Katerina Gregos

Curator's foreword

Though love is a cardinal emotion, in contemporary times it is usually sidelined from the ranks of higher intellectual pursuit and serious discourse as unworthy subject matter, something deemed superficial, cheesy or nostalgic. Today, love issues mostly reside in the domain of commercial culture, in soap operas and romantic novellas, rather than high art. In the field of contemporary art, there is a strange prejudice surrounding this fundamental human emotion, which does not merit the attention it perhaps should. Yet, most people need love; and love can move mountains and radically transforms human beings in ways unlike any other force. It is therefore rather puzzling that love in the modern age appears to have been degraded as either a volatile, unhinged, untrustworthy emotion, or that saccharine, sentimental, flawed passion that is thought to be lacking in comparison to the more noble pursuits of reason and restraint. Few contemporary philosophers, for example, seem interested in the subject (while it is also glaringly absent in the art world). Alain Badiou is one of the exceptions; his book On Love is a defence of love as both human faculty and a worthwhile philosophical field of study, as is this exhibition.[1]

But how did we come to this point? With the industrial revolution and capitalism came the idea of efficiency and productivity, the increasing obsession with work, and love began to be relegated to secondary place in human lives. During the advent of consumerism, and even more so now in the age of high capitalism, love became a commodified product, which was packaged together with desire and sold as myth. In addition, the loosening of traditional bonds such as family, religion and marriage coupled with changes in work and the economy along with the advent of new media and electronic technologies have created a fundamental shift in our psyches and subjectivities, as well as tendency towards more provisional, ephemeral or not-too-many-strings-attached relationships.

One could argue that the commodification of love has reached its apogee in the digital age, aided and abetted by social media and the hypersexualisation of bodies – and emotions – that are treated as products for the market place; in addition, the ubiquity and staggering size of the porn industry on the internet has altered our collective view on sex. Nevertheless, many people experience a widespread craving for real, romantic, reciprocated love; their expectations only to be frustrated by the twisted and unrealistic ‘priorities’ or desires posited by digital and commercial culture; or misled by the digital smoke screen that so many people hide behind, where everyone can ‘perform’ the self or construct identities that might not correspond to reality.

The exhibition Modern Love explores the state of love and intimate relationships today in the age of the internet, social media and high capitalism; an age of so-called “cold intimacies” to borrow the phrase from the title of Eva Illouz’s book Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism.[2] The exhibition looks into how the digital sphere, the technology giants and neo-liberalism have transformed love and social relations, while at the same time dissolving the barrier between public and private. It probes how the contemporary experience of time and space have influenced the way we interact with one another and how the virtual has become entangled with the real. It looks into how, on the one hand, the internet has liberated non-heteronormative sexual identities and given them free space for expression, especially in societies where queerness or non-binary sexuality are considered taboo, or even forbidden. On the other hand, it explores the human pathologies associated with the commodification of emotion and the effects of digital dependency on relationships. Additionally, it looks into meaningful, transformative forms of love from the personal to the political. How can we reclaim love as a potent emotional force and intense psychological bond between people that gives meaning to our lives in ways that no other interaction, ‘object’ or experience can? How can love be rescued from the claws of capital and the corporate technosphere? How can one resist the instrumentalisation of love and its superficialisation and banalisation by commerce and social media?

Time, physical interaction, openness to the other, selflessness, empathy, patience and tolerance are some of the key components in the practice of love – elements very often lacking in virtual communication. Our narcissistic culture of incessant self-promotion, arch-individualism, self-love, the increasing ‘performance of the self’ and workaholism are perhaps some of the reasons why so many people are alone today, despite their many ‘friends’ on Facebook and Instagram followers. Frustrated by false expectations and digital ‘experiences’, crushed by information overload, digital fatigue, the peer pressure of social media, the obsession with appearances, fear of failure or invisibility, standardised benchmarks for beauty and success, lack of time, and the anxiety of uncertainty, it is unsurprising why.

Moreover, the commodification of the body, which began with advertising, marketing and consumer culture, now reaches its apogee in the digital sphere. And with it has come a different kind of representation of sex and sexuality, sometimes of the most dehumanising kind. Within that concept, sex has also become like a consumerist pursuit – easy, full of “choices” and driven by a constant quest for self-gratification. Partners can easily be discarded in favour of someone newer or better. Many young adolescents today forge their idea about sexuality (and, if they are heterosexual for example, their idea of women) on the internet. Being behind a screen all day one loses the capacity to interact in real time and space. Communication becomes split and fragmented, while experiences often remain virtual. In the ever-flattened out world of non-physical experiences, real human relations and interactions are inevitably compromised, or rather short-changed. Going online is, essentially, a solitary act. True, it sometimes leads to real physical interactions, but of what kind and under what conditions?

The post-modern variety of lifestyles and accessibility of the internet to ever-greater number of people has both liberating and empowering effects, if used in the right way. But as far as relationships are concerned, the dating supermarket of Tinder and Grindr, “speed dating” and the ease of internet exchange have also hollowed out relationships and led to selfish or narcissistic forms of behaviour and misleading images of the self, making it ever more difficult to establish what is real. The gradual processes of dating and getting to know someone over time are bypassed by what Douglas Coupland has called “rapid transactions” and an age characterised by “emotional sparseness.”[3] The ease of obtaining sex through the internet has led to a sexual liberation of a very different kind to the one of the 1960s. The author remarks on the “weird hollowed-out look” that he sees on the face of people “who are getting too much sex delivered to them via the internet – or anywhere else, for that matter”[4]. Srećko Horvat, on the other hand, goes on to argue that these “recent geosocial networking applications that are invented to ‘reinvent love’, but are merely reinventing ‘free sex’“.[5]

All of this makes it necessary to re-ascribe importance to our emotional world and relationships of the heart; or, as the philosopher Firmin DeBrabander has appropriately cautioned, “In the Internet of Things, it might be worth re-inventing the Internet of People.”[6] Indeed, now is a good a moment as any to re-focus on the one thing that gives life its ultimate meaning, re-claim time for those we love, re-privilege real, physical encounters, and re-value human relationships, which have also been reduced to exchanges based on mutual interests rather than selflessness, generosity and idle play.

There is no doubt that we live in the time of what Han called “emotional capitalism” where emotions have also been co-opted by market forces and “Everything that belongs to practices and expressive forms of liberty – emotion, play and communication – comes to be exploited”.[7] But love, desire and inter-personal relationships are not commodities. They need to be nurtured and nourished through time. Rather than the ‘image’ of love, which is incessantly sold by whatever means, perhaps it would do good to divert love to the space of the imagination, intuition and the senses once again, and ultimately to the practice of giving, without expecting in return. We forget that love is a predominantly private relationship, which demands and depends on intimacy, of the kind that cannot be situated in the digital domain.

Modern Love explores love and social relations within the complexities of the ever-interconnected networked, digital world with a view to prompting their reconsideration. It is as much about individuals, as it is about the systems of control that bind them together. Equally, it is about societal patterns and the challenges as well as possibilities that the internet and social media present. Modern Love looks into the pathologies and problems afflicting love and matters of the heart today, and it tries to help us imagine a way out of our current alienation, emotional sterility and loneliness.

[1] Badiou, Alain (with Truong, Nicholas), In Praise of Love, Profile Books Ltd., London, 2012

[2] Illouz, Eva, Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, Polity Press, Oxford, 2007

[3] Coupland, Douglas, Shopping in Jail: Ideas, Essays, and Stories for the Increasingly Real Twenty-First Century, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2013, p. 28

[4] Ibid., p. 45

[5] Horvat, Srećko The Radicality of Love, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2016, p. 27

[6] DeBrabander, Firmin, “Is love losing its soul in the digital age?” The Conversation, 13.02.2019 https://theconversation.com/is-love-losing-its-soul-in-the-digital-age-110686

[7] Han, Byung-Chul, Psychopolitics. Neoliberalism and new technologies of power, Verso, 2017, p. 3