Thursday, September 10, 2009

The ghost in the art work

I write a poem, then I place it in a drawer. There it stays for months before I visit it again. If I found that it resembled me then, I consider that I have not done much. If I felt as if someone else had written it, when it strikes me as an Other’s poetry, I tell myself, that I have accomplished something.
Mahmoud Darwich, Palestine as a metaphor, 1997.

Like most expats these days, I often end up in Europe for a few days, as I transit between the Middle-East and North America. When my ticket leaves me in Paris, I make it a point to visit l’Institut du Monde Arabe. This summer, I was lucky enough to stumble upon an exposition of contemporary Palestinian artists, most of whom are around my age, that is early thirties. For someone whose engagement with Palestinian music and cultural production often led her to baby-boomers and survivors of the 1960s (read the 1967 war and subsequent death of pan-Arab nationalism), I was very curious to find out what the children of these artists and events, figuratively speaking, had to say about the world they live in today. A world of utter indifference to the Palestinians, of disillusionment with peace processes, and with the dreams of liberation movements and their nationalist projects. A world where art is as entangled as it has ever been in a promise of borderlessness, constantly broken by geopolitics, cultural politics, identity politics and the unabated exercise of power.

I was quite surprised, or perhaps I shouldn’t be, to discover that the paintings and installations dealt with familiar themes – exile, displacement, memory, history, identity, violence, checkpoints – albeit in very different and innovative ways. I saw no real dividing line between Palestinian artists of my generation and their predecessors whose evocations of exile where intimately attached to an imagined Palestinian homeland. One of the works that moved me was by Steve Sabella, titled In Exile (2008), in which he had taken a seemingly dull picture of the windows facing his own apartment building in an ordinary London neighborhood and juxtaposed endless inverted reproductions of it, creating a visual illusion of movement and infinity through the classical techniques of geometrical repetition, symmetry and complementarity that are associated with the arabesque form. Exile can be quite uneventful, monotonous and redundant, a sort of continuous movement without every getting anywhere. There is nothing heroic about being just another tenant in a shapeless apartment building, no matter how tragic the events that led to you living there are. The sense of solitude, alienation and powerlessness the work expressed left me with a knot in my stomach, especially when I look outside my own window and see the long lines of eerily similar houses, clones really, that make an ordinary Canadian suburban neighborhood.

Another work, by Sherif Waked, titled Chic Point (2003), featured a fashion show, not unlike the spring and winter défilés that attract fashionistas to Paris every year. Nothing special about the models either, who all fit into the Westernized standards of beauty. The clothes portrayed could’ve been designed by Calvin Klein, if it weren’t for the gaping hole the suits had around the stomach and the back. It doesn’t take long for the observer to understand the meaning of the holes, as Palestinians living under Israeli rule are required to expose their stomachs and their backs daily at checkpoints for soldiers supposedly looking for bomb-belts.

Following Rodney Place’s thoughts on the role that galleries and other cultural mediators play in the dissemination of contemporary art, and the perversion of its meaning and value, I can’t help but wonder about the transparency of the meanings expressed through these works. In Chic point, the artist wanted to make sure we understood the meaning of the holes, not only by his choice of title, but also by including a video within the fashion show of Palestinians being asked to strip at checkpoints. Is it that these works really do speak in clear and articulate voices about a universal human condition that any observer can identify with? Is it that the signs that inform the works are simply superficial and easy to interpret without much controversy or need for deep exegesis? Is it that all Palestinian artists speak from a similar place and follow a shared leitmotiv? Or was it a question of selection, in the sense that, only those works that did express clearly the plight of the Palestinians and their struggle with identity, exile and displacement ended up in the gallery?

Palestinian artists have constantly struggled with their work being interpreted through the paradigm of identity and liberation politics. Mahmoud Darwich was quite vocal about this issue, and has been known to reward an admirer with a symbolic slap in the face when he or she dared remind him of his public consecration as Palestine’s poet. Yet, he refused to give up political poetry as a way out of it, and has been even more outspoken about what he saw as an unhealthy turn in the Arab world to an unnecessarily opaque, obscenely aestheticized form of poetic writing with grandiose claims of subversion and liberation from the tyranny of the classical Arabic meter, while leaving the reader (and reality along with him) completely out of the loop.

Contrary to Rodney Place’s experience with the ever increasing degrees of separation between the artist and his/her work through the intervention of dissemination, and the manipulation of various mediators, Palestinian artists have virtually no breathing room between their creations and themselves. Dissemination, in their case, propels every individual creative act in a boomerang motion that slings the work away from the artist only to see it return and collapse into his/her identity and the politics that stem from it. It is no wonder then that Darwich considers his poems to be worthy, only when they become strangers to him, or him a stranger to them.

In his writings, and many interviews, there is a constant search for the ghost in the art work, that entropic presence that allows it to escape all the discourses around it, including his own. Of course, what Place is arguing, is that this kind of transcendental experience has become virtually impossible to achieve, in a time when the work can no longer exist on its own without a constellation of discourses to interpret it, criticize it, measure its value, and so on. In my own work with contemporary Western art music composers, I was astonished to discover how crucial the discourse built around their work has become for the value of the work, as well as for their own value and recognition as artists. Composers today are required, not only to write music, but to theorize it, sell it and sell themselves with it. I had many conversations where we ended up engaging in a call and response song of reciprocal theorization of their music. They have become virtuoso performers in an increasingly cacophonous scene of competing discourses.

Both experiences with discourse on art, whether it is of the collapse of degrees of separation, or the perpetual hijacking of the work from the artist, are different sides of the same coin, minted and traded, as Place as rightly pointed out, by various mediators and actors – states through their culture ministries and art councils, transnational organizations through the UNESCO and development agencies representing various “donating” states, like the International Canadian Development Agency, to take a local example, not to mention humanitarian NGOs.

In Palestine, in the aftermath of the 2006 election that brought Hamas to power, NGOs that were already acting like local government institutions for years were handed an enormous amount of power and resources as a way for Western countries to absolve themselves of the guilt of cutting aid to the Palestinians because they voted for the wrong party. Besides Christian missionary organizations that have been present for as long as Palestine has been Palestine, musicians and other artists rely heavily on funding from, interestingly enough, Scandinavian cultural NGOs who support the establishment of institutions like the Edward Saïd National Conservatory of Music in the West Bank, the formation of various orchestras and chamber ensembles, and the launching of programs that bring Israeli and Palestinian children together through music camps.

That reliance is partly due to the Palestinian Authority’s own failure. Allegations of corruption and oppression were rampant in the dying days of the Oslo accords so these NGOs filled a huge vacuum just as Palestinian artists where moving in their work away from Palestine as an object of representation and adoration, to the Palestinian as a subject and tragic figure. The combination of both trends brought about the establishment of various instrumental music and dance ensembles, as well as contemporary art expositions focused on highlighting Middle-Eastern contemporary art forms as opposed to folklore, or in some cases, turning folklore into a new form of aestheticized art form.

The relation to Scandinavian countries is noteworthy as they are represented as beacons of a successful and pragmatic leftism. This resonates with Place’s observation on the substitution of real and hard to implement political solutions by European lefties with feel-good cultural projects. But the history between Scandinavian countries and the Palestinians is deeper still. In Palestinian anthropology, one of the very first Western ethnographic accounts of Palestinian life that did not involve turning them into anachronical remnants of a biblical past, happens to have been produced by a Finnish scholar, Hilma Granqvist, who on a mission with a group of German biblical researchers at the turn of the 20th century, decided that studying the present and the Palestinians as people living in the present was much more interesting. She produced several volumes of classic kinship anthropology on a Palestinian village. Nevertheless, her Ph.D was never approved. And there are the Oslo accords of course.

This is all to say, that Scandinavian interventionism in Palestine has deep roots and the long term cultural and political impact of Scandinavian NGOs’ contemporary cultural pedagogical project aimed at turning potential “terrorists” into violinists will take years to assess. There is no need to highlight the echoes of such a project with French colonialism’s “civilizing” mission in its former colonies. Suffice it to say that since Granqvist’s first visit to Palestine, all this interventionism and humanism has not affected the conflict or made the lives of Palestinians any better.

For those musicians who want to get out from under the umbrella of such charityism, one other option is available to them: The world music international festival circuit and collaborations with Western musicians on various artistic projects. But there too, such collaborations come with political and aesthetic strings. Many Palestinian musicians end up, in fact, living in Europe, and being part of a continuous cultural brain-drain. They gain success and recognition in diaspora but are often unknown in their own country.

In places where the state is powerless, and where power is still in the hands of colonial actors, art becomes a devastating instrument of control and inaction. On the one hand, it provides an effective alibi for all those former colonial powers to keep doing nothing about the situation of the Palestinians. Building a music school is much easier to achieve then demolishing Israeli colonies. On the other hand, it acts as a sort of opium (as opposed to religion), a pacifying drug that provides Palestinians with a controllable outlet for expressing their anger and despair, a sort of therapeutic remedy to the chronic disease of occupation that is not meant to cure it, but only make it easier to live with and be resigned to it. Western cultural agencies are not unlike pharmaceutical companies or drug dealers that create the disease or addiction only to sell the victims a life-style drug to consume for the rest of their lives.

This is indeed quite a perversion of the role that art and cultural production has tended to play in postcolonial societies dealing with the legacy of colonialism. We have effectively moved from art being deployed as an instrument of nation-building and political resistance against colonialism to it becoming medicinal marijuana for the damned of the Earth. The ghost in the art work turns out to be just a hallucination, produced by a powerful drug.

I believe that art is a site where suffering can be differed, allowing society to escape auto-destructive impulses that result from a history of violence. However, it can also become a drug in contemporary societies where there is no longer any tolerance for suffering. For the rich, in Northern countries, it often turns into a recreative drug, consumed by cultural bulimics who have no aesthetic preoccupation or the capacity to appreciate aesthetics, but entertain the need to produce, or more precisely, to push for the production and surproduction of more art to keep getting high.

In the South, it can either lead to some form of individual, with certain artworks, collective, catharsis that may contribute to healing social and historical wounds, or when pushed by others, it can become a powerful sedative so the North may continue to enjoy their high without having to hear the South’s cries.

Yara El-Ghadban

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

African contemporary art: Negotiating the terms of recognition

Africa Remix poster

Africa Remix was an international success. The Johannesburg Art Fair is becoming a fixture in the international art circuit. Major academic interventions such as Sarah Nuttall’s Beautiful/Ugly are redefining the boundaries of African aesthetics. William Kentridge, Penny Siopis and countless individual African artists are making a name of their own in the world market. A silent revolution in contemporary art is in the making. Its ramifications extend to other domains such as literature, fashion, music, architecture and design. As jazz and cubism in the 20th century, it is to a large extent engineered by African forms.

Yet the terms of recognition of African contemporary art and cultural creativity are still contested. The latest controversy is about the role of Western cultural funding agencies in Africa and whether the support for arts and culture should be justified by the latter’s contribution to “development”. What, then, is the agenda of donors when supporting the arts in Africa? Is there a role for the arts in “poverty reduction” or in “conflict resolution”? Is “cultural cooperation” a two-way process or a surreptitious way by which donors impose their agendas on Africa? What do terms such as “cultural diplomacy” mean?

In this interview, Achille Mbembe research professor in history and politics at the university of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg, South Africa) responds to Vivian Paulissen, an expert and consultant in cultural funding policy based in Amsterdam.

Is there a space for respectful/mutual negotiation in the traditional donor-recipient relationship in which cultural funding agencies today operate?

I am not saying that it is a zero-sum game. Indeed there are very rare exceptions. The Prince Claus Fund is one of these. But overall such a space hardly exists. And considering the little amount of money involved, the damage is disproportionate.

In fact, relationships between Western cultural funding agencies and local “recipients” (individual artists and organizations) have never been so bad.

Over the last decade Western European financial contribution to the development of arts and culture in Africa has been steadily declining. The paradox is that as they put less and less money on the table, European agencies increased the severity of the conditions of accessing their meager subsidies. Instead of creating art, many artists in the Continent must spend a disproportionate amount of time, energy and resources filling useless application forms or desperately trying to respond to ever-changing fads and policies when they are not constantly checking the mood of ever-touchy and capricious Western consulates’ “cultural attachés” they hope to get support from.

Instead of spaces of mutuality, recognition and respect, donor agencies have established throughout the Continent countless networks of patron-clients relationships. These relationships are not one-dimensional. They are characterized by deep levels of collusion and complicity, unequal transactions, at times mistrust, and in any case reciprocal instrumentalization. We can keep dressing up the unlimited power of the donors and the myriad forms of humiliation and indignity visited upon their “recipients” in the fancy language of “partnership”, “empowerment” or even “international friendship”. These words won’t mask the brutality of the encounter between those who have money and resources but hardly any good or useful idea and those who have some good ideas but hardly any money.

The situation is made worse by five major local and global trends.

The first is the neo-liberal drive to further marketize and privatize all forms of art and life. This has resulted in the endless commodification of culture as spectacle and entertainment. This is a very significant development. It comes at a time when global capitalism itself is moving into a phase in which the cultural forms of its outputs are critical elements of productive strategies. The capacity of art and culture to engage critically with the velocities of capital can no longer be taken for granted.

The second is the relentless pressure from African governments to consider art and culture as a kind of “social service” whose function is to cure the ailments of poverty and underdevelopment. The third is the hyper-technological enframing of the life-world and the growing implication of art and culture in global systems of militarization of consciousness – which raises deep concerns over the limits of freedom in the militarized landscape of our times and points to the challenge to “de-militarize” culture itself. The fourth is the “humanitarian” impulse of most Western donor agencies – the vicious ideology that promotes a view of Africa as a tabula rasa, a doomed and hopeless Continent waiting to be rescued and “saved” by the new army of Western good Samaritans.

Finally there is a tendency to conflate African art, culture and aesthetics with ethnicity or community or communalism; to deny the power of individuality in the work of art creation. The dominant but false idea – shared by many Africans and many donors – is that the act of creativity is necessarily a communal act; that African artistic forms are not aesthetic objects per se but ethnographic objects that are expressive of Africa’s ontological cultural difference or “authenticity”. It is this African “difference” and this African “authenticity” donors are in search of. This is what they want to support and, if necessary, they will manufacture it.

Taken altogether, the combined effects of these processes on the relations between “donors” and “recipients” and on African cultural creativity and autonomy have been devastating. Without a new ethics of recognition, solidarity and mutuality, the way most Western cultural funding (or for that matter development funding) agencies operate will become ever more destructive of the Continent’s capacity to culturally and artistically account for itself in the world.

Would a ‘trading model” with both parties equally involved be a successful alternative for cultural funding in Africa? How to establish that?

We have to reckon with the fact that culture has become a commodity that can be shaped by the media and bought and sold like any other in the market - a form of property over which it is possible to exercise monopoly rights. The power of Western donors should not be overestimated although relative to the amount of money they contribute, their influence is disproportionate.

There are other powerful actors – galleries, international dealers networks, even wine farms and commercial banks. In South Africa we have a structure called The Johannesburg Art Fair. Such initiatives should be encouraged as long as they do not turn into new markets of dispossession for artists. We need to develop a continental art market that is properly connected to the international network of cultural industries. Artists, writers, designers, musicians and composers, photographers and stylists should be able to make a decent living out of their work. Professional galleries should be encouraged and private banks and especially development banks should devise innovative mechanisms to extend credit and financial support to cultural consortia. That is partly how we will develop a credible cultural economy in the Continent.

But visual art cannot flourish in isolation. Creative synergies should be established with other disciplines – literature, cinema, dance, music, architecture and design, digital art, critical theory, art criticism. Without a cultural infrastructure made up of cultural media, journals, magazines and a tradition of serious reviews and without a major investment in critical theory, our artistic and production will remain in the domain of artisanship. And it will always be left to others to dictate the intellectual, theoretical and political terms of its recognition in the international arena.

At the same time we cannot leave everything to the market. Further commodification and privatization of culture cannot go on unchecked. There are more rational and equitable ways in which art and culture as public goods can be supported. We have to design a matrix that can attend to a plurality of needs and not only those of states, banks, private dealers and the market. We need to keep reinventing the relationship between community and culture. Public art still holds the possibility of providing the necessary imaginary resources our cities need as they try to foster between citizens the sort of convivial and reciprocal relations without which there is neither a vibrant public sphere nor civic life as such.

A growing number of funding organizations is initiated from, and located in, countries/regions where they work (like the Middle East, Arab Fund for Culture). What is your experience with this in Africa?

There is no African Fund for Culture. There are, here and there, private rich citizens or even private banks or companies collecting art or funding exhibitions. South Africa has the financial means to develop a powerful international cultural policy. But the country profoundly lacks imagination. Alone it could easily fund a major Biennale in the global South. Johannesburg could become a cultural and artistic Mecca. But in its mimicry of British colonial empiricism, the ruling elite believe that “art and culture” are about “heritage, tourism and indigenous knowledge systems”.

In the official, state-sanctioned discourse, culture is completely subsumed under the doxa of “development”, “poverty eradication” and “racial redress”. Political considerations on who is black and who is not overshadow any intrinsic appreciation of the value of art as such.

For South Africa to fulfill its potential, the country needs to imagine itself as an “Afropolitan” nation, the avant-garde of a version of the African modern that is already in evidence in most contemporary African artistic and cultural forms. The country also needs to distance itself from an understanding of culture as pastness, a simple matter of customs and traditions, monuments and museums. We have to realize that culture is not yet another form of “service delivery”. It is the way human beings imagine and engage their own futures. Without this dimension of futurity and imagination, we can hardly write a name we can call ours or articulate a voice we can recognize as our own.

Where such funding organizations exist, are they different from other, Western donor organizations?

The fact is that power and money tend to speak the same language everywhere. Western donor agencies tend to collude with African governments in their attempt to instrumentalize art and restrict the meanings, power and significance of artistic and cultural critique.

They both argue that art and culture should be “relevant”. But their definition of “relevance” is thin and functionalist. In their eyes, good and “relevant” art and culture is art and culture that is colonized by the imperative of “development”. “Development” itself is conceived in the narrowest of terms, in purely materialistic terms. They both think that “to develop art and culture” (sic) is exactly the same as “to develop sustainable agriculture”.

We need to move away from this form of crass materialism and this empiricism of wants and needs in order to rehabilitate cultural and artistic critique as a public good in and of itself. The value of art cannot solely be measured on the basis of its contribution to material well-being. Nor is artistic creativity a luxury or an immoral pursuit that should be redeemed by its annexation and inscription in the official, state-sanctioned discourse of development and poverty reduction. We must resist this trivialization.

Artistic creativity, cultural and theoretical critique is an integral part of the immaterial and unquantifiable assets produced by a society. It is a constitutive dimension of our communities and nations wealth in the same way as our physical infrastructures. It’s value by far exceeds the means by which this value is counted. The management and regulation of art and culture should therefore pertain to a different order, one that takes seriously the “intangible” and “inalienable” qualities of culture and one that, as a result, is not dependent on purely quantitative measurements and indexes.

Nowadays public culture funds tend to focus on cultural cooperation with countries or regions, often defined by national government agendas. This has led to current “hot-lists” of countries and special interest in the arts of those countries. India, for instance, is one of the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) that are considered growing global economies. Another example is the growing interest that started some years ago on the arts of the Middle East. What do you think of the development of “cultural diplomacy” as a tool for political dialogue or trade?

I think that so-called cultural diplomacy is a miserable, comic fiction. What else can it mean when, as we are conducting it, border controls are being tightened; arbitrary restrictions are being imposed on mobility and we are witnessing the revival of a defensive, paranoid form of nationalism that is willing to resort to race vilification in order to regulate access to citizenship?

Who in his or her right mind do you want to believe in so-called cultural diplomacy directed at far-away places when, at home, we are bent on defending the supposed cultural integrity of the nation against supposed threats from asylum seekers, second-generation non-white citizens and all sorts of “intruders” perceived as a source of dangerous cultural pathologies?

In Western Europe today, both the liberal center and what is left of the reformist Left have unfortunately embraced this backward-looking paradigm and these regressive and paranoid definitions of national identity, belonging and difference. They have done so at a time when the old idea of national cultural identity for which they are so nostalgic is inexorably on its way out.

I therefore suggest that so-called cultural diplomacy starts at home. It has to be committed, straight from home, in theory and in practice, to foster forms of solidarity based on the recognition of our common humanity. Short of this ethical and practical commitment, all these so-called “hot-lists” will be but myriad versions of the good old “dog whistle politics” of yesteryear – the kind of politics that sells fake smiles abroad while, at home, it is engaged in the sordid business of racial vilification.

What is your experience with private and/or public funding?

When I was the Executive Director of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), I had to engage with public donors in France, Japan, theNetherlands, with UN agencies, and more importantly with Nordic countries. A lot depended on the intellectual and political caliber of the individuals and policy-makers I had to face. The most creative encounters were with those who believed that Africa’s fate was inextricably bound to the fate of the rest of the world. They agreed that to intervene creatively and efficiently in the Continent required a demanding, prolonged, meticulous exploration, analysis and critical thinking. With such interlocutors, we usually came up with inventive, cutting-edge programs.

Otherwise, the overall scene was quite depressing. One constantly had to deal with cynical bureaucrats, people who profoundly hated the Continent but had become addicted to it and to some of its perverse pleasures. They could hardly let go the addiction. They interacted with the Continent the way some people do when they are trapped in an abusive relationship. They did not believe in the catechism of “development” they were nevertheless preaching. Going through some of those meetings was like visiting for the first time an asile de fous – people who had failed everywhere else and who could never make an honorable career elsewhere except in Africa. They needed not think because for them, Africa is simple. In fact, there were very hostile to anything that looked like an idea.

Even more unsettling was the implicit assumption, especially in Nordic countries, that Africans could only speak as “victims”. In the course of expressing their solidarity with Africa’s past struggles, many Nordic countries have unfortunately encouraged the sense of victimhood some Africans intellectuals and politicians have been peddling all along – which they try to mask under the guise of anti-imperialism. They have tolerated mediocrity and encouraged lethal forms of populism and lumpen-radicalism to prevail in African social science discourse for instance. They poured – and I guess they still do – millions of dollars each year into sustaining hugely bureaucratic and inefficient organizations that should have been closed long ago and where countless middlemen enjoy diplomatic immunity and earn salaries equivalent to those in UN structures. This form of benevolent paternalism, of course, has deep unconscious racist undertones.

This having been said, I had a lot pleasure working with institutions such as The Prince Claus Fund and some US-based foundations. But I hear that in these neo-liberal times, even these progressive and somewhat avant-garde organizations are under tremendous pressure. Indeed, they have to justify their activities to bureaucrats and tax payers. Some have adopted a strong anti-intellectual bias and bought into romanticized but uncritical and debilitating forms of grassroots activism and populism. To a certain extent, they are all forced to pay lip service to the fiction of “development”.

This is all the more regrettable because what we need right now is a critical cultural politics that confronts the rhetoric of “development” and reveals the deeply reactionary nature of this project.

Another focus of international arts and culture funding is the “culture for development model”. Two polemic visions in funding the arts and culture are on the one hand a voice that says we have to reward the “arts for the arts”; and on the other hand the voice that says we support “arts for development”. What do you think about the “development” agendas, like the AIDS-theatre for example? Can development be a goal when funding the arts? What happens to the arts when artists are funded to bring a certain message across (like AIDS prevention)?

Most Western donor agencies have a simplistic notion of what “Africa” is and of what “development” is. They are unaware of – or pretend to be ignorant about – what recent critique of “development” (as an ideology and as a practice) has revealed. They want to operate as if such a critique had not been done.

The fact of the matter is that on the ground, where many of us live and work, the paradigm of “development” is functionally dead. This we can see in ordinary people’s everyday experiences and actions. But the “development machine” itself is still alive. It keeps disbursing fat salaries to experts, middlemen and consultants, good per diems to its native clients, auxiliaries and courtiers, and it keeps delivering untold tragedies to the poor and their communities. The “development machine” keeps running on. But it is running on empty. This emptiness is what worries me because it is productive of tremendous waste.

The other fact, nowadays, is that most Western donors consider Africa to be a zone of emergency, a fertile ground for humanitarian interventions. The future is not part of their theory of Africa – in the very rare cases such a theory exists. For them, Africa is not only a land of empiricism. It is also the land of a never-ending present, a serial accumulation of “instants” that never achieve the density and weight of human, historical time. It is the place where today and “now” matters more than “tomorrow”, let alone the distant time of the future and of hope.

This is what the temporality of “development” has done to us – the fragmentation of time, the erasure of history-as-future and our mental incarceration in a never ending form of presentism and nihilism. This nihilistic impulse worries me too.

Under these circumstances, it seems to me, the function of art in Africa is precisely to free us from the shackles of development both as an ideology and as a practice. It is to subsume and transcend the instant; to open the vast horizons of the not-yet – what my friend Arjun Appadurai calls “the capacity to aspire”. Such too is, at least to me, the function of cultural criticism and of critical theory because art cannot thrive in the absence of a strong critical theory tradition.

In circumstances under which millions of poor people indeed struggle to make it from today to tomorrow, the work of theory and the work of art and the work of culture is to pave the way for a qualitative practice of the imagination – a practice without which we will have no name, no face and no voice in history. This struggle to write our name in history and to inscribe our voice and our face in a structure of time that is future-oriented – for me this is a profoundly human struggle. It is a struggle of a different kind than the struggle for mere livelihood, physical sustenance and biological reproduction.

I hate the idea that African life is simple bare life – the life of an empty stomach and a sick and naked body waiting to be fed, clothed, healed or housed. It is a conception that is structurally embedded in “development” ideology and practice. This kind of base materialism radically goes against people’s own daily experience with the immaterial world of the spirit, especially as this spirit manifests itself under conditions of extreme precariousness and radical uncertainty. This kind of metaphysical and ontological violence has long been a fundamental aspect of the fiction of development the West seeks to impose on those it has colonized. We must oppose it and resist such surreptitious forms of dehumanization.

Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the University of the Witwatersrand and the author of On the Postcolony. Vivian Paulissen is afree-lance expert and consultant in cultural funding policy based in Amsterdam.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Contemporary Art: Kill and Go

Visitor at Johannesburg Art Fair 2009. Image by Cobi Labuscagne

In the late 80’s I was nosing around a gallery in Dallas which at that time was making a play against more established Houston as the art capital of the South West USA. Several Dallas galleries had tied into Cologne – then the hot bed of commercially recognized Avant-Garde - presumably trying to transcend JR Ewing stereotypes and pictures of cowboys on horses.

I stopped at a beautiful work. The artist had drilled hundreds of matches into a wall, and then lit them to make a drawing of smoky black lines. The well-dressed guy next to me, similarly transfixed, suddenly got angry and said: “How in the hell am I meant to buy this for my house?” The role of galleries after all was to turn fascination into possession. I told him he should speak to the gallery owner. It seemed to me he could either buy the whole wall, or commission the artist to do another one in his house. He said: “That’s interesting; so art is kind of like the construction industry now?” “Sure”, I said, “you don’t have to take home the bathtub in the showroom, just order one and have the plumber fit it; nowadays art is more like the Sistine Chapel than Dutch easel painting - artists make house calls”.

In the late 60’s Harold Rosenberg wrote that the alienation of the artist happened not because the artist couldn’t be understood by anyone, but rather because, through the disseminations of Academia and Advertising, art could be understood by everyone, but not necessarily in the way an artist might understand his or her own work. Dissemination caused a gap between the artist and the work, much as Freud was not a Freudian, or Marx, a Marxist.

In the sense that art had begun to precede itself as speculative information, Rosenberg’s essay probably marked something like a beginning of what we now call Contemporary Art, as opposed to Art or Modern Art which implied an expectation of the thing in front of your eyes as an experience - what you see is what you get, like it or lump it, “looks like an explosion in a shingles factory”, hang out or move on, kind of thing.

This tendency roughly corresponded with the US State Department assertion in the 70’s that since they could understand history, they could therefore shape history and this would be the end of history itself. Shortly after this universities began to replace art history with art theory as a way of determining output in which academics would play a crucial role.

As a result Contemporary Art operates more like a referencing or indexing system, usually to stronger time-based forms like film, theatre, literature or more ambiguously architecture – the 9-second film loop; the hint of a scene performed; the homily in neon; the landscape-or-urban-art work-space, etc.

Time-based forms have tended to remain more resistant to this tendency because of their make-or-break connection with a reader or an audience. In time-based forms the audience agrees a priori to surrender to the time of the work – often by buying a ticket - so the artist usually feels obliged to live up to the commitment and try to make it worthwhile.

Contemporary Art is generally befuddled by ideas of whom exactly its audience is, or who looks at it other than people with glasses of wine nattering at openings. Art criticism and theory have generally discouraged the idea that a history of compelling and changing beauty was reason enough to both want to make a work and want to look at it. Ideas like “the gaze” and “objectification” went further to suggest that visual art was an historically immoral activity that needed to be under some kind of ideological supervision - an interesting word come to think of it, like superego.

Probably trying to overcome these immoral feelings, Contemporary Art is now also a referencing system to well-trodden social issues, as if these issues rendered art and the artist more meaningful if filled with remorse. The artist gets redemption from immoral pursuits if he or she acknowledges, say, the problems facing health departments or in the case of Africa, whole countries – a bit like a social service sentence - even though art is ineffectual in curing societal ailments and no longer an effective means of mass communication.

Paradoxically, in the hands of Western European and American supervisors saving “other continents” from the immorality of art, Contemporary Art has embarked on the most strident set of classifications based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual preference, since the Nazis. Attention has swayed completely from the art object or art action, in order to objectify artists themselves as the “rescued”.

Certainly art deals with all kinds of things including catastrophes. In the 19th Century novel a character might die from prevalent TB, but TB was contextual in the narrative, not the prime reason for writing the book. But things fall apart and other centers seem to hold.
Last year I remarked to an artist friend in Amsterdam, that art was the cheapest way of doing nothing about real problems, as many European “other world” funding agencies know too well. To give money to help “develop African art and culture” as a liberal-lefty ideological gesture is a lot easier, say, than persuading European farmers to drop barriers on African agricultural produce.

The European Left wing is under siege enough without taking on the really difficult issues of the uneven global playing field. Fortunately for the liberal-lefties who seem to have fled to softer Ministries like Art and Culture or their sub-sections in Foreign Affairs, the idea of patronage is so endemic to art that art avoids the scrutiny applied to trade and economics. You don’t see William Kentridge’s work having quotas applied because it uses up too much Western art money and causes a trade deficit that might put Western artists out of work. Well, not yet you don’t; but the Europeans have a strange self-interested way of acting in crises, as we know from the 1930’s.
Central to Contemporary Art for the last 20 years have been the new breed of quasi-academic curators – intermediaries or brokers who made themselves indispensable in the proposition that the new value of art, intellectually and monetarily, is achieved through dissemination – art conducted through words - rather than direct confrontation with art itself by both the artist and the public.

Contemporary Art operates in a very similar way to speculative capitalist investment. It has value by being given value. Value is not intrinsic; it is a marketing process in which the value pundits play the most important role. The art object is more like a chip at a Casino – a token to show the buyers have become Playas-with-Value, a bourgeois thrill in itself. Curators, like croupiers, create the atmosphere of expectation, the lights focused on the game and the hushed talk that goes with importance.

The debate about whether photography has earned value enough to be included as Contemporary Art is ridiculous. Of course not. Photography as a form absorbed Contemporary Art as one of its many sub-species quite some time ago. Photography is still a complex form that needs little explanation. Like 19th Century painting, it includes everything from family snap shots, to news and magazine pictures, to tough formal and subjective ideas. Serious writers on many topics like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes have turned their attention to photography, as good writers tend to turn their attention to difficult and lifelike things. Contemporary Art attracts trade writers stirring the same pot of words.

At the Havana Biennale in 2003 Paris-based curator, Nicolas Bourriaud, declared that documentary photography – from the “other world” of course – was the “new modernism”. He seemed to be saying that the primacy of the Contemporary Art curator was so firmly established that he could redeploy African photography much as Picasso had appropriated African masks, as raw elements in a Casablanca-like arrangement in which the curator did the thinking for artists too dumbstruck or grateful to do their own.

It’s foolish to believe that because of Contemporary Art, art could transcend the expectation of resemblances, objectifications, imaginations and ideas that lay at the very core of its being, skill and history, no matter what theorists, curators or funding agencies say. Photography has continued to engage these expectations - as a more convincing lie - so a lot of contemporary artists with something to say have taken to photography to contribute to the field of its vision, just as good performance artists like Laurie Anderson eventually became rock stars.

If photography now engenders the expectation of resemblances and implied or explicit visual narratives in art, then, in the last 20 or more years, architecture has continued the material, spatial and conceptual experiment that was the leitmotiv of Modern Art. Paradoxically, in museums for Contemporary Art, architecture found a project for its own astonishing and visible development – not as the presence of absence, but more like the presence making up for absence.

By Rodney Place

From revolution to rights in South Africa?

Public Debate at JWTC

Azapo's Mosibudi Mangena has recently questioned whether the current service delivery protests are a sign of political consciousness or depoliticisation (Cape Times, 27th July, 2009). For Mangena, post-apartheid state promises of free water, electricity and housing can only lead to citizens becoming passive and dependent clients of a paternalistic state. Mangena argues that this is not a sign of freedom but rather 'a prison called delivery.' So has the heroic anti-apartheid struggle for freedom morphed into this poverty of politics?

The post-Cold War era that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union also led to profound skepticism about all grand narratives of politics, progress and development. Without these meta-narratives to believe in, many progressive scholars and activists despaired about the direction that politics was taking. For some it seemed as if the triumphalism of neoliberal capitalism had ushered in conspicuous consumerism and the downsizing of the welfare state alongside deeply entrenched forms of structural unemployment, inequality and poverty. Many critical commentators in the West also claimed that 'we' were now doomed to live in a post-political world characterized by the demise of the collective, class-based politics of trade unions and revolutionary movements.

These critics were also deeply suspicious of what they regarded as the meaningless electoral rituals of liberal democracies. Citizens, they argued, had, not surprisingly, become apathetic and cynical about politics and politicians. At the same time, scholars such as Wendy Brown (1995) argued that recourse to the courts was becoming the only remedy in situations of social injury. For Brown and others, the problem with litigation was that it contributed towards individualizing, depoliticizing and fragmenting social and economic issues. Or, as some have put it, class action had replaced class struggle.

But is it such a zero-sum game between litigation and collection action? Are citizens the passive victims of these depoliticising processes, or is there something potentially progressive and empowering about 'rights talk' and 'the Law'?

South Africa's Constitution has been widely praised for being one of the most progressive on the planet. Its promotion of sexual and gender equality, as well as its recognition of cultural, linguistic and socio-economic rights has been lauded inside as well as outside the country. Many South Africans take enormous pride in the Constitution and zealously protect it from perceived threats. Nonetheless it has become increasingly clear that Constitutionally- enshrined rights can be very hard to realise. This is especially the case for poor people, for whom “rights'' and 'the Law' seem to be particularly remote and elusive.

Over the past couple of weeks there has been a lively debate over the merits and disadvantages of communities and social movements resorting to litigation in their struggles over access to basic services. Mike Muller, the former Director General of Water Affairs and Forestry, recently argued that the resort to water rights litigation by NGOs and communities opposing prepaid water meters and automatic disconnections undermined possibilities for effective political action. This view was challenged by Jackie Dugard, the Wits University researcher and member of the legal team representing the Mazibuko community in their water rights case against the City of Johannesburg. Dugard argued that, contrary to Muller's dismissal of rights-based approaches, in contexts of unaccountable and inefficient local government structures litigation can be effective in compelling the government to provide adequate services to the poor. Litigation, in other words, may be necessary where other forms of political engagement are less likely to succeed. However, she acknowledged that recourse to the courts requires resources and institutional support. Dugard's analysis implies that under certain conditions 'lawfare' may be more strategic than popular protest and public violence, which she refers to as political 'warfare.'
During the past decade, South Africa has witnessed a proliferation of “service delivery” protests in poor communities. During this period, there has also been the emergence of new social movements that use both mass mobilisation and litigation to address problems of access to basic services. For example, civic organisations such as the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC), the Anti-Evictions Campaign (AEC), AbahlalibaseMjondolo, and the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) have taken to the courts and the streets to challenge water and electricity disconnections and evictions. During the same period, the Treatment Action Campaign's (TAC) has fought struggles for AIDS treatment in the Constitutional Court as well as in the townships, universities, workplaces, and the media.

Unlike the 'Big Politics' of revolutionary socialism and labour movements, new social movements such as the TAC aspire to smaller political acts and less monumental victories. In many cases these movements simultaneously use the courts and the streets to shame, lobby, and pressure the state to respond more effectively towards improving the lives of the poor. This pragmatic rights-based politics blurs and implodes the conventional political binaries of Left and Right, socialism and neoliberalism, revolution and rights. But does it offer possibilities for progressive politics?

The extraordinary achievements of the TAC in recent years illustrate how litigation and rights-based approaches can, under certain conditions, contribute towards addressing broader questions of social justice. One has only to reflect on the successes of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) during the anti-apartheid struggle to recognize that rights-based approaches can, along with mass mobilisation, contribute to progressive political outcomes. Yet, it also cannot be denied that the groundbreaking Grootboom Constitutional Court ruling that recognized socio-economic rights to housing, ended up being a pyrrhic victory for the primary litigant, Irene Grootboom, who died last year while still living in a shack in Wallacedene, Cape Town. In other words, socio-economic rights and litigation can mean very little without a responsive and capacitated state and mobilized citizens.

Legal solutions can also have unintended consequences. For instance, in a 1995 study of the impact of agricultural labour courts that were introduced in terms of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act , Andries du Toit and I found that this progressive labour law initiative resulted in the eviction of large numbers of Western Cape farm workers. As soon as farm workers laid a complaint against a particular farmer they were summarily evicted and blacklisted by local white farmers in the area, making it extremely difficult to find work. Clearly, rights and litigation do not always produce the anticipated progressive outcomes.

Activists are often quick to learn when legal strategies work and when other methods are required. For instance, the young Nelson Mandela's training as a lawyer, and his respect for the rule of law, did not prevent him from resorting to militant trade unionism and armed struggle. He was able to combine rights based politics with philosophical and political influences ranging from Gandhi, to Nehru, to Fanon. This eclecticism has in fact been part of the ANC political culture for many decades, notwithstanding the predominance of Africanist and socialist ideological orientations within the organisation.

TAC has successfully used the courts, the media, global support networks, and grassroots mobilisation in the townships to lobby and pressure global pharmaceutical giants and the South African government to put measures in place for the provision of AIDS treatment in the public health system. In these David and Goliath battles, TAC operated simultaneously on local, national and global scales. Its tactical use of both litigation and mass mobilisation was also reminiscent of popular struggles against apartheid's influx control laws and forced removals. Whereas critics of rights-based social movements accuse these organisations of depoliticising and individualising social causes, TAC has been capable of deploying 'rights talk' and litigation alongside grassroots mobilisation with remarkable success. TAC's engagement with a devastating AIDS crisis in South Africa is very instructive. It reveals a highly contingent and improvisational politics that refuses to get bogged down in conventional oppositions and antagonisms between Left and Right, revolution and rights, state and civil society. For example, at one moment TAC partnered the South African government in a legal challenge to the global pharmaceutical industry over the question of ARV generics and intellectual property rights; the next moment TAC was in court challenging government for failing to implement ARV treatment within the public health sector. And now, TAC is back to working together with the Post-Polokwane ANC government in order to monitor and pressure the government to expand and improve ARV treatment and conditions in the broader public health system. The TAC's rights-based approach not only challenged the state and the global pharmaceutical industry in the quest for HIV treatment for poor and working class people, it also involved profound transformations of the identities of its members. In many cases TAC has managed to transform the potentially lethal stigma of AIDS into a badge of courage. Life after diagnosis with HIV seemed to have more meaning for many activists than it did before they tested. Rather than producing docile patients and biomedical subjects, the organisation created highly politicised activists who understood their role as the foot soldiers of a globally connected, working class health movement.

Ideas, practices and technologies - for instance, development, liberal democracy, rights and 'the Law' - can be put to many purposes, sometimes progressive and sometimes not. There is nothing inherent in these ideas and technologies that preordain particular outcomes. For TAC activists, this has meant that litigation in the highest courts has had to be accompanied by mass mobilisation in the streets. For housing activists, however, the Grootboom Constitutional Court victory was clearly insufficient and the Irene Grootbooms of the world continue to live and die in shacks without adequate basic services. Yet, it is equally unclear whether popular protests and public violence on their own will achieve better outcomes in terms of service delivery. Litigation and mass mobilization need to be analyzed in terms of their particular conditions of possibility; only this will reveal whether particular rights based approaches and modes of collective action lead to successful and progressive outcomes or not.

Steven Robins
Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the University of Stellenbosch.