Loopholes in the matrix

Without warning she lies down on the ground, flat on her stomach. A woman in her undefinable middle ages whose hair spills out over the dark grey of the concrete floor, much like uncooked strands of spaghetti, and whose large body now effectively blocks the endless queue. The mounting frustration, which so far has been kept just about in check by the ubiquitous screens displaying advertisements and music videos, breaks out uncontrollably. There is a smell of vanilla in the air; a combination of the artificial aroma of cotton candy and the linden trees which have just come into bloom in the parks,
the fragile beauty of which few people pay attention to. Especially right now.

Someone kneels next to the woman, asking her how she is, and gets the reply “well”. Which seems to be true. She is completely calm and shows no sign of injury. Behind her, people are shuffling their feet impatiently, looking around for her company, but she seems to be here on her own. Just imagine. It is impossible to walk around her and stepping over her is unthinkable. Not only could it be perceived as an insult, it would also be an unnecessarily cynical thing to do – she may be psychologically, if not physically, damaged.

In front of her a gap of several meters before the next person in line has formed, and the murmurs of discontent increase. Sweaty and confounded by this further
delay in the already grotesquely long wait, strangers turn to one another, asking the same questions: What is going on? What is wrong with her? Can’t anyone do something?

Someone waves at one of the staff members managing the attraction, but they are all young trainees, busy stamping tickets and instructing those lucky ones who have reached the coveted point of departure to KEEP THEIR HANDS INSIDE THE VEHICLE WHEN IN MOTION.

After a period which lasts about two minutes but feels like 45 the woman stands up again. She wipes her hair out of her face and, without a word, continues forward in
the narrow pen. The gap in the queue closes immediately; the potential danger of standing too close to someone who may be mentally challenged is easily outweighed by the urge to proceed forward. There are still 350 people in line in front of her, and a quick calculation reveals that no time is lost as a result of the incident. Emotions are stabilised and things are back to normal. More or less. What the incident was all about is unclear, but also irrelevant, now that order has been restored.

The remaining, and considerable, wait allows for reflection for those who are so inclined. Something frets at the edges of the mind, but what? Perhaps the notion that the largely justified annoyance still cannot be fully validated; who loses control so completely over such a fundamentally innocuous incident? This train of thought inevitably leads to the contemplation of personal deficiencies and to an entirely new kind of frustration, much more difficult to accommodate.

The frustration caused by the temporary obstacle that the woman’s behaviour constituted is perhaps nothing to be proud of, but it is understandable. The urge to maintain a constant and efficient pace is nothing we can control and when its mechanisms become visible, the faulty logic of the system collapses. Very few people, in their right mind, would say that a five minute ride in a roller coaster is more important than the consideration for a fellow human being. And the expectations of the kids are hardly an excuse; very few people would want to convey that sense of priorities to their offsprings. One seemingly irrational element reveals another.

The idea of rationality is closely connected to the confidence in human reason. Rationalism characterised The Age of Reason and was seen as a beacon in the war against outdated religious, uninformed and superstitious ways of looking at the world. The human ability of independent thought was seen as central and assumed to guarantee a free will, which in turn meant that each individual was
fully responsible for her actions. It was reason which kept society moving forward, and the equating of rationality with progress was a given.

The very same line of thought has historically been used to validate the struggle for financial, military and political gains and advantages. The artist movement DADA makes this analysis in 1916 and reaches the conclusion that if the contemporary idea of logic, efficiency and sense expresses itself through the horrors of the World War One, then non-sense is by far the preferable alternative. The rejection of rationality in this context is also a rejection of a world order which is impossible to comprehend, and which is no longer synonymous with any instinctive feeling of what is and makes “sense”. Here, a schism occurs between the official and the individual understanding of the concept.

Two different ways of relating to the idea of rationality can in other words be seen throughout modern history. The first being rationality as a productive method in the attempt to achieve a certain result: actions, behaviours or models of thought that promote the aim that motivates them. In this interpretation, irrationality is understood as something negative; an obstacle or a problem, something counterproductive that leads away from the intended goal.

From the second perspective, rationality constitutes the established customs that define the framework of a certain situation, context or society. From this point of view, irrationality becomes something that undermines normativity and can be perceived as a conscious attitude and as something positive; something that re- defines the playing field and opens up for new positions and ways of acting. Understood in this way, the irrational action acquires connotations of resistance.

A common feature for those different points of view, however, is that they relate to something that we collectively understand and treat as an objective reality.

Until what to me seems like fairly recently, there was in Sweden, for better or for worse, a collective agreement about what constituted the fundamental elements of society. What was good and bad, right or wrong, was still a matter of negotiation, but this was conducted against the background of a common definition of the issue at hand, which in turn was based on a, more or less, shared notion of reality.

A frequent definition of the concept rationality goes as follows: ”the quality or state of being reasonable, based on facts or reason.” This statement is based on the generally accepted notion that now belongs to the past: that we are in agreement about what we mean when we use the words “facts” and “reason”.

Presumably, there are several explanations for why such a contract was once possible to maintain in Sweden; a collective vision of society – the idea of “Folkhemmet” – a collective consumption of the same, educational media – state- controlled radio and TV with public education on the agenda – and beyond this, a general acceptance of communal responsibility. Another crucial factor is that the discussion was political: that it revolved around what society and the world were like and our common good. In conclusion, there was a harmonious relationship between the rational and the collective, while the irrational seemed to be relegated to the individual sphere; to deviants and lunatics and to the mentally ill.

In a time where the semiocapitalist production of mental stimuli has broken down the barrier between body and mind, “work” is no longer limited to dominating our physical faculties but also absorb our cognitive functions; our thoughts, feelings, fantasies and ideas. This capitalising on the total human potential means that no inner, or collective, spaces are left to escape to; a condition which constitutes the very essence of the contemporary idea of rationality. In the absence of community, we are encouraged to be individually responsible for creating our own reality. The political freedom such an undertaking would require, however, is replaced by the freedom to consume, and much effort goes into emphasising the importance of our lifestyle choices and image management; what attributes and what social gestures we should invest in.

In parallel with this development, the notion of the factual is systematically being dissolved in a political arena where the ability to get seen and heard eclipses all demands on content. This should not be mistaken for an analysis which pragmatically questions the values and perspectives upon which our worldview rests; something that ought to be a mandatory part of the toolbox of any society claiming to be democratic. Neither should it be carelessly dismissed as a shouting match between headstrong children, as it in fact is one of the most significant expressions of totalitarian power; to unpredictably, at a whim, redefine what truth is.

On the one hand, we therefore have an economic system which colonises and profits from all agencies of the human psyche and physiognomy. For such an operation to succeed, it is crucial that the economic system is given the prerogative of interpreting what is true and what is false at any given moment, but also the mandate to arbitrarily change those parameters. On the other hand, we have a rapidly growing number of populist politicians without politics; without responsibility for our common society and without a stated ideology that points to a common way forward. The strategy employed by those rulers is to continuously adapt political issues to whatever benefits their own agenda.
If we accept the above as an adequate description, every reference to “sense” and “fact” must be regarded as meaningless.

The actions carried out by Kanslibyrån respond to this state of affairs by operating as a practical and intellectual spanner in the rational works. They situate themselves outside of received logic and thereby identify the normative. Characterised by hesitation, vagueness and complexity rather than by efficiency and precision they prioritise playfulness, curiosity and absurdity.

A closer study of the artist duo’s actions, of which there are 513 to date, reveals that they fall into a number of different categories. There are the small, symbolic gestures; un- dramatic and inconspicuous, propelled by a subdued kind of defiance and a refusal to submit to the obvious. Examples of this are action No. 44: Take the least fresh bread in the bread counter and action No. 97: Walk where it is unplowed.

In another type of action, Kanslibyrån highlights the conscious and unconscious acts we perform in our everyday life. Here, the trick lies in the work’s ability to transform its status, such as in action No. 233: Have a pebble in your shoe, action No. 488: Keep the price tag on your clothes and action No. 218: Appreciate a fire-post.

A further variety consists of a kind of entrepreneurial initiative which in its form mimics a societal norm focused on order and security, but in its content simultaneously undermines it; action No. 119: Arrange the fir cones in the forest, action No: 145: Rent a parking lot for a stone and action No. 503: Pad dangerous corners and edges in town

Moreover, there are actions that affirm the purely pleasurable and, despite their obvious innocuousness, provoke a reaction which reveals our utter unfamiliarity with enjoying immediate and sensual gratification. (“Is this really acceptable??”). As in action No. 197: Take an extra lap in the revolving doors and action No. 468: Buy an entire cake for yourself.

Finally, there are actions whose political significance is unmistakable and which through their concept and aesthetics constitute a direct critique of power: action No. 358: Surrender, action No. 399: Confuse the public and private sectors, action No. 25: Manifestation against everything and action No. 412: Carry a friend in your arms.

Still, the main strength of the project lies not in the individual gesture, but rather in the vast number of actions that Huntington and Sträng have carried out over the last 10 years; in their inexhaustible defence of taking a non-normative position and their insistence on a lopsided perspective on existence,
manifested over and over and over again. In my meeting with their extensive work, I inevitably find myself contemplating its relevance as a strategy of resistance in the current political climate.

From a certain perspective, it can be seen as claiming the same freedom that semiocapitalism asserts in redefining concepts such as freedom, security, trust, quality of life and autonomy. To accept and adopt those new rules of the game and take advantage of the possibilities that open up if the definition of basic democratic concepts are now open for negotiation. Routinely exercising the possibilities that the decomposition of factuality entails, when employed for political rather than consumerist purposes, may lead to interesting results.

Another potential I detect in Kanslibyråns’ actions is their ability to slow down the frantic pace of production through their inept awkwardness. Disturbing, difficult and inconvenient, they become a means to halt the machinery and buy time for reflection and contemplation. In this way, a space is created where damage-control and deliberation of possible measures may take place. To consistently speak 30% slower when in contact with state authorities and company representatives would not only decimate the profit of industry and commerce but also its power over our thoughts.

As a further aspect, the practice of Kanslibyrån can be understood as a loophole in the semiocapitalist matrix. If it is no longer possible to consciously and through our own efforts place ourselves outside of it, we can still aspire to create spaces away from its mechanisms of control; territories where our actions are based on impulses, feelings, associations and reflexes rather than on the logic we have been taught by the program, thus avoiding the calculated response. To fool the matrix, we must fool ourselves – as the matrix is synonymous with our consciousness. We must be surprised to be able to surprise, to access new mental spaces and to start acting in ways that cannot be subsumed by the system; that defy categorisation, cannot easily be grasped and refuse the capitalist ultimatum of “produce or die”.

Kanslibyråns’ actions can be seen as a survival strategy operating on several levels, but also as a key to a future life philosophy; something radical happens when “nothing” happens.

Kanslibyrån is like that annoying person who obstructs the movement of the queue and who forces us, for a moment, to stand absolutely still and look around. Here, we catch sight not only of ourselves and each other but also of the system that impels us to behave the way we do. And it is in those rare pauses, when the perpetual forward motion momentarily stops, that the opportunity to establish new positions and patterns presents itself.

I wonder when Kanslibyråns’ actions cease to be an art project and instead become a behaviour that no longer requires documentation but simply constitutes a way of being in the world. How much practice is required to internalise a new perspective?

In an article published in the magazine Modern Psychology, researcher Siri Helle claims that when we change the way we act it eventually changes our attitudes as we update them in correspondence with the new behaviour. This means that the physical and mental experiences that come with placing ourselves in new and unexpected situations change us as human beings.

From that perspective, Kanslibyråns’ actions can be understood as quietly subversive. I imagine that if all citizens were obligated to perform Kanslibyråns’ 513 actions it would transform our common reality quicker and more profoundly than any reform presented by our politicians.

Annika Lundgren, September-October 2017