Nothing to Give
On Coping with Cultural Surplus
by Enos Nyamor
DAY 1: 18-SEPTEMBER-2020I. It is getting cold. The blistering heat of Summer has faded away, the majestic Sun is trapped behind a veil of clouds, the cold winds blow again, and piling up on the sidewalks, with each passing moment, are layers of wilted leaves. Winter is coming.
II. Though Winter is to some the end of youth, the time to reminisce about memories made in Summer, it is, to me, a time to accumulate. The end of Summer is the period to gather all that one needs and, anticipating a longer spell of deprivation, to accrue surplus—all intended to cushion against the worst of days to come. But what is the fate of excess stocks when there is barely enough storage space?
III. Without space and without enough mouths to consume, there is only one fate: waste. Some would be buried in the ground, trampled by feet, smashed into little pieces. Some will be burnt to ashes, and scattered in the wind.
IV. In a letter to his brother, whose artistic work was in a crisis, the Russian writer Anton Chekhov writes that there is only one artist for every two million people on earth. I wish to agree with him, but the times in which he wrote were bitter times, and perhaps the ratio has swelled.
V. Maybe there are, today, one artist for every half a million—maybe even less. There are thousands of artists whose work would exist in oblivion. Many musicians who sing on bar stools, plucking the guitar to an empty beer hall.
VI. But I conceive that the mass media has created an illusion of excess, and that there is scantily the time to consume the barrage of information that enters our lives. Film scripts gather dust on shelves in studios. Artists work growing molds in ateliers. Musicians voices raspy with cold and silence and an absence of an audience to entertain.
VII.This nervousness of the mass media embodies what one can judge as cultural surplus. And many sensational art works, lyrical songs, monumental films, and impulsive poems are condemned to obscurity. The collective senses are jaded, overwhelmed with anxiety of constant attention, of faces lit by screens, while the marks of our epoch—the evidence of our modern society—lay distant, untouched, and at a waste.
DAY 2: 20-SEPTEMBER-2020I. What does surplus look like? I turned towards my vision to think of surplus, as something that meets the eye, and the ears, and all the senses. When we think of surplus, do we see a pile of unused items?
II. For the first time in months, a time during which I hibernated in my small shelter, as fear and depression engulfed the city of New York, I cycled to Chelsea. But I remember the heavy guilt of passing by galleries, of resisting the desire to cross the threshold. I was overwhelmed and discriminated against some exhibitions, randomly entering a gallery and avoiding another, especially if the title was less sensational. I figured out it would take months to view the thousands of works, and not in the casual way of rushing around galleries as if in a hypnosis, but to encounter an intimate moment with the artists, their work, and their processes.
III. Then it dawned on me, though it is a commonplace observation, that Chelsea, the commercial art district of New York City, is what cultural surplus looks like.
IV. We stand tongue-tied in the presence of the deluge of art works typhooning around our existence. To go to Chelsea with an untrained eye, I reckon, is to be lost in a labyrinth of images. And there is the beginning of the problem of elitisticism, especially when cultural surplus is an accepted reality, and that only a small group have the potential to draw a pattern in the spectacle of cultural production, as performed by curators and gallerists in such commercial art spaces.
V. Let us, for this moment, turn our minds towards the spectacle of exhibition-making, and it being at the cross-roads between cultural deficit and surplus. I have never been a curator, but I am aware that even the work of a curator is never done, it is an ongoing process, and there is less likely to be a chance of creating order in the disorder that is the deluge of artistic expressions.
VI. But curators and other cultural producers, who are compelled, by nature of their interests, to bring together audiences and artefacts, are by and large dealing with cultural deficit. How else does one define the overlap between what is shown, expertly unfolded in wall texts and exhibition catalogs, and what the audience knows?
DAY 3: 21-SEPTEMBER-2020I. So forceful is the thought of cultural deficit, so unsettling, that it preoccupied my mind for a good part of last evening, as I sat on the grass at Domino park, on the banks of the East River, watching the setting sun shroud Manhattan’s skyline in its orange rays.
II. Sometimes it occurs to me that, as much all artistic expressions capture the topography of contemporary mindsets, they are also pieces of evidence that our world existed. It would be a sad affair, truly tragic, to relegate all the efforts by all the artists, popular and obscure, as contributions towards a future in which they will never witness. If such anomaly arises as a quaint truth, then it is the epitome of cultural deficit, for it renders those of us alive today unaware of works that speak directly to us.
III. And this leads me to grapple with the question of art, although only an aspect of culture, it is the most dominant. There is no doubt that art can be useless, when, in a fast capitalist society, it fails to gain a monetary value. Yet this is the true nature of art that it is more than knowledge of ourselves and understanding of the human condition, but also an element that ignites a spiritual journey of the soul.
IV. Still, I failed to capture the essence of cultural deficit, which I perceive as a result of a linear knowledge distribution. In such distribution, the process of discovering knowledge is constrained and controlled and monetized. Only those who can afford, those with the luxury to spend days in museums, for example, without worrying about their next warm meal, can overcome this deficit. And so, in contrast, I take cultural surplus as a direct outcome of a social system that cultivates the collective consciousness.
V. But how can there be a deficit in abundance? Many times, wandering down New York City streets, I have had to salvage art works from the garbage bins, seeing that hours, a lifetime even, worth of creativity, on the brink of a decimation.
VI. The idea of cultural surplus dangles on my neck. And so Berlin, in my mind, is what cultural surplus looks like! Just having thousands of artists and cultural producers swarming the same city, producing more than the audience can consume. Propelled by a desire for expression or to experiment, overwhelming the audience with performances, with paintings, and with texts.
DAY 4: 24-SEPTEMBER-2020I. It took me a while to wrap my mind around things that were so clear in the beginning, but which would take more space to unfold. Our emotions can come to us in surplus, disorganized and in multitude. Then I just thought of how much, in the past months, with faces covered in masks, our sense of smell has lost its glory.
II. How do we deal with excess in our information age?
III. I began thinking about cultural surplus, and how if successfully installed in a place, it precedes gentrification. For this I looked at Berlin, before and after the fall of the wall, before and after the swarm of artists and writers descended there. And I turned my gaze to New York, in the 1980s, before artists and galleries descended on some of the most derelict neighborhoods.
IV. Still, cultural surplus is what one would term as a threat, as a threat to existing power structures. Well informed and cultured masses, in spite of their income levels, are impossible to manipulate. It is this aspect of social production, of a society capable of sustaining its intellectual and artistic base, that defines cultural surplus.
V. What is the use of culture when it has no conduit for release?
VI. Cultural surplus is a circuit of distributed knowledge nodes, all remote but interconnected. Someone, who I can never recall, once noted that even the most destitute of our times have a better quality of life than the wealthy of the past. This is disputable if we think of how much humans have exploited the ecosystem. Despite all, the world is connected, channels of knowledge discovery democratized, through open-source, making all simultaneously experts and amateurs.
VII. All strategies of coping with cultural surplus, of intervening in the bottleneck of cultural production, are accidental. But our world is driven by a furious force of monetization. Everything must be quantifiable and must correspond to a currency. What about knowledge that cannot be monetized? All this came to me, in light of cultural surplus. While open-source systems disrupt the vertical flow of knowledge and resources, it still fails to achieve social entrepreneurship, and which is necessary to hack the system that discourages cultural surplus. Social entrepreneurship is all about sharing the common, for the collective wellbeing, and I found crowd sourcing strategies applied by protesters in New York, sharing resources and raising funds, as inevitable.
VIII. For now, I have nothing to give to those who fold their legs at my feet, who place their empty bowls on my blistered palms.
ENOS NYAMOR is an art-writer and cultural critic. Enos is currently an MFA Art-writing candidate at New York City’s School of Visual Arts. Some of his past writings and theoretical projects focused on the intersection between physical movement and digital migration, as well as site-specific elements in performance art. He is presently working on a collection of essays on intersubjectivity in computer-generated images and dimensions of new media experience.