ArtWeekend

The Prison House of Post-Internet Poetry: A Critical Look at the Poetry of the New Museum’s Triennial

Street advertisement for New Museum Triennial, 2015 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Poetry has never been more of a hackneyed product — from tiresome MFA hybrid poems to stale derivations of pop/net conceptualism to the New New New York School, always proclaiming that its linking of art, gay male cosmopolitanism, and poetics is “new.”

Nonetheless, there are some claiming it’s never been fresher, more liquid, queer, current, and liberatory. Unsurprisingly this claim coincides with the first time there is something big to sell: more and more gray rooms in museums run by people who check how many Twitter followers a “poet” has before they read their work. As funding for the arts and humanities is slashed, while gentrification eviscerates the cultures of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, museums pick from the rubble to integrate whatever pops best into these emerging gray room spaces — where experimental performance, dance, poetry, and film can finally be ossified into a total commodity.

Enter the internet art oligarchy — Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin, curators of the New Museum 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience, and Brian Droitcour, editor of the accompanying poetry anthology, The Animated Reader.

In a well-known essay for Art in America, Droitcour critiqued post-internet art for being too trendy and trivial, but when push comes to shove he mostly curates safe, sophomoric, derivative, post-internet art. Like Cornell, who claims an interest in negative criticality, Droitcour’s alleged interest in humane whimsy is seemingly employed as a distraction, while he erects his own canon of post-internet art that is often acritical and social media friendly. Post-internet art/poetry seems to forge a kind of prison house, so that even those claiming to be critically outside of it or romantically outside of it seem to be glued to its platforms, canons, and sales pitches. They are right, in one very crucial way: the work they are curating and putting forward sells to the public like candy, and has the potential to successfully revitalize the capital around financially strained experimental art communities. They are wrong, however, in almost every theoretical/critical defense of the work.

Ryan Trecartin, wall text for New Museum Triennial, 2015 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The first poetry the Triennial shows us is Trecartin’s cute little pastiche dialogues, a few paragraphs long, with a different one for each floor. I do think Trecartin’s is a singular talent, but it is sometimes hard to see beneath the opportunistic pastiching of John Waters, experimental poetry, and Adobe innovations that seemed to be a symptomatic reaction to RISD culture, where poetry and subculture and design and net art come together into Ur-objects for millennial museums and sites like Ubu (pet of RISD grad Kenneth Goldsmith).

If you do look past the symptoms of a democratized avant-garde, and the banalization of certain radical procedures (from parataxis to deconstruction to cyborg drag), you’ll see in Trecartin’s editing little whimsical choices that are fresh and genuinely eccentric, in a world of otherwise mostly imitative procedures (n.b., the fact that it is about a world of imitation, i.e., everything is a simulacrum, is itself a highly derivative ideation). But his latest videos seem to rely too heavily on the highly dated routine of making fun of cheerleader valley girl talk. And these new poems likewise seem to be derivative without any singularity whatsoever.

Hannah Weiner, Clairvoyant Journal, 3/15/74 (courtesy the estate of Hannah Weiner)
Hannah Weiner, Clairvoyant Journal, 3/15/74 (courtesy the estate of Hannah Weiner)

The next poetry that the Triennial offers is through a page on its website, “Poetry as Practice,” curated by young poet/artist Harry Burke. Since most articles about post-internet are simply lists of ‘cool people,’ I want to pause for a moment and consider an actual work by Burke — this one, a poem called “wednesday,” starts: “Time is really long :( / time is like a thing,” and ends “Depressed people don’t remember happy times. / At least not specifically. / tend to be too vague.” Burke’s style is what I would refer to as Frank O’Hara 2.0, taking confessional day-to-day style, reciting it somewhat ironically, and embellishing it with up-to-date references. It’s quite plain, and lacks innovation, or differentiation from the many other O’Hara 2.0 poets.

Often I have this strange experience: I’ll see a cluster of artist/poets with huge Twitter followers and museum/gallery recognition but when I look up their poetry, I find nil in the way of interest or innovation. Sometimes they barely even have done any artwork whatsoever. This is the hipster norm, of course — good networking, good looks, nice hat, well-groomed facial hair, so-so everything else. How long will we insist that these poets are cutting edge simply by comparing them to some notion of a crusty out-of-it old poet? We have to start realizing that Vice is the new New Yorker, and our current new sincerity artists are as gutless and conservative as 20th-century lyrical laureate wannabes.

Goldsmith has often raised the flag of poetry’s increasing ubiquity by saying poetry will be made by all, but he has kept his tongue firmly in cheek, and praised only a select few artists and poets in this process. Hans-Ulrich Obrist seems to take this joke very literally and his 89plus Foundation is actually conceived of as a ‘utopian’ project (and that’s what makes it so dystopian). Obrist has been remarkably helpful at getting attention for certain poets, from Andrew Durbin to Etel Adnan, in the fashion/hipster mainstream. Durbin, who wrote for the Triennial catalogue, has been a kind of poster-child and impresario for this 89plus melding of poetry and internet and museum culture — this past year Durbin’s book Mature Themes had its launch at the New Museum.

Durbin’s style is consonant with the long tradition of New York School poetry, once a tiny coterie of gay men, and now more of a universal (albeit Western) lifestyle vis-à-vis social media’s Frank O’Hara-ization of us all. Ben Fama, a few years Durbin’s senior (who runs Wonder Press with him), has been noted for solidifying this urbane hipster style, which he does with deft tuning. Fama’s most recent book, Fantasy (Ugly Ducking Presse), is filled with light, blasé confession that is very California chill, and full of tongue-in-cheek youthful jargon (references to Forever 21 and YouTube abound). Yet it is also mixed with a vaguely sincere, location-stamped, “I did this, I did that” New York School vibe: “They flirt through text and social media, grafting their lust onto a tenuous mutual experience they shared at Avenue in the Meatpacking District during a mutual friend’s birthday” and “it was april / i was slow / with my camera / dev hyenas / it was warm / after winter / you said / feel the world / against your skin” and “I love summer, the luxury of poetry, gin / and tonic, quinine lost in juniper.”

This style is quite similar to Durbin’s: “the Easter light a pale beige / over the city as I speed / up on the BQE / (as the cab speeds / up on the BQE) / with the sun fallen / in its blue / behind me. I remember / you vomiting on me / last night / in the cab / and for some reason / I thought it was / really cute.” My problem with this style is that it is advertised so heavily as ‘new’ when it is mostly more of the old with updated references.

Many of the theoretical summations are simply not interesting:  “We live in a joyous age,” writes Durbin, “by which I mean all is available to us. And while life under the imperative to enjoy the self-annihilating transmission of our bodies elsewhere as we conform to it remains cryptic in its universal demand that we rapidly cycle through all that we adore, all the time, its moments of clarity are just as preciously encoded into the bouts of ‘feeling’ that mark these times as are its moments of obscurity too.”

This is merely another restating of the “imperative to enjoy” theory that has been one of cultural theory’s most famous concepts since the late ’90s. But we don’t look to O’Hara 2.0 style for theoretical breakthrough and sharp critique, but rather a kind of ambient cosmopolitanism, which requires its own set of talent and craftsmanship to pull off. That said, I do worry that the unqualified praise of Mature Themes from art-world heavyweights (many who have never publicly referenced a poetry book before this one) seems more about the fact that the references are LinkedIn to contemporary art. But maybe this is the book’s greatest cunning: it is chock-full of product placements. Though isn’t this mode of cunning becoming a default measure? Especially as the art world becomes increasingly globalized: institutional self-reference and critique become blander and blander, best reserved for the thousands of Tumblrs doing this shtick on an hourly basis.

Now that you have a taste for some of the poetry circulating through the New Museum, you might be surprised to hear Droitcour say that he is interested in a poetic use of social media that “eschews slippery efficiency and disposable virality.” Steve Roggenbuck, Trecartin, Durbin, and Burke are all incredibly efficient and viral. Indeed, most poets who have had crossover success as artists are highly charismatic and expert at playing the game. But then Droitcour still thinks that social media text is less corporatized, regimented or solid than text on the ‘hard page’ was — an idea propagated by David Joselit’s book After Art, Seth Price’s essay “Dispersion,” and Cory Arcangel’s theory of web pages as performances. This ahistorical conviction harkens back to the age-old privileging of the performative voice over the textual inscription. Say what you will about the inaccessibility of books, but the web page and coding requires its own access and literacy. Moreover, writing has never been as archived or corporatized as Twitter allows; so if anything the reverse of this binary is truer: poetry is growing far more corporate, centralized, and less liquid.

Droitcour’s catalogue essay, “Liquid Poetry,” tries to plead the case for his canon by making a quasi-historical argument. Clumsily leaping through sixty years, from concrete poetry to the present, he complains that the former was too removed from the fluidity of self, too sculptural,  “its mentality hold[ing] poetry as always external,” then acts as if, all of a sudden, the 2015 Triennial has smashed this concrete poetry for the first time. You don’t need to be the son of a Language poet (as I am) to recognize that people have been interested in the dematerialization of language arts for a very long time, even and especially in the art world (Lucy Lippard for one). Ironically, one of the most iconic examples, by Décio Pignatari, of this allegedly dry as dust concrete poetry is all about liquefaction, “Drink coca cola / coca cola shit.”

Décio Pignatari, “Beba Coca-Cola” (1957), trans. “drink/drool/drink/drool/shard/glue/coca cola/glue/coca(ine)/glue shard/c e s s p o o l” (via alimentumjournal.com)

There’s something troubling about Droitcour’s jump from scapegoating a Brazilian avant-garde tradition that has only a very loose connection to institutional authorities and museums to valorizing a bunch of mostly North Americans who make work for Twitter, art journals, and museums, and then to claim that the latter bunch is the more radical and anti-institutional. This is either historically ignorant or willfully deceitful.

Either way, he doesn’t even cite Twitter outsiders or amateurs, or make any new discoveries, but only puts forward artists/poets who had already received institutional attention (from galleries, museums, and magazines), in addition to having a substantial Twitter following.

Street advertisements for the New Museum Triennial, 2015 (via newmuseum.tumblr.com)

Droitcour’s statement, “to think of poetry as liquid means to realize that poetry can have form, but the form isn’t set or predictable or germane to the poem,” is wildly derivative of each modernist and post-modernist wave of poetry. And then for good measure, he also rips off the mainstream and performs some deeply clichéd musings on the poetics of everyday life.

Though Droitcour brushes it aside moments later, for a second he reveals what is actually going on: “This could just be a function of fashion’s cycles, or the art world’s constant need to replenish itself with novel disciplines and the revival of older, half-forgotten interests.” Yes, that’s what it is. But is it even half-forgotten or just being willfully ignored?

Droitcour’s last and most egregious move is to index his idea of liquid poetics onto the self-presentation of queer people, singling out Juliana Huxtable, for no other reason than the fact that she has work in the Triennial and a statue made of her likeness by Frank Benson. He writes, “What interests me is the relationship between an unfixed identity and the ambiguities of poetic language – the capacity of language to mean many things at once as a way of enabling a person to be understood in all of their nuances and complexities.” In 2015, do we still register gender-queerness and transsexuality as the absence of a fixed identity and pretend that it has no relationship to commodity culture? Moreover, the claiming of one particular body, namely Juliana Huxtable’s, as an index for a poetic philosophy about liberation, and to offer no reason for valorizing this body, except vis-à-vis its connection to a museum exhibition, is at once apolitical and anti-aesthetic. Is it really so much for me to want to see a varied, historically astute and aesthetically based argument for why selections are made (i.e. why one seapunk painting versus another; why one caps-lock poem about identity versus another)? This requires comparison, as well as the acknowledgement of ubiquity, but it is a starting point for finding singularity. Otherwise, we are granting special privilege to artists just because they are queer, young, or good-looking — a kind of coddling that masks as politics.

The coincidence of Droitcour’s claim of liberatory flux with the moment a certain subculture and identity is finding its commodity form seems to be nothing more than cashing in. Of course, it is good to make some money every now and again. But we still might also look at the question of who gets to represent queer politics for fashion, museums, and the mainstream. And even more importantly, who chooses the representatives, builds the theoretical indices, writes the catalogue copy, and signs the checks. These aren’t merely questions for the voters on RuPaul’s Drag Race and the photographers at Vice Magazine, but also for those of us interested in critically reading that American fetish called commodity and not just buying its latest goody bag.

Museums heart poetry, yes, and queers. But even if museums and galleries become the only institutions left that will still throw us a measly check for a performance, reading, or screening — that doesn’t mean we have to heart them back.

This essay is adapted from the final chapter, “The Prison House of Post-Internet Art: Deconstructing the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial,” of the author’s forthcoming book, Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry (Insert Blanc Press, 2015). Issue Project Room is hosting a book launch on June 2 at Artists Space Books & Talks. 

2015 Triennial: Surround Audience continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side) through May 24.

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