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<nettime> Diminishing Freedoms
david garcia on Sat, 28 Jan 2006 07:59:00 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Diminishing Freedoms


Diminishing Freedoms

On a visit to Brazil in 2004 I stayed with Grazilia Kunsch an  
important artist who is also a committed political activist. Part of  
her work is ?hosting? foreign visitors at her house ?Casa Grazie?. To  
be hosted by Grazie is a delight, not least for her wonderful  
breakfasts and the long discussions that are given the time to unfold  
throughout the morning.

Like many artists who are politically active she keeps the boundaries  
between the two spheres deliberately blurry. But she told me how  
although this was once acceptable, she was finding it progressively  
harder to declare openly that she is an artist in activist circles.

Freedom, the expressive freedom of art seems to becoming the  
impossible word. Why? What is at stake? Why are so many political  
activists moving to repudiate cultural politics and the expressive  
freedoms that continue to inspire and draw so many to call themselves  
artists?

There seems to be an oppressive philistinism emerging on the radical  
left, raising the worrying prospect that it is not only neo- 
liberalism that is instrumentalising all of life.

I have been troubled by these developments for some time, but I have  
only recently found a framework to address discuss the problem with  
myself in more detail and with a little more rigor. It was in the  
context of a review for a book on DIY Media by the London based  
artist activist group C6. As always Mute editors are (at least in my  
case) rarely passive recipients of the articles they solicit, and I  
was gently prodded into much more than a simple review. I don?t  
pretend that the resulting ruminations are in any way definitive but  
I hope that it triggers some discussion.

Below is an extract, the full text can be found at http:// 
www.metamute.org/

The Split

We have seen the emergence of three interconnected tendencies, since  
the tactical media of the 90?s. Firstly there is a widespread  
rejection of the homeopathic and the micro-political in favour of  
ambitions scaled up to global proportions coupled with a willingness  
to move beyond electronic and semiotic civil disobedience and to  
engage in direct action, to literally ?re-claim the streets?. This is  
almost entirely as a result of the emergence of the powerful global  
anti-capitalist movement which (from their perspective) have  
transformed tactical media into the ?Indy-media? project. But there  
is also a third less visible and more troubling tendency, a tendency  
towards internal polarisation.
This polarisation is based on a deep split which has opened up  
between many of the activists at the core of the new political  
movements and the artists or theorists who, whilst continuing to see  
themselves as radicals, retain a belief in the importance of cultural  
(and information) politics? in any movement for social transformation.
Although I have little more than personal experience and anecdotal  
evidence to go on, it seems to me, that there is a significant growth  
in suspicion and frequently outright hostility among activists to the  
presence of art and artists in ?the movement?, particularly those  
whose work cannot be immediately instrumentalised by the new  
?soldiers of the left?.

So what is it that has changed since the 90s to give rise to these  
tendencies? To understand we must cast our minds back to the peculiar  
historical conditions of that time. The early phase of tactical media  
re-injected a new energy into the flagging project of ?cultural  
politics?. It fused the radical and pragmatic info politics of the  
hackers with well-established critical practices based critiques of  
representation. The resulting tactical media were also part of (and  
arguably compromised by) the wider internet and communications  
revolution of the 90?s which, like the music of the 1960s, acted as a  
universal solvent not only dissolving disciplinary boundaries but  
also the boundaries separating long established political formations.
The power some of us attributed to this new ?media politics? appeared  
to be born out by the role that all forms of media seemed to have  
played in the collapse of the Soviet Empire. It seemed as though old  
style armed insurrection had been superseded by digital dissent and  
media revolutions. It was as if the Samizdat spirit, extended and  
intensified by the proliferation of Do-it-yourself media had rendered  
the centralized statist tyrannies of the soviet empire untenable.  
Some of us allowed ourselves to believe that it would only be a  
matter of time before the same forces would challenge our own tired  
and tarnished oligarchies. Furthermore the speed and comparative  
bloodlessness of the Soviet collapse suggested that the  
transformations that were coming would not have to be achieved  
through violence or personal sacrifice. This would be the era of the  
painless (?win  win?) revolution, in which change would occur simply  
through the hacker ethos of challenging the domains of forbidden  
knowledge. It came to be believed that power that comes only from the  
top down had lost its edge. As late as 1999 in his Reith lecture,  
Anthony Giddens could still confidently assert that ?The information  
monopoly upon which the Soviet system was based, had no future in an  
intrinsically open framework of global communications?.
Giddens and other third way social theorists were part of a wider  
movement, which acted out the dream that the profound political  
differences, which had divided previous generations, had been put on  
hold. This was made credible through the ubiquity of one of the  
dominant myths of the information age, a myth shared by activists and  
new media entrepreneurs alike. The myth that knowledge will set you  
free. This founding narrative of techno-culture, visible from Ted  
Nelson ?Computer Lib? onwards, recycles (in intensified form), the  
age old proposition that knowledge and freedom are not only connected  
but may actually entail one another.

The fact that a belief in the necessary relationship between  
knowledge and freedom has gone largely unquestioned is based in part  
on the depth of its lineage, ?ancient stoics and most modern  
rationalists are at one with Christian teaching on this issue. ?And  
ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free?. As Isaiah  
Berlin pointed out in 1968 not only is ?. This proposition is not  
self evidently true, if only on empirical grounds.? It is ?one of the  
least plausible beliefs ever entertained by profound and influential  
thinkers.?1

In addition to being fallacious the accompanying rhetoric of  
transparency, freedom, access, participation, and even creativity,  
has come to constitute the ideological foundation of  ?communicative  
capitalism?, transforming tactical media?s homeopathic micro-politics  
into the experimental wing of the ?creative industries? and  
corroborating the temporal mode of post-Fordist capital: short- 
termism.? 2

Neo-liberalism?s effective capture of the rhetoric of ?freedom? and  
?creativity?, has re-opened an old fault-line which the first wave of  
tactical media did so much to bridge, the fault-line dividing artists  
from the political activists.

The theorist and activist Brian Holmes described the origins of this  
dichotomy succinctly as going (at least) as far back as the cultural  
politics of the 1960s. He describes a split ?between the traditional  
working-class concern for social justice and the New Left concern for  
individual emancipation and full recognition and expression of  
particular identities" According to this account corporate  
foundations and think tanks of the 80s and 90?s have succeeded in  
inculcating market-oriented variations on earlier counter-cultural  
values rendering the interventions of artists (including tactical  
media makers) profoundly if unwittingly, de-politicising. Holmes goes  
on to describe (or assert, I am not quite sure which) a critique in  
which ?the narcisstic exploration of self, sexuality and identity  
become the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture. Artistic freedom and  
artistic license have led, in effect, to the neo-liberalization of  
culture.?3 The puritanical and authoritarian tone of this analysis is  
just a little unnerving. At the very least this tendency could lead  
to a crass and oppressive philistinism and might signal far worse to  
come.

At the Senegallia meeting in 2004 for Telestreets, Franco Berardi  
(Bifo) made a plea to Telestreet activists (and by extension all  
artist/activists) not to ?embrace our miserable marginality".  
Increasingly this call is being answered. There are a growing number  
of inspiring cases which we can point to, the Yes Men?s achievement  
in securing global distribution in mainstream cinemas, Yomango?s high  
voltage contributions to the global, protest movement and  
Witness.org?s extensive inititiatives in which the provision of  
indigenous activists with DIY media with their campaigns is connected  
to human rights legal processes. These and many other projects are  
pointing to the growing willingness to strategically globalise  
dissent. This process in not unconnected to a growing willingness to  
relinquish one of the shibboleths of tactical media, the cult of  
?ephemerality?. In place of the hit and run guerrilla activism the  
direct opposite is now required, ?duration?. It?s a time for longer- 
term commitments and deeper engagements with the people and  
organisations networked around contested issues.

One of the most extraordinary examples of this kind of development is  
?Women on Waves? a Dutch Foundation initiated by the Rebecca Gomperts  
who studied medicine at the University of Amsterdam and specialised  
as an abortion doctor and then went on to study visual arts at the  
Rietveld Academy and Sailing at the Enkhuizen Zeevaartschool  
(Nautical College).
The most celebrated achievement of Women on Waves is the Abortion  
Boat, a large floating clinic that tactically exploits maritime law,  
anchoring the boat just outside the 12-mile zones of countries where  
abortion is forbidden. On the Abortion Boat women can be helped with  
information and with actual abortions are performed by a team of  
Dutch medical practitioners (including Dr Gomperts) on Dutch  
"territory". Thus, women are actively assisted and local  
organisations are supported and inspired in their struggle for the  
legalisation of abortion.
Along with the practical intervention of the Abortion Boat, Women on  
Waves also uses art and design as part of their global campaign for  
abortion rights. For instance the "I had an Abortion" installation  
consisting of vests on wire coat hangers, which bear the text  "I had  
an abortion" in all European languages. On their website  
<womenonwaves.org> a diary can be found of a Brazilian woman relating  
her experiences of wearing one of these t-shirts. The continued  
validity of the modes of political address pioneered by tactical  
media are apparent in her descriptions of how the message on these t- 
shirts was preferable to something that might have read like earlier  
forms of agit prop say ?Legalize abortion?. These t-shirts function  
?not? she declares to ?make myself a target.  that was not the point;  
it was to give all those women without a face a support. As to say,  
don't worry, it's all right, you?re all right. This fulfils one of  
the prime directives of classical tactical media, unlike traditional  
agit prop?it is designed to invite discourse.

Women on Waves is a reminder that cultural politics in its modern  
sense was in large part a creation of the women?s movement. Those who  
question the value of a cultural politics would do well to remember  
that feminism also served to transform the lives and politics of many  
men who were taught (sometimes painfully) that they were failing to  
live out in their ordinary lives, the democracy they were advocating  
in theory.
The way in which ?culture? is central to feminism?s demands and not  
peripheral is powerfully explored by Terry Eagleton in his valuable  
book After Theory which describes the centrality of ?the grammar? in  
which the demands are of feminism were framed. ?Value speech, image,  
experience and identity are here the very language of political  
struggle, as they are in all ethnic or sexual politics. Ways of  
feeling and forms of political representation are in the long run  
quite as crucial as child care provision or equal pay.? 3

This expanded political language was articulated not by activists and  
writers alone but also by many important women artists. Women artists  
who were critical in shifting the centre of gravity of the art world  
of the 60?s and 70?s from Greenburg's formalism and Rosenburg's  
mysticism to a new expressive and subject centred naturalism, which  
remains influential and important to this day.
In our efforts to understand our new conditions and to change we must  
beware of trying to eliminate all ambiguities and impurities, above  
all we should not be tempted to relinquish the essential legacy of  
cultural politics.

1. Isaiah Berlin From Hope and fear Set Free 1968
2.Rossiter & Lovink. Dawn of the Organised Networks (2005)
2. Brian Holmes?s review THE SCANDAL OF THE WORD "CLASS"
Posted on nettime
A review of David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism
(Oxford UP, 2005)
3. Terry Eagleton. After Theory. (Penguin 2003)
4. womenonwaves.org
 

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