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On Criticism’s “Flop Era”

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Gilbert & George, JESUS JACK, 2008, mixed media, 254 x 527 cm, courtesy of the artist

Art is boring because we're afraid and criticism is flopping for the same reason. The people who're now taking this position are still caught up in an identitarian agenda that is, in part, to blame for the conundrum they're complaining about. All this is extolled by New Zealanders' insular attitude and constant migration (incongruous attitudes but nevertheless true) fostering a dialogue that can never move beyond itself and resolve its own metanarrative.

EyeContact Essay #47

Lana Lopesi’s latest Metro (Spring 2022) essay Why art is a little boring right now (and why that might be for the best) I think was a slap in the face. Opening on a description of panopticism, Lopesi links the Foucauldian to the dilemma of Auckland’s boring art.

[T]here is currently an air of boredom in Auckland’s visual arts (which [is] not a critique of any artist or exhibition, but a read of the vibe, which from my perspective includes a minimised appetite for risk, a culture of caution and the irrelevance of our city’s galleries in wider cultural terms).”

She’s completely right about the state of things: an evermore digitised panopticon fertilising a climate of “collective accountability” (Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate). Even in her own description of this ‘vibe’ Lopesi hesitates to make critical examples of any artist or exhibition. We are afraid of being wrong. Self-regulating our behaviour and art so as not to upset the collective, making us “blander” and robbing us “of what is messy and tense and chaotic and extrajudicial about art”.

The article sketches the Twitter industrial complex that dissolved the role of critic and gave Lopesi her own ‘platform’ to critique, “you could just fire out some tweets or start a blog”. I too began gaining a *very small* amount of notoriety writing for various blogs and ended up starting my own (now defunct) blog whale oil (riffing on the Cameron Slater blog of the same name, naturally). Like Lopesi I had “moralistic rather than aesthetic concerns”, actually in direct response to her and her peers (though completely irony-poisoned and indulging in brutish humour, hence the name). Again, like Lopesi, “[a]nyone who had more social power than me was fair game” - and that meant everyone. Though, I behave a little bit better now.

None of this is new, I’m not the first person to be a domestic hotheaded online critic and I wasn’t the only person parroting social justice excess. I’m glad those previously against the concept have begun sublimating the idea into institutional pages. Much of what Lopesi writes is praiseworthy and as she notes our arts sector repeats itself over and over in a state of constant arrested development because nobody really wants to stick around.

In spite of my general agreement with Why art is a little boring, I find it ironic. Lopesi bemoaning this cultural desert is hypocritical considering her written persona was part of the very problem she describes i.e. “abstracted violence of the white imagination in the work of Francis Upritchard“. Taking from Zygmunt Bauman, it’s Liquid Social Justice. The essay lacks any self-reflection on Lopesi’s own role and participation in the problem she now names—”no critique is possible without entering some kind of Oppression Olympics”—so often this ‘criticism‘ Lopesi speaks of, was intended to stop others from speaking, a predicament she only mentions in passing. Her writing needs a dose of materially informed analysis atop her usual decolonial lens obstructing the role of class. Considering her new gig I’d imagine it was a tactical decision to publish this now.

The successor to Lopesi’s Metro Arts editor role, Tendai Mutambu, compliments her treatise on boring art by further complaining about the lack of criticism in Metro‘s weekly arts newsletters, “[a]rts criticism in Aotearoa is in its flop era.” This conversation is an ouroboros and New Zealand’s Peter Pan syndrome rejects attempts to interrogate.

Predictably, Mutambu’s thoughts on criticism are muddled. In the 6 September Metro Arts newsletter he praises Coco Solid’s call for editors to choose “the right critics” to review art (i.e. those with the ‘cultural knowledge’ to ‘correctly’ engage with said art, a fraught concept in my opinion)—in the subsequent newsletter Mutambu is chastising the Auckland Art Gallery’s Gilbert & George show for not going far enough:

The work on display at Toi o Tāmaki was admittedly not the artists’ most provocative. No giant turds, images of the artists exposing their anuses, or racial slurs for titles. (The swastika appears a few times but in uncontroversial ways: as an object of condemnation, accompanied by the phrase ‘the only good fascist is a dead one’).”

Arguing that in the artists’ ageing their work is getting more luridly ornate “to the detriment of its impact”, Mutambu wishes this show was more daring. Sounds like a more controversial use of the swastika would’ve perked his interest. I think we all owe Mercy Pictures an apology right about now, then. As recently mentioned on the podcast that needs no introduction, the use of anti-semitic imagery will always have a pro-semitic invocation—it’s a reminder.

Via Instagram Mutambu shares a story claiming his writing is “spicy”… but it just isn’t. There are zero stakes to critiquing the Auckland Art Gallery. You put nothing on the line to say that the big institution—who’s especially out-of-vogue right now—has staged a bad show. Sure, I’d agree that Gilbert and George are ever-middling but Mutambu frames it as an undoubtedly bad idea from the outset: “why would the gallery stage [this] show?” There was a communal presumption that this exhibition could be nothing but bad, so how could it have ever been good? The DNA Ancestry funding-bludger show fell equally as flat but it’s not as permissible a target, is it?

Mutambu claims to want proper Criticism, Godamnit! But what does this actually mean? ‘You’ve gotta look at an artist’s whole oeuvre!’ ‘No more personal essays!’ If the ‘criticism’ Mutambu is calling for is like his Gilbert and George review he’s proving his own case—New Zealand criticism is flopping. Ultimately, Mutambu wields a dull blade. He’s held hostage by the same phenomenon Lopesi describes; claiming the opposite (i.e ‘spice’) belies both of their evergreen ideological inconsistencies and careerist lean in.

And, is criticism not just essayism? As Adorno writes, “the essay’s innermost formal law is heresy”. This elasticity of form means you can never be genuinely sure of what someone means when they talk of ‘real’ criticism. Suspending semantics, I think it means they want a little meanness but if you’re mean at all that’s actually a no-no! The infamously searing Manhattan Art Review can barely function in New York because the ‘art world’ is truly petite.

The current situation where only the largest institutions or historical titans can be reconsidered (Theo Schoon, Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters) gives moments of groupthink permission to be savagely indulgent. Panopticon-cum-The Purge. Suddenly, ‘real’ criticism is okay if the collective is deeming you morally irreprehensible, whether the claims have credit or not. In the heat of the moment, when it’s needed most, no one demands critical thinking. But then again, I’m not so sure these are emotions that can be successfully mediated through a more open and engaging critical discourse, they’re just too human nature-y.

My favourite critic Dean Kissick is clearly writing around social and professional obligations. The tension of art for art’s sake and capital’s demand that you professionalise this interest to make it sustainable—‘Didn’t you realise you weren’t supposed to piss people off?‘ Your safest bet for critique is to be anonymous.

So, I don’t understand what structures one thinks can be put in place to facilitate criticism. It’s dry here because its presuppositions mean it’s near impossible to critique and exist in our social context. The collective is watching. Occasionally someone tries lecturing me about notions of criticism with care but it’s still an ever-fraught mission. You can write the most lukewarm review but artists are sensitive people and they will bite your head off whatever you say, even if it’s gushing praise.

It’s no surprise that the only tenable modes of art writing in New Zealand have become PR, personal disclosure or occasionally excerpts of academic texts. I’m guilty of all these approaches too; they have their place and shouldn’t be written off. The growing resentment of the personal essay-as-art criticism is unforgiving and rude!

In a recent conversation I was reminded of criticism’s value as an archive; specifically EyeContact‘s merit as an exhaustive record of New Zealand art. So, when Mutambu says his “circles are awash with complaints of the all-too-prolific cultural commentator who charges forth, paying little attention to detail, running roughshod over ‘nuances’,” he’s articulating a deep lack of respect and little understanding of criticism’s utility.

This conversation is keeping us stuck in the same paradox that has always haunted our art. Art is boring because we’re afraid and criticism is flopping for the same reason. The people who’re now taking this position are still caught up in an identitarian agenda that is, in part, to blame for the conundrum they’re complaining about. All this is extolled by New Zealanders’ insular attitude and constant migration (incongruous characteristics but nevertheless true) fostering a dialogue that can never move beyond itself and resolve its own metanarrative.

But New Zealand’s parochialism has its benefits too. By sheer proximity you’ve gotta work out your interpersonal issues and reconcile. Moaning about the state of things isn’t productive and making easy critiques to laude in is lazy. My advice is to go fucking hard, critique a painting like you’re being held at gunpoint and it’ll be your last words—just keep your heart open after the fact.

JJ Harper

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This Discussion has 13 comments.


Ralph Paine, 5:25 p.m. 14 October, 2022

The art world is hell.

Harper is a critic from hell.

Lopesi and Mutambu are critics from hell.

How to escape hell?

Ride the demon wind ...


 In reply

JJ Harper, 10:52 p.m. 14 October, 2022

Thanks for reading Ralph but I don't buy this Deleuzian condescension. I'm a *material* girl living in a *material* world. My essay isn't a black and white condemnation; my longstanding view is that people should take themselves less seriously. To that extent, writing an essay like this is moot but I find enjoyment in stabbing my porky fingers away at the keyboard.

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Ralph Paine, 10:07 a.m. 15 October, 2022

I never say the sense of what I am saying. I can, however, always take the sense of what I am saying as the intent of another saying, whose sense in turn I cannot say.

So, not b/w, and not “Deleuzian” either---simply Deleuze/Guattari-inspired.

Interesting that the (“material”?) Girl is perhaps Deleuze-Guattari’s most remarkable (and revolutionary) conceptual persona, the most exemplary of their philosophically invented “subjects.” She is a mode of existence, a possibility of life on a par with Deleuze-Guattari themselves, and thus with their entire venture (see ‘Conceptual Personae,’ Chapter 3 of What is Philosophy?). Deleuze/Guattari: “The girl is certainly not defined by virginity; she is defined by a relation of movement and rest, speed and slowness, by a combination of atoms, an emission of particles: haecceity. She never ceases to roam upon a body without organs. She is an abstract line, or a line of flight. Thus girls do not belong to an age group, sex, order, or kingdom: they slip in everywhere, between orders, acts, ages, sexes: they produce n molecular sexes on the line of flight in relation to the dualism machines they cross right through” (A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 276 – 77).


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Ralph Paine, 2:23 p.m. 15 October, 2022


Today Hell operates using cybernetic and digital procedures. In Hell there is an absolute tendency to reduce all art powers/potentials and their assemblages to the status of Structure (totalization) and Information (data) respectively. Cybernetics pretty much means a socio-technic of totalized, structural control. Felix Guattari: “Structure implies feedback loops; it puts into play a concept of totalization that it itself masters. It is occupied by inputs and outputs whose purpose is to make the structure function according to a principle of eternal return. It is haunted by a desire for eternity […] based on a principle of homeomorphism [i.e., things changing while staying structurally or topologically the same]” (Chaosmosis, p. 37). The state-capitalist war machine’s demand for never-ending socio-economic restructuring is highly symptomatic: resolve every crisis using the same procedures that produced the crisis.

Cybernetics functions as a species of transcendent thought. With Cybernetics “real desiring-production is [made] answerable to higher formations that integrate it, subject it to transcendent laws, and make it serve a higher social and cultural production.” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 92.). Hence, Cybernetics is an extremely dangerous way of thinking once fully digitalized and implemented via the accelerated technics/axiomatics of the state-capitalist war machine: biopower, surveillance and algorithmic profiling, the commercialization of data, free-floating systems of financialization, instant 24/7 communication, etc. Cybernetics overcodes the externalized and collectively assembled thinking of art powers/potentialities and their assemblages by transforming it top-down into a structural totality that IT ITSELF MASTERS.

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Ralph Paine, 2:24 p.m. 15 October, 2022

By placing all values of desire, use values, and exchange values “under the exclusive control of binary and linear relations”—i.e. under informational and digital relations—contemporary capitalism treats them as formally equal. In this manner the subjectivities of art tend to become standardised “as so many pieces compatible with the mechanics of social domination,” effaced of all “polysemy [lexical ambiguity], prosody [poetic rhythm], gesture, mimicry, and posture,” and reduced by way of the enforced application of “scriptural machines and their mass media avatars” to what Guattari calls “modular individuations,” thus finalising them to the open space of a generalised social factory and the (compulsory) production of profit: “In its extreme contemporary forms subjectivity amounts to an exchange of information tokens calculable as bits and reproducible on computers.” (Chaosmosis, p. 104. ). Today, in the age of smartphones and cryptocurrencies, of instantaneous consumption and a digitalised 24/7 attention space, this is no longer an extreme form.

If the techno-logics of capitalism (the internet-financial-military-industrial-complex) are truly FORM-DETERMINING, can art powers/potentialities function as anything but a reflection or representation—however radically critical or instructive—of the conditions of possibility imposed by commodified value and globalization? Or is art capable of rejecting and resisting the power of this Hell-based, cybernetic overcoding? Can it construct inverse times and spaces of non-compliance, zones of evasion and escape?

A becoming-resistant of art powers/potentialities and their assemblages implies the formation of alliances within what Guattari names “a generalized ecology,” today a revolutionary movement whose agenda includes degrowth, re-wilding, and the end of carbon despotism; yet equally important in a Guattarian sense, political regeneration (for example, commoning), the development of never seen before kinds of subjectivity, and the construction of unprecedented kinds of valorization: “a new taste for life, a new gentleness between the sexes, generations, ethnic groups, races…” (Chaosmosis, p. 92).

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Ralph Paine, 2:26 p.m. 15 October, 2022

Guattari considers it imperative that the eco-revolutionary movement adopts an ethico-aesthetic paradigm essentially because he figures such a paradigm—i.e. conceiving value via the composition and positioning of mutant percepts and affects—as useful for every form of liberation from a cybernetic capitalist paradigm wherein all production is valuable NO MATTER WHAT THE PRODUCT. Not that this is about “making artists the new heroes of the revolution, the new levers of History!” Far from it, and so here’s the decisive factor: “Art is not just the activity of established artists but of a whole subjective creativity which traverses the generations and oppressed peoples, ghettoes, minorities…” (Chaosmosis, p. 91).

Against the happy prospects of this vision, and in servitude to cybernetic capitalism, in Hell the ESTABLISHED art powers/potentialities and their assemblages (artists, artworks, institutions, critics and commentators, galleries, art schools, museums, various media platforms, etc. of the North, and including those of the North within the South) are strongly inclined to operate using models of Opinion and Universal Communication. Rather than launching themselves into a surrounding chaos so as to return and create non-communicating blocs of sensation—i.e., ones in rupture with standardised semantic coordinates—they attempt to construct forms of shelter from it e.g., cliché, didacticism, morality, re-run, brand, etc. In conformity with cybernetic procedures, a continuous development of connections within and via Opinion and Universal Communication is the currently prevalent art methodology for imposing on the present a conformity with the past. Methodology of control, same inputs/same outputs, closed feed-back loops, professional risk management: a hellish, illusory approach.

Meanwhile, outside the virtual interiority of the art powers/potentialities and their assemblages chaos grows, transforms, mutates, overwhelms, thus folding back into the interiority and creating widespread mixtures of disavowal and defeat, stress and exhaustion, psychosis and paranoia, mystical nihilism, identity mania and chauvinism, micro-fascism, and the strangest of passions for extremely violent forms of Power (witness the Mercy-Event). If, following Guattari, art has become one of the best methods/models of value-creation, i.e. of TAKING RESPONSIBILITY for what’s going down in the vast connecting-disconnecting-reconnecting processes of a machinic Earth, will the preprogramed inclination of the established art assemblages to construct illusory forms of shelter endure? Or will eco-revolutionary desires and strategies arise there, flourish, and begin to align themselves (via the real, the street, the narrow path) with the ethico-aesthetic inventiveness and struggles of oppressed peoples, ghettoes, minorities?

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Ralph Paine, 2:29 p.m. 15 October, 2022

Art has the ability to ride the demon wind, to transform itself at the speed of thought, a power of escape and dispersal, the ability to deterritorialize on lines of flight and re-scatter across the Earth (and beyond), to reterritorialize, even moving from milieu to milieu and thus generating series of localized encounters, vibes, haecceities: SOMETHING’S IN THE AIR.

In rupture with the established art-conceptions of Hell—i.e. with thinking as operational in the control rooms of the major power centres and institutions, along the turbo-charged vectors of their globalized communication/circulation space—what’s becoming the real of what is based today is what’s FURTIVELY active on the peripheries and in the back waters, out in the rust belts and depleted farmlands, the desert enclaves, diminishing forests, growing/receding swamplands, and sprawling slums 'n' suburbs of the urban complexes. Pure speculation, but it’s difficult to imagine that an ethico-aesthetic vibe à la Guattari is not operational there. Reference to Guattari or not, what will be important for these outsides-within, these immanent/intimate-outsides, is a feeling that things are leading toward mutant productions of enunciation as the inverse or alt of cybernetic capitalist ones. THEY”RE STARTING TO EXIST IN US, IN SPITE OF US.

 In reply

JJ Harper, 5:13 p.m. 15 October, 2022

I think you've misconstrued my Madonna/Marx pun. But semantics like these are what keeps us petit-bourgeois squabbling and stops us from aligning with "the rust belts and depleted farmlands!"

Also, would you not consider me subject to this Hell of cybernetic capitalism the "established art assemblages" serve? I find it flattering that you're grouping me into this system (even in a minor way) but it's not accurate.

I'd like to read an essay by you which clarifies these thoughts rather than having to piece them together across various other essays and your comments.

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Ralph Paine, 11:36 a.m. 16 October, 2022

There was a time (the 90s perhaps) when a friend used to quickly terminate any developing conversation of a politico-economic nature with the statement “I blame Madonna.” Kinda Zen humour, stopped us all in our tracks.
So yeah, Marx, Madonna, mater (mother), matter, matrix, material girl, materiality, Negri’s materialism, the new materialism of Jane Bennett et al … There’s a whole research project here and thus plenty to “misconstrue,” get wrong, twist, laugh about, whatever.

In any event, to give a better perspective on hell I should’ve written: I, Ralph Paine am an artist from hell. In other words, guess we’re all living in hell. But you’re right about “career lean in” and the forked tongue bullsh_t flowing from Lopesi’s and Mutambu’s keyboards—some of us act way more hellish than others. Some of us practise professional risk management way more assiduously than others. Some of us are crazy-obsessive-compulsive about morality, methodologies of control, same inputs/same outputs, PR, wanting to be “spicy,” business as usual, etc., and thus I happily concede your get-outta-jail-free status in regards all this.

Interesting what you say about criticism and archives—another whole research project! If EyeContact remains one of the least hellish platforms around, this is simply because the site maintains an independent and open editorial policy, a comments section, and an extensive archive (even though an archive half stripped by the haters and iconoclasts during the Mercy-Event), so it was a nice surprise to see you back on deck.

No clarifying meta-statement forth coming from my keyboard. Guess I’m on a different line: fragments, sketches, notes, correspondence, comments, abandoned projects, attempts. In French ‘essai’ means ‘attempt’, and so I liked yr Adorno thing: an attempt at heresy.

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Ralph Paine, 5:05 p.m. 31 October, 2022


Who the f_ck buys Metro anyhows? Well, the other day I did … For research purposes only. So, amongst a sh_t load of high-end advertising and various other trivia, there’s a big piece about the Auckland mayoral election (which gets it all wrong), two politico-pieces by Morgan “Mercy Hater” Godfery—one of them about the Green Party (also Mercy haters), a major foodie-hell section, and a major art-hell section (edited by two Mercy haters), the latter section containing a sub-section illustrating works by ‘30 ARTISTS WHO AREN’T’ (WTF#!?). Yeah, the lazy, patronising, tired approach. The category list approach. The “let’s segment the career trajectory” approach: “You’re not at high school no more you’re at art school; you’re not at art school no more you’re an emerging artist; you’re not an emerging artist no more you’re early career; you’re not early career no more you’re mid-career …” Sometimes I call this The Very Hungry Caterpillar effect: “How many plums, apples, green leaves, pieces of chocolate cake, Swiss cheese, salami, etc. do I have to chomp through before I can be named an actual fu_king ARTIST AS SUCH?”

In any case, given the radically haunting nature of the Mercy-Event I can report that there is less-than-zero necessity to read Lopesi’s duplicitous little lesson about the Panopticon, Love Island (has she no awareness of Big Brother?—since 1999 there have been 504 seasons screened in over 62 franchise countries and regions), social media, surveillance (has she no awareness of the Pandemic?), etc. What we have lived through—are still living through—regarding Mercy Pictures’ People of Colour exhibition amounts to the only real lesson required, an ongoing LOCAL lesson of today’s planetary real that Lopesi fails to mention (explicitly) or deal with in any useful manner. What we do get, however, is her 100% non-self-critical insistence that back then (whenever, whatever) the art world needed purging of various undesirable elements (e.g. certain white dudes, serial appropriators, persons with rocky politics, cultural captains, etc.) and that, apparently, she was in the mood and had the independent means to do this: all wahine-ed up, smart phone in hand, on a mission from her gods, speaking truth to power, etc.

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Ralph Paine, 5:08 p.m. 31 October, 2022


Trouble is, by then she had already been groomed for and assumed a cultural captaincy of her very own, first, within the academy (at a Mercy-hating AUT), and then as editor for (a Mercy-hating) The Pantograph Punch and subsequently as arts editor at Metro (follow the CNZ money).

When above JJ suggests that ‘we’ owe Mercy an apology, he’s kinda correct. And I say ‘kinda’ simply because he neglects to name any other members of this ‘we’ apart from himself (or is he including Lopesi and Mutambu here?). Unless the many other members of JJ’s ‘we’ OPENLY confront and work through the real of what they did—and continue to do—to Mercy Pictures there will be no vibe shift in the local art world. In other words, the repressed will always return to haunt the scene.

OK, so now, from within this haunting, Lopesi and Mutambu express an irritated boredom. Well, one way of lively-ing up the scene might be to try and help shift things away from an entrenched identity politics paradigm. If, as Alain Badiou suggests, the question of identity is at bottom ‘the ordeal of a repeated impossibility,’ and hence ‘there will always be something crazed about it,’ why hang on to the idea with such gritty determination? Badiou, again: ‘The problem with identity is that the Other is in a way indestructible. That is why people will commit countless excesses and abominations in the name of familial, [national], racial, [cultural], or religious identities. Try as you might to exterminate the Other, something of them remains indefinitely as an irreducible threat to identity […] Ultimately, the closure of the Same is impossible, because if it is finite, the otherness is too enormous, and if it is infinite, the otherness is too present.’ (The Immanence of Truths, 2022, p. 108)

In this sense, artworks might be regarded as radical EXCEPTIONS to the given grid of the identity politics paradigm, and art writing as a textual tracing of ENCOUNTERS with these radical exceptions, this otherness. So rather than the current and obsessive requirement for PR ‘n’ spin, artist biography, information and communication, etc. art writing may well become as radically exciting as the encountered artworks themselves. As Bob Marley said it, “Lively Up Yourself.”

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JJ Harper, 11:07 a.m. 2 November, 2022

Mhmm, arguably Lana's piece didn't merit a response but if 'art is boring' then why shouldn't I write something to liven up the discourse a tiny bit? Ditto for responding to Tendai. While I agree with his review, if he thinks criticism is 'flopping' then it will continue to 'flop' if his hottest take is 'Gilbert & George Bad!' — I argue his is a lackadaisical approach to criticism with zero risk despite claims otherwise.

I bought a copy of Metro because my friend is in the 30 artists list. PR is fine but I think everybody can agree that we'd like a little bit more heat too.

By using 'we' I meant to include everybody, the reader alongside those I critique i.e. a wider 'art scene' that I also unfortunately participate in. I don't consider this to have any bearing on me personally.

I don't think hauntologising 'People of Colour' is productive; this is symptomatic of NZ art's arrested development that I've written about within the piece.

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Ralph Paine, 9:44 p.m. 2 November, 2022

By the final pages of Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, the young Venetian traveler Marco Polo and his friend Kublai Khan, emperor of the Tartars, have talked their way through a labyrinth of imaginary cities and are now discussing what the Great Khan refers to as the “infernal city … the last landing place” towards which the current is drawing all of us closer and closer. Polo disagrees, thus claiming that “the inferno” is not our destiny but rather where we’re already at, “where we live every day, that we form by being together.” “There are two ways to escape suffering it,” he says, “The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

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