The University of Sydney's Verge Festival recently made a call-out for current students, alumni and 'community' to make proposals for a project called UnContainable, which will place ten shipping containers on the main campus' Eastern Avenue, which is one of the primary and most frequented thoroughfares on the expansive Camperdown campus.
The stated aim of UnContainable is 'promoting art practice and culture to the widest audience possible the best way we know how: going completely insane.' It would seem to me that they are closer to their mark than they could perhaps imagine. (If, that is, you concur with Deleuze and Guattari's ideas about the inherent insanity - schizophrenia - of the capitalist project.)
The request was that 'artists, artist collectives, and ARIs' (Artist-Run Initiatives) turn the shipping containers and Eastern Avenue into the 'biggest art installation the University of Sydney has ever seen': 'We want cool, inviting, transformative installations on the inside and eye-catching decoration on the outside. The only restrictions are on work that would structurally compromise the rented shipping containers'. Participants are invited 'to decorate the outside and display their work on the inside, with possible interiors ranging from a mini-gallery to an installation.' The artists involved are offered a budget of up to $500, but this is only 'payable upon presentation of receipts to Verge staff'.
It seems that their key premise is that 'unlike a gallery, there are no boundaries between the individual and the artwork' in the UnContainable project. But I'm not so sure.
Following my recent areas of interest - the spaces where artistic and capitalistic aims collide - and a very suspicious (cynical?) inkling about UnContainable's compromised position within the University-Corporation (not to mention the Verge Festival project at large), I made the following proposal to the organisers, Part I outlining the idea, and Part II the material aspects:
As Austrian artist, Oliver Ressler (b. 1970), writes: 'Containers are the most important means of transportation for goods around the globe and therefore essential for the continuation of capitalist world-market.' My feeling is that festivals like Verge are perhaps exactly the sorts of events which help maintain (whether directly or indirectly) a certain power relation of ill-distributed capital under the guise of diversity, culture and artistic talent.
I have been thinking that the promotion of this sort of festival, and particularly the positioning of it at the heart of the campus exemplifies the University's need to project an image of dynamism, openness, artistic cache and so-called diversity, when those things are often far from what it is about in actuality.
It seems this need is satisfied in a way which either capitalises on students' desire for some form of expression which is not manifested through commodities or abstract exam marks; or on their belief that this sort of event is actually a space for free expression (can such a space exist anywhere in this society?); or simply on the basis of it being something that will assumedly look good on a CV. We are implicated from all sides.
One could imagine the UnContainable project as one which utilises this desire for creativity and turns the genuine work of participants into publicity for The University of Sydney. Even more cynically, one could imagine it as a marketing strategy to promote Sydney as a university that partakes in a neoliberal notion of 'creative' subjects ready to enter into the capitalist job-market armed with the artistic flexibility necessary to react to the precarious situation such a market now necessarily entails. These strategic movements obstruct by-default the possibility of genuine creativity, i.e. creativity not predicated on predetermined parameters.
The irony of the use of shipping containers for such a pursuit is not lost. Moreover, one could see the containers as metaphorical for the state within which most students actually exist in terms of education and the consequent narrowness of existence ahead of them. We have created a farce of knowledge acquisition that leads to a goal of obtaining a piece of paper (a degree) which, in theory at least, will lead us to that much-lusted-after job.
We have pursued this aim progressively without any regard for what university actually means: academic freedom. Not contained knowledge. Which, alarmingly, is effectively what universities have become in all but name. There is no space to follow the thought, to extend the tutorial, to converse deeply with the teacher, to read broadly and generate connections haphazardly in this institution. Students must obtain marks. Teachers must produce 'research'. Knowledge, reflection and thinking are contained and locked up so as to produce neatly packaged subjects prepared for the market of jobs.
There is no escape from this model within the uni-corp, and what's more they don't even need to remind us of this fact – it doesn't seem to occur to us that what contained knowledge means is the inability to reflect on our human condition, and what that means is a life of enslavement. The inevitable note made for every lecture, hence, reads: 'Who needs to reflect when there is money to be earned?'
Rather than 'Uncontainable', my project would be titled, 'Already Contained: See For Yourself'.
My budget is $500. I will need to pay the artists involved for their labour as well as set up an installation inside the container, which will be a kind of capitalist paradise and thus cost money. This installation will decay over the period of its exhibition on Eastern Avenue.
To clarify, this is what I wrote to a friend regarding this proposal and explains my idea for the project: 'I have this image of the container as some kind of prison, or cage, of decadence. The sort of luxurious, disgusting, OTT, façade-like, artificial, hollow, decadence that capitalism is all about. With just too much of everything and a completely unnecessary everything. People eating too much, drinking too much; a party in the container; too many colours; perfume; loud music; plush animals; too much makeup; technology, glitter and Swarovski crystals; images everywhere – changing, changing, exciting and wonderful, crazy and beautiful but stinking and rotting by the end of it all. Everyone exhausted and resentful and sick. All the façade having lost its shine.'
Ideally, I would like access to an amp and stereo system and/or computer to play music from the container; internet access would also be great. I would like to purchase a lot of McDonald's food to aid the olfactory impressions coming from the space. This food will be left inside the container throughout the duration of the piece (i.e. it will not be eaten). I would like to line the inside of the container in pink faux-fur and would like to paint the outside with some slogans such as: 'capital punishment is everywhere'.
Yesterday I received the following email from UnContainable project liaison: 'We were overwhelmed by a large number of high-quality applications, meaning that unfortunately on this occasion we have been unable to include your proposal in UnContainable.
Again thank you for taking the time to put together your proposal and for your enthusiasm for the project. We hope Verge Festival has the opportunity to collaborate with you in the future.'
You may hope so, but, me? Well, frankly I'm really not so sure ... My disappointment is not felt regarding the rejection per se (in fact, if I'm honest, it's a relief), but rather for the utter absence of any engagement with why, perchance, this proposal was not included. I know I'm not alone (this is a generic email that all rejectees would have received), but nonetheless I feel this unquestioned negation of any space of real critical consideration (the excuse is 'overwhelming high-quality') exemplifies exactly the impotence and dead-end 'creativity' of projects like Verge.