“The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That — with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success — is our national disease.” – William James to H. G. Wells (1906-09-11)
“There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” -Bob Dylan
Failure is a concept outside of critique. How does one analyze a project that ceases effort when confronted with obstacles? The unfulfilled project becomes critically inert, a seemingly lazy pretense requiring no perseverance. All it takes to fail is to do next to nothing and talk loudly about it, spinning it into a socio-cultural commentary. One simply claims the failure as intent and the project becomes a “success.” Beyond these obvious manipulations, perhaps failure can serve as a proxy. Perhaps it is a valid means to circumnavigate the “instrumentalized psychiatry” of Modern analysis, upending capitalist economic and post-Fordist labor identifications of success (William Desmond’s “Philosophy and Failure”).
Robert Andrade’s Ruined State(s) No. 2 was conceived in late 2011. The project was to be a temporary public earthwork made from excavating the city grid of Washington D.C. into the earth in such a way that people could meander through the maze of soil. Embedded in the project was the notion that powerful city/states inevitably crumble and fail, yet retain power through symbols. The city map acting as a symbol of power would be incised, or revealed, within different zones of the earthwork to enact a discussion on the efficacy of the powers that be and their relation to the current site in West Dallas.
The Art Foundation (TAF) sought to champion arts in Dallas by facilitating a project through a grassroots effort. In so doing, Dallas would have an example of public art created outside the bureaucracy of most large-scale projects. Taking on Andrade’s project the fledging arts group arranged for a lecture series in Fall 2012, “Art in the Public Sphere,” to coincide with Andrade’s art opening at Richland College in which he created a series of art models to showcase his intent with Ruined State(s) No. 2. The lecture went well. The show looked good. TAF wrote a grant hoping to fund Andrade’s project.
TAF found land that could be used for the project in West Dallas, but encountered issues of sandy soil that would not allow for a crisp excavation. Excavating a vacant lot also requires fencing, heavy machinery, and a labor force. The grant did not come through. The project had to adapt or die.
Forced adaptation and the requisite Sisyphean effort allow failure to act as a humanizing agent, employing sympathy while deploying a steep learning curve. Success, on the other hand, often breeds alienation.
Andrade decided that a more interesting commentary than the earthwork would be to simply propose the earthwork on a billboard, allowing an advertisement for the “future site of…” that would never be to act as a comment on the perpetuation of power systems. In place of a physical excavation Andrade’s project shifted to a symbolic commentary on promised powers denied fruition. The project became about the city’s advertising of possibility and it’s subsequent failure to deliver.
Ruined State(s) No. 2 was expanding conceptually through failure. We began to consider that using the language of a system to comment on that system imbues the existing structure with more authority. For instance, to excavate a city plan within a city to discuss power you have become a source of power utilizing and moving land to your will. You are not rebelling: you are participating. Your success has become your failure.
Andrade was invited to join the artist residency at CentralTrak for the month of February. This allowed the artist to be in town for a month in February working on the project. He began designing the billboard that would be situated in West Dallas projecting the unrealized earthwork as if it was already a derelict and failing project. However, we still had no money for the printing of the billboard. With high hopes TAF hosted an art party fundraiser called Altered States. We paid our expenses, but didn’t raise any money. The artist returned home at the end of February not having accomplished the project he came to Dallas to create.
The project was originally about the revelation of failing power structures. As the Ruined State(s) No. 2 evolved into a billboard broadcasting a false future it mimicked very real city planning and gentrification failures. In the end, the project about failure began to apply it’s own concepts to itself, self-realizing into authentic failure.
As the project changed we maintained a sense of optimism. The major difference between failure as intent and failure as consequence is the measure of sincerity. TAF was sincere in our efforts to help this project take shape. There was no clever plan to let the project fail and claim that in a post-Fordist, capitalist society success can be equally measured in ideation through decidedly non-economic output as cultural capital while remarking on physical actualization as antiquated and/or irrelevant. No, these concepts are simply meta-syllogisms applied after the fact as a way to locate our experiences.
It is enervating to leverage the group’s reputation to facilitate a large-scale project, and realize it was not enough. Were we naive? Probably. And yet, if we don’t fail occasionally, then we aren’t pushing hard enough to grow. That’s honest failure.