“The Lives of Things”
Moore College of Art and Design

November 20, 2013
In conjunction with the launch of Shifter 21
Organized by Rit Premnath

Lives of Things is a performance loosely modeled after JM Coetzee’s lecture-novel Lives of Animals, which details a faculty dinner that follows after an invited speaker disregards the requested topic and instead delivers an exposition on the treatment of animals. In this performance, the invited speaker—Avi Alpert—declines to speak on the lives of things. In lieu of this, he presents an impassioned address entitled “On the abolition of the university as such: a modest proposal.” Throughout the duration of his talk, his collaborators Mashinka Firunts and Danny Snelson verbally disrupt him from the audience through a whispered private dialogue amplified by wireless microphones. At its conclusion, the three members of Research Service are joined by the evening’s organizer Rit Premnath for a dinner during which the lecture is fumblingly discussed.


Excerpts from the recording of The Lives of Things (introduction by Rit Premnath; main lecture by Avi Alpert; with Danny Snelson and Mashinka Firunts mic’ed comments to each other from the audience):

Rit Premnath: I’m delighted to be introducing the Philadelphia-based performance collective, Research Service, who will be delivering a collaborative lecture entitled “The Lives of Things.” Research Service is the collaborative endeavor of Avi Alpert, Mashinka Firunts, and Danny Snelson, all of whom are graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. Their individual and collective projects have been presented at the Drawing Center, the Centre Pompidou, the Philadelphia ICA, Gallery D21 Leipzig, the Based in Berlin Festival, and the Slought Foundation. I’ve asked them here today to present on the topical prompt of Shifter’s 21st issue: other spaces. Please welcome Research Service.

Avi Alpert: Thank you so much, Rit, for that warm introduction. And to all of you for being here today. We’re all really thrilled to be invited to speak on the subject of other spaces. As you’re aware, we had originally planned to deliver a collective presentation entitled “The Lives of Things,” loosely following JM Coetzee’s lecture/novel Lives of Animals. As I began to think about how to approach this project, however, an idea presented itself to me—personally—about the formation of other pedagogical spaces, and so I’m going to present …. “On the abolition of the university as such: a modest proposal”… my collaborators have kindly indulged me in my desire to speak directly on this topic.

There is a well-known joke about a man who has jumped off a building, and on his way down says to himself – so far, so good. The university today finds itself in a similar position. No matter how fast our plummet to the stone cold reality of the ever-increasing imperative toward “economic rationality,” we keep thinking that there is some way out, some last breath of hope for actual intellectual engagement.

Danny Snelson: Oh no.

Mashinka Firunts: Shhh.

Danny Snelson: This again, Avi? I can’t believe he’s doing to do this here.

Mashinka Firunts: You can’t argue that it isn’t timely. Evidently, the “I Quit Academia” memoir is an Important Growing Subgenre of the American Essay. “Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower” and all that. Why not an Important Growing Subgenre of the Academic Lecture as well?

Danny Snelson: But here? Now? We’re invited guests at a small college!

Avi Alpert: Since everyone knows that nothing you actually learn in school matters for what you practice economically or professionally (law, business, and medicine are all learned on the job), it follows that the economic rationale for professional programs will also disappear. Why rack up $150,000 in debts when you can intern at a prestigious firm while living in your family home? Why shouldn’t companies educate ideal, efficient workers in-house? As the power of economy comes to dictate the value of education, it will soon become obvious that education produces no value, and technocratic rule will commence.

Danny Snelson: What a strange political reversal!—isn’t this a perfectly conservative point? Abolish the university for the free market’s benefit?

Avi Alpert: My friends, I come bearing to you this news, as Nietzsche’s mad man might: The University is Dead. We have killed it. “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? The greatest source of knowledge the world has ever known has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What new knowledge is there for us to enrich ourselves? What heights of wisdom, what sacred games of mental gymnastics shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not make new spaces of thought simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Of course we are free to cling to the dying institution. Psychoanalysis – one of the greatest movements ever to struggle free from academic strictures – gives us a name for such a disposition: melancholia.

Mashinka Firunts: Is this whimsical hyperbole?

Danny Snelson: Jesus, I know, right? But he always seems so terribly serious, he can’t really mean what he’s proposing, can he?

Rit Premnath: Um, thank you, I guess, Avi. Any questions?

A few questions are taken. Danny, Mashinka, and Rit take their seats on stage while Avi answers. As he answers, he walks over slowly to join them for dinner. They begin eating sushi on stage. It is awkward at first. Rit begins in anger: “You know, you really should have told me if you were going to come to my college and rant about how it should be destroyed…”