Emily Ritter: Habitual Consumption
Emily Ritter's work is performative, accumulative, and subversive for engaging in a politics of anesthetization around what many people would consider to be an act or actions that are habitually associated with the greatest degree of disinterested feelings, i.e., the regime of disposable objects. And yet, the idea of the "disinterested gaze" is exactly what the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant considered to be most germane to the act of aesthetic contemplation. It is here that we find Ritter's work performing something quite unexpected with regard to what Jacques Ranciere has termed 'the aesthetic unconscious', or even Jameson's notion of the 'political unconscious', especially if we take them to represent the place where praxis and dissensus meet. Splitting the difference between Jameson's and Ranciere's terminology involves looking at the place where unconscious actions break with our encultured consensus trace in order to produce a new kind of critical import, one which becomes operative at the very moment that we are overloaded by cultural by-products that are perpetually produced "on-demand".
Indeed, it is here, where Ritter's earlier series, like "Wildly Captive", act in a transversal manner that crosses figurative cartoons with a kind of literal carbon footprint, or rather, a creative carbon-handprint, in the form of a culturally legible art practice that is also a means of socio-political praxis. Thus, "Wildly Captive" enacts a type of cultural commentary about anthropocentric positions in the palatable form of cartoon-like imagery, where consensus emerges from the ease of consumption associated with comic book iconography while what is depicted evokes a general feeling of disensus with regard to how we see the world around us. Ritter's next series goes a step further in adopting serial imagery for "Consumption and Cycles" that points to the many ways in which we are pressed to contemplate the repressed, not only in the form of imagining the recyclability of the self in a culture awash in product-branding, but also in the fact that it is getting harder not to see the face of our species as the poster child for a terminal mode of economic production. In this series, it could be said that humanity holds the general space of product placement and above all, we are the warning label for the environment.
In contrast to these earlier projects Ritter's more recent work places the theater of her own waste on display, allowing the series entitled "Habitual Consumption" to break the disinterested spell of consumer driven dilettantism by way of Brechtian means. In this instance the routines of daily life become the fourth wall that we all must break-through in order to change our relationship not only to the environment, but also to consider the possibility of life becoming art, or of a new arts of living... or at the very least, of how to enact the very real art of conservation and attending considerations. To put it another way, aesthetics here is a measure of our "interested" contemplation rather than our "disinterested" behaviors; it is a matter of thoughtful acts rather than careless actions, and it depends as much on the categories of aesthetic contemplation as it does consumer motivations. And all of these concerns are held out before us in a series of objects of irreconcilability, which, when taken together, are something like Ritter's collected editions of memento mori, with each new volume being about not just about the idea of death, but of the death-drive associated with living life as-if we inhabit a disable life-world.
In this way, the artist's own books of consumptive accord, or rather, the gathering together of these pages of (un)natural discord, hold our attention at the edge of what we could comfortable call the commercial gaze. As documents they have a structure that is not wholly unlike that of flip-book style animations, but what they animate is an active consideration and condensation of the very pace of consummation that goes hand-in-hand with living in the era of "all-too-late" capitalism. And yet, what they seek to address is how the consequences of capitalism getting to any "later" stage in our economy of overproduction, without coming to terms with addressing the realties of externalities may come back to haunt us on a global scale. Whether or not we can reverse what many consider to be one of the unfortunate outcomes of ends-means rationality, of endlessly fulfilling supply-and-demand, or even of continuing to encourage permanent growth as a "naturalized" dialectic of capitalist revolutions is something that will be fought over in the coming years on the terrain of both aesthetics and politics.
What might be missed in such debates however, is that the philosophy of disinterested aesthetic pleasure was birthed alongside Adam Smith's idea of the "invisible hand of the market", and that the major inward turning metaphor of both Kant and Smith is one of blindness to our acts and actions. Kant, afterall, produced a transcendental philosophy related to a blindly thinking about pictorial means-without-ends while Smith produced a blinded thinking about thinking of means-as-an-end-in-themselves, where the (un)natural by-product of self-interest is staged as the hero in a story about socio-economic development that stretches from living in the state-of-nature all the way to our present capitalist system. Of course, both of these outlooks now appear to be something like unconscious defense mechanisms against having to consider the real world outcomes of capitalist competition. Creative-destruction is not a blind man’s game, but thinking about it along the Kantian-Smithian axis has certainly proved to be a blind man’s bluff, or much more simply, it is the kind of double-blind contradiction that Ritter's work actively seeks to expose.
And it is from this perspective that her projects place us on the flipside of capitalist accumulation in the form of producing "flippant" texts of environmental expropriation. But they are not at all flippant in the sense of being a joking gesture or a coy refrain. Instead, they are objects of contemplation in as much as they try to introduce us to a wholly new sense of object relations who's antecedents of interpretation resonant more with the philosophies of Klien and Kristeva - or of the effects of the partial-object and the affects of melancholia - rather than any overarching sense of release into the realm of "purely disinterested" pleasures. Or, one could go a step further and say that Ritter's objects are a perfect rejoinder to all of the Object-Oriented philosopher's who have had a tremendous influence in the humanities in the last decade with regard to rethinking our relationship to the environment and nature writ large, alla Timothy Morton, Levi R. Bryant, Graham Harmon, et. al.
And it is from rethinking the relationship between these these contemporary perspectives on art making that Ritter's Object-Oriented books could be said to disorient our well-regulated cartographies of consumption. They do this by placing a new categorical imperative on us of the kind that Kant could not have imagined, because it is imperative to read and retrace the impetus behind our ecological impact as the outcome of so many "interested" parties. In this way, we can say that Ritter's work is an artistic practice that gives us object that functions as a type of picturing - a picture that is equal parts diary and display - and which allows the "unthought" to emerge into the field of so-called "disinterested pleasures". This is not only how Ritter's work picks up where Kant's third critique never thought to go; or how she has taken the remains of the day and turned it into a serial measure of object relations that address the leading concerns of our time; or even how Ritter has done all this through the lens of self reflexive-critique split between questioning the agency of one's own actions and the act of aesthetics becoming an agent-for-change. Rather, her project operates across all of these valences and more.
This is because the real twist in her oeuvre is that her works are a documentary trace of "casual" consumption rather than "motivated" buying; or they focus on "disposable" interests rather than consumer "pleasures". As such, Ritter’s works underscore what remains truly "unthought" in the consummation of consumption given over to us as both what allows us to buy and carry products home, as well as what lives on as the by-product of our everyday culture of convenience. In this way, her art practice acts an anthropological record of our consumer civilization, and most especially of the kind of waste that is generated at point-of-purchase sales, transit kiosks, or even just packaging in general.
As a consequence, Ritter's record of debris-via-domesticity begs its viewers not to become docile consumers of "disinterested" measure. In fact, one could say that with each new project Ritter manages not only to measure the losses and gains of Western Civilization, but to take a more interested approach to thinking about the so-called "civilizing impulse" as it applies to the cultish status attributed to impulse-buying. After all, capitalism was set up alongside the ideology of secular materialism, where being up on the latest trends or participating in the most recent "fad" is its own kind of cultural communion. Only nobody counted on how the near religious acceptance of what goes with the Eucharist of sales has yet to find any transubstantive equivalent in the modern world, save maybe, recycling. And so, the possibility of this very division between fallen base materials and redeemable, recyclable, and reusable matter might one day qualify what is considered to be defining difference between cultural by-product and culture-as-such, ultimately inverting the Kantian paradigm from what has no use value to what created endless surplus value.
Cast in this light, one could even say that Ritter's most recent series, "Infertile Obsolescence" represents the event-scene of our generation with an even greater emphasis placed on the weight of our everyday actions. Afterall, Ritter's critique is undoubtedly at its most poignant when she intertwines the idea of both planted and planned obscene, or of planned obsolescence as an idea which is perpetually implanted in us, by conflating the two in the form of a collaged aesthetic that challenges the disinterested gaze of profit and exchange absent any concern for environmental accords. Indeed, Ritter's true radicality lies in this: that her work is the kind of artistic practice that we hope to see taken up by a new generation of artists with the same seriousness and level of commitment, where rethinking everyday praxis involves picturing our acts and actions on the "world-stage", and that this might becomes a central concern not only in art, but in all forms of cultural production. If this is indeed the chasm we have to cross today, then Ritter's work is certainly showing us a way to turn the tide against the 18th century version of art as the disinterested play of the faculties, and what a greater concern might look like for what comes out of our factories. Thus, Ritter's interventionist approach has profound implications for how we think about the unconscious drives of western "development", where art can has a significant role to play in consciousness-raising about the entire chain of production beyond the product itself. Hers is a project that sketches a genuine way forward in reclaiming our collective planetary futures, a contribution to art that is itself, of no small measure.
Bio: Emily Ritter is an anthropocene artist originally from Wichita, KS and now resides in Mesa, AZ. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art with an emphasis in Printmaking from Wichita State University in 2012. After graduating, Ritter was an Intern-in-Residence at Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, NY in 2014. She received her Master's of Fine Arts in Studio Art from Arizona State University in 2018. Ritter explores the consequences of human irresponsibility and how we affect different species and environments. Her goal is to initiate a conversation about the ecological issues that affect our planet and encourage the viewer to think about their actions and role. She has exhibited her work locally and nationally.