Critical Virtues

A text written with Kabelo Malatsie for Spike Art Quarterly, published on their platform for the Berlin Biennale Young Curators Workshop, 2016.

Rachel Dedman: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's newly-appointed chief strategist, gave a speech to the Vatican in 2014 in which he linked the contemporary crisis of capitalism and a crisis of faith, beginning with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the “great war” (by which he apparently meant World War II) of a “Judeo-Christian West against atheists”. What would save civilization from this, Bannon argued, was wealth-generating capitalism; today, the enemies of Bannon's “enlightened capitalism” are secularism, on the one hand, and “jihadist Islamic fascism”, on the other. There is nothing new about the connection between the religious right and control of the White House, but the imbrication of religion, capitalism and politics in the upcoming administration looks to be particularly acute. It also seems clear that faith – not just religious fervour – can be operationalised in the service of collective political action: the Vote Leave campaign in the UK and Trump’s political rallies identified discontent and actualised change from it.

Kabelo Malatsie: But faith is too uncool for the left. When the right mobilises faith the left harshly dismisses it. And now there is Trump!

RD: Totally. But what interests me is whether we can think of faith as a way of rallying to counter this political paradigm, outside a religious context. How can faith be actualised as a tool of solidarity and resistance? Can it be an antidote to cynicism? How do we constitute feelings of trust, security and confidence? And in what systems might we have belief?

KM: Trump, Brexit, and discrimination against Muslim people continue a narrative where faith/religion is used to rally a conservative mindset into violent action against those presumed to be ungodly. But during Apartheid the church was also a space used by freedom fighters to organise and fight. Perhaps spaces that operate under divine law can also be used to regroup, reorganise and reimagine the community in post-Brexit/Trump times?

RD: In Lebanon, religious inheritance is simplistically treated as the defining principle of individual and national identity, which undermines the possibility of collectivity and so maintains the disfunctional equilibirum that characterises Lebanese politics. But despite being subject to politicisation, faith is at its heart inherently individual, abstract and subjective. And since it doesn’t have a basis in empirical sense-data, faith structurally requires vulnerability. The leap of faith implies a void beneath; faith shares with the present moment a sense of precarity, while also offering resolution, security, hope for the future. Faith sits between hope and fear, a dialectic of both states. What can collective faith look like when it is not straightforwardly consolidated by a narrative of divine intervention or ancient authority?

KM: I am most interested in the visionary aspect of faith: the future rewards for present virtuous action: a heaven with endless singing, nirvana or a thousand virgins.

RD: Yes, there is a relation to both the future and the now. Organised religion codifies behavioural practices, sets moral imperatives and creates social communities in the present. And yet most religious faith is also indelibly tied to an abstract, unknown future, as a way of securing an eternal afterlife and perpetuating familial, generational and cultural security beyond the span of one's own lifetime.

In English, faith is a noun, something you have, an object to be given, taken, held. It is not bound to a specific timeframe, the immediate time-span of a verb's action, but rather it contains a sense of the future, held taut in the present. Faith satisfies our desire to hinge the vagaries of our present existence upon a future less unstable and messy than the now, upon a narrative or plan that may never be realised or revealed to us, but which we need to believe exists in order to tolerate the present.

KM: These non-empirical knowledge systems, and ways of doing and thinking, easily sound like something from a fantastic fictitious world, but mostly I am fascinated by the nonchalance with which such stories are shared, how they can be mobilised, and to what end. Recently the Johannesburg-based NTU collective, consisting of Nolan Oswald Dennis, Tabita Rezaire and Bogosi Sekhukhuni, followed a Facebook thread that led them to Zimbabwean innovator and entrepreneur Sangulani Maxwell Chikumbutso of Saith Technologies. Chikumbutso, who, as NTU have noted, “has no formal training in engineering, received the blueprints of his free energy device, helicopter, electric car, drone and many more inventions, in visions from God”. God has been given credit for the innovations Saith Technologies has realised. This is one example where a godly vision has not been used to justify atrocity, but production. I would like to claim, however, that this is similar for most innovations in technology. The drive for, or promise of, heavenly rewards enables groups to act in the present to realise these visions.

RD: In the case of business or scientific innovation, perhaps the “heavenly rewards” are financial profit, or knowledge production?

KM: I imagine it might sound something like GOD LOVES PROFIT. NTU made a short documentary with Sangulani Maxwell Chikumbutso, which they plan to expand into a longer video in which they also speak to other experts on free energy. The planned documentary tests out some possibilities for introducing non-empirical knowledge systems and art’s intervention in a form of labour that goes beyond exhibition presentation. Exhibitions currently show research on a particular theme or idea. However, these visions (if one may use this word), unlike those of car manufacturers, are mainly not meant to be realised: they remain research. Concept cars, on the other hand, can be considered “visions” that lead to real objects.

RD: Suhail Malik and Armen Avanessian argue that time now operates differently – coming from the future, impacting on the present. They cite examples such as the pre-emptive strike, Amazon’s psychic algorithms, and speculative investment markets.

KB: Yes. What faith/belief would a step such as actualisation of ideas entail and to what end? What actions would artistic labour envisage? If one imagines an exit from experiential art, what role can art play beyond experience, what function would it serve?

RD: The experiential nature of contemporary art, as well as the cult-like operation of the contemporary-art industrial complex, has something in common with faith as we’ve been describing it – individual, intangible, structured by the future. In Traction (2016), Tirdad Zolghadr writes that a characteristic of contemporary art is the ability to make a viewer “feel complicit in art’s critical virtue. To feel privy to the transgressions at play, and to gain a conspiratorial sense of being on the right side of history” – all things a belief in scripture also offers.

Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.” To my mind, collective political action is frequently undermined or fragmented by the problematics and immediate realities of the present; perhaps faith’s attachment or weddedness to the long-term future (and goals that are not tangible or necessarily empirically possible) might be activated within the sphere of art in order to structure collective change.

- Rachel Dedman and Kabelo Malatsie

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