Thursday, December 18, 2014

Kiosk Kiosk Kiosk

Back in March of this year, I was walking past downtown Portland's tiny & neglected Ankeny Park when I noticed a big black plywood cube occupying the middle of the square, in front of the old fountain. It was obviously some sort of art whatzit, so I took a few photos and hit the interwebs to figure out what I was looking at. There were even free brochures in a box next to the cube, so I grabbed one of those too.

I was all ready to roll with an art post. I was going to brag about how I was on top of current events for a change. I'd figured out it was a temporary installation as part of this year's Portland Biennial, a big contemporary art event organized by Disjecta. I discovered it was called Kiosk Kiosk Kiosk and had a twin in Jamison Square. I found Twitter and Instagram photos of it. But then I dug into what the thing was supposed to be about, and the post quickly went on the backest of back burners. The art's been gone for months now, and I'm only now getting around to posting about it at the end of the year, as I'm cleaning out my Drafts folder.

You might notice the sides of the cube have words cut into them. These are brief quotes from a gentleman named John Zerzan, who advocates for a political philosophy called "anarcho-primitivism". The idea, I gather, is that ancient hunter-gatherer societies were an unstructured, leaderless utopia, and humanity must return to this primal utopian state. Getting there involves abolishing modern technology, science, medicine, agriculture, domestic animals, logic, mathematics, art, even symbolic thought. I am not making this up. I am not sure where they stand on abandoning bipedalism and going about on all fours. As a data point, Zerzan used to be buddies with Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, but they had a falling out and Kaczynski now calls Zerzan crazy. How this got into the local Biennial is anyone's guess.

The observant viewer will quickly notice that the kiosks are made of plywood (an industrial product), painted with spray paint (another industrial product), and presumably the words themselves were cut with a power tool of some sort. The pieces all fit together because they were measured (i.e. math was involved). These pieces were created elsewhere and presumably moved here with the help of technology of some sort -- even bikes and horses count as verboten modern technology if you're taking anarcho-primitivism seriously, as I understand it. The kiosks' existence was announced on the internet, which involved technology last time I checked. And of course they're art, and are all about symbolic thought & communication. They're literally covered in words. So the charitable course would be to assume this was was intentional and the art is an ironic statement about hypocrisy and political art, something along those lines. I'd call it reasonably clever work in that case, I mean, it got me annoyed enough to rant about it, which almost nothing does. Unfortunately I haven't seen any indication that that's actually true, though; as far as I can tell, the kiosks were all about true believers proselytizing in an especially ill-conceived way. Which is disappointing. Or maybe the ambiguity is intentional and part of the art too. I have no idea.

You can probably tell already that primitivism -- anarcho- or otherwise -- holds very little interest to me as an ideology. Software engineering is my day job. It interests me, and it's what I'm good at. I'm... skeptical that I would be better off junking it all and running around in a loincloth trying to spear a moose or something. And frankly the whole concept strikes me as yet another kooky idea from a bearded old white man who wants to play Old Testament prophet. It's the oldest and most tiresome schtick in the book. Apocalyptic vision of a hopeless future: Check. Ascetic hairshirt ideas in response, rending of garments, gnashing of teeth, ashes, sackcloth, etcetera: Check. Legions of adoring acolytes, who (presumably) will be spared the coming doom: Check. I yawn just reciting the checklist. This is far from the only contemporary example, obviously. See also the Dark Mountain Project, Edenhope, and the US Revolutionary Communist Party. Oh, and pretty much every religion ever.

Still, I can see how some people (likely of a young and impressionable bent) might be temporarily intrigued by the idea. And that's fine. I'd wager that all anthropology undergrads spend about a semester as anarcho-primitivists (albeit largely non-practicing ones), idealizing hunter-gatherer societies as the source of all that's right and good in the world. Sometimes it takes more than a semester to wear off. Occasionally it never does.

If that describes you, and yet you're somehow here on the internet reading this, I have a bit of unsolicited advice. A common criticism of all flavors of primitivism is "If living as a Stone Age hunter-gatherer is as great as you say, why aren't you doing it?". Proponents apparently argue this is an ad-hominem attack, and terribly unfair. I would suggest, instead, that it's your golden opportunity to convince a skeptical public that it's a superior way of life. This is the problem with any utopian idea of any ideological stripe: You can talk all you want about the idea's merits, but the bulk of society will remain unconvinced without a concrete example to look at. If you want people to abandon their suburban tract houses and minivans, and head off to the forest to forage for roots and grubs, you should expect a serious sales job; not everyone will simply take your word for it that this is the One True Way.

And the inevitable followup question: When the sheeple decline to wake up, despite your efforts, what does Plan B look like? That is, if convincing them fails, is coercion next? I realize that sort of goes against the "voluntary cooperation" school of anarchist thought. But if your overarching goal is to end civilization by any means necessary, and put an end to agriculture, technology, and medicine -- public opposition be damned -- I don't see how you can pull that off without it becoming a dystopian nightmare. People who know how to grow crops or mill grain would be enemies of the State (and you'd clearly need a State to police all of this, despite all the anarcho-talk). You'd need to drive people out of their evil, technologically-produced homes, take away their livelihoods, and even grab their pets away, all in the name of ideological purity. Use of the few remaining tools would be heavily regulated, lest it re-evolve into prohibited technology. Doctors, too, would be enemies of the new regime, along with anyone upset over the now-astronomical infant mortality rate. And then there's the really big problem, namely that you can't support the Earth's current population on nothing but foraged berries and grubs and the occasional squirrel, and your idea requires the mass starvation of almost everyone. In short, trying to put this into practice would win you an express ticket to a courtroom in The Hague, and the word "madman" next to your name in all the history books.

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