Earlier this year, a gallery in northern London was forced to close following outcry regarding its endorsement of alt-right (anti-semetic, white suprematist) positions. The off-space, known at the time as LD50, has in turn become a signal example of the role of the institution – be it project space, journal, or national museum – in our complex political times.
Also complex, and of particular concern to art, is how the alt-right’s mode of engagement often resembles – if only in its sarcasm and aim to disrupt – strategies and tactics classically associated with leftist/artistic anti-establishment critique. Here, Ana Teixeira Pinto unpacks the LD50 debate vis-à-vis the accelerationist and post-internet discourses that intersect it.
Neoreaction (NRx) renders political theory lurid. This is, I suspect, the reason for its wide appeal, both in and outside far-right circles. The brainchild of British philosopher-cum-ideologue Nick Land and Urbit owner Curtis Yarvin (whose pen name is Mencius Moldbug), NRx entered the art world around 2013 after Land’s political philosophy was popularized by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s #Accelerate Manifesto, published that year. In all fairness, the manifesto was not an endorsement of Land’s views, but an attempt to repurpose Landian notions of acceleration for socially progressive ends – though its argument for a promethean overhaul of politics did, to a certain extent, reflect a Landian pathos.
Landian accelerationism is a singularity theory: Capital, Land argues, cannot be negated but it can be accelerated, i.e., intensified, until quantitative accumulation musters a qualitative techno-leap and ushers in the higher evolutionary promise of AI. Environmental catastrophe is just collateral: unlike carbon-based life-forms, silicon-based entities do not require a breathable atmosphere; life on Earth is just the raw matter from which a superior intelligence will emerge, with capitalism as its midwife. In the same vein, some Silicon Valley venture capitalists have suggested that climate change might be the push mankind needs to leave its comfort zone (Earth’s biosphere) and finally venture to conquer space, the new capitalist frontier (white flight from Earth?).
The overlap between Landian theory and the Valley’s political agenda is not coincidental. “The Dark Enlightenment,” which the NRx takes as its foundational text, is basically Land infusing theoretical jargon into Yarvin/Moldbug’s blog “Unqualified Reservations.” Yarvin’s Tlon (corporate vehicle for Urbit, his open-source computing platform) is backed by PayPal founder and Trump advisor Peter Thiel, who is known for his antidemocratic activism. Cyberlibertarian views and Land’s brand of transhumanism are pervasive throughout the tech industry.
Like Yarvin, Land is not a nihilist, he is a moralist, à la Ayn Rand; his version of the Singularity – the evolutionary threshold when AI overcomes and hence overwhelms human intelligence – is just capitalist eschatology. Humanity will not so much become extinct as split into two divergent strains: the tech-savvy super rich, who will biotechnologically mutate into a transhuman super-race; and the other 99%, the refuse of evolutionary history.
Thiel’s question, “How can we rescue freedom from democracy?” reappears in Landian terms reconceptualized as “How can we rescue whiteness…” here assimilated to will-to-power“ …from white people?” meaning those white folk whose bleeding-heart policies keep decelerating capitalist accumulation (i.e., diverting it to socially minded projects, like education, social security, or healthcare), thus hindering the apotheosis of history. Strictly speaking, Land’s theories are not explicitly racist (though Land himself is) ; they just accept that SES (socioeconomic status) is a fair measure of IQ, hence of merit. Biomedical engineering will only reinforce preexistent class divisions, rearing a transhuman master-race (i.e., hyper-racism, in Landianspeak).
China, as Yuk Hui recently argued, is the elephant in the NRx (lebens)room. Envious of Chinese growth, the NRx proffer theory that could perhaps be simply rephrased as “How to manage globalization without loss of hegemony?” While Western venture capital is happy to sacrifice parliamentary democracy at the altar of productivity, the NRx answer is a return to monarchy: a gov-corp run by a CEO-king (Elon Musk being the monarch of choice, presently). Needless to say, these anxieties resonate with a wider demographic, the so-called white working and middle classes – not so much a political subject as a racial construct, able to be recruited and mobilized by welfare chauvinism.
Cryptocurrency mining rig
During the 2016 US election, it came to light that the NRx had forged an alliance with a political movement self-described as “alt-right” (a loose coalition of white supremacists, masculinists, anti-feminists, old-school racists, Islamophobes, neo-monarchists, and anti-semites). Unlike the NRx, whose racism is rationalized via a pretense of meritocracy, the alt-right is explicitly pro-white. That said, both movements institute a matrix of supremacy and subordination: to argue for the removal of democratic rights and protections is to sanction a persecuting or discriminating society of one form or another. The distinction between alt-right and the conventional far Right, on the other hand, is not so much a matter of content but of style, with the alt-right extoling nihilism, sarcasm, and anti-establishment sentiments, among other modalities of dissidence that were formerly the preserve of the Left, traditionally associated with the term “alternative.”
NRx and the alt-right form an intensely supra-structural movement, conflating the economic and cultural dimensions of the term “disruption” into a weaponized, dude-bro aesthetics, drawing heavily from internet imageboard culture. Also, unlike the conventional far Right (which is typically hostile to non-normative culture), the alt-right flirts with, and builds inroads into, those institutional spaces traditionally devoted to less politically fanged contemporary art.
In late 2016, Pierogi Gallery’s Boiler space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, cancelled a pro-Trump exhibition after realizing the show was earnest, not ironic as they had previously thought. In London, this past February, artist Sophie Jung blew the whistle on Dalston’s LD50 gallery. Having grown frustrated by her critical comments about the space being constantly erased, Jung decided to make public a private exchange with the gallery’s dealer Lucia Diego, who decried MoMA’s rehang of their collection in response to Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” saying of the ban: “I see it as a temporary measure in order for America to get sorted while they transition to another form of government.” Under Diego’s direction, LD5010had organized an “alt-right-inspired” exhibition and a symposium representing several of its affiliated ideologies: invited speakers included Nick Land, as well as Brett “democracy-destroys-white-people” Stevens (Amerika), anti-immigration activist Peter Brimelow (VDare), masculinist Mark Citadel (Return of Kings), and antifeminist journalist Iben Thranholm (European culture became feminized, men act like women, aggressive migrants are raping German women in the streets, we need a male revolution, we need to go back to old male values). The juxtaposition of Land, already a familiar presence in art contexts, with Brimelow, Stevens, Thranholm, and Citadel can be read as an attempt to broaden the spectrum of far-right speech circulating via the art world – in Larne Abse Gogarty’s words, to create “a milieu.”
As the debate was raging on Jung’s Facebook wall, Diego, or someone acting on her behalf, posted screenshots to LD50’s blog, and apparently forwarded the link to the far-right website Amerika.org, which doxxed all involved. Amid the subsequent fallout, a movement calling for the shutdown of LD50 gained momentum and resulted in the temporary closing of the gallery. (LD50 reopened on May 2 featuring TV KWA and Kantbot, regular contributors to the Daily Stormer. It is unclear whether the gallery will remain open in its present location, reopen in another venue, or reopen under a different name.) As this controversy grew, some artists formally or informally tied to LD50 decried Jung’s actions as a “naming-and-shaming” campaign, and framed the ensuing outcry as calls for “censorship” or “witch-hunting.” This is hardly an adequate response. A privately owned business is not exempt from public scrutiny. As with boycotts, demonstrations, open letters, or strikes, “no-platforming” is a political tool – and one which is fully appropriate to activate in such a scenario. To counter a political movement, one must organize oneself politically.
In another bizarre rejoinder, the sole counter-protester visible in the photo published in Frieze ’s coverage of the controversy – identified as such by a sign that reads “The right to openly discuss ideas must be defended” – allegedly told demonstrators, “I am not a fascist, I am Jewish.” This is identity politics reduced to farce: your religion does not define your politics, your sexual orientation does not define your politics, your ethnicity does not define your politics – your political positions define your politics. “I am not a fascist, I am an anarchist” would have been a better retort.
As the controversy hit mainstream media, outlets such as The Guardian , Frieze , and ArtReview conflated the “Shut Down LD50” campaign with the Pegida protests in Dresden, loftily opposing “angry mobs” to “contemporary art.” Again these arguments fail to take into account the political content of both the protests and the artworks in question. Instead, they reflect a middle-class bias about bourgeois protocol, highbrow spaces, and lowly masses. A gallery, like a painting, as a privileged site of bourgeois reception, must be defended, whatever the narratives in which it traffics.
The same corporate reflex, masking as transgressive ethos, is present in the position represented by Daniel Keller, who cancelled his talk at Goldsmiths over the LD50 feud. For Keller, the protests were “counterproductive – the definition of ‘punching down,’” since LD50 was a “small project space,” barely known outside London. By virtue of the “Streisand Effect,” the shutdown campaign, he argued, drew attention to the very thing they wanted to stamp out. Subsequently invited by Spike magazine to give a talk in Berlin, Keller delivered the presentation – on alt-right “Meme Magic,” e.g., Pepe the Frog and the basilisk – that he had originally prepared for Goldsmiths. Therein, he contended the alt-right cannot be easily protested, but rather must be subverted via memetic appropriation, and illustrated his point about amplification with a personal anecdote: the cancelation of the Goldsmiths event led to an invitation to publish his own view on his actions in Frieze and, further, that very lecture. Attention economics aside, what emerges from this routine is an orthodoxy-affirming gesture: artistic freedom, the socially sanctioned locus of the middle class creative, trumps (what is misrecognized as) “political correctness.”
To me, there is something worth examining about the psychology of liberalism and its repertoire of rationales. Liberal democracy can behave illiberally: different subjects are interpolated differently, according to geopolitical and socioeconomic partitions; withdrawal of care can be weaponized and deployed biopolitically. In brief: the same state can address some as a social democracy and others as a fascist regime. The liberal ethos recognizes these shortcomings, but it still finds reason to retain its mask, recruiting the rhetoric of morals to buttress its immoral edifice.
Map of NRx (Dark Enlightenment), April 2013
Affirmational strategies speak the idiom of the fetish. Their sole register is intensification (e.g., the worse the better; trolling the trolls; the only way out is the way through). In this vein, the ANON collective (authors of the “Alt-Woke Manifesto,” which takes Keller as a reference), in their rebuttal of the no-platform-for-Land-open-letter qua defense of Left accelerationism, emulate Landian tropes (e.g. reactive Left; political correctness and social justice warriors as phantasmal antagonists), unwittingly adding to the lure of far-right affect, rather than subtracting from it.
This vocabulary, some have argued, is “in flux.” I beg to differ: this vocabulary is aligned with Land and Yarvin’s anti-Left crusade, much the same way the Lügenpresse or Volksverräter were aligned with the rise of National Socialism. What is in flux is the pool of users and the contexts whereupon it appears: chauvinist epistemes are undergoing a process of normalization via groups who themselves have no far-right leanings. Again, Land is the crucial figure upon whom this operation hinges: no one I know would go to the mat in defense of Brimelow or Brett Stevens, but Land has a bevy of staunch supporters who consistently argue that his present-day drift does not overwrite the importance of his earlier philosophical contributions. For institutions like the New Centre, to whom the no-platform-for-Land open letter was addressed, Land, like the Lacanian mother, apparently divides into two: the good Land and the bad Land. They only engage with the good Land. However, this dispute is not about whether to engage with Land’s writings, but about recognizing that institutions institute : hosting the good Land has the unwelcoming effect of rendering the bad Land respectable – influential even. In any case, their opposition is overstated: Land was never “left,” however one cuts it. As Alex Williams argues, Land always “favored an absolute process of acceleration and deterritorialization,” and sustained that “politics and all morality, particularly of the leftist variety, are a blockage to this fundamental historical process.” To the question “Who is the revolutionary agent?” Land’s answer was always: capitalism. His arguments proved alluring to some segments of the Left who could no longer fathom a collective subject, but capitalism is no agent of history; capitalism is by definition invested in social stasis. This why Land collapses dialectics onto phylogenesis, and displaces political conflicts to the site of chimeric struggles, over survival or extinction. In other words, it was not so much Land that changed, but rather the context around him, and context matters: what was in the ’90s a minority or adversary bent – and as such worth defending – is now an increasingly aggressive political presence.
For her piece in The Baffler , writer Megan Nolan cites an Antifa voice on the LD50 debate: “This is not a story about art, but about fascism.” I would put it differently; LD50 is not a story simply about art nor solely about fascism, but specifically about the resurgence of fascism as a cultural force. Were this phenomenon truly restricted to a small project space in Dalston, we wouldn’t be discussing it: a great deal of the art being exhibited currently could be said to embody, albeit semi-consciously, ideological principles that truck with NRx’s cyber-libertarian views. From an infatuation with memes and other evolutionary tropes, to lionizing third nature and the “shared” economy, the point of intersection between contemporary art and the rhetoric of cyber-utopianism has been, for several years now, the style informally known as “post-internet.” But the realm of affect is presubjective: these overlappings do not imply a unified politics, but rather a shared libidinal investment in the triad of novelty/technology/potency. Hence the question: how to describe the nexus between aesthetics and ideology, which hinges on this accelerationist impulse? How to capture the imbrications of technological development, capital accumulation, and social formation without collapsing Silicon Valley, accelerationism, and post-internet into one single bad object?
Art forms that trade in Warholian currency (appropriation, debasement, iconophilia) are, by virtue of their very conventions of plasticity, tied to the twists and turns of corporate culture, whose apex is presently the Silicon Valley tech industry. “Digital,” here, does not simply refer to a mode of production, but to a mode of representation and to the cultural logic of its value form.
Treading in the footsteps of Pop, I see the post-internet style as performing one single conceptual gesture: to affirmthe identity between art and capital – it is this affirmational strategy that unifies an otherwise loose genre under the accelerationist mantra: there is no outside to capitalism, hence the only way out is the way through. Paradoxically, this gesture is rendered legible by that which it denies, i.e., the legacies of modernism and critical theory, as oppositional or semi-autonomous figures. The post-internet style is, one could say, the negation of the negation. But this double negative gestures toward a positive: a global visual idiom that conflates the vectors of Silicon Valley commodity-space with the spatial strategy of the United States empire. Hence as the ethos of the tech industry culture transmogrified – from the weak utopia of Bill Gates’s consumer-oriented liberalism to the digital feudalism represented by Peter Thiel, Curtis Yarvin, and Eliezer Yudkowsky – some of the aesthetic fringes of the post-internet style transmogrified, in turn, from market-besotted flippancy to a doomsday cult, whose mix of new-age esoterica and cyber-dystopia bleeds into the pool of far-right imagery, brimming with nihilistic glee.
Roko’s basilisk – a thought experiment which emerged via the blog LessWrong, hypothesizing that AI, once in existence, would wish to accelerate its coming-into-being, hence retroactively torturing all humans who did not contribute to its creation – could be read as a symptom (one which, in his talk, Daniel Keller appeared to fetishize without fully understanding) : all but the ones who devote their lives to bringing the basilisk into being will be met with cruel punishment – a perfect parable for the digital economy and the way it represents (indeed forms) a stark divide between the means of the tech plutocracy (who devote their lives to rearing the “basilisk”) and the vast underclass of underemployed or precarious users, which it only further engenders.
Paradoxically, the demographics more susceptible to the adverse effects of inequality and precarity are also the ones more prone to embrace its nihilist lure. In that vein, the introduction of the internet is said to constitute a condition, the marker of an evolutionary threshold. In this “Logan’s Run”-like logic, the concept of digital natives masks a sociopolitical loss (the rapid decline in living standards) as an evolutionary gain (millennials have an adaptive advantage). Hence the shiny, glossy surfaces that post-internet leans heavily into: these slippery, liquid surfaces are a cypher for the way finance imposes its mode of being, deterritorializing and liquefying everything. Precariousness, however, is not challenged or addressed politically; rather, it is infused with survivalist energy and recuperated into a libidinal economy. Because we can hardly afford to live, we hallucinate that life itself will wither: the Singularity is a social anxiety elevated to the status of theory.
The obverse of affirmation is not withdrawal: it is negation. It is here, I would argue, that we encounter something that cannot be converted onto Warholian currency. The question is not whether art ought to engage the social dynamics that the tech industry has set in motion, but how to undo the modes of management that, to quote Evan Calder Williams, “bind lives, materials, and systems, in variable punitive ways, to a mode of time designed around the continuity of the present.” For Daniel Keller, to kill the (alt-right) basilisk, one must mirror it. In my view, the death-drive, here, is misrecognized as dialectics: the mirroring just stages a mise-en-abyme, which renders aesthetic experience a direct extension of corporate terror – without subtracting from, denting, or otherwise undoing the conditions that gave rise to it.
Titelbild / lead image: Neil Blomkamp, “Elysium,” 2013, film still