Critical Art Ensemble
«Δημόσια τέχνη δεν υφίσταται όσο δεν υφίσταται δημόσιος χώρος. Η θεμελιώδης αρχή της ορθολογικής κοινωνίας, όπως αυτή εκφράζεται μέσω της νοοτροπίας του ‘φρουρίου’, είναι να διαχειριστεί κάθε κομμάτι της επικράτειας και να ‘γραφειοκρατικοποιήσει’ κάθε κοινωνική πράξη. Υπό αυτούς τους όρους, κανείς δεν έχει το δικαίωμα να συναχθεί ελεύθερα, όπως άλλωστε δεν έχει το δικαίωμα να εφαρμόσει το οποιοδήποτε σχέδιο ακόμα και στους χώρους εκείνους που θα μπορούσανε και να αποκληθούνε ‘δημόσια ιδιοκτησία’ (δεν πρόκειται παρά για αντίφαση στην πραγματικότητα).»
Critical Art Ensemble
Η Critical Art Ensemble είναι μια ομάδα πέντε πρωτοποριακών αμερικανών καλλιτέχνών διαφορετικών τεχνών. Τα ενδιαφέροντα τους επικεντρώνονται στη διάδραση της τέχνης με την τεχνολογία, την ριζοσπαστική πολιτική και την κριτική θεωρία. Οι ίδιοι προτρέπουν για την ελεύθερη αναπαραγωγή και διακίνηση των βιβλίων τους με κάθε μέσο, διατυπώνοντας μονάχα την παράκληση, εφόσον αυτό είναι δυνατόν, να ενημερώνονται. Στα μέσα του περασμένου Οκτώβρη, ο Steve Kurtz, ιδρυτής της ομάδας, κατηγορήθηκε μαζί με τον Dr. Robert Ferrell, καθηγητή στο University of Pittsburgh, ο οποίος παρείχε υλικό για τις δημόσιες δημιουργίες-παραστάσεις τους, με βάση τον νόμο ‘Patriot Act’ του 2004 για ‘βιοτρομοκρατία’… Η μικρότερη ποινή που προβλέπει ο εν λόγω νόμος είναι 20 χρόνια φυλάκιση… Το δοκίμιο που ακολουθεί είναι από το δεύτερο έργο τους που φέρει τον τίτλο Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas (1995), και, δικαιώνοντας τους αναδρομικά, επεξηγεί προφητικά γιατί ο καπιταλισμός δεν συγχωρεί τους εχθρούς του…
Resisting the Bunker
While we may never know how it was discovered that cultural workers did not have to create and invent solely for the purpose of maintaining the traditional symbolic order, at least we can be glad that such an idea occurred at all. Since the time of this magical and mythical realization, which occurred approximately two hundred years ago, various interventions from the most minor to the most extreme have been attempted. The most successful, of course, spewed forth from the class that came up with the idea of systematic intervention (revolution) in the first place—the Bourgeoisie. By the turn of the nineteenth century, this band of pistol-packing, sweat-shop building, money-hoarding anti-feudalists were firmly in control. Once the social order resettled into a configuration that suited this new ruling elite, its members began developing strategies and tactics to ensure that such a large-scale intervention would never happen again. The problem faced by these political upstarts was to make a defense system that would not be perceived as a defense system, or in other words, to decide how capital investment could be fortified without restricting the freeflow of production and consumption. Since that time, strategies, tactics, and technologies to achieve this end have been continuously and successfully developed at apace that has stymied the competition.
Consider the restructuring of Paris under the strategic care of von Haussmann. Here a youthful bourgeois society accomplished its goal, and the demonstration of this accomplishment came with the fall of the Paris Commune. The justification for the Paris face-lift was to create a more appealing city for tourists, and to prevent Paris from being ravaged by industrial growth as London had been. The true meaning of the restructuring became frighteningly apparent, however, when the Communards came to the horrific realization that once the city’s outer ramparts were breached, it could not be defended, as their former defense, the barricade, was no match for artillery-supported heavy infantry on broad boulevards. The development of the Parisian fortress was particularly impressive since this was the first application of the idea of opening a space as a means to fortify it.
Times have certainly changed, but the principle of fortification is as deeply engrained in society as ever. In fact, the social landscape itself is little more than a series of bunkers. The oldest form is the bureaucracy, which in bourgeois society has evolved to its highest form. It is a system of social organization that mainly functions to perpetuate itself. In this capacity, it is designed to resist war, revolution, or natural catastrophe. Within its permanent records is history—the proof of what has happened and what has not. The bureaucracy is a concrete form of uninterruptable, official, and legitimized memory.
Newer forms of the bunker have also appeared. Mass media is certainly the most formidable. The strategies of the open and closed fortress implode in this enveloping bunker. While mass media brings its viewer the world, the world is also held at bay while the viewer commits his/her gaze to the screen, forever separated from others and from communal space. In this case, the bunker is both material and ideational. On one hand, it serves as a concrete garrison where images (troops) reside. On the other hand, it confirms state-sponsored reality, by forever solidifying the reified notions of class, race, and gender. Bunkers in their totality as spectacle colonize the mind, and construct the micro-bunker of reification, which in turn is the most difficult of all to penetrate and destroy.
Bureaucracies, factories, malls, work stations, media — all are the products of the fortress mentality. The spectacle of these bunkers is designed to give the illusion of sociability, of public interaction, and of free choice, but it actually functions to reinforce the separation already inherent in the division of labor, and to channel the producer/consumer into a cycle of forced labor and consumption.
The bunker is the foundation of homogeneity, and allows only a singular action within a given situation. For example, in a mall one may only consume. The mall is a bunker of perpetual discomfort. There is no place to rest, unless one is consuming (usually in the food court), and in this situation only the most uncomfortable of accommodations are provided so the consumer will hurry, finish, and rejoin the dynamic flow moving from shop to shop. The mall is the mirror image of the assembly line where laborers rotate between specialized actions. Consumption intensification/labor intensification: It is difficult to tell the difference. Labor and consumption are the walls of the bunker that is known as the social world.
While bunker disruption should not be the center of resistant activity, since appearance as a means of domination has been consistently moved to the margins of power, bunkers, particularly of the ideational sort, must be kept under siege. Continual disturbance of these sites is essential in the never-ending battle to maintain a degree of individual autonomy. Disrupting the bunker’s symbolic order has long been a standard technique in contestational cultural action, and should still have a place in the future of cultural activism. Over the past century two key models of disturbance have emerged. The first is a sedentary model, which attempts to construct a monumental counterspectacle to compete with (and hopefully overwhelm) the bunker’s symbolic order. The second is the nomadic model, which seeks to undermine the symbolic order with more ephemeral, process-oriented methods. At present, the former method seems dominant, at least as far as the discourse on cultural resistance is concerned. (In actual practice, it is difficult to say since the latter model does not call attention to itself. Who knows — there may be an army of culture guerrillas working right now, but there is no way to measure the phenomenon). From CAE’s perspective, this is an irritating trend because the sedentary model of cultural resistance seems to maintain bunker consciousness more than it undermines it.
The nomadic model and the sedentary model share similar characteristics beyond their contestational intent. The subtext of all interventionist representation, whether sedentary or nomadic, is pedagogy. The hope is that participants and viewers will engage in a dialogue that will allow them to break through the ideological boundaries of the bunker, and in turn gain a greater measure of autonomy (the affirmation of their own desires and control over their surroundings). The truly disturbing (by which CAE does not mean “shocking”) work of cultural representation will help each individual progress toward a more complete subjecthood—s/he will be able to separate him herself from the objecthood of the machine. Beyond this point, however, agreement between participants in either school becomes less and less common.
Given the points of agreement, which model best accomplishes the desired aim of creating knowing subjects through dialogue and mutual learning? CAE here contends that the nomadic model is far more efficient in achieving this end. While we do not want to disparage the good intentions of those who participate in the sedentary model, we cannot help but believe that such efforts could be put to better use.
Part of the problem with the sedentary model is that its methods and aims are poorly articulated. Many varieties of public, interventionist, and community-based art fall into this category. Just what, then, is the object of this model? In the best of conditions, CAE takes this category to mean the production of images that are consciously designed to interact with their general physical and ideational surroundings in a manner that moves the image beyond solely aesthetic (spatial) considerations and into dynamic sociopolitical considerations. (Certainly the old abstract formalist structures [plop art] built with steel girders and iron slabs can be written off as loathsome and unworthy of discussion in the context of resistant images, as can the monuments of the status quo.) Now one must wonder, given this definition, how a critical work located in a museum can be differentiated from one that is located in “public” place, which is generally where most art using the sedentary model with interventionist intent is found. In actuality, there is no difference. Public space does not exist except as a reification. All art, critical or otherwise, once in the social realm, exists only in managed, socially stratified space.
Public art does not exist as there is no public space. The fundamental principle of rational society, as expressed through the fortress mentality, is to manage every piece of territory and to bureaucratize every social action. In such a situation, no one has the right to freely assemble, and no one has the right to install projects, even on what might be called “public property” (a contradiction in terms). Legitimized autonomous zones where one can freely express oneself (politically or otherwise) are long gone, if such spaces ever existed at all. Where could a public work go? In a corn field? That is private property. On the street? That would block the free flow of traffic, thus disrupting the functional intent of the street. In a park? Well yes, if the proper permissions are obtained and all the proper paper work is completed and filed. Further, the park is designed for particular forms of structured leisure, and not as a site for autonomous experience; therefore any work placed in the environment must conform to this social structure. The few that can be trusted—that is, those who have been well processed by the bureaucracy (usually through training camps such as art schools), and know how to follow bureaucratic procedure (probably the most important way one is socialized during the education process) can perhaps carry out an impermanent project. A person who has these qualifications, plus public recognition (which is to say a record of bureaucratic acceptance) may be permitted to install a permanent work, but only if the public (i.e., the bureaucracy managing the area) thinks such a project is needed. Consequently, not only is there no public space, but there are very few members of the public qualified to do public work. The problem here is that it is too easy to forget that ownership is not a prerequisite for territorialization. Control of a territory is all that is needed to colonize it. To return to the introductory riddle: When is a fortress not a fortress? One answer is: When it is in the public sphere.
Can the same be said about community-based art? First the word “community” itself is a problem. It has been used broadly, reducing it to the point of absolute meaninglessness. (Most emblematic of this abuse is the oxymoron “the international community.”) In the current rhetoric, “community” seems to mean any aggregate of people who have one common characteristic. The connotation of community is one of sympathy if the speaker is someone outside the aggregate, or of identification if the speaker is someone that is a part of the aggregate. Hence terms such as “the gay community” or “the African American community” have become quite common. Generally, a second connotation seems to follow—that these aggregates are recognized participants in the narrative of victimization (this is partly why there is a connotation of sympathy accompanying this word when it is said by an outsider. Admittedly, it is better than the use of “you people.” Such a connotation also explains why no white male community exists). Finally, community can also mean a people within a given area, usually a neighborhood. The boundaries of such “communities” are often ill-defined, because the ethnographic and geographic characteristics are blended to suit the bureaucratic occasion. These “communities” often are quite large in terms of population, too large for any enveloping personal interaction among the people within them. Further, the institutional affiliations of members residing in a given territory are extremely complex and varied, thus disrupting social solidarity based on race-ethnicity or geography.
Regardless of these definitions, a group that shares a common characteristic and/or a common geography is not a community, and never has been one. Community (Gemeinschaft) can only exist in a social order with a minimal division of labor. Economic and social specialization under the sign of fetishized hierarchy do not encourage community construction. Communities proper tend toward the sedentary, with the extended family being the general base unit which is in turn extended through thesuperstructure of friendship. Not only are there enveloping nonrational bonds (kinship or friendship) between members, but there are social norms and values which unify the community members, and which are consensually validated through a spiritual solidarity (often expressed as a common religion). Every part of social life is shared among community members, rather than one genetic characteristic, one value preference, or a piece of ground. (Please note that CAE is not trying to romanticize this form of social organization by claiming that it is necessarily the most just or desirable, for it certainly has tremendous potential for abuse, and historically, it has fulfilled this potential). While the US may still have some pockets of what could be called community, such a social phenomenon is extremely limited. As with public space, it must be asked: What community!?
In spite of what some artists might say, and in spite of the fact that “community-based art” is becoming a sanctioned bureaucratic category, very little work pertaining to “community” is being done. Most cases are in actuality projects with localized bureaucracies. No artist can just walk into an alien territory and become a part of it. To successfully do such a thing takes years of participatory research. Be that as it may, assuming that an artist has successfully navigated the cultural bureaucracy and acquired money for a community project (for which an artist generally has one year to prove h/erself) just how will s/he insinuate h/erself into a “community?” The easiest way is to have the project mediated by a bureaucracy that claims to represent the community. A school, a community center, a church, a clinic, etc., is then selected, often because it is willing to participate in the project. The bureaucratic experts from the selected institution will represent the community and tailor the project to their specifications in a negotiation that also accounts for the desires of the artist. When the process is over, who has actually spoken? Since the majority of the negotiation over policy is not done with individuals in the territory, but with those who claim to represent it, which is again shaped by the bureaucratic parameters placed on the project by the money donors, how much direct autonomous action is left? How much dialogue has taken place? Not much. What is left is the representation of a representation (the bureaucratic opinion of the artist and h/is mediators).
 Originally published in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, No.43, 1995.