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David Riff Dmitry Vilensky

Chto Delat (David Riff & Dmitry Vilensky) in a dialogue with WHW // Solidarity: with whom, how, against what?

Published in Russian in Moscow Art Magazine, 2005

DV+ DR: Solidarity [a word which we owe to the French Communists] signifies a fellowship in gain and loss, in honor and dishonor, in victory and defeat, a being, so to speak, all in the same boat. Trench. Recently I was rather intrigued by a fragment that I found in one interview that Susan Buck-Moriss made with Grant Kester. She said: “This is Adorno’s point when he speaks of the somatic solidarity we feel with victims of socially organized violence, even when that violence is justified in our own culture’s term. So I want to say that aesthetics is the body’s form of critical cognition, and that this sensory knowledge can and should be trusted politically. It is empathy rather than sympathy, because it is capable of producing solidarity with those who are not part of our own group, who do not share our collective identity”.

I would like to suggest this quotation from Susan Buck-Moriss as point of departure in our exchange of opinions on what solidarity is. First of all, I hope that this statement might help us to bridge the traditional socio-political dimension of solidarity with art and the cultural situation in general.

In the sphere of real politics, there are different modes of “showing” solidarity:“Wear this ribbon to show your solidarity with AIDS victims”,or donate some money to support the victims of repression, or go to the demo, or whatever. Of course, just as in political life, cultural workers now find themselves signing different mailing lists and petitions in support of the victims of different type of repression from the side of the state, fundamentalist groups or intelligence services. This happens in the USA (enough to remember Critical Art Ensemble), in Poland, in Russia and so on…

But is this the only procedure for the demonstrating solidarity? And what are its limitations?

Moreover, the call for solidarity is often an appeal from a marginal position. What I mean is that it is a way of calling out for support when you are rather marginal in the local political situation and the question of your survival hinges upon your ability to mobilize mechanisms of international support (through funding, cooperation etc.). In this sense, the performance of a call for solidarity is rewarded in some way, out of sympathy. More often than not, the (much-needed) support comes from the system it opposes. The system is not homogeneous and there are always lots of “good guys” who are already inside, who can help you to come in, out of solidarity.

The question is relevant because such “shows of solidarity” often seem dangerously ineffective and crumble as soon as “real life” comes back into play. In recent times, we can hardly remember any relevant protest of cultural workers aimed at breaking the routine of the spectacle. The strike of “intermittents du spectacle” was aimed at keeping old social benefits and did not touch the notion of the festivals they worked on. And there are hardly any effective boycotts of biennales, exhibition-projects or institutional activities worth mentioning; it doesn’t not matter how bad and senseless they are and in which direction they seem to be heading. My experience in organizing such open protests and pushing the organizers to provide the artists with more decent conditions to realize their work have been very negative on the whole. At the beginning almost everyone is saying that the project has no sense, that the organizers are assholes and they see no reason to participate, but finally everyone is smiling and taking part in the event that they were opposing. It seems that you have no way to reveal your protest in our heavily competitive world; at times, it even seems really stupid to stand up against what is “just another show”, especially if this “show” doesn’t place your (cultural) existence in question. And even if you do “show” your solidarity, it often seems like you’re simply performing some speech-act or sympathizing at best, without actually experiencing the somatic solidarity that Adorno is talking about.

Isn’t “a show of solidarity” often just a non-committal performance? And what happens to such shows of solidarity when they are aestheticized? Don’t they become the kind of fake shows of solidarity that pretend to be interactive but wind up being little more that venues for cultural agents to “jump on the bandwagon” and profile themselves?

This brings me to the real crux of the matter: maybe solidarity is something that only become possible when we aren’t just expressing our sympathy, but when our “bodies” (to return to Buck-Moriss’ metaphor) revolt, when we empathize with those people who are appealing to us.

Perhaps it makes sense to think of politics as something beyond sympathy, as something based on an empathic experience that leads to the “existential” root of any genuine politicization. (The moment which the critic Dietrich Diedrichsen identifies when someone stands up and declares that “I can’t live like this anymore”, meaning “I can’t live knowing that the others live like this”, or “in fact, nobody should live like this, no matter whether they belong to our group or not”).

The question, then, is: can aesthetics be understood as a conduit for the kind of empathy that leads beyond the closed community of friends, beyond sympathy for some disconnected other, beyond performances that mean very little once these part of thespectacle is over?

WHW: Starting from your letter, we feel that quotation of Susan Buck-Morss is a bit short in its limitation of the solidarity to the notions of “victims” and “socially organised violence”. During past decade a lot has been written (notably by authors as Zizek and Salecl) about notions of “victimisation” and “identification with the suffering Other”, which are obviously at work at various Western charities and “humanitarian military interventions” and definitely are not, and could be not, model for “new revolutionary solidarity”. That type of “solidarity with the victims” is very easy, and even fashionable – we can go to the party, demonstrations, wear ribbon or donate some money, and feel relieved, clear our conscious because “we have done our part”.

But proper political solidarity has to be conceived not as pure empathy with the suffering Other [that starts various “humanitarian actions”, or simply ends with them] but as solidarity in common struggle. Something along the line Commandante Marcos said – quoting by heart – we don’t expect that you come to Chiappas and fight here with us, but to do whatever you can wherever you are. The only authentic communication is not one based on sex/gender/race/religion/nation/ethnic group/language… but on the “solidarity in a common struggle”, when I discover that the deadlock which hampers me is also the deadlock which hampers the Other.

As you mention, the word “solidarity” we owe to French Communists. After the French revolution “fraternity” from “Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite” was conceived as solidarity – as minimum responsibility and care of the whole society and society as a whole for each and every citizen. Through 18 and 19 century such idea was developed in various ways not only by socialists, but also by figures such as Disraeli and Carlyle. Their writings show how can such idea be remodeled in conservative or even proto-fascist way, when suddenly responsibility of each citizen (political subject) towards any and every other subject, becomes responsibility of the patriarchal political figure/subject (Monarh, Leader…) for the well being of the citizens of the Nation-State. Problem with even the initial revolutionary idea of the mutual solidarity of the political subjects (citizens) in the age of globalisation is the question of the excluded Other – who is accepted as citizen, who is regarded as political subject? Various nationalist and right-wing movements are totally accepting such idea of “national solidarity” where state and we as the people have to care about well being of our fellow-citizens and in order to do that, stop the immigration, close borders, prevent those dirty, loud, uneducated foreigners from stealing our jobs and disturbing our way of life!

In Negri/Hardt’s “Empire” one of the new political goals was set as a global citizenship [Empire, pg 400]. Events after September 11th, show it as necessity. But also point towards impossibility of its actual, direct realization in capitalist conditions because global citizenship cannot be achieved without abolition of state borders. So, as some contemporary version of “Jewish question” (Marx, not Hitler), it is still necessary as goal, as something to strive for, but can only be achieved by abolishment of capitalism.

As it was often pointed out, Western countries – especially USA – always made wrong decisions about taking side in local political fights. They have always put their particular interests to the proclaimed universal values of political/civil/human rights. They didn’t have any real interest for social-political dynamics of the Arab/Muslim world, for the real establishment of the criteria of the peace, freedom, democracy, welfare and economic prosperity – which are supposed to regulate life “at home”. More or less following views of their governments, people of the West didn’t show too much solidarity with the repressed people of the Arab/Muslim world – they were supported and used only as instrument in the fight against “communist evil empire” (as in Afghanistan where CIA created Osama Bin Laden).

The so called “war on terrorism” can not be won by antagonisation of the whole Arab/Muslim world. Two way actions – of the West and of local political forces – are necessary to ensure political rights of the people in the region, from Palestina to Pakistan. It means inclusion of the Arab/Muslim countries as equal agencies in the international relations, and at the same time, their real acceptance of the UN Universal declaration of human rights. Some of their “cultural specifics”, such as throwing acid into faces of women that dare to walk around uncovered, have to be stopped and prosecuted. Others, such as equal right and access to education (regardless of sex, social position or ethnic origin) have to be promoted and reinforced.

Also – as Chomsky points out all the time – USA themselves have to stop acting like “terrorist state”, recognize global rules, accept rule of the international court for war crimes, environment protection acts, Convention on the rights of the children, all way up to the prosecution of the various persons responsible for politics that supported, approved and covered various war crimes and misuse of power (such as notorious Henry Kissinger).

But also, we have to keep in mind that USA cannot be identified with Empire. Problem of the popular/people’s/democratic/left movement today is exactly that the enemy (capital, in the form of multinational corporations, international trade agreements…) is rhysomatic and we are simply disorganised. That is, solidarity, which would not quickly slip and deteriorate into charity actions in support for “suffering other”, cannot be achieved without some kind of common ideology and at least minimum – however networked, rhysomatic and non-hierarhical organisation.

Only after the events of Sept 11 one can see how much in post bipolar-divided world we lack one, even totally informal organization, such as Nonaligned movement – “informal” because it didn’t have a firm organisational structure, hierarchy and military arms to force its will; but on the other hand, literary “formal” – because it didn’t represent anything else but pure form of the international, multilateral relations. Nonaligned movement created and reflected self-consciousness and self-esteem of the post-colonial Third World countries, and thus effectively made them agency of the international relations. It is worthy to note that such position also limited scope of militant organisations and use of terrorist tactics, which exploded after such simbolic position was abolished (as collateral victim of end of Cold War, fall of Berlin Wall and Eastern European Communist block in ‘90s).

WHW: For many culturpessimists (so called “radical political thinkers”) whenever somebody mentions culture it is the “culturalization the politics”, as worst accusation. We think it is too simplistic – as if culture and politics are two totally separated spheres. If Freud and Marx have thought us something it is exactly idea that there are no strictly separated spheres. But who would be agency of some imaginary properly political action? For radical political culturpessimists, it could not be political parties (because they are “all the same”, all accept same neoliberal doxa), it could not be various civil movements (they are too narrow in their particular demands), antiglobalists (disorganised, engaged in empty rituals, trendy, other side of the same globalisation coin…), and yet nobody believes in some new revolutionary party (because either “history has proved…” or “it will necessarily end in Gulag”)… Perhaps, in present conditions, if we aim directly at political action, we are doomed to miss it, to fail. Perhaps only way to achieve some actually/properly political result is oblique/sideways/awry, as a metaphor we could also say anamorphic.

DV: You have made very important comments on the current political situation – some points of view I can share but with some I am a bit confused – specially when you talk about the Arab/Muslim world: in the end, I see almost no difference with the official rhetoric of neo-liberals, which also appeals to the universality of political rights and the banning of “cultural specifics” that do not fit into them. And it is too vague to say that“the people of the West don’t show enough solidarity with the repressed people of the Arab/Muslim world”. This might be true for people in general not but if you go to any political demo: here, you will see that everyone is incredibly enthusiastic in expressing solidarity with the Arab/Muslim world. But no-one ever considers how complex the situation in this region really is.

I was often asked what do you think about situation in Palestine – are you for Israel or for Palestine? This question is a typical example of black-mail!And we must learn to answer such questions properly. I am for the solidarity between people of Israel and Palestine who understand their mutual interest to fight against any type of fundamentalism and exploitation. If such a solidarity net-work would be possible, then we could talk the return of genuine politics to the area of conflict; until then it’s a blindness of the lefts to support one fundamentalism against the other.

DR: Just to comment the historical background of this problem, to briefly scratch the surface of its complexity. One of the great tragedies of the post-war period – whose evil flowers we are harvesting today – is the betrayal of the Israeli Left and the complete failure of internationalist solidarity as far as the Middle East is concerned. What’s really astonishing is that the European Left does not recognize itself in the vital leftwing, Marxist tradition in Israel, but wholeheartedly accepts the idea of the PLO or the Hesbollah as an emancipatory, post-colonial resistance-movement, without ever calling into question its traditionalist, nationalist, and even fundamentalist ideologies, which barely hide a corrupt system of warlords and profiteers. It – i.e. the European Left – also hardly ever questions its own anti-Semitic, anti-American stereotypes, as if it were immune to such sentiments on the strength of its Marxist-anarchist leanings.

There have been some exceptions over the last years, however, which I found fascinating. For an instance, the Berlin-based anti-Fascist Marxist group “Kritik und Praxis” regularly marches at Anti-Fa demonstrations with an Israeli flag to show its solidarity with the Israeli Left and to criticize the latent anti-Semitism of contemporary European society as a whole and of the European Left in particular. But there’s also an interesting aesthetic dimension to this display: the Israeli flag functions as an inverted sign that can be juxtaposed to the “Arafat kerchiefs” that have been so popular among European Leftists since the 1970s. But unlike these “kerchiefs”, which are fashion-items and can be worn to express a general “rebel” attitude (even stronger and more organic than Che Guevarra t-shirts, since they also have a functional role of protecting mouth and eyes against tear-gas), the Israeli flag is almost painfully dysfunctional and unfashionable. You can’t wear this flag: it’s an abstract symbol of a state with which is impossible – even for leftists from Israel or leftist Jews from elsewhere – to identify with completely. So the “show of solidarity” that “Kritik und Praxis” make actually unmasks the “solidarity display” (fashion statement) of the “Arafat kerchief” and opens up an impossible space that is both no-where and now-here, in which solidarity becomes a field of mutual interrogation, not “feel-good”, empty solidarity, uncritically coded and mediated in advance. Maybe this is the kind of “anamorphic” solidarity you’re talking about…

DV: This is a good point from which to return to the role that culture and art might play in public life. Today, the situation is very difficult. Politics are being pushed out of common public space, so that art and culture are the last zones where we still able to act and invent politics in the sense of “oblique/sideways/awry” way? Perhaps these are the last zones in which we still have a hope that this process will trigger a “solidarity of common struggle”?

DR: Or can “anamorphic” modes of solidarity can play an important role of bringing back the political to traditional (albeit extra-parliamentary) terrain, at demonstrations or during revolts? The example of “Kritik und Praxis” seems to illustrate this tendency, but there are even stronger examples: think of the much-cited cases of Argentina, where collaboration between artists and activists does not come down to some flat display, but actively uses contemporary modes of artistic production to redefine politics in situ, in the public sphere. By the same token, you could also look at the work of Oliver Ressler, whose documentaries on protest movements and their medial representation create networks of “virtual” solidarity, trying to create visual typologies of protest in the spaces of traditional art institutions, without ever really losing his own critical stance…

Maybe it would still be interesting to talk about the different forms involved, and this is where “solidarity” as a somatic form comes back in, not as in “identifying with the victimized other”, but as a more complex structure of experience, involving the panoply of devices that detach or remove experience and recast it in new spaces, supplying a new understanding of social form (in the vein of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, Shklovksy’s ostranenie, or Debord’s detournement). In how far are these “formalist” avant-garde artistic devices of politicizing the aesthetic still relevant today, and in how far has their historical location in the age after modernity changed them, in dialogue with real political praxis?

WHW: We could easily agree about limitations of the “rhetoric of human rights” and we are aware that false neutrality of reference to human rights often serves just to reinforce global New World Order, but we also believe that it would be wrong to go below that “historical level”. Rather than surrendering idea of human rights altogether to the enemy we could turn them into terrain of hegemonic struggle. To paraphrase Ghandi apropos Western Civilization: “Universal Human Rights? That would be good idea!” We could strive for different articulation of idea of human rights, perhaps along lines Renata Salecl suggests in her article Why is a woman a symptom of rights?: “According to currently dominant ‘male’ logic, all people have rights, with the exception of those who are excluded from this universality (for example, women, children, foreigners etc.). According to the ‘feminine’ logic, in contrast, there is no one who does not have rights; i.e. everybody taken individually possesses rights, but precisely because of this we cannot say that people as such have rights… Rights as such cannot be universalized, because universalization always needs an exception. There has to be someone who does not have rights for the universal notion of rights to exist. A postmodern approach to rights would be based on the claim that no one should remain without rights, which also means that no one can universally possess them.” (The Spoils of Freedom, Routledge 1994, p.133)

 

WHW: We also believe that such double-blackmails of choosing sides (if you supportPalestinian “right to self-determination” you are Anti-semite justifying terror and even Holocaust; if you support idea of Jewish state you are American imperialist in disguise etc.) should be rejected. One way to “answer such questions properly” and reject blackmail, would be to claim that Nation-states in the face of global capitalism are really unimportant, things of the past, but even so, each, even the smallest nation can still claim their right to establish its own National state. From Scotland & Walles to Chechenia, no one should remain without right to establish its own state. You want your own state – yes, please, why not, help yourself!

[check V. I. Lenin: The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det]

Question of role and position of Israel left is surely very interesting and something we don’t know much about, but considering “complexity of the historical background” of Israel and Palestine problem, reminds us on sad experience of discussions on Balkan wars and constant search for explanations in “complexities of the historical background”. We are deeply suspicious about any such talk that evokes “deep historical complexity” of certain actual political constellation while things are really much more simple – actual power relations.

Your argument also implies some kind of naive idealism – if only good people of both Israel and Palestine would rationally recognise that it is in their mutual interests to fight dark/evil forces of “any type of fundamentalism and exploitation” and that would bring golden age of solidarity and genuine politics. Problem is that the moment we start talking about “fundamentalisms” we are in the middle of liberal doxa.

Example of “Israeli flag” and “Arafat kerchiefs” is also problematic, ambiguous at least. For contemporary anti-fascist in Germany (Europe in general) it would be much more important to symbolically identify with new scape-goats, immigrants, Turks, Muslims, Arabs, Chinese, blacks… than with Jews as old Nazi target.

As for solidarity between people of Israel and Palestine, it is really the question on what grounds it can be built? They are “forced” to share same soil but there is no common ground between them. What could be “their mutual interests”? How could they recognise their “true” interests while they stick to national/ethnic identifications? To posit it in other way, would some common political programme be based on recognised solidarity or would some “return of genuine politics” enable solidarity network? What comes first, chicken or the egg? In our opinion, only possibility comes from those that are willing to sacrifice their own “National/Ethnic Thing”, find courage to be “bastards”, “traitors of the National Cause”. They could recognise their position as new global proletariat, ready to develop solidarity across the borders of ethnicity, nation, state or race…

WHW: Our talks at Kassel, especially discussion between Chto delat? and Etcetera… showed how our contexts are different and how different contexts change meaning of various acts or (art)works. While in Argentina & Brasil it is a common practice to engage in public actions on the borderline between political demonstrations and artistic happening, we in the Eastern Europe had to confess that such situations are extremely rare. Even more, we had to ask ourselves is it really something we should strive for, because at least in our experience, such mass demonstrations are mostly organised, orchestrated and (ab)used by right-wing forces. Yes, it is hard to take people out of shopping malls, but when they do go out to the streets to protest, it is after somebody’s head.

Escraches also made us think about our local situation. Experience of the post-Yugoslav wars proved that information, pure “knowledge” is not enough. Contrary to the liberal Western view that believed in the role of “free, independent media”, people in all post-Yugoslav states knew everything about crimes done in the “our name”, but that didn’t provoke any actions. Civil, anti-war etc. organizations were totally marginal. Also, in our context, people that did war crimes are still not even considered criminals, but as heroes. Common right-wing slogan for all accused for war crimes is “Hero, not a criminal”! So, what would be meaning and possible result to escrache such person?

How and when pure “information” turns into “knowledge”, and how and when such “knowledge” turns into “action”? That is one of biggest secrets today, and perhaps art can help us in exploration of those mechanisms.

 

What, How and for Whom/WHW is a curatorial collective (Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Natasa Ilic, Sabina Sabolovic and designer and publicist Dejan Krsic) that organizes different production, exhibition and publishing projects and also directs Galerija Nova in Zagreb, Croatia.

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