Monday, September 29, 2008

Jumps and Surpises

Jumps and Surprises, installation with Oliver Ressler, Den Frie Udstillingbygning, Copenhagen. Wall drawings by Zanny Begg, films by Oliver Ressler and Zanny Begg, exhibition curated by Kuratorisk Aktion with the participation of Zanny Begg, Oliver Ressler, Lars Buchardt, Eva la Cour, Jan Danebod, Miklos Erhardt and Little Warsaw, Josephine Meckseper, Malene Nielsen and Tanja Stasia Schlander. Viewers were invited to contribute to a genealogy of the counter-globalisation movement by adding to a time-line which formed part of the Jumps and Surprises installation. Public Hearing lectures by Zanny Begg, Mikkel Bolt, Eva la Cour, Oliver Ressler and Dmitry Vilensky.

Worlds Within Worlds Within Worlds

Exhibition fanzine essay

“Another world is not only possible she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing.” - Arundhati Roy, World Social Forum, 2003.

Between the first People’s Global Action meetings of 1998-99 (which coordinated the Global Street Parties and the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle) and the most recent anti-G8 mobilisations in Lake Toyako, Japan, the counter-globalisation movement has experienced ten years of political evolution and struggle. These ten years have been more nebulous, elongated and elusive then the explosive “ten days” of the Russian Revolution which “shook the world” of the last century. Nonetheless they have shaken the world of this century – generating a new era of anti-capitalist activism, which has begun unravelling the problems created by the more decisive revolutions of yesterday. The last ten years has produced twin revolts against the ways and means of both the Old Left and the New Right and has facilitated the emergence of a new politics of global struggle, which is centered in notions of DIY (Do-It-Yourself), carnival, punk, embodied politics and autonomy.

For us as artists, activists and/or art theorists, this movement has had a profound impact on cultural practice – since the end of the ‘90s there has been a noticeable rise in interest in collective, confrontational, antagonistic or critical artistic practices. In the beginning of the new millennium, there has been a marked increase in “big issue” exhibitions, which have sought to connect art and politics in a variety of ways. These exhibitions are not just a grouping of works by political or socially engaged artists but represent a variety of attempts, with varying degrees of success, at reconstructing the relationships between art and viewer, art and institution, art and activism and art and everyday life. To name just some of these projects: Who if not we?; Collective Creativity; First What We take is Museum; How do we want to be governed?; There must be an alternative; Space of Conflicts; The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds - 20 proposals for imagining the future; Taking the Matter into Common Hands; Disobedience; Ex-Argentina/Steps for the Flight from Labour into Doing; An Ideal Society Creates Itself; If I Can’t Dance – I Don’t Want to be Part of your Revolution; If You See Something, Say Something; Revolution – I Love You; Communism, the very recent One World Where Many Worlds Fit project curated by Oliver Ressler as part of the Taipei Biennial 2008 last week and the current exhibition through which this discussion has been initiated; asking we walk, voices of resistance. And this is just to name a few…

Many of these projects, the current one being an obvious exception, have been resourced by establishment cultural institutions, which have sought to respond to the mood of militant cultural production. This was obvious in Taipei when the Taiwanese President visited Oliver’s section of the exhibition and decreed that in addition to the three essential components of a successful biennial he outlined in his opening speech – creativity, energy and sensitivity – he would now add a fourth – rebellion. Mr. Ma Ying-Jeou’s speech presents us with a specific challenge: Have we been absorbed within the institution to the point where we are no longer threatening, even to the avowedly anti-Communist Taiwanese government and other such forces of authority? Or is our incorporation testament to our ongoing potencia, which challenges the Museum to open up, respond and accept us?

Of course this question is one at the heart of the politics of the counter-globalisation movement post-Genoa which that has popularized the ideas of Autonomist Marxism including the Copernican Revolution in Marxism suggested by Mario Tronti. “For too long”, he argued, Marxism has focused on capital – we must “turn this on its head” and fix our attention on the constitutive power of labour. In the Post-Fordist world of Genoa, this fixation evolved to an emphasis on the creative potential and precarity of the multitude. The slogan “We are Winning” and “Another World is Possible” highlighted this sentiment: We make the world and we could just remake it anew.

John Holloway further modified this Copernican revolution by suggesting that there were two ways in which it can be interpreted. As mentioned already, we can see this as a clash between the multitude and the external forces of capital where the capitalists are constantly forced to absorb and react to the demands and desires of the multitude. Or we can embrace the “stronger” “more radical” interpretation offered by Holloway, which acknowledges that capital is actually a product of the working class and therefore “depends, from one minute to another, upon the working class for its reproduction”. Out of this strand of interpretation came the notion, also articulated by Arundhati Roy in the quote which introducing this article, that another world is already here produced and sustained by the multitude: “[We] can hear her breathing”.

But somehow amongst the buzz of this founded, and maybe not so founded optimism, the old world managed to reassert itself. While Genoa sparkled with the joy and surprise of a new movement which that generated an expansive feeling of political potential, the joy of this movement was also quickly tempered by the violent and repressive responses of the state. Seattle was held in a virtual lockdown for the duration of the protests as demonstrators battled tear gas, riots police and fortified streets. This was followed by horse charges of protesters in Melbourne, the mass arrest and accusations of torture of protesters in Prague, the firing of rubber bullets in Gothenburg, the firing of live ammunition and the killing of a protester, Carlo Giuliani, in Genoa, the killing of several piqueteros in Argentina, and the escalating fortifications of cities which accompanied every meeting of the global financial and governmental elite. The absurd conclusion of this pre-emptive repression was manifest in La Plate during the Summit of the Americas when citizens were issued passes to get in and out of their houses during the complete security lockdown for the duration of the summit – a paranoid and surreal excessiveness Etcetera so effectively parodied in the creation of the Errorist International.

Furthermore, within the first few years of the emergence of the counter-globalisation movement it was paired with another very different manifestation of anti-capitalist violence: the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. These terrorist attacks, like the anti-globalisation movement, transformed global politics, but in an entirely different, and negative, manner. After 9/11, the counter-globalisation movement would evolve in an international environment made decisively more complex by the opening of new wars in the Middle East, the passing of a raft of new laws that criminalized dissent and certain forms of militant organizing (in the name of Anti-Terrorism) and a political climate where violent protest, anti-capitalism and -imperialism had found a deadly and mutated doppelganger.

Since 2001, Islamic extremism has stalked the counter-globalisation movement as a rival force of anti-capitalism, which offered its own methods of confrontation with the state and solutions to the legacies of colonialism. These two forces came into excruciating close proximity during the anti-G8 protests in Gleneagles, 2005. A loose coalition of counter-globalisation activists took to the fields around Gleneagles setting up a revolving series of roadblocks and other obstacles, which began successfully to disrupting transport into the summit venue. The success of these tactics was cut short, however, by a series of bombs that ripped apart London killing hundreds of people. Alex Trocchi, Giles Redwolf and Petrus Alamire explain how the news were received in the anti-G8 protest camp:

“Before discussions about the next days of action could really commence news came of the terrorist attack in London. It hit everyone like a physical punch in the stomach and the whole meeting came to an eerie standstill… The timing was almost too convenient: it shattered any dreams about refocusing debate on climate change and poverty inescapably pulling the focus onto George Bush’s rusty refrain on war and terrorism and, most importantly, sending everyone into the arms of the state. The spectacular bombings simply fed the image of the G8 as the defenders of western civilization from anarchy and Islam.”

The Islamist movement is extremely complex and multifaceted (and I cannot do justice to this complexity here), but in very general terms its methods of organizing and its focus on the G8 and the centers of global financial capital have given it some inconvenient, treacherous and ultimately superficial similarities with counter-globalisation movement. As Trocchi, Redwolf and Alamire point out, these similarities have generated a feeling of defensiveness and impotence within the movement: “In our stunned silence we could not even enunciate clearly that the enemy of our enemy is not our friend.”

This defensiveness is further entrenched as Islamist extremism speaks to a certain failure within the secular Left to bring into being a world, which provided justice for the “Post-Colonial Other”. This failure is acutely felt in the Middle East where various squabbles of the Cold War era have left a legacy of dictatorial semi-feudal regimes, corrupt and impotent national liberation struggles, insurgent Islamic extremists, a violent Israeli state and non-existent beneficiaries of liberal democracy, let alone revolutionary socialism. This failure permeates outwards from the Middle East to places in Africa, Asia and central Europe where large numbers of people feel betrayed and disappointed by a secular Left politics which failed to deliver real changes in their daily lives.

This turn to Islam, it must be pointed out, is largely peaceful and cannot be reduced to the extreme tactics employed by terrorists – having just spent three months in Indonesia, I can attest to the wide spread power of anti-Western politicized Islam. But religious terrorism feeds off the disappointment and frustration felt by those who have been given little reason to believe in secular Left solutions to the problem of imperialism and colonialism (incidentally also providing a convenient cipher of dissent in the interests of the Western imperialists).

This failure of the Left is mercifully not absolute. In one promising moment, the multitude of Seattle and Genoa reached out and met with its “Post-Colonial Other” – creating a global multitude of refusal of US aggression in the Middle East. The February 15, 2003 mass demonstrations against the approaching war in Iraq were a historic gesture of popular disgust at Western imperialism and formed the largest, coordinated, anti-war demonstrations in history. This was followed by the equally enormous March 15 demonstration that was held just hours before the bombing began.

The shear size of these demonstrations are hard to even imagine – 3 million people in Rome alone protested against the war (which has entered the Guinness Book of Records as the largest peace rally in history ) and the total size of the demonstration has been estimated at between fifteen and twenty million people. The momentous success of the demonstrations – which were organised from Rome to Ramallah, Rio to Reykjavik – proved in practice the power of the multitude as a global organisational force: a fact incidentally not only recognised by the demonstrators themselves; the New York Times described the mobilisation as the “second Super-power.”

But as Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews and Michael Watts, who form part of the Retort collective in the US, point out the Great Refusal of 2003, while mobilizing an unprecedented number of people, worked unsuccessfully to halt the war; “Unsuccessfully. Of course that proviso is bitter, and in a sense absolute; and everyday now, as the horror in the Middle East deepens and the vanguard of jihardists gathers strength, the proviso becomes harder to bear. Elation is one thing, effectiveness another.”

While the counter-globalisation movement had managed to score some important victories in its early infancy – the seizure of autonomous zone in Chiapas, the scuttling of the Seattle round of the trade negotiations, the collapse of the MAI treaty, the closure of the Prague IMF a day early, the fall of several successive governments in Argentina, the forcing of the IMF and the WTO onto the global back-foot – the multitude which that was born in 2003 as a truly global phenomenon, was utterly incapable of dinting the determination of Western imperialism to embark upon another war. The meta-politics of counter-globalisation reached its own limit and has been forced to reassess.

The combination of these two factors – the continuing war(s) in the Middle East and the increasing preparedness, militarisation and violence of the state’s response to the international counter-summit carnival – has produced a certain hiatus in the movement. As early as 2001, Naomi Klein was talking about the limits of “summit hopping” and today it seems these have been thoroughly reached: Militant attempts to shut down the summits of the capitalist elite have been saturated as a form of protest producing a predictable and ritualized clash, which is becoming less attractive to new activists. This does not mean that these forms of protest cannot play constructive roles in particular circumstances – such as Heiligendamm 2007 – but they have ceased to generate forward momentum for the counter-globalisation movement as a whole, and nothing else has emerged (as yet) to replace them (if indeed it will). Out of this vacuum comes the more recent desire expressed by some to invert the slogan of the movement to “we are losing.”

For us as artists, theorists and activists, who have in many ways been produced by the last ten years of the counter-globalisation movement, this presents some specific challenges. The comments of Mr. Ma remind us that in the new context the Museum will not turn its back on all forms of activist art – quite the contrary it is at this moment that we face the greatest danger of being prematurely historicized as a radical other within the institutional framework: There is nothing as tempting for the institution as a radical critique which has had the autonomous sting taken out of its tail. Nor is it time for us to flee cultural spaces and wait for the “next wave” of activism to crash us upon its shores again like some depressed Bondi surfer hanging around on a calm beach.

In the early part of last century, Antonio Gramsci wrote of the political situation he faced at that time that “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Today, perhaps, we face a similar problem of an interregnum, but I would qualify it with the addition of the word “yet.” The new cannot (yet) be born, but it is struggling to come into the world – sometimes we can hear it breathing, sometimes it goes very quiet and we wonder fearfully if it’s a still birth. For those of us produced by the movements of the last ten years, therefore, we must act with fidelity to these struggles with neither irresponsible optimism, nor pessimism, but all the unavoidable patience of a midwife.

The cultural capital of this movement is rich – giving us forms of activism, self-organisation, collectivity and autonomy, production methods based in open source technology and new media, theoretical ideas of post-postmodernism and autonomia, modes of Post-Fordist new subjectivities and sociabilities, and embodied ideas of the carnival and politics of desire – and these tools remain in our toolbox as artists and writers. While the world may not be generating images of protests outside summits as it used to (representation of actions or protests was only ever but one way of making art politically), there are many others to be explored and which have been explored already in the last ten years of activist art. The possibilities and challenges of “another world” or “worlds” continue to confront and invite us.

By Zanny Begg