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<nettime> Re: Signals, Statistics & Social Experiments
brian.holmes {AT} wanadoo.fr on Thu, 25 Nov 2004 17:15:14 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Re: Signals, Statistics & Social Experiments

Rene Gabri writes about an interventionist experiment, which involved 
closing the Whitebox gallery, in New York I guess, by means of a staged 
and publicized threat from the fictional "Homeland Security Cultural 
Bureau" (hscb.org):

"Having gone through that entire process though, I think Ayreen and I 
experienced/learned something quite specific, which was that as long as 
this sort of jamming happens to an "outside" force, things are, at least 
within the art context, all ok, but turned inside out, blurred, and when 
the art context itself is implicated within a certain matrix, the
reaction  against such a thing can be quite fierce and un-accepting....

"I think an ongoing question which cultural producers have been asking 
themselves is how radical or critical is something when it can so easily 
be digested and utilized in the service of Empire."

Well, the last is a question I've asked a lot, as a so-called "critic," 
and not only about all the shlock of relational art or YBA etc. In my 
experience, anyone who constructs such arguments has to come up against 
strong resistance within the art world, at various levels of spontaneity 
or deliberate hostility. Personally, I'm always affected by those who are 
spontaneously shocked by the symbolic violence of the examples I use, the 
arguments I make or the projects I do. It sends me through lots of doubt, 
about whether I should hold such positions, on the one hand, or whether 
there's any use in continuing to play a mediating game between activists 
and institutions, on the other. One person in the public in Basel said 
that she felt I was talking about things too simple, too immediate, that 
art shouldn't be reduced to that level, that the work of an artist like 
Heath Bunting was so much more complex, required so much more time to be 
understood. Another, who turned out to be Cornelia Sollfrank, asked who I 
thought I was addressing - we artists have been working on these things 
for so long, she said, we don't need to hear this. And that made me wonder 
whether there was any use in my text, or whether it all wasn't as 
painfully obvious as she said, particularly since Sollfrank's project 
seemed like the only one in Basel that came close to my concerns (it 
involves generating legal counter-expertise concerning a image- generator 
that remixes Warhol motifs, and that could not be presented in Basel 
because of copyright fears).

The thing is, there is no outside - we're stuck with the institutions and 
their digestive capacities, all around me I see the activist-artists going 
in and out of the institutions, like I do, like you do. What's more, I 
think it's necessary, because if there is no contentious presence of 
discord within the various kinds of mediating institutions (not only art) 
then the power blocs will become even more violent and ugly, as they 
already have. The question is, how to play the controversies out in 
public, how to "resolve" them? Where "resolve" means that new compromises 
are hammered out after struggle. With no guarantees. I think back to the 
"art against Reagan" years, and stuff like "Piss Christ" and other awful 
Serrano pieces which I never saw the use in; and I wonder whether I missed 
the point, or whether it really was an awful failure. In which case I am 
even more nervous about what people like us are doing right now.

Apropos of I can't remember what, Geert Lovink said: "Free expression? 
That's Theo van Gogh: a brilliant artist who called Muslims goat-fuckers 
in every third sentence of his films. Is that what we want?" But now it's 
too late for Dutch people or anyone else to ask whether we want it or not, 
because van Gogh is dead and there's a situation of extreme tension and 
violence, with no chance left for any "resolution" through the mediation 
of aesthetics, not any time soon at least.

In this sense I know who I'm addressing: not just the institutions, but 
all those who think that urgency is not an essential part of being alive 
today, and also part of the kind of intensity that makes art perceptible, 
sensible, part of life even in its difference from media-driven 
simplifications, even in its complexity or subtelty, which I'm not against 
by the way. For me there's a continuum between the subtly reflective and 
the confontational, they augment each other.

What I'm shocked by is how sterile and superficial cultural institutions 
and producers can be, delivering the usual aesthetic formulas as though 
all around us the world were not sliding into a planetary civil war. I was 
walking down the street tonite thinking about whether I'm completely crazy 
to even open my mouth with all my uncertainty and fake confidence, and my 
mind drifted to the description of Heath Bunting and Kayle Brandon's 
"status" project, in the post that Patrice Riemans sent today (Tuesday 
Nov. 23). Those two are bloody complex, and totally combative in their 
project, and headed for an enormous and dangerous controversy (but I 
think, just on the basis of what I've seen from Bunting in the past, that 
they will also be intelligent enough to slip away from it and turn it into 
something different, which for me is true artistry). The conclusion I came 
too, walking down the street, is that t= his kind of interventionist art 
isn't going to disappear. And there are two reasons why. One is because an 
entire generation was socialized in the nineties with what is, at bottom, 
a utopian promise: the idea that the openness of the new digital 
infrastructure is so great that practically anyone who's willing to work 
at it can throw off subservience and go tweak whatever levers of power he 
or she chooses - from the Pentagon computer networks to identity cards or 
a Chinese arms fair or a Nike presentation booth or UAVs or whatever. And 
the other is because there are a whole lot of alienated people out there 
now: people who think that the cynical disavowal by the powers that be of 
the promise that the world could in fact get better for everyone is just 
too much to bear, and that in response you have to do something more than 
just symbolic, you have to do something real. So in the end, I still 
believe what I say. Work has to be done to make artistic provocations not 
just the jailable gestures of crazy nut cases, but serious things that 
deserve serious consideration. At the same time, people need to 
self-organize a lot more, as someone else said in Basel. And all we who 
think something like this should maybe get ready to spend more time 
defending friends and colleagues, as artists and activists and ordinary 
outraged people get into deep deep trouble with other people think very 
very differently from them.

best, Brian

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