Critical Art Ensemble
The final problem is the rationalization of collective experience. Efficient large scale social activity has to be bureaucratized. It is the only type of complex social organization known. In order to achieve efficiency, nonrational elements are factored out of the organization process. And yet, it is precisely these elements that can allow for a fulfilling collective experience. For example, in CAE there are power relationships, as is to be expected in any social relationship; however, power in this social constellation does not take the form of domination. One member defers to the expertise of another member whose abilities in h/er area of soft specialization take precedence. Even if one is rationally unsure of the decision the other is making, a nonrational trust has developed over the years that lets each have faith in the wisdom of the other. The reason that such a social occurrence transcends alienation is only because of nonrational elements of affinity, friendship, faith, and trust. These elements allow the individuals in CAE to work as a unit in our interactions with each other, beyond considerations of exchange or contract economy. This is the type of solidarity and horizontal flow of power that bureaucracy attempts to eliminate; by contrast, the cellular social constellation is among the very few collective experiences where people can actually speak for themselves, in that their individuality is not lost to the mechanics of organization.
Artworks which depend on bureaucracy in order to come to fruition are too well managed to have any contestational power. In the end they are acts of compliance that only reaffirm hierarchy and the rational order. No risk is involved in such work, as it is all done within the confines of the bureaucracy/bunker. How can such work be considered a challenge to the dominant social order? In what manner does it chip away at the bunker? What is most sorrowful is that the minions who carry out these projects are not liberated; rather, they become prisoners of the monuments that their labor produced, as the product of mediation speaks for them.
To be sure, the process that creates public art suffers from overmanagement, but equally unfortunate is that the product suffers from the same fate, for there is no visual object that better represents monologic tyranny than the monument. Monuments have been generously sprinkled throughout “public” property to function as reflective spaces where individuals can commune with the wonder and mystery of the state. In these areas, the contestational voice is silenced. In these spaces, the whole nation lives as a single community in total agreement, and all social problems dissipate. Only the serene voice of the welfare state (a system concerned only with the benefit of its citizens) gently whispers in the realm of the monument. For example, consider a well-intentioned monument such as Maya Lin’s Viet Nam Veterans Memorial. This monument is not as loathsome as most since it is not an outright ideological imperative; that is, it does not make the particular the universal as the monument’s realist counterpart does, nor does it participate in the authority of the vertical. However, in spite of the good intentions, this site, which one at the very least would expect to be filled with the anger of howling screams, is silent, punctuated only by quiet sobs. (Granted, the area is so secure that if a howler did begin a counterperformance, s/he would be rapidly escorted away). This memorial is a place for pathological therapy, where the rift between citizen and state is healed in a sick moment of a spectacular reconfiguration of memory. Can any monument act as a point of contestation? As in the case of Viet Nam Veterans Memorial, contestation around monuments can only happen to a limited degree. Community murals in which all racial-ethnic groups live and work together, the smog has blown away, and kids play in drugfree parks are to be admired for their utopian intent, and for their affirmation of difference. They can function as a message of hope in areas where there is very little. Much the same can be said of large scale performances in public areas, which are usually designed as reminders of the nature of various social problems. However, such works also seem to have the aura of the “cultural revolution” about them. They are overcoded and predictable, and thereby blend perfectly with the other public images (billboards that perpetuate the hope of good coffee or clean laundry). The inherent conservatism in monumentality will not allow for any kind of disarming counterspectacle. The result of this medium has always been decided long before the monument is even constructed. Consequently it is purely monologic. No one dialogues with a mural any more than one dialogues with a billboard containing an advertisement. In the end, monuments, even ones created with radical intentions, reinforce the status quo by reinforcing the audiences’ predisposition for visual ingestion of rigid codes and stereotypes.
Monuments are closed systems which do not allow for a pedagogy of equality; instead they are a top-down means of delivering information, and the information delivered is generally rather corrupt (i.e., an ideological imperative). In the construction of such public or community work is a class configuration that follows a top-down pedagogy. At the top is the artist-director, since s/he is the one who controls the purse strings. Then come the mediators, and finally come those who are enlisted in the art campaign. As mentioned earlier, the base parameters are set by the upper levels, with the lower levels only having a say in minor contingencies of the plan. While these projects pretend to function in the style of localized co-ops, they work in quite an opposite manner. Grass roots organizations (which should not be confused with a community) work from the bottom up in a situation where like-minded people, out of concern for a specific issue, organize in the spirit of volunteerism. These behaviors are emergent, and consequently no central figure is needed to guide the situation or set policy.
It seems reasonable to conclude that an anti-logos stand as presented in counterspectacle is not the best way to carry on cultural resistance. While such methods are not totally without merit, the categories of production are confused, relying on false territorialization and monologic monumentalism. Overall the experience of the sedentary model of resistant art action is simply too well managed to offer an individual a moment of liberation. What is constructed instead is an alternative or oppositional code which can be just as restrictive as the one which it replaces. But an additional problem exists that is particularly disconcerting to artists: the sign of art seems to get in the way of radical action. The problem is that art is understood in its traditional sense rather than in its newer critical sense. Once an audience outside the specialization of cultural production hears that a given object is art, a set of expectations clicks in that neutralizes resistant meaning: The expectation of an uplifting object that will reveal the wisdom of ages past and the utopian vision of the future, which are in turn associated with the principle of the state. Unfortunately the expectation for art, much like the expectation for electronic media, is one in which the process should be monologic. This should not be construed as a call for anti-art, as art itself is not the problem being discussed; rather, this is a call for artists, once outside the parameters of cultural production for other members of the culture industry, to separate their work from the system of signs which shape the nonspecialist’s perception of art. The option of redesigning the popular sign system is certainly there, but that long term process could not be completed in this generation or for many more to come. The only option for immediate practical results is to sidestep the issue altogether by avoiding the designation of resistant cultural objects as art. Of course should such objects find their way into specialized institutions of culture, such as galleries or museums, the work may be filtered through any sign system. However, in the arena of cultural production for and with nonspecialists, the better a work can blend with the everyday life system (and yet alienate its viewer from the oppressive rote of everyday life), causing them to reflect on their position in it, the more the contestational voice will enter the ideational bunker.
Such a goal is precisely what is accomplished by successful work using the nomadic model. There are two types of nomadic cultural action. The first is process oriented, and is performative. In this case, the nomad selects an action that within a given social situation instigates a dialogue between random co-producers. The second variety is product: An artifact is created, which when deployed in site-specific areas, creates scepticism in the viewer, and in the best case scenarios causes them to question the assumptions about the situation with others. Neither of these tactics is particularly new, having nearly a century of history behind them, but this does not make them any less effective. In fact, in the age of overmanagement, they are the only viable tactics through which any kind of democratic cultural participation can be achieved.
Let us begin with the concept of territory. Unlike monumental conceptions that seek to take and dominate a given area with a single voice that cannot be disputed, the nomadic model rejects the maintenance of a single voice in a given area. The voice of the nomadic cultural worker insinuates itself into a given situation at given moment, only to dissipate in the next. Or a product of similar form but of oppositional content to other products within a situation is strategically placed where it will likely be consumed by whoever passes through the area. In both cases, the success of the work is dependent upon the relinquishing of control of a given area, as it is only through contrast, difference, and lack of social management on the part of the artist that a disruption and/or dialogue can occur. Once the disruption is spotted by the officials who police the area, one can assume that the area will be reterritorialized immediately. Just the process of seeing this cycle (deterritorialization, disruption, reterritorialization) occur can be extremely enlightening for many, especially when what appears to be the slightest offense provokes the most brutal response from authorities. Use of the nomadic model in this manner requires excellent camouflage in the case of the product, and careful assessment of the time lapse between disruption (for example, people acting autonomously through the exercise of free speech) and the disciplinary response in the case of process. This window will determine the duration of the performance, unless the performer plans to incorporate the police reaction into the script.
An additional aspect of great importance is that this model does not recognize the public/private distinction in regard to territory. This model assumes that the idea of public space is a myth. In rational economy, action is always taken in privatized space, which is to say managed space. The only variable in question is to what degree a site is managed, i.e., how complex bureaucratic restrictions are at a given site, and how powerful is the garrison which patrols the site.
Nomadic action can be understood as unmediated or direct action. The cultural nomad sees all territories as potential sites of resistance. Once a site has been designated, s/he
proceeds to take a place within that territory. No permits are obtained; no permissions are required. No particular social aggregate is designated as audience or participants (although this is not to say that various social characteristics will not be partially determined by territory, as space is most certainly socially stratified); rather participants are viewed as individuals. Each individual in the situation is not guided or directed by the artist, s/he is only encouraged to speak by the artist’s process or product. The scripts emerge; they are not written in advance. In this sense, nomadic action is experimental in that the outcome is unknown (which is not to say that parameters are not unknown—police will stop the process or the product will be destroyed). To be sure, a nomadic performance could proceed along a very disappointing ideological trajectory as easily as it could an enlightening one. Such possibilities are quite the opposite of the bureaucratically routinized certainty of monumental culture. Nomadic action occurs in the spatial cracks that separate the forces of micro-management, and in the temporal gaps between autonomous action and punishment, because it is in this liminal location where the possibility for dialogic cultural action is found.
What is more important, however, is that the “public” can participate in generating “public art.” Anyone can participate in the nomadic model to the fullest extent of h/er
desire. While nomadic actions can be very elaborate and expensive, they also can be very simple. Nomadic action can cost nothing and still can be incredibly effective —the only requirement is the will to do it. There are no bureaucracies to navigate, you don’t have to be a well-schooled or famous artist, and any site is valid. Hence, no matter what variety of everyday life systems a person participates in, an element of radical practice can always be initiated within it. For those who are not interested in instigating action (for CAE does not want to take the naive view that everyone should be making art if culture is to be democratic), the nomadic work does not determine, silence, or exclude the contributions of anyone who chooses to interact with the process or product.
Through the use of nomadic tactics such as detournment, creative vandalism, plagiarism, invisible theater, or counterfeiting, to name but a few, bunkers can be disturbed. Any work which can create the conditions for people to engage in the transgressive act of rejecting a totalizing and closed rational order, and to open themselves up to social interaction beyond the principles of habituation, of exchange, and of instrumentality within an environment of uncertainty, is one which is truly resistant and truly transgressive, since participants can revel in a moment of autonomy. Only within such situations can dialogue occur, and only through this occurrence can pedagogy have enlightening consequences.
Example of a nomadic work.
Are We There Yet?
Critical Art Ensemble designed this work to be performed at tourist sites and locations of extreme consumption. Note that such locations are heavily garrisoned and fortified, so only the slightest act of deviance is needed to provoke a coercive response. The performer selected a spot near an entrance/exit area at a public site, taking a position at the side of the entrance way so as to minimize blockage. In place, he began to set up a toy car track and then proceeded to push toy cars around the track. Other cars were displayed for anyone else who wanted to participate. Other collective members insinuated themselves into the crowd that developed, and spoke with the onlookers.
The results: The crowd generally began by speculating on the mental health of the performer. Common themes were that the performer was “loony,” “on drugs,” or a “Viet Nam vet.” Some people would join the performer in pushing cars around the track, sometimes as a taunt, but mostly as gesture of sympathy. Within two to five minutes security guards or police would arrive on the scene. They would approach cautiously, fearing it was a disturbed person who might be prone to violence (the security forces were generally quite public about discussing the situation). The sight of security forces would attract more people to the scene. Security would eventually tell the performer to “move along.” The performer would ignore the command, and act as if he were oblivious to the people around him. Security would then threaten the performer with arrest if he did not move. This is the moment when the most interesting dialogue began, and the greatest understanding of public management emerged. The spectators were suddenly confronted with the reality that a person was about to be arrested simply for playing with toy cars. On most occasions, the majority of people in the crowd would make verbal protests while standing in stunned disbelief, although in every case there were those who thought the police action was for the best, and that the performer really did need help. On one occasion, violence between the police and the crowd was on the verge of breaking out, and the performance was broken off prematurely. In all other cases, the performance was stopped just prior to arrest.
Notes and figures: Cost of the performance-$10 for the cars and track; the theater space was appropriated; no performance experience was required.