Text for catalogue of the exhibition Subversive Tactics at Czech Centre in New York City, 2015
Subversive Tactics Subversion presumes some kind of entities and structures that can be subverted (1).
If we take as our assumption that art is a tool that makes it possible to erode cultural hegemonies and to open up new views on the current social and political situation, then this is an area full of hope for the future. It is an open question whether dominant cultural forces can be effectively subverted (2).
Another open question is whether subversion in art is not only an apparent and fresh driver of the existing order, but also a redundant one (3).
It is also possible that subversive tactics cannot be described well, because they are inherently hidden and illegible. After all, one can even argue about what “subversive” is (4).
It seems that studying artists are well-orientated and understand what kind of life they have been hurled into. For some of them, the tactics of artistic subversion are a fundamental modus operandi (5).
The exhibition is a set of hidden and subtle artistic approaches to subversion that represent perhaps only the initial recognition that one must start somewhere (6).
Subversion presumes some kind of entities and structures that can be subverted.
Let us pose a question. Why does contemporary society need so many artists, why does it expend so much money on education, on establishing and operating schools? Does contemporary society – closed within independent states and organised on the basis of pre-approved and confirmed agreements – need art and artists? Is it not precisely this control in the form of establishing and directing schools under the jurisdiction of the state which is the first condition that makes possible the existence of art? If art is a space that can effectively subvert existing entities and structures, then it must be kept under the control of existing entities and structures. It also follows from this that an asymmetric relationship has been created. It is not therefore one of “who from whom”, but rather one of domination and control by hegemonic entities on the one hand, and on the other the world of art – fragmented in subordination. And it follows that the result of this equation is subversion. Why then does contemporary society need so many artists? Perhaps because it needs to have as many of them as possible under control, subject to competition among each other? Or because it needs contemporary artists to celebrate and support the status quo? For now, let us take this to mean that these questions are only disconcerting for those who do not believe that the way our society is organised, the way it operates, is natural and the best possible neutral framework for living our lives. But then we have to ask once again, what do we need art for? In order for us to celebrate the naturalness, quality and possibilities of the contemporary order, which must be maintained and reproduced in the same form? If we attribute to art an iconoclastic function, that is, the ability to destroy and disintegrate and erode hardened and seemingly immutable structures, then art is a fundamental force in the advancement of humanity towards a better society. Some will object that capital can be such a force, but this is incorrect. Capital wants to multiply itself at the price of continual destruction. Capital is a virus that never looks back, that wants ultimately to control everything; it is an independent monster nourished by people, and it will not stop until it has destroyed everything. Art is merely a tool; it is not a force that destroys in order to multiply. It is a tool for liberating oneself from immutability, a tool for opening oneself up to new possibilities for a better and more just life.
If we take as our assumption that art is a tool that makes it possible to erode cultural hegemonies and to open up new views on the current social and political situation, then this is an area full of hope for the future. One hundred years ago in his famous book The History of the Party of Moderate Progress within the Bounds of the Law, Jaroslav Hašek demonstrated how critical appropriation – so close to the tactics of contemporary artists – works. With inherent seriousness, he develops ad absurdum the programme of his party, from which the following quotation is taken. It illustrates very well what a delicate yet destructive tool subversive tactics can be in what is seem ingly a matter of course: “Keeping in mind that the law protects every person against assault, we have placed our programme under the protection of the wings of the law, and because over time in our country all laws are reformed – that is, they go hand in hand with moderate progress – we have placed this moderate progress in our programme as well. For surely it is unthinkable for a baby to mature into a man in some kind of forced manner; rather, this can only occur through natural development day after day, year after year.” Critical activity is based on decoding the various causes, alibis and semblances which construe our naturalness and the manner in which our collective life functions. My assumption is that this is one of the seminal roles of contemporary art: the ability to discern how our collective unwritten agreement is composed, how the entire machinery works and holds together. This requires creating distance – not absolute distance (for this is impossible) – but conditional distance, which enables us, at least for a moment, to catch sight of the world’s invisible connections, the relationships of power that underlie them, and our common illusions. Of course, this may seem like a game, to a certain extent affectation – on one hand we are a firm component of a corrupt world with which we are in full accord, on the other hand there are criticism and rhetorical figures about the possibilities for change. If artists are serious about what they do, however, then this is not a game; it is an undertaking that in a democratic society is a necessity and a prerequisite of human dignity.
It is an open question whether dominant cultural forces can be effectively subverted. Another open question is whether subversion in art is not only an apparent and fresh driver of the existing order, but also a redundant one. A sense of powerlessness and frustration is probably an accompanying phenomenon of working in modern and contemporary art. The depressing knowledge that artistic production and the works emanating from it are gradually integrated into the social order as its self-identifying emblems certainly detracts from one’s energy to persevere, and for many artists this is a reason to discontinue their work and instead to pursue something more useful – most commonly a political struggle. In the face of this appropriation, the question arises whether there is really any point in pursuing critical and subversive activity. There is a well-known thesis that the greatest monster – capitalism – is able to absorb any protest against it and transform it into part of itself, whereby everyone ultimately becomes a co-partner in the destructive pursuit of profit. But after all, there is always little hope that a small crack will become the start of a process of great change and disruption to contemporary hegemonies.
It is also possible that subversive tactics cannot be described well, because they are inherently hidden and illegible. After all, one can even argue about what “subversive” is. Asymmetric manners of action have not always been considered the prerogative of the weak and the defeated; this has also been the approach that the strong have considered to be the most effective for avoiding a direct confrontation, and they make use of it when it suits them. The prerogatives of the powerful tend to be long-term strategies, possibilities to act and plan on a large scale, executed with the backing of an extensive collaborative apparatus, and in discursive practices based on support from individual and collective actors. Tactics are reserved for those who do not have power, and cannot rely on the infrastructure and ideological support of the majority. The possibilities are limited. They must react adequately from the feasibility of an action to the possibility of another action. The use of tactics depends on opportunities. Artists cannot participate without addressing the strategies of the power to which they are subordinated. In an uneven battle, they are left with subversive tactics, renewed again and again each time the previous ones are assimilated. There exists no reservoir of achieved victories multiplied by each new act; there is nowhere and no way to “store” them. It is necessary to renew one’s positions again and again, and to remind oneself that the world is not immutable. The disruption of a homogenised space is conducted from positions that are impermanent and uncertain, but they can always be repeated again from a different place. The tactic is to be continuously on guard in a state of emergency. The uniqueness of subversive tactics in art also lies in the fact that they defy conventions and the necessities that follow from them. As a weapon, they prefer contingency to elusiveness. All this creates the framework and conditions for artworks, space for contemplation and civic activation in the face of a problematic reality.
It seems that studying artists are well-orientated and understand what kind of life they have been hurled into. For some of them, the tactics of artistic subversion are a fundamental modus operandi. In the words of Okwui Enwezor, we are not trying to re-invent the wheel with this exhibition. The exhibition, as an interface between artistic thought and the lay and expert public, is a format in which interaction occurs between the present and the past. Contents and formal aspects are transformed dialectically and always constitute a new basis for further reflection. Each successive exhibition holds within it a multitude of precursors. Young artists have grown up on the conscious absorption or rejection of the traditions of modern and contemporary art, and they make use of them very freely. What they have in common and what persists is that social engagement is a necessary condition of art; without it, art would be merely an ornament subject to the arbitrariness of market mechanisms. Various subversive tactics are present in the exhibited works in the artists’ individual postures and approaches; they encompass everything from clear positions of opinion to hard-to-identify appropriations. In them, one can discern an image of the world in which we live and which we share, as well as its often invisible face that does not want to reveal itself.
The exhibition is a set of hidden and subtle artistic approaches to subversion that represent perhaps only the initial recognition that one must start somewhere. This catalogue contains texts and pictures by individual participating artists; we intentionally avoided a mere presentation of artworks. Fetishism of objectification threatens to form canons and egocentric iconic artworks. In order to complete the programme of this exhibition, and because, like Youna Friedman, we believe that the reality around us is not a set of isolated facts, but rather a process, what we are presenting are not the artists’ works, but rather their unfinished phases, inspirations, research and sketches. It is an attempt to take a look into a process of thinking that is unplanned, that often occurs by chance, but with an acute awareness of what it wants to say. The production of artworks and interactions cannot be planned; it is a consequence of the need for judgments under the pressure of circumstance, quick action and a correct guess of what to do. The moment of improvisation, again according to Friedman, is the most important human intellectual ability; it mediates various tactics for surviving in this world. I hope that the following pages will be inspirational for everyone.
The Experience of Bucket Riders
Text for catalogue of Experimental Film Festival ARKIPEL “Penal Colony”, Jakarta 2017
Experience teaches us that life is not simple and that without mutual assistance it cannot be dignified. I am writing these words in the city where Franz Kafka wrote most of his short stories and novels one hundred years ago. For the whole of the ‘short’ twentieth century and at the start of the new millennium his writing has acted as a reflective surface in which the unforeseen experiences of emerging societies of control is clearly reflected. Many of his ideas and his style of writing have become an image of the precarious life we are living. Kafka was writing on the periphery of an ageing European power, at one remove from the large cultural and political centres. Nevertheless, he managed to sketch the contours of a life that bears intelligible witness even on a contemporary global scale. I often find myself thinking of his short story The Bucket Rider, which begins with the mysterious sentence: Coal all spent. Though short, the text is dense and multilayered. Here I would like to draw attention simply to one feature, by no means the dominant feature. The story concerns a freezing person with no money asking for some coal (probably the author: the story is written in the first person) from a coal merchant. The merchant and his wife do not raise a finger. The wife, standing in for her husband, deploys a strange yet effective strategy. As if to turn a blind eye to the cruel reality around her and the wretchedness of her own life, she decides simply not to see the bucket rider, though he stands directly in front of her. She thus elects to prioritise a commercial logic and her own interests over compassion for the beggar. The frozen hero had his own strategy prepared that in the end proved ineffective. He did not walk to the coal merchant’s, but saddled up his coal scuttle and arrived as though on horseback. His decision to spectacularise his humiliation might seem exaggerated and theatrical. But how else is a person to preserve their dignity when confronted by a life that is structured by commercial logic, by the market? His gesture was not inappropriate. On the contrary! What we have here is the pride of the individual and a parody of the precarious situation in one. We learn nothing more of the rider, but from the story we can deduce how the world of his life is organised. It is not based on social cohesion, nor are there any hints of state or other institutionalised solidarity. There is not even any trace of religious morality. The rider will most likely freeze to death, though this is not in the story. The last sentence reads: And with that I ascend into the regions of the ice mountains and lose myself to never return.
The depiction of cruel reality in the midst of a human community is tragic. Unfortunately it is also the experience of most people on the planet. I do not believe that the text is simply social criticism. Yes, it perfectly uncovers the mechanisms of oppression within only a handful of lines. Hut it also points to something else. The decision to travel by coal bucket is a key gesture that offers one way of reacting to an exasperating reality. I would like to generalise somewhat. The hero of the story, despite the desperation of his situation, does not mount any active resistance, attack, or other form of transformation of his circumstances. He does something different: he saddles up a bucket! I interpret this seemingly meaningless gesture as the reaction of the artist. It is the result of the artist’s thinking and actions. I don’t know to what extent it is also Kafka’s projection. But whatever the case the story is the reflection of a situation using art. The parodic portrayal of the trip demonstrates both a protest against humiliation and a critique of the circumstances. The apparent childishness of the gesture monumentalises the banality of the entire event to the level of a spectacularly absurd act. Kafka is here describing the process and possibility of the artistic gesture. He shows how the power of art is manifest in its affective expression, but how the powerlessness of art is manifest in its inability to transform existing life conditions. The ambivalence contained in the trip on the coal bucket is disarming. We are witness to a decision arrived at and based on circumstances beyond control. The trip by bucket is thus a way of confronting reality, a way of describing reality in a simple gesture, and a way of revealing its contradictions to others. The gesture yields up hidden connections. The situation does not change, but it discloses the trajectory for potential change. The starting point is despair, though it is an inventive response to the conditions. The invention of a new, as yet unmanifest reality of a possible future change.
This text introduces a film programme comprising films from six artists born in central Europe and what is these days post-communist Europe. In the locations of former local empires, on the periphery of the contemporary world. All the artists have experience with different types of disciplinary structures, both socialist and capitalist. All in some way reflect and criticise social reality and inequality. All are artists. All are bucket riders.
The individual films, in other words the moving images of the programme, are different in terms of both their form and context. They depict the social reality of the central European space over the last few decades. They show struggles for social justice, equality and democracy, but they also point to the uncertainty of artistic practice. The dignity of the bucket rider is manifest in each film in an appropriate form and by means of a radical gesture.