The much-anticipated Covid vaccines arrived in Australia with eerie autonomy. Reports of the AstraZeneca arrival took care to mention that it landed at 9:30am on an Emirates flight, and the Pfizer vaccine’s arrival was depicted in the media like a celebrity touch-down with the same strange energy and cultural significance as the 1969 Moon landing. The odd-shaped parcels were held together with layers of plastic; red, black and blue trailer netting; and DHL packing tape on top of a plinth. On their website, DHL proclaim to be “safely delivering each precious jab into the arms of people everywhere”. Footage of its arrival revealed the precious shipment awkwardly gliding into view at the airplane’s open cargo door, pulled across invisible automated floor tracks, abruptly jolting to a stop before readjusting and lowering itself onto the tarmac on a forklift with no operator in view. It was seemingly untouched by human hands before mechanically spinning on its axis and disappearing on the back of a trailer pulled by DHL chauffeurs. This footage appears on @rrealartt’s Instagram page in the form of an IGTV video as a complement to their current and second exhibition, Jab.
In rrealartt’s “ABOUT” story highlights we learn that it is a gallery operating as an Instagram profile with “no designated author/artist at its curatorial helm” and “without the annoyance of physical space”. Their first exhibition was the launch of a conceptual EP by “Breeze” described as “soft-rock” and titled The Road to Surfdom—a play on Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 free market bible The Road to Serfdom, rammed up against the internal contradictions of the laidback “no worries” Anglo-Australian ideal. Personally, I’d describe the music that is “mastered to conform to industry standards'' as convincing dolewave, which would perhaps be a little too much irony for a show shouldering Hayek anti-welfare state neoliberalism. By contrast, the cover of the EP, shrink wrapped as a CD and perched on a plinth with a chain thrown over it, is much more the stuff of the now passé electronic microgenre, vaporwave—a 2010s pop-up genre that was characterised by its satirical critiques of consumer capitalism and pop culture, visually identifiable by nostalgic late nineties web design aesthetics and glitch art. The return of a vaporwave aesthetic is perhaps warranted given the NFT craze that has hit the artworld and the renewed (every couple of years) interest in cryptocurrency. It’s the wave of the day.
“Realism” is rrealartt’s linchpin to speak to the schizophrenic happenings of everyday life and the malaise, discontent and ennui of it all as it intersects with communicative technology. It evades the burden of the flesh and accountability to its content with the statement: “The profile merely arranges and accumulates the dregs of ideas that coalesce in the degenerate minds of a pack of nihilistic admin bots.” The first dregs of Jab to be revealed were two videos posted on the 5th of April. One shows the plinth that was featured in their inaugural exhibition and that appears to be the mainstay of the gallery, but this time wrapped in packing tape and trailer netting on top of a dolly to mimic the Pfizer delivery and accompanied by the sounds of flash photography (which I later discover is a soundbite from Scott Morrison getting the jab). The caption reads: “A strange package from an unknown origin has arrived at rrealartt”. The would-be speculative ficto-critical notation has its roots in the irl incident last month, when a shipment of Pfizer vaccines destined for South Australia was wrongly delivered to Western Australia and other such bizarre hyper-memeified happenings as the mysterious shiny metal Juul monolith that was found in the Mars-like landscape of Utah's desert.
The second video is an equally lo-fi iPhone video that zooms past a wall of bumper stickers and fliers with the caption: “Shortly after the arrival of the mysterious plinth package, a small but highly vocal group of protesters had amassed at rrealartt. All that remains from the hooligans’ demonstration is a confused array of bumper stickers and flyers. #staysafe”. Where goes the vaccine, so follows the anti-vaxxers. As you can’t pause videos on main for a more in-depth look, I enquired about an irl visit.
rrealartt heralds that the 2020s have made the brick-and-mortar gallery an obsolete format and that “culture has nothing to do with precincts, yards, centres, or hubs”. But a simply-worded Instagram slide-in allowed me to visit the small brick-and-mortar apartment in Melbourne’s house-gallery precinct du jour of North Melbourne.
Although I did not attend, the gallery also sometimes hosts physical opening events and the one for Jab served red, blue and black shots of cordial-coloured vodka—referencing the enduring legacy of The Matrix red-pill/blue-pill dichotomy in cyber dialects pioneered by alt-right incellectuals. The black shot (the bleaker, more nihilistic alternative to the “wake up sheeple” red-pill) was reportedly and unsurprisingly the most popular. The shift from a pill to a shot feels appropriate in the context of Jab where the polysemous word speaks not only to the British-Australian slang/media terminology and the American-English counterpart, “shot”, but to those other meanings (of both shot and jab): a short, sharp punch and/or the delivery of a sudden unpleasant and mocking critical remark.
Walking through the door of rrealartt, up several flights of stairs in the unassuming but large 70s apartment complex, I was greeted by two kind-eyed, self-respecting arts admin sorts who offered me a coffee. I was directed to the bumper sticker display along the entrance corridor. Despite the homely smiles, Jab does feel like a punch in the face. The bumper stickers look as though they’ve been Alibaba mass-produced to suit the narrative, and yet I’m told they are one-offs. Some of the fictional slogans such as “FREEDOM OVER CHOICE!” and “No choice but to choose” seem to refer to those 1984 classics “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength”, but others seem to hint at a different kind of message. On closer inspection, this is art made by Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU)/Urbanomic fanatics, rather than Orwell prophets.
Two spirals representing the relative magnitude of The State and Covid over time meet in the centre at “Absolute zero” with an infinity symbol and the text “Donut Days” (Scott Morrison’s symbol for “zero cases'' repurposed here as Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence). I tried to think of where I had seen the spiral before. Was it Deleuze? CCRU? I suppose it could be any academic pseudo-science Lacan diagram shit. A copy of Semiotext(e)’s Schizo-Culture: The Event lay on a desk in the living room—a book comprised of unpublished lectures and Q&As from the famous 1975 conference of the same name that included such seminal moments as Deleuze's first presentation of the concept of the “rhizome” and Foucault's introduction to the History of Sexuality project. Wherever the spiral is pulled from, it’s clear this crew are no strangers to the history of radical philosophy.
Another bumper sticker reads “Don’t let ‘em send you back to work”, and one of the fliers reads “WORK-ESSENTIALISM = PC (PROTESTANT CHRISTIAN) PSYOP … Essential work is machine work (FIXED CAPITAL). AUTOMATION NOT VAXXXINATION!!!”. The manifesto prose recalls A/traverso, the zine published by an earlier group of young semio-saboteurs including Franco Berardi. Particularly the 1977 issue The revolution is just, possible and necessary: look comrades, the revolution is probable, which read like a hyperbolic manifesto:
We want to expropriate all the assets of the Catholic Church
Cut the working hours, increase the number of jobs
Increase the amount of the salary
Transform production and place it under workers’ control
Liberation of the huge amount of intelligence that is wasted by capitalism: Technology has been used so far as a means of control and exploitation.
It wants to be turned into a tool for liberation.
Working less is possible thanks to the application of cybernetics and informatics.
Zerowork for income
Automate all production
All power to living labor
All work to dead labor.
rrealartt messaging is intentionally conflicted. A bumper sticker that reads “Vaxxx the rich!” is contrasted with another that reads “Vaxxx the poor, tax the rich!”. When Mark Fisher quoted this same A/traverso passage in his unfinished Acid Communism book introduction, it was to illustrate the consciousness-deflation that has steadily taken place since and reached a tipping point in the twenty-first century. He argued that we are resigned to the sadness of work regardless of being shown that automation is making jobs disappear and that our objective should be to regain the optimism of that seventies moment through better understanding the machineries of capitalism that transformed confidence into dejection. Jab exhibits no such optimism, but rather something like anti-cancel-culture paranoiac acid nihilism: “Nothing is real / And nothing to get hung about”.
In their extensive “ABOUT” story highlight, not yet exhausted by this review, rrealartt note that “realism can be stretched beyond the question of ‘is there no alternative?’” by “freely working for Instagram to exhibit art to and by other anonymous albeit interested bots.” Their argument sits uncomfortably between the transgressive anti-moral style of the Alt-Right and the cynical subject’s ideological disidentification that Žižek famously encapsulated with the edited Hegelian-Marxist phrase “they know it, but they are doing it anyway.” Disavowal is the ideology. They well know that they are working for free in the “catalogue abyss of Instagram”, but they repeat it anyway.
The Road to Surfdom and Jab suggest rrealartt deals in art for fringe-proto-academics (all 58 of their followers/friends) resigned to capitalist realism. The “alt” is not acid communism or some other kind of socialism but a more evolved liberalism (perhaps emboldened by the Reddit-fuelled GameStop short squeeze in January). But it also reads as an elaborate détournement that Angela Nagle speaks of in Kill All Normies where Left has gone Right (co-opting moral puritanism) and Right has gone Left (co-opting transgression in the likes alt-right 4chan).
Jab is a speculative archeology of the present moment. It’s a gesamtkunstwerk mash-up of the screenplay of culture typical of “Generation remix”. Like conspiracy theorists, these are artists who source their signs and symbols from the infinite flatness of screen culture. They do not claim to be on the side of “progressive values” nor do they aim to be a romantic conduit for higher truths. The present moment is nothing but a nostalgic hyperstitional non-fiction that sketches a vision of real events and conspiracies fused with disaffected paranoia tilting into nihilistic madness. A stab in the dark.
Audrey Schmidt is a writer and Melbourne Personality.
rrealartt, Jab, 2021