Monday, February 2, 2015

Staging a Dialogue's Collapse: Artist Orginisations International

First, a disclaimer, or perhaps a statement. It's now been three weeks since Artist Organisatons International, over which time your correspondent has found himself more than usually stranded, and unable to publish anything. The cause: the feeling of... well, dread, that the event inspired, together with a frustrating combination of self-reflection, a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between different positions (not at all in a healthy way) and an overpowering dose of pessimism. No-one can deny this was a difficult event at a difficult time.

Writing under such circumstances is also difficult, and this might indeed be my worst writing. Reaching a firm conclusion is impossible - and has resulted in several different attempts over the past three weeks to fill this yawning void (shared by most audience, judging by the various explosive groans and mutterings around me at different moments).

One such feeble attempt can be found below. I do not deny that I have failed to meet the task of critic in this event, and for that, I blame the extraordinarily high stakes, as I perceive them. This sense of dread is overpowering and nauseating. My decision to publish an incomplete argument should not give the idea that I think these things are unimportant.

Artists Organisations International may prove to be a landmark moment - possibly for the wrong reasons. The decision to publish is because of this. I don't pretend to give a definitive or privileged account here - rather, a selective one, divided into some key concerns. There are some which are urgent, and which Artist's Organisations International may represent. As to the significance or validity of the event itself, I will leave that to others to discuss (at length, no doubt).




Everything is lost.

That was my feeling walking out of HAU on the first dramatic night of Artist Organisations International, a Ted-Talks style 3-day art forum curated by Johanna Warsza, Florian Malzacher and Jonas Staal. 3 hours of exhaustive, chest-puffed dissent, in the form of staged contests - so much futile expenditure of energy, and only a particular variety of nothing to show for it.

Art is an elusive feeling, thought I. It's an energy. It's non-tangible, and indirect. Perhaps as consequence, its agents - artists themselves - are elusive creatures, traditionally not prone to explanation or other causal processes associated with the outside world. Rarely do they talk about what they really mean. Art is symbolic, after all.  It's a code. It operates among that which cannot be spoken in words.

As a result, art says one thing and means another. I wasn't the only one left fairly bewildered by the, sometimes furious, but always tense, dispute. Over what, exactly? Was it simply a fight for dominance? Was it supposed to be some kind of metaphor? For what?

Sadly - my conclusions that night as I left HAU were quite dark. But then, maybe it was the time.



The agenda of the contest was set immediately upon arrival, where participants were greeted with a flyer arguing against the event, (one of many - as we were reliably told by Jonas Staal in a pretty jumpy opening address) and a small group of connected protesters who were demanding that they get in for free. The flyer, explaining the event as an example of ‘Genreficiation’ (available here
and well worth considering) was perhaps the most tangible argument over the three days, and elucidated a coherent argument over the direction of art that deserves its own study.

However, such political posturing-as-theatre as this, like so much of Berlin, has now been co-opted into a global, well-oiled machine – as the anonymously-written flyer also points out. Every event now instantaneously has its drama, its for and against groups, hashtags, and its institution - floating over it all like some kind of innocuous Piñata - at once critiqued and absolutely irrefutable. But you can say one thing about the Berlin art scene - it's dramatic. Whoever said that artists do not understand the theatre has never been to Berlin, where its strategic employment is more tactical, and more professional, than any event in global politics. When it comes to rendering their drama invisible and at once deploying it with strategic, almost military precision, artists are better than an Australian delegate in a Climate Change negotiation. Although even by Berlin standards, I sense that what I witnessed over my three days at the AOI had an element of ironic defeat that defied belief. 

I hesitate to talk about that first night's forum on Propaganda and Counter-Propaganda, because I think it genuinely did a lot of damage to both the event and its more legitimate counter-claims.  In Australia we would call the presentation by Zentrum für Politischer Schönheit (Centre for Political Beauty, not linked here) 'gutless', loosely meaning 'without courage'. Their presentation of their actions, followed by denunciation of the event itself, stood at odds with the well-thought out, thoroughly argued attack on genrefication. The shock felt in the room as any sense of trust between participants took blow after blow, must be akin to events of the 1930s. This deepening despair cried out for a rescuer, and it was as though each attempt to resuscitate the conversation into something - anything - which might be called dialogue, seemed to collapse. Interesting potentials were washed away, seemingly without notice. An audience member was articulating the thoughts of many when he exploded with anger about the aestheticisation of refugees in the project connected with Kindertransport - an event where the group attempted to transport Syrian children to the borders of Europe at the time of the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall - provoking, not a defence from the group, but a random denunciation of the event, which stood out in comparison with the careful but powerful actions of earlier in the evening. Presumably it was an attempt by ZPS to regain some political credibility, but having the effect of co-opting more legitimate opposition, it did nothing for their claims to be doing honest work in an unjust scenario of Syrian refugees, nor their denial of appropriation.

Anarchy and destruction were not the problem here. It was a problem of opportunism - and the choice to fill the void with nothing but ego - and that these are familiar in the periods preceeding fascism. They were not helped by absurd nonsense-statements like "we have a client - called mankind"  (hmmm…) which, contrary to the paper distributed pre-conference, emerge unsupported by any platform in argument.

It's appearance now, in an art forum, at a time when new European fascisms are gathering momentum, is a very bad sign. These things have their seeds in art.



It was oh-so-difficult to drag myself out of bed he next morning and over to HAU, for what I expected would be another day of torment. The initial relief when events of the previous night were made light of by Chto Delat pedagogue Dimitri Vilensky, as a surprisingly productive conversation about ‘Learning and Unlearning’ unfolded, chaired by a (clearly nervous, but effective) Maria Hlavajova. Her ranging thoughts, from the collapse of ‘modern tools’ to new tools of art (agree, slightly), the change in address from ‘for whom’ to ‘with whom’(agree, wholeheartedly and somewhat pessimistically) and the shift from critique to proposition (disagree, evidently) provided a good, if subsequently underutilised, platform from which dialogue might spring, as well as some context for the premise of the event, which was nominating a shift in the way artists are organised.

The presentation from Dimitri about Chto Delat’s educational activities, quickly followed by some pointed suspicions about the ‘fanciness’ of the event, were followed by an earnest presentation of the documentation of refugee processes in Germany by the Büro für Antipropaganda. Then, a presentation from cultural workers from the Artists Association of Azawad, a separatist region of Mali, whose aim was mainly to educate the audience of their existence and their struggle for autonomy, linked with the ‘unlearning’ of their previous colonial past and ‘learning’ of a new history. Jan Ritsema’s final presentation from the Performing Arts Forum, a “building” in France, and some critique of the artist’s “permitted” existence under neo-liberalism (“before every family should have a nun. Now, every middle-class family should have an artist), paved way to a fairly hesitant discussion.

I was so dejected that, for my own sanity perhaps, I missed the afternoon and evening sessions, on State and Statelessness and Violence and Non-Violence respectively.



The final day brought the true failure of proceedings - and what marked it as a truly eurocentric event.

In the midst of a navel-gazing conversation, Moussa Ag Assarid from the separatist state of Azawat, and as far as I know the only representatives from Africa, stood to talk, apparently able to stand the limitations of the event no longer. After contesting the "Internationalness" of the event, which after all was mainly European artists, he delivered a message from his collaborators. This message was simple and effective - "ask them why we are not in the charter of Human Rights of the United Nations". It pointed to the narrowness of the past three days dialogue, and all of the problems of hypocrisy traditionally present in European art - one of discussing the situations of 'the other' without ever truly attempting to access it. 'Finally', thought I, naively as it turns out - 'a valid provocation! Surely it can't be ignored'.

And yet, to my surprise, the conversation quickly moved on, and the moment was forgotten. So far as I know, it was not addressed again. Perhaps it won't be.



All of this would all seem something out of the 1950s – in the same ethical region as Human Zoos. If I have a conclusion, it's that - capital or no capital - there was no penetrating this institution. No, not the one presenting the event. After all, the Artist Organisations International displayed its propaganda for all do see. It never pretended that it was not part of the institution. It spoke from this institutional position in a genuine provocation - a straw-man facade designed to be attacked. No - I am speaking of a much more hidden institution. One that lives in the silent agreement of Fortress Europe, and art as part of its maintenance requirements. Despite the ludicrous posturing of the ZPS - the saddest part is that they are pointing at something real, and indeed, possibly act as their own metaphor

The new reality is a war: invisible but very real – it rages whilst retaining its cool exterior, it takes it's victims with no nonsense and quietly, under cover of symbolism, without anyone ever consciously knowing. It reaches all corners of the world, and it adapts so quickly, it resists attempts to define and constrain it. And we are vectors for it, though not in a way which is immediately apparent, or discussed.
The days of Artists Organization International will sit in stark reminder of what the near future looks like – a clumping together of those working within and outside the system, both clawing at each other, equally futile and frustrated at their attempts to constrain this unknown, unidentifiable devil, who sits at the back of the room, watching on as witness, laughing gleefully.


Arist Organisations International

Initiated by Florian Malzacher, Jonas Staal and Joanna Warsza
9th-11th January, 2015
HAU 1, Berlin

N.N. / Artists of Rojava (on video)
Mazou Ibrahim Touré & Moussa Ag Assarid / Artist Association of Azawad
Marina Naprushkina / Büro für Antipropaganda
Dmitry Vilensky / Chto Delat
Lisa Ito / Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP)
Lorenzo Pezzani / Forensic Architecture
Federico Zukerfeld / Grupo Etcétera
Natascha Sadr Haghighian / Gulf Labor
Sonja Augart, Tatjana Fell, Alice Münch,Ina Wudtke & Inga Zimprich / Haben und Brauchen
Lada Nakonechna / HudRada & ISTM
Tania Bruguera / Immigrant Movement International (IM) (on the phone)
Renzo Martens / Institute for Human Activities (IHA)
Milo Rau / International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM)
Yael Bartana, Susanne Sachsse & Walter Solon / Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP)
John Jordan / The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (labofii)
Jan Ritsema / Performing Arts Forum (PAF)
Matthijs de Bruijne / Schoon Genoeg!
Emily Fahlén & Ahmet Öğüt / The Silent University
Hannah Rosa Öllinger & Manfred Rainer / WochenKlausur
Fabian Eggers, John Kurtz & André Leipold / Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (ZPS)

Ekaterina Degot, Charles Esche, Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, Maria Hlavajova, Matteo Lucchetti, Margarita Tsomou

Ulf Aminde, Libia Castro, Galit Eilat, Christoph Gurk, Alex Karschnia, Urok Shirhan 

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