This strategy of withdrawal combines the approaches of the mystic and the undercover agent and is one of opposition and of proposition. Leary was speaking at a time that his world was divided by the political and ideological struggles of two power blocs - the Communist and Capitalist. Although the social and political matrixes were vastly different, within each bloc, the strategies of imaginative resistance were similar: a counter-culture based on disappearance: hiding from sight with like minded people and seeking to establish means of communication with others who would, hopefully, might combine to secure some future transformation. Within each political bloc the existence of the 'other' gave vitality and agency to the dreams of transformation - for the Underground of America and Western Europe, the existence of a non-capitalist model - no matter how unknown and imperfect - was a reproach to the operations of 'straight' society and the depredations of 'the man' and gave a concreteness to the struggle. Conversely in the centrally controlled states in the sphere of Soviet influence, the associations seemingly allowed in the market economies and the anarchies of rock and roll gave impetus to the hidden search for new forms of expression and freedom outside those allowed by the State. From the point of views of the different State structures each underground association also seemed to link with a larger Manichean force - be it Godless communism or Anti-revolutionary bourgeoisie individualism - which gave them an importance and import outside their ghostly presence. Precisely because this could not be seen by the instruments of the State it became necessary for the State to travel underground itself, to infiltrate to monitor, to tap phones open letters and play the role of the disappeared as provocateur to try and prevent the disappearance of these people from their sight.
In Thomas Pynchon's 'Gravity's Rainbow' undercover British agent Pirate Prentice wonders "Could there be, somewhere, a dossier, could They somehow have managed to monitor everything he saw and read since puberty... how else could They know?" Here he is voicing the paranoia of the underground man in a novel written in 1973 a time of high activity by security forces and intelligence agencies seeking to make visible the activities and thoughts of their citizens.
The cultural revolutions of the sixties have now themselves disappeared to become regrets and memories erased by new-age massages, computer start-ups, crystal gazing and the loss of a work-place and the introduction of hot-desking. Its disappearance however acts as a reproach and recalls a space of human and creative possibility that for a moment stood aside of the status quo, which refused materialism and optimistically hallucinated forms of social and human association that were not driven or directed by the needs of the Market or the State.
The defining 20th century struggle between the control economies and capitalism has also evaporated, and now the global reach of free capital and commodity has become seemingly the only desirable model, and with this it has become increasingly difficult for models of opposition to be clearly articulated, one can come to seem as fantastical as the other as there is little to anchor the premise into the lived world.
However the determination on the part of the powers of the state - and the market - not to allow invisibility has grown. Prentice's dossier - now privatized, digitized, outsourced by government into the anonymous hands of corporations and governments - has expanded exponentially into areas beyond the Pirates' wildest dreams. When we withdraw money from banks, use our mobile phones make web searches, send emails or post our holiday photographs on Facebook, we add additional information about ourselves and our friends to the databases that track our movements, the websites we visit, the books we read. In this vortex of exchange and information, secrecy itself becomes an offensive weapon. To refuse to give information about one's identity or movements slips slowly into being a behaviour that is considered criminal.
In this environment Duchamp's comment about how an artist becoming invisible and descending underground might be the only strategy left to the great artists in an age of commercialisation takes on an added, political, resonance.
Contemporary art itself has become increasingly visible and present whilst increasingly emptied of effect and leverage. Under modernity, avant-garde art explored the sometimes-perverse possibilities of the human imagination and hoped to bring about change in the human situation. It saw its self as oppositional and transgressive, something that proposed alternatives. But now, having lost the place 'outside' that seemed to make the proposition of alternatives possible; it increasingly, despite itself, seems to operate as a subtle research laboratory for advanced capitalism itself, where it makes things or events only to throw up challenges to the mechanisms of commodification, so that they may improve and become stronger and more supple. A form or statement may be produced that is extreme and resistant enough so that for one crazy second it looks like something that the market cannot consume and digest but then, inevitably, it is commodified. No matter how time based, how ephemeral, how abject, how outside - the expression is pulled into the trading and exchange of the market mechanisms. Value becomes measured by money and Capital increasingly colonises the realms of the imagination. The idea of the imagined alternative is becoming a commodity itself. Artists make works mapping possible forms of anarchy and freedom only for it to be bought and exchanged by collectors bankers and oligarchs who desire to purchase the values and qualities, (or at least signifiers of them) that the day job doesn't allow. It is transmuted into a form of branding. Or it is shown by museums that wish to maintain their fiction, the brand, of the pluralist radical critical approaches, a 'radicality' that is a necessary performance indicator for the construction of a pecking order within the contemporary arts establishment.
So prevalent is the market, so pervading its effect that for some artists the only strategy effective against its Midas touch is to refuse to appear on its register. Increasingly there are practices that desire to animate and rearticulate - somehow, one day - the possibilities of art outside the production of style and commodity, that hope to extend its histories of alternatives and alternative histories. It is obvious that circumstances may mean that the old mechanisms can no longer apply, that new strategies need to be hesitantly and privately knocked together, ways developed of building spaces of hypothesis, stuff made that is neurotic withdrawn and optimistic. For this to happen there might need to be an element of restaging, to try old strategies in new environments to see whether they still have effect. De-facto these processes are non mainstream, and therefore suspect in a time that looks for patterns of difference and deviance, so they require a degree of privacy, of secrecy, to be removed from view: concepts that in themselves accrue a dangerous political charge in today's digitally panoptic age.
In the days of Leary's counter-culture in the last century, the visionary hallucinatory insights and sense of possibility developed by the individual required them to drop out, to remove themselves from view. In the early days (today) of trying to imagine what any future counter-culture might be, whether it's indeed possible to have any hope of imagining what it could possibly consist of, or even how it might be envisioned, the initial necessary step might be to remove ourselves from view, to find our own private spaces... To disappear first.
© Richard Grayson 2010