GET YOU BACK HOME
BACK to OPTICAL SYNOPTIX
In March 1922 the young theorist Nikolai Tarabukin wrote a pamphlet titled ‘From the Easel to the Machine’. He dedicated it to ‘All the people of the future’. Such was the expanse of post-revolutionary Soviet aesthetics. A movement from past to present to future was tracked in the move from easel to machine, and from the still stunted humanity – that included such dilettantes as Constructivists – to a future humankind who would be artist-engineers, or better, something new, a name yet unacknowledged, and available only once art has been ‘liberated’ from literary and illusionist traits, from the fetters of ‘naturalistic tendencies’, from the ‘sujet’. As long as art remains in fetters, it is in crisis. Tarabukin evidences this on the falling numbers of visitors to the exhibitions in the Winter season of 1921-22. Art is in chains and so it remains unreleased into the social world, caged in a museum, remote from the bustle of democratic activity in the streets and factories and new institutes. The crisis of art is socially occasioned – as is its solution. Tarabukin discusses how art’s stages correspond to the needs of the groups that enjoy it and this changes through history.
In a time of class groupings, the appropriate forms of art are manifold, and artists’ groupings are characterised by splits and individualism, for all this matches the differentiated needs of a differentiated social milieu. After a revolution against separation, this social milieu of separated types finally stares the end in the face. The end game of art, its ‘final pictures’, appear as ‘pure’ form, an art without ‘content’, an art of ‘naked, empty form’, as embodied in the practice of Malevich and the Suprematists. But despite the pursuit of pure form, ‘every form of painting is’, Tarabukin tells us, fundamentally, representational, illusionistic’, and therefore outmoded, for the age of illusion and ideology is past.
In 1921 Rodchenko was one of five Constructivist artists exhibiting in a show titled 5 x 5 = 25. Rodchenko’s contributions included three monochrome oil paintings in red, blue and yellow, each 24 5/8 x 20 11/16 inches. These panels of evenly applied colour gave no suggestion of depth. Nothing was represented. The triptych was to signal the severest reduction of painting to a building block of a new aesthetic order. Tarabukin gave a lecture in October 1921 on just the red panel. His lecture was titled ‘The Last Picture has been Painted’. Rather than signaling an absolute new stage of painting, Rodchenko’s pure squares capture the precise moment of painting’s death. For all its foregrounding of form, surface, the shape of the canvas, these ‘abstract’ qualities, it proves that painting cannot reinvent itself shorn of its illusionistic qualities. It cannot escape representation convincingly. Once painting has disintegrated into the purely formal, it has neither aesthetic value nor use value and makes the viewer realise that painting only made sense as a representational art. This painting is, Tarabukin concludes, a ‘stupid, dumb, blind wall’, a dead end. For his part, Rodchenko abandoned painting after this show, turning his attentions to mass and reproducible forms: posters, advertising, book illustration, theatrical sets and photography.
Art loses its ground, as ‘class or layer separatism’ loses its, in the democratisation of the social system and social relations. Art is revealed as a by-product of the split in species-being occasioned by the division of labour, which accompanies the unequal allocation of cultural access and benefit. Under democratisation art comes to the fore that speaks to the idea of the human as a whole, the society, the entire people as one. Art had long abandoned everyday life and so its objects were ugly. Now there was a chance of a re-merging and beautiful objects of formal and material integrity, beauty and functional expedience might exist for all.
Or rather the object in the old sense is eliminated, for be it the art object or the factory object, even if so nicely and conscientiously designed by a Constructivist artist, remains a work of handicraft, a more or less unique object, when today’s objects are collectively produced, ephemeral in their duration, or only a component or output of a complex network of interrelated elements, as for example in a significant modern product such as electricity. Electricity as modern product, a fundamental aspect of a modernising Soviet system, is another element of what Tarabukin characterises as the ‘decorporalisation’ and ‘deobjectification’ of contemporary culture, signs of the redundancy of object-thinking. Art’s crisis is its commitment to the object, the more-or-less unique object, which finds no place in modern society and no home amongst the mass of consumers.
Tarabukin announces the way out of the ‘crisis of art’. Established forms are dissolved by art forms and processes that correspond to the needs of the everyday. They are superseded by the functional and practically necessary forms of an art that does not reproduce the external world nor adorn it in decorative packaging. Art and everyday life meld. This is not to be seen as the ‘death’ of art, but rather a ‘further evolution of its forms’. Art is released from the cages of the museum to operate in life itself.
Productivist apocalyptic demands boldly expressed a new ground for politics and art, or crumpled one into the other, or sublated both, segueing them with life, or work, or the everyday. Tarabukin’s notion of democracy in art cannot be understood in today’s terms as the fractioning of cultural productions into 1001 flavours in pursuit of niche choice. Rather it is a rationally agreed collective necessity in a landscape after competition. As such, Tarabukin’s proposal might appear impossible, unthinkable, probably undesirable to the contemporary ear. This merging of art and politics, in the factory of all places, assaults too vigorously the basis of both for current taste. It has no place today: though its references to the importance of process over product, networking, dematerialization might find contemporary echo. Its political insistence on a destruction of art in mass practice – rather than a re-invigoration of art through anti-art – does not gel with today’s professionalised art makers. Tarabukin inquires after the political conditions of making and viewing, as does Walter Benjamin most obviously when, in 1934, he writes ‘The Author as Producer’. He examined strategies that would avoid the pressures on artists to be individualistic, competitive or promoters of art as a new religion or an evasion of the ‘political’. He evaluated artists’ efforts to work out cultural forms that could not be recuperated by fascism or its underlying system, capitalism. He assessed what the new mass cultural forms that existed – radio, film, photography, photomontage, worker-correspondent newspapers − meant in the wider scheme of the social world, and how facts such as mass reproduction change humans’ relationship to culture of the past and the present. Benjamin’s notion is that cultural production adopt the character of a model, that it place an ‘improved apparatus’ at the disposal of authors and audience, bringing audiences into contact with the production process, turning readers or spectators into collaborators. Each cultural manifestation has a condition that is already political. Benjamin directs a series of questions at artists who would further revolution: Do they succeed in promoting the socialization of the intellectual means of production? Do they have recommendations for the re-functioning of the novel, the drama and the poem, music and photography? Have they made of readers authors, of authors engineers? Have they fused and recast forms and audiences alike? Behind all of this stands the key question: how does a cultural work ‘stand in the relations of production of a period?’ Where is inequality, how is it policed and reinforced? And how do these conditions, that we all already bear, affect, allow, deny access to cultural goods?
There exists for Benjamin a model: Brecht. In Brechtian drama, which takes place on a platform, a political arena, not a stage, an art one, actors and public achieve a new relationship, and one that incorporates criticism and self-criticism. For one, the interruptions of montage counteract the illusion of a completed reality that can be passively consumed and complacently acknowledged by audiences. Passive consumption is seen to be the mode of reception effected by naturalist theatrical mechanisms. Brecht’s aesthetic system, in contrast, conveys the conditions that we are already in, but allows these to be actively ‘discovered’, made recognisable and ready for reconstitution in the perplexing moment of their estrangement. Benjamin writes, as he says, ‘in the light of the technical conditions of our current situation’. Tarabukin writes for future people, but, as in Marx’s analysis, the conditions are already here which would make of us all future people. The point is to work in and on and with those conditions.
Rerunning the Past
Tarabukin’s and Benjamin’s proposals flashed up again in 1960s practice and theory. They had to flash up again because at no point did art actually die: rather the theme has been more one of artificial life support and we have been condemned to endless re-runs of its impossibility, untenability or decomposition. The post-war period, which saw first the emaciated practice of at after Auschwitz – bleak, dark stumps of negativity that found a space in galleries and museums - brought along with the social movements of the 1960s a reworking of the Constructivist-productivist and post-dada sense of art as critical practice, as it turned to process, left the gallery, worked on, or more specifically against the commodity nature of art, to the point of its non-appearance as object or non-facture in the calls for an art strike, or, more graphically, its auto-destruction. Or they assailed it as in the most sublime détournements of the Situationists. Witness, for example, René Viénet’s 1967 tabulation of forms of subversion. He calls for the development of Situationist cartoons, films, capturing or pirating of radio and TV stations, and Experimentation in the détournement of photo-romances and “pornographic” photos. In describing this Viénet reveals how much such political aesthetics is convinced that future humankind is incipient, and so work on existing conditions is a politics, for in meddling with the smooth images of the mass magazine:
we bluntly impose their real truth by restoring real dialogues by adding or altering the speech bubbles. This operation will bring to the surface the subversive bubbles that are spontaneously, but only fleetingly and half-consciously, formed and then dissolved in the imaginations of those who look at these images.
This sets out from humans as they are, set within the politics of their conditions, in various ways, a materialist and not an idealist procedure.
Benjamin, largely, though not without qualification, celebrated the progressive function of technical reproducibility in art. He mapped the implications of technological reproduction in art on art production more widely, pinpointing analogies between technological and technical-formal innovation. This work of Benjamin’s contributed in the period following the Second World War to a burgeoning critical and media theory, as evinced the work of Hans Magnus Enzensberger with his forwarding in 1970 of the potentially liberatory uses of the photocopier within the ideologically-stultifying ‘consciousness industry’.
The politicisation of aesthetics that Benjamin drew from Brecht and theorised as his contribution to revolutionary struggle was invoked as a direct feed into the class struggle in the 1960s. As a vignette of this consider the filmwork of Harun Farocki, who began making films in 1966. His first films were made collectively while he was a student at the Berlin Film and Television Academy, challenging thereby the ethos of the sole genius creator. Farocki’s films were directly political in theme: the title of one, an agit-prop film, from 1968 translates as On Some Problems of the Anti-authoritarian and Anti-imperialist Struggle in the Metropolitan Areas, Using West Berlin as Example, or Their Newspapers. This short film thematised the manipulative ideological role of the Axel Springer newspaper concern, in a highly politicised West Berlin – Springer’s press was a key player in the ideological war of the 1960s and was blamed by the left for inciting an assassin to target Rudi Dutschke in April 1968, when he was shot in the head and chest after its calls to readers to ‘eliminate the trouble-makers’ and ‘stop the terror of the young Reds’. The political temperature of the time is evidenced in the film by documentary shots of demonstrations and debates – documentary was valued as the mode of accessing the data of social reality and there was a rich tradition of the left to draw on as precedent. The film made parallels between military repression in Vietnam and ideological oppression in Germany. Bombs fall onto the Vietnamese, bundles of newspapers thud onto the streets of West Berlin. A twin assault – violence towards Vietnamese bodies, violence towards German minds. Both forms distort. At the film’s close activists turn those words into weapons, as cobblestones are wrapped in Springer’s newspapers in preparation for the street fighting. These were the days in which students occupied the film academy in Berlin, the red flag hoisted above the building, now unofficially renamed, in homage to the 1920s political avant garde, ‘The Dziga Vertov Academy’. Once order was restored, the occupiers, Farocki amongst them, were expelled from the film academy. Farocki continued to work on political film outside the institution − one film NICHT löschbares Feuer [Un-extinguishable Fire] (1968/69) − exposed the atrocities of the Vietnam War in its concentration on Dow Chemicals, the makers of Napalm: its key line – ‘When Napalm is burning, it is too late to extinguish it. You have to fight Napalm where it is produced: in the factories’. This was another way of bringing the violence of the imperialists back to the cities – as image – and then as mass strategy. The film analysed the class perspectives of workers, engineers, students and bosses in relation to the production of Napalm. It demonstrated how the division of labour obscured the situation and prevented knowledge. The film was the vehicle for diffusing knowledge about the effects, profits, uses and meaning of Napalm. Two films from 1969, made with the Socialist Filmmakers Co-operative West Berlin, were titled Ohne Titel oder: Nixon kommt nach Berlin [Untitled or: Nixon Comes to Berlin] and Anleitung, Politizisten den Helm abzureißen [Instructions For Stripping a Policeman of His Helmet]. This was film as weapons, self-consciously using documentary in a Brechtian fashion, drawing on the resources of modern media with its barrage of techniques, such as montage, selection, distance and foregrounded manipulation or artifice – that which Brecht claimed needed to be constructed in order to be truthful – all in the pursuit of politicising art.
I suppose one point I am making is that then it seemed as if film was the site of politically resistant cultural practice. But it was not just film: other critical and alternative cultural practices in the 1970s and 1980s drew fruitfully on 1920s’ and 1930s’ theories of political aesthetics, which were widely anthologised, finding other modes of expression: for example, photomontage, postering, postcards were crucial for the Reagan-era CND generation. In another context, Rock Against Racism benefited from – and extended - Benjamin’s ideas on the democratic aspects of mass reproduction and the importance of popular appeal, allowing a break from the high culture fixations of those Marxists who saw culture as a mode of elevating the base instinct of the mob and those who gave credence only to ‘folk’ music, conceived as authentic, non-commercial popular expression.
Art and Politics Now!
Tarabukin, the Situationists and the Berlin film collectives enjoyed highpoints of social struggle. What of now, when everything is recuperated five minutes later in an imagescape that is hungry for innovation and sensation? And now, more than ever, the accord of art and politics is different to then, according to current disputes. Art and politics is the winning combination for every city that renames itself ‘creative city’, with its new philharmonic or casino in a reclaimed docklands. The slogan ‘audiences as producers’ is now converted into audiences as resolute consumers: the entire economy depends on it. And, as such, the best that might be hoped for is not a political unmasking in and of art, but rather a purchase on the ethical: politics is ‘the presence of others’, which is to say ethics – and art’s role is to encourage populaces to think about ‘the other’, to leave their comfort zone for a brief glimpse of suffering. Such was the approach at documenta 12, which organised itself around three questions to which it did not expect answers in response, just more questions: is modernity our antiquity? what is bare life? what is to be done (brackets: education)?, lest anyone fear it might actually be the old question of political organisation posed by Lenin. documenta 12 set out to educate its viewers, to use art as the occasion to enlighten audiences about inequity in the world, the horrors that happen to others, not its audience, of course, but those in whose defence the art is made to speak and action for change is a future task once persuasion is done. Art is charged yet again with the role of civilising and humanising, a task that is also bestowed upon it, in other ways, by cultural policy and instrumentalisation of culture as social work in disadvantaged communities: otherwise known as the social exclusion agenda.
But still in unnoticed, unspectacularised corners I have seen work on and within the politics of conditions: nothing with the bold ambitions of Productivists to dissolve art into industry or the total and uncompromising Situationist work on modes of life as practical anti-spectacle, for it takes the shudders of global, social revolution to bring about such refusing of forms. Still there are modest – if desperate - acts that constitute theoretical praxis in the field of art and politics, which is to say that in their mode of self-production they unmask social conditions, including urban property relations; they generate new and critical audiences and patrons of art. People, including artists, act where and when they can. Galleries are not no-go zones. Art is not a bourgeois activity, though producing commodities may be, or rather selling them. My examples however have escaped the cage of the museum to fizzle in the streets. One begins with the legacy of the avant-garde, and so returns quite consciously to source.
Walter Benjamin some 70 years ago wrote of Charles Baudelaire as ‘the lyric poet of high capitalism’: his poetry sampled capitalist alienation and reification, even as it struggled to express these new experiences in older lyric forms. This made its extraordinary power. Baudelaire was for Benjamin a commentator on a commodity-producing society, in which the new was shown to be return of the ever-same, the mass a seductive veil for the lonely flâneur, who pounds the streets, not as an idle dandy, but as a labourer seeking booty to write about, material for hack work to sell wherever he can. Baudelaire is the poet who thematically and formally tracks capitalism’s moves, from the perspective of someone who, as poet, intellectual, bohemian and seller of his albeit mental labour power, is fully exposed, because he exists at a time when artists have been compelled to scurry to the margins, representing no-one clearly, and certainly not officialdom or a heroic ascendant class. It is in this atmosphere that the avant-garde militates; scuttling between factions, susceptible to influences, ideologically wed to no one force, spurning conformity in all its guises, lurching between destructive nihilism and constructive re-ordering. Baudelaire’s writing emerges in this moment. Its various translation have not always been able to account for that original context, written as they have been in more complacent times, and they have translated Baudelaire into more settled forms: a number of these are collated at the Situationist Bureau of Public Secrets’ website, which indicates an ongoing interest in this original avant gardist. It may be that now another moment has been reached and so a translation of Baudelaire could carry over from the original something that resonates with the curiously contradictory energies in contemporary capitalism, of extreme reaction and impulse for change.
Sean Bonney achieved this in rendering around 30 poems by Baudelaire into vicious verse. His versions are compressed, the translation not faithful in any strict linguistic sense. They tear at language, at the French they mockingly translate and at the English into which it is rendered. English is the global language and here it splurts out in new, urgent and socially communicative rhythms, a world away from the lyrical subjectivism of Baudelaire. The cluttered and languid language of Baudelaire – deployed then as revolt against speed up, register of emergent temporalities – reduces to shock, the spluttered, paratactic mutterings of someone stranded after the new era, hyped up on anger’s energy. This is language damaged, language as damage, language as register of damage. One of Bonney’s ‘own’ poems from 2003 is an assault on language and its capacity to lie. Bonney took a speech by Tony Blair delivered in Glasgow on 15 February 2003 just as the second Gulf War began and shredded it literally, tearing and slashing the newspaper in which it was printed, such that some Francois Villon that lay on the desk underneath emerged. The resulting poem defamiliarised language, exposing its politeness as vicious political violence. The words are mangled such that they can only be spat or shot out on the edge of comprehensibility, but traces of their ideological force, countered in an almost homeopathic act of debarbing, are still audible, if only because of the predictability of political rhetoric.
The visual format of his poems is at least a part of its meaning. The lines trample over each other. They skew and clash on the page. Unpronounceable characters – brackets and commas – force their way in and some words are erased by typings over. The whole looks like a toppling pile of words, which cannot be easily read. Bonney’s translations of Baudelaire are also translations of the poem’s visual look. This is a crucial part of an anti-writing, which means a denial of poetry’s complacency, just as Baudelaire in his day stretched lyric form to incorporate new contents and, in so doing, ruined, in a sense, poetry, in order to make it anew.
Bonney’s poems realise Mallarmé’s dreams for the future, graphic articulations of text, as nightmares, as excess signification in the landscape, the aural and oral pollution of official, political and commercial languages against which struggles the fragments of underdog speech to be heard. Elsewhere, Bonney declares poems through a megaphone at anti-war rallies. He chalks them on the ground. He performs them like someone spitting. Their graphic nature impedes their easy reading, their untrammelled communicative ability, because their so obvious truths find it hard to make a passage into the world. Their visual and graphic form suggests something splattered on the pavement, words that rose up in advertising and avant-garde poetry smashed back down to the ground, for now.
And on that ground, I find my other modest example of a practice a million miles from Tarabukin and the optimism of a total revolution in social relations. But, this tiny practice is where I want to close, right at the opposite end from Tarabukin, for I think, we do find ourselves now at the opposite end in terms of the possibilities for an interpenetration of art and politics, in the absence, here at least, and this is where we are, of self-constituting mass movements for revolution.
Ben Wilson paints little acrylic paintings on discarded chewing gum that has been stamped into the pavement. His pictures are emblems of contemporary social life – some are declarations of love, some commemorate the absent or dead, some celebrate a gang or the bonds of friendship, others record memories or tokens of identity. Over a number of days or weeks, passers-by, from alcoholics to housewives to community police officers, are held up for a while, in order to involve themselves in discussions and affective relations with the artist, who appears as a mad drunk, prostrate on the ground for hours on end, painting his miniatures, as city life rumbles around him. Passers-by propose their own images, or have their images’ contours drawn out of them through long processes of conversation and enquiry. They contribute sketches, suggest colours, tussle with the artist over what could and should appear. They give their consent to be photographed, which produces, alongside the colourful micro-paintings, an archive of the London public in the first years of the 21st Century.
Through this activity, which he has done for over five years, nearly every day, along the roads from Barnet to Central London, Wilson has challenged the seemingly exclusive rights of the commercial image-scape to decorate our environment. The images and their commissioning generate in micro-form a redistribution of the ability to participate in the system of patronage. Wilson has also contributed to a mapping of urban relations as they exist on the ground, has brought people and their affections to expression. And he has stepped over lines of property and perceived property. He has been assaulted once by young men, arrested twice and beaten seriously by City of London police as they forcibly extracted DNA from him, though he had, in painting a discarded item raised a few millimetres from the ground, not committed the crime of which he was accused: criminal damage. His is a politics already instituted and already probed by an art practice that tests its own possibility of being in the most exposed way. Wilson was involved in a court case brought by the Crown Prosecution Service. He was charged with obstruction, for he dallied in handing over his camera, when asked by a policeman. His argument was that he had not completed and documented his commission and would be breaking the terms of the relationship with his patron. This little incident is part of a shift of power relations on London streets. It is significant that it happened in the City of London, where paranoia about terrorism is at its highest. But it is also a reflection of an attitude, reinforced by the police, that unlicensed - or unprofitable - activities in socially shared space are illegitimate or ‘mad’. What might be the possibilities of reclaiming public space as a place of non-commodified expression? Do you have to become like a ’street person’ or ‘marginal’ to exist as a human in the streets. Is that the future and the end of art?
GET YOU BACK HOME
BACK to OPTICAL SYNOPTIX