RISING’s Euphoria and anti-capitalism as spectacle

One of the star pieces of this year’s RISING festival was Julian Rosefeldt’s Euphoria—a two-hour 24-channel audio-visual presentation featuring an array of screens which display five drummers, a large choir and a series of vignettes in which various characters argue with and opine to each other about living under capitalism. The blurb on RISING’s site claims that Euphoria features ‘big ideas that test capitalism’s mantra of endless, euphoric consumption.’ These ideas are reappropriated from the work of a range of prominent figures, from Warren Buffett to Angela Davis. The script is almost entirely composed of quotations from such figures, distributed among the vignettes’ characters.

Euphoria is undeniably impressive on the level of presentation and performance, but when the dazzling craft involved in the production is stripped away, things quickly become more confused. One of the writers quoted by the script is Mark Fisher. It’s easy to see why RISING might drop that name in their promotional material: Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is an influential and popular text. It’s also a strange choice.

Fisher devotes a considerable portion of his most popular book exploring the ways capital captures anti-capitalist sentiment, packages it as a product—often an art product—and uses it as a pressure valve for discontent. As a lavish production which says a lot about capitalism without saying much at all, it is not a stretch to see Euphoria as exactly the sort of capitalist realist product Fisher wrote critically about.

It’s tough to reconcile Euphoria’s stated anti-capitalism with its indulgent scope and the context of its funding and creation.

Arts funding in this country is remarkably miserly. When even long-running arts institutions must compete for dwindling resources, and arts practitioners are asked to compete in a starved lottery-style grant system, an expenditure of this magnitude on an international commission is a tough pill to swallow. When the work articulates—or appears to articulate—resistance to the very system which is responsible for the funding model, the taste becomes sourer still.

Even by Australian standards, the distribution of funding here is conservative and market-driven. Euphoria leans heavily on its big-name stars—particularly Cate Blanchett, Antonio Sánchez and Giancarlo Esposito. Do these luminaries really need a slice of the Victorian government funding? Has art as a practice been so subordinated to the logic of profit that it takes the involvement of an Academy Award winner, a Grammy winner, and an Emmy nominee to justify spending real money?

The most egregious contradiction of the piece is found within its promotional materials. From foundation to eaves, Euphoria adopts the stance of a premium product—much is made of its high-fidelity multi-channel audio, its big stars, the ‘master filmmaker’ at its helm. The production carries with it the weight of its expense and a sense of anxiety about seeing a return, either financial or critical, on the investment.

Two elements of its presentation stand out as particularly tone-deaf. The first is its bizarre implementation of tiered ticketing prices. In place of the usual general/concession or waged/unwaged splits, Euphoria tickets were separated into categories with arch titles and captions to lend them some extra flavour: ‘High Roller—for the cashed-up arts lovers’, ‘Working Class Hero—for those that live like common people’  (reference without real self-awareness is something of a theme with Euphoria), and ‘Feeling The Pinch—below the line, but up for a good time’. This feels more insulting than cute.

The worst part of the show’s marketing isn’t encountered until after you decide to leave—attendees must exit through the gift shop, where they are encouraged to buy Euphoria merch such as an enamel mug emblazoned with the words CORPORATE SHILL or, again, WORKING CLASS HERO. It is here that Euphoria’s status as a product of capitalist realism rather than genuine resistance to it is most clearly laid bare. Fisher writes:

So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange… We are able to fetishize money in our actions only because we have already taken an ironic distance towards money in our heads.

Even if we wished to separate the marketing from the product, the work itself—while less brazenly abrasive—is no less muddled. It stakes no real claim on truth or meaning: TS Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’, for instance, is set alongside a libertarian screed from Ayn Rand. In the opening vignette, Esposito’s taxi driver snarls about the ways capitalism makes people apathetic, voice full of revolutionary fervour, before pivoting into a lamentation that we are too warlike. In a blasted-out bus graveyard, one teenager argues for a UBI while another insists that she wants a job. Another says that we have seen how forced redistribution of wealth is unworkable.

The majority of the text is anti-capitalist, in the sense that it is taken from anti-capitalist writings, but the script itself does not know where to land. The final vignette is perhaps the most disappointing, both aesthetically and thematically. Cate Blanchett, sporting an American accent, provides the voice for a goofy-looking CGI tiger who reads out ‘The Genius of the Crowd’ by Bukowski and then leads the choir in a sing-along of snippets from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Commonwealth—‘we will suffer terribly … we will laugh with joy.’ At first blush this would suggest that Rosefeldt is claiming some alignment with Commonwealth’s ‘struggle against capitalist exploitation’, but in the mouth of Bukowski-as-Tiger, telling us to ‘beware those who detest poverty,’ the line reads more as misanthropic than political.

Collage is not an unserious technique, and of course there is fruit to be found in the tensions and ambiguity it can evoke. And a political piece need not be obvious or uncomplicated. But Euphoria is explicitly about the difficulties of living under capitalism, and without a wildly charitable reparative reading all it really ends up saying is that such a life is confusing and hard. Okay, sure, I guess.

I wondered, as I left the show, whom Euphoria was made for. I cannot imagine that many members of the marginalised classes represented on screen would find much succour in its inconclusive wheel-spinning, or that a viewer with serious socialist leanings would see much political utility in it. This is an evasively ‘anti-capitalist’ piece that neither radicalises nor galvanises, and holds nothing and nobody to account. Its most effective visual may be the shot of bank tellers performing close-up magic with dollar bills, in that it functions as a meta-textual confession of the sleight of hand Euphoria itself performs with its material.

The target audience, then, seems to comprise those who want to identify, superficially, with the swell of anti-capitalist sentiment, and reinforce this identity through their purchases. Fisher, again, has something to say here: Euphoria ‘performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity.’


Image: a publicity still for Euphoria

Kieran Stevenson

Kieran Stevenson is a Naarm-based writer and musician, currently completing a PhD on art, capitalism and the apocalypse. He records and performs music with the band Leonardo's Robot.

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  1. Thank you for articulating the rationale behind the disgust I felt on seeing the marketing around this work. Although I intended to go and give it the benefit of the doubt, I didn’t even get past the ticket purchase page with its’ glib social catagories.

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