Global Activism

Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe

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George Henton, Eine Frau liest Albert Camus am Taksim Platz, Istanbul, 2013

George Henton, A woman reading Albert Camus on Taksim Square, Istanbul, 2013

Old notions about art die hard. The exhi­bition global aCtIVISm at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe claimed that socio-politically motivated activism and grassroots initiatives are ‘perhaps the first new art form of the 21st century’. Without the ‘art’ label and its residual aura, activism and agitation are clearly less attractive. The result is the birth of a new –ism: ‘artivism’. Or at least this was the buzzword enthusiastically coined by the exhibition’s organizers to denote combinations of art and activism, blithely indulging a modernist vogue for ‘isms’ that apparently still isn’t yet over.

What ZKM director Peter Weibel and his curatorial team actually presented, however, was a fascinating and disconcerting jumble of wishes, demands, complaints and dreams, voiced on placards, screens, pamphlets and blogs, by NGOs, artist collectives and lone fighters. The causes ranged from appeals for nebulous classics like world peace and freedom, to criticisms of exorbitant rents and calls for the resignation of specific politicians. Exhibits included original memorabilia, like part of the grievance-covered ‘protest fence’ from the campaign against Stuttgart’s new main station (‘And all with my money!’), video documentation of activities by the Occupy movement and the Russian artist collective Voina (Smooch the Cop, 2011), as well as mixed-media installations on themes including the Tunisian revolution of 2011 (Patricia K. Triki & Christine Bruckbauer, Chronology 2011–2013 (2013)) and illegal bank accounts in tax havens (Paolo Cirio, Loophole for All, 2013). The brouhaha of voices here made it clear how much dis­content is brewing worldwide, although it was impossible to make out a single voice from the crowd.

In this way, the show followed its own terminology ad absurdum. There can be no question of a new ‘ism’ with art character here, and certainly not a ‘global’ one. The causes are too diverse, the strategies too different. By contrast, the notion of ‘perfor­mative democracy’ (also launched by Weibel in the context of the exhibition) is spot on. Both democracy and performativity have at their core the open, the unforeseeable and the incalculable. Using precisely this sense, the show dealt with heterogeneous, heteron­omous phenomena undergoing discontinuous metamorphoses. Protests by citizens across the globe are both vague and susceptible to bringing out the opposite of their intentions, as in Egypt. This vagueness constitutes both their ethical merit – they cannot be co-opted by any particular ideology – and their disadvantage in competition with rigidly organized companies and parties who claim reliability as a selling point.

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Mosa’ab Elshamy Noshi, Tahrir Platz, Kairo, 2011

Mosa’ab Elshamy Noshi, Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011

It is true that artistic means are employed by a remarkable number of agitators. The best examples of this are Voina and Pussy Riot who are continuing the avant-garde project of merging art and life under the auspices of performance, punk and porn. The ZKM show included copies of the correspondence between philosopher Slavoj Žižek and Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, in which she writes, on 23 February 2013: ‘we are rebels who long for the storm, as if calm lay in the storm …’ Rarely have more fitting words been written on the conservatism priced into any revolution. But the use of artistic means for purposes unrelated to autonomous art is not unique to ‘performative democracy’. Producers of confectionary, high-end pornography and communications devices also boldly employ such means, for instance by hiring Salvador Dalí as their designer (Chupa Chups, 1969) or by appealing to avant-garde qualities as Mercedes-Benz did with the slogan ‘untamed’. Not to mention the capitalist ‘storm’ of products, fashions, brands and trends that harbour a similarly paradoxical form of ‘calm’ as that found in ‘rebellion’. These parallels led to a quality that could be called the involuntary ‘second face’ of the ZKM exhibition. On their screens, the electronic and digital devices that dominated the show presented displeasure, criticism and rebellion. But if one stepped behind the iPads and flat screens, one saw the logos of big companies, the testing and certification labels, and the ubiquitous ‘Made in China’, which means quite simply: ‘Made in a one-party dictatorship’. The rights to the Guy Fawkes mask – featured in many of the videos as a symbol of dissidence – are owned by Time Warner, after all. The show was not designed to offer an experience of such seemingly inevitable alliances between monopoly capitalism, top-down politics and democratic multitudes (in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s words, ‘singularities that act together’). But it achieved this aim nonetheless.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jörg Scheller is an art historian, journalist and musician. He teaches at Zurich University of the Arts.

Issue 14

First published in Issue 14

May 2014

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