The answer they give in the film (via the intermediary of the guard) is: because they have heard that “art is on the side of the oppressed.” Although the details, as hinted at by the museum staff, are sketchy, we are led to imagine that the establishment of “national democracy” in Holland and other parts of (what can only be Northern and Western) Europe is so brutal that the escapees have nowhere else to turn but the museum. But what they find there is an identification with the oppressed, with the revolutionary and critical potentials of art, that is literally canned, contained, archived, monitored, and rationed. The museum has an extensive collection of “revolutionary” art, but the chorus acknowledges what this art’s fate has been in our world: as a paragon of “timelessness” (although revolutions are only timely, or they’re not revolutions), and as a source of that most counter-revolutionary of genres – reconstructions of historical avant-garde performances and installations. The characters deliver many of their lines against a backdrop of Black Panther newspapers – neatly framed and lined up on a wall and thus not likely to provoke any nice white person’s “fear of a black planet.” “Street art” is relegated to a panopticon-like space known as The Eye, which now serves as a jail cell-cum-theatrical stage for the ever-silent immigrants. Finally, contemporary art’s “critical” mission (“our job is to wake society up”) is so precious that any soft-pedaling of “criticality” is warranted to avoid closure or budget cuts.
Chto Delat’s Museum Songspiel: The Netherlands 20XX is a scary film, not least because it coldly and blithely illustrates how the current democracies (whether “social,” “liberal” or “sovereign”) disappear the undesirables in their midst, the refugees/asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, and “lawbreakers.” In this sense, the film – despite its flimsy gesture toward a dystopian future as its setting (“20XX,” “European National League,” “euthanasia” experiments carried out by scientists, etc.) – is not science fiction. It is firmly situated in the present: this happens nearly everywhere almost every day, however much we would rather not know about it. (And the scary part, as the film shows, is how conveniently we forget that we do know.) What makes it “science fiction,” however, is not these stock elements from a threadbare genre, but its resort to a wholly fantastical plot premise: the deportees seek to claim asylum, of all places, in a contemporary art museum. What are the deportees doing in a museum.
The impromptu performance of Victory over the Sun (refashioned as Towards the Light) is, after all, not meant to save the immigrants, but to save the museum and its staff from the untoward consequences of their intrusion. But it inadvertently shows how contemporary art and its handmaiden “critical theory” often function vis-à-vis the oppressed. These acquire legitimacy as “performers,” as “actors,” as data points in the artist’s “solo show mapping the deportations of immigrants,” as colorful clowns in an avant-garde pantomime. As soon, however, as the powers that be – the media, the “Center for Extremism Prevention” (which, by the way, is the name of a quite real branch of the police in the filmmakers’ homeland) – have tagged (and bagged) them as “criminals,” they disappear entirely from view – and from the minds of the art-loving public. The empty Eye at film’s end is a fitting symbol of the void at the heart of the liberal/social-democratic project and the blind spot in the eyes of its thinking (and leisure) classes. Art is not life, goddamn it!
In the real world, the “immigrants” have names: Derkan, Dorgija, Aurel, Salomee, Daniel, Asya. Since they’re identified in the credits, we’ll hope that everything is alright with them. In that same real world, however, “deportees” (as Woody Guthrie once reminded us) have, as often as not, no names (by definition). Museum Songspiel is thus an almost perfect little piece of art, set in an impeccable (real) museum, that tells us: Life is not art. Life is not just a matter of names, but of the people behind those names, the stories they could tell us, and the things we could do together. Leave the museum.
Published in the catalogue “Towards the Other” edited by TOK, St. Petersburg 2011