Saturday 03.06.10 -- Jennifer Hayashida and Benj Gerdes -- Strike Anywhere -- 03.06.10
Saturday 03.06.10 -- Jennifer Hayashida and Benj Gerdes -- Strike Anywhere
1. About this Saturday
2. About "Strike Anywhere"
3. About "Populus Tremula"
5. "It is the Hungry Who Hunt the Best": The Language of a Neocolonial Welfare State by Jennifer Hayashida
6. About Jennifer Hayashida & Benj Gerdes
7. "New Left-Wing Melancholy: Mark Tribe’s 'The Port Huron Project' and the Politics of Reenactment" by Paige Sarlin
8. Useful links
1. About this Saturday
What: Screening and Discussion
When: Saturday 03.06.10
Where: 16 Beaver Street, 4th Floor
When: 7:30 pm
Who: Free and open to all
This Saturday's event deals with history--the uses of history through media and/or documentary, but also a shared history of knowledge production, inquiry, and collaborative practices related to 16 Beaver. We will be screening and discussing two recent works by Jennifer Hayashida & Benj Gerdes that draw on several years of research into the Swedish monopoly capitalist Ivar Kreuger.
We had talked about doing this screening for quite a number of months and now the chance to do so with a number of long-time Beaver participants together has presented itself on short notice. The initial impetus for this project came out of questions and conversations through Continental Drift and other events at Beaver. Appropriately, while both of these projects have shown elsewhere, this is the first time they will be screened in New York City. Along the same lines, we are including Paige Sarlin's text, which references a differing context while sharing a concern for the relationship between questions of history and the political possibilities of media and intervention in the present.
2. About "Strike Anywhere"
“Strike Anywhere” / 32-minute HD Video, 2009
“Strike Anywhere” is a video essay that takes as its point of departure Swedish “Match King” Ivar Kreuger, whose privatization of financial crisis management strategies bears a direct relation to late-twentieth century policies implemented by the IMF and WTO. Between 1917 and 1932, Kreuger capitalized on shifts in global financial markets to control over 200 companies and establish matchstick monopolies in at least 34 countries. At the height of his success, Ivar Kreuger was worth approximately 30 million Swedish kronor (the equivalent of 100 billion USD today) and had matchstick monopolies in at least 34 countries. The project is both a prehistory of neoliberal economics and an allegory about social relations and desire in the wake of global capitalist expansion and excess.
Visually, “Strike Anywhere” incorporates previously unseen archival photographs, corporate charts and documents, and documentary sequences staged for the camera or observed during research and everyday life. The sequence of the piece is organized loosely as a passage between different spaces and the conflictual meanings these spaces produce––including the Swedish National Archives, the former company headquarters(still known today as the “Match Palace), and two match factories continuously in operation since the early 1900s. The project juxtaposes footage of these factories with interviews with two Kreuger researchers. Both men espouse views, accumulated over years of unrecognized research, that differ from the popular histories of Kreuger in Sweden or the United States. Through a juxtaposition of these interviews with the present-day match manufacturing process, the film depicts the extant factories as carryovers from an older form of industrial capitalism. The factories have persisted while the world around them has shifted, in part due to financiers similar to Kreuger.
Conceptually, “Strike Anywhere” is a spatio-temporal diagram where visual and linguistic articulations of power point to the instability between archival document and event, iconography and cultural memory, present tense and historical remove. These structures of depicting and interpreting the world – charts, testimonies, and photographs alike – stand as subjective, deliberate, and equally susceptible to attempts at ideological revision. In realizing the layered structure of “Strike Anywhere,” Gerdes and Hayashida are interested in provoking a counter-historical dialogue about collective rethinking of economic and political possibilities in the present.
If you are unable to attend the screening, the video can be viewed online:
3. About "Populus Tremula"
"Populus Tremula" / 9-minute 16mm film, 2010
Populus Tremula is a 16mm film loop originating from artistic research into Swedish “Match King” Ivar Kreuger (1880 – 1932), whom The Economist in 2007 called “the world's greatest financial swindler” and who was the founder of Svenska Tändsticksaktiebolaget (the Swedish Matchstick Corporation), today called Swedish Match. Between 1917 and 1932, Kreuger capitalized on shifts in global financial markets to control over 200 companies and establish matchstick monopolies in at least 34 countries; he borrowed money at low rates on U.S. markets and in turn loaned these funds to countries that granted him market monopolies, thereby initiating, according to some scholars, practices currently enacted by the IMF and WTO. Populus Tremula consists of contemporary footage shot in two extant Swedish Match factories in Vetlanda and Tidaholm, Sweden. Both factory locations have been active since the 19th century, and while the manufacturing process is now almost fully automated, beyond the removal of human labor, it has changed little since the early 20th century.
While the film follows the linear progression of match manufacture from timber to shrink-wrapped package ready for export, a series of superimposed textual interventions point to the ability of both capital and the nation-state to legislate and assert the monopoly capitalist’s desire, as in the case of Kreuger, to not only exploit natural resources but to appear to surpass the power of nature through myth. The conjoining of text and image is here intended to posit conflicting historical and ideological conjectures in an effort to indicate ideological fissures which in turn may spark, or tremble, present-day possibilities for contestation.
Populus Tremula is part of an ongoing series of projects by Benj Gerdes & Jennifer Hayashida entitled “Room of the Sun.”
from "No More Strike Anywhere," an essay with photographs in the journal Rethinking Marxism, April 2008 Issue
Download as pdf from:
“Tänd en Solsticka och sprid glädje bland barn och gamla.”
Light a Sunstick and spread joy amongst children and the elderly.
--Solstickan Foundation slogan, circa 1936
This is an essay about neoliberalism’s prehistory, about the trajectory of Swedish social democracy, glimpsed here in the context of its beginnings in the early 1930s. This is also an essay about a man who portrayed himself as a modern-day Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from Zeus and brought this gift to mortals: the once-notorious Swedish entrepreneur, financier, and industrialist Ivar Kreuger (1880-1932).
In 1917, Kreuger founded Svenska Tändsticksaktiebolaget (The Swedish Matchstick Corporation). By 1931, he controlled an estimated 200 companies, both in Sweden and internationally. During the first third of the 20th century – and during the interwar years in particular – Kreuger capitalized on economic shifts in the global market, including the dawn of what we now term junk bonds and investment banking. At the height of his success, Ivar Kreuger was worth approximately 30 million Swedish kronor (the equivalent of 100 billion USD today) and had matchstick monopolies in at least 34 countries. He loaned money borrowed on the U.S. bond market at preferential rates to other nations in exchange for the aforementioned monopolies (actually long-term lease agreements on publicly-held trusts). We follow other scholars who argue that this type of privatized crisis management was a precursor to the formation of the International Monetary Fund. Consequently, we hold that Kreuger’s international loan and monopoly leases of publicly held trusts are more brutishly contemporary than they are quaint.
“No More Strike Anywhere” is based on research we initiated in the summer of 2007, and is a component of Room of the Sun, a larger project dealing with Kreuger’s empire of matches. When we began, we were interested in learning more about the development and implementation of neoliberal economics outside the United States: could we trace a kind of play between capitalist expansion and nation-state which might confuse prevailing wisdom about our “globalized” present? Kreuger’s combination of megalomania, financial creativity, benevolent philanthropy, and historical obscurity made him a compelling figure through which to pursue these questions. The context of Swedish social democracy and the international impression of that country as a cradle-to-grave welfare state quickly generated a variety of questions concerning the relationship between national ideology and the idea of a national economic hero/scoundrel. From a story-telling standpoint, Kreuger’s narrative lends itself to alternately tragic and scandalous interpretations: in 1932, following the U.S. stock market crash and the subsequent discovery that stocks issued by Kreuger were in fact without value, the Match King committed suicide in his Paris apartment. The circumstances surrounding his death remain disputed and this posthumous debate illustrates his continuing and contradictory significance as national traitor and/or saint.
Throughout our interviews and archival visits, we repeatedly returned to the question of what people saw in Ivar Kreuger that caused them to believe in his economic fictions, to -- literally -- buy into his stories. Consequently, we came to look more closely at not only the “facts” of his matchstick empire (banking statements, documentation of police investigations, courtroom testimonies) but also at its narrative texture and contradictions. In particular, what role did the media of the time play in promoting Kreuger’s agenda, and how do photographs from that same period reveal cracks in a narrative of economic and national stability? How does postcolonial hindsight and a “global” context challenge us to reinterpret interwar-era images of workers -- in this instance, in Sweden and in India -- as representations of an economic past, present, and future?
The visual vocabulary of “No More Strike Anywhere” is taken from archival materials that include newspaper clippings, 70-something shelf meters of documentation from criminal bankruptcy proceedings, visits to the matchstick museum in Jönköping, a book of photographs supposedly given to Kreuger by his Indian workers as a gesture of their gratitude on his 50th birthday, as well as interviews with a variety of Kreuger scholars and conspiracy theorists. We do not intend to tell a full story or answer questions regarding Kreuger’s persona or legacy: rather, the intention behind this project is to read the dialogue between images; to explore how our place in an U.S.-inflected economic and political present affects our understanding of another country’s economic history, and how that history in turn foreshadows contemporary narratives concerning economic successes and failures. A flowchart such as the one that begins this essay comprises the type of necessary fiction that economists and historians deal in, inherent with its implied relationships between facts, figures, dates, and events. “No More Strike Anywhere” is a flowchart of sorts, where images that bear a relationship to the subjective rearticulations of power hopefully point to the awkwardness and volatility of the relationship between image and story, as well as how identification with images has real economic and social consequences in the present.
In dialogue with each other, these structures of depicting and interpreting the world -- charts, testimonies, and photographs alike -- should be revealed as subjective, deliberate, and equally susceptible to attempts at ideological revision. Our utilization of a mode of documentary reference, where images might imply but also destabilize their historical contingency, offers an opportunity for complexity and confusion to have direct implications for our understanding (or confusion) in relation to the present. The idea is not to familiarize a reader with Ivar Kreuger the man, but rather to distance the reader from her/his relationship to abstract possibilities (or impossibilities) in the present, and in so doing to place the reader closer to questions having to do with national fiction-making and how we collectively can work to re-frame and re-articulate the present as we here seek to re-frame and re-articulate the past.
5. "It is the Hungry Who Hunt the Best": The Language of a Neocolonial Welfare State by Jennifer Hayashida
A few years ago, I attended a translation conference in Stockholm. The theme of the conference was so-called “Third World” literatures and the event was intended to emphasize the value of translation in relation to global human rights. Clitoridectomies, Burkhas, and the methods of Egyptian secret police were problems to be addressed in the halls of the City Conference Centre, and eventually through a conference resolution (!).
During the opening session, one of the organizers stated that Sweden was an ideal site for such a conference, given that nation’s absence of a history of colonization or empire. Upon hearing her words, I looked around the room to see if anyone else appeared to find this statement not only problematic, but simply fallacious, but I spotted no looks of dismay or disagreement. No one, it seemed, cared to remember “stormaktstiden” and Sweden’s 17th century rule over Finland, parts of Norway, or Poland, nor did they care to recall short-lived (but indisputably Swedish) colonies in Tobago, Guadeloupe, or the so-called Swedish Gold Coast in Africa. For the next three days, I repeatedly overheard and witnessed similarly self-congratulatory language and gestures.
I knew that the Swedish state’s sense of “First World” responsibility to the global subaltern was alive and well – welfare imperialism – yet I had not heard or seen it interpreted so aggressively as to be transformed into a kind of national tabula rasa, wherein a history of cowardly political rubber-necking (WWII) and neocolonial projects were suddenly characterized as ethical and/or nonexistent.
My frustration with the discussions at the conference dovetailed neatly with the materials that my partner and I discovered during that summer in Stockholm, when we first initiated our archival research into the “Match King” Ivar Kreuger and Svenska Tändsticksaktiebolaget (STAB, or the Swedish Matchstick Corporation). In addition to our work around Kreuger and national mythmaking, we became increasingly interested in the global mechanics of Kreuger’s vertical manufacturing and Swedish neocolonialism.
We found photographs of Swedish aspen trees being unloaded near factories in Calcutta, having been shipped halfway around the world due to the belief that the Swedish timber was superior to any other, as well as Kreuger’s ownership of Sweden’s largest timber and pulp corporation. We found a leather-bound and gold-trimmed photo album, given to Kreuger on his 50th birthday by STAB:s Indian employees, filled with a carefully curated selection of photographs depicting the Indian employees efficiently at work or enjoying the tidy living conditions of STAB employee housing. The photographs were taken in the mid-1920s, a time marked by Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership of the Indian National Congress and movements towards national independence – none of this is mentioned in the STAB archive, of course.
As with many colonial and neolonial narratives, the welfare of the subaltern is frequently characterized as what is at stake for the intervening national or corporate interest, and what we found in the STAB archives was no different. Corporate efficiency or expense is hidden behind concern for foreign national economics and subjects.
The article below, from 1972, was retrieved from Sigtunastiftelsen, a Christian foundation that operates one of Sweden’s largest press archives, and its significance lies in the ideological paradoxes of the two parties involved. Wallgren, representing STAB, claims that the corporation’s actions are imbued with mindful benevolence wherein the corporation, in close consultation with the Indian state, attends to the needs of the national economy and its subjects. Radetzki, apparently representing a scholarly perspective, writes that only the elite benefits from such interventions, and that the people of India (typically characterized as innumerable) would be better off if encouraged to develop their own domestic – and manual – production of matchsticks.
Radetzki’s insistence on manual production as a social and economic curative is fascinating: at odds with the desired trajectory for first world nations’ industrialization, wherein automation, efficiency, and the removal of the human are seen as ideal outcomes, his perspective is that, for the “underdeveloped” nation, manual production can lead to a thin layer of employment for many, as opposed to a concentration of employment for the few. Efficiency is for colder regions, it seems, whereas the handmade remains suitable for warmer climates.
The more one learns of Radetzki, the more unsettled one is. Born 1936 in Warsaw, Poland, he is Professor of Economics at Luleå University of Technology. His work focuses primarily on the economics of raw materials, in particular minerals, metals, and energy, and he has worked as a consultant for a number of multinationals, foreign governments, and the World Bank and UNDP. However, what makes him notable are his opinions about national identity and economics, including his desire to see English be the national language of Sweden, as well as his belief, one which he undoubtedly shares with many, that organized labor is the primary obstacle to any social or economic progress on a national level.
However, his most controversial idea is that he advocates cutting low-wage workers’ salaries in half in order to incentivize individual uplift and self-suffiency, thereby combating high rates of unemployment and chronic dependence on social welfare. In Radetzki’s words, “It is the hungry who hunt the best,” and he points to the United States as a generative model for this type of bootstrapping national ideology. For a riveting interview with Radetzki (and if you speak Swedish) please watch “Increase the Gaps to Decrease Unemployment,” available at svt.se.
At the time of the publication of this exchange in Dagens Nyheter, one of Sweden’s two large daily newspapers, Radetzki had only recently completed his Doctorate at the Stockholm School of Economics and was employed as chief economics at CIPEC, the international copper cartel. The translation is my own.
STAB in India
Dagens Nyheter, September 9, 1972
The Swedish Matchstick Corporations polemicizes against Marian Radetzki’s statement that their companies in India did not introduce new products or jobs to the country. Radetzki, who based his statement on a paper by Klas Markensten, replies.
In Marian Radetzki’s interesting article, published in DN 8/26, titled “Swedish Corporations Abroad,” two statements are made which from the very beginning are plainly incorrect and therefore misleading for readers. He states:
1) “The Swedish companies in India do not appear to have brought with them any new products or technology, rather they have hampered any domestic expansion.”
2) “And the old Swedish matchstick imperialism instead appears to have prevented rather than created new employment opportunities…”
The actual conditions are such that aside from STAB:s co-ownership (the other half is owned by a large number of Indian investors) in matchstick factories, STAB has contributed the following new import-substituting industries:
1) Papermill (Calcutta)
2) Chlorate and glue factory (Ambarnath)
3) Extraction of common salt from seawater (on the east coast south of Madras)
4) Manufacturing industry (matchstick machinery and processing equipment to the food industry, etc.) in Poona.
All in all, we currently employ approximately 10,000 workers and salaried employees, six of whom are Scandinavian.
All these projects have been developed in close consultation with the Indian government. The Swedish Matchstick Corporation has for many years reinvested profits in new manufacturing tailored to the country’s needs. In short: the profits from STAB:s Indian operations essentially stay in that country.
The extremely important question of if a country like India should create additional manual manufacturing or a more mechanized industry is one that we have lived with for decades. STAB:s politics regarding new development follows the Indian government’s demands for modern production technology. One must not forget that alongside the uneducated millions who today do not have any occupation and who naturally make up the main problem for the Indian government, are also demands that the country’s own educated industrial intelligentsia shall be employed in leading positions, and themselves contribute to the country’s development. This is the case for all of the Swedish Matchstick Corporation’s enterprises in India. Only when domestic expertise is missing does STAB send employees from other countries. This policy is one that the company itself has actively participated in during past decades, and if possible, it is one that we intend to continue.
Director, Matchstick Division
My two arguments, here addressed by STAB, are based on information found in Klas Markensten’s scientific paper on Swedish corporate activity in India. I have found no reason to question either these or other facts that Markensten uses to support his analysis.
No one wants to deny that STAB and the other Swedish companies’ production in India has replaced earlier importation. The argument that Swedish corporate activity failed to introduce any substantial new products or technologies is based on the fact that similar production was already taking place in India when the Swedish companies established themselves there. The Swedish business enabled a (possibly more rapid) expansion of such production, but did not really bring anything new to India.
10,000 employed by STAB signifies an important source of income for perhaps 75,000 Indians. But it is necessary to also look to the alternative increase in labor activity that the currently self-supporting and competitive manual manufacturing of matches could offer several hundreds of thousands of workers, if only mechanized manufacturing, underwritten by powerful international capital interests, was contained or discontinued. From this perspective, it is in my opinion entirely correct to see STAB:s matchstick manufacturing as a brake on India’s employment rates.
In my article, I write that the Swedish companies have behaved as exemplary Indian legal entities. In cooperation with the host country’s government they have contributed to an impressive expansion of the country’s modern sector. The problem is just that this development has essentially only benefited the elite minority of the country’s population. Large sectors of the population among India’s poor have during the 60s seen an absolute decrease in their standards of consumption.
I do not believe that continued development according to this pattern will remain politically sustainable much longer in India, Pakistan, Brazil, or the other developing nations which host Swedish investments. Soon enough the development strategy will demand public and private contributions which in a completely different manner than now benefit larger segments of the population. Foreign investors will undoubtedly experience considerable difficulty, if they before then have not reconsidered and developed technologies and products that to a greater degree than today increase employment, consumption, and welfare also for that majority which is currently largely excluded from the modern sector’s excesses.
 Markensten is currently Senior Advisor to the Director General at SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, www.sida.org. His professional life seems rooted in international development and aid.
6. About Jennifer Hayashida & Benj Gerdes
Poet and translator Jennifer Hayashida’s ongoing interests include representations of the immigrant subject and the welfare state, interstitial literary practices, and mixed race identity formations. She is presently a NYFA Fellow in Poetry and works as the Acting Director of the Asian American Studies Program at Hunter College.
Benj Gerdes is an artist and activist working in film, video, and a number of other public formats. He frequently works in collaboration with other artists, activists, and theorists, including as a member of 16 Beaver Group. He is interested in intersections of political discourse, knowledge production, and popular imagination. He currently teaches video at Cooper Union and as Visiting Artist in the Department of Cinema, SUNY-Binghamton.
7. "New Left-Wing Melancholy: Mark Tribe’s 'The Port Huron Project' and the Politics of Reenactment" by Paige Sarlin
The journal October sent a questionnaire to artists, critics, and art historians in the summer of 2007. The central question, and the one they reprinted on the cover of the issue that contained all the responses, was: “In what ways have artists, academics, and cultural institutions responded to the U.S.-led inva sion and occupation of Iraq?” The questionnaire and the published responses served as an answer to the lack of attention to the wars in Iraq and Afghani stan that had marked the journal during the previous three years.1 A journal other than October might never have felt the need to address contemporary political conditions. But this journal had been founded with a strident state ment of purpose. In 1978, the editors claimed the cultural arena as a site for political action, one in which philosophical and aesthetic questions were not pre-given but rather crucially important, with potential political conse quences. Seen in that light, their gesture to justify and remedy an absence of cultural attention to the Iraq War simultaneously appears particularly signifi cant. In one part of the questionnaire, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, the author, asked if the absence of the draft explained the difference between the char acter of the protests against the war in Vietnam and the protests against the war in Iraq.2 This question invoked a range of criticisms within the responses (including a criticism from me, as a member of the group 16Beaver).3 And so in the introduction to the special issue, Buchloh and coeditor Rachel Churner devoted a small section to defending themselves from the various objections and qualifications that were raised about their use of the comparison with Vietnam. They argued that the analogy that they drew upon was intended to “encourage action” through raising a generational question: What is it that we are doing that is different and how can the awareness of this differ ence be productive?4 Mark Tribe’s “The Port Huron Project” was cited in a footnote in this section, serving as an example of “how protest informs intel lectual history and how significantly we have internalized the intellectual paradigms from that generation.”5 Tribe’s project both served as proof of the influence of historic protests on cultural producers and simultaneously validated Buchloh and Churner’s use of the historical comparison in their questionnaire and analysis of the responses to the war in Iraq (figured as the “absence” of a mass movement). But what, one might ask, is the relation of “The Port Huron Project” to the history that it reenacts? And, more signifi cant, what is at stake in the comparison of the contemporary response to the war and the left-wing political activity of the late 1960s that October and vari ous other cultural institutions have invoked and explored over the last year, which was the fortieth anniversary of 1968? Tribe’s project gives a blank form to the differences and the similarities between then and now, assuming a form of resonance and significance that the project then re-produces and amplifies. Without questioning the utility of the comparison, Tribe’s project works to elaborate itself not in relation to the specificity of the past or the present, but somewhere in between, in relation to this structure of analogy. In this way, the project shares with October’s questionnaire and special issue a lack of clarity about the specific ideological and political character of the social movements of the 1960s (and the American left more broadly). “The Port Huron Project” gestures toward a general sense of the politically radi cal character of the historical period that accompanied the escalation of the American war in Vietnam and the marked increase in the level of class and social justice struggles in the United States and on a global scale. This use of analogy trades on the association with this “radical” history, but it sidesteps the myriad of difficult questions that generic references to protest, the New Left, or social movements of the 1960s could raise with respect to the con temporary antiwar movement.
October’s questionnaire comes tantalizingly close to the question that Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin asked in their 1972 film Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still (FR, 1972): What role can artists and intellectuals play in building a movement to stop the war?6 It seems that any formulation that seeks to oppose or respond to the Iraq War must inevitably confront a comparison with Vietnam and the antiwar movement that that war engen dered. But the ubiquity of the analogy highlights the need to consider how this deployment of history fits into a left-wing political project with respect to the war. The recent spate of art projects that use historical reenactment to consider the resonances between the 1960s and the present and the num ber of retrospectives and exhibitions that investigate and commemorate the political activism of the New Left could all be seen as participating in this “response.”7 In this essay, I read the invocation of the protest movements of the 1960s as a form of what Walter Benjamin termed “left-wing melan choly,” a response to the war in Iraq that treats the apparent absence of an antiwar movement in an oblique manner. More than simply an update, this new “left-wing melancholy”—or, as I term it, New Left-wing melancholy— fetishizes the history of the New Left as a way of avoiding addressing the present. Looking to the past, the practice of reenactment has the potential to generate a new relation to the present, to wrench us into a more proactive relation to the on-going crisis of military occupation and brutality. But Tribe’s reenactments are exemplary of how the reproduction of history can substitute for an analysis of specific histories. In the case of Tribe, the reproduction of a form of protest through the staging of speeches erases the politics and labor of organizing and movement building and in doing so points to a particular relation to history, one that is explained by Michel Foucault’s concept of the archive. The cultural left, as represented by October and various other galleries and museums, has embraced the reenactment and the structure of historical analogy to ’68 as a form of “political” engagement or response to the U.S. military and police actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. This form of historical analogy perpetuates an image of the New Left that obscures the specific his tories of the social movements of the 1960s and the relation to the history of the left that the New Left sought to establish. As a result, the reference to the past functions to forestall an examination of the very real challenges to build ing a contemporary movement, some of which stem from the inheritances of the New Left and its rejection of previous modes of class-based analysis, but many of which derive from the varied developments in the world and on the left in the intervening years since 1968.
On his website, Tribe describes “The Port Huron Project” as “a series of reenactments of protest speeches from the New Left movements of the 1960s and 70s.”8 Tribe’s choice of title and this short description lay bare the cen tral mechanism of decontextualization that grounds his “project.” Under the rubric of reenactment, Tribe’s project involves a process of selection, perfor mance, documentation, and distribution of these speeches. Video documen tation is the primary form that this project takes; but the website is integral to the work, organizing the materials that define the project in terms of its production and its circulation. This focus on the mediated and re-mediated aspects of culture continues Tribe’s engagement with new media and forms of networking that began with his role in the cofounding in 1996 of Rhizome. org, a web-based resource for artists. Thus far in the series, six protest speeches have been reenacted: Coretta Scott King’s April 1968 speech at an antiwar demonstration in New York City, Howard Zinn’s speech about civil disobedi ence delivered on Boston Common in 1971, Paul Potter’s April 1965 speech at an antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C., César Chávez’s speech at a demonstration in Los Angeles in 1971, Angela Davis’s speech delivered at a 1969 Black Panther rally in Oakland, California, and Stokely Carmichael’s speech in front of the United Nations in 1967 as part of a national mobili zation against the Vietnam War. In the material provided on his website, Tribe is quite explicit about the elements that constitute a reenactment for this project: a location, a speech, a performer, invited guests, and the presence of cameras and various other recording devices. The events are advertised through news articles, emails, and other networks (the project has a My-Space page as well as now being supported and promoted by Creative Time, an arts organization in New York that orchestrates large-scale public events and exhibitions). As a result, audiences of varying sizes attend the events and are featured prominently in the documentation of the events. Available on Tribe’s website as well as on YouTube, and distributed via DVD, the videos of these events have also been installed in galleries and on large-scale video screens—for example, in Times Square.9
The title of Tribe’s “project” is taken from the Port Huron Statement, a document written in 1962 by members of Students for a Democratic Society, a group of American student activists who were working collectively to cre ate a new formation on the left, a student movement that would break with historical modes of organizing and analysis.10 The publication of the state ment was the announcement of this project, a call to bring into being a new student movement. The Port Huron Statement offered both an analysis of the past and an articulation of a range of convictions. In the document, the authors asserted that both the act of writing and the document they produced were part of “the search for truly democratic alternatives to the present.” The collective authors were more committed to “experiments” than traditional methods of organizing and analysis. The Port Huron Statement was a public utterance, the performance of a break with the Old Left as well as an attempt to bring something else into being. The “New Left” is thus a contested term as well as a fiercely fought transformation. It signals the emergence of a group of young radicals and activists who believed that the poor and the students, not the workers, were capable of transforming society. The document, the publication of which is often cited as one of the founding moments of the New Left, called for and attempted to perform this break.11 The New Left became the umbrella term for the emergence of new groups of radicals who aimed at transforming society as well as relations, analyses, and strategies as a whole on the left. The New Left can thus be contextualized as an historical designation. But the movements that were lumped under this label were never singu lar nor homogenous, and even SDS, the organization that developed out of the conference that produced this document, was itself characterized by a set of debates and divisions, all of which have been documented and scrutinized by various critics.12
In this way, the Port Huron Statement can be read as a rhetorical and practical break with history and ideology. Turning this break into a project about the relation between the present and the past is a provocative, if not strange, gesture. In some respects, it is the very vagueness of the designa tion of the New Left that enables this sort of project to be possible. By titling his work “The Port Huron Project,” Tribe suggests that his work maintains some affinity if not a form of continuity with the project laid out in this docu ment.But Tribe’s “project” is not a political project. It is the work of an artist who is taking history as his subject. So while it articulates a series of goals, assumptions, and values, as any political project does, the sense of vision and direction are tied entirely to the realm of cultural production and reproduc tion, not the transformation of culture or society per se. The procedure by which a political project is transformed into an aesthetic or cultural practice thus becomes evident. Tribe’s project inscribes an event that was conceived as the establishment of an origin for a new political formation as little more than a label. It neither represents the process by which this New Left came into being nor contextualizes the break that the SDS members sought to cre ate with the Old Left through their manifesto (and their organizing activities). It does not enact the project that the statement announced (the creation of a new movement) but instead repeats some of the speeches that the movements produced.13 In this way, Tribe’s work offers a clear demonstration of a proce dure by which the political and social movements of the 1960s are invoked, decontextualized, and, I argue, depoliticized.
When Tribe transforms the Port Huron Statement into his “project,” he indulges in what Walter Benjamin called left-wing melancholy. In a short essay from 1931, Benjamin characterized left-wing melancholy as “the trans position of revolutionary reflexes . . . into objects of distraction, of amuse ment, which can be supplied for consumption.”14 This reification is akin to fetishization in that it makes of an aspect or part of the former left-wing politics an object that can be put into circulation without disturbing the status quo. These partial historical references neither question the past nor call attention to the possibility for the production of a radical future. For Benja min, left-wing melancholy produces an “attitude to which there is no longer in general any corresponding political action.”15 It is as if the very lifeblood that made the gesture significant is cut off; the movement or symbol is sev ered from its context, the political activity and movement that gave it mean ing in the first place. Benjamin calls this a “transposition,” a “metamorphosis” in which a “means of production” is made into “an article of consumption.” By ignoring this dynamic “context,” Benjamin argues, left-wing melancholy enables “complacency and fatalism” even as it appears to comment upon the present.16 Through an examination of the poetry of Erich Kästner, Benjamin isolates a certain kind of historiographical procedure that makes the politi cal past into an object, rendering both politics and history in a particularly conservative manner even as it espouses a more radical allegiance through both its self-definition and its choice of subject matter. Benjamin’s critique of the way in which Kästner’s poetry transforms political history into a hollow form does not rest on aesthetic grounds. Benjamin does not argue that left-wing melancholy is the inevitable result of an art practice that seeks to treat political subject matter or history. On the contrary, Benjamin’s argument is that Kästner’s poetry makes visible a relation to history that exists within the sphere of art and politics. By designating a process that afflicts the political realm and the cultural realm, the concept of left-wing melancholy helps to describe the ways in which the processes of cultural production are never ideologically neutral.17 “The Port Huron Project” exhibits the characteristics of left-wing melancholy in the way that it both isolates and monumentalizes protest speeches, rather than the activities or movements from which these speech acts issued. As an example of New Left-wing melancholy, Tribe’s proj ect perpetuates a version of history that evacuates and renders lost the very political activity that made the speeches significant.
In essence, reenactment involves two procedures, the decontextualiza tion and subsequent recontextualization of the past in relation to the present. In Tribe’s case reenactment does not interpret the past, but re-presents it, repeating a series of “protest speeches” from the past. Reenactment constructs a temporal dislocation and thereby has the potential to operate as a form of historical intervention. But Tribe’s project, as made evident on his website, does nothing more than collect various resources. Tribe’s project repeats well-worn artifacts of the ’60s antiwar and social justice (civil rights) movements, simply resurrecting the textual remains of those movements without account ing for the labor that produced the movements, nor their very ideological relation to history. In this respect, Tribe’s project is similar to Sharon Hayes’s series “In the Near Future” (2007), in which the New York–based conceptual artist photographs herself in the historical locations of protests holding plac ards from those earlier moments of resistance. Hayes, like Tribe, refers to her work as “performance,” as a staging of an action; but the source material that they both draw from relies almost exclusively on the documentation of events, images, and texts from recognizable moments in the history of large and varied social movements. These works trade on the power of decontextu alization but do not seek to question the process of depoliticization that these documents from the past have already undergone, nor the operation of circu lation and reproduction that continues and entrenches this particular form of depoliticization. Tribe’s project, like the work of Hayes, exhibits a particular form of New Left-wing melancholy that makes visible the reproduction of hol lowed-out forms. In doing so, they support a kind of political inertia in which history is represented as an ineffectual loop of repetition and circulation.
In the case of Tribe’s “The Port Huron Project,” this process of decon textualization and depoliticization is evident on the project website, which functions as a repository. The project website makes available the “source” material for each of the reenactments in addition to the video documentation and media commentaries.18 But Tribe’s notion of “source” is shaped by an alle giance to the open source movement; he defines a source in terms of its repro ducibility, its status as technologically accessible, not historically determined. The website of “The Port Huron Project” presents a mediography and a list of New Left speeches that provide a context for Tribe’s practice in relation to other artworks and texts, but it also reveals the limitations of his research. The discursive formation of the New Left stands in Tribe’s work without qualifica tion. The speeches are assumed to constitute it, and the individual artifacts of “protest speech” are placed in relation to one another, thus comprising an aggregate of documents, statements, and documentation that come to stand for the New Left movements. Within the frame of the website, the specific context and ideological character of the individual movements from which each of these speeches spring is less significant than their status as part of the general category as a whole. In this way, this history is presented as a treasure trove from which to choose not the product of various struggles and, most significant, not the work of organizations and groups of people.
Tribe’s project illustrates the place of such artifacts in what Michel Fou cault calls the archive. The archive, as Foucault defines it, is “the density of discursive practices, systems that establish statements as events (with their own conditions and domain of appearance) and things (with their own pos sibility and fields of use).”19 An amalgam of systems of classification (with respect to production and use), the archive shapes what can be seen and known about a given historical period and the present. The archive works by structuring what it is possible to understand and describe through the establishment of distinctions and differentiations. “The Port Huron Project” demonstrates the productivity of the archive, how the histories of the left and the New Left are re-produced and circulated by various means. In this respect, Tribe’s project makes visible a certain form of relation to the 1960s, not simply as a grouping of various objects (though his project presents them as such), but as a mode of apprehending politics itself. In his restaging of these protest speeches, Tribe calls our attention to the way in which discon tinuities on the levels of function and appearance shape our understanding of both the present and the past. His project exposes the way in which par ticular kinds of statements, as well as particular images, continue to mold ways of knowing, apprehending, and reading.
But “The Port Huron Project” does not question any of the categories it enlists; it simply reproduces the classifications that it employs. In Tribe’s proj ect, the status of the statement, the conditions of its production, its political or ideological specificity, complexity, and context, are never engaged. This sug gests that left-wing melancholy may be a term that can be used to describe a certain form of historically based aesthetic and cultural practice that deploys the archive rather than questioning it. By not questioning the classifications that organize and underpin the practice and its inscription, Tribe’s project does not make space for the production of difference. It closes down the pos sibility for radical change in the present that could be predicated on reading the past differently. As Wendy Brown rightly points out in her essay from 1999, Benjamin’s epithet is reserved for someone who is “attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal—even to the failure of that ideal—than to seizing the possibilities for change in the present.”20 The depoliticizing of the past enables a depoliticized relation to the present. For a recent article in the Boston Phoenix, Greg Cook interviewed Mark Tribe and asked him why he chose not to deal directly with the war in Iraq. Tribe’s answer is instructive. He is quoted as saying that the form of reenactment allows him to deal with “more levels,” a phrase suggesting a parallel to Foucault’s notion of the arche ological levels at which history should be analyzed. Unfortunately, while Tribe invokes these levels, the work itself does not question the operations by which these “levels” are already implicated in a cultural operation of general decontextualization.21
By choosing speeches that have already been re-produced without con cern for all that surrounded and produced the speech, Tribe does not chal lenge the functioning of the archive. Textual remains provide the basis on which categories such as history and politics are conceived. Texts can be reproduced, excerpted, anthologized, reprinted, and analyzed. The condi tions of performance and reproduction are less easy to “preserve.”22 With respect to “protest” speech, this operation of erasure is particularly signifi cant. For the work that makes a “protest speech” into an event is precisely the work of organizing and constituting that audience. All the activities that went into “building” the events, constituting the crowds, anything that might indicate that politics is a process, a form of labor, are entirely obscured in Tribe’s documentation. When a protest is reduced to the text of a speech, the activity of production is not merely subsumed into a commodity; it is voided and effaced.23
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