Artist/curator Oscar Roldán and artist Catalina Toro visited the Chocó Base in 2014. Roldán spent his time considering the irrational consumption of the art market. His text, based on these reflections, is accompanied by black and white analogue photographs by Catalina Toro, that show the dramatic change of tides in front of the Chocó Base.
The text Growth or de-growth, that is the question is published in Better Than.
Growth or de-growth, that is the question
By Oscar Roldán Alzate
“…vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas. Quid habet amplius homo de universo labore suo quo laborat sub sole? Generatio præterit, et generatio advenit; terra autem in æternum stat.” 1 Ecclesiastes
In 1987, US artist Barbara Kruger burst into the art scene with a graphic piece that strongly questioned contemporary society, specifically excessive consumerism. The work, a photographic silkscreen on vinyl elaborated with language from pop art—which may be the last artistic vanguard since the 50s to publicly denounce the dynamics of the rising market and of superfluous life—was exhibited for the first time exactly in the centre of capitalism. The piece depicted a right hand holding a small white card, between the middle finger and thumb, similar in size to personal business cards or credit cards. The piece of paper had the following text inscribed in red lettering: I shop therefore I am. The phrase, which evidently parodied the core idea of Western rationalism Cogito, ergo sum (I think therefore I am) raised by René Descartes in the 17th century, rapidly became a landmark to refer to criticism that could be made from the art world to the paradox of the market, to which even its cultural system is confined.
Bearing a clear conceptualist mark, Kruger, who has been working since the seventies with ideas that are in close dialogue with the fundamental theories of subalternity 2 especially with feminism, proposed with this piece a new break, a statement that would end up expressing a basic premise of neoliberal consumerism. An interesting feature of this work is that it plays with the phrase that is generally recognized as the origins of rationalism, a movement that, according to the history of ideas, served as the foundation of modern philosophy and, eventually, a century later, would lend support to the expansion of French Enlightenment over all the aspects of life including market relations.
In this way, Kruger’s piece would shape something which many felt but few knew how to put in words; she was stating, from the art world and without beating around the bush, that we are individuals if, and only if, we consume, a concept that seems to dominate contemporary society from a while back and, unfortunately, will continue to do so for a long time ahead, unless something extraordinary happens.
The two phrases, each in its moment and context, were certainly disconcerting but at the same time illuminating. Their relation to each other is particular and it alternates: the last one calls the first one to memory even if we don’t know its origin since we must have heard it at some point. By bringing them to mind, it is impossible to stop intertwining them in word games that end up multiplying or annulling their meanings. The first sentence talks about reason, the second about desire; the allusion to existence is common in both in a reiterative way that enforces the ontological question about our passage through this world. Reason, desire and existence are the three words with which you can create a game that ends up being a kind of journey.
—I think, therefore I am; I am, therefore I shop; I shop, therefore I think; I think, therefore I shop; I shop, therefore I am; I am, therefore I think. —I shop, therefore I am; I am, therefore I think; I think, therefore I shop; I shop, therefore I think; I think, therefore I am; I am, therefore I shop.
These two series of correlations, or of different configurations of the three concepts, outline dissimilar points of view, which I have shown here only as an example of what has been stated up to this point. The possibilities of the game can be rendered more complex as the possible combinations are extended exponentially. Nevertheless, in both cases the eternal question of what came first emerges; or better yet, what is really necessary for the other to exist? All this aside, but without diverging far, what becomes evident is that there are only three words that make this game possible and, of the three, two are variables while the other is constant, which is not an exclusive matter to this grammatical exercise since it entails concrete repercussions on life itself. Thus, existence (I am – sum) is undeniable since it determines our reality while reason, (I think – cogito) as essence to thought, and desire, (shop) as the end to be satisfied in the dynamics of consumerism, are two topics that change depending on the context where each occurs.
At this point, it is necessary to clarify that each need is nuanced by the way we wish to satisfy it, while not all desire is generated in relation to a real need. This matter, which makes us different from the rest of animals, is certainly the cornerstone in this discussion since it is not, nor can it be, the same to buy or consume something while needing it or not. In fact, we could not compare the basic needs of humans living in the tropics to those living elsewhere—which explains the different technological developments and progress of societies according to the characteristics of the geography they inhabit—since it is not the same thing to think about one’s own existence or that of others, which becomes more complex if we amplify the notion of what we call “others”, beyond our human nature.
Reason and desire, Descartes and Kruger have become until this moment two opposing sides to the exercise in question. The notion of existence, in addition to being constant, is a bridge between the two shores that are referred to by these two variable continents that, in turn, call into question other realities and create other questions like: what can we desire and what can we reason about?
Between rationalism, as the principle of uncertainty par excellence, and consumerism, as a new form of citizenship (as you can see in Jean Baudrillard’s questioning of Marxism), a thin joining thread emerges; one which has only been recognized until recently thanks to the enormous efforts of those who have broadened awareness about what we call ‘others’. I am referring to individuals who, from different disciplines and plural motivations, have begun to question the otherness of nature; that is to say, nature as the ‘other’ that allows us to live with its existence.
There is but one existence, as well as only one environment, and it is constant, immovable. Even if we want it, and at the risk of sounding like a joke, there will not be another environment hidden somewhere—like a better half—waiting for us to finish with the one we started with a long time ago in an exercise that is not going badly if we look at it in that way.
Furthermore, there are already many theories about the coming catastrophe that describe something similar to an internal Armageddon, one which will not arrive from the infinite universe but is rather brewing in vitro, like a vac- cine to a germ represented by the exponential growth of mankind.
On a daily basis we hear and see news discussing ‘economic growth’: that some countries grow 5% while others 2% and that still others are in recession (the general decrease or loss of economic activity of a nation); that Colombia is the only country in the region that appears to be growing significantly; that the winds of peace sow the ground so that growth continues as does the confidence that inspires new investment from other latitudes. And finally, a great many things that, in practical terms, we don’t really understand but they exist anyway as does nature, which is where the resources to sustain such growth come from.
That said, this discussion leads us to the following relevant question: what could we expect from a body in continuous growth, one with never-ending appetite and thirst, one that expands disproportionately? While there have been a great many answers to this question from diverse ideological tendencies, the argument is that there are others, besides ourselves (referring to other species), that need to be taken into account; that nature is the beginning and the end of our reality and that it is not silly but urgent for us to be environmentally friendly.
In that sense, the Austrian philosopher and activist, Ivan Illich, expounded a theory in 1973 that has since been source and nourishment to diverse groups and people, inspired by the call of the environment, to justify their activism.
The snail constructs the delicate architecture of its shell by adding ever increasing spirals one after the other, but then it abruptly stops and winds back in the reverse direction. In fact, just one additional larger spiral would make the shell sixteen times bigger. Instead of being beneficial, it would overload the snail. Any increase in the snail’s productivity would only be used to offset the difficulties created by the enlargement of the shell beyond its preordained limits. Once the limit to increasing spiral size has been reached, the problems of excessive growth multiply exponentially, while the snail’s biological capability, in the best of cases, can only show linear growth and increase arithmetically. (Illich. 1973)
From the perspective of contemporary aesthetic practices 3 , for example, there has been accelerated work carried out with this goal in mind, with reflections that are more akin to actions to the point where many of those involved in these philosophical ideas have forgotten that they come from a medium called art. Their chariot, like a Trojan horse, is committed to producing real change, the kind of change which is only possible if one decidedly takes sides and abandons the egotistical sense of art as we have known it up to now; the same sense which makes it both fascinating and dangerous. It should be noted that it is not the first time that artistic production is thrown into unimaginable places. In the past, we have seen how particular diverse and powerful interests have made use of the properties of art to propagate sacrilegious ideals to the point of breaking the Kantian rule of art as an end in itself.
In contrast with the still prevalent notion of art as a practice that should distance itself from being instrumentalised and preserve the ego of the creator as aura of the materiality of the work, the appeal that emerges from contemporary aesthetic practices is for collective work, to the sum of individualities, as stated by Toni Negri in his theory on event; to create con- sciousness beyond our very existence in order to recognize that we are not alone, better yet, that we are not superior to others when we create nor to other species because we reason. That reason, which is said to be our advantage versus other live creatures, must be used in an open sense with consciousness of the freedom it entails, freedom that moves in positive and not negative terms following the ideas of philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his text “Two Concepts of Liberty” 4.
The logic of sustainable development has currently become more relevant; it can be sustained thanks to the development of technology and using renewable energy sources as opposed to fossil ones so that economic growth is not halted. Nevertheless, a country such as the United States, which consumes 25% of the fossil energy of the world, has since 2001 refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol (an international agreement in which member countries agree to reduce emission gases that cause global warming) signed by President Clinton in 1997. According to Ex-president George Bush, his government made the decision to stop participating in the Protocol, not because they may be against reducing contaminating gas emissions but because they believe the Protocol is inefficient. This attitude of the “big brother”, which on the surface incarnates the idea of liberty for all, is highly advantageous to the conventional development model but not at all environmentally friendly, nor friendly to others nor, ultimately, to US society.
Nevertheless, there are those who use Illich’s theory of the snail to say that talking about and applying sustainable development is not enough because the topic is more complex than it appears and that it is necessary to start us- ing radical initiatives, once and for all, to stop the possibility of the catastrophe that would occur if we keep adding “spirals to the shell”. Serge Latouche, professor emeritus at L’Université Paris-Sud 11, has proposed the theory of Economic De-growth. It is a new and revolutionary way of thinking, desiring and existing, one that is absolute and uncompromising with any notion or type of growth. In short, we are talking about an activist movement, about a new political and economic thought that wishes to reduce, in a regulated manner, forms of production with the idea of establishing a balanced relationship between humans and nature.
According to Latouche, “the watchword of degrowth especially has an aim to strongly signal the abandonment of the target of growth for the sake of growth […] Rigorously, it would be best to speak of a-growth, as one speaks about ‘atheism’” (Latouche. 2008). The general idea is that it seems impossible, in the middle of demographic growth, to create an environmentally friendly process with possibilities for effective conservation; furthermore, it
questions out-of-control models that incite to current consumerism, which are far from reconciling the logic, ethics and aesthetics of wellbeing for all. In this sense, “the challenge would be to live better with less” (Subirana. 1995).
As can be seen in the theories proposed by de-growth thinkers, desire turns into reason and, in consequence, consumption practices would be reduced to the satisfaction of fulfilling basic necessities without sacrificing quality of life; on the contrary, it tries to expand poiesical production by incrementing leisure time since the formula would necessarily also decrease human work for material production so that free time can be used to enjoy sports, arts, and, finally, everything that aims towards development of human intellect. According to this proposal, quality of life would not be linked to the uncontrolled consumption of resources; quite the opposite and according to them, the only source of true wellbeing is the satisfaction of basic human needs: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, identity, freedom, leisure, participation and creation.
This invigorating political perspective, which is quite utopic though not absurd, resorts to a change of paradigms evident in its own intentions since the proposal, according to its followers, is not an end in itself nor a goal but rather a path to take. Towards this aim, they have suggested a change in the prefix Hyper from capitalist language for the 8-R model. The idea is to leave behind hyperactivity, hyper-development, hyper-production and hyper-abundance, notions that can only denote excessive exploitation and exaggeration. The following expressions would be used in their place: revaluation, reconceptualization, restructuring, relocation, redistribution, reduction, reuse, recycle which are the pillars of a process that has already begun and that signifies, against the logic of development that always wants to go faster, higher and longer, the establishment of repetition and return.
In view of the above and to finish, I will return to the beginning. At my side, here by the table where I am writing, which is also my dining table, I have a bag to go to the market; it is small; nevertheless, this afternoon I was able to bring some things I needed for cooking without using plastic bags. It is a crude cloth bag that I was given at Lugar a Dudas (an independent space in the city of Cali which promotes artistic initiatives that privilege collective work) and which was also part of a project of their Vitrina in 2009. What is special about this simple yet not less worthy accessory is that it has a silkscreen print in two colours; a right hand holding a small white card, between the middle finger and thumb, that says in Spanish, this time in white letters against a red background: “I SHOP THEREFORE I AM”
1 “…Vanity of vanities! Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity! What more does a man have from all his labour, as he labours under the sun? A generation passes away, and a generation arrives. But the earth stands forever”.
2 Social scientists currently use the term subalternity to refer to social groups or population segments that are marginalized because of their socio-cultural condition. This concept, which has replaced that of multiculturalism, was first coined by Antonio Gramsci within the theories of post-colonialism.
3 Contemporary aesthetic practices are those activities that go beyond the art establishment itself, and can be found in organizational practices that perform activities inspired in artistic manifestations of various discursive and disciplinary lines to the point of displacing their motivations to the phenomena of culture itself.
4 According to Isaiah Berlin positive liberty is anyone’s ability to master his/her own will, and to resolve any decision made as well as his/her own destiny; this is the notion of liberty as self-fulfilment. This idea of liberty is complemented with a negative one which gives the individual the capacity to be free to do whatever he/she wants until something or someone restricts him no matter what the character or nature of his actions are.
• Berlin, Isaiah. 2002. “Two concepts of liberty” in Liberty. Edited by Henry Hardy, Oxford: OUP.
• Illich, Ivan. 1973. Tools for Conviviality. Harper & Row. NY.
• Latouche, Serge. 2008. La apuesta por el decreciminento: ¿cómo salir del imaginario dominante? Icaria.
• Subirana, Pere. 1995. Consumir menys per viure millor. Papers d’innovació social.