Absolute Democracy

by Ellen Feiss

Can an activist art practice offer alternatives to the social order of late-capitalism? This question animated Truth is concrete. A 24/7 marathon camp on artistic strategies in politics and political strategies in art at the steirischer herbst festival in Graz. The camp’s founding query seemed to get an affirmative answer in the conference cum exhibition and film programme Absolute Democracy, all organized by Carlos Motta and Oliver Ressler. Their curatorial thesis was painstakingly optimistic, stubbornly insisting upon the possibility of freedom and equality even when many of the works suggest otherwise. This tension hangs over the contributions to the overall project from eight individual artists and six collectives.

The communal spirit of politics began with Nikolay Oleynikov’s Can Real Democracy cause jaw displacement (2012), an installation generated by a week-long workshop with eight participants from the camp. Oleynikov drew parallels between political and physical resistance with his novel workshops, like kickboxing classes and a ‘fight library’. Yet such exaggerated appeals for antagonism sit uneasily with his homey installation, which includes welcoming rugs for people to hang around in the gallery and thus suggests an unresolved dynamic between the project’s ethos and its practice.

The international collective Ultra-red’s Four Protocols for a School of Echoes (2010–12) took a more passive approach by presenting field recordings from four cities: Berlin, London, Los Angeles and New York. Each ‘sound object’ resulted from an Ultra-red member’s engagement with a specific political context and documents the proceedings of a local town meeting, a rally and a university seminar. In the recordings, moments of clarity quickly dissolve into the chaos of a room full of speaking voices. The work manifests the volatility of democracy as a political form, proving that its moments of success are hard won and transient.

Processes of collective identification are also examined in Nicoline van Harskamp’s Yours in Solidarity (2009–12), a multi-media installation that delves into the papers of the late Dutch anarchist Karl Max Kreuger. Harskamp displayed Kreuger’s correspondence with his compatriots in framed and projected text works. These epistolary exchanges were also animated by actors in a video of a scripted performance, which resembles a town hall meeting in a drab municipal conference room. Mixing banal statements with subversive sentiments, the piece produced a realistic Utopianism, which holds onto the promise of radical politics while acknowledging the history of its shortcomings.

Mariam Ghani’s Kabul: Constitutions (2003–05) also probes the limits of politics through an elaborate investigation into the Constitutional Loya Jirga. This ‘high tech tent complex’ was erected to house the Afghan constitutional assembly in 2004 (the Pashto term ‘loya jirga’ describes a traditional grand council of tribal elders). Ghani’s two-channel video shows the central plenary tent, hallways and checkpoints (a map was included to orientate the viewer through the vast structure). Yet the video’s careful study of the peripheral minutiae – guards pacing, people whispering in the stands – emerged as the work’s focus: the material reality grounding the formation of politics. Indeed, if the exhibition as a whole succeeded, it was not by proposing political alternatives, but rather by offering another material experience of politics.

Ellen Feiss

Ellen Feiss is a writer based in London, UK.

frieze d/e

Winter 2012
Issue 7

First published in Issue 7

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