had always felt but could never articulate: a sense of capitalist realism. Capitalist realism is defined by a sense of defeat and inability to imagine a coherent alternative to capitalism. Books like The People’s Republic of Walmart gave us a crash course in central planning, revealing for the first time to many of us the 1970s Chilean project Cybersyn. Putting aside United States intervention and the assassination of Allende, Cybersyn was far ahead of what was materially available when it imagined a world where workers owned the means of production via computational power. This vision of the future has never caught on on the left, but we were inspired.
I want to pause on this, because in a moment of institutional failure, it was hard to read this book without wanting to quit everything and become a logician. The left is dead. And if it were to come back, it would take the massive coordination of scientists and mathematicians. Why be an artist?
And, if you do make art, where does it even go? The art world that young students are being trained for simply does not exist. My undergraduate program sensed this, training us on the sly to become artists-as-social-workers. These artists use their flexibility to act as mediators and fundraisers, providing the care otherwise left “blank” by the state. (See Turner Prize) And institutions that should be cultivating the visual language of today are absent, their fingers in their ears as writer and critic Mike Pepi asks over and over again if the museum is a database. Merely a database, a catalogue of art objects lacking any robust curatorial voice.
Much of the capital A Art of our time is shy to be itself, subordinated to charity efforts or endless technical novelty. Artists find themselves in alliance with platforms to popularize and grant visibility, and their status as content creators seems a dig at what art can truly be. Platforms are not institutions, their curation not tied to stewardship or any centuries-long conversation of what constitutes a creative work. And in the world of new media, there is a deep suspicion of any formal training of art. That artistic traditions of the past have anything to offer us is called into question, for the world is so bombarded by images and constant technological innovation. Timelines of influence are lost in the noise to signal ratio. This attitude ultimately sides with the weakening of curation, and the every-man-for-himself mode of digital art production makes for a landscape where art cannot seem to house or give context to any of what it produces.
So, I wanted to see if we could talk about what we had learned in the reading group, and I wanted to do it as a group of artists. It was with this thought that Do Not Research was kicked off.
Come the summer, the community was producing a lot, and DNR became the place to draw all of our energy into one. It was also a turning point for what this thing could be, that it wasn’t quite a magazine. Or a school. When we talk about it as a parainstitional space, it is not because we believe that these problems can only be answered by a fringe community, as the direct action focused art collectives competing for the Turner Prize would lead us to believe. It is no replacement for strengthened social democracy. Talking to friend and community member Nate Sloan, he reminded me that the goal isn’t just to disrupt. Rather, we must disrupt in order to end the disruption that is neoliberal capitalism— the slow dismantling of social programs and a shift into mass privatization.
Enter: the research aspect. While informing the art practice of the community, it also serves as an early detection of emergent trends that have the possibility to become political currents. Among the reactionaries we observe, a rejection of modernity is presented back to back with a desire for discipline, beauty and refinement. In the absence of external support, these uncultivated desires degenerate into a culture of toxic posturing and resentful fascistic fantasies. Conventional, laudable aesthetic ideals are often bullied into curious people more than they are taught— see how the wanna-be academics of /lit/ mock newcomers for not having read Ulysses. Young men's plainly valid desires for bodily autonomy and physical fitness are chained to oppressive political commitments— see how right-wing bodybuilders and esoteric health-experts marry self-improvement to a nostalgia for '50's patriarchal home-life and archaic militarism. Fearing blowback, the left has ceded the conversation around nonconsensual interventions on the body, by way of phthalates or other such chemicals, almost exclusively to the right. Censorship in the mainstream is met with neoliberal institutional rot, which is met with the humanities already under crisis— seemingly, there is no coherent way forward. Facing this impasse, this latest round of Do Not Research takes a full dive into the expressions and desires of the “very online” and the build up of unique political identities.