9 September 2021
Struck by some of the resonances and connections between the Pause for Thought project and a conference I co-organised with Henk Slager called Doing Deceleration (4th July 2017), hosted by Nottingham Trent University and Nottingham Contemporary in conjunction with Slager’s exhibition, Exhausted Academies (30th June–5th July, 2017), I thought it might be interesting to share an abridged version of my introduction to the conference as a reflection.
It might be tempting to read ‘doing deceleration’ as an invitation to relax or chill out, to ‘down tools’, to stop doing. Or else, it could be conceived as little more than an on-trend marketing slogan, part of the wider mainstream wellbeing economy; perhaps, even cynically as just another species of leisure around which the burgeoning ‘slow’ industries of luxury-detox retreats, spa-days and ‘lite’ mindfulness lunchtimes – alongside the rise of various apps to simplify, calmify or even happify – are already pitched.
Alternatively, in the key of Martin Herbert’s recent publication, Tell Them I Said No (2016), doing deceleration might be taken as a radical withdrawal from or even antagonism to the art world and its institutions. He explores different practices for ‘positioning oneself somewhere on the axis of absenting’ (12) from the tactical withdrawal of artists such as Marcel Duchamp to the ‘absconding manifestoes’ of Cady Noland; from the silence and self-containment of Trisha Donnelly to the conceptual acts of artists like Stanley Brouwn or Tehching Hsieh. For Herbert, dropping out can be a means of critique or negation whereby ‘full withdrawal registers as exasperated reaction to the intolerability of the art world […] to profiteering, the presence of repellent personalities, and neon egos’ (13). More affirmatively, it can also ‘constitute an example of what’s possible, when you’re not terrified by the attention economy’ (14) – that insidious fear of missing out. Significantly, Herbert differentiates between the ‘being present’ demanded by the contemporary art world (the pressures of showing up, of self-promotion and over-sharing) and a withdrawal of self-yielding heightened states of awareness, attention, immersion, and absorption (74).
Doing deceleration is less a call to ‘slow down’, retreating from the process of production as such, than to conceive new relations between acceleration and deceleration, activity and rest. Hartmut Böhme argues that we need a ‘new wisdom that does not pit speed and slowness against each other’ (1). Speed itself is not to blame but rather the restlessness, carelessness, inconsiderateness, vagueness, negligence, imprudence, impatience, and hurry that result when haste ‘tears us away from the present toward a destination’ (2). According to Böhme, we have ‘invested in tempo without ever having received the returns of slowness […] the more that speed has become the domineering imperative of all life’s activities, the less time we have’ (2). The requirement to do more and more can result in a reality of less and less, the cultivation of superficial engagement overriding the possibility of deep, sustained immersion, attention, and absorption. So, how might we disrupt the impinging pressures of acceleration and proliferation that arguably underpin our contemporary culture of immediacy and urgency, with its privileging of multitasking, perpetual readiness, and ‘just-in-time’ production?
Henk Slager’s exhibition Exhausted Academies takes one of its cues from philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who diagnoses our contemporary existence as marked by a ‘violence of positivity’, derived from overproduction, overachievement, and overcommunication, alongside an excess of stimuli and information, resulting in a radical change to our ‘structure and economy of attention’, and an inevitable rise in exhaustion, fatigue, and burnout (7). Han argues that we are no longer just the ‘obedient-subjects’ of a ‘disciplinary’ or even ‘control society’ (modelled on the negativity of prohibition); instead, we have become endlessly self-motivated ‘achievement-subjects’. Whilst a ‘can do’ or ‘anything–is–possible’ attitude is no bad thing in itself, for Han, our attachment to the vita activa (or active life) has escalated towards a state of hyperactive passivity, creating an imperative to work. What then for the maker of art-works – or even artist-educator – whose work is art: how to distinguish the debasing of life subsumed by work, from the critical politics of a lifework, or the ethico-aesthetics of ‘life as a work of art’?
How is this imperative to ‘be active’ infiltrating and permeating art school pedagogy? And how might the art school, the artists’ studio, or even the space-time of the artistic residency provide alternative models of practice or even resistance? Han’s publication, The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering proposes an alternative or even antidote to his diagnosed burnout society of achievement, where he argues that to give back life its time and duration, we should reclaim our capacity to dwell and linger, for reflection and contemplation. Deceleration is neither a solution nor an end in and of itself. But the practice of slowing down might open intervals for the creative capacity of lingering, tarrying, waiting, drifting, trepidation, anticipation, doubt, and hesitation, alongside the generative experience of boredom, not knowing, and doing nothing.
What does deceleration affirm or enable? In Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution (2016), Michelle Boulous Walker critiques the instrumentalised contemporary academy with its acquisitional culture of knowledge conceived as resource, a culture of superficial skim reading for the gleaning of quickest quotable sound bites as exchangeable, informational data. Against this, she advocates the practice of slow reading: of reading carefully, of rereading and of returning to what one reads; conceived as a means through which to ‘re-engage the instituting moments of philosophy as a love of wisdom’ (or even the wisdom of love) ‘and as a way of life, rather than simply as a desire (or need) to know’ (xvii). For Walker, slow modes of engagement enable transformation rather than simply acquisition; deceleration is deemed necessary for exploring complexity and intensity. Significantly, she asserts that slowness (in reading and in life) has an ethical dimension, for unhurriedness is a precondition for being more available, receptive, and open to the other, as well as to the experience of ambiguity, strangeness, and uncertainty, in turn increasing our potential for intimacy, for love and wonder. Ambiguity. Uncertainty. Patience. Proximity. Receptivity. Even vulnerability. These qualities seem necessary for the practice of art as much as philosophy.
Certainly, Han’s ‘burnout society’ might be experienced as imposed from without; however, it is also collectively co-produced and as such must be collectively dismantled. Indeed, Han states, ‘the achievement subject stands free from any external instance of domination forcing it to work, much less exploiting it – freedom and constraint coincide’ (11). How are we complicit in creating the conditions of our own exhaustion? How can we recognise the degree of our own complicity, whilst retain a capacity for conceiving otherwise? How can projects such as this catalyse a collective deceleration, shifting from simply lamenting our own exhaustion to activating a change of culture? Is this possible? Can we collectively cultivate what Han describes as a ‘negative potency’ (24) such that we are capable of together saying ‘no’?
9 September 2021
Emma Cocker is a writer-artist and Associate Professor in Fine Art, Nottingham Trent University. Her writing is published in Failure; Stillness in a Mobile World; On Not Knowing: How Artists Think; Choreo-graphic Figures: Deviations from the Line; The Creative Critic: Writing as/about Practice, and as a solo collection, The Yes of the No.
Contributed as part of Workshop 1
- Hartmut Böhme (2011) The Art of Deceleration: Motion and Rest in Art. Wolfsburg: Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg.
- Byung-Chul Han (2015) The Burnout Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Byung-Chul Han (2017) The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering. Cambridge and Medford, MA: Polity Press.
- Martin Herbert (2016) Tell Them I Said No. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
- Michelle Boulous Walker (2017) Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution, London and New York: Bloomsbury.