Leading through practice
Leading through practice: We will change the world
“What happened to the people who said ‘we will represent something in the world’? When did artists start to say ‘we will change the world’?”
It’s not as if artists have refused to confront political issues in the past – James Gillray’s Blood on Thunder fording the Red Sea or Francisco Goya’s El Tres de Mayo de 1808 en Madrid certainly tackled important events. The emphasis in art, however, remained on the re-presentation of the world and its material objects until the twentieth century. That balance between representation and information changed decisively in the 1960s, following through on a series of artistic revolutions in the twentieth century. Often it was war that drove this change. The First World War had a devastating effect on artists’ faith in their objects to transform by means of beauty. Ezra Pound summed up this crisis in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.
WW2 and the Spanish Civil War reinforced this shift in sensibility and by the sixties protest against the Vietnam war was taking place at a time when artists were also questioning commodification (and the commodification of their work) in society.
Since then the relationship between politics and art has remained one of the key issues in the contemporary art world. Most recently, a project instigated in Ramallah has highlighted its continued urgency. ‘Liminal Spaces’, co-curated by Eyal Danon, Galit Eilat, Reem Fadda and Philipp Misselwitz, is an initiative born out of the frustrations and hardships of the current Palestinian situation. The organisers describe their aims as follows:
In March 2006, the project invited Palestinian, European and Israeli artists, architects, academics and film makers to examine the condition of everyday space, borders, physical segregation, cultural territories within a reality of occupation and challenge the possibilities of art as a catalyst for political and social change. The focus of the project is the radically divided and fragmented urban region of Jerusalem/Ramallah, which has become a laboratory for an urbanism of radical ethnic segregation. Curators, cultural figures and artists developed this project through a series of meetings and discussions that sought to generate a more active political engagement of the art sector. Additionally, it is hoped that through participation in the project, new possibilities of contact and exchange will emerge on an individual basis and beyond.
The reality of this project was of course harsher. With a fire destroying the Palestinian art centre’s facilities, the opening conference for the project was held in an empty furniture shop on the edge of the Qalandiya refugee camp. That meeting went well with a genuine bond being established among all the participants.
On the final day, however, an excellent talk from Charles Esche on the importance of ambiguity in art provoked everyone present into asking stark questions about the role of art and politics. Surrounded by the immediate and desperately urgent situation in Palestine, some artists felt there could be no place for ambiguity. Clear injustice called for clear condemnations. Others felt ambiguity and even oblique strategies were viable and perhaps necessary in a situation where there were so many media pressures with predictable, stereotypical uses of military imagery and so many political complexities. Over the whole debate loomed a much larger question – would making artwork at this time change anything?
That conference ended on these bleak notes. It seemed there would be no clear way forward. A second conference, however, was arranged for October, this time to be held in Leipzig. There, more debate ensued but the real surprise lay in the exhibition that accompanied the sessions. It was clear that in the intervening eight months all of the artists had begun projects based on the original aims of ‘Liminal Spaces’. Some were direct – video observation of a checkpoint and the endless delays and humiliations created there – some were oblique – an exploration of Israeli sperm donor rules which forbid Jewish men to donate while allowing Palestinian men to contribute. Several of the works were still in progress and a few dwelt on the bureaucracy and mental blocks that suppressed creativity in the region. Peter Friedl’s attempt to transport a giraffe from Palestine, for instance, revolved around a series of letters documenting the labyrinth of requests necessary. Superflex chose a route that was miraculously both profound and frivolous – persuading the Palestinian Authority to sanction an application for entry to the Eurovision Song Contest.
There was still no clear consensus but the movement to making and a reliance on practice rather than words was a significant gesture by all of the artists. There was no idealistic vision that this process would change anything but some shared belief that it was still necessary and useful. Perhaps a sense that a mental space could be opened up through the works and the conferences which permitted thoughts to be expressed or challenged in ways not possible on the ground in either Israel or Palestine.
Francis McKee is a writer and curator based in Glasgow. He is a part-time lecturer and research fellow at The Glasgow School of Art. Since 2005 he has also been curator of Glasgow International, a festival of contemporary visual art, and the interim director of CCA, the Centre for Contemporary Arts. Francis McKee has worked previously as an historian of medicine for the Wellcome Trust.
In a completely unrelated situation in 2006 the leader of the revolutionary Zapatista insurgency movement, Subcomandante Marcos, co-wrote a detective novel with the Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo II. It was the most recent of a series of actions that seemed to place art before military action – an invitation/ challenge to the Inter Milan football team, the regular appearance of a chicken dressed as a penguin in the Zapatista heartland of Chiapas and the emergence of a sensibility influenced as much by the Situationists as Che Guevara. In a description of Mexico City for instance Marcos writes:
El Sup had told me that if you want to know the Monster, you have to walk it. Walk through it, he told me, and you’ll see that the city is build on the people who can save it. So that’s what I did, I walked all around that city. And I went everywhere, and everywhere I went I ran into people like us Zapatistas, which means people who are screwed, which means people willing to fight, which means people who don’t give up.
To choose art to express these thoughts is more than propaganda or publicity seeking. It is a natural extension of revolutionary thought once military action has been dismissed as an option.
First published: Research papers March 2007
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