On Art and Populism: Mohammad Salemy on the New Centre for Research & Practice
July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment
The online school bridges the gap between legacy institutions and new knowledge production
03/02 2016 One reason I like the New Centre for Research & Practice is the way it constructs itself out of tools made available by the internet. Implicitly, even the school’s chosen moniker, the New Centre, suggests what potential gets realized through the use of this context. A school in pragmatic terms, the project is also an embedded reflection on what kind of capacity the network creates. Registered in the State of Michigan (under the category of a Licensed Proprietary School) the non-profit offers graduate-level certificates, along with a range of related on and off-line activities. Started in the Fall of 2014, the New Centre has quickly established itself as a presence, in part due to pent up demand brick and mortar institutions have been slow to meet. However, in this conversation the curator and artist, Mohammad Salemy, one of the school’s three co-founders, makes clear their mission is not oppositional but supplementary to educational resources provided by traditional institutions. With a big shout out to Google docs, the web app Mohammad and I used to conduct this discussion over the last two weeks.
Rosemary Heather (RH): Can you talk about the origins of this project?
Mohammad Salemy (MS): The New Centre was established due to a common interest amongst its founders — myself, Jason Adams and Tony Yanick — in philosophy and theory, in particular their contemporary and emerging forms. We wanted to see how these new approaches could be put to work in a variety of disciplines, with a special emphasis on the arts, technology, and politics. We shared a desire for new intellectual spaces, and new forms of research and development in these new areas of thought. We first focused on online seminars. These are taught face-to-face via Google Hangouts, for video conferencing, and Google Classroom, a platform for maintaining classroom environments. Later on, we opened a new focus on research and publishing, including ten different research groups on the areas of accelerationism, the anthropocene, new art, new music, postcapitalism, and poststatism. Our approach is to identify groundbreaking research agendas and bring together the people central to their development with students and scholars seeking to take their work in new directions. Our publishing platform &&& (tripleampresand.org) publishes the results and disseminates other works by The New Centre community.
RH: Since the Kunsthalle Wien planned their Political Populism exhibition late in 2014, the tendency has only become more pronounced, in Europe and the US. We could say the solution populist politicians offer to a perceived crisis of legitimacy is dubious, but it’s an authentic channeling of discontent nonetheless. Can I draw an analogy here? Can the New Centre for Research & Practice be said to be similarly providing an alternative to an academic establishment perceived to be at an impasse?
MS: If anything, our collective operations at The New Centre can be said to represent a form of academic populism. This can only be accurate if we redefine our understanding of the notions of pop and popular. We are popular to the extent that the increasingly youthful face of our academic world — for instance, the average age of those attending PhD programs has dropped dramatically in the last two decades — demands forms of knowledge that are in tune with the contemporary world, not just politically but also in terms of epistemology. We organize seminars, events and activities that bring new thinkers, scholars and artists to a global audience using available web technologies as the Centre’s physical and institutional platforms. Given the popularity of everything digital and networked these days, and of social media in particular, we are also popular because we operate out of this virtual space rather than depend on traditional educational infrastructure like a campus, studios, etc. However, unlike the movements associated with para academia, we see ourselves as a fluid space which surrounds and extends, rather than opposes, the capabilities of traditional academic institutions. Our objective is to legitimize newer forms of knowledge through our collaborative work with universities, colleges, and other physical institutions like galleries and museums. We think these institutions, despite their material and political limitations still provide an irreplaceable set of tools and valuable networks for the advancement of new discourses that are yet to be canonized. Most of our members and students are already connected to universities and other institutions as professors, graduate students, researchers or artists. They come to us because they find our services a necessary complement to what they otherwise pursue in their own work.
RH: It seems accurate to call The New Centre a decentralized initiative. On your website, you talk about “accelerating academia” and “ecologizing knowledge.” Both concepts can be described as capacities of the network. What effects do you see resulting from the project specifically due to the platform you are working from?
MS: Not only are we more decentralized than other educational platforms, but we are also intent on becoming even more decentralized as we grow. First of all myself and my cofounders, Jason and Tony, are geographically dispersed, often residing in different parts of the world. For the longest time, until Machines that Matter our collaborative conference with e-flux in New York (December 2014), we had not even met in person and had done everything via the internet, from registering The New Centre as a school in Michigan to setting up various service accounts with government and private entities. In regards to accelerating academia and ecologizing knowledge, the key is in having an ear for what is emerging from inside and outside of academia, and shortening the feedback loop through which the works of the younger generation of researchers and graduates become validated and available to others who are pursuing higher level education. On the practical level, we see the school lending a hand to those who might have remained outside the academic gates by upgrading their knowledge and skills and helping them enter the academic world faster. What we mean by ecologizing knowledge is a networked process in which the seminars, syllabuses and assignments will find new ramifications outside of the classroom. To facilitate this, we try to connect our educational services to other activities inside and outside The New Centre. This is a process through which not only a new knowledge but also a new environment for its reception and evaluation is constructed, basically through networks established via the interactions between the wider internet and the institution.
RH: “Shaping the future” is one of the stated goals of the school. Is this in respect of an ideal of progressive politics? What set of political ideas frame The New Centre project?
MS: Jason and Tony come from other trajectories, and also we tend to have both overlapping and diverging point of views in relation to politics. Perhaps what unites our political horizon is the faith we have in the collective human capacity for self improvement via human and non-human technologies, both on the singular and collective levels. For myself, the political dimension of The New Centre is encapsulated in a term I have been using lately: “epistopolitics.” As far as political economy is concerned, an accelerationist project like The New Centre can never be merely political, but can perhaps be epistopolitical. In my opinion, political emancipation can only be possible as a result of an intense epistemological revolution that transforms the entire social fabric, including the outlook of the capitalist class, and a complete revamping of the structures and processes that constitute contemporary liberal democracies. Epistopolitics describes the entanglement of politics with the theory of knowledge and vice versa, which instead of restating Foucault’s position on the relationship between knowledge and power (i.e., knowledge is political) shows how truth, or more precisely the production of knowledge, can only be emancipatory if the trajectory of its politics is also emancipatory. This means an emancipatory political project will be doomed to fail if it remains untouched by a transformation of the existing theories of knowledge. Epistopolitics is the ultimate politics, which consists of producing a knowledge that uses both the critical (negative) and constructive (positive) forms of looking at the world to secure qualitative gains in the general production of knowledge towards collective emancipation.
RH: British political philosopher John Gray said recently that our best thinking today is happening in mainstream culture, not the academy. He cited as an example the way certain TV series (Breaking Bad, for instance) are able to dramatize ethical contradictions. I agree; it’s hard not to notice the many ways that mainstream culture is progressive. How do you then position a project like The New Centre, with its commitment to advanced political and philosophical thinking? Is the model of the avant-garde relevant?
MS: It is impossible to define a contemporary ontology for an avant-garde carved out of its history and actuality from the 20th century. If we forgo ontology and instead identify an avant-garde based on its process and function, then I think it is possible to talk about The New Centre as an avant-garde project. The difference is that in the traditional definition of the term, innovation and radicality is articulated through the 20th century metaphor of war and confrontation that imagines the avant-garde in the front line of political and cultural battles. For us, if there is any avant-garde, it must be found as isolated and dispersed elements and entities within the larger universe of social, artistic, political and scientific fields and institutions. The New Centre can claim this mantle by being both the agent of cohesion, bringing these elements together, and vehicles for navigation, using networked resources to move the whole operation, and not just its front rows, forward.
RH: How do you reconcile the work you do at the The New Centre with your work as a curator and practicing artist?
MS: Even in the strictest definition of the term “curatorial,” the work of a curator already includes the creation of public education programs in relation to other activities of the museum or gallery, like exhibitions. In my case, the collaboration with Jason and Tony began as a result of working together on the Incredible Machines conference, which was a curatorial initiative I undertook in 2013–14 culminating in a part real/part virtual gathering of thinkers, scholars and artists around the themes of computation and cybernetics. Respectively, our work at The New Centre is at least partially — if not completely — curatorial. It takes curatorial skills to compose a virtual institution of learning out of digital bits and parts that are generated on different platforms. So much of managing our virtual institution has to do with maintaining its virtual interface on a regular basis, like an ongoing exhibition of interdisciplinary work with parts being operational separately but also together as a whole. If at the end of the day the function of a good exhibition or another kind of curatorial project is to bring people together and generate questions, conversations — and possibly plans of action — around a theme or concern, I think one can see how what we do at The New Centre overlaps with the activities of any rigorous curatorial team.
It’s also interesting to talk about my practice as an artist, which itself is a cross between curatorial and conceptual practices. In recent years my work has involved taking large data sets extracted from technological platforms like Google, social media, or archived live television broadcasts, and using them to create novel and critical forms of cybernetics involving humans and machines. In this way, I see an overlap between working as an artist, a curator or a programmer at The New Centre.
Mohammad Salemy is an independent NYC/Vancouver-based critic and curator from Iran. He has curated exhibitions at the Koerner Gallery and AMS Gallery at the University of British Columbia, as well as the Satellite Gallery and Dadabase. He co-curated Faces exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. In 2014, Salemy organized the Incredible Machines conference in Vancouver. Salemy holds a masters degree in Critical and Curatorial Studies from the University of British Columbia.
This is one of ten posts written to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).