Intro and abstract
Since it is about a break with ways of feeling, seeing, and speaking, that re-defines what is visible, what is possible to be said about it, and who are the subjects capable of doing that, the political emancipation or subjectivation is, for Rancière, aesthetical question. How do we link that fact with (critical) art? How to understand construction of political in contemporary art in times of canonisation of “political”, “engaged”, “activist” art within the art paradigm of existing? If we—within the notion of politics of aesthetics—introduce new forms of circulation of speech, exposure of visible, and production of affects that defines new abilities while breaking with the old paradigm of possible, it is about the involution of critical formula: making visible which otherwise remains hidden—in a performance. How and is it possible/necessary to avoid the paradigm of spectacle by doing that? It is not anymore about the art that involves current, critical, political content (although it is not excluded) as its object, but rather about radically different understanding of our own position, aim and method of operation. That also means a mode of production conceived beyond dominant form(at)s of institutionalisation, stardom, branding, festivalisation. It is about specific ways of building space and providing visibility/communication that exceed (aestheticised!) standardised division between spectator and performer; its abolition may mean an exit from the paradigm of culture industry, or, loosening of performative order based on the statics of that division.
The Act of Speaking
Jacques Rancière’s understanding of politics, as an aesthetical activity—a process of distribution of sensible, as a scandal that reveals radical equality of whoever with whomever, establishes in opposition to police’s logic of “proper” naming, allocation and classification of people and concepts. Unlike the althusserian repressive apparatus and the foucaultian discipline, “the police” is here understood as a reference that sets distributions between modes of acting, being and speaking, and takes care that the bodies are set to certain places and into particular tasks, according to their names and functions; it is an order of visible and speakable that cares for (in)visibility of particular activity, that decide whether word is heard as understandable speech or as non-understandable noise.
The political is, conversely, an activity that relocates body from the set place, that consequently changes the purpose of a space; it is an activity that makes visible what should not be seen, and understandable as a speech what has been heard as a noise. True politics starts precisely at the point when those who “do not have time” to do anything except what was ordered to them by the normative police order (as claimed by Platon) “take that time that they do not have, to become visible as a part of the common world and demonstrate that their mouths emit common language, not only expressions of pleasure or pain”. Politics is therefore a possibility of impossible, “a radical rupture caused by, strictly speaking, impossible event, when those who should not speak illegitimately usurp the word”. The very start of politics is necessarily characterised by the act of speaking.
The art-related Questions
Since it is about a break with ways of feeling, seeing and speaking, that re-defines what is visible, what is possible to be said about it, and who are the subjects capable of doing that, the political emancipation or subjectivation is, for Rancière, an aesthetical question.
How to understand construction of political in contemporary art in times of canonisation of “political”, “engaged”, “activist” art within the art system in the paradigm of existing, within the culture industry? If we—within the notion of politics of aesthetics—introduce new forms of circulation of speech, exposure of visible, and production of affects that defines new abilities while breaking with the old paradigm of possible, it is about the involution of critical formula: making visible which otherwise remains hidden—in a performance. Here rises another question: how and is it possible/necessary to avoid the paradigm of spectacle by doing that? It is not anymore about the art that involves current, critical, political content as its object, but rather about radically different understanding of artist’s own position, aim and method of operation. That also means a mode of production conceived beyond dominant form(at)s of institutionalisation, stardom, branding, festivalisation. It is about specific ways of building space and providing visibility/communication that exceed (aestheticised!) standardised division between spectator and performer. Abolition of that division may mean loosening of performative order based on its statics.
The Autonomy of Art—of Direct Action
We are assuming that the autonomy of art is precisely what is being established during specific instances of direct action (which originate from the condition of life marked by precariousness, discrimination, non-equality), that is, during the street protests/performances aimed at the mutual empowerment of all participants, or the joint response of a gathering of bodies and minds to systemic violence, a response that is marked by solidarity, self-organisation and self-initiative. Since this is creativity in resistance and since this resistance is real (and not anaesthetised in advance through a certain self-serving aestheticisation, which produces a reification effect), since it is not interested in “establishing one’s name” through authorship but is rather realised in the humour of anonymity, the rebellious/insurgent acts in their singularity are also artistic performances, actions, gestures, happenings. This art—the art of protest—is perfectly effective even in its process, in the very act, in its temporariness, transitoriness, and finally also in its efforts to set up alternatives to the dominant order, although as proposition of possibilities of the impossible.
At the same time, and paradoxically, in this process, we are dealing with art-which-is-not-art; moreover, we are involved in it. In fact, this paradox—which actually opens up, demystifies and transforms the paradigm of art in force within the system (as a codified profession, a closed system of appreciation of artworks and names)—constitutes the execution of transgression of the prohibition of its transformation. In the creative self-organisation of direct action (which destroys/abolishes the order of the “allowed”, “acceptable”, “prescribed”, and above all: “possible”), art can be everybody’s concern—anybody’s, in fact, for everybody can be creative and everybody can express their creativity autonomously.
The aesthetics of direct action consists in a redistribution of the sensual, which eludes all established rules, while it is temporally and contextually limited; it holds true at a certain moment, in a certain place, the here-now, in a certain performative, rebellious context. This temporariness and the abandoning of all rules, the dispersal of creativity (non-authorship) do away with the threat of its instrumentalisation for the purposes of particular interests; in fact, the very possibility of any totalisation of a creative act is thus abolished. In the heterogeneity of resistance, there lies the great power of opposition to all hegemonies, including the hegemony of the art system as such and its constant attempts to neutralise resistances.
The Triggering Problem of Delegated Performance
In attempt to address subjectivation in contemporary art, we are proposing thinking of significant phenomenon of delegated performance, or, a performing of usually a group of individuals organised and somehow directed by an artist, who usually holds the authorship of such work. Let’s take a look at three recent examples.
Artist Siniša Labrović has conducted the singing of the group of young Roma people in Zagreb city centre in October 2015, within a project that addresses the rise of so called rightwing powers; the songs were a combination of catholic and ustaša’s songs, with addition of a selection of slogans of local hate speech.
Artist Nemanja Cvijanović has arranged a collective performance entitled Applause!, as a demonstration staged in form of a film set with 250 persons paid 9 euros each to protest at a city square in Zagreb in 2008. The project “attempts to touch anomalies of social relations, civil rights and duties, using a method of direct communication with citizens through a media of action”. The artist says that the public subsidy invested in the project actually returns to citizens in order to encourage them to articulate their “citizens’ duty”.
Artist Marija Mojca Pungerčar has organised a sewing workshop for the group of 17 unemployed women paying them to make artistic objects based on the protesters’ slogans copied from the local people’s uprisings that took place in Slovenia in 2012 and 2013. The workshop was followed by an exhibition Socialdress – Power to the people, held in 2014, while the objects with slogans are available to buy.
All three examples can be understood as a perpetuation of representative logic. The author of each is delegating a group to act as an aesthetical reflection or frame of utilitarian understanding of “democracy”. The group of Roma people executes what was put in their mouth, the stress is consequently on a false dualism between minority and majority, equality and intolerance. 250 rented protestors of Applause! are carrying slogans edited and written by artist himself. Women workers who make Socialdress are temporary engaged in a frame of social entrepreneurship in order to make objects that are softly incorporated into the consumer and exhibition logic. Although speaking about equality, solidarity and democracy, the authors put themselves above their effectively anonymous delegated co-workers, avoiding putting into question the hierarchy of production of an artwork. They are therefore representers of the artificially gathered co-workers by being representers of their own concepts. We argue that such concepts cannot speak by themselves, in terms of autonomous work of art, as they are not performing an act of speaking as introduced above. Our further argumentation on this claim is focused on Socialdress.
An Ambiguous Example: Socialdress
Socialdress, the exhibition subtitled with Power to the People, is interesting as an example of brutal aestheticisation and, at the same time, of militant action.
The aestheticisation is objectivised in the very fact that various slogans, shouts and paroles from the banners of people’s uprisings were sewn onto the exhibited items, including “Power to the people, not political parties!” [“Moč ljudem, ne strankam!”], “The streets belong to us!” [“Ulice so naše!”], “He is finished!” [“Gotof je!”] and “A nation is much different when hungry!” [“Narod lačen je ful drugačen!”] (the last one is semantically malformed, as the original was “Hungry people is getting much different!” [“Ljudstvo lačno …”]). The protesters’ paroles used in this context should be understood as commodified, therefore de-politicised.
Regarding the militant action: a group of masked individuals visited the exhibition at the Alkatraz Gallery (of the Autonomous Cultural Centre Metelkova City, Ljubljana), collected almost all of the exhibited items and took them out of the gallery. What they left behind were short printed messages in the form of a pamphlet. The message of the action can also be understood as a clear call to the artists to take responsibility for their own actions. Its protagonists have, above all, detected and recognised the power of aestheticisation and de-politicisation of insurgent practices.
Thinking this action, we start from a consciously “impossible” standpoint that an artwork put on display is simultaneously situated in an open space of interaction or possible intervention, which, in its passive instantiation, is usually reduced to mere observation. Interaction with the work of art, which in our case was performed as “theft”, “alienation”, “vandalism”, “performance” and “activist action”, depending on the individual preferences of its commentators, was in fact all this at the same time. In fact, its emancipatory potential originates precisely from this polysemy, which relativises, demystifies, disintegrates, opens up, stages, materialises and, at the same time, hybridises these meanings.
Calling this action “theft” or “vandalism” means lacking the understanding of its performative effect and it goes hand in hand with the dominant agenda of the criminalisation of life and every truly political (collective) involvement.i Namely, the criminalisation of expressing protest is already a completely visible practice of the powers that be. In neoliberal situation the radical political act is actually possible only as vandalism. In any case, both theft and a truly emancipatory performance concern transgression of the limit of the legal/permitted, which is imposed from above; here, we are dealing with the transgression of prohibition of conflict, with the elimination of a number of civilisational, legalist breaks, obstacles and prohibitions, with those disciplining patterns built into our unconscious, which, however, are nothing but impediments to ideas/practice of freedom/politics. Therefore, theft/performance cannot be an act with a predetermined moral assessment, value, a moral plus or minus, for it is always an intervention into complex, causally connected given conditions, and in this case, these conditions were fairly transparent: aestheticised, commodified protesters’ slogans, produced as a humanitarian entrepreneurial gesture within the gentrification process of the local “creative industry” (with no visible distancing from this context), at the margins of the context of popular uprisings, almost in the middle of protests, put on display at the gallery or supported by the gallery that is part of an autonomous space. The rage of the protagonists of the action at Alkatraz was thus an immediate response to the specific attempt at representing crisis conditions in the art context, which, so it seems, they understood as an attempt to hijack protesters’ slogans. Instead of the diligent, obedient and shopping-minded audience, “rioters” entered the gallery and impersonated thieves of images in their performance, to intervene in yet another attempt to artificially/artistically accelerate the slippage of resistance into spectacle.
Namely, the activist, self-organised gesture of writing insurgent slogans on T-shirts, banners or walls is something different from the gesture of assembling these slogans within a corrupt creative-industrial and contemporary-artistic production context. In accordance with it, the uprisings’ paroles were refashioned into commodities, for they were intended for a perfectly real sale; but the trouble is the fact that the uprisings’ slogan is not a brand; rather, it is its radical opposition. Following this logic, we could say that the protagonists sent a specific message with their action, namely, that “revolution”, resistance, protest, autonomy and the DIY approach, which the Socialdress project is trying to appropriate, are not for sale. Even more, they took the project’s motto (which according to the rules of representation should hold on a declarative level) for real. At the same time, it seems that the setting up of this exhibition in this specific gallery was understood as a gesture of extended systemic violence, which the exhibition perpetuates perversely. Obviously, in this context, ACC Metelkova City was understood and defended as a space of political autonomy—perhaps also as a space in which such interventions are self-evident, welcome and far from “scandalous”.
Rather than an attack on very specific symbolic targets, that is, the gallery and the exhibited items, this intervention can be interpreted as an assault on the very institution of art, on its immanent untouchability and elitism, or as an instance of re-opening the issues (co-)created by the institution of art; an attack on its increasingly perverse production of normality; on its marked gentrification potential, which it enforces persistently; on its perverse, traditional adherence to neutralisation of resistance, to distortion of any emancipatory political gesture into an “exhibit”, specimen, aesthetic gain, (art) product that is quoted on the market, in the gloomy system based on the artists’ stardom and the hierarchy of their managers; an attack on its alienating effect; on its practice of creating empty, dead spaces and empty signifiers; on its active involvement in the necrocapitalist logic, its hypocritical practices of putting into circulation practices that seem collaborative while they are actually based on hierarchies.
Rather than a merely physical attack, the intervention can be understood as a reflexive-active attempt to break with the seeming untouchability, “autonomy”, sanctity and self-evidence of the legalised, normalised, classified, commodified representation and its uninterrupted charging with the creative energy of resistance, to which it actually contributes nothing but rather pacifies it systematically while twisting arbitrarily its meanings and contexts.
The case was reported to the police, for “the thieves […] have caused damage worth roughly 30,000 euros.” Somebody who was part of the autonomous context of Metelkova called the police to Metelkova. The question that this fact raises is: what exactly happened to its autonomy in that moment? The assessed value of damage (assumedly much bigger than payment for workers who actually produced the objects) is also interesting, but the most telling elements here are the attempt to evaluate uprisings’ slogans and the swift presentation of the project in the neighbouring Museum of Contemporary Art. This Coca-Cola logic of capitalising on protest and on the attempt to sell it through art channels, the logic we have seen on numerous other occasions, tells us that classic commodificationii in the expected combination with repression has taken place. And the art apparatus—which is not only a symbolic, but also a perfectly human apparatus—responded to the attempt to invade this logic performatively in a perfectly rational, military way, as if it were part of the structure of the former barracks of the Yugoslav people’s army at this very location in Metelkova, and it immediately sought repressive means, lawful, legal instruments to protect its position, to defend the existing order of its production, which should remain untouchably “autonomous”, which should defy vandalism with surveillance cameras, security guards, repressive services, that is, systemic violence.
In light of our example, the uprisings’ slogans were an emancipatory, creatively liberating—artistic—gesture precisely when they were in the streets, when they were carried by the hands of the collective body and of the individual bodies of the protesters. They were artistic precisely in their insurgent gesture, which, at its very core, resists all attempts at systemisation. Similar (but not the same!) slogans—systematised within the paradigm of artistic production—can be perceived as artworks; however, this precisely is the fundamental problem and key to understanding their distorted meaning, which is actually humanitarian, decorative and utilitarian, for it functions within and in favour of the terror of the rule of law and its alienated art paradigm, when it tries to refashion protest as a banal merchandise unit.
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A Way Out
By reproducing the expected, canonised and legalised ways of presenting, all three cases of delegated performance are actually fortifying the traditional qualities of hierarchic relation performer–spectator. However, in the case of Socialdress the performer–spectator relation was deeply relativised right at the very level of representation, by the act of intervention into the space of the exhibition, where spectators turn into performers who actually intervene. Loosening of the performative order of the existing was in this case evident by the fact that the means of repression were activated.
The subjectivation in the context of recuperation executed by means of mainstream art production mode has actually happened by means of demolishing its very (both material and symbolic) source. The subjectivation was therefore the very embodiment of the resistance, performed as a reminder that the symbolic violence always has its physical/bodily background, that it can always cause a response; the attack is nothing else than an embodied symbolic reaction to the very police’s logic of “proper” allocation of (originally emancipatory) slogan “power to the people”—at the safe display in a gallery, at a shelf of a shop. The performer–spectator statics has been shaken by causing a rupture in the core of the terror of properness, of logic of safety, supported by the art system, too, opening a way out of the structure of power that tends to convince us that there is no escape from the existing. This “radical rupture caused by impossible event”, is the act of speaking, that is, strictly speaking, the only possible way of speaking in the aesthetic regime.
i On the contradictions of understanding violence: “Subjective violence, which is usually presented to us as an ‘outbreak’, ‘excess’, ‘deviation’ from the ‘normal condition’, is merely a consequence and not the cause of state violence, which maintains this ‘normal’ state invisibly (by means of ideological and repressive apparatuses). In fact, only with subjective violence does state violence become visible, that is, is revealed in all its brutality.”—Lana Zdravković: Čigava je vstaja in komu naj služi (Dnevnikov Objektiv, 23 Feb 2013).
ii A preview and the pricelist of products in the Socialdress series was available at socialdress.net at the time of writing this text (source: Moderna galerija Ljubljana, Zaključevanje kolekcije Socialdress – Moč ljudem, Vmesna postaja 1:1, MSUM, 9 Jan 2014; “At the event, the offer of the art collection Socialdress – Power to the People will be presented for the first time, and will be available upon request. You will be able to order the textile items during the event.”, 6 Jan 2014). There was an interesting announcement on the Socialdress project’s website, which, in its own way, commodifies the purpose of empowerment (usually, persons get empowered, not objects): “All empowered household textile items will be on display at the solo exhibition …” The collision between the assessed damage in the amount of 30,000 euros and the actually offered value of products, which can be determined from the pricelist, is also telling; if we add up the values of all available items, we get a significantly lower amount of their total value. Such collisions can be interpreted as proof of the real power of fetishisation as a consequence of working within the systemic art paradigm.
This text was written in co-operation with Lana Zdravković. Presented at international conference The Aesthetic Regime of Art: Dimensions of Rancière’s theory organised by Slovenian Society of Aesthetics and Maska Institute, in Ljubljana on 27 November 2015, with attendance of Jacques Rancière.