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#9: What do we have in common?

Jean Fisher and Dmitri Vilensky /// A dialogue on collective agency, how to invent new social spaces and a radical public

DV: In your article “Art and the Ethics of In(ter)vention’ , you speak of the need for new configurations of collective action against what is perceived as accelerating alienation, not just of labor but of the spirit. Of course, for us as a group this is very important. We come together to reclaim collective agency. It would be good if we could talk a little in this direction. How do you see the relation of this agency to the dominant power? How can they dissolve its dominance? Which means of production do they have in their hands?

DV: In your article “Art and the Ethics of In(ter)vention’ , you speak of the need for new configurations of collective action against what is perceived as accelerating alienation, not just of labor but of the spirit. Of course, for us as a group this is very important. We come together to reclaim collective agency. It would be good if we could talk a little in this direction. How do you see the relation of this agency to the dominant power? How can they dissolve its dominance? Which means of production do they have in their hands?

JF: I waver between pessimism and optimism on this issue! In recent times we have witnessed violence committed between communities struggling over conflicting national narratives – Northern Ireland, the Balkans, various African states, to name a few – undoubtedly fuelled by state economic and political interests. Nonetheless, there has been a move towards some ‘resolution’ of these problems, in part because globalisation itself has changed the stakes, such that ‘local’ issues are now seen to be part of the ‘global’ landscape – ecologically, politically and economically – and have to be reconfigured accordingly. When one thinks of collective action against the ‘dominant power’, however, one is immediately faced with the question, where is this power located? Up to the 1980s one could still identify state institutions and elected officials as targets for political activism; but the power exercised through invisible, transnational corporate interests in collusion with some sectors of the media is rather less easy to confront. Part of our impotence and ethical outrage is witnessing the blatant hypocrisy of the state, which is perceived as acting as a buffer zone for these interests rather than attending to the welfare of citizens.
However, there was an optimistic moment at the turn of the millennium with the mobilisation of collective action like the Mexican Zapatistas, Anti-Capitalism and Reclaim the Streets, which seemed to confirm Hardt and Negri’s thoughts on the mobilisation of the ‘multitude’ or Agamben’s identity-less ‘community’ that would by-pass the rigid structures favoured by the state. An interesting facet of these actions is that they took advantage of the communications technologies of power (as did later, of course, Islamic ‘terrorists’!). I was also interested in how these movements were conducted in the spirit of Bakhtin’s popular carnivalesque, but unhappily this approach to change has been overshadowed by an escalation of atrocities, which feed into now overt state promotion of fear. We are all now hostage to two quasi-religious fundamentalisms.
Have there been signs of such mobilisation in artistic practice? Yes, insofar as only the market clings to the myth of the transcendental artistic subject, and more artists are willing to form collaborations with non-artists and address public issues, as Documenta11 was bold enough to show. The question is, as you say, can artistic political intervention lead to collective agency? In itself, I would say no. At best it can inspire a new vision of reality. The difficult part is how to translate insight into action. Under technological-capitalist hegemony, organising the Big Revolution seems no longer an option, so we are left with the hit-and-run tactics of guerrilla warfare. If there’s to be resistance, it has to happen from the more ‘local’ level by processes of diffusion. There is also the question of how to change people’s consciousness in the face of the power of the media. As we saw in Britain this year, even the more ethically aware news media can be silenced when they challenge state policies, so that they are finally forced into ‘self-censorship.’

DV: It’s the same situation in Russia. But for us, for an example, the point of our optimism could be formulated as follows: we are a small group of people in a big country, but at the same time, we have control of our independent media, in some way; for us, it’s important to construct a situation at least in the cultural field. […] Let’s take Petersburg. We have a community of six or seven people who can produce a ‘zine, make public actions, exhibitions and other things. Now imagine if we had not one just a one community but six or ten, each of them with about six people, who would maybe develop in their own fields. I’m sure could stop many things or do them differently. The real question is how to stimulate the growth of more communities of this kind. Maybe right now, if one is talking about the possibility of a new language, because what you explained about activist language, this carnivalesque language, is actually quite hard to incorporate into the system of contemporary art.

JF: I think it’s more than a question of inventing new languages. I think for art now it’s also a question of inventing new social spaces or imaginaries. That was why I was interested in the Peruvian “Wash the Flag” action, which activated the downfall of Fujimori’s corrupt government, and which I think inspired Francis Alys’s collaborative action, “When Faith Moves Mountains”, which in its absurdity was a ‘carnivalesque’ action. It was an action performed outside the institution, but nonetheless in part funded by it. The art world contains many art worlds, but its public face is controlled by the interests of the institutions. So inevitably the more critical art is almost always on the periphery, or with those artists who seem to be doing one thing but are actually doing another. When we ask whether there can be an art of resistance, and by that I mean a resistance to the exclusive instrumentalizing languages of hegemonic discourse, I think about earlier strategies. For instance, with the historical avant-garde, or political activism from the 1960s through the 1980s, the attitude was invariably oppositional. There are many reasons why I think that oppositionality is no longer a viable strategy. I’ve mentioned the problem of locating power, and also the question of reinventing language. Resistance has to happen in a more subtle way to try to penetrate institutional structures and undermine their claims to truth. Local networks need to make alliances with greater networks to form an internationalized ‘community’.

DV: But don’t you think that there’s a big problem with some of these groups? Some of them are really internationally know but locally marginal. We can represent Russia at big symposia, but when we come back home, we see that we are completely detached from cultural institutions, with whom we can sometimes cooperate and implement our messages, deconstructing them in a hidden form, but at the same time, they’re powerful enough not to care, they can swallow any type of message, especially when they are packed into a seductive visual form.

JF: Yes, this is true, but we have to acknowledge the limitations of the institution – its physical structure, its ideological framework, its sources of funding, etc. But for artists, it’s still a question of inventing new social spaces and forms of public engagement, as the institution is still an inadequate structure for any art that wants or has any kind of social or political consciousness. This is why it is important that artists build more fluid networks that do not depend wholly on narrow local interests, but through which the local concerns can be brought into a dialogical relation with the global. It’s a question of connecting local singularities that might become a ‘multiple’ on an international level. In any case, as the saying goes, one is never a prophet in one’s own country! I have to make alliances with those with whom I can have a conversation, even if they’re globally dispersed, as a way of sharing experience and knowledge.

DV: Yesterday, I was talking to Jens Hoffman and he said, “But look at how the institutions have changed. The young generation of curators from the 1990s are all running institutions.” Or in Scandinavia last year, there was a lot of talk about the institution’s power, and Scandinavians are very much concerned with rethinking the institutions as the most powerful means of production for most artists. But at the same time, how do we trace the difference between community and institution? Any community can institutionalize itself and find some more or less permanent support. Where is the difference between institution and community? Sometimes, this difference can be really blurred. Or to put it simply: do these grass-roots independent communities need to be productive communities? Do you see some perspective in this direction?

JF: I can’t see any change in institutional power or structure without a genuine change of consciousness, or will to do so, The art institution has undergone changes, but only under pressure from changing forms and requirements of art practice. I teach a class in the construction of ‘otherness’, multiculturalism and postcoloniality to curatorial students, and I am happy to say that some awareness of these issues has crept into their projects. However, they still all want to be curatorial ‘stars’ in prestigious institutions! My hope is that maybe they can function like Gramsci’s “organic intellectual”, someone who comes from the community but is able to visualize and actualise possibilities for change. Likewise, Michel de Certeau’s ‘shifter’ (in The Capture of Speech), or Deleuze’s ‘minoritisation’ of language by dislocated communities seeking to reinvent their subjectivities. Now, I think artists potentially can perform this function, since to change consciousness of a given situation is to reconfigure community, which admittedly demands time and patience. It is true what you say that any grassroots group can become a fixed structure; the question is, how do you encourage flexibility and openness given that there are always ‘interests’ at stake? Other than insisting that any structure is subject to changing conditions, and this is precisely what art can reveal, I don’t know the answer.

DV: Do you think that art can be considered as a tool for empowerment of those who are normally excluded, who have no voice in this new global order? Can art be one of the most important tools for empowerment through creative engagement?

JF: Disempowerment is being deprived of individual and collective subjectivity, of imagining new possibilities of life. This was the problem of imperialist subjugation. For dispossessed peoples, the issue has been to reclaim selfhood and cultural renewal through and against the alien ideological structures imposed on them. An example here is James Joyce who exiles himself from Ireland because he could find no place for himself as a speaking subject under English colonial rule. Joyce ‘resolves’ this in Finnegans Wake by contaminating English by, among other things, Irish orality and the scriptovisual labyrinths of the Irish Book of Kells, which forces it to mean ‘differently’. At the same time he reinvents literature! One could also quote the emergence of African American culture through the reinvention of musical and literary idioms that play across European and African traditions. The influence of African America on global popular music means that its political messages to some extent also get carried across. Art, alas, doesn’t possess the same capacity for diffusion, but it is still a valuable tool for self-representation.

DV: Yeah, I agree, right now it is somehow in the air that many people have simultaneously started talking about the idea of the radical public. We should also imagine another level of public, not a passive consumer, but people who actively participate in the process of art’s production by permanently reinventing art. I think this is one of the most current questions: how do we activate the public? In an ideal situation, you will of course see that this public will be split into some different communities which has their own task and their own configuration. But I think the main problem of any institutionalized art praxis, is that they immediately become populist practices, and populist practices are very dangerous. Because art serving communities is also dangerous: art should be in the avant-garde, it should really open new horizons, for developing not only what is at hand, but what it should be, just to show new perspective. I think this can really be something to start with.

JF: I would agree that has to continually reinvent itself and its relation to the public sphere. One of my problems with activist art is its tendency to think a critique of the status quo is sufficient; it is valuable to give public awareness of social injustice, but activist strategies tend to end up looking too much like sociology. For me, art is also about imagining a reality that isn’t necessarily the reality one lives in, that is, it’s about enabling new insights on contemporary existence and how we might inhabit the world differently. I think that one of the main problems for artists goes back to Adorno and Benjamin’s debates on mass media and information culture respectively, and the extent to which they condition both our idea of reality and our capacity to transmit experience. Or, indeed, that under industrialised capitalism the worker was not in control of his or her own means of production. Perhaps the new audiovisual technologies and home computers can alter that aspect and enable people a more creative relation to work? De Certeau considered it was too facile to assume that consumers passively absorbed what was given to them. That, in fact, like the bricoleur, they selected and combined what they needed, often in ways that subverted the intentions of producers. More recently, in speaking of current trends in art, Nicholas Bourriaud has called this ‘post-production’ and attributes it to the influence of the Web and the pop culture of ‘cut-n’-mix’. However, I would say that this tendency is predated precisely by the survival tactics of dispossessed cultures under colonial regimes. They present lessons of hope that people can still take the power of invention into their own hands.

In thinking of art and its social efficacy, we might reconsider Benjamin’s question about the transmissibility of experience; experience not as something that ‘belongs’ to self-presence but that connects us in a shared existence. Here I’m also thinking of Jean-Luc Nancy’s insistence that Being is not a self-enclosed, self-generating entity, but always and at its inception a ‘being together with’. In this sense, what it important in art may be less what it says than what it does at an intersubjective level. It is this that distinguishes it from most mediated forms of representation, which, as Benjamin pointed out, don’t transmit experience but information. In Britain art has to an extent been incorporated into the entertainment industry (vis-?-vis, the popularity of Tate Modern, blockbuster shows and the Turner Prize). Rather than lament this, we should encourage this non-connoisseurial viewing public as a new collective experience. Against instrumentalising technologies, is it not experience and its transmissibility that must be reclaimed? We can only ask that art be capable of touching an unrealised aspect of our own experience of the fragility of the human. These are the conversations we need to have – and this is how I understand Bakhtin’s popular carnivalesque!

London, October 2004

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