Rene -- Brian Holmes -- Liar's Poker -- 05.09.04

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Liar's Poker

Representation of Politics/Politics of Representation

Brian Holmes

Basically, what I have to say here is simple: when people talk about politics in an artistic frame, they're lying. Indeed, the lies they tell are often painfully obvious, and worse is the moment when you realize that some will go forever unchallenged and take on, not the semblance of truth, but the reliability of convention. In a period like ours when the relationship to politics is one of the legitimating arguments for the very existence of public art, the tissue of lies that surrounds one when entering a museum can become so dense that it's like falling into an ancient cellar full of spider webs, and choking on them as you struggle to breathe. Now, the mere mention of this reality will make even my friends and allies in the artistic establishment rather nervous; but it is a reality nonetheless. And like most of the political realities in our democratic age, it has directly to do with the question of representation.


Picture Politics

Does anyone doubt there exists a politics of representation? Such people have clearly not looked at the television during a political campaign. But worse, they have not looked at social movements. They have not witnessed the endless capacity of people who do not occupy positions of elite power, and who do not enjoy direct access to major media, to project their messages nonetheless, by means of signs, images and gestures. Nor have they realized how effectively artists can work in such »outside« contexts: one need only think of Gran Fury, amidst the New York Aids activism of the eighties; of Ne Pas Plier, with the jobless people's movements in Paris in the nineties; or of the many artists who have participated in recent counter-globalization demonstrations and campaigns. Artists can play a vital role in this kind of »picture politics«.

At the same time, it is easy for artists to heed the injunction of the museum, the magazines and the market, which say: »Picture politics for me.« Do a picture or a sculpture of politics, carry out the representation of political conflict, as in the installation piece by Thomas Hirschhorn, Wirtschaftslandschaft Davos, shown at Kunsthaus Zürich when Hirschhorn won the prize for »Young Swiss Art« in 2001. This work uses model houses, toy soldiers, real barbed wire and other ready-made materials to represent the besieged Swiss valley where the world's most powerful people annually meet. Hirschhorn's style can be referenced to »dadaist collage«, observes one critic; but his major source is »the practice of excluded people who know perfectly well how to get their messages across, by using whatever they find.« [1] In this case the excluded people are those who confront the barbed wire at the World Economic Forum. And since counter-globalization has been a hot subject, representing them is a perfect way to become popular in a museum.

Hirschhorn goes further, though, because he turns a bit of ordinary life into a representation of politics, with his Bataille Monument in a Turkish quarter of Kassel. This life-sized library, snack bar and makeshift TV studio is a participatory project, whose effects in the neighborhood itself I won't presume to judge from a distance. What concerns me is the way he manages its relations to the artistic frame. On the »taxi stand« where visitors awaited to be ferried from the Documenta 11 to the site of the monument, Hirschhorn placed a quotation from the American artist, David Hammonds: »The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It's overly educated, it's conservative, it's out to criticize, not to understand and it never has any fun... So I refuse to deal with that audience, and I'll play with the street audience. That audience is much more human, and their opinion is from the heart. They don't have any reason to play games, there's nothing gained or lost.« Hirschhorn claims to have abandoned the framing structures of contemporary art, for a more authentically engaged social practice. But if that's the case, why the taxi, why the exposure of the site to visitors' eyes, which turns the social project into a representation? What kind of game is he playing?

In his case there are certainly things to be won - like the prize for Young Swiss Art, or the Marcel Duchamp prize for the promotion of French artists, awarded to Hirschhorn by the ADIAF association in the year 2000. The Duchamp prize is sponsored by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, a transnational consulting company, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. Kunsthaus Zürich, where Wirtschaftslandschaft Davos was shown, is regularly funded by the Private Banking subsidiary of Crédit Suisse, which ranks 31st on Fortune's Global 500 list. Documenta 11 was sponsored by Volkswagen, Deutsche Telekom and Sparkassen-Finanzgruppe. Does all this sound familiar? In the contemporary art game, the picture of excluded people's politics is worth a lot to the included - including transnational corporations. Of course I'm aware that the prize commissions are independent, just like exhibition curators. Their independence supports the notion of an autonomous artistic sphere, separate from the economic nexus that sustains it. These kinds of separations, between abstract financial decisions and their substantive effects, are exactly what the protestors at the Davos meetings refuse. Hirschhorn retains an interest in the artistic frame he claims to leave behind. Yet he seems particularly uncomfortable there; and it's intriguing to see how he ups the symbolic stakes in the Davos piece, formulating a direct critique of transnational capitalism even as he is pursued and courted by the corporate-backed prize commissions.

How does picture politics work, when it is associated with a proper name and presented within the contemplative frame of the art institution? Invariably it produces statements like these: »I represent the people«, or »I represent a social movement«, or »I represent the excluded« - which are the classic lies of representative democracy, when it serves to conceal private interests. [2] Of course, this root fact makes myself, a self-styled ›critic‹ writing in catalogues and magazines about the relations of art and politics, into one of the baldest liars of them all. And for some perverse reason I want to tell you how it's done.


Rules of the Game

Liar's poker is easy to play. The deck is composed of kings and aces. One person draws, and names the card in his hand; the other judges if he's telling the truth. If you draw an ace, it's easy: you have no choice but to say it's an ace. If you draw a king, then the game begins: because you can always bluff. Each time you claim to hold an ace, the other player must look in your eyes and decide if it's real. If he thinks it's not, he calls your bluff; and if he's right he wins a dollar, or ten, or a hundred, depending on how high you've set the stakes. If he's wrong, you win the same. And if he doesn't do a thing, he loses fifty cents, or five bucks, or fifty dollars, and the card goes back into the pack, so that no one ever knows if you were telling the truth.

For our purposes, the artist draws the cards, and the public calls the bluffs. Nowadays, of course, the artist often plays as a team with the curator or the critic; so those relations are never entirely certain. As for the cards, the ace is political reality, and its image in the museum is highly attractive. This gives the artist a great advantage: because to prove an ace is a bluff, you have to go out looking, whereas the public prefers to stay inside the museum. The artist, however, also has a great disadvantage, which is that the house - I mean the people who run the game, the founders, the funders, the boards and directors - actually can't stand aces, and if they think the artist really has one, they will never let him or her set foot inside the museum. So in both cases the artist has to bluff his way through, either claiming political engagement to live like a king inside the white cube, or hiding it to siphon off money, resources and publicity for use by a social movement. Occasionally, when the lie is too grotesque, the public will call the bluff; and then the artist has to give up some cultural capital. Even more rarely, it turns out that the artist is really involved in a social movement, in which case he or she is soon fated to disappear from the museum.

Now there's an obvious question: Why would anyone want to play such a game? In fact the question can be asked about anyone playing by the unbearable rules that hold in almost every social field today. These are the rules of inequality, exploitation, domination - those nasty realities we have to lie about in polite democratic society. When Pierre Bourdieu developed his theory of the semi-autonomous, rule-governed social fields, he first had to ask why people participate. He pointed to different forms of interest. Individuals can have a monetary interest in participating in a given field, they can do it to acquire economic capital. They can also have an interest in the relations to be formed with powerful people, so they play to acquire social capital. But in the highly professional world of art, even more than in most other fields, social capital is at least partially acquired through the accumulation of cultural capital, which can be conceived as the ability to produce and display the very specific types of signs, images and gestures which are most valued within a given field at a particular period. Accumulating cultural capital means mastering complex fetishes of meaning which have been constructed and transformed over time. Thus it becomes apparent that a powerful function of belief is at work. You must believe that these fetishes are really valuable, or ›interesting‹. Bourdieu came to call this belief illusio, which he defines as »the fact of being invested, caught up in and by the game.« »Being interested«, he continues, »means ascribing a meaning to what happens in a given social game, accepting that its stakes are important and worthy of being pursued.« [3] In the game we are discussing, the fundamental interest (or illusion) is the attainment of autonomy: a historical ideal whose terms are open to endless struggle. [4] There is a passion of this illusio without which it would be impossible to understand what happens in the artistic field today - in particular its lies, its bluffs, its representations.

Can the illusio that accounts for the very coherency of the field be transformed, gravitationally shifted, so that its prestigious objects - the signs, gestures and images - are reevaluated? Such a result could only come about through a shake-up in the system of positions occupied by specific players. This is what we are now witnessing. In the artistic game of liar's poker, certain players are increasing the stakes, and steering the conventional bluff of picture politics to the point where the contract that holds together the artist, the curator, the public and the house - that is to say, the museum as a social institution - finally breaks. When you can bluff your way to a very dramatic break, then there is the possibility of changing the field itself, of beginning to play a different game.


Upping the Stakes

Let's recall certain wagers that link the 1997 Documenta (dX) to the 2002 edition (D11). The former attempted to reknit the ties between poetics and politics, within a history considered on a world scale. Its major innovation - the 100 Days lecture program organized by Catherine David - was a Napoleonic conquest of neoliberal globalization as an object for artistic discourse. Indeed, the exhibition as a whole could be criticized for using intellectuals and historical artists to represent a protagonism that the consensus of the European scene could not offer. An essay in the catalogue by Masao Miyoshi, illustrated with a geopolitical map by the late Oyvind Fahlström, sums up the equation. Entitled »A Borderless World?«, it gives a detailed account of the rise of the transnational corporation and the attendant changes in the hegemonic functions of culture. Miyoshi asks the key question: »Are the intellectuals of the world willing to participate in transnational corporatism and be its apologists?« [5] But what no one said is how the world's artists, critics and curators could convincingly answer, in the negative.

No one on the center stage, that is. But part of the dX bluff was to include a cutting edge, the so-called »new technologies«. The Hybrid Work Space would be inhabited, among others, by artist-activists making their first uses of the Internet, for a ten-day workshop called »[über die grenze]«. I quote from an interview with Florian Schneider that appeared on the sans-papiers website founded by a French social movement shortly after the occupation of Saint-Bernard Church in Paris in 1996:

Q: »About the Documenta, here, you can talk about illegal people in a very famous art exhibition. I think it is not so easy to do such things in France. Do you think it's easier in Germany, or is there something special here, at the Documenta? You're talking about illegal people!...«

A: »Yes, sure, we are also a little bit surprised. On one hand we obviously have a fool's license here, we can declare everything, we can also nearly practice everything. On Sunday, we opened a passport exchange office, and we asked people to give us their passport to pass it on people who need it much more, which are undocumented or so called illegal people. A policeman appeared, and he asked ›Is this art or not? what are you going to do with the passports?‹ And we asked him for his passport. He refused to give us his passport, but he promised us to talk with his superiors about the action, and that was what we wanted to reach. So it seems that we could do everything we want. It's great and very funny, but in the same way, it makes me nervous a little bit, because there is even no reaction by the other side. That's the main problem in the art context. We decided to use the possibility to make politics here because it's very important at this moment to spread the campaign we started, and to spread the aims we have, spread them very widely.« [6]

The participants of »[über die grenze]« broke the conventional contract with the art institution, by refusing to stop at the borders of representation. Taking literally the corporate rhetoric about freedom of movement under globalization, they used dX as a physical and virtual platform to spread a new campaign, indeed, a new form of self-organization: the social movement »Kein Mensch ist illegal«, which over the last five years has not ceased to grow and metamorphose, continually changing names, languages, spokespeople, participants, tactics... D11 recognized the importance of this autonomous, non-representational politics by inviting Florian Schneider to speak at the first of its »Platforms«, held in April 2001 under the title »Democracy Unrealized«. [7] A year later, a »No Border«-camp was organized by activists in protest against the Schengen Information System in Strasbourg, while D11 raked in the tourist crowds in Kassel.

Personally, I had entirely missed the Hybrid Work Space in 1997. But I did take part in the recent »No Border« camp with the conceptual group »Bureau d'études«, distributing a cartographic work - or what you might just call a »tract« - entitled »Refuse the Biopolice«. One of the best encounters in Strasbourg was the Publix Theater Caravan bus, with a multimedia laboratory inside, a traveling café on top and a theater troupe performing anti-deportation interventions in public space. A week after the camp I found myself in Kassel, amazed to see a tremendous spectrum of precise and moving artworks, whose focus, in the majority of cases, was either oppression and imprisonment, or even more often, the contemporary border regime. The activist pretensions of an experimental group in 1997, and the direct action of a social movement today, seemed to be justified, extended, deepened by almost every piece in the immense exhibition.

By searching across the world, D11 found the artists to support the critique that had been formulated in the previous edition. After watching Amar Kanwar's video on the Indo-Pakistani conflict, including fascinating shots of the ritual closing of the militarized border, I stepped out into the sunlight to discover none other than the Publix Theater bus, parked in front of the Fridericianum. But the next surprise was a police officer ordering the bus to leave, under the guidance of a Documenta security manager. The troupe chanted over their PA system, »Thank you, thank you to the German police for this beautiful performance, free speech is being silenced everywhere, thank you, thank you.« And then someone walked up to the manager and the chief cop and handed them »Refuse the Biopolice«. Both proceeded instinctively to roll it up into the form of a military man's baton - as though artworks, in the hands of power, could only be a weapon and nothing more. [8]


Playing the Ace

»Artistic freedom is a fundamental right. And we feel free to promote it«, proclaims the Sparkassen-Finanzgruppe in the pages of the D11 catalogue. You wonder how they feel about all the artists participating in the current round of social struggles. Take one example: Las Agencias, a group which came together shortly before a week-long conference and workshop in October 2000 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, with an impressive list of picture-politicians (®™ark, Reclaim the Streets, Kein Mensch ist illegal, Ne pas plier, Communication Guerrilla, London Indymedia...). The program was called »On Direct Action as One of the Fine Arts«. Held at the public's insistence outside the museum, in an anarchist union hall, it was a great success. Work continued for months thereafter on subjects like free money, activist fashion design, the practical use of pictorial shields, and a traveling »Show Bus« to bring culture to the people. Then, on the day of huge demonstrations organized against the World Bank in March 2002 - when 500,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona - the local police came to raid the bar of the MacBa, used by Las Agencias. And in the weeks after this event, the Show Bus was attacked and destroyed in broad daylight - undoubtedly by undercover police. It goes without saying that the breaking point had been reached: Las Agencias could no longer be funded by the museum. Pursuing their détournement of consumer ideologies, the group started a new campaign around the theme Yo Mango, a slogan referring to a trendy fashion brand - but which also translates as »Just Nick It«. Yo Mango practices redistributive shoplifting, in the spirit of thousands of unemployed Argentineans whom the international banking system left with no other choice but to steal their dinner, ransacking transnational supermarket chains. Is this artistic freedom? Yo Mango has become a social movement, crossing the border of representation. But from time to time - to the rage of some former members - they still exhibit in museums. Meanwhile the MacBa continues, more legitimately and subversively than ever, its inquiry into the relations of art and politics.

Political involvement is popular in art right now, and for good reasons. How do art professionals maneuver in this environment, between pressures from the public on the one hand, and from the financial backers of the institutional »house« on the other? What kind of game do they play? Bourdieu has this to say about moments of aesthetic transformation: »Revolutions in art result from the transformation of the power relations constituting the space of artistic positions, a transformation which itself is rendered possible by a coincidence between the subversive intentions of a fraction of the producers and the expectations of a fraction of their public.« [9] We have seen this type of situation emerging over the past few years, as the globalized, flexibilized economy shakes up the hierarchy of social positions, rendering new alliances imaginable. And it is clear that some art professionals are playing the beginnings of a transformative game. But it would be naive to think that others do not see these situations unfolding. The art of maintaining social balances through the management of cultural trends has long been developed by the European social democracies, and is being taken over by the privatized institutions. [10] In other words, we must suppose that a fraction of those in power seek to manipulate the public, by instrumentalizing the cultural producers who play their tricks for them.

Our problem is to account for the strange duplicity of art institutions. Consider Documenta again. Why did the people who run what used to be the ideological set-piece of »Western art«, created during the Cold War less than fifty kilometers from the East German border, with the transparent aim of exalting the abstractions of subjective freedom in the face of socialist realism, suddenly decide to pick as curator, first a French woman with a lingering Marxist mentality and a strong interest in Brazil, then a Nigerian man with an intense investment in postcolonial theory and historiography? The only realistic answer I can find is that those who make the decisions saw that the first post-89 edition, curated in 1992 by Jan Hoet - a chic, friendly and mildly patronizing art-world type with »good taste« and a willingness to have fun without rocking the boat - was perceived within the artistic field as a gigantic flop. Just more of the same, looking paunchy and overprivileged. How then could Documenta remain at the cutting edge? If the Cold War was over, shouldn't the flagship »Western« exhibition now somehow engage with globalization? Did not that first entail finding out something about what globalization is (Catherine David's highly intellectual show), then diving right into and producing its multicultural legitimacy by actually exhibiting living artists from outside Germany, England, Italy, France and the USA - people who had never made the cover of »Flash Art« or »Artforum«?

The institutional »house« now seeks its interest in a complex game, which alone can reconcile the economic nexus it provides with the cultural capital its seeks among the more radical factions of the artistic field. It must ask its cultural producers for the ace of politics, while proving all the while (with the help of the police, if need be) that this ace is merely a bluff, that it is really a king (the sovereign power of illusion in representative democracies). And yet it is through this double game that new symbolic possibilities for conceiving and shaping the ways we live - what Nietzsche might have called »the transvaluation of all values« - can be distributed on the scale that an exhibition like Documenta offers. The Nietzschean dance happens not in some glorious void of the contemplative intellect, but in the real world. You have people whose genuine radicality is also a beckoning chance for career advancement, being instrumentalized by others wanting to add legitimacy to a globalized society facing a groundswell of critique. And the instability of the game - the depth of its gaping contradictions - has rarely been so great as today, while the corporate rhetoric unravels and everyone must face the reality of their positions in the contemporary economy, with its proliferating borders.

An example of how these contradictions unfold was the ad hoc »Platform 6«, called for 24 hours on the lawn in front of the Fridericianum, by No Border again, in collaboration with Rom people facing expulsion from Germany. This time the obvious parallels between the activist demands and the artistic arguments developed within the show itself helped overcome the resistance of the security team. Just imagine, for a moment, the different kinds of cultural capital that suddenly appeared on the table: »Okwui Enwzor, künstlerischer Leiter der Documenta, rief aus New York an. Die Kuratorin Ute Meta Bauer und andere MitarbeiterInnen und KünstlerInnen unterstützten und vermittelten. Thomas Hirschorn und andere KünstlerInnen und Documentas diskutierten aufgeregt über Documenta-Hierarchien und das Sicherheitssystem. Eine aufgeregte Nacht alles in allem.« [11] The institutional struggle becomes visible at unexpected moments like these, when everyone involved must take a public stand on the value of the symbolic cards they are playing.


Beyond Representation

These observations are pragmatic, based on personal experience. The truth is that the strategies of liar's poker are inevitable today, as cultural institutions both public and private try to mediate between the logic of profit and prestige and the desire for alternative valuations. But that can be put more bluntly: in the age of corporate patronage and the neoliberal state, art is becoming a field of extreme hypocrisy. [12] And so it directly reflects the crisis of the representative democracies. The temptation is then to cease playing the game (the anarchist solution), or to simply exploit the museum's resources for other ends (»radical media pragmatism«). Both positions are justified, from the activist point of view. But there are disadvantages to leaving entire sectors of society to rot, as each new swing to the neo-authoritarian right is there to prove. The most interesting question within the artistic field then becomes: How to play the exhibition game in such a way that something real can actually be won?

The very notion of cultural capital shows how domination operates through forms that need no longer have anything to do with rarity or accumulation. And the beauty of art in its turn away from the object is precisely that you can give it away: Dinero Gratis, as the Yo Mango group proclaims. Art today is one of the few fields open to experimentation with the technologies, habits and hierarchies of symbolic exchange, fundamental to a media-driven society. But these experiments can only take on a transformative power in the open, evolving context of a social movement, outside the cliques and clienteles of the artistic game. Which is why even the work of someone as outwardly radical as Thomas Hirschhorn appears so dubious. How can anyone be sure of its success, when the reception is dominated by his proper name?

The rising fortunes of interventionist art, the multiplication of exhibitions devoted to sociopolitical issues and activist campaigns, are proof enough that something political is at stake in the artistic field. And the stakes keep rising, as artists, curators and critics vie for radicality, relevancy, effectiveness and meaning. But one must constantly question what kind of currency we'll get when the chips are cashed in. The only way to go beyond the small change of individual prestige on the institutional market is to radically reverse the valuations effected by the critical gaze. And this requires an effort from a great many players of the game: a transformation of the very definition of cultural capital, a shift in the illusio of the artistic field. What is ultimately at stake is the very definition of autonomy, which can no longer be established in the sphere of representation alone.

Right now, the greatest symbolic innovations are taking place in self-organization processes unfolding outside the artistic frame. And it is from the reference to such outside realms that the more concentrated, composed and self-reflective works in the museum take their meaning. The only way not to impoverish those works, or to reduce them to pure hypocrisy, is to let our highest admiration go out to the artists who call their own bluffs - and dissolve, at the crisis points, into the vortex of a social movement.


 


1 »Thomas Hirschhorn, Wirtschaftlandschaft Davos«, by Patrick Schaefer, in L'art en jeu, online magazine: http://www.art-en-jeu.ch/expositions/hirschhorn.html
2 Cf. Bureau d'études, »Cadavre de l'autonomie artistique«, in Autonomie artistique et société de communication 1 (Paris, 2002).
3 Pierre Bourdieu, Réponses (Paris: Seuil, 1992), p. 92.
4 Bourdieu devoted an entire work to the historical constitution of the ideal of autonomy, and to the field of struggle it opens up: Les Règles de l'art (Paris: Seuil, 1992).
5 Politics/Poetics, Documenta X – The Book (Ostfildern: Cantz, 1997), p. 193.
6 At http://www.bok.net/pajol/international/kassel/florian.en.html
7 Video available at http://www.documenta.de/data/english/platform1/index.html
8 Cf. the press release at http://zone.noborder.org/x11/templ/news_det.php?itemid=11. I am told that an Israeli delegation, visiting that day, had asked for maximum security. But of course this precise request is part of the worldwide security and border system.
9 Bourdieu, Réponses, p. 81. For a full development, see the last chapter of Homo Academicus (Paris: Minuit, 1984).
10 In Europe, the most relevant model of this takeover process is Third-Way cultural policy in Britain; see former culture minister Chris Smith's book, Creative Britain, and the discussions in Julian Stallabrass, High Art Lite (London: Verso, 1999), chaps. 6 and 7.
11 http://zone.noborder.org/x11/templ/news_det.php?itemid=18
12 Gregory Sholette offers a precise observation about the »fool's license« given to a certain kind of critical art: »What has been revealed by the institutional critique is one persistent and disturbing fact: many cultural institutions are led by the private interests and personal tastes of an invisible elite, rather than by their stated philanthropic and educational mission. Yet while the institutional critique has directly focused significant attention on this cultural contradiction for the past thirty years, it now appears to provide a degree of closure by reinforcing the notion that the museum offers an uncompromising democratic zone for engaging in civic dialogue.« »Fidelity, Betrayal, Autonomy: In and Beyond the Post-Cold War Art Museum«, Third Text, Summer 2002.






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