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Towards a Conceptual Militancy
By Mike Watson
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Mike Watson
All rights reserved.
Art as Mimesis of Political Mechanisms
With 50,000 people reportedly escorted to safety from the Mediterranean to the shores of Italy in the first six months of 2015, there is a coincident shift in demographics visible on the streets of Rome, the city I have made my home since 2008. This is just the figure for people who have taken that particular route. Many more are clearly entering Italy on a continuous basis via other coastlines and borders, desperate for work and financial stability: an estimated 150,000 illegal immigrants per year.
Year on year for the seven years that I have lived in Rome it has been apparent that illegal immigration is increasing exponentially, due in part to increasingly intolerable living conditions in Central and North Africa, and Syria. This manifests most visibly as an increase in homelessness emanating out from Termini, Rome's central station, down towards Via Merulana and the Parco del Colle Oppio, situated on one of the famous seven hills upon which Rome was built. At times, small clusters of tents appear on pavements, grass verges and in parks and lay-bys. This phenomenon goes unreported in the local and national press, as does the often sudden disappearance of these small communities, who are presumably moved on and, in some cases, detained by the forces of law and order.
Some unfortunate immigrants find themselves processed in Rome's Centre of Immigration and Expulsion (or CIE) situated in Ponte Galeria, a district on the city's periphery, heading towards the beach at Ostia. Dubbed the Italian Guantánamo by its critics, Ponte Galeria CIE is privately run and said to maintain its cells and facilities in appalling sanitary conditions, according to the few journalists who have been allowed to enter. The poor circumstances would appear unjustifiable in light of the fact thatthe facilities are managed by GEPSA (Gestione Penitenziari E Servizi Ausiliari, or Management of Penitentiary and Auxiliary Services), which is itself a subsidiary of Cofely, an energy management company in turn controlled by Engie, a French multinational energy giant with an annual revenue of just under &8364;75 billion. Whilst recent changes in the law have reduced the maximum period of detention in a CIE to 3 months, the conditions reportedly remain unbearable with insufficient supplies of basics such as soap and toilet paper. On the night of 4- 5 July 2015 despair led to a revolt in which a group of male inmates burned mattresses and tried unsuccessfully to force open the gates of the detention complex.
From the safety and distance of the art world, it is hard to relate to the conditions experienced by Italy's most impoverished inhabitants, who are invariably immigrants. One reason for this is a lack of representation among the immigrant population in cultural circles. Other than one or two relatively privileged 'expats', the art world in Italy is overwhelmingly comprised of natives from the middle and upper-classes. This, though, is surely no reason for art practitioners to ignore the problematic issues of immigration and racial identity in Italy or elsewhere, or indeed the myriad other problems that arise from globalisation, including growing migration amidst calls across Europe and the US for the increased patrolling of borders.
The issue of immigration is symbolic of the wider issues created by the gradual encroachment of capitalist forces on public or 'common' space. It is also indicative of the ways in which the demand for capital can strip an individual of their political subjectivity. Illegal immigrants have no political rights and, as such, their existence suggests that human rights in themselves are malleable, negotiable and insubstantial. The law is based on words, on proclamations that are made and are agreed upon, but can then be reneged upon. It will be here argued that this process – which involves the demarcation of space as much as the designation of political subjectivity – can be mimicked and exposed via politically engaged artistic practice, demonstrating that we all have a right to wield power.
Following upon a reinvigoration of political art practice that has occurred since the start of the worldwide economic crisis, Towards a Conceptual Militancy aims above all to highlight the tendency for socially engaged artists, activists and art-activist collectives to interpret concrete political and juridical practices within the artistic sphere, thereby demonstrating that we can all make creative and spontaneous political claims, both on an individual and collective level.
One of the strongest examples of this kind of practice can be seen in the work of the Cuban-born US-based artist Tania Bruguera, who ran the project Immigrant Movement International, from 2011 to 2015, in Queens, New York. During the project, Bruguera ran a flexible community centre that addressed the concerns of immigrants locally, soon finding that people would come looking for practical legal advice or help with their English, rather than looking solely to engage in artistic practice. In this respect Bruguera's practice could be seen to highlight the need to fill the gap in social welfare and education, which has been left as the neoliberal global financial system hollows out the unprofitable realm of welfare and social provision. Further, offering social services as art also demonstrates that the jurisdiction of the state is not sacrosanct and that, as such, we are free to grow something up within the empty space created as governments abandon their social obligations.
In a world in which it is increasingly difficult to act politically, due to the firm hold that finance capital has over policy-making, art may present a final refuge and recourse from which to mount a leftist opposition that can respond to challenges immediately and spontaneously. This is not only due to art's capacity for illusion, that allows for the imagining of new worlds, but also because art's particular tendency towards mimesis and role-playing allows for an interaction with political processes (such as lobbying and law-making) whilst maintaining a critical distance.
However, the purpose of this book is not to issue some kind of missive proclaiming art's capacity to save the world. Rather, it identifies in art the possibility of acting immediately, assuming the various roles of the state and its legislative bodies, thereby freeing the individual from the temporal delay imposed by hierarchical power structures and enshrined in our political codes. These codes teach us that we must wait for salvation, whether it be spiritual, financial or utopian. In contrast, it will be argued that the artistic statement – i.e. 'this is art' – is, since the time of Duchamp, instantaneous. As such it will be harnessed here to short-circuit the temporal delay that we are taught must accompany our collective wish for liberty, equality and fraternity.
In 2014 Tania Bruguera drew influence from a homily made by Pope Francis in Lampedusa one year earlier, wherein the Pope asked for collective forgiveness in the face of our global indifference to the suffering of impoverished individuals. Drawing upon this sentiment, Bruguera subsequently launched a project called The Francis Effect in which the artist collected (by November 2014) the signatures of 14,000 people, calling upon Pope Francis as the head of the Vatican State to grant citizenship to all stateless immigrants. The petition read:
Today, when the established model of the nation-state no longer offers a sense of belonging, we call on a place that was born as a conceptual nation without borders to embrace those looking for a home.
What this statement implies is that the designation of citizenship, just like state-building itself, operates at a conceptual level and therefore, by extension, that it is up to us to empower ourselves by taking ownership of that concept. It is this type of immediate claim that underpins this book. Above all it is the role of the politically motivated artist to ask 'if it's like this, why can't it be like this instead?' If these people are not citizens, why don't we declare them as such, and then give them the benefits that citizenship presupposes? If the government won't do it, why don't we do it?
Of course state and financial power are backed up both by force and by the advanced media machine. Whilst it would be unwise tactically to try and mimic and challenge the police and military complex – beyond simple performative gestures – the media can to some extent be co-opted by artists. For example, Mark McGowan, the self-styled 'Artist Taxi Driver', records daily monologues and interviews on his iPhone from his car, posting them to YouTube. The resulting videos – which are viewed daily by up to tens of thousands of people – act as a counter to the sanitised propaganda seen on 24-hour news channels as well as the biased daily bulletins from the BBC, Fox News and so on. Meanwhile, his interviews give a voice to people who may not otherwise have an opportunity to be heard, and in other cases allow public figures – such as Britain's youngest MP, Mhairi Black, or the celebrity Russell Brand – to talk more freely than they would be able to on mainstream news channels. In the UK, McGowan is, amongst other things, one of the most vocal anti-monarchists in an era in which mainstream UK news outlets pour adulation on the royal family, without exception. McGowan's mimesis of the media, as he sensationalises events using the language of the 'man on the street' (or, rather, the 'taxi driver'), exposes the media itself as a propaganda machine whilst providing a voice for otherwise marginalised figures.
Since 2013 Mark McGowan has broadcast a series of monologues and videos to highlight the plight of Allen Vincent and his mother, 'Beryl'. UK resident Allen (now 43 years old), who lives with autism, Asperger's and deafness, has suffered from bullying and discrimination for years. In 2013 he was sentenced to 16 weeks in prison after being given inadequate support in court in regard to his condition and, in particular, his deafness. The sentencing itself was given for unruly behaviour in court whilst he was being tried for sending abusive social-media messages to highlight the inadequate care he was receiving following government cuts. During the ordeal of his imprisonment – which deeply affected his elderly mother – McGowan was their most vocal supporter, frequently ringing Beryl to give her support and enable her to communicate the plight of her son to the outside world.
What both McGowan and Bruguera do is use their resources and visibility as artists to give a sense of dignity to humans who are otherwise stripped of their political rights and subjectivity. This is crucial, because if disabled people and illegal immigrants can be dehumanised then anyone can be. At the same time, mechanisms that are used by the powerful and wealthy to give or take away human rights can be mimicked within an art context. In this way it can be demonstrated that we are all capable of taking power as individual political subjects, through whatever small actions.
It must be cautioned that while art can be used to expose the false conditions of power, and help to to claim back individuality and to build communities, it is not in itself a saviour, nor should it be. The video work Echo (2014), by Fiamma Montezemolo, documents the fate of nine artworks that were included in various editions of the InSITE arts festival, held biannually on the Mexican border in Tijuana. The film revisited artworks to see what impact political art-making left when the artists had cleared out of town leaving traces or semi-permanent works behind. Montezemolo – who trained first in anthropology and then in art – maintains a focus on the anthropological aspect of social art production. In enquiring into the effects of social art on the community, Echo raises an uncomfortable truth: namely, that the public that a political artist approaches is often out of step with the artist's intentions. Where they do use works for political ends, it is often in spite of their artistic status and rarely because of it. For example, a telescope mounted on a hill in a residential area close to the iron border wall separating Mexico from the US was intended by LA-based artist Christina Fernandez as a rhetorical device by which normal citizens could keep watch on US border guards. The piece, entitled Il telescopio del marinario (1997), was based on those used by navigators of the great age of exploration. In using the telescope the public could symbolically redress the balance of power by keeping watch on the watchers. The work also acted as a comment on the colonial history of the Americas. However, over time, the telescope was dismantled by local youths according to residents of the area. They vandalised their means of liberation. Yet perhaps all they saw was a dumb telescope.
The Middle of the Road, made by Silvia Gruner for the '94 edition of InSITE, was also vandalised – although in this case we know that the work maintained, or indeed found, a social role. The piece consisted of statuettes of Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of fertility, which were placed on specially constructed metal stools mounted onto the US–Mexico border wall for a length of 10–15 metres. Years later none of the statues remained, but the stools were still there and were being used as a means to help people scale and cross over the wall, according to locals.
To be sure, the political import of Gruner's damaged work has little to do with the work itself and more to do with the ingenuity of people desperate to cross a border illegally in order to pursue the promise of economic stability. However, it remains that an artwork created the conditions for legal and manmade borders to be contravened. At this point, The Middle of the Road ceased to be art, entering the political realm, itself crossing the fine border between social artwork and political practice. Whilst art's political capacity is in many ways questionable, both accidental and ingenious ways of utilising the resources of the art world for social ends can only become more commonplace so long as political art continues to find new audiences and practitioners. As in many fields, trial and error will play a major part in determining how best to seize upon art's political capacity. During this process, though, the artist, curator or museum director is required to apply rigorous levels of self-criticism. Above all, the label of political-art practitioner must never be worn casually.
For the remainder of this book it will be argued that art's critical distance from concrete reality, together with its capacity for illusion and mimesis, may allow for the blockages that exist in the political realm to be superseded. Art's ability to generate simple declarative statements and to position these statements in opposition to the dehumanising capacity of neoliberalism will be seen as central to this process. In the following chapter the current political malaise, and the left's failure to address it adequately, will be posed as the 'problem' to which art must address itself.CHAPTER 2
Addressed to the Left
2009: 'Damn this corpse Britannia, it just keeps on dying!', spits the chancellor, as he reattaches another leprous limb to the UK economic body, redirecting resources from the brain and heart to the stomach and bowel system, the area of the body responsible for waste. This makeshift and unsuccessful cure, finally administered as a huge cash injection, turns out to be nothing but another iatrogenic illness: one caused unwittingly, or not, by the healer. Six years on and regular visits to London reveal thriving – if deprived – communities stripped out and replaced with hollow shells as property is developed and often left empty as an investment. Gentrification, though, is merely the friendliest face of a coin that hides increasing poverty and alienation on its other side. The Conservative government cuts to welfare have demanded that the community step in to aid those whose benefits have been taken away (a policy called the 'Big Society'). The trouble is that a mixture of reliance on the big state and a dual and contradictory fostering of a culture of individualism has all but destroyed any notion of communal life in the UK. At the same time, the individual human cells that exist in place of a collective are increasingly devoid of the capacity for questioning necessary to subjective freedom. The purpose of this book is to put forward a basis upon which a renewed sense of individual subjective freedom might be used to foster the conditions necessary to community. Effectively, it will be argued, the left needs to reclaim the individual so that it can nurture the conditions for community to flourish. Yet how might we restore the individual to itself when the human being has been hollowed out and objectified, left as a mere husk and assigned mundane tasks adequate only to keep the capitalist machine moving? It will be argued here that we need first to reclaim our subjectivity through an act of creative imagination – in short, via art.
Excerpted from Towards a Conceptual Militancy by Mike Watson. Copyright © 2015 Mike Watson. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Art as Mimesis of Political Mechanisms 1
Chapter 2 Addressed to the Left 9
Chapter 3 Botox Ghosts 23
Chapter 4 On Time 52
Chapter 5 Com'è triste la prudenza? How Sad is Prudence? 66
Chapter 6 Towards a Conceptual Militancy 77