In tune with institutional self-critique?
To write a text about freedom for an artzine is like playing hide-and-seek in the outskirts of suburbia. Playing the game you get a sudden feeling of freedom, of do-it-yourself empowerment. A mental space is created for free thoughts and potential acts. It is a sense of freedom to leave unnoticed as the text could go unnoticed as being anything other than a space of imagination. At the end there is always a relief in being found again. You are not alone. And this is just a text, an imagined free space, a temporary possession of power to formulate and define.
I got the power
Institutional critique is a game that plays with a similar notion of freedom. It is an imagined space for artists to criticise from within. To question the economic structure, the notion of a public space and of audience and spectator, the hierarchies at work and the questionable representation of gender and ethnicity. By playing host to those in opposition, the ones in possession of an ‘autonomous’ critical gaze, art institutions include what is of course always relevant criticism and thereby show grandeur and a surplus stating that it possesses the ultimate power.
Then there is institutional self-criticism, which is the same game, but to a different tune. The game of hide-and-seek is no longer funny the institution is asking for help. It is asking the artists that once criticised from within to help define ways for the institution to keep the position of power that they used to have. The imagined space. The tune is a lullaby because even art institutions are under threat from the neo-liberal tour de force to individualise all problems and responsibilities that used to be part of the overarching state systems of Western(ised) societies.
The system is still arching, but the game is about legitimating the body of control through the individualisation of all responsibilities. This as all other attempts at institutional or structural renewal comes from fear, fear of loosing a position of power and control. To avoid the entrance of paranoia and conspiracy in the imagined free space of this text, I would like to make believe that it is that which is outside, or beneath the inside, that is the agent of the threat.
This kind of power game is always contradictory. The only way that institutions or ageing structures can adapt to change is by ceasing to exist. Art institutions do not play an important part in what would seem to be happening they are not needed, neither society nor artists need them any longer. Contemporary artists have found new ways of dealing with power and control, either on the market or in self-organised spaces.
Slave to the rhythm
Institutional (self-)critique as seen in the art world brings to mind a case that can serve as an example of the movement from inside to outside and into the groove. This is the case of how the Danish government deals with the 35-year-old free town Christiania, an old squat in a former military area in the centre of Copenhagen. This is a very attractive part of the city with lakes, lots of trees, birds and other animals, a recreational zone. When the newish-liberal Danish government came to power in 2001 they had to deal with this free space, which had always been a thorn in the eye of everyone who is a slave to the rhythm of capitalism not the opponents, but the devoted believers working their arses off to keep up with the pace of consumption. That other people the hippies could simply take a space and claim it for 35 years and not have to pay the same sky-rocketing property prices is not just ‘unfair’, it is utopian. But this representation of a utopian idea will not be there for much longer. The newish-liberal government has come up with a very clever strategy of how to turn the realised utopian idea into a real paradise of real-estate believers. They are calling the process of demolition normalisation. This is an image of the situation where the ones in power trying to keep it with every means possible reflect upon themselves in the mirror of the other.
Words don’t come easy
The Danish government is handling the case of the impossible freedom represented in the squat Christiania using the power of words as the smooth operator. Amongst other tactics, young innovative architects have been invited to come up with solutions for creative and alternative living spaces in the area, which is exactly what has been done in Christiania for 35 years. But now with the mechanisms of real benefit the common denominator for everything written between the lines Capital. Is this a kind of institutional self-criticism? It is creating an imagined space in reverse and changing what was a lack of control into total control disguised as inclusion and tolerance. In this way, image production of clashes between citizens and law enforcement, fire and blood, is avoided. The responsibility is individualised. And the mirroring is completed by taking something away, claiming and recreating it and selling it back.
This is in direct contrast to the strategy employed by the social democratic municipality in Copenhagen to deal with a sister squat, the 24-year-old Youth House in another part of the city. This house has been a representation of freedom to self-organise and self-govern a culture out of control. The building was simply demolished. After emptying the house of all living beings, which was done by special forces arriving in two helicopters at seven in the morning, the house vanished from the face of the earth a piece of land of growing value in less than two days.
These are two contrasting but equally violent kinds of power game. The old fashioned social democratic quick and direct physical strategy on the one hand and the mental, long-term strategy of the new order on the other hand. The difference has to do with money and the quantity of real estate. Money changes everything.
I guess the strategy used by Bush and his allies (including the same Danish government) in Baghdad is a mix of the two. On the one hand the quick in-out and on the other hand using the same sweet words with the same violent impact. This was not successful. The image production as well as the budgets got out of control.
What are words worth
The culture of do-it-yourself (DIY) at the end of the 20th century worked with notions of freedom to claim space for thinking, acting, loving and fighting in a society of the spectacle completed, or rather tripled, gone mad, entering every part of the life world. An ongoing structural slaughter of utopias and their potentialities has paved the ground on which we now walk.
We still have to do it ourselves, not because no one else will, but because the socio-political climate has become a direct threat to everyone and everything not in line with the crusade of ‘normalisation undefined’ spreading into new territories by the hour. This is not imagined space, this is the art institution employing self-criticism, normalising the city of Copenhagen and disguising the war as a process of democratisation as a transformation of real spaces.
This offensive threat showing its face in warfare and welfare for the few and the privileged in a situation where capitalism is the only free traveller, not accepting any kinds of borders and barriers is formulated as a defence in the name of freedom against things out of control.
Standing in the way of control
The control of whom? And who are we, anyway? ‘We’ used to be civil society, ‘The People’, the workers and the unions, users, abusers and producers in and of democratic societies.
The energies in claiming a room of one’s own and indignation triggering DIY is the historical ground for self-organising with the self as a collective subject. This kind of structural manipulation is in itself subversive, disobedient, a disturbance and interruption; noise where the representative, single subject used to stand in a silent centre. Self-organising is to a large extend dependent on the randomness of collective thinking and on the potentialities in a lack of control. The randomness in lacking control is what feeds movements yet to come, capable of ignoring borders of nation states and barriers of distorted notions of democracy and freedom.
And stop accepting, repeating and reproducing the structures of the present climate making contemporary art political partout. Art is either affirmative or subversive. It is impossible to separate art from the context in which it is produced and displayed. The artist is herself a role model to a market in need of a flexible workforce. Flexicurity is a definition of labour making the employee eat his hat, jump into a pair of loose jeans and reflect in the mirror of the creative class. These are the ones that are never off, the ones that carry the full responsibility, and the ones that have no place to go claiming any kinds of rights. Just like the old bohemian artist under the eaves, who worked because he just couldn’t stop. It is about language and the words invented to dress up old structures in new seductive garments. But this doesn’t change the structure beneath, only the construction of subjectivity while demolishing collectivity.
Hello, is it me you’re looking for?
Art has a cause in itself, a language of its own. For this language to be heard also as a political message, a question or a statement a distance has to be created to art as an institution with the expectations of an audience attached, which is taught the codes of conduct in the spaces of art. Do we have to keep lying in order to adapt to institutionalised expectations?
To lie has become a legitimate political tool, as unveiled racism is aired in parliaments and on the TV screen. It has become clear to everyone that politics is full of lies the process of democratising Iraq again serves as a smashing international example.
Critical art is not separating the terms of production and the context of display from the work itself. To escape the vacuum of contradictions that has arisen between intention and what is communicated as art, maybe we should rotate the perspective from the inside/outside dialectics and talk about downwards and upwards. Not as a new dialectic, but as a structural term by which to think and act. In this respect there is a lot to learn from movements such as those of feminism, as a strategy for dealing with problematics through organising and producing theory and actions.
But, uh!, upside down, boy you turn me, inside out and round and round. Feminism is a thought phenomenon to put in the limelight ‘we’ have still not recovered from the sight of burning bras and bare tits in public space (in the raw appearance that is). Nonetheless in feminism there is a treasure of conflicts and their possible solution, a lesson for everyone to learn if we dare to stop lying. And let’s also stop reproducing, repeating and affirming structures that limit acting and thinking, potentialities in and notions of freedom and responsibility. That feminism is carefully mentioned is not only to place the image of bare tits (a powerful tool) in the mind of the reader, but also because the patriarchal is the source of many evils. Let’s stop making sense in those terms.
Have you found me yet or am I still wondering around in the imaginable textscape?
Featuring (in order of appearance): George Michael, Michael Jackson, Snap, Laura Branigan, Grace Jones, Madonna, Johnny Logan, Sade, AC/DC, Cindy Lauper, Chicks on Speed, The Gossip, Chic, Lionel Ritchie, Diana Ross and Talking Heads.