Marco Scotini. Towards a "modern" genealogy of the many
The philosopher Reinaldo Laddaga has recently sought to identify some basic precedents underlying the initiatives of the artists and artists' collectives that have emerged with the new millennium and are involved today on a global scale in the definition of a new relationship between public space and social production. Proletarian theatre projects in Moscow or Berlin in the Twenties, the nuclei of artistic workers in Paris or Rio de Janeiro in the Forties and Fifties, and the movement of alternative spaces in New York in the Sixties and Seventies represent for Laddaga an initial list of possible precursors, but not enough to completely explain the current phenomenon of experimental artistic communities, and the collaborative processes these set in motion 1.
Etcetera. Niente (Nothing). Action. Milano, 7 aprile. 2006
Martha Rosler, re-proposing the American counter-culture scene – from West Coast women such as Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, musical groups like the Mothers of Invention, to New York collectives – has referred instead to the new relationship between art and activism that began with Seattle as a sort of "ambiguous" return to the political art of the Seventies, while advising new protagonists to reread Adorno as a deterrent against a mainstream drift of the phenomenon. For Martha Rosler, is it not only necessary but absolutely indispensable today to reopen the interrupted debate between Adorno, Brecht and Benjamin on the instrumentalization of the work of art in the period of the late capitalist cultural industry 2.
There are some who have found in the key concepts developed from Situationism – such as détournement, spectacular regime or unitary urbanism – the starting point for a hypothetical genealogy of the current artistic scene; there are some, such as Suely Rolnik who have moved this point back to the Brazilian anthropophagic movement of the Twenties, which, in itself, cannot be seen exclusively as the precedent for all the successive Brazilian avant-garde formations, but as a methodological premise for a globalization of art from below. In the practice of anthropophagy the colonized subject, rather than accepting his proper position as subordinate and submitting to the dominant culture, "cannibalizes" the cultural elements of the colonizer as a form of appropriation, of adaptation to local repertories and a deconstruction of the hegemonic discourse 3.
Etcetera. Niente (Nothing). Action. Milano, 7 aprile. 2006
Rolnik directs her archaeological investigation starting from the notion of "flexible subjectivity", which she extracts from the counter-position formulated by Brian Holmes between "authoritarian personality" as a typical figure of modernity, and "flexible personality" as the new political and social subject who identifies himself with the progressive development of computer technology and with that of a consequent "virtual class" 4.
Then again, there are those who have shifted the beginnings of the contemporary artistic and aesthetic debate to the Argentinian Tucuman Arde revolutionary cultural action movement, which, at the end of the Sixties, saw art as an essentially political practice, proposing three different levels of operating strategy: one sociological, concerned with how to document the economic crisis in the Argentine province; a second, counter-informative, about ways of communicating this crisis; and the last related to spaces for art, and thus directly expositive.
In their turn, Catherine David and Jean-François Chevrier – perhaps the first, and from a programmed perspective – have re-examined a series of events from 1945 to 1997 whose characteristics range from a dimension of radical criticism to a dogmatic and minimal modernism, to the anthropological foundation of Western culture and to the categories and hierarchies of art and knowledge. Artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Hélio Oiticica, Öyvind Fahlström, architects like Aldo van Eyck, photographers such as Garry Winogrand and Helen Levitt are some of the protagonists of this new account that presents itself as a fundamental alternative to the avant-garde interpretation of the twentieth-century 5.
Etcetera. Niente (Nothing). Action. Milano, 7 aprile. 2006 (top). David Alfaro Siqueiros. Photo. 1920-s (bottom)
Starting from these proposals for historical continuity, there is no one who is unable to see how the current resumption of the modernist cultural project – such as social emancipation, institutional criticism, the demand for democracy, the relationship between art and reality – has difficulty finding its place within the premises and developments of artistic modernity itself.
Through these underground and fragmentary multiple genealogical constructions, which are the result of different models of observation, it is impossible to view artistic practices that have emerged in recent years as a direct manifestation of the modernist background after the interruption of the era of deregulation under Reagan, the "There is no alternative" of Margaret Thatcher, and the Eighties relativism of all values.
But it is not a question of ascertaining, more or less, the conditions of a linear history of modernity: its phenomena of persistence, the recurring forms of the projects, the aspirations, and the parameters, nor a question of ascertaining whether modernity has turned at large once and for all, as Appadurai has already claimed. And even less of deconstructing the unitary image of the tradition of avant-garde art movements in the Twentieth century just when attempting to formulate a possible genealogy for the new area of politicization that is now beginning to open with the recent link between artistic practices and activist action. The general impression is that even questions of emancipation and the discussion of radical criticism that the contemporary aesthetic and artistic debate raises are no longer so "modern", and have, therefore, different references (the "many" rather than the "people", different participatory spaces (the "here and now" determined by the delegated space), different objectives (the end of Utopia) besides the numerous strategies put to work to achieve them.
Group Material. The people's choice. New York. 1980
With the socialist frame lacking, and given, at this point, a totally transformed productive regime as the postfordist one, can the terms of the problem still be the same? Is there no visible difference between the demonstrations by the Art Workers' Coalition and the protests or escraches (exposure protests) of Colectivo etcetera? Between the strategy of Group Material's "The People's Choice" (1981) and that of "Wunscharchiv" (Archive of Desire, 1996) by the group Park Fiction. Between Hans Haacke's denuding of the "corporation culture" and Bureau d'Etudes's mapping of capitalism's hidden networks? Or between the presentation of xenophobia by Adrian Piper or by the Black Audio Film Collective?
In the time of "immaterial work" – according to Maurizio Lazzarato's definition 6 – not only is it impossible to maintain a rigid division between intellectual production, political action and culture, it is actually unthinkable to separate work from the rest of human activity. If, as Paolo Virno 7 claims, under the Fordist regime the intellect remained outside the productive cycle, in the current postfordism the contrary applies: work and non-work develop an identical productivity based on the use of generic human faculties, such as language, feelings, sociality, aesthetics etc. The differences, then, between the forms civil disobedience took in the Sixties/Seventies, and the insurgent activities of the present artistic scene become immediately comprehensible. Neither is it simply by chance that the forms of contemporary neo-movementism, like those of current artistic activism, are actually determined by a common background characterized by the end of the Political. The different relationship representation and power play is thus the true point of separation between political art of the Seventies (or more generically modernist) and that of the present. There is no longer the desire to take over the State (or its institutions such as the Museum, the Party, the Factory etc.) instead the current situation is identified by an attitude of defending oneself against it and exiting from it. In this sense the display of contemporary dissent manifests itself not only and not so much as theoretical criticism or active protest as defection, exodus and exit. As the sociologist Albert O. Hirschman would have said, "Exit" not "Voice": abandonment rather than confrontation; the search for new participatory spaces, constituent practices, micro-actions on a local scale, forms of self-management, self-organization and empowerment.
Institutional criticism of the Museum is what links Broodthaers, Haacke and other artists of the period. Much of the energy of the Art Workers' Coalition has been spent on negotiating with museums: when they made an incursion into the MoMA room containing Guernica with their poster "And Babies?" against the Vietnam War, and when in 1970 they distributed their 12 point statement of requests to the American museums, in which they asked for free entrances, the extension of expository activities in black and Puerto Rican communities, support for women artists etc. Similarly, when for the "The People's Choice" exhibition, Group Material asked the inhabitants of the Hispanic neighbourhood on New York's East Thirteenth Street to choose a series of objects to put on show that were significant to them and their families, its reference was still the museum and its official role. On the other hand, when Park Fiction asked the inhabitants of the St. Pauli neighbourhood in Hamburg to visualize their desires, it was to determine a collective building project for an urban park along the bank of the River Elbe. Whereas Marcel Duchamp presented his work "Fontain" in New York in 1917 as an exhibit at the Society of Independent Artists: a toilet turned upside down and enigmatically signed R. Mutt, on the contrary in 2003 Marjetica Potrc created a real toilet (Dry Toilet) in the barrio La Vaga in Caracas, confronting the pressures of the informal city and initiating a new relationship between architecture and infrastructure so as to shift the power of intervention from the public institution to individual initiatives 8. Is Dry Toilet a powerful tool for an art of survival or a sort of tactical media such as the low cost, do-it yourself ones proposed by media activists?
Many further examples could testify to the shift from an unambiguous representation of the author's role to the present mimetic, rhizomatic and unpredictable forms that it has come to assume, just like the great transformation registered in the designation of flexible open platforms by current artistic work teams, in which heterogeneous figures confront one another to discuss, plan and work: from the Danish group Superflex to St. Petersburg's Chto Delat? (What Is To Be Done?).
Christoph Schäfer. The St. Pauli Church Kick Box group perform a public training on the inauguration party of the park. Courtesy of the artist and Park Fiction Archive. August. 2005
I believe that with specific regard to the relationship between art and politics, a radical shift away from instances of modernity has been registered, not only with regard to the avant-garde's dissolution of the relationship between "pure" and "political" art, but also the different role of political engagement in art, as represented by Lucaks' theory or that of Adorno, and therefore in the conception of an organic work of art or an avant-garde work of art 9. Or if I think that with Benjamin still, what is at stake is between the politicization of art, or the aestheticization of politics, with, in any event, one subordinate to the other or vice versa.
Today, whether we proceed from Jacques Rancière's or Bernard Stiegler's theories on the question of the sensible being the moment of contact between aesthetics and politics, or from the methodological approach belonging to the Italian operaismo (workerism), and therefore based on the transformation of the process of contemporary production, the dimension of the relationship turns on the direct connection between work and perception, material and intellectual production, structure and superstructure.
Marjetica Potrc and Liyat Esakov. Dry Toilet. La Vega Barrio. Caracas. 2003
At this point, the fundamental questions appear to me to be: which model of the "many" does one compare and substitute at the decline of unifying images for modern memberships of class, population, nation, race and creed? What can take the place of the idea of Utopia? Is the invention of non-representative political organisms possible – in other words a non-representative model of democracy? Is it still possible to separate the convergent histories of artistic movements from the formation of new types of social protagonism? What about their respective production sites? If Zapatism declares that the proper place is not the factory but deep in society, can artistic activities call for a specific production site?
Recently, Paolo Virno said that the themes of the Paris commune and the themes of the soviets become realistic only now, only given these conditions of scientific, intellectual and communicative development 10. But perhaps we are still dealing with a question of genealogy.
1 R. Laddaga, Art and Organizations, in Shifting Map, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2004, pp. 16-21
2 M. Rosler, Out of the Vox, in "Artforum", September 2004, pp. 218-219
3 S. Rolnik, Anthropophagy Zombie, in Collective Creativity, Revolver, Frankfurt am Main, 2005, pp. 206-218
4 B. Holmes, The Flexible Personality, in Hieroglyphs of the Future, Zagreb, 2002
5 C. David, Poetics Politics, Documenta X, The Book, Cantz Verlag, 1997
6 M. Lazzarato, Lavoro immateriale. Forme di vita e produzione immateriale, ombre corte edizioni, Verona 1997
7 P. Virno, Grammatica della moltitudine. Per una analisi delle forme di vita contemporanea, DeriveApprodi, Roma 2002; Esercizi di esodo. Linguaggio e azione politica, ombre corte/cartografie, Verona, 2002
8 M. Scotini, L'etica del bricolage. Dry Toilet, in "Domus", n. 891, April 2006, pp. 88-91
9 P. Bürger, Avanguardia e engagement, in "Lettera internazionale", anno 3, n. 8, Primavera 1986, pp. 34-3900
10 Exodus, Uniqueness and Multitude, interview with Paolo Virno by Marco Scotini, in Disobedience, Fine Arts Unternehmen, Lugano, 2005, pp. 3-4
Born in 1964 in Cortona. Curator and critic. Director of Art faculty in the Nuova Academia in Milan. Author of the numerous exhibition projects dedicated to the relations between art and politics.
Lives in Milan.