The Usological Turn: An Interview with Stephen Wright

2 Mayıs 2018

Battleship Potemkin 1 The film poster for Sergei M. Eisenstein, <i>Bronenosets Potemkin</i> [Battleship Potemkin], 1925
The film poster for Sergei M. Eisenstein, Bronenosets Potemkin [Battleship Potemkin], 1925
Onur Yıldız and Naz Kocadere of SALT Research and Programs interviewed Stephen Wright, the author of Toward a Lexicon of Usership (2013), following his talk ”Usership: Tales of Life Onboard” held at SALT Galata on March 10, 2018. The discussion revolves around who entails the user, the nuances between usership and spectatorship, and how the art that is being used is different from the ”useful art” in relation to the Arte Útil archive and SALT’s Office of Useful Art.

Naz Kocadere: Stephen, I would like to start by asking you where the title of your recent talk comes from.

Stephen Wright: A few years ago, I presented my research around usership at the Showroom in London. It was quite interactive. Instead of a Q&A at the end of each talk, presenters posted and exchanged a specific question, which I was supposed to read and comment on. Someone said: “Ok, this is all very well but what about the pirate ship?” It was then that I realized that there was a ship involved. Also, the last sentence of my book Toward a Lexicon of Usership is “Usership Potemkin,” which is one of the icons of the beginning of the Russian Revolution, in reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s famous film Battleship Potemkin (1925). I have enjoyed comparing usership to the workings of some kind of a ship, so ”tales of life on board” is basically life on board the usership.

Onur Yıldız: My question is about the term you coined, ”usological turn.” It refers to a moment in the history of change. What is your reference point for this? What do you mean by the turn?

SW: I don’t use it ironically. I wink my eye when I talk about the usological turn. There is something performative here. I tend to discuss the current issues in usology as if it were referenced as an index of social science like sociology, though we may not be quite there yet. With the rise of social media, usership becomes a site of value and information production as well as that of content generation. Those things have emerged massively over the last fifteen years. At my talk yesterday, I mentioned that the value of big corporations like Google actually comes from the usership. Responding to various questions about algorithms, I suggest that users are actually the fuel and engine of algorithms, which are empty mathematical formulas with no subjectivity. I think that subjectivity is what I call usership. All of that is a part of the usological turn in the field of aesthetics. Like you Onur, I also consider the Office of Useful Art at SALT Galata as one of the best witnesses to this.

There has been a kind of shift away from disinterested spectatorship. More practitioners are dissatisfied with this kind of spectatorship and seek greater traction or use value. In other words, they do not simply orient their practices towards users and usership, but they are themselves a part of a broader usership in producing these works. Expert culture has recently come to be seriously challenged within the context of knowledge production. In my research prior to the Lexicon, I was very interested in the British handicapped peoples movement that took on the British medical establishment: the power of the expert. Their slogan or watchword was ”We are the experts of our condition.” Without negating the value of expertise in medicine, it suggested that someone with a disability knows something about their condition that no specialist possibly can. Taking this even further, you could say that a drug user knows something about drugs that the best doctor advising the legislator whether to prohibit or authorise it, can never know. So those things have emerged a little bit earlier. There are traces of that in late Foucault and an interest in this new form of sideline subjectivity, which he calls ”the usage” or ”the user.” This is where I come from. Last but not least is the massive rise of intellectual property rights and ownership. Usership is one of the most effective tools with which one challenges this all encompassing regime. All of these elements comprise, what I call, the usological turn, in reference to the linguistic turn.”

NK: You often talk about certain artistic practices wrapping up their scale of operation towards one-to-one scale. Could you explain this notion and how it is related to Arte Útil?

SW: I consider it to be a key criteria of Arte Útil. It was taken from the Lexicon itself and added to the list of criteria later on, which makes me proud. The notion of one-to-one scale practice comes from the book. This doesn’t have anything to do with the monumental scale. I consider Oldenburg’s works to be monumental, yet in line with the modernist regime of reduced scale art. They are bigger than useful objects like a bicycle or a shovel, but on a reduced scale with respect to utility. In La Pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind, 1962), Levi Strauss argues that art is inherently on the reduced scale. Strauss is kind of an anthropologist; he ontologised the idea that art must always be on a smaller scale than the thing itself, or what Arthur Danto would call “the mere real thing”. Drawing from “The Man in the Moon” in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893) and Jorge Luis Borges’s 1946 short story ”On Exactitude in Science,” maps can conceivably be expanded to the scale of one mile to one mile. Therefore, the land itself could be its own map. The one-to-one scale does not, so much, challenge what is called the crisis of representation, which conceals something more profound: the crisis of scale. So art practices utilizing this particular scale are simultaneously what they are and artistic propositions of what they are.

OY: Your book provides a list of words that needs to be retired as well as emergent concepts around usership. Why do you think the linguistic change is necessary as a linguistic intervention? How does your methodology of repurposing work in this intervention?

SW: I wouldn’t say it is necessary but desirable. All of us intervene in language, and that is what speech actually is with respect to language. It is a kind of destituting moment towards the institutive power of language. Often times, deepest intuitions are inadequately expressed by the existent vocabulary, which are legitimated and authorized by expert culture. Or what I rather polemically refer to as the epistemocracy: the power of knowledge, governance through knowledge. It seems to me that one is never more than a co-author of one’s gestures and speech acts, even in the best case scenario. To be at least a co-author, one must really consider what kind of conceptual vocabulary s/he is operating with. For this, two gestures are necessary. The first one is to consider whether some terms have not been inherited from a different moment in time, to pull apart their history or potentially discard them. At the same time, other terms need to be put forward, which people often do spontaneously.

It seems to me that this book tries to tackle a kind of an epistemological conundrum. How do we discuss emerging practices with normalized vocabulary or non-normalized vocabulary that doesn’t sound so serious but might work better? It is a question of symbolic violence in some respect. I think language is symbolic violence. How can we engage with this violence in a meaningful way? Some words need to be retired, while others promoted almost like players coming in and out of the field. There is also a kind of subterranean set of terms and modes of usership that I try to give a kind of epistemic dignity to since they have never enjoyed that throughout their history. So notions like ”gleaning” could refer to a popular practice for the ultra poor, who pick up the leftover fruits at a market place. But perhaps ”gleaning” is also a way of understanding the mechanics of artistic production or the construction of ideas. While ”poaching,” ”hacking” and ”loophooling” might sound silly, they are not more silly than ”spectatorship” and ”authorship.” In fact, they can be more appropriate.

NK: Has any user reached you or the team with feedback after publishing the Lexicon? Can you share some of the comments you have received so far as well as different words or ways of repurposing that were proposed?

SW: Well, there’s been a lot of feedback. But first I would like to say that Lexicon is a revisitation of the glossary, a minor literary genre. So it was kind of a literary move. The objective was not so much to establish and stabilize meaning as to break open this idea of a language we use and how it determines our work. Therefore, my intention is not to tell people how to question why they use the terms that they do. I don’t want them to use my words without having considered other possible uses. Other words and other worlds are possible; sometimes they are even more plausible. In every public conversation, people come up with counter suggestions. I have actually been getting better at opening up some of the cracks in my own approach. The publication is an invitation for people to investigate their own idioms or natural languages, as well as their own idiosyncratic speech. This helps question what is self evident and explore what is less called upon.

OY: I would like to hear more about your perspective on usership and the notion of Arte Útil. What are some similarities and differences between the art that is being used and the ”useful art”?

SW: Well, that is like night and day or dusk and dawn. From a phenological point of view, they completely oppose each other. In my opinion, Arte Útil puts the cart before the horse. It creates an art which is, a priori, deemed to be useful, and it puts it out there for the user to use. But this is not how usership operates. Users do not expect someone to provide what’s useful for them in order to use it. They use whatever is available and in greatest proximity to them. This is the nature of usership as a dialectical form of relationality and collective subjectivity. I find this opportunistic character very interesting; it is a downside but also a strength. It is based on self-interest that’s what gives it so much power but also makes it cut in the other direction, making the users of Arte Útil weary and even afraid of it. So Arte Útil is opposed to art which is in-util: art that is not useful or doesn’t exactly engage usership. Users will use and misuse whatever is convenient. From the perspective of expert culture, use is always misused. Real use, I mean, genuine use. Otherwise, you’re passively following a protocol, which could also be executed by a machine. So, if there is true usership, there actually is the every instance the notion of predictability. You could say that this is not what happens at all; users are actually quite slavishly passive in many cases. Actually when usership produces information, content and value, that’s because it is doing something that had previously been unimagined.

In this respect, Arte Útil is somewhere to what its postulated opposite of spectator oriented art, which keeps the usership at bay and at constraint. As a philosopher, that’s the most important difference for me. It is to make way for usership in art, to establish protocols where users can make a robust use of things in a way that is not predetermined. That’s why I have been constantly asking you and your colleagues at SALT about what the SALT Research users want and how they use it. I must say that I have been very satisfied with the answers. If you asked some of the people behind Arte Útil, who are my friends, you would notice that they’re trying to produce something, which is excessively user-friendly as if they already knew what useful art would be. As a philosopher, I should add that the notion of useful art is philosophically indefensible. Because you would all too easily become cornered by the idea that you have instrumentalized art for some purpose. This is why I’m much more interested in the other translation of Arte Útil. But it is a very secondary translation as art as a tool. Art is a tool that cannot be taken up by spectators, who must remain at that disinterested distance, but by users who can use or misuse for their own purposes. This is also consistent with Arte Útil but I’m not sure if it is adequately expressed by the criteria or really evoked by its name.

NK: Drawing on these thoughts, what’s your perspective on The Arte Útil archive and how it can be used?

SW: Well, it is being used in a whole host of ways. It is by the statement of Arte Útil itself that is to be used as a tool on the one-to-one scale, and not as a representational device in order to merely gain access to these projects. Yet it does fulfill that function as well. How can it be used on the one-to-one scale? It is likely to have an infectious or contagious value. It must be used as a kind of a pry bar or a crow bar to crack in the existent conceptual edifice of art. It’s like prying open a door or a window to gain access. I have recently proposed that it would be purchased by a contemporary art collection in France. Now this is a very paradoxical and perhaps just a provocative suggestion because, no one really needs to buy this in order to use it. It is available by its very essence. A collection could use it at no cost. If the Lexicon were to be ever to be sold at a specific value, it would be an implicit recognition of the expenditure public money. This being a valuable part of the ”usological turn” could provide a new way of conceiving art and keeping with contemporary ethos. It would be an act of generosity and commitment to support this new type of art. What makes Arte Útil archive effective is that it offers a diverse range of cases situating art as a tool. That would be a key use of it. Another use would be is to exhibit it for consultation. Yet mere display is not sufficient on its own because the real of use of the archive become secondary within an exhibition space. A potential challenge would be present if the archive, which users can access online, were to be exhibited in the huge imperial edifice or the crown jewel housing SALT Galata. Yesterday, an audience member at my talk referred to this. She said “Where is it? Where is the Arte Útil archive? I saw the sign, but where is it?” She then went over and began to delve into it. That’s an example of using it on a one-to-one scale.

NK: Finally, do you plan on expanding the content of Lexicon and work on a new publication or any other related projects?

SW: Couple of things implicitly changed ever since the book was first published. ”Compatibility,” for example, has come up as an emerging concept. It is the key operator of these practices. I no longer feel that art has a specific ontology or believe that there is anything specific about art at all. But it is increasingly characterized by its compatibility with other avenues of human endeavor. This is the essence of its usership. It must be compatible, rather than specific, autonomous and removed. Double anthology also changes polarity, in the sense that having two anthologies may not be better than twice as of good. It might be twice as burdensome. There are several other terms like ”the opportune” and “ruse” that I’ve also added to the book. I particularly like ”ruse” in reference to Hegel’s ”ruse of reason.” For the sake of repurposing and advancement, I hope to include a number of additions to the new edition or a future translation. There are also some projects for translation, which poses a lot of challenges. Translating a dictionary is one of the most paradoxical forms of translation one can ever image. I consider the translations as part of the book itself. So, it is like an expanding universe. The Lexicon is not really a dictionary but raises some of these issues. It is the holy doctrine, which can only be imperfectly approximated by its translations; it is merely the first in a larger series.

I’m very happy with the way that the book functioned amongst its readership and in the shadows of the attention economy. It’s available as a pdf and has been downloaded many times. I also had a reasonable print, which quickly ran out. It is kind of like the ”fraught” that you find in Freud: ”you see it, now you don’t,” or you see it as a rabbit and then a duck. I think the notion of usership always operates in the shadows rather than in the spotlight. The one regret I might have, which has been a very instructive point for me, is that I find the book to be political. Ultimately it is a publication about identifying an under-theorized yet powerful political form of subjectivity that is usership. The art world really has only been the in-vivo laboratory and not the in-vitro laboratory, where I’ve had the opportunity to discuss and converse about this category. At the same time, readers from a different life, activists who are familiar with the Lexicon, for example, enjoy it and give positive feedback. They might not consider it to be political, but see it as a radical theory of art. So, this impossible marriage between art and politics mirrors itself in this inverted reception between those two worlds. It is too political for the art world, which is perfect. If the art world had embraced it, I would have thought that it had failed because it would have obviously been formatted to their horizon of expectations. At the same time, it is too artistic for the world of activists. It is strange that the notion of ‘usological turn’ has not yet made its way into political theory, which was my point of departure. I mean that’s where I come from.