our literal speed is a text & art undertaking located in Selma, Alabama

since 2006

Our Literal Speed, "Interview with Louretta Wimberly: 7 March 1965," dimensions variable, materials: good will of Ms. Wimberly, neoliberal discursivity, public breaking law by consuming alcohol from open containers and illegally assembling without a permit, 10 August 2013, Selma, Alabama 

Back before they invented the iPhone or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, back then, in those—to put it lyrically—antediluvian days, before all those bright young folks came up with all of their big, bursting, billion dollar ideas, a few would-be academics and would-be artists came up with an idea that turned out to be pretty much worthless as far as lifestyle enhancement is concerned, though still oddly enduring. It's called Our Literal Speed and if you’ve already made it this far then you must be at least a bit curious about what OLS is, or was, or might be. Well, you're in luck, your piqued curiosity will soon be more than assuaged.

The animating impetus behind OLS?

Mainly, it was a burgeoning sense among a handful of untenured, underemployed workers in the fields of visual art and higher education that mandatory artfulness and mandatory inventiveness were about to enter the mainstream of academia in a major way; and, as it happens, this was also about the same time the art world was moving purposefully into its current phase of fruit (art fair) and vegetables (critique/research) art (FaVA).

At the time, it seemed as if an epoch-shattering technological revolution had broken out, but even though the way you communicated, the way you bought stuff, the way you traveled, even the way you dated were all transforming explosively, back in 2005 the way you’d work as an academic was still being imagined as remaining more or less the same as it was during the Ford administration. To us, this was wrong and shortsighted.

We guessed that over the coming decades three different "inflection points" would come to pass in contemporary humanities scholarship: (1) the traditional "non-critical" academic who follows idiosyncratic, subjective paths of inquiry would become extinct; (2) these "non-critical" academics would be replaced by a generation of "critical" academics who would keep a steady stream of (De)-Canonizing the Canon: Affective Ontologies of Difference in the Episteme of the Anthropocene coming our way; (3) in turn, these "critical" academics would be replaced by an even younger generation of "hipster-critical" academics who will employ "cutting edge technologies," "radical performativity," and social media-savvy to create digital humanities 3.0 "slacker interventions" (eg, I no longer look at visual art or write about it, I produce LOLCat GIFs about Derrida's La Double Seance), and these creations, no doubt, would be posted to some future media platform that will be much hipper than Instagram.

Once we have reached that third inflection point (have we?), we guessed that the ensuing round of changes would lead to university administrators, official funding entities, and wealthy patrons of the arts & humanities interpreting the third decade of the 21st century as an era ripe for collaborative, experimental, entrepreneurial, "artistico-scholarly" innovation located somewhere between art and research. These activities would be couched, we figured, in a devotion to a smorgasbord of progressive social causes with a healthy dose of scientism and "theory" thrown in (It was with the greatest sadness that we also realized circa 2006 that "theory" would become the official language of the corporatized, uber-professionalized humanities. That was not a good day.). We concluded that the humanities would start acting a lot less like the self-serious, naively sincere goings on that we once knew (and actually loved), and a lot more like art and other lesser forms of mainstream entertainment.

To OLS, it wasn't a matter of arguing whether this coming explosion of art-ifying, performancing, and social media-fueled self-promotion was good or bad (though bad), it was already happening embryonically, and we needed to try to understand its implications and develop ways to outrun it, reconfigure it, disable it, or otherwise not simply imbibe Neoliberalism's unique cocktail of creative creative destruction until we were all stupefied. At its crux, the problem seemed to be that the ultimate goal of the critical, dissenting, progressive, theory-oriented academic within 21st Century Neoliberalism is to land high grade publicity about one's critical, theory-driven, progressive dissent.

With the inevitable end game of this generalized process looking something like this: by 2030, about 12 critical-progressive-dissenting theory-driven gurus will teach giant online critical-progressive-dissenting theory courses to thousands of students around the globe who will in turn seek to become one of the critical dozen dissenting academics (while stacking up 120K [in 2030 dollars] in student loans), simultaneously the humanities will have functionally disappeared as a going concern at UT-Chattanooga and hundreds of other normal schools for normal Americans where the humanities will have been deemed utterly obsolete.

With such dismal forebodings in mind, starting in February of 2006 we began producing slightly non-standard, mildly unexpected, though avowedly non-carnivalesque experiences within "straight" academic contexts—and, conversely, to the extent that we could, we began producing pedagogical scenarios within that netherworld of freeze-dried political "art-ivism," hedge fund after-after parties and rampant economic/artistic nepotism known as the art industry-scape.

We also anticipated that our distressed Kulturbolschewismus from the Deep South might leave a few folks perplexed along the way, and that was one of the basic ideas from the beginning: we wanted OLS to make OLS. Forever and ever and ever and then some. Now, if you asked us, "What is OLS?" The best answer has always been: OLS is OLS. OLS is not about anything. It's not thematizing something, or representing  repressed narratives, or critically analyzing culture, etc. (though those are all perfectly good things to do). We wanted something that existed to be what it is instead of anything else. 

The idea was that we wanted any description or synopsis of the project to come up short. We wanted something that could not be explained in a press release, advertised with a blurb or accounted for in a CV line. Instead, OLS was imagined fundamentally as perpetually failing to establish a "brand identity"; it was created as an infinite anti-brand: anytime it started to become (mildly) "successful" at anything, anytime it established its general capacity in any critical, curatorial, or artistic endeavor, then that aspect of the undertaking needed to be sidelined and new, more problematic directions explored. Call it the Peter Principle of Aesthetics. That is, we concluded that perhaps the most direct way to resist neoliberal capitalism's embrace would be to fail to prosper within neoliberal capitalism. And we mean to fail literally, not picturesquely or notionally or symbolically or recuperatively. To lose your job. To fail to get institutional treats. To be ignored by arbiters of art and scholarly quality. To be unpublished. To be thrown out of exhibitions. etc. As a result, over time, you get more and more of what we do relatively badly and less and less of what we do relatively well.

It has also increasingly become necessary to "do OLS" without announcing to anyone ahead of time that one is "doing OLS," and it hasn't always been pretty. In fact, to be honest, it's been a horrendous experience at times. Looking back over OLS—for the people serially involved in it—is akin to surveying the smoking, twisted machinic corpses on a demolition derby track. So much damage, so little salvation. So, why do it? A good question, that. One we've been forced to ponder, and the best answer we've come up with goes something like this: we want a culture around us that feels as if it has genuine, vital possibility. Now why would such "possibility" matter so much? It matters, it seems, because we've chosen to devote our lives to cultural stuff, yet culture today has become so obvious that there's really very little left that seems genuinely strange, enchanting, or challenging (on this score, we would point to Todd Cronan's book Against Affective Formalism and the Jackson Pollock Bar's theory installations as rare examples of the strange/enchanting/challenging at work in our art/academic moment).

The sad truth? Experiencing culture today (in its artistic and academic instantiations) feels like mounting an institutional elliptical machine: it's not a bad experience and it's probably good for you, but deep down, you know that you'd rather be doing something else, really, anything else. The problem today is location kitsch. 

Everything is obvious, because we know where everything belongs and what it is supposed to do. It's obvious who the artists are, and what the artists do, and what the academics do and how they should do it. It's obvious what the art is. It's obvious where the art will be and where the academics will talk about it. It's obvious why the art matters and why the academics are inveighing against this or promoting that. When things are this obvious, they cease to be significant in and  of themselves; what becomes significant is the management of this vast quantity of well-funded obviousness—and that's where the art world and academic world seem to be circa 2018. It's a global contest to see who gets to manage the obvious.

In our early administrative gesamtkunstwerks (ZKM in 2008, various Chicago locales in 2009), this is what we tried to investigate. We wanted to try to pry this obviousness open, to make it briefly un-obvious where everything belonged. And In the years since, we have become dedicated to understanding the relationship of artful academia (Performative Scholarship is one of the [unfortunate?] names this vector eventually received) and academic artfulness (Artistic Research is one of the [unfortunate?] names this vector eventually received) as an intersection that potentially yields stuff that feels a lot like art. Thus our 2008-era slogan: Stuff Near Art That Is Not Art, Which Is Treated As If It Were Art, Is Now The Substance of Most Serious Art. 

We would like to experience a culture of non-obviousness that provokes paradoxical feelings and errant thoughts that might be shared in a thoughtful, collective way. And that kind of culture, a culture that is something more than a hodgepodge of mildly diverting bureaucratic sign management and/or Diet Spectacle—a culture that might temporarily extricate our minds from the thudding, prideful mediocrity around us, that kind of culture only seems possible today when culture itself is contested in all of its major and minor expressions, in all of its official and unofficial embodiments. That's what OLS tries to do.

When everything is contested and nothing is accepted—not the lectures, not the trustee gladhanding, not the curating, not the object making, not the social media hyping, not the accompanying essay writing, etc—when none of these actions can assume the status of being the way things are appropriately done; when there is no default setting for anything, anywhere, anytime; when sincere and voracious doubt is the principal medium of your enterprise, then cultural value, whatever it might turn out to be, must be "achieved" over and over again, rather than paraded around like a Carl's Jr. float in the Rose Parade. 

We believe that everything must be contested and re-contested and contested some more until that bright and shining moment when OLS will cease to exist.  Then we'll all be able to kick back on the Strato-cliner, throw a Maker's down our gullets, flip open the Flannery O'Connor and declare: Nice work y'all. Now our dissenting culture is running as smoothly as the chorus in a Porter Wagoner ballad and Comrade Lunacharsky's up there smiling down on us from his perch next to Saint Peter.

These days we have more than a decade's worth of mitigated failures and qualified successes to contemplate, and this website is dedicated to remembering them, and to remembering that sustained invisibility and apparent childishness often yield more meaningful paths to more meaningful things than the exquisitely visible seriousness of our professionalized and publicized lives. Not always, but often enough. 

Thanks for dropping by...