The status of the political in contemporary art and culture

Isaac Cordal, Politicians Discussing Global Warming, 2014. Sculpture

Klartext!: The Status of the Political in Contemporary Art and Culture
Various venues
January 14–16, 2005

The ascendance of the political in contemporary art over the last ten years is evidenced from Documentas to biennales the world over, from Manifestas to thematic “international” shows in museums and galleries. Inside the elite art system, questions of representation, the new global order, colonial and neocolonial practices and their consequences, shifting identities related to migrant movements, and the location of an irritated subject in aggressive capitalistic systems are presented to a more or less engaged audience. One nonetheless finds that the gesture of the political is at times stronger than the actual content.

In a world where capitalism has radically infiltrated most corners of the planet, where Castro’s Cuba lives under a paradoxical form of communism in which prostitution becomes of tool for survival, alternatives are difficult to find. On one hand, issues of aesthetics and theory are occasionally discussed inside the exclusive art system, from show to show and panel to panel. Yet the impact on society at larges seems to be rather small. One can’t help but wonder whether all of this talking takes place in order to sustain the art system and its practitioners. The art system represents capitalistic structures, reproducing tough market politics and functioning under funding conditions that focus largely on product and efficiency — which is exactly what we saw at the recent Klartext! conference in Berlin, where one statement may have followed the next, but little substantive discussion took place. Although this is a critique of the form, a number of urgent and important statements were made during the course of the three-day conference, a number of them highlighted below.

The author and curator Marius Babias emphasized the problem of anesthetizing the political, providing numerous examples of the strategic use of politics in the arts. Importantly, he critiqued the art world’s tendency to distance itself from social problems — as if it isn’t sexy enough to deal with the failures of European social politics at a time when the welfare state is being dismantled and aggressive migration policies are being implemented. These are policies connected to a brutal colonial history that, as a first step, argued Babias, should be reflected upon by European cultural practitioners in a form that refuses didactic moralizing. Such initiatives could take us closer to developing to developing archiving strategies that, ultimately, can help rethink the writing of collective histories.

Brian Holmes’s remarkable lecture on “Transparency & Exodus” put forward substantial thoughts on “the political process in mediated democracies,” where “choices of involvement and experiences of confrontation” are related to the crisis of experience of the subject. Here, the western political subject enters a state of emergency, confronted with its own material existence. In such a state the “deepest commonality between experimental art and activism, the notion of process, as a value in and of itself” becomes urgent. Holmes’s citation of Vaclav Havel’s significant 1978 essay on the “Power of the Powerless” was wholly pertinent as it speaks of the subtly manipulated subject in consumer societies.

Indeed, the notion of process-oriented exhibitions or activities is undeniably a form of resistance toward a system consumed with production and efficiency; it creates a space for audiences to interact and integrate their perceptive experiences. Although such process-oriented works include a specific fragility, they offer audiences the possibility of awareness and responsibility.

The Bernadette Corporation discussed the crisis of “the lack of experience” in contemporary art, a disease that arguably affects the whole of society, finally influencing political art. In such a situation, the collective taste, the gestures and codes of western individual subjects, the satiated children of freedom and neoliberalism, become signs of a confrontation with emptiness.

Anita di Bianco and the Beaver 16 Group she is affiliated with proposed a counter model in their practice: an anti-systemic anarchic structured space with political focus, largely based on Naomi Klein’s notion of learning from others while rejecting the post-Fordist concept of the expert.

The possibilities of action rather than mere critique were most clearly articulated in a closing panel that included Jacques Rancière, Chantal Mouffe, Irit Rogoff, and Roger Burgle. Here, panelists discussed the possibility of creating a space for a community that resists the separation between art and politics. To achieve such a community, however, it may be necessary to investigate forms of oppression, articulate critique, and offer visions without moralizing — all strategies that make it possible to transform the symbolic order. In the end, exhibitions have great potential to create a frame of action as alternative public spaces for research, debate, and more radical questions — empowering both artist and public.

Klartext!, if anything, offered us ideas: To clearly take responsibility and to engage in process by using exodus as a form; to reject the complete integration of capitalism and engage and identify with the question of art; to question the logic of projects supported by cultural politics and funding structures; to emphasize continuity rather than spectacle and therefore to create a frame of artistic activity which provokes action; to understand the space of the listeners/audience as a political space; to see the audience as singularities, than individualities, an ontological community; to create the possibility to engage.

—Gabriele Pestanli

Klartext! and the Appearance of the Real (3 Notes)

Discourse and the fiction of the real

Whenever one speaks publicly, whenever an utterance is enunciated, there is a danger. Terms like politics, aesthetics, art — terms inscribed, described, negotiated, discussed, and exploited — are statements involved in a circulation of meaning whose parameters are set by the organization of their appearance. These moments are moments of discourse, where meaning is inscribed upon a body politic. Conferences, where discourse is identified as such, are a highly potent form of “collective memory” (as described by Simon Sheikh) — moments where a “public is produced.” Although there seems to be public hunger for an engagement with these specific themes, a utopian fallacy underlies these efforts, this utopianism mystifies rather than clarifies, subsuming an engaged encounter with the suspended promise of solutions and redemptive answers.

In light of Jacques Rancière’s statement at the closing panel of Klartext! that “the real is fiction” and that, furthermore, we are constantly involved in a “consensus of the real,” the utopian impulse can be seen as a desire for escape — a placative moment in the process of appropriation.

In three days packed with panels, presentations and workshops, curators, philosophers, and thinkers, the likes of Chantal Mouffe, Rancière, Simon Sheikh, Irit Rogoff, and Marion Van Osten presented engaged expositions of the theoretical underpinnings of the messy business of dealing with politics and art. Examples of specific practices were presented by the likes of Yes Men, Oliver Ressler, the Bernadette Corporation, and Deborah Kelly. From the outset, a clear separation between practitioners and theoreticians was established, a subtle form of exclusion — as if theory does not constitute a practice or that the works presented are not necessarily enactments of discourse — as if both are not ultimately forms of fiction.

Cynicism, self-interest and activism

The insistence on presenting activism in the guise of art is a form of reappropriating it within the hegemony of the cultural sign. From Ressler’s literal documentation of interaction between activists and the authorities (from, in his own words, “the viewpoint of the activists”) to the ironic but ultimately limited work of Deborah Kelly (where the “normalization of process,” of gender, of race is tackled in a clichéd form and thus functions as a way out of a severe and engaged discussion), art is used to make politics. This practice could be dangerous because it assumes that, as Rancière warns, there is no “specificity to artistic praxis,” a conceptual move that mystifies while claiming to clarify. By hiding the specificity of art praxis, we hide the genealogy of this discourse. By claiming to speak the politics of the world, discourse hides its own politics. The abundance of fashionable activism, an indulgence that was obvious at Klartext!, makes one question the vested interest in a politics of play, an emphasis on pleasure, desire, transience, and impermanence as political tools. These are values that are transferred to the field of critique — becoming critical standards for the evaluation (exclusion of specific practices) of art.

Brian Holmes’s notion of “Exodus,” a strategy through which practictioners of a specific discourse evacuate the space reserved for them by the system they function within to discover a new positionality — a new subjectivity, a new organization of ontologies — becomes significant here. If one is to exit, it might be necessary to lose belief. A radical form of self-interest and cynicism (distasteful and unfashionable words) might be a strategic form of interfacing with the “real.”

Questions: problematics of the fetish

Is it the wish for some kind of interrogation or reorganization of activity that fuels the fetishization of gesture that one frequently finds in works that claim resistance? Or is it a nostalgia for the unrestrained, an interest in constructing a heroic self-image?

The question (as expressed in the press release) might not really be “identifying whether we are involved in the politicization of art or… an aestheticization of political themes and contents,” but rather that of interest and power relations that govern the very framing of both the political and art, and by extension the intensified fetishization of specific moments. It might be able to investigate the specificities of practice and discourse. Although the “criticality” that Rogoff espouses assumes an unstable political subject, it refuses to discuss the weight and history of consensus within the perception of what is framed as art as a force stabilizing that subject — one more element in the constant appropriation of process into the affirmative support of hegemony. Are we thus condemned to obsess over fetish, endlessly re-enacting karate kicks as we walk out of a Bruce Lee film?

—Hassan Khan