In Praise of Yachts

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

In this month's Frieze, James Trainor writes that "The 'grand alignment' of Venice, Basel, documenta and Muenster will see a record amount of globe-spanning jet travel, discount-airline city-hopping, mass shipments of art works and art tourists, top-heavy mega-yachts jostling for anchorage in the Venetian lagoon, VIP galas, after-parties, excess: energy consumed and waste produced. (Thirty years ago, during the oil crisis of the 1970s, the population, foraging zones and overall impact of the itinerant art world were negligible by comparison.) We can debate the eco-ethics of art production (does an immaterial Tino Sehgal get a green star for being inherently sustainable?), but unless everyone collectively decides that the spectrum of permissible art-making should run from Goldsworthian bio-degradable 'leaf-litter art' to low-impact relational aesthetics, the thornier ethical knot is not how and what artists make but how the art world, itself a subset of the grander cultural-industrial complex, addresses its own responsibility in this mess and takes steps to be more accountable".

Similar ethical concerns seemed to determine other visitors' reactions to the yachts parked near the biennale sites in Venice. Signifiers of nouveau riche bad taste, they served as a bad conscience to the worthy politics of the Arsenale. An untenable contrast between the two was made at various debates surrounding the biennial, at the same time as the arms dealers on board sent their personal assistants in with their digital cameras to bring back jpegs of art depicting soldiers using their merchandise that they could invest in. But unlike the biennale, which is neither cheap nor particularly environmentally friendly, relying as it does on charter flight accessibility, the yachts did not moralise their viewers. And while we were never admitted onto their grand decks, it did strike us that they were perhaps better understood as pieces of public sculpture, moving monuments to a catastrophe that is already happening. The historian Michael Kammen has written in Mystic Chords of Memory that "societies in fact reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them, and that they do so with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind - manipulating the past in order to mold the present." The future can similarly be manipulated through acts of redescription: simply looking at the yachts in a different way can produce a radically different understanding of their function. If the yachts are meant to represent private wealth and private space, an encounter with their exteriority can lays these categories open to questioning.

It has often been remarked that the late Capitalist operations of financialisation have no concrete visual language. Global finance is a liquid, smooth motion that paradoxically de-territorialises and concentrates wealth like a swarm of fractional arithmetic components, both menacing and immaterial. A long line of writers have predicted a grim reality for art under the reign of Capitalism, in which nothing is produced and consumed and yet wealth is generated (or to put it more crudely money is made by shifting numbers from one column to another). Art can no longer serve as a field of culture that translates shared vision and visibility into community and communality. These attitudes are perhaps best summarised in the 190 th thesis of Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle : "Art in the period of its dissolution, as a movement of negation in pursuit of its own transcendence in a historical society where history is not yet directly lived, is at once an art of change and a pure expression of the impossibility of change... it is an art that is not . Its vanguard is its own disappearance". The problem with the presupposition that art cannot have a meaningful, ethical position because of this severed link between vision, truth and community is that art does not and perhaps should not adopt the philosopher's fidelity to the truth. Hannah Arendt noted that the famous images of the Nazi death camps are in fact a falsification of their true character: a fully operational camp is perfect in its concealment and removal of its sole function and only in the haste of the flight from the Red Army were the camps neglected and dead bodies allowed to be exposed. Yet, these false images constitute our historical perception of the camps as visual representations of something that is in principal invisible.

Similarly, if the true nature of financialisation and capitalism is an elusive, constantly mutating Deleuzian entity, then yachts serve as a fictionalization of its core essence, a testament to the conditions under which we live. As repositories of capital, they are fascinating because they make concrete the invisible flows of finance. Their display of power and status is inverted in their sheer visibility. Ignoring what goes on inside, we are treated to a spectacle of architecture in motion, evoking the impermanence to which the postmodern monument aspires. Read as public sculpture, the yacht becomes a much better representation of the global effects of financialisation than the soldiers and refugees in Robert Storr's Arsenale, who can do no more than make viewers feel righteously indignant and simultaneously helpless in the face of a generalised human suffering. The yacht is both a vector of movement towards the never attainable future projected by Capitalism and a physical manifestation of its ultimate failure in the unavoidable friction between metaphysical aspiration and concrete power. Even more bizarrely, yachts are ciphers of a curious social fracture. Concentrated, obscene and in-your-face spectacles are destroying the alliance of bourgeois respectability, property wealth and neo-conservative myths of freedom. In a recent article in Tatler magazine, it was claimed that the upper middle classes felt threatened by the new class of the super rich, foreigners coming over to enjoy UK tax breaks getting their children into public schools and making everyone else feel poor by comparison. Underneath the xenophobic rhetoric lay a curious call to impose more tax control, an unexpected twist on champagne socialism.

Richard Rorty has suggested that to redescribe the world is a political act. A revised vocabulary allows for new solidarities to arise, as we recognize ourselves in an other. This is the ultimate value in redescribing yachts as obstacles in the immateriality of capital, signs of an excess that can revolutionise the hegemony and even artworks that we can look on as commemorative/transient sculptures for the people from the future. Urbanist Léon Krier has claimed that "the tragic absurdity of the World Trade Center is that a very poor piece of architecture has become an involuntary martyr -- a phantom tombstone of monstrous scale. A fake architectural monument (i.e. private economic activities dressed in a monumental garb, and housed in memorial pillars, totems and the like) has become a true memorial through its disappearance. By its bodily dissolution it has gained the (immortal) soul which had so far eluded it". But in the wake of September 11 th , we do not need to wait for catastrophe to rewrite the meaning of the sites and objects that dominate our pseudo-public sphere. Perhaps we can adopt J. G. Ballard's notion that the catastrophe has already happened: we already live in a radically altered world, which we just lack the language to understand. New ways of looking, new vocabularies, are necessary if we are to consider how art can continue to function not as a recuperated bad conscience to decorate the yacht's interior but as a means of visualising the real power structures represented by its exterior.