Fresh Fruit from Rotten Vegetables (part three): The Tension of Kafka’s Bureaucracy




Why is Kafka so relevant ninety-three years after his death?  Simply because his milieu was one of pure bureaucratic tension: not only did his works comment on the bureaucracy of his age, they foreshadowed the docile bureaucracy of the decades to come.  Today’s bureaucracy is so sluggish and short-sighted that it needs the smiley-faced, epigrammatic lexicon and cheery-voiced affectations of the customer-service ideology to in any way placate a society so ground-down by its ineptitude that is has come to expect the tension of confrontation.  When K attempts to gain entrance to the castle he is met with bureaucratic underlings who embody the rusted cogs deliberately put in place in any system to deter the achievement of knowledge.  For, knowledge being power and power being the ultimate capitalist commodity (even greater than time itself), it must be doled out in microscopic measure and in predetermined quantities (and the predetermining always carried out in turn by those with a slightly greater measure of [again, predetermined) of knowledge).

Kafka is referred to time and again in contemporary art, because his fictions achieved what contemporary art always strives for, which is to tabulate a social or cultural atmosphere and trim away the bureaucratic fat which obscures the fact of a thing from the view of the populace.  In order for any member of a populace to attain a greater standing or position of merit they must first use their predetermined measure of knowledge (granted [again, generally-speaking] on the basis of their social standing) and figure out a way to interpret the climate they live in with the power they are given.  Sometimes this measure of power is out-of-balance with a person’s social standing: for instance, poor communities with little educational clout produce fiercely intelligent individuals who have not the bureaucratic means with which to harness that intelligence.  Conversely, and this is more often the case [or so I have found], upper-middle class communities tend to award the dullest, most docile of its citizens with intellectual power which said individual has no way of yielding responsibly.

So, when speaking of bureaucratic tensions, the artist opens up a vast area for exploration.  And, like Kafka before him or her, has to trim away the fat put in place by the very bureaucracy they seek to expose.

Fresh Fruit from Rotting Vegetables (part one)

There comes a point in any artist’s trajectory (be it an established artist, or an unknown student who can’t even visualise a time when someone would respect them enough to give them the time of day), when they must take stock of everything they have done before.  It is necessary if one wishes to go forward, rather than backwards, sideways or plot a drunken, stumbling line of periphrastic aspect around the things one has already said and done.  The phrase “one step back,” loathsome and clichéd as it is, summarises the creative impasse which every artist faces – and there are times when the only way to go without falling flat on one’s face is to cherry-pick from the back-catalogue of works and find those things which succeeded, and even begin to contemplate those works which fell short.  Because at some point, even the things that fell short have to be re-considered as having potential (why did they fall short?  Is there anything that could have been done differently?  Were they made for the wrong reasons then, and can the right reasons be found now?).  Every artist revisits old themes: like a musical refrain, these themes and methodologies keep cropping up time and again in the careers of any artist who remains in the game.  The frequency of these motifs helps to create the tempo of an artist’s output: if John Baldessari repeats such-and-such an idea once every ten years, then that is ten years he has spent exploring other ideas, but this nonetheless means that he had an idea which was worth repeating.


Given my present circumstances, I have had little choice – due to time restraints and the urgency to present new work of substance – but to revisit old ideas, and these ideas happen to be in the form of an idea I had a few years ago of juxtaposing high-brow literature with low-brow ephemera.  The first time I went in this direction, it was a hackneyed commentary on Greenbergian themes, but when I began to explore this again I found that other “tensions” were there to be uncovered.  For instance, Maurice Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure (being a short fiction noted for its impenetrable nature), begins to assume a dark humour when placed within the context of an old comic book.  Similarly, the “Body without Organs” piece used in conjunction with a Popeye comic strip begins to open up notions of diological tension – questions are continually raised (much like the questions one would imagine Deleuze and Guattari firing at one another when preparing to write).

“Thomas the Obscure” (Print Proof)


Thomas the Obscure (1941), Maurice Blanchot’s “ultimate post-modern fiction” re-framed in an old Dandy cartoon strip. Nothing new, this, but old habits…

In an ideal world, this will be screen printed directly onto a gallery wall, although oftentimes the ideal world is quite separate to the actual world.

No Job for a Grown Man (part seven) – The Compatibility of Simple and Complex Machines


…when one writes, the only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work.” These words, written by Deleuze and Guattari in the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, are key to an understanding of how many contemporary artists – myself included – manipulate the abstract fabric of their works into a cohesion. Artists are haecceities (again using the term as described in A Thousand Plateaus), just as every human being is a haecceity, or a sum of all the events and forces involved in an organism, object or event. Certainly, artists tend to be focal haecceities, but individual haeccaeities all the same, and therefore subject to every singular element and event which led to the individual making x or y decision concerning z art piece. How have I incorporated influences such as The Fall, Alfred Jarry, Louis Althusser or European cinema into my work in the past?  I negotiated a method of plugging these separate machines into the art machine, to varying degrees of success (which in itself was subject to the laws of the haecceity). The side of the machine that faces the strata is where all of the external machines are plugged into, and its obverse side – the side which is observed by the audience – is smooth (or as smooth as the artist is able to make the machine). Deleuze and Guattari discuss Kafka and his incredible bureaucratic machine. Kafka himself was a haecceity governed by the strict laws of bureaucracy, now inexorably and miserably linked to its dehumanising values and de-humanised social necessity. The bleak world of Kafka has ever been – and continues to be – a rich source of inspiration for the artist. Fitting, that in a contemporary age subject to fears not only of our employability and stability, but of our very survival, that we still see the relevance in that bureaucratic machine of a century ago begin to erode away at the humanity of its subjects. As such, Kafka has remained relevant throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, because that bureaucratic coding has never altered: on the contrary, it has mutated and made itself more sophisticated; it has mimicked our human behaviour; it has presented itself to us in our own image. It can be argued that some species of symbiosis has taken place, whereby we have become bureaucratic beings (linguistically, at least) and bureaucracy has become more humanised (obviously, this latter is far from the case, yet the maintainers of the bureaucratic machine have understood that, for the machine to survive, it was necessary to make the machine more human-like). Certain machines – like Kafka’s bureaucratic machine – have long-lasting compatibility with the art machine, as has been illustrated. There are however an infinity of machines, varying in size and form, which are ever-present in orbit around our plane of existence. Some of these machines are more difficult to plug into the art machine, and have only a limited time in which they are compatible. Political art tends to suffer from this limitation of compatibility because not all political matters persist longer than a decade-or-two. The trick is always in ratiocinating what larger machine governs the smaller machines, or what greater social factors must be in place for the smaller political machines to function. It has long been an ambition of mine to find a way of re-formatting (particularly resistant to re-formatting) literature and presenting it as art. I have had my eye of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman for a number of years now, and I think that this initially came about because of the parallels one can draw between the protagonist struggling financially to complete his critical work on the fictional scholar de Selby. Any art student can certainly appreciate the protagonist’s frustration at being unable to complete a work of subjective importance due to a factor as fleeting and arbitrary as money. It is not just for this reason, though, that The Third Policeman is ripe for re-presentation: the book is full of that rich absurdist humour which also draws me to Alfred Jarry, Steve Aylett and Sergio Caballero. This absurdist literary machine, to work in this context, must be compatible with the particulars of my current art machine, and that is where the real work lies.