Comments Off on Nataša Petrešin — Journalisms — POTENTIALITY OF A CULTURAL RESISTANCE

Nataša Petrešin
“Journalisms:” or “Our Correspondent:” or “?”
The title and mission of this collective project
is a work in progress. But the general idea is
that we cannot be in all places at all times.
So those who would like to can write a “report”
or “editorial” or “correspondence” to share
experiences for the benefit of others.
To take part, send submission or for more information
please write to journalisms@16beavergroup.org
or post online:
The transparency of the power, public revealing of its many veils, forms, mechanism and influences, is one of the tendencies of every resistant movement, activist or engaged artistic position or gesture. Within the liberal-democratic societies, the civil disobedience and demonstrations are accepted up to a certain level. The ability to create moments in which power could at least be temporary unmasked, seems to become difficult. In opinion of many activism stimulators, from Julia Kristeva to Critical Art Ensemble, the contemporary activism feeds itself with the nostalgia of revolt from the 60ies, represents the past as the present and affects with a weakened capacity to strike upon the corporation-oriented globalised politics. Kristeva speaks about the diluted and altered possibility of revolt that has mutated together with technological society in which the forbidden (or critical, problematic) either doesn’t exist or has become more complex so that one wouldn’t know where to start to revolt. For our society of control it is characteristic that economy and mechanisms of power are breaking into the bare life through which our life potential becomes indivisible from the capitalist tools and production. The products of our work do not deliver tangible, material results anymore, but generate the social relationships themselves, the communication, networks and common knowledge, what Negri and Hardt call immaterial labour. How is it therefore in such a situation possible to create effective strategies of resistance and encourage the potential of the transformation?
Decision for performing activist actions, either direct or non-violent ones, mass protests, riots, civil disobedience, hacktivism or artistic interventions, derives from the deep ethical awareness about the indeterminacy and potentiality of our common existence, from a kind of belief in change in the Deleuzian sense of process of becoming. Giorgio Agamben talks about the potentiality, a quality that each of us owns, as »the mode in which the passage from potentiality to act comes about. The only ethical experience is the experience of being one’s own potentiality, of being one’s own possibility, exposing in every form one’s own amorphousness and in every act one’s own inactuality. The only evil consists in the decision to remain in a deficit of existence, to appropriate the power to not-be as a substance and a foundation beyond existence; or to regard potentiality itself, which is the most proper mode of human existence, as a fault that must always be repressed.« Brian Massumi, the theoretician of movement and affect, understands the potentiality as »a swarm of potential ways of affecting or being affected that follows along as we move through life. We always have a vague sense that they’re there. That vague sense of potential, we call it our ‘freedom’, and defend it fiercely… Freedom always arises from constraint — it’s a creative conversion of it, not some utopian escape from it.« The activists often feel the pressure that emerges when there are attempts to define with concrete linguistic or law determinations the potential or the capacity of society’s transformation that lie in the core of each revolt. The questions like how will a society look after activism succeeds, or a recent question posed by Slavoj Žižek about how a multitude in power would function, are conscious un-understanding of activist tendencies (and in Žižek’s case a naughty comment).
The possibility of subjective and collective resistance as the basis of freedom within a political aesthetisation of the everyday, the realization of tactical gestures within flexible and mutant systems of late global capitalism, performativity of activism and of direct action in public, politicality, communication and responsibility from the side of the producers of meaning as well as the receivers of artistic and activist events, relative autonomy and the freedom of the individual, have all been the issues that in the conversation for Maska magazine Brian Holmes, Claire Pentecost, Marko Peljhan and Igor Zabel talked about.
Brian Holmes is an art critic, sociologist and theoretician of resistance. He was born in San Francisco and lives and works in Paris. With his sharp and immense knowledge about the activist strategies in the field of contemporary art he is researching the relations between art, tactical media, political economy and activism. He is a member of the editorial board of the French review Multitudes and regularly contributes to the magazines Springerin, Parachute and Brumaria. He collaborates with the art activist collective Bureau d’études and is one of the founders of the organisation for the research of autonomous knowledge Université Tangente in Strasbourg. He is the author of the book Hijeroglifi budu?nosti: umjetnost i politika u doba umreženosti (Zagreb, 2002).
Claire Pentecost is an author, artist and professor in the art department for photography at The School of the Art Institute in Chicago. In her work she uses different media and investigates imaginary and institutional structures. Her last projects questions the ownership of knowledge, specifically in the field of science, and the corporate control over the production and distribution of the food on the global level. She has collaborated with Critical Art Ensemble at the project Molecular Invasion (Autonomedia, 2002). Since the court process against Steve Kurtz, the founding member of Critical Art Ensemble, began this spring, Claire took over the public relations regarding the course of events. After the lecture of Brian Holmes about the crisis cartographies (at Moderna galerija, Ljubljana), Claire lectured together with Brian (at Metelkova, Ljubljana) about the absurdity and terrifying consequences of the court process against CAE.
Marko Peljhan is one of the most successful Slovene conceptual artists, critically acclaimed in the international art context and in Slovenia for his complex projects that include tactical use of new technologies and reveal the mechanisms of definitions of the legal and illegal, and the relations between the immaterial power devices and the individual creativity and activity. With his project-in-progress Makrolab and art organisation Projekt Atol that are based upon the accumulation of knowledge, collaboration between the artistic and scientific fields, collective action and performativity, Peljhan is reaching the realization of the dreams of the transgressive utopian legacy. Since 2002 Peljhan teaches at the University of Santa Barbara.
Igor Zabel is one of the visible contemporary art curators in Slovenia, and has worked since many years as a senior curator in Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana. In the international art world he is very well known for his critical thinking about the art system and the artistic and curatorial positions within it. Among others, he was the coordinator of Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana, and last year he curated the exhibition Individual Systems within the 50th Venice Biennial. Together with Viktor Misiano he is the editor of the international review for contemporary art Manifesta Journal. He is author of several books, editor of many exhibitions catalogues and translates literature works and theoretic texts. In his essays he is precisely researching and valuating the relations between the political or the engaged and the aesthetical in art.
Nataša Petrešin: I would like to start our talk about the possibilities of the resistance today with the quotation of Julia Kristeva, taken from her interview/book Revolt, She Said (Los Angeles, 2002). She says that “Modern revolt doesn’t necessarily take the form of a clash of prohibitions and transgressions that beckons the way to firm promises; modern revolt is in the form of trials, hesitations, learning as you go, making patient and lateral adjustments to an endlessly complex network. That doesn’t prevent prospective ideologies from appearing to satisfy the psychological need for ideals and seduction. But we know better now where to put them in their rightful place, as actors in the Spectacle. If we don’t keep the possibility of performing the resistance in art open, there is nothing left to do but to submit to the all- encompassing power.” My question would be where from does each of you start to grasp with these issues of the possibility of the resistance today, and what are your sources of inspirations to continue to revolt or to resist? Would you agree on Kristeva’s quotation?
Brian Holmes: It’s not a question of agreeing with it, but trying to work it out in a way that corresponds to one’s own experience. In my experience during the early nineties, this orientation towards trials and hesitations, towards micromanipulations of a complex network, had become a received idea. People celebrated it. And it seemed necessary to perform resistance in a much more direct way, which was offered by the possibility of direct action. To do that, it was necessary to give up the artistic frame. There would be too many people, in too chaotic and rudimentary a situation, for the events to qualify as art – and that was deliberate. But it didn’t make the actions any less a performance. I always conceived public political action as performance, because it was done for other people to see, but above all because it was done to transform the people doing it. The fact that this kind of action takes place outside the artistic frame, outside a purely symbolic realm, means that we expected much more from it. We looked for political confrontations, we tried to structure those confrontations by work that involves defining the stakes, the terms of the conflict, trying to make them clear so that a wide variety of actors could take part, then engaging an action that would actually touch people in their bodies, that would make them take their responsibilities, and that would involve a kind of transgression. It is a symbolic transgression, but not a merely symbolic one. There’s a difference when you transgress the law in the context of direct action. You are performing a symbolic gesture, but you are performing it in a real way. It means quite banal things, you could be arrested, you could injure yourself, everything could go wrong. But this kind of risk reveals part of the truth of the symbolic, which is that it is always effective. It only has symbolic force because it is effective. These were the starting points for me as a public person.
Claire Pentecost: It’s interesting talking about this quote. I would agree that the whole idea of prohibition and transgression has to be re-thought because certainly in the US, transgression is something that is expected of artists. But it is always a transgression that is a kind of titillation, entertainment for the cognoscenti. It shakes out the people who are very sophisticated — because they accept what the artist is doing –from those who are not enfranchised, so it becomes a kind of insider-outsider filter. Usually it is around issues of sexuality or identity and what may be expressed; these are the transgressions that are already labelled, they are already defined as transgressive; it’s a very predictable cycle. Artists really need to reconsider what is actually transgressive, and how they want to use the special position accorded them in which people expect them to be more autonomous than the average person and to be able to exercise freedom on everyone’s behalf. They function as a cipher that proves to the culture that we really are free, that we really do allow freedom of expression and that we celebrate the individual, the individual’s vision and self-creation etc. But since artists rarely do anything that crosses any genuinely important lines, their perceived transgression tends to be a part of the system, it repeats itself.
As far as resistance is concerned, this part of the quote about patience and adjustment, that is quite repellent to me. I don’t really think there is much room for that now, because that never quite brings into the light what are the boundaries that we are not supposed to cross. What you have to do is to take actions, performances, symbolic actions, that actually make those boundaries
apparent. In my culture people think that they are very free and yet people are so distracted, they are working so hard, they are so caught in the cycle of production and consumption that there is very little stepping out. What the artist can do is step into a territory that reveals how much expression and knowledge is actually regulated. The transgressions don’t look like transgressions at first, they are about knowing, about finding out, educating oneself, making connections. In the case of Critical Art Ensemble, artists start working in fields where they don’t have institutional legitimacy, in this case, biotechnology. As long as you’re not quite getting into the nerve of it, you’ll be tolerated, but when you cross certain invisible lines, alarms may start to go off. The idea is to take actions that will get power to reveal itself and then to follow through despite the consequences, which is what’s happening to CAE right now.
Nataša: You brought up lots of issues that I wanted to bring in the discussion, among them is the question of autonomy, the relative autonomy, on the level of the artist, of art system, and between the autonomous art versus critical and political art. I want to address Igor and Marko about the connective autonomy, as Brian Massumi calls it, in the sense of autonomy that is all the time connected, being part of a larger thing or being in a situation of belonging that gives one certain degrees of freedom.
Igor Zabel: I would like to say that for me the issue of resistance is a very practical question of my actual practice of a curator in the museum and as somebody who is functioning inside the art system. I do not want to make the image that I’m a person that is distanced and can be critical to the art system, I am very much involved in it, I am aware that I often have to take compromises because of that. This sort of work always puts you in the dilemmas. It is very inviting to say “I want to take the resistant position and I want to deal with resistant art”, but it’s always a thin line between what really means to be resistant and what can easily be integrated into the system. Also the system again can be changed through integration, this is also not a one-way-process…
Nataša: It’s also not fixed…
Igor: I agree. It means that the system, by integrating resistant positions, changes itself too, although sometimes just slightly. I just read the lecture of Robert Pfaller in the book Public vs Private. Cultural Policies and Art Market in the Central and South-Eastern Europe” and he denotes a very real dilemma. His main thesis is that the so-called liberal and the so-called conservative policy are only different in their relations toward the cultural policy, so that the so-called avant-garde and critical art serve as a sort of legitimation for the liberal policy. For this he takes the case of Austria, but maybe it could be more generalized in European context. It functions as a sort of legitimation for this policy that is in its basic political or social positions not essentially different from the conservative one. I think that with this example we are suddenly faced with the problematic aspect of critical art practice and its position within the system. The political or art system functions in such a way that they can expand and integrate these positions by often disabling their critical potentials and using them for their own purposes. We are all the time faced with the dilemma to what extent actually are we involved in the system that is eventually part of the general system of the world dominance. We are accomplice in the system. Sometimes I felt very badly in some situations, where I suddenly got a feeling that I am taking part in a process that is basically turned against what I really believe. On the other hand the question is to what extent is it possible to operate within this system, is it possible to find a sort of resistant position, is it possible to find a way to function inside the system in such a way as to work against itself. I don’t think there is one single and general answer and strategy to this, but in this case I would agree with Kristeva’s quotation that there is something that you have to invent permanently. It doesn’t always function, but for me it is a process of permanent searching and finding of possibilities. This is maybe possible in the field of art, because artistic production does have this potential. In its reception art can be domesticated, it can be changed into a decoration. But even if art is domesticated inside the system, it still often keeps at least the potential that can be read in a different way. The possibility of finding a sort of resistant position is the possibility of finding this sort of resisting or oppositional meaning of art, something that art can easily loose in its treatment inside the system, but has a potential within itself. Sometimes it means that it is just a possibility to change the angle of the view, to open a possibility that is different from the established one, and you can already get a little possibility of shifting in a way of thinking.
Marko Peljhan: I would connect with what Igor started. In this country we have the experience of the largest social transition that happened in recent times, the transition from socialist political-economical system to a capitalist parliamentary democracy. The main code and modus operandi on the cultural, but also political side and even on the legal side, its main mantra was: “we work within the system to change the system”. If you think about it, you have very clear examples in how the now dominating political party was born, from the alliance of Socialist Youth comes neoliberal capitalism. If you look at it ideologically, it is a paradoxical shift, but we see it as completely normal, we accept it because we know the faces. So you are more connected with the faces than with the ideas, because of the locality, of the smallness of the scene. On the ideological level this shift is a paradox, it should not happen, it is against any rule. This transgression that happened teaches us a lot about the resistance and the change. The winners of the transition in a capitalist sense accumulated the capital, they are controlling this capital at the moment, with a large structure and so on. You meet these people when you travel in different kind of situations. I will never forget a meeting in 1999 on the Skopje airport, after we went to Kosovo to establish a network project, after Kosovo was occupied by NATO forces. We were returning from Kosovo through Skopje airport and the flight was to Ljubljana. It was almost like Socialist Youth meeting, a kind of aureola of Slovenian business men was there, I won’t mention names. The journalist Ali H. Žerdin was with us and he started asking them what they were doing there. They were selling iron or oil from Greece, all kinds of transfers…it was a bazaar. The system was there! It was very interesting to observe this, having in mind the idealism that you could go places and change them through direct action. All this was somehow shattered on that trip. I think this transition is very revealing in this sense. I don’t know if anybody really reflected on this, maybe Rastko Mo?nik sometimes would talk about it, but he’ll talk about it now and the past is somehow suppressed, because it’s painful, because these are friends from the 80ies, these are the same people that we were fighting with. There is this strange ideological shift that happened because the main line argument was “we are changing the system from within” and it is the legacy of this argument. There was no other way because the system of repression was hard and it was always action-reaction. I was younger then and mostly followed it a little bit on the side, writing graffiti, the usual things you can do in that kind of capacity, but you could feel the tension each week in Mladina, you could see what the temperature is, if the army could strike back or not, if repression could happen or not. Maybe there is a very clear explanation of this shift in the terms of transition of power and legacy of power, or immaterial power of ideology turned into the power of the capital. On the other hand you had a very interesting cohesive moment, where you had the alliance of all the counter culture, where even actually liberal capitalism was seen as allied with all this counter-cultural movement in one pot. Krt, the publishing company of revolutionary theory, published a book by Igor Omerza, one of the new capitalists coming from the Socialist circles, a book about Ricardo’s theory of value. All of these people, very interestingly, started with computer companies, Mikro Ada, Mikrohit, and started selling the computers in the second half of the 80ies. This was the base of the whole generation in transition, empowered in the computers. Symbolically it is quite something, it has so many different facets to it.
Also in the arts the changing within the system was a mantra, it was always breaking into the institution and changing it, or founding a phantom institution. We are still doing this. It was almost the only way in which we could operate. If you didn’t have an institution, you made one, you had a logo and an account, maybe. It spread around and it became actually problematic, because now you have fifty, sixty, seventy non-profits in this small space, competing for a very small amount of money and wasting resources on things like accounting. It all happened because when the transition happened, people who were in power didn’t have a clue that they have to create new institutions, that if they want the transition really to happen, there must be a new kind of institution that will celebrate the new individual and its freedom. And here we come to the notion that I think is very rarely mentioned in our society, and that is the definition of the free individual. Here we have become accustomed more or less to collectivism. The individual is something unseen. The individual in Slovene mythology is a suffering poet or writer with problems, and this totally transgresses with cynicism, but it is definitely there. The definition of a free individual is still something that has to happen and this is also within the discussion about how the society doesn’t see the complexity of politics, law, which it did see in the 80ies, and about how politics, law, economy, culture, philosophy are all part of one rolling system. In Slovenia I haven’t heard for a very long time a debate about law, maybe I’m wrong and maybe you can correct me. It’s always abused and turned around in the politicizing, but there never is really a debate about essential things. In America, as Claire mentioned, people think they are free, but they have the constitution and even though they never read it, they know what the fifth amendment is, they know what the first and the second is. In Slovenia, you can forget about it. We have a pretty good constitution, but nobody really read the book. Turning to the constitution when there is trouble is a very good recipe. It’s the only weapon that the free individual in the US has. Now, with the “global war on terror” also that became questionable…
Claire: …and because power is going to exploit this terror to control people…
Marko: …so this kind of discussion is really missed here. You chose the quote for the beginning of the discussion, and this quote already tries to give an answer. I think we are all very much aware of the limitations of power of resistance that says: “I am resistance”. That’s why I sometimes have problems even talking, because when you are talking it’s already over, when direct action is in question.
Nataša: Marko raised the issue of individual freedom and since nowadays the power is being decentralized …
Brian: There’s a lot of facile motives for saying that power is a decentralized phenomenon.
Marko: Maybe it’s not.
Brian: It’s one of the things people say to avoid identifying it. There has been a refusal to think about power, largely due to the fact that most middle-class Western people didn’t have to. Maybe because they had art to think about. Igor brought up a very important notion, that avant-garde art functions as a legitimation of liberal policy. That was exactly the starting point for people in artistic circles who decided they needed to begin with forms of direct action outside of institutional contexts, and without any reliance on the notion of diffuse symbolic effects that would provide the justification for what they were doing. The problem of avant-garde legitimacy is extremely familiar in Western Europe and America, because of the way the sixties played out. In France today we still have a newspaper called Libération, which is part of the hegemonic, social-democratic, pseudo-leftist power structure, and whose general benevolent cynicism is a strong way to keep people in their place. It works quite well with the status establishment in France, where the hierarchies are quite clear. A good percentage of the top positions are occupied by people who are rollovers from the sixties, who acquired their cultural capital in ’68 and then used it to take over the principal media positions, in communications, advertisement, fashion and the cultural sphere. In the US it is similar, but more overtly corporate. You have the very obvious example of Jerry Rubin’s book Do It, which was the great Yippie battle cry of sixties’ spontaneity and self-expression, before it became the slogan of the Nike corporation. Clinton and Blair could play both sides of that game. These things were very obvious for the people I worked with, and they motivated what can look like a simplistic search for the outside. I think that search has been very useful, not as an unreflective option, but as an orientation based precisely on an analysis of the way that avant-garde postures serve to legitimate liberal capitalism.
But Igor said another interesting thing. He talked about finding a way to present resistant or oppositional meaning in art, and to make it available. That’s extremely important, in my view. Usually what you have is the avant-garde posture, plus either a conservative approach or a kind of blurring of values, a postmodern reshuffling – which means an arbitrary palette of choices. What’s needed to make cultural resistance possible is a back-and-forth movement between direct political and social involvement in the heat of the moment, and slower transformations that emerge through the ways that the resulting symbolic material is presented and modulated over time. An understanding of artistic production in its relation to the consistency of a lived economy, an understanding of the ways that people create and experience their desire, their imaginary, and work out the terms of its relation to the great collective images conveyed by the media. Such an effort to present alternative, minority interventions into the general sphere of aesthetic production, and to create a consistent, critical analysis of transformations in lived experience, is something I rarely see in cultural institutions. It’s not transgressive in itself, it doesn’t claim to be avant-garde, because it’s presented as documents of the past and the outside. Yet it’s the kind of work that can provide at once the fallback point and the springboard for more radical interventions, which are punctual, linked to context and can easily fail. We need the accumulation of aesthetic archives to get over the failures, to survive the transitions.
When the transition to neoliberal capitalism took place, quite earlier in the West than in Slovenia, it’s essential to notice how it began with PR firms and the sale of computers. What they were selling was a whole society, not of worker’s self-management, but of individual self-management that creates a new class system, where those who acquire informational capital end up on top. To analyse the kind of class system that comes out of liberal society is quite difficult, because it is very well justified. The meritocracy of the best and the brightest is extremely convincing, to the point where its structural imbalances and grievous injustices become almost unconscious to society. For example, it’s very easy today for people to claim that terrorism is a result of a few insane individuals who haven’t come to terms with their own possibilities in society. This is a denial of flagrant global inequalities, and it represents a kind of unconscious at work throughout the liberal democracies. Unfortunately it’s not dispelled by the kind of intelligence that allows you to manipulate the computer, it’s actually installed by that highly individualistic kind of intelligence. The thing is, there’s a difference between understanding your place, possibilities and limits as an individual within a constitutional system, and creating your individuality as a power player within what’s effectively an oligarchy. This relates to what Marko has been talking about. On the one hand you have the reality of a constitutional democracy, and one can develop legitimate powers as an individual. On the other hand there is an oligarchy, where a certain number of people accumulate cultural, social and economic capital, with a clear continuity through the different regimes. In the oligarchical system, the individual accumulates informational power in order to rise to the top. But this rise to the top is much more obscure in the liberal system than in any kind of authoritarian system.
Marko: It happens with a sort of smile.
Brian: (laughs) Yes, of course, some people even talk about friendly fascism – which is not really true, fascism is always ugly, and that’s when you start to grasp what it really is. But until it got ugly, in the last three years, not many people understood the contemporary version. Rather than simply applauding it as almost everyone did, I’m glad to have pointed out that the Clintonian way of managing globalisation was leading to a disaster. Clinton and his Secretary of the Treasury – not Jerry but Robert Rubin – went full speed ahead for world unification through the financial markets, with a tendency toward the dollarisation of the world economy, which quite literally happened in some Latin American countries. They didn’t understand that this unified monetary economy was going to function as a machine of inclusion and exclusion, on both the cultural and economic levels, with consequences that would necessarily be violent. They saw the integration, but they didn’t see the exclusion.
Marko: Probably with them, they really didn’t see. It was not an evil attempt. It was this kind of utopia gone wrong.
Brian: Yes, it was a real unconscious, that is the weak point of liberal societies. Because they are so legitimating for the individual accumulation of power and the individual’s self-management of his own trajectory, they create this unconscious about structural facts. And that’s where an accumulation of a more consistent kind of knowledge comes in, which can also be an aesthetic knowledge, which can also relate to how one comports oneself within these great systems for the distribution of imaginary figures and desire. That’s really important because there you have a kind of collective knowledge, which actually gives individuals more self-consistency, it gives them more of an understanding of the limited autonomy that individualism is always about.
Nataša: I would introduce another thought that has more to do with the art, that is the role of the artist as an amateur scientist, as Claire and Brian put it in their lecture, as an amateur social worker, networker and even as an amateur terrorist, regarding what is going on with Critical Art Ensemble’s case.
Claire: To generalize the way I formulated it, it is as a public amateur, this is a person that will in public take on the responsibility, the pleasure, the risks of learning things outside their territory. So taking on knowledges that have been jealously guarded by the system of rewards and accreditation, by the system of careerism, which keeps people so focused on the next milestone, it’s often not even perceived as a problem, but it is clearly a problem. There are these divisions: If you are not in the arts, you really cannot understand what the artists are doing and if you are not in the sciences, the public does not understand what is going on in science, same for economics or law. The position that I’m proposing is one of taking on knowledge of something that has repercussions, of something beyond individual expression, and that actually has consequences in the culture. The area that’s been accorded to artists has been of the self and individual expression. But staying within this boundary just affirms what we have been talking about, the kind of individualism that has worked so well for the liberal capitalist system. That is never questioned or is not often questioned in the US. One’s identity becomes a kind of labour; the expression of yourself is a labour of making your cultural capital. It’s going to help you get ahead and it’s also a labour of consumption. Because that is what consumption in our society is about, it’s about creating these identities that are readable and excessive, but never excessive enough, you can never have enough signifiers of your identity, as they become more and more refined and tailored through the millions of different shoe styles that Nike produces. This question is always the paradox, that it’s through the system that you’re building and fashioning your identity.
One of the problems when you talk about resistance is resistance for what? Resistance itself has become a kind of commodity, a fashion which goes very well also with the ideology of the individual, the individual is always defining itself in some way against the status quo, against the mainstream. That’s part of the never-ending need to further define your identity. I think that it is really important to formulate what are you going to do with autonomy. Take for example the idea of a mobile work office, you have all this autonomy because you are moving around with your personal computer, you set your own hours, you have your mobile phone. You’re beating the system, but actually this is the system now. It is important to start to articulate what it is that you want to develop a resistance for or autonomy for, and it has to be done in public, otherwise it stays within the fantasy realm of an individual. In some ways the collectivity of it is the thing, is the transgressive element. So that often there are groups of artists and there is definitely a rise of collectives’ work. I know a lot of young artists and collectives and they really don’t care what kind of institutional legitimation they get because they have started to identify rewards that have much more to do with being able to operate according to the world they are trying to build. They are very aware about being used to augment the kind of “hip” credibility of an institution, they are very careful about that. Certainly also you read this kind of criticism within the groups or collectives who say that some artists are just exploiting this for their individual career etc. But that is going to always be there.
Nataša: Marko, would you join in the discussion about the collectives?
Marko: I actually try to build institutions, first subconsciously because I had to, because there was no form to accommodate the way I wanted to operate. And afterwards because I found it really valuable as suddenly it gave me the legitimacy to actually engage with the largest systems around me on equal basis. My background is in theatre and collectivism and theatre are almost synonyms. In theatre you totally understand that it is only possible to opereate when the whole system is functioning together, so I never had problems with this kind of notion. But I think that this is an interesting debate, and it is a pity that there are no other people around this table that could talk about it in a more articulate manner. I will go back to the definition of the free individual, which per se through arts is not necessarily an individual artist. That was not even debated in the art circles. In the 80ies it was a big thing. The individual artist, the erudite creator. The one and only. But my work is also about accumulation of knowledge. On the one hand here is a discussion of different roles that we are performing through transgression that are symbolical on one level, but also as soon as you define it as symbolical, you enter in a relationship and it becomes very real. It changes the perspective and within the art system you can somehow survive. The art system is one of the easiest systems to break the code of, with the capital exchange within the arts, because it is established, it is based on market value but it is also ideological, political. I think that our colleagues from Irwin could say a lot about this with their current work, East Art Map, which is a project that tries to talk about this in a very crucial sense by juxtaposing one part of the divide to the other. It talks about the market, about the ideology of history that controls it, which is deeply rooted in capital and the history of reflection. On the other hand of course there is the notion of the free individual that uses art because art is somehow historically the zone of freedom just because it has always been seen as something not dangerous. You can somehow abuse it, but you have to play roles…
Nataša: At the same time it’s a problem if you take it in this sense, because art is often viewed as a harmless apolitical field and is not taken seriously because you are somehow hiding yourself in it. So one has to be intelligent and play with this notion as well.
Claire: But that’s why also you want to act in ways and take on things that are not expected from artists. To make it much harder to be taken into the usual interpretative matrix, neither your actions, your identity, nor your symbolic production. That’s a part of what needs to be done.
Marko: One of the things I also wanted to say and it was a reply to Claire in a way, what’s the final point of all this. I think the answer is probably very simple, it probably lies in basic ethics, in basic notions of freedom, in basic respect for humanity, in basic respect for life, in basic respect for communication, and in the last sense, with which we are getting into biology, the survival of the race. The critique is the critique of destruction. We want to construct. It is totally the opposite as friends Russian anarchists from the beginning of the 20th century or late 19th century would say: “LOMYAT YA HACHU S VAMI, STROIT NET! (I want to destroy with you, not construct!)”, it’s maybe quite the opposite: “STROIT YA HACHU S VAMI, LOMYAT NET! (I want to construct with you, not destroy!)”. We change the perspective. That’s where it gets really tricky because then all the ideology is naked, all the big stories are gone, it’s just the bare daily life and your relations. And the critique of this is, and why the transgression happens all the time, is enjoyment. The enjoyment is the one that always transgresses us and betrays us. It’s beauty and all these things that can be so easily commodified.
Brian: That’s where the political importance of art becomes so clear, because one of the strongest political forces in the contemporary society is the aesthetic production of the mass media, which are the great collective facilities of capitalist society, as Guattari would say. A huge amount of contemporary infrastructure is devoted to producing imaginary worlds. Aesthetic competition in the capitalist societies has this double economic function: one, you have to create the environment of the corporation, to make it stable across great distances and amidst conditions of extreme dispersal; and two, you have to create the environment of the consumer, to create a faithful consumer for the product. Those two functions are taken up by national governance, they led to a new style of human-resource management that’s exemplified by Tony Blair, who understands the economic value of culture and has the most amazingly tireless smile. So this has pushed resistant artists into a much different role, where the significant difference comes not from being transgressive, but from actually carrying out the kind of ethics that Marko was just talking about, carrying it out in a consistent way through aesthetic production. A resistant culture would need to archive and constantly reactualise all the different efforts to sustain the particular kind of experimentation that can engage someone ethically in a very complex aesthetic world, which is full of rivalry and solicitation, full of blurring effects. What I really appreciate in an exhibition like the one in Moderna galerija (Slovenska umetnost 85-95) is that it shows singular attempts to establish a coherent aesthetic production, which gets more and more interesting the deeper it’s involved in this subtle, but real confrontation with the dominant aesthetics of everyday life. What actually comes into play in the most dramatic moments of confrontation is the day-to-day manner in which one prepares oneself to have an identity, or to have an understanding of the world and of how to take up a position of confrontation or antagonism in that world. Which is not so easy.
Igor: We spoke about resistance against what and for what. One thing is resistance inside the art system in the sense of being against the art system as a part of general system of repression or, in a large sense, of capitalist production. This position or reaction to this position can have a very different levels or strategies. One very important thing is the procedure of the self-reflective work, work that reflects its own conditions and discloses the conditions and makes them clear and deconstructs them in this process. But there is also the question, what is the ultimate sense of dealing with an art system. At the end you just have the artistic production as such, which is the basic thing for me. I think that an artwork can be by itself something that has a political value, not necessarily as something that is served as a tool of a certain ideology. Art is as a complex aesthetical, ethical conglomerat or fact, and the political or resistant activity can be simply to enable or to support a sort of complex reading of a work of art, a reading that goes against the established parameters of understanding given in advance. F.e. “this is expressionism, this is typical early cubism” and so on. If I take the example of Mladen Stilinovi? and his work, it has two lines: one is more explicitly political with his references to Russian constructivism, to political slogans and to the issues of work and so on. But then he has another line, which always deals with whiteness, emptiness, empty time. And I think that maybe Stilinovi? is the most political in the moment when he demands from the observer this empty time. In one of his works, he wants the observer to come to his installation, which is a “protected” nothingness, to sit there on a little chair for an indefinite time and just to stare into this emptiness, without any kind of purpose, goal or function. . It’s a sort of mistake in the functioning of the everyday system, a little disturbing, incompatible element in the functioning machine. Therefore these works are normally integrated in the established networks of notions and understandings, and these disturbing aspects are forgotten. I still think that direct, critical art works are essentially important, but we shouldn’t forget this other type.
Marko: I totally and strongly agree with you. I was thinking before that maybe, when we are talking about the art as aesthetical production at its most conscious – the one that is really aesthetical about aesthetics, about producing beauty for enjoyment and thinking – we shouldn’t forget the thinking part, there is no enjoyment without thinking. I will introduce the notion of the warfare here, very hypotetically, and Stilinovi?’s work corresponds perfectly with it; is art at warfare with society and is maybe all the produced material actually cryptograms of a world that understands each other and it’s a sort of thinking machine, full of cryptograms? When we are talking about understanding, how many times have we all faced the question “is this art?” or “we don’t understand this” and so on. Generally in the society contemporary art and art after the dawn of the modernism is misunderstood. The codes have been blurred. But maybe the codes are so complex and that is why they have been blurred. If you look back at the complexity of works, Malevi? is coded. Duchamp is the code. When you see Duchamp, you read the code. Personally my experience with Duchamp was, that I understand and read the code. So what are we doing?
Brian: This artistic conflict with a simplifying society was made totally explicit by the Situationists, after having been practiced by everybody from the earliest abstractionists to the neo-expressionists. But the problem is to keep the enigmatic from becoming autistic, because the coded refusal of the massive and transparent aesthetic production of capitalist society can lead to a dead end, which is a kind of autistic satisfaction with code that no one understands, with emptiness and void. You see that dead end in very individual metaphysical forms where people create inward worlds, you see it in more critical forms with people who erect such a total suspicion of every aspect of contemporary consumer life that they are really locked away into paranoia. Those are two symmetrical dead ends. Again in the nineties, there was an increasingly clear understanding of these dead ends, and an attempt to go beyond them. Maybe this attempt has led me to depreciate the value of a self-creation of an individual coming to terms with him or herself through aesthetic experience, like the experience offered by the contemplation of an empty room. But to me, Stilinovi?’s work with language and image appears much more enigmatic than autistic.
Marko: I think that society has to face these codes to understand…
Claire: I don’t think it has to be either-or, it’s not a question of whether the work is or is not going to be explicit… There are always codes; the question is how much the work makes the codes available to the audience. It’s a political activity, as Igor said, to support a complex reading of a work of art. This is not a plot of expertise-ism, but rather a commitment to encouraging the reader, creating models so that the reader is empowered to interpret the works in ways that are meaningful to him or her. One problem with the codes of modernism is that they became so much about exclusion of certain populations from the experience of art, the whole system was very closed. It is not just about the artists themselves, if the artists weren’t working in a code that they could establish within a social system, it would in fact be “autistic,” they have a whole category for those works, the category called “outsider art.” But take somebody like Robert Ryman or Mark Rothko or Clifford Still; they were incredibly consistent, because they were writing their code. I’m not trivialising their work, I actually really like their work, but I think we are in a different place now in relation to what kind of codes are being created and by whom, for whom. Now I want to ask, how is the audience invited to participate in making the meaning? Certainly it can be very subversive to partake in a different kind of time, a different experience of time or experience of sensory stimulation.
Marko: Why do you say subversive?
Claire: Because our sense of time has been deeply socialised, it’s very much a way of keeping us enthralled – we are either falling behind or running to keep up… It’s Taylorist basically, factory time, it’s a regime of efficiency that people are functioning under now, it has pervaded people’s lives. You have to be doing something productive in some way every minute. Even if it’s just relaxing, you have to do it in a way that you are getting the most out of it… you have 20 minutes to relax, so you are going to do some power yoga, you better have the DVD or VHS to do it right. So I think there are places for this kind of works we are talking about. The wider spectrum of works that invite audiences to participate in making meaning and also to address the different capacities that humans have. This is one of the things that I’m resisting when I’m defining what is my own resistance, I’m resisting the narrowing of the human faculties into just a very short range of what we are going to develop of ourselves. It’s about the enrichment of consciousness, it’s about helping to create the institutions and relationships with people and opportunities that enrich consciousness that keep opening our sense of how are we connected to the world, to each other, what kinds of consciousness we can imagine. And you need a lot of different kinds of art for that, that’s what is important for me.
Brian: With the group Ne Pas Plier we used to take enigmatic sayings, reproduce them in thousands of copies and go hand them out in demonstrations. Part of our practice was always talking to people about what these things could mean; they were always readable enough so that people could take them into their own hands and give them to others, and enigmatic enough so that each person had to produce what’s missing. It’s a utopia – and the best of those signs, the classic little sticker-commodity, just said utopia. The infinite enigma.