Documents: Towards Situation
and the Société Anonyme
Look Out Kids!
D A Pennebaker and Chris
"You like yoga
...we like speed"
Paul McCarthy interviewed
Graham Ramsay & John
the Great Unwashed
The Mark Thomas
as Balfour Beatty withdraws from ILISU!
of Appearing Earnest
"Oh gag me"
An inclusive conversation with Suzanne Lacy
Alison Stirling &
on the Highway to Hell"
The least charismatic person
in Scotland, Jimmy Boyle is now the chairman of the Scottish Arts Council.
He is not to be mistaken for Jimmy Boyle, the author of "A Sense of Freedom".
That Jimmy Boyle is a reformed character with a genuine interest in art,
and this Jimmy Boyle still seems to enjoy stabbing people in the back.
Just as Jimmy 'joined' the
SAC he was also appointed to the Civil Service Commissioners (CSC), who
decide on top level appointments to the Home Civil Service and the Diplomatic
Service. One good turn deserves another in the land of the terminally bland.
Jimmy's SAC appointment was overseen by the Office of the Commissioner
of Public Appointments, run by Dame Rennie Fritchie, who also sits on the
CSC, because it is much the same thing.
Although appointments are
made by Ministers the task of these bodies is to pretend that appointments
are based on merit--who knows? One day they may succeed and the class system
will come tumbling down. Until then these committees will be full of the
kind of inept people who cling to politicians' coat tails for their legitimacy.
Along with Jimmy the CSC
also brought in Dr Maggie Semple, OBE, former Director of Learning of the
New Millennium Experience Company. Her knowledge of financial rectitude
and public accountability running the Millennium Dome is a match for Jimmy's
talentless approach to SAC.
If Jimmy is responsible
for the appeals process when people in public office are mysteriously dismissed:
this must give him a wee bit of inside knowledge eh? Strangely in these
days of bureaucratic transparency, no one knows what happened recently
at a secret SAC meeting when Tessa Jackson, the SAC director was dismissed.
No one can say why she and the SAC are wasting money on lawyers when a
perfectly impartial appeals procedure exists. You don't get to be a part
of it yourself, but it does exist.
The complete ignorance of
the local press about what is going on is also unexplainable, given that
Jimmy has put a couple of old journalist mates who happen to run the PR
company "Hatch" on the pay-roll ('Rent Money' as we can it up here in Scotland).
Surely they are keeping the local press straight on matters. It all must
be fair because we haven't heard Tessa Jackson complaining about it?
Jimmy is also on the board
of Wark Clements (Kirsty Wark's production company) which tends
to focus on (rather than monopolise) arts programme making in Scotland.
Now that Jimmy completely controls things, successful models like this
will probably gain more SAC funding than they would have when Jimmy used
to be the Editorial Controller of BBC Scotland.
No wonder there are so few
jobs in the arts up here. There are no artists involved in decision-making
committees any more either. Bureaucrats do it all. They even determine
what the art should be to make everything even simpler.
So the signals are that
in future you would be advised to bring your own art should you decide
to visit such a creatively closed country with any expectations. No one
(in power) wants to 'speak out', so watch what you say.
Jimmy has realised that
because 90% of SAC funds are pre-allocated: you don't actually need anyone
in the SAC with ideas, certainly not ideas about art and certainly not
with any connection to Scotland. If there is no direction why bother with
Can't see Tessa Jackson
joining in somehow, but if anyone is unhappy about the SAC they can contact
the large multi-national PR consultants, Deloitte Touche because the SAC
are paying them a lot of money to let them use their web site as
part of the biggest consultation process since the last one. Obviously
no one would take it seriously if it appeared on the SAC's web site on
Conversely because of the
critical writing we publish in Variant, the SAC have refused to fund us
for reasons Nicholas Spice (the independent internal assessor hired by
the SAC) called "definitely political."
So we would advise anyone
presently in receipt of funding to say that everything is fine. That will
be the message anyway when Jimmy prints out ten tons of much more legitimate
literature to make it seem so. So stand back and watch that bureaucrat
Artists will be better off
in the future: Jimmy has a Magic Plan, to turn the SAC into a "Development
Agency" and then a "Hall of Fame". Why it almost rhymes.
You don't hear dead artists
crying out for help. But it should be stressed that although appointed
by them and supervising their appointments, paying journalists, meeting
with them and all the rest, that Jimmy is in no way connected to the government.
Half of whom have gone in Scotland anyway.
No: the SAC operate a strict
"arm's length policy". You've got to when something smells that bad. When
Jimmy's Development Agency is up and running artists will not have to waste
their time filling in stupid forms, chasing after a piece of that 10%.
No that won't be around any more. Not that these forms are completely useless:
sometimes "you've got to scrape the shit right off your shoes."
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In a culture still driven
by commodity exchange and representation, driven by the submergence of
social relationships in the object, the means of expression, as the vital
component of creative activity, is often overlooked. Yet, if there is to
be a popular participation in culture, a sustained participation that,
as a revolutionising presupposition, can actively work towards 'a dual
power in culture', or a 'crisis of proliferation', then this can only be
feasible if more and more people come to be 'expressed'. 'Expression' here
means an undisciplined creativity that, above all else, above the consumption
of relationships, seeks to deal in the production of subjectivity an autonomous
creativity that circulates desires as the expression of singularities and
differences, and not a commodifiable creativity whose expressions are overcoded
as individualistic, subject to 'qualitative aesthetic judgements' and easily
In order for there to be
a renewed outgrowth of expression, an outgrowth already made possible by
technological advancements, there has to be a shift in social perception
wherefrom our relation to the means of expression is not seen as a 'stage'
we have reached and surpassed, but an ongoing rhythm that informs our creativity
and makes of being a becoming. Expression, then, has to become conscious
of itself as a social practice which, being formed by social relations,
can effect those social relations, create new social relations. Already
it can be said that over the past decade the means of production in the
cultural sphere have been instaurating a change in social relations which
are as yet inchoate. The 'leap forward' of these productive forces is leaving
a 'lag' into which the increasingly outmoded social relations of creative
production are attempting to infill with more of the same. Artistic activity,
be it that of fine artist or musician or writer, is coming to be represented
as an economical link to an outmoded manufacturing industry (creation of
objects, valorisation of information), as a means of orientation for society
in terms of future models of wage labour (micro-entrepreneurial, affective
labour), as a means of maintaining the circulation of capital (the uninterrupted
metamorphoses of value and the creation of new markets c.f. Benjamin's
"exhibition value") and as a means of ensuring that social relationships
are made valorisable and thus integratable (historification of cultural
practices). It is from such contradictions, the antagonisms they offer,
that new social relations could spring; ones that seek to reappropriate
their own 'living labour' through a winning of the means of expression.
The categories of 'writer',
'artist' and 'musician', as individualising mainstays of the old social
relations, are thus becoming increasingly untenable. As the means of creative
production become increasingly accessible more and more people enter into
'processes' and the former categories come more and more to assume a representational
status through which desire is inveigled to abandon its polymorphous course
as 'free energy' and hence accede to patented subjectivities that, to a
certain degree, police themselves. That the means of expression are both
an outcome and result of such a diffuse and hypercathecting polymorphism
means that the categories, practices and contexts into which practitioners
are encouraged to place themselves are simply a means of straightjacketing
creativity, channelling 'free energy', and making sure its practice does
not turn its attention to the social relations at large and the time-space
these relations are producing.
Such representational categories
as 'writer' and 'artist' ensure that this turn of attention does not occur
and therefore does not undermine the separable disciplines and vested interests
by which creativity is recognised in this society. Keeping the disciplines
separate from each other in niche magazines, university departments and
museum institutions is awarded not just with salaries, bursaries and kudos,
but with over-exposure and a stilled desire that does not circulate anything
except a representation of a representation - hollowed-out signifiers known
variously as celebrities or avant-garde artists. In other words, the widespread
use of such categories, by becoming acceptable as the self-definition of
their practitioners - who thereby do not develop their meaning - help to
reproduce the present social relations rather than seeking to realise experimental
social relations that take the means of expression as their motor, the
'social field' as their object, and relationships as their material. The
means of expression have always been subject to such privatisation. Desire,
as the 'beyond' of pleasure, as 'free energy' (or Marx's 'vital force'),
is entrammelled by a representational homeostasis that limits the scope
of possibility. Imbricated and intertwined with each other, desire and
the means of expression together constitute a kind of 'hidden labour',
a submerged relationship, that can be used to both spectacularise commodities
and enable cultural products to make an appearance as already pleasurably
reified (i.e. irony as inviolate cynicism, criticality as carefree kudos).
The means of expression, privatised and dealt-in as the possession of individuals,
not only ensure alienation, but makes visible its concurrent link to the
old social relations wherein wage-labour confronts its own product, the
very machinery it utilises, as alien to it. If the latter are involved
in production then the former are involved in reproduction: an enforced
factory model becomes a willing participation in the social factory.
2. That such statements as
these are indebted to the cultural revolutionaries of the 60's should not
simply translate as their being indicative of a utopianism. They are undoubtedly
utopian, but their utopianism is only an expression of the 'lag' between
the means of creative production and the inchoate social relations. This
'lag' is extended further when we consider how social confidence is blocked
as a desiring-energy by contractual positioning and authoritative exclusivity.
It is perhaps foreshortened when we consider that the new technologies,
with their capacity for mediating what already circulates and with their
speed of distribution, bring to the fore the means of expression as a prime
(and as yet problematic) component in the creation of new social relations.
However, the 'lag' between what-is and what could-be is itself a prime
area of creative antagonism: desire, as creativity in a nascent state,
reaches out to the future and is, to some degree, a trajectory that seeks
a social materialisation. The blockage it encounters is the blockage of
the old social relations as they become increasingly reified (reproduced)
by the very activities that, we are assured, intend to make a difference:
urban re-development reinforces and expands private property; 'life-long
learning' daren't touch upon a 'critique of knowledge'; affective labour
is just as alienated as its more prosaic and unfashionable counterparts.
This, then, does have its
lineage in the 60's in that the cultural revolutionaries therein did draw
attention to one vital factor that they recognised back then and which
is becoming more glaringly apparent today. This factor, attested to by
such as Guy Debord, Asger Jorn and Alexander Trocchi, is the refusal of
work. Such a refusal, as an articulation of the contradictoriness of capitalist
'development', cuts to the core of a system that has the capacity to provide
for the needs of all whilst holding back the reappropriation of our "own
general productive power" (1). This is an area that has been extensively
theorised by the Italian Autonomists who, following the Marx of Grundrisse,
spoke of 'self-valorisation' as that component of work which could be wrested
from the capitalist valorisation process. Wresting such a value, the refusal
of wage-labour, is an area in which Marxist theories elide with those cultural
revolutionaries who attempted to install the means of expression into the
critique of political economy. Asger Jorn spoke of value as a "quantity
of changing qualities in process" and thus deemed "variability" and "qualitative
difference" to be an aspect of human labour, 'living labour', that he called
"human surplus value" (2). This variability and difference, as the means
of expression, becomes the key to a self-valorisation that, it is to be
hoped, can elude capitalistic valorisation and begin to instate new values,
new social relations. However, just as technological developments make
such surplus a realisable possibility they are also used to harness such
a surplus, its 'difference quotient', by making wage-labour 'creative'
and creative work 'monetised', by bringing diverse social relationships
into the exchange-value nexus. One of the key factors of such an acculturating
capital is that technological developments have led to a situation in which
"general social knowledge has become a direct force of production" (3).
By thus bringing a vocational element into the wage relation, a demand
for the 'free energy of attention (desire) to be directed towards its own
monetisation, this 'general social knowledge' has not only led to the positing
of an individual's entire time as labour time (the hidden meaning of 'life-long
learning') it has altered the rhythm and intensity of work through the
much vaunted short-term contracts and freelance work culture that could
be said to be concurrently shared by manufacturing and cultural workers
Whilst these both share in
being subject to wage-labour (or at least its resultant alienation) it
also points towards a renewed use of 'leisure time' as a site for productive
pre-occupation and not simply as the time set aside for workers to recoup
their energies. The point is that work becomes a vocation, a practice of
the 'general social knowledge', at the very moment when technological developments
-"knowledge objectified in fixed capital" (4) - give rise to a situation
in which less labour hours are necessary for the production of any one
good. So, when, in the 80s, the Fiat factory became more or less robotised
those advocates (personifications) of capital responsible thought they
were issuing a threat to an unruly 'refusnik' workforce when it could also
be said that they were revealing an astronomical surplus capacity that
could make wage-labour a superfluous and archaic social relation. So, the
technological means of production are not only able to reduce labour hours
to a minimum they are, when wielded as design, redevelopment and 'branding',
coming to conceal more seamlessly the reproduction of those archaic social
relations that befit the manufacturing ethos that capital is at pains to
outgrow. Not only is wage-labour coming to be ideologised as pleasure it
reveals that the crucial antagonisms around technological developments
are inimical to a conflict over 'needs': work under the terms of 'general
social knowledge' becomes concerned with the creation of new needs and
hence with a valorisation of social relationships.
Thus work, as wage labour,
becomes a matter of social control ('command' in the parlance of the Autonomists)
and it is, in part, able to be effective in this by appealing to the desiring
element of vocation, by constantly differentiating 'needs' and, where these
fail, by having recourse to the myth of scarcity. This ideology of scarcity,
whereby there is a continual denial of the tremendous surplus capacity
of material production as well as a conservationist denouncement of 'free
energy', is one that finds a parallel in the culture industries whereby
competition for funding and the rarity value of some practitioners actually
conditions the means of expression of others and brings their articulation
into the valorisation process: their entry into a series, a loop, that
both ensures and presents a smoothly functioning circulation of values.
So, whether it be the exemplary and distinctive 'work' of the artist or
the sullen labour of the machinist, across all sectors, work becomes an
industry for itself, an industry concerned as much with the reproduction
(circulation) of social relations as with production proper, and one in
which the ideology of work is contradictorily propounded amidst a means
of production that has the propensity to liberate a surplus of energy and
time, a winning of the means of expression, from which the new social relations
could arise - relations between becomings rather than beings.
3. What the cultural revolutionaries
of the 60's intuited, then, was the increasing imposition of work as a
means of maintaining the social relations that go along with it, but what
fewer of them saw was an acculturation of capital wherein the working class
has had to adapt to the vocational model of work as a means of survival.
This model, whereby labour becomes a lifestyle and leisure is a pre-occupation,
makes wage-labour that which produces the reproduction of social relations
and as such, as culture, becomes a means of binding us to capitalist social
relations through such modulations as individualism, hierarchy, need, commodity
production and divisions of labour that are reactivated, albeit modified,
in the cultural industries.
But, however crudely an echo
of Marx, this situation in which the means of production are used for work
and for play can, by traversing the divide between labour-time and leisure-time,
also bring forth not only a wider alliance of resistance than that of 'class
membership', but can foreground the means of expression as that surplus
energy which is being valorised by capital as a 'labour power'. In this
way the means of expression, as an increasingly important component of
labour power ('living labour'), are coming to be a strategic tool in the
reproduction of social relations. The recomposition of class, once analysed
by Toni Negri as a move from the 'mass worker' to 'social labour power',
leads not only to the re-appearance of the working class via a winning
of the means of expression (affective labour), but to a search for 'new
subjective forces' that, as he puts it, arise from the "coming together
of individual marginalisation with collective socialisation" (5). If the
'object' of work is becoming not so much the production of a particular
good, but a service, another 'need', an ambience, a relation, then could
it not be the case that, just as these interactions are controlled by behaviour-inducing
languages and formalised knowledges, they are also the subject of potential
transformations, the harbinger of antagonism - an autonomous valorisation
of the surplus, a creative use of avant-garde techniques by collectivities?
Such a revolutionising transformation, then, would be presupposed by an
engagement with the means of expression as they clash with the 'general
social knowledge' and by the detournement of the means of production towards
a circulation of desire that takes as its 'object' the very social relations
that are being reproduced and valorised.
This is the danger of the
vocational model of work. It brings the energy of desire, an energy between
need and satisfaction, into the circuit of labour not as a sublimation
and a repression of activity, but as the hope for personal fulfilment and
socialisation; as an investment of energy. Alexander Trocchi, taking a
cue from Raymond Williams, wrote that gaining "control of the means of
expression" leads to a "relation to a community" (6). This points towards
a use of creative energies beyond their being used to reproduce the current
social relations and therefrom towards their taking the material of expression
to be 'lived experience'. This is one of the meanings that can be taken
from the Situationist International's loud refusal to create commodified
art objects and their consequent exploration of 'constructing situations':
creating new social relations. Entering into relation with our means of
expression, then, becomes a way by which resistance to capitalism takes
place without necessarily having recourse to the factory. If the factory
is now a 'social factory' which has 'general social knowledge' as a force
of production, then our very relation to expression as a foregrounding
of desire, brings us into a combative relation to capitalism not only as
that which reproduces itself through an extortion of surplus-value beyond
'necessary labour', but as that which imposes its own space-time, its own
institutional values, its own ontology.
This poses the problem of
just what the 'general social knowledge' entails. The breakthrough issue
here, developed in the slipstream of the Situationist project, is that
capitalism no longer becomes solely an economic relationship which equitable
distribution and debt relief could solve, but it is also that which seeks
sustenance from its own social relations - hence its increasing valorisation
of socialisation (c.f. 'Reality' TV/Radio show banter) and the Situationist
obsession with recuperation. We experience time, space, desire and knowledge
as representable commodities, as spectacles, pleasure and information.
In this light Toni Negri mused whether it was the "cultural dimension of
command" that was becoming fundamental (7) and Asger Jorn wondered whether
"surplus value is not as the Marxists would have it, a purely capitalist
phenomena" but whether it was that which "exists under various forms at
all biological and social levels" (8). Taking a cue from Negri and Jorn,
is it that desire, as a registration of sociality, as a surplus uncovered
by our struggle with the means of expression, becomes that which the 'new
subjective forces' must withhold from capitalist valorisation whereby value
is coming to be realised through the reproduction of social relations?
As well as the physical energy expended in manufacturing industry, desire,
able to be released as a materialisable surplus through the new means of
production, becomes the pivotal component of 'labour power', a 'desiring-energy'
that capital seeks to command. In the social factory, it achieves this
command, in part, by subjugating subjects to a pleasure (being) that must
not know the intensity of desire (becoming).
4. An acculturating capitalism,
in developing new technologies and forms of communication, could reach
the 'crisis point of proliferation' wherein expressive capacities outstrip
their valorisation and become a surplus energy that is free to rove and
be deployed in social space - rather than remaining reproductive these
capacities could become productive once more, become modes of communication.
Vocation could be de-cathected and pleasure could become desire. With there
not being enough opportunities for all the 'writers', 'artists' and 'musicians'
is it not that they could secede from the 'cultural dimension of command'
instaurated and propelled by established institutions and, in so doing,
help to make the new social relation conscious of itself - a social relation
that is opposed to the means formerly used to discount, discourage and
reject their practice: the archaic social relations of competencies, selection,
aesthetic judgements and taste (all components of a 'labour of signification)
that have their managerial parallels in the work culture of manufacturing
(command over 'living labour'). This raises the notion of 'self-institution'
as being not just the formation of counter institutions, but as situations
for the investment of those energies and desires that, winning the means
of expression, are creative of new social relations - relations that are
formed in the process of harnessing energies as the force necessary for
an 'appropriation of our own general productive power' (desiring-production).
But before discussing the
means by which we can defend such 'self-valorisation' is it not that the
means of expression, the energies they entail, are indicative of a new
form of surplus that capital seeks to valorise. Are we moving from the
recuperation of ideas and products to the subsumption of energies? Capital
has, through a positing of 'need-pleasure', already successfully exploited
that surplus energy known as libido and it may well be that a collective
winning of the means of expression by means of self institution is a way
that we maintain our autonomous control of that surplus for, as a form
in which energy takes, libido informs creativity. Our relation to the means
of expression would thus translate as securing a surplus energy for ourselves,
an energy not dissipated by wage-labour, but maintained by us as diffuse
libido - "a capacity of a capacity to be" (becoming). This is where the
capitalist ideology of scarcity comes into play as that which effects not
just economic concerns but psychical ones as well. Our having a superfluity
of energy is a fact attested to by the continual replenishment of libido,
but it is a fact that, like the dangers to capitalism inherent in vocational
work, runs the risk of exposing the myth of scarcity and energy conservation.
This surplus, created by perception and social interaction, is an energy,
a singularity, that capitalism seeks to appropriate in its efforts to veil
the reproduction of social relations (singularity used to produce infinitesimal
differences in the same). Its myths of scarcity, exploded by such as Nietzsche
and Bataille, are such that it has sought to control the 'generative impulses'
and have these activate and replenish those forms that it already knows
how to valorise: commodity objects, art works, novels etc. Instead of inveigling
surplus energy to resuscitate the old social relations, and exhausting
itself in a process of conforming to delivering presupposed expectations
(anxiety formation), a relation to the means of expression entails that
the energy replenishes itself as part of the process of its own idiosyncratic
input into a social relation that it is helping to form: a situation. In
this way the means of expression, as that which ensures our singularity,
can be a tool of resistance to capitalism in that, the surplus of energy
that can form and sustain 'self-institution' is not a surplus that capitalism
can always count on valorising, for, not only can it not allot a place
to all those who seek its patronage, it cannot always hinder the means
of expression coming into conflict with the status of the 'general social
In this light the avant-gardism
of the cultural revolutionaries was not solely a matter of the van guard
of forms (which bring about new market opportunities for capital, new needs
i.e. the 'functional aesthetics' of the Bauhaus), but an interrogation
of this social knowledge as knowledge/power, as a relation of conditioning
that offers being over becoming, and pleasure before desire. The Situationist
project was, then, a collective endeavour of 'self-valorisation', an emergence
of social relationships, through which it was possible to discover that
"what gives the individual a social value is their variability of behaviour
in relation to other people" (9). Not only does this offer affinities as
well as class as a mode of organisation, it also leads to our taking the
means of expression to be inclusive of all manner and means of enunciation
irrespective of pre-established competencies. Here, then, is the antagonistic
aspect of the 'cultural dimension of command': differentiated singularities
resist their own surplus being transfigured into that valorisable differentiation
that is used to replenish investment in the continuing reproduction of
capitalist social relations.
5. Is it not, then, that
this very variability that informs Jorn's expansive notion of surplus is
itself a site of conflict, a fluid contradiction, and therefrom a prime
component of the new social relations? Such a variability, long deemed
to be the mark of a dilettante, implies such a degree of process that those
social relations which produce stabilised identities for their conductance,
are exploded. Variability becomes the outcome of those energies that, if
conduited by situations conducive to desire, can turn into intensive singularities
that are unreproducible and increase the need for direct communication
and assembly, for 'self institution'. Jorn: "For us, the present is not
the instant, but it is the moment of dialogue, the time of communication
between question and answer" (10). Rather than the energies being extracted
from us as blunted expressions and being sapped by wage-labour and/or being
trapped in a cultural 'labour of signification', the energies, when led
by a collective exploration of the means of expression, become articulateable
as "the absolute movement of becoming" (11), a between question and answer
that is the motor of communication as process, as excursive rather than
as being prone to commodification in a 'discourse object'.
In this way the 'human surplus
value' of which Jorn speaks is a surplus, a latent conflux of singularities,
that are always already present in the psyche: as the unconscious it is
a relation we enter into with our own process of becoming - memories provoke
returns and the returns themselves are fore-echoes of activated futures;
as the space-between question and answer, knowledge and meconaissance,
it is that which is always mistaken and which endlessly generates an energy
that is productive of a consciousness that is 'pre-ontological'. Our being
'unrealised' in this way can be traumatic in that it brings us into conflict
with the 'general social knowledge'. But it is such autotraumatisation
that is creative of an energy which informs our use of the means of expression
as they are pitted against the 'general social knowledge' and lead us to
our renunciation of the representational snares of a representative identity
('pleasure-need'). Such a move towards becoming, where our means of expression
work with the materials of desire as 'desiring production', could be the
factor necessary to provoke a secession from the 'general social knowledge'
and preserve the movement of singularities and differences in the direction
of 'constructed situations' that nurture to expression experimental social
relations. The conflicts that would arise are ontological conflicts that
move on from the measurements and equivalences of identity, wherein we
are encouraged to abandon our singularity in exchange for varying degrees
of power, to ones where these very singularities that we are always coming
near to expressing could become the necessary rhythm of the new social
This is a process that is
conducted by our coming into relation not only with ourselves (i.e. abreaction
of unconscious material), but with the others around us and with the language
that we use and that uses us. Indeed, at a simplistic level, the very means
of expression, the very content of our communication with each other is
premised on having something to say to each other and this is itself both
a surplus and an enigma: it is a continuation of what has previously been
said that has hitherto remained latent, it is an anticipation of what will
be said, it is already a social relation, a language 'habitus', that enables
us to speak in the first place and it is, fundamentally, a striving between
question and answer, an enigma. Such latency and anticipation, as desiring-energy,
is part of the processual rhythm of becoming which the means of expression
enable us to articulate not as a 'discourse-object', but as excursive-relation
that could just as well be musical or visual or gestural. Indeed when the
SI spoke of "the decomposition of the individual arts, the impossibility
of renovating or prolonging these arts" (12) and Alexander Trocchi offered
that "it is all the grids of expression we are concerned to seize" (13)
they could not fore see how on the one hand these 'individual arts' are
still thriving and yet on the other the 'grids' have come to not only include
such activities as research and music, but have led, in some cases, to
a collapsing of the divide between 'activist' and 'artist' and a refoundation
of group-centred activity. However, they could not perhaps have foreseen
how art, beyond the salerooms, has become indexed to the monetary not solely
through its exemplary 'virtuosity', its 'labour of signification', but
through its valuable marking out and construction of a social consensus
indexed to the creation of needs.
So, whereas we would be led
to believe that the means of expression are the domain of coherent and
competent identities, could it not now be that the means of expression,
if widened to more and more people with access to differing 'grids', could
no longer be the means whereby 'virtuosities' are expressed, but the means
whereby becomings come into relation as dissensual affinities. The 'object'
of the means of expression, the site where energies are deployed, would
become that 'self-valorisation' process as it is encouraged in its becomings
by collective endeavour. When extended to the social field, such an improvisatory
approach, one that is creative of a space of becoming and dependent upon
the conductance of 'free energy', could enable a shift in focus from producing
things in space (art and architecture) to the production of polymorphous
spaces (situations and desires) from which experimental social relations
could both arise and take the impetus to arise.
6. The means of expression,
then, are not something we win outright; we are always winning them. The
means of expression are, thus, a continual social practice that brings
us into conflict with the prevailing organisations of an acculturating
capital that seek to transform our fledgling process into a product or
into that which adds value to other products, other institutions ('labour
of signification'). However, as products, the means of expression are not
only valorisable in terms of the commodified transactions of exchange value
that extends to a latent, future realisable value, but, when won once and
for all, they circulate as knowledge/ power: "If I had authority at my
disposal everything within me would be servitude" (14). The interaction
between valorisation and individuality has its outcome in a power that
circulates the 'generative impulse' as a representative of capital complete
with 'hidden labour'. Paramount here is the denial of the social-source
of the knowledge, its interactive process. It thus becomes the 'property'
of its purveyor, the object of a labour that instaurates competition, narcissistic
defensiveness, and therefrom the reproduction of the social relations.
The means of expression,
as a form which our 'free energy' takes, are seduced away from the process
of becoming by a not dissimilar operation to that which attends to the
libidinal component of energy. In this case the self-image of a stable
identity is cathected rather than a diffuse sociality. Desire is pent-up
in the closed circuits of representation (representative needs), and, taking
on an 'authentic' discursive form, it becomes knowledge/power. This points
to the valorisation of academic discourse by an acculturating capital and
we see how such discourse can take its place in the 'general social knowledge'
as a managerial function: the 'idiolects' of expression, the tentative
becomings associated with passion, the very materiality of desire is hindered
from circulating and blocked from becoming an expression of experimental
social relations. The knowledge/power of 'virtuosities' only serves to
reinforce the social relations that are associated with wage-labour wherein
experimentation is farmed out to 'research and development' and mistakes
and trial-runs are always made in secret as if, always, the public profile
of 'discourse-objects' should be so well controlled, so well edited, as
to proffer a usefully misleading idea of 'knowledge' as an exclusive and
reified property, as valorisable information.
In this way the concept of
'general social knowledge' could be one which sanctions a use of knowledge
that hides its own process of production, its struggle with the means of
expression, and thus encourages its use to expand quantitatively (as 'successive
differences') rather than to reach its limits in the qualitative secession
of singularities wherein desires are not only made conscious, but are endlessly
replenished by being the very material of experimental social relations
(combinations of mutually-affecting singularities). As opposed to the voluntary
servitude of an exclusive knowledge/power, whereby comparisons and equivalences
are made between individuals, the 'self-valorisation' of the means of expression,
the tracking of singularities and differentiations, can entail a revolutionary
agenda linked to the reappropriation of 'living labour': "It is just this
combination of individuals (assuming of course the advanced level of modern
productive forces) which brings the conditions for the free development
and activity of individuals under their control, conditions which were
formerly abandoned to chance and which had acquired an independent existence
over against the separate individuals" (15).
However, the hazards attendant
upon an excursive means of expression are manifold: there is the difficulty
of negotiating a utopianistic 'realm of freedom' no matter how presuppositionary
it knows itself to be; there are the expectations of others who have differing
degrees of relationship to the 'general social knowledge'; there is the
imposition of work as that which maintains 'needs' unfulfilled except as
a reward of a wage-relation enforced by the myth of scarcity; there are
elementary, 'everyday', matters of social confidence, shyness and effective
methods of communication and organisation. In short, to experiment in new
social relations leads to a potentially hazardous profiling of the outmoded
social relations that, with capital and the social organisation of space-time
on their side, with a prevailing ontology of individuality and authoritarian
knowledges at their disposal, with an id-deep channelling of 'free energy
towards individualising representations, will maintain their hold over
the means of expression as long as those means aren't diversified, improvised
with, shared and used to spread a mutual recognition of each others' tentative
attempts. For, as Alexander Trocchi offered, a propos his 'definition'
of a situation, it is a matter of "inventing effective behavioural procedures"
for, as he urged, "we must learn how we shall have to be if we are to be
and do together at all" (16).
7. When Guy Debord wrote,
in 1959, that "the epoch has arrived at a level of knowledge and technical
means that made possible, and necessary, a direct construction of all aspects
of a liberated affective and practical existence" (17) he was not only
voicing the shared belief that the means of production had reached a position
that could surpass their social relations, he was claiming the means of
expression for a social activity that was concomitant to the new means
of production: breaking with the way that 'cultural command' is effected
through the reproduction of capitalist social relations and experimenting
with new social relations. Whilst it could be argued that 'a direct construction
of... a liberated affective and practical existence' is tantamount to an
outlining of the potentialities of the means of expression, Debord, in
aligning these with the technical capacity of the production of abundance
was seeking to politicise the means of expression by turning their use
away from their being alienated in product and urging them to be used to
directly construct the social field: the emergence of social relationships.
Debord foresaw that the minimum means of such an endeavour would be the
'construction of situations' and it is not surprising that we find in his
writing on the subject an almost continual reference to 'desire' and 'passion'
and, at the same time, a constant temptation to delineate the situation
in terms of 'unitary urbanism'. The latter, whilst addressing the key issues
of social space and the capitalist imposition of space as a thing and not
as "a set of relations between things" (18), tends to too quickly shift
the 'construction of situations' towards a critique of the built environment
and neglects a further exploration of the means of expression that, who
knows, could have been taken up in the project for a "situationist-orientated
Whilst all the components
of this early situationist theory feed-off each other it is perhaps tempting
to neglect the more open and practical-poetic dimension of the 'situation'
especially as, giving the group its name, this aspect becomes overcoded
and further elided by the later trajectory of the Situationists towards
the 'constructed situation' being a revolutionary or insurrectionary moment.
Returning to the late 50s, then, we see how the situation can be a matter
of self-institution, an opportunity for secession from the prevailing methods
of organisation and the perennial contexts for creativity, one that seeks
to retain 'free energy' and use this for the 'self-valorisation' of becoming.
A process, then, that seeks to develop the social relations that the mode
of production makes realisable but holds back by means of the imposition
of work and the dynamic of 'cultural command'. For the Situationists it
was no longer a matter of alienating their surplus, the excess of relation,
in the commodity objects of art, but of bringing about a "unitary ensemble
of behaviour in time" (20). Rather than people coming together to create
objects and works that are 'valorised' in the art markets under the umbrella
of a group functioning as a 'corporation', the Situationists envisioned
a coming-together where the participants, the social relations between
them, extending to the society at large, become an uncommodifiable work,
one that escapes the purview of the art institution and in so doing recognises,
perhaps presciently on their part, the potential
commodification of socialisation.
This aspect of relation as 'behaviour', one which Alexander Trocchi picked-up
on, is such that the situation becomes an opportunity to explore other
modes of being, other means of expression, than the ones instituted and
maintained by the outmoded social relations.
Whilst this relates to a
'use' of the 'general social knowledge', a negotiation of knowledge/power
relations by means of an effective, unmediated communication ("communication
without the incommunicable" as Giorgio Agamben would say), it also relates
to those aspects of psychoanalysis that are concerned with providing a
space for the participants to get an objective view of themselves, an historical
overview of lives lived as process: "~e are concerned to know how we behave"
(21). In a passage that has a faint psychoanalytical ring to it, Debord
offers that "we have to multiply poetic subjects and objects... and we
have to organise games of these poetic objects among these poetic subjects"
(22). Such spaces of play, theorised by analysts such as D.W.Winnicott
as 'transitional spaces', are spaces of becoming in that, according to
Winnicott, they have no climax, no pay-off. In this light, when Debord
offered that "the life of a person is a succession of fortuitous situations"
(23) he was not only describing the individual as a 'poetic subject', a
subject open to chance and to a variety of means of expression, he was,
perhaps, also offering the situation as the space for a temporary unity
of such subjects whose very becoming, whose very process, is the poetic
The role of 'games' in a
situation becomes one that helps establish an improvisatory tenor, an openness
to the aleatory, but, crucially, according to Winnicott, such play, with
its lack of climactic experience, its suspended animation that overturns
the insistent pressures of commodified time, becomes that which can be
distinguished from "phenomena that have instinctual backing, where the
orgiastic element plays an essential part, and where satisfactions are
closely linked with climax" (24). This lack of 'instinctual backing' leads
to a notion that energy is socially created anew through the activity of
games and inter relation and does not, as some psychoanalysts argue, remain
as an energy that is related only to endogenous drives, that takes the
course of libido and is subjected to the homeostasis of the 'pleasure principle'
(remains caught between need and satisfaction). From this it may be possible
to offer that there are exogenous drives, social drives that take the form
of institutions, into which energy has been invest ed. A situation could
be one form by which the drives are not always pregiven, but are created
as 'social organs', self-institutions that determine the deployment of
energy, diverting the course of libido towards maintaining a 'self-valorisation',
a context for the means of expression. As with those notions of a desire
not premised on 'lack', the situation could be that activity which instaurates
a space between need and satisfaction - its value thus becoming immeasurable,
unexchangeable and irreducible to representative needs.
8. This potential space of
the situation, then, is transitional to the degree that it implies a degree
of temporary autonomy from the norms of an everyday life informed by the
'general social knowledge'. At one level the situation as a 'transitional
space' can be expressed as a capacity to profile and take sustenance from
the contradictions of practice, the conflicts inherent in 'cultural command',
and to work with these rather than subject them to repression (i.e. de-dialecticise
them). At another linked-level the situation could be a space where the
imagination, as that which is neither real nor false, but tentative and
exploratory, is non-metaphorically instituted between participants who
do not thereby alienate their own powers, their own surplus, to the 'general
social knowledge', whereby it can be measured and valorised as a representative
commodity, but use these powers of imagination to inform the struggle with
the means of expression. Ordinarily what can occur is that the powers of
the imagination, with all their contradictions, are, as with the 'vital
forces' of labour power; alienated in the production process and become,
as Marx suggests, an alien power that adds to the weight of the 'general
social knowledge' (which in the case of cultural production takes the form
of the ever expanding canon etc.). Without a situationistic control over
a means of production activated by the means of expression, without, in
other words, a socially transformative orientation working with contradiction
and antagonism, the realisation process of the imagination is at the same
time its de-realisation process. Maintaining control over the realisation
of the imagination, being able to "body forth their own horizon of possible
contextualisations" (25) is, then, one potential function of the situation
as an experimental 'realm of freedom' in which desires can circulate as
the material bases of new social relations and anxieties too can circulate
as the marker of those residual social relations that still persist.
For Debord the situation
is thus a matter of desiring-production: "The really experimental direction
of situationist activity consists in setting up, on the basis of more or
less clearly recognised desires, a temporary field of activity favourable
to these desires. This alone can lead to the further clarification of these
primitive desires, and to the confused emergence of new desires whose material
roots will be precisely the new reality engendered by situationist constructions"
(26). whilst not naming the means of expression, Debord hints that desire,
as a surplus of 'free energy' that is as diffuse and dynamic as affect,
is the poetic element that is sought to be materialised by communicative
activities and game playing that have neither object nor climactic outcome.
The desires themselves are to be 'clarified', their 'primitivism' is, perhaps,
the 'primitivism' of the endogenous drive marked out by Freud as the life
and death drives, whereas the 'new desires' are linked to the 'social organs'
of situations and self-institution wherein desire is that which is coming
to be articulated through a winning of the means of expression (singularity).
In this light those participating in situations are the subject-objects
of becomings that, as 'new desires', are themselves illustrative of new
social relations: "a community enacting itself in its individual members"
(27). Interestingly, Debord speaks of the 'new desires' having a 'confused
emergence'. This is, perhaps, a reference to the struggle for the means
of expression and the contradictions brought to light by such excursive
communication as would occur in a situation. For a self-sure polemicist
like Debord this is a rare concession to the struggle people experience
in becoming expressed, an acknowledgement on his part that the constructed
clarities we are accustomed to from 'discourse-objects' would be more likely
to occur in an academic context or within a political party than they would
be to occur in a situation. For this reason Raoul Vaneigem extended the
practice of 'situations' away from specific 'situationist constructions'
(such as Constant's New Babylon project and the plan to establish an experimental
micro-city off the southern coast of Italy) towards non-materialised networks.
He held out that these latter could contain "direct relationships, episodic
ones, contacts without ties, development of embryonic relations based on
sympathy and understanding" (28).
The key, then, is maybe that
the 'construction of situations' is also concerned with the construction
of an embryonic form of communication that encourages participation: a
communication in which the dialogue the participants have with themselves
is also a dialogue that they have between themselves - a communication
of the incommunicable that does not find its way into the 'general social
knowledge' and that makes contradictions circulate. By thus introducing
an 'unconscious' dynamic into the situation it becomes possible to negotiate
the reticence-inducing force of a power/knowledge and to transform 'knowledge'
into an autotraumatic practice that brings into effect a mutuality (those
little childhood fears that bonded us together) and transforms 'power'
into that which is creative of an anxiety that, as with the 'overflow'
of the neurotic, disbars deception from communication. This unconscious
aspect, as an affective dynamic, a movement of contents in search of some
form, is also a means whereby passion informs communication to become the
prevailing ambience. As Debord noted, the 'emotional effect of space' is
a paramount consideration for the construction of situations. Institutional
spaces are often already replete with the baggage of knowledge/power wherein
knowledge, subject to a division of labour that conditions it, is wielded
separately from the desiring component that informs it and, as an object
of discourse, makes our struggle for the means of expression not only inaccessible,
but the locus for a nuance of guilt ("that's the way it should be done").
For new social relations
to arise the chosen space of the situation must become so imaginatively
charged, drawn into the means of expression, as to be a support for both
desire and its obverse, anxiety: "The phantasy is the support of desire;
it is not the object that is the support of desire. The subject sustains
himself as desiring in relation to an ever more complex signifying ensemble"
(29). The situation can thus be a site of abreaction (itself a means of
expression), but unlike some conventional spaces of psychoanalysis the
phantasy is not viewed as a compensation and an overly-rehearsed language
is not the privileged form of communication. A major facet of the situation,
and one which picks up again the Situationist concern for 'unitary urbanism'
(30), must be, then, a 'signifying ensemble' that expands the means of
expression to include the aural, the visual, the gestural, the spatial,
the abreactive, the unrehearsed etc, as signifying practices that not only
sustain and lubricate desiring and hence becoming, but which, taken together
as a temporarily unified ensemble, elicit a far wider participation than
that confined to the category of 'art'. In a situation the enigmas that
we are to ourselves and to others are the basis of a communicative practice
that, no longer reliant on knowledge/power, learns how to enunciate itself
as a production of subjectivity, a becoming, a new social relation.
9. As one of many possible
precursors to the 'construction of situations', Antonin Artaud's series
of manifestos entitled The Theatre Of Cruelty, similarly shows a disdain
for the privatisation of the imagination as this is expressed by the supposed
separation of art and life. Such a separation, the highlighting and breaching
of which was a major facet of avant-garde activity, serves the ideological
function of maintaining the investment levels of desiring-production as
that which, by cathecting the current social relations (the vocational
model of work, representative needs), ensures the latter's reproduction.
The possible scope for the means of expression, as that which could turn
towards the social relations and spatial creativity, is such that it is
deflected, by obedience to the 'general social knowledge' and in conformity
to its allotted reproductive function, towards the 'pleasure' of its own
fulfilment as 'art'. Such a fulfilment is premised upon the comfort of
inhabiting a stable identity, a specialised persona that is only specialised
to the degree that it restricts the means of expression available to it
and in so doing limits the potential becomings that are possible. The current
social relations, then, institute a notion of ontology as the private individual,
a stable entity that is self-sufficient and independent; one whose 'pleasure'
is won at the expense of a desire that is only recognised as anxiety and
whose 'knowledge', unruffled by the sensory practice of becoming, is wielded
as a surrogate power that is always under appraisal.
Artaud called such an entity
"psychological man with his clear-cut personality and feelings" and intended
his Theatre Of Cruelty to be "an impassioned compulsive concept of life"
that would appeal "to the whole man, not social man submissive to the law,
warped by religion and precepts" (31). This submissiveness, enwrapped in
the comfort of an alienation from singularity, fearful of the polymorphous
sensuality of a pre-ontological existence and wielding knowledge like a
security blanket, is precisely the modus operandi of the 'spectacle': all
contradiction is ironed out by the velleities of coherence. Artaud's Theatre
Of Cruelty, like the 'construction of situations', was, rather, intended
to increase participation by an expansion of the means of expression rather
than their diminishment by means of their formal professionalisation (valorisation).
The Theatre Of Cruelty, then, was intended to be a 'complex signifying
ensemble', one that, perhaps, could be better appreciated by using the
phrase Space Of Affectivity: "Words means little to the mind; expanded
areas and objects speak out. New imagery speaks, even if composed in words.
But spatial, thundering images replete with sound also speak, if we become
versed in arranging a sufficient interjection of spatial areas furnished
with silence and stillness" (32). The object of art and its corollary,
the object as commodity are, as with the situation, dispensed with by Artaud
to become 'expanded objects' and 'expanded areas', spatial expressions,
that could form the setting for the 'self-valorising' activity of becoming,
the reappropriation of 'living labour'. Imagination is not hived-off into
the separable components befitting of an expanded notion of theatre nor
is it reduced to a descriptive and narrative function. Instead Artaud aimed
for a "total creation in real terms where man must reassume his positions
between dream and events" (33). The division between art and life that
privatises imagination and turns desire into a personalised and commodifiable
'need-pleasure' is also that which, functioning as an ideology, as part
of the 'general social knowledge', refuses to register imagination and
desire as active social forces that are continually informing that which
is empirically classified as real (the social organs and the social imaginary
that comprise 'the system'). This division between art and life not only
maintains the illusion of changelessness, covering over how art is used
in the reproduction of social relations and how social relations inform
artistic products, it concomitantly distances us from our own means of
expression, our own processes of becoming that do not take place within
the framework of 'art'.
In speaking of the 'space
between the dream and the event', Artaud converts the problem of an art/life
divide into an ontological problem. He politicises the ontological by making
his Theatre Of Cruelty the instituting of a transitional space not at all
dissimilar to that of the situation with its potential unconscious dimension.
Whilst it may have been a matter of the 'unconscious being structured like
a language for the Situationists - especially when we recall their later
goal of 'theoretical coherence'- for Artaud it was a matter of the unconscious
ensuring a responsiveness to all manner of signifying qualities, a responsiveness
to the degree that 'cruelty' and 'trauma' are accepted by him as the energising
facets of polymorphous sensuality as this is made conscionable: "I use
the word cruelty in the sense of hungering after life... above all cruelty
is very lucid... there is no cruelty without... the application of consciousness"
(34). In this way Artaud's Space Of Affectivity was very much concerned
with a 'semiotic of the impulses', an extension of feeling in communication,
a more effective communication that is reliant upon sensuality in its guise
of associational energy, sound and gesture. For Artaud, then, language
was not to assume its usual privileged position, but become just one means
of expression amongst others. His was a quest for a new language, a 'semiotic
of the impulses', whereby language could be disembarked-from and become
the impetus to gesture, inflection, light, colour and sound: an actual
body was to assume its position in space rather than the body of a surrogate,
a representative known as actor. So, in line with this, language was to
be afforded only a relative position in Artaud's 'theatre', a position
wherein its limitations could be revealed as that which could craft a seamless
identity rather than assume the "abortive postures" and "lapses in the
mind" that could rather be associated with becoming and its improvisatory
struggle with the means of expression (which by attempting to expand Artaud
was undoubtedly struggling with). For Artaud such a struggle could result
in a "unique language somewhere between gesture and thought... a new lyricism
of gestures which because it is distilled and spatially amplified, ends
up surpassing the lyricism of words" (35). The practice of music, lost
in the Situationist Project, seems to be being announced here by Artaud
as a subversive mode of communication, one that, when improvised from 'scratch',
when intent on 'noise' and on forming its own codes and contexts with this
noise ('messthetics') can be revolutionary, can be the 'herald of a new
social relation' that can overcome knowledge/power, virtuosity and the
Such a semiotic of the impulses,
a music of gestures sounded by its situation, is that which corresponds
to singularities comprised of different speeds of desire. The rhythm that
is able to be established is not just the rhythm of sound ("a tangible
idea of music where sound enters like a character"), but a rhythm of the
overall combination of the means of expression that Artaud sought to draw
upon and which, if gathered in an acoustic space, could make all participants
'sound in unison'. It is this sense of site, the particular characteristics
of place imbued with poetic resonances, that unites Debord and Artaud.
For both, as with Alexander Trocchi, it is a matter of bringing all the
'grids of expression' into play to form an ensemble capable of provoking
"the intuition which drives us to articulate" (37). The role of space in
the 'construction of a situation' is such that it provides a mode of unification
drawing the participants together regardless of the content of their meeting
and their processual disagreements. Debord: "The situation... is contained
in gestures contained in a transitory decor. These gestures are the product
of the decor and the gestures themselves" (38).
10. The 'construction of
situations', as a socially extended 'musical' activity, is such that it
actively seeks to multiply the expressive registers at which it can operate.
There is no specialised field of activity that emanates from the situation
nor any prescriptions as to how it should organise itself. Desire is the
method, emotive communication its methodology. In fact, with Debord describing
the individual participant as a 'succession of fortuitous situations' it
is as much a matter' of the situation coming into a resonance with Felix
Guattari's exploration of 'modular subjectivity' and his offering that
"new collective assemblages of enunciation are beginning to form... out
of fragmentary ventures... trial and error experiments... different ways
of being and of bringing to light modalities of being' (39). With participants
being open to the fortuitous, the unexpected, with them thus placing themselves
between different modes of signification (the verbal, the gestural, the
musical, the spatial, the unconscious) through which to be surprised, to
catch themselves unawares, they are not only able to 'sustain themselves
as desiring' through the way that there is no specific object for desire
to cathect (energy is kept free rather than bound) but can, as an outcome
of this desiring-without-aim, this 'semiotic of the impulses', instaurate
new social relations, new modes of behaviour and being.
It is no surprise that Debord,
who wrote a Theory Of The Derive, did not do the same for the 'construction
of situations' as, under the terms of desire and fortuitousness necessary
for a situation, organisational problems are ongoing and fall under the
rubric of improvisation: the flexible equilibria of communicative practice.
The free energy, once it is allowed to circulate in this way, and not be
hampered by constitutions, directives and goals, is creative of social
organs that are then able to advance individuals as associated and mutually
produced singularities. In the parlance of Guattari, the situation, the
'collective assemblage of enunciation', is a means of expressing an 'ontological
productivity', a production of subjectivity from the materials of desire
and their corollary, the communication of the incommunicable (contradiction
is not severed from social practice by means of 'theoretical coherence'
but can be its impetus). Just as this could be the basis for a retrospective
situationist psychoanalysis, wherein it is a matter of creating a space
in which "we are subjects not at the level of our identity, but rather
at that of our desire" (40), it is also, and following on from this, a
way that the role of 'artist' or 'writer' dematerialises to rematerialise
elsewhere. For being 'subjects at the level of our desire' means that we
are pre-ontological just as our means of expression can be pre-articulatory)
and this very factor problematises rather than resolves our relation to
the means of expression. For those participating in a situation it is not
a matter of producing objects, but of producing their own subjectivity
which becomes, then, less of a specialised and private affair and more
of a shared process in which subjectivity is always in the process of production
(becoming) and in which the production is facilitated by both the ambiance
of the space and the ambiance of the interaction. For desire to circulate
as a material it cannot be channeled back, via the privatisation of psychoanalysis
or oeuvre, towards pleasure, consensus and valorisation, but needs the
conductance of space and the non-judgmental conviviality of the other participants:
a free, uncensored and abreactive exchange, a music without instruments,
a space for pre-articulation and shared words.
Pointers such as these, then,
may be a reason why the situation is described by Debord as a "simple gathering
of a group of individuals" (41), a selection of participants that could
be considered to be elitist if we discount the fact that the participants
themselves need some assurances that their co-participants are attempting
to construct a situation from the same premises, that their expressive
fumblings are an indicator of a modular subjectivity, that they are aiming
for desire rather than pleasure. Such an ethos of affinity in the construction
of a situation is crucial for not only does it prevent forms of organisation
conducive to the old social relations replicating themselves, it also enables
the feeling of confidence to be introjected by each of the participants.
Such confidence, a matter of mutual dependability, is often under mined
by our falling under the thrall of the 'general social knowledge' whereby
each feels that they are lacking, that their access to the means of expression
is insufficient (in such circumstances 'full speech' falls back upon a
taught ritualised discourse). As with psychoanalysis the shift in social
relations that can be instaurated by the situation is one that seeks to
disengage from the operation of a 'general social knowledge' that inculcates
lack by means of representative needs, by means of an adherence to an identity,
a self-image, an ideal, to which no-one can live up to. The 'one who knows',
the agent of power/knowledge who distributes lack by not foregrounding
the struggle with the means of expression (not residing in the space between
question and answer), is replaced by a 'collective assemblage of enunciation',
in which ego-relatedness, the prime factor for confidence, creates a space
for what D.W.Winnicott has called 'id experience' - the free energy of
desire undermining the 'general social knowledge' by means of an excursivity
that becomes an unmappable group articulation that to some degree makes
identity redundant, reveals authorship as proprietorial and hazily profiles
culture as an intensive and plunderable webwork of free association and
cathexis, a social production.
Such a situation elides with
the pre-ontological status of the subject and it is no surprise the D.W.Winnicott
speaks of this 'id experience' as being related to the child's capacity
to be alone whilst being in the orbit of a parent: "The infant is able
to become unintegrated, to flounder, to be in a state in which there is
no orientation, to be able to exist for a time without being either a reactor
to an external impingement or an active person with a direction of interest
or movement" (42). Such a state, a polymorphous suspension of identity
in favour of the free energy of desire, where agency and action is not
suspended per se, is not a state that is surpassed during the 'maturational
process', but is one that continues in changed form throughout our lives.
It is one that offers the 'construction of situations' as a similarly negotiated
rhythm between autonomy and dependence, between production and reproduction,
between need and satisfaction, and which points to the benefits to be won
by experimental groupings becoming conscious of their practice as one that
11. The problem in not only
sustaining such social relations but in recognising them in the first place
is a problem that is bound to the current organisation of social relations
under capitalism which, to keep it brief, take their impetus from the central
role allotted to work and wage-labour in this society. At the most visible
level these are relations, that, in varying degrees of complexity, take
in everything from the exchange-relation of exploitation and interchangeability
to the negation of desire in the figure of 'need-pleasure' to the organisation
of time and space, as that which not only directs the means of expression
into the narrowest of representational confines, but which even reifies
sensual perception. Cornelius Castoriadis has theorised such a society
as an heteronomous society, a society in which "individuals become what
they are by absorbing and internalising institutions. This internalisation...
is anything but superficial: modes of thought and of action, norms and
values, and, ultimately the very identity of the individual as a social
being all depend on it" (43). For Castoriadis, society is an ensemble of
institutions that 'cover over' the fundamental fact that they have themselves
been socially created. In thereby imputing an 'extrasocial' dimension to
their creation, institutions not only become reified and transcendent,
but institute social relations that are themselves heteronomous; social
relations that are indicative of what Castoriadis describes as a 'unitary
ontology' - heteronomy as the conditioning factor of identity, as a mode
of being inscribed in the social fabric, becomes internalised: "the rigid
structure of the institution and the disguising of the radical, instituting
social imaginary corresponds to the rigidity of the socially fabricated
individual and the repression of the psyche's radical imagination" (44).
In adding a further layer to the work of Marx, Castoriadis is suggesting
that not only is a creative living labour alienated from the worker in
the product, but the creative activity of self-institution, of seeing institutions
as social organs that can be modified and transformed, is itself similarly
subject to an alienation. As creativity, the 'psyche's radical imagination',
the desiring-production of becoming, is harnessed by these institutions
in the reproductive work of 'covering over' the creativity that is, in
the final analysis, not just overdetermined by the wage-relation (entrepreneurship),
but which is fed back into the endlessly self-defeating loop of individuality
(identity). In other words institutions from government offices to universities
to museums and art galleries are engaged in the reproduction of social
relations, but this reproduction itself requires 'living labour', the 'labour
of signification' to effect this.
In this light the 'construction
of situations' can be seen as an attempt to self-institute, to work towards
creating institutions that are not only creative of new social relations,
but capable of recognising and sustaining them. Just as Castoriadis develops
the idea that we cannot escape from institutions, that the social is a
fabric of institutions, so too the Situationists appear to have followed
their interest in the 'construction of situations' towards that form of
working class self-organisation known as the 'soviet' or 'worker's council'.
In this both seem to be suggesting that in order to escape from the pitfalls
of a creativity always reified as 'individual' then the first step towards
a general creativity, a revolutionary creativity of the social field, is
to create autonomous institutions through which new social relations informed
by desire and becoming can come into a mutually recognised existence as
social entities. For both this depends for its efficacy upon the continued
relevance of 'internalisation': "So the first object of a politics of autonomy...
[is] ... to help the collectivity to create institutions that, when internalised
by individuals, will not limit but rather enlarge their capacity for becoming
autonomous" (45). This problem of internalisation, mastered by the advertising
industry, takes us back to the struggle for the means of expression, for,
in order to both combat internalisation and to harness it, it is a matter
of coming to communicate the incommunicable, to finding not just the words
but the space, the collectivity in which to speak. In this sense, then,
for such social organs as situations to function effectively in the production
of subjectivity, they must bring the unconscious into a closer relationship
with the conscious; not so much in the manner of Maoist confessionals that
seek to absolve middle-class people from their non-proletarian status,
but in terms of a breaking down of the ontology of knowledge/power and
its replacement in a basis of meconaissance. As Situationist Uwe
Lausen said "We are not against conditioning... our own appropriation of
the factors of our conditioning is the only possibility that exists for
the liberation of our imprisoned dreams. Only then can we explore the domains
that we have only previously sensed" (46).
Internalisation, then, is
a fact of life. A 'modular subjectivity' is formed by such perceptive precipitates
as identification, transference, projection and introjection which all
ensure that there is a continual negotiation of contradictions, a continual
becoming, that requires such social organs as situations to both recognise
such internalisation and work with it. The hazards of drawing back from
such a confrontation is that the social relations associated with a capitalist
production of subjectivity (as individuality, identity, as 'need-pleasure')
are prone to reappear; not just the predominance of knowledge/power, but
a mindset, often accompanying it, that takes an opposition to capitalism
to an extreme of alienation that can end up with 'self-slaughter'. Henri
Lefebvre has drawn attention to this aspect as a "conflict between the
'lived without-concept' and the 'concept-without-Life"' (47) wherein the
pursuit of 'theoretical coherence' comes to effect a fleeing from the contradictions
of practice and posits a mode of communication that is individualist in
the extreme ('an absolute uniqueness that confronts the world'). This latter
is perhaps the out come of a 'produced subjectivity' that, foregoing the
unconscious dimension of meconaissance, is thus alienated from the
production of its own subjectivity as a continuous becoming. This is what
the situation as a transitional space, a space for contradiction, should
aim to combat through its communication of the incommunicable, the entry
of the inadmissible. Neither on the inside nor the outside, neither individual
or mass, right or wrong, those participating "will find themselves 'in
and stimulated by the situation consciously at last to recreate it within
and without as their own" (48). The situation as a space for emotional
12. The Situationist move
from the construction of situations to the workers councils has continuity
in the sense that both are social organs concerned with the production
of subjectivity. However, such continuity has a further ramification when
we ask for what purpose do we want to produce our own subjectivity? The
undoubted answer is that to take control of our own production of subjectivity
is to come face to face with a capitalism that attempts to produce us in
order to 'enact' us, to reproduce us in order to become the personifications
of capitalism, the agents of its process, the bearer of its 'needs' (Marx:
"the wage worker... is himself an independent centre of circulation").
This is the extent of the capitalist creation of the social terrain: circulation
becomes a site of living labour, a 'labour of signification'. As a relation
between us it not only seeks to open new markets, extending these to the
valorisation of 'social imaginary significations', it seeks to valorise
the 'between', the social relations, the span and modulation of life and
associate these with a wage-labour made pleasurable. As a bio-politics
it will stop at nothing less than our desire, the circulation of 'vital
forces' - the very process of our becoming and the surplus energies it
entails are being brought into the valorisation process by being grafted
onto that wage-relation established as vocational work and in selling back
our social relationships as the commodified 'idea' of those relationships
(c.f. Baudrillard). In line with this what passes for public space is being
eroded and the sphere of politics, a by-word for corruption and graft,
has been 'deactualised'. Democracy, the illusion of an 'ideal order', the
mediative mechanism between people and a state in which their potential
power is accumulated, is nothing short of a sham that, in fulfilling its
pseudo-representative function, professionalises politics, executes managerial
decisions, oversees the reproduction of social relations and alienates
the will-to-act in heteronomous institutions riddled with procedures, protocols
In the light of such a "deficit
of the political" (49) the public sphere, where it is said to exist, becomes
the domain of public intellectuals who, like politicians, only represent
to us the image of our own power as the pleasure to be taken in self-recognition.
But praxis is not always pleasurable and the 'construction of situations'
returns today as the social organ necessary not only to carrying out an
'institutional analysis' and to protecting fledgling socialisation from
valorisation, but to unify the occasion of our desires in their diversity.
Furthermore, situations, like the workers councils before them, could be
developed to the extent that they become charged with rebuilding the public
sphere as a practice of popular democracy that aims at the production of
subjectivity (becoming) rather than at the representation of citizen-subjects
(being): "Experiments in nonrepresentative democracy could at this
point be more ambitiously undertaken, based not on an aggregate of voluntary
social pacts (the political equivalents of the centrality of labour, the
representation of the social nexus in voting and in money), but on forms-of-life
that incorporate what Marx calls the 'general intellect"' (50). In a similar
vein Toni Negri has taken up again the notion of the soviet with his phrase
the 'soviets of mass intellectuality'. Like Illuminati and others, Negri
takes his bearing from the thesis of the 'general intellect' and offers
the hope that such soviets could institute "outside of the state, a mechanism
within which a democracy of the everyday can organise active communication...
and at the same time produce increasingly free and complex subjectivities"
(51). This is particularly close to the excursive discussion of the situation
that is being offered in this text, but yet it also points to the problems
that the 'construction of situations' as hereto encountered. On a basic
level the situation is so wedded to the theories of the Situationist International
that, as a power/knowledge encased within texts and exegesis, it has become
mystified as a practice that can be reinvented and reused. No one feels
that they know how to construct an 'authentic' situation. This has its
parallel with Negri's 'soviets of mass intellectuality' in that, as hinted
at above, the 'general intellect' is still indicative of a relationship
to knowledge that, as, say, 'common sense', is the source of a power that
is exchanged for maintaining the status quo. As an economy of knowledge
takes hold, value is not just allotted to the content of that knowledge,
but to the manner and ramifications of its wielding. In other words knowledge
per se does not give rise to becoming and it can, on the contrary, serve
well and be well paid in the reproduction of social relations that, say,
in the instances of a writer, make that individual author a substitute,
a representative, of a wider culture, a burgeoning way of becoming. Against
this the situation makes clear, as more than one has already said, that
'when no heed is paid to the relations that inhere in social facts, knowledge
misses its target'.
Giorgio Agamben has pointed
us a little in the direction of such criticism when he urged us to distinguish
between "the mere, massive inscription of social knowledge into the productive
process and intellectuality as antagonistic power and form-of-life" (52).
Intellectuality can become antagonistic not when it is pleasurably, yet
servilely, demonstrating its aptitude, but when it knows itself as part
of a wider praxis, when it can cohere with and be informed by other desires,
when it is in rhythm with affect In other words when it seeks to be used
to bring about new social relations. Whilst it is highly tempting and a
useful rhetorical device to substitute 'intellectuality' for 'labour power'
and arrive once more at soviets it may well be that a different tenor is
established by a situation. Instead of being reduced once more to the sociality
of wage-labour is it not that a situation's approach towards "new affective
formulations", its self-institutional move towards regaining control over
its own mode of association, is tantamount to creating a social relation
more in keeping with our liberation from wage-labour and its exploitative
offshoots that Baudrillard has identified? That the Situationists were
intent on leaving behind their avant-garde status and on joining-in with
an 'authentic' working class struggle perhaps points to an historic reason
why the situation was never fully formulated as a revolutionary social
organ in itself, or, rather, why it has remained at the level of a poetic
foresight that no one Situationist penned and is beginning to be taken
up again (53). For, whereas the soviet form has fallen foul of the re-composition
(diversification) of the working class, the situation - with its emphasis
upon internalisation, desire and affect, with its attraction to psychoanalysis
and the production of subjectivity, with its communicative balance of singularities
spurred on by the enigma of each's poetry and with its being drawn towards
a re-creation of social space through 'unitary urbanism' - the situation
seems to be well placed to meet the challenge of a capitalism that has
long issued its intent to fight at the bio-political level, at those very
subjective levels of desire and expression, of the individual and the group,
that avant-garde currents such as the Situationist International had been
exploring. Crucial here is that whereas the industrial working class were
not, on the whole, in control of their own association in the factory -
"Their combination is not their being but the being of capital"
(54) - avant-garde currents, on the otherhand, have offered this 'combination'
as the material of their work, as a process of becoming shared by affinities.
And so the Situationist project,
criticised by Jean Barrot as the "extension of the construction of intersubjective
situations to the whole of society" (55), has left us with much food for
thought. The 'construction of situations', understandably left behind in
the wake of enthusiasm for detournement, psycho-geography and left-communism,
overshadowed as an organisational form by the necessary allure of the revolutionary
workers movement, could well lead to forums that attempt to make knowledge
passionate again and thus put the incommunicable, the inadmissible back
into circulation. They may once again be the laboratories of new social
relations, organs for the reappropriation of affective labour, the site
of non spectacular audiences, intimacies where discourse-objects melt into
excursivity and improvisation, where differences aren't instituted into
commodities, where meconaissance leads to closer ties rather than
exclusions. They could be the beginnings of a nonrepresentative democracy.
If this is an extension of 'intersubjective relations' then so be it. The
last words should be left to Guy Debord: "Such a resumption of radicality
naturally also requires a considerable deepening of all the old attempts
at liberation. Seeing how those attempts failed due to isolation, or were
converted into total frauds, enables one to get a better grasp of the coherence
of the world that needs to be changed. In the light of this recovered coherence,
many of the partial explorations of the recent past can be salvaged and
brought to their true fulfilment..."(56).
89 Vernon Road, London,
October - July 2001
1. Karl Marx: Grundrisse,
Pelican 1972, p705. Marx goes on to say that the reappropriation of this
'general productive power', a power alienated to the capitalist under the
conditions of wage labour, is a vital part of the "development of the social
2. Asger Jorn: Critique
of Economic Policy (1960), Transgressions No.4 1998, p18.
3. Karl Marx, ibid, p706.
Paolo Virno theorises this as 'general intellect'. See his contributions
to Radical Thought In Italy: A Potential Politics, University of Minnesota,
4. Karl Marx, ibid, p693.
5. Toni Negri: Revolution
Retrieved (1968-1983), Red Notes 1989, p223.
6. Alexander Trocchi: A
Revolutionary Proposal, City Lights Journal 1964, p21. Reprinted in Invisible
Insurrection Of A Million Minds (ed) Andrew M.Scott, Polygon 1991.
7. Toni Negri, ibid, p190.
Jean Baudrillard expressed this 'cultural dimension of command' as the
"labour of signification" and the "labour of need": For Baudrillard our
consumption of products, itself reproductive of social relations, bares
the traces of other unpaid-for labours: the labour of assigning value to
products by allotting them differences (advertising, record reviews, art
criticism etc.) and the labour of needs whereby, in reputedly satisfying
the basic human needs such as hunger, commodity production goes on to create
new needs which take on the aura of an indisputable naturality. See Jean
Baudrillard: For A Critique Of The Political Economy Of The Sign, Telos
1981, Chapter 3.
8. Asger Jorn, ibid, p25.
9. ibid, p21.
10. Asger Jorn: Guy Debord
And The Problem Of The Accursed. Preface to Debord's Contre Le Cinema (1964),
translated by Roxanne Lapidus and taken from the Not Bored website (www.not
11. Karl Marx, ibid, p488.
12. Constant Nieuwenhuys:
Inaugural Report To The Munich Conference 1959. See Mark Wigley:
Constant's New Babylon,
010 Publishers, Rotterdam 1998, p101.
13. Alexander Trocchi, ibid,
14. Georges Bataille: Inner
Experience, SUNY 1988, p55. For our purposes we could here substitute authority
for power and offer that such power is always on loan; it is always constantly
subject to appraisal and re-appraisal. Hence the 'servitude' BatailIe speaks
15. Karl Marx: Selected
Writings in Sociology and Social' Philosophy ed. T.B.Bottomore and Maximilien
Rubel, Pelican 1969, p254. Sourced to The German Ideology (1846).
16. Alexander Trocchi: Sigma
Portfolio No.5 - General Informations (1964) in Break/Flow No.1.
17. Guy Debord: On The Passage
(1959) in Situationist International Anthology ed.Ken Knabb, Bureau Of
Public Secrets 1981, p31. (http://www.slip-net/~knabb)
18. Henri Lefebvre: The
Production Of Space, Blackwell 1999, p177.
19. Guy Debord: Preliminary
Problems In Constructing A Situation (1958), ibid, p43. The means of expression
is alluded to by the Situationists in terms of unmediated communication.
See Jorn above and also Debord's Theses On The Cultural Revolution in Intemationale
Situationniste No.1,1958: "One must lead all forms of pseudocommunication
to their utter destruction, to arrive one day at real and direct communication
(in our working hypothesis of higher cultural means: the constructed situation)".
Translated by John Shepley and taken from the Not Bored website.
21. Alexander Trocchi, ibid.
22. Guy Debord: Report On
The Construction Of Situations (1957), ibid, p25.
23. Guy Debord, ibid.
24. D.W.Winnicott: Playing
And Reality (1971), Routledge 1991, p98.
25. Bruce Andrews: Paradise
& Method - Poetics and Praxis, Northwestern University Press, 1996,
26. Guy Debord: Preliminary
Problems In Constructing A Situation, ibid. In an 1960 essay entitled Constant
And The Path Of Unitary Urbanism, Debord had further cause to speak of
desire: "We must not restrict the scope of our desires to the already-seen
which coaxes us back emotionally, thus letting our generally difficult
and incomplete approach to the known desires contribute to their further
embellishment". See Mark Wigley, ibid, p95.
27. Alexander Trocchi: A
RevoIutionary Proposal, ibid, p34.
28. Raoul Vaneigem: Basic
Banalities (1963) in Situationist International Anthology, ibid, p133.
The Achilles Heel of the Situationist project can be seen in the way that,
following the 'discourse object' route of 'theoretical coherence', announced
by the 1962 expulsion of the artists, the Situationists unwittingly removed
contradiction and 'variability' from their practice and instaurated what
Baudrillard has referred to as an "ideological model of socialisation".
See Harvard Medista: Divided We Stand, Infopool No.4, 2001(www.infopool.org.uk).
29. Jacques Lacan: The Partial
Drive And Its Circuit (1964) in Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis,
Penguin 1994, p185. Using Baudrillard's schema this could also be read
as another indication of how desire is in symbiosis with capital: signs
proliferate, desire is caught.
30. In a lecture held at
the Stedelijk Museum in December 1960 Constant described unitary urbanism
as "the objectification of the creative urge, the collectivization of the
art work". See Mark Wigley, ibid, p132.
31. Antonin Artaud: The
Theatre And Its Double (1933), Calder 1993, p81-82.
32. ibid, p66. As is the
case with the Situationists, Artaud too appears to be predicting this expansion
of capitalism towards the social factory, towards the valorisation of social
relations. Thus, perhaps, art now serves this 'futures' function for capitalism,
a means of forecasting social desires that, as 'needs', can be thus provided
for by the market. Another instance of the 'labour of needs'?
33. ibid, p71.
34. ibid, p80.
35. ibid, p70.
36. On this see Jacques
Attali: Noise (1975), Manchester University Press, 1985. Attali, working
with Marx's idea of "really free working, e.g. composition" (Grundrisse
p611), but discussing 'composition' in terms more indicative of improvisation,
comes close to describing the import of the construction of situations':
"Beyond the rupture of the economic conditions of music, composition is
revealed as the demand for the truly different system of organisation,
a network within which a different kind of music and different social relations
can arise. A music produced by each individual for himself, for pleasure
outside of meaning, usage and exchange". Attali, ibid, p137. The problems
in Attali's approach stem from the status of this 'individual pleasure'
(referred to bluntly as "egoistic enjoyment", ibid p145) as well as his
insistence that 'composition' remain a solely musical model: "We can explore
these different forms of organisation [of music] much more easily... than
we can explore different ways of organising reality." See The Wire No.209,
37. Alexander Trocchi, ibid,
38. Debord, ibid, p43.
39. Felix Guattari: Chaosmosis
-An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, Power Institute 1996, p120.
40. Kaja Silverman interviewed
by Martina Pachmanova: The World Wants Your Desire in N.Paradoxa Vol.6,
p8. Guattari's theory of modular subjectivity would have it that we are
'subjects at the level of affect'
41. Guy Debord: Report on
the Construction of Situations, ibid. As with Attali, the status of the
'individual' within the situationist project is fraught with hazards. See
Harvard Medista, ibid.
42. D.W.Winnicott: The Maturational
Process And The Facilitating Environment, Hogarth 1985, p34.
43. Cornelius Castoriadis:
World In Fragments, Stanford University Press 1996, p133. It could be added
that such internalisation is creative of 'identity' rather than desire.
See Note 40.
44. ibid, p132. Baudrillard
would counter that this 'radical imagination' is not repressed but brought
into play as the 'labour of signification'.
45. ibid, p134.
46. Uwe Lausen: Repetition
And Novelty In The Constructed Situation- Internationale Situationniste
No.8 (January 1963). Translated by Reuben Keehan and taken from the Situationist
International Online website (http://members.optsunet.com.au/~rkeehan/)
47. Henri Lefebvre: The
Survival Of Capitalism (1973), Allison & Busby 1976, p19. There have
been several situationist suicides: Heimrad Prem, Uwe Lausen, Guy Debord.
48. Alexander Trocchi, ibid,
49. See Antonio Negri &
Michael Hardt: Empire, Harvard 2000, p188. Negri and Hardt are very clear
about the pitfalls of representative democracy and their genealogy of sovereignty
highlights, in summation, a chain of political representation into which
our powers are alienated: "The people representing the multitude, the nation
representing the people and the state representing the nation". See p134.
50. Augusto Illuminati:
Unrepresentable Citizenship in Radical Thought In Italy, ed Paolo Virno
and Michael Hardt, ibid p183.4.
51. Toni Negri: Constituent
Republic, ibid, p221.
52. Giorgio Agamben: Form-Of-Life,
53. Lefebvre attributes
the 'situation' to Constant (See interview with Kirsten Ross in October
No.79 1997). Jorn to Kierkegaard (See Situationist Times No.5,1965). Art
historians to Alan Kaprow. But there is always Sartre. The paragraph on
Artaud may be indicative that 'the situation' was always 'in the culture'.
At the 1970 Situationist Delegates conference in Trier, J.V.Martin, a Scandinavian
member, pyromaniac and painter, asked what had become of our "best weapon,
i.e. construction of situations". See Report From The Delegates Conference
Held in Wolsfeld and Trier on the Debordiana website.
54. Karl Marx: Grundrisse,
ibid, p585. Marx adds: "The individual worker relates to his own combination
and co-operation with other workers as alien, as modes of capital's effectiveness."
55. Jean Barrot: What Is
Situationism (1979), Unpopular Books 1987, p20. The problem of individualism
within the SI can cast Barrot's criticism in a different light i.e. what
inter subjectivity? This has been taken up elsewhere: See Harvard Medista,
56. Guy Debord: The Situationists
And The New Forms Of Action In Politics And Art (1963). Translated by Ken
Knabb and taken from the Not Bored website.
carried out from Wellbrow to Laessoesgade. Layout and design by Ian Burn
Appreciation Society @ Salon/ Soviet Cover image adapted from Grafika VI
by Dubravko Detoni - see Paradigm Discs 11.
Dreier and the Société Anonyme
"[America] has developed
along the material rather than the immaterial, the concrete rather than
(Katherine Dreier) 1
"The art of the new painters
takes the infinite universe as its ideal, and it is to the fourth dimension
alone that we owe this new measure of perfection."
"An artist expresses himself
with his soul, with the soul the artwork must be assimilated."
Katherine Sophie Dreier (1877-1952)
was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her father had amassed a modest fortune
in an iron importing business. She had three sisters: Mary, Margaret and
Dorothea, who between them combined an active commitment to social reform,
progressive politics and modern art.
Mary Dreier was a US labor
reformer active in leadership roles in the suffrage movement. Although
independently wealthy, she won the trust of working women and became active
in the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL). Mary walked the picket lines
with strikers and was arrested and treated just as brutally by the police.
The WTUL's establishment in 1903 drew together three important social currents
flowing through early twentieth century America: the labor movement, the
Womens' Movement, and the social reform movement of the Progressive Era.
This coalition of wage-earning and middle-class women fought for the eight-hour
day, decent wages, women's suffrage and protective workplace laws. She
was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was also active in the WTUL.
Margaret Dreier was also
a labor leader and reformer and joined the WTUL becoming president of the
New York branch and playing a major role in organising support for the
strikes of 1909-11 against the garment industry. In 1929 President Herbert
Hoover named her to the planning committee of the White House Conference
on Child Health and Protection. In the 1930s she became an enthusiastic
supporter of the New Deal which--influenced by the WTUL agenda--brought greater
security to workers' lives and seen the instigation of the WPA which nurtured
the post war generation of artists.
Dorothea was a painter working
in a Post-Impressionist style.
There was a strong identification
with German culture in the Dreier home, and the family often traveled back
to Europe to visit relatives. Between 1907 and 1914, Katherine Dreier traveled
abroad studying and buying art and participating in several group exhibitions
in Frankfurt, Leipzig, Dresden, and Munich. In Paris she visited Gertrude
Steins' salons seeing the Fauves and Picasso and reading (in the original
German) Kandinsky's 'Concerning The Spiritual in Art' in 1912 just as it
was published. This was to be a profound influence including its Theosophical
dimension and condemnation of the art market. She also traveled to Holland,
buying a van Gogh (before the Sonderbund show) which she eventually loaned
to the Armory show. 2
Her first one-person show
was in London in 1911 at the Doré Galleries, which later held the
first Vorticist show in 1915, here:
"The American actress and
feminist Elizabeth Robins introduced her into a circle of artists and literati
where she met and engaged Edward Thrumbull. They returned to her family
home in Brooklyn for their wedding. The marriage was annulled soon after
it was learned that Thrumbull already had a wife and children." 3
In 1912, in New York she
became treasurer of the German Home for Recreation of Women and Children
and helped to found the Little Italy Neighborhood Association in Brooklyn.
She was invited to exhibit her own work and her collection in the influential
1913 Armory Show. Contemporary criticism of her work reduced Dreier's status
to a "decorator" locating her within the amateur field, producing in a
less sophisticated medium--despite the decorative arts being an essential
source of inspiration for many avant-garde painters and sculptors. 4
The invisibility of Dreier
and many other women who participated in the Armory Show--and in avant-garde
circles in general--begins with criticism that dismissed women who made
art works connected to the schools of Modernism as imitative, rather than
capable of assimilating theories by canonical artists. The Armory Show
was dependent on a number of women artists who participated in the growth
of modern art in New York in the years around the 1913 exhibition, yet
the critical reception of this, such as Frank Crowninshield's 'Armory Show'
in Vogue, 1940, Mayer Shapiro's and Milton Brown's writing have conditioned
perceptions of the period to see affluent women as mere collectors because
they were the wives and daughters of the "magnates." But aspects of patronage
had began to shift from the industrial capitalists--guided merely by a desire
to amass more wealth--to a new class of 'cultural aesthetes' who were:
"...the readers and followers
of Neitzsche, Bergson, Whitman, Veblen, and often Blavatsky. They represented
a professed desire to keep the art market autonomous from the markets for
other goods where "it is not for the maker to set the goal for art, but
for the buyer." 5
They believed financial support
for artists should be unconditional. An examination of many of these early
'women collectors' at the Armory Show (and later) reveals their own occupations
as painters, sculptors and writers, recognised by their peers and the general
public as professionals. Most accounts of these early twentieth century
'collectors' neglect a community and reciprocity between art patronage
and production, especially in the case of women artists/collectors/organisers.
Yet this neglected ground is where modern art is often first accepted or
appreciated or contested. This blurring and erasing of distinctions will
be recognised by artists as a fore-runner of artist-run initiatives and
akin to Pierre Bourdieu's assessment of avant-garde art, as ostensibly
anti-commercial art: 'art produced for producers'.
In 1914 Dreier formed the
Cooperative Mural Workshops, a combination art school and workshop modeled
in part after the Arts and Crafts movement and the Omega Workshops of Roger
Fry. The organisation, which operated until 1917, also included the dancer
Isadora Duncan. In her painting Dreier began working toward non-representational
portraiture, and in 1916 she was invited to help found the Society of
Independent Artists (SIA) which brought her into an influential circle
of European and American avant-garde artists, most notably working with
Marcel Duchamp as friend, partner and patron.
"While her interest in modern
art is often understood in relation to her correspondence with Duchamp,
her early abstractions are undoubtedly influenced by her interest in Kandinsky's
theories... Dreier's most commonly reproduced work is her portrait of Duchamp,
in the collection of MOMA. A slightly earlier portrait of Duchamp, called
Study in Triangles, recalls Kandinsky's first chapter in On the Spiritual
in Art, "The Movement of the Triangle." Following Kandinsky's logic and
Dreir's painting, Duchamp reaches the top rung of the avant-garde ladder
and becomes as Dreier would later call him "the modern-day Leonardo." 6
The SIA (which continued
until 1944 and also had a Mexican chapter) were a group of American and
European artists who aimed to support regular exhibitions of contemporary
art. It is thought it was based on the French Société
des Artistes Indépendants, founded in 1884 (which had rejected
Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase') and which acted as a kind of institutionalized
Salon des Refusés. The other founders with Dreier included Marcel
Duchamp, William J. Glackens, Albert Gleizes, John Marin, Walter Pach,
Man Ray, John Sloan and Joseph Stella. The managing director was Walter
Arensberg. Much the same group had been responsible for the Armory Show
in 1913, which they quickly aimed to surpass.
'The Big Show' held at the
Grand Central Palace in New York in 1917--then the largest exhibition in
American history (2500 works by 1200 artists; the Armory Show had 1200
works)--coincided with US involvement in World War I. This underlined the
SIA's 'dedication to democratic principles as part of a larger struggle,'
which seen the group conciously adopt a no-jury policy, with the works
(which extended to film screenings, lectures, poetry readings and concerts)
hung alphabetically. Duchamp was originally the director of the installation
of the show. For $6 artists were offered an opportunity to exhibit and
join the group, regardless of style or subject-matter. This gave Duchamp
What looked like a urinal
signed 'R. Mutt', arrived through a delivery service with its six bucks.
The central anti-academy philosophy of accepting all works was easily mocked
and some members took it upon themselves to remove the work from the exhibition
two days before the opening. Duchamp made an even bigger show of resigning
from the SIA. It is slightly ridiculous that this incident has over-shadowed
the rest of the show, but it certainly divided opinion--some of Dreier's
correspondence on the matter still exists such as this one to SIA president,
"I want to express my profound
admiration in the way you handled so important a matter as you did at the
last meeting when it was [decided]...that we invite Marcel Duchamp to lecture...on
his "Readymades" and have Richard Mutt bring the discarded object and explain
the theory of art and why it had a legitimate place in an Art Exhibit...
I felt that if you had realized that the object was sent in good faith
that the whole matter would have been handled differently. It is because
of the confusion of ideas that the situation took on such an important
aspect... [you] will force Richard Mutt to show whether he was sincere
or did it out of bravado."
Dreier also wrote to Duchamp
asking him to reverse his resignation from the SIA over the refusal to
exhibit Mr Mutt's Fountain:
"When I voted "No," I voted
on the question of originality--I did not see anything pertaining to originality
in it; that does not mean that if my attention had been drawn to what was
original by those who could see it, that I could not also have seen it."
One of the SIA, George Bellows,
supposedly became very angered (this was 100 years ago) and turned on Walter
Arensberg saying: "Someone must have sent it as a joke. It is signed R.
Mutt; sounds fishy to me... It is gross, offensive!...There is such a thing
as decency. Do you mean that if an artist put horse manure on a canvas
and sent it to the exhibition, we would have to accept it?" Arensberg responded
with "I am afraid we would." But most of these accounts are from Beatrice
Wood's--who shared a studio with Duchamp--unreliable memoir 'I Shock Myself.'
Some believe that the love triangle that developed among Wood, Duchamp
and French Diplomat Henri-Pierre Roché formed the basis of Roché's
novel, Jules and Jim, which was later made into the celebrated film
by François Truffaut. 7
'Fountain' was not seen
by the public, but the joke was kept running in the 'open submission' magazine
The Blindman which Duchamp and Roché printed (and Wood fronted
till her father got upset) to accompany The Big Show. It began as a joke
and was extended in the subsequent issue into a system of assault, following
the attitude characteristic of Picabia's earlier '391' magazine. Like their
European counterparts, first-generation modernists in the United States
depended on the word--in manifestoes, catalog essays, and "little magazines"--to
advocate and advance their art.
Duchamp's idea of 'readymades'
had come from his surprise in New York at seeing objects such as a snow
shovel (which he had no idea existed), and imagining them as ready-made
sculptures just like the arrival of ready-made clothes or cigarettes on
the market. This had resonated with his interest in Raymond Roussel's theatrical
works which he described as "the absolute height of unusualness," and Alfred
Jarry's 'Pataphysics.' It also reminded him of the 'gadgets' he kept about
his studio (and which his sister threw out) such as the bicycle wheel (possibly
a pun on 'Roussel'), which he enjoyed looking at like flames in the fireplace
"to help his ideas come out". He would notice the spokes blurr and a curious
three dimension 'optical flicker' effect which remained with one eye shut,
this reminded him of his obscure readings on Euclidian geometry and the
French mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré.
Dreier seems among those
who initially opposed the inclusion of Fountain, but she later came to
appreciate Duchamp's intentions. They struck up a friendship that lasted
Dreier's lifetime, and he introduced her to the circle of progressive artists
and poets which had formed around Walter Arensberg's house and given rise
to the SIA.
The Arensberg's West 67th
Street apartment contained works by Duchamp, Picasso, Braque, Gris, Miro
and 19 Brancusi sculptures. Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase' (which
the Arensbergs' bought from the Armory Show on the last day when they just
happened by) was the centerpiece. Arensberg (a cryptology fanatic who shared
mental and word games of all sorts with Duchamp) became a pivotal centre
because of his extraordinary mind and instinctive comprehension of all
that was stirring. The apartment contained the Avant-Garde in New York.
Duchamp actually moved in to a small room and bath upstairs somewhere in
the building, living in the Arensberg place most of the time.
Every night following the
Armory Show there had been an influx of prominent French artists. Among
the other members of the group were Man Ray, Picabia, William Carlos Williams,
Mardsden Hartley, Mina Loy, Edgar Varase, Charles Demuth, Isadora Duncan
and Charles Sheeler, who casts a more disparaging eye on the influx of
draft-dodging Frenchmen on the make:
"CS: Yes. Well, they had
a purpose in being there, I think, of course. Maybe that wouldn't include
Duchamp but the majority of the others it was the hope of good picking,
that is I mean to say pick up sponsors, you know....we would be in a gathering...and
there was one fellow you'd see looking up and down if there were some people
there that--women that represented means of some kind and so forth, looking
up and down deciding whether the fur coat represented anything more substantial
that might be picking, you know, sort of as taking inventory...A lot of
that went on in those days. It made me sick.
MF: You're disillusioning
me. That's good. What about Katherine Dreier? Didn't she get involved in
CS: Well, she was madly
in pursuit personally of...
CS: Marcel." 8
Sheeler also recounts one
evening Isadora Duncan dropped by:
"...and, as she was leaving--Walter
wasn't prepared for it--she threw her arms violently around his neck and
her considerable avoirdupois and he wasn't prepared--she flattened him to
the ground, they fell on the floor and when he got up two front teeth were
missing. He was going around for several days this way with a handkerchief
up to his face 'til he got repairs. But there were silly little things
like that haven't anything to do with--of importance." 9
"From a distance these things,
these Movements take on a charm that they do not have close up--I assure
(Marcel Duchamp, Letter
to Ettie Stettheimer, 1921)
In response to the question
"What is Dada?", posed by the press a number of 'Dada' artists gathered
at Katherine Dreier's on East 47th Street, to try a bit of hype. Duchamp
was the spokesman:
"Dada is nothing...For instance
the Dadaists say that everything is nothing; nothing is good, nothing is
interesting, nothing is important. It is a general movement in Paris, relating
rather to literature than to painting" And later in the interview, "Painting
has already begun to tear down the past--why not literature?. But then I
am in favor of Dada very much myself". Even as he was making this declaration,
however, Duchamp was distancing himself from the Paris Dada scene that
prompted the Evening Journal article. When his sister Suzanne... suggested
Duchamp send something for the Dada Salon Tzara was organizing at the Galerie
Montaigne, Duchamp responded that "exposer," sounded too much like "épouser",
and when Tzara himself repeated the request, Duchamp sent a telegram that
contained the three words "PODE BAL--DUCHAMP" with its pun on "peau de balle"
or "balls to you." Thus, when the exhibition was mounted, the spaces reserved
for Duchamp's works were occupied by empty frames. So much for Duchamp's
participation in Paris Dada." 10
Around this time, in 1920,
Dreier, Duchamp, and Man Ray met in Dreier's apartment (the Arensberg's
had escaped to the West Coast) to found a centre for the study and promotion
of of the international avant-garde. Dreier wanted to call it "The Modern
Ark," perhaps symbolising her shipping an unrivalled collection of European
Modernism over the Atlantic, but Man Ray suggested a typically tedious
Dada word game: the French term for "incorporated," so the name would read
"Société Anonyme, Inc." which translates into "Incorporated,
Inc." Dreier added the subtitle "Museum of Modern Art: 1920." Ray's involvement
was largely inconsequential.
If anything the name emphasised
Dreier's commitment to treating artists and art movements with impartiality.
Her--typically modest--concern was with "art, not personalities." It is thought
she modelled the association on the broad-ranging events and contemporary
art exhibitions sponsored by Herwarth Walden's Sturm-Galerie in Berlin.
As with much of the avant
garde they had to create their own means of showing their work, the Société
Anonyme, was used as an exhibition vehicle for the next ten years. It organised
an extensive series of exhibitions, lectures, symposia, publications and
established a reference library and acquisitions programme: all for the
support of modern artists and the education of the general public.
Throughout the twenties
Anonyme was New York's first museum of modern art, presenting an international
array of cubists, constructivists, expressionists, futurists, Bauhaus artists,
and dadaists. It hosted the first American one-person shows of Kandinsky,
Klee, Campendonk, and Leger. Société Anonyme promoted some
of the most progressive artistic experimentation to be done in the US country
at the time.
The International Exhibition
of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926 (the title was lifted from
the 1913 Armory Show) rivalled the SIA's Big Show of 1917 in its scope
and diversity. It is arguably one of the most successful, well-curated
and highly attended exhibitions in America in the 20th century. It also
made deliberate attempts to affect people in a more lasting manner.
"Dreier had four galleries
in the exhibition made up to resemble rooms in a house to illustrate how
modern art could and should readily integrate into an everyday domestic
environment, and there was also a prototype of a "television room," designed
in conjunction with Frederick Kiesler, which would make any house or museum
a worldwide museum of art by illuminating different slides of masterpieces
with the 'turn of a knob. Concurrent with the exhibition the Societe sponsored
eighteen lectures, fourteen of which were delivered by Dreier herself."
It was in fact more or less
single-handedly organised by Dreier--an astonishing effort demonstrating
her work for the Société to date. The extensive Catalogue
(given free to participating artists) was dedicated to Kandinsky's 60th
Birthday and abstract art seemed to dominate at the exhibition. The Brooklyn
exhibition featured 308 works by 106 artists from 23 countries and attracted
over 52,000 visitors in seven weeks. It travelled to Manhattan, Buffalo
and Toronto and was the first introduction in the US of Surrealism. It
also offerred a larger sampling of Soviet and German (and simply non-French)
modernism that had been included in the Armory Show (which had included
out of the German school only one Kandinsky, one Kirchner, and two Lehmbruck
sculptures, and out of the Russians only Archipenko). 12
It was also the first time
Duchamp's 'La mariée mise à nu par ses cèlibataires',
or 'The Large Glass' (1915-23), was exhibited. It seems to have been largely
ignored, only picking up attention when it was exhibited in the New York
Museum Of Modern Art after the war.
Dreier was Duchamp's main
supporter, commissioning, owning and enabling many new works, including
the Large Glass itself. Dreier had an intimate relationship to most of
his output, many of which make oblique references to her: 'T'um' was a
mural commissioned for above her bookcase based on the shadows cast by
his other works in her house. 'Why not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy' was
commissioned by Dreier for her sister, Dorothea--who didn't want it, probably
repulsed by its more Benny Hill (arroser, c'est la vie) aspects.
The major work of Duchamp's
career was broken in transit to Dreier's home in Connecticut. Dreier conveyed
the news six years later, where, over lunch, in France.
"Bearing a certain amount
of responsibility for the damaged to the Large Glass, Dreier paid for everything
connected to its repair, including materials and contracted labor. She
assured Duchamp of a room in her house, offered him thermoses of coffee,
breakfasts on a tray in the mornings, and a carpenter on hand to assist
in the reconstruction. She even covered his passage to America." 13
It is a misconception that
the Large Glass had merely cracked in the patterns one sees today, it was
reduced to a pile of unattached fragments which a newspaper described as
"a 4 by 5-foot three hundred pound conglomeration of bits of colored glass."
"A photograph from 1936,
taken in Katherine Dreier's Connecticut home...Wearing a pullover rather
than his usually natty clothes, a five-o'clock-shadowed Duchamp stands
wearily next to the Large Glass (1915-23) which he had just spent weeks
reconstructing. This image...begs an interesting question. How is it that
the unconventional and often fragile works of an artist who publicly eschewed
those art world institutions that would normally be trusted to conserve
them--dealers, galleries, museums-have come down to us in relatively fine
condition, or indeed, at all?" 14
Through the support of Katherine
Dreier would seem to be the answer. The effort on the Large Glass seems
to have nearly burnt him out, even the long-suffering Dreier complained
to one of her friends about the his monomania at this time: "Duchamp is
a dear, but his concentration on just one subject wears me out, leaves
Duchamp also used this time
to restore all his other works in Dreier's collection. The Large Glass'
near destruction and the draining process of undertaking its repair galvanized
his resolve to enter into the large-scale reiteration and reproduction
of his works in multiples. He first published the Green Box (Paris, 1934).
"Only then... did he restore the image between two new plates of glass,
now to be read through the foundational grid of his writings." The artist
himself admitted that "the notes [in the Green Box] help to understand
what it [the Large Glass] could have been." 15
The eventual opening in
1929 of the New York Museum of Modern Art reduced Dreier's hopes of the
Société becoming a permanent museum. The Société
made an urgent appeal to the Carnegie Corporation for assistance, but was
refused and its headquarters in New York closed. From this point on, it
continued only through Dreier's personal efforts in organising events,
a lecture series, writing and further accumulating the Société's
collection. In 1939, as war broke out Dreier began a plan to open 'The
Country Museum' (also known as the Haven), at her house in West Redding,
Connecticut--this merged the Société's and her own private
She approached Yale University
about funding and maintaining the Haven but, because of the high costs
of renovating and maintaining it, Yale offered a compromise to take over
the Société's collection if it were moved to the Yale Art
Gallery. Reluctantly Dreier agreed, and began sending the collection in
October 1941 shortly before the US entered another war with Germany.
"In 1942, Dreier was still
adamant about her desire to open the Country Museum and to use her private
collection as its basis. She continued her attempts to convince Yale to
fund her project, but when Yale gave a final negative answer in April,
Dreier decided to sell the Haven. In April 1946, she moved to a new home,
Laurel Manor, in Milford, Connecticut. She continued to add artwork to
the Societe Anonyme collection at Yale, through purchases and through gifts
from artists and friends. In 1947, she attempted to reopen membership to
the Societe Anonyme and printed a brochure, but Yale blocked distribution
of the brochure because of the ambiguous connection between Yale and the
membership campaign. In 1948, Dreier and Duchamp decided to limit the activities
of the Societe to working on a catalog of the collection and to acquiring
On the thirtieth anniversary
of the Société's Anonyme's first exhibition, 30 April 1950,
Dreier and Duchamp hosted a dinner at the New Haven Lawn Club, where they
formally dissolved the Societe Anonyme. In June, a catalog of the Société's
collection at Yale, Collection of the Société Anonyme:
Museum of Modern Art 1920, was published. Dreier died on 29 March 1952.
It was partly because she
dared not move the fragile Large Glass monolith, that she had considered
converting her home into a Museum. Troubled by the matter even at the end
of her life, she confessed to Duchamp that she might not leave enough money
to guarantee its upkeep and safety. After her death Duchamp acted as her
executor and entered it into the Arensberg Collection in the Philadelphia
Museum of Art, which contained most of his works.
Duchamp had helped to amass
the collection of the Société Anonyme, and with Dreier gone,
he tried to provide for its long-term survival, anxious about the rapid
deterioration of works. There was no money for conservation, so Duchamp
approached Mary Dreier who contributed $1,500 per year until she died.
Eventually, under Duchamp's supervision, the Large Glass would be cemented
to the floor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art amidst the Walter and Louise
Arensberg Collection where it had all began when they were young.
Anonyme begun in 1920; Albert Gallatin's Gallery of Living Art at New York
University did not emerge until 1927, most dominant of all the Museum of
Modern Art was founded in 1929; and then the Whitney Museum of American
Art in 1930. The Museum of Non-Objective Art--later to be better known as
the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum--was founded in New York in 1937. The Société
Anonyme's art collection eventually became the basis of the Museum of Modern
Art and the Guggemheim collections.
1. Ruth L. Bohan, The Société
Anonyme' s Brooklyn Exhibition, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor 1982, p.12).
Quoted from http://www.brickhaus.com/amoore/magazine/p2contents.html
2. The Armoury show has
been recreated at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MUSEUM/Armory/gallerytour.html
4. Duchamp's 'Coffee Grinder'
(1911) was originally done as a decoration for his brother's kitchen.
8. Charles Sheeler Interview,
conducted by Martin Friedman for the Archives of American Art, 1959 http://artarchives.si.edu/oralhist/sheele59.htm
10. Marforie Perloff, Avant-Garde
Tradition and the Individual talent. http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/perloff/dada.html
11. New Thoughts on an Old
Series, John D. Angeline, http://www.brickhaus.com/amoore/magazine/Davis.html
12. Stuart Davis (a leading
US modernist) underwent something of a conversion with the Brooklyn show
stating that "the exhibition itself was an inspiration to me and has given
me a fresh impulse." Fascinated by El Lissitzky's work, Davis was supplied
by Dreier (who had kept up a strong appreciation for Russian modernism
since 1922 when she visited the Erste Russiche Kunstausstellung in Berlin)
with knowledge which would inform his seminal 'Egg Beater' series. She
simultaneously supplied Lissitzky with sports magazines which reflected
American culture. Such closeness between US and Soviet modernism has since
been downplayed because of the Cold War. See Angeline above. The over-emphasis
on Parisian Modernism which critics such as Harold Rosenberg note in much
American art stems from critics reflecting its predominance and over-emphasis
in Peggy Guggenheim's collection.
13. Marcel Duchamp as Conservator,
Mark B. Pohlad, http://www.toutfait.com/issues/issue_3/Articles/pohlad/pohlad.html
14. Ibid. I would recommend
the Duchamp magazine http://www.toutfait.com
this regularly over-turns conventional wisdom on Duchamp.
16. The Katherine S. Dreier
Papers / Societe Anonyme Archive, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library,
David Chandler is the
author of 'Western Intervention and the Disintegration of Yugoslavia 89-99',
in which he argued that: "Western intervention in the former Yugoslavia
has created a vicious circle where one destabilising intervention has been
followed by another as international institutions have set the framework
He was a Council of Europe
election monitor at the Kosovo municipal elections on 28/18/01 and has
closely studied the mechanics of the administration of occupied Kosovo.
Phil England interviewed him about his new book and recent developments.
Phil England: Your book Faking
Democracy After Dayton1 shows that in Bosnia and Kosovo
the elected governments and transitional councils are in effect puppets
democracies there to rubber-stamp the policy initiatives of the High Representatives
and the international community. Can you outline the problems you see with
these protectorates and why you think this model will not work in Afghanistan?
David Chandler: Many people
say that protectorates are too unwieldy. They argue that the fact that
you've got all these different international bodies involved--the UN, NATO,
Council of Europe and the European Union--has been a problem that's been
responsible for the lack of any progress in Bosnia and Kosovo. How can
you work efficiently if all the members have to agree before you can apply
But I think there's a more
basic problem. At the end of the day, you can't nation build or impose
democracy or a political system on another country. Any solution has to
come from, and be accountable to, the people that live in that country.
In order to bring society
together, there is no point in just having a vetted, right-on, liberal
parliament. It may look very good on paper but unless these people have
any basis in that society, it's going to be very difficult for them to
overcome those barriers and to take some accountability for policy making
and change the political context.
In Afghanistan, America
has got the power to dictate exactly who's going to come to power. Perhaps
it will be the old king who hasn't been there for twenty-eight years and
some perfect multi-coloured coalition. But what they're really concerned
with is how to engineer for the Taliban, the Mujahedeen groups and the
Northern Alliance--groups they don't like politically--not to have too much
say in some future government. They can do that easily, but the chances
of that ever cohering Afghan society or creating a sustainable process
of peace building where there's an exit strategy for international bureaucrats?
That's never going to work.
Look at Bosnia where you
have all these discussions about how to minimise the influence of the nationalist
parties and stop people voting on ethnic lines. 'Maybe if we ban some candidates
as being potential war criminals or sack a few elected presidents for being
obstructionist, then things would be much better.' You can do a lot of
imposed engineering, so that in Bosnia today, the nationalist parties aren't
in power at the state or the entity levels and superficially you might
think that's really good. But then you realise that that's only been the
result of people being kicked out of office or the international community
fiddling how elections are managed.
At the moment the international
community run Kosovo and Bosnia without too much difficulty by imposing
what they want. But as long as the political institutions have no accountability
or autonomy for taking decisions that everyone inside Bosnia can live with
it will be artificial.
The lesson is that foreign
intervention is destabilising and doesn't give people the chance to establish
a viable political system. Why repeat a failed process of external meddling
in other people's affairs?
PE: They're still selling
the idea that although these places are protectorates, they are in transition.
But from your perspective there is no exit strategy for the UN and no prospect
for self-governance in the future.
DC: After six years in Bosnia
people are saying, 'Well, we're going to have to be there for a long time.'
Whenever there's an opportunity to roll back international rule in Bosnia
or to bring some NATO troops out, people say, 'Well it's a matter of principle,
if we were to let people have a bit more power now that would give the
hard-liners more confidence, it would disempower some of the NGOs and the
people we want to support.' And in Kosovo there's an indefinite mandate
for the international community.
Also, because of the moral
rhetoric that we fought this war to civilise, liberate or empower people
the international community can't just leave Bosnia or Afghanistan to govern
themselves because the original legitimacy of the war would disappear.
They have to paint these societies as being totally incapable of governing
themselves, as being run by criminals and warlords, people and governments
which are not to be trusted.
My personal view is that
until the international community sees the political sphere as a place
for resolving issues and getting people together and working across political,
regional and ethnic divisions and resolving problems with a degree of autonomy,
accountability and responsibility, then we're never going to progress.
At the moment all the international plans and strategies are about how
to avoid the issues and how to feel more comfortable.
PE: In Kosovo, not only
have the international community's attempts to impose democracy failed,
the exercise has caused a huge amount of human suffering and cost a huge
amount of money. The 'international community' have to stump up to rebuild
the country that it destroyed and then someone has to pay for all the staff
in the huge bureaucracies that are imposed. Surely non-intervention is
some kind of solution?
DC: I'd agree, but we'd
be in a minority of two. Today I was at this think tank for the UN and
democracy2 meeting of policy advisers. They say, 'Dave, we can't
even have that discussion. It's fair enough to say it won't work or they
shouldn't be there or they shouldn't have bombed Afghanistan to start with,
but from a policy point of view we have to deal with the world as it is.
The reality on the ground is that the UN will be involved whether they
like it or not. What we have to think about is how can we manage it.' It's
difficult to argue for the principles of democracy, sovereignty or even
international law, when there's no respect for them and when there's no
real social force in society or even internationally that can put them
The UN is not acting out
of choice in a sense. There's no way that Bush and Blair will want to take
responsibility for the mess that they've made in Afghanistan. It wasn't
a great place beforehand but after who knows how many weeks of war, everything's
going to be totally screwed up. So they're very lucky that they've got
this new rejuvenated UN with new priorities that's so desperate for a role
in the world that they're going to take on the job of administration afterwards.
The UN aren't looking forward
to it but they know that if they don't do it they won't get any money from
America. The only role that the UN can play today is hand-maiden to NATO
and America. They're not playing their old role any more so the whole situation
The old UN approach was
to be fairly neutral, let people negotiate their own peace agreements,
perhaps put in some blue helmets to man a peace line but to respect sovereignty.
The UN's Brahimi Report (written by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy
who is advising on Afghanistan)3 said that that doesn't work
because it doesn't solve the problem. Take Cyprus or other places where
you've had partition or you've let people get on with it, you've still
got partition and Blue Helmets manning a police line. What these people
argue is that protectorates don't just stop the war but also stop the causes
But I think that even the
policy makers are beginning to recognise that this new approach doesn't
really solve the problem either. And I think that's the real nut that we've
got to crack, to explain why these protectorates are even less likely to
work than the old style partition.
PE: You say that the turning
point with Kosovo was when the local conflict was turned into a humanitarian
issue and that that created the justification for military intervention4.
There was this phoney document that the Germans were supposed to have had
called "Operation Horseshoe."5 And Racak was a set up in a sense6.
To what extent did NATO force through the military intervention in Kosovo
before all the political and diplomatic means had been exhausted?
DC: People would argue that
the Rambouillet meetings weren't really face to face talks between the
Serbs and the Albanians and that the American state department wrote the
agreement, in the same way as the US state department wrote the Dayton
Agreement for Bosnia. They'd argue that the US forced the agreement separately
on the parties, and the decision to make it a military intervention rather
than a diplomatic one was taken by America. I'm not privy to the higher
echelons of American planners and why they thought the war worthwhile.
Whether they thought they would win it easily and whether they thought
it would look good or whether it was another mechanism for putting pressure
on Milosevic. But it's true that all the diplomatic possibilities weren't
Look at Afghanistan--no diplomatic
niceties bothered with remotely. That just shows, in our unipolar world
America doesn't have to go through that anymore. If you want to start a
war, preferably against a state that's unable to defend itself, and if
you can dress it up in the humanitarian liberal rhetoric of today, you're
going to get mass support for it.
In Kosovo it was wrong for
the Albanians to think that because the Americans were bombing the Serbs
that everything would be hunky-dory. It's true that Kosovo was historically
one of the most poor and run-down regions and maintaining law and order
has always been difficult. Tito's policy of levelling the country economically
didn't really work. So the origins of the conflict lie partly in historic
divisions and partly in a failure of socialist management policies of economic
But I think the real problem
in Kosovo has been the fact that instead of negotiating and working through
a solution, people have been encouraged to fight a war that they knew they
couldn't win, but they hoped to draw in the international community. When
that happens it encourages people to refuse to negotiate with their neighbours
because you rely on the international community instead.
Unfortunately the only people
that are going to be able to rebuild Kosovo are the people that live there
and to do that you're obviously going to have to build relationships with
countries around you--like Serbia--whether you like it or not.
Very few Serbs remain in
Kosovo. The few that remain were too scared to go the polls and boycotted
the municipal elections because they didn't respect the international protectorate.
There were Serbian representatives on the Transitional Council, although
sometimes they'd refuse to attend. In reality the protectorate has overridden
even UNSC resolution 1244 which gives respect for Yugoslav sovereignty.
When I was there, outside the polling stations there were American flags
and Albanian flags. Pretty strange for somewhere that is still supposed
to be part of Yugoslavia. Ethnic Albanians have voted in elections so far
because they thought it would symbolise a move towards independence. But
as the years go by I think you'll see lower turnouts as people realise
the farce that these elections are under the protectorate framework.
In Kosovo they have their
first provincial elections in November. So you will have the same two tier
system that you have in Bosnia where you have an elected government and
above them an international administration.
PE: In Kosovo and Bosnia,
the organisation responsible for the "democratisation" programme is the
Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). I don't think
many people would know who they are, where they came from and why they
exist. But a huge organisation nevertheless. And you've looked at them
very closely in your work and you've even worked for them as a monitor
in various elections.
DC: The OSCE are an intergovernmental
organisation that was set up during the Cold War, I think in 1975, with
the Helsinki Agreement. The idea was to put pressure on Eastern Europe
around human rights and then there'd be an opening with economics and trade.
So it was a Cold War body but the secret of the OSCE's success was that
it never had a formal mandate. It was very much an informal series of conferences.
With the end of the Cold War it was bodies that weren't tied to the UN
Charter or Cold War mandates saying you couldn't interfere in politics
and sovereignty. One of the OSCE initial big things was a series of conferences
around minority rights where it was agreed that Western powers had the
rights to monitor minority rights situations in Eastern Europe and a whole
new network and mechanisms of regulation. It was worked out in a very one-sided
way--obviously neither the Basque question nor the Northern Ireland question
was a concern of minority rights, all the minority rights questions were
in Eastern Europe. It was always a problem to phrase it in a universal
language and then in the small print say these national questions aren't
counted because of violence, or because they are indigenous minorities.
Now they've developed a whole way of regulating the political process so
you'll see the OSCE monitoring elections and the media in various states.
In Bosnia and Kosovo the OSCE don't just monitor the elections, they set
them up, they make the laws and regulations and the same with the media
PE: The OSCE was accused
of meddling in the Belarus elections last month. You were a monitor at
the elections and wrote a piece on that7. There was also a piece
in the Guardian on the US manipulation of the Belarus elections ("Operation
White Stork") and the fact that and that it was modelled on what they did
to get Kostunica into power in Belgrade8. At a Committee for
Peace in the Balkans public meeting recently, Ann Mahon MP was warning
that NATO now has Belarus in its sights. The US through the National Endowment
for Democracy has been manipulating foreign elections quite some time,
quite systematically9. Covert funding and election management
seems to make a mockery of pretensions of encouraging democracy.
DC: There's a load of different
so-called 'democracy' approaches. One traditional one is to fund political
parties or independent newspapers or give them campaigning advice which
on one-hand is a fairly traditional meddling approach. You could be generous
and say, well at least there's an element of democracy about it because
they argue that there should be a level playing field, that in these "transitional
states" the governing party owns all the press, they've got all the publicity
and all the rest of it.
With Belarus, the US Embassy
and the OSCE permanent mission played a big role in getting an opposition
candidate together who they thought could do a Kostunica. They persuaded
the main five opposition groups to unite behind one candidate. But it was
the candidate that they didn't want to unite behind--Goncharyk--who they
saw as being a Trade Unionist and maybe he could win a few votes from President
Lukashenka. But all that happened was that it undermined the choice for
Belarussian voters. Also, once the international community gets behind
one party or one faction, their policies become much more geared to the
international community than to the electorate. In Belarus it was hilarious
in a way that as soon as they knew they had international backing from
the opposition they weren't really worried about winning the election.
They just complained that the elections weren't really fair, they were
fraudulent and tried to get the international community in to overturn
the result and appoint their person. On the day of the elections when the
other candidates were out campaigning, Goncharyk was at the Hotel Planeta
talking to parliamentarians from the OSCE and the Council of Europe as
opposed to the electorate. So that approach failed and I think it was very
detrimental to democracy in Belarus.
PE: What is the point you
are making in your new book about the connection between human rights and
DC: A lot of interventions
today are based on protecting the rights of other people. Once you call
an issue a human right what you're saying is that this right is so important
that it should be policed, monitored or administrated independently outside
the sphere of politics, democracy and accountability. An international
institution can act for the rights of people in Kosovo but the people in
Kosovo have no say over what is done in their name. At the same time, the
British public have no say over what the government does in their name.
The government says, 'We're not acting on your behalf, we're acting on
behalf of other people'. So these universal rights are very different from
political rights because they don't have a lot of accountability attached
to them. So no matter how much the international community might screw
up a situation with political intervention, military intervention and then
protectorate style intervention, it's never their own fault. That's why
these policies are repeated.
Quite often the slippery
concept of human rights gives power to the already powerful. It's giving
the US and other Western states more power to intervene in smaller states
in other parts of the world outside of a framework of international law,
outside of a framework of the equality of political sovereignty--and to
create a new, pre-1945, pre-UN framework. By throwing away that Cold War
framework we are very much entering the framework of might is right.
The more we see the end
of international law and the end of respect for sovereignty the more conflict
we'll see where people will be intentionally trying to bring in the international
community because they'd rather have a protectorate than face a democratic
mandate or negotiate from a position of weakness. Some people might argue
that it's a license for minorities who want to separate but at the end
of the day, it's the major Western powers that decide which campaigns they're
going to support and which countries they're going to undermine. I worry
that there's going to be more Kosovos, Bosnias and Afghanistans, wars allegedly
fought for the protection of human rights and dressed-up in the liberal
terminology of empowerment and we're basically going to go back to an old
colonial era of enslavement--a few independent rich and powerful states
while everyone else is going to be dictated to.
Clinton, Bush and Blair
love going in on a white charger saving the victims, but there's very little
thought given to what happens afterwards to the consequences. It's very
short-termist. The lesson we've seen time and time again is that the international
community isn't really concerned with human rights in Kosovo or Afghanistan.
They're either concerned with their geostrategic interests or, more likely,
with getting a good sound bite for domestic audiences.
1. David Chandler Bosnia:
Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2nd Edition, 2000).
2. Institute for Democracy
and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
3. General Assembly Security
Council, Report of the Panel on United Nations Peacekeeping Operations,
21 August 2000, http://www.un.org/peace/reports/peace_operations/
4. David Chandler "Western
Intervention and the Disintegration of Yugoslavia" in Degraded Capability:
The Media and the Kosovo Crisis Philip Hammond & Edward S. Herman,
eds (Pluto Press, 2000).
5. Foreign Affairs Select
Committee Fourth Report: Kosovo, paras 93-98.
6. Hammond & Herman,
eds, ibid pp 117-120.
7. David Chandler - Dictating
Democracy in Belarus http://www.spiked-online.com/articles/00000002D26F.htm
8. Ian Traynor "Belarussian
foils dictator-buster... for now", The Guardian, 14/9/01.
9. Eg William Blum "Rogue
State" (Zed Books, 2001) pp. 168-183.
10. David Chandler From
Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press,
forthcoming March 2002).
The Targeting and Criminalisation
of Kurdish Asylum Seekers
available from Peace
in Kurdistan, 44 Ainger Road, London NW3 3AT
This excellent report by
Desmond Fernandes argues that Kurdish asylum seekers and refugee communities
have been targeted and criminalised in a number of ways by state and parapolitical
agencies. It provides evidence that across 'Fortress Europe' prison, immigration,
security and policing services adopt institutionally racist, brutal and
unaccountable policies and procedures.
Many asylum and refugee
groups which have already fallen prey to an insidious coalition of the
tabloid press, political opportunism, far-right groups, corrupt police
and an unaccountable Security Service are now the subject of the government's
proposal that people are categorised as a "national security risk and international
terrorist" on the basis of the Home Secretary's beliefs or suspicions.
The criteria for which are not given in the new legislation and the basis
for the suspicions will be secret. Anyone who appeals against the decision,
will have their case heard in a closed hearing, which may take place in
their absence without full disclosure of the evidence.
While Turkey, the UK and
the US routinely bomb northern Iraq themselves, the law is being perverted
to give politicians the right to return asylum seekers even although they
will be killed. The authorities need no longer look into reasons why people
may be fleeing. Even being subjected to torture now means nothing. Those
likely to seek political asylum because of their political affiliations
will be considered 'terrorists'.
The Immigration Service
guided by a succession of Home Secretaries (Baker, Hurd, Howard...) have
long been active in contravening its own rules, ignoring the basic fact
that "...asylum seekers ha(ve) a perfect right under present law--i.e. under
the 1951 Convention--to use illegal means (such as false documents) to claim
Decisions are "simply political",
concludes Fazil Kawani from the Refugee Council, rather than being based
upon clear humanitarian considerations and principles:
"Such a desire to deter and
target 'key' national 'undesirable' groups has led to a range of new, discriminatory
'measures' being institutionalised against Kurdish--and other--asylum seekers.
At the beginning of May, 2001, for instance, Barbara Roche, the Home Office
Minister, brazenly announced that immigration officers were now being openly
permitted to officially discriminate against eight nationalities, one of
which was Kurdish." (p11)
Jack Straw is now imposing
a policy that institutionally targets and swiftly deports 'Turkish' Kurdish
(as with other) asylum seekers fleeing from military conscription in their
"In Turkey, one must remember,
several Kurds have been forced to flee rather than be jailed/tortured for
conscientiously objecting, or forced to join an army that has been involved
in the genocidal destruction of over 3,000 Kurdish villages in the south-east,
the deaths of thousands and the forcible displacement of over three million
Kurds since the early 1990's alone...government policy is now set to possibly
target and deport/criminalise up to 6,000 'bogus' Kurdish asylum seekers
in this way, after an appeal in Britain's High Court failed to reverse
this policy." (p12)
for those who somehow manage
to live here there is the policy of dispersal. In Glasgow alone:
"There have been more than
70 racist attacks in the Sighthill area since refugees began arriving on
the estate, more than a year ago, often under cover of darkness. Refugees
have complained of being spat at and verbally abused ... Many of them have
remained holed up in their flats, too frightened to venture out". In Robina
Qureshi's opinion: "The government must have known that bringing empty
council houses into use for" its targeted "asylum seekers would result
in mass concentration of asylum seekers and fuel racial tensions in already
deprived council estates". (p14)
Investigative reporters have
observed that NATO and the EU have (through the Schengen agreement and
the expansion of 'Europol') developed ideological agendas which seek the
criminalisation of 'Turkish' Kurdish asylum seekers and refugee communities
which they perceived to be 'pro-Kurdish' and/or 'pro-PKK' in orientation.
According to the lawyer Gareth Peirce, "the British and Turkish governments,
under the rubric of 'suppression of terrorism', have managed to criminalise
the Kurdish (refugee) community of Great Britain. Without engaging the
legitimacy of a Kurdish struggle for national rights, the British police
has deliberately worked to cast doubt on every Kurd in the UK as terrorist
Fernandes' report notes
that the only potential source of terrorism in Britain identified by name
alongside the IRA in (ex-MI5 head) Stella Rimmington's maiden broadcast
were 'the Kurds'.
"MI5 and police Special Branch
are making a considerable investment in portraying Kurds in Britain as
terrorists" and criminals. "With such expenditure of resources, they are
likely to be looking for results, if only to maintain their credibility
and position within the increasingly competitive world of the British security
and intelligence services." (p18)
That such results are accomplished
by provocation and frame-ups should come as no surprise--the report has
details on several framing, incitements and intimidation incidents--but
if our society refuses to distinguish between the guilty and not guilty
we are all in danger.
British intelligence information
about émigré political activities is also exchanged with
the Turkish State. According to Tony Bunyan, the editor of Statewatch,
MI5 seem to be doing the job of the murderous Turkish Secret Police:
"...they will come to public
meetings of the group...They will take down the numbers of the cars which
are outside the building, a technique which again goes way back and was
widely used in the days of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in
this country. They will try and infiltrate the group and get a feel for
the group and...they will often use inducements. They say: 'We will give
you the right to stay in this country. We will get you a passport, if you
give us information, if you will inform on your group'. These are well-tried
(targeting) techniques from their history. They will produce assessments
of the threat posed by the groups. They will associate groups with terrorists--'all
refugees equal criminals, equal terrorists'...Of course, they have a long
history of working with their counterparts, with their so-called friendly
allies in NATO, which has included the CIA, and (with) Mossad and no doubt
Turkish intelligence. There is a long history of collusion with these foreign
The report distressingly
suggests that police agents and the Special Branch PKK Desk were allegedly
"making deals with actual
criminals; hit-men who are subcontracted to carry out physical assaults
and intimidation of the ('pro-Kurdish' refugee) community. Outside London,
the situation is worse. Through phone tapping and informants, police are
tipped off about any (public community/refugee centre) event taking place:
in one case prior to a (public Kurdish) community centre event in Scotland"--which
was taking place legally--"police were waiting outside to arrest Kurds from
the local community arriving to attend. Those travelling from London"--again,
perfectly legally--"to address the meeting, were stopped six times en route
by police controls. Another witness elsewhere revealed the gun he was given
by police to 'shoot up' visiting Kurdish (human rights) speakers...Shop
keepers have told us how they're being pressured and threatened to act
as police informants. In return for information, they're being bribed with
money or offered more secure legal/asylum status and protection." (p21)
A lot of the work here has
gone to a booming private sector, some of whom even offer extra-judicial
killings as a service. The report also mentions the UK based 'consultancy
group', Aims Ltd (which I believe has some connection to the old far-right
Aims of Industry organisation) which through its close links to British
Intelligence and the SAS:
"...also happens to be the
organisation which was exposed as having "plotted to assassinate Abdullah
Ocalan, leader of the...PKK group" and "offered to arrange to irradiate Kurdish
rebels held by the Turks in northern Iraq. The company told Turkish authorities
that after the Kurds were released, the radiation would make it possible
to track" and target "their movements and follow them to their bases. It
added that the prisoners could fall ill from radiation poisoning within
21 days". It was also "one of two British firms which provided military
equipment and training facilities to members of the Turkish special forces
who captured Ocalan". "
How did they get access to
radioactive material? No action is being taken against this company--why
is this? It would seem that if you have the right contacts you can not
openly plot murder in the UK but make money out of it. Somehow or other
that is not terrorism.
The implications of the
Terrorism Act 2000 were still unfolding as the report was being written,
but it notes that organisations such a the Campaign Against Racism and
Fascism are warning that:
"the Act's provisions are
drawn so widely as to give police and prosecutors freedom to arrest most
people who are involved in any way in refugee communities' activities or
in solidarity work". Anyone in the UK writing an article or speaking in
support of Kurdish self-determination could be construed as supporting
a proscribed organisation. A meeting in any public venue which is "in support
of asylum rights (but) which is addressed by a member of one of the organisations"
which has been proscribed (e.g. The PKK) "could land the organisers in
How can democratic opposition
be said to exist here? With the recent World Trade Centre bombings and
Tony Blair's increased commitment to assist the US government in its war'
against 'global terrorism'--and the enactment of ever more intrusive 'fast-tracked'
anti-terrorism laws--it seems even more likely that Kurdish refugee--and
other--communities in the UK will feel the unaccountable wrath of Europol,
MI5 and Special Branch. These organisations are clearly (as the report
argues) being increasingly 'tasked' to 'target' and obtain quick populist
results against proscribed 'global terrorist' organisations.
The situation in Germany
is in some ways more advanced in the criminalisation of Kurdish Asylum
Seekers and Refugee Communities. Here mainstream politicians adopted the
rhetoric of the far-right and incited an atmosphere of racial hatred. A
special investigator for the European Parliament's Commission of Inquiry
on Racism and Xenophobia states that it legitimised their views and gave
neo-Nazis the green light to step up their attacks:
"Eager to instrumentalise
the asylum question, the government of Helmut Kohl was deeply implicated
in the neo-fascist resurgence that occurred in Germany...Gunter Grass went
so far as to liken members of Kohl's cabinet to 'white collar skinheads'
who were even more dangerous than the ultra-right-wing street gangs. 'They
are nicely dressed with beautiful hair. They speak well. But they think
in the same way as the young kids who shave their heads and carry swastikas
We can compare this with
the situation now in the UK and make some predictions of a likely future.
We also saw a similar picture of active recruitment among the Italian police
of far-right activists in Genoa and their use--dressed as police--against
The criminalisation and
targeting is also a result of Turkish State's 'Psychological Warfare Operations',
which Fernandes has written about in Variant and elsewhere. In Germany
members of the Turkish Secret Service (MIT) were caught completely out
of control and behind arson attacks against Turkish-owned businesses in
Germany. The social chaos and destruction that is the cost of this collusion
and importation of Turkey's dirty war is having an increasingly destabilising
effect on UK society--it has destroyed civil society and freedom in Turkey.
"According to determinations
made by Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution
(BfV), an MIT employee working in Turkey's Consulate General in Stuttgart
stored a large quantity of gasoline in 20-litre containers, despite the
fact that his vehicle had a diesel engine. It is stated that this gasoline
was utilized in attacks against Turkish businesses. MIT then sought to"
unfairly target, criminalise and "blame the PKK" and its Kurdish refugee
supporters in Germany "for these arson attacks in order to tarnish the
public image of the Kurds. German intelligence officials (have) thus arrived
at the conclusion that 'Turkey was doing all in its power to ensure that
Germany would perceive the PKK as an enemy of the state'" and act accordingly
to target/criminalise/deport its refugee 'supporters' within the country."
Fernandes' report confirms
that there has been extensive targeting and criminalisation of Kurdish
asylum seekers and refugee communities in the UK and Germany over the past
two decades--all of which--deserves to be revealed, morally damned and opposed.
D A Pennebaker and Chris
At the Edinburgh Film Festival
in a special BAFTA presentation D. A. Pennebaker spoke recently of his
40 years experience in documentary film making. A pioneer of the 'Direct
Cinema' movement of the 50s, his first directorial triumph was Primary
(1960) which established him as a major figure in American film. In the
60s Pennebaker filmed a range of cultural figures: Bob Dylan in Don't
Look Back (1967), Hendrix, Joplin and others in Monterey Pop
(1969) and David Bowie in Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars:
The Movie. Pennebaker's projects have also included collaborations
with Jean-Luc Godard. A collaborative approach with his partner, Chris
Hegedus began with Town Bloody Hall (1977) which captured Norman
Mailer vs. Germaine Greer in their notoriously flamboyant debate on Womans'
Liberation in New York. Other participants included Diana Trilling and
Susan Sontag. More recently they made the Oscar-nominated The War Room,
which followed Bill Clinton's campaign strategists during the 1992 election.
Another well-received documentary, Moon Over Broadway followed Carol
Burnett's stage comeback. They had two films at the festival, Startup.com
(which was co-directed by Hedegus and newcomer Jahane Noujaim) which followed
the boom and bust of a dot com venture, and Down From the Mountain
a concert film featuring music from the Coen brothers' film O Brother
Where Art Thou?
For further information their
web site is at: http://www.pennebakerhegedusfilms.com/index.html
The interview was introduced
by Nick Fraser, the Editor of BBC's Storyville who started by saying
that documentaries generally made him feel bad about life, but the great
thing about Pennebaker and Hegedus' work was that it made him feel good.
The first clip was Don't Look Back and Bob Dylan's lyrics on cards
sequence to 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' (yes that is Allen Ginsberg at
the edge of the frame).
Was this the first 'Rockumentary'
and pop video? The sequence was Dylan's idea--a rejoinder to the Beatles
singing the wrong lyrics on 'Ready-Steady-Go'. They sat up all night drawing
the cards and started shooting in a garden at 8 am. After being hassled
by a cop they ducked into a New York alleyway and did it in two takes.
With Don't look Back,
like taking a walk, Pennebaker has an agenda but doesn't have a structure.
His role wasn't to provide information about Dylan (he claims to be suspicious
of this approach) but simply to observe. He didn't want to ask questions
like 'why did you change your name?' or ask him to do anything again if
he missed it on camera--he doesn't want to put the pressure of filmmaking
onto the subject.
The second clip was Dylan's
argument with the hack from Time magazine. Fraser asked why they didn't
interview their subjects or have a commentary? Chris Hegedus answered that
she doesn't have rules but what interests her is the excitement of being
dropped in someone else's world. They want a relationship where they hang
in the background and watch rather than interview. Fraser asked whether
the term 'Direct Cinema' meant anything to them now? Pennebaker said that
firstly, their films are 'movies'. They want people to watch documentaries
the same way they go to watch feature films, and believe the word documentary
sometimes has connotations of an attached agenda.
Clip three was from 'Town
Bloody Hall' (72 - 79) recording an event billed as the "last event of
the 1960s in the theatre of ideas" and centring on a debate on feminism.
For Pennebaker: 'the most ineptly shot film I've ever seen'. He didn't
want to make a comedy film about a serious issue but the footage seemed
filled with jokes and rude words. At this point Hegedus approached him
as he struggled with the footage--she came in and saved it. Hegedus spoke
of how Life magazine in the 60s had elevated the status of photography
and was attempting to do the same with film. Through Life she became aware
of Pennebaker and Albert and David Maysles work dealing with real subjects
(Kennedy, Fonda and so on) and became inspired. So, aware of Pennebaker's
documentary on Feminism she asked him for a job as his editor, adding:
"The women's movement meant a lot to me but the event was hilarious and
there was an incredible electricity between Germaine Greer and Norman Mailer.
Working on the project it felt in a sense like putting a cap on the 60s."
Since then they have continued
to work together. Hegedus said the bonus is that shooting on a long project
can be lonely, sometimes subjects don't want you there so working with
a partner is a bonus. She joked though that in the editing room they "get
divorced at least once". "Usually Penne gives in" met with "normally she's
wrong..." which was followed by another clip of Germaine and Norman.
Their work isn't broadly
funded, so Fraser asked them how they kept going as independent film makers.
Pennebaker joked that they stay alive because of dead rock stars, as he
retained the rights to footage of early stuff like 'Monterey Pop'.
They like to release the
films in cinema theatres because it's the only way to get a critical response,
interest grows through word of mouth and the film has a chance to build.
By contrast on TV the films play once and are gone, they tend to get lost
within the ratings-led ethos. US TV stations don't normally want their
films anyway, they weren't interested in 'The War Room'. With 'Start.up.com'
they took a risk and started without any backing--half way through they
made a short pilot version and showed it to Nick Fraser who commissioned
it for the BBC. Pennebaker added that he'd made films for CBS in the past
but ended up keeping them. They didn't want what he turned out.
The next clip was 'The War
Room' which followed Clinton's presidential campaign, showing the unexpected
Jennifer Flowers' confession of a long term relationship during the campaign.
How did they get such intimate access? Hegedus started by saying "Films
come in the door like little cold cats that come in out the rain."
A couple of guys came to
see them and said 'don't you think the election is so strange that somebody
should make a film about it?' Pennebaker and Hegedus said they were interested
but didn't have an entree to the Whitehouse. The two people came back with
money and the necessary introductions. Beginning the project they wondered
if it would be a good idea. Would the campaign team be candid on camera?
Would they say 'shit'? In a meeting with James Carvell (Clinton's spin
doctor), he blew a chewing gum bubble until it exploded all over his face--that
swung it for them.
A clip from 'The War Room'
met with the response that the film wouldn't have had the same impact if
it had been about a losing campaign team: again, they took a risk in the
subject matter. It paid off--the people the documentary caught showed a
fired-up energy, youthful enthusiasm and the determination to get the Republicans
out. For them Clinton was a dream candidate: very charismatic, incredible
memory, knew every issue, smart, energetic.
The next clip was from 'Moon
Over Broadway'. This followed Carol Burnett's return to the Broadway stage.
Nick Fraser observed that this was not a bad ploy to start with. Their
producer for the project had links with top Broadway producers and got
a list of what everyone was working on. Burnett's name and the notion of
a play with behind the scenes aspects was the draw. The problem was the
expense and technical difficulty in getting access to a Broadway show and
a large number of actors for a long period of time. After discussions with
the unions they got a two week trial on set and managed to establish a
strong enough relationship to enable the film to go ahead.
Speaking on their latest
film 'Startup.com' in which Pennebaker took a producer's role, Hegedus
said she got into the idea because of the way the net was changing people's
lives. She read about a place called 'Silicon Alley' in New York: kids
in their 20s were starting companies with three page ideas and they'd get
funding and make their fortunes. Again fate played a part and a cat came
in from the cold: her co-director Jahane Noujaim came to them and suggested
that they make a film about her friends Kaleil Tuzman and Tom Herman, best
friends since childhood who were about to start up a dot com venture. So
they had started with the notion of an optimistic adventure where they
would all become millionaires. Then the market turned. The first clip showed
the founder member of the company, Kaleil sacking his best friend, Tom
as their venture began to go horribly wrong.
Asked if she ever felt uncomfortable
filming such events, Hedegus stated that there are always things you can't
film; "it's like a dance, we get to know each other, what the limits are.
We suggested let us film but if you're not happy we won't use it." It was
a gift from the subjects to let them keep filming because of the trust
they had built up shooting 400 hours of footage. She is aware that their
films become viewed differently with the perspective of history. They began
making 'Startup' in a boom time, now everyone knows nearly 99% of dot com
companies have failed. Audiences view the film with the expectancy of failure,
but that wasn't the idea when they started. Hegedus stressed they do not
set out to portray people in a bad light, they only make films about people
they like and so it is sometimes tough when things go wrong. On Moon over
Broadway, "watching playwrights getting bad reviews was difficult".
Were their films intrusive?
Pennebaker said it might be intrusive to film someone making love but in
most of the situations they filmed he felt the idea of a camera being there
was not outrageous. One question was about 'releases' how did they get
clearance for all the people that feature incidentally in their films?
"Fake them!" came the reply. Pennebaker claimed they have only ever got
one in all their years as film-makers--a Liverpudlian Dylan Fan when making
'Don't Look Back'.
'Startup' was completely
shot on DV video cameras. Hegedus said they had become 'wedded to DV',
particularly the Sony VX1000 model with the flip out screen. Prior to this
they had mainly worked on film, but Pennebaker agreed that working with
DV had been a fantastic advantage to their kind of film-making--lightweight
cameras being less intrusive and tape stock being so much cheaper than
film. In the past, a major problem had been that transferring from video
to film for theatrical release had never looked good, but now telecine
technology was so much improved he has finally become an advocate of DV.
Was there any story they
started and couldn't finish? Yes, said Pennebaker--Janis Joplin. He found
her scary and just couldn't deal with the drugs. He wanted to avoid the
issue yet with her it was unavoidable. "Who was to say she didn't need
it? In making a documentary you don't want to be romantic or judgmental
about drugs...I ran away."
like yoga ...we like speed"
Paul McCarthy interviewed
Graham Ramsay & John
US artist Paul McCarthy
was taking a break from the final adjustments to the installation of his
first major retrospective show in the UK, at the Tate Liverpool. We joined
him for a drink, along with Tracey Ruddell from the Press Office.
Graham Ramsay/John Beagles:
How do you feel about the way your work is written about, specifically
in terms of [Julia] Kristeva, 'the abject' and that whole psychoanalytical
take on it? It sometimes feels like a way for the writers to make your
work intellectually respectable to themselves.
Paul McCarthy: It kind of
goes both ways, there are people who just dismiss the work and just talk
about it as being abject and not trying to analyse it, but just being dismissive.
Then there are writers who are more analytical about it. I'm into it both
ways because that's kind of how it's made. I'm not trying to make it psychoanalytical
but then at the same time...
GR/JB: We were reading a
non-too-flattering article about your work by Donald Kuspit in which he
accused you and Mike Kelley of lacking critical distance. Over the last
ten years there have been a lot of artists who have also been accused of
this. Artists who have wanted to have some critical purchase but at the
same time have stressed their own entanglement and immersion within their
PM: I remember that Donald
Kuspit article and I was kind of into it, I was thinking this is pretty
GR/JB: He was giving you
a telling off. (Wags finger)
PM: Yeah, he was saying
"You're full of shit", but that's pretty interesting. I kind of like that
article (laughs) but I was shocked that he wrote that much, and felt that
he had to somehow put it in its place. But for me he just confirmed everything
he said the work was not.
GR/JB: I get the impression
it was written pretty quickly, with forceful typing and a certain amount
PM: Yeah, like he saw the
show, ran home and was really pissed. "I gotta stop this now! They've gone
too far! They're making too much money!" (Laughs)
GR/JB: Can you speak about
the way you use your performances, and yourself, within your work and how
that's changed from the 70s to the present day?
PM: Well, there was a period
in the 70s when there were pieces about duration, repetition, task and
all those kind of words that were used at that time. Those works were made
in a room by myself. I was into repetition and this sort of obsessional
stuff. In 72 I made a tape, "Ma Belle", in which I make this laugh and
there is this persona. It's not like I was making these repetitive, minimal
pieces until 78 and then switched over to these more theatrical works with
personae or fractured narratives of some sort. It was much more a case
of these concerns overlapping. I had made narrative films in the 60s which
dealt with personae, an established character of some sort and costumes.
GR/JB: Did those films involve
just you, or actors as well?
PM: Me, and an actor friend
who I was hanging out with at the time. One film featured two friends,
a couple, in an apartment building and they are in this room carrying on
with their daily life but they're nude. The camera is always floating past
them; the camera is always moving and panning across them. Then I made
one where this woman puts on makeup, and I made another where this guy
is a chicken. They're kind of stupid but a lot of the films are lost. At
the time I was making this work with the camera moving I didn't think I
was doing anything but making a film, but there was something weird about
how I kept moving the camera. I don't think it was by accident. It had
to do with architecture and the camera kept switching to a window or a
GR/JB: It sounds similar
to "Bossy Burger", where the action is viewed from several positions and
you often only get a glimpse of what's going on.
PM: Yeah, and I don't know
if I'm reading something into it but I'm thinking about how I might film
something now. At one point I'd seen a Dennis Oppenheim piece in the early
70s, which I really liked, where a conveyor belt is put right through a
wall. The idea was you put a penny on one side and the conveyor took it
through and dropped it on the other side. For me, it was this thing about
passing through the wall, going through the wall, and I liked the way this
conveyor belt interacted with the architecture. You never fucking see that
piece anywhere. I made this piece where two cameras began by looking at
two windows next to each other and then the cameras begin to move like
this (circular motions). They follow lines on the floor, and the lines
are marked at points where single frames are to be shot. Then the two films
would be shown at the same time on two screens next to one another like
two eyeballs. It begins like the head moving but the eyes go in different
directions, click, and they go straight through walls, click, next shots
on the other side. It's as if the architecture has no substance, its just
perceptual. These ideas of moving cameras, and cameras being eyes, was
something I was really interested in, and so the camera is also the performer.
That body of work has never really been seen much, even in this show, whose
total logic is that it's someone else's curating, but it's also about the
limits of the gallery space.
GR/JB: How much input did
you have in the selection of works for this particular show, or when it
was in LA and New York?
PM: Lisa Philips and Dan
Cameron at the New Museum, New York did the initial curating. It was a
kind of collaboration in that they had a list which had to do with their
perception of my work, and it sort of passed through me, and then I was
asked what I felt about it. There are pieces that I would have liked to
have been included but part of that is the physical constraints involved,
and the expense of moving them around. The show here stops with the "Santa
GR/JB: Have you any ambitions
to maybe work in different spaces, such as commercial television or film?
PM: The thing about film
GR/JB: And the people who
run the business.
PM: Yeah, the film world
is run by people who make decisions based on money, and who want to see
a script. I don't work with a script and so the idea of making a million-dollar
film is pretty impossible for me.
GR/JB: What about a lower
PM: Well that's really feasible.
I've already shot in 35mm, 16mm, Betacam, and it's part of what I'm doing
now in a film project with my son. And you know there have been a couple
of times when I almost made rock videos. I was interested in it. I would
get these letters, "We want you to do something wild!", and so I'd tell
them my ideas andjust never hear from them again. (Laughs)
GR/JB: Which bands got in
touch with you?
PM: I don't recall the name
but someone told me they're really big? (Laughs)
GR/JB: Rage Against The
PM: I would have done that
in a second. I really like 'em. Now I remember the others, it was Suicidal
Tendencies, and also The Butthole Surfers. I was gonna do it and I was
really into it but they backed down, or somebody backed down. (Laughs)
You never know who's backing down, right? There are so many managers, agents
and these people in between who are trying to sell an idea so you don't
know whether it's the band you're dealing with or what. It's been going
on about once a year for the last five years and I always say, "Yeah, I'll
do it", and nothing ever happens!
GR/JB: Do you have a few
ongoing collaborations, such as those with Mike Kelley?
PM: I've collaborated with
a number of people over the years, and with Mike it is definitely ongoing.
In a peculiar way we're working on a piece right now, we've talked about
certain ideas and next year well start work on this thing we've been thinking
about for a while.
GR/JB: It's a good way to
work, and it's good fun.
PM: Yeah, and it's never
really like we say, "Its time to collaborate". I mean, with "Heidi" or
"Fresh Acconci", for instance, we were just talking on the phone and the
idea just happened in a conversation. This new one has been in the works
for some time, just developing in our heads.
GR/JB: Did you find that
it changed the nature of your work when you became a father?
PM: I think it did. I made
pieces about fatherhood, or something. (Laughs)
GR/JB: I guess when you've
gone through the birthing experience, and then all the shitting and puking,
you can look at your art and think that's not so extreme after all. Maybe
I can push this a little further. This is nothing.
PM: (Laughs) In the 80s
my two were real young kids, and so you have to take care of them and change
the art production thing.
GR/JB: It's a balancing
PM: Yeah, and it takes care
of the money real good too! (Laughs)
Tracey Ruddell: Are you
going to do a new performance of "Bossy Burger" here?
PM: I did it already. But
it's not really a performance because nobody saw it and there's no camera.
It's just a way of setting up. Each time I do it--nine or ten times now--it's
different, sometimes it takes four hours, sometimes an hour and a half.
Depending on the mood.
GR/JB: So you get locked
into the gallery alone to perform?
PM: I usually do it at night
when nobody is around. In the original there were about five bottles of
ketchup and some milk and stuff. Now there are about twenty-five different
ketchup bottles, all at a different stage of decay, and there are nine
bottles of turkey bones and eighty-nine cartons of milk. You look at the
floor and there are dark brown stains of ten-year-old ketchup and new stains.
GR/JB: It's a history of
ketchup ... it will start to stink after a while.
PM: Oh yeah, and a lot depends
on the kind of turkey bones I use. (Laughs) This one here is going to really
GR/JB: I was looking at
the "Pinocchio Pipenose Household dilemma" installation in the gallery,
and I was wondering about the times you made the audience wear Pinocchio
costumes when viewing the work and why that isn't happening for this show?
PM: When the videotape is
being shown separate from the set, you have to wear a costume to watch
it. There are ten costumes in all. When it was first shown in London viewers
put on a costume in one room and then entered the installation in another
but the videotape has never been shown on its own without the audience
wearing costumes. It's a pretty inconsistent strategy (laughs) but I think
it's interesting to watch the tape with the costume on. I like that.
GR/JB: It's a good strategy
to immerse the viewer in the artwork.
PM: Yeah, and its a weird
thing to watch it through these holes. But, you know; now I look at those
Pinocchio costumes and they didn't turn out the way I wanted them to. That
just has a lot to do with technically not being able to figure out how
to do it. I'm always amazed by people who can make such great looking pieces.
I sometimes feel a little fucking dumb. I had this idea that there would
be big plastic buttons, and the mask would be different, but it all turned
out to be kind of stupid. That's OK, because stupid can be good...(Laughter)
TR: What prompted your decision
to get into using materials like rubber and plastic?
PM: Well, I wanted to make
real solid rubber parts but I had a tough time figuring it out but there
was no excuse it was hardly a new technology ten years ago! Somehow I just
couldn't get it together. The "Spaghetti Man" has a new noodle, or penis,
which is silicon but I still have the original urethane noodle, which travels
with it. I like the rubber because it feels like the body although some
of the pieces, like "Alpine Man", are pretty crude, very thin latex. That
piece is the original "Tree Fucker" and its over twelve years old now.
It has to be constantly repaired and the machinery breaks down but I kind
of like it that way. It's dumb technology, like me trying to make Disney
in my garage.
GR/JB: But you're getting
more technically advanced recently.
PM: I made a rubber Michael
Jackson that weighs six tons and you can't move it. (Laughs)
GR/JB: How was your New
York show received?
PM: Well, pretty good but
I get this bad boy stuff all the time, you know, every time someone writes,
"Bad boy artist" or "Bad boy LA artist". Then it's "Old hippy bad boy LA
artist!" What the fuck! Some New York writers always want to point out
that somehow they are the Velvet Underground and LA is...
GR/JB: Jerry Garcia.
PM: Or, this is Donald Judd
and that's Larry Bell. You like yoga...
GR/JB: ...we like speed.
John Beagles and Graham
Ramsay are collaborative artists. www.beaglesramsay.co.uk
Tales from the Great
I remember him as Goosey.
Goosey Watt. His first name was Alan, but that doesn't matter when you're
wee. He used to cry a lot when we were first in the primary, and no-one
ever knew why. His hair was long, long and curly, and it was all over the
place. His nose was all squashed to the one side, like he was looking at
you through a wee window, and it had a funny-looking bit, like a strip
of pink skin down his lip from his nose to his mouth, and when he closed
his mouth it didn't shut right, like a bit was away and you could see white
tooth where there should have been lip.
Goosey always sat at the
desk right in front of the teacher, right from year one. He was always
there, on his own. Didn't matter what teacher it was, if it was Budgie
or Wally or Timpo or Barno, he was always there, and even in different
rooms, with different furniture and different light coming in the room,
there was Goosey, always at the front on his tod.
So, he was daft. That was
it. He was daft and he didn't know anything about sums or writing or singing
or anything else. Didn't matter what we were supposed to be doing, Goosey
couldn't do it right, so he'd get bored and start laughing at something
he was thinking about, or else starting doing mad drawings on his books
and that. His wee brother was in the next year down, and he was a right
handful, so Goosey was always getting called out by Headie to come and
see whatever it was that Vinny had done and try to calm him down and all
But Goosey was alright.
Like, when I say alright, I mean he never ever did anyone wrong that I
saw anyway. He was always getting in fights and that right enough, but
it was usually the other guys from his bit that would do him, and he always,
I mean always got a doing. He never ever won a fight, not even one. Not
even against me.
I never knew all Goosey's
mob, them from the scheme beside the school. They were a bad lot, that's
what the old dear said, you watch them boys from the scheme, that's what
she always said, almost every day. But Goosey was alright. He liked fish.
Tropical fish. He said his Granda had a tank of fish and knew loads about
them and had a stack of books and that, and if you ever got him during
a wet-playtime, Goosey would use the crayons and that to draw some of these
fish that he knew, and you could even check them with the book at the back
that had like pictures of actual fish and that, so his drawings were pretty
good I think, he knew what they were. Least, that's what I think, cos they
were never the same as the pictures in the book, and if he was at it you
would've known cos they would be the same shape and colours and all that.
Anyway, we got to the end
of the primary, that's maybe when we were twelve or something, or most
of us were twelve anyway, and it was all this stuff about how we were getting
sent up to the big school and we would have to be ready and all that. Our
teacher was old Barno. Mrs Barnes. We didn't know what she was on about,
but we already had all the horror stories anyway. We knew about the gauntlet
and the grog-pit and all the other stuff. Just about everyone had a big
brother or sister already in the place, so we already knew all the names,
all the danger.
So it came to the last day
of primary seven. We could take games in cos there was no classes, we just
had to go in the morning and it would be a prizegiving and then we could
play games and that, games that we brought in, and it was no uniforms either,
you could wear your best gear and that.
Primary seven had like a
greenhouse, or that's what we called it anyway. It wasn't a real greenhouse
such as you would call it, but a bit of the shelf at the window that had
like big polythene sheets down about it so we could put plants in there
for biology stuff, watching the plants grow and that. There was a big tomato
plant there and it was tiny when it started, but we all had shots of putting
water on it every morning, just before we got the milk, and it shot up
right enough. It was good getting your turn to give it the water cos everyone
would watch when you did it, and it was like a test to see if you could
pour the water right and not give it too much cos Barno would shout when
you did it too fast. You had to do the other things in there as well at
the same time, but I can't remember what they were, all wee cactuses and
geraniums and that.
So that was the last day
of primary, like the very last day of primary seven, then off to the big
school and all that, and the prizegiving happened, and that was your normal
like countdown from one all the way down, and Hammy was first, the best
of all, as normal, so he went up to get like a big giant book, like this
big encyclopaedia type of thing, and then it was Marty and he got this
wee set of history books in a box, and that looked a lot better than the
first prize anyway, then there was Jules and she got a token for the book-shop
in town for a fiver, and we all clapped and that, but we just really wanted
to get out the games. I had the Junior Scrabble with me, and it was split
new as well, but there was other folk had like Mouse Trap and Buckaroo
and stuff, so I wasn't that bothered about playing Scrabble, but we all
wanted the games anyway, so it was good when Barno said she was off to
meet the other teachers and she would be back in a wee while.
All of a sudden, she was
back again. Maybe it was getting late, I can't remember. Everybody had
kind of split into bunches playing the best games, but there was no bother,
we all just moved about the class, sitting places we'd never been before,
getting into whatever games were going. There was even some of the guys
were sitting with the lassies. There was games I never even knew before,
like Autocross and Hyperlink, but when Barno came in we all ran back to
our normal seats without having to be told.
Barno was smiling. She hardly
ever smiled. She looked different. Her eyes were different. She looked
the way my Dad looked when he came home late on Fridays. The same smile,
the same look. She said she would miss us all and she hoped we would do
well in the big school and not get in any trouble and be a credit to the
school and always remember where we came from and all that. Then she said
she had to present the special prize, and we were all kind of looking at
each other cos the prizegiving was already done and that, but she told
Hammy to take his pick of the tomatoes off the big plant on the shelf,
and Hammy went up a bit funny, not really knowing what to do, and she told
him again to pick the best tomato cos he was the top of the class and all
that, so we all watched him and he pulled away this big fat scarlet tomato
near the top of the bush. Then it was Marty, and he did the same, and he
picked like exactly the same tomato that anybody else would have picked,
like it was pure obvious to anyone what the first and second best would
be, then it was Jules and, well, I think she missed the next best one,
but she was dead fast and grabbed this thing and off she went, then it
was Pauline and Garbo and somebody else and then eventually it was me,
and the one I got was this pure sad effort that was more green than red,
and I knew I couldn't even eat the thing or do anything else with it, and
I was glad to get back to my seat.
By the time Goosey got up
to the plant there was nothing left but wee green pellets. Some of the
guys were having a laugh about it, but I think most of us were sort of
looking at each other, then at Barno. It was pretty dodgy. I didn't feel
right at all.
Goosey didn't even seem
that bothered. He took his time. He was just looking at this dozen or something
berries that was left. You couldn't pick a best out of that lot at all.
He was facing away from all of us. You could hear Barno breathing, and
she wasn't smiling any more. Then he did this wee mad dance, like shaking
his bum dead fast for a wee minute and waving his fingers like he was going
to do a magic trick, then he grabbed one wee green ball and yanked it off
the plant and ran back to his seat and we all clapped cos it was all over.
Barno went away again then,
and we went back to playing the games, then the bell went and we got our
stuff and left the place for the last time.
We were walking away from
the school, by the fence across from where our class was, and someone looked
back, and there was Barno standing at the window of our room, staring out
at us. Hammy and Marty and Gerso and Hingy, they were all there, and so
was Goosey. He was at the back, as usual. Someone said, should we wave
? should we wave cheerio ? and we all stopped and looked at her looking
at us through the window. She was dead still, dead sad looking, like she
really didn't want us to go. Then you could see her shape change dead fast
at something, and we all looked round and there was Goosey firing his pellet
of a tomato at her. The wee hard thing did hit the window, and Barno jerked
back and down. The noise of the thing hitting the window was dead loud,
and you could even see the glass wobble a bit but there was no smash.
Goosey ran like the clappers.
We all shouted after him, but he never stopped.
See ye's after the Summer.
That's what he shouted. But we never did.
under an illusion
Remember Cool Britannia?
Creative Britain? Under New Labour, Britain was rebranded as a creative
nation, a multi-cultural wonderland where the arts and business could flourish
in a partnership that was beneficial for all. After the dark days of Thatcher,
where fine art was the preserve of individual collectors such as Saatchi,
and John Major, who had no readily discernible arts policy, this seems
wonderful. After all, it cannot be a bad thing for an administration to
pay attention to cultural matters. Or can it?
Well, Labour have begun
their second term in power and surely now it's time that their cultural
policy really began to show itself. A first term government can be forgiven
for not being all we would like it to be, especially in Labour's case.
After eighteen years in opposition Labour saw its election as a delicate
balancing act between keeping its core constituency happy and not upsetting
Daily Mail readers. In all of the debates regarding this, few seem to have
mentioned that Labour's constituency includes not only stodgy NUM members,
but also creative, left-wing types. Dilettantes, if you like.
However, that said, Labour's
first term was for many a downright disappointment. The relationship between
art and the institutions which support it is a delicate balancing act which
has always been deeply related to the policy of the administration which
is in power. But the ideological management of art has deeper roots than
the fickle tastes of an elected government. Most cultural critics on the
left have long rejected the Ruskinian cultural analysis of 'art for art's
sake', most especially in its 1980s Thatcherite incarnation under Peter
'Modern Painters' Fuller.
Since the development of
Modernism the left-wing view of art has been traditionally divided into
two separate analyses, one favoured by the social democrats and Stalinists
and one by the others including Trotskyists. For social democrats realism
was the preferred art form as it most closely represented the means of
production--this was of course perverted into the grotesque fantasy world
of Socialist Realism under Zhandov in Stalinist Russia. The Trotskyite
position argued for the complete freedom of the artist as an individual
creator. As with so much in contemporary politics, these traditional positions
now seem to have declined almost beyond relevance.
For the Labour government
art is not so much a cultural product but a tool with which to combat 'social
exclusion'. This is seen most obviously in Labour's attempts to replace
moribund heavy industry with so called creative enterprises, but it is
also obvious in how the arts are expected to be major contributors to causes
such as urban regeneration. The concept of social exclusion is often mocked
by the remnants of the Labour left as a new term to define poverty, but
in reality it is an entirely new agenda. Rather than seeing deprivation
as an exclusively economic issue with social ramifications, it redefines
it as a purely social one and in doing so vastly widens the definition
of the problem and dilutes the possible solutions. Poverty is, in theory,
an easily solved problem--a strong economy, job creation and wealth redistribution
should be able to put an end to it. Social exclusion, on the other hand,
is a moving target and not a problem that will be solved by throwing around
wads of cash (very convenient for an administration unwilling either to
do so, or take the flak for not doing so), instead it is combated by a
whole raft of measures including the creation and promotion of community
groups, lessons in citizenship, promotion of culture as a vehicle for inclusion,
the further recreation of education as training, counselling and a seemingly
endless re-education process, sorry 'life-long learning'. Social exclusion
seems to me to be quite sinister as it shifts much of the focus from the
situation faced by an individual or community, directly on to them--it is
they who need to be re-skilled, re-educated and reconstructed.
A worthy cause nonetheless?
This article is not the vehicle for that discussion, but what it is interesting
to contemplate is whether this situation is really healthy for art and
culture. There are several issues involved and they deserve to be dealt
Firstly, inclusiveness is
not what great art is good at. The critic Robert Hughes pointed out that
art institutions in the United States have reacted to coming under fire
from radical critics by distancing themselves from the perception that
they are elitist institutions which are part and parcel of a white, patriarchal
culture. In order to do this they have reinvented themselves as places
which can equally promote art which is inclusive, open to ethnic minorities
and women and willing to blur the distinction between artist and viewer.
Few today would doubt that
the institutions of the past have been white and patriarchal, but their
response to changing times has had them lurching all over the place looking
for examples of more liberal friendly art, and in many cases instead of
looking hard enough to find it, they have simply elevated that which is
not great art. It simply doesn't matter if a great work of art was created
by a person from background a, b or c, either sex or any race. A great
work of art is great, a priori, it is supposed to have universal qualities.
Returning to Hughes: he
pointed out that radical critics have so far eroded qualitative judgement
that "the idea of 'quality'" is now considered the "enemy of justice...Quality,
the argument goes, is a plot. It is the result of a conspiracy of white
males to marginalise the work of other races and cultures." In these post-modern
times it is easy for qualitative judgement to be railroaded and condemned
as a tool of cultural domination, but the answer to problems of social
injustice does not lie in depreciating the value of the artworks of the
past simply because the societies which created them featured inequity.
For all of the wrongs of the Soviet Union and its horrendous cultural policy,
at least Lenin recognised, much to the distaste of the Procult (Proletarian
Culture) faction, that the culture of the past must be built upon, not
destroyed. The politically correct values of today's post-modern critics
suddenly do not seem very far removed from book burning.
As for the distinction between
artist and viewer, well it may not be popular to say it, especially in
today's world of interactivity, the internet, digital television and instant
gratification, but it is pertinent to do so--if we view a work of art, concentrate
on it, contemplate it, think about it, decide if we like it or not, then
this is all of the interaction which is needed. The idea of replacing a
Caravaggio with a flashy kiosk which tells us about the painting, the artist,
his life and allows us to 'move around it' in three dimensions (a la the
Van Gogh in a recent television advertisement for chip manufacturer Intel)
is horrifying--and you don't have to be a screaming reactionary like Brian
Sewell to think so.
Secondly, art can have a
useful place in regeneration, urban or rural, and I certainly do not want
to deny artists some municipal commissions. But is it really the answer
to socio-economic problems? More often than not, it seems that art is used
to give an area ear-marked for gentrification a quick boost, or as a sop
to those whose futures have become bleak in a nation with growing industrial
unemployment which is now becoming increasingly 'post-welfare socialism'.
To use art merely as a vehicle for problem solving degrades it, if it becomes
nothing more than a talking point or an education session or even a pretty
mural it begs the question, why should we pay it any more attention than
any of the other meaningless images which we are barraged with? Why even
ask ourselves if a work in question is great art or not?
Labour's policy can seem
to merely be an extension of the social democratic position of yesteryear,
certainly it has some clear continuities such as the patronage of those
least likely to come into contact with art. But the differences are more
striking than the similarities, the policy of the past patronised the masses
by trying to engender in them an interest in that which was often viewed
as too complex for them, today no one gives a hoot about exposing people
to big ideas. The focus has shifted from the work of art to the context
in which it is seen and if the art can be stripped of all meaning, all
the better. It is now seen as more important to fill peoples lives with
art, any art, than to offer them the opportunity to see works of creative
genius, and I use that word knowing how it has become the ultimate heresy.
Mark Thomas Interview
William Clark: Anger is uneasy
in performance. How does that work?
Mark Thomas: Well people
either leave or they stay.
WC: But the issues must
make you angry anyway, they must really make you angry.
MT: I've spoke to all these
fucking people some of whom took a risk to talk to me (Kurdish people).
One guy who was president of IHD in Diyarbakir, he was late because of
land mines exploding--it took two hours for the Security Forces to get there...the
delay was very likely the cause of the deaths of two young 16/17 year olds--and
he came back and we're sitting in this office and he started saying 'right
before you start to ask me any questions this is what's happening', and
he gave a little speech, which lasted about ten minutes, about what was
going on and what he was doing, how things had changed and were still bad,
what our responsibility was, what their's was: really laying out what you
must do to help. Now he'd said it so many times he was bored with it. He's
had lots of people come in and listen to him.
We bumped into him the next
night, he was coming round to the hotel because someone from the Foreign
Office wanted to have a meeting with him: he sees Human Rights delegations,
Civil Servants, NGOs, European Parliament...he's said all this stuff and
he was bored with it. And when you put those two things together--people
who take risks to come and talk to you and a man who's given the speech
so many times--I just thought I'm not going to be another fucking cunt that
just walks passed, do you know what I mean? I'm not going to be someone
who's peeked into someone else's misery and then just fucked off.
Those two things, are if
you like, the motor for what...there are different motors, do you understand
what I'm saying? The facts of what people told me are fucking hugely distressing,
hugely fucking emotional and our involvement, the British Government's
involvement, British companies' involvement, the West's involvement to
basically allow Turkey to get away with it is a huge shame. I think it
is quite right that people should feel angry about it. There's also the
feeling that when you're in that situation you can't do anything, you can't
say anything to the 'Golfers' [Thomas' term for the secret police/security
service heads], I can't say anything because if I do the people I'm with
are going to get it when I've left. I won't get it; they'll get it when
WC: You've been to South
East Turkey, I've been too, I think when you do experience it--it's under
Marshall Law--for yourself you realise that this is just different, you're
going to nearly be killed a few times.
MT: We're quite lucky in
a way that we've got political freedoms that we should be using...
WC: It's interesting that
you focused on their humour, Kurdish Humour, because you go through all
these things and you talk to them about all this stuff and they go 'oh
yeah right', because they've been shot at school. There's nothing you can
say, people just cannot understand how these people have been brought up.
MT: The humour is fucking...
WC: Did you go to Drama
MT: Yes. If you're saying
is it for real or do I act it? I'm not a psychologist I'm not sure how
it works out.
WC: No obviously it's a
performance, but the level of awareness of Kurdish issues is so low that
really your stuff is pitched really well, taking in aspects of prior knowledge.
As you say we should be more advanced and aware of the issues here but
MT: I'll tell you what it
is actually. It's a very fundamental thing, not just about compassion and
solidarity or care or love about fellow human beings and their basic genuine
human emotions, care and concern. But it's actually another fundamental
emotion: I refuse to be lied to.
WC: People are lovers of
MT: I REFUSE to have them...Columbia
for instance, what America is doing there in the name of this 'war on drugs'
and their support of terrorism there: I want to fucking know about this
because I want to challenge when Bush and the fucking news comes on and
when the government say this or that. I want to be able to say I'm not
going to be lied to--I want to know the facts. There's a fundamental thing
there which is not just about compassion for other human beings but also
a fucking anger that you're being shafted. Your money is being used for
those guns in the name of fucking God knows what.
WC: One can read things
and see things that make you look at TV and newspapers in a different way.
Surely that's part of your political education.
WC: From that it becomes
very difficult--people go on about 'The' media not really taking on the
complexities: some forms of censorship exist through laziness or whatever.
But the thing about the Ilisu dam is that it was such a potentially successful
MT: You see I think we're
still going to win, but as you saw tonight we're meeting up with the Fire
Brigade Union on Thursday.
WC: You're making all these
contacts as you go round. But what is this for you Mark is it your real
life? You've devoted your life to this because...?
MT: No I've spent three
years doing it.
WC: You say your doing 'it',
so this is it, you just want to go on with the Kurdish thing?--it seems
to be growing events are unfolding more and more.
MT: The point is I got involved
WC: Surely you met activists
and when you meet activists at that level its like stepping on a merry-go-round
where they don't let go of you, they've got you by the scruff of the neck
and they're going to squeeze you like a fucking lemon--and good on them.
MT: [Laughs] No no no its
not just that. I knew Nick Hildyard way before we started work on Ilisu.
Nick and I had done stuff together on the Export Credit Guarantee Dept.
We'd hooked up through various friends of friends: Kerim [Yildiz] I got
to know when we started to look at a campaign about Ilisu. The show was
done because I wanted to tell the story of what had happened. I hadn't
toured for five years--mainly because you see these fucking smoes coming
off the telly: they fucking churn it all out, they've finished their series
they do the big tour they do the fucking merchandising, they're at the
top and they've used up all their good material they're fucking tired.
WC: Your talking about you
MT: Yeah I'm talking about
my fellow fucking comics: you want to talk about milking it and squeezing
it? Fucking right man--they fucking do. They go after every fucking penny.
I genuinely don't give a fuck about that. I do stuff on telly I get well
paid, why should I be greedy about it? Why should I traipse round trying
to plaster over some fucking ranting old material that I've knocked up
in half an hour. And so the time came when it was just like I wanted to
tell these stories and I want to tell people what happened. I'm fucked
off with television cutting out all my fucking gags because it's 24 minutes
long. So I want people to see something that's different, that's real.
These are peoples' stories, these are people I know, they're my mates.
WC: You're talking about
the live act in distinction from the Channel Four programme. You don't
really feel you can do what you want...given that there are other restrictions?
MT: Occasionally there are
other restrictions in terms of censorship. Most notably when I was forbidden
from going to Iraq. They wouldn't back us because 'you can't get the insurance
for it', so the fucking company can't fucking film and they refused to
go 'let's do it anyway'. About three or four years ago we tried to get
out to Iraq to take out medicines then come back and be arrested. They
said you can't go, I said 'why' and they said 'because it's illegal'. I
said 'that's exactly the point I was trying to prove: that the law is immoral
and they won't actually act upon it, because they know that it's wrong
and if they arrest me for this they'll look stupid and they won't do it.'
They said 'yes, but you're talking about morals; we're talking about the
law'. I was really fucked off, I genuinely still don't know whether I should
have walked on this or not.
WC: What: pack in the whole
thing--what's the point in that?
MT: What's the point in
that? There's a very important point which is: do I do this stuff because
I want to do the things I do and because there is a valid fucking political
comment to be made and I want other people to see it and think 'fuck we
can do something'. Or, am I just fucking doing that because yeah I can't
believe in it but heh the fucking money's nice too. And actually how far
do you acquiesce and go along with them? There's a very important point
about me turning round and going 'may be I should have fucking walked'.
May be I just should have gone 'fuck you, that's your line.'
WC: Why didn't you do it
independently? Because it wouldn't have had the impact?
MT: That's the first point,
and because in the way these things work they have to be planned not just
to coincide with taking the most political advantage but also to coincide
with school holidays and children (laughter) and the boring mundane stuff
of just getting on with your life and making sure that...
WC: ...well you don't get
your head cut off...
MT: There's a matter of
not getting your head cut off but there's also the matter of making sure
that the kids have got the new shoes for school and all of those kinds
WC: The events at Balfour
Beatty's AGM was the focus of a lot of your performance...there was a sense
of enjoyment in your account which was very like the Boulting Brothers
and Ealing comedies--you know the class divide somehow comes together, it
seemed reminiscent of those...'I'm all right Jack' type old British comedy.
The class boss doing this and the shop floor revolting. It seemed a very
traditional view, the personas and the voices...?
MT: Yeah it is. I love Ealing
comedies. My favourite two films--one of them is Rear Window--but 'Kind Hearts
and Coronets' and 'Passports to Pimlico' they're just fucking brilliant.
WC: Even 'Whisky Galore',
parts of which were based on a Propaganda film. You know where they hide
the bottles of whisky--during the war there was this newsreel film of the
resistance hiding radios in kids prams from the Nazis, which it makes reference
MT : They actually filmed
Passport to Pimlico in Stockwell, which I'm really happy with--I love South
London. Stockwell's officially South London. I love those films I think
they're brilliant. When you look at Kind Hearts and Coronets what fucking
genius! "I wonder if you might say a few words in Matabeli for us...bougrrgh.'
WC: What are they to our
generation they're somehow accepted and rejected...?
MT: I don't subscribe to
that sort of Julie Burchill, Billy Connolly point of view that sort of
says there's people at the bottom and people at the top but it's the people
in the middle who fuck it all up. 'The upper class and the working class
have got something in common', we both like fucking and hunting.
WC: Is that Marxist--'the
bourgeois oppress the working class'?
MT: No I don't think so--if
you say teachers or journalists are they middle class? How would you define
class here, is it just income, would you say it's education or just culture.
I suppose it's all a mixture of those things. But ultimately the middle
class have just got as much to gain in some ways as working people have.
Different furniture, different food, posher fucking wine. Ultimately you've
got to take the view that you either get control of the elites that run
this world and make it work for our advantage or you don't.
WC: I think a lot of the
problems in trying to change things is that you encounter a lot of very
idiotic bureaucrats--if you want to use this term 'petite bourgeoisie' or
just 'petty'--who have no knowledge of what they're doing and have no real
compassion and enforce rules out of a sense of inadequacy. That I would
see as an obstacle.
MT: I think you're absolutely
right, it's an obstacle. I mean the amount of support--it's fucking weird--I
was in a 24 hour bagel bakery down at the East End, a beautiful old place.
We stopped after a gig to have our bagels and tea on the way home. This
bloke just comes up to me and he goes "I'm a bit pissed but I think you're
fucking marvellous and that's from an off-duty copper," and then staggers
out. OK where do I put him on the class enemy list...?
WC: There's human social
interaction and then there's an economic value on class and....
MT: Of course there is and
it's the same person who said that to me who's going to be running around
picket lines...I accept that but it's still a weird situation. Those divisions
are really...we have more in common than we think.
WC: Well, somehow or other,
when you talked about visiting the House of Lords, you're describing yourself
in terms of, well through your own ignorance, which I think is a great
literary or whatever device: the ignorant narrator, the reader engages
with it definitely. But part of that was your own class prejudices...
WC: It's like 'oh that's
a big house you've got here, I don't know if I should go in and get the
MT: (Laughs) Part of it
is just 'bollocks bollocks fuck 'em, I'm as good as them' and all that
sort of stuff.
WC: I'd like to tie that
up with your use of the word 'liberalism' quite a lot in quite a positive
sense. I've rarely heard it used in such as positive light: "I've reached
the edge of the liberal barrier," for the people I hang about with liberalism
is used pejoratively.
MT: I can sort of go down
that route...the whole thing about liberal consensus is taking the piss
out of whether its OK to say things or not: if I say we've reached the
end of liberal consensus...if I'm going to talk about Zionism I'm going
to talk about it...this is the bit where you lot all clam up and go 'oh
don't Mark' That's just a factual...
WC: There's an estimation
of the audience...
MT: Yes there is but its
not necessarily pejorative or dismissive or positive rather.
WC: But there must be--it's
a value judgement.
MT: It's a value judgement
about the audience. If you were to sum up that audience you'd say they're
basically kind of liberal.
WC: You had your kind of
persona of the audience with the wee Scottish guy taking notes--what was
all that about?
MT: I've no idea (laughter).
It's playful fun.
WC: But isn't it like the
showbiz thing of 'bring on the cake it Mark's birthday tonight!' I don't
know--what do I know about it...
MT: Look I made a gag about
Henry McLeish, I'm not going to make that gag down in Manchester because
they're not going to get it, it's as simple as that. I would rather engage
with people there and who they are and what they are and where they're
from and their points of reference...
WC: ...the assumption of
what they are.
MT: Yeah but I kind of figure
the audience might have a vested interest in McLeish and might know a little
bit about it...
WC: They seemed to have
to think about that one.
MT: No I think people went
with it quite well.
WC: What do you imagine
them to be...?
MT: You could describe them
as liberal, they're Trade Unionists, there are old Commies there, Marxists,
Crusties, Peace Camp Campaigners, Students all sorts of different people--but
you can broadly say they're not going to read the Daily Mail.
MT: Oh what the fuck do
you think it means? What do you fucking think it means? If they're going
to come and see the gig they're not going to sit there and say "that Mark
Thomas yeah, yeah, I'm a Daily Mail reader I have those values that actually
doubts the wisdom of immigration--at all--into this country and Mark Thomas
seems to epitomise those values."
WC: So it's back to the
notion of what prior knowledge you can assume.
MT: I assume that most people
don't know a huge amount about Kurdish issues and might know a little bit
about things like the Ilisu dam. I assume they have doubts about the way
government operates, and that's probably about it. Look I'll be fucking
honest with you: do you think I can go out there and just go 'what will
the audience want? I will do a show that the audience want...' Do I go
out there and go 'will I do the show that I think they want me to do?'
No, I can't do that. Just out of interest: when was the last time you saw
a stand up do anything like that?
MT: It's not that fucking
easy. It's not about what do people think, where are they? It's about going
'these are the stories this is what happened'. It's about having as much
fun as you can with those things. But letting through the whole thing--not
just in terms of information but on an emotional level as well. I don't
think we can change the World with statistics.
Succeeds as Balfour Beatty withdraws from ILISU!
On 13 November, Balfour Beatty,
the lead contractor for the Ilisu Dam, announced its withdrawal from the
project on social, environmental and economic grounds. Its Italian partner,
Impregilo, has also withdrawn.
After one and a half years
of very active campaigning we have finally prevailed in getting the UK
out of the Ilisu dam project. We used many tactics, including the credible
threat of legal action, press coverage, political work, grassroots letter
writing, demonstrations, public meetings, coalition building, international
networking and shareholder activism. It really did work and much of the
credit must go to you, the supporters. It was your active support that
built the groundswell of public furore around this project, helping to
make Ilisu so controversial that even a huge multinational like Balfour
Beatty had to listen.
So first, we wanted to say
a huge THANK YOU to you all for your support. And also to let you know
what's happening, and how we need your help in the future.
The news had been greeted
with jubilation by campaigners and by those whose homes, lands and livelihoods
were threatened by the dam. Speaking from Batman, a town which would be
impacted by the dam, Mayor Abdullah Akin said that, "The people are celebrating."
Executive Director of the
Kurdish Human Rights Project and Chair of the Ilisu Dam Campaign, Kerim
Yildiz, expressed his delight at the news: "Balfour Beatty's withdrawal
has vindicated what we at the Campaign have been saying all along: that
the Ilisu dam would be a human rights, environmental and cultural disaster.
This Campaign, strengthened by the unity of human rights and environmental
groups working together, has helped to establish a precedent in sending
a clear message to governments and companies that projects like Ilisu are
simply not acceptable. This Campaign not only stopped the Ilisu dam but
has also helped to establish the beginnings of a democratic platform in
Turkey where people can discuss possible alternatives to disastrous projects
Balfour Beatty had applied
for export credit support from the UK Export Credit Guarantee Department
(ECGD) and from the US Ex-Im Bank. With the company's withdrawal, both
agencies have now ceased to be involved in the project. The company admits
that the project failed to meet the conditions laid down by the agencies
for export credit support--which is what we have argued all along.
We will be continuing to
monitor the project closely, although the chances are that Ilisu has now
effectively been stopped due to the consortium's collapse. Sulzer Hydro,
the company which heads the dam consortium, has said that it is looking
for a partner to replace Balfour Beatty. However, a well placed Turkish
source told Channel 4 news, "Other European firms won't be interested now
and the Ilisu project may not go ahead." We will continue to work with
international colleagues to ensure that other companies do not become involved--to
ensure that Ilisu is once and for all truly stopped.
We are now calling for the
lessons of Ilisu to be learned. We want ECGD and other export credit agencies
to adopt legally binding human rights, environment and development standards--so
that other "Ilisus" cannot happen in future. To this end, the coalition
that founded the Ilisu Dam Campaign--the Kurdish Human Rights Project, Friends
of the Earth, The Cornerhouse and Mark Thomas--is going to be campaigning
on other projects in the region. One, the Yusefeli dam, would be built
by UK firm AMEC and partly financed with a £68 million ECGD credit.
Another, the BP-promoted Baku-Ceyhan oil and gas pipeline, will cut through
the Kurdish regions of Turkey, raising human rights and environmental concerns.
We would love to have your
continued support for our proposed work on these campaigns. With your help
we could capitalise on the victory we have achieved with Ilisu.
Importance of Appearing Earnest
Out of the Bubble:
Approaches to 'Contextual Practice' within Fine Art Education
Edited by John Carson
& Susannah Silver, The London Institute, 2000.
Two years ago I graduated
from a fine art degree course. Having grown increasingly interested in
'Socially Engaged Art Practice' I began a postgraduate course: 'Art and
Design in Organisational Contexts', which I did not complete, having never
really got to grips with what the course could or could not accommodate.
It had no handbook as such at that time. What initially appeared as a freedom
soon proved to be a confusing lack of parameters within the broader institutional
The course was known--although
not exclusively--for accommodating the work of artists working with community
and disability groups. With a change of Head of Department, it was a year
away from its five-year evaluation review whereby it would continue or
fold. In this very particular climate, the course offered to accommodate
everyone from this broad field of practice. It was particularly interested
in the idea of 'practice as research', as encouraged by changes in Higher
Education funding. It appeared as though the resultant year group was split
in two. The tuition fee payers coming from 'traditional' community arts
backgrounds while bursary places were awarded to people who, I believe,
it was hoped would produce work which would fall into the increasingly
fashionable, apparently new, field of 'Contextual Practice'.
In many ways 'Contextual
Practice' could be viewed as any arts practice that is concerned with how
an artwork is received, the relevance of the audience, the importance of
how and where the work is made and the value of the experience to people
involved in the process of making the artwork.
Within the course there
was an interest in appearing to accommodate the diversities of 'Contextual
Practice', however, neither of the core teaching staff were what might
be termed Contextual Practitioners within the fields of Art & Design.
I also felt that there was an encouraged division between students who
felt that some 'Contextual Practice' wasn't critical enough of itself,
i.e. work with groups which was akin to 'baby-sitting with paints', and
some practice that was too 'highbrow' and was of little benefit to the
group the artist was engaging with. My time on the course was frustrating
and confusing. I hoped that 'Out of the Bubble' might clarify in some way
my own arts education experiences.
"The 'Out of the Bubble'
conference and this publication of its presentation have a two fold aim:
to highlight the diversities of 'Contextual Practice' in art and design
[education] and to provide a forum for discussion as to its definition."1
'Out of the Bubble' presents
the work of contemporary contextual practitioners, those in a position
to commission, facilitate or present such practice and those writing about
the field who are influential in its definition. The book is structured
like a zoom shot pulling out from the artists working in their particular
context, finally to the 'academics' writing about 'Contextual Practice'.
The book is split into three separate sections: Tactics is devoted
to contextual practitioners, artists and their practices, describing projects
and their working methods. Manoeuvres is a collection of presentations
largely by curators and/or administrators. Strategies is written
by researchers, a programme co-ordinator of a fine art contextual practices
course, and an art critic/curator/educationalist.
What exactly is 'Contextual
Practice'? Does it relate to 'Community Art'? How does it relate to 'Community
Art'? Is 'Contextual Practice' an evolved form of 'Community Art'? Is it
a separate, more critically aware development that now replaces defunct
'Community Art'? Does 'Community Art' still exist as a separate defined
practice within 'Contextual Practice'? Does 'Contextual' mean 'good' while
'Community' means bad?
The term 'Contextual Practice'
appears to be a US import defined by artists and educators Carol Becker
and Suzanne Lacy, amongst others. Problems arise when trying to realise
the relationship between 'Contextual Practice' and community orientated
practices developed in the UK. 'Community Art' appears as an ancestor to
the diverse practices that have evolved from this initial interest and
could be encapsulated now as one specialism beneath this new umbrella term
of 'Contextual Practices'; also beneath this term could be included, Socially
Engaged Art Practice and Environmental Art Practice.
In many ways 'Contextual
Practice' is not so radically different from earlier UK notions--such as
those defined by the Artist Placement Group. But while UK community arts
practice seems to have developed a very particular, institutionalised image--often
synonymous in high art circles with bad art--'Contextual Practice' has a
brighter contemporary image. But are the two practices really so different?
Take for example the work
of the artist Alison Marchant documented in the chapter 'Living Room'.
The project ran for four years from 1994 until 1998. It is described as
a "conceptual intervention with residents of the Holly Street Estate in
Hackney, East London"2. Marchant describes the situation in
which she works--a deprived housing estate undergoing a period of re-development.
This scenario does not sound vastly different from the contexts that community
art practice engaged with in the 1970s, yet what is very different is the
language and manner in which the artist talks of the situation.
The image of 'Contextual
Practice' has developed radically since the dowdy AN 'Art with People'3
days, it is presented as no longer the politically hopeful community art
of the 70s, idealistically engaging with residents of deprived housing
estates. Marchant talks of being 'commissioned' by an arts agency to work
in this situation. Work that is undertaken within this context today is
done so under new terminology such as 'Social Inclusion', 'regeneration'
and 'active citizenship'. What began as idealism within politically aware
groups of artists has been appropriated and distorted into the art-speak
of government, local authorities, arts bureaucracies and private commissioning
The motto 'Art changes lives'
is to be taken as given and acceptable in the hands of arts and health
administrators, whether artists believe it or not.
"The arts improve well being"4
"The arts increase self
"The arts encourage recognition
of differences and similarities"6
"The arts help self-expression
"The arts break down barriers"8
"The arts strengthen communities"9
While I am not denying that
these may be possible outcomes of 'Contextual Practice' arts projects in
some instances, I don't believe that they are by any means a given. If
artists are the people who facilitate these miracles, wouldn't we all want
to live in the company of artists, perhaps with 'Heal the World' playing
gently and continuously in the background?
What is worrying about the
new sexy image that 'Out of the Bubble' is trying to project onto 'Contextual
Practice' is this given: that 'Contextual Practice' is a priori a common
good. Marchant's documented work 'Living Room' appears to bear some similarities
with projects of the 70s, but is in contrast deeply de-politicised, but
that is not to romanticise the political aspirations of projects of the
Are artists being asked
to provide tokens of imagined community? Is it possible to have a critical,
politically aware practice that also operates within heavily policed boundaries?
Although artists' intentions
may be sincere their presence and work may effectively be a sticking plaster,
validating the status quo, and in certain situations may be an effective
diversion away from actual positive social change. If artists are involved
in freeing the voices of others, why have we never seen a community project
called 'Being Poor is Shite'; and is it just as likely to be sponsored
There is a preference amongst
many artists and arts professionals to remain nostalgic about poverty and
maintain the apparition of benevolently alleviating the depression of poverty
through art projects. Just look at the front cover of 'Changing Places:
The Arts in Scotland's Urban Areas'10 for an example of a suitably
temporarily alleviated person, brimming eyes gazing upwards, broad smile.
The image of 'Contextual
Practice' is growing fashionable as a means of laying claim to an actual
act of social inclusion or real engagement. Consult, communicate and collaborate
could be the keywords of such practice. The artist Edwina fitzPatrick in
her chapter 'Exploring Fear and Liberation' asks questions which make 'Contextual
Practice' dynamic as a field and is open about perceived failures of some
of her projects:
"Issues were inevitably raised
about the ethics of an artist working in collaboration with other people,
especially about how the work is authored and presented. Taking the implications
of this practice to its furthest limit suggested the artist may be using
or manipulating human beings as raw materials."11
"Instead of being in place
for the full two weeks, the [ice] keys had to be re-cast every thirty-six
hours. This, in hindsight, was appropriate and added another layer of meaning
to the work. However, it created disappointment as I had not delivered
what I had promised."12
Whilst reading 'Out of the
Bubble' I became aware of a project by Glasgow based arts organisation
Heisenberg who specialise in Community based projects. In August they launched
their project the 'Gorbals Artworks Masterplan' at the Lighthouse Design
Museum, Glasgow. The exhibition consisted of "a series of documentary artworks
relating to The Gorbal's community and the former development in Queen
Elizabeth Square with preliminary thoughts from artists participating in
the Artworks Masterplan."13 Heisenberg were commissioned by
the Developers to "deliver a unique artworks programme...that will enable
both the existing and displaced communities of The Gorbals to engage with
the fast-moving development of their environment."14
Evidence of Heisenberg's
'consultation' with the residents of the Gorbals existed in the form of
video footage of interviews with locals. The footage was played back on
an old bashed up TV as part of the exhibition. Within the context of the
Lighthouse and the minimal nature of the exhibition that this was part
of, it was a very definite statement. The Heisenberg interviews were faux-consultation,
and they were not sensitive to the people interviewed (there is a general
feeling within the Gorbals that the re-development will push out local
residents as house prices and rents rise), nor was it sensitive in the
manner or the place in which it was presented. Heisenberg have attempted
to secure the outward consultative appearance of 'Contextual Practice'
whilst ignoring genuine considerations of such practice, i.e. are people
aware of the implication of their involvement in the work, etc.
The reality of critical
'Contextual Practice' is that it is hard work; it involves constant questioning
of motivation and methodology, and also constant communication with the
group or situation that the artist(s) is working with. It also demands
compromise, yet compromise does not sit easily with the general individualistic
model of the artist or of authorship.
'Out of the Bubble' claims
that 'Contextual Practice' is critical of how art is taught. Many contributors
to the book mention the perceived model of the artist within art education:
"Teaching institutions are
still struggling with hide-bound values based on an early nineteenth century
model that associates the artist with prophetic genius, alienation, madness
and martyrdom for the cause of art. Certainly students seem to think so,
but where do they get it from?"15
Perhaps the students, 'get
it from', the very lack of contextual practitioners and the very structures
of tutoring within those art schools. Charles Harrison writing in Studio
International in 1972 was critical of the situation then:
"I suspect that the situation
outlined (the much-vaunted teaching system of group criticism of work and
'tough' exposure of the individual to and by the group)--like so many established
in so many art schools--merely provides for success in its own terms and
within its own limited context. Once armed with his [sic] diploma, or at
the termination of his postgraduate course, the typical fine-art student
is cast adrift in a world for which his studies have in no way prepared
How much has changed in thirty
years of fine art education? The following quote was published in 1999:
"What makes the artistic
identity so tricky to negotiate is the widely held view (shared and promoted
by many in the artistic community itself and latently supported by the
dominant models of art education), that modern art necessarily exists at
a distance from all other practices."17
The very term 'Contextual
Practice' could lead to one pre-supposing that fine art practice exists
which is non-context based. Perhaps it would be more fruitful to look at
all artistic practice as contextual as Jane Calow18 makes suggestion
of. This might then enable a questioning of the methodologies, of the very
acts of engagement, of the socio-economic relationships inherent in artistic
practices. Yet still the paradigms of gallery and studio are taught as
mainstream, while courses such as public art, environmental art, or artists
in education are treated as peripheral.
The old term 'community
art' had for a long time been equated as 'bad art' within fine art circles,
an antithesis to an individualistic, professional arts practice. In parallel
to the adage "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" my experience
within art school and the idea generally held amongst students was, "those
who can, practice fine art; those who can't, practice community art'.
The reality of such an attitude
was--is--that those attempting to pursue a career as gallery artists are
more often pursuing practices that are split hierarchically. Arts workshops
and sessional work are treated as a way to make ends meet, an acceptable
yet annoying interruption to the real task of a 'professional' studio based
practice. My experience is that 'bad' or rather inadequate contextual/community
art continues to be perpetuated as a direct result of this motivation,
with artists being involved in a miseducation about their own work and
role, and the responsibilities attached to it. This is something which
the education system has to take a large proportion of the responsibility
for. It is also evident that where artists are acutely aware of these discrepancies
they are not making the effort to challenge uninformed arts administration
as it's easier just to do the job and take the money than it is to challenge
deficient ideas of what might constitute effective, relevant collaborative
'Out of the Bubble' makes
few inroads into suggesting how Fine Art education may go about addressing
its failure to equip art students with relevant training and expectations
for a meaningful working practice. Nor does the book seek to ask who benefits
from out-moded models of the artist being kept in place at art schools
or who will benefit from an expansion of the higher education sector as
'Contextual Practice' is offered as another choice on the curriculum. 'Out
of the Bubble' does present the reader with a varied selection of practices
but overall it fails to deliver in terms of discussing how art schools
may begin to educate towards politically, socially and contextually aware
1 Out of the Bubble: Approaches
to 'Contextual Practice' within Fine Art Education, Ed. John Carson &
Susannah Silver, The London Institute, 2000, p114.
2 ibid, p38.
3 Art with People, Ed. Malcolm
Dickson, Artists Newsletter Publication, 1995.
4 Changing Lives: The Social
Impact of the Arts, The Scottish Arts Council, 1995, p3.
5 ibid, p4.
6 ibid, p5.
7 ibid, p6.
8 ibid, p7.
9 ibid, p8.
10 Changing Places: The
Arts in Scotland's Urban Areas, The Scottish Arts Council, 1995.
11 op cit, Out of the Bubble,
12 ibid, p28.
13 Stirring the City, Heisenberg
project flyer, 2001.
15 op cit, Out of the Bubble,
16 Charles Harrison, 'Educating
Artists', Studio International, May 1972 .
17 Pavel Buchler, 'Other
Peoples Culture' in Curious: Artists Research Within Expert Culture, Visual
Arts Projects, 1999, p44.
18 op cit, Out of the Bubble,
An inclusive conversation
with Suzanne Lacy
Alison Stirling &
Artists working within Arts
in a Social Context have in the recent past been written off as the art
scene's social workers and viewed as poor cousins to the gallery artist.
Yet it now appears to be having a reassessment in Scotland, influenced
by the work of artists such as Suzanne Lacy.
Within new community art
in Scotland, Social Inclusion has become part of the vocabulary of funding
criteria for arts programmes. Having that vocabulary is necessary, but
without the practical skills, or time to build up an understanding of the
communities in which these arts processes will take place, the ideas are
arrived at despite the community and not in collaboration with it.
With a lack of any real
definition of its meaning in terms of practical responses, Social Inclusion
is open to re-interpretation on many levels, encouraging a formulaic and
often meaningless response to a multitude of social and artistic issues.
After all, if you don't have the funding, competent organisation, understanding
and a strong support structure, not forgetting a welcoming community, you
don't have social inclusion.
has, for the past 15 years been working outwith the mainstream, building
on the experience of artists working within social work and healthcare
environments. It has over the years improved its methods of working, learning
from past mistakes and more accurately targeting its responses in order
that they are more relevant to the individual and wider needs of the people
we work with.
The core of its work is
the belief that the participant is placed at the centre of the arts process.
Its aim throughout project design is to build up a working relationship
with the individual or group and then establish the exact direction of
the artworks in relation to the individual interests or issues.
Many of the issues we, as
artists working within Artlink, face are in response to problems faced
by individuals who are 'socially excluded' from the mainstream, as a result
of long term illness, institutionalisation, lack of available opportunity,
lack of money, public ignorance, and lack of support. The artist's role
is to find the appropriate ways of working in collaboration with the individual,
using the arts process to form ideas, investigate ways of working and achieve
a series of responses which reflect the effectiveness of the partnerships
The individual's circumstances
can often seem overwhelming, overshadowing and testing the relevance of
any arts process. Therefore the demands on the artist are more wide-ranging,
extending their expertise and skills within programmes that seek to merge
the artistic with the social.
It is a big mistake, however,
to say art within this context achieves real social change. At best it
gives a voice, draws attention to an issue, and always, always uncovers
another set of barriers to respond to. This challenges the role of the
artist as collaborator, exploring the nature of the relationship, its strengths
and weaknesses, placing more importance on the process than on the product
There is a lack of knowledge
about what art in this context can achieve and how it can progress, and
with no definitive texts available within Scotland, one has to look overseas
to the US to find essays on ways of working which further progress the
work of artists in this field.
Mapping The Terrain
with its essays on public art has been used for Artlink as a guide in its
programme development. The book itself does not offer an insight into work
in the field of disability but it does offer a variety of responses to
art outwith the gallery context, creating arguments for work which is more
responsive to its audiences.
The book's editor and essayist
is the artist Suzanne Lacy. She has worked collaboratively since the early
1970s. Her experience includes collaborations with other artists and more
broadly conceived 'collaborations' with people in various communities and
occupations. In the 1970s, for example, she collaborated with Evalina Newman,
an older African American woman in Watts (Los Angeles), engaging others
in her housing complex in exhibitions on crime. She also collaborated with
Kathleen Chang, an actress in San Francisco, in a performance on Chinese
immigration and women. In a series of large urban installations on violence
against women, she broadened the collaborative process to include police,
politicians, hotline activists and reporters, creating together multi-sited
works that address social issues.
Examples of her work include
The Roof is on Fire, an installation of parked cars on a rooftop
garage with the participation of more than 200 teens; and Youth, Cops,
and Videotape, a video of a workshop that continues to be used in police
training. In 1997, she produced No Blood/No Foul, an installation
of murals, television interviews and a live basketball game between youth
and police that was widely covered on television news. This artwork, created
with the co-operation of the Oakland Police Department, was not only meant
to increase awareness of youth issues, but tolerance of each group for
We were offered the opportunity
to interview Suzanne Lacy in her hotel room. Armed with a tape recorder
and a series of questions based on the Artlink interpretation of Mapping
The Terrain, we sat down ready to begin our interview. The tape recorder
didn't work. We managed to get another. The first question was so vague
it was met with "tell me some more about the question?" Our response, garbled
both on tape and in reality, ended with a "you don't get this question?"
Her response, "I get the area that you are talking about, but I don't get
what it is you want to know specifically about it." A dysfunctional tape
recorder and inappropriate questions set the tone.
Anne Elliot (shifting anxiously
in her seat): What do you think makes the most change, the process involved
in the making of the artwork or the end product?
Suzanne Lacy: Well what
kind of change do you mean?
AE (looks agitated): Social
SL: Located where?
Alison Stirling (leans forward,
perplexed): Eh, within the audience, if the people who take part in your
projects represent the audience.
SL: Let me take your work
as an example. You have a person who has a learning disability and you
have an artist who interacts with them, and then you have the social system
that the person operates within, such as the social service or medical
system, and the artist's own set of systems, often less prescriptive, and
the culture that these intersecting systems exist within. On top of that
you have various forms of cultural contexts, including the art world. They
all mix together in various ways. Where do you think change occurs?
AS: The change takes place
mostly within the person you work in collaboration with, then with support
staff; then with the audiences that may see that person's work. Sometimes
the change is more personal, in the artist and participant, based on gaining
a mutual understanding of each other, therefore gaining a greater understanding
of the issues the individuals face.
SL: What might happen as
a result of that change?
AS (getting worried that
the interviewers have rapidly become the interviewees): People will be
more accepted but it takes a long time.
SL: How might that happen?
AS: The more people are
visible the more they're accepted, the more positive that visibility the
greater the likelihood that they will become more valued members of the
community. I suppose I'm being a bit idealistic, but that can lead to greater
SL: When you ask me about
change, change where and to what end, is what I would say. And I think
you have the answers from your own practice.
AS: How do you measure change?
SL: I think it's clearly
demonstrable that one can change individual behaviour. Change isn't the
right word, exactly; rather, you can impact an individual's experience
and that experience might cause change. The question is, how do you measure
change beyond the individual? In your instance, how would you measure changing
the system that deals with people that have learning disabilities?
AS: Most art projects work
with people over relatively short periods of time. What we've managed to
do is over four years or six years. Over longer time periods you can measure
change more accurately, as you start to see both physically and emotionally
the differences in people, perhaps this is because for the first time in
some of these people's lives there is someone working beside them around
what interests them.
SL: Is that as a result
of relationships or is that as a result of art?
AS: The art's in the relationship.
SL: Would it be the same
without the art?
AS: No, because it's about
starting to find out about that person, using the art to do this. For example,
one man working with Anne Elliot, started off by making a book, then as
a result, decided he needed to make a bookcase for it and as a result of
that he got into making sculpture and ended up making work in the Sculpture
Studios. So it's about his relationship with the art and how we used the
art to form a positive working relationship with him.
SL: So the art is the relationship,
and the manifestation of the relationship is the object?
AS: Not always.
SL: There is something in
making that's very positive, and the more concrete the making the more
positive the benefit might be for certain people.
AS: Sometimes for people
who have higher support needs, who have profound learning difficulties,
the making means nothing so it's the individual's involvement in the process
and how the art works to support the individual within that, that makes
the difference. Now that might not be art, but it might be. For example
most people have care plans written about them, they are clinical reports
on their medical needs. What we have done is bring in a writer to write
about the person, their interests, their reactions, describe them in ways
in which they become more of a person rather than a list of conditions.
I don't know whether that's art or not but we do use artists.
SL: Do you know what I'd
say: In this case the art is in the construction of the entirety of the
concept. Setting up the situation. As well, perhaps, as the actual writing
itself. What intrigues me is less, in this case, the writing, although
the skilful expression of craft can lift the mundane to great and admirable
heights. But I'm not presented with the writing, so I can't comment on
that--I can say that I find the design a brilliant and intriguing piece
of conceptual art.
AE: When you are young you
are more idealistic, expecting and wanting change to happen. With age do
you think that your idealism is the same or changed in what way?
SL: I think it has. As I've
gotten older it hasn't destroyed my fervour for change but I've become
(particularly in the arts) a little more sceptical of what we can and cannot
do. It doesn't mean you do anything different nor with any less intensity
or passion, it just means that you might assess change a little more critically.
I think the work looks harder to me than it used to; more to do to actually
AS: I remember talking a
few years ago to a woman who was much older than me who'd been working
in arts and communities for a long time. I said that I felt that there
seemed to be a constant re-inventing of the wheel within arts and a social
context and that I felt frustrated by this lack of change but she told
me that change does take place it just takes a long time.
SL: Look at Artist Placement
Group in the 70s, artists John Latham and Barbara Straveni whose goal it
was to place artists in industry. And there were a few examples of it but
it was more of an idea. A great idea, by the way, and one that characterised
a type of artistic inquiry in other parts of the world as well. 30 years
later you, for example, are actually placing artists in significant ways
in industry. So I'd say that's significant progress. Being younger causes
two things, one is frustration and the other is a kind of hyper belief
in the effectiveness of what you do, maybe even an artificial belief.
I've been an activist at
one point, and later an activist artist. As an activist I think there's
a kind of hard edge of cynicism you develop when you're constantly faced
with seemingly unyielding social dilemmas. But when you have an art practice
you can say something beautiful was made even if great social change did
not happen. There's an internal reward built into being an artist activist.
To have a practice and to locate my own reward system within the practice
is something that I find profoundly satisfying.
AE: At what point do other
artists or specialists come in when you're constructing a project and do
they fit in with your ideas or do they reinterpret your ideas?
SL: I tend to work very
collaboratively which means there's other kinds of professions and concerns
represented in my projects from the very beginning.
One of the issues around
collaboration is to what degree will you compromise your vision? I don't
think compromise is bad, by the way. One chooses where and how one will
compromise. The general rule of thumb for my work is if there is a subject
matter issue, the authority resides in the people who are representing
that experience and I tend not to conflict with that. So if a young person
says to me this is my reality I don't say "Oh no, I don't like that, let's
do it differently."
But if it's a question of
the aesthetics, then I tend not to negotiate as much. I will always ask
others with whom I work for their ideas, and we have much discussion about
what works aesthetically and what doesn't. But the final decision on how
a project looks, its imagery, is mine (along with the other artists with
whom I work). It's like being a theatre director. Theatre is very collaborative
and negotiated, but there is a final authority and responsibility, and
that rests with the director.
I'm aware of the politics
of representation, and that the shape can effect the meaning. So it's not
a perfect world in my artworks. Imagery I like is shaped by my culture
and background. But I also have a great deal of experience in art, and
I do retain the decisions as to where I will put my energy and creative
passion. So the negotiations around aesthetics are what I'd call 'transparent'
in my work--lots of people express lots of ideas, and challenge each other's
presumptions, and discuss the meaning of our making together. At a certain
point, however, and hopefully after a full and fair hearing, I make decisions
about the 'look' of a work.
Now, there is some fear
expressed by other artists that this can lead to abuse of power--the manipulation
of people to do your images against their interest. I think this is definitely
a possibility, and in the situations you are describing decidedly so. This
is why it can be dangerous working with children. There are certain times
and places where it is easier to persuade people about something that is
not in their best interest, like when you work with people with learning
AS: I think it is very easy
to do that and it is important always to be aware of what can be an unequal
power balance. If a collaboration is to be effective then it takes time
to form a relationship that works successfully. In the making of any collaborative
artwork the individual's interests and/or skills must be the main focal
point: It is extremely important that the individual is not lost and is
not patronised within the making of the work.
SL: In general, however,
I work with such a scale that there is a built-in check. With 500 people
in a performance, it's pretty hard for me to persuade all of them to participate
in something that they instinctively feel is not in their own best interests.
Also, the processes are long and public and open continually to questioning,
so that's my self-correcting environmental factor.
I listen and interpret and
then negotiate quite a bit compared to most artists, but there can come
a point within that negotiation where I say "Oh gag me, I can't do that
image, it won't work to get news coverage, it isn't aesthetically sound."
With full knowledge of the complexities of that statement, the inherent
contradictions and possibilities for power abuse, I still find myself at
certain times saying, that won't work. What's interesting about that moment
is that that's the point where art and life intersect. It's a point of
ethical concern, social debate, and a place where you can engage in the
meaning of art, life, politics, whatever, around that issue.
AS: I want to end the interview
with a hypothetical situation. Respond to it off the top of your head,
with what you would do in the situation, what sort of project would you
come up with. There's a group of elderly women...
SL: They live together in
AS: Yes, homes that are
like small institutions.
AE: They were in institutions
and they knew of each other, but they're now brought together in one house,
which is their home.
AS: Some of them have mental
health problems on top of their learning disabilities, exacerbated by the
fact that they are limited in what they can do, partly financially and
partly by the fact they live in a rural community and transport is problematic.
So could you think of a project that would some way respond to this?
SL: And what do they want?
AS: They want to make friends
basically. They want to be out of the house and they want to be with friends
and to make new friends.
SL: And they can't go with
AS: Well you need to engineer
a way of making sure they meet up. Staffing and transport is a real issue.
SL: Have you tried negotiating
with the organisation that provides their service?
AS: Sometimes, yes.
SL: What happens?
AS: They are overworked.
SL: I think it's a very
rich situation. I guess one of the things you would have to look at is
where your initial impetus is? Is it with these particular women or is
it to demonstrate the situation of women like these?
AS: You may need to point
out the quality of life that they have, but in doing that you must try
to create a better quality of life for them.
SL: I could suggest a whole
bunch of ideas. I'd much rather talk about this than have an interview.
I'd have to qualify any ideas by saying I don't know the women, I don't
really know their level of ability and I don't know the politics of what
might happen to them by activating this situation in their lives. I don't
know whether you're looking for a sustained way out for them or a short
term way out. There is a whole lot of ethical and political issues that
I don't understand.
So having said that, the
images that come to my mind are images of extravagant tea parties in public
places, maybe performative, maybe photographed. Of looking at the systems
that leverage their ability to get out and manipulating those systems in
the ways that you've done in other instances. Like making an artwork around
public transit. Or convening any social service vehicles that must be called
to get them from point "a" to point "b" and using these as part of a work.
Or projecting on the front of their buildings the passes they need.
Given what you said you
wanted to do, which is change their direct lives, obviously, I can't think
of an actual image for that as I don't know the circumstances that control
their lives. If you were interested in changing the circumstances of people's
lives with them as participants, then you have to address their level of
political awareness. Is their political awareness such that they're aware
that they have a right to do more in life?
SL: And they are concerned
not only for their own isolation but of other women like them? If that
is the case then you enter that other territory which is about changing
the system and changing public opinion. You see the distinction I'm making?
Then it depends on how activist you want to be. I understand your caution,
you'd have to move very carefully, because they're fragile people and in
overwhelming social circumstances. You could honour and empower them, in
other words give them training as 'artists' and you can define that in
any way you want and then you can employ them to visit people in their
homes, thereby accomplishing them getting out more.
We agree that the interview
has come to an end. Outside on the street Alison lights up a cigarette.
The next day at Suzanne Lacy's Glasgow School of Art public talk, Anne
Elliot finally managed to learn what it was that Suzanne Lacy actually
did. Later on at a student organised discussion, Suzanne Lacy gained a
greater understanding of Artlink.