The process of capitalization of “engaged art from Eastern Europe”, specifically underlined by the public intervention entitled Invitation to War, is a trigger for this writing.
The intervention was designed by Arnold Schlachter and Veda Popovici, and implemented together with Bogdan Drâgânescu, Mihai Bumbeş and Mihai Lukacs. The group intervened in one of presentations of the Voina group at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest on 16 March 2012. The Voina (= War) group became famous for its provocative actions against the Russian state, corporatism and consumerism.
The spatial and political context revealed to be way more important than the form and purpose of the presentation itself. The museum is located in Casa Poporului (People’s House) building, which is the popular name for the parliamentary palace, a mighty building, currently the second largest in the world, housing the parliament, the secret service and various private companies that have a contractual relationship with the state. The building, also named Casa Republicii, was once a privileged area of the Ceauşescu administration, and after 1989 it became the bearer of symbolic and material power in the neoliberalism envisioned “post-communist” state.
Between this constellation of concentrated institutional power and Voina’s performance within it, the intervention group perceived a certain tension or even a syndrome of (perverse) neutralization of potentially critical artistic practice. The contradiction of Voina’s performance in a location loaded with many authoritarian meanings was emphasized even more by the extremely strict security system on the spot. All visitors to the event, including the performing artists, had to pass a detailed security check of their bodies and personal belongings, as the entire facility was subject to military control.
Due to these circumstances, the intervention group understood the event as a call to war—as Schlachter declares: “A war against the current form of the Romanian state, a police state, which has been constantly accelerating its repressive character in the last six months. (In Romania at that time there were mass protests against the ruling elites.) The fundamental right to protest and oppose state authority was and still is seriously violated. Many activists and others were arrested, punished and treated violently and psychologically by the military arm of the state, the privileged gendarmerie.”
Within the People’s House, the war can be merely symbolic, but is it only a representation of the real war, or actually its part?
The space in question is one of those in which the protest is domesticated and nullified, as the intervention’s protagonists noticed, too. For this reason (?) they decided to enter the war in the only possible way for them, with toy guns, declaring further: “Just as freedom of speech is a toy, and protest is only a simulator in the eyes of the authorities.” So they decided to play their assigned role, the role of harmless toys of terrorists, which “authorities attribute to artists”. However, the security guards took away three of the five pistols from them on the grounds that they could be used to threaten and create panic.
“In the space which the state has dedicated to contemporary art, contemporary artists are not welcome if they undermine authority,” the terrorists toys concluded and, just before the start of Voina’s presentation, they stood in front of “obedient audience” with two pistols pointed at it and with this message on poster: “I came to Voina, but my plastic gun had to stay at the museum’s security control.” Despite the threat of guns, the audience did not panic. The declaration concludes: “We are completely safe in the most secure building in Romania. The boundaries of security and control seem unattainable. Threat as a simulator and neutralization of any conflict, this is the only possible Voina in the People’s House.”
The intervention group recognized Voina’s appearance in a specific institutional context as a departure from (declared) critical practice, as a paradox of the presentation of a potentially critical gesture within the context of a location which is charged with the potential of total control, with the symbolism of a totalitarian body of authority—institutions of power, including the art related institution, connected within a single architectural physis. The group responded to the artwashed presentation with an ironic invitation to war, that is, in a polite way. Could the politeness have the political power (the power of liberating in the common)? The group understood the situation as a revelation of typical tendency of the art field, the tendency to eliminate any conflict. Critical artistic practice is desirable only as subject to the market or as embedded (historicized) within the culture industry, as freed from real critical “ballast”, as capitalized art of the East/South which can criticize everything except the (Western) hegemony’s core.
So-called critical art can occupy precisely the position in a collection, catalog, and exhibition that is predestined for it, assigned to it by the cultural policy (police), assigned to it as a polite invitation to war.
According to the intervention group, the invitation to war is exactly that dynamic, that mode, according to which the art field exercises its authoritarianism to produce “political” (seemingly political) art from selected subjects/objects, that is, above all, the polite—apolitical—art. In such a constellation—an arrangement of power relations—which the group calls “post-war” in their text written at the time of the intervention, new forms of critical strategies are necessary to restore the power to the action. With the thesis on the ambivalence of post-war, the state of muted, controlled or forbidden rebellion, they actually point to the danger of an increasingly sophisticated mechanism of maintaining the status quo (the everlasting preservation of the field as it is).
The always open invitation of the art field to war can be understood as a structural tendency of the exercise of modern power. Even toy terrorists sometimes barely break through its total technology of an Orwellian-Stalinist character. And although the group accepted the system’s invitation to war by performing the intervention, it avoided it at the same time by publishing the reflection.
To accept non-confrontational dynamics and avoid direct conflicts—by using techniques of mimicry, humor, over-identification, etc., that is, to avoid the dichotomy of the rebel vs. the state or the oppressed vs. the authority—is ambiguous, but often the only possible course of action. It is conditioned also by the thought of safety and comfort of protagonists, which opens up even more the need for an in-depth reflection of the very circumstances of the apparently eliminated conflict, as well as of the innovative ways of acting and placing oneself in the common space. This case is valuable because its protagonists did just that.
The questions that arise: How to reject or bypass the obedience logic? How to actually carry out the violation of a prohibition, as an invasion into the established hegemony, as a self-organized practice of breakthroughs?
Rather than answering to such questions, a practice of an affirmative and liberating character for everyone who enters it could be a continuously maintained situation of living beyond of what is supposed to be (and already is) a permanent global war, literary installed in our very bios—both the collective and individual one—through variety of legalistic, biopolitical, medical and neuro-programming techniques (allowed by ourselves).
The permanent war is the core of the allegedly green sustainability advocated much by the empire’s agents. The art field (its subjects) totally relates to this agenda adopting it as a perverted form of creativity, the exclusive one—in terms of actively practicing the excluding of non-aligned subjects, those who are consciously interested in the beyond.
In the core of the war, there is always a body related creativity-of-the-outside even in the field‘s inside. Rather than a clash of two conditions, this contrast could be perceived as a fluidity of changing of one’s own perspective (attitude, viewpoint, thinking, sensing) about the world as possible/actual paradise.