Political Performance

Here is the short text for my ten minute contribution to the Political Performance event in Serbia this morning.

Democratize Everything

The question of political performance needs to be distinguished from the performance of professional politics. From a political point of view, they are opposites. At the heart of the difference between the two is the political failing of professional politics (both in the Former East and within Liberal Democracies): in a word, all professional politics is depoliticizing.

Liberal democratic thought holds in high esteem the protection of the private – private life, private citizens, private space, private interests and private property. Hence, if politics has been turned into administration, private life is no solution for the political failings of politics. However, in the realm of political business, the problem with politics cannot be solved by politics.

We can neither become more political nor abandon politics altogether.

The task today is not to produce a political art, which would merely inflict professionalized politics onto more victims. Political performance cannot be restricted to this kind of politics. No, the task today is to produce an art that politicizes, that takes a position and divides opinion. The task of a politicized art today is not to enter into the realm of political business – certainly not in its present, unpromising form – but to call into question the business of politics with the politicization of everything.

Julian Stallabrass argues that the economic cycle does not merely affect “the volume of art sold but its character”.

“Painting, the most easily saleable form of art, undergoes a predictable revival with each boom, while less straightforwardly commercial practices – including performance and the various strands of post-conceptual art – step out into prominence with each bust.” (p107)

According to Stallabrass, economic recession, which effectively puts the public sector and independent practitioners in a more powerful position vis a vis the market, benefits performance, political art, video and installation. Political performance is two out of the four! Political performance, video and installation are not abandoned during the boom; simply, there are more commodities saturating the galleries and magazines, leaving less space for the independent work to occupy. The market does not have any impact on political activists or on political performance artists – we do it anyway because we do not do it for money – but this does not mean we have to be isolated from all forms of support.

Independent and radical art practices need to sustain themselves in alternative ways. In the absence of the market – or in conscientious opposition to it – political performance needs institutions. Since RoseLee Goldberg set up Performa in NY, there has been a clear increase in the support for performance, especially in the Lower East Side, and some of this has been support for distinctly political performance. The UK has a very active performance scene, but it still does not have comparable institutional support.

One option for the contemporary politicized performance artist is to engage in Activist Art. This can be exciting, provocative, urgent and inspiring, but it can also mean accepting the liberal democratic shrinking of politics and operating within the narrow, professional field of political campaigning. Relational art, which proposes simple acts such as sharing a beer or having a conversation as glimpses of utopia, follows the liberal tradition in a different way. Here, private moments of interaction are framed as critical, radical and questioning. Politics, which is thought of as alienating and vaguely inhuman, is opposed with the private, intimate and convivial. Politics is saved by taking the politics out of it; and being sensitive to the ethics of everyday life.

The Freee Art Collective rejects these options for politicized art because they are nothing but adaptations to liberal democracy’s distortion of politics and inflation of the private sphere. We are committed, instead, to the politicization and political interrogation of art by immersing it into the cultural processes of the opinion formation – creating opportunities for discussion, debate, dispute and protest that are not colonized or instrumentalized by professional politics, by the state and the bureaucratic techniques. We work, therefore, somewhere between the private and the public, in the ‘space’ that Jurgen Habermas calls the ‘public sphere’.

Some commentators regard Habermas’ concept of the public sphere as a lame piece of bourgeois proceduralism. In order to understand its radical force we need to oppose the public sphere to the two dominant modes of collective decision-making in modern capitalism – collective decisions are not the result of collective decision making processes but are steered by market mechanisms or bureaucratic procedures. If we want to curb the power of these steering media, what we need to do, according to Habermas, is interrupt their flow with collective decision making, collective will formation and collective action. Let us say, then, that what we do as a society might be decided not by the purchasing power of the wealthy nor on the institutional power of decision-makers, but on the decisions we arrive at through discussion, debate, disagreement, argumentation and the sharing of opinions. This is democracy.

Democracy has not proved itself under bourgeois conditions to be able to deliver power from a small elite of decision makers. Nor has it been able to curb the power and privilege embedded in the mechanisms of the economic markets. Improving the composition of electoral democracy will do nothing to rectify this. Bourgeois liberal democracy has failed. The reason is not that it is not democratic enough – as if more participation in the state would free people instead of further alienate them.

The problem is that actually existing democracy is limited to the election of governing elites. Democracy limited to the political sphere is not democracy at all. Everything must be democratized. Production, consumption and distribution should not be decided by markets, but collective decisions. The workplace should not be managed by the agents of capital but run collectively by a combination of its workers, the local communities and the people who take an interest in the products. Education, medicine, finance, domestic life and infrastructure should all be democratized too. The democratization of everything cannot exclude the democratization of art.

We cannot have the democratization of art and retain the old fashioned cultural distinctions between high and low, or between art and circus, as it appears in the publicity for this conference. Let’s not adopt the enemy’s rhetoric by using the word circus as an insult. I’d rather hear us chant the slogan ‘art and the circus against spectacle!’ Nevertheless, political performance is necessarily in opposition to the spectacle, and to the spectacle of liberal democratic politics.

To talk about the democratization of everything is to talk about the need for numerous revolutions, which can only be brought about through numerous processes of politicization. Performance, at the beginning, couldn’t help but be political in terms of its contested status as art. We should not think that this politicizing power of performance has been eradicated simply because the art galleries, museums and academic institutions have accepted it. It remains, as Stallabrass indicates, antagonistic to the market, and in its more politicized form, it remains antagonistic to the depoliticizing state.

Political performance is political, therefore, not just in the issues it addresses (which are vitally important) but also in its politicization of art and its contribution to the democratization of art. From the very beginning, performance was a political presence within the old hierarchical ensemble of art practices. It blew the whole thing open and it continues to do so. I am not saying that political performance is our only hope, nor that political performance is a substitute for political activism more generally, but that if we need to democratize everything, and this means revolutionizing everything, then political performance is vital, urgent and revolutionary.

Art and Participation

I spoke this week at NCAD in Dublin on ethics and participation/ collaboration, in response to Artur Żmijewski’s ‘Two Monuments’ project for the Firestation. I thought they main sticking point would be the apparently unethical way that Żmijewski treats his participants so I concentrated my argument on what I called ‘the dark side of ethics’ (ethics as the specific force that charges people to stone others, etc). However, as the discussion evolved, it appeared instead that the sticking point is Żmijewski’s participants are not permitted to participate enough.

My initial argument about ‘the dark side of participation’ went like this. The value of participation is hardly ever challenged these days. Participation is a value. When, historically, participation was strictly differentiated, such as when only propertied men were allowed to participate in elections, participation was valued in a limited sense. The participation of non-participants was actively resisted. (We have seen the tail-end of this recently in the UK when the campaign for prisoners to be given the vote was resisted.) With only a few exceptions, today, it would be absurd to suggest that less participation is better than more participation.

Hence, as well as thinking of participation as progressive – as preferable to elitism, exclusion and bureaucracy, for instance – we need to think of the value of participation as completely dependent upon the value of the project to which one participates

However, as the discussion got underway it became clear that questions of power between the artist and their participants have become seemingly insurmountable. We might even say that we have a new version of the concept of ‘the death of the author’ today. Instead of this referring to the emancipation of interpretation, and the reader, from the meanings or intentions of the author, the problem with the author, after the ‘social turn’, is that they are in control, exert power and so on. One of the leading questions asked about The work was whether the participants had any say in how the film was shot and edited. This seems like a symptomatic concern today. It tells us a lot about how art and artists are being routinely interrogated. And it is extremely an flawed interrogation.

People in the artworld seem to have subscribed wholesale to the idea that participation or collaboration is an athletic sport in which artists must compete for their form of participation to be deeper, stronger, faster, longer and purer. The ideal form of participation or collaboration then hangs over every project that even hints at participation. This is not true of the experience of the spectator, who remains outside the work. Nobody seems to walk into a gallery to find a video installation and then immediately walks out in protest at not being invited to make the film. We haven’t yet seen hundreds of visitors leaving galleries because they were not allowed to co-produce the paintings that were on show. Nevertheless, we seem to have lost the ability to value the whole spectrum of forms of address when it comes to socially engaged art. If the participants are not included early enough and have adequate power in relation to the production of the project, then we seem to feel that something has gone wrong.

The artworld seems to be populate by people who don’t know how to be guests. The insistence that participants are accorded a significant role within the project is the equivalent of turning down an invitation to a friend’s wedding because you feel that there shouldn’t be a distinction between those who are getting married and those who are witnessing it – I’ll only come if I get married too, the ethical participant seems to say. Likewise, an invitation to dinner would presumably be unethical unless you refused to cook the meal yourself but asked all who attended to participate in the shopping and cooking. Inequality in such circumstances is not damning; it is built into the relations of care. Let’s call it asymmetry. There is an asymmetrical relationship between host and guest, and there are pleasures in being the host and pleasures in being a guest. Equality cannot be forced onto these intersubjective relations without killing off the care and the pleasures of caring and being cared for.

The author has more power over their work than their participants. If we are troubled by the presence of power here, we might feel tempted to abolish the practices of authorship altogether – emboldened, perhaps, by a misapplication of concept of the ‘death of the author’ – but we would do better, I’d suggest by taking a leaf out of Walter Benjamin’s book and demanding instead that there needs to be more traffic between author and reader. The technology was already in place in the 1930s for everyone to be an author, he said, and the only reason why authorship was restricted to an elite was that the means of printing and publication were in the hands of capitalists. The only problem with the authorship of artists like Żmijewski is that more people do are not authors like this too. In the vibrant public sphere that we crave, we would not hope for fewer authors, but for more. And each author would retain control over their work. The trouble is not that artists control the works that they enter into the public sphere; the problem is that this is not as common enough.

Participation is the solution for the ethically oriented, but for the politically oriented, it is the universalization of authorship that holds more promise.