Page 1

This volume addresses contemporary activist practices that aim to interrupt and reorient politics as well as culture. The specific tactics analyzed here are diverse, ranging from culture jamming, sousveillance, media hoaxing, adbusting, subvertising, street art, to hacktivism, billboard liberation, and urban guerilla, to name but a few. Though indebted to the artistic and political movements of the past, this form of activism brings a novel dimension to public protest with its insistence on humor, playfulness, and confusion. This book attempts to grasp both the old and new aspects of contemporary activist practices, as well as their common characteristics and internal varieties. It attempts to open up space for the acknowledgement of the ways in which contemporary capitalism affects all our lives, and for the reflection on possible modes of struggling with it. It focuses on the possibilities that different activist tactics enable, the ways in which those may be innovative or destructive, as well as on their complications and dilemmas.

Aylin Kuryel is a doctoral candidate in Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA). Her dissertation focuses on the image politics of nationalism. She is also involved in artist/ activist collectives and film-making.

Cultural Activism

Practices, Dilemmas, and Possibilities

Editors

THAMYRIS INTERSECTING PLACE, SEX AND RACE

No 21 [2010]

Begüm Özden Firat Aylin Kuryel

Cultural Activism

The encounter between the insights of political, social and critical theory on the one hand and activist visions and struggles on the other is urgent and appealing. The essays collected here all explore such a confrontational collaboration, testing its limits and productiveness, in theory as well as in practice. In a mutually beneficial relationship, theoretical concepts are rethought through activist practices, while those activist practices are developed with the help of the insights of critical theory. This volume brings scholars and activists together in the hope of establishing a productive dialogue between the theorizations of the intricacies of our times and the subversive practices that deal with them.

THAMYRIS INTERSECTING No 21

Cultural Activism

Begüm Özden Fırat is an Istanbul based activist. Besides, she is Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology at the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul, Turkey.

Frontispiece: collage by İlhami Nisvan.

ISBN 978-90-420-2981-1

Thamyris 21 Cover.indd 1

789042 029811

Rodopi

9

24-08-10 07:54


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 9–20

Introduction Cultural Activism: Practices, Dilemmas, and Possibilities Begüm Özden Fırat and Aylin Kuryel

On November 12, 2008, commuters in New York City, Los Angeles, and a few other US cities were informed of the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the front page of The New York Times, which was handed out in the streets for free. The paper also reported that a national health care system was to be established, corporate lobbying was soon to be abolished, the maximum wage law had succeeded, and all public universities were to become tuition-free. The advertisements were somewhat unusual. The ExxonMobil one read: “Times have changed. Oil fields have reverted to a newly independent Iraq and Congress has mandated ‘Fair Trade,’ a system in which most profits go not to brokers, stockholders, and a small management circle, but flow directly to those who produce. Exxon is excited about helping to do things better—not just because it’s the law, but because Exxon has always been about innovation” (http://www.nytimes-se.com). The Corrections: For the Record section included a self-reflective gesture when The Times apologized “for underreporting the effects and dangers of media consolidation, perhaps due to our own efforts at media consolidation: The Times owns almost two dozen regional newspapers, a number of television and radio stations, and partial shares in the Red Sox and the Discovery Channel” and declared that it “will voluntarily trust-bust itself, thus contributing to the independence of American journalism” (http://www.nytimes-se.com). To their dismay, careful readers would realize that these items were news from the future, as the edition was post-dated July 4, 2009. The subsequent press release declared that the paper was a hoax, “an elaborate operation six months in the planning” by a diverse range of groups, including The Yes Men, the Anti-Advertising Agency, CODEPINK, United for Peace and Justice, Not An Alternative, May First/People Link,

Introduction | 9


Improv Everywhere, Evil Twin, and Cultures of Resistance.1 In the supplementary spoof website of the New York Times, the prankster editorial of the newspaper explained—with an unstated reference to the recent election of Barack Obama as US president—their intention as follows: But things are different this time. This time, we can hold accountable the politicians we put into office. And because everyone can now see that the “free market” has nothing to do with freedom, there is a huge opening to pass policies that can benefit all Americans, and that can make us truly free—free to pursue an education without debt, go on vacation every once in a while, keep healthy, and live without the crushing guilt of knowing what our tax dollars are doing abroad. (http://www.nytimes-se.com/2009/ 07/04/the-fine-print) While the New York Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis wisely declared, “It is fake and we are looking into it” (www.reuters.com), the spoof edition, fiercely subverting The Times’ motto “All the news that’s fit to print” as “All the news we hope to print,” reached over a million commuters and possibly many more internet users. The Yes Men, which appears to be partially responsible for the spoof, is a group of anti-corporate activists performing what they call “identity correction” through which they impersonate corporate and government spokespeople so as to expose their “true” character and thereby spread anti-capitalist messages. So far, they have fooled numerous conference organizers, government officials, and network television producers into helping them correct the identity of George W. Bush, the World Trade Organization, McDonald’s, Exxon Mobile, Halliburton, and Dow Chemical among others.2 The Yes Men is one of the many contemporary activist groups—such as Critical Art Ensemble, Reverend Billy, the Space Hijackers, Etcétera, Las Agencias, Billboard Liberation Front, Grupo de Arte Callejero (GAC), Institute for Applied Autonomy, The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, and Mujeres Creando, to name a few— that work for societal transformation within the broader framework of contemporary anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, and alternative-globalization struggles. The actions and campaigns of such collectives have brought about alternative modes in which political activism can be innovative and destructive. This volume of Thamyris/Intersecting: Place, Sex, Race focuses on such contemporary activist practices directed toward disturbing and reorienting the cultural and political sphere by attacking the narratives of truth in society by way of diverse tactics, such as culture jamming, sousveillance, media hoaxing, adbusting, subvertising, flash mobs, street art, hacktivism, billboard liberation, and urban guerilla, to name but a few. This form of activism, with its insistence on creative interventions based on the notions of humor, playfulness, and confusion appears to bring a novel dimension to conventional strategies of protest. The difference between the so-called old and new forms of action is made clear in a text by autonome a.f.r.i.k.a.-gruppe, Luther

10 | Begüm Özden Fırat and Aylin Kuryel


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 9–20

Blissettt and Sonja Brünzels, who co-authored the Handbuch der Komunikationsguerilla (Handbook of Communication Guerilla): Guerrilla communication doesn’t focus on arguments and facts like most leaflets, brochures, slogans or banners. In its own way, it inhabits a militant political position; it is direct action in the space of social communication. But different from other militant positions (stone meets shop window); it doesn’t aim to destroy the codes and signs of power and control, but to distort and disfigure their meanings as a means of counteracting the omnipotent prattling of power. Communication guerrillas do not intend to occupy, interrupt or destroy the dominant channels of communication, but to detourn and subvert the messages transported. (http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/ nettime-l-9809/msg00044.html) The practice of subverting dominant messages transmitted by hegemonic powers is, no doubt, hardly new. It is inspired from and indebted to previous avant-garde artistic and political movements of the past—from Dada and Situationist International to the Yippies and the Diggers.3 The Situationist “connoisseur” Ken Knabb, for instance, points out that The Times spoof “is an example of the situationist tactic of ‘detournement,’ ” that is, the reuse of preexisting aesthetic elements, media forms and corporate images to convey opposing—and often witty—messages (www.bopsecrets.org). According to Guy Debord, the strength of the “detourned” object stems from creating a “double meaning, from the enrichment of most of the terms by the coexistence within them of their old senses and their new, immediate senses” (55). While the spoof appears not to have taken seriously Debord’s advice that “détournement is less effective the more it approaches a rational reply,” it nevertheless wittily fools around with the master’s tool to offer a subversive message just like the historical pranksters intended to do (Debord & Wolman 10). However, it should be noted that, even though there is a similarity between forms of subversion employed by contemporary cultural activists and the historical avant-garde, the socio-cultural contexts within which they operate differ significantly. The novelty of the “new forms of action” is that they operate, albeit loosely, within a global movement that has been called the “alter-globalization movement,” “movement of movements,” or “the global justice movement.” It has been argued that the movement fully materialized for the first time in the 1999 protests against the Third Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle. Ten years after its “debut,” the movement is still discussed with regard to the often incommensurable identities of the activists, as well as the diversity of tactics they purport. This variety is argued to be one of the strongest features of the “movement.” Anarchists, communists, ecologists, trade unionists, farmers, nuns, queers, and many others are involved in the decentralized struggle. Political objectives range from opposing neoliberal domination and the militarization of everyday life, and privatization of public utilities, to sexist, racist, and anti-environmentalist

Introduction | 11


policies, grand plans of the IMF or WTO, media manipulation of the consumerist society, and enclosure of land. It is hard to say if, from then on, the political brisk caused a drastic and irreversible change in the world. But it is even harder to say that it will not. The questions concerning the growth and the success of the movement generally fluctuate depending upon the current situation and the ways in which the notion of victory is understood by various agents.4 While the understanding of victory is highly contested within the movement, the means to reach it are even more diverse. Perhaps one common characteristic of the tactics employed, particularly during summit protests, is that they tend to be creative, colorful, joyful, carnivalesque, and humorous. These features often used for describing the current state of the movement, however, should not be seen as mere blissful expressions that spice up demonstrations and rallies. In line with the Bakhtinian notion of the medieval carnival, to which many texts of the movement explicitly refer, these are “ludic” instances through which the people confront economic and political oppression.5 The giant puppets of the “battle of Seattle,” the Silver & Pink march during the IMF and WB summit in Prague in 2000, and the half-naked plunge of the notoriously militant South Korean farmers during the WTO summit in Hong Kong in 2005 are not merely experiments in finding different languages of confrontation which communicate a radically different activist image, confuse the police, attract media attention, and lure the public into their causes, but also unique attempts at “shutting them down.”6 Such methods of confrontation with ruling regimes reclaim creativity and imagination, notions conventionally associated with the figure of the artist and members of the socalled creative class, as their moving forces. They intermingle art, activism, politics, and performance. The aviation campaign by the German Kein Mensch ist illegal (No One Is Illegal) network against the complicity of Lufthansa Airlines in helping the German state deport refugees is a sophisticated example of such interaction. As an image-polluting operation, the campaign started by promoting Lufthansa’s new campaign, “deportation class,” offering new lower-priced fares for the reduced level of comfort passengers might experience sitting next to people in handcuffs with tape over their mouths. The campaign started with flyers and a spoof website mimicking the look and feeling of the typography of the company’s advertisements. In addition, the activists intervened in annual shareholders’ meetings, press conferences, and an international tourism fair by impersonating Lufthansa employees to promote their new campaign, held a touring poster exhibition, organized an online demonstration on the Lufthansa servers, and staged a deportation performance at an airport. Through the collaboration of political activists, theoreticians, media activists, fine artists, musicians, and designers, the campaign employed an amalgamation of street theater, tactical media, subvertisement, and electronic disturbance, and finally managed to force Lufthansa to give up deportation. While the critique of the overall achievement of such campaigns is withheld—as Germany kept on deporting refugees using mostly charter airline companies—the

12 | Begüm Özden Fırat and Aylin Kuryel


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 9–20

Lufthansa actions demonstrate the efficiency of direct actions that prank and subvert the system through cultural means. Such interventions have become increasingly popular in recent years and have contaminated different areas of struggle in diverse regions of the world. The infamous creative non-violent resistance of the Bil’in villagers against the construction of the Israeli Separation wall and the settlements, the “Carnival of the Oppressed” held in Nigeria against multinational oil companies such as Shell and Evron, and the annual “militruzim” (military-tourism) festivals organized by anti-militarist groups in Turkey exemplify the global epidemic character of cultural activism.7 Similarly, novel combat icons such as the rebel clown, the sambatista, the precarious superhero, the hacker, the adbuster, the pie thrower, the radical cheerleader, and the libertarian prankster, who attack the system in myriad forms, make the scene and take it to the streets. Having said this, one should also note that the notion of creativity at times exerts certain tyranny over activists urging them to be creative constantly. There is a certain risk that this compulsion of using novel and creative activist methods culminates into a sort of “creativity for the sake of creativity” stance and tend to drift away from tactical thinking. For instance, nowadays, almost every street action, regardless of their form and aim, includes “colorful” elements such as music, puppets, costumes, or masks. While such “touches” have a strong expressive character and still manage to attract attention, they tend to become repetitive and lose their political efficacy when they do not create tactical confrontation. Hence, the Bakhtinian carnival to which the movement frequently refers, can easily give way to a contained and predictable parade fascinated by its own creativity, when it is not concerned with generating site and context specific situations sustaining a continuous political engagement. As such, cultural activism ends up reproducing what it initially attempts to challenge by creating a parade in which protesters and authorities perform their ascribed roles and confirm the existing order. This book attempts to grasp predicaments of cultural activism by venturing into the common characteristics of and varieties within existing activist practices as well as their shortcomings. By doing so, it hopes to opens up a space for contemplation about the ways that contemporary capitalism and power relations affect our lives, and the possible ways and different levels of struggling with it. This volume The encounter between the insights of political, social and critical theory and activist visions, suggestions, and actions is both urgent and appealing. In this volume, we aim to explore this confrontational collaboration, its limits and productiveness, both in theory and in practice. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, to rethink and explore theoretical concepts and tools through practice, and comprehend and develop political practice with the help of the insights of critical theories. Therefore, this volume brings scholars and activists together so as to provide various responses

Introduction | 13


and establish a productive dialogue between the theorizations of the intricacies of our times and activist/subversive practices that deal with them. All the contributors to this book share in common being involved in contemporary activist struggles with the existing social, cultural, political and economical relations through various practices, including the theorization of these practices. One of the most defining characteristics of what we call contemporary activist practices is the attempt to create possibilities of a more libertarian society, also known as “another world.” Constructing alternative political subject positions that will yield a transformation of the existing society is a common objective. A variety of examples showing that these new subject positions have brought significant expansions in praxis are provided and explored here at length. This is where the importance of the collaboration of critical theory with praxis lies. The engagement of critical theories with activist practices opens up a productive space where different epistemic coordinates of the political stance(s) can be theorized. It is only through this theorization that the limitations, dilemmas, and paradoxes of these political practices, as well as their achievements and possibilities can be illuminated. Therefore, it should be acknowledged that, besides the excitement of sharing a common ground, the contributors also share a certain unease about activist practices. This uneasiness is the glue that brings the articles in this book together. Judging whether or not there is a drastic change brought about by these practices would require assuming a stable position. Instead, shedding light on the ongoing process by way of theoretical analysis would provide a better and more effective integration with it. This is the way we propose to turn the unease into innovative formulations and active participation. Although the conceptual focus varies from one article to another, the main contextual knot of the essays is contemporary activist collectives and the possibilities and dilemmas of their existing practices. Several activist groups, campaigns, acts, and events from different social and cultural backgrounds are discussed. They are divergent in terms of their historical context, political focus and goal, and the tactics they employ. The notion of the political subject, the (im)possibilities of escaping from existing order and discourses, the conception of avant-garde and resistance, the relationship between the political objectives of activism and its tactics, the links between art and activism are some of the noteworthy themes. Different readings of the recurrent themes enhance the understanding of the issues at stake. Works by several thinkers such as Guy Debord, Henri Lefebvre, Bertolt Brecht, Gilles Deleuze, PierreFélix Guattari, Frederich Nietzsche, Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel de Certeau, and Jacques Rancière, depending on the facet of activism that is analyzed, are efficiently discussed. Each article deals with an individual case in its specificity. Yet, looking at the articles all together reveals significant features of the ideological or practical axis that make the activist practices converge. Therefore, an important concern is to

14 | Begüm Özden Fırat and Aylin Kuryel


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 9–20

contextualize practices, both in their specificity and in a broader framework, by considering their predecessors, their temporal and theoretical neighbors, allied or hostile relatives. By doing so, various manifestations of activist practices in different localities, as well as their transnational qualities are elucidated. The style of writing within and among the articles oscillates from academic to everyday language, from theoretical debates to almost journalistic accounts of the actual events, which suits the nature of the topics that the book deals with. There are overlapping conceptualizations and discussions, as well as opposing ones, which is an unavoidable and necessary quality regarding the subject matter of this compilation. The first essay entitled “The Notion of Irony in Cultural Activism” by Gavin Grindon focuses on the notion of irony so as to elaborate the different and sometimes ambiguous assumptions and definitions around cultural activism. The notion of irony has a rich theoretical accumulation around it. Grindon goes into extensive discussion about how irony and desire are conceptualized by several writers such as Marx, Hegel, and Nietzsche. He argues that cultural activism more often supposes a Nietzschean understanding of desire, not as a lack becoming present but as already active and productive. Therefore, activist practices often do not seek to awaken passive subjects, but to have an organizational role in relation to the already active desires of the subjects. He looks at A/Traverso, a part of the Italian autonomia movement that reached its peak in 1977, and explores the cultural-activist use of irony with the help of theoretical writings of Guattari and his notion of transversality. His argument about the necessity to look at the notion of irony is a path leading to less utopian and more complex possibilities of cultural activism. He also draws attention to the existing tendency of a simplistic and celebratory understanding of Bakthinian carnival, laughter, and play with authority, which in turn yields to a “revolutionary romanticism.” The notion of romanticism is further problematized in A. K. Thompson’s essay entitled “The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art and the Bourgeois Horizon.” Thompson takes an unusual route and explores the connection between twenty-first century struggles against globalization and capitalism and the nineteenth-century explosion of the Romantic Movement. He focuses on the visual politics of graphic novelist and illustrator Eric Drooker and street artist Banksy whose works strongly resonate in the contemporary “movement.” According to Thompson, features such as the lack of perspectival realism, the element of identification and mythic valorization, the use of dream state as the representation of a better future that exists in the visual repertoire of Drooker, and the idea of re-enchanting the world and sentimentality in Banksy’s images purport the visual tradition of Romanticism. He focuses on the movement’s identification with these images and elaborates on the recursive reiteration of a “rebellious impulse intrinsic to bourgeois experience.” By discussing the relationship between the emergence of bourgeoisie and its “negative other”

Introduction | 15


romanticism, Thompson argues for the epistemic continuity between social movements and the romantic tradition. This article provides significant insights on the recursive and ambivalent characteristics of romanticism, as well as of the relationship between romanticism and resistance. While both Grindon and Thompson focus on the paradoxical tendencies within activist practices in general by looking at the use of irony and the representational policies respectively, some other articles focus more on the complexities of specific activist tactics. Marco Deseriis’s article “Lots of Money Because I am Many: The Luther Blissett Project and the Multiple-Use Name Strategy” introduces the case of madeup artist Darko Maver who occupied the media during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, with its slowly unfolding fraud performances. This was one of the major pranks of the Luther Blissett Project, which has built its mysterious identity upon the staging of fake events. The name Luther Blisset became a multiple personality used by several artists and activists. The analysis of the Luther Blissett Project reveals in great detail the common interest in pranks, frauds, pseudonyms, fake fabrications, media targeting, and manipulation in projects that are at the juncture of art and activism. This interest is directly linked with the political objectives of such projects that require a radical undermining of the notions of individual identity in their methods. Deseriis’s article points out that the notion of individuality and authorship are not simply rejected by activist/artists, but played upon. This tactic deciphers the intrinsic qualities these notions carry and it gives significant hints on the working mechanisms of subversive practices. The subsequent essay “The Separation Wall in Palestine: Artists love to hate it!” by Ronen Eidelman explores the integration of artistic productions into the activist realm. It deals with the multi-layered issue of potentials and dilemmas of the transition between art and politics by looking at a specific and sensitive case. Eidelman talks about several artistic/political projects that have taken place since the beginning of the building of the separation wall by the Israeli government in the Palestinian territories. The wall has been a significant point of focus in political art in parallel to politics. He argues every artistic project in its singularity and in its relation to documenting, criticizing, condemning, and responding to the wall that has been a main focus of political art in the last few years. The potential of these artistic/political practices, such as delaying or blocking the building of the rest of the wall, educating the public through the wall, and decreasing the separation by increasing the communication between the two sides are elaborated on in Eidelman’s article; as well as the dilemmas and limitations of these practices, such as making the presence of the wall stronger by dealing with it, its fetishization by the artists, and commodification of the wall with the help of these art projects. The Situationist International (SI) is perhaps the most cited political/artistic group in the essays collected in this volume. They combined their critique of art and everyday life with an unorthodox Marxist critique of society to formulate a revolutionary

16 | Begüm Özden Fırat and Aylin Kuryel


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 9–20

program and became effective, both in their time and in the present day. Thinking about contemporary activist practices in relation to SI provides fruitful insights into various facets of contemporary activism since it has been inspired by several of their ideas and tactics. Deseriis’s looks at how Situationist concepts such as “psychogeography” and “derivé” find their way into the pranks of Luther Blisset that aim at undermining the individual identity of the artist or political subject. One of the other two articles that look at other aspects of the relationship between Situationist practices and the contemporary groups at stake, in relation to a number of theorists, is Anja Kanngieser’s “Breaking Out of the Specialist ‘Ghetto’: Performative Encounters as Participatory Praxis in Radical Politics.” Kanngieser gives an in-depth account of Berlin Dadaists, Situationist International, and the German activist group Umsonst in relation to one other. She discusses how Dadaists rejected early representational forms in art in favor of insurrectionary performative encounters and the kind of difficulties they have faced in fulfilling their goals. Situationist International was less “negatively programmed” than Dada, in her terms. They were seeking ways of “constructing situations” for the deterritorialization of the spectacle that mediates social relations between individuals. Kanngieser makes efficient use of Deleuze and Guattari’s works in her analysis of Dadaist realization of art and Situationist realization of constructing situations. She explores the question of whether these practices could become correlative to political life, as they wanted to happen. She discusses the practices of German activist group Umsonst in light of these previous examples and theorizes the possibilities of “performativity” in insurrectionary action and a transition from an ethic axial to praxis form. Her discussion of the limitations of previous groups sheds light on the potential value that she sees in particular forms of contemporary political engagement. Emrah Irzık, on the contrary, examines previous political/activist groups such as SI in order to reveal the inadequacies and restrictions of existing activist groups. In his article “A Proposal for Grounded Cultural Activism: Communication Strategies, Adbusters and Social Change,” he directs a critical look at activist tactics of the culture jamming group Adbusters, specifically at its use of the tactic “detournement,” which has appeared as the “agit-prop of contemporary cultural activism.” Adbusters is one of the most popular cultural jamming groups and is chosen here because some of the pitfalls that cultural activism tends to have are best seen by analyzing Adbusters’ practices and discourses. Irzık argues the theoretical and practical inadequacies of these activist strategies in relation to the issues such as class awareness, money as a means in activist struggle, and the prevalence of the discourse of “war with the consumer society.” He compares the tactics and more general visions of SI and today’s culture jamming, and efficiently interrogates the existence and effectiveness of an alternative/constructive political program and subjectivity in culture jamming’s political agenda.

Introduction | 17


Another article that problematizes particular tendencies within activist practices with regard to their general political program is Christian Scholl’s “Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Art for Tactical Interventions.” Scholl begins his discussion by citing Bakunin’s proposal of placing paintings of the National Museum in front of the barricades set against the Prussian troops, which were to defeat the socialist insurgency in Dresden. Departing from this unrealized proposal, Scholl explores the tactical usefulness of art for contemporary activist interventions, in his words, Bakunin’s poor cousins. In his survey of activist art interventions during summit protests in the past ten years, he observes a twofold tendency describing the epistemological premises of the imagery of revolutionary change: disruption and confrontation. Scholl closely analyzes the premises behind the practice of disruption and confrontation by giving diverse examples of both. By so doing, this essay not only brings forth a detailed critique of the limitations of existing creative interventions, but also offers potential ways to make such interventions more effective. Two other articles in the book focus on one of the most prominent and inspiring groups in activism’s current sphere, namely the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA), a UK-based activist group that uses clowning and mimicking military acts in parodical ways in its actions. It has become an innovative form of action with remarkable consequences, rather than merely a tactic used by a particular group. In his article, “Clowndestine Maneuvers: A Study of Clownfrontational Tactics” L. M. Bogad conducts a close reading of CIRCA actions and performances, its coverage in the press, CIRCA’s own leaflets and ideas, and his own experience with the group. He gives a rich theoretical account of the concept of “tactical carnival” in relation to CIRCA’s subversive performances. Shane Boyle’s article “Play with Authority! Activist Performance and Performative Irony” looks at CIRCA, as well as the Oil Enforcement Agency, the Yes Men, Reverend Billy, and other groups. He explores the question of how an unauthorized playing “with and within” official discourses and strategies of power can be an effective mode of politics. He analyzes the specific form of activist performance, which relies heavily on the playful imitation of the strategies of contemporary state power and corporate globalization. He argues that the tactical media and tactical performance are ways of infiltrating official discourses by way of a playful imitation of state and power strategies. Yet, the effect of this imitation is actually the effect of the failure of imitating. The “uncanny” element that makes art or tactical performance in this case is the performative irony that is similar to Brechtian “alienation effect.” As we see in every article in this book, activist practices are situated at the juncture of power, desire, identity, political practice, political agency, and the dialectic of subversion and recuperation. All the articles attempt to engage with these coordinates so as to generate various suggestions about the present and future, subjects and politics, as well as the formation and reformation of images, spaces, meanings,

18 | Begüm Özden Fırat and Aylin Kuryel


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 9–20

and everyday life. Exploring theoretical concepts further in light of political acts and understanding existing political acts in light of theoretical discussions is crucial to reaching better practical formulations for the future. Therefore, the contributors are concerned with rethinking and exploring theoretical concepts and tools through practice, and comprehending and developing political practice with the help of theories, both for a better understanding of theory and practice, and more importantly, for new practical transformatory critical suggestions for our times. We have asked several contemporary artist and activist groups, mostly the ones that are not mentioned in the articles, to briefly describe themselves and some of their actions. This “inventory of practices” at the end of the book provides further information about existing groups and forms of action. We hope that this inventory will inspire your imagination. The objective of this volume is to provide a general understanding of the dynamics and travel of the conceptualization of the existing world and the possibilities of its alteration through political engagement. It obviously does not provide packaged formulas to transform the world; neither does it cause the motivation for further action to be mired in theory that sometimes tends to be confusing and despairing. As we have mentioned before, the uneasiness shared by the contributors concerning the course of society, as well as the role and effectiveness of activist practices in it, is the glue that bring these articles together. Yet, the inspiration and hope surrounding present and future possibilities is, then, its “unglue” in order for the words to be lifted from the book and taken to the streets again.

Introduction | 19


Works Cited Bakhtin, M. M. Rabelais and His World. Trans. H. Iswolsky. Cambridge, MA: MIT P., 1968.

Anthology. Ed. and trans. K. Knabb, Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995, 8–14.

Debord, Guy (1959) “Detornement as Negation and Prelude” in Situationist International Anthology. Ed. and trans. K. Knabb, Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995, 55–56.

Notes from Nowhere, ed. We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism. New York: Verso, 2003.

Debord, Guy and Gil J. Wolman (1956), “Methods of Detournement”, in Situationist International

The Yes Men. “identity net.plays” in Art and Sabotage Issue of Transversal, eipcp Multilingual Webjournal. 2002 ⬍http://eipcp.net/transversal/ 1202/theyesmen/en⬎.

Notes 1. The “special edition” is located at ⬍http://www.nytimes-se.com⬎. The press release may be found at http://void.nothingness .org/archives/situationist/display/30232/ index.php (12 November 2008). 2. See ⬍www.theyesmen.org⬎. For an in-depth insider’s account on how identity correction works see, “identity net.plays” (2002) by the Yes Men. 3. For more on Dada and the Situationist International, see the essay by Anja Kannsieger in this volume. The Diggers were a radical community-action group performing guerilla theater from 1966–68 in San Francisco. Founded in 1967, the Yippies (Youth International Party) came about as an offshoot of 1960s the free-speech and anti-war movement in the United States. They performed street theater and political pranks. 4. On the notion of “victory,” see the first issue of Turbulence published for the G8 summit held in Heiligendamm, Germany in 2007 ⬍http://turbulence.org.uk/turbulence-1/⬎, “A tale of two victories? Or, why winning becomes

20 | Begüm Özden Fırat and Aylin Kuryel

precarious in times of absent antagonisms” by Tadzio Mueller and Kriss Sol ⬍http://transform. eipcp.net/correspondence/1183042751⬎, “Notes on Why it Matters that Heiligendamm Felt like Winning” by Ben Trott ⬍http://transform. eipcp.net/correspondence/1183458348⬎, and the film “What would it mean to win?” by Zanny Begg and Oliver Ressler. 5. For contemporary explorations of carnival, see essays by Gavin Grindon and L. M. Bogad in this volume. 6. The expression “Shutting them down” is taken from the title of collected essays on the G8 protests held in Gleneagles, UK in 2005. See, ⬍www.shutthemdown.org/⬎. 7. See respectively, ⬍http://www.bilinvillage.org/⬎ and Ronen Eidelman’s essay in this volume, “Carnival of the Oppressed: Resisting the Oil Occupation of the Niger Delta” by Owens Wiwa in We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism, and the essay by Can Bas¸kent and Yavuz Atan in the “inventory of praxis” section.


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 21–34

The Notion of Irony in Cultural Activism

Gavin Grindon

Since the development of “cultural activism” as a dominant tendency in the activism of the contemporary global justice movement, there has been a massive proliferation of theories which attempt to engage with and understand it as a practice. Accompanying this has been an equal proliferation of neologisms: activist-art (Raunig),1 art-activism (Felshin), crimethinc (Anon., Days of War), cultural activism (Trapese Collective), culture-jamming (Dery), dark matter (Sholette), the eros-effect (Katsiaficas), ethical

spectacle

(Duncombe),

interventionism

(Sholette

and

Thompson),

Kommunikationsguerilla (Guerilla Communications) or Spaßguerilla (Guerilla Prank) (Autonome A.F.R.I.K.A. Gruppe), poetic terrorism (Bey), tactical frivolity (Evans), the temporary autonomous zone (Bey), transversal activism (Raunig).2 However, this multiplication of critical terms is, in many ways, a sign of the very elusiveness of “cultural activism” as a concept. Many (but by no means all) of these approaches are indebted to critical traditions which, having developed out of different historical circumstances, remain at odds with many of the assumptions which underlie the practices of cultural activism. This article will attempt to examine some of these theoretical assumptions by seeking to uncover the meaning of one of cultural activism’s central theoretical turning points—the notion of irony. The notion of irony appears as central in almost every account of any particular act of cultural activism, whatever its level of theoretical sophistication. In explaining their engagement with culture and politics, cultural activist groups often place themselves in relation to the revolutionary avant-garde from Dada and Surrealism to the Situationists and beyond. Indeed, this emphasis on creating distance through displacement, dissonance, fracture, détournement, the combination of heterogeneous elements etc. draws on a central current extending from the

The Notion of Irony in Cultural Activism | 21


revolutionary Dadaist and Surrealist avant-garde to the present. Such ideas are also indebted to the fact that this avant-garde develops its own theoretical engagement with this approach and its revolutionary potential in the theory of revolution-asfestival, taken up and reworked by various groups and thinkers throughout the twentieth century, which contemporary activist groups often also take as a central point of influence.3 In both critical writing on such activism and in the perspectives of activists themselves, the notions of irony and festival have often been interpreted simply in terms of joy and laughter, of a riotous table-turning and ridiculing of authority. In academic discourse, the English-language reception of the writing of Mikhail Bakhtin, which has not only emphasized his notion of carnival, but also often employed it in an unexamined and even tokenistic fashion, is perhaps much to blame here. However, within the activist milieu, out of which groups such as Reclaim the Streets emerged, we might also look to the influential, but often rather simplistic formulations of Post-Left Anarchy, in the writing of Hakim Bey and Bob Black, which privileged laughter, laziness, and the spontaneous revolt of desire in terms which were often excessively simple. Such perspectives are often limited in terms of practical, tactical action and engagement, and fall back into an enthusiastic, celebratory assertion of the power of laughter, or a call for new inspiring myths, radical faith, or revolutionary romanticism.4 However, if we look again at the notion of irony which is central to these critical perspectives, we can make out the emergence of a number of other more difficult, but less utopian, dynamics and possibilities for cultural activism. Most of the attempts to define cultural activism cited above emphasize reversal and irony as fundamental to its workings as a means of transcendence. However, the very notion of a revolutionary, transcendent “table-turning” has its own rather illustrious philosophical lineage. The World Turned Upside Down Friedrich Engels famously claimed that Marx set Hegel’s upside-down system upon its feet. This occurs most clearly in Marx’s debt to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, in which Marx draws out the dialectic between the working class and capital by which the working class discovers its own separate creative power. A detailed account of the various twists and turns of Hegel’s logic exceeds the bounds of this article, but a short summary is possible. The dialectical notion of self-overcoming has its origins in the famous chapter of Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit entitled “Lordship and Bondage.” He argues, broadly, that the subject finds that “self-consciousness exists for a self-consciousness. Only so is it, in fact, self-consciousness” (110). He must therefore seek a mutually self-affirming relation with another subject. But having found it, this equilibrium is only temporary. These subjects’ wills to recognition are mutually exclusive and throw them into a struggle against each other. This struggle

22 | Gavin Grindon


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 21–34

eventually resolves itself in a relation of master and slave, as if it were to result in the total destruction of one subject by the other, we would be returned to the search for self-definition. However, the master remains stuck at an earlier stage of the dialectical process, because as the slave is an object of his desire to define himself, the slave being (from the master’s perspective) an object, cannot return that recognition to him. The slave, on the other hand, moves forward to a higher form of selfunderstanding. Bound in servitude to the master, he discovers himself in his labor as creator of the world rather than simply desiring to consume it: “The bondsman realises that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own” (119). The slave no longer sees the world as simply “other” but achieves a higher conception of his place in the world and his ability to transform it. Ironically, the master, whose desire consumes all others, is enslaved by his limited self-consciousness and cannot achieve the total self-awareness he desires. He is left behind by the slave, who through his slavery, comes closer to the autonomy, self-possession, and complete perspective of unalienated man.5 Although the dialectical method does present an image of reversal as social transcendence, in which every truth has a critical reservation held against it, it does not ostensibly admit to the common notion of irony in which a subject knowingly uses a false term. The dialectic is the abstract and objective logic of the world, and each transformation in the dialectical process is determined and implied by the previous term itself, rather than by some critical distance or “other” subject. To admit to a knowing, self-consciously false employment of a term in order to pass into its antithesis (that is, to admit irony to this process) within a logic which is prior to and explains the emergence of self-consciousness, would be to admit an external exception to dialectical logic, and undermine its claim to totality.6 Hegel occasionally employed irony as a stylistic element, such as in his famous dismissal of other theories of the absolute as “that night in which all cows are black” (94). However, having made his own partisan use of Hegel’s philosophy, Marx’s writing is often loaded with irony. In his discussion of “The Fetishism of Commodities,” irony and transcendence are bound up together. Making a playful reference to the Victorian vogue for spiritualism, in table-turning, tapping and tipping, Marx shows how a table, once it becomes a commodity, becomes something quite different: “As soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than ‘table-turning’ ever was” (Marx). A discussion of whether the role of irony in Marx’s writings is purely stylistic, or has some deeper philosophical basis, is beyond the scope of this article. However, if we look at another theory of irony as transcendence, we may begin to ascertain the role which it plays for cultural activism.

The Notion of Irony in Cultural Activism | 23


A second famous metaphysical notion of reversal as transcendence is presented by Nietzsche. Serendipitously, Nietzsche too allegorizes his logic in the image of the relation between master and slave. Like Hegel, his story is one of reversal, that carries an ironic twist in the tail, but unlike Hegel, irony is a central device in the movement of his argument toward this end. Unlike Hegel, Nietzsche’s philosophy does not rely on assuming an overarching logic or truth, but bases itself on the perspectival conflict of totally incommensurate values and logics. What different subjects’ perspectives do have in common is their desire to self-assertion: what he calls the will to power. The motive force in Nietzsche’s account is not dialectical logic, with its successive impasses and supercessions, but this will to power (though this is a category of his logic, and not simply these subjects’ “will power”). But not everything can be one unified pure force of desire—this would assume a logical unity which Nietzsche has already done away with in favor of the presence of conflicting desires—and so in On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche detects two forms of the will to power, “active” and “reactive.”7 The active will to power is manifest in a subject’s desire to encompass, make, and creatively act upon the world. The reactive, by contrast, works within given forms already created by an active will to power. It is a will to power turned against itself. Nietzsche finds these two forms of the will to power manifest in the master and the slave. The master exists in his purest form as Dionysian, in the early stages of a society, self-possessing and creating his own values. The slave, on the other hand, finding himself within the values of the master, wishes to be a master himself and assert his own active will to power. However, being reactive, his envy of the master is manifest in ressentiment. However, ressentiment’s “creativity” is merely a rejection of the master from within the master’s terms and values. That is, it is in fact just a negative imprint of these values: an active-reactivity of the will to power. By a slow and secret process which Nietzsche traces by his genealogical method, the slave seeks dominance in the master’s terms by convincing both the master and himself that all that was “good” is in fact “bad” and vice versa, imprisoning them both in an active-reactivity: Would anyone like to have a little look down into the secret of how ideals are fabricated on this earth? Who has enough pluck? [. . .] What’s happening down there? [. . .] “I think people are telling lies; a sugary mildness clings to every sound [. . .]. Impotence which doesn’t fight back is being turned into ‘goodness’; timid baseness [. . .] ‘humility’; submission to people one hates [. . .] ‘obedience’ [. . .] Enough! Enough! I can’t bear it any longer. Bad air! Bad air!” (29–30). At this point, as the will to power approaches absolute reactivity, there must, if wills to power are incommensurate, occur a rupture of active will against its reactive appropriation, lest it drown in bad air and disappear into total reactivity—that is, into nihilistic self-destruction. Nietzsche’s ironic tone here lets us know that these inversions aren’t total, that there is still a subject who recognizes them and laughs

24 | Gavin Grindon


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 21–34

at them. This is Nietzsche’s point of transcendence. For Nietzsche, irony is as an image of transcendence that, like the dialectic, is immanent to the terms it deals with. It does not describe transcendence from without, but presents an image of reversal from within. However, it does this by supposing an active “will,” within and against any discourse or system of thought. From this perspective, the refusal of such irony within dialectical logic marks it as an example of ressentiment, of the selfabnegation of the will to power. Hegel and Nietzsche’s two schemes are mutually antagonistic. From the viewpoint of Nietzsche’s thought, Hegel’s logic of dialectical inversions, where slave becomes master, is not a true progression at all, but a reactive will to power which always fails to transcend the prison of its own terms. But equally, from the viewpoint of Hegel’s system, Nietzsche’s system (or lack thereof) of incommensurate wills to power remains at the primitive dualistic level of the dialectic of the obsolete master-subject who sees the world only in terms of his own will to self-assertion and, unlike the slave, fails to supersede this limited self-consciousness. The master is falsely presented as always-already autonomous, and as such, the masterslave relation is only a relation for the slave. As a result, Nietzsche only presents us with an incomplete, tragic dialectic composed of a series of heroic but doomed Icarian flights. However, it is possible to trace another line of escape from this impasse. Organizing Desire This might all have seemed like a rather circuitous detour, but these approaches to irony will help us reflect upon their relative roles in the theoretical history of cultural activism. We are now in a position to turn to an example, in the movement of creative autonomy, a part of the Italian autonomia movement which reached its peak in 1977. One of the principal groups within creative autonomy, A/Traverso, took up in its eponymous journal the cultural-activist use of irony in new terms indebted to the theoretical writings of Félix Guattari and his notion of transversality. In describing itself as attempting to “transversalise” (Guattari, 1984: 239) politics, A/Traverso took Guattari’s (anti)psychiatric work on “transversalism” and made use of it in terms of political organization. Guattari first developed the concept of transversality in 1964–65 in the context of placing psychoanalysis in a social (and political) context, by turning to the role of desire in the group beyond hierarchical oedipal relationships and issues of transference. Guattari conceived of transversalism as a more effective mode of group therapy which was intended to replace the ambiguous idea of the institutional transference with a new concept: transversality in the group. The idea of transversality is opposed to: (a) verticality, as described in the organogramme of a pyramidal structure (leaders, assistants, etc.)

The Notion of Irony in Cultural Activism | 25


(b) horizontality, as it exists in the disturbed wards of a hospital [. . .] in other words a state of affairs in which things and people fit in as best they can with the situation in which they find themselves. Think of a field with a fence around it in which there are horses with adjustable blinkers: the adjustment of the blinkers is the “coefficient of transversality.” If they are so adjusted to make the horses totally blind, then presumably a certain traumatic form of encounter will take place. Gradually, as the flaps are opened, one can envisage them moving about more easily. Let us try to imagine how people relate to one another in terms of affectivity [. . .]. In a hospital [. . .] I would suggest that the official adjustment of all the blinkers [. . .] depends almost automatically on what happens at the level of the medical superintendent, the nursing superintendent, the financial superintendent and so on (17–18). Moving transversality from the psychiatric clinic into the political composition of everyday life, Radio Alice was famously the first station in Italy to broadcast live phone calls from listeners as part of its broadcasts and to invite people to come to the station and speak for themselves on the air. Radio Alice often gave its airtime over to calls from striking workers, people on the front lines of protests who could report on events and police movement, and others who had information to share (or sometimes, songs to request): We are workers on strike, we want you to play some music and we want to talk to you about the 35 hour week [. . .]. Another direct phone call: Dirty communists, we’re going to make you pay dearly for this radio station, we know who you are [. . .]. Another direct one: We are from the anti-fascist committee of the Rizzoli Hospital, don’t worry about anything, and call us if something happens, we are here night and day. (Collective A/Traverso 132) OK. Well, here at the end of Via Rizzoli the demonstrators have hemmed in the police. They’ve begun to hem them in near the Two Towers. It was great [. . .] because they came forward and just sat down and made fun of the police, who didn’t know what to do. (Red Notes 22) Rather than being fixed as discrete groups (workers, students, housewives) whose interests could be opposed to one another, Radio Alice encouraged the revolutionary becoming of political organization in the identification of affinities which transcended and problematized such categorizations. It was organization founded upon affect: “modification of the latent coefficient of transversality implies the existence of an erotic focal point, a group eros, and a take-over—even if partial—of local politics by a group-subject” (Guattari, 1995: 285).

26 | Gavin Grindon


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 21–34

Transversalism is a vectorial concept, a between-ness. As such, irony became one of its central modes, and prank calls to government officials fell into place alongside its other programming. When it was finally raided by the police, hidden microphones were left on broadcasting live, bringing the restrictive authority of the police into its transversal space. The police were moved from a vertical plane and the arrestees from a horizontal one, to a “transversal” plane, whereby the moment of Radio Alice’s final repression, rather than purely a moment of tragedy, became also a moment of organizational possibility as even the forcible stopping of the broadcast, as an attempt to close this transversal space, was placed in ironic terms no longer defined from above: Police: Hands up there! Comrade B: We’ve got our hands up. They’re telling us that this is a “hive of subversive activity” [. . .]. (Red Notes 31) Those organizing Radio Alice did not “use” irony (for that would be to take a representative, ideological position. They were not satirists). Rather, they opened a transversal space in which the Nietzschean model of irony allows us to understand it as offering one possible example of a practical and fully social composition of revolution upon affective relations of affinity. As such, they also undid (to an extent) even their own authoritarian position as organizers. Once again, transversality was not a matter of a supposed “free speech” and the representation of opinions within the safety valve of a permitted public sphere, but of an excessive leap into political organization and self-valorization. The point of going through the looking glass was not to reflect the world, but to change it. For them, irony played a key role in social transcendence, in the Nietzschean sense outlined above. This model of transversality, as a means to understand the use of irony by creative political movements, leads us to two conclusions regarding the organizational and political assumptions of those movements. First, though it has its roots in the aesthetic use of irony which, since Duchamp’s “fountain,” has been characteristic of avant-garde rupture, irony here appears in terms of an already-present disjunctive social relation, not in terms of prompting a disjunctive or uncanny experience. Thus it sits at odds with, for example, Benjamin’s famous dialectical analysis of Surrealism’s uncanny disjunctions as an image of awakening: “The realisation of dream elements in waking is the textbook example of dialectical thinking. For this reason dialectical thinking is the origin of historical awakening” (1986: 162). Such a model deals with subjects’ desire as absent, waiting to be awakened, inspired and, thus, led. Its reading of the avant-garde transposes into the realm of desire and affect the ideological model of the vanguard. This common reading of the avant-garde still holds sway over attitudes toward cultural activism,

The Notion of Irony in Cultural Activism | 27


even though the transversality of A/Traverso assumes desire to be already present and active in subjects. Cultural activism, even when described as “activist art,” is not representational or ideological in its approach, seeking to inspire or awaken a supposedly passive subject, but engages in culture while understanding it as a directly political field. That is, it seeks to take a direct, active, organizational role in relation to the already present, already active desires of subjects. Rather than sparking an awakening of repressed or dormant desires, on the plane of everyday life, cultural activism organizes desire.8 Crucially, most cultural activism focuses on the directly political nature of culture in so far as it assumes the directly political nature of the realm of affective experience more generally under contemporary capitalist social relations. As I will develop below, these relations are those of precarity, in which the subject does not find itself able to step outside of capitalist power relations, into a (for example) unalienated vanguardist position of ideological truth, from which it may unveil capitalism’s alienations. In theoretical terms, this means cultural activism more often supposes the Nietzschean understanding of desire not as a reactive lack which moves into presence, but as already active, present, and productive. Second, this route turns us away from the common conclusion that the avantgarde, and cultural activism, end more or less inevitably at the dead end of recuperation. Desire’s reach for transcendence, and the method of ironic reversal, is often read as inevitably ending in tragic failure, from Bürger’s assessment of the avantgarde, to Lefebvre’s assessment of the Paris Commune, to Benjamin’s famous assertion that the “aestheticisation of politics” will inevitably be the preserve of fascism (1999: 234). But to reject such schemes is also to reject the first stage of their dialectic. That is, it is to reject any simplistic assertion of either the pure subversive power of joy or laughter, or of such experience as pure irrational effervescence. Instead, we might look to a new engagement with the notion of tragedy and transcendence in the materialist politics of a tragic joy. Tragic Joy Following the discussion of irony above, we can see that the assumptions of much Marxian critical theory (not least that of the Situationist International, which influences many engagements with cultural activism) disposes one to see cultural-activist projects, and their historical predecessors, as at best beautiful utopian anomalies which somehow momentarily defied history and now float free in radical mythology, or at worst as tragic, heroic failures doomed from the outset. In either case, there are few ways of building any kind of practical, radical political action in the present upon these foundations. However, a critical turn to the plane of organization makes it possible to recognize in these moments a joyful, subversive tragic beyond what might otherwise be recognized only negatively. However, the unusual, contrary positing of a “joyful tragic” signals that the notion of sublime transcendence has undergone a

28 | Gavin Grindon


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 21–34

transformation in which the discrete concept of the sublime (or of desublimation, of awakening), is no longer an entirely accurate description of the situation. Instead, we are presented with both a more positive and more quotidian concept of the tragic. The tragic here is a matter of the transversal social experience of value, as it is found in the profound life-affirming presence of desire in the sublime. Though this experience is still associated with radical social transgression, we have here a quotidian tragic in which we are presented with the impossible but necessary movement of desire. Although undeniably indebted to Nietzsche’s joyful assessment of tragedy, this is not a purely positive and autonomous tragic emerging against capital, but is bound up with the determinative conditions of real subsumption, with the constant imposition of an “impossible” impasse upon the subject by capital. If the sublime was the experience of a pure other, a beyond which enters the terrain of everyday life as the marvelous or the sacred, this new scheme does away with a sublime “beyond” or a critical position “outside” which is not subsumed to capital. Perhaps this discussion of the tragic and the sublime can also be made clearer by returning to its critical precedents. Kant’s “Analytic of the Sublime” in his The Critique of Judgement understands the transcendent aesthetic experience of the “soulstirring delight” (112) of the sublime as the product of a particular danger, experienced from a position of safety, which allowed the subject a reflection on his own powers. Kant’s examples are drawn from nature: Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunder-clouds piled up to the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river, and the like, make our power of resistance in trifling moment in comparison with their might. But, provided our position is secure, their aspect is all the more attractive for its fearfulness; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite a different kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature. (110–11) However, the sublime takes on a new social aspect once placed alongside the assumptions of (post-)operaismo and theorists of precarity, that capitalism now subsumes all of society under its domineering extraction of surplus value. If even the most personal spaces are now subsumed by capital and traversed by determinant relations, then the notion of the sublime as a Kantian matter of a specific “external” fear experienced from a point of safety which leads to a reflection upon the subject’s more general helplessness, that is, of private angst and public fear9 no longer holds now capitalist subsumption undoes the relation between the private and public sphere. As the post-operaist Paolo Virno recently observed: “Fear for a determinate reason was something socially governable while anguish over precarity, over finitude,

The Notion of Irony in Cultural Activism | 29


was something that religions or philosophy tried to administer” (Pavon). Now that the anguish over precarity is also a social issue, we find that in moments of engagement with specific social problems we also confront the fundamental sublime experience of our precariousness and the meaning of our lives: “We experience in social situations—like the crisis in Argentina two years ago, or the life of immigrants that come to Europe—at the same time a concrete social economic problem and a relation with the world that appears to us with all its drama” (Pavon). This is a new form of sublime relation. The joy of the sublime is no longer a matter of the “safe” separation of the subject from the object of terror by its social security. The joy of this sublime, if it is to be anything but the terror of a precarity enforced by state and capital which destroys the subject, is to be found in the subject’s engagement with and undoing of these relations, by transversally composing other relations. Sublime joy is now not a matter of safety, but of the “dangerous leaps” which compose alternative, heterogeneous relations. Writing in Italy in the 1970s, Antonio Negri develops a similar point in “Domination and Sabotage” by quoting Epicurus, “at the same time, we must laugh and philosophise” (259). But this laughter is bound up with the difficulty of struggle: “It is terror that is open to the possibility of being comical [. . .]. Repression is not credible. Its spectacular form is paradoxical and ridiculous [. . .]. To laugh at repression is not to defend oneself but to define it, facing it as it presents itself [. . .]. But when you begin to philosophise you notice that this detachment is actually contempt” (259). This leap is no longer the “impossible” total sublime moment of a subject’s tragic, heroic assertion upon the world through myth, but as a difficult space (or rather, as relations which traverse a space) of a heterogeneity of values composed by heterogeneous means. More recently, this notion of an ironic, tragic joy has been explored in a specific context by Colectivo Situaciones. As a collective from Buenos Aires working as part of the new radical currents which emerged in Argentina, they argue that sadness is a reactive dynamic of limited possibilities and closure: “According to Spinoza, sadness consists in being separated from our potencia (powers-to-act). Among us, political sadness often took the form of impotence and melancholy in the face of the growing distance between that social experiment and the political imagination capable of carrying it out” (Colectivo Situaciones 130–134). Asserting a need for a politics “within and against sadness,” rather than a sad, reactive politics, they argue, among other things, that politicizing sadness entails a move beyond the reductive binary of victory-defeat. In a rather different context, a recent notorious cultural-activist group, CIRCA, has attempted just such a transversal politicization. Who, after all, engages with the dialectic of sadness and laughter better than a clown? Drawing on the long genealogy which begins with the shaman and the fool, the image of whom is at the origin of the notion of turning the world upside down, they demonstrate well that to open up transversal social-affective relations

30 | Gavin Grindon


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 21–34

should not only be understood in terms of a delirious, ecstatic joy, but in terms of a supportive, open engagement with sadness. Articles elsewhere in this volume deal with CIRCA in greater detail, so it will suffice here to try and sketch out their particular transversality. Confronting riot police in the form of a clown presents the activist as a bare, vulnerable, and absurd subject. The activist has nowhere to go, and no pretences to shield him/herself. But this tragic absurdity breaks down the fourth wall between the activist and the police, who are ironically drawn into a relation with the activist in so far as they are also made uncomfortable by this ridiculous, honest, and open subject. The clowns set into play a transversal relationship which the police are drawn into, even by their own desire to avoid it, whether by their refusal of eye contact, vocal assertions of authority, or their uniforms. As both parties look, and to whatever extent feel, uncomfortable and vulnerable, it becomes difficult to ignore the fact that the whole situation, including the role the police are playing, is absurd. Though this situation frequently entails laughter, its undoing of values and hierarchies does not begin with a joyful irony or with certainty, but with pathetic, tragic irony and vulnerability. CIRCA’s activism works upon other affective potentials besides a simple assertion of laughter and pure joy. For this cultural activism, the aesthetic is not just a tactic, tool, or terrain. Like Radio Alice, CIRCA does not “use” irony from a safe, knowing point of critique, but creates an ironic transversal relation in which they themselves are bound up. In this, their activity accents and theatricalizes the affect of any moment of engagement with capitalist power relations. John Jordan, one of the early members of Reclaim the Streets, recently discussed this kind of affective politics as a matter of “breaking the heart of empire.” Using the notion of “love,” he argues that loving, supportive social relations are not always about joy and laughter: “Within a year of J18 happening, the group that had organized the event fell apart, partly due to internal strife. A little more love, a bit more space to acknowledge feelings, to speak of despair as well as of our hopes and joys may have kept us together [. . .]” (Jordan). I have argued that cultural activism orientates politics toward the organization of desires. This has often been understood in terms of a focus on the most visible, effervescent, joyful moments which this politics often embodies—the moment of the leap. But even if we reject the reactive view of such experiences as tragic failures, such moments can still often be seen, in retrospect, in terms divorced from their history: as beautifully utopian, impossible, and even mythological. However, to found them in relation to a problem of organizing sadness, as a tragic joy, is also to attempt to found them in relation to the complexities of their historical, material composition.

The Notion of Irony in Cultural Activism | 31


Works Cited Autonome A.F.R.I.K.A. Gruppe, Luther Blisset, and Sonja Brünzels. Handbuch Der Komunikationsguerilla. Hamburg: Verlag Libertäre , Verlag der Buchläden Schwarze Risse/Rote Strasse, 1997. Benjamin, Walter. “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” Reflections. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Shocken, 1986. ———. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. London: Pimlico, 1999. Bey, Hakim. T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. New York: Autonomedia, 1991. Brandt, Sebastian. The Ship of Fools. Trans. William Gillis. London: Folio, 1971. Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984. Colectivo Situaciones. “‘Politicising Sadness,’ Chto Delat?/What Is to Be Done?” Trans. Nate Holdren and Sebastian Touza (2007) August 2007 ⬍http://www.chtodelat.org/index.php? option=com_content&task=view&id=329& Itemid=167⬎. Collective A/Traverso. “Radio Alice-Free Radio.” Italy: Autonomia: Post-Political Politics. Ed. Sylvere Lotringer and Christian Marazzi. New York: Semiotext(e), 1980. 130–134. CrimethInc Workers Collective. Days of War, Nights of Love: Crimethink for Beginners. Atlanta: CrimethInc, 2001. Debord, Guy. “Theses on Cultural Revolution,” Internationale Situationniste #1 (June 1958) Trans. John Shepley (1958). May 2007 ⬍http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/theses. html⬎. Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson. London: Continuum, 2005.

32 | Gavin Grindon

Dery, Mark. Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs (2007). July 2007 ⬍http://www.levity.com/markdery/ culturjam.html⬎. Duncombe, Stephen. Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. New York: New, 2007. Evans, Kate. “It’s Got to Be Silver or Pink: On the Road with Tactical Frivolity.” We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism. Ed. Notes From Nowhere. London: Verso, 2003. 290–296. Felshin, Nina, ed. But Is It Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism. Washington: Bay, 1994. Grindon, Gavin. “The Breath of the Possible.” Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigation, Collective Theorisation. Ed. David Graeber and Stephven Shukaitis. Edinburgh: AK Press, 2006. 94–107. Guattari, Félix. Chaosophy. New York: Semiotext(e), 1995. ———. “Millions and Millions of Potential Alices.” Molecular Revolution. Ed. David Cooper. London: Penguin, 1984. 236–241. ———. “Transversality.” Molecular Revolution. Ed. David Cooper. London: Penguin, 1984. 11–23. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979. Jordan, John. Notes Whilst Walking on “How to Break the Heart of Empire” (2007). January 2008 ⬍http://eipcp.net/transversal/1007/ jordan/en⬎. Kain, Philip J. Hegel and the Other. New York: State U of New York P, 2005. Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Trans. James Creed Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 21–34

Katsiaficas, George. What Is the Eros Effect? (1989). July 2007 ⬍http://www.eroseffect.com/ articles/eroseffectpaper.PDF⬎. Lefebvre, Henri. Everyday Life in the Modern World. Trans. Sacha Rabinovitch. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1984. ———. “The Style of the Commune (from La Proclamation De La Commune, 1965).” Henri Lefebvre: Key Writings. Ed. Stuart Elden, Elizabeth Lebas, and Eleanore Kofman. New York: Continuum, 2003. 188–189. Lippard, Lucy. “Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power.” Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Ed. Brian Wallis. New York: New York Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984. 341–358. Negri, Antonio. “Domination and Sabotage.” Books for Burning: Between Civil War and Democracy in 1970s Italy. Ed. Timothy Murphy. London: Verso, 2005. 231–291. Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Carol Diethe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Notes from Nowhere, ed. We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism. London: Verso, 2003. Raunig, Gerald. Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism, Monsters and Machines. New York: Semiotext(e), 2007.

Red Notes. “Phone Calls to Radio Alice,” “Revolutionary Radio.” Ed. Red Notes. Italy 1977–78: Living with an Earthquake. London: Red Notes, 1978. Richardson, John. Nietzsche’s System. New York, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Sholette, Gregory. “Dark Matter: Activist Art and the Counter-Public Sphere.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest: web special (2004). 27 July 2004. ⬍http://www. journalofaestheticsandprotest.org/3/sholette. htm⬎. Sholette, Gregory, and Nato Thompson. The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life. Massachusetts: MIT P, 2004. Stern, Robert. Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit. London: Routledge, 2002. Trapese Collective. Do It Yourself: A Handbook for Changing Our World. London: Pluto, 2007. Virno, Paulo. Creating a New Public Sphere, without the State: An Interview with Paolo Virno Héctor Pavón (2004). July 2007 ⬍http://www. generation-online.org/p/fpvirno8.htm⬎. ———. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. New York: Semiotext(e), 2004.

Notes 1. Also see Lippard (1984). 2. The more obvious term, “cultural revolution” is conspicuous in its absence due to its Maoist associations. However, the term had been used earlier by the “Mao-Dadaists” of A/Traverso, and by both Lefebvre (1984: 195) and Debord. 3. This theoretical precedent to contemporary activist paradigms is regularly referred to in

the literature of the movement. Trapese Collective (2007: 180–81), Notes From Nowhere (2003: 173–95, 244–63). For a fuller direct account of the theory of revolutionas-festival, see Grindon. 4. Historically, we might consider for example both the more lyrical excesses of the Situationist International as well as Lefebvre’s direct turn to “Revolutionary Romanticism.”

The Notion of Irony in Cultural Activism | 33


5. For a fuller account of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, see Stern (2002: 71–85, 44–50).

Or, for a more analytic account, Richardson (1996: 39–44).

6. Verene has offered a (very unusual) reading of Hegel which privileges aesthetic aspects such as irony, engaging with the contradiction above by concluding that the “dialectic is really a logical way of describing what are essentially rhetorical processes or rhetorical powers of the mind.” Verene (1985: 23).

8. I am grateful to Stephen Duncombe for pointing out to me my own neologism here. Retrospectively, one might now add it to the pile.

7. For a fuller account of this distinction in the will to power, see Deleuze (2005: 36–67).

34 | Gavin Grindon

9. See Virno’s discussion of the move “beyond the coupling of the terms fear/anguish” in Virno (2004: 31–35).


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon A. K. Thompson

I For those who lived through them, the years of struggle against corporate globalization between 1999 and 2003 are memorable for having been marked by an extreme creative audacity. Along with that movement’s tactical innovations—which included the elaboration of forms of horizontal organizing and the intensification of the capacity for violent confrontations with constituted power—came a profusion of aesthetic interventions. Combining do-it-yourself ethics with a newfound sense of the pleasures to be had from lowbrow cultural interventions, activists during this period began in earnest to retrofit the world. After a pabulum generation of post-New Left campaigns that could not help but leave the impression that social change meant fighting for bread and bread, the movements against corporate globalization declared in no uncertain terms that bread and roses were on the agenda once again. It is within this context that we can situate that movement’s profound interest in the work of Eric Drooker and Banksy. Although working in different idioms, these two artists are notable for having become prominent visual reference points within movement culture and for having captured and given form to the new spirit of resistance. The comments that follow are, in part, an account of this resonance. However, while their interventions were sometimes inspiring (and while they continue to speak to many of us), it’s important—when considered from the standpoint of an analysis of the movement—to ask precisely what their expressive outbursts expressed. More specifically, we can ask: What can the content of the movement’s resonant images tell us about the movement itself? And even more specifically: Can Drooker and Banksy serve as an index of the movement’s historical and political possibilities? If so, what do they reveal about the field of struggle and the political tasks before us?

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 35


The following comments are focused on an investigation of Drooker and Banksy’s work. Based on these comments, I hope to trace the outlines of the social contradictions underlying movement activities and desires. Specifically, I am interested in discovering why, despite its sometimes obstinate disavowal of history,1 the movement against corporate globalization oriented toward works that seemed to draw upon and helped to reiterate major themes from the nineteenth-century romantic tradition. Why did a movement at the beginning of the twenty-first century (a movement that proclaimed with ferocious sincerity that “another world is possible”) find inspiration in works that drew from an archive that—from the standpoint of the generalized dissimulations of late capitalism—has by now been largely forgotten?

II For readers familiar with his work, this line of questioning will undoubtedly bring to mind the writings of Walter Benjamin who, in “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” and elsewhere, proposed that resonant images enabled people to anticipate the future by recalling traces of a mythical past whose promise had yet to be realized. Because of this tendency, Benjamin contended that actors in the present always end up “quoting primeval history” (1968a 157). The purpose of these citations was to recall the unrealized elements of history and myth in the hope that their iteration in the present would allow them to come to fruition. For this reason, Benjamin contended that “each epoch not only dreams the next, but also, in dreaming, strives toward the moment of waking” (162). In the dream in which, before the eyes of each epoch, that which is to follow appears in images, that latter appears wedded to elements from prehistory, that is, of a classless society. Intimations of this, deposited in the unconscious of the collective, mingle with the new to produce the utopia that has left its traces in thousands of configurations of life, from permanent buildings to fleeting fashions. (148) For Benjamin, the present dreams the future by way of a detour through the mythic past. However, the dream itself does not say anything about the means by which it will be realized; it neither presents the future in its final material form nor shows the means by which the wish underlying the mythic citation can be practically fulfilled. For this, another kind of image is required.2 But, though it provides no blueprints for revolution, the wish image signals the possibility that the energies constrained by capital might spill over and bring with them a state of transformative intoxication. Although Benjamin never advanced a systematic program concerning the use of wish images, his investigations do allow us to consider why an assemblage as full of exuberance as the one that proclaimed that “another world is possible” seemed to reach back into the archive of the romantic past (an archive that was itself composed of mythic citations) in order to augment its imaginative élan.

36 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

III According to Isaiah Berlin, “the literature on romanticism is larger than romanticism itself” (1999: 1). To this provocative but undoubtedly true claim, we might add that many of the canonical contributions to this literature advance propositions that are in contradiction with other equally canonical pronouncements. For this reason, it is (and always has been) difficult to provide a definitive account of the romantic tradition. Nevertheless, I would like to highlight a number of features that help to clarify the political significance of romanticism in the present. Given the task before us, this account is based less on the attributes of the romantic object than on the relationship that romanticism posits between object and world, object and audience, and object and creator.3 First, romanticism arose from the antithetical term of the constitutive contradiction of bourgeois experience. It was a reaction to calculative rationality, the ascendant term of the bourgeois world. Arising from the Enlightenment, calculative rationality was the means by which the world was transposed into measurable units. These units enabled the standardization of both processes of production and habits of thought. However, while calculative rationality became the operational premise of capitalism and its modern institutions, the contradiction at the heart of bourgeois experience demanded that the incalculable remainder be addressed. Romanticism was one form taken by this acknowledgement. Second, it is significant to note that, while this remainder afforded spiritual seductions seemingly at odds with the operational logic of the bourgeois world, it was not outside of this world. Indeed, romanticism could not have arisen had it not been for calculative rationality and the social conditions it brought into being. For its part, calculative rationality incorporated romanticism as an engine for the production of new needs. According to Carl Schmitt: “the romantic hated the philistine. But it turned out t hat the philistine loved the romantic, and in such a relationship it was obvious that the philistine had the dominant position” (93). Third, the nineteenth-century division between calculative rationality and its antithesis has yet to be resolved. And while the dynamics of this war have been elaborated over time, they could be discerned from the very first act of the bourgeois drama. Already they were present in the French revolution, where they were given perfect expression in the guillotine. On one hand, the guillotine stood as emblem of calculative rationality’s impulse to serialize death and evacuate from it the religious drama of suffering and redemption. It rendered operational the formal equality heralded by the Enlightenment. Where once the executioner had been God’s proxy, overseer of the punitive liturgy, the guillotine turned him into a functionary (literally, an executive officer) of the nascent state. On the other hand, the guillotine signaled a return to forms of religious sacrifice wherein community is constituted—as Rene Girard has proclaimed—by way of collective responsibility for the founding murder

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 37


(102). These two premises, antithetical and yet expressed simultaneously within a single object, mark the constitutive polarity of bourgeois experience. In this way, the guillotine neatly anticipates the schizophrenia it would help to unleash. By jumping headlong into the fratricidal war between the antithetical poles of bourgeois consciousness, romanticism pushed itself past judiciousness and moderation. It toppled the sentinels guarding the knot at the heart of bourgeois experience. Finally, it stepped forward to become a guiding star for rebels everywhere. But if all of this happened in the nineteenth century, then why does it continue to happen today? One way to begin understanding romanticism’s recursive character is to note how identification with the antithetical term of a contradiction is not, in and of itself, a sufficient means of overcoming the contradiction itself. And while the bourgeoisie occasionally endeavored to resolve its constitutive contradiction philosophically (and here we might think of Kant’s subjective rationalism), the conditions required for such a resolution are nowhere to be found within the bourgeois horizon itself. It was precisely to this problem that Georg Lukács turned in his consideration of the antinomies of bourgeois thought. Proposing that the subjective rationalism inaugurated by Kant found its limit in the always-partial character of the rational system itself, Lukács discovered how, “in such systems the ‘ultimate’ problem of human existence persists in an irrationality incommensurable with human understanding.” What’s more, “the closer the system comes to these ‘ultimate’ questions the more strikingly its partial, auxiliary nature and its inability to grasp the ‘essential’ are revealed” (1971: 113–14). The partitioning of subject and object in the bourgeois imagination cannot be resolved philosophically, since bourgeois philosophy can go no further than an incomplete subjective-idealism or an incomplete objective-empiricism. Both states are marked by constitutive lack. However, within this framework, only the subjectiveidealist pole of the romantic worldview holds the promise of resolving that lack through a valorizing identification with what ought to be. In the contest between rationalism and its negative other, the rebel operating within the bourgeois horizon has only one choice. For Lukács, this negative other is signaled by the “irrational” and the “essential.” It is no mistake that these same terms are among the constitutive elements of the romantic tradition.Despite making positive claims about the intangible, romanticism remains a refusal of the dominant—scientific and empirical—terms of bourgeois experience (Berlin 1999: 119–20). It is therefore not surprising that, since the constitutive contradiction of bourgeois experience has yet to be resolved synthetically or surpassed politically (since bourgeois politics continues to be marked by the irreconcilable tension between heart and mind, art and science, “ought” and “is”), political movements opposed to the bourgeois order have disclosed a predictable tendency to find consolation in—and to align themselves with—the romantic impulse to undo calculative rationality.

38 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

By considering the connection between the early twenty-first century struggles against globalization and the nineteenth-century explosion of romanticism by way of their overlapping fingerprints on a catalogue of resonant images, it becomes possible to highlight romanticism’s recursivity and—more contentiously—to locate its origins in the incomplete character of the bourgeois revolution. Even more contentiously, we can consider how, despite its radical pronouncements, the anti-globalization movement’s identification with romantic images suggests that it is best understood as a recursive reiteration of a rebellious impulse intrinsic to bourgeois experience. This is so because the bourgeois world was born of a contradiction that remains irreconcilable within the terms available to those that continue to operate within its horizon and because a movement that orients toward the antithetical pole of this constitutive contradiction will—despite the rigor of its opposition—never end by surpassing the bourgeois horizon itself. IV Eric Drooker began making art for the political scene in New York’s Lower East Side during the 1980s. Home to successive waves of low-paid immigrant workers and socialist rebels during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Lower East Side had by the 1980s become a site of intensive gentrification and a new kind of class struggle. Amid the tumult, Drooker developed an aesthetic deeply influenced by the radical culture of the protest scene and the visual archive of his neighborhood’s past. Drawing inspiration from both the street and his formal training (earned by way of scholarship to Cooper Union), Drooker began producing scratchboard images in the high contrast style of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century expressionist woodcuts. Since the late 1980s, Drooker has released a number of books, some of which have now gone into second editions.4 Drooker images have also appeared on the covers of several activist publications, including LiP and Punk Planet (now, sadly, both defunct), as well as the more mainstream New Yorker. Throughout, he has developed a visual lexicon with remarkable symbolic and stylistic coherence. With the rise of the North American movement against corporate globalization in 1999, Drooker began to produce works that pertained directly to the new cycle of struggle. It is in this context that we can situate the work, presented below, that would come to serve as the cover image for the edited collection The Battle of Seattle (2001). This image, which mixed Drooker’s usual scratchboard and wash style with visual motifs arising directly from movement events, depicts a line of baton wielding riot cops trying to hold back a line of protestors. Behind the line of cops stands a chain link fence like the one that protected delegates to the elite Summit of the Americas during the spring of 2001. On top of Drooker’s fence dances a protestor playing a trumpet. While most of the image is executed in a kind of comic book realism, the

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 39


Eric Drooker. Direct Action. 2001

trumpet player stands out on account of a hyper-stylization reminiscent of nineteenthcentury naïve art. It is an iconic intervention that—because of the visual uncertainty brought about by its lack of scale, proportion, and symbolic indexicality—seems to simultaneously push the image into the extreme depths of the single point perspective while (at the same time) flattening the surface so that all objects appear on the same plane. Perspectival realism is summoned and canceled in a single stroke. It evokes the feeling of being in a dream.

40 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

Drawing on the situational iconography of the Battle of Seattle and Quebec City, the image is a strange mix of the popular-familiar and the miraculous. Trumpet in hand, the figure dancing along the top of the fence appears to be totally free. The laws of gravity do not apply to him. He has even found a means of being behind the line of riot cops. Given his angelic demeanor, it is tempting to conclude that he levitated over them. But what is most significant about this trumpet player is how he allows the anti-summit protest to become an epic of biblical proportions. Drawing on the Old Testament account of Joshua’s attack on Jericho, where trumpets make walls crumble so that the chosen can take possession of the city, Drooker makes the trumpet player an allegory for radical political struggle. Although the biblical story finds Joshua leading an army set on territorial conquest, in Drooker the trumpet player becomes an icon of the underdog. It’s a representational strategy that pervades his work. People holding drums and guitars confront cops with guns and batons. From an objective perspective, Drooker’s street conflicts demand heavy casualties. Nevertheless, the images remain ennobling and redemptive. Impossible to escape, the massacre is simultaneously asserted and averted by intangible means. Why? Because, in these images, victory—as a wish—is immanent even though its actualization is deferred to an indeterminate future or buried in an indeterminate past. Within this symbolic economy, to resist is already to win. Resistance itself is the sign of victory. The production recedes; the representation ascends. Delusions founded on such grounds are self-satisfying; they are also incredibly stimulating. As a strategy for solidifying identification with what ought to be, the mythical proclamation of victory helps to marshal the energy needed to enact an inversion of the world. The objective-empirical “what you see is what you get” is supplanted by the more radical subjective-idealist “what you get is what you see.” In this way, Drooker made important contributions to a culture in which activists took seriously the challenge of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. It is on this basis that we must understand Drooker’s political resonance. In his images, one can witness the precise means by which history becomes mythically connected to redemption. To see this process at work, it’s useful to consider the Drooker image used by Washington DC’s Direct Action Network for demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank in April 2000. In an obvious citation of Goya’s depiction of the massacre of The Third of May (1814), Drooker’s image shows a group of activists on the left side of the composition facing down a line of riot cops on the right. The cops hold guns like those used in Seattle to launch tear gas canisters, beanbags, and rubber bullets. The activists hold musical instruments. Behind the cops is a row of buildings trembling with the reverberations of the activists’ tremulous noise. And so, despite Drooker’s invocation of the slaughter of innocents by the Napoleonic army, it is clear that (this time) the chosen people will win—as they did in Jericho— because of their faith, and because of their belief in the possibility of another world.

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 41


Francisco Goya. The Shootings of May Third 1808. 1814

Eric Drooker. Music Vs. Police. 2000

42 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

By collapsing the historical and the mystical into a single representational register, Drooker provided a concrete means by which activists could enact a transposition from the ideal to the concrete and back again. Significantly, this ability to effect a transposition of registers was aided by the reappearance of forms of religious thinking. And though rendered in the secularized idiom of late capitalism (an idiom which countenances no pretense to hermeneutic depth), Drooker’s biblical allusions are unmistakable. They resonated with a movement in which people sought to realize the promise of all that remained incomplete, a movement that triumphed in the assertion of the possibility of another world. More than this: the allusions pushed them on, compelling them to do things they did not yet know they could. Drooker’s mythic past— a place where the massacre of Spaniards in 1808 is synchronous with Joshua’s assault on Jericho, and where synchronicity is the precondition to redemption— coincided perfectly with the strange form of secularized religious intoxication that pervaded the movement. V In his 1992 masterpiece Flood! (re-released in 2002 for the anti-globalization crowd), Drooker depicts the descent of a working stiff into a spiral of despair after losing his job, his apartment, and his grip on reality. The second chapter of the three-chapter work finds the protagonist in the sub-basements of human cognition. Here, the rules of logic are swept away by the torrential movement of the rising stream of consciousness. Drooker locates this alter-world, this collective repository of wish images, in the deepest tunnels of the New York subway system. Passing through despair, the protagonist comes into direct contact with the contents of the image archive. Fertility goddesses share space with Egyptian hieroglyphs that give way to cave paintings and tribal dance circles. Emerging from the archive and returning to the present, the protagonist is confronted in chapter 3 with the catastrophic dimensions of the everyday. In one dreamlike scene, Drooker portrays a gust of wind carrying the protagonist into the sky by his umbrella. Hovering above the world, he is left to contemplate the devastating transformations brought on by industrialism and its aftermath. Drooker uses this dream state as an analytic device. Imaginative detachment produces the critical distance necessary to perceive the world directly. In this way, Drooker makes efforts to arrest the flow of immediate perception and make strange the taken-for-granted. His city becomes a zone of architectonic exploration in which the underlying girders of capitalist social relations can be uncovered. The brothel, the bar, the market, the carnival, the dancehall: like Benjamin, Drooker descends on each of these sites and transforms them into the raw material for experiments in profane illumination. However, while this dream state contains analytic potential, there is no guarantee that visiting it will lead necessarily to a naked reckoning with the world.

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 43


As Susan Buck-Morss has noted in her consideration of Benjamin’s assessment of the wish image, “the real possibility of a classless society in the ‘epoch to follow’ the present one revitalizes past images as expressions of the ancient wish for a social utopia in dream form. But a dream image is not yet a dialectical image, and desire is not yet knowledge” (114). Drooker’s work flirts with the dream state. It intoxicates. And though it affords moments of profane illumination, it remains in the end bound by its allegiances to the nineteenth-century romantic archive. But what are the precise coordinates of this greater scene and how do they constellate with the points of reference that make up our present? In order to answer these questions, it suffices to consider the approach to describing Drooker’s work adopted by his contemporaries. In his introduction to the second edition of Flood!, Luc Sante—social historian of New York’s mean streets and author of Low Life—proclaimed that Flood! was “a prophetic book” like “the Book of Amos.” Maybe the events it depicts have already come to pass, maybe many times over, or maybe they never will, but either way the warning stands—and the promise, too, destruction and renewal being inseparably tied together. Drooker’s mastery of the pure stark elemental expressionist line not only suggests volumes in every stroke, but also places the images it depicts in an eternal, un-nameable tense that is not quite the present but remains poised somewhere between past and future. (Drooker 2002) In this account, myth, temporal folding, the religious archive, and romanticism are all presented in an obvious and unselfconscious way. It’s a testament to their pervasiveness within the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist that Sante could draw upon them as commonsense reference points. Though waxing poetic, Sante expresses what he expects the reader will already understand. Recounted in the language of our present investigation, Sante points toward the indeterminacy of historical time (a time that is at once mythic and objective) and the recursive character of the resonant artifact as wish image. In this way, by identifying the artifact with the wish image (by connecting the event with the warning and the promise) and locating it “poised somewhere between the past and the future,” Sante effectively highlights both the seduction and the ambivalence of Drooker’s work. For Sante, Drooker’s work resonates precisely because of its connection to the longstanding tradition of religious prophecy. It’s not difficult to extend this insight to include romanticism. As Sante himself highlights, Drooker’s work becomes charged with critical potential precisely at the point where the everyday is transposed into the temporal register of the dream world—the world in which the wish image becomes a concrete index of yet-to-be-realized desires. This time out of time and artifact out of place (this nostalgia for an elsewhere desired primarily on account of its status as counterpoint to the unbearable present) are hallmarks of romanticism. They resonate as much today as they did in the nineteenth century. It is therefore not surprising to

44 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

Vincent Van Gogh. The Sower. 1888

find Drooker frequently borrowing—not only in form but also in content—from figures such as Goya, Van Gogh, and Blake. Drooker’s populist citations confirm that romanticism is more than a sensibility. It is also a historical archive to be exploited—a repository of wish images lying in wait for the moment at which they will be called upon to herald the future. His work induces a historical doubling over; here, the anxieties that attended to midnineteenth century industrialization reappear on the historical stage (it is the return of the repressed) precisely at the point of industrialism’s anxious unraveling in the most intensive zones of twenty-first century capitalist accumulation. In order to get a sense of the ease with which romantic themes continue to resonate in today’s endless present, let’s consider what various reviewers have had to say about Flood! Writing for The Rocket, Patrick Barber noted how “Drooker has an unsure obsession with New York City that reaches for its deepest mass humanity while being quashed by consumerism and the sheer bulk and impossibility of urban madness and impending death.” Here, the spiritual pole of bourgeois experience—our “deepest mass humanity”—is directly counterpoised to an “impending death” brought about by consumerism. In this way, consumerism—the metonymic sign under which

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 45


Eric Drooker. The Grim Sower. 1999

the market appears—becomes aligned with calculative rationality in its war against spirit. In Drooker, Barber perceives a contest between the old and the new played out on terrain divided according to the split in bourgeois consciousness. Because Drooker sides with our deepest mass humanity, it follows that Barber describes his work in terms appropriate to romanticism. For Barber, Flood! is a work of “apocalyptic mysticism, manic and complete” (1993). Writing in the Graphic Novel Review, Hubert Vigilla describes how some of this apocalyptic mysticism gets played out in “L,” Flood’s second chapter: “ ‘L’ is brimming with archetypes and primal imagery including wide-hipped fertility figures and ancient hieroglyphs,” he recounts. “Several life-affirming images splash and rejoice across the pages of this chapter; a fire-lit cave erupts with rhythmic dancing, a crane soars into a glimmering night sky, and bodies entwine in a garden teeming with life.” However, though these images offer a vision of emancipation in dream form, they remain insufficient to the task of transforming the objective world. Consequently, “ ‘L’ closes in downtrodden fashion as the ancient, fundamental joy of life gives way to cracked, mundane concrete and cold rain” (2004). Writing for the San Mateo Times, Rick Eymer suggests that, while Drooker’s novel may seem depressing, “it ends with the transfer from oblivion to hope and love. Yes there are sharp images of decay and tragedy, but there is also a dream that things

46 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

can change. We just need to wash away the filth” (1992). In this account, we see how hope and love—by standing in opposition to decay and tragedy—are given the task of redeeming the present. Drooker concludes his story with a historical-mythical doubling over; New York drowns while Noah carries his timeless cargo to presumed safety. In this way, Drooker presents an imaginative resolution to the contradictions of the present. New York City (the zone in which the calculative rationality underlying intensive capital accumulation has succeeded most fully in harnessing the energy of dreams) is destroyed while the dream it once channeled is allowed to persist unencumbered. However, the fact that this conclusion leaves Eymer wanting to “wash away the filth” should alert us to the ambivalence of such wish images when considered from the standpoint of operational politics.5 VI By popularizing the aesthetic repertoire of romanticism and endowing his protagonists with a “more than” spiritual dimension, Drooker puts his work in a visual time fold. Sometimes, this doubling over becomes the explicit content of the images themselves. Jungles grow up to overtake a city populated by both elephants and commuter buses; Noah builds his ark on top of a tenement building. As with Benjamin, who proclaimed that our life “is a muscle strong enough to contract the whole of historical time” (2003:479), Drooker’s protagonists collapse the stages of history into a single moment of reckoning. However, unlike Benjamin, Drooker’s reckoning tends to take the form not of class struggle but rather of personal, mystical, redemption. This claim may at first seem odd. After all, Benjamin’s work is often considered mystical and far from the realities of political struggle. This stands in sharp opposition to Drooker’s work, which is filled with images of rioting and social unrest. Nevertheless, it is important to note how, in Benjamin, the reader passes through myth to arrive in the final instance at concrete reckoning. The class struggle becomes clear all at once, in a cessation of happening. At this point, the wish image becomes dialectical. For Benjamin, the dialectical image transforms history from prefabricated narrative (a sequence of discrete events that can be contemplated in succession like the beads of a rosary) into a mode of analysis that is, at the same time, a mode of production. Like in Marx’s description of the labor process, history becomes susceptible to the intervention of thinking. But how do ideas become a material force? Here is Benjamin’s answer as recounted in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 47


order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. (1968b, 262–263) Although he does not use the term, Benjamin’s proposition that the monad produced by thinking could by used to “blast a significant era out of the homogeneous course of history” both accords with his conception of the dialectical image and shows the connection between such an image and history as ultimate site of the labor process. In turn, the dialectical image induces an experience of historic cessation, where the whole of the accumulated world—the lifework that ordinarily remains invisible on account of its trans-local scale—is made present through a metonymic crystallization that (for an instant) brings about a shocking transparency. The dialectical image places those that stand before it side by side with all those that previously fought as they are now fighting. In contrast, Drooker leads his readers in the opposite direction and has them pass through struggle—often depicted in the form of riots and confrontations with heavily armed police—in order to return to the land of religious mysticism. Like Moses falling on the threshold of the Promised Land, Drooker’s graphic novels Flood! and Blood Song describe redemption as a two-stage process involving a kind of spiritual projection—an identification with a proxy that remains untouched by the constraints of this world. The struggle undertaken by Moses to cross the desert

Eric Drooker. Jericho. 1996

48 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

only attains to mythical status as a result of Joshua’s later success. It is a myth that persists in Drooker’s work. In Flood!, the protagonist is redeemed by way of his cat who makes it to the Ark and finds his double, the resolution of his lack. In Blood Song, though he is incarcerated for political activity, the heroine’s partner lives on through their child who cries out with the same fiery voice as its father. Joshua’s political importance for Drooker is confirmed by his frequent allegorical mobilization of the assault on Jericho. As we have already seen, it is a theme that gets repeated throughout his movement imagery. In the following image, simply entitled “Jericho,” he makes the reference explicit. VII At first glance, the only thing that Banksy seems to have in common with Drooker is that he too was loved by people who were more likely to throw a brick through a window at Starbucks than order a cup of coffee there. Working in stencil, site-specific installation, and guerrilla intervention, Banksy’s work tends to reiterate the content and formal gestures of the early twentieth-century avant-garde and its radical derivatives. On the surface, these sources of inspiration seem to denote a break from the resolutely nineteenth-century references pervading Drooker’s work. However, by submitting Banksy’s oeuvre to a more thorough investigation, it becomes clear that he too owes a debt to the romantic tradition. And so, while art history tells the story of the avant-garde’s decisive break from its nineteenth-century counterpoint, the resonant images of the struggles against corporate globalization tell a different tale. Pointing toward the field of consumption, the social organization of mass society, and the contradictions arising from late capitalism’s attempts to smooth over the rough edges of urban experience, Banksy owes much to the situationist interventions of the 1960s and the avant-garde use of montage. Instances of these practices include his notices informing people visiting famous tourist landmarks that “this is not a photo opportunity” (100–101), his sign stenciled in Trafalgar Square in advance of an anti-war demonstration urging people to respect the “designated riot area” (57), the figure of the rat reappearing throughout his work to remind people of the need to look beneath the polished surface of the city, and collages like the one of Pham Thi Kim Phuc—the Vietnamese girl captured on film fleeing with arms outstretched from a napalm attack on her village in 1972—holding hands with Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald. Working in stencil, and using photos circulated over the Internet to extend his work’s impact, Banksy images are by definition highly mobile and reproducible. By using capitalist seriality against itself, his images become novel interventions that throw into relief the environments into which they get placed. Mobilizing found images and pop culture citations, Banksy revitalizes the early twentieth-century practice of montage. Through this process, the social is rematerialized through the forced

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 49


Banksy

correspondence of its phenomenally discrete attributes. Skeptical of its potential, Georg Lukács nevertheless conceded that montage was “capable of striking effects, and on occasion can even become a powerful political weapon. Such effects arise from its technique of juxtaposing heterogeneous, unrelated pieces of reality torn from their context. A good photomontage has the same sort of effect as a good joke” (2002: 43). Although Lukács goes on to critique the limits of this representational strategy, we find in his initial description all of the important aspects of Banksy’s work. However, in the case of Banksy, the social environment into which his work is inserted becomes one of the juxtaposed heterogeneous elements. Since this is the case, the political power that Lukács attributes to the joke takes on its full significance. According to Freud, humor was one means by which elements repressed in the subconscious slipped past the censors of consciousness. The alarming apparition of that which was always there but never acknowledged produces a shock that can only be released through laughter. At its best, humor demands that the narrative fiction rehearsed through conscious enunciation give way to a more vital truth. More often than not, however, laughter becomes the means by which the vitality of this truth is defused and diffused. By passing through laughter, humor becomes catharsis. This is not the case with Banksy’s works. Here, the joke cannot serve to defuse the tension and the interjection cannot be diffused; it remains visible until it is painted over. In this way, laughter marks the beginning of analysis and Banksy begins to enter Brechtian territory.

50 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

Alongside his commitment to montage, Banksy seems to occupy an intriguing but indeterminate zone between the mass propaganda poster and the decorative arts. Like the May 1968 rebels who rejected mass-printing technologies and chose instead to hand press their propagandistic interventions—like those enragés who called alienating seriality into question by forcing anachronistic means into a field commonly thought to no longer support them (Enzensberger, 102)—Banksy turns naïve folksiness into a strategy of aesthetic disruption. In this way, Banksy couples his citation of twentieth-century montage with representational strategies recovered from still-deeper chambers of the aesthetic archive. Specifically, he draws upon both the cast of characters and the ethics of production that characterized romanticism while, at the same time, working within the idiom of the avant-garde. Put plainly, Banksy’s genius seems to derive from his ability to make nineteenth-century motifs parade around in twentieth-century form. Moreover, though it betrays the commonsense of radical aesthetic theory, it appears that Banksy’s work gains in critical force not through its form (which—it will become evident—falls victim to a sort of deliberate auto-cannibalization) but through its cited content. Because of this, it seems that Banksy is closer to the romantic tradition than he at first appears to be. But despite the novelty of Banksy’s hybrid productions, it remains necessary to consider the impact that the resources he mobilizes can have in the context of their present deployment. To begin, it’s important to note that the formal gestures of the early twentieth-century avant-garde—now domesticated by a bourgeois art world that could swallow even Duchamp’s Urinal (and which today are more likely to be used by advertisers than by dissidents)—seem to be cited by Banksy as content. Critical practice as method thus gives way to a style denoting “critical practice.” Giorgio Agamben noted a similar transition in his consideration of the shift that took place during the interval between Duchamp and Warhol. According to Agamben, while Duchamp rematerialized social relations by inserting everyday objects into the aesthetic field, Warhol reversed the process by devising means through which the everyday itself could be aestheticized (63). To be sure, Banksy’s politics seem avowedly closer to Duchamp’s than to Warhol’s. But this insight brings us no closer to understanding or resolving the context in which his interventions take place. Although Duchamp and Warhol’s gesture was superficially identical, the pedagogical premise of the readymade is obliterated in the transition to pop art. With Duchamp, the critical space opened up by alienating the everyday object at least potentially enabled people to contemplate the thingness of things and to use this awareness as a metonymic index of the conditions that organized their presence and emergence. In the case of Warhol, the process of aestheticizing the everyday becomes the pedagogical premise underlying a new mode of depthless, immediate contemplation. Through this process, every “thing”—and, in time, the whole of the

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 51


Banksy

social world—is reduced to the pleasure of its surface. History is supplanted by style. In this way, the sign of the gesture—the gesture’s artifact—comes to stand in for the disruption the gesture itself once produced. But despite the domestication of the gestures upon which it relies, Banksy’s work still feels like disruption. Just as Marcel Duchamp was able—for a time—to metonymically illuminate capitalist social relations through his anti-aesthetic readymade interventions, Banksy’s use of captions and incongruous pairings show signs

52 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

of enabling productive disorientation and shock. However, unlike the “shock of the new” (Hughes 1991) fostered by the readymade in its original context, the shock arising from an encounter with Banksy seems to be of a different kind. Specifically, while the content of his interventions is ostensibly geared toward social criticism, the encounter with the work often ends up feeling like a romantic re-enchantment of the world. If, as John Berger has noted, discussions about the social attributes of art must necessarily rely upon circumstantial evidence (60), then we should not be shy about finding traces of Banksy’s romanticism in the snippets of dialogue published as captions to his images. In one such caption, a Palestinian man comments on murals painted on the Apartheid Wall near Bethlehem. Recognizing the ambivalence of his position, Banksy highlights both his tendency toward, and his understanding of the limits of, enchantment: Old man: You paint the wall. You make it look beautiful. Me: Thanks Old man: We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home. (116)

VIII Whether or not he intended it, Banksy’s power to enchant by now seems to be his greatest gift to others. And artists working in Banksy’s idiom (artists who have developed a similar repertoire but who have, on occasion, been more willing to elaborate the ethic underlying their productions) have often been explicit about their commitment to this goal. New York-based artist Swoon is an excellent case in point. Working primarily in paste up, her pieces share obvious aesthetic bonds with Banksy’s creations. Anonymous and known only by pseudonym, Swoon brings elements of incongruity into the urban landscape in order to make work that’s “engaging” with people’s “daily lives” and “more involved in the daily activities of the city” (New York Times 2004). The principle of montage so evident in Banksy makes a striking reappearance in Swoon’s introduction of unlikely characters into even more unlikely surroundings. “I love adding that much texture, and maybe even a little bit of chaos,” she says (2004). Read in a sympathetic light, it’s difficult to ignore the similarities between Swoon’s disruptions and those staged by Brecht, where the immediate action of the protagonists with whom the audience had identified is broken by the introduction of an unlikely figure. At the moment of interruption, the viewer is forced to abandon passive contemplation. Once rendered alien, the depicted situation is thrown under a harsh analytic light. According to Benjamin, Brecht’s interruption “arrests the action in its course, and thereby compels the listener to adopt an attitude vis-à-vis the process, the actor vis-à-vis his role” (1978: 235).

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 53


But despite the analytic potential of these disruptions, Swoon seems to position her work much closer to romanticism than she does to Brecht’s scientific experiments. Sounding optimistic, Swoon told The New York Times that her objective was to create “something that captured street life” and that enabled people to feel “a human presence in the city” (2004). Initially benign, these sentiments disclose a disturbing subtext when considered in light of the fact that—but for the pervasive dissimulations of the commodity form—the city would be nothing but “human presence.” Instead of addressing the logic of the commodity directly (as did Duchamp with his ready-made), Swoon’s practice seems aimed instead at reintroducing a feeling of wonder as a kind of compensation for the lack engendered by capitalist social relations. In Swoon’s work, the effort to re-enchant the world makes use of perceptual strategies wholly at odds with the aesthetics of the historic avant-garde to which the work superficially refers. Rather than using the jarring placement of objects in the aesthetic field as a means of metonymically illuminating the social world from which they derive (a process meant to yield both a socio-material history of the object and a means by which to dislodge the energy trapped in it by capitalism’s cannibalization of need), Swoon seems instead to transpose the entirety of the everyday world into the domain of aesthetic contemplation. Instead of demanding (and providing the basis for) focused analysis, her work offers a general education for the aestheticizing gaze. And though this strategy may enable people to deal with the boredom and alienation of the late capitalist city (the boredom and alienation of endless seriality and repetition), it fails in the end to provide a means of transforming that reality. Instead, it offers a course in perceptually enchanting it. It would be a mistake to draw too great a parallel between Swoon and Banksy. For one thing, Swoon’s content has not been as explicitly “political” as Banksy’s. Furthermore, while Swoon is admired by a small group of activists and cultural producers on the New York art scene, she has—unlike Banksy—yet to receive the kind of exposure that can turn an image into a material force. But despite these differences, one thing remains unmistakable: whether or not Banksy himself ascribes to the aesthetic remodeling of the everyday, it has nevertheless been possible for artists intervening in the dissimulated spaces of late capitalism using similar means to pursue this goal explicitly. IX In Banksy, the analytic shock of twentieth-century montage is put to the service of resonant images from the nineteenth century. By suggesting (for instance) that “this is not a photo opportunity” (100–101), Banksy enjoins the tourist to become the one who lives experience rather than simply documenting it. (There is, of course, an inevitable tension here: the aesthetic intervention itself becomes the basis for a

54 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

photo opportunity—it even redeems the act by presenting it as though it arose in response to a different object. In actual fact, only the perception of the object has changed. But despite these problems, which are—at their heart—pedagogical, it is impossible to ignore the sentimental kernel underlying Banksy’s intervention.) Although compelled by means that bear no formal resemblance to the aesthetic principles of nineteenth-century romanticism, Banksy’s repudiation of the photo opportunity nevertheless reiterates its most cherished premise. Likewise, in his more representational works, Banksy draws on the cast of characters that populated the sentimental art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The coke fiend, the drug dealer with face concealed by shadow, the vagrant sitting on the street corner like a fallen angel (bottle of booze in hand), the rioter tossing flowers instead of a Molotov cocktail, the torture victim, the child pulled upward to freedom by the balloons clutched in her palm: each appears as testament to that which is not immediately visible but which nevertheless shares in a greater apportionment of the human spirit. They are characters mythically endowed with the ability to really feel.

Banksy

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 55


These images resonated strongly with those activists that engaged in the struggles against corporate globalization. Nevertheless, neither the depicted cast of characters nor their political limits are new. In fact, they are notable for their remarkable similarity to the bohemian bestiary paraded before us in Max Raphael’s 1933 critique of Picasso’s pre-cubist works. According to Raphael, the history of art from 1789 onward can be read as a story of the tension between “a mythology-oriented group, and another group whose orientation is non-mythological.” Further, by observing their interrelation, the Marxist sociologist of art could “lay bare the immanent dialectics between a borrowed idealism and an approximate materialism” (89–90). Situated at the intersection of these two tendencies lay romanticism, a mode of acknowledging the world-thatought-to-be in the hope of redeeming the world-that-is. According to Raphael, Picasso’s pre-cubist “sentimental” phase (1901–1906) is marked by this same disposition. Its references were “drawn from the fringes of nature and society: blind men, paralytics, dwarves, morons; poor people, beggars; Harlequins and Pierrots; prostitutes, tightrope dancers, acrobats, fortune tellers, strolling players; clowns and jugglers.” As we’ve seen, this cast of characters makes frequent appearances in both Banksy and Drooker’s work. However, according to Raphael, despite the critical potential these figures might suggest, “one must not see anything [in Picasso’s selection] resembling social criticism, any sort of accusation against the bourgeois order.” Very much like Rilke, Picasso looks upon poverty as a heroic thing and raises it to the power of myth—the myth of “great inner splendour.” Far from regarding it as a social phenomenon which it is up to those afflicted to abolish, he makes of it a Franciscan virtue heralding the approach of God. This virtue becomes sentimentality in his hands, because his purely emotional religiosity stands in opposition to the severity of the created world. (123) Of course, Banksy is not Picasso. Although their cast of characters may be drawn from the same regions of human experience, Banksy’s use of montage (nowhere in evidence in Picasso’s sentimental work) allows him to place his drug fiend directly into the streets of the late capitalist metropolis. Consequently, his interjection cannot be reduced to mere sentimentality. Potentially, it could work to make visible the things that have been pushed from view. This stands in sharp contrast to Picasso’s canvas, where the “reality” of the real—especially when confronted from the standpoint of the present—seems to have been effectively aestheticized.6 However, even in the context of montage, the archival figures cited by Banksy cannot escape the narrative weight with which they’ve become historically saddled. The representation moves away from the thing; finally, it becomes the thing itself. Moreover, by promising to point the viewer toward the concealed sublime within the late capitalist city (that real thing that somehow withstood the transmutations of

56 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

a world that changes everything into the image of itself), Banksy’s romanticism becomes stabilizing ballast. Pushed to its logical conclusion, this means that Banksy effectively—if inadvertently—contributes to the capitalist project of re-infusing its dead spaces, destroyed by expert administration and calculative rationality, with a kind of life-affirming depth. In Wall and Piece, Banksy confronts this problem directly (although he does not resolve it) by presenting comments sent to him via his website: “I don’t know who you are or how many of you there are but I am writing to ask you to stop painting your things where we live . . .” My brother and me were born here and have lived here all our lives but these days so many yuppies and students are moving here that neither of us can afford to buy a house where we grew up anymore. Your grafitties are undoubtedly part of what makes these wankers think our area is cool. (20) As is typical of romanticism, the outpouring of sentiment made possible by Banksy images provokes feelings of resistance by conceptually negating calculative rationality, the positive pole of the contradiction at the heart of bourgeois experience and the operative premise of capitalist production. What these feelings fail to disclose is the extent to which identification with the antithetical term does not place the viewer outside of the logic of capital. Far from it: the bourgeois ability to identify with its own dark side, with its unanswerable questions and irrational propositions, has been a great strength since the nineteenth century. When considered from within the epistemological constraints of the bourgeois horizon, resistance (a production) becomes the image of resistance. And though it may yield cathartic respite, the image of resistance cannot escape the expansionist logic of the commodity form, the logic that transposes everything into the register of a universal abstraction so that it might be exchanged with every other thing (and so that, in this way, the promise of those equivalents may be consumed along with the thing itself). The distance between being enchanted by Banksy and changing the world could not be greater. It is the distance between the rebel and the revolutionary, between negation and “the negation of the negation,” between romanticism and a world where the bourgeoisie have become impossible. X Activists engaged in the struggle against corporate globalization rarely articulated their longing to fill the lack endemic to late capitalism in the language of romanticism. Nevertheless, the movement’s slogans disclose the extent to which romantic themes shaped its sensibilities. To get a sense of the importance that activists placed on romanticism’s indeterminate outside, one could do no better than to refer to the popular demonstration placard that enjoined people to “abolish capitalism and replace it with something nicer.” By not asserting a positive content, the nonspecificity of the injunction encouraged people to draw upon their catalogue of

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 57


secret desires in order to think in ways that were not bound by the logic of calculation. By filling their vision of that which was “nicer” with a positive content derived from their secret archive of wish images, activists seem to have uncovered a means by which to liberate the energy trapped in the commodity form so that it could be channeled into struggle. A similar process can be seen at work in the frequently repeated idea that the movement was a composite of one no and many yeses. Recognition of the suppressed energies lying in wait outside the proscribed bounds of calculative rationality alerted activists to the productive myth of “another world.” As the activist love affair with Drooker and Banksy makes clear, the positive content of this imagined world was drawn from the wish images of romanticism. The experience was exhilarating. However, while many participants imagined their identification with this imaginative realm to mark a decisive break from all that had come before, history tells a different story. Indeed, it is impossible to ignore the remarkable connection between the anti-globalization struggles that marked the beginning of the 21st century and the uprising of May ’68. In 1968, when the students of the Quartier Latin went Lenin one better and demanded “all power to the imagination,” they were reiterating the premise of dual power with an important difference. For Lenin, since the soviets were outside the Duma, they afforded the possibility of constituting a power in opposition to the nascent bourgeoisie. By proclaiming that all power should reside in the soviet, Lenin sought to heighten the political antagonism so that politics itself could be emancipated from the bourgeois delusion of negotiated truth and openly become class war. Realized as for-itself entities, two opponents could thus come into battle. And with the victory of one over the other, the univocality of truth would be established. However, for the enragés of 1968, politics was envisioned as more than a contest between enemy antagonists; it was also a contest between two principles operating within a single individual. In opposition to the calculative rationality and heightened technicity of late capitalism, the rioters demanded that—precisely because it was calculative rationality’s incalculable remainder—imagination itself needed to be advanced to the position of productive principle. In this way, Lenin’s gesture, a gesture that arose from the need to come to terms with an extrinsic enemy, was superficially appropriated and applied to an internal division. Although the slogan was spoken in the name—and under the sign—of a radical past, the political contest between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was nevertheless displaced by a contest between two principles intrinsic to the bourgeoisie itself. By heralding a future in which the fragmented world would once again be made whole, the movement’s emphasis on imagination led directly toward a culture of anticipation—the characteristic posture of those who wait for God. This posture found its contemporary expression in the anti-globalization movement’s proclamation that “another world is possible.”

58 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

Similarly, the contemporary movement’s commitment to forms of action like the community garden and its emphasis on “the commons” suggests a historical recursion where pre-capitalist phenomena are conjured as wish images in order to forge an identification with the promise that peasant life was thought to denote. By fetishizing the pastoral, the movement further entrenched itself in the romantic idiom. In a similar fashion, the small-scale “anti-mass” forms of organizing that became popular during the anti-globalization movement enabled participants to feel a degree of presence wholly at odds with modern forms of social organization. Although the feeling was often strictly subjective, the affinity group allowed participants to experience a one-to-one correspondence between doing and outcome. Its tangible scale stood in deliberate opposition to—and seemed to entail the pure negation of—the trans-local sprawl of late capitalist bureaucratic organizations.7 The movement’s celebration of direct democracy called to mind decision-making structures thought to belong to another place and time. By negating capitalism’s impulse to depersonalize, activist identification with the wish images of pastoral life seemed paradoxically to become a harbinger of revolution. When considered alongside the romantic rebellion of the nineteenth century, the insurgency of 1999–2003 discloses the extent to which it was a dramatic rehearsal of the yet-to-be resolved contradiction at the heart of bourgeois experience. At its best, this meant that it was a dramatic—and not wholly unsuccessful—attempt to free radical imagination from the grasp of calculative rationality. In the movement, mythical assertions of the possibility of another world arose in conjunction with efforts to displace the epistemic premises of neo-liberalism. In opposition to calculative rationality, the movement adopted the romantic posture of spirit by filling everyday experience with consolidating meaning and proclaiming that there were important regions of human existence that could not be subordinated to quantification.8 Neo-liberalism’s clarion call—“There is no alternative!”—found its perfect negation in the slogan “Another world is possible.” However, while romanticism’s resonance in the contemporary context speaks to its enduring political relevance, it also stands as testament to the non-resolution of the historic contradiction from which the phenomenon itself arises. From this perspective, the activist identification with romanticism signals a kind of neurotic repetition compulsion, a return to the site of trauma carried out under the mistaken belief that the resolution might be found within the framework from which the trauma itself emerged. Though it is a shining star, romanticism merely marks the outer limits of the bourgeois horizon. Moreover, because the enormous energies unleashed by romanticism at semi-regular intervals since the nineteenth century have demonstrated themselves to be insufficient to the task of surpassing the bourgeois horizon (since romanticism remains devoutly bound to that horizon by virtue of its enlistment as loyal opposition to the dominant term of bourgeois consciousness), we must

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 59


acknowledge that it’s doubtful that these energies will ever—in and of themselves— be sufficient. The resolution of the contradictions of the bourgeois world will be found not in negation but in synthesis. The epistemological divide between calculative rationality and spirit—between the bourgeoisie’s borrowed idealism and approximate materialism—finds its resolution in historical materialism alone. Bourgeois epistemological fratricide is overcome by what Marx, in his first thesis on Feuerbach, called “practical-critical” activity (1998: 572). It is a form of activity in which the image of resistance must cease being a form of wish fulfillment so that it might become the first step in a labor process aimed at transforming the world. Like conscious curators in the archive of dreams, Drooker and Banksy point us in this direction. But they also reveal how far we still have to go.

60 | A. K. Thompson


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

Works Cited Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. London: Oxford UP, 1953. Agamben, Giorgio. The Man Without Content. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999. Banksy. Wall and Piece. London: Century, 2005. Barber, Patrick. “Review of Flood! A Novel in Pictures” The Rocket. 1993. Republished on http://www.drooker.com/reviews/the_rocket. html. Retrieved Jan 2, 2005.

Eymer, Rick. “Review of Flood! A Novel in Pictures.” The San Mateo Times. 1992. Republished on http://www.drooker.com/ reviews/san_mateo_times.html. Retrieved Jan 2, 2005. Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1979. Hughes. Robert. The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change. London: Thames and Hudson. 1991

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2003.

Klein, Naomi. “The Vision Thing.” The Battle of Seattle: The Challenge to Capitalist Globalization. Ed. Eddie Yuen, et al. New York: Soft Skull, 2001.

———. “The Author as Producer.” Reflections. New York: Schocken, 1978.

Lukács, Georg. History and Class Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1971.

———. “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” Reflections. New York: Schocken, 1968a.

———. “Realism in the Balance.” Aesthetics and Politics: The Key Texts of the Classic Debate within German Marxism. London: Verso, 2002.

———. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1968b. Berger, John. The Success and Failure of Picasso. New York: Pantheon, 1980. Berlin, Isaiah. The Roots of Romanticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999. Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1991. CrimethInc Workers Collective. Days of War, Nights of Love: Crimethink for Beginners. Atlanta: CrimethInc, 2001.

Marx, Karl. Capital, Volume 1. Moscow: Progress, 1977. ———. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” Selected Works, Volume 1. Moscow: Progress, 1973. Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. New York: International, 1976. Raphael, Max. Proudhon, Marx, Picasso: Three Studies in the Sociology of Art. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980.

Drooker, Eric. Flood! A Novel in Pictures. Milwaukee: Dark Horse Comics, 2002.

Remak, Henry. “West European Romanticism: Definition and Scope.” Comparative Literature: Method and Perspective. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. “Constituents of a Theory of the Media.” The Consciousness Industry: On Literature, Politics and the Media. New York: Continuum, 1974. 95–128.

Sanbonmatsu, John. The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy, and the Making of a New Political Subject. New York: Monthly Review, 2004.

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 61


Schmitt, Carl. Political Romanticism. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1986. Swoon. “Swoon: New York Street Art.” Layers of Meaning. New York Times, July 9, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/packages/khtml/ 2004/07/09/nyregion/20040708_STREET_ AUDIOSS.html?ex=1247112000&en= 58aea13330d86c89&ei=5090. Reterived January 2, 2005.

Vigilla, Hubert. “Review of Flood! A Novel in Pictures” Graphic Novel Review. 2004. Republished on http://www.drooker.com/ reviews/graphic_novel_review.html. Retrieved Jan 2, 2005. Yuen, Eddie et al., ed. The Battle of Seattle: The Challenge to Capitalist Globalization. New York: Soft Skull, 2001.

Tilly, Charles. Social Movements, 1768–2004. London: Paradigm, 2004.

Notes 1. CrimethInc never reflected the movement as a whole. Nevertheless, they played an important role in shaping the political outlook of sizable sections of the North American anti-capitalist left during the 1999–2003 cycle of struggle. It is therefore of consequence that, in Days of War, Nights of Love, they specifically rejected history as an analytic tool and field of struggle: “Conventional wisdom has it that a knowledge of the past is indispensable in the pursuit of freedom and social change. But today’s radical thinkers and activists are no closer to changing the world for their knowledge of past philosophies and struggles; on the contrary, they often seem mired in ancient methods and arguments, unable to apprehend what is needed in the present to make things happen. Their place in the tradition of struggle has trapped them in a losing battle, defending positions long useless and outmoded; their constant reference to the past not only render them incomprehensible to others, but also prevent them from referencing what is going on around them” (2001:111). As will become clear, CrimethInc’s insistence on novelty and their disavowal of the “chain of events” must itself be historicized. For all their desire for unencumbered action, CrimethInc operatives nevertheless rehearse arguments indigenous to the nineteenth century. 2. Walter Benjamin described these images as dialectical images. In the notes for the uncompleted Arcades Project, he described

62 | A. K. Thompson

the dialectical image in the following way: “It’s not that what is past casts light on the present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent. Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language” (2003:462). 3. I am indebted in this respect to M.H. Abrams’ magisterial work The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953). Apart from its obvious advantage over other treatments of romanticism, e.g., Henry Remak’s “West European Romanticism: Definition and Scope,” which proposed that diagnosis of the romantic object was contingent upon its correspondence to a list of twentythree attributes (1971:275–311)—Abrams’ periodization of the aesthetic imagination is important because the conceptual coordinates and epochal transitions it illuminates correspond in all important respects to the epistemological leaps that transformed social movement theory over the course of the twentieth century (cf. Abrams, 1953:6–29; Sanbonmatsu, 2004:23–5).


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 35–64

4. Among these books are Flood! (1992, 2002), Street Posters and Ballads (1998), Illuminated Poems (1996, 2006), and Bloodsong: A Silent Ballad (2002). 5. It is well known that many early twentiethcentury radicals saw in romanticism the reactionary kernel that enabled the proliferation of fascist myth. These debates spilled over into considerations of turn-of-the-century German expressionism—a visual archive to which Drooker owes obvious debts. To get a sense of the divergent responses to the political ambivalence of this work, it is useful to consider the now-famous debate between Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukács. For Bloch, expressionism contained within it an energetic anti-capitalist sentiment that could be mobilized by the socialist left. In contrast, Lukács saw it as an obvious precursor to German fascism (1977:9–59). Because the content of his images seems to disclose unambiguous left allegiances, this debate may seem far removed from Drooker’s own work. However, when the question of content is transposed from the realm of “what is depicted” to the more difficult one of “how is change envisioned,” ambivalence once again overcomes certainty. 6. In “The Author as Producer,” Benjamin recounts how the “matter of fact” style of depiction that gained ground with photography

at the beginning of the twentieth century had the effect of aestheticizing that which it desired to illuminate: According to Benjamin, matter-offactness “succeeded in transforming even abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionably perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment” (1978:230). Although working in a different medium, it is clear that Picasso (in his sentimental phase) shares in the epistemic conceits of early twentieth-century matter-offactness. 7. Recounting this disposition toward negation, Naomi Klein describes how the movement “responds to corporate concentration with a maze of fragmentation; to globalization with its own kind of localization; to power consolidation with radical power dispersal” (2001:314). 8. CrimethInc gave this romantic sentiment a concrete romantic form when, in Days of War, Nights of Love, they wrote: “Whatever medical science may profess, there is a difference between Life and survival . . . Their instruments measure blood pressure and temperature, but overlook joy, wonder, love, all the things that make life really matter . . . Many of us live as though everything has already been decided without us, as if living is not a creative activity but rather something that happens to us. That’s not being alive, that’s just surviving; being undead” (2001:275).

The Resonance of Romanticism: Activist Art & the Bourgeois Horizon | 63


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

Lots of Money Because I am Many: The Luther Blissett Project and the Multiple-Use Name Strategy Marco Deseriis

O mito é o nada que é tudo —Fernando Pessoa Luther Blissett is a secret agent that plays the Myth’s game with the goal of undermining the authority of Myth (of Truth, Identity, Reason, etc.) Paul K. Feyeraband as plagiarized by me —Luther Blissett This story, as any good crime story, begins with a murder. It is the evening of February 15, 1990, when the local police station of Porec, a sleepy Croatian village on the Istrian Peninsula, receives an anonymous phone call. The informant says a male body is lying on the railroad tracks a few miles away from the train station. When the cops arrive, what at a first sight appears to be a decapitated body reveals itself to be a gruesome realistic replica of a dismembered corpse. Between 1991 and 1992 three other simulated “murders” occur in southern villages of the Croatian coast. Even in those cases, anonymous phone calls to local police stations are followed by the discovery of dismembered hyper-realistic mannequins in a parking lot in Umag, a public toilet in Rovinj, and a hotel room in Paklenika. However, as the Croatian press begins delving into the mystery, the collapse of the Yugoslav Federation and the outbreak of the Bosnian War in March 1992 divert public attention from the simulated slaughters to real ones. But in spite of the war, the trail of simulated murders along the coastline continues. In 1993 and 1994, two other fake corpses are discovered in the Montenegro villages of Budva and Bar. As this pattern of macabre jokes unfolds, some journalists

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 65


speculate that the entire operation might be an artistic performance.1 However it is not until the beginning of 1997 that this hypothesis takes shape, when an Italian website decides to publish the gruesome pictures of the dismembered mannequins, attributing the interventions to a hitherto unknown Serbian artist named Darko Maver.2 The website, managed by the obscure Free Art Campaign, claims that the photographs are the only remaining evidence of an eight-act performance orchestrated by the artist and named Tanz der Spinne (Dance of the Spider). The sinister and cryptic titles of the interventions only deepen the mystery, while a couple of texts attributed to Maver walk the thin line between the hermetic manifesto and the delirium of a psychopath.3 According to the art magazines Tema Celeste and Flesh Out, Maver is arrested in 1997 in Kosovo (where the Serbian Army and the KLA Albanian guerrillas are engaged in a quickly escalating conflict), charged with anti-patriotic propaganda, and released after being detained for few weeks without a trial.4

One of Darko Maver’s dismembered mannequins. Courtesy of 0100101110101101.org

66 | Marco Deseriis


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

In August 1998, Kapelica Gallery, a well-known art space in Lubljana, dedicates a retrospective to the artist. The photographic documentation of Tanz der Spinne is showcased along with Maver’s early artworks, including photos of hyper-realistic fetuses and abortions made of wax and plastic. In January 1999, Maver is arrested a second time and detained in the prison of Podgorica, Kosovo. On April 30, 1999, Darko Maver is found dead in his prison cell. The Free Art Campaign issues a press release that circulates on various mailing lists together with an image of a supposedly dead man: “The official version states that this is a suicide; the suspect that Maver was summarily executed is doomed to stay. We are eye-witnesses of another uncounted crime.”4 Maver’s death casts a new light on his work. Art critics and journalists ask whether Maver’s mannequins should be read as a radical interrogation of the propagandistic use of suffering bodies in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, and whether Maver’s very death should be interpreted as the final act of his radical performance art.5 Drawing on this Baudrillardian question on the hyperreality of modern warfare, art collectives, social centers, and even the 48th Venice Biennale of Arts pay tribute to the artist with performances and retrospectives. On February 6, 2000, a press release entitled “The Great Art Swindle” co-signed by Luther Blissett and 0100101110101101.ORG, reveals that the entire Free Art Campaign has been orchestrated by a network of artists and activists operating in

An article published on the Italian magazine Modus Vivendi about Darko Maver’s death, 1999

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 67


Bologna, Rome, and Lubljana. The life and death of Darko Maver were pure invention, a myth designed to expose the mechanisms by which the art system thrives and replicates itself: The dreadful images of fetuses and aborts, alleged evidence of Darko’s activities at the Belgrade Academy, were true, yet, without effort, we made people believe they were huge PVC and fiberglass sculptures, even wearable! The famous “Tanz der Spinne” is made of images of real deaths, rapes and violence of many kinds; no dummy ever existed and no Serbian newspaper ever reviewed Maver’s performances. All this inventory of horrifying images can be found on the Internet site http://www.rotten.com and other sites like that, accessible to anybody who has a strong stomach. Maver’s very face was actually that of Roberto Capelli, a long-time member of the Luther Blissett Project in Bologna.6 The press release went further to describe the swindle as “an active riot” against the “capitalist art system,” responsible for commodifying any creative act and even life itself. This was a risk that Darko Maver did not run because “Darko Maver doesn’t exist!” as he is himself “an essay of pure mythopoesis,” a virus designed to infiltrate the art world and release his potential from within.7 The Great Art Swindle—a pun on the Sex Pistols’ Great Rock’n Roll Swindle— meticulously (and cynically) exploited two different factors: the first, strictly political,

Roberto Capelli a.k.a. Darko Maver is Resurrected. Courtesy of 0100101110101101.org

68 | Marco Deseriis


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

was the European sense of impotence and guilt toward the ferocious civil war which followed the demise of the Yugoslav Federation—an untimely conflict that had triggered tragic memories and reopened old scars in the heart of Europe.8 The second aspect, more specific to the art system, was the late 1990s body-art hype that had brought into the spotlight performance artists such as Stelarc, Orlan, and Ron Athey. By referencing the body art imagery, with its repertoire of modified, pierced, and scarified bodies in simulated performances set against the backdrop of an actual conflict, Maver had produced an edgy body of work that the European art world could hardly ignore. The Great Art Swindle was the last major prank of the Luther Blissett Project and one of the first of 0100101110101101.ORG, an offshoot of Luther Blissett and a new media art duo that had largely built its elusive identity upon the staging of fake events. Origin and Early Phases of the Project But who is Luther Blissett? And who are the real actors behind the Free Art Campaign? Why did they decide to plot such a scheme? Did they really want to undermine the art system or did they have a broader agenda? To answer these questions we must rewind our story to the summer of 1994, when a number of individuals began using the name of Luther Blissett to author a variety of public interventions. The idea was simple: anyone could become Luther Blissett by simply adopting the name. As a result, in the following years the nom de plume was adopted by hundreds of individuals in Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, and other countries to dupe the press into reporting non-events, hijack popular TV programs, sell dubious and radical books to publishers, conduct psychogeographic urban experiments, fabricate artists and artworks, and much more.9 Until 1994, the only character known to the Italian public as Luther Blissett was a British footballer of Jamaican origins who had played an unfortunate season in the Italian Serie A in the mid-1980s. Thus, since Blissett was synonym of “fiasco,” not certainly of counterculture and culture jamming, the reason why the name was adopted in the first place was and still remains shrouded in mystery. Some journalists have speculated that Blissett was chosen because the AC Milan scouts, who signed him for one million pounds from Elton John’s Watford in 1983, had mistaken him with the more talented John Barnes.10 Others have argued that Blissett became a radical icon because he was one of the first black footballers to play in Italy.11 Similar uncertainty surrounds the only circulating image of Blissett: a portrait of a yuppie-looking man, allegedly composed from the digital morphing of three or four faces. The mystery regarding the origin of the multiple-use name was not casual. Rather, as we shall see, it was intentionally cultivated as part of an elaborate mythmaking

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 69


Luther Blissett, “Official Portrait,” created by Andrea Alberti & Edi Bianco in 1994 strategy aimed at transforming Blissett’s character into a folk hero of the information society. Certainly, Luther Blissett was not the first multiple personality in the history of avant-garde movements. In the book Mind Invaders, which summed up the early phases of the Luther Blissett Project (LBP), Blissett (1995–2000) himself traced his own origins back to an invention of Ray Johnson, the father of Mail Art who had founded the New York Correspondence School in the early 1960s. As a matter of fact, Ray Johnson’s death, which occurred under mysterious circumstances a few months before the publication of the book, is probably the reason why the founders of the Project decided to pay homage to the American artist by crediting him with the invention of the multiple-use name. This hypothesis is reinforced by Vittore Baroni and Piermario Ciani’s involvement in the early phases of the LBP. Since the beginning of the 1980s, Baroni and Ciani, probably the most well-known Italian mail artists, had started a number of avantgarde music projects, the orbit of which revolved around the Italian North-Eastern punk/new wave scene known as The Great Complotto Pordenone. In 1981, along with Massimo Giacon, they had launched Trax, a collaborative mail art project consisting of the distributed co-production and exchange, via the postal system, of various materials, mostly sound collages. Participants in the project adopted a serial name

70 | Marco Deseriis


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

(Trax 01, Trax 02, . . .) and acted either as Central Units in charge of organizing “a module” such as a music event or the release of a Trax collection, or as Peripheral Units contributing to one of the modules (Blissett 2000: 11–12). At the same time, Baroni and Ciani invented Mind Invaders, a fictional punk band whose concerts, releases, reviews, interviews, and subsequent disavowals were entirely fabricated by an extended network of music journalists. From 1980 through 1984, Baroni also co-founded Lieutenant Murnau, a sound-collage band whose name could be used by anybody to produce its recycled music (Ciani). But the first pages of Mind Invaders (the book) managed to cloud the origins of the Project by assigning a founding role also to Coleman Healy, Monty Cantsin, and Karen Eliot—a dense web of multiple-use names that had been coined in the late 1970s by various mail artists, and used in the 1980s by Neoism, a pseudoavant-garde that mocked the very idea of novelty and cultural fashions (Blissett 1995–2000). Cantsin in particular was an “open pop star” whose modus operandi presented striking similarities with Blissett’s. Created in 1978 by US mail artist Al Ackerman, the name Montsy Cantsin was used as a handle by a number of Canadian, US, and European performance artists throughout the 1980s. With Cantsin, Blissett (1995) shared a predilection for pranks, pseudonyms, fabrications, and a radical undermining of the notions of individual identity and authorship: It is necessary to get rid of the concept of In-dividuum, once and for all. That concept is deeply reactionary, anthropocentric and forever associated with such concepts as originality and copyright. Instead, we ought to embrace the idea of a Con-dividuum, i.e., a multiple singularity whose unfolding entails new definitions of “responsibility” and “will,” and is no good for lawyers and judges.12 The Neoist apartment festivals, and the emphasis on the “great confusion” and “radical play” had a poetic and surreal dimension that the LBP inherited, as we shall see, in the psychogeographic experiments of Radio Blissett and the urban performances of the Teatro Situazionautico Luther Blissett.13 However, endless diatribes, secessions, and personal aspirations had rapidly splintered the Neoist network, confining it to fringe positions.14 The LBP instead was able to maintain a paradoxical unity of action and coordination throughout the arc of the project. In the period 1994–1999, the multiple-use name was adopted by three art/activist collectives in Rome, Bologna, and Viterbo, and by a number of individuals throughout Europe. Thus, even if some prominent and quarrelsome characters of the Neoist network, such as British novelist Stewart Home, had joined the Project, the Italian collectives that provided the backbone of the LBP did not engage in the personal diatribes of their predecessors.15 This higher level of collaboration allowed them to focus most of their energy on media targeting and manipulation.

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 71


The first significant prank orchestrated by the LBP dates back to January 1995, when a troupe of Chi l’ha visto?—an Italian prime-time TV show dedicated to missing persons—was sent on the traces of Harry Kipper, a British conceptual artist allegedly touring Europe on a mountain bike with the purpose of linking several cities through an imaginary line that would eventually trace the word “Art” on Europe’s map. The TV crew was first placed in touch with radio journalist and mail artist Pier Mario Ciani, who claimed that the British artist had been last sighted in Bertiolo, a village in North-Eastern Italy. The journalists were then sent to London, where Stewart Home and Richard Essex of the London Psychogeographical Association showed them around “Kipper’s apartment.” After announcing full coverage of Kipper’s case in the upcoming show, the staff, smelling a rat, decided not to air the report. At this point, Blissett sent our a press release claiming that Kipper’s imaginary performance was to be read as an allegory of the death of the artist: On the first level of simulation, Kipper had to free the Luther Blissett Project from any founder and origin, to let it jettison ballast and take off. On the second level of simulation, the prank was an assault on “Chi l’ha visto?” and an opportunity to test the networking abilities of people using the multiple name.16 In the ensuing years, the network grew in size and scope, coupling media pranks with other activities inspired by the notion of the dérive or the drift—an apparently aimless wandering through the modern city whereby individuals experience urban space in accordance with their own desires and sense of playfulness, rather than following the demarcations dictated by functionalist architecture and city plans. Designed in the 1950s by the Lettrists and elaborated in the 1960s by the Situationists, the pseudo-sciences of psychogeography and Unitary Urbanism had been renewed in the 1980s by the London Psychogeographic Association (LPA) with the insertion of occultist elements such as the discovery of urban ley lines. (In archeology the ley lines describe the alignment of ancient sites stretching across the landscape). After collecting data through various drifts, the psychogeographers of the LPA traced the significant spots on a city map and aligned them to form previously undiscovered ley lines. The LBP updated this version of the dérive by adding another layer: the real-time sharing of information, among various psychogeographers, through the combined use of broadcast radio and the telephone system. In fall 1994, a Bolognese community radio began broadcasting Radio Blissett, a late-night show featuring a variable number of Luthers who “patrolled” the city on foot and called the studio from local phone booths. Listeners could also call in at any time and direct the patrols to various locations to join or create unexpected social events, including guerrilla-theater interventions, street parties, three-sided football matches, and “psychic attacks” against public buildings and institutions. The experiment was duplicated shortly thereafter in Rome, where the extension of the city required the simultaneous use of car patrols and cell phones. The Saturday

72 | Marco Deseriis


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

night show, which aired on the frequencies of Radio Città Futura, featured psychic attacks against the Italian copyright office (SIAE), the office of employment (Ufficio di Collocamento), and other semi-improvised direct actions which culminated in one of the most well-known stunts of the Blissett’s saga. On the evening of June 15, 1995, several Blissetts boarded the 30 night tram at different stops carrying confetti, drinks, and ghetto blasters blaring Radio Blissett. As the party grew wilder, a couple of police cars blocked the tram. Requested to disembark, the psychogeographers declined to identify themselves except by the multiple name: “A cop fired shots into the air. The riot and shoot-out were broadcast live via a mobile phone.” Four Luthers were charged with disorderly conduct and participation in a seditious rally (Home XI). The media attention that followed had the effect of placing Blissett on the map. Moreover, if up to that point, within radical leftist circles the multiple personality was considered little more than an intellectual gizmo for wannabe radicals, after the confrontation with the police Blissett began to be perceived as an organic component of the movement (il movimento). The Radical Milieu of the LBP “The movement” is a network of squatted community centers, also known as Centri Sociali Occupati e Autogestiti (CSOA), which had begun spreading throughout Italy in the late 1980s. After the 1990 outbreak of La Pantera (The Panther)—a mass student movement that had led a three-month long occupation of virtually every Italian university to protest the privatization of higher education—students, unemployed, precarious, and underpaid workers occupied abandoned public buildings such as schools, warehouses, and military installations in suburban and non-residential metropolitan areas. With their unique mix of political cultures and subcultures, centri sociali such as Forte Prenestino, Villaggio Globale, and Corto Circuito in Rome, Livello 57 in Bologna, Officina 99 in Naples, Leonkavallo and Cox 18 in Milan organized demonstrations, festivals, debates, concerts, rave parties, and a wide range of daily and weekly activities. As Naomi Klein notes “The [Italian] social centre network is a parallel political sphere that, rather than trying to gain state power, provides alternative state services—such as daycare and advocacy for refugees—at the same time as it confronts the state through direct action.”17 Even though Mail Art and Neoism had played an important role in the early stages of the Project, the LBP cannot be properly understood without considering the cultural, social, and activist milieu to which most of its young participants belonged. In this respect, I contend that the Luther Blissett Project stemmed from the interaction of two irreducible historical factors: 1) the peculiarity of the Italian socio-political situation in the early 1990s; and 2) the emergence of the Internet as a medium of mass communication.

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 73


With regard to the first factor, the end of the Cold War had ignited a period of prolonged political instability in Italy, marked by the inability of the national ruling groups to complete the political transition from the First to the so-called Second Republic. In fact, beginning in 1992, a national investigation known as Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) into political corruption led to the disclosure of Tangentopoli (Bribeville), an extended system of bribes whereby entrepreneurs won public contracts and political favors. The scandal ignited the sudden disintegration of the Pentapartito, the five-party coalition that had kept the country within the NATO alliance since the aftermath of World War II, and opened up a political gap that was rapidly filled by the emergence of new conservative forces such as media mogul Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia, the post-fascist party Alleanza Nazionale, and the independentist party Lega Nord. In other words, the fall of the Berlin Wall uncovered the unsustainability of a clientelist system that, thriving under the Cold War’s frozen alliances, had provided political leaders and party machines with abundant black funds while allowing complacent entrepreneurs to dispense with market competition. In a context in which a spiraling public debt required a discredited political class to make draconian cuts to the welfare state, the centri sociali became a catalyst for a generation of young people who were given little opportunity to practice their skills within a stagnant job market. The LBP was borne out of this milieu, even though its media-savvy members tried to reach beyond the often self-referential universe of the CSOA. In fact, many members of the LBP were undergraduate and graduate students in the departments of communication sciences, sociology, arts, literature, and philosophy of the universities of Rome, Viterbo, and Bologna, some were trained as journalists or writers, and many of them became professionals in the media sector or the culture industry after the demise of the Project. The media-savvyness of the LBP leads us to the second aforementioned historical factor. In Italy, as in many other countries, the early-1990s are also marked by the mass diffusion of the Internet and the first mobile phones, and by the descending costs of prosumer electronic devices such as digital cameras and editing workstations that tend to close the gap between professional and amateur productions. These social centers take advantage of this “revolution” to set up and reinforce an independent communication infrastructure consisting of the autoproduzione (selfproduction) and autodistribuzione (self-distribution) of music—in particular political hip-hop, punk/hardcore, and reggae bands—critical texts, and activist videos. In 1993, the creation of Cybernet, a national electronic network consisting of about thirty Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), sped up collaboration (and conflict) among different geographic and political areas of the movement. Many members of the Roman LBP are directly involved with the AvaNa collective, the media lab of the social center Forte Prenestino that runs the homonymous BBS.

74 | Marco Deseriis


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

It is on the AvaNa/Cybernet mailing lists and in the physical meetings of the collective that a rich debate unfolds on the possible constitution of “autonomous political enterprises” [imprese politiche autonome]. The idea is to expand the market reach of the social centers’ autoproduzioni to create self-sustaining bodies, such as cooperatives and collectively-run businesses that could simultaneously function as economic entities and activist projects. Some activists call this process “going overground” or leaving behind the Indian Reserves of the underground to have a larger cultural and political impact on Italian society (Dazieri). Some others argue that “coming to terms with the market” could have a chilling effect on social struggles, and see this discussion as largely misleading.18 The members of the LBP clearly lean toward the former position, convinced as they are that any form of social activity is already an economic activity, and should be remunerated as such. Luther Blissett, Immaterial Worker of the World The social centers’ discussion on the autonomous political enterprise did not materialize out of the blue. Rather, it should be framed within an ongoing theoretical debate among Italian Marxist and post-Marxist intellectuals on the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism and the emergence of immaterial labor. This conversation can be roughly divided into three strands: (post)workerist, linguistic, and feminist. Originally known as Autonomist or Workerist (operaista) Marxism, the first perspective dates back to the 1960s, when the Italian translation of Marx’s Grundrisse (1857–61) ignited a lengthy conversation on the relationship between the Marxian notions of dead labor (the labor objectified in machinery and technology) and living labor, that “form-giving fire” of human activity that Marx identified with the entire potential of the worker’s living body. If, in the early 1960s, Renato Panzieri and the intellectuals revolving around the journal Quaderni Rossi [Red Notes] had given a “frankfurter” reading of the Grundrisse—that is, fixed capital and machinery were seen as a vehicle of oppression against living labor—by the end of the decade Mario Tronti (1966) suggested an almost opposite interpretation whereby the development of living labor anticipated and prefigured that of fixed capital. This theoretical U-turn was grounded in an analysis of the new cycle of social struggles that had moved a significant part of the Italian working class on openly anti-capitalist positions in the late 1960s. By noting how the decentralization and reorganization of industrial production occurred right at the beginning of the 1970s, that is, after the 1968 student movement and the 1969 autunno caldo [hot fall], the Italian workerists interpreted the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism as capitalist reaction to the workers’ struggles.19 For Antonio Negri, the workers’ “mass refusal” of waged labor and exodus from the working place had the effect of pushing laboring processes outside the

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 75


factory walls while setting in motion new forms of political organization and multiplying the sites of contestation throughout society. Living labor is thus the creative force that, on one hand, transforms work in the struggle against capital and, on the other, generates a multiplicity of self-valorizing, autonomous projects that point beyond capitalist relations. This point introduces us to the second analysis of immaterial labor, which is more strictly linguistic, and whose main representative is Paolo Virno. A former member, like Negri, of Potere Operaio, Virno also approaches Marx from the Grundrisse. In the notorious Fragment on Machines, Marx notes how, in order to reproduce itself, capital has increasingly relied on socialized forms of labor, that is, “on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production.” (705) As the “general social knowledge” or general intellect is channeled toward the development of more productive machines and the development of fixed capital “a large part of the wealth already created can be withdrawn both from immediate consumption and from production for immediate consumption.” (709) Thus, as increased productivity allows the capitalist to “employ people upon something not directly or immediately productive,” labor moves to the side of the productive process, turning more and more into “a supervisory and regulatory activity.” (Ibid) As Virno notes, this type of regulatory activity mobilizes the worker’s communicative and linguistic faculties. In fact, contemporary immaterial workers are evaluated and rewarded not only for the fulfillment of specifics tasks, but also for their ability to cooperate, modify and ameliorate the organization of labor itself, i.e., for their ability to increase productivity. This leads Virno to argue that, besides being the core of the media industry “in the post-Ford era, human communication is also an essential ingredient of productive cooperation in general; thus it is the reigning productive force, something that goes beyond the domain of its own sphere, pertaining instead to the industry as a whole, to poiesis in its totality.” (60) But if communication and language are critical to innovation and productivity, they do not take place in a vacuum, attached as they are to the worker’s living body and the complex of its physical and emotional needs. Since the early 1970s, scholars such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa (1972), Silvia Federici (1980; 1998), and Leopoldina Fortunati (1995) have analyzed the relationship between reproductive and productive labor, and between unwaged and waged labor in relation to domestic labor, nurturing and prostitution. As Leopoldina Fortunati points out, “while Marx clearly saw the domestic sphere as an unproductive sphere, we saw the production of goods and services (prostitution included) as a crucial stage inside the whole process of production and reproduction.” (145) Thus, if the workerists drew on the Grundrisse to underscore the less deterministic aspects of Marxian thought, the feminists pointed to other aspects of Marxian

76 | Marco Deseriis


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

theory to demonstrate that Marx’s definition of productive labor had to be revised to include those activities such as care labor, kin work, and sexual work, that were not strictly oriented toward the production of material goods, but rather “to producing and/or reproducing the commodity most precious for capital, the labor force.” (Ibid) Thus, the feminist movement questioned the Marxian definition of necessary labor as a rigid category that takes for granted what kind of labor is socially recognized as a value-creating practice. The importance of this line of inquiry has been subsequently acknowledged by some members of the post-workerist school. For example, Hardt and Negri contend that “the very concept of labor is mobile and historically defined through contestation. In this sense the labor theory of value is equally a value theory of labor.” (1994: 9) But if labor and value are both independent variables in the structures of capital, then every social activity is potentially subject to such contestation. This means that immaterial labor, as an ensemble of affective, cognitive, and linguistic faculties, is not only limited to the economic but also becomes immediately a social, cultural and political force. “Ultimately,” Hardt and Negri write, “the production involved here is the production of subjectivity, the creation and reproduction of new subjectivities in society.” (2004: 66) Since this production invests the entirety of social life, the “biopolitical production [of immaterial labor] is on the one hand immeasurable, because it cannot be quantified in fixed units of time, and, on the other hand, always excessive with respect to the value that capital can extract from it because capital can never capture all life.” (2004: 146) Now if every social activity is potentially a value-generating practice, then it should be clear why Hardt and Negri claim that “a social wage and a guaranteed income for all” is one of the fundamental demands of the multitude (2000: 403). Similarly, postworkerist economists such as Christian Marazzi (1999, 2008), Andrea Fumagalli and Sergio Bologna (1997) argue that, since the high level of productivity incorporated in ICTs have the effect of both breaking the link between economic growth and occupational growth, and between salaries and productivity, all citizens should be entitled to a reddito di cittadinanza (citizen income) independent of their economic status or occupation. This demand clearly echoes in Luther Blissett’s Declaration of Rights: The industry of the integrated spectacle and immaterial command owes me money. I will not come to terms with it until I will not have what is owed to me. For all the times I appeared on TV, films, and on the radio as a casual passersby or as an element of the landscape, and my image has not been compensated . . . for all the words or expressions of high communicative impact I have coined in peripheral cafes, squares, street corners, and social centers that became powerful advertising jingles, without seeing a dime; for all the times my name and my personal data have been put at work inside stats, to adjust the demand, refine marketing strategies, increase the productivity of

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 77


firms to which I could not be more indifferent; for all the advertising I continuously make by wearing branded t-shirts, backpacks, socks, jackets, bathing suits, towels, without my body being remunerated as a commercial billboard; for all of this and much more, the industry of the integrated spectacle owes me money! I understand it may be difficult to calculate how much they owe me as an individual. But this is not necessary at all, because I am Luther Blissett, the multiple and the multiplex. And what the industry of the integrated spectacle owes me, it is owed to the many that I am, and is owed to me because I am many. From this viewpoint, we can agree on a generalized compensation. You will not have peace until I will not have the money! LOTS OF MONEY BECAUSE I AM MANY: CITIZEN INCOME FOR LUTHER BLISSETT!20 Thus, as labor increasingly becomes immaterial, and the creation of wealth is more and more entangled with the process of constituting forms of subjectivity, Luther Blissett reclaims the immeasurable and excessive character of the “con-dividuum” with respect to the value that “the industry of the integrated spectacle” extracts from it. If in the age of biopolitical production “the locus of surplus value” lies, as Hard and Negri argue, in the knowledge, language, and affects that society produces in common, then Luther Blissett was a figure of the common and of the self-valorizing capacity of the immaterial workers to cooperate and produce in common. Mythmaking, Parasiting, Storytelling As we have seen, since the beginning, the LBP had managed to disguise the identity of actual Luther Blissett progenitors by tracing the origin of the multiple-use name to a Jamaican soccer player, a US mail artist, and a dense web of fictional characters. The manifold accounts of the Project’s origins served to create an imaginary field whereby Blissett’s name and gestures could be connected to other legendary figures. Such a strategy was pursued by various Bolognese members of the LBP and, after the demise of the Project, by one of its main offshoots, the collective of historic novelists Wu Ming—a Chinese expression that translates as “no name” or “unknown.” In various articles and interviews, Wu Ming has compared Luther Blissett to other folk heroes such as Poor Konrad, Captain Swing, General Ludd, and the Subcomandante Marcos.21 Even though those mythic characters were respectively created by struggling communities as diverse as the sixteenth-century Swabian peasants, the eighteenth-century impoverished English farmers, the nineteenth-century industrial workers, and the indigenous people of Chiapas, they all fulfill a similar function: they narrate and perform their communities into existence. To be sure, being a brainchild of immaterial workers, Luther Blissett used a variety of media platforms and communication strategies virtually unknown to his predecessors. However, the comparison between Blissett and other folk heroes primarily served the purpose of stating that, far from simply being a media prankster,

78 | Marco Deseriis


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

Wu Ming, This Revolution is Faceless

Luther Blissett was a positive mythic figure, a “Robin Hood of the Information Age” who was supposed to embody the very process of community and cross-media storytelling. Such an objective is manifest in the following definition of mythopoesis offered by Roberto Bui, one of the founding members of the LBP and Wu Ming: Mythopoesis is the social process of constructing myths, by which we do not mean “false stories,” we mean stories that are told and shared, re-told and manipulated, by a vast and multifarious community, stories that may give shape to some kind of ritual, some sense of continuity between what we do and what other people did in the past. A tradition. In Latin the verb “tradere” simply meant “to hand down something,” it did not entail any narrow-mindedness, conservatism or forced respect for the past. Revolutions and radical movements have always found and told their own myths.22 This political reading of mythmaking has the advantage of moving the stress from the strictly textual and narrative level to the social process whereby myths are created. If Marx and the Marxist tradition has predominantly read myth as an instrument of class domination, Wu Ming suggests that myths can have, in fact, a progressive and counter-hegemonic function as long as their movement and transformation is not arrested. From this angle, myth appears to be fundamentally different from

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 79


other forms of narrative in that, besides telling a story, it performs a certain task or, in Malinowski’s words, is experienced as “lived reality” by a particular human group (81). In this respect, it is useful to compare this progressive and positive interpretation of mythmaking to the negative reading of myth offered by Roland Barthes. In Mythologies, Barthes defines myth as a “type of speech,” “a mode of signification,” “an empty form,” and a “second-order semiological system” that has the power to deprive each and every sign of its peculiarity with the three-fold purpose of naturalizing culture, eternalizing history, and obfuscating the actual relations of production. Asked whether he believes myths are possible on the Left, Barthes responds negatively, arguing that myth always entails an ability to lie, and therefore to dispose of a certain wealth to spare—a wealth the “barren,” “poverty-stricken,” and “transitive type of speech” of the working classes cannot afford (147–48). Since the oppressed can only borrow the mask of myth and “the luxury of an empty form” from the bourgeoisie, Barthes suggests that the best way to resist myth “is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth [. . .]. Since myth robs language of something, why not rob myth? All that is needed is to use it as a departure point for a third-order semiological chain, to take its signification as the first term of a second myth (135).” Drawing on Barthes’ suggestion, I contend that the Luther Blissett Project is a third-order type of narrative, an artificial myth which makes a parasitical use of the myth of the pop star or, to be more specific, of what Lazarsfeld and Merton have termed the “status conferral function” of the media, that is, their ability to legitimize the authority of selected groups and individuals. In other words, Blissett exploited the reputation accumulated by various media outlets (through their circulation and longevity) to enhance his own status and cultural capital. In this respect, unlike Barthes’ barren Leftist myths of the 1950s, Blissett’s language was elaborate, nuanced and could afford to lie because it fed on the overabundance of the information age and on the “information surplus” generated by the seemingly unstoppable expansion of the media system. In a way, we could say that Blissett behaves like an epiparasite—a parasite feeding on another parasite. Like his host, the multiple singularity is a medium which enables communication among a variety of subjects. But unlike his host, the con-dividuum does not pretend to be a transparent or neutral channel. On the contrary, Blissett functions as a social medium in which a variety of enunciating subjects (the “-dividuals” borrowing Blissett’s name) and the channel (the con-dividuum Luther Blissett taken in its complex) are deeply intertwined and constantly affect each other. And yet, Luther Blissett as a concrete -dividual who authors a specific intervention (what we may call the syntagmatic dimension of the Project) and Luther Blissett as

80 | Marco Deseriis


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

the mythic personification of all those interventions (what we may call the paradigmatic dimension of the Project) fulfill two different functions. When a Luther Blissett pulls a prank, he, she or they denounce the media as an extension of big power and as profit-making machines that prey on the commonality of biopolitical production, i.e., of production as an ensemble of linguistic, cognitive, and affective relations. But when considered as a mythic character, Blissett comes to embody the creative potency of that commonality or what Hardt and Negri refer to as “the becoming common of labor” (2004: 103–15). To be sure, this ability to demystify the media and reuse copyrighted materials to create narratives open to a plurality of social uses is neither unique nor original to the LBP. For example, the very practice of culture jamming—a term coined in 1984 by the US sound-collage band Negativland—entails “capturing the corporately controlled subjects of the one-way media barrage, reorganizing them to be a comment on themselves, and spitting them back into the barrage for cultural consideration.”23 Similarly, a wide range of guerrilla-communication techniques such as détournement, fake, camouflage, montage/collage, subvertising, sniping, and cross-dressing undermine and try to reverse the power discourse by appropriating its mode of presentation and aesthetic codes. The Handbuch der Kommunikationsguerrilla, a German book co-authored by Luther Blissett, Sonja Brunzels (another multiple-use name), and the Berlinese collective autonome a.f.r.i.k.a gruppe has sorted these techniques according to two basic operating principles: the principle of estrangement, a version of the Brechtian alienation effect (verfremdungseffekt); and Slavoj Zizek’s concept of overidentification. The former undermines the often invisible system of rules that structure social relationships and interactions by inserting apparently incongruent elements within an ordinary context: the defacement of commercial billboards or websites, an unexpected street performance, the détournement of a political slogan or logo can disrupt daily routines, established linguistic codes, and thus reveal the power structures that lurk behind them. The principle of overidentification, on the other hand, achieves a similar effect by following a different if not opposite trajectory. According to Slavoj Zizek (1993), overidentification works by bringing to light an implicit and unspoken set of assumptions that are shared by the powers that be and the members of a community. For the Slovenian philosopher, power always requires a minimal distance from its explicit rules in order to function: what cannot be said explicitly is pointed to implicitly in order to become acceptable in the public sphere. This “obscene underside” of ideology is, for Zizek, the invisible premise or the “inherent transgression” upon which every power discourse rests. If people are able to maintain a cynical attitude toward the more enticing aspects of ideology as a “call to arms,” it is precisely this ironic detachment, Zizek (1989) argues, that enables ideology to work as such. In fact, the members of any political,

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 81


religious, or military organization rarely take the official ideology so seriously. However, it is through this process of ironic distancing that they become part of a collectivity—and this unifying process is precisely the function of ideology. On the other hand, the fanatics, those who take the official doctrine literally, refuse to make sense of the otherwise Kafkaesque interpellation of the Law by sharing this traumatic experience with others—and replace the intersubjective process of elaborating the superego injunction with a direct, vertical identification with the commanding authority.24 If this is true, Zizek argues, then subversion does not consist of an attitude of ironic detachment and cynical distance toward public values but, on the contrary, in taking them more seriously than power itself: “By bringing to light the obscene superego underside of the system, overidentification suspends its efficiency.” (1993: 49) Similarly, Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse define “subversive affirmation” as an artistic/political tactic that allows artists/activists to take part in certain social, political, or economic discourses and affirm, appropriate, or consume them while simultaneously undermining them. It is characterized precisely by the fact that with affirmation simultaneously there is taking place a distancing to, or revelation of what is being affirmed [. . .]. Subversive affirmation and over-identification—as “tactics of explicit consent”—are forms of critique that through techniques of affirmation, involvement and identification put the viewer/listener precisely in such a state or situation which s/he would or will criticize later. (2006: 445) All these guerrilla-communication tecniques and critical definitions are certainly useful to grasp the modus operandi of contemporary art/activist and culture jamming groups such as Negativland, Laibach/NSK, ®™ark, The Yes Men, 0100101110101101.ORG, and YoMango! to name a few. However, this critical approach implies the existence of a double line of demarcation between power and society; and between activists/artists and the public. In other words, it is still based on a modern understanding of avant-garde work to the extent that it posits a vertical distribution of power, art/activism, and the general audience. According to this model, power irradiates a narrative or code of conduct that, in the best case scenario, is interrupted, jammed, and recoded by activists before reaching the public.25 However, the emergence of immaterial labor and biopolitical production, that is, the progressive identification of economy with social life as such, suggests that this model can and must indeed be overturned. As Matteo Pasquinelli points out, “activism, art, marketing share by now the same grammar and work on the same networks” (234). Thus the “vertical assault on the Code” of the modern avant-gardes and counterculture is progressively replaced by new tactics such as the multiple-use name which are not primarily aimed at undermining power or demystifying the Spectacle, but at affirming the constitution of new

82 | Marco Deseriis


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

forms of subjectivity springing from within the social bios. In this respect, Luther Blissett is a fully post-modern project that does not create alternative narratives but taps into the mainstream and borrows from pop culture imagery to expand its reach and visibility. When Wu Ming underlines that mythopoesis is not about creating “false stories,” they are precisely emphasizing the positive side of third-order narratives and artificial myths. To put it differently, they are suggesting that, if the news media offer a dramatic re-presentation of reality, we may better learn how to present our stories in a dramatic fashion rather than limiting ourselves to debunking the media spin. By inviting the audience to suspend disbelief and participate in a collective narration, the LBP also revived those poetic and performative aspects of oral culture that entailed a close bond and a potential interchangeability between narrator and narratee. In fact, the traditional storyteller, as Walter Benjamin (1968) notes, was always part of the story he was telling, either because he experienced it directly or because he heard it from someone else. Consequently, the storyteller encouraged his listeners to continue telling stories, so that the narratee gained potential access to the same authority of the narrator simply by listening. Noting how traditional narrative knowledge unrolls the pragmatic protocols enabling its own transmission, JeanFrancois Lyotard acutely notes that “what is transmitted through these narratives is the set of rules that constitutes the social bond” (21). From this angle, it should be clear why Wu Ming claims that myths and stories are “something living, something collective, something with which it’s possible to interact. To tell a story is a political activity in the primary sense of the word. Because to tell a story is to share, that is, to make a community” (in Baird 258). Keeping in mind this performative and political function of storytelling, we can group the LBP’s interventions into two major areas: the actual performances and interventions such as psychogeographic drifts, media hoaxes, and fake publications which nurtured Blissett’s myth as the Robin Rood of the information age;26 a consistent body of theoretical work, comprising mostly interviews and critical texts, focusing on the pragmatic rules and the HowTos that allowed for the reproduction and proliferation of the multiple-use name. I will now try to articulate these two aspects of mythopoiesis in their dialectical unity by referring to one of the most complicated affairs in which the LBP was involved. Media Homeopathy Founded in 1963, Comunità Incontro is an established network of over two hundred Catholic community centers scattered all over Italy for the rehabilitation of drug addicts. Incontro’s founding father, Don Pierino Gelmini, is a well-known TV character who has been at the forefront of prohibitionist marches and anti-pedophile crusades for over thirty years.

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 83


Thus when, in December 1996, the Italian police arrests a middle-aged Cambodian man on his way to Belgium, charging him with child trading, Blissett decides to seize the opportunity and jumps on the bandwagon of moral panic. On January 4, 1997, a man identifying himself as Aldo Curiotto, the official spokesman for Comunità Incontro, phones Ansa, the main Italian newswire. Since Incontro has a branch office in Thailand, Blissett, posing as a distressed Curiotto, insinuates the doubt that there may be a Far East connection between Don Gelmini and the Cambodian man: “The Carabinieri did NOT arrest him, they are just interrogating him. Don Gelmini has NOT YET been charged with a traffic of child-abuse videos.”27 Predictably, Ansa diffuses the non-news of the disavowal and, after a few hours, TV newscasts and newspapers run interviews with an unknowing Gelmini. The phone prank on Don Gelmini was not an isolated coup but was part of an elaborate strategy of media homeopathy. The idea was to inject into the media bloodstream stories whose patent falsity would eventually induce the media immune system into a reaction of its own. (Instead of treating the symptom directly, homeopathic medicine contends that, by supplying the human body with a diluted substance that generates a symptom of a lesser intensity, the body can find its own resources to overcome the disease.) Such a strategy had already yielded significant results in 1996, when the LBP branch operating in Viterbo, a medieval town 60 miles north of Rome, fabricated one of the more sophisticated and successful pranks of the entire LBP. In January 1996, the LBP begin spray-painting a series of cryptic Satanic messages and swastikas on Viterbo city walls. As the local press begins investigating, Blissett escalates his disinformation strategy by feeding the newspapers with a series of letters insinuating a connection between members of the right-wing city government and inexistent exoteric neo-Nazi groups. On a Saturday night in May, knowing that the woods surrounding the city were to be cleaned the following day by an environmentalist association, Blissett fabricates evidence of a black mass. On Tuesday, Il Corriere di Viterbo, Il Tempo, and Il Messaggero provide extensive coverage of the environmentalists’ horrific “discovery.” As the media hysteria mounts, the LBP founds the ultra-Catholic Comitato per la Salvaguardia della Morale (Committee for the Safeguard of Morals), a fanatical squad of vigilantes who claim to have begun their own nocturnal patrols to hunt down the Satanists. In July, Il Corriere di Viterbo receives a videotape containing footage of a black mass in which “a screaming virgin” is supposedly sacrificed (the video is murky and the woman is always off-camera). When the alarmist campaign reaches its zenith, the LBP delivers extensive proof of the fabrication to the national public TV channel RAI Uno. The extended version of the video featuring the gruesome “killing of the virgin” ends with a tarantella in which the “Satanists” and the “virgin” hold hands, dance, and sing along.28 Visibly embarrassed, the Viterbo papers abandon the Satanic trail for a while.29

84 | Marco Deseriis


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

While the Viterbo hoax is still unfolding, the Bolognese branch of the LBP decides to duplicate the experiment in Bologna. In June 1996, a human skull is left in the luggage lockers of the local train station with a message addressed to Il Resto del Carlino, the most popular Bolognese tabloid. The note is signed by I Cacciatori di Satana (The Satan’s Hunters), a mysterious group claiming to have subtracted the skull to I Bambini di Satana (The Children of Satan), a notorious and actual existing Satanic sect. Il Carlino runs a piece, and a few days later, Luther Blissett uncovers the hoax by sending proof of the fabrication to other local newspapers. I Bambini di Satana draws its notoriety from the fact that, throughout 1996, Il Carlino has led a moral crusade against Marco Dimitri and other members of the sect for having allegedly sexually abused a non-consensual 16-year-old girl during a black mass. Although, once again, the national press is quick to jump on the bandwagon of moral panic, endorsing the baseless charges pressed by the prosecutor Lucia Musti, the defendants do not take long to demonstrate that Dimitri, who is notoriously gay, has never engaged in child abuse, and that The Children of Satan are, in fact, an adult consensual cult that has no connection whatsoever to pedophiles. In 1997, Blissett sends to print the instant book Lasciate che i bimbi: “Pedofilia” un pretesto per la caccia alla streghe [Let the Children: “Pedophilia” as a Pretext for a Witch Hunt] a counter-investigation of the Bambini di Satana trail that reveals how facts and witnesses have been meticulously manipulated in the service of an ultraconservative Catholic agenda.30 The book also sums up the LBP’s media-homeopathic strategy by juxtaposing the Bolognese trial and the Viterbese witch hunt: while the former has been built up by an overzealous prosecutor with the complacent support of the press, the latter is a pure mythopoeic invention of the LBP that the press has managed to blow out of proportion. Homeopathic remedies have proved effective to the extent that the Viterbese press have been discredited by the national TV; at the same time, the Carlino’s hoax and the publication of Lasciate che i bimbi jolts the press into undoing Lucia Musti’s investigation and questioning the initial wave of sensationalist news and moral panic. To put it simply, by checking on each other, the media have begun activating their own immune system. The fact that the book has hit a raw nerve becomes evident a few weeks after its release when Lucia Musti files a libel suit against the publisher and the authors of Let the Children for “defamation” and “abuse of the right to critique.”31 After a twoyear trial, the prosecutor obtains a partial victory: the author of the book, Roberto Bui, is fined for defamation, whereas the publisher, Alberto Castelvecchi, is ordered to withdraw the remaining copies from the market and destroy them.32 Meanwhile, as the trial against Blissett goes on, the electronic version of the book is downloaded and mirrored onto several websites engaging in a coordinated free speech campaign. In 2000, as a consequence of another wave of media hysteria instigated this time by

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 85


the Sicilian priest Don Fortunato di Noto, three websites hosted by the Rete Civica Romana, a public network managed by the City of Rome, are censored for publishing materials “not apt to children.” One of them, the Avana BBS website, hosts a copy of the book.33 As the publication of Let the Children snowballs into a real affaire involving publishers, sys-ads, priests, and politicians, the Bolognese LBP develops a theoretical reflection on the historic and political function of national emergencies in Italy. In Nemici dello Stato [Enemies of the State], Blissett notes that the mid-1990s moral panic epitomizes “the fear of the great ‘disintermediation’ brought about by the Internet.”34 After the 1970s emergency laws against terrorism, and the 1980s war on the mafia, Italian national emergencies were now shifting from the molar (the clash between masses, the battlepiece [sic], the confrontation on the stage of public life) to the molecular (the everyday micro-conflict, the control on individual differences by information technologies) . . . The new molecular emergencies serve to control and censor electronic communications, indeed, the behaviors of the new immaterial workers who are re-appropriating their know-how and tendency to innovation, becoming ever more autonomous from capital as direct command on the workforce. (Blissett 1999) From this angle, it should be clear why Blissett’s homeopathic strategy was aimed at debunking the media spin while counter-attacking the forces that dreaded and threatened the newfound autonomy of immaterial workers. In other words, the folk hero of the information age was not only a figure of the common productive capacity of immaterial workers, but also of their ability to organize themselves and rebuff the attacks coming from those forces, notably the Catholic church and its secular arms. By showing the extraordinary ability of becoming-other by impersonating, if only for a while, the role of his opponents, Blissett’s moves can also be seen as Aikido techniques—a martial art that did not stop at the media, but found an ultimate target in Blissett himself.

Seppuku and the heritage of the LBP When the Catholic inquisition struck the Rete Civica Romana in 2000, Luther Blissett was already a specter of the past. On September 6, 1999, the Bolognese branch of the LBP, together with the vast majority of the groups and individuals that had started the Project in 1994, agreed to send out a press release that read:

Seppuku! Many subjectivities of the Luther Blissett Project Italian columns have decided to greet the new millennium by committing seppuku, a ritual suicide. Suicide is the practical

86 | Marco Deseriis


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

demonstration that Blissett gives up mere survival as a territorial, identitarian logic. Suicide is the ultimate and most extreme “take to the bush” of this folk hero. We are not advocating nihilism or relinquishment; rather, we are choosing life. Seppuku is not *the* course of action, Luther Blissett is a name that anybody can keep adopting also after next New Year’s Day. There are countries where the fight has just begun, and we surely hope it goes on . . . The Seppuku is not the end of Luther Blissett. It is the beginning of a new phase, a new way of using his face and name. For those who will commit it, Blissett’s suicide will consist of giving up that signature and moving on to new conflicts. It is quite the contrary of what usually happens to suicides: they don’t go anyplace, while their names are more oft-mentioned than before their death . . . As Zhuangzi reminds us: “The perfect man has no ego, the inspired man has no works, the wise man has no name.” And, as the matchless Cary Grant once put it: “It is better to leave a minute earlier, leaving people wanting more, rather than a minute too late, when people are getting bored.” 35 The seppuku proved to be a prophetic gesture. In the new millennium, new projects and identities have blossomed, often adopting mythopoeic strategies similar to the LBP’s. Such is the case of 0100101110101101.ORG, a Bologna-based art collective that had co-authored the Darko Maver’s swindle and kept creating several projects using the same tactics of misinformation. In Rome, several members of the LBP founded Men In Red (MIR), a collective of “radical ufologists” that organized exhilarating stunts such as the fake landing of a UFO in Riccione, Italy. After the end of MIR, Andrea Natella founded guerrigliamarketing.it, a guerrilla-marketing company and autonomous political enterprise whose surreal motto was “Fuck the Market to Enter It.”36 In Milan, mythmaking has resurfaced in the recent appearance of Serpica Naro, a fictitious Anglo-Japanese stylist created by a group of precarious workers of the Milanese fashion industry. In 2005, the workers put together a fake press book and biography for the imaginary stylist, and submitted the application package to the Settimana della Moda, a mainstream showcase of the Milanese fashion industry. Beguiled by the stylist’s edgy and allegedly controversial profile, the organizers took the bait. When the official runway was finally taken over by “models” of the Milanese squatted community centers, the authors of the spoof revealed that Serpica Naro was the anagram of another mythopoeic character, San Precario, the radical patron of the Italian precarious and temporary workers.37 Besides being a symbol of precarity on the workplace, Serpica Naro is promoted today as an open “meta-brand” that anyone can reuse.38 Finally, the most significant heritage of the LBP is probably in the world of literature. A few months after the seppuku was announced, four members of the Bolognese LBP, who authored the historic novel Q, decided to reveal their real names, and to launch the new collective of writers Wu Ming.39

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 87


The novel, the last book authored by Luther Blissett, was a bestseller and translated into several languages. Set in Germany in the sixteenth century, at the time of the social unrest ignited by the Reformation and at the onset of the Gutenberg revolution, Q can be read as a political allegory. The hero changes identity several times as he participates in peasant uprisings (the Anabaptists) and radical protestant movements (the Movement of the Free Spirit) that seek to abolish private property, religious authority, and secular privileges. Q, the mysterious emissary reporting on the popular revolts to the Vatican, will eventually ascend to papacy. But the triumph of the most conservative elements of the Catholic Church is not necessarily a tragedy insofar as repression and restoration are unable to fully tame the ghosts of the defeated. As McKenzie Wark notes, “It’s a question of a narrative resurrection, where the return of the marginalized, the disempowered is still possible. A return, not as victim, but as a different kind of hero. The kind of hero who works in situations, does what is possible, and moves on. A Luther Blissett.�40

88 | Marco Deseriis


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

Works Cited Arns, Inke and Sylvia Sasse. “Subversive Affirmation. On Mimesis as Strategy of Resistance.” East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe. Ed. Irwin, London: Afterall, 2006.

Brecht, Bertold. “Alienation Effect in Chinese Acting.” Brecht on Theater. Ed. and Trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.

autonome a.f.r.i.k.a gruppe, Luther Blissett, and Sonja Brunzels. Handbuch der Kommunikationsguerrilla. Jezt helfe ich mir selbst. Hamburg: Verlag Libertare, 1997.

Ciani, Pier Mario. Dal Great Complotto a Luther Blissett. Udine, Italy: AAA Edizioni, 2000.

Baird, Robert P. “Stories Are Not All Equal: An Interview with Wu Ming,” Chicago Review Special 60th Anniversary Issue, # 52:2/3/4. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Shocken, 1968, 83–109. Blissett, Luther. Lasciate che i Bimbi [. . .] “Pedofilia,” un Pretesto per la Caccia alle Streghe. Rome: Castelvecchi, 1997. ———. Mind Invaders. Come Fottere i Media, Manuale di Guerriglia e Sabotaggio Culturale. Rome: Castelvecchi, 1995. ———. Nemici dello Stato. Criminali, “mostri” e leggi speciali nella società di controllo. Rome: Derive Approdi, 1999. ———. Totò Peppino e la Guerra Psichica 2.0. Torino, Italy: Einaudi, 2000. ———. Totò Peppino e la Guerra Psichica: Materiali dal Luther Blissett Project. Udine, Italy: AAA Edizioni, 1996.

Dalla Costa, Mariarosa and Selma James. The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Bristol, UK: Falling Wall, 1972. Dazieri, Sandrone, ed. Italia Overground. Rome: Castelvecchi, 1996. Consorzio Aaster, CSOA Cox 18, CSOA Leoncavallo, and Moroni Primo, ed. Centri Sociali: Geografie del Desiderio. Milan: Shake, 1996. Federici, Silvia. Caliban & the Witches: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia, 1998. ———. “Wages against Housework.” The Politics of Housework. Ed. E. Malos. London: Allison and Busby, 1980. Fortunati, Leopoldina. The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Pronstitution, Labor and Capital. Trans. H. Creek. New York: Autonomedia, 1995. ———. “Immaterial Labor and Its Machinization.” Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, vol. 7(1). 2007 ⬍www.ephemeraweb⬎. Fumagalli, Andrea and Lazzarato, Maurizio. Tute Bianche: Disoccupazione di massa e reddito di cittadinanza. Rome: DeriveApprodi, 1999.

———. Q. Torino, Italy: Einaudi. 1999–2000. ———. Q. Trans. Whiteside, Shaun. London: Heinemann, 2003. Bologna, Sergio and Andrea Fumagalli, ed. Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione: Scenari del postfordismo in Italia. Milan: Feltrinelli, 1997.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000. ———. Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the StateForm. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994. ———. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York: Penguin, 2004.

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 89


Home, Stewart, ed. Mind Invaders: A Reader in Psychic Warfare, Cultural Sabotage and Semiotic Terrorism. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.

Moroni, Primo, Daniele Farina, and Pino Tripodi, ed. Centri Sociali: Che Impresa! Rome: Castelvecchi, 1995.

Klein, Naomi. No Logo: Taking Aim at Brand Bullies. New York: Picador, 1999–2000.

Negri, Antonio. Marx Beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse. Trans. Harry Cleaver, Michael Ryan, and Maurizio Viano. New York: Autonomedia, 1991.

Lazarsfeld, Paul F. and Robert K. Merton. “Mass Communication, Popular Taste, and Organized Social Action.” (1948). Mass Communication and American Social Thought. Ed. John Durham Peters and Peter Simonson. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefied, 2004. 230–241. Lyotard, Jean Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984. Malinowski, Bronislaw. Malinowski and the Work of Myth. Ed. and Trans. Ivan Strenski. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992. Marazzi, Christian. Capital and Language. New York: Semiotext(e), 2008. ———. Il Posto dei Calzini: La svolta linguistica dell’economia e i suoi effetti sulla politica, Torino, Italy: Bollati Boringhieri, 1999. Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Martin Nicolaus, New York: Penguin, 1973. Men In Red. Ufologia Radicale: Manuale di Contatto Autonomo con Extraterrestri. Rome: Castelvecchi, 1999.

Pasquinelli, Matteo. “An Assault on Neurospace (Misguided Directions for)” Mind the Map! History is Not Given. Ed. Marina Grzinic and Gunter Heeg. Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 2006. 229–235. Tronti, Mario. Operai e Capitale. Torino, Italy: Einaudi, 1966. Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude. Trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson. New York: Semiotext(e), 2004. Wu Ming. 54. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. London: William Heinemann, 2005. (U.S. edition Harcourt, 2006.) ———. Manituana. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. London and New York: Verso. 2009. Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso, 1989. ———. “Why are Laibach and NSK not Fascists?” (1993) Irwin: Retroprincip. Ed. Inke Arns. Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 2003. 49–50.

Notes 1. An unsigned article published in the daily Blic on September 12, 1993 read: There is a rumor around that these “actions” might actually be works of art, albeit not conventional in the slightest, planned and performed by one or more persons in order to provoke the instinctive reactions of those who find the dummies and obviously mistake them for real corpses. “Eurotic. Excerpts from an article published in

90 | Marco Deseriis

Blic,” Sept 12, 1993. Available at ⬍http://0100101110101101.org/home/ darko_maver/tanzderspinne.html⬎. 2. Cf. ⬍http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/ Coffeehouse/6563/index_it.html⬎. 3. Ibid. The titles of the eight performances are Jung, Va’ Pensiero, Beata Mariae Vergini,


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

Skinned Rembrandt, Deposition, Eurotic, Garbage, and Ecce Homo. Maver’s manifestoes “Aforagenetica” and “The Dimension of the Extrabodies” are archived on the same website. 4. Ibid. Cf. Antonio Caronia, “Darko Maver,” in Flesh Out, n.3. April–May 1999 and Free Art Campaign “Darko Maver è stato incarcerato per aver esercitato il diritto alla libertà di espressione” [Darko Maver has been detained for having exercised the right to freedom of expression] in Tema Celeste, n. 73, March–April 1999. Available at ⬍www.geocities.com/SoHo/ Coffeehouse/6563/index_it.html⬎. 5. Ibid. Cf. Andrea Natella, “Manichini di Guerra,” [War Mannequins] Modus Vivendi, july–august 1999. 6. 0100101110101101.ORG and Luther Blissett, “The Great Art Swindle: Do You Ever Feel You’re Being Cheated?” Feb 6, 2000. Available at ⬍http://www.lutherblissett.net/ archive/487_en.html⬎. 7. Ibid. 8. The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (1980) is a film documentary on the Sex Pistols directed by Julien Temple. 9. The most comprehensive collection of English, Italian, and Spanish texts by and about the Luther Blissett Project is archived on the LBP “official” website ⬍www.lutherblissett.net⬎. 10. Cf. Paul Doyle, Sajit Shaikh and Georgina Turner, “Did AC Milan sign Luther Blissett by mistake?” January 5, 2005, available at ⬍http://football.guardian.co.uk/theknowledge/ story/0,13854,1383221,00.html⬎. See also James Wright, “Englishmen Abroad: Luther Blissett,” July 2, 2003, available at ⬍http://www .thefa.com/Features/EnglishDomestic/Postings/ 2003/07/54903.htm⬎. 11. Cf. BBC Sport, “Luther Blissett: Anarchist Hero,” March 9, 1999, available at ⬍http:// news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/sport/football/ 293678.stm⬎.

12. An English translation of selected excerpts from this book is available at ⬍www .lutherblissett.net/archive/215_en.html⬎. 13. The Teatro Situazionautico “Luther Blissett” was founded in February 1995 by Riccardo Paccosi in Bologna. Actors training consisted of recording a series of environmental stimuli in various urban spaces such as streets, squares, public buses, and malls. On the basis of the gathered information, the actors prepared a performance and enacted it in the appropriate areas with the purpose of transforming the social perception of a specific space. A video documentation of one of the Teatro Situazionautico’s interventions is available on YouTube, ⬍www.youtube.com/watch?v= QNiP3p5a9nI⬎. 14. One of the most divisive events of the Neoist network was the choice of Canadian performance artist Istvan Kantor to adopt Montsy Cantsin as his permanent nickname. Furthermore, in 1994, Stewart Home founded the Neoist Alliance in London to mark his distance from the international Neoist network. In the same year, he established the first contact with the Bolognese branch of the LBP. 15. Home’s contribution to the LBP is collected in Stewart Home (ed.) Mind Invaders (1997). Although the book features some texts by the Italian LBP, this is a collection of texts largely written by Home himself, the London Psychogeographical Association, and the Neoist Alliance. 16. Luther Blissett, “Missing Presumed Dead: How Luther Blissett Hoaxed the TV Cops,” in Stewart Home (1997: 5). 17. Naomi Klein, “Squatters in White Overalls,” The Guardian, 06/08/2001, available at ⬍www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/ 0,3604,503535,00.html⬎. 18. The debate on autonomous political enterprises is well articulated in Moroni, Farina, and Tripodi (1995). Another volume that tackles the issue focusing on two Milanese case studies is a social investigation edited by Consorzio

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 91


Aaster, CSOA Cox 18, CSOA Leoncavallo, and Moroni (1996). 19. Thirty years later, Hardt and Negri reiterate this key concept: “Even though common use of the term might suggest the opposite—that resistance is a response or reaction— resistance is primary with respect to power (2004: 64).” 20. Luther Blissett, “Dichiarazione dei diritti,” Rivista Mondiale di Guerra Psichica, #3, 1995–96, reprinted in Totò, Peppino e la guerra psichica 2.0, cit., pp. 83–84. Translation mine. 21. Cf. Ernesto Assante and Wu Ming, “Excerpts from the 10th anniversary interview with La Repubblica,” August 24, 2004, available at ⬍www.wumingfoundation.com/english/giap/ giapdigest26.htm⬎. 22. Wu Ming 1, “Why Not Show Off About The Best Things? A Few Quick Notes on Social Conflict in Italy and the Metaphors Used to Describe It,” December 2002. Available at ⬍www.wumingfoundation.com/english/giap/ giapdigest18.html⬎. Empasis mine. 23. This definition of culture jamming is extracted from the voice-over of Sonic Outlaws (1995), a film documentary by Craig Baldwin about Negativland and the West Coast culturejamming scene of the 1980s and early 1990s. 24. Citing Lacan, Zizek argues that the fanatics or the fools are those who are incapable of having a dialectically mediated distance toward themselves, like a king “who takes his being-aking as his immediate property and not a symbolic mandate imposed on him by a network of intersubjective relations of which he is part (1989: 47).” 25. One book that largely reflects this view of culture jamming is the classic Naomi Klein’s No Logo (1999–2000). 26. For lack of space, I preferred to detail what I deem the most elaborate and relevant hoaxes rather than listing them all. Among the countless pranks against the culture industry, it is worth remembering the selling of a fake book to

92 | Marco Deseriis

Mondadori, the main Italian publishing house owned by media mogul and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Entitled Net.gener@tion, and “found” on the Internet by Giuseppe Genna, a young conservative writer who was trying to use Blissett’s name for achieving personal notoriety, the book was a compilation of trite commonplaces about the Internet and the death of the author. Before Net.gener@tion hit the bookstores, Blissett sent out a press release disavowing the book and attacking the copyright clause on it. Within few weeks, Mondadori quickly retired the volume from bookstores. For a detailed account, see Luther Blissett, “How Luther Blissett turned a corporate attack on the multiple name into a marvellous prank on a major publishing house,” available at ⬍www.lutherblissett.net/archive/149_en.html⬎. Blisett’s prolific writings did not spare alternative publishers. In 1996, Blissett sold a fake book by Hakim Bey, the anarchist philosopher of Temporary Autonomous Zones, to the Roman publishing house Castelvecchi. Cf. “Why I wrote a fake Hakim Bey book and how I cheated the conformists of Italian ‘Counterculture,’ ” August 1996, available at ⬍www.lutherblissett.net/archive/171_en.html⬎. 27. Luther Blissett, “1997: Well Begun is Half Done. A phone prank pulled by Luther Blissett in January 1997,” 01/161997, available at ⬍http://www.lutherblissett.net/archive/ 222_en.html⬎. 28. Loredana Lipperini and Gianluca Nicoletti showed the extended version of the video in Rai Uno’s TV Magazine “TV7” on March 2, 1997. 29. For a complete account of the Viterbo Ruse cf. Luther Blissett Project Comando Unificato dell’Etruria Meridionale, “Viterbo un Anno Vissuto Satanicamente” in Lasciate che i Bimbi[. . .] (1997). Available at ⬍www.lutherblissett.net/archive/173_it.html⬎. 30. Cf. Luther Blissett, Lasciate che I Bimbi (1997). The book shows how the main witness at the trial, a 16-year-old girl whose fictional name was “Simonetta,” first tried to retract her accusations, was then taken care of by a Catholic association and “exorcised” by a priest,


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 65–94

contradicted herself, and was never able to back her accusations. 31. The “Atto di Citazione” [Certificate of Action at Law] with which Musti filed the libel suit is available on La Repubblica’s website, ⬍www.repubblica.it/online/sessi_stili/blissett/ cronaca/cronaca.html⬎. 32. It is important to note that the “abuse of the right to critique” and the “defamation” refer to the strong wording used in the book to describe Musti’s character, not the actual content of Blissett’s allegations. 33. A detailed account of the censorship of the Roman Civic Network is available at ⬍www.ecn.org/forte/RCR/appello_en.htm⬎. Don Fortunato di Noto had already obtained the obscuration of the entire network in 1998 for the publication of a presumably Satanic article. 34. Wu Ming Yi, “Introduction to Enemies of the State: Criminals, ‘Monsters’ and Special Legislation in the Society of Control,” Summer 2000, available at ⬍www.lutherblissett.net/ archive/078_en.html⬎. This text is the English translation of the introduction to Luther Blissett, Nemici dello Stato (1999). 35. Luther Blissett Project, “Seppuku!” September 6, 1999, available at ⬍www.lutherblissett.net/archive/452_en.html⬎. 36. For information about the MIR project, see Men In Red, Ufologia Radicale: Manuale di

Contatto Autonomo con Extraterrestri, (Roma: Castelvecchi), 1999. In English, see the website ⬍www.kyuzz.org/mir⬎. Guerrigliamarketing’s website is ⬍www.guerrigliamarketing.it⬎. 37. Cf. Marcello Tari and Ilaria Vanni, “On the Life and Deeds of San Precario, Patron Saint of Precarious Workers and Lives,” Fibreculture, Issue 5, 2005, available at ⬍http://journal .fibreculture.org/issue5/vanni_tari.html⬎. 38. The authors of Serpica Naro have borrowed the idea of the meta-brand from YoMango! another counter-couture project coordinated by an activist collective originally based in Barcelona, Spain. Serpica Naro’s website is available at ⬍www.serpicanaro.com⬎. 39. Luther Blissett, Q (1999–2000). English version translated by Shaun Whiteside (2003). The names of the four authors of Q are Roberto Bui, Giovanni Cattabriga, Federico Guglielmi, and Luca di Meo. In 2001, they were joined by Riccardo Pedrini in the Wu Ming collective. The five authors of Wu Ming have authored several collective novels, including 54 (2005) and Manituana (2009), as well as several solo novels. Luca di Meo left the group in 2008. All of Wu Ming’s books can be downloaded at no charge from their website, ⬍www.wumingfoundation.com⬎. 40. McKenzie Wark, “Luther Blissett, Q, William Heinemann, 2003” July 29, 2003, available at ⬍www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0307/ msg00108.html⬎.

Lots of Money Because I am Many | 93


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 95–114

The Separation Wall in Palestine: Artists Love to Hate It Ronen Eidelman

Since the beginning of the building of the separation barrier by the Israeli government in the Palestinian territories, dozens of artistic projects and art works have been created documenting, responding, criticizing, and condemning the wall. The barrier has been a main focus of political art in the last few years triggering many artistic projects and tactics against its construction. The projects and works come from artists from many disciplines; photographers, painters, video artists, performance, graffiti writers, conceptual artists, architects, as well as political activists and local residents fighting for their own land. The constriction of the “separation Wall” is highly controversial and artistic projects dealing with it raise many dilemmas. What role do these practices play? What are their limitations and potentialities? How these practices are used; on one hand, to reduce the damage of the wall, or on the other, to attempt to raise awareness of the harm of the wall or participate in the political struggle against it? What positive role can art have in this political construction project? And why are so many artists attracted to do work on this Wall? Barrier, Wall, Separation Fence Israel’s “barrier,” “wall,” or “separation fence” across the West Bank is an architectural expression of a twenty-year old political strategy (Weizman) and although the wall is the greatest construction project ever built by the state of Israel, no architects were involved in its construction.1 The wall was built by engineers subcontracted by the Israeli defense ministry. At the fourth convention of the Israel Architects Association, Architect Gideon Harlap complained that no architects were involved in designing the separation fence. The fence, he says, is not beautiful, like the Great Wall of China, but is clumsy and ugly, and architects could have

The Separation Wall in Palestine: Artists Love to Hate It | 95


contributed to its aesthetic design had they been allowed to participate in its planning in time (Gilerman). The wall is part of a physical barrier consisting of a network of fences with vehiclebarrier trenches surrounded by wide exclusion area averaging 60 meters (90%) and concrete walls up to eight meters high.2 Most of the barrier (over 95% of its total length) consists of a “multi-layered fence system” ideally 50 meters in width. The Israeli military’s preferred design has three fences, with pyramid-shaped stacks of barbed wire for the two outer fences and a lighter-weight fence with intrusion detection equipment (controlled by a command and control system built by Elbit Ltd.) in the middle. Patrol roads were mounted on both sides of the middle fence, as well as an anti-vehicle ditch that was dug on the “Palestinian” side of the fence with a smooth dirt strip on the Israeli side for “intrusion tracking.”3 Some sections (less than 5% of the total length) are constructed as a wall made up of concrete slabs up to eight meters high and three meters wide. Occasionally, due to topographic conditions, other sections of the barrier will reach up to 100 meters in width. Wall construction (5%) is more common in urban settings, such as areas near Qalqilyah and Jerusalem, because it is narrower, requires less land, and provides more protection against snipers. In all cases, there are regular observation posts, automated sensing devices, and other technological apparatus. Gates at various points are manned by Israeli soldiers. The total length, as officially authorized, will be 650 kilometers (403 miles). The barrier is a highly controversial project. Supporters claim the barrier is a necessary tool protecting Israeli civilians from Palestinian terrorism, including suicide bombing attacks in buses and bus stations, shopping centers, stores, restaurants, and other public places, which has increased significantly since the al-Aqsa Intifada. The Israeli defense ministry argues that the wall has helped reduce incidents of terrorism by 90% from 2002 to 2005.4 Opponents claim that the barrier is an illegal attempt to annex Palestinian land under the guise of security; violates international law; has the intent or effect of preempting final status negotiations; and severely restricts Palestinians who live nearby, particularly obstructing ability to travel freely within the West Bank and to access work in Israel, thereby undermining their economic, social, political, and cultural life. Although the wall might decrease the number of terrorist attacks for the present, its devastating effect could encourage much more violence and bloodshed in the future. “Beautifying” the Wall The most common documented and recognized element of the separation barrier is the eight meter high concrete wall with its armed watchtowers. Its physical presence is both threatening and haunting, but also strong and powerful. It is clear why both supporters and opponents of the wall choose this very small part of the project as

96 | Ronen Eidelman


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 95–114

its visual symbol. Indisputably, the wall itself is an eyesore and it has a devastating effect on the landscape. Ironically, the physical barrier makes the oppression of Palestinians and the occupation more visible in conflict with the power’s basic rationale to make the systems of oppression as unseen and inconspicuous as possible. Therefore, from the earliest stages of the construction of the wall, the authorities tried to hide and conceal its ugliness and what it symbolizes. The paintings on the wall in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem are an early example of the practice of concealment. The Gilo wall, constructed during the first weeks of the second Intifada (uprising) in 2001, was built hastily to protect against gunfire from the Palestinian town of Beit Jalla. It was made of two meter concrete blocks and was around 100 meters long. It blocked the view of Bethlehem, the surrounding villages and hills. Consequently, the Municipality of Jerusalem contracted artists to decorate its side of the wall with murals and paintings which depict the missing view of Beit Jala. However, these images represented only buildings and animals without any of the Palestinian residents. The murals were done by Jewish Russian immigrants living in Jerusalem at a cost of 60,000 euros. Mikhail Morgenstern, one of the artists, said “We do it because we make the view better.” He declared, “Our scenes have nothing to do with what is actually happening on the other side of the wall” (Reeves). In the words of Shlomo Brosh of the Jerusalem Municipality who came up with the project, “The idea was to make the walls transparent,” He added, “If they have forced us to shield ourselves, then we decided that at least we wouldn’t give up the landscape that used to be there” (Gilerman). The Missing residents and the “fixed” scenic view has a history in Israeli art as the description of Painter Larry Abramson painting (on canvas) “Tzuba” by curator Sarit Shapira demonstrates: In his Tzuba series, Larry Abramson painted the same landscape that was depicted years ago by Joseph Zaritzky, one of the triumvirate of the New Horizon group, and a major ancestor of the Israeli abstraction. Carrying on the morphology of the Zaritzky brushstroke, as well as adopting the greenish, greyish, bluish monochromatic tonality, Abramson apparently obeys the order of the local artist discourse which announced Israeli abstract painting as Zaritzky dynasty. One can even say that in placing himself at the same standing point of the old master in the landscape and in repainting Zaritzky references, Abramson asserts his belonging to a stratified local art history, even a local artistic school. But while he acts as a disciple who follows his master, Abramson also exposes the patriarchic oppressive method, scratching, trying to peel off the seals and screen that constitute the canonic Israeli, Zionist representation. He actually calls upon one of the most forbidden taboos of the Zionist rhetoric, the remnant, the silent testimony of a Palestinian presence that anticipated the Zionist territorialization. While the empty image less abstract painting of Zaritzky just suits what had

The Separation Wall in Palestine: Artists Love to Hate It | 97


Wall in Gilo, 2003 (photographer unknown) Tami Notsani, Untitled, 2006, from the series: as many things in this country, Color photography, maunted on aluminium, 1 ⫻ 1 m

been described by Kamal Bulatta as “an image created of landscape as that of a land crying to be appropriated by modern man,” then Abramson depicted the same landscape, but this time haunted by the traces, the indexes, the ghost of the abandoned houses of the Arab village Tzuba. Perpetually, almost obsessively, Abramson returns to paint the same place of Tzuba as if unable to focus his gaze on what was really there, as if he almost joined Zaritzky’s incapability to see what was really there, as if from now on he was what was there. The apparition of Tzuba realizes in Abramson’s painting what Roland Barthes calls the punctum and Freud terms as the Uncanny. It is this presence of the cultural Uncanny suspended and delayed in the very particular process of Abramson’s series which might be the catalyst for the mechanism of sublimation: sublimation which is personal, unique and has nothing in common (Shapira). The practice of reconstructing the landscape on the “security” walls was continued. One of the most absurd examples was a semi-abstract; almost pop-art style painting on the wall mounted on highway 443 north of Jerusalem that was painted by anonymous artists who were most probably hired by highway construction contractors.

98 | Ronen Eidelman


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 95–114

“Israeli abstract” Larry Abramson. Oil on canvas, 90 X 55 cm, 2004

Larry Abramson continued negotiating with the hidden landscapes and reacted to these murals with his work “Israeli abstract.” Apart from being a blatant act of occupation, the wall Israel is currently building around itself is an ultimate act of denial, a desperate attempt to erase Palestine from the Israeli landscape and consciousness once and for all. On the concrete slabs of a wall separating Route 443 from a neighboring Palestinian village, the authorities have

The Separation Wall in Palestine: Artists Love to Hate It | 99


painted a mural of an empty and abstracted landscape, an uninterrupted horizon-line with nothing to spoil the Zionist dream of a virgin land. Does art stand a chance against a scopic regime put in place by the fear of terror and the cynical machinery of occupation? In 2004, I appropriated the wall’s green/blue “ideal” landscape, put a vertical black “zip” across it, and published it under the title “Israeli Abstraction.” Amazingly, within days the streets of Tel Aviv, and later of other Israeli cities, were covered in graffiti based on this image, the work of anonymous street artists seeking an icon to express their desire for peace and coexistence (Abrahamson). Through an artistic practice, Abramson placed himself at the standing point of Zaritzky in order to see and tell what has not been seen or told and later used the tradition of abstract painting to create an image of resistance. Later we will see artistic activists placing themselves physically at the point of their reference, not only as a discussion through the art world, but also as a political act reaching out to a broader audience. Using the Landscape Painting was not the only means to make the wall more pleasant or at least less troubling visually. On the Israeli part of the wall separating the West Bank town of Qalqiliya and the Israeli highway #6 (Trans Israel highway), the government’s highway authority stacked a pile of earth against the wall. This part of the barrier is the one of the few parts that is built on the green line—the 1967 internationally recognized border between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Highway #6 is a main Israeli road with large amounts of civilian traffic. What the mass of pile of earth did was to build an illusion that the wall was much lower than it really was. On the Qalqiliya side of the wall, there is a straight eight meter concrete wall shadowing over the landscape. On the Israeli side, what you can see from the highway looks like a modest 2–3 meter wall with a pleasant landscape with plants and flowers concealing the true nature of the wall from Israeli drivers. The Sala-Manca art Collective from Jerusalem reveals in its project “Eternal Tabernacle: Studies in New Israeli Landscapes #4”5 another method of attempting to make the wall less visually troubling. The art work is composed of a structure typically used in the Jewish holiday “Sukkoth” (feast of Tabernacle). Motifs used in the project were photographs taken from an area of the separation wall in Jerusalem. This area, which is called the “Olive Pass,” was decorated by Akerstein Industries. The decoration of the wall was commissioned by the Ministry of Defense in an attempt to explore the possibility of artificially “beautifying” the separation wall and thus dissimulating its presence on the Israeli side. Sala-Manca, through its installation, exposes the absurdity of the Ministry of Defense attempts and its use of landscape construction. Through painting and reliefs, it not only intended in this case to create the idea of a peaceful wall, but also to make the wall as invisible as possible.

100 | Ronen Eidelman


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 95–114

Sala-Manca, details from “Eternal Tabernacle: Studies in New Israeli Landscapes #4”, 2007

You can see mountains, flowers, pastoral images, and also the facades of Jerusalem stone houses with windows that do not overlook anything. It is interesting to observe the difference in the attempts of “Beautifying” that were done in more rural areas such as highway #6 using the agricultural elements of the geographical area, and the references to historical Jerusalem architecture in urban areas of the Jerusalem neighborhoods. The Writing on the Wall The Israeli authorities have made different attempts to make the wall less visible, to “beautify” it, to make it more acceptable to the Israeli public and the international community. The authorities believe in the necessity of the wall but understand that its horrific physical presence works against the state so far as image and public relations are concerned. The opponents of the wall are faced with a different dilemma. The wall must be shown, revealed, exposed, talked about; its presence and its consequences should reach as many people as possible. But contrary to the Israeli authorities, their goal is to make the wall physically disappear, to do away with it. They do not want to recognize the wall’s existence, or validate it, and they are careful not

The Separation Wall in Palestine: Artists Love to Hate It | 101


to take action that accepts its presence. Thus, the challenge is to find ways of acting against the wall without strengthening and confirming it. The early forms of artistic expression on the wall were political graffiti denouncing the wall. For example, in 2002, shortly after construction of the first stage of the wall on the border of the town of Qalkiliya, a huge photocopy illustration of hands holding prison bars illustrating the town behind the wall as a giant prison were hung by a group of artists activists.6 In this first action on the wall to my knowledge, the activists approached the wall with great fear, since it was not clear what the military’s response would be. The illustration was used not only to communicate a message to drivers passing by the wall, but also as a pretense for people to walk up to the wall and learn the dangers for those approaching it. It is always safer to approach military facilities with art, glue, and spray cans than with explosives, cutters, or even banners with political slogans. All participants in the action were Israeli citizens and they approached the wall from the Israeli side. The action went smoothly. Following that, graffiti writing and murals coming from the wall-painting traditions of Berlin and Belfast began popping up all around where the wall was built. The paintings were on many different levels, from naïve and primitive to professional writers and muralists who came from around the world from such places as the United States, Mexico, and Italy. Creative Resistance As the Barrier went up, resistance to it was established on all levels. Committees of local residents and direct action groups of Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists were established in response to the construction and the land confiscation that followed (such as Pengon, Anarchist Against the wall, Taayush, and Gush-Shalom). The Israeli and international groups worked in cooperation with Palestinians in a joint non-violent struggle against the occupation and the wall. The struggles involved demonstrations, marches, and direct action against the barrier structures as well as a media campaign in Israel/Palestine and worldwide. With time, creative ways of resistance and artistic and theatrical strategies were introduced and became tactics that were used often in the struggle. This practice became especially notable in the village of Bilin, located in the west of Ramallah, where there have been weekly demonstrations against the fence built on their land for over three years. The village’s popular committee creates installations and sculptures as a regular part of the struggle. Each weekly demonstration has a specific theme, usually relating to relevant historical or contemporary events, and sometimes is geared toward specific groups such as children, women, and handicapped persons. Occasionally, dramatic theatrical performance marches are used to dramatize the current situation of the village and its suffering from the wall and the occupation, such as a giant snake model eating up the land. Creative direct action is also used, for example, demonstrators

102 | Ronen Eidelman


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 95–114

locking themselves inside an iron cage with sheep to demonstrate that live stock are also suffering from the land loss, or demonstrators stuffing themselves into barrels symbolizing the holding on to the land. While these actions aim to symbolically show the effects of the wall in the daily lives of the villagers, they simultaneously aim to halt the work on the barrier and delay construction. This kind of creative resistance emerged for several reasons. From an early stage, it was clear that the chances of stopping the building of the wall physically on the ground were slim, but still at every demonstration there is an attempt to reach the route of the fence and block the work. This action is answered with rubber bullets, tear gas, and other weapons of crowd dispersal. The demonstrators cannot succeed in making it to the route because of the fierce military opposition, but by persisting every week to try to make it to the wall, they can capture the public’s attention to their struggle and hope that public pressure can halt the work. Therefore, the demonstrators were interested in as much media attention as possible in order to get their message out to as many people as possible. Quickly they realized that they must bring something new to each demonstration in order to keep media attention. Otherwise, the demonstrations would become repetitive and the media would lose interest. Also, by bringing an artistic and theatrical element to the demonstrations, the protesters hoped to lower the violent response of the Israeli military and police.

Demonstration in Bilin, 2006, photo: Activestills Oren Ziv/activestills.org

The Separation Wall in Palestine: Artists Love to Hate It | 103


“Lock-ons” displayed as art objects in Minshar gallery, 2006. Photo: Courtesy of Minshar Gallery

Moreover, this kind of resistance drew a more absurd picture of the military’s actions. A soldier destroying a sculpture or a policeman beating a man dressed as a house can rarely come out looking good. The creative resistance not only worked to attract media attention, but also made the demonstrations more attractive to the demonstrators themselves, both from the village, from other villages, and from Israel and elsewhere. People looked forward to seeing what the village would come up with the following week. This creative and artistic expression also had a strong effect on the perception of the Palestinian struggle, turning the image of the Palestinian activist upside down: from a violent one to a non-violent creative popular struggle. Referring to Jacques Rancière’s (2006) take on the relationship between aesthetics and politics, in her paper Moulding Resistance: Aesthetics and Politics in the Struggle of Bil’in Against the wall, Noa Roei describes this perceptive reversal: … the demonstrators’ use of artistic form becomes more than a media attentiongrabber. The sculpture-objects become the tools through which the clear “division of labour” between the oppressors and the oppressed collapse, and the existing “distribution of the sensible” is reconceived. The demonstrators break through the boundaries of their social identities, as they manifest themselves as occupied people and as free artists at the same time. They assert their right to belong to a world that includes

104 | Ronen Eidelman


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 95–114

leisure time for contemplation; they assert their right to voice their claims not only as occupied people but also as men and women of the world (forthcoming). In March 2006, the Minshar Gallery in Tel Aviv held a show with objects used in the demonstration. Uzi Tzur, an art critic for Haartez newspaper, was exited by this act. Bringing the objects to the gallery space and displaying them as sculptures on the verge of the abstract, incommunicado from the place and from the activity, created an infiltration of single political atoms to a protected art space. Akin to a Trojan horse distributing black energy of political resistance, this exhibition indeed contained a great energy (Tzur). This act of the Minshar gallery was quite contradictory. On one hand, it was a political act, bringing the struggle of the Bilin village to Tel Aviv, perceived as the cultural and financial heart of Israel. On the other, it aestheticized a genuine political struggle and turned tools of resistance to art pieces in a white cube. Muhamad Khatib, the head of the Bilin popular committee who was responsible for many of the installations, does not refer to himself an artist; he does not see the objects he created as art, and is only interested in the political aspects of the show. He states that the “power and beauty of these tools that I made are expressed at the demonstration itself. Only there they are art in my eye” (Gilerman). But he is willing to collaborate with the gallery to make his struggle as widely known as possible. Oded Yedaya, the curator of the exhibition, is also interested in the political power of the show, but also sees it as “art that stands on its own as art” (Gilerman). He is aware of the artistic tradition of taking non-art objects and making them art by placing them in the gallery and also understands that the “original” meaning—the objects as political tools of resistance against oppression—can be lost in this act. He contends that “maybe the transfer of the objects to the art field cancels some power, but it energizes them with intellectual power. People disregard this, but it is worth a lot, on a political level but also on the aspect of the meaning it gives to life” (Gilerman). “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home” In his book about the Berlin wall, The wall Speaks, Rainer Hildebrandt addresses the pursuit of the artist through art to prevail over the wall. He writes, The Quest is still on for the great work of art that will overcome the wall. Yet something different occurred: the wall became interesting and worthwhile visiting and being mulled over and also fatal for its constructer, and all this without accusation by picture or the spoken word. And yet this incentive to artistic achievement was made possible only through the erection of a monumental Wall of the fourth generation with juxtaposed concrete plates and inlaid tubes atop (Hildebrant). According to Hildebrandt, the engineers of the GDR actually created the opportunity for the Berlin wall as an artistic piece by making it architecturally comfortable for

The Separation Wall in Palestine: Artists Love to Hate It | 105


artists to work on it. Joseph Beuys, who died in 1986 before the fall of the Berlin wall, satirized the Berlin wall in 1964 by suggesting that it should be raised by five centimeters, “for better proportion,” (Poerksen) as he put it. Bernhard Poerksen refers to Beuys’s suggestion as an act of “subversion by an irritation.” Joseph Beuys does not negate the wall; he affirms its existence, but insists on a need for a small correction. Like a therapist trained in the use of paradoxical intervention, he recognizes the symptoms and the problem (the wall), even reinforces it somehow, but at the same time quietly shifts our attention in the direction of the envisaged treatment: the ideological consciousness that made the wall possible in the first place must be dissolved, the concrete in the minds must be softened (Poerksen). In his project “BuyTheWall.com,” Yoav Weis, an Israeli artist, sells pieces of the separation wall and relates that to the merchandising of pieces of the Berlin wall after its fall. He states, Pieces of the wall are sure to become highly desirable souvenirs when Israel, which has acknowledged that the wall is temporary, eventually dismantles it. Moreover, like the Berlin wall, it is already covered with graffiti, some of them by established artists. It is worth noting that those sections of the Berlin wall that were so decorated were the first to sell and fetched the highest prices.7 Like Beuys’s suggestion, Weis emphasizes the cynical aspects of the systems we live in by exaggerating the logic of these systems, but of course, without acknowledging that they are not serious. Question: Is this a joke? Answer: Hardly. Money is never funny and neither is the wall. Question: Is this a protest against the wall? Answer: Absolutely not. I’m just trying to make a buck.8 One could make the wall even more visible. Art can bring attention to the crimes of the construction of the wall not by fighting its existence, but through artistic acts (even cynical ones) that use the architecture of the wall to highlight and publicize its presence. Weiss is also linking to the fetishistic place the wall has taken in political art and culture. The art in Bilin is used as a tactic, combined with other tactics to sustain and enrich the struggle, but in many cases, the art/artist dealing with the wall has much less clear intentions. In 2005, Banksy, a famous British street artist, made a trip to the West Bank, where he painted massive images of escape and freedom on the sections of the wall in the area of Jerusalem and Ramallah. The pieces themselves—scissors cutting the wall, ladders, windows that look out at idyllic scenery, a girl floating by clutching

106 | Ronen Eidelman


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 95–114

Yoav Weis, BuyTheWall.com, 2007. Photo: courtesy of the artist

balloons—are very powerful and esthetically beautiful. They are huge in scope, many of them are mixed media, their vision is simple and convey a message of human freedom, and have Banksy’s characteristic humor. Banksy, who has a large fan base, used his work to make political statements such as: “The wall is illegal under international law and essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison,” but also called the wall “the ultimate activity holiday destination for graffiti writers.”9 Galit Eilat, the director of the Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon, told The Jerusalem Post, commenting on Banksy’s work, that while she is constantly approached by both Israeli and foreign artists interested in creating works related to the security barrier, she holds a rather cynical view about their effect. “There’s a phrase we use,” she said, “about how everyone can make a living off the occupation— building contractors as well as artists. The wall is like a gigantic canvas that receives everything that is applied to it. But the wall is no reason for a celebration.” According to Eilat, while some would argue that artwork on or along the wall underscores its presence and thus constitutes a critique of it, “The Palestinians don’t need its presence underscored for them” (Halkin). Banksy himself relates to this problem of his unwelcome intervention. He records on his website how an old Palestinian man said his

The Separation Wall in Palestine: Artists Love to Hate It | 107


Painting of Banksy on the wall near Ramallah. Anne Paq/activestills.org

painting made the wall look beautiful. Banksy thanked him, only to be told: “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home.”10 Trying to make the wall transparent “Artists without Walls” is a group of approximately 20 Israeli and Palestinian artists who have “come together to create a forum for dialogue between individuals engaged in all fields of art and culture . . . Through nonviolent and creative actions, ‘Artists Without Walls’ will seek to eradicate the lines of separation and the rhetoric of alienation and racism.”11 One of the projects of the artists, attempting to negotiate the dilemma that Galit Eilat, who is a member of the group, raised, took place on April 1, 2004 in Jerusalem’s Abu Dis neighborhood. Two video cameras filmed what is happening on both sides of the wall, and the material filmed by each of them was screened at the same time on the other side of the fence. In this way, on each side of the wall, one saw scenes from the other side, and the wall became “transparent” for several hours. At first, the group considered screening various works on the wall, but this idea was rejected in the belief that using the wall as a backdrop implies approval of its existence. For a few hours, we will operate jointly, we will see and speak to one another, the physical obstacles will be overcome, and the residents of Abu Dis will be able to see what is happening on the other side of the wall.12

108 | Ronen Eidelman


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 95–114

Abu Dis, 2004. Two video cameras filmed what is happening on both sides of the wall, and the material filmed by each of them will be screened at the same time on the other side of the fence.

While this idea could be seen as an artistic aesthetic exercise, working in the group with the participation of local residents raised the political and ethical elements of the action. “Artists Without Walls” was created to give voice to the injustice done to the Palestinians living on the other side of the wall. And this action was possible only through the local Palestinian residents’ teamwork with the visiting Israelis to create a political and artistic achievement of both voiding the wall’s material existence by digital means and illustrating its monstrous presence. However, the artist were very aware of the thin line they were walking on. There is a danger in opening a window in the wall, for ultimately what we want and what we came together for, is to do away with the wall altogether […] the wall is merely an expression, in a concrete form, of what is already there, a high degree of segregation and wish for separation, a mentality, a feeling which is widely present in the public […] so to work against the wall means working against this, changing the mentality […] the question is what it means to work against it, in both publics, both the Palestinian and the Israeli […] it means to know that public, and to know how to bring the issue of nonseparation in a way that still moves them.13 Against the wall not at the wall There are many exhibitions and projects dealing with the wall, some of them present purely a documentation of the situation, while others work as an artistic political act. “Three Cities Against the wall” is an exhibition protesting the Separation Wall which involved groups of artists in Ramallah, Palestine; Tel Aviv, Israel; and New York City. The show was held in all three countries in November 2005. Through this

The Separation Wall in Palestine: Artists Love to Hate It | 109


Three Cities Against the wall, beit Ha-Omanim, Tel Aviv, 2005. Photos: coutesy of the exhibition collective

collaborative exhibition, the organizers, of which I was a part, and participating artists aimed to draw attention to the reality of the wall and its disastrous effect on daily life. By using the classic and clearly understood medium of an exhibition, we felt that the artists could use the wall as a metaphor to educate the public. We believed that artists from the various countries working together and uniting voices were more likely to be heard and would therefore be better able to inform people about the true nature of this catastrophic situation. The wall was made to separate and, through this project, we were coming together. The exhibition intended to demonstrate the fact that, within the Israeli and the American public, there is opposition to the wall. Over sixty artists participated in the show and it was very interesting to observe the different approaches of the artists from the various countries. The American artists made very straightforward art, making clear statements against the wall and, in most of their work, using visual elements of the wall in the art work. Several pieces appeared to be demonstrating the artist’s duty to convince the viewer that the wall really exists. Other works can be seen through Middle Eastern eyes as almost banal. The Israeli artist made work that was ironic, witty but also sad, creating a feeling of despair and pessimism. The artists related to the more general conflictual and violent situation they are living in, and in most cases, did not relate directly to the wall.

110 | Ronen Eidelman


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 95–114

The Palestinian artists, on the other hand, almost did not deal with the wall or even the occupation. Most of their works were abstract and expressionist paintings. In most cases, the works were very much in a classic artistic tradition and expressed Palestinian culture more than a direct political statement. In the catalog of the exhibition, theorist Lin Chalozin-Dovrat explores these differences: An additional look at the works of the exhibition reveals that “things that are seen from here are not necessarily seen from there.” Palestinian art does not deal with the banalization of evil. Those who are locked up on the other side of the wall are not able to see it as banal. The state of things in which the roles of occupier and occupied are played in a certain banal routine does not seem banal to Palestinians. The mechanism of the anxiety of banality is not relevant to them either because in a situation where the struggle for freedom of movement and for economic welfare is a daily fact, it is not likely that one has time to grapple with the meaning of images. The Palestinian society has not yet realized its legitimate aim for self-government along with its dubious hope to maintain a democratic-capitalistic government that will exhaust its opponents by imposing an atmosphere of political indifference. In this state of affairs art and resistance have different roles (Chalozin-Dovrat). Chalozin-Dovrat argues that Palestinians use classic artistic tradition because political art would be too prosaic for them. An art exhibition is not a tool of resistance; it could be used to publicize the struggle and its reasons, but it is a practice separate from the political resistance. One could also argue that Israeli or international artists are inspired by the wall and Palestinian artists stick to their classic artistic expressions, because the wall is attractive for artists who do not have to live with its results. It is not appealing for the Palestinians, not only because it is banal as Chalozin-Dovrat puts it, but also rather too real and horrible to deal with in an artistic way. The reality of the wall can only be sexy for artists not affected, and those who have the emotional distance from it can much more easily be creative about it. “We Passion Power and Control” Artists from Israel, Palestine, and all around the world had many projects and works dealing with and relating to the wall. In this paper, I attempted to demonstrate a small scope of what has been created in the last few years since the beginning of the construction of the wall. Most of the projects and artworks are critical of the Israeli government’s construction of the wall and oppose the barrier project; some as we have seen in Bilin are used as actual physical tools in the struggle. Different approaches and strategies are used and the discussion of how one should relate to the wall with one’s artistic practice is raised by each work. But not only humanitarian and political motives can be attracting so many artists to the wall. There are many aspects to the occupation of Palestine, and many other humanitarian disasters and political crimes in the Middle East and elsewhere that one can deal with.

The Separation Wall in Palestine: Artists Love to Hate It | 111


So the reasons as to why artists are choosing mostly to work on the wall must be examined. Obviously, the wall has unique features, yet it is also part of a larger world phenomenon. We see the walls going up faster than it takes to plan an art exhibit, and these walls are not only going up in Palestine: these Berlin Walls of the twenty-first century are being built on the US-Mexico border, in the North African enclaves of Ceute and Melilla, in Ukraine and other eastern borders of the European Union, and also in our cities, in gated communities between the neighborhoods of the rich and poor, and between the people and the structures of governments and corporations everywhere. Yet since the wall in Palestine is so extremely visual, its presence is so strong that one cannot ignore it, its power is also extremely attractive. Mushon ZerAviv, an Israeli artist living in New York whose work revolves around public space and technology, sees this desire as a driving force of artistic creation: We Passion Power and Control, the dark desires of art under surveillance, Artists create through jealousy of authoritative powers and the desire to posses these powers themselves . . .14 There is a constant love/hate relationship between artists and power. On one hand, we want “to protest against them,” “to raise awareness,” “to reveal the injustices,” but on the other hand, we simply envy that power, we WANT to posses the power of surveillance, we protest against it, both because we think it is wrong and because we actually wish WE had this enormous power at our disposal. I observed a similar thing happen at the “Three Cities Against the wall” exhibition (where Less Rain studio and I presented “Graffiti Studio: Separation Wall”). Artists cried against the separation wall Israel is building in the West Bank but many works actually longed for that power. There was a certain hidden desire kind of saying, “I wish I could build such an extraordinary spectacle.”15 The Israeli government built the greatest and most expensive structure in the young state’s history. This construction affects the lives of millions, altering their use of space and time. It is changing the geographical, ecological, social, and political status of the whole region in ways we cannot yet even conceive. As artists and architects, we stand powerless against it, trying to expose it, hide it, cover it, open it, or even bring it down. But we cannot deny our smallness in comparison to it and therefore we are so attracted to it.

112 | Ronen Eidelman


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 95–114

Works Cited Abramsom, Larry, “Artist Statement,” Three cities against the wall: Ramallah/Tel Aviv/New York. Exhibition catalogue, Vox Pop, 2006, p. 18. Btselem report, Separation Barrier Statistics. 30 April 2006. Chalozin-Dovrat, Lin. “On the struggle against the anxiety of banality,” Three cities against the wall: Ramallah/Tel Aviv/New York. Exhibition catalogue, Vox Pop, 2006, p. 10. Gilerman, Dana. “Art of Struggle,” Haaretz, 28 March 2006. ———. “Trying to make the wall transparent,” Haaretz, 1 April 2004. Halkin, Talya. “UK graffiti artist tags wall,” The Jerusalem Post, 10.8.05. Hildebrant, Rainer. “Die Mauer Spricht/The wall Speaks,” Verlag Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, 1982. Israeli defense ministry official website Israel’s Security Fence, official website: http://www.securityfence.mod.gov.il/Pages/ ENG/default.htm

Poerksen, Bernhard. “Learning how to learn,” Kybernetes 34, 2005. Reeves, Phil. “The Broader Picture: Side issues,” The Independent, 23 June 2002. Roei, Noa. “Molding Resistance: Aesthetics and Politics in the Struggle of Bil’in Against the wall.” In Mieke Bal and Miguel Hernandez-Navarro (eds.), Politics of Living: In Migratory Culture, Amsterdam: Rodopi. (forthcoming). ⬍http:// home.medewerker.uva.nl/m.g.bal/bestanden/ Roei%20Noa%20paper%20Moulding%20 Resistance%20READER%20OPMAAK.pdf⬎ Shapira, Sarit. CIMAM confrence Jerusalem 1999. Extracts from the Working Session “Art in Divided Communities”, http://www.cimam.org/ arxius/recursos/Jerusalem_Working_Sessions_ 1999.pdf Tzur, Uzi. “‫הביבס‬ March 2006.

‫תושפנ תשפחמ תילוסיפ‬,” Haaretz,

Weizman, Eyal. “Ariel Sharon and the Geometry of Occupation,” 9 September 2003 ⬍openDemocracy.net⬎.

Notes 1. The choice of words and names one uses when referring to the wall is controversial. The Palestinians and many opponents of the wall call it the “Apartheid Wall” and “The Racist Wall,” while the Israeli government and its supporters call it the “security barrier” or “fence.” The common Neutral name is the “separation barrier” and the words fence or wall are used according to the location one is referring to. 2. Btselem report, Separation Barrier Statistics. ⬍http://www.btselem.org/english/Separation_ Barrier/Statistics.asp⬎. 3. ⬍http://www.securityfence.mod.gov.il/ Pages/ENG/questions.htm⬎.

4. The Israeli defense ministry official website. 5. Text for exhibition. LIMINAL SPACES/ grenzraeume. GfZK Leipzig, 28 October 2006– 21 January 2007. 6. People from this group established the “Anarchist Against the wall” direct action group. The writer of this paper participated in the action. 7. ⬍www.Buythewall.com⬎. 8. Frequently asked questions, ⬍www.Buythewall.com⬎.

The Separation Wall in Palestine: Artists Love to Hate It | 113


9. ⬍www.banksy.co.uk/⬎. 10. ⬍www.banksy.co.uk/⬎. 11. ⬍http://pia.omweb.org/modules/news/.⬎ 12. ⬍http://pia.omweb.org/modules/news./⬎

114 | Ronen Eidelman

13. Artists without Walls, April 1, 2004. press release. 14. Skype discussion with author. 15. ⬍http://www.we-make-money-not-art.com/ archives/009262.php⬎.


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 115–136

Breaking Out of the Specialist “Ghetto”: Performative Encounters as Participatory Praxis in Radical Politics Anja Kanngieser

The cumulative effect of dozens of groups transforming regional culture and daily life along the lines of aesthetic avant-gardes could well prepare the majority to take control of their lives —Katsiaficas 230. I open with this comment from George Katsiaficas as it gestures toward the potential of a cultural aesthetic trajectory often relegated to the peripheries of political conversation. Why this relegation occurs is unclear: perhaps it is because creative interventions in the realm of politics have a tendency to be dismissed as frivolous. Or perhaps it is because the political velocities within aesthetic strategizing have long been overshadowed by the canonization of artistic insurrection. Whatever the reasons, closer examination reveals a situation quite to the contrary. Possibly even preceding the avant-gardes, there has been a distinctly militant political flair to specific modalities of aesthetic and performative intervention. This essay examines one such modality, which I will refer to as a “performative encounter,” through two movements, the Berlin Dadaists (1918–1923) and the Situationist International (1957–1972), and some of the German Umsonst (for free) campaigns (2003–). It does so in order to illuminate the political potential that such creative encounters instantiate by opening up new lines of communication and participation. In the case of the Dadaists, this certain political flair presented itself through none moreso than self-proclaimed Oberdada Johannes Baader. Baader took as his prerogative the incessant disruption of political bureaucratic apparatuses to ensure the generation of maximum publicity for the Dada project. Recalling his experiences in the movement, Hans Richter retells the story of Baader’s protest against the inauguration

Breaking Out of the Specialist “Ghetto” | 115


of the Weimar Republic in 1919. Opposed to the further consolidation of German state and military power, Baader announced his opposition at the Weimar National Assembly. Declaring himself representative of the Central Dada Council of the World Revolution, Baader attacked the attending members, comparing Weimar to the Stations of the Cross. Following his denunciations of the German state, he proceeded to distribute a pamphlet entitled Das Grüne Pferd (the Green Horse), printed with the slogan “Dadaists against Weimar,” to members of the assembly. In the furor that followed, Baader was dragged from the parliament by police, while simultaneously hurling the pamphlets into the assembly and press boxes (Foster 9). In an effort to consolidate his actions, three days following the event, Baader took to the streets proclaiming the Socialist candidate, Philip Scheidemann, as the Ehrendada (honorary Dada). Like their Dadaist predecessors, early interventions of the Situationist International (S.I.) used performative tactics to disrupt conditions reproductive of capitalist relations of alienation and exploitation.1 These actions took place around the time when the French faction began to conceptualize what it termed the “constructed situation.” Motivated by their heritage from the avant-gardes, the early members of S.I. were outraged by what they perceived to be the hijacking of aesthetic experience by economic markets and cultural capitalizations. In 1958, a section of the group (including S.I. co-founder Guy Debord) decided to sabotage the “International Assembly of Art Critics” in Belgium. The group issued a statement condemning the event for its institutionalization and commercialization of art, and called for the uprising of new and subversive aesthetic ideologies. A direct offensive was launched in which the attending critics were bombarded with the mass circulation of the protesting text. S.I. insurgents handed out copies, read the text over the phone, and forced their way into the Press Club throwing pamphlets into the crowd. Leaflets were also thrown from building windows and cars. Police were called, the text was banned from being reprinted by the press, and members of the group were later threatened with prosecution (Situationst International, Action in Belgium). Around a half-century after the Situationists proposed the “constructed situation” as a means to invoke “real individual fulfillment” through the “collective takeover of the world” (Preliminary Problems), campaigners with Berlin Umsonst (Berlin for free), in solidarity with other European groups, were taking over the public transport system. Under the slogan “Alles für alle, und zwar umsonst!” (everything for everyone, and for free!), the “Pinker Punkt” (Pink Point—Ride for Free) offensive of 2005 was a response to the re-structurization of student discount cards and the fare increase (Berlin Umsonst, Interview). The campaign began with the mass printing and distribution of fake transport tickets, topographically identical to the original bearing the Berlin Umsonst propaganda replacing the instructions for use. This was succeeded by a sustained sticker and information operation, which climaxed with the occupation of trains and encouragement of the public to travel on city transport without paying.

116 | Anja Kanngieser


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 115–136

As part of the attempt to make the action less alienating to a broader public, the titling of the action, Pinker Punkt, attempted to redefine the practice of “schwarzfahren” (riding black/fare-dodging) by queering its racist and criminal associations. To facilitate free group travel, central gathering spots were set up at various train stations. In Berlin, participation fluctuated heavily from around three to over fifty people traveling together for free over the course of weeks (Berlin Umsonst, Email). Each group traveling had experienced members with them who had strategies to deal with legal issues, and participants were repeatedly informed of their rights and given instructions on what to do in order to minimize any anxiety about state repression. Passengers on the trains were also made aware of the action, so as not to cause discomfort if inspectors confronted the travelers. After the encounters had taken place, campaigners planned a fundraising event to cover the costs of the fines incurred, so as to further strengthen a spirit of solidarity and community (Eshelman). These three (non-metonymic) examples begin to illustrate what I call the “performative encounter.” Beyond their singularities as events—divergent in terms of campaign focus, objective, political ideology, and sub-cultural identification—these instances converge around an ethic central to the praxis form. They purport a certain aesthetic, creative, and affective modality predicated on the desire for emancipation and self-determination. This is enabled through principles of active participation and reciprocal communication. Departing from what is commonly understood as a typical political platform, this modality may be seen as the kind of activity that Brian Massumi speaks of when he calls for “an aesthetic politics” whose “aim would be to expand the range of affective potential” (235). Massumi’s pronouncement for the need of such aesthetic politics corresponds to consternation around the question of specialization coming from within the radical “left” milieu. Essays such as Andrew X’s infamous “Give up Activism,” Autonome A.F.R.I.K.A Gruppe’s “Communication Guerrilla—Transversality in Everyday Life?,” and Angela Mitropoulos and Brett Neilson’s “On the Borders of the Political—At the Borders of Activism” have all directed attention to the impasses plaguing political organizing. They argue that contemporary forms of organizing, despite intentions otherwise, often still reproduce hierarchies of identification between “activists” as specialists or experts and “nonactivists” (the public) as the unenlightened “masses.”2 In this context, Massumi’s proposal for a performative politics capable of breaking the systematic reliance upon “the hardening of division along identity lines” (235) associated with forms of political organization predicated on ideological doctrines or hierarchies of participation, becomes a potential line of flight from the specialist (in this case artist/activist) “ghetto.” But how might such an aesthetic political praxis be thought about given its multiplicitous forms of manifestation? One point of entry is the performative encounter introduced in the three instances above. In order to reveal the significance

Breaking Out of the Specialist “Ghetto” | 117


of this form to an experience of participatory, affective, and imaginative political action, it is imperative to begin by outlining what the characteristics of such an encounter might be. In terms of performance, such encounters utilize affective maneuvers such as a deliberate use of humor and pleasure, and are performative in the sense of a creative event that brings into being a particular ambiance. All three also indicate a distancing from aesthetic institutions: the avant-gardes consciously reject the dyadic relationship between art and life, and the Umsonst campaigns move away from such categorical semiotics entirely. This is reflected in the materialization of the encounter as ambiguous in identity, which is triggered by the use of quotidian realms or contexts conventionally disassociated from aesthetic activity. Furthermore, essential to such encounters is a quite militant engagement (replete with a criticism of the state, state law, and bureaucratic mechanisms) in socio-political struggle through the communication of resistance as an alternative to repressive conditions. This compels principles of public participation and reciprocity and is underpinned by a belief in the capacity of each individual (not just specialists) to instigate and propel change. However, it is not enough to acknowledge similarities across these historically different encounters. It is through the mutations and re-evaluations of the performative encounter that it becomes possible to uncover the viability of such tactics for political insurrection. The legacy of such practice has been long, and crucial changes have occurred in relation to organization, intentionality, and ontology. From these vicissitudes, we can ascertain the ways in which the form has developed into its present actualization. Therefore, it is necessary to map out these changes so as to unravel how the relationship of artist/activist to spectator/public has been reconfigured from the avant-gardes conception of the “public” as audience of the encounter, the Situationists as participants in the encounter, and in campaigns such as Umsonst as constituents of the encounter. In looking at this changing relationship, and addressing how it affects the political operation of the encounter, some possible directions are offered for further experimentation with present and future modes of creative political engagement. To elementarily sketch out the (non-paradigmatic) contours of the encounter, we might begin with the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, specifically the Berlin Dadaists who came together during the end of the First World War. The concept of Dada was brought to Berlin in February 1917 with Richard Huelsenbeck’s return from Zurich after the demise of the Cabaret Voltaire (Willett 230). Departing from the predominantly “aesthetic revolt” of the Zurich movement, the Berlin Dada group was immersed in political activity from its advent (Richter 101–103). The shattered climate of Berlin provided an influential setting for a movement comprised significantly of vocal anti-war activists such as Franz Jung and Raoul Hausmann, and affiliates of the German Spartacist Group (later the KPD) George Grosz, Erwin Piscator, John

118 | Anja Kanngieser


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 115–136

Heartfield, and Wieland Herzfelde. Already engaged with the publication and distribution of left-wing periodicals such as Die Freie Strasse (1915) and the Neue Jugend (1916), the possibility of the further merging of the political with the aesthetic was seen as vital to revolutionary mobilization (Willett 28–29). From the outset, the Berlin Dadaists made clear their disgust for the German bourgeois idolization of art, culture, and idealism. According to Huelsenbeck, this was because it served to keep the populace on its knees in the worship of some transcendental “great spirit” with their faces turned away from the turmoil on the streets (Harrison and Wood 260). In response to what they saw as the troubling ineffectiveness of art to critically intervene in these conditions, they aspired toward the creation of an aesthetic capable of viscerally interacting with the socio-political sphere. This was announced through their rejection of conventional creative modes in favor of new assemblages of aesthetic forms. Live events or performative encounters—the Dada “outrages”—were considered one such means in the reaffirmation of the political dimension to art. Anarchistic performances by the group, such as that of Baader introduced previously, enacted the maelstrom of the political through the aesthetic, presenting “their content through the structure of outside, non-art events rather than to represent[ing] the world’s events through traditional art genres” (Foster 5). These events were conceived to embody the immediacy of the quotidian and incorporated agitational manifestos, “pure-onomatopoetic or vowel-sound,” nonsensical and simultaneous actions, provocative interactions with their spectators, cabaret, cinema, improvisation and “anti-illusionist scenic design” (Gordon 114). As Stephen Foster argues, the performance event was thus seen by the Dadists as a liminal moment acting to rupture the everyday narrative to bring about some sort of change (3–11). This tactic was effectively used by the Dadaists as a means for communicating their dissent in an interactive way. According to Foster, the event acted for avantgarde artists as an “instrument for achieving, in reality or by illusion, a positioning of themselves and their audiences in a hostile and self-destructive world and as a potential instrument of change” (3). The negation of previous representational modes in favor of the performative encounter was premised upon its determination as a medium through which to immediately challenge socio-political consciousness and ideological persuasion. The selfconception of the Berlin Dadaists as artists of the revolution was unequivocally fuelled by their identification with the uprising of the Bolsheviks and the triumph of early Soviet communism. This equivocation went further than mere rhetoric; as Huelsenbeck announced in his 1920 manifesto with typical Dada élan, Dada is German Bolshevism. The bourgeois must be deprived of the opportunities to “buy up art for his justification.” Art should altogether get a sound thrashing, and Dada stands for the thrashing with all the vehemence of its limited nature (Harrison and Wood 262)

Breaking Out of the Specialist “Ghetto” | 119


Inspired by Lenin’s (1902) vanguard—those professional revolutionaries and working-class militants necessary to lead and organize the masses into revolt—the Dadaists considered themselves the aesthetic vanguard of the people. Artists were considered essential figures to the provocation of a revolutionary consciousness and desire for emancipation through their creative medium. This did not mean that they understood themselves as being outside this multitude in any way. Rather, the Berlin Dadaists saw themselves as embedded within, and in service of, the revolution. From this identification, the project of the Berlin Dadaists was underpinned by a paradox: their role as provocateurs of social consciousness (as specialists in change), simultaneous with their desire to amalgamate the aesthetic realm and everyday struggles and thus end their autonomous delineation. While negating conventional aesthetic relationships through denouncement of the autonomous organic artwork, unequivocally politicizing the avant-garde artwork, and developing the interventional dimension of the aesthetic for the political, the Berlin Dada initiative did not fulfill its desire for the subsumption of the aesthetic into the quotidian. Art did not become correlative to political life. Instead, the strength of the Dadaist project as one intent on the decomposition of the institutionalization of art, surmises aesthetic philosopher Gerald Raunig, lay more in the way in which it […] subjected production conditions to an examination with the desiring-machine, igniting a cheerful deterritorialisation beyond all territorialities of nation and party with its anti-militarist, internationalist, anarchic practice. As long as it undertook this risk within the framework of the strongest attacks on art and under threat of beatings or forced labor for artists specifically within the manageable and limited spaces of art, it remained successful (2007: 24). Thus, while the transgressive mobilizations of the Dadaists were regaled for their aesthetic instrumentality, their political transgressions were met with less enthusiasm. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wryly concluded “politics is not the strongest facet of the Dadaists” (1983: 148). The steady recuperation of aberrant artistic gestures back into the canon of the aesthetic institution led, for the Dadaists as with much of the avant-garde, to the foreclosure of any significant intervention into the field of politics through artistic entropy. Their highly publicized nihilism and their self-promoted elevation as revolutionary artists and vanguards made them easy targets for the machinations of fetishization and cultural capitalization. From the perception of Berlin Dada as the l’enfant terrible of the avant-garde, in conjunction with the impasses around their contradictory political subject position, it is not difficult to discern how and why slippages between their political and social ideal, and its realization, occurred. Some of these idiosyncrasies found themselves obliquely addressed in the movement of the Situationist International (S.I.) over three decades later. Where the Berlin Dadaists consolidated their objectives around the sublation of art into life,

120 | Anja Kanngieser


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 115–136

the S.I. sought the supersession of both into a new environment. For the S.I.—intent on avoiding an uncritical perpetuation of the avant-gardist paradigm—it was the “purely negative program” of Dada that precipitated its demise through its rejection of any affirmative or even mutable revolutionary ontology. The wholly reactionary nihilism of Dada was considered (initially) strategically necessary, but fundamentally untenable by the S.I. They declared the positive composition of radical subjectivities and non-ideological, a-hierarchical experiential modalities vital to the propagation of emancipatory states (Vaneigem; Situationist International, Debord Report and Editorial). Unlike the Berlin Dadaists who were explicit in their solidarity with the Bolshevik struggle, the S.I. detected principles of separation underpinning Lenin’s structures of organization. The organizational autocracy of Soviet-inspired communism generated in the Situationists a virulent disregard for reformist Party apparatuses such as those of the PCF, CGT (the French Communist Party and its labor union) and their associates. The deviation of Situationist operative models from such structures was asserted through their experimentation with creative and aesthetic strategies. These aspired toward the liberation of desire and processes of subjectivation from what Guy Debord referred to as the society of the spectacle. This concept described for Debord the way in which the relations between images were progressively replacing intersubjective relationships between individuals and collective bodies (and vice versa) as cultural and social experience became circulated in a regime of commodities. Thus, the spectacle acted to mediate social relations between individuals, isolating them from everyday life much in the same way that capitalist economy isolates the producer from the commodity and its dissemination. This conceptualization signified a migration of Marx’s theories of alienation underpinning processes of production/ consumption into the terrain of everyday relationships. For Debord, separation reigned as “the alpha and omega” of quotidian experience dominated by spectacular alienation (1983: 8). Moreover, the pervasive nature of the spectacle led Debord to conclude that it is not some state removed from that of reality, but rather a constituent of that reality. As he wrote, “the spectacle, grasped in its totality, is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production. It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society” (1983: 2). This colonization of daily life inherent to modern capitalistic production could only be superseded for the S.I. through emancipatory self-determination by the individual and collective social body. From their early inceptions, the Situationists considered one of their “central purposes” the construction of situations as intervention into this mechanism of subjugation and alienation (Debord, 2004: 44). The constructed situation was defined in 1958 as “a moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and game of events”

Breaking Out of the Specialist “Ghetto” | 121


(Situationist International, 1981: 45). It was a proposition for the deterritorialization of the spectacle and a reinvigoration of desire from its reification by capitalism. From the descriptions formulated by Debord on the spectacle, it is apparent why the Situationists held the opinion that it would be through the experimentation with new modalities of behaviour and relationality through participation, reciprocity, and interaction that the spectacle could be destabilized. The equivocation of the spectacle with the very processes constituent of contemporary experience under capitalism implied that only the most fundamental rupture of this, as was possible through the “constructed situation” could, as William McClure writes, “generate and sustain social forms and structures of value independent of relations instituted under the society of the spectacle” (np). The Situationists themselves, however, offered little in the way of elucidation in their many texts and bulletins on what kind of praxis might comprise such situations. Tactics of the dérive (drifting) and détournement (linguistic and semiotic subversion) were widely upheld as instances of such events.3 For the Situationists, these were means of taking aesthetic and creative practice from beyond the institutions and galleries into the social realm, into the cities and onto the streets, disrupting the familiar ways of interaction (typified by passive, isolated inter-subjective encounters and desires subjugated into commodity fetishism) with conceptualization for new spatio-temporal experiences (Debord, 1983: 35–54). Debord argued that such new experiences could only occur if all individuals were singularly conscious of their participation in experiential governance. The Situationists saw this as a necessary move away from the tendency of non-intervention (as reiterated in the structures of the theatre and cinema) in the audience, which required a break in the “spectator’s psychological identification with the hero so as to draw him into activity by provoking their capacities to revolutionize their own lives” (Debord, 2004: 47). The activation of each individual as participant rather than as spectator marked a shift away from avantgardist paradigms, which never reconciled their hierarchical separation between the author and the audience. In contrast to this, the constructed situation required more than the representation of the action or ideology by the actor, author, or specialist. As they wrote, The situation is [. . .] made to be lived by its constructors. The role played by a passive or merely bit-part playing “public” must constantly diminish, while that played by those who cannot be called actors, but rather, in a new sense of the term, “livers,” must steadily increase.” (Debord, 2004: 47) Despite the recognition of the individual’s capacity to mobilize this action, and the collective preparation of the concrete event, Debord (inadvertently haunted by the dialectical specter of the avant-garde) expressed doubt that this movement would erupt from the public itself, at least not initially. Instead, he suggested that some sort of “direction” of the spectators was required to provoke them into participation.

122 | Anja Kanngieser


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 115–136

To facilitate this, Debord and the S.I. separated the activity of the “livers” within the situation into a temporary tri-tiered hierarchy, a logistical or functional division as such (Raunig, 2007: 175). At the apex of this division was the “director or producer responsible for coordinating the basic elements necessary for the construction of the decor and for working out certain interventions in the events” (Situationist International, 1981: 44). Subordinated under the director or producer were “the direct agents living the situation, who have taken part in creating the collective project and worked on the practical composition of the ambiance” (44). At the bottom of this organizational hierarchy remained the “few passive spectators who have not participated in the constructive work, who should be forced into action” (44). What becomes clear from this description is that, as Raunig has suggested, the audience was thereby placed in an impossible position. To address the conflictive nature of this position, Raunig proposes two alternatives: either an affirmation and designation of the audience as such (and thereby using this position as a means for commentary or action itself), or an “opening up” of the position “to the complexity of political processes” (2007: 176). For Raunig, it is precisely the latter that was later achieved by the S.I., seen in the more pronounced politicization in their projects from the late 1960s onward; here he cites the example of their transversals through art and revolutionary machines during their participation in events around the Parisian riots of 1968 (177–178). What Raunig’s proposition brings to light, then, is a new consideration of the activity of the Situationist International in terms of the potential the constructed situation opened up in the political realm. As Raunig writes, “Starting from performatively processing the situation and its necessary hierarchy the S.I. developed a practice of a pre-productive opening of the situation and its ‘viveurs,’ igniting a spark that suspended its organizers” (177). Although we would be remiss in underestimating the importance of this transversal between aesthetic and revolutionary machines, we must wonder if this “spark” ever wholly suspended the delimitation of its specialist organizers from its nonspecialist participants in a cacophony of insurrection and re-claimation of daily life.4 While Raunig’s observations on the role of the organizer can certainly be seen in the later writings and activities of the S.I., perhaps it is nonetheless useful to return to the question of the audience in those earlier manifestos committed to the constructed situation, and especially to what this may have meant to its playing out. In 1958, the S.I. readily acknowledged that the establishment of a director within the situation was only to be a temporary one, stating, “this relation between the director and the ‘livers’ of the situation must naturally never become a permanent specialization. It’s only a matter of a temporary subordination of a team of situationists to the person responsible for a particular project” (Situationist International, 1981: 44). While Debord stressed that this directorial role was only to be transitory, it nonetheless immediately designated a particular method to the situation which was, at any

Breaking Out of the Specialist “Ghetto” | 123


given time, predicated upon a delimitation of individual roles in a system of value judged by a sympathy to the Situationist doctrine. In this sense, the claim to collective organization, combined with the call for each individual to “seek what he loves, what attracts him” (Situationist International, 1981: 43), appears contradictory in light of the designation of a lead provocateur in the situation. Rather than being comprised of individuals convening under a common desire or concern—similar to what Massimo de Angelis might refer to under the term “temporary space time commons” (23–24)—what is insinuated is that, as for the avant-garde, there is the possibility for one person or group to impress upon a less “awakened” or “educated” mass the need for emancipatory activity. This, as Guattari indicates, is inherently counter-productive to any desire for a collective ensemble because “the thought of multiplicity, a collective set-up of enunciation, is a type of thought unattributable to a given individual or cast which must assure the representation of the interests of the masses” (Seem 39). The division of function based on degrees of specialization is further compounded with the problematic pronouncement that any individual not participating must be “forced into action.” More than just placing the audience in an “impossible position,” this acts to delegitimize their capacity to choose to participate through coercion. It is not necessary to go so far as to impute that the audience is completely denigrated in this movement, but regardless of Debord’s intentions, the suggestion of controlled participation rings with paternalism. Even prior to the later magnum opus of Raoul Vaneigem, what this illustrated was the uneasy coexistence in Situationst philosophy of both a rigid dialecticism and the aspirational liberation of a desiring subjectivity. As the Scandinavian faction attested in 1962, the “situationists action programme—at the intellectual level—is suffering from a cancer. The root of this cancer lies in the adherence to old-fashioned, classical and ultra-rigid patterns of organisation” (Jorn et al.). Undoubtedly, the Scandinavian opinion was infused with a particular bias after the expulsion of their contingent by Debord, however such comments remain effective in reminding us to retain a certain caution before upholding those conjunctures of theory and praxis, and the method of their realization, in Situationist production. Therefore, while the S.I. unarguably made great leaps in overcoming some of the problems associated with the organization of the Dadaist performative encounter— especially through their repositioning of the audience into participant, and their extrication of the aesthetic work from the realm of art—there nonetheless remain questions in terms of the concrete organization and materialization of the constructed situation. Indeed, as S.I. itself acknowledged in 1963, “The SI is still far from having created situations” (Situationist International, 2004: 151). Aside from a handful of anecdotal dérives, notes on activities around 1968, and early encounters such as that outlined in the introduction to this essay, little documentation is

124 | Anja Kanngieser


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 115–136

available with which to imagine how the situation might have materially played out. What the conceptualization of the situation did, in terms of its political effect, was decisively transverse beyond an aesthetic realm into the realm of the quotidian and the political. In the constructed situation, the line of flight bifurcated from the avantgardist intention toward the subsumption of art into life. This is because, as Giorgio Agamben explains, the situation can be seen as “neither the becoming-art of life, nor the becoming-life of art” (77). Rather, it is “a point of indifference between life and art, where both undergo a decisive metamorphosis simultaneously” (77). It was not only the Situationists’ transformation of the avant-garde aesthetic endeavor, but also their ventures in experimental organization that aroused the attention of Parisian intellectual circles. Their breadth of influence in terms of a generalist rejection of the subordinative disciplines of political parties, unions, and ideological orthodoxies was picked up on by Guattari—so much so that, according to Raunig, Guattari “found his prototype for his theorem of the ‘subject group’ in the movement of March 22nd, which was triggered in early 1968 by the Situationist enrages [the enraged ones] of Nanterre” (2007: 180). It is through Guattari’s post-individualistic theorizations of the subject group, transversality and of collective desire that it becomes interesting to preliminarily examine how a more recent articulation of this performative encounter differs from its predecessors. What such concepts from Guattari provide are a way to discern how the audience of the Berlin Dadaists and the participant of the S.I. is transformed into a constituent of the encounter in the Umsonst campaigns, for instance. Further distancing themselves from those organizational models reviled by the Situationists, the methods adopted in some of the Umsonst campaigns over the past five years have taken on a more everyday vernacular. This is seen in campaigns around public transport such as the Pinker Punkt (2005) described earlier, Nulltarif (2003), Stadtrundfahrt (2004), and around cultural resources such as Kino Umsonst (2003), Le Tigre at the Volksbühne Umsonst (2004), and MoMA Umsonst (2004), among others.5 The decision to work on this level of the everyday was a strategic one because, as a campaigner with Hamburg Umsonst explained, “we address whoever is there and sees what we do, and we invite people to re-think and to join us” (Dresden and Hamburg Umsonst). For Umsonst, the uncertainty of participants in the encounter signals the necessity for an open politics (neither bound to Marxism nor anarchism, but strongly reminiscent of aspects of both), which is partially furnished through the disruption of an encompassing political ideology in favor of what was described by a Berlin Umsonst campaigner as an “orientation-less left” (Berlin Umsonst, Interview). This is further ameliorated through the incorporation of organizational techniques, which when enacted in juxtaposition with creative, pleasurable tactics, enable a more accessible, less hierarchical platform from which to assemble collective enunciations of desire.6

Breaking Out of the Specialist “Ghetto” | 125


Precisely what Guattari saw as emerging from the experimental organization of the S.I. in terms of subject groups, is what is approached in the composition of the Umsonst campaigns. Through his work at the La Borde clinic, Guattari produced an analysis of group formation within institutional environments in which he distinguished two interconnected and morphological types of group: the subjugated group and the subject group. The subjugated/dependent group includes those constantly subsumed to Power in some form (which is correlative of their desire for authoritarianism), and are usually linked to molar activity, being totalizing and, as commentator Mark Seem suggests, “global in ideology” (38). The principal characteristic for Guattari is the groups’ incapacity for statement; for the subjugated group only “its cause is heard, but no one knows where or by whom, or when” (1984: 14). This coincides with the alienation of the subjugated group imposed by outside sources, and its subsequent withdrawal into protective group fantasy and insularity (ibid). As Gary Genosko clarifies, the unity of the subjugated group is defined by external interpellation (84). Applying Guattari’s analysis outside of the institutional setting, this according to Genosko, is the problem that confronts the ultra-leftist militant who gets swept into the phantasms typical of the subjugated group and tends to get “hung up on the significations produced by the leadership rather than producing their own signifiers and speaking in the name of the institutions they create adequate to the course of their actions” (96). For Guattari, group subjects/subject groups are conditionally opposed to subjugated groups. These groups are molecular by nature, localized, and generative of processes of becoming-action rather than encompassing structures. Unlike the external determination dictating the subjugated group, the subject group “endeavours to control its own behaviour and elucidate its object, and in this case can produce its own tools of elucidation” (Guattari, 1984: 14). It thus upholds an active position in terms of its own project. This implies that, for the individual participating in the subject group, there is the means for articulation and signification in a milieu of interdependence and difference which is synchronously unified through the collective process. As Genosko proposes, “the subject group is a kind of group in fusion [. . .] come together in ‘the flash of common praxis,’ in mutual reciprocity rather than mutual Otherness (86). Through Genosko’s description of the collective affirmatively arising out of “the flash of common praxis,” we immediately begin to see the potential that Guattari envisaged in this new organizational structure: a rhizomatic, non-representative, nonprogrammatic common assemblage of singularities. The campaigns of Umsonst respond to the gaps in the experiments of the S.I., in terms of establishing the terrain for a potential subject group in the performative encounter, by way of their dedication to the composition of a collaborative transitory collective. For Guattari, “a subject group is not embodied in a delegated individual who can claim to speak

126 | Anja Kanngieser


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 115–136

on its behalf: it is primarily an intention to act, based on a provisional totalization and producing something true in the development of its action” (1984: 33). From their immanent hierarchization of direction/participation in the constructed situation, there was little opportunity for the S.I to overcome the authority of the “delegated individual.” From its genesis, this was not to be the case for Umsonst. Conceptualized as a series of campaigns rather than a group or movement, there was far less prospect for permanent membership. Rather, the collective converged around singular events connected to their focus on the privatization of cultural and public resources and spaces, state discourses around economic rationalism and, later, the precarization of life and labor. Revealing the economic and class politics underpinning the segregation of necessity from luxury, and questioning the increasing inaccessibility of the latter (especially with regard to cultural resources and events), each encounter proposed by the campaigners was formulated as a direct retaliation against the disenfranchisement propelled by the neoliberal rhetoric of scarcity rampant in Germany. A principal objective for the Berlin faction, as later with the wider Umsonst campaigns, was the collective appropriation of common space and wealth for everyone, specifically through creative forms of social and political direct action (Hamburg Umsonst, Hier Spielt).7 What was intended was the encouragement of a “culture of everyday resistance”—the selfvalorization of each individual of their own subjectivation through the collective subversion of capitalist conditions. In this sense, it is clear why an exclusive or ideologically demarcated group was not considered strategically appropriate; like Guattari’s subject group, Umsonst was “primarily an intention to act,” without the entropic, socio-systematic category of the identifiable subject or agent entitled to comprise the action. This ambiguity surrounding the organization of the Umsonst campaigns does not imply the lack of a militant component to the campaigns. On the contrary, each campaign required significant planning phases. These were facilitated and managed by small committees of campaigners, which is to say that there were still “initiators” of the events (around ten to fifteen people) (Hamburg and Berlin Umsonst, Interview). There is nonetheless a marked difference between how these encounters were established and how the constructed situation of the S.I. was conceptualized. In Umsonst, the management of the campaigns tried to maintain as open and malleable as possible the scope for collaboration, with a principle of transparency and accessibility, and an adherence to non-hierarchical organizational methods. Unlike the S.I. who were vexed by the “misuse” of their moniker, the Umsonst campaigns wanted to generate diffuse interest, discussion, and the reproduction of their tactics and name by other collectives and individuals. Although the publicity of the planning stages was necessarily tempered by the illegality of the actions, in terms of the materialization of some of the encounters, there was emphasis placed on wide publicity

Breaking Out of the Specialist “Ghetto” | 127


to encourage a large and heterogeneous range of people to constitute the events. This emphasis, however, could not entirely eliminate constraints and failures on the ambition toward immanent inclusivity which was problematized by issues of physical mobility (both in terms of differently-abled individuals and individuals deemed illegal by the state who risked deportation or loss of work through their participation) and the practical limitations on positive publicity for political events. To facilitate the scope for collaboration to the best extent possible, the development of the encounters attempted to accommodate integrative mechanisms and methods (workshops, research groups, and discussions). This encouraged solidarity and collaboration between campaign organizers and particular groups (including students, artists, minimum wage earners, internees, etc.) that the accelerating processes of privatization specifically made precarious. While these did not always proceed or conclude as initially envisioned vis-à-vis the sustainability of transcommunity relations, this did not deter recurrent endeavors.8 Workshops were also conducted in collaboration with networks of autonomous groups targeting the areas that the individual campaigns responded to (Hamburg Umsonst, Interview). This format arose in part as an experiment to move beyond prescriptive, abstracted, or ideologically-based political labor by targeting issues relevant to socio-economic and cultural groups often estranged from the established activist milieu. Much focus was placed on connecting people with the implications of structural reforms in their everyday lives and mobilizing them to articulate their dissatisfaction themselves. It was proposed that unified direct action would make this dissent visible and it was hoped that such political visibility could also inspire pluralistic flights of self-determined organization to take place beyond the parameters of the recognized activist spheres (Berlin Umsonst, Interview). The desire of Umsonst to flee the specialist (in this case, activist) “ghetto” is where we may locate the crux of the paradigm shift in the praxis of the performative encounter that I have outlined. Returning to Guattari’s subject group and his notion of subjectivation, it is here that his adjacent concept of transversality becomes especially pertinent. While Guattari’s early essays on transversality are indicative of his formulations of institutional schizoanalysis, his comments can also be deployed toward an examination of the politico-aesthetic movement with regard to how we might be able to distinguish the historical from some contemporary instances vis-à-vis group formation through the encounter. For Guattari, transversality was preliminarily understood as the modifications of relations, forces, and environments between groups (and their effects) within and across institutions. Within these institutions, Guattari was intent on discovering the sites of latent power, often not coincidental with the groups manifesting power. What transversality offered such latencies of power was a way to conceive of how this could reconfigure the (vertically organized) institution through the opening up and synthesization of communication between

128 | Anja Kanngieser


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 115–136

different groups and singularities. This had distinctly political consequences for, as Genosko explicates, transversality was a key element of a militant practice aiming at a rupture with inherited models of organization. To transversalize the organization of a given institution is a creative act giving rise to subject groups capable of internally generating and directing their own projects, ensuring that organization remains close to the groups themselves, while simultaneously avoiding the slide into bureaucratic sclerosis (96). To illustrate how transversality functions in the performative encounters of Umsonst, we can refer to two characteristics intrinsic to their composition: the already mentioned “egalitarianism” concerning the participant as a negation of the artist/activist as specialist, and the dependence on the participant in the constitution of the encounter. In order to understand the campaigns of Umsonst themselves as transversal practices that synchronously disrupt the possibilities of specialist identification (as both artists and activists), we can draw upon Susan Kelly’s employment of the term. Kelly uses transversality to speak about modes of praxis that deliberately attempt to de-territorialize the categories, disciplines, and institutions they move across, evoking “new terrains of open co-operation between different activist, artistic, social and political practices” (Kelly, 2005). These transversal modes do not signify a permanent interdisciplinarity between the fields, but rather create temporary mutant conjunctions and coalitions through a movement of accumulation (not absorption), inherently changing the fields and institutions in the process. As such transversality is a vehicle of rupture and convergence in a constant state of becoming, a form or mode of operation constituted through events, collective alliances, and transitory organizations. It is also linked to notions of production, for in this movement it produces subjectivities and “self-engendering practices that seek to create their own signifiers and systems of value” (Kelly, 2005). Umsonst, as a collation of subject groups, enacts this creation of becoming-subjectivity through its transversal elements, which can produce, as both Guattari and Kelly argue, autopoietic and self-valorizing modalities of signification. The adaptation of such transversal states by radical political groups such as Umsonst and others also recently involved in the networks of protest movements against economic globalization, thus marks a notable shift in artistic and political modes. Simply put, it is here that, as Raunig points out, artistic-political practices finally seem to have left behind the dichotomy between art and activism. The activists hardly seek their own success in the arts field, nor are they striving for special distinction. Nonetheless, they employ methods and strategies of art history or current artistic practice. These actions create a new terrain of transversality, which is neither part of the artistic field nor of the political field in its narrow sense (2002). What is demonstrated, then, is an attempt to conceive of practices such as those of Umsonst outside of, across, and between the boundaries enforced by disciplinary

Breaking Out of the Specialist “Ghetto” | 129


regimes (art, politics) of recognition and categorization. It reads these interventions in a process of constant transformation and re-territorialization of both artistic and political activisms. This is how the performative encounters of Umsonst negotiate the impasses around hierarchical or discrete categories of identification haunting the avant-gardes and the S.I. The question of whether it is art or life, art becoming life or vice versa, even a supersession of art and life, is no longer of critical concern. It is not that art has dissolved into life in a singular, non-divisible entity, but rather that such encounters can be conceived as transversing both art and life, as might said following Deleuze (1995: 44; see also Raunig, “The Many ANDs”). Here the participant in the encounter can be seen as enacting both activist and nonactivist identities, in addition to the infinite other mutable multiplicities of identity and relations generated through the processes of subjectivation. It is this transversal aspect that, for Guattari, furthermore carries the desire of the group (1984: 22). One of the ways in which the participant in the S.I. is reconfigured into the constituent of the encounter by Umsonst, is through an attentiveness to desiring production. Umsonst has been self-reflexive and analytical about its formation and dynamics of organizational power and semiotics of praxis. It has also, from all appearances, been dedicated to uncovering and actualizing multiple imbrications in public dissatisfaction with state apparatuses and those sites of socio-cultural and public life in which state power is manifest. Navigating away from the assumptions around desire often projected by political movements upon an anonymous public, Umsonst cultivates an exploratory trajectory by locating popular confluences in public attitude and desire; desire for more accessible public resources, transportation, housing and education, desire for self-determination for capacity to participate, desire for more emancipatory commons, for example. The search for such points of commonality and collectivity is integral to any liberation of desire, because in Guattarian terms, Liberated desire means that desire escapes the impasse of private fantasy: it is not a question of adapting it, socializing it, disciplining it, but of plugging it in such a way that its process not be interrupted in the social body, and that its expression be collective . . . It is not a question of directing, of totalising, but of plugging into the same plane of oscillation (1995: 63). The capacity shown in the Umsonst campaigns to “plug” into this shared expression of desire in the social body instead of directing or totalizing it reveals the importance of basing the constitution of the performative encounter on its participants. The “collective set-ups (agencements collectifs) of analysis or of enunciation relative to desire and its production” (Seem 41) is essential to the “revolutionary job” performed by the liberation of desire. Such collective set-ups are in no way suggestive of the homogenization of multiplicitious singular desires. Quite the opposite, for what is intended is that those polyvocal and heterogenic communities that are affected

130 | Anja Kanngieser


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 115–136

understand that their participation is imperative to the collective articulation of particular common desires and demands. This acts to valorize those common desires, encouraging collective action through the performative encounter. In this way, the mobilization of shared action enabled through concatenations of singular desire into the social fabric signals a direction for political resistance that can imagine new conceptions of commonality, community and collective subjectivities, and assemblages of enunciation less evident in orthodox models of political and social organization. If, as Massumi has proposed, what is required is “a politics of belonging instead of a politics of identity, of correlated emergence instead of separate domains of interest attracting each other or colliding in predictable ways […] a pragmatic politics of the in-between” (223), then it is clear how the performative encounter might help contribute to such a politics. From its conception as a mode to destabilize the autonomy of art and to intervene in the socio-political realms by the Dadaists, the encounter has been a means through which to forge new relationships between individuals and communities united in a common desire for emancipation and self-determined conditions. The extension of these transformative capacities of the Dada event into the Situationist constructed situation helped to develop an ontology counteractive to the alienation plaguing capitalist modes of production/consumption through the revitalization of radical subjectivities. While the Berlin Dadaists were explicit about their adaptation of representational vanguardist relations between the author and her audience, despite all intentions, it was through the constructed situation that it became clear that the specter of a dialectical hierarchy also haunted Situationist organizational tropes. This specter, however, cannot detract from the positive legacy such movements have left. Contemporary materializations of the encounter, such as those seen in the campaigns of Umsonst, have demonstrated dexterity in negotiating organizational disjunctions. The commitment to composing encounters which are established through participation and predicated upon axis of collective desire; which are transversal and aim toward being non-exclusive, non-representative, and polycentered; which actively produce self-renewing discourses and transitory commons, are all imperative to the consolidation of the kinds of affective politics Massumi is arguing for. Affective politics that can be attentive to relationalities and processes of subjectivation are principal to the facilitation of new forms of emancipatory organization. As Guattari affirms, either political objectives are the echo of all kinds of struggles, and are associated with an analysis of the phenomena of desire and of the social unconscious within the present organizations, or else the bureaucratic impasses and recuperations will necessarily recur, the desire of the masses and of interest groups go through representatives, and result from representation (1984: 9–10).

Breaking Out of the Specialist “Ghetto” | 131


Through the methods appropriated in campaigns such as Umsonst, what is revealed are the still partially nascent stages of an organizational politico-aesthetic praxis form that can contribute to the many initiatives and gestures responding to the recommendations of both Massumi and Guattari. These responses are vital for, through their experimental, affirmative, and mutable ethos, they help to mobilize a politics capable of looking toward the composition of collective assemblages of enunciation beyond the “ghettos� of specialization and ultimately toward the liberation of radical desires. Many thanks to Gerald Raunig, Stephanie Lusby and those involved with the Berlin and Hamburg Umsonst campaigns for their invaluable conversations and contributions.

132 | Anja Kanngieser


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 115–136

Works Cited Agamben, G. Means Without End: Notes On Politics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000. Autonome A.F.R.I.K.A Gruppe. “Communication Guerrilla—Transversality in Everyday Life?” European Institute for Progressive Cultural Politics. Trans. Aileen Derieg (2002). 10 May 2005 ⬍http://eipcp.net/transversal/1202/ aag1/en⬎. Berlin Umsonst. “For a pleasant life now!” Pamphlet. Berlin: Date unknown. ———. Personal email correspondence with A. Kanngieser. 7 September 2007. ———. Personal interview with A. Kanngieser. Berlin, Germany. 14 November 2006. Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Eds. W. Godzich and J. Schulte-Sasse. Trans. M. Shaw. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984. de Angelis, M. The beginning of history: value struggles and global capital. London: Pluto, 2007. Debord, G. “Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency.” (1957). Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents. Ed. T. McDonough. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2004. 29–51.

Dresden and Hamburg Umsonst. “Free as in Nicked (Interview).” Mute magazine (July 2004). 4 June 2005 ⬍http://www.metamute.org⬎. Eshelman, R. “Everything for Everyone, and For Free, Too! A Conversation with Berlin Umsonst.” Interactivist Info Exchange (2005). 16 January 2006 ⬍http://info.interactivist.net/article.pl? sid=05/08/18/1741232⬎. Foster, S. C. “Event Structures and Art Events.” “Event” Arts and Art Events. Ed. S. C. Foster. Ann Arbor: U.M.I. Research P, 1988. 3–11. Genosko, G. Félix Guattari: an aberrant introduction. London: Continuum, 2002. Gordon, M. “Dada Berlin: a history of performance (1918–1920).” The Drama Review: TDR 18.2 (1974): 114–124. Guattari, F. Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm. Trans. P. Bains and J. Pefanis. Sydney: Power, 1995. ———. Chaosophy. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), 1995. ———. Chaosophy: Soft Subversions. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), 1996. ———. Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics. Trans. R. Sheed. Harmondsworth, New York: Penguin, 1984.

———. Society of the spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1983.

Hamburg Umsonst. “Hier spielt das Leben”. Arranca! 29 (2004): 30–32.

Deleuze, G. Negotiations, 1972–1990. Trans. M. Joughin. New York: Columbia UP, 1995.

———. Personal interview with A. Kanngieser. 15 January 2007.

Deleuze, G. and F. Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Trans. R. Hurley, M. Seem, and H. R. Lane. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Harrison, C. and P. Wood, ed. Art in theory 1900–2000: an anthology of changing ideas. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

———. “Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium” Chaosophy. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), 1995.

Jorn, A., G. Atkins, J. Nash, et al. “The Struggle of the Situcratic Society: A Situationist Manifesto.” Drakabygget 2/3 (1962). 18 Oct. 2006 ⬍http://www.infopool.org.uk/6209.html⬎.

Breaking Out of the Specialist “Ghetto” | 133


Kanngieser, A. “Gestures of everyday resistance: the significance of play and desire in the Umsonst politics of collective appropriation.” Translate (2006). 1 Jan. 2007 ⬍http:// translate.eipcp.net/⬎. Katsiaficas, G. The Subversion of Politics: European autonomous social movements and the decolonisation of everyday life. Oakland: AK, 2006. Kelly, S. “The Transversal and the Invisible: How do you really make a work of art that is not a work of art?” Republicart (2005). 2 Feb. 2006 ⬍http://www.republicart.net/disc/mundial/ kelly01_en.htm⬎. Lenin, V. I. What is to be done? Trans. Joe Fineberg and George Hanna. London: Penguin, 1988. Massumi, Brian. “Navigating moments.” Hope: New Philosophies for Change. Ed. M. Zournazi. New York: Routledge, 2002. 210–244. McClure, W. “Triumph of the Spectacle.” Borderlands 3.1 (2004). 23 Apr. 2005 ⬍http://www.borderlandsejournal.adelaide. edu.au/vol3no1_2004/mclure_triumph.htm⬎. Mitropoulos, A. and B. Neilson. “On the Borders of the Political—At the Borders of Activism.” Seminar. May 2007. Department of Gender Studies, U of Sydney. From authors. Raunig, G . Art and revolution: transversal activism in the long twentieth century. Trans. Aileen Derieg. Cambridge: Semiotext(e), 2007.

PublixTheatreCaravan.” Trans. L. Rennison. Transversal (2002). 12 Mar. 2005 ⬍http://eipcp.net/transversal/0902/ raunig/en⬎. ———. Personal email correspondence with A. Kanngieser. 28 Jan. 2008. Richter, H. Dada art and anti-art. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. Seem, M.D. “Interview: Félix Guattari.” Diacritics 4.3 (Autumn 1974): 38–41. Situationist International. “Action in Belgium Against the International Assembly of Art Critics” (1958). 12 Dec. 2007 ⬍http://www.bopsecrets. org/SI/1.critics.htm⬎. ———. “Definitions.” Internationale Situationniste 1 (1958). Situationst International Anthology. Ed. K. Knabb. California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981. 45–46. ———. “Editorial Notes: The Avant-garde of Presence.” Internationale Situationniste 8 (January 1963). Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents. Ed. T. McDonough. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2004. 137–153. ———. “Preliminary Problems in Constructing a Situation.” Internationale Situationniste 1 (1958). Situationst International Anthology. K. Knabb. California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981. 43–45. Vaneigem, R. The revolution of everyday life. London: Rebel, 1983.

———. “The Many ANDs of Art and Revolution.” Ed. Will Bradley and Esche Charles. Art and Social Change. A Critical Reader. London: Tate, 2007. 384–394.

Willett, J. The new sobriety: 1917–1933, Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

———. “A War-Machine against the Empire. On the precarious nomadism of the

X, A. “Give up activism” (1999). Do or Die 9 (2001): 160–166.

134 | Anja Kanngieser


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 115–136

Notes 1. As Gerald Raunig (2008) recently pointed out, while the tactic may have signified coincidental characteristics, ideologically the intervention of Baader and early Situationist actions bifurcated notably. While Baader’s action signaled an incipient demonstration against (but within the parameters of) the state bureaucracy of parliamentary governance and its representative democracies, the encounter of the Situationists already contained vestiges of their later objective toward the supersession of art and politics beyond any kind of reformism or state engagement. 2. To explicate this point further, for X, the self-equivocation of the activist as expert or specialist in social change is a debilitating one, acting not only to alienate the activist from the public and elevate the activist in a vertical relationship of value/authority over the nonactivist, but also acting to estrange political labor from daily life. This dyadic separation of political work from everyday life further compounds the perception of activism as a specialized activity imbued with a sense of militancy, severity, sectarianism, and exclusivity. As Mitropoulos and Neilson have similarly observed, “‘activist’ is not a term that coincides with those who engage in political activities. Rather, ‘activist’ is the demarcation of an identity and community that privileges particular kinds of activities, and forms of relation, by defining them as properly political. And what is deemed proper, for the most part, are the kinds of appropriation that make representational claims possible [. . .] one does not speak, or act, for oneself, but for others—and, oftentimes, these others tend to be framed as ‘ordinary people’ [who] are assigned a unity and homogeneity in similar fashion” (np). 3. As the Situationists clarified in 1958 in their paper “Definitions,” “dérive: a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances [. . .] détournement: short for: detournement of preexisting aesthetic elements. The integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense

there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of these means. In a more primitive sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which testifies to the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres” (45–46). 4. While it is impossible to equate the early experiments of the constructed situation with the later manifestations associated with the 1968 activities, and while there is a marked theoretical shift in terms of how the Situationists considered their participants, based on the little evidence available in terms of documentations over the decade, a certain continuity can be found in some aspects of the materialization of organization. Even during and after 1968, Debord was insistent on the vanguardistreminiscent role of the Situationists and their ideas of the uprising, and while their influence on the events cannot be denied, this maintenance of a sense of authority or even ownership is precisely the point where it is possible to see the specter of a hierarchical delimitation. 5. The Umsonst campaigns include/d Berlin, Dresden, Freiburg, Cologne, Mannheim, Kiel, Munich, Kassel, Dusseldorf, Lübeck, Göttigen, and Jena among others. The focus here on only Berlin and Hamburg arises from their higher and more sustained frequency and tenacity of interventions and campaigns. 6. For a more detailed examination of this, refer to A. Kanngieser 2006. 7. The claiming of spaces, resources, goods, and services (through stealing, occupying, squatting, borrowing, etc.) from the state. This politics of collective appropriation is marked by a state critical stance (even anti-statist) and involves the subversion of a capital-oriented exchange logic in favor of a concept of seizure predicated on desire and unhindered by financial constraint. Common to these gestures is a highly libertarian attitude, an exuberant and playful negation of the alienation and exclusion provoked through axiomatic consumeristic

Breaking Out of the Specialist “Ghetto” | 135


machinations, and a very clear social orientation that attempts to move beyond the paradigms of traditional political structures in both theory and practice. 8. This last issue directly confronted Hamburg Umsonst during of a day of protest against state threats to unemployment insurance in 2004. Difficulties were encountered on the action day itself regarding communication between activists and job seekers, with the temperament being not as conducive to exchange as initially expected. This was due in part to the fact that many of the activists involved in the solidarity action were not unemployed themselves at that time, and that many of the people who were, were notably older than the activists and thus had different desires and aspirations from those the activists had

136 | Anja Kanngieser

projected for them. Rather than furnish the stage for a unified protest then, the approach of the activists led to a response that indicated that many of the job seekers found their position to be presumptive and offensive. This was, as some of the Hamburg Umsonst activists concluded to me, an unfortunate naivety (Hamburg Umsonst Interview). However, while it is often a complex challenge to establish ongoing relationships with marginalized social groups through solidarity advocacy, I would critically caution that this lack of self-reflexivity can inevitably signal a reproduction of the power dynamic between the vanguardist “intellectual” and the fetishized, but voiceless, “worker” inherent to representative Leninist/Marxist derivative politics, precisely the category of politics such campaigns were counter-posed to.


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 137–156

A Proposal for Grounded Cultural Activism: Communication Strategies, Adbusters and Social Change Emrah Irzık

Cultural activism constitutes one front in the battle over the people’s minds and hearts. In large part, it is a struggle to convey dissident viewpoints, truth claims, and alternative significations to the public by making use of the means to which activists are able to gain access. The established for-profit media outlets owned by corporations and influenced by governments are usually inaccessible. Activists, therefore, resort to alternative channels that are either created by or salvaged by activists themselves. But where do “the activists” stand? Let’s look at the ancestral struggle. A century ago, before the ruin of the Great War, the international labor movement was shaking the world to its core. Governments were falling, wars were failing, humanity collectively felt itself to be on the edge of the new. The so-called conscious elements within the movement, the “vanguard,” was involved in a battle of ideas against ruling ideology. The means to this struggle was termed “agit-prop,” agitation and propaganda, long before the term came to be negatively associated with falsification and “the party line,” and simply meant inspiration and the dissemination of ideas. Whatever the failings of classical agit-prop, it was solidly grounded in the radical movement of political subjects seeking change. When a flag was burned, it meant, “desert the national army and boycott war bonds”; a poster depicting capitalist greed meant “support your fellow worker and union.” The purpose of this essay is to cast a critical look at “detournement” (the meaning of which will be discussed below) as an activist tactic in the form of “adbusting” within the wider sphere of “culture jamming” practices. Culture jamming has appeared in recent years as a form of agit-prop in contemporary cultural activism. As it poses a significant influence within the movement, a critical look at adbusting

A Proposal for Grounded Cultural Activism | 137


in particular may shed light on the potentials and pitfalls of contemporary cultural activism. Granted that this new means of cultural activism creates interesting possibilities of resistance and opposition without falling into the dogmatism from which many earlier strategies of ideological struggle in the twentieth century suffered, I nevertheless want to draw attention to the theoretical pitfalls and the self-crippling effects of the tendency to promote “culture jamming” not as a strategy but as the social struggle itself, and reaffirm the importance of a positively articulated, alternative political program for social change. The discussion will frame culture jamming as an answer to the difficulties faced by alternative media, and include references to Kalle Lasn as a spokesperson of Adbusters, Situationism as a historical antecedent of Adbusting, and other culture jamming tactics. It will present a critique based on a Marxist conceptualization of money as an inherently alienated means, the cynical political subject of Slavoj Zizek and Michael Albert, and criticism of the notion of “consumer society” and the accompanying discourse of “needs.” Finally, two contemporary cases of cultural activism with which the author is familiar will be presented as hints to the way forward, inasmuch as they are examples of cultural activism which stand as integral parts of a concrete social movement of active, resisting subjects. While cultural activism consists of complex and diverse practices and dynamics that cannot be reduced to a single overarching phenomenon, the tendency that I will criticize is crystallized in, and is represented by the “adbusters” practice, and I will infer from there. Let me first explain these terms and their claim to political subversion. Culture jamming as a tactic of political subversion and cultural protest arrives with an admittedly attractive shot at a solution to the woes of activist access to channels of communication. Instead of trying to build an alternative from scratch, why not capitalize on the ubiquity of corporate messages, ads, and media by finding a way to use them against themselves? To this end, culture jammers focus on activities such as altering billboards, parodying advertisements, and spoofing websites. The technique of adbusting, for example, involves modifying a commercial advertisement or creating a fake one that mimics the look and feel of the original to proclaim a message that criticizes or mocks the targeted company. An example is the adbusted version of an “Absolute Vodka” ad, where the caption is replaced to read “Absolute Impotence,” and the image of the vodka bottle is modified to resemble a failing erection. The new “subvertisement” aims to “uncool” the pricey and hip beverage by revealing an undesirable fact of alcohol consumption that was previously hidden. Another example is the infamous fake WTO website run by an activist collective called “The Yes Men” at gatt.org, which mimics the official WTO site and runs stories with titles such as “WTO Announces Formalized Slavery Market for Africa.” The Yes

138 | Emrah Irzık


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 137–156

Men have also appeared on TV and spoken at conferences upon request by reporters and institutions unaware of the fact that gatt.org is a hoax. With the adbusting technique, and culture jamming in general, the image or another kind of cultural artifact retains all of its previous “cultural investment” in terms of recognition, prestige, and coolness kindly provided by the adversaries themselves. This corporate or governmental investment is then “detourned,” meaning it is hijacked and led astray to convey a dissident message. The process is analogous to gangs of revolutionaries robbing banks and “liberating” the cash to finance their struggles. The capital at stake is only cultural rather than economic. Therefore, compared to creating alternative media, culture jamming seems to offer more bang for the activist buck, so to speak. If detournement in the form of culture jamming is considered to be the new agitprop, where is the new movement? The thing that makes Kalle Lasn, author of Culture Jam and the editor of Adbusters magazine, one of the most significant spokespeople for adbusting and also the principal focus of my critique, is his answer to this question. According to Lasn, culture jamming is the movement of today. “It is the strategy of action today in the way the civil rights movement was the movement of the 60s, feminism was the movement of the 70s, and environmentalism was the movement of the 80s” (XI). Lasn makes it seem that if only the spell of the corporate image world were to be broken, the whole pyramid scheme of consumer society would collapse. “Cool,” which Lasn holds to be the essential commodity produced by the culture and advertising industry, would be liberated and reclaimed in a bottom-up manner: For hundreds of years citizens have sung the songs, told the stories and created our culture from the bottom up. Now we are in a situation where more and more of our culture is being sent to us top-down from corporations, ad agencies and broadcasters. (quoted in SustainAbility) While this emphasis springs from a valid concern with corporate hegemony over cultural life in contemporary society, I argue that the orientation represented by Lasn and Adbusters magazine within cultural activism is insufficient in stimulating effective social change. Departing from a critique of Lasn’s position, I propose that cultural activism would be—and in various successful tactics, already is—much more productive when grounded in concrete struggles carried out by organized, visible subjects against a specific target rather than in a fragmented manner and against amorphous targets such as the “consumer society.” Cultural activism works best as an integral part of a coherent whole, that is a mass social movement, and not as a substitution for it. The culture jamming tactic within cultural activism is an activist communication strategy that has unique qualities allowing it to claim advantages over some of the other activist communication strategies that involve the use of mainstream media, or

A Proposal for Grounded Cultural Activism | 139


even the creation of alternative media. These same qualities, however, also carry certain risks, such as the tendency to be locked into a narrow-angled reflexive critique of a limited phenomenon (such as a single corporation), losing sight of the larger systematic problem (capitalism) and the project to overcome it. I will argue that, in such cases, adbusting fails to be the reincarnation of detournement as it was historically conceptualized by the Situationists. The Situationists realized the inadequacy of reflexive alteration of a cultural object with the intent to mock it in their critique of “the parodistic method”: Such parodistic methods have often been used to obtain comical effects. But such humor is the result of contradictions within a condition whose existence is taken for granted [. . .]. It is thus necessary to envisage a parodic-serious stage where the accumulation of detourned elements, far from aiming to arouse indignation or laughter by alluding to some original work, will express our indifference toward a meaningless and forgotten original, and concern itself with rendering a certain sublimity. (Debord and Wolman) The Situationists believed that the re-use of old cultural elements in a revolutionary direction could only be achieved by orienting them toward a new sublime rather than referring back to their original significations—the more distanced the new composition from the old, the better. When this principle is not observed, culture jamming produces, or at least reinforces political cynicism in the sense articulated by Slavoj Zizek, which will be discussed soon, rather than producing transformatory social action. It introduces “humor and indignation” to a condition which remains “taken for granted.” Orienting cultural activism toward positive, autonomous actions of communities in struggle can offer a solution to this political cynicism. This can be achieved, for example, in anti-corporate struggles by acting on the basis of an active subjectivity of a class of exploited producers, even when using passive tactics of conscious consumption such as the boycott. Before further problematizing culture jamming, however, it is necessary to appreciate its merits as a strategy created in response to the limitations that mainstream media poses to radical cultural activism. Media Trouble Like any other commercial enterprise, commercial media are in the business of selling commodities to buyers. In the case of, say, television channels, contrary to what we may think at first, the watchers are the commodity, and advertisers are the buyers. The TV channel is in the business of selling us to the advertisers, which makes possible the secondary operation of advertisers selling products to us in the market (Chomsky and Herman 16). Television may come to us free of charge, but there is no free lunch. Advertisement exposure is the price we pay; in other words, our attention is a commodity that has an exchange value. One particularly explicit and offensive example that illustrates

140 | Emrah Irzık


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 137–156

the point is the business model called “Pay to Surf.” In the era of the dot-com bubble, Pay to Surf e-companies would pay web surfers at the rate of a few dollars a day in exchange for nothing other than the surfers being continuously exposed to advertisements on their screens. These advertisements were delivered by a special piece of software called a “viewbar,” which the surfer had to install.1 The same principle is implicitly in force for all ad-supported media such as newspapers and commercial websites, with little variation in accordance with the nature of the particular medium. Even public space is subject to this invasion, as in the case of municipalities agreeing to sell our attention to advertisers by means of billboards and other street decorations. The proceeds collected by the municipalities are supposedly going toward “improvements” to our everyday urban habitat; which is a demonstration of an utterly alienating economic institution characteristic of capitalism, where in order to (partially) satisfy our needs, we first have to hand over much of our control over our everyday existence to those holding economic power. The harsh truth behind all ad-supported endeavors is that even before the ideological biases and the “spin” factor in the content or experience come into effect, the snippets of information and entertainment delivered to us in a piece of media or planned space act as traps to connect us to the advertisements. Naturally, the interests of the advertisers, who happen to be precisely those corporations holding significant economic and political power that we wish to challenge, dominate and shape the media and public space. It would simply be bad business for a television channel to give airtime to a radical intellectual bashing the free market, and then cut to a JP Morgan commercial touting its expertise in finance and investment consultancy. You can’t expect a newspaper to run a serious social ecological analysis on the substantial irrationality of capitalist industrial production and, on the next page, detail the government’s new plans to license energy giants to build more coal and nuclear plants to respond to the rising demands of industry. Dangers of carbon emissions and global warming will only superficially find place across that ad for a slick 2009 “hybrid” from Ford. Even in cases when oppositional viewpoints seem to have obtained some exposure in the media, the experience is likely to serve as a “recuperation.”2 A dissident message or cultural representation is often carefully framed, and discursively and aesthetically packaged by the media so that those who come across it take a fundamentally different message to heart, perhaps experiencing it as another consumption practice. So, with the convolution of interests in the capitalist media, there is a serious problem of getting the dissident word out through normal channels. What can be done? One idea is that, if we can’t put in the content, maybe we can put in our own ads. Lasn is enthusiastically in favor of this strategy. He tries to raise cash to buy airtime on television, publish ads in newspapers, and rent billboards where the ad will

A Proposal for Grounded Cultural Activism | 141


actually not be a product advertisement but instead an “anti-commercial,” a dissident message. He mentions that media channels were often unwilling to run these ads for fear of their other advertisers and sponsors, even though Lasn was willing to pay for them in full. When Lasn saw that somehow his money was no good for these media institutions, he also realized that his act was subversive and threatening to the status quo (193–96). The political resistance he came across was the very proof of it. He therefore advocated exposing these unjust practices and building public pressure to allow him to run the counter-ads, with some success. The effectiveness of this tactic, however, is limited by the availability of financial resources to support such a model of dissemination. The advantages Lasn emphasizes, that is, the advantages to be gained by means of wittiness and by means of the “genuine” feel of the anti-ads notwithstanding, cultural activists can never expect to out-compete the advertising budgets of huge corporations in a buying game. As Lasn has noticed, the only TV anti-ad campaigns that actually worked were the ones against tobacco companies in the 60s (125). Lasn claims the significant drop in cigarette consumption as a victory, yet he never ponders why this may have been the only successful case. A 2001 report by the British Office for National Statistics may provide a clue. The report reveals “striking differences in the prevalence of cigarette smoking in relation to socio-economic group, with smoking being considerably more prevalent among those in manual groups [euphemism for lower class] than among those in non-manual groups [euphemism for upper class].” The numbers show that cigarette consumption has dropped dramatically for upper class people while remaining largely stable for lower class people since the 70s. This demonstrates that, regardless of the actual universal hazards of smoking, it has only been problematized as a health issue by members of the upper classes. It is no wonder, therefore, that the anti-smoking camp could count on the resources of a sizable majority of the upper class, and present its (legitimate) moral case on the grounds of universal public health to fight the powerful yet narrow interests of the tobacco companies, which constitute only a minority of the upper class. It is clear, especially in retrospect, that the conflict has played out as an intra-upper class lifestyle battle, for which expensive television ads constitute a fitting arena. Lasn demonstrates a complete lack of awareness of class by presenting anti-smoking TV campaigns as an ideal example to be followed by all progressive campaigns. Lasn’s use of the term “social activists” to describe the anti-smoking campaigners conflates their cross-class constituency with today’s “social activists” struggling against global capitalism and corporate domination unable to count on any alliance whatsoever from within the ruling class. The success of the anti-tobacco campaigns of the 60s is therefore an exception that proves the rule. To elaborate further, the working class can, by definition, never fight the bourgeoisie on the basis of “our money” against “their money” because money itself is a

142 | Emrah Irzık


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 137–156

form of social alienation where, for every expendable unit workers acquire through wages, they surrender a larger unit in labor. Trying to buy back one piece of life by selling off another larger piece is a losing game. “You cannot conquer alienation by alienated means.” Solidarity is the only reliable currency of the working class in class struggle, collective labor in a non-alienated form being the only resource it can generate in abundance. Toward the end of this paper, I will cite an example to indicate how tactics of cultural activism such as culture jamming can be used to bolster solidarity in the struggle for social change. It is no accident that people who speak of the need to transcend capitalism usually also arrive at the necessity of a revolution, which is, at its minimum, a replacement of the logic of capitalism itself that cannot be accomplished by a publicity arms-race fueled by money, a practice that is entirely intrinsic to capitalism. With regard to capitalism, “if you beat them at their own game, you have lost” (CrimethInc Workers Collective 159). Besides, if media is to be sponsored, why not create and finance an alternative one instead of lining the pockets of the media owned by the very cartels we are up against? The better recourse therefore seems to be to create alternative media, owned and run by activists, supported not by ads but directly by the communities that this dissident media serves. This is exactly the point of the reader-supported radical journal, the pirate micro radio, the party newspaper, the Indymedia project. These are tried and true forms of communication that keep the spirit of resistance alive through thick and thin, with the bonus of not having to placate hostile boards of directors or owners. Furthermore, the advent of internet culture and the increased accessibility of tools such as video cameras and cell phones have been a boon to alternative media everywhere, contributing to the rise of the citizen journalist. Alternative media in its myriad forms is essential to activism and the means are becoming more and more democratized. So why not simply concentrate on improving them? We should, as far as it is possible. The trouble with alternative media is that they have to compete with mainstream media, which is vastly superior in funding, technical expertise, and ubiquity. This is a more refined variety of the previous problem of trying to utilize existing tools of the system. Sustaining an alternative media outlet economically and motivationally is an uphill battle where few succeed in gaining a foothold. Even with easier access to media technologies, providing content is almost as resource-intensive as ever. The field is full of aborted attempts, discontinued magazines, and projects failing to generate sufficient public interest. It is sometimes a struggle in itself to keep up-to-date with the plethora of radical papers and websites going in and out of existence. At worst, things can get really alienating when members of the Party find themselves worrying over whether they will be able to fill their monthly quotas of copies of The Socialist Worker sold.

A Proposal for Grounded Cultural Activism | 143


It is very difficult to go head-on against the version of truth pushed by the multimillion dollar media cartel with a paper financed by union dues and donations, news fed by volunteers and amateur journalists, and fleshed out by unpaid contributors. Only the best projects are able to weather these difficulties over significant amounts of time, and those are few and far between. There is a very real limit to the amount of non-profit alternative media communities can sustain on their own, which unfortunately even leads to implicit competition among dissident projects for the limited amounts of money and time at the disposal of these communities.

The Promise of Culture Jamming In the face of the impediments presented by mainstream media and the limitations of internal or external alternatives to it, culture jamming in the general sense described above emerges as an effective means of capitalizing on the power and ubiquity of existing channels of communication without either trying to beat corporate media at its own game or to compete against it with limited resources. In “What about Communication Guerilla?” Blissett & Brunzels defend disruptive interventions in mainstream channels of communication such as culture jamming by claiming that the tactic escapes the pitfalls of “constructive participation” which is doomed to be defused by bourgeois society which “takes its strength from the ability to include critique.” The aim of communication guerrilla actions is to create “short and shimmering moments of confusion and distortion” against “a symbolic order of western capitalist societies built around discourses of rationality and rational conduct.” The article illustrates this approach with various examples of pranks and provocations with an emphasis on making use of internet communication. Yet, again there are problems. With culture jamming, efforts are concentrated on piercing holes in official ideology by turning around corporate or government messages. Activists act as public opinion saboteurs and rogue interceptors in communication. But it is also precisely this guerrilla nature of culture jamming that limits it to what appears to be a permanently defensive position. This is most obvious with adbusting; its effect naturally depends on the style used, the site of action, and the dialog it initiates (or fails to do so) between the activists and the public. For Adbusters, this usually takes the form of a witty defamation, a negative PR effort. Almost invariably, the intended effect is to turn consumers off a particular product or company. Considering the myriad unethical practices that underlie businesses in a profitbased market economy, there is no shortage of products and companies to be turned off from. But how does establishing that “Shell sucks” relate to our strategy for social change at large? I will come back to this question after a little detour into a genealogy of activist praxis.

144 | Emrah Irzık


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 137–156

From Situationism to Adbusting In general, Adbusters and culture jammers consciously claim to be descendants of the Situationists, who were a group of avant-garde Marxist artists from the 60s (Lasn XVI). Adbusting is seen as the detournement of today. The similarities are not difficult to see; they are both based on inscribing new meanings on previously existing cultural objects for the purpose of critique. Yet, I think that there is a subtle but crucial difference between the prevalent mode of operation of culture jamming today and the detournement of the past. Let me illustrate this difference with an example. “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?” by the Situationist Rene Vienet is a film from the early 70s that introduces itself in the first minutes as “the first completely detourned film in the history of cinema.” It is a low profile Asian kung-fu film edited by replacing the original dialog with political conversation deriding capitalism and bureaucracy, inciting revolt and praising sexual liberation. The whole film literally runs like a libertarian socialist manifesto in perfect attenuation to the spirit of ’68. The technique of detournement is thus used not merely to mock the original cultural item and devalue it, but rather to seize its intellectual property to culturally “finance” revolutionary agitation. The oriental mystique, complete with erotic incursions, the hack-n-slash action shots, and the general amusement of watching fighter monks practice “dialectics” through sword-fighting and brick-breaking glue the viewers to the screen, making them addressees of a revolutionary, unorthodox Marxist call to action. The expectation is that at least some viewers who begin by watching a tacky kung-fu import will end up entertaining ideas of taking over schools or workplaces and establishing workers’ councils. Whether this expectation is realistic is an open question, but any discussion of this question must take into account the political context presented by the leftist struggles of the late 60s and early 70s. Regardless of its success or failure, it is important to recognize that this cinematic act of detournement is launched not merely as a negative criticism, but as an introduction to a positive program for change. A second debate can be carried out on the aesthetics of detournement, considering the susceptibility of the original cultural object to being put to use for subversive ends. In the opening scenes of “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?” a voice-over presents an introduction to the concept of detourned cinema, and encourages the use of films of various genres of popular cinema such as Goddard films and Spaghetti Westerns for detourning, yet not others. Is the kung-fu film, for example, a cultural object offering fertile ground for effective detournement, rather than non-salvageable junk that is too tainted by the bankrupt aesthetic style of dominant ideology? Vienet obviously believed in the distinction and that the kung-fu film was among the former. If this form of situationist detournement implies that a certain form can be separated from its original ideological content and welded to a new one while another

A Proposal for Grounded Cultural Activism | 145


form cannot, we must be wary of statements such as “The communication guerrilla must have no fear of contact: she has to dare to completely enter the logic of the detested dominant discourse, in order to turn it around from the inside” (Autonome a.f.r.i.k.a gruppe). There is a crucial diversion here between Situationist detournement and contemporary “guerilla communication” and culture jamming; the subtle difference between rearranging elements into a new, sublimated composition (Situationist detournement) and infiltrating the channels of communication to overwrite the messages inscribed on the elements precisely without cultural re-composition (contemporary culture jamming). “Can Dialectics Break Bricks” is not a film against bad kung-fu movies, but an incisive statement against bureaucracy and capitalism. The question is whether the “subvertisement” produced by hijacking the glossy form and effectiveness of a commercial ad can become a similar statement. It seems that Situationist detournement has the advantage of allowing the radical a poetic, revolutionary autonomy with regard to the old, bourgeois cultural construct; a perspective that is lacking in many of its contemporary activist successors. Yet, this is not a matter only of aesthetics and mechanics of a tactic of subversion. I argue that there is a political and social backdrop to this disagreement. It no coincidence that the Situationists were not only cultural critics, but also a relatively coherent, albeit at times cryptic and dogmatic, political propaganda group that agitated around real struggles taking place against Gaullist France. It is very important to note the historical setting in which this piece of cultural activism took place. Only five years after the actual school and factory occupations in France that took place following May 1968, the detourned film establishes a direct dialog with radical social upheavals of the time. My main gripe with the prevalent trend in today’s cultural activism is the relative lack of suggestions for an active, positive course for social change and the relative lack of a grounded link to the actual struggles taking place against systems of oppression. It has become something of a truism to claim that the duty of the radical is to criticize what exists, not to propose alternatives. Criticism is doubtless a required first step in working toward social change, but stopping at negative criticism should not be the response to fears of a dogmatic “one true path” taking hold and stifling diverse critique. What happens in the case of anti-corporate activism when we don’t move further than culture jamming? Where does uncooling Shell, McDonald’s, and Microsoft leave us? I would like to answer that on two levels, and I will begin by referring to Slavoj Zizek’s concept of the cynical subject. The Cynical Subject Zizek explores what he sees as the prevalent subject position of a person living in our contemporary society in The Sublime Object of Ideology. His argument is built on a

146 | Emrah Irzık


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 137–156

psychoanalytic approach to the notion of ideology. He points out that, in classical Marxist thought, ideology is understood as false consciousness, implying that reality is hidden from the subject. Subjects under the spell of ideology are to be transformed into class-conscious and therefore revolutionary subjects as dialectical materialist analysis reveals to them the true nature of things. This process is analogous to the Freudian psychoanalytic treatment of the psychiatric patient. The symptoms of the patient are caused by emotional problems buried in the patient’s past. If these repressed causes are retrieved from the patient’s subconscious and revealed to his or her consciousness, which is the task of psychoanalysis, the patient will deal with them and the symptoms will disappear. Zizek claims that this understanding of ideology and symptom is flawed and no longer explains the case of the contemporary subject’s malaise, so he adds a twist. He suggests that the subject today is aware of the process of ideological mystification, but buys into it anyway. Zizek draws on Lacanian psychoanalysis to illustrate his point, citing cases where symptoms persist despite the revelation of their cause to the patient. Zizek further argues that this is a case of “jouissance,” or enjoyment of the symptom, where the subject is complicit in ideology because facing up to reality in full would be more taxing than continuing to live with the symptoms. While Zizek identifies the source of this phenomenon in the refinement of ruling ideology to account for a “cynical distance,” I would like to approach the issue from the perspective of the subject (30). Cynicism of the modern subject can often be accounted for, not by the technical refinement of the dominant ideology, but by a perceived lack of alternatives to existing social institutions that produce systematic injustice and misery. This condition is summarized in iconic Margaret Thatcher and her infamous statement, TINA (There is No Alternative). At a 2007 speech in Istanbul, Michael Albert, economist and editor of Z Magazine, reflected on his experience of activism in past decades and commented that anticapitalist activists spent most of their time explaining to people the evils of capitalism, how racism is bad, how sexism damages us, and so on. Their semi-annoyed interlocutors would in turn ask, “Yes, but what do you want instead?” to which the activists would respond only with more arguments about how rotten capitalism is, and how racism hurts, and how sexism is wrong. The same was true of academic, theoretical work carried out by radical intellectuals (Albert). To illustrate his point, Albert shared an anecdote about a “computer guy” who came over to his house to fix his computer and with whom he got into a conversation about the US government’s utter indifference toward huge projected losses of civilian lives in Afghanistan prior to the NATO invasion. Albert mentioned that this person, despite having voted for Bush, did not contend in any way with him about the facts of US foreign policy, and did not try to apologize for it or claim that the US acted as a benign force. He found Albert’s words agreeable. Yet he responded by saying that,

A Proposal for Grounded Cultural Activism | 147


even though he believed that Albert’s charges were real and that it was horrible, he really didn’t want to hear all this, and neither did his family or coworkers, in the same way that they don’t want to hear about the horrors of cancer or earthquakes. The reason is that they don’t feel that they can do anything about it. Constantly being reminded of it only depresses them. I think this example explains in a straight forward way, the coming about of Zizek’s “cynical” subject. Learning about injustice is only the first step toward change, and in the absence of the next step, we invariably fall back on life as usual. If anti-corporate cultural activism leaves us only at the point of critique, we cynically degenerate to our former positions and it is back to business as usual. I would now like to discuss how this dynamic is at work at the practical level. Consumer Society, Capitalism, and Needs The desired effect of adbusting and some of the other forms of cultural activism seems to be to create some sort of permanent boycott. It begins (rightfully) with targeting the worst offenders of global capitalism, such as the oil and fast food multinationals, but the tendency is to expand indefinitely, as the Adbusters campaigns such as “Buy Nothing Day” and “TV Turn-off Week” demonstrate. The enemy is declared to be “consumer society,” and consumerism is presented as a lifestyle choice that should be rejected, kicked like a bad habit. “Consumer society” is a curious term. It vaguely reminds one of, but also displaces the old meta-enemy, capitalism. The fight against “consumer society” seems to hinge on an endless list of rejections. Behind this conception of consumer society and the call to reject its seductions, there are some assumptions that need to be challenged. The first is that we, as the general population, have actual access to the plethora of products advertised to us. This is simply not the case for a large section of the population, especially in developing countries. “The Consumer” is a figure of relative affluence, characterized by at least a middle-class outlook. For many, the problem is not consuming too much, but consuming too little, and this kind of activism doesn’t offer much to them. Anti-consumerism does not resonate strongly enough (or resonates too strongly, depending on the way you look at it) in the average Turkish household, for example, where the 2008 minimum wage is about $360 and the male adult is likely to be the sole breadwinner. There might surely be some cases of impulsive purchases of unnecessary goods, but they can hardly be elevated to a general condition. Similarly, the repugnant political propaganda and nausea-inducing commercials on TV would hardly be missed if we were to ditch the set. But for many, TV is the cheapest source of entertainment there is, and often one of the few links to the outside world in environments where opportunities for socialization are under the pressure of long workdays and household responsibilities (especially for women laboring at home).

148 | Emrah Irzık


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 137–156

Furthermore, the suggestion that some forms of consumption can be classified as legitimate satisfaction of needs, whereas others should be dismissed as frivolous “binging” is problematic. Economist Ayse Bugra suggests that even fancy consumption cannot simply be dismissed as irrational because it may often be the case that it satisfies some “hidden” need, most likely of a social and cultural character (37). She points out that the attempt to theoretically separate needs from consumption in an objective and abstract way is both futile and paternalistic. Furthermore, such an approach dangerously reduces consuming subjects to a passive role where they have no agency in determining their needs or the culturally varied means of satisfying them (31–32). Along a similar line of thought, Albert narrows down on the issue of class by arguing that, when middle-class intellectuals deride lay people for wasting their time on useless things such as football or wasting their money on name brands and designer clothes, they miss the point. Knowledge of the latest football events can be a means of socializing with co-workers on Monday, and the fancy shirt is often a solid investment to increase the prospects of getting laid (Albert). While the intellectual view that Adbusters represents assumes that people are tricked into buying things by advertisements promising status, power, and sex, Albert points out that the advertisements are de facto true. This is regrettable, and the Adbusters position correctly identifies its obscenity, but the un-cooling strategy, suffers from a catch-22 problem so long as it remains within the realm of refusal and an alternative economy of social and cultural values and standing is not created.

Dropping Out or Fighting It Out?—Boycotting in Perspective I have so far raised the following criticisms about the kind of contemporary cultural activism that finds its most prominent form in adbusting and culture jamming: Its being largely parasitic on the means of the system it opposes locks it into a permanently defensive position. This defensiveness manifests itself in its reliance on negative critique, overemphasizing the value of symbolic protest in the form of intelligent, subversive gestures at the cost of failing to establish links to positive agendas for social change. Consequently, the claims of this kind of activism for political transformation rest largely on the often invalid assumption that increasing people’s disdain for those responsible for social ills will turn them into active political subjects rather than cynical ones. Failing to situate and contextualize itself in concrete political struggles, this form of activism often suffers from a confusion of ends and means, characterizing its tactics and strategies as “the movement” itself. When “the movement” itself is conceptualized in such vague terms, it is not surprising that the system it seeks to subvert has a parallel vagueness: consumption or consumer society. I have already indicated

A Proposal for Grounded Cultural Activism | 149


the pitfalls of selecting such a target and implicitly assuming that consumption is the core of the capitalist system and the source of all its injustices. What I want to draw attention to in the rest of my discussion is that all these features I have criticized come together in the implicit notion of cultural activism as a kind of permanent boycott. The logic I have traced leads to the conclusion that “dropping out” of the consumption game and its associated “false gods” is the way to seize power against the system and thus the principle that defines culture jamming as a political movement. In order to illustrate the more empirical difficulties and contradictions involved in this position of “boycotting” as struggle, I will transpose the idea to the level of a single actor seeking to exercise political agency through conscious intervention in a simple and mundane practice of automatic consumer behavior. Consider the example of shopping for a carton of milk at the supermarket in Istanbul this year. As an adbusting, anti-corporate, conscious activist, I can’t go for the Turkish brand called Mis owned in part by Nestle, (corporatewatch.org has a shopping list of sins for Nestle), and I don’t fancy subsidizing “moderate Islam” by buying Ulker, the brand of the religious bourgeoisie. I dislike Yörsan because it fired workers for organizing a union. I have a lingering bad taste associated with the ex-state owned Sek and the bureaucrats in charge of it because I remember they handed out en masse to primary school kids free cartons of milk that turned out to have gone bad. The organic brand looks nice, but it costs an arm and a leg, and one never knows if the label “organic” is any justification or merely another marketing gimmick. There are a few other brands about which I can’t come up with something objectionable off the top of my head (aside from animal cruelty), but I have a feeling they aren’t that different because profit-based market economies systematically reward rapaciousness toward workers, consumers, and the environment. All companies must maximize their profits and get away with what they can, lest their competitors outdo them in the same game. Would it make me a cynical consumer if I just bought one by looking at the expiration date? Karl Marx insisted that, in capitalist society, we ordinary people are robbed at the point of production, and he called this exploitation. We are exploited, not at the supermarket, reaching for that commodity, but on the job, producing it. Why not look at how we can attune our admittedly advanced cultural activism skills to our anti-corporate struggles where we act not only from a position of consumers trying to stay pure, but also more importantly, from a position of exploited and oppressed producers? If we remember to look a little deeper into “consumer society” and bring out capitalism into critical light again, we can ground our cultural activism in the positive struggle to create a new world. This is where we actually have the potential to knock down barriers of the old world as we go along, rather than trying to step aside hoping it will pass us by.

150 | Emrah Irzık


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 137–156

I would like to present the case of an ongoing campaign against the Turkish dairy products company known as Yörsan as an example that brings together elements of worker, consumer, and cultural activism into a coherent whole. The campaign against Yörsan started when the workers tried to organize a union, which is their constitutional right, and the company responded by firing 400 workers. The campaign aims to win back the workers’ jobs, their right to a union, and compensation for the injustices. The Yörsan campaign is carried out under the theme “Yörsan Yersen,” which contains elements of cultural activism and detournement. “Yörsan Yersen” is a wordplay in Turkish and involves an allusion to an unrelated, recently popular marketing campaign that aimed to promote nut consumption. The TV ads that were part of the marketing campaign in question would have celebrities read a long list of hyperbolic claims about the benefits of nut consumption in a tongue-in-cheek manner, most notably that it increases sexual potency. After listing the benefits, they would conclude by saying “Yerseniz,” which carries a double meaning: both “If you eat it (the nuts)” and slang “If you swallow it (if you believe the exaggerated claims).” The “Yörsan Yersen” campaign that aims to inform the public about the injustices at Yörsan therefore appears as a detournement of the nut marketing campaign, that retains the double meanings of “if you eat Yörsan products…” and “if you believe Yörsan lies (regarding their business practices).” The Yörsan campaign also calls on consumers to boycott Yörsan products through alternative media channels, at street demonstrations, the campaign website, and pickets in front of supermarkets. The company is significantly bothered by this, since supposedly by coincidence, they have started a fresh PR campaign touting their products, hygiene, and ethics in large newspaper ads. The boycott is focused on the specific goal of pressuring the company to revert on their policy of firing workers who dare to organize. Recall now the aforementioned milk problem with regard to the struggle of Yörsan workers. I believe that the only rule to go by when shopping for milk in Istanbul today is to buy anything but the Yörsan milk. Not because any of the other companies are more ethical, but because in the context of the ongoing campaign, we have a chance to effect social change by forcing Yörsan to revert on their policy, and we stand to gain as the producers, as the working class. Boycotts only work as part of focused campaigns, within a limited time frame, rather than as lifestyle preferences. If another company benefits a little more in the short term from increased sales due to the boycott of Yörsan, so be it. Competition among various companies in the market is a feature that we can use to our advantage, and success in one case will also send a message to other companies in the industry. The important thing to consider is not to reward or punish this or that company because of its ethics in an endless game of choosing the lesser evils, but to increase our power to affect economic and social decisions, which for example, unionization can allow.

A Proposal for Grounded Cultural Activism | 151


It must also be mentioned that the example of the Yörsan campaign is favored here not because of a prioritization of one economic issue over others, but simply because the activism is grounded in a real struggle where we have a chance to win a positive outcome rather than only presenting a negative critique. The same principle of organizing and directing our communication strategies toward specific goals using the best tools we have at hand can apply to cultural activism in relation to struggles over the environment, against racism, and sexism as well. Tools such as alternative media and creative tactics such as detournement and adbusting would be indispensable in those contexts. Focused Cultural Activism Another example of a piece of cultural activism grounded in social struggles that I would like to cite is an anti-poster designed by a culture jamming political art . collective called “I ç Mihrak” (Internal Element) from Turkey. The work is a mock poster that sports the warning “Rabies is Contracted from Wild Animals” under the howling wolf symbol of The Gray Wolves, the fascist youth of the Nationalist Action . Party. The signature at the bottom of the poster reads “I ç Mihrak Health Promotion Institute.” The poster resembles government health care promotion posters, found in schools and clinics, aiming to educate people about contagious diseases such as rabies. The piece is especially significant within the context of the ongoing trials of nationalist suspects of the Dink assassination case. Hrant Dink was an ethnically Armenian leftist Turkish journalist working on reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian peoples who was murdered in January 2007 in front of his newspaper office by a young nationalist gunman. Dink’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide, coupled with a non-nationalist approach to reconciliation that could not easily be dismissed as Armenian propaganda (which incidentally made him unpopular in Armenian nationalist circles as well), was too much for some to handle. While one would expect the murder to be cause for universal condemnation and shame, many nationalists in Turkey, including political party, police, and military elements who were in fact complicit in the actual planning of the murder, received it as a heroic act. The trials of the conspirators of the gunman have turned into a political contest between such virulent fascists as Fuat Turgut, who is an attorney of the defendants in the case, and crowds who gather before the courts demanding justice and respect for the memory of Dink. In one case, Turgut shouted the insult “Rabid Armenians” at the relatives of Dink attending the trial (“‘Kuduz Ermeni’ Hakareti”), which is what the . I ç Mihrak poster is referring to. Activism in the form of maintaining visible vigilance before the courts to keep public attention focused on the case and countering the fascist campaign to inscribe the murderers as selfless heroes of the nation and the victims as malicious villains is

152 | Emrah Irzık


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 137–156

. This “I ç Mihrak” poster reads “Rabies is contracted from wild animals”. The imagery is a symbol used by the fascist “greywolves”. The poster was produced as a response to an incedent where a fascist lawyer shouted the insult “Rabid Armenians!” during court, at relatives of the assassinated Armenian journalist Dink.

. vital in the struggle against racism and fascism in Turkey. The I ç Mihrak poster contributes to this cause by the detournement of a government public health promotion item, employing the authoritative and benevolent tone of a health warning to take a jab at fascists who are rabidly attacking the Armenian minority in Turkey.

A Proposal for Grounded Cultural Activism | 153


There are many other examples of cultural activism that reinforce the solidarity of active subjects working for social causes that activists all over the world can learn from and be inspired by. Some of these may even fuse communicative acts and direct action, which further grounds cultural activism in social struggle in a direct manner. I have tried to argue in this paper that cultural activism should be conceived within the framework of a dialog with communities in struggle and be focused in its aims and vision, rather than being fragmented and purely critical. I have reaffirmed the place that practices of cultural activism such as culture jamming and its tools such as detournement have in oppositional movements, offer unique advantages as communication strategies. However, by criticizing the general orientation of Adbusters as an example, I have also drawn attention to some of the pitfalls that must be avoided. I have argued that we must have a positive vision and must concentrate on community empowerment to avoid political cynicism, and focus on struggles where we act out of active subject positions. I have tried to present examples of such practices with which I am familiar and to articulate their merits in order to inspire others. If adbusting and detournement are to be our new agit-prop, we must make them relevant to actual movements and struggles. I disagree with Lasn, who states that, to him, the agit-prop in the form of adbusting is the movement of the twenty-first century. The critique of capitalism is not adequately captured in the term “consumption society� and the capitalist system is not a pyramid scheme that can be made to collapse by refusal alone. Our activism will have to move beyond the creation of a generalized disdain for the ills of society, which is hardly in short supply, and focus on empowerment for tangible change. Cultural activism should concentrate on moments of political antagonism where actual differences in outcome are at stake because, after all, activism should not be for the sake of activism itself.

154 | Emrah IrzÄąk


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 137–156

Works Cited Albert, Michael. “Istanbul Talk For Istanbul METU Alumni Association.” Z Magazine Online. ⬍www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/ 16017⬎. Autonome a.f.r.i.k.a gruppe. “Communication Guerilla—Transversality in Everyday Life?” ⬍http://www.republicart.net/disc/artsabotage/ afrikagruppe01_en.htm⬎. Blissett, Luther and Sonja Brunzels. “What About Communication Guerilla?” ⬍http://www .lutherblissett.net/archive/373_en.html⬎. Bugra, Ayse. Devlet-Piyasa Kar¸sıtlıg ˇının Ötesinde: ˙I htiyaçlar ve Tüketim Üzerine Yazilar (Beyond the State-Market Dichotomy: Essays on Human Needs and Consumption). Istanbul: Iletisim, 2003. Chomsky, Noam and Edward S Herman. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy Of The Mass Media. New York: Pantheon, 2002.

CrimethInc Workers Collective. Days of War, Nights of Love: Crimethink for Beginners. Atlanta: CrimethInc, 2001. Debord, Guy and Gil Wolman. “A User’s Guide to Détournement.” ⬍http://www.bopsecrets.org/ SI/detourn.htm⬎. Knabb, Ken. “The Society of Situationism,” Bureau of Public Secrets #1 ⬍www.bopsecrets .org/PS/journal.htm⬎. “‘Kuduz Ermeni’ Hakareti” (The “Rabid Armenians” Insult), Sabah 26 Feb. 2008. Lasn, Kalle. Culture Jam. New York: Harper, 2000. SustainAbility. “Global Influencers: Kalle Lasn.” ⬍http://www.sustainability.com/network/ global-influencer.asp?id=201⬎. Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object Of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.

“Cigarette Smoking And Socio-Economic Class.” National Statistics Online. ⬍www.statistics.gov .uk/lib2001/Section3536.html⬎.

Notes 1. Cashfiesta.com is an example of the model. 2. The political function of recuperation is one of an unarming and co-optation. The concept can be introduced as such: “To the extent that the situationist critique extends and deepens itself, modern society—merely to minimally

understand its own functioning and opposition, or to present the spectacle reflecting what is most generally desired—must recuperate more and more elements of that critique, or in repressing it become the victim of its own correspondingly increasing blind spots.” (Knabb).

A Proposal for Grounded Cultural Activism | 155


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 157–178

Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Engaging Art for Tactical Interventions Christian Scholl

What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something, which is only related to objects, and not to individuals, or to life. —Michel Foucault 261 1. Art on the barricades In 1849, when Prussian troops tried to defeat the socialist insurgency in the German city of Dresden, Mikhail Bakunin made an unexpected proposal to his fellow insurgents. He suggested using paintings of the National Museum and placing them in front of the barricades. Provoking bourgeois sentiments for the fine arts, according to Bakunin’s reckoning, this would forestall the Prussian soldiers from actually attacking the rebels. For the inhabitants of Dresden, however, this instrumentalist approach to fine arts went too far. They refused to use the paintings for the barricades. A few days later, the insurrection was defeated. Bakunin and many others were arrested, others killed, and many more chose to leave the country. Only 150 years later, the use of art, although not museum art, for acts of resistance is obviously much more accepted. During the coming-out of global movements at the protests against the ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, a rally was accompanied by giant puppets, symbolizing the supposed leaders of the world who gather during such meetings. However, while thousands of protestors engaged in a battle with the police in order to defend the blockades that kept twothirds of the WTO delegates outside the conference center, the rally accompanied by the giant puppets made a round far away from where these confrontations took place. When I got a chance to ask people at one of the subsequent summit protests in

Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Engaging Art for Tactical Interventions | 157


Europe why they were using these puppets, I got the following answer: “We want our resistance to be colorful.” It is pointless to ponder about what would have happened if the insurrectionists of Dresden had used the paintings. What is clear, however, is that art works might have contributed to the survival of a revolutionary situation. Evaluating the tactical usefulness of art for activist interventions is precisely what this article wishes to accomplish. Therefore, I am focusing on activist interventions of the recent past that take the public space as its reference point for engagement. I will take the experiences of activist art interventions during summit protests over the past ten years as a starting point to investigate the epistemological premises of the imagery of revolutionary change upon which they are based. In order to trace the genealogy of the epistemological imagination of revolutionary change, I will consider earlier practices and movements. The debate about the use of art for resistance has changed considerably since the 1960s. The expressive mood of May ’68 normalized the use of art for contentious politics. Most of the art interventions, as the example of the giant puppets makes clear, do not transcend mere expression. As Aristide Zollberg points out, however, historical “moments of madness” are marked by a collapse of the expressive with the instrumental. In these moments, the difference between expressive articulation and instrumental action vanishes. These “moments of madness,” I argue, can be predicated on two images of revolutionary change: disruption and confrontation. Contemporary art activists often state the intention to disrupt the normal flow of things by intervening with art in the public space. Considering the anecdote of Bakunin and the Dresden insurgents, we may wonder whether this is the only possible purpose of art for resistance. Disruption was certainly not the horizon of the debates on the barricades. Rather, the Dresden insurgents discussed the use of art in order to win a confrontation with the enemy. Even though Bakunin was not able to get his proposal accepted in that moment, the decisiveness with which the insurgents were able to contemplate their matter makes contemporary rebels look like poor cousins. This, at first view, disappointing insight, led me to investigate the following questions: What do Western radicals mean when they speak about disruption? How do we think of the coordination of social relations once we assume that we can disrupt them? What does this tell us about how to conceive of revolutionary change? And, how do these epistemological premises change once we think about the use of art in terms of confrontation? These are the questions I want to explore in this essay. What I hope to accomplish is to sharpen the debate about the tactical use of art interventions for revolutionary street politics. Ultimately, this contribution is an argument, for seeing art not as an object but as a social relation that potentially transforms the way we know and act in the world.

158 | Christian Scholl


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 157–178

2. The epistemological premises of disruption The way my considerations are presented might appear a little schematic. It should be clear, however, that the reality of activist art interventions is a little messier than that. I will show that many of them are actually based on both constitutive moments—disruption and confrontation—instead of constructing them as exclusive categories. The reason to disentangle these two moments analytically is to sharpen activists’ awareness about their possible choices when using art for interventions in the public space. I will start my considerations by presenting four important premises behind the epistemology of disruption: the temporality of a rupture, the importance of participatory self-production, the orientation toward confusion and subversion and, finally, the will to provide an exemplary gesture. It will become clear how the imagery around disruption has epistemological consequences for the way we think about change. Disruptions as temporary autonomous zones Activist art often focuses on what the situationists1 have dubbed the “creation of a situation,” which exceeds the normal flow of everyday life. Interventions of this kind are aimed at a temporary rupture. This orientation can clearly be observed in the context of global struggles. Summit protesters frequently refer to the idea of “cracks,” a way of conceiving of summit protests as disruptive moments in the reality of global capitalism, that have to be extended in order achieve systemic change. Inspired by these movements, the political theorist John Holloway takes on this idea and asks “how to multiply and expand these refusals, these cracks in the texture of domination.” Summit protests between 1999 and 2001 have often been called “carnival against capitalism” (see elsewhere in this volume). The “carnival against capitalism” of the “traveling anarchist circus” encapsulated the creative potential of street protest where the expressive collapsed with the instrumental and gave way to new repertoires of action. At the same time, it was a conscious reference to Bakhtin’s interpretation of the medieval carnival as a moment where all social protocols and hierarchies are put upside down (Notes from Nowhere 175). “Carnival against capitalism” denotes activists’ orientation to the here and now, to a temporary crack through a joyful intervention: The unpredictability of carnival with its total subservience to spontaneity, where any individual can shape her environment and transform herself into another being fro an hour or a day, ruptures what we perceive to be reality. It creates a new world by subverting all stereotypes, daring imaginations to expand their limits, turning the present world upside down, if only for a moment. (Notes from Nowhere 175) What is compelling here is the focus on the here and now and the acceptance of temporariness, both encapsulated in the orientation toward “moments.” This

Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Engaging Art for Tactical Interventions | 159


understanding entails the recognition of each intervention as a momentary crack, which in unison, would disrupt capitalist normality and eventually turn down the system. This conception of change clearly resonates the ideas of Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone” where he uses a historical description of—what he calls utopian—pirate archipelagos, in order to propose a new approach to the question of social change: “The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (a land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to reform elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it” (117). Bey suggests that the temporality of resistance and alternative structures are the perfect answer to an omnipresent and all-powerful State that would crush any more endurable project. This way, he makes a reactive necessity into a strategic program. The TAZ does not sound like a strategy for radical change, but like one for survival, where the state’s repressive and capitalism’s recuperative capacities are anticipated and accepted. A similar conception of resistance can be encountered in A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari, which has been interpreted by many as a reaction to the failure of the May ’68 uprisings (Graeber and Shukaitis). The conceptual tools they developed in order to discover the possibilities for social change are all based on the idea of temporary breaks. Instead of cracks, however, they speak about a “rhizomatic structure,” which conceives of resistance as being always present, albeit underground and invisible, with the potentiality to appear above the ground at any moment just in order to retreat again. Such a structure offers many “lines of flights” and makes structures of resistance difficult to control or crush. It also makes it, however, very difficult to permanently change the world “up there.” The practice of disruption as a temporary break with ruling relations and capitalist normality clearly resonates in contemporary activist art interventions. It is no surprise that Western radicals championing summit protests as disruptive carnivals refuse to project a more coherent strategy on their organizing and willingly retreat once their party is not a surprise any more. Another example is the relatively recent practice of flash mobs. Flash mobs are sudden gatherings of people at a certain public space, performing uncommon activities, and dissolving after only a little while. Flash mobs were used, for example, during a campaign against the privatization of the German railway in September 2007. On a Saturday at five minutes before noon, crowds appeared in the entrance hall of various train stations in Germany and made lots of noise for exactly two minutes. After this, people held papers above their heads with a number that symbolized the losses the German railway would supposedly incur when privatized. After a short while, everyone dispersed. Whereas flash mobs are certainly coordinated, often through the Internet, cell phones, or radio frequencies,

160 | Christian Scholl


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 157–178

the seemingly sudden convergence makes it look spontaneous. It therefore confuses bystanders, authorities, and opponents. It visibly disrupts the normalized flow of public spaces, but it is rather unclear what the long-term effects may be. It can be considered a temporary liberation of public spaces from their commercial function, a goal that has been central in the practice of the Reclaim the Streets movement in Great Britain.2 The Reclaim The Streets movement, with its street parties in Great Britain and elsewhere, can be seen as a clear example of creating moments where streets are liberated from their conventional purposes and turned into places for coming together, for festivity and joy: “The ‘road’ had been turned into a ‘street,’ a street like none other, a street which provided a rare glimpse of utopia, a kind of temporary microcosm of a truly liberated, ecological culture” (Jordan 350). Interestingly, Raoul Vaneigem, one of the exponents of the Situationist International, already saw this potential of street parties some decennia in advance: the Street Party can be read as a carnivalesque reversal of this assertion; as an attempt to make Carnival the revolutionary moment. Placing “what could be” in the path of “what is” and celebrating the “here and now” in the road of the rush for “there and later,” it hopes to reenergize the possibility of radical change . . . It is an expansive desire; for freedom, for creativity; to truly live. (Vaneigem in Jordan 353) George McKay (1996: 5–6) conceives of this orientation toward temporary disruption as the central feature of contemporary activist interventions. He compares the language of utopian desire of the past four decennia. While the 1960s can be framed under the slogan “Be reasonable, demand the impossible,” a sentence that clearly resonates the desire for revolutionary change, McKay proposes to summarize the language of desire of the nineties with “Go and commit a senseless act of beauty.” Beside of the clear reference to the aesthetic component in activist interventions (“the act of beauty”), the word “senseless” seems to be more crucial here. Without inferring that “acts of beauty” are necessarily senseless, it is clear that McKay detects an aversion in activist interventions against strategic coherence. The act itself becomes championed as revolutionary moment, temporariness becoming thereby the only valid category for assessing the value of activist art interventions: “Note that what might normally be ascribed as a sign of failure—impermanence— is in this anarchist philosophy celebrated as a symptom of ubiquity . . .” (McKay 1996: 8). McKay is touching upon a sensitive point here: instead of admitting the failure in totally breaking with capitalist reality, activists champion the temporary capacity of disruptive moments. This means, at the end, that the epistemology of disruption is defeatist, because it seems to suggest that the world cannot be changed, but merely disrupted momentarily.

Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Engaging Art for Tactical Interventions | 161


Disruption as participatory self-production The focus on the here and now in the practice of disruption finds yet another expression in the Do-it-Yourself (DiY) practice of contemporary activist art practices. While the expression DiY is normally related to the punk movement and its devotion to independent and self-made music production, it became a broader practice, not only related to cultural production, in the squat movement (Schafraad), and later through the revitalization of anarchist practices in global movements (Holtzman et al.; Graeber 2002; Poldervaart). Yet, the idea of independent production in the context of counterculture is certainly older than these movements. In the “The Author as Producer,” Walter Benjamin argues that art theories have focused so far on the content of art practices without analyzing the condition of its production. He then postulates that an artwork that only tries to convey a radical message, but is produced under capitalist production relations, can never contribute to a revolutionary practice. This means that art production has to focus on the direct circumstances of the production process, in different words: on the here and now. It is only a small step, then, from Benjamin to the DiY music production of the punks. More recent activist art interventions often translate DiY as the collective creation of participatory forms of resistance. Reclaim the Streets, as much as Pink & Silver and the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army stress that they want to provide a context in which people enjoy participating in radical resistance. Accounts of their interventions often highlight the fact that boundaries between actor and spectator, thus between producer and consumer, collapse during these activist art interventions. The Reclaim the Street movement, for example, based its street parties on the idea of opening participatory spaces of self-production that could be opposed to capitalist consumerism: The road became a stage for a participatory ritual theatre: ritual because it is efficacious, it produces real effects by means of symbolic causes; participatory because the street party has no division between performer and audience, it is created by and for everyone . . . it is experienced in the immediate moment by all, in the spirit of faceto-face subversive comradeship. (Jordan 347) Here we can find a consequential answer to Debord’s critique of the “society of spectacle”: creating a situation that denies the logic of spectacle consumerism by turning everyone into a participant, an active agent of social change, at least for a moment. The temporary autonomous zone of an activist art intervention, then, becomes a moment for experiencing a community of horizontal participation. Or, as an activist states in McKay: “An essential part of resistance is the coming together of people” (1998: 27). Because of DiY’s tendency toward immediacy, however, it is hard to tell what a possible proposal for a long-term strategy would look like, that goes beyond a temporary

162 | Christian Scholl


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 157–178

disruption of hierarchical capitalist production relations. As McKay argues, DiY repeats some of anarchism’s (supposed) flaws: partial narrative, inchoate organization, a naïve utopianism, micro-politics, a preference for spectacle and gesture over long-term strategy (1998: 14). These flaws became very visible during the protests against the Charlemagne prize ceremony in 2008, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel received this distinction from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The goal of these protests, and the reasons for many internationals to travel to Aix-la-Chapelle and participate in the protests, clearly was to disrupt the prize ceremony in the center of the city. The local network, however, refused on the evening before the protests, when most protesters had arrived, to give a coherent strategy for achieving this. Their take was that this should be figured out collectively in a participatory process. Besides the time constraints, the newcomers did not possess the relevant geographical knowledge to use the city space effectively for approaching the conference. Despite the participation of several thousand activists, this resulted in some rather disappointing kamikaze actions of scattered groups of rebel clowns and pink and silver activists, most of whom never reached the market square where the ceremony was held in the church and the city house. Merkel’s and Sarkozy’s show could not be disrupted, and we all felt a bit as though we had participated in a “senseless act of beauty.” Disruption as confusion and subversion The influence of the Reclaim the Streets movement is visible in at least two more action forms that emerged in the context of recent summit protests. While the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (see also elsewhere in this volume) aims to “create coherence through confusion,” 3 Pink & Silver proposes “occupation of the street in which symbols and ideals of authority are subverted.” 4 The Rebel Clown Army is a practice where people make themselves up as clowns wearing army-style clothes in order to mock authority. Pink & Silver is a practice where people dress in cheerful pink and silver clothes and imitate cheerleader dances shouting radical slogans, often accompanied by a samba band. Both tactics attempt to confuse the anticipated lines of confrontation during street protests and subvert binary categories such as male-female, violent-non-violent, and fun-activism. By so doing, they confuse and subvert dominant cultural codes. The Rebel Clown Army and Pink & Silver are, however, not the first practices to champion the idea of confusion and subversion. They are clearly indebted to earlier practices that are often brought together under the umbrella term communication guerilla and cultural jamming. In the book Handbuch der Kommunikationsguerrilla, the collective autonome a.f.r.i.k.a. gruppe et al. makes an attempt to summarize some shared theoretical considerations of these divergent practices. They assert that communication guerrilla is about confusion and subversion of otherwise

Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Engaging Art for Tactical Interventions | 163


unquestioned ruling relations. This view is based on a re-definition of the political. The autonome a.f.r.i.k.a. gruppe proposes that politics should not merely be seen as the art of state-making, but as something that is constituted wherever the legitimacy of ruling relations is contested. Clearly inspired by poststructuralist theories, they focus on the reproduction of ruling relations in the cultural sphere, and above all, through language. Confusion and subversion are a way to disrupt the reproduction of these ruling relations by appropriating dominant symbols and discourses in order to transport a counter-hegemonic message. A clear example of communication guerrilla is the practice of adbusting. One of the earliest and most simple adbusts is the over-pasted “S” of a Shell advertisement, whereby the fonts and the logo are left intact. To the viewer, it would still be recognizable, in the first place, as a Shell advertisement, but then with the letters “hell” below it, which point to the questionable business practices of this multinational enterprise. This intervention turns any Shell advertisement into a critical message. Also the Clown Army and Pink & Silver can be seen as a form of communication guerrilla with the goal of turning conventional ideas and expectations about protestors upside down. This way, they confuse the anticipation of police, media, bystanders, and even fellow protesters. The focus on confusion and subversion of the Clown Army and Pink & Silver, however, has yet another antecedent that clearly laid the base for communication guerrilla types of intervention. Reversing cultural codes is a practice that was dubbed detournement by the situationist movement. The Situationist International was a cultural-political movement found in 1957, mainly active in France. The seminal work “Society of the Spectacle,” written by one of the most prominent situationists, Guy Debord, describes how Western societies in the current phase of capitalist development are haunted by the fetishist logic of the spectacle. The interventions of the situationists, often directed toward the urban space or cultural industry, can be seen as an attempt to disrupt the constant spectacle through detournement. Their sharp critique of capitalist consumerist culture and their exhilarating slogans and interventions have been very influential for the movements around May ’68, and also for many other activist art practices following afterward, as we have seen. One of the most successful offspring of situationist ideas was the Provo movement, which started in 1965 to hold “happenings” at a square in the center of Amsterdam in order to subvert the petit-bourgeois morality of a conservative Dutch society. Jasper Groeneveld, for example, a well-known Provo, held regular smoke-in rituals that would regularly end in arrests. The Northern American pendant of the situationists, the Yippies, followed a similar line of engagement with the public space. Their nickname was an ironic reference to the hippies, and stood actually for “International Youth Party,” a highly theatrical and anti-authoritarian political party, established in 1967 as an offshoot of the

164 | Christian Scholl


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 157–178

free speech and anti-war movements. One of their protagonists, Abbie Hoffman, described the Yippie strategy as follows: Instead of making your own culture, it’s more effective to hijack the dominant culture and make it mouth your message. Using advertising as a model for radical propaganda, and the TV news as a theater for revolution, they turn the power of commercial power against itself. (329) Hoffman’s description of the Yippie strategy mirrors the hope of using dominant culture to transport an oppositional message that contributes to the subversion of the dominant culture. Instead of openly declaring war on the dominant culture and the values it represents, the Yippies considered it more viable to re-appropriate certain spaces within this culture in order to inflict little scratches from there. Many movements emerging from the 1960s onward have contributed to an expressive conception of street interventions as changing the cultural grammar. Instead of achieving instrumental ends, interventions in the public space are directed to confuse and subvert communication. Disruption as an exemplary gesture This brings me to a final epistemological premise of disruption as a constitutive moment of contemporary activist art intervention. This premise has to do with what McKay calls the preference of “gesture” (1998: 14). With this term, he refers to an idea that is clearly present in contemporary activist art interventions: an act in itself can embody a gesture that points to the future by giving hints about how a better world would look in practice. Street parties and carnivals against capitalism are often perceived as an exemplary way of how a life freed from the constraints of capitalism and social hierarchies might look. In a nutshell, “exemplary” means that these acts prefigure the better world to come. Wini Breines describes prefigurative politics as the attempt “to create and sustain within the lived practice of the movement, relationships and political forms that ‘prefigured’ and embodied the desired society.”5 The logic of prefiguration has already been present very strongly in non-violent direct action movements in the 1970s and 1980s (Epstein). The logic of prefiguration as an exemplary gesture relies clearly on a conflation between means and ends. Activist art interventions become an end in themselves, because they create, at least for a moment and in a nutshell, the world in which activists want to live. This means that activist art has to be based on ethical considerations, which focus on attuning the means to the desired ends, instead of being based on instrumental considerations, where reaching an end becomes an instrumental consideration. David Graeber has brilliantly captured this tendency toward ethics as a neglect of strategy when he states: “[t]he motto might be, ‘If you are willing to act like an anarchist now, your longterm vision is pretty much your own business’” (2002: 72).

Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Engaging Art for Tactical Interventions | 165


At summit protests, activists frequently tried to combine acts of resistance with a prefigurative gesture. One of the clearest examples is the “Cre8 summat” garden that was constructed in a poor neighbourhood in Glasgow on a spot where a road was to be built. Activists explicitly wanted to prefigure with their resistance against this road project a better use of urban space (Roman). The implicit reckoning behind prefiguration is that activist art interventions set a good example, which should be followed by others. The pretension of providing an exemplary gesture relies clearly on the logic of representation. The immediate act represents the possible better world of the future. The activist art intervention becomes the signifier of a yet-to-establish future as the signified. As Richard Day puts it in his celebration of activists’ ethical orientation toward the New Babylon5: Revolution and reform have failed to produce the goods, it is true, and neither the masses nor the mass have any political potential. However, what it seems cannot ever be done for anyone at all using hegemonic methods can perhaps be done by some of us, here and now. (214) Day articulates perfectly the anti-strategic defeatism of prefigurative politics that ultimately contradicts the will to be participatory by its exclusive elitism. The exclusive elitism lies precisely in the orientation toward an alternative for a small group (“some of us”), which implies the abandonment of the idea of egalitarianism. In the best case, perfect utopias are created that are pretty meaningless for the rest of the world. Such a self-indulgent way of practicing alternatives runs not only the danger to become an exclusive practice—since making this step to form alternative communities is often extremely costly and cannot be taken by the disenfranchised, and therefore does not offer an alternative to their daily lives—but also might function in the contemporary historical situation as an accomplishment of the managerial practice of neo-liberalism, where responsibilities for socially organized inequalities are downscaled to local communities and social life as a whole becomes deregulated. For this reason, the dogmatic understanding of the idea of convergence of means and ends has been criticized, most outspokenly by Ward Churchill and Mike Ryan, who argue that prefiguration can end in a pathological proclamation of pacifism by “white progressives” that tend to perform a “loyal opposition” which means ultimately contributing to the corroboration of the status quo. This demonstrates that the prefiguration of alternatives is based upon taking a decision for one rather than for another way of doing politics. Far from being fully inclusive, such a decision means that other alternatives are excluded. Nunes shows convincingly how the decision for the construction of a horizontal space implies excluding the option of hierarchical organizing. As long as activists are not aware of the fact that prefiguration involves a certain decision and a certain appeal to exemplary leadership (where a lived alternative establishes a pedagogical relationship and

166 | Christian Scholl


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 157–178

therefore results in the collapse of execution and legislation), they risk the danger of mystifying their own political practice in order to appear as truly inclusive and antiauthoritarian. 3. The epistemological premises of confrontation At one of the biggest street parties of the Reclaim the Streets network, held nearby in London in 1996, a huge puppet made its way through the crowd from one end of the street to the other. Since art objects and creative ways of expression were a habitual feature of Reclaim the Street parties by then, the authorities might not have been surprised by this strange procedure. They were surprised, however, when they saw that after the street party the road had dissolved. In the middle of the road, a line had been dug in the ground in which sunflowers had been planted. Clearly, the puppet had just been a screen for other activists equipped with percussion drills and sunflowers. This anecdote points to another constitutive moment of contemporary activist art interventions. The giant puppet was not only an expression in itself, but also a means to reach a very different end. This end was not to disrupt, but to hit the opponent where it hurts: the newly constructed street was demolished. This art intervention thereby serves as a confrontation. My aim is not to subdivide activist art interventions into good and bad practices, but to point out two constitutive moments— disruption and confrontation—that can be present in one and the same activist art intervention. As one Reclaim the Streets activist has put it, when speaking about the art monuments erected at the beginning of their movement: “These were not just ephemeral monuments to the end of car culture but also beautiful and effective barricades” (Jordan 350). In what follows, I will analyze four crucial epistemological premises of confrontation as a constitutive moment of activist art: the negation of representation, instrumental reckoning, an antagonistic conception of the world and, finally, the pedagogical dialectics. Confrontation as non-representational politics On Monday, April 7th, a rather weird photo made the front page of Het Parool, an Amsterdam-based daily newspaper: two persons dressed in military clothes, with sunglasses and a pink scarf disguising the rest of their faces, holding a toy gun, stand in front of a demonstration at one of the major squares of Amsterdam, the Dam. The headline above the photo says: “An army of squatters crosses the city.” The explanation below the photo reads: “Squatters heavily armed on the Dam.” For the inattentive reader, this might have raised some unsettling questions: Do we have to be frightened of an armed insurgency? How many squatters have taken up arms for fighting their struggle? And why did the authorities not intervene? The last question is answered in the article that accompanies the photo. Upon being asked what

Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Engaging Art for Tactical Interventions | 167


he thought about this demonstration by squatters, a member of the city council answered that it is a sad thing that squatters try to make a point with toy guns, but that he thought the right to demonstrate is more important than harsh police intervention. What was not mentioned in the article is that the alleged “army” consisted of only four persons accompanying a peaceful demonstration of squatters without army clothes and toy guns. Such a confession would have disturbed the constructed picture of squatters being a threat. Het Parool just followed the well-known journalistic instinct of sensationalism: squatters are depicted as an eminent threat to the established order. The activist art interventions of the four “clownpatistas” (as they called themselves afterward in a report on the Dutch Indymedia), did not attempt to disrupt such representation. They rather seemed to evade any sort of representation, and fed the press’ tendency to establish a friend-enemy scheme. Instead of trying to influence the picture created by media in a positive way, the clownpatistas fed the expectation of a (violent) confrontation. Ultimately, this becomes clear when we look at their explanation for why they showed up dressed like this: the clownpatistas task for this day was to sort out undercover policemen mingling themselves among the squatters. Obtaining the support of the “heavily armed” clownpatistas did not please them, since the undercover agents were then too easily exposed. While a clownpatista had no trouble being all too visible, an undercover policeman definitely did.

“Armed squatters”. Photo by Gabriel Eisenmeier

168 | Christian Scholl


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 157–178

An easy way to approach the object of an investigation is to define what it is not. One epistemological premise of confrontation as a constitutive moment of activist art interventions, then, is that it does not follow a representational paradigm. Unlike disruption, which in most cases leads to interventions that consciously refer to or take over a dominant signifier in order to reload it with a deviant message, confrontation does not produce interventions that aim to represent (the desired) social reality. It goes beyond and against representation. For a long while, I thought Bertolt Brecht made this point most clearly, when he said: “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to smash it.” When I re-read Brecht’s quote for the purpose of this article, I had to realize, however, that my memory had betrayed me. What Brecht did say, in the last part, was: “. . . but a hammer with which to shape it.” While disappointed at first sight, I later realized that this did not change much of the meaning. “Smashing” and “shaping” are just the two sides of a dialectical process. Both ways of reading Brecht’s quote refute the bourgeois paradigm of representation. Understood in this way, art contributes to a clarification of social struggles by immersing itself into them. Art is not an external practice to comment on the struggle or influence its representation in the media. The sunflower example also makes this point clear. Destroying the road by planting sunflowers was part of the implementation of a collective will to confront rather than an attempt to mirror (a utopian) reality. Confrontation as instrumentalist reckoning The difference with a disruptive approach to art becomes even more apparent once we note the necessity for instrumental reckoning behind a confrontational approach. The expressive dimension of an activist art intervention is instrumentalized here in order to achieve a tactical goal. What the clownpatistas confronted in fact was not a picture in the media, but the incapacitating presence of undercover policemen. This instrumentalist approach to art is a tactical resource for reaching immediate consequences. When activist art interventions are based on the moment of confrontation, art as such actually disappears, because it will not be judged by the aesthetic qualities it has, but by the effects it produces. Thus, here the immediacy is of a very different order than in the case of disruption. Whereas with disruption, the “here and now” becomes a utopian category of prefiguration, with confrontation it becomes the measurement for the results. An instrumentalist approach to activist art leads to consequential reckoning with the effects of interventions. A telling example of this is provided by the Biotic Baking Brigades (BBB) who developed a practice called “Global Pastry Uprising.”6 Clearly situating their interventions within the context of global movements, the Biotic Baking Brigade began throwing biological pies in the faces of proponents of neoliberal policies or celebrities of the corporate world. Pictures of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in 2000, or the head

Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Engaging Art for Tactical Interventions | 169


of Microsoft, Bill Gates, in 1998, with cream on their faces have been circulated around the world. Besides ridiculing and attacking the authority and politics of these persons, the Biotic Baking Brigade managed to abort quite a few such events, because the “pied” persons could not deliver their speeches or had to be cleaned up first. This shows the instrumentalist approach of activist art practices as something that must have consequences. The consequence of the pie is not merely a disruptive crack but a confrontation of power. A similar effect can be observed when the Clandestine Insurgent Clown Army is not only applied to confuse, but to use this confusion in order to reach another goal. The Scottish police, for example, were clearly not prepared for a marching Clown Army, while securing the road leading to the G8 summit in 2005. When, on their way to blockade one of these roads, the Clown Army met the first police line, they were able to just cross this line by continuing to march along past the rather astounded police officers. This was precisely the reckoning behind this tactic: while looking endlessly stupid, the application of the military marching tactic meant that the clown army could pass the police line as a compact and determent group. Here we can see that an important part of the instrumentalist premise of activist art interventions is the goal of breaking with the existing order. Confusion is not an end in itself, but becomes a means to confront an opponent. The instrumentalist approach of art actually has an antecedent with the Dada movement, which used the literary form in such a way that it was hardly recognizable as art, for the purpose of abolishing bourgeois society and laying the ground for totally new social relations. Non-art art was a means to confront and change the dominant social relations of that time. When we look at the following lines of the Dadaist manifesto, presented during a soiree in Berlin in 1918, the instrumentalist approach of Dada becomes clear: “To be a Dadaist might sometimes mean being a businessman or a politician rather than an artist, being an artist only by accident.”7 Instrumentalist reckoning is directed toward the goal of a break with the established order. This ambition was clearly marked by Lenin’s strategic proposal of a total rupture.8 Lenin opposed the revisionist proposal of gradual reforms with the image of a complete break with bourgeois democracy and property relations. From this goal, then, emerges a strategic thinking that advances any means in order to achieve this rupture. This strategic orientation toward a total rupture with the existing bourgeois and capitalist order was based on Lenin’s interpretation of dialectic materialism, and gives us the possibility of clearly demarcating it from the idea of disruption, which appears as a rather liberal concept in this light. While an analysis following dialectical materialism arrives at seeing history as a process of revolutions and counterrevolutions where social forces are confronted with each other in order to break the adversary, liberalism assumes that differing competing social forces in society can establish a compromise, either through the aggregation of preferences or through

170 | Christian Scholl


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 157–178

deliberation. Activist art interventions oriented toward disruption seemingly rely on such a conception of the political process. This is obviously a very different vision of change than the idea of a total rupture. Confrontation as an antagonistic conception of the world It is September 26, 2000, and about five thousand people from all over the world take part in one of the four marches heading toward the annual meeting of the World Bank and the IMF. Accompanying this black bloc is a huge blue ball with bright orange letters that say “Balls to the IMF.” The plan is to stage a symbolical siege of the conference and physically block all delegates from exiting.9 Unlike thousands of activists, however, the ball will never arrive at the location of the meetings. Being confronted with several lines of heavily-geared riot police and a water canon, the black bloc insists on continuing. A riot breaks out; the water canon begins spewing; some activists try to move the ball toward the police line, until it is demolished by the strong water jet. This brief survival of the blue ball raises some interesting considerations. Many observers (Starr; Graeber 2002) highlight the use of artistic and creative action repertoires during summit protests stressing the new expressiveness this movement has developed. The blue ball, however, seems to fulfill a somewhat different function. It is no coincidence that, out of the four marches, each of them applying different tactics, it was the black bloc that carried this ball with them. The use of water canons against them was considered quite likely and a ball like this would be just perfect to play with in front of the water jet. This means that the ball as an art object humorously anticipated the confrontation. The activists knew that they would be stopped from approaching the conference centre; they knew that they would insist; they knew that a riot would break out and that water canons would be used. This knowledge was embodied in the blue ball. The black bloc had to end up in a confrontation in order to use the ball as it was intended. The confrontation was textually confirmed in the slogan “Balls to the IMF” written on the ball that clearly targeted the enemy and assured that they will be confronted.10 Underlying the instrumentalist approach of activist art interventions directed to the creation of a rupture is a clearly dualistic vision of power struggles. This dualistic vision is constituted by an antagonistic conception of the social world, as opposed to the liberal conception of reaching consensus through aggregation or deliberation. As Chantall Mouffe has pointed out, the liberal conception actually eliminates the basis of the political, which is conflict. In her view, facing the problems of our societies in a political way, and not reducing them to mere technical issues, implies defining the political as a space of antagonism constituted by a conflict of adversaries. This intervention of Mouffe against the post-political vision that has recently gained hegemony brings back the friend-enemy scheme for which Carl Schmitt has argued.

Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Engaging Art for Tactical Interventions | 171


Schmitt strongly emphasized the distinction between “us” versus “them” as the foundation of the political. The antagonistic conception of the political can, for example, be found in the practice of the Biotic Baking Brigades that I introduced before. Much as Amory Starr’s book Naming the Enemy about early anti-corporate struggles during the 1990s seems to suggest, the Biotic Baking Brigade wants to make the faces behind neoliberal globalization visible. As a statement on its website says: “This uprising has its roots in the belief that our planet is not dying, it is being killed; and the ones doing the killing have names and faces.”11 While such an antagonistic approach has led to often-predictable forms of intervention in the context of street interventions, activist art triggered considerable innovation in transforming the ways in which such a confrontation is organized. One example to be mentioned here is the Tute Bianche (White Overalls) from Italy. The White Overalls emerged in a context where activists in Italy increasingly realized the limitations of confrontational clashes with the police. The escalation of social conflicts during the 1970s has resulted in a harsh wave of repression against progressive forces in Italy. Several thousand people were imprisoned during the 1980s (Wright). During the early 1990s, the movement did not have at all the same numerical strength it had during the 1970s, and activists wanted to avoid getting caught in the vicious circle of violence and counter-violence, with the result of being crushed by the state. They therefore thought about a form of visualizing social conflicts that would leave no doubt about their intentions and would clearly show which side perpetrates violence, and at the same time opens opportunities to confront power.12 The White Overalls symbolized the subject of this new generation of conflict. Padded activists equipped with inner tubes, plexiglas shields, and balloons manifested their will to enter migrants’ detention centers or G8 summits, but at the same time made clear that their protection was purely self-defensive. The pictures of masses of padded activists rushing against heavily armed riot police officers circulating through the media left no doubt about the existence of a social conflict. The White Overalls confronted global capitalism and state power with their model of “active civil disobedience” and established an image of an antagonistic relationship with their adversaries. The strategic use of art in the antagonistic street interventions of the White Overalls went even further after this practice was diffused throughout Europe. During the protests against the EU summit in Barcelona in 2001, the padded White Overall bloc carried huge plexiglas shields covered with pictures of children from the global south. This way, they extended the antagonism to a global scale: if the police were going to prevent them from entering the EU meetings, they had to beat children from the global south first. This, for sure, would mean to insult the bourgeois horizon of charity, where these kinds of pictures are used frequently for collecting donations: an unintended and late tribute to Mikhail Bakunin that still did not result, however, in a revolutionary liberation of the city of Barcelona.

172 | Christian Scholl


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 157–178

Confrontation as pedagogical dialectics The blue ball of Prague, as much as the decorated shields of Barcelona, contributed to focused activity in the moment of a confrontation. Here resides the potential of art practices to pose an epistemological critique of the idea of disruption by focusing on a genuine understanding of the adversary, which emerges in the moment of confrontation. As A. K. Thompson puts it, with an explicit allusion to Paulo Freire’s work, confrontation can be conceptualized as the “pedagogy of the oppressed.” It is through the (physical) encounter with a ruling regime that people can begin to figure out how ruling is organized. The concrete encounter can provide a reliable map of the social world in which they must operate. Moreover, an antagonistic approach to activist art interventions makes it necessary to “know your enemy.” Thus, confrontation produces a dialectics of knowing that directly feeds back into further actions. Freire advocates a pedagogical approach that begins with the concrete experiences of oppressed people in order to provide them an understanding of the social world that would enable them to transform it. The analysis of their social world leads the oppressed to a dialectic transposition of the conditions of their oppression. Georg Lukács explains such a dialectical approach: “What matters is that the slice of life shaped and depicted by the artist and re-experienced by the reader should reveal the relations between appearance and essence without the need for any external commentary” (34). The immediacy of a confrontational moment leads to an abstraction about the social organization of the world: “However, one of the greatest achievements of the dialectical method—already found in Hegel—was its discovery and demonstration that immediacy and abstraction are closely akin, and more particularly, that thought which begins in immediacy can only lead to abstraction” (Lukács 38). Conceiving of confrontation in terms of pedagogical dialectics implies a conception of history as a product of ideological (re-)construction, in order to question the status quo of the present, and to see it as a product of hegemonic power relations that can be changed through human agency. If such a dialectical approach is applied to confrontational activist art interventions, it can serve to reveal the social totality, which is materially organized and not on the level of ideas that could be “disrupted.” The first application of Pink & Silver tactics during the protests against the IMF and World Bank meeting in Prague in 2000 was clearly a result of pedagogical dialectics. Reckoning with the stereotypes of the police about militant protesters, they confronted the police lines with frivol dresses. Stunned at first by this carnivalesque cheerleader procession, the police were even more stunned when these pink and silver dancers insisted on making their way. Consequently, The Pink & Silver march was the only march to arrive at the conference site, where the dialectical operation was brought to perfection: when being confronted with one cheerleader with giant feathers, a whole police line retreated hastily from the conference site. Watching this

Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Engaging Art for Tactical Interventions | 173


scene from the rooftop of the convention centre, the summit delegates did not look amused. However, the pedagogical potential of activist art interventions does not exclude certain dangers of becoming reified through repetition and therefore unreceptive to a further learning process. Confrontation needs innovation and must be pushed further in order to avoid ritualization. Ultimately, ritualization of confrontational moments means abiding by the logic of disruption. Religio-political spectacles are easily reconcilable with capitalism, as pointed out by Peter Cardogan: Either confrontation must make the ultimate challenge of successful insurrection or it must be content with being an essentially religio-political exercise, that is a complex of incantations and rituals concerned with the elevation of the elect for their own sake, the complementary “mortification of the flesh,” and the security and prosperity of the church, party, or sect. (175) This, the only consequential continuation of confrontational art interventions is a revolution. 4. Back to the barricades The barricades of Dresden in 1949 have served as an excellent starting point for my investigation of the epistemological premises of activist art interventions. While the pedagogical character of art interventions based on confrontation was part of the argument, I want to consider it here in a broader light where these considerations might bring us. Whereas the preceding pages have evaluated a whole range of activist art interventions of past years, I am not inclined to depict contemporary activists as dignified cousins of Bakunin. The cultural-political movements of the 1960s have introduced a grammar of protest that champions the expressive, and thereby neglects strategy. The image of a complete rupture with the existing system was replaced by the image of multiple cracks. The idea of blowing up the continuum of history was exchanged for a utopian moment in the here and now. And instrumental reckoning made way for the expressive logic of an exemplary gesture. At the end of the twentieth century, when summit protesters stated: “You make plans, we make history,” it looked as though an unmediated engagement with history was emerging again. Activist art interventions have contributed in an important way to making the re-imagination of a social conflict possible. People organized in the streets to confront an enemy. If (art) activists of this period may conclude one thing, it is that it’s difficult to raise the stakes. Choosing disruption as the constitutive moment for activist art interventions might be the result of confrontational tactics becoming frozen in too short a time. Creating conflict means constant reinvention of street tactics. However, this does not take away from the fact that activist art interventions not only have the potential to make conflict imaginable, but also to

174 | Christian Scholl


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 157–178

materialize it in the present. In order to do so, activist art interventions had better base their practices on confrontation as a constitutive moment. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels remarked when describing their conception of communism, it is not about a state of affairs, and neither about an ideal, to which society will have to adjust itself, but about a real movement, which abolishes the present state of things (1976: 49). Yet, the experience of global movements proves that abolishing the present state of things requires movements to move beyond confrontation. This raises the question of organizational practices in radical social movements. How art can be used for street interventions has been discussed in this contribution. How it might be used for the organization of movements should be scrutinized in another investigation. I am deeply indebted to A. K. Thompson and Begüm Özden Firat for their comments on a first draft of this article, as well as for their continuous activist-intellectual inspiration.

Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Engaging Art for Tactical Interventions | 175


Works Cited Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. Benjamin, Walter. “The author as producer.” Cultural Resistance Reader. Ed. Stephen Duncombe. London: Verso, 2002. 67–81

Graeber, David and Stevphen Shukaitis. “Introduction.” Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigation, Collective Theorization: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization. Ed. David Graeber and Stephen Shukaitis. Oakland: AK, 2007.

Bey, Hakim. “TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone.” Cultural Resistance Reader. Ed. Stephen Duncombe. London: Verso, 2002. 113–118.

Hoffman, Abbie. “Revolution for the hell of it.” Cultural Resistance Reader. Ed. Stephen Duncombe. London: Verso, 2002. 328–330

Breines, Wini. Community and organization in the New Left, 1962–1968 : the great refusal. New York: Praeger J. F. Bergin, 1982.

John Holloway “Stop Making Capitalism” http://www.humboldt.edu/~mc92/accionzapatista/documents/Stop_Making_Capitism_ 2-2-06.pdf. Accessed 20 December 2009.

Cadogan, Peter. “From civil disobedience to confrontation.” Direct action ad democratic politics. Ed. Robert Benewick and Trevor Smith. London: Allen and Unwin, 1972. 162–177. Churchill, Ward and Mike Ryan. Pacifism as pathology: Reflections on the role of armed struggle in North America. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 1998. Day, Richard J. F. Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. Pluto Press, 2005. Debord, Guy. Society of the spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 2000. Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Holtzman, Ben, Craig Hughes, and Kevin Van Meter. “Do It Yourself. and the Movement Beyond Capitalism.” Constituent Imagination. Militant Investigations, Collective Theorizations. Ed. Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber. Oakland: AK, 2007. Jordan, John. “The art of necessity: The Imagination of Anti-road Protest and Reclaim The Streets.” Cultural Resistance Reader. Ed. Stephen Duncombe. London: Verso, 2002. 347–357. Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. Lenin Collected Works. Moscow: Progress, 1977. Lukács, Georg. Realism in the Balance. London: NLB, 1979. 28–95.

Epstein, Barbara. Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. German Ideology, Part 1 and Selections from Parts 2 and 3 (German Ideology & Selections from Pts 2 & 3). International, 1970.

Foucault, Michel. “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress.” Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: New, 1997. 253–280.

———. Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 5. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the opressed. New York: Continuum, 1970. Graeber, David. “The new anarchists.” New Left Review 13 (2002): 61–73.

176 | Christian Scholl

McKay, G. DiY Culture. Party and protest in nineties Britain. London: Verso, 1998. McKay, George. Senseless acts of beauty. Cultures of resistance since the sixties. London: Verso, 1996.


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 157–178

Mouffe, Chantal. On the political. London: Routledge, 2005. Noguez, Dominique. “Lenin Dada” 1993. Notes from Nowhere, ed. We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anti-capitalism. London: Verso Books, 2003. Nunes, Rodrigo. “Nothing is what democracy looks like. Opennes, horizontality and the movement of the movements.” Shut them down. The G8, Gleneagles, and the movement of movements, Ed. D. Harvie, K. Milburn, B. Trott, and D. Watts. Leeds: Dissent! & Autonomedia, 2006. 299–319. Poldervaart, Saskia. “Niet-bestuurlijke vormen van politiek. Ofwel: Hoe het persoonlijke politek is geworden in de kraak, queer en andersglobaliseringsbeweging.” Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies 3 (2005):58–73. Roman, Leon. “Cre8 Summat: planting a garden of activism.” Shut them down! The G8, Gleneagles 2005 and the movement of movements. West Yorkshire: Dissent! & Autonomedia, 2005. 235–242.

Leven volgens je idealen. De andere politieken van huidige sociale bewegingen in Nederland. Ed. Saskia Poldervaart. Amsterdam: Aksant, 2002. 121–159. Schmitt, Carl. The concept of the political. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1976. Starr, Amory. Global Revolt: A Guide to the Movements Against Globalization. London: Zed, 2005. ———. Naming the Enemy: Transnational Corporations and the Rise of Popular Opposition. London: Pluto, 2001. Thompson, Andrew. “Direct Action. Pedagogy of the opressed.” Sociology for changing the world. Ed. Gary Kinsman Caelie Frampton, Andrew Thompson, and Kate Tilleczek. Winnipeg: Fernwood, 2006. 99–118. Wright, Steve. Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism. London: Pluto, 2002. Zollberg, Aristide. “Moments of Madness.” Politics and Society 2 (1972):183–207.

Schafraad, Pytrick. “Het ‘Do It Yourself’-vertoog van punk. Fanzines als alternatieve politiek.”

Notes 1. The Situationist International was a culturalpolitical movement that existed from 1957 to 1972. This movement opposed the spectacle character of capitalist societies by creating playful situations that intervene in the daily reproduction of capitalist culture. 2. Reclaim the Streets also inspired the idea of “carnival against capitalism.” 3. ⬍http://www.clownarmy.org/about/ about.html⬎ 4. ⬍http://www.rhythmsofresistance.co.uk/ ?lid=52⬎

5. New Babylon is an image invoked by Constant Nieuwenhuis who wanted to provide utopian pictures of a nomad town that would enable totally new forms of living and living together. 6. ⬍http://bioticbakingbrigade.org/ aboutbbb.html⬎ 7. ⬍http://www.391.org/manifestos/ 191804dadaist.htm⬎ 8. Dominique Noguez proves in his book “Lenin Dada” that Lenin must have been in contact with the Dadaist movement in Zurich from an early time (1993).

Bakunin’s Poor Cousins: Engaging Art for Tactical Interventions | 177


9. This uncommon strategy had as a result that the delegates of the conference had to be brought out by metro, since all road access was blockaded. World Bank President James Wolfensohn denoted this experience as “the usual chaos” (see the film “Crowd Bites Wolf” by Guerrillavision, 2000). 10. It is interesting to note how the confrontation of the black bloc with the blue ball plays out some sexual connotations, which points to the fact that resistance is a sensuous activity. As Raoul Vaneigem proposes in his seminal work “The Revolution of Everyday Life,” it is no coincidence that sexologists call a man with an erect penis an “insurgent” ⬍http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/ display/43⬎. In the moment of confrontation, the blue ball helps to focus revolutionary activity

178 | Christian Scholl

on understanding the enemy and the concrete terms of struggle. This way, the blue ball appears as an epistemological critique of the distracting idea of disruption. In order to push the sexual analogy, the difference between the epistemological premises of disruption and confrontation can be linked to the comparison Marx and Engels establish in The German Ideology, where they state that philosophy and the study of the actual world have the same relationship to one another as masturbation and sexual love (1970: 103). 11. ⬍http://bioticbakingbrigade.org/ aboutbbb.html⬎ 12. ⬍http://wsww.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/ agp/s26/praga/bianche.htm⬎


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 179–198

Clowndestine Maneuvers: A Study of Clownfrontational Tactics L. M. Bogad

Run Away From the Circus—Join the CIRCA! —Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA) recruiting slogan CIRCA is the only army in the world in which General Strike outranks Private Property. —Colonel Oftruth

“Carnivals Against Capital” This essay examines an international performance phenomenon, which I refer to as tactical carnival, that has developed as a tactic in the toolbox of the burgeoning global justice movement. This movement has been more accurately described as a “movement of movements” due to its great diversity in geography, identity, and ideology (“One no, many yeses” is one of its main slogans). As connections and coalitions are forged between Bolivian miners, American anti-corporate activists, Polish organic farmers, etc., organizers have begun to coordinate a celebratory form of protest that involves unpermitted street parties/processions that occupy public space, both to assert movement identity and importance, and often to disrupt state or corporate events and daily business. Movement organizers and writers use the term “carnival” to label these explicitly oppositional events, at which flamboyant costumes, dance, puppets, tricksterism, samba bands, and other musical groupings can all be seen. They also seem to refer to ideas about “carnival” that may, to some scholars, seem romantic or overly idealistic: nevertheless, what is fascinating is that they are attempting to deploy the ideal of carnival in a practical, experimental way on the street, to create a new, twenty-first century kind of “carnival” that is neither

Clowndestine Maneuvers: A Study of Clownfrontational Tactics | 179


calendrically nor spatially circumscribed or permitted by the state, but declared and embodied by a movement that identifies itself as global, anti-corporate, and antiauthoritarian. I posit that the goals of tactical carnival are: • to declare and occupy a joyous, participatory and semi-anonymous, relatively safe place for power inversions/subversions. “Celebrity” has been explicitly denounced in some movement literature in favor of the relative anonymity of the mass. These spaces are also meant to be non-dogmatic/sectarian, a more open place for wider participation. The hope is that more people will join the movement when a space for this kind of joyful participation is opened up. • to put a friendly face on the movement as a way to interrupt what I refer to as the hegemonologue of the corporate media and state rhetoric, which often demonizes other activists as crazed, nihilistic hooligans. The idea is to insert images that at least partially disrupt or disharmonize the barrage of negative images (for example, a clown kissing a riot shield juxtaposed with the usual images of street melee and property damage), and to replace the usual “story of the battle” (street fights, vandalism, etc.) with the “battle of the story” in which colorful and creative costumes, dance, music, performance, and improvised interactions give a new look to the movement and its agenda (Interview with D. Solnit). These events also attempt to interrupt another aspect of the hegemonologue, which is that of the rhetoric of inevitability of corporate globalization, by demonstrating that better alternatives are possible. • to key an experimental mode in which new ways to play with and around power can be tested. The idea is to develop less obvious and predictable ways to interact on the street with agents of the state, corporations, and passersby. Much of the creativity is intended to have the effect of dispelling fear and tension during confrontations with massive police presence, for example. • to create an celebratory culture of active defiance as an alternative to the everyday life experience of many people—in response to a widespread frustration that many participants feel—regarding their official relegation to the role of consumers of culture and spectacle rather than creators/spectactors (Boal). I examine this global phenomenon through a local particular: the G8 protest in July 2005, with a further focus on the Carnival for Full Enjoyment in Edinburgh on July 4 as participated in by the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA: www .clownarmy.org). I will draw on press clippings, videos, interviews with CIRCA members, movement literature, and my own experience as a participant/observer to examine how CIRCA theorized and actualized its own participation in the tactical carnival around the G8 in July 2005.

180 | L. M. Bogad


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 179–198

Bakhtin and the Carnivalesque Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), a Russian literary scholar and philosopher who struggled in obscurity under the reign of Stalin, and whose major works were only published in the last fifteen years of his life, celebrated the carnivalesque, massparticipatory freedom, and anti-authoritarian laughter that he found in the writings of Rabelais: Carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. (7) The “carnivalesque,” and its liberating qualities for the “lower orders” of society, includes abuse and laughter, which degrade at the same time as they renew. Grotesque realism exaggerates the material body and the “lower bodily stratum,” inverting the hierarchies of elite taste and decorum and the symbols of hierarchy. This is a frenetic, celebratory and ideologically ambivalent performance mode which breaks down the bodily boundaries of the idealized bourgeois individual, “polluting” and collectivizing the human condition in a joyous, outrageously humorous demonstration that has some potential for rebellion (Bakhtin). It is perhaps obvious why elements of the global justice movement would embrace the idea of Bakhtinian carnival, but what does their attempt to make the carnival in the streets look like? EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND, During the Carnival for Full Enjoyment, July 4, 2005 Police in black riot gear stand shoulder to shoulder. In the manner of a classical phalanx, their clear, body-length plastic shields form an impervious wall across the width of the city street. Those shields have just been used to shove people down the road and assert police control of the space. Their helmets, visors down, provide protection and make their faces harder to see. Their boots and fireproofed full-body armor are imposing. They are ready to preserve public order. The police are confronted by a disorderly gaggle of men and women in chaotic face paint, dressed in a tensive mixture of secondhand military gear and clownish, fuzzy, garish pink and green frills.1 These are the tricksters of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, or CIRCA. Far from seeming intimidated by the powerful policemen who have just shoved them and are now blocking the way, the CIRCA folk seem overjoyed to see them and hail them as friends to play games with. The clowns begin scrubbing the policemen’s boots with their feather dusters, then breathing on their shields to fog them up and scrubbing the shields as well.

Clowndestine Maneuvers: A Study of Clownfrontational Tactics | 181


One of the main rules of improvisational theatre is the idea of “yes, and”; one never negates a performing partner’s idea or proposition, but rather agrees and adds a new creative thought to the mix. The rebel clowns jump about, following each other in an agreeable “yes, and” ethos of improvisational frolicking in front of the police line. They simply refuse to acknowledge the very clear and stark NO of the disciplined, uniformed, and armed police line, asserting their own ridiculous and enthusiastic YES, AND over and over with each moment. Finally one intrepid trickster, aptly named Trixie, kisses one of the police shields. Her kiss is so enthusiastic and vigorous that she smears her clown makeup and lipstick all over the shield. She then goes from shield to shield, all the way up the phalanx line, kissing and leaving her smeary mark on each one as she goes. The police stay in formation, some disturbed, some impassive, and some amused and surprised by this paradigm-shifting kiss. One says “Step away from the shield please,” while another can clearly be seen to be smiling. Trixie needs to re-apply her lipstick in order to continue her loving assault, and while doing this she is asked by Zoe, a CIRCA videographer, why she is doing what she’s doing. In a high pitched voice she earnestly says, “Because I love them! I love the police! They’re our friends.” She then runs off to kiss more shields. Trixie then begins drawing smiley-faces with her lipstick and saying “Yay!” Soon she is writing “Yay!” on some of the riot shields, while the other clowns cheer and clap. The images of her kisses and incongruous lipstick happy faces are broadcast and printed all over the world the next day. There is a marked gender element to this interaction—the male clowns aren’t kissing any shields, but they are scrubbing away solicitously, saying things such as, “Oh, it’s a mess, it’s very bad—don’t worry! I’ll clean it, you won’t get in any trouble!” Soon the rebel clowns form a line facing the police, and begin doing a motion/ sound all together: bending at the hip, arms and hands extended, and going “Shhhhh,” then standing back up while making a “Whooo” sound. Their relentless group improv had led them to an ambivalent, absurd gesture; the clowns were simultaneously kowtowing to the police and shooing them away. After five or six repetitions of this movement, the clowns began jumping up and down, yelling “Yippie!” At that precise moment, the police line broke. First one, then two, then the entire squad pulled away, formed two files, and began jogging down the road in double time. The clowns ran along with them briefly, and a great cheer rose from the mass of non-clown protesters and bystanders, who followed the police for a few yards and then began to celebrate in the street. It is probably prudent at this point to note that, in fact, the police line may not have been broken by clown magic. One can imagine the rear-rank conversation between the officers of the unit, or by walkie talkie to headquarters: “Look, we’ve become sucked into some kind of performance art here, and we’d really like to go elsewhere so

182 | L. M. Bogad


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 179–198

we can fight crime . . . wel, look, to be fair, our training doesn’t include improv theatre . . . requesting permission to withdraw.” However, the constant improvisation of the clowns made such a poetic moment, where it appeared that clowns could dispel the intimidating power of the state through fearless silliness and serious play, possible. As one clown said, “They loved us so much, we asked them to go away, and they did.” This was not “street theatre,” per se, but a form of improvisational and creative direct action.2 The clowns immediately began to fill the authoritarian gap created by the policemen’s withdrawal—power abhors a vacuum, after all—by directing traffic, including police wagons, with their feather dusters and giving passing vehicles the CIRCA Clown Salute (which, according to CIRCA regulations, is thumbing one’s nose with a big smile on one’s face). For the most part, however, they continued playing games as they had been before the police arrived to demarcate the space. This absurd face-off between two groups of masked, uniformed performers occurred during the “Carnival for Full Enjoyment” of July 4, 2005. This carnival was not a state-sanctioned cultural steam-valve occurring within universally recognized temporal bounds based on the agrarian calendar. Rather, it was declared by members of the global justice movement as a festive and defiant event. While it was, in part, a response to the G8 summit being held a few miles away at Gleneagles, it was not purely negative and reactive in character, but an attempt to open a space for antiauthoritarian, egalitarian, and participatory celebration without state permits or sanction. With slogans such as “No Wage Slavery,” “No Benefits Slavery,” “No Army Slavery,” and “No Debt Slavery,” the Carnival for Full Enjoyment issued a press release calling for workers to “Phone in Sick and Join the Carnival”: Flex, temp, full-time, part-time, casual and contortionist workers, migrants, students, benefit claimers, New Dealers, work refusers, pensioners, dreamers, duckers & divers [. . .]. Bring drums, music, banners, imagination for action against the G8 that expresses our resistance in work, out of work and wherever we live. Assert our desires for FULL ENJOYMENT with fun in the city—and begin to make capitalism & wage slavery history . . . On 4 July we can take action and experience—if only temporarily—what life could be like if we got the bosses off our backs… . . . Get together with friends and set your sights. Bring what you’d want to find, and most of all bring imagination and passion. Diversity and creativity is our strength . . . . . . We are in favour of direct action because marching around with placards can be safely ignored by those who control exploitation. We advocate direct action against the institutions which exploit the majority [. . .]. We invite workers from Standard Life and all other corporations to join the Carnival. Take an extended lunch-break, phone in sick! Join us in opposing casualisation, the intensification of work, attacks on pensions and conditions . . . The carnival is a celebration of how good life can be, and at the same time a statement against those who spoil it for the majority. (Carnival for Full Enjoyment, author’s emphasis)

Clowndestine Maneuvers: A Study of Clownfrontational Tactics | 183


The organizers of the Carnival explicitly presented it as an anti-capitalist, antiauthoritarian event with links between local workers and activists and a larger global movement. The Carnival was to be both a rejection of state authority (very significantly, no permit was requested for this event), an affirmation of the joy of solidarity and resistance (particularly resistance to the regulation of everyday behavior in increasingly-privatized and controlled public space), and an alternative to what was seen as the more staid tactic of “marching around with placards.” It was also seen, both by some protesters and the authorities, as a possible opportunity for direct action to disrupt the proceedings of corporations and “business as usual” in the city. A massive police force was concentrated in Edinburgh to protect banks and other corporate offices from vandalism or nonviolent disruption such as sit-ins, and to prevent the reveling, disorderly crowds from blocking commercial traffic on the streets. The government brought 10,000 police to Edinburgh from all over the UK to respond to this threat to security and public order. Police from London, Manchester, and many other cities filled the streets, blocking intersections, surrounding, searching, arresting, chasing and breaking up large groups of protestors, and keeping them separate. There was a great deal of game playing, samba bands, festive costumes, dancing, and revelry in the street, and even a huge anarchist black cat-puppet; however, there was also plenty of fleeing, regrouping, cat-andmouse and, on one street, even violent confrontation between protestors and police. This was not exactly a carnival in the Bakhtinian sense, where the laughter is ideologically ambivalent, where all participate, and where the event is demarcated and approved of by the authorities even though there is always the risk that the licensed fools may go too far. Nevertheless, the movements that organize such events are, to some degree, influenced by the ideas and writings of Bakhtin and Rabelais (especially in Western countries), and they have theorized such oppositional carnivals as an important tactic in the struggle against corporate globalization. “Carnival” has been repeatedly invoked by this movement for many of its actions, even if Bakhtin would not recognize these events as Rabelasian. On June 18, 1999, the opening day of the G8 summit in Koln, Germany, a “Carnival Against Capital” was declared by the global justice movement as an “international day of action, protest and carnival aimed at the heart of the global economy” (Ainger 33). This proposal identified “capitalism as the “root of our social and ecological problems,” and was “taken up by the People’s Global Action network, translated into seven languages, and distributed by email and post to thousands of groups worldwide” (Notes From Nowhere 184). On that day, in the financial district of London, 10,000 people gathered in the street, playing “Volleyball with inflatable globes and danc[ing] to samba rhythms in the spray of a waterspout from a damaged fire hydrant.” In order to avoid being penned in by the police, to keep movement fluid, and to add a colorful flair to the event, organizers gave participants color coded masks (red, yellow, blue, etc.) to

184 | L. M. Bogad


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 179–198

wear; a note inside the masks suggested that the wearers follow the flags that matched their masks when the time came. Sure enough, at one moment, colorful flags went up and soon streams of masked revelers were running, following the flag bearers on zigzagging routes through the narrow streets of the City of London. Of course, this event had not been permitted by the state, and the anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian ideology of the gathering asserted itself through direct action as the day progressed: . . . by the end of the day a group of the protesters had invaded and trashed the ground floor of the London International Financial Futures Exchange, three McDonalds had their windows broken, two people had been run over by police vans, and riot police were charging in. The sight of anarchy hitting the world’s largest financial center prompted newspaper headlines that denounced the protesters as “evil savages,” an ignorant “unwashed horde” hell-bent on turning a “carnival into a riot . . . the carnival goers in London—the majority of whom had been nonviolent in actions and intent— were members of a far larger, invisible but international constituency organizing around a common enemy: globalization. (Ainger 33) This Carnival Against Capital was hardly limited to London. Simultaneous protests of a similar nature took place “against global capitalism, the international financial system, and corporate power . . . in 43 countries around the world” (Ainger 33). For example, in Nigeria, a “Carnival of the Oppressed” brought nearly 10,000 Ogoni, Ijaw, and other tribes together in closing down the country’s oil capital, Port Harcourt . . . meanwhile in Koln, the Intercontinental Caravan, made up of 400 Indian farmers and other activists from the global South, plan[ned] to conclude its tour with a Laugh Parade but police detain[ed] 250 of them before they [got] the chance to guffaw at the G8. (Notes From Nowhere 185–7) In fact, this global event was so disturbing that the FBI listed “Carnival Against Capital” as a terrorist group to be watched in its memo of May 11, 2001, four months before the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11 of that year (FBI). This is ironic in that “Carnival Against Capital” was not an organization but rather a concept, a call to action, an invocation of the idea of the subversive and celebratory “carnivalesque” that resonated around the world for the global justice movement. There are many other examples of the movement’s invocation of the idea of “carnival” for its actions. The anti-World Trade Organization protests that shut down the city of Seattle in 1999 were also conceived, in part, as carnivalesque, with colorful costumes, giant puppets, dancers and marching bands, and people dressed as sea turtles and butterflies, playing and interacting with more conventional union members and other activists. The protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) conference in Quebec in 2001 was also dubbed a “Carnival Against Capital.” There is a neckerchief, sewn by Argentinean women textile workers who took over their own factory during the financial/economic collapse in that country, that is worn

Clowndestine Maneuvers: A Study of Clownfrontational Tactics | 185


by many movement activists, including members of CIRCA. The neckerchief, produced in red, yellow, pink, and orange, has a smiling face printed on one side: one can wear it so that the mass-produced smile covers the lower half of one’s face. On the other side, a pattern of a chain-link fence covers an unhappy face, so the wearer has the choice of looking free and happy or fenced-in and sad. One can imagine a mass of people, filling up a public space, dancing or playing games and making music, while wearing these masks. The effect might be ideologically unclear, yet eerie. On the edges of the neckerchief, in English, Spanish, German, and French, is a passage that explicitly states what “Carnival” means for the global justice movement: We will remain faceless because we refuse the spectacle of celebrity, because we are everyone, because the carnival beckons, because the world is upside down, because we are everywhere. By wearing masks we show that who we are is not as important as what we want, and what we want is everything for everyone. (“We will…”) This passage shows some of the key ideas that the global justice movement embraces from its creative interpretation of the carnivalesque. The idea of anonymity is advantageous for concealing identity from the authorities, but also as a way to celebrate the undifferentiated mass and combat the worship of individual celebrity/cult of personality by the mass media and pop culture. This reflects the Bakhtinian distinction between the carnivalesque mass of undifferentiated bodies, versus the discrete, separate, and closed-off bourgeois individual body uplifted by mercantilism and capitalism. The demand for “everything for everyone” echoes the millenarian, utopian poetics of the Rabelasian carnival, also expressed in the “hidden transcripts” of the oppressed of many peasant cultures (Scott 1990) and the rhetoric of the Diggers (Hill).3 “The carnival beckons” this movement to action of a celebratory kind. Many groups have formed with the goal of contributing art, festive costumes, and music to these carnivals of resistance. One group explains its savvy theorization of itself right in its name: Tactical Frivolity. Musical bands are a crucial aspect of these gatherings; one such group playfully named itself Reclaim the Beats, after the seminal movement group, Reclaim the Streets. The choice of music varies, but there is a great deal of influence from the carnivals of the Brazilian and Caribbean communities, showing that tactical carnival is not only motivated by a reference to medieval European traditions. While the Seattle-based Infernal Noise Brigade (www.infernalnoise.org) plays a post-modern blend including “elements of drumline, taiko, Mughal and North African rhythms, elements of Balkan fanfares, breakbeats, and just about anything else” (Infernal Noise Brigade) and dresses in an almost paramilitary uniform, the UK-based Rhythms of Resistance, who were an important part of the shutdown of the IMF/World Bank meeting in Prague in September 2000, says about itself: Whilst people often refer to us as a “Samba Band” we actually have more affinity with the Afro Bloc parading drum bands that emerged in the mid 70s in Salvadore, Bahia in

186 | L. M. Bogad


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 179–198

Brazil. Bands such as Ile Aye and Olodum formed as a political expression of black awareness, resisting economic exclusion. Coming out of some of the poorest urban communities, Afro blocs became a mobilising focus on picket lines and marches [. . .]. As they put it, they played as “a force of resistance and source of self confidence.” The growth of Schools of Samba both in Brazil and all over the world since the 80’s, is largely a result of the commercialisation of this culture of resistance . . . . . . with bands forming in across Europe and beyond (at least 2 in the US), an international network of percussive resistance to the march of capitalism is now emerging. Street carnival is the vital component of protest and life and fun—use your imaginations, connect and network, build instruments and costumes, learn our tunes and distribute them noisily through the world!! (Rhythms of Resistance website, author’s emphasis) Rhythms of Resistance exemplifies the anticapitalist movement’s awareness of and perhaps not-unproblematic appropriation/exchange of oppositional culture and tactics across borders of nationality, race, class, and privilege. Just as power and commerce are circulating around the world at an accelerated rate in the era of globalization, so are traditions and innovations in cultures of resistance. The same internet technology that enabled the global movement to coordinate the Carnival Against Capital in 43 different countries around the world also enables such an exchange. It is clear that Rhythms of Resistance, which has inspired many such groups for protests in other countries, has embraced the idea of “carnival” as a positive and uplifting mode of defiance and advocacy. They also perform their music at protests in order to foster group “confidence” and defiant joy, and simply to help make the protest a good time for all who join in. Why is “carnival” such an important referent for this “movement of movements”? Carnival, as conceived of by Bakhtin, does have an edge. It suggests a possibility of riot or rebellion, that the licensed foolery might get out of hand and turn into outright revolt; this may appeal to some movement groups. However, more importantly, some modern anarchists are particularly drawn to the idea of carnival because it appeals to their egalitarian ideology and participatory, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethos. Bakhtin’s all-too-familiar statement that “carnival knows no footlights” is eagerly echoed in the text on the above-quoted neckerchief, and in the key movement text We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism. In that book, in the “Carnival” section, under the subheading of “Participate, Don’t Spectate,” the famous Bakhtin passage about footlights is quoted in full, followed by: Passivity disappears when carnival comes to town, with its unyielding demand for participation . . . It is a moment when we can break free from the alienation that capitalism enforces in so many ways . . . Carnival denies the existence of experts, or rather, insists that everyone is one . . . it demands interaction and flexibility, face-to-face contact and collective decision-making, so that a dynamic and direct democracy develops—a

Clowndestine Maneuvers: A Study of Clownfrontational Tactics | 187


democracy which takes place on the stage of spontaneously unfolding life, not raised above the audience but at ground level, where everyone can be involved. There are no leaders, no spectators, no sidelines, only an entanglement of many players who do their own thing while feeling part of a greater whole. (Notes From Nowhere 177–8) This perhaps idealistic desire that, in carnival, the mass is involved actively and that no one is relegated to the role of passive spectator/consumer, particularly appeals to a movement that views the mainstream news and entertainment media with great skepticism, that is influenced by Guy Debord’s concept of the deadening, pacifying, and self-perpetuating “society of the spectacle,” and that advocates and practices a participatory, “do-it-yourself” form of political direct action and communication (for example, though zines and Indymedia). Many members of the movement, while not explicitly anarchist, embrace the term coined by the movement in Argentina: “horizontalist.” This egalitarian idea of “horizontality” calls for a minimization of the concentration of power in any single person or group’s hands, and Bakhtin’s idea of the carnival, which has been critiqued by scholars, nevertheless appeals strongly to such ideological desires and agendas. To distinguish tactical carnivals from the carnivals that occur in Rio de Janeiro or Notting Hill, members of the anticapitalist Notes From Nowhere collective wrote: What carnivals remain in most parts of the world have themselves become spectacles—specialist performances watched by spectators—with police lines and barriers placed between the parade and audience. Thus the vortexed, whirling, uncontrollable state of creative chaos is shoe-horned into neat straight lines and rectangles. A visit to many contemporary carnivals sanctioned by the state (such as Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, or the Notting Hill Carnival in London), where consumption and corporate sponsorship has taken over from the creativity and spontaneity is enough to illustrate how carnival under capitalism has lost its vitality. But carnival has been with us since time immemorial and it has always refused to die. Reappearing in different guises across the ages it returns again and again. Freed from the clutches of entertainment, the anticapitalist movements have thrown it back into the streets, where it is liberated from commerce for everyone to enjoy once again. (177) This passage reveals the importance of the concept of carnival to some social movement activists, and how it has motivated the way they organize and perform in public space in critical contrast with (the activists’ perception of) events such as Rio’s Carnaval. However, this form of carnival is also different from the form described and idealized by Bakhtin. It is not a yearly event that fits into an agrarian calendar and a Christian/feudal worldview and system of power; it happens when and where the movement calls for it, though often as a reaction to corporate/state events such as the meetings of the Group of 8 (G8) or the World Trade Organization (WTO). Far from being a day of licensed foolery and excess, it is often unpermitted by the state,

188 | L. M. Bogad


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 179–198

triggering police repression. Tactical carnival comes from a complex, global coalition of social movements, and therefore defies ideological generalization. However, its laughter, while ambivalent and self-mocking at times, is not as ambivalent as that described by Bakhtin. It is joyful, but it is also satirical laughter, often coupled with a political worldview or critique, and therefore perhaps not quite as universal as Bakhtin’s. It espouses not just the “World-Turned-Upside Down” concept often described by scholars of medieval European carnival, but rather the very different slogan “Another World Is Possible.” The difference between these two phrases is the difference between a temporary inversion of power relations and an assertion of the possibility of, and advocacy for the struggle toward lasting and substantial progressive social change. This slogan, “Another World Is Possible,” has been used in several languages on movement proclamations and banners around the world. This form of protest, invoking the carnivalesque, has not been used only to oppose capitalism. As Padraic Kenney discusses in his book A Carnival Of Revolution, the grassroots, independent groups in Eastern Europe that undermined authoritarian Communist power using absurdist, carnivalesque mass protests were a key, under sung element in the collapse of Soviet power in many of the Warsaw Pact countries. Part of this tactical carnival model is a response to more conventional and institutionalized models of social movement protest. The goal here is to open up public space, with do-it-yourself, group and individual creativity, rather than merely to occupy it with uniform marching and chanting while holding mass-produced signs. This opening of public space for a freer and more festive kind of protest and direct action is one of the main goals of CIRCA. CIRCA: The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army CIRCA was formed in London in fall 2003. It declared itself to be an army of “rebel clowns” that had mustered its forces to storm the Palace during President George W. Bush’s state visit to the UK. CIRCA had been delighted that, after hundreds of years of having no fools or jesters in the court, the Queen was finally opening her doors for a fool to come . . . but CIRCA was soon dismayed to hear that it was the wrong kind of fool whom Her Majesty had invited. CIRCA was seen all over the city, firing pink pretzels out of its clown cannon at the Esso building, marching behind Beefeaters, “sneaking” though the park in bright pink and lime green fuzzy outfits while holding single leaves in front of them for camouflage (and holding the leaves above their heads in response to police helicopters flying over). Since that time, CIRCA has been seen occupying the city of Leeds, marching on the “Greet the Buyers” meeting in London between corporations and the US-installed interim regime in Iraq, attempting to attend the “Republican National Clown Convention” in New York as members of the Big Top Delegation, and elsewhere. CIRCA uses a horizontalist organizing model

Clowndestine Maneuvers: A Study of Clownfrontational Tactics | 189


as it practices a form of nonviolent direct action that combines collective buffoonery with satiric performance. CIRCA can often be seen in the street moving as a mass body—in tight-knit gaggles of ten or twelve, they may march in mock-disciplined but surprisingly tight pseudomilitary formation, then suddenly break off into total clownarchy—antics and improvisation with passersby. Suddenly, and with no cue, the rebel clowns begin moving like a tightly clustered school of fish, making the same sound and gesture, then changing direction simultaneously and making an entirely different sound and gesture (this is called fishing). The unpredictability of CIRCA’s behavior, and the constant collective shape-shifting, come from hours of group practice and training. In its huddled/cuddled group movements, CIRCA evokes the Bakhtinian idea of the carnivalesque mass body as opposed to the idealized, individualistic, and discrete/ discreet bourgeois body. CIRCA seems to collectively embody the very-Bakhtinian concepts of the Notes From Nowhere collective: The pleasures of the body have been banished from the public sphere of politics and the excitement of the erotic pushed into the narrow private confines of the sexual realm. But carnival brings the body back to public space, not the perfect smooth bodies that promote consumption on billboards and magazines, not the manipulated plastic bodies of MTV and party political broadcasts, but the body of warm flesh, of blood and guts, organs and orifices. During carnival the body sticks its tongue out as far as it can, it laughs uncontrollably, sweats and farts as it dances in the heat of other bodies. It’s a body that refuses the static images of itself developed by capital, frozen in immortal youthfulness, aloof from natural cycles of eating and shitting, being born and decomposing. In carnival the body is always changing, constantly becoming, eternally unfinished. Inseparable from nature and fused to other bodies around it, the body remembers that it is not a detached, atomized being, as it allows its erotic impulse to jump from body to body, sound to sound, mask to mask, to swirl across the streets, filling every nook and cranny, every fold of flesh. During carnival the body, with its pleasures and desires, can be found everywhere, luxuriating in its freedom and inverting the everyday. (175–6) While CIRCA members rarely excrete on the street, they do move in groups (or “gaggles” as the clowns prefer to call them) and in ways that celebrate the mass body over the individual, and earthiness and silliness over commercial standards of beauty and respectability. We see innovative forms of action as key for building dynamic social movements, but realize that the psyche is as important a site for struggle as the street. CIRCA believes that a self-destructive tendency within many social movements is forgetting the inner work of personal liberation and transformation. This is an area our rebel clown trainings work on deeply, while also providing creative tools to confuse and befuddle authority. (from the CIRCA booklet “G8 Briefing and Operations Information”)

190 | L. M. Bogad


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 179–198

As CIRCA members Isabelle Fremeaux and Hilary Ramsden describe in their essay “We Disobey to Love: Rebel Clowning for Social Change,” CIRCA training sessions aim to guide participants toward discovering and developing their own clown persona, learning to work together in groups without leaders, and joining freely and fearlessly in improvisation under pressure. Finding one’s clown involves coming up with a name, a sensibility, a physicality and a costume and makeup style. But it is also a much longer and deeper process that involves a great deal of thoughtful/playful exploration. Putting on the makeup before an action is a crucial part of the transformation, the re-entry into one’s alternate clown persona. This celebration of individual creativity and identity through the development of one’s own clown can hopefully enable CIRCA members to express themselves in the moment and mode of carnival while still feeling part of a larger group-identity. CIRCA hopes to open up the spaces that they move in, to shift the paradigm or change the rules of behavior and engagement. They hope to bring the tactical carnival with them as they go, switching an event into the “key of clown” though absurdist cues and gestures. The spirit of playfulness can often be infectious, and “civilians” may be brought into the improvised games in the street, e.g., several dozen clowns coming across a speed bump and treating it as a nigh-unsurpassable obstacle that can only be climbed over through a great deal of teamwork and slapstick. Like police visors and shields, the face makeup and costumes of a mass of rebel clowns evokes a range of responses. However, it is the openness, willing vulnerability, and fearlessness of the clowns that CIRCA hopes will prove infectious in the carnival spaces they create and bring with them as they navigate the city. As the clowns greet the police as “friends” and fail to either melt away in fear or raise the tension in anger, a shift in the paradigm and pattern of confrontation ensues.4 CIRCA follows the egalitarian spirit of horizontalism and tactical carnival in its organizing model. While as many as 150 clowns were in Edinburgh at one time (and the sight of that many rebel clowns marching was a bizarre and mind-opening vision in itself), CIRCA is divided into “gaggles” of roughly 10–15 clowns, analogous to the “affinity group” model of the direct action movement. In groups of this size, members are working with people they can personally get to know and trust. They can develop models of group decision-making where every voice can be heard. When larger groups of clowns need to gather, they form a Clown Council where chosen spokesclowns (!) speak for and in constant consultation with their own gaggles. This basically follows the horizontalist model of organization, but with makeup and red noses added. There was a varied attitude toward the concept of carnival among the CIRCA activists. At some group meetings, Matthew Trevelyan read quotes directly from Rabelais’ Gargantua that he found particularly inspiring and relevant to our carnivalesque efforts. On the other hand, Jennifer Verson refused to accept the term

Clowndestine Maneuvers: A Study of Clownfrontational Tactics | 191


carnival to describe CIRCA’s efforts, denouncing its connotation of an escape valve for societal dissent. The moment we choose love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others. That action is the testimony of love as the practice of freedom. (bell hooks from Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representation, as quoted on CIRCA’s heart-shaped “Radical Origami” paper) During the G8 campaign, CIRCA traveled throughout the UK on a biodiesel-fueled van, towing a caravan with the words “LABORATORY OF INSURRECTIONARY IMAGINATION” painted on it. The Laboratory was the umbrella organization for the tour, including the anticonsumerist “Church of the Immaculate Consumption.” When CIRCA pulled into a new city, the group would set up its outdoor performance space between van and caravan, and perform a free show that included puppetry, performance art, and video presentations, all around the themes of civil disobedience, the G8, and rebel clowning. The clowns gave out “Radical Origami” papers in the shape of a heart and covered with movement-oriented quotes. During the course of the show, the audience was guided in folding the heart into a dunce cap, a megaphone, and a chip (French fry) container. During intermission, organic chips were distributed to all, and CIRCA explained to the audience that the fat from the chip fryer was recycled to power the biodiesel-fuelled van. Thus, the possibility of a fossil-fuel-free world was exemplified in CIRCA’s practice, and playfully incorporated into the performance (here I must acknowledge, of course, current critiques of biodiesel as an unrealistic solution to the climate chaos crisis). After the performance, CIRCA would then lead a two-day training for interested locals in rebel clowning and nonviolent civil disobedience. In this way, the CIRCA caravan group served as a seeder group, starting CIRCA “gaggles” in each city that would then continue to train and practice on its own. By the time of the G8, when a Clown Council was called for Edinburgh, a total of about 150 clowns, in a dozen gaggles from all over the UK, Ireland, and Belgium, with individuals from Italy, France, and Spain, gathered to debate and discuss a plan of action. CIRCA’s main focus was on direct action in public space, but it also hoped to speak through the media (as opposed to speaking to the media) by generating absurd quotes and images that nevertheless articulated a radical critique of G8 policies, and of capitalism, that was not being enunciated by the celebrities of the Live Aid concert (it may be for this reason that Bob Geldof himself was quoted as saying that he didn’t want a “bunch of guys dressed as clowns” showing up and ruining his show.) In order to spread this critique, CIRCA called an absurdist “press conference” for July 1, 2005. The press release, written with the earnest absurdity of clown-logic, hoped to highlight CIRCA’s concerns about the social movement being co-opted by Labour Party leaders who were reportedly planning to join in the “Make Poverty History” march in Edinburgh.

192 | L. M. Bogad


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 179–198

COMMUNIQUE #8.86 CLANDESTINE INSURGENT REBEL CLOWN ARMY (CIRCA) Re: Operation BROWN-NOSE To all our rebel friends in the global justice movement—our brave, beautiful, beatific, bracelet-wearing brethren bent on beating back and baffling the behemoth of Babel that is the Gathering of Eight . . . We are so proud of you, so in love with you . . . we share your compassion and desire to TRULY make poverty history. We admire your realization that the only real way to end poverty, in the global South or in the suburbs of Edinburgh, is to stop the Great Eight’s amusingly antisocial habits—their rather nasty slapstick routines—kicking the poorer nations with war, arms sales, and bullying trade policies, manipulating their markets and plundering their resources while dangling the crumbs of “debt forgiveness.” We know the G8, far from being thanked for “forgiving” these illegitimate debts, should beg forgiveness from the Global South for their ongoing crimes and depredations. . . . Beyond all that, we of CIRCA thank YOU, our friends here at this march, for being part of a beautiful and loving nonviolent social movement to achieve true justice . . . for of course it is only through social movements that real social change can happen—not from begging the politicians or corporations to behave more nicely. BUT . . . the CIRCA Advanced Intelligence Team has discovered a grave threat to our powerful movement, just as we are all gaining momentum and making our demands for profound change heard. It has come to our attention through deft infiltration, clever clandestinity, and watching the telly that SEVERAL CRIMINAL, ANTISOCIAL ELEMENTS are trying to HIJACK and CO-OPT our MOVEMENT! They are HERE, AMONGST US, these DANGEROUS EXTREMISTS, and they MAY even be marching in this very demonstration!!! They are GORDON BROWN (MP), the financier of the invasion of Iraq, whose £5 billion War Reserve Fund could, instead, fully immunize EVERY CHILD in the developing world for two years, who has stated explicitly that aid will go down as much as debt is relieved for a net change of ZERO, and that recipient countries will have to restructure their societies to make them even more vulnerable to the market. HILLARY BENN (MP) may also be present, wearing his pretty “development” mask over his true face of privatization and plunder. BEWARE! If you see Brown or any of his Errorist henchmen, please report them to the clown patrol nearest to you on the march, and keep your distance. CIRCA has mobilized to PATROL and PROTECT our movement, so that it is not HIJACKED by these ghoulish buffoons. Our movement’s unique accomplishment is the creation of a grassroots politics WITHOUT professional politicians and parliaments (as they have said in Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Chiapas, and beyond, “Que se vayan todos! (Out with them all!)” We must not let these brown-nosing interlopers mislead us on our own march!

Clowndestine Maneuvers: A Study of Clownfrontational Tactics | 193


Operation BROWN-NOSE will involve giving hugs to the needy, playing games with all our friends, and other similarly militant activities. We request full cooperation from the public for this operation. With love, laughter and red-nosed resistance, Colonel Oftruth General Confusion Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army The actual press conference involved feeding organic chips to the media (when most of them balked, Colonel Oftruth was sure to hand-feed them until they all relented) and a demonstration of CIRCA’s parade skills as an entire battalion marched directly into (and behind, and on top of) a tiny phone booth. CIRCA then demonstrated its fishing movement, explained the premise of Operation HAHAHAA (Helping Authorities House Arrest Half Witted Authoritarian Androids), in which CIRCA planned to help the security forces with their ongoing house arrest of the G8 leaders—the ultimate “dangerous, antisocial, criminal elements” in the Gleneagles resort. CIRCA then read the Operation Brown-Nose communiqué and scattered in all directions. The next day, several papers, including the Daily Record, the Daily Express, and the Daily Star, quoted at varying length the second paragraph of the communiqué, which enunciated a critique of the G8’s actual policies and responsibility for the debt of the Global South, along with the disarming CIRCA claim that they would “amuse, bemuse, but never bruise.” Press coverage of CIRCA thus served as a partial disruption of the hegemonologue that relentlessly depicted protesters as violent and dangerous. Even in right-wing newspapers that were hostile to the movement’s agenda, quotes and photographs of CIRCA members provided a sort of cognitive dissonance to the reactionary storyline. On one such page of the Daily Mirror, under the huge headline “RIOT POLICE . . . 1 ANARCHISTS . . . 0: G-Hate Aggro Kicks-off as Cops Crush Violent Protesters,” and next to a photograph of a beaten protestor, is the image of Trixie kissing the shield of a smiling policeman, with the subtitle “KISS AND MAKEUP: Member of the Rebel Clowns plants smacker on cop riot shield.” The Daily Mail also showed a picture of Trixie’s kiss next to a photograph of a female protestor being arrested by heavily armored police (Moore, Madeley). These images may at least have disrupted the constant barrage of dehumanizing rhetoric about the protestors, if only from the jarring juxtaposition of the visuals above the denunciatory text. A reader might have wondered, if only for a split second: if these protesters appeared to just be clowning around and kissing shields, why were they being beaten and arrested? In “The Carnival Turns Into Anarchy” in the Scotsman, a reporter noted: Earlier in the day, and on a lighter note, the Rebel Clown Army had been detained while putting on their make up and red noses. Police found an artillery of weapons including a feather duster, water pistols and soapy bubbles. About 30 of the clowns—who wore

194 | L. M. Bogad


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 179–198

an unusual combination of army combats, neon pink wigs, colanders on their heads and other fluffy accessories—were surrounded by police in Teviot Place. Some clowns ran away giggling but others were forced to wait while they were searched by police. All the clowns insisted on speaking in high-pitched voices, dancing around and making jokes . . . (Brown) Despite the very real clashes between police and citizens during the Carnival, this sort of press coverage undermined to some degree the rhetoric of the national security state about the threat of violent protestors. By the end of the campaign, there were some small signs of fraternization between some rank-and-file police and some of the clowns, an exchange, a lessening of mutual fear through the visors and the makeup that covered either sides’ faces. While the clowns were “directing traffic” at one intersection, a police wagon rolled by the CIRCA “checkpoint,” and some of the police grinningly gave CIRCA the Clown Salute in an appropriately ambivalent gesture of comradely contempt. Elsewhere, one police officer, hearing the clowns do the “Yes, lets” exercise (in which one clown says “Let’s all do X!” and all other clowns in hearing range must say “YES! Let’s all do X!”, and do whatever X is doing in as enthusiastic and ridiculous a manner as possible), said “Let’s all go to the park, because that’s where the clowns are going and we have to follow them!” At one point, CIRCA members were once again confronted with a line of stonefaced police, and one of the CIRCA members began ironically thanking the police for supporting global capitalism. The ironic speech went on a bit long, and another clown (Verson) told the police, “If you smile, I’ll tell him to be quiet.” Several of the police immediately put beaming smiles on their faces (Verson). Later, on the highway approaching Gleneagles, a group of rebel clowns came upon four patrolmen guarding a bridge. The clowns asked them if they wanted to play a game, and they agreed. After an explanation of the rules to “Giants, Wizards and Goblins,” the two sides huddled to choose a strategy, then grinningly lined up facing each other. On the count of three, both lines simultaneously aimed their outstretched arms at each other and wiggled their fingers as if casting a spell. The bobbies and the clowns had both chosen the “Wizard” option. They immediately obeyed the hallowed rule of the game: if both sides choose the same creature, they have to hug. Policewizards and clown-wizards hugging after all the conflict of the days before was a hopeful if bizarre sight (Young). While this occasional softening of relations may have been denounced among some more “hardcore” and hostile anarchists, others such as founding CIRCA member Jennifer Verson saw it as a historically-proven essential element in destabilizing power and making real social change—establishing a human connection with the rank and file police, eroding the mutual and habitual anger and stereotyping, and experimenting with new methods of interaction (Verson). CIRCA confronts power by playing with it, by refusing the interpolation of conventional power relations as much as possible, at the immediate point of articulation of that power in

Clowndestine Maneuvers: A Study of Clownfrontational Tactics | 195


public space. CIRCA attempts to create a temporary, evanescent, improvised carnival space where the rules are destabilized and new possible relations are suggested and experimented with. These carnival-inspired power plays can be problematic. While the experience of training and playing with CIRCA, or with carnivalesque protest in general, can be liberating for individual participants, these actions in and of themselves only hint of a better, possible world. Tactical carnival in and of itself does not change the fundamental relations of production or distribution in the greater society. The liberatory spaces it creates are quickly dispersed, either by the force of the state or by the inevitable need of its participants to eventually get back to work. Indeed, these spaces, while embracing a carnivalesque egalitarianism, are not equally open to all. The cost of participation is more easily faced by those with the resources to be able to face arrest, and the race or class privilege that lessens the risks and penalties for confrontation with the state.5 Different states have different policing policies (Britain’s policing of demonstrations is more liberal, in general, than that of the United States, for example), and this radically affects the tactics and range of motion of creative protesters.6 While rebel clowning is a joyful way to find courage and to play with power, there is a necessary element of sorrow or even despair mixed into these performances. It is only one tactic among many, and often probably not the best choice for a movement event. However, no single tactic can solve the problems that the global justice movement confronts, and clowning is only one tactic among many in the ongoing experiment of resistance. Indeed, the risk of becoming predictable is all the more incentive for tactical carnival’s creation of a space for experimentation with new ideas and nonviolent tactics. In conclusion, scholars of carnival may very well problematize the global justice movement’s interpretation of the carnivalesque. They may dispute such an uncritical reading of the works of Bakhtin, and might argue that this uncritical interpretation problematizes the movement’s actual praxis around the world. However, although some may claim that this reading of carnival is not historicized rigorously enough, or that it is too accepting of Bakhtin’s ideas wholesale, it is unquestionable that this idea of carnival is an emergent frame that is inspiring and galvanizing the theory and action of a global, antiauthoritarian, anticapitalist movement. This global movement is determined to build and sustain its own cultures, in defiance of the homogenizing corporate monoculture that is spreading so rapidly. Part of the development of these oppositional cultures is the development of a new concept of carnival, influenced by older concepts, but continually developing its definitions, parameters, and tactics through activist praxis. This movement’s project is to reclaim the carnival for its own purposes and agendas, against the society of the spectacle and the hegemonologue, and for sustained, deeply oppositional, creative, and egalitarian activism.

196 | L. M. Bogad


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 179–198

Works Cited Ainger, Katherine. “A Global Carnival of the Dispossessed” (Z Magazine, September 1999), reprinted in Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches From a Global Movement. Ed. Eddie Yuen, Daniel Burton-Rose, and George Katsiaficas. Brooklyn: Soft Skull, 2004: 33–35.

Kenney, Padraic. A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002.

Bakhtin, M. M. Rabelais and His World. Trans. H. Iswolsky. Cambridge, MA: MIT P., 1968.

Infernal Noise Brigade. 3 December 2005 ⬍www.infernalnoise.org⬎

Bey, Hakim. “TAZ—Temporary Autonomous Zones.” 12 September 2005 ⬍http://www .hermetic.com/bey/taz_cont.html⬎.

Madeley, Gavin, Grace Macaskill, Gordon Tait, and Graham Grant. “The Carnival That Turned Sour,” Daily Mail (5 July 2005): 2.

Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: TCG, 1985.

Moore, Ron and Fiona McGregor, “RIOT POLICE . . . 1 Anarchists . . . 0: G-Hate Aggro Kicks-off as Cops Crush Violent Protestors,” Daily Mirror (5 July 2005): 4.

Brown, Angie, Louise Gray, Michael Howie, and Stephen McGinty. “The Carnival Turns Into Anarchy.” Scotsman (July 5, 2005): 4–5. Carnival for Full Enjoyment. Flyer/pamphlet. Personal archive of author. Also accessed 12 November 12 2005 at ⬍www.nodeal.org.uk⬎. CIRCA. “G8 Briefing and Operations Information.” Pamphlet. Personal archive of author. ———. “Radical Origami Audience Handout.” Heart-shaped flyer. Personal archive of author. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Trans. New York: Zone, 1995. (original French publication: 1967). FBI. 10 May 2001. “Statement for the Record, Louis J. Freeh, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, on the Threat of Terrorism to the United States before the United States Senate Committees on Appropriations, Armed Services, and Select Committee on Intelligence. 23 June 2003 ⬍http://www.fbi.gov/congress/ congress01/freeh051001.htm⬎. Fremeaux, Isabelle and Hilary Ramsden. “We Disobey to Love: Rebel Clowning for Social Change.” The Arts and Social Justice: Re-crafting Activist Adult Education and Community Leadership. Ed. Darlene Clover and Joyce Stalker. Leicester, UK: Niace, 2007.

Hill, Christopher. “Levellers and True Levellers.” Cultural Resistance Reader. Ed. Stephen Duncombe. New York: Verso, 2002. 17–34.

Notes from Nowhere, ed. We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism. New York: Verso, 2003. Rhythms of Resistance, “Who We Are.” 17 November 2005 ⬍http://www .rhythmsofresistance.co.uk/?lid=56⬎. Scott, J. C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990. ———. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985. Shepard, Benjamin. “The New Model Army of Clowns: From RIZE to the G8 Zaps, Clowning Asserts A Radical Imagination of Resistance.” Monthly Review online. (16 August 2005). 17 September 2005 ⬍http://mrzine .monthlyreview.org/shepard160805.html⬎. Solnit, David. Interview with Author, 2 July 2005. Verson, Jennifer. Interview with Author, 3 July 2005. “We Will . . .” Handkerchief. From the author’s archive. Young, Zoe (aka Private Individual, CIRCA). Personal video footage of CIRCA actions. Viewed July 2005-present.

Clowndestine Maneuvers: A Study of Clownfrontational Tactics | 197


Notes 1. “Gaggle” is the official CIRCA term for a small affinity group of clowns; after a bit of discussion, we decided that “squad” seemed too militaristic. 2. “Direct action” is a term for activist methods that directly confront and, perhaps, disrupt or change sociopolitical processes, as opposed to indirect activism that seeks to lobby for change through influencing politicians or swaying public opinion. 3. The Diggers were an egalitarian eco-agrarian dissident movement which formed in England in 1649. 4. The true challenge is to stay “in clown” even when conventional power relationships assert themselves. In a different neighborhood during the Carnival for Full Enjoyment, a small gaggle of rebel clowns was dancing in the streets with a samba band when we were baton charged at

198 | L. M. Bogad

the blow of a whistle and a cry of “CHARGE!” by a rank of policemen. The clowns, in a tightly coordinated, nonverbal reference to the teachings of Sun Tzu and Von Clausewitz, scattered and fled at top speed. Colonel Oftruth experimented with staying “in clown,” cheerfully confiding to confused bystanders as we ran past them, “We must be very dangerous!” 5. For an account of the community-sustaining clowning among working-class African-American youth in Los Angeles, see the movie RIZE, and Shepard 2005. 6. While, in Britain, rebel clowns were able, at times, to interact playfully with the police, in New York, where the policing are far rougher, it is necessary to make the fearsome context part of the shtick. CIRCA/NYC members are therefore much more likely to flee helter-skelter at the slightest hint of trouble and hide behind very small objects.


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 199–218

Play with Authority!: Radical Performance and Performative Irony Michael Shane Boyle

The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter. —Hannah Arendt, On Violence It’s a beautiful day in Midland, Michigan as two official shareholder representatives for Dow Chemical, the world’s 34th largest corporation, empty their pockets for the security personnel guarding the entrance of the Midland Center for the Arts.1 Before entering Dow Chemical’s May 2005 Annual General Meeting, the Yes Men’s Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, along with two thousand other Dow Chemical shareholder representatives, are forced to check their cell phones at the door and walk through metal detectors. This year, guards even prohibit the media from bringing any recording devices into the Midland Center for the Arts. While Dow Chemical offers no explanation for the increased security measures at this year’s Annual General Meeting, those in attendance cannot help but speculate whether the security has anything to do with what transpired just months earlier in December 2004. On December 3, 2004—the twentieth anniversary of the Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal, India2—a man posing as a public spokesperson for Dow Chemical humiliated the mega-corporation by appearing on BBC World and announcing that Dow would accept complete financial responsibility for the disaster. The straight-faced and suit-clad impostor who appeared from the BBC’s Paris studio under the name “Jude Finisterra” 3 had been invited by the BBC as Dow Chemical’s spokesperson to relay the corporation’s comments on the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. The BBC had found Finisterra’s contact information on the faux Dow Chemical website created by the Yes Men, www.dowethics.com, an internet site

Play with Authority!: Radical Performance and Performative Irony | 199


bearing the official Dow Chemical logo and slogans, which the BBC mistook for an official Dow Chemical corporate site. Instead of rehashing Dow Chemical’s standard denial of responsibility for the disaster in his five-minute interview, Finisterra surprised the BBC by unveiling Dow’s $12 billion dollar plan to liquidate Union Carbide and use the money to finally clean up the Bhopal site and compensate the victims.4 Less than half an hour after the announcement, prices for Dow Chemical’s stock plunged four percent, resulting in a loss of $2 billion (Vanderbilt 55). The interview ran twice on the BBC and news of Dow’s new plan became the top story on news.google.com before being revealed as a hoax later that day. Following Dow’s official response, the Yes Men released their own explanation, which highlighted for readers what Dow’s response actually meant: Dow will NOT commit ANY funds to compensate and treat 120,000 Bhopal residents who require lifelong care. . . . Dow will NOT remediate (clean up) the Bhopal plant site. . . . Dow’s sole and unique responsibility is to its shareholders, and Dow CANNOT do anything that goes against its bottom line unless forced to by law. (www.TheYesMen.org) The Yes Men’s stunt received even more attention when the BBC soon invited Finisterra back on the air, this time under his real identity (albeit another alias, Andy Bichlbaum) to explain the prank. Despite talk of Dow Chemical taking legal action against the Yes Men, no lawsuit ever materialized. After this public relations nightmare, who could blame Dow Chemical for taking such heightened precautions at its Annual General Meeting in order to curb any further embarrassing disruptions regarding its dubious response to the Bhopal disaster? Upon discovering Dow’s security measures at the Annual General Meeting, Bichlbaum and Bonanno ditch their concealed video recording devices in their van, save a single tiny voice recorder hidden on Bichlbaum, which still sets off the metal detector. Guards allow Bichlbaum to keep the recorder and, as Bonanna follows him through security, a guard remarks, “Loved your movie,” likely referring to their first documentary, The Yes Men (2003), which chronicles a selection of the Yes Men’s early pranks. While most of their activist pranks rely on at least some degree of dissimulation, on this day, Bichlbaum and Bonanno do not worry about fooling anyone. They are here at the Midland Arts Center as the official designatories for a group of Dow Chemical shareholders. During the SEC-mandated question and answer session, Bichlbaum, introduced by the usher as “Jude Finisterra,” pulls no punches and pointedly asks Chair of the Board Bill Stavropoulos: We made an incredible $1.35 billion this quarter. That’s really terrific. But you know, for most of us, that’ll just mean a new set of golf clubs. I for one would forego my golf clubs this year to do something useful instead—like finally cleaning up the Bhopal plant site, or funding the new clinic there. Bill, will you use Dow’s first-quarter profits to finally clean up Bhopal? (www.TheYesMen.org)

200 | Michael Shane Boyle


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 199–218

Stavropoulos responds to Bichlbaum with a curt dismissal. For ten years, the Yes Men have practiced what they call “identity correction,” a tactic journalist Tom Vanderbilt describes as “a play on the idea of ‘identity theft’— in which members appropriate the identities of corporations of government bodies in order to speak truths that, ostensibly, those entities dare not” (55). Similar to the Dow Chemical hoax, many of the Yes Men’s performances rely on cases of (purposefully-engineered) mistaken identity in which, as a result of the group’s host of clever websites, corporate conferences and news agencies invite the Yes Men to speak under the belief that they represent entities such as Dow Chemical, Haliburton, Exxon-Mobil, the World Trade Organization, and even the U.S. government. In their performances, the Yes Men gladly embrace the authority mistakenly bestowed upon them and expertly perform the behaviors expected of the representatives they are deemed to be. The group colors these performances of authority with preposterous rhetoric that takes the logic of corporate globalization to its atrocious yet logical extremes. Each performance bears a scathing critique, such as when a Yes Man, posing as a representative of the WTO at a meeting of accountants in Australia, announced the dissolution of the WTO in light of the organization’s failure to fulfill any of its stated aims. Despite his lack of authority to make such an announcement, this literal speech-act engendered a wave of effects, even leading one member of Canada’s Parliament, who was fooled, to stand before Parliament where he pronounced the WTO’s disbandment (www.TheYesMen.org). With an anti-corporate agenda and use of what Vanderbilt calls, “the accepted aesthetic conventions of the day: websites, PowerPoints . . . etc.” (56), the Yes Men blur the line between activism and performance by creatively playing with the authoritative rituals and discourses of government organizations and multi-national corporations, often in order to provoke critical reflection from audiences on the targeted institutions. Informed by the tactics of contemporary radical performance groups such as the Yes Men, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, and the Oil Enforcement Agency, this paper explores how an unauthorized playing with and within official discourses of authority can be a politically efficacious mode of politics by other means. To do so, I analyze a specific form of radical performance that playfully performs the discourses and rituals of contemporary State power and corporate globalization. Through imaginative imitations and inversions of authority, these groups manipulate the structures of formalized power for alternative ends. I argue that participants of this brand of what Baz Kershaw calls “radical performance” 5 operate not outside the complex practices and systems of hegemonic power, but rather within them through playful yet earnest performative manipulations of the rituals, grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of authority. The groups discussed in this paper offer a compelling example of contemporary non-violent direct action activism that playfully explores with astounding and provocative effect the relationship

Play with Authority!: Radical Performance and Performative Irony | 201


between politics and performance in an era of ever-expanding global capital and media spectacle. The Tactics of Military Clowning Inside the Royal Air Force (RAF) recruitment center in Leeds, England, one Friday afternoon in 2004, recruiting officers struggle to deal with fifteen clowns who have just entered the building and are inquiring in silly voices how they can sign-up for the military.6 With a war raging in Iraq, new cadets are in high demand, but the recruiting officers are hesitant to accept this ragtag group of buffoons into their ranks despite the clowns’ stated eagerness to liberate foreign lands and find those elusive weapons of mass destruction. Dressed in full clown combat gear consisting of camouflage pants and jackets trimmed with pink and green fuzzy fur (some even sport steel colander helmets and pink feather dusters), the clowns bounce around the recruiting center ogling pictures of war planes and tanks while enviously asking questions such as, “Why can’t we have really really big guns like yours?” On the sidewalk outside, a pair of clowns have set up their own makeshift recruitment stall and hand out leaflets to passersby that read, “Be Rubbish! Join the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army!” Back inside, the clowns continue entreating the recruiting officers to let them join the RAF. They even get down on their hands and knees and plead, “Please teach us how to liberate people.” The clowns detail their previous combat experience as part of the Clown Army and they explain to the officers how a clown’s ability to make people laugh might just succeed where bombs and bullets fail. Sadly, however, the recruiting officers do not take these clownish petitions seriously and soon a very serious group of police officers show up and attempt to escort the clowns out of the building. Faced with such disheartening rejection, the earnest clowns resist their removal and the recruiting center descends into chaos as a pair of clowns send sausage balloons whizzing around the office while others begin polishing the shoes of officers with their pink feather dusters, and one clown reads the latest clown communiqué, which details both the absurdity of the handover of power in Iraq and announces the occupation of Leeds by the Clown Army and the establishment of the Clown Provisional Authority. Conceived by non-violent direct action activists in the United Kingdom to welcome the grand buffoon himself, George W. Bush, to London in fall 2003, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA) has since grown into a horizontal activist network with gaggles throughout Europe, the United States, and Israel. With their distinctive white painted faces, red noses, and colorful camouflage uniforms replete with water pistols, feather dusters, and other (non-) intimidating weaponry, CIRCA employs a distinctive practice of activist clowning at both large mass demonstrations and other autonomous actions, which often include disruptions of military recruitment centers, McDonalds restaurants, and the meetings or press conferences of political

202 | Michael Shane Boyle


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 199–218

CIRCA recruitment leaflet back page or corporate elites. The colorful and entertaining spectacle of CIRCA’s principally improvisational activist performances has transformed this motley crew of clowns, buffoons, and jesters into the media darlings of many alternative globalization protests. Rather than criticize the State through traditional modes of picketing or petitioning, the clowns in the above anecdote played with and disrupted the strategic rituals

Play with Authority!: Radical Performance and Performative Irony | 203


CIRCA recruitment leaflet front page of state power as manifested in the British military. Such mockery created an engaging criticism of England’s participation in the War in Iraq and the ridiculous spectacle of the supposed handover of power to the Iraqis. In the above intervention, members of CIRCA not only played with established strategies of power but they literally played within them by playfully taking on the guise of the military as well as invading a

204 | Michael Shane Boyle


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 199–218

situated place of state power—the army recruitment center. Such play with and within strategies of power offers an excellent example of an effective form of activist performance that manipulates the order imposing “strategies” of dominant power structures while still operating within them. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau responds to the Foucauldian concept of disciplinary power as presented in works such as Discipline and Punish (1977). Although de Certeau finds tremendous value in Foucault’s project, he criticizes Foucault for privileging “the productive apparatus” of power and dangerously ignoring how social actors manipulate this apparatus through daily practices of consumption (xiv). De Certeau writes: If it is true that the grid of “discipline” is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive, it is all the more urgent to discover how an entire society resists being reduced to it, what popular procedures (also “miniscule” and quotidian) manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and conform to them only in order to evade them, and finally, what “ways of operating” form the counterpart, on the consumer’s (or “dominee’s”?) side, of the mute processes that organize the establishment of socioeconomic order. (xiv) De Certeau distinguishes his work from Foucault’s by presenting as his aim the identification of “an antidiscipline” constituted by the “procedures and ruses of consumers” (xv).7 To do this, de Certeau draws from the art of warfare and its distinction between strategies and tactics. For de Certeau, a strategy is a productive operation of authority and can include anything endowed with power by the dominant order. Fundamental to a strategy of power is its firm physical localization within a proper, authorized place, i.e., an army recruiting office and its productions of laws, rituals, languages, culture, discourses, etc. (36). Due to their heavily entrenched nature, strategies can neither break up nor reassemble easily. Tactics, or “ways of operating,” on the other hand, are more flexible and ephemeral than strategies since they are “determined by the absence of a proper locus” (37). Lacking its own place of operation, a tactic must operate within the place of a strategy according to opportunities afforded to them (xix). As de Certeau writes, while “strategies are able to produce, tabulate, and impose [spaces] . . . tactics can only use, manipulate, and divert these spaces” (30). Just as CIRCA’s intervention relied on the military’s strategic location of the recruiting office in order to succeed, tactics can only exist as “a certain play in the machine” of power (30). In addition to this parasitic institutional localization, a crucial component of CIRCA’s recruitment center invasion was its mockery of a key strategy of military power—the RAF’s recruitment of new cadets. With its campy uniforms and goofy impersonations of military behavior, CIRCA inverted the seriousness and hierarchy of the British army in order to poke critical fun at the War in Iraq. Like the resistant consumer practices of a system by users who are not its creators, which de Certeau describes at length in The Practice of Everyday Life, CIRCA

Play with Authority!: Radical Performance and Performative Irony | 205


subversively manipulates existing discursive strategies of military authority rather than produce an external discourse of critique (xiii). Through such acts of creative interpretation and discursive ‘enunciation,’ the radical performances discussed in this paper do not offer a frontal assault on an external power. Instead, they operate as guerrilla-like infiltrations that work to deflect and expose the proliferating operations of authority, strategic power, and technocratic structures (xiv). By its very name, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army ironically asserts the insurgent nature of its operations, which, judging from its eager embrace of media attention, are meant to be anything but clandestine.8 While de Certeau’s study focuses on the sometimes subconscious, often mundane tactics employed in everyday life by individuals within a structure of disciplinary power, he plainly acknowledges how his model of tactics offers itself to other applications (xix).9 As practiced by groups such as the Critical Art Ensemble and the Billboard Liberation Front, tactical media is one such application of de Certeau’s model in its manipulation of the infrastructure, signs, and images of mainstream media in order to make them “function in another register” (32). Like de Certeau’s model of tactics, tactical media diverts the system “without leaving it,” but “by poaching in countless ways on the property of others” (32; xii).10 As Joanne Richardson calls attention to however, tactical media notably abandons de Certeau’s everyday tactics model of “silent production by reading signs without changing them.” Instead, tactical media aspires to actively and visibly alter the strategic signs and infrastructure of mainstream media (Richardson 2). This departure from de Certeau is highly instructive for understanding how the radical performances under discussion here similarly operate. Like tactical media, radical performances by groups such as the Yes Men or the Clown Army do not silently manipulate the authority they perform without significantly altering them. Unlike de Certeau’s paradigmatic example of the indigenous Native Americans who feigned submission to Spanish colonization by silently shifting the meanings of the rituals and culture forced upon them,11 the radical performances under discussion here operate by visibly appropriating, changing, and in the case of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, blatantly mocking the discourses, behaviors, and costumes of authority. Certainly, CIRCA’s invasion of the RAF recruiting center and imitation of the military’s strategy of recruiting new cadets was anything but silent and innocuous. Nor was it a seamless impersonation. Unlike the virtuosic disguises of oceanic fish and plants that de Certeau posits as a primordial model of tactics, a Yes Men or CIRCA intervention does not depend on a perfect resemblance to the “original” that it refers to. In fact, the very effect of such radical performances depend on the successful failure of resemblance. At the protests against the 2007 G-8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, for example, there was no mistaking the antics of the colorful and goofy Clown Army for

206 | Michael Shane Boyle


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 199–218

the militant German police. At these protests, over 500 ‘clownbatants’ joined nearly 50,000 protesters for the raucous week-long carnival and blockades that welcomed the leaders of the world’s eight most industrialized nations to the small coastal town of Heiligendamm, Germany. For six days, these clowns poked critical fun at the massive German police presence in Heiligendamm, much to the delight of other demonstrators and the international media who devoted heavy attention to CIRCA’s antics. Nervous about a large, violent contingent of protestors rioting in the streets as tens of thousands did at the violent 2001 Genoa G-8 protests where police killed a demonstrator, the German government spent over $130 million on security measures for the summit and mobilized 16,000 police officers and 1,100 military personnel, the largest civil security deployment in Germany since the Second World War (Landler). While the police did sporadically battle with activists, especially during the first day’s mass march and rally in the harbor of Rostock, a city just a few kilometers from Heiligendamm, it was the clowns who grabbed headlines that week as they bewildered heavily armored police with their improvised games, dilettantish skits, and goofy antics. In Heiligendamm, radical performance groups such as CIRCA confronted German police with a form of ironic and humorous resistance that upset the state’s expectations of violent protests while criticizing the excessive and undemocratic security presence at the G-8 summit. In order for this criticism to be legible to onlookers and the media, however, CIRCA members could neither look nor act exactly like the police.12 Instead CIRCA’s performances depended on a failed resemblance, which required an obviously purposeful failed mimicry of the costumes, discourses, and behaviors of the German police and military that, when documented by the media, offered a striking contrast between the peaceful protesters and the violent response of the state. Such performances simultaneously appropriate and invert their objects of critique by playing with their imagery, discourses, and behaviors. In the case of CIRCA, clowns exchange guns and truncheons for feather dusters, water pistols, and confetti; helmets for steel colanders and orange traffic cones; tactical belts for pink boas. To mock the rigid hierarchy of the military while echoing the group’s ideal of horizontal organization, each clown selects his or her own name and rank, choosing ridiculous titles such as Private Space or General Confusion. Similarly, the radical performances of the Yes Men also depend on successfully failed impersonations. Yet, while the failure of the clowns’ mimicry is obvious from the outset, a Yes Men performance depends on an initial (or in some cases prolonged) mistaken resemblance to the government and corporate officials they impersonate. Despite the necessity of resemblance, like the Clown Army, the intended success of a Yes Men performance depends on a failed resemblance that publicly exposes contradictions of the discourses played with.13 Such impersonations have a powerful subversive potential, as Kolonel Klepto, one of the founders of CIRCA, notes: “Nothing undermines

Play with Authority!: Radical Performance and Performative Irony | 207


authority like holding it up to ridicule and one of the most efficient techniques of ridicule is mocking by imitation . . . The police are comfortable with confrontational resistance but faced with the art of ridicule, they don’t know how to respond” (2004: 404–06). Indeed, CIRCA’s dilettantish imitation of the police often has a profound disarming effect, one that exposes and engenders a response to the contradictions and ridiculousness of authority in a way that is extremely difficult, if not impossible to accomplish through reasoned argument. As I argue in my discussion of the work of the Oil Enforcement Agency, this move away from rational response toward an embrace of tools such as performative irony lies at the heart of this brand of radical performance. The Oil Enforcement Agency Busts the LA Auto Show On a Saturday afternoon in December 2006, a dozen or so undercover agents from the Oil Enforcement Agency (OEA) infiltrate the Ford display floor of the Los Angeles Auto Show in order to make a high-profile bust.14 After locating their target, a brandnew 2007 Ford Expedition, agents quickly remove their disguises to reveal black OEA uniforms bearing the black and white OEA insignia of a skull above two crossed gas pump nozzles. While the other agents begin investigating the Expedition, a pair of agents flash their badges to the gathering crowd and explain the OEA’s mandate to carry out the promise President George W. Bush set forth in his 2006 State of the Union address when he declared, “America is addicted to oil,” and the country must, “move beyond a petroleum based economy.” As the pair work to keep the crowd away from the crime scene, a female agent remarks to a colleague, “Looks like we’re going to have to quarantine it.” Two other agents then begin marking off a perimeter around the sports utility vehicle with yellow caution tape that reads “Climate Change Crime Scene.” “Attention! We’re going to ask you to back up for your own safety,” a tall agent, presumably the ranking officer, firmly tells the crowd, “This is a dangerous greenhousegas emitting car. Please step away. This vehicle does not pass climate change MPG regulations. We must impound this vehicle.” While the crowd slowly catches the joke, some laugh and others groan before walking away. As LA Auto Show security arrives on the scene, OEA agents pose for newspaper photographs and hold discussions with the remaining crowd about the lack of effort automakers such as Ford have made to curb climate change. Soon members of the LAPD join the private security officers and, after cordially handing the crime scene over to the local jurisdiction, the OEA agents leave the premises, but not before making a brief statement to the Los Angeles Times which appears in the following day’s morning paper. As most witnesses to the OEA bust at the LA Auto Show quickly realized, despite the likeness in appearance and behaviors of its members to federal enforcement agents, the OEA is, of course, not an official government agency. Rather, it is a

208 | Michael Shane Boyle


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 199–218

horizontally organized radical performance group: the offspring of “Freedom From Oil,” a joint campaign begun in 2004 by a coalition of the Ruckus Society, Global Exchange, and the Rainforest Action Network (Bogad 2007). Since its inception in early 2006, OEA groups have staged interventions at car shows in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York. In addition, OEA agents carry out autonomous “busts” throughout the country where they give “tickets” to vehicles that get below 24 miles per gallon, pull over grossly polluting cars on the street, take over car dealership offices, and stage guerrilla interventions with dealership managers, salespeople, and customers who sell or intend to buy grossly polluting vehicles (Oil Enforcement Agency). OEA agent and Performance Studies scholar L.M. Bogad writes: Part of the joy of the OEA’s concept is that it is a positive, proactive, and a vision of the world as it should be. It is an example of prefigurative politics, an experimental performance of a better possible role for government and a modeling of a more creative, participatory, and non-violent mode of citizenship. (2007: 262) As Bogad suggests, the heart of the OEA’s mission is to offer a better example of government intervention, one that responds effectively to the ecological concerns that threaten the world. In its radical performances, which necessitate that agents play with the strategic discourse and rituals of federal law enforcement agencies, the OEA not only attracts entertaining press coverage for climate change issues, but also puts forth a model of how a responsible government should act. Like a Yes Men intervention or a Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army invasion, the effect of an OEA bust depends on what Jacques Rancière describes as the simultaneous double effect of suitable political art:15 “the readability of political signification and a sensible or perceptible shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification” (2006: 63). As Rancière explains, political art “is always the object of negotiation between opposites, between the readability of the message that threatens to destroy the sensible form of art and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political meaning” (2006: 63). For Rancière, it is only through a perceptible shock, one which is indexical to a legible political message, that an artwork can have a substantial and non-authoritarian political effect. Rancière asserts that this “shock” is most often caused by an uncanny element in the work that resists social signification (2006). As I will argue, in the radical performances discussed in this paper, the uncanny element can be described as performative irony. For groups such as the Yes Men, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, and the OEA, performative irony allows for the manipulation of strategic discourses of power for alternative ends. Performers do not simply address audiences in a pedagogic relationship, but more significantly, by engaging them in the process of meaning-making itself. Crucial to my definition of performative irony in radical performance is the dissonance established by activist performers between their performances and the “original” authority they refer to and whose structures they play with. Such purposeful

Play with Authority!: Radical Performance and Performative Irony | 209


misappropriations of the strategies and manifestations of power has a long history, perhaps most notably in the Situationist practice of détournement, which involves the manipulation and juxtaposition of images and words of the Spectacle to establish a meaning and use that was not originally intended (Debord 2006). For Guy Debord and the Situationists, however, détournement extended into life situations, beyond the manipulation of mere images and words in their collages and films.16 By manipulating the discourses, uniforms, and behaviors of federal enforcement agencies, the OEA aspires to, as de Certeau might suggest, shed “a different light on” political issues, which, in the case of their LA Auto Show bust, was the inadequate response of both the government and Ford Motor to global climate change (37–8). The ability to shed “a different light on” political and social concerns is a primary strength of such radical performance because it addresses issues and exposes strategies of power in different and often more effective ways than other political means such as legal action, picketing, or violence. As Stephen Duncombe asserts in his discussion of contemporary activist performance, “[S]atire, irony, camp, and humor are integral. Not only does this make the message more palatable and thus popular, it also makes political sense in another way” (131, emphasis added). Making Political Sense Another Way: Eschewing the Rational Reply Due to both the State’s monopoly on the ‘legitimate’ use of violence as well as its far greater resources for employing physical force for political ends, it is nearly inconceivable today, if not a repulsive idea to most non-violent activists, to successfully contest State power in the West with violence.17 Many activists recognize the extent to which the use of sporadic acts of “terror” or even minor violence such as property destruction, draws negative consequences for the alternative globalization movement since, as Lane Bruner writes, “images of ‘serious’ protesters angrily vandalizing corporate property or yelling at police make excellent press for the state, displaying as they do the ‘seriousness’ of the situation” (149) Such violence often only works to legitimate increased security controls and oppression. The display of dissent through traditional non-violent avenues such as rallies, marches, the courts, and even old-fashioned reasoned argument has also lost effectiveness in the age of ever-expanding media spectacle. As David Solnit asserts, the grey tedium of “traditional protest- the march, the rally, the chants—is just bad theater” (quoted in Duncombe 24). For a movement that desires wide public support, creating such “bad theater” does little to make progressive politics attractive, let alone “irresistible.” 18 This is not to suggest that violence or traditional forms of protest are ineffectual or even incommensurate with the type of radical activist performance discussed in this article. In the past decade, however, many alternative globalization activist groups have placed a strong emphasis on injecting mass demonstrations with more color and creativity in order to both win over public support

210 | Michael Shane Boyle


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 199–218

and, as L.M. Bogad writes, “help create a joyous counterculture that can sustain long-term participation in a movement” (2006: 52). In this well-documented turn toward carnival in alternative globalization demonstrations in North America and Europe, the work of François Rabelais on carnival and Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on Rabelais have become vital to activists and scholars alike (see Duncombe; Bogad 2006; Bruner; Bakhtin). Needless to say, the radical performances of a group such as the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army are well-suited for the carnival, especially in their travesty of authority. In Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, Stephen Duncombe addresses what he understands to be the stale state of progressive politics in the United States. He avers that, in an age of Spectacle where consent is constantly manufactured by the media and governments have mastered the art of Spectacle creation,19 rational responses such as presenting facts and reasoned arguments on behalf of progressives inspired by Enlightenment-era sensibilities have lost much of their persuasive edge since they do not capture the imagination and aspirations of a mass constituency. In response to this, Duncombe argues, “Progressives need to think less about presenting facts and more about how to frame these facts in such a way that they make sense and hold meaning for everyday people” (10). He writes, “Progressives should have learned to build a politics that embraces the dreams of people and fashions spectacles which give these fantasies form—a politics that understands desire and speaks to the irrational”(9). Duncombe’s emphasis on the importance of the “irrational” in political action today resonates with the Situationist belief that, in an age of Spectacle, “Détournement is less effective the more it approaches a rational reply” (Debord and Wolman 2007). As Duncombe and the Situationists might agree, the “rational reply” becomes inadequate as a political means in a cultural climate so saturated by Spectacle. This is not to suggest that reasoned debate, sober argument, and work within political institutions cannot still be valuable for creating political change. However, one must only look to the political force (not to mention the popularity) of television shows such as The Colbert Report or South Park to understand what might be a popular alternative to the rational reply. As Duncombe writes, “The irrational and the emotional are not intrinsically negative aspects of politics. They are not something that must be prohibited, nor even necessarily something that must be civilized . . . They are, however, something that needs to be addressed if one hopes to attain, and hold, political power” (36). The force of an intervention by the Yes Men, the Clown Army, or the OEA very much lies in the very imaginative character of their response to political concerns such as the government’s failure to reduce America’s dependency on oil or end the war in Iraq. I would argue that the presentation of a legible political message through nonrational or bewildering means corresponds closely to what Rancière exhorts in his

Play with Authority!: Radical Performance and Performative Irony | 211


vision of suitable political art where legibility of the message negotiates with a “perceptible shock” caused by the uncanny. With this said, a radical performance such as the Clown Army’s invasion of the RAF Recruiting Office in Leeds offers an interesting example of such a “negotiation between opposites.” While onlookers and those who learned about the action later could read the Clown Army’s critique of the War in Iraq and the absurdity of the handover of power to a puppet government controlled by the United States, the unsignifiable presentation of this intervention ostensibly allowed it to penetrate more deeply than a pedagogic anti-war diatribe. Similarly, the OEA’s bust of the Los Angeles Auto Show indirectly conveyed a legible message without being overtly didactic. In both cases, the uncanny aspect of the radical performance lies in its use of performative irony. Performative Irony As L.M. Bogad has convincingly argued, much of the strength behind the irony employed in an activist performance lies in its ability to stimulate critical reflection. In Electoral Guerrilla Theatre, Bogad demonstrates how this function of irony resonates strongly with the Verfremdungseffekt (distantiation-effect) of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater. The self-conscious use of light, music, and acting in a Brechtian production aimed at withholding the ability of audiences to empathize with the characters in his plays while fostering their critical distance from the story presented. As Brecht explains, the Verfremdungseffekt “consists in turning the object of which one is to be made aware, to which one’s attention is to be drawn, from something ordinary, familiar, immediately accessible, into something peculiar, striking, and unexpected” (143). Similarly, a strength of the radical performances presented in this article is their ability to illuminate the peculiarity and contradictions of a “common recurrent, universally-practiced operation” of power (Brecht 145). By playing with the strategies of power, i.e., corporate spokespeople, soldiers, and federal enforcement agents or business conferences, recruitment centers, and car shows, albeit with a substantial critical distance, the Yes Men, the Clown Army and the OEA encourage their audiences to reflect critically on issues that have become dangerously ordinary, familiar, or naturalized. As a result of their unsettling dissonance with the strategy they selfconsciously cite, these radical performers seek to compel their audiences to reflect on “an unmarked power relationship or everyday ritual in a new, critical way” (Bogad 2005: 9).20 It must be noted, however, that the irony employed does not simply convey a message that an audience passively accepts. Rather, as Nina Felshin writes with regard to her discussion of activist art, irony encourages “participation through interpretation” (16). Thus, irony, in this case, should not merely be seen as pedagogical or didactic. It does not impart a static, predetermined message onto a passive audience. Instead, such radical performances employ performative irony, which requires

212 | Michael Shane Boyle


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 199–218

their audiences to engage with the performances. The effect of performative irony, however, is not predetermined but rather depends on a subjective and contextuallydependent interpretation that is triggered by the performer’s purposeful imperfect citation of the rituals and operations of strategic power. For example, in order to “get” an ironic joke, a listener must work to catch the irony in the joke and then make the appropriate connections (see Bogad 2005: 36–37). It is up to the listener to sort out the significance of the dissonance embedded in the ironized performance. In his reading of Andrew Boyd’s essay, “Irony, Meme Warfare, and the Extreme Costume Ball,” Bogad writes, “Inverted meanings and sarcastic satire can surprise people and stimulate reflection. Irony, which throws several simultaneous meanings at recipients, may cause passersby to do interpretive work, puncturing their assumed frame of reference to let new light shine in” (2006: 53). As Bogad implies, irony is not merely pedagogic, but rather encourages active participation. At the same time, however, Bogad helpfully emphasizes the uncertainty involved when using irony. After all, there is no guarantee that an audience member will catch any intended message of the irony, if they even catch any message at all. Drawing from Linda Hutcheon’s Irony’s Edge, Bogad suggests, “An audience member may ‘get’ the irony as intended, may not even understand it to be ironic, or may receive it in an unintended way . . . Irony has an edge, and it is risky for it can cut both ways” (2005: 37). Therefore, like the uncanny side of political art that Rancière describes, performative irony may engage an audience didactically but doing so “threatens to destroy all political meaning” (Rancière 2006: 63). To push this point further, performative irony can indeed “destroy all political meaning,” but as the case of the OEA’s groaning audience members at the Los Angeles Auto Show demonstrates, it can even engender or aggravate disdain for a particular political message or position. Yet, in its ability to engage an audience through an indeterminacy of meanings, performative irony works in an altogether different way than the rigid and structuring discourse of strategic power. Such openness is one of the chief appeals of the form of radical performance discussed in this essay as it encourages and depends on infinite options and play. The force of such performance rests on its ability not to employ strategic power for specific ends, but also to open up new ways of operating that challenge the existing system of power and authority. These radical performances achieve political significance not by commenting on or reflecting the dominant social or political configuration, but rather through inserting the possibility of play into the system or exposing the fictive foundations of structuring power. Again, these radical performances effect change not through didacticism, but rather by virtue of their play with authority, established hierarchies, and normative values. As a type of prefigurative politics, they create something altogether different from the strategically imposed order of power. They create spaces of play that have no predetermined end or meaning.

Play with Authority!: Radical Performance and Performative Irony | 213


Conclusion: Reinventing Everyday Life . . . It is a warm Wednesday evening in the Mitte district of Berlin. I am sitting outside with twelve members of the Berliner gaggle of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army. We are seated in a circle on a small wooden stage at the Offene Uni BerlinS (OUBS), an alternative cultural center located two blocks from the legendary theater of Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. Two weeks have passed since these clowns joined 500 others in Heiligendamm, Germany for the 2007 G-8 Summit. This is the Berliner gaggle’s first meeting since the end of the festivities. After offering casual greetings to one another, the group begins discussing upcoming interventions, some of which are planned for the following week. It soon begins to rain, as it has done nearly everyday in June, and to avoid getting wet, we move our gathering inside to the group’s headquarters, a nicely sized rent-(and furniture-)free room the group shares with two other organizations on the third floor of OUBS Haus 20. Inside the headquarters, there are colorful signs and other homemade props leaning against the wall, remnants of past radical performances. As we remove our shoes in preparation for the week’s training (a.k.a. games), I notice a rubber chicken dangling on a string from the ceiling in the middle of the room. What comprises training for the Clown Army, however, is what most of us would call playing. For almost two hours, we laugh and we yell as we play various games and perform different improvisational exercises, all of which merge unnoticeably into one another without real structure, guidance, or apparent intended end. We only stop when one of the groups with which the Clown Army shares the room shows up for its scheduled meeting. As I walk to the Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn station after the meeting, I reflect on how invigorating the evening’s “training” was especially in light of my own recent trying week at the protests against the G-8 Summit. In Heiligendamm, I was constantly and terrifyingly reminded of the sometimes brutal nature of a State’s strategy of power, which will pitilessly pummel non-violent protestors with truncheons or spray them with tear gas merely for asserting their democratic right of dissent. In a time when “‘discipline’ is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive,” (de Certeau xiv) there is nothing more empowering and rejuvenating for an activist than to play with complete abandon, if only for a short time. As anthropologist David Graeber writes in his account of the aspirations of the alternative globalization movement, “[T]his is a movement about reinventing democracy . . . Ultimately, it aspires to be much more than that, because ultimately it aspires to reinvent daily life as whole” (70). Not only does playing assert one’s freedom from authority’s ritualized strategies of power, but also more importantly, playing offers a glimpse at a non-hierarchical and horizontallyorganized practice of everyday life that so many today are striving to invent.

214 | Michael Shane Boyle


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 199–218

Works Cited Bakhtin, M. Rabelais and His World. Trans. H. Iswolsky. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1984. Bey, H. From “TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone.” The Cultural Resistance Reader Ed. S. Duncombe. London: Verso, 2002. 113–118. Bogad, L. M. Electoral guerrilla theatre: Radical ridicule and social movements. New York: Routledge, 2005. ———. “Radical simulation, Regulation by Prank: The Oil Enforcement Agency.” Contemporary Theatre Review 17 (2007): 261–264. ———. “Tactical Carnival: Social movements, demonstrations, and dialogical performance.” A Boal Companion. Ed. J. Cohen-Cruz and M. Schutzman. New York: Routledge, 2006. 46–58. Boyd, A. “Irony, Meme Warfare, and the Extreme Costume Ball.” From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban protest and community building in the era of globalization. Ed. R. Hayduk and B. Shepard. London: Verso, 2002. Brecht, B. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Trans J. Willet. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964. Bruner, M. L. “Carnivalesque Protest and the Humorless State.” Text and Performance Quarterly 25 (2005): 136–155. de Certeau, M. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. S. Rendhall. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Debord, G. Society of the Spectacle. Trans.K. Knabb. New York: AK, 2006. Debord, G., and G. J. Wolman. “A user’s guide to detournement.” Situationists International Anthology. Ed. and trans. K. Knabb. New York: Bureau Of Public Secrets, 2007. Duncombe, S. Dream: Re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy. New York: New, 2007.

Felshin, N. “Introduction to But is it Art,” in But is it Art: The Spirit of Art as Activism. Seattle: Bay, 1995. Foucault, M. Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison. Trans. A. Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1977. Graeber, D. “The New Anarchists,” New Left Review 13 (January–February 2002). Kershaw, B. The Radical in Performance: Between Brecht and Baudrillard. London: Routledge, 1999. Klepto, K. Making war with love: The clandestine insurgent rebel clown army. City 8 (2004): 403–411. Landler, Mark. “Thousands of Protestors Foil Some German Security Measures and Clash with Police.” The New York Times (June 7, 2007). Lee, Alfred. “(Auto Show) Green Humor.” City Beat (December 7, 2006). Oil Enforcement Agency. The OEA Training Manual (December 7, 2007) ⬍http://oea .freedomfromoil.org⬎ Notes from Nowwhere, ed. We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism. New York: Verso, 2003. Rancière J. The Politics of Aesthetics. Trans. G. Rockhill. London: Continum, 2005A. ———. Artists and cultural producers as political subjects: Opposition, intervention, participation, emancipation in time of neo-liberal globalisation. Klartext Konferenz. Berlin, 2005B. Richardson, J. “The Language of Tactical Media.” Subsol. (December 7, 2007) http://subsol.c3.hu/ subsol_2/contributors2/richardsontext2.html Vanderbilt, Tom. “Affirmative Action,” Artforum 43 (Feb. 2005): 55–56. The Yes Men. Various writings (April 1, 2008) ⬍http://www.TheYesMen.org⬎

Play with Authority!: Radical Performance and Performative Irony | 215


Notes 1. I draw the following details of the Yes Men’s action at Dow Chemical’s Annual General Meeting from the information posted on the Yes Men’s website, ⬍http://theyesmen.org/en/ hijinks/dowannualmeeting⬎ accessed 4/24/09. 2 Around midnight on December 3, 1984, 27 tons of poisonous gas began leaking from a factory owned by Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal, India. Because none of the factory’s safety systems were operational, the gas spread throughout the city of Bhopal, exposing half a million people. Since then, 20,000 people have died due to exposure to the leak and over 120,000 people still suffer from the accident. The resulting pollution has yet to be properly cleaned up. In 2001, Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide, yet the corporation has refused to clean up the site, adequately compensate the victims, or even disclose the composition of the gas leak. ⬍Bhopal.com, http://www.bhopal.org/ whathappened.html⬎ 3. As the Yes Men’s documentation of the prank explains, the alias Jude Finesterra combines ‘Jude,’ the patron saint of the impossible, and Finisterra, earth’s end. ⬍www.theYesMen.org⬎ 4. In addition, Finisterra announced that Dow Chemical would push for the extradition of Union Carbide’s former CEO, Warren Anderson, to India, the country he fled twenty years earlier after being arrested on multiple homicide charges. A video of the BBC interview and other details regarding the prank can be found on the Yes Men’s website ⬍www.TheYesMen.org⬎ 5. I draw the term radical performance from performance studies theorist Baz Kershaw who, in his 1999 text The Radical in Performance, used the term as a category for encompassing a number of different politically-engaged performances ranging from outdoor communitybased performances to the Tienneman Square demonstrations. In describing the ‘radical performance,’ which he favors over the term ‘political theatre’ Kershaw writes, “In other words, the freedom that ‘radical performance’ invokes is not just freedom from oppression,

216 | Michael Shane Boyle

repression, exploitation—the resistant sense of the radical but also freedom to reach beyond existing systems of formalized power, freedom to create currently unimaginable forms of association and action—the transgressive or transcendent sense of the radical. What I am interested in centrally, then, is not the ways in which radical performance might represent such freedoms, but rather how radical performance can actually produce such freedoms, or at least a sense of them, for both performers and spectators, as it is happening” (18). 6. I draw the details of the following anecdote from Kolonel Klepto (2004). 7. With regard to the practice of antidiscipline, de Certeau writes, “These ‘ways of operating’ constitute the innumerable practices by means of which users reappropriate the space organized by techniques of sociocultural production. They pose questions at once analogous and contrary to those dealt with in Foucault’s book: analogous, in that the goal is to perceive and analyze the microbe-like operations proliferating within technocratic structures and deflecting their functioning by means of a multitude of “tactics” articulated in the details of everyday life; contrary, in that the goal is not to make clearer how the violence of order is transmuted into a disciplinary technology, but rather to bring to light the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of ‘discipline . . .’” (xiv–xv). 8. One needs only to consult the Clown Army’s website ⬍www.ClownArmy.org⬎ to find proof of the clowns’ expressed eagerness for media coverage. In saying this, I do not mean to criticize the Clown Army, but instead highlight their use of the mainstream media to gain widespread attention for their interventions. 9. De Certeau writes, “Many everyday practices (talking, reading, moving about, shopping, cooking, etc.) are tactical in character. And so are, more generally, many ‘ways of operating’: victories of the “weak” over the “strong,” clever


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 199–218

tricks, knowing how to get away with things, ‘hunter’s cunning,’ maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike” (xix). 10. Property for tactical media includes media productions such as films, billboards, corporate or political websites, or even prime-time news reports. 11. De Certeau’s example is as follows: “Submissive, and even consenting to their subjection, the Indians nevertheless often made of the rituals, representations, and laws imposed on them something quite different from what their conquerors had in mind; they subverted them not by rejecting or altering them, but by using them with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they had no choice but to accept. They were other within the very colonization that outwardly assimilated them; their use of the dominant social order deflected its power, which they lacked the means to challenge; they escaped it without leaving it. The strength of their difference lay in procedures of ‘consumption’” (xiii). 12. It is worth noting that, due to the strictly enforced police ban on weapons, masks, helmets, and other protective equipment at the G-8 demonstrations, no one could have flawlessly impersonated the police, even if they wanted to. 13. With regard to the Yes Men, Jacques Rancière offers helpful insight on how to understand what happens when such an audience does not recognize the failure of the resemblance. In comments given at the Klartext Konferenz in Berlin of 2005, Rancière remarks, “Let us remember what The Yes Men told us this afternoon about their performance as Bush campaigners. They said that it was a total failure precisely because it was a total success. They wanted to fool the pro-Bush audience and they succeeded too well. Now, what is the consequence of fooling a pro-Bush audience into doing something against Bush’s re-election? More importantly, what is the consequence of fooling a pro-Bush audience into framing forms

of political action that would not be a matter of voting for or against Bush? A ‘success’ can be a ‘failure.’ This means that there are different performances in a performance and different individuals in the political artist, just as there are many ‘peoples’ in the people addressed by the artist or by the political subject” (2005). 14. The details presented in the following anecdote about the OEA’s intervention at the Los Angeles Auto Show are drawn from articles by Lee (2006) and Bogad (2007), and videos on ⬍www.youtube.com⬎. 15. For Rancière, “suitable political art” is different from fascism’s use of aesthetics to achieve political ends. In his formulation, art by its very nature is political. See Rancière 2006. 16. As Debord and Gil Wolman wrote in 1956, “Finally, when we have got to the stage of constructing situations—the ultimate goal of all our activity—everyone will be free to detourn entire situations by deliberately changing this or that determinant condition” (2007). 17. Expressing the sentiments shared by many social justice activists, Hakim Bey writes, “Absolutely nothing but a futile martyrdom could possibly result now from a head-on collision with the terminal State, the megacorporate information State, the empire of Spectacle and Simulation” (2002, 116). 18. The title of an edited collection documenting the alternative globalization movement implies the movement’s aspiration to be irresistible. See We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism (2003). 19. See Duncombe’s discussion of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” performance aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln (28–29). 20. As Bogad suggests with regard to his analysis of electoral guerrilla theater, even if performances do not reveal contradictions or introduce critical reflection for the first time, “they nevertheless provide a sharp and entertaining reminder” (2005, 10).

Play with Authority!: Radical Performance and Performative Irony | 217


Appendix: Inventory of Practices


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

Chainworkers

www.Chainworkers.org is the Italian webzine on media and mall activism for awarenessbuilding and unionization of precarious workers. Since 2001, ChainWorkers CreW has been associated with: —⬎ the “May Day parade” – bringing together many types of non-standard workers from all around Europe onto the streets in a joyful (but angry) expression of dissent around sub-standard conditions of work and living. Mayday Parade is the first European self-organized demonstration against precarization. Traditionally, Mayday represented aging unions and the traditional left, both too stale and backward looking to see what social mobilizations society is asking for from us. We think that the future lies in developing forms of self-mobilization and production of conflict across wider political spaces, in expressing political and social claims independently— working with existing radical parties and existing radical unions and associations— but as an autonomous force and with new imagery. ⬍www.euromayday.org⬎ —⬎ “San Precario” – Conceived and designed before Mayday 004 had become the patron saint of precarious workers. His icon includes the five axes of non precarity: income, housing, affect, access, and services. From the beginning, San Precario was imagined as a détournement of popular tradition. This tradition is at once appropriated in the formal aspects and subverted in the contents. San Precario is the mythopoetical patron saint of dispossessed but combative subjects, with the intention of rejuvenating the popular imagination of a fight for new social rights. ⬍www.sanprecario.org⬎ —⬎ “Serpica Naro” is the anagram of San Precario: existential instability and social precarity are turned into active resources, creativity and experimentation meet the agitation and representation of social conflict. The protest against the fashion week had already been in our minds and in our hearts for quite some time. We were just looking for the right key to tune ourselves on. Compared to a brand like all the others created expressly for the market in order to determine the (empty) relations which channel consumption, Serpica has revealed itself to be the opposite: that is, a MetaBrand created by real relations which autorepresent themselves in it, producing social improvement (for who produces it) and value (which must be rechannelled in the social).

Appendix | 221


The possibility of activating mechanisms of material and symbolic production, which in the end take away ability, fascination, relationships, and consumption— unbridled and bored—from the society of brands, in order to place them back into circulation under the form of political production in the positive, social, relational, and material, while at the same time weakening the companies’ grasp on workers (blackmail) and the dictatorship of the state on the social (selective and punitive social state). Serpica Naro is an idea for the retraining of the social, for the improvement of the relations that are established within it. A Social Media returns to the social that which belongs to it: the soul and the ideas, the body, and the relationships. ⬍www.serpicanaro.org⬎ —⬎ “The unbeatables” – The foremost expression of 2005 Mayday Parade has been the birth of a new network of radical entities “Gli Imbattibili” (The Unbeatables), each portrayed on an album collecting 21 stickers, each representing “superheroic” resistance to precarity (and not superheroes), small gems of conflict experience, talents and relations, that have found their expression in the weeks before the Mayday in a series of radio programs, broadcasted by a well-known community radio station. During the parade, a frenetic hunt for the stickers ensued. Stickers had been dispersed among the over thirty sound trucks comprising the demo, and precarious people of all types and generations exchanged and bargained in order to complete their collections, so unintentionally getting to know the many aspects and faces behind labor precarization in Northern Italy. These stickers do not represent the unicity and the unreachability of the heroes, but they’re heroic because each one reflects a way to oppose that annihilation of our existence of which the demands of the profit businesses have need. In them, there are the thousands of tricks, the different escamotages by which everyone attempts to free their own dignity, their own desires from the yoke of work and social constraints that demand the greatest availability, versatility, and patience, and return the least in terms of income, security and success of our capabilities and desires. They are not only about precarity as a working condition, but also represent its social dimensions. Each sticker represents, in fact, what the various groups, crews, and collectives have brought to the parade: the sharing in common of a project to agitate and communicate a May Day. ⬍www.chainwokers.org/IMBATTIBILI⬎ —⬎ “Tarots of Precariomancy” – The tarots are considered only a vaguely original way to foretell the future. Actually reading the cards shows you all the forces both inside and outside of you, determining the development of events around you. Taken from this perspective, the tarots lose the banality of a magic trick and enter the realm of awareness, intelligence, self-perception, and meditation. Which path should I take?

222 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

Which choice should I make? These are questions depending on the will and desires of those who want to face their future. Why did we connect the tarots and precarity? Of course, we do not think that the struggle against precarity has a magical or occult side to it, but the characteristic of each card can be useful to spur you to think about what happens around you and to suggest some strategies to re/act. Remember that each tarot has many meanings, some positive and some negative, and most of them acquire new meaning if matched with other cards during your pick. ⬍http://cartomanzia.precaria.org⬎ ——————————— If precarity is social and invades every aspect of our lives, it is obvious that our collective action ought to start from each of the sites where our lives take place, both inside and outside the workplace. Individuals are precarious because they don’t have access to the information they need about the conditions of their own contracts. And, above all, they are isolated in relation to others in their workplace. We need to break through this isolation. We have been thinking for years that communication is one of the strategic sectors for those who want to make us precarious. Communication not only as a mere media project, but as a deeper awareness of the fact that, in Information Society, the control of the way data are managed is a strategic tool to determine imaginary and meanings. If mainstream media is a space to ideologically redefine relationships and reality, we have to be able to create forms of communication and media that we have called “social media”: media created by precarious people direct “participactivation”; media that cannot be reduced to reproduction of goods and its ideological value; media that can represent precarious people and be, at the same time, a true form of conspiracy that cannot be absorbed by neoliberist production tools and mechanism. We do not want to go into the mainstream communication system; we want to overcome it, to infiltrate its every corner and to appear as something that cannot be controlled or made into profit.

Appendix | 223


Chto delat? /// What is to be done? A platform for engaged culture David Riff and Dmitry Vilensky, editors of the newspaper “Chto delat?”

Chto delat/What is to be done? (www.chtodelat.org) was founded in early 2003 in Petersburg by a workgroup of artists, critics, philosophers, and writers from Petersburg, Moscow, and Nizhny Novgorod (see full list of participants on the website) with the goal of merging political theory, art, and activism. The name of the group comes from a novel by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and immediately recalls the first socialist workers’ selforganization in Russia, which Lenin actualized in his “What is to be done?” (1902). Chto delat sees itself as a self-organizing collective structure intent on politicizing so-called knowledge production (or exploitative immaterial labor) through reflections and redefinitions of an engaged autonomy in cultural practice today. Chto delat works through collective initiatives organized by “art soviets,” inspired by the councils formed in revolutionary Russia. Our “art soviets” want to trigger a prototypical social model of participatory democracy, translating an open system for the generation of new forms of solidarity into the realm of contemporary cultural production. The “art soviet” takes on the function of a counter-power that plans, localizes, and executes cultural projects collectively from their earliest phases onward. Usually, this process results in local projects such as artistic interventions, exhibitions, or artworks (video films, radio plays, performances), which then trigger new issues of the newspaper. Most of these projects want to do two things: on one hand, we want to translate and actualize left theories (Marxism, post-structuralism, postoperaism, critical theory) and artistic practices (situationism, documentalism, urbanism, critical realism) under post-Soviet conditions, asking which results this process brings, and how these results relate to parallel efforts elsewhere. On the other hand, we are also particularly interested in actualizing the potential of the Soviet past repressed in the course of Soviet history, floating signifiers that need to be captured and used before they are subsumed totally by the impending totality of capital. To give a few examples: in 2004–2005, Chto delat carried out an artistic examination of a working class neighborhood in Petersburg, attempting to examine the communitarian utopias of its constructivist urbanity through the community, using a re-enactment of Debord’s dérive. This research into the Fordist utopia of the late 1920s and its incomplete, uneven transition to late capitalism was presented in two exhibitions and a newspaper. Another approach to the Soviet legacy can be found in

224 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

the project “Builders” (2005), in which the group restaged a classical socialist realist masterpiece from the late 1950s, which then falls apart and comes back together. In September 2006, Chto delat also initiated a project called “Self-Educations,” an international exhibition and seminar program at the NCCA in Moscow, dedicated to alternative, community-based forms of self-learning as emancipatory practices. All of these projects have been accompanied by newspapers, of which 17 have been produced so far. The newspaper is fully bilingual (English/Russian). The editorial process draws artists, critics, activists, and philosophers into a heated editorial debate, which results in theoretical essays, art projects, open-source translations, questionnaires, dialogues, and comic strips. This take-away publication is distributed for free at congresses or exhibitions, social forums and rallies where it reaches a broader cultural public. A complete set of issues, as well as documentation of art projects and current information can be found at www.chtodelat.org.

Appendix | 225


Critical Art Ensemble In a Time of War

The members of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) always hoped that we could complete our collaboration without ever having to produce works about war. We hoped never to hit viewers in the head with this blunt object of a topic, and were sure that more fascinating, undeveloped subject matter was readily available. Unfortunately, the current situation in the US and its involvement in the Middle East have made impossible CAE’s humble desire to escape the issue of war. The neoconservatives are attempting to create a military state designed to undertake a series of imperial invasions and to end democracy at home. Two wars have already begun (Afghanistan and Iraq), along with the media campaign for a third with Iran, and more wars (Lebanon and Syria) are on the way if the neoconservatives can engineer them in time. In this context, CAE came to believe that all our efforts, from small everyday life gestures to complex projects, had to aim at undermining the anti-democratic agenda and the war actions of the neoconservatives, and to reinforce the emerging understanding among the American public that the neoconservatives are totalitarians of an order that has not been seen in the West since World War II. CAE’s first major effort in this area was to examine the consequences of a lesser known initiative in the US—the illegal reinstatement of the germ warfare program. The reemergence of this program has come at the expense of a productive global health policy. Many of the resources that were used to fight emergent infectious disease were hijacked by the State Department and US military, and instead of serving the public interest, they now serves the military’s. The military is not interested in any of the current health crises in infectious diseases (AIDS, TB, malaria, hepatitis, etc.), but rather, with weaponizable “scary” germs like Ebola, anthrax, and smallpox.1 Limited resources once used to fight ongoing health crises killing millions world wide are increasingly used instead as means to explore paranoid and ill-informed military fantasies. The projects that followed this research were a series of actions grounded in the theater of the absurd that were later turned into films. CAE recreated a number of germ warfare tests as public gestures of futility (if not stupidity) that would remind people why these programs were all halted forty years ago in every country except Russia and, now again, in the US. Currently, we have turned our attention to bombs. Not those that grab all the headlines like suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, nuclear bombs, or even laser guided smart bombs (or was that the last Gulf war?), but those that keep a low profile. Immolation is our first installment in this series. We don’t hear much about

226 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

firebombs, but they are being used on a regular basis in the Middle East. From the point of view of the military, one can understand why, as they have always been real morale crushers. People have a primal fear of being burned alive, so while they are functionally not the most lethal bombs in the arsenal, they command a terrifying emotional economy, and sometimes that is just the kind of hammer believed necessary to pound an enemy (there cannot be “shock and awe” without them). However, what boosts this unnecessary practice beyond barbarity and into raw criminality is that firebombs are being used to immolate civilians and destroy civilian property. The US has consistently refused to sign any international treaty that bans the use of incendiary weapons against civilians.2 The protocol for this treaty is quite simple; do not use them against civilians. A military can use incendiary weapons against the enemy and its resources, it can produce as many of these weapons as it wants and it may stockpile them, but that is not good enough for the US: it requires time-honored favorites like napalm (new recipe and name; same effect) and white phosphorous to bomb civilians. But for CAE, the real question was how to represent this unfortunate series of occurrences. Currently, a flood of war representation is blasting the American public from all major media sources—most of which are not particularly helpful to the cause of peace or are outright propaganda. Whether one is watching the evening news, or Hollywood war films, or the latest Public Broadcast documentary, the dominant ideological position (contradiction) is “We hate the war, but we love our heroic troops.” The old aphorism from Gandhi “Hate the sin; love the sinner” is as fresh as ever. This is the bait and switch rhetoric that was identified by Roland Barthes as cultural “inoculation”3: Represent the war as horrible and unjust, and the troops as flawed people just trying to survive a terrifying ordeal by any means they can. But once this confession is made, reverse the rhetoric and say that, in fact for doing this, they are heroes, and that in order to support them, war must be tolerated and/or perpetuated and any culpability for the horror must be indefinitely deferred. Add that, if one does not uphold this position, one is not “supporting the troops” (a platitude of political hackery that presents itself as self-evident and unchallengeable, but in reality only serves the political interests of the war mongers as opposed to anyone in an actual war). The twisted anti-logic of this position is truly indicative of a deep ideological sickness. These representations that carry this ideological virus all participate in a common set of characteristics. First, the representations revel in their construction of the real. What is the sound of a specific model of machine gun firing from one hundred meters away? How does blood spatter when a soldier is shot in the chest by a sniper’s rifle of a given model from a particular angle? Those producing the fictional or recreated images know the answers to these questions and attempt to reproduce this knowledge in image/sound form with great fidelity.

Appendix | 227


Second, the stories should occur on a human scale, and the storyteller should avoid the grand narratives of the clash of civilizations. Humanizing war is very important if it is to be forgiven in the end. These stories cannot be told with abstractions, numbers, or with larger-than-life characters. If sympathetic inhumanity is to be achieved (and this is an impressive visual effect) an intersubjective relationship between the viewer and his digital counterpart must be established. Viewers must find themselves identifying with inhumanity, and thereafter, must call it human so as not to absorb the guilt and the horror themselves. In war, to be human is to be an imperfect victim who is a hero. This was the style from which CAE was trying to distance itself when we made Immolation—a two channel video installation on the illegal use of firebombs by the US. We had to find a way that this series of images could not be infiltrated and contaminated by “Support the Troops.” We hoped to deliver a different experience of war imagery that maintained the terrible alienation of war, but still allow viewers to personally imagine themselves in the narrative, but not through a sympathetic or empathetic identification with the humanity of the inhumane. Thus, the first element we eliminated was human scale, along with humans themselves, and replaced them with grand landscapes of destruction and micro visions of cellular health followed by decimation to the point of disintegration. CAE is currently working on debunking the myth of the “dirty bomb”— a sick fantasy, from the mind of the neofascist John Ashcroft, that has gained traction in the popular imagination in the US. Even the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has every interest in keeping the hoax going, has had to admit that “a dirty bomb is not a weapon of mass destruction.” And, “most radiological dispersion devices would not release enough radiation to kill people or cause severe illness.” They only cause panic and that is only because the pubic has been repeatedly told by war and fear mongers that they should panic. By the end of this year, we hope CAE will be able to put this portion of work behind us and get back to what we were doing before this national nightmare began—fighting neoliberalism’s global initiatives.

Notes 1. For a complete analysis, please see Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health. New York: Autonomedia, 2005. 2. See signatories for The Certain Conventional Weapons Convention (CCW), Protocol III (Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of

228 | Appendix

Incendiary Weapons Article 2, points 1–4). While, at times, the US claims to have signed, it has put so many qualifications on the protocol as to render it useless. 3. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 150.


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

Identity Permutations The Art of 0100101110101101.ORG Domenico Quaranta

Jesus, strength and wisdom of God, awaken in us the love of the Holy Scriptures, where resounds the Father’s voice, that illuminates and blares up, that feeds and comforts. —Pope John Paul II, Prayer for the preparation of the Grand Jubilee 2000 When the collective 0100101110101101.ORG burst onto the scene between 1999 and 2000, it was like fireworks exploding in the intricate mesh of the net, or as though a dozen snipers had suddenly begun firing at the same target from different positions. It was difficult to establish their identity, but one thing for sure was that behind that codename there was a team, a fast-acting, extremely talented team. Their statements and interviews always featured different names. They inhabited the web like a natural element. It was evident that they had been in training for a long time, before firing the first shot. They knew what to aim for and they always hit their target. They bombarded mailing lists and got the media in a flap, like the Gauls among the Capitoline geese. They began with a series of thefts, and claimed responsibility for two colossal hoaxes, one attacking the art system, the other the Vatican. Their links with Luther Blissett, their accents and the geographic location of the Darko Maver project placed them in Italy, in Bologna to be precise, but their roots were as mobile as their cultural references, which ranged from the American pranksters to the Balcanic avant-garde Neue Slowenische Kunst. In time, the aura of mystery gradually lifted, thanks in large measure to the total transparency of later works, Life_Sharing (2000–2003) and Vopos (2002). Then they themselves decided to clear up the identity question once and for all, or rather, flesh out two of their many fictitious identities, presenting themselves as Eva and Franco Mattes. Their first public action dates back to February 1999: in a spectacular stunt, 0100101110101101.ORG downloaded the entire contents of Hell.com and published these on their own site, with one minor change to the interface which subverted the whole concept of the site. Hell.com was a private platform for artistic experimentation, like an online workshop closed to the public. Entrance was by invitation only, on a private basis, or on rare public occasions, such as the exhibition Surface, which opened in February 1999 and was reserved to the community of Rhizome, of which 0100101110101101.ORG just happened to be members. In June 1999, it was the turn of Art.Teleportacia, the newly opened web gallery belonging to

Appendix | 229


Russian artist Olia Lialina; then in September Jodi.org, one of the acknowledged masterpieces of net.art, was cloned. A private site, an online gallery, a web-based work of art: 0100101110101101 .ORG’s heists wove a complex statement about the contradictions entailed in producing culture on the net, in a context characterized by the persistence of copyright, but also the perfect reproducibility of data; all the hype surrounding interactivity, but also the “closed” nature of works; attempts at commercialization, but also the death of the unique work of art. As they explained, naturally plagiarizing someone else: “Copies are more important than their original, although they do not differ from them. Copies contain not only all the parameters of the work that is being copied, but a lot more: the idea itself and the act of copying.” 1 Appropriating a work of art means interacting with it, using it in ways not foreseen by the artist. This can range from simple plagiary to the collage-based operation Hybrids (1998–1999), developed in that period, which restored the original revolutionary nature of the collage. Initially, the way in which 0100101110101101.ORG used key techniques such as culture jamming, guerrilla communications, plagiarism, and defacement had very little in common with other instances of media hacktivism. And 0100101110101101 .ORG intentionally distanced itself from those: “If you do what we do with a work of art, the operation has a value in itself [. . .]. If you steal the Disney site, you are acting against Disney [. . .] we are not interested in doing this kind of hacktivism. We work on other contradictions like originality and reproduction, authorship and network, copyright and plagiarism.” 2 The “copy trilogy” was completed in December 2001 with a work entitled FTPermutations, making way for another series dedicated to the theme of transparency (glasnost) of data and the omnipresence of surveillance. Like its predecessors, FTPermutations was a minimal piece of “performance” art which had an explosive effect. Having been invited to participate in the Korea Web Art Festival in Seoul, 0100101110101101.ORG uploaded its files on the show’s FTP server as requested, but the night before the opening, the collective changed the names of all the directories, thus dissociating the names of the artists (linked from the homepage) and their works. The artists mutinied and the curator was fired. The collective, on the other hand, chose to see this as “permutation” rather than sabotage. They were asked for web art, digital products, and they made net.art, manipulating network protocols. “We have never produced anything. 0100101110101101.ORG only moves packages of information from one point to another, diverts their flow, observes changes, and eventually profits from it,” they later explained.[3] In the meantime, their notoriety was growing, thanks also to having claimed responsibility for two spectacular projects ongoing since 1998: the Darko Maver operation and the project Vaticano.org, considered to the very first internet coup. 0100101110101101.ORG purchased the domain www.vaticano.org, which at the

230 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

time was still available, and published the entire contents of the Papacy’s official site, www.vaticano.va there. They then got to work on a major edit, an operation midway between satire and what the Yes Men call “identity correction.” Between learned quotes from the Holy scriptures, the Pope and other high prelates appropriated pop songs, and exalted free love, “brotherly intolerance” between religions, the oblivion of the senses and “international friendships.” They invoked the success of student movements and claimed their own “duty to civil and electronic disobedience.” In the Intermediatic Decree on Communications Tools, the “Great Cathodic Church” explained its “Total Domination Plan,” in terms of “Technomoral Law,” “Telesalvation,” and “Holy Public Opinion,” coolly referencing the anathemas of “Father” Mcluhan. Yet the power of the interface—that the Vatican, in a nod to tradition, has maintained intact until now—was such that it fooled around 200,000 viewers in the space of a year (December 1998–December 1999), who put in a total of 50,000 hours of navigation. In December 1999, the Vatican, in a genuine operation of international espionage, put two and two together, but 0100101110101101.ORG managed to ensure that the silence in which the act of censorship was carried out was a deafening one. Out of all 0100101110101101.ORG’s works, Vaticano.org is probably the project which comes closest to politically-based media hacktivism. Yet once again, politics and ideology appear alien to the Italian collective. When asked, “Can you change politics and social behaviour with your art work?” the answer was: “I don’t care. My only responsibility is to be irresponsible.” 4 Vaticano.org was an act of pure narration, an identity appropriation designed to create a new subject, a new spectacular entity: “a Free Spirit Jubilee.” In their words, “The Internet Coup is a spectacle for the Netizens, a hit performance for the masses, online for a year, every day and every night, this is Media Rock ’n’ Roll!” 5 This stance emerged with even greater clarity in two of the group’s most recent creations: Nikeground (2003–2004) and United We Stand (2005-2006). In the former, at various levels of action (urban performance and net-based communications), they donned the role of a giant multinational company, Nike, in the process of taking over a public urban area. The latter, meanwhile, was in the form of a marketing campaign to promote a non-existent film. While in the first, media impact was sought and achieved, thanks also to the reaction from Nike (which reported the artists for breach of copyright), in the second this dimension disappears, so much so that the project was exhibited in galleries (first in Bologna, then in New York), as a work substantially in line with the public performance. In narrowing the gap between action and claim, 0100101110101101.ORG revealed that its real objective was not media impact, but the production of meaning, the construction of a narration, or a performance-based situation exploring one of the key themes of their oeuvre: identity as a narrative construct, a pile of symbols which can be infinitely manipulated, and if need be plagiarized, the fruit of the interweaving of different flows of information. In their works,

Appendix | 231


identity can be built from scratch using a few narrative stereotypes (artist maudit Darko Maver), or a corporate image (Nike, the Vatican) which is both highly distinctive and powerfully conditioning, to be subverted and rewritten. A tenuous identity (Europe) can be unmasked when seen through the narrative stereotypes and iconography of a Hollywood action blockbuster, while the personal identity of Eva and Franco Mattes, also known as 0100101110101101.ORG, actually becomes more elusive with the more details that are added, and paradoxically, the more “constructed” it appears, the more authentic it feels.

Notes 1. Uri Pasovsky, “Life imitates art and art imitates itself,” in Haaretz, 19 Sept 2000. 2. Tilman Baumgärtel, “No Artists, just Spectators. An interview with the artist group 0100101110101101.ORG which became famous for copying art websites,” in Telepolis, 9 Dec 1999. 3. Jaka Zeleznikar, “Now you’re in my computer. Interview with 0100101110101101.ORG,” in Mladina, January 2001.

232 | Appendix

4. Alain Bieber, “How to provoke today? Alain Bieber interviews 0100101110101101.ORG on Nike Ground,” in Rebel: Art Magazine, 1 April 2004. 5. [0100101110101101.ORG], “Vaticano.org: The First Internet Coup,” online at ⬍http:// 0100101110101101.org/home/vaticano.org/ story.html⬎


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

. Iç Mihrak Summoning the Ghost of Netchaiev

Life becomes resistance to power when power takes life as its object. —Gilles Deleuze “iç-mihrak” literally translates as “internal focus”; a term widely used in the context of Turkish nationalism(s) to define domestic groups engaged in so-called treason, with or without foreign support. The adoption of the name can help elucidate fundamental principles of the group; that is ironical transgression of any established cultural/political nomos, be it legal, political, traditional, popular, humanistic, secular, or religious. iç-mihrak is a post-anarchism oriented cultural intervention group that was founded in I˙stanbul in 2007. It operates as a collective, non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian consensus-based semiotic terrorism group working on the immediate and historical political and cultural discourse in Turkey. Although it most commonly utilizes street stickers and web blogs, it is open to any methodology capable of disturbing the peace of mind of city inhabitants and administrators. It works by contorting, distorting, and turning down official, popular, and traditional cultural epistemes with the hoped outcome of parrhesia, a truthful clearing of mind about matters of urgent significance to the people. iç-mihrak’s preferred work space is the street, which is the post-dystopian target of discipline, surveillance, and even physical coercion. People walking on the street have a legitimate expectation to come across commercial images or official announcements. iç-mihrak works present people with the opportunity to see texts and images that can be reacted to before interruption by state-appropriated reason, usually with a kind of preconscious anger or joy. The message is delivered to the viewer directly through the nomadic-art-machine, without fraudulent alteration by Art establishment. Members of iç-mihrak do not consider themselves artists, even though, by many accounts, they are considered within the scope of street art. They more correctly define themselves as anarchist activists making use of visual arts as a method of struggle to reclaim and defend the cultural territory against exploitation by the state and its official and unofficial apparatus. What is worthy for iç-mihrak is not a politicized art, but a brand of decentralized and rhizomatic micropolitics that invokes art as well as other forms of resistance: a politics of everyday reality which haunts the mind and determines ordinary conduct. iç-mihrak uses connotation, irony, metaphor, and many ancient methods of the grotesque to present its subject matter. It tries to do so without being obsessed with

Appendix | 233


a willful DIY-brand lack of quality; instead it strives for a high-quality, contemporary anarchist aesthetics unencumbered by the defects of traditional dissident visual discourse that often originates from negation and resentment. iç-mihrak, knowing that mockery of their power is what the rulers fear most, adopts in principle laughing hysterically (accompanied by seven pieces of flatus salute) at any official, popular, and traditional cultural code, from the chamber pot of the Pope to the mausolea of statesmen. This is an A3-sized street poster by iç-mihrak about the “TDK Academic Linguistics Symposium.” TDK is the acronym for the Kemalist-founded Turkish Language Institution, which has been trying to dominate the domain of Turkish language since the 1920s. It is mainly a Jacobin-controlled modernization tool utilized for the purification, homogenization, and preservation of the Turkish language; that is, a form of linguistic “eugenics.” TDK claims to be the main administrator of the Turkish language, helping to defend the Turkish state against foreign and/or reactionary assault. The form of the poster resembles “artsy” contemporary commercial design, predominantly employed by privately sponsored art institutions and Turkish private universities. The recurrent circular inscription reads “kart-kurt”; an onomatopoeic word denoting the assumed footsteps of mountain Turks on snow, after which they were named “Kurds.” The poster presents this totally absurd explanation by TDK, of the descent of Kurdish ethnicity, without claiming to represent the Kurdish side of the question. It plays ironically with the elements of Turkish instutional discourse on Kurdish ethnicity, stripping TDK of its supposed scientific (to quote Maksudyan*, science-fictional) role and reframing it as an instrument of Turkish nationalism if not of the neveracknowledged Turkish racism. So, the poster, while reflecting on the Turkish side of the so-called Kurdish question, does not represent Kurdish ethnicity as an evidence of the care exercised by iç-mihrak on the question of representation and criticizes the role of the science establishment in constructing the mythical substrate for popular discriminative practices.

*Maksudyan, Nazan, Gauging Turkishness: Anthropology as Science Fiction and the Racist Aspect of Turkish Nationalism, I˙stanbul: Metis, 2005.

234 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

Peace/Fighters Refusal movements in Israel Noa Roei

It is a well-known fact that enlisting in the Israeli army is mandatory for all Israeli citizens. It may be less known that, after excluding the non-Jewish population, the ultraorthodox Jews, the handicapped, and married women, less than 60% end up serving in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Regardless of these facts, the truism of “everyone has to serve” remains strong on the ideological level. Those who wish to avoid military service on the basis of political disagreement with government and military policy are heavily criticized by the state, and also by their fellow citizens who often regard them as a “fifth column,” as traitors to the cause, endangering the very existence of their country. The refusers, on their end, base their decisions and actions on human rights law, and on national and international support groups, to give a counterforce to the national, social, political, and juridical pressure placed upon them to serve in the military. Several refusal movements have emerged within Israel throughout the years, with different attitudes and solutions to the predicaments of refusing military service in Israel. What follows is a short—and necessarily incomplete—overview of left-wing refusal movements. More detailed information can be found on the movements’ respective websites and on www.refusersolidarity.net. The high school seniors’ letters (1970, 1987, 2001, 2002, 2005) The first public manifesto of high school seniors was sent to Golda Meir in 1970. It did not officially call for refusal, but stated the future recruits’ dilemmas and doubts, and led to a public debate. Throughout the years, more letters were sent, each time with a growing number of signatures and a stronger voice of dissent. The last manifesto, in 2005, numbered more than 300 signatures and declared their refusal to “to take part in the occupation and repression policy adopted by the Government of Israel.” Due to heavy social pressure, only a small number of signatories carried their refusal to the end, but the manifestos created a social and medial impact. Yesh Gvul www.yeshgvul.org Founded in 1982, at the wake of the first Lebanon war, Yesh Gvul is the oldest and most established refuser movement in Israel. Yesh Gvul (“there is a limit”) campaigned against the first and the second Lebanon wars as well as against the occupation of the Palestinian territories by morally and materially backing soldiers who

Appendix | 235


refuse duties of a repressive or aggressive nature. Note that Yesh Gvul does not call for total refusal, but supports selective refusal, where each soldier or future recruit decides and draws his/her own limits for him/herself. New Profile www.newprofile.org The feminist platform New Profile was founded in 1998. It is comprised of men and women who understand Israeli society to be heavily militarized and work toward its “civil-ization.” The platform offers information workshops and support for doubting future recruits, as well as a space to discuss social problems that do not fit the narrow scope of direct enlistment or refusal, such as the militarization of the education system. The platform operates according to feminist working principles and is the largest anti-military (read: radical) organization in Israel today. The combatants’ letter (2002) and the pilots’ letter (2003) During the second Intifada, two manifestos from soldiers of elite military units shocked the general public. Calling for an end to offensive military actions on civilian population beyond the 1967 border, these letters empowered the refusal movement due to the high regard in which Israeli society holds its elite unit soldiers. The catch was that, while a soldier’s word is taken seriously, the soldier is supposed to remain loyal to the system, and thus many of the signatories were kicked out of their units, thereby losing their prestigious social status. Courage to Refuse www.couragetorefuse.org Founded in 2002, Courage to Refuse is the product of the combatants’ letter. The movement includes soldiers and reserve officers who refuse to serve beyond the 1967 borders but “shall continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel’s defense.” The movement employs a prominent Zionist discourse as well as a military character, and thus offers the option of refusal also to those who agree with mainstream Israeli ideology. Breaking the Silence www.shovrimshtika.org Breaking the Silence (2004) is an organization of veteran Israeli soldiers that collects testimonies of soldiers who served in the occupied territories during the Second Intifadah. The testimonies are published and distributed in various media, including booklets, exhibitions, and an internet website. Through this distribution as well as through organized tours to the occupied city of Hebron, group members aim to raise public attention and accountability for the questionable routine behavior of the army in the occupied territories. The group does not officially call for refusal. It functions as an alternative information center and asks its audience to reach their own conclusions.

236 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

Combatants for Peace www.combatantsforpeace.org Combatants for Peace (2006) is the only refusal movement that includes both Israeli and Palestinian ex-combatants, who have laid down their weapons and now call for the end of all forms of violence in an attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This group has also a clearer political tone, calling for a two-state solution. Combatants for Peace holds talks in both Israeli and Palestinian communities, organizes solidarity actions and speaking tours abroad, in order to raise public consciousness and to create political pressure to resume non-violent means of solving the conflict.

Appendix | 237


How a Citizens group derailed electronic voting in the Netherlands Patrice Riemens

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, voting computers had almost entirely replaced traditional pencil and paper ballots in Dutch elections. This resulted from the local authorities’ wish 20 years earlier to “modernize” the voting process and expedite the declaration of election results, which the national government endorsed. Apart from a few rural municipalities, Amsterdam was the only large city still voting the “old” way. When it also embraced “electronic voting” in 2005, often asked but never properly addressed questions regarding the integrity and security of the voting system resurfaced—this time with a very different outcome. This was the handy work of the “We Do Not Trust Voting Computers” initiative, a motley group of hackers, political activists, and academic researchers brought together and co-ordinated by Rop Gonggrijp, Netherlands’ best-known hacker-cum-ICT entrepreneur. Right from the beginning, the group worked with a supple yet sophisticated “plan de campagne” with clear aims and job distribution. This characteristic was strengthened further when it became a foundation, with (one) salaried staff member, sponsored by Rop’s business. At the very start of what would be a year-and-a-half campaign, an incredible amount of technical deficiencies, political indifference if not callousness, and plain incompetence among all actors involved came to light regarding the whole development, decision-making, and implementation process around voting computers. Armed with the Dutch Right to Information Act, the group unearthed a wealth of very compromising documents, much to the chagrin of the authorities and of voting computer manufacturers. The voting computer “market” at the time was in the hands of two firms, SDU Newvote and Nedap-Groenendaal, the latter being a somewhat loose affiliate of the Nedap group of industries. The former company quickly left the stage when its computers were decertified due to a security flaw—but it had commanded only 10% of the sector. Nedap-Groenendaal, together with the Dutch government, thus became the main targets of the group’s criticism, and were properly trounced in the process. First, its in-house “ueber-geeks” took a Nedap voting computer apart to prove that it was easily re-programmable (for demonstration purposes it was made to play chess!). The media naturally loved such spectacular footage. The computer itself— actually three of them—were simply bought by the foundation from municipalities which had no further use for them. Second, the group systematically debunked all arguments Nedap-Groenendaal put forward in defense of its products and practices.

238 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

It was greatly helped by that firm’s own blundering, often bordering on the hysterical: Nedap-Groenendaal’s boss once demanded Gonggrijp’s arrest—on terrorism charges! He subsequently threatened the Dutch government that he would scuttle the (electronic) electoral process—by simply withdrawing. Accomplished “management” of its complex relationship with the authorities was the group’s third ace in the hole, while playing of the media was its fourth but not lowest trump card. The government, assailed by repeated, well-orchestrated, rounds of questions in parliament and select committees, had reluctantly given in on separate issues before being forced to appoint an enquiry commission, which eventually came up with a scathing report on the whole business of electronic voting. And the media were more than happy to pick up the unfolding saga under the “David vs. Goliath” line. Gonggrijp’s outstanding communication skills did the rest. In the end, the whole scenario of voting in the Netherlands had to be reversed— “pending further research and development.” The entire country will vote with pencil and paper ballots in the next election, due in 2009 (European parliament). NedapGroenendaal is still contesting this decision in and out of court, in a fight that makes the firm appear rather more foolhardy than brave. “We Do Not Trust Voting Computers” is meanwhile lobbying for retaining the paper and pencil ballot (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). And in case the craving for ICT is simply irrepressible, smarter “computer assisted voting” systems with a verifiable paper trail and running on open source software would be an unconditional requirement. During the campaign, the group also received massive foreign support from similar initiatives in the United States, Ireland, Germany, and other countries, and has given the same in turn. This most likely spells the end worldwide of current votingcomputer based practices, and of the monopolistic business ambitions of their manufacturers and vendors. The lessons that can be learned from what probably has been the most successful ever citizen-based action group in the Netherlands are diverse and, on the whole, positive. Dedication, expertise, openness of mind and alliances, a fact-based approach and being economic with ideological pronouncements beyond widely accepted principles of fairness and citizens’ rights, have all been keys to success. Possibly less reproducible are—beyond its chairman’s charm and charisma—the foundation’s relatively deep pockets, which enabled it to hire attorneys, maintain a staffed office, and simply write checks when it wanted voting computers to dismantle. All the same, it shocked the country, and its success was heard as a clear clarion call for more and more daring citizens’ activism. “We Do Not Trust Voting Computers” ⬍http://www.wijvertrouwenstemcomputersniet.nl⬎ (Dutch, very comprehensive) ⬍http://www.wijvertrouwenstemcomputersniet.nl/English⬎

(selected

items

translated—there is also a version in German)

Appendix | 239


Temporary Services

Temporary Services is Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin, and Marc Fischer. We are based in Illinois and have existed, with several changes in membership and structure, since 1998. We produce exhibitions, events, projects, and publications. The distinction between art practice and other creative human endeavors is irrelevant to us. The best way of testing our ideas has been to do so without waiting for permission or invitation. We invent infrastructure or borrow it when necessary. We were not taught this in school. We try different approaches, inspired by others equally frustrated by the systems they inherited, who created their own methods for getting work into the public. Temporary Services started as an experimental exhibition space in a working class neighborhood of Chicago. Our name directly reflects the desire to provide art as a service to others. It is a way for us to pay attention to the social context in which art is produced and received. Having “Temporary Services” displayed on our window helped us to blend in with the cheap restaurants, dollar stores, currency exchanges, and temporary employment agencies on our street. We were not immediately recognizable as an art space. This was partly to stave off the stereotypical role we might have played in the gentrification of our neighborhood. We weren’t interested in making art for sale. Within the boundaries of “what sells,” artists often carve out tiny aesthetic niches to protect, peddle, and repeat indefinitely, rather than opening themselves up to new possibilities. Experiencing art in the places we inhabit on a daily basis remains a critical concern for us. It helps us move art from a privileged experience to one more directly related to how we live our lives. A variety of people should decide how art is seen and interpreted, rather than continuing to strictly rely on those in power. We move in and out of officially sanctioned spaces for art, keeping one foot in the underground and the other in the institution. Staying too long in one or the other isn’t healthy. We are interested in art that takes engaging and empowering forms. We collaborate among ourselves and with others, even though this may destabilize how people understand our work. Against competition Much of the art world is structured to favor competition. Grants are competitive. Students compete for funding. Hundreds compete for a single teaching position. Artists compete with artists—stealing ideas instead of sharing them, or using copyright laws to prohibit thoughtful re-use. Artists compete for shows in a limited number of exhibition spaces instead of finding their own ways to exhibit outside these

240 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

venues. Artists conceal opportunities from their friends as a way of getting an edge up in this speculative capital-driven frenzy. Gallerists compete with other gallerists and curators compete with curators. Artists who sell their work compete for the attention of a limited number of collectors. Collectors compete with other collectors to acquire the work of artists. Temporary Services seeks to create and participate in ethical relationships that are not competitive and are mutually beneficial. We develop strategies for harnessing the ideas and energies of people who may have never participated in an art project before, or who may feel excluded from the art community. We mobilize the generosity of many people to produce projects on a scale that none of us could achieve in isolation. We strive toward aesthetic experiences built upon trust and unlimited experimentation.

Group work and working with others Working together in a group gives us both the ability to do multiple projects at once and the flexibility to use each other’s experiences to our collective advantage. We like collaboration because of the inherent challenges and incredible possibilities that come from working with others. We utilize each other’s skill sets and trust in each other’s ideas because we have worked together for so long. We are dedicated to finding ways of working together while still maintaining our own individual voices. A group is only healthy when the individuals are healthy. The reverse is equally true. Each of our viewpoints has room to breathe without the necessities of group speak. We do write together, and often speak in public together, but we don’t feel the need to dress or think alike. We sometimes work outside the group and bring those experiences back to Temporary Services. Learning and working together, and with others, enriches each of our lives. There has been a noted rise in the number of people making work in groups in the past decade. We document some of this activity at www.groupsandspaces.net, initiated as a research tool and to make groups more visible to one another. We took advantage of an offer from a sympathetic building owner and worked with like-minded practitioners to co-found Mess Hall, a keyholder-run, experimental cultural center in Chicago, now in its fifth year.

Building long-term infrastructure for supporting work similar to ours We represent ourselves and maintain the greatest degree of control over our work. When we get opportunities, we often try to extend them to others—particularly those who might not get the same chances we’ve gotten, perhaps because they are more difficult to communicate with, don’t adhere to conventional social graces, or are severely marginalized.

Appendix | 241


We are starting to contend with the complexities of having a more autonomous sustainable practice. We’re aided by lectures, workshops, honorariums, and the occasional grant or award, but there isn’t nearly enough for three people to live on. The forms our work takes rarely generate sellable objects, and when they do, the results are hard to distribute. Many other artists are in the same boat. We are creating an online store to better circulate our own published work and to begin highlighting and distributing the work of our peers. We will more actively publish books by people we admire by launching a new press. None of this will create a financial windfall but the history of our practice has been to work and experiment at our own pace, with people we care about on terms we can live with.

242 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

The Space Hijackers

Who are The Space Hijackers? The Space Hijackers are a group of social misfit troublemakers who have been causing mayhem in London since 1999. Our group is dedicated to battling the constant encroachment of corporations, institutions, urban planners, and other rogues into our collective shared space. Both private and public space forms the cities we live in, and both affect our lives as we travel through our communities. We therefore see both as potential venues for Space Hijacking, and both as potential sites for creating anarchitecture. Anarchitecture is the re-labeling of space, and re-distribution of power within space, by means of creating events, or placing objects within an area in order to redefine its collective history. In layman’s terms, we host events in spaces (more often than not, ones we don’t own) which, once witnessed and talked about, change people’s opinions of the space, and affect how it is seen in the future. Our first major action was to organize a party on the London Underground circle line trains. Bringing music, drinks, disco lights, and nibbles down onto the trains, we turned them from impersonal places where people battle for armrests into an open social space. Subsequent Circle Line parties have had up to 2,000 people attending and had live bands, portable turntable DJs, naked pole dancing men, and even a knitting circle taking part. People are asked to bring what they expect to find, and to take collective responsibility for each other’s safety and the well being of passengers on the train. It’s very important to us that anyone who happens upon the party is made to feel welcome, so free drinks are given out and there is always an empty “quiet” carriage near the driver for the party-phobic. In order to escape the eyes of the authorities, the party only happens when the train is in a tunnel. Once we hit a station, everyone goes quiet and pretends nothing is going on. This tactic has enabled parties to complete laps of London undetected. Unfortunately, after one lap, the drink tends to kick in and people’s responses slow, resulting in a visit from the British Transport Police. Other Hijacker projects have involved everything from challenging the Capitalists in the City Of London to post-pub midnight “Anarchist vs. Capitalist” cricket matches in the streets. We have waltzed into corporate chain stores, trying to be helpful, only to have the security take exception to our “EVERYTHING INSTORE HALF PRICE TODAY” t-shirts, and recently we managed to drive a tank into DSEi, Europe’s largest arms fair (I kid you not). The tank was our most ridiculous idea yet. Every two years, the DSEi arms fair is held in the Docklands in East London. The world’s largest arms manufacturers

Appendix | 243


attempt to flog their wares to corrupt regimes, impoverished nations and war mongers, all with the full support of the UK government. We have been actively campaigning against the fair for six years, however each time we went down to protest, we just ended up getting dragged around by burly policemen. This year, we decided to take things up a notch or ten and started fund raising to buy a tank. Our intention was to drive the tank into the fair, amidst the protests, and auction it off to the highest bidder, regardless of whether they were an angry black block teenager, or a docklands worker on the brink of a mental breakdown. Taking a page from the arms dealers’ book, we decided morals were not important. The police, however, seemed rather concerned with our plan. After weeks of fundraising, we finally managed to purchase a secondhand 8.5 ton Saracen armored personnel carrier (suitably tank-like and scary). By this point, we were pretty much under 24-hour police surveillance. The day of the fair arrived and the lock-up in which our tank was hidden was surrounded by about 150 policemen and seven vans. The tank team boarded our vehicle, revved the engine and turned on the A-team soundtrack, before trundling into the mass of slightly concerned looking police. The police ended up using typical protestor tactics and formed a human shield in front of our tank, hoping that we were nice enough not to squish them. What followed was a tense two-hour stand off between our tank and the police who were adamant we could not drive it to the fair. Just as all seemed lost, one of our agents climbed onto the turret of the tank and made an announcement. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m afraid I have a sad announcement to make. It seems the police are doing everything in their power to delay us today, and prevent our perfectly legal vehicle from driving on the road. We don’t want to hold you up any longer as the world’s largest arms fair is happening, and the police seem more interested in stopping legitimate protest than stopping some of the most corrupt and nasty people on the planet. However, we have just had a very important phone call from two of our agents who couldn’t be here today. Apparently our SECOND TANK, a great big tracked 60 ton tank has just left its location and is rolling toward the fair as we speak. We suggest you follow our agents and go to meet it.” Cue utter chaos, and shock on the faces of the police, a mad scramble to their vans and a race between protestors and police to reach the front doors of the fair. As they arrived, a 60-ton white-tracked tank was pulling up at the doors, and suited hijacker arms dealers and half-naked promotion girls and boys were climbing to the top to begin our auction. Space Hijackers-1, Metropolitan Police-0. I think our favorite review sums things up nicely: “Their projects are like all those drunk ideas for saving the world that you have in the pub, except this lot wake up in the morning and actually do them.” ⬍www.spacehijackers.org⬎

244 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

Militourism in Turkey Politics of Irony, Fun, Rebellion Yavuz Atan and Can Bas¸kent

Militourism festivals, as an important reflection of the anti-militarist struggle in Turkey, took place in three large cities; Istanbul in 2004, Izmir in 2005, and in Ankara in 2006. Members or non-members of several anti-militarists organizations from Turkey and other countries have participated in the activities which were an ironic combination of politics (or maybe anti-politics), tourism, and spectacle, as well as one of the best examples of an anti-militarist/anarchist line of politics. Activities including tours, protest, exhibitions, and entertainment were prepared and performed with an open collective work. Symbols and spaces of the state and the military were visited and introduced to the participants and people living in those areas. The information given was outside the general and widely known official history. Here are some examples from the places that we have visited: Gulhane Military Medical Academy which owns one of the biggest gay porn archives since they ask for a visual documentation of homosexual intercourse in order to give disability or health certificates (we left a box of apple here for disability analysis, the policemen who accompanied us checked the apples to see if they contain hazardous substance), the Selimiye Barracks in which opponents were kept and heavily tortured during the military coup periods, Mamak Military Prison in Ankara and S¸irinyer Military Prison in Izmir, big train stations in three big cities which were the departure points of militourism (the importance of imperial and military elements in their constructions were told and concerts took place in stations), NATO barracks in three big cities, companies providing military equipment for the army, companies that are owned by the army itself in Turkey (a can with a weapon inside is left in the can section of a company belonging to the army), cemeteries (one of these was in an area where Kurdish people who were forced to migrate due to the war were living), military museums, and the monuments of national heroes (the real identity of one of the figures depicted as a civilian national hero was revealed as an agent provocateur). With the participation of the anti-militarists and conscientious objectors from other countries, we destroyed the borders on world maps, organized street festivals including theater plays and performances questioning war, military, and organized violence. There was a “tour guide” in the bus who explained the history and the current situation of the visited places. All three festival ended with conscientious objectors’ declarations and concerts. One of the significant consequences of these festivals was, although there is no obligation of military service for women in Turkey, there were several conscientious

Appendix | 245


objector women. The reason was to protest the humiliation of women embedded in militarist point of view. Turkey became the only country where there are conscientious objector women while military service is not obligatory for women. This provides a new perspective for the struggle of women and the anti-militarist movement. The most important feature of the festivals is the fact that they were clear civil disobedience actions against the existing regulation in Turkey necessitating permission from the government to gather and demonstrate. Several conscientious objectors who were being searched have participated in the activities which were announced with all clarity in advance. Therefore, militourism festivals turned out to be a part of the festival series that temporarily liberate the streets. We know it since the Paris Commune: revolution is the festival of the oppressed!

246 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

NOBESE Anti-Surveillance Players

We are people who are sick of being spied upon, being under control every moment of our lives, being sold to Hollywood with our daily images; who adopt the policy of continuous non-violent direct action in the streets, open to everybody’s participation; we are independent people who make momentary decisions. As the anti-surveillance NOBESE action group, we came together and organized through the Internet in 2005, against the MOBESE (Mobile Electronic System Integration Project) surveillance system recently constructed in Istanbul. Following the news in all media about the new surveillance cameras on the way to being built with intensity in several places (570 spots, more than 4000 cameras, for 770,000 euros) in Istanbul, we decided to take action. At the time, one of our friends was acting in George Orwell’s play “1984.” We prepared some leaflets about the new surveillance system in Istanbul to hand out to the visitors in the theatre. As soon as we got the information about the official opening ceremony of the MOBESE camera system, we got ready for street actions. We prepared banners, created an action group, chose a cameramen and a person for media relations. As the location for action, we chose the heart of Istanbul, Istiklal Street; the most crowded historical pedestrian street of Istanbul. We spotted camera locations on this street. Our first street action took place on June 19, 2005, just one week after the official ceremony of the MOBESE Cameras and Surveillance System. We first tied neckties with “evil eyes” on them to the camera poles. Four players tied themselves to a single chair and carried it through the street. The chair symbolized power that is meaningless without the support of officials who carry it. We looked at the cameras with binoculars to reverse the situation and show that the officials become annoyed when they are watched. We took photos in front of the cameras. We handed out our announcements with “evil eye stickers” on them and we played music with our own instruments. We had walked to Galatasaray Square with a crowd of people watching us. Media attendance was around 35 people and the number of the police who were following us was 20 times more than the protestors. One of the players had showed his middle finger to cameras, which was enough for the police to get wilder. Some of the players were taken into custody and were held for four hours because “they insulted citizens.” After the first street action, we have conducted 14 more similar street actions. On March 19 and 20, 2006, we organized an international day against surveillance that was also held in the USA, Austria, and Lithuania.

Appendix | 247


We have reached thousands of people on the streets directly and much more indirectly with high media coverage. Our street action principle was simple: “Streets aren’t your studios, you aren’t directors of our lives; we are not your actors.—don’t watch us!” ⬍www.izleniyoruz.net⬎ (we are under surveillance) ⬍hepimiz@izleniyoruz.net⬎ (we are all under surveillance)

248 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

Billboard Liberation Front

Theorizing about cultural activism is like theorizing about sexual intercourse. All the theory in the world isn’t going to get you laid, and will in fact probably impede your chances, so why not just shut your mouth, drop the trousers, and get on with it? You’ll be happier in the end, and we won’t have to listen to your boring psycho-sociopolitical babble. The theoretical basis of our movement is not a positive quantity, or even a null set, but a negative number. We are anti-theory, and any pompous gasbag who tries to theorize us is in for the non-theoretical ass-kicking of his life. Practice, not theory, is what defines the BLF. For more than thirty years, our members have been climbing up on billboards and changing them. Does that sound mysterious or enigmatic in any way? Does it seem to require a lengthy manifesto? The practice is its own theory, the action its own reward, and if you try to read anything further into it, you are, quite simply, an idiot. Historically, the BLF has its origins in a prior group, the San Francisco Suicide Club, and that legacy may help explain our distaste for polemics. The motivating idea behind the Suicide Club was, simply put, that you should live your life as if facing imminent death, because—who knows—maybe you are. And if you’ve only got an hour left to live, or a day or a week, are you going to sit around and talk about it, or maybe get up off your doomed ass and do something before the meat falls off your sorry bones? Back in 1977, a group of Suicide Club members were taken, blindfolded, to an unknown destination. When the blindfolds were removed, they found themselves on a city rooftop, at the foot of an enormous billboard, with a selection of paints and tools before them. Guts and a sense of play, rather than any particular agenda, were what drove them to alter that first board. Two of the participants that night, Jack Napier and Irving Glick, went on to found the BLF, and from them we inherit that same outlook. While some of our past actions may seem, at first glance, to be politically motivated, this is quite simply not the case. As a group, we are politically diverse and resolutely incapable of agreeing on any sort of mutual agenda other than a shared love of satire, and a general desire to shake things up a bit before we kick off. When we alter a cigarette board, it’s not because we hate the tobacco companies, but because we think it’s hilarious to put a neon death’s head on Joe Camel. When we expose the not-so-covert ties between AT&T and the NSA, we’re not wagging our fingers, we’re holding our sides to keep our guts from spilling out with laughter. Call us shallow if you like, but if it doesn’t make us laugh, we just aren’t interested in doing it.

Appendix | 249


Our other main motivator, besides having a giggle or two, is the visceral thrill of climbing up on a sign face at night. It is, in a word, fun—fun in a way that no amount of reading, writing, or talking can ever compare with. Up on a board, you own the night. You own the city. You are the master of all that you survey. And if you don’t have the guts to shut up and start climbing, you will never, ever know what I mean. Now stuff that in your theoretical pipe and smoke it.

250 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

Vacuum cleaner

The vacuum cleaner is an artist and activist collective of one fashioning radical social and ecological change. By employing various creative legal and illegal tactics and forms, the vacuum cleaner attempts to disrupt concentrations of power and reverse the impending collapse of planet earth. The vacuum cleaner works in varied and specific forms, including performance interventions in corporate and public spaces, hactivist websites, social sculptures, television documentaries, and culture jamming videos. They have taken on some of the biggest corporations on the planet including Starbucks, the Virgin Empire, Selfridges, Nokia, Asda Wal-Mart, and Sainsbury’s. The vacuum cleaner has also shown documentation and done performances and installations for the art world including Tate Modern, ICA, CCA, Liverpool Biennial (UK) Museum of Contemporary Art (USA), Digital Arts Laboratory (Israel), Society for Arts and Technology (Canada), Anti Festival (Finland), and Impakt (Holland). Sometimes the vacuum cleaner indulges the mainstream media and show its work on TV and in Print, including showing work on Channel 4, BBC4, Guardian, The Big Issue (UK), Arte (France and Germany), Canal ⫹ (France), ATA, and Free Speech TV (USA). The vacuum cleaner is a co-founder of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, founder of The Very Cooperative and honorary member of the New Social Art Social. Works of note include: Cleaning Up After Capitalism – a series of performance interventions taking place in corporate and public spaces, which involved cleaning up after all the dirt made by capitalism. Places cleaned include banks, shops and shopping Centres, and the financial districts of London and New York. The Church of the Immaculate Consumption – If shopping is the new religion, praying to products is the only logical step. Acts of worship taking place in the UK’s most expensive department stores. Recall – Starbucks Logo Fault – Subverting the Starbucks logo to read “Fuck Off.” Taking place in Starbucks in the UK and USA and online. Starbucks forced us to pull our website www.starbuckscoffee.co.uk Free Music For Suckers – A fake guerrilla marketing campaign and action promoting free culture and free CDs from a Virgin Megastore. The Ark—Promoting cardboard Arks as a global warming solution. ⬍www.thevacuumcleaner.co.uk⬎

Appendix | 251


Center for Tactical Magic Spells & Illusions for Fun & Protest

Whether you choose to regard it as an illusion, a sleight, a spell, or an invocation, the following exercise is best thought of in terms of magic(k). This may seem confusing at first, especially since “magic” means many things to many people. The Center for Tactical Magic does not align itself exclusively with any one interpretation of “magic,” in part because it is the vast range of interpretations of “magic” that give magic(k)— both with and without the “k”—power in the world of meaning. Therefore this “spell” is likely to exploit many of your preconceptions of magic(k) in an effort to dislodge your comfortable sensibilities. One of the first lessons of magic(k) that we learn as children is that words and symbols have power. Abracadabra. Hocus Pocus. A 5-pointed star. A 4-leaf clover. As we get older, this primary notion quickly degrades and often becomes the source of an adult’s first dismissive tendencies toward magic(k). Too many hokey movies and failed attempts to levitate with an utterance conspire against us. Soon the lesson is forgotten; magic(k) words and the power of symbols sneak away to party with Santa and the Tooth Fairy. But words and symbols continue to work their magic(k) regardless of whether or not we believe in them. Although the magi on Madison Avenue now refer to spells, incantations and sigils as slogans, jingles and logos, the effects are just as powerful as ever. Authority commonly wields power through the manipulation of sign systems which individuals are collectively programmed to accept as valid structures of discipline and control. Fortunately, magic(k) is an open-source technology that doesn’t belong exclusively to advertising execs and policy-makers. Outlined here is a sequence of actions that will effectively illustrate the aforementioned dynamics. The following exercise also serves as a general spell for revealing that “authority” is a subjective force, and that victory is awarded to those who play the “Sign Game” best. While strict adherence to the spell will often yield successful results, an accurate understanding of the underlying principles will allow for delightful adaptations and diverse applications. Have Fun & Good Luck!

252 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 219–254

Power Transposition Spell How to Subvert Institutional Authority through Graffiti and Other Tactics in 13 Steps

Authority commonly wields power through the manipulation of sign systems which individuals are collectively programmed to accept as valid structures of discipline and control. Outlined below is a sequence of actions that will effectively illustrate the aforementioned dynamic. Further, the following sequence of actions also serves as a general spell for revealing that “authority” is a subjective force, and that victory is awarded to those who play the “Sign Game” best. While strict adherence to the spell will often yield successful results, an accurate understanding of the underlying principles will allow for delightful adaptations and diverse applications. Have fun & good luck! 1. Choose an institutional target (school, corporation, government agency, etc.). 2. Create a small label (approx. 3⬙ ⫻ 4⬙) which includes the institution’s seal or logo, as well as the words: “Signs or Graffiti Permitted on This Surface” (or an appropriate variation of your choosing). 3. Affix the labels to various surfaces within the institution. At first, it is best to target surfaces that have existing postings or writing, e.g., bulletin boards, bathroom walls, pay phones, etc. 4. Begin responding to your own labels by covertly adding signs, postings, and graffiti. Be sure to vary the content and use multiple scripts or different graphic elements. Some gestures, tags, or styles should appear more prolific than others so as to convince the “authorities” that multiple individuals are responding to the labels in no organized fashion. 5. On institutional letterhead, create your own notice harshly condemning the labels, the postings, and the writings. The notice should be brief, but the tone should sound severe and reactionary. Citing non-existent laws or rules that promise extreme penalties should be included to encourage debate. Mis-spelling a key word or two will aid in undermining the voice of Authority, as well as give the impression that Authority is, in fact, a small group of controlling individuals who assert their will on the greater community. 6. Before the institution can respond to the postings and graffiti, covertly distribute this notice as widely as possible. Post it in areas where no previous postings have appeared as well as in the most obvious places. Place notices in employee/student mailboxes, on the windshields of parked cars, or in lunchrooms, and other meeting areas. The distribution of this notice should appear obsessive/compulsive. 7. Replace any labels that have since been removed and continue to add graffiti and postings. At this point, some graffiti/postings should be direct responses to the

Appendix | 253


“institutional notice.” Some responses should sound incensed, while others should appear mocking. Most likely, other anonymous individuals will have joined in at this point and the debate should be widening. 8. Locate a blank section of wall, or an area where graffiti has been allowed to persist. Using a slightly off-color shade of paint, cover a large, uneven section of the wall. Affix a sign alongside reading “Wet Paint” and another stating that “any graffiti which does not beautify the area will not be tolerated”). This will give the impression that the Authorities are ineptly attempting to cover the graffiti, while simultaneously giving a nod to “acts of beauty.” 9. Create a second notice stating that employees/students/community members may be subject to random searches for graffiti paraphernalia. Distribute it widely. Additionally, signs should be posted declaring rewards for reporting graffiti as well as phone numbers to call (police, management, etc.). 10. Continue to add graffiti and postings, but extend the range outside the proximity of the labels. 11. If the debate has become heated enough at this point, create another notice/email in the “voice of Authority” declaring a “town hall” meeting with attendance required. Be sure to include a sentence indicating that food and beverages will be provided (you may even want to place a large order for pizzas to be delivered). The date of the meeting should give the “authorities” as little time to prepare as possible. A note on the workplace: If the target institution is the workplace, then give consideration to the scheduling time. A lunch-hour meeting will impose on co-workers and encourage opposition to the institution. A mid-afternoon or mid-morning meeting will result in a period of non-productivity that will provide a much-deserved break for your co-workers. An after-work meeting time should include a promise of overtime wage compensation for all attendees. 1. Have fun at the meeting, but be careful not to take sides in a manner that will draw attention to you. At most, make constructive suggestions or offer compromises such as calling for more communal space or resources (a community center, lounge, or project funding), asking for more community dialogue or representation (push for shared power and self-management), or requesting conditions that are less restrictive/oppressive (more time off, fewer rules or better use of community funds). Or, just sit back and watch the fireworks. 2. If events haven’t climaxed by this point, create a final notice summarizing the institution’s willingness to respond to concerns raised at the meeting. Declare new policies and promises; be sure to be creative about your desires (designated graffiti/posting zones, slackening of rules or restrictions, school/business holidays, etc.). At this point, you and your community are the authorities, so start acting like it by making the necessary changes and organizing for a better tomorrow!

254 | Appendix


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 255–256

The Contributors

L. M. Bogad is Associate Professor, University of California at Davis. He is an author, performer, and activist. His book, Electoral Guerrilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule and Social Movements, is an international study of performance artists who run for public office as a prank. Bogad works on the intersection between art and activism, and on the role of humor and imagination in organizing social movements. He has taught “Tactical Performance” workshops internationally, and as “Art and Controversy” Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University and “Humanities and Political Conflict” Fellow at Arizona State University. Bogad’s darkly humorous performances have covered topics such as the Haymarket Square Confrontation, the FBI’s COINTELPRO activities and the Patriot Act, and global climate chaos. He is a veteran of the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Laboratory, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, the Oil Enforcement Agency, Reclaim the Streets/NYC, Absurd Response, and Billionaires for Bush, and has performed in film, theatre, and street theatre across North America and the UK. For more information: www.lmbogad.com. Email address: l.m.bogad@gmail.com Michael Shane Boyle is a doctoral candidate in the graduate program in performance studies at UC-Berkeley. His (tentatively titled) dissertation, Embodied Dissent: Radical Performance in Times of Exception, examines the use of performance by activists in Germany during the Weimar Republic, the period following the student movement of 1968, and today. His work focuses on the theater and performance art of Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator, Elfriede Jelinek, and Joseph Beuys, the film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, and Harun Farocki, as well as the performance activism of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army and the Volxtheaterkarawanne. In addition to his research, Shane is a

theater director and activist. Email address: mshaneboyle@gmail.com Marco Deseriis is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. He has co-authored, along with Giuseppe Marano, the book Net.Art: L’Arte della Connessione (Shake, 2003–08), and co-edited, along with Domenico Quaranta, the art catalogue Connessioni Leggendarie: Net.Art 1995–2005 for the homonymous exhibition at the Mediateca Santa Teresa in Milan. His writings have appeared on numerous Italian and Anglophone magazines, including Mute, Flash Art, Cluster, D-La Repubblica delle Donne, and others. Deseriis has programmed and collaborated with various festivals and conferences, including Digital Is Not Analog, a net culture festival held in Italy between 2000 and 2004, The Influencers, festival of Culture Jamming and Radical Entertainment hosted by the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, Spain, and Radars & Fences, an academic conference investigating the possible collisions between the Foucauldian notion of disciplinary society and the Deleuzian control societies. His dissertation, provisionally titled Condividuals: A Social History of Collective Pseudonyms, Open Pop Stars and Multiple-Use Names. Email address: md1445@nyu.edu Ronen Eidelman is an artist, writer and activist engaged with linking art, culture and grassroots politics. Participated in many exhibitions and festivals, as well as creating independent projects in the public sphere. Born in New York City, grew up in Jerusalem and based in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Israel, Co-founder and editor of “Ma’arav” (www.maarav.org.il) leading online art and culture magazine from Israel. Graduate of the MFA program for “Public Art and New Artistic Strategies’ at Bauhaus University

The Contributors | 255


in Weimar, Germany, and for more than ten years active in anti-occupation and anticapitalist activists groups. Ronen likes hats and enjoys wearing many kinds. Email address: ronen@maarav.org.il Begüm Özden Fırat is an Istanbul based activist. Besides, she is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul, Turkey. Her areas of research include visual culture, cultural activism, radical arts and politics. She is the co-editor of Commitment and Complicity in Cultural Theory and Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Email address: begumm@gmail.com Gavin Grindon completed his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester, supervised by Professor Terry Eagleton, on the history of art-activism through the idea of revolutionas-festival from Surrealism to Reclaim the Streets. He has taught art history at Manchester and Kingston Universities, is a founder of the Creative Resistance Research Network and has been involved in a number of art-activist projects, most recently at the Camps for Climate Action at Heathrow and Kingsnorth. Email address: gavin@cyber-rights.net Emrah Irzık is a doctoral candidate at the Sociology and Social Anthropology department of the Central European University in Budapest. His dissertation Free Open Source Software as De-commodification of Knowledge, is about the ideology and organizational structure of FOSS within the context of the participatory production of knowledge as a public good. He is involved in political documentary making and several activist groups and projects. Email address: emrahirzık@gmail.com Anja Kanngieser is a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She has been exploring the intersections between aesthetics and activism, specifically focusing on German radical left activist groups that use aesthetic techniques as a means of articulating their dissent in everyday contexts. She is also a

256 | The Contributors

collaborator on the Future Archive project, and works with installation and radio. Email address: akanngieser@yahoo.com Aylin Kuryel is a doctoral candidate in Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA). Her dissertation Image Politics of Nationalism in Turkey: Surveilling and Resisting Images focuses on the visual elements that attempt to create or subvert the “national identity effect”. She is involved in many artist and activist collectives, both in Amsterdam and Istanbul. She is part of an art collective called “Neo-city-lettrists” working on alternative urban transformations and street art. She has completed several short movies and documentaries. Email address: aylinkuryel@gmail.com Christian Scholl is an Amsterdam-based activist researcher. He is currently working at the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research on his dissertation with the tentative title The Two Sides of a Barricades: Interactions between Police and Protesters during Summit Protests in Europe. Christian Scholl has published articles about feminist practices within alter-globalization movements, citizenship from below, and contemporary activist art practices. In addition, he is writing for several activist magazines. In 2009, he will publish the co-authored book The Social Control of Dissent in Times of Globalization. Email address: kriss@sch0ll.de A. K. Thompson is an activist, writer, and graphic designer living and working in Toronto, Canada. In addition to his forthcoming book Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent, his publications include Sociology for Changing the World: Social Movements/ Social Research (Fernwood 2006) and Bringing the War Home: Globalization and the Search for “The Local” (Berkeley Journal of Sociology Vol. 51, 2007). Thompson serves on the editorial board of Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action and is currently writing a dissertation on Drooker and Banksy at York University. Email address: akt@yorku.ca


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 257–262

Index

0100101110101101.ORG, 229–232

Berlin, Isaiah, 37, 38 Beuys, Joseph, 106

A

Bey, Hakim, 22, 160, 217

A/Traverso, 15, 25, 26, 28

Bichlbaum, Andy, 199–201

Abrams, M.H., 62

Billboard Liberation Front, 10, 206, 249, 250

Abramson, Larry, 97, 98, 100 Adbusters, 17, 137–139, 144, 145, 148,

Biotic Baking Brigades, the (BBB), 169, 170, 172

149, 154 Agamben, Giorgio, 51, 123

Black, Bob, 22

Ainger, Katherine, 184, 185

Blake, William, 45

Albert, Michael, 138, 147–149

Blissett, Luther, 10, 11, 15, 16, 65–94, 144, 229

Andrew X., 117 Anti-Advertising Agency, 9

Bloch, Ernst, 63

Arendt, Hannah, 199

Boal, Augusto, 180

Arns, Inke, 82

Bogad, L. M., 179, 209, 211–213, 217

Autonome a.f.r.i.k.a gruppe, 10, 117, 146,

Bologna, Sergio, 77

163, 164

Bonanno, Mike, 199–201 Boyd, Andrew, 213

B

Breaking the Silence, 236

Baader, Johannes, 115, 116, 119, 135

Brecht, Bertolt, 14, 18, 50, 53, 169, 212, 214

Baird, Robert, P., 83 Bakhtin, Mikhail, 14, 22, 159, 181, 184, 186–190, 196, 211

Breines, Wini, 165 Brünzels, Sonja, 11, 144

Bakunin, Mikail, 18, 157, 158, 172, 174

Buck-Morss, Susan, 44

Banksy, 15, 35, 36, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54,

Bugra, Ayse, 149

55, 56, 57, 58, 60, 106–108, 114 Barber, Patrick, 45, 46

Bui, Roberto, 79 Bush, George W., 10, 147, 189, 202, 208, 217

Barthes, Roland, 80, 98, 99, 227, 228 Baudrillard, Jean, 67 Benjamin, Walter, 27, 28, 36, 43, 44, 47, 48, 53, 63, 83, 162 Berger, John, 53

C Cardogan, Peter, 174 Center for Tactical Magic, 252–254

Index | 257


Chainworkers, 221–223

Epstein, Barbara, 165

Chomsky, Noam, 140

Eshelman, R., 117

Chto delat? (What is to be done?),

Etcétera, 10

224–225 Churchill, Ward, 166

Evil Twin, 10 Eymer, Rick, 46, 47

Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA), 18, 30, 31, 162–164, 170,

F

179–182, 186, 189–196, 198,

Federici, Silvia, 76

202–209, 211, 212, 214, 216

Felshin, Nina, 212

CODEPINK, 9

Fortunati, Leopoldina, 76

Colectivo Situaciones, 30

Foster, S. C., 116, 119

Combatants for Peace, 237

Foucault, Michel, 157, 205, 216

Costa Dalla, Mariarosa, 77

Freire, Paulo, 173

Courage to Refuse, 236

Fremeaux, Isabelle, 191

CrimethInc, 21, 62, 63, 143

Freud, Sigmund, 50, 98

Critical Art Ensemble, 10, 206, 226–228

Fumagalli, Andrea, 76

Cultures of Resistance, 10 G Geldof, Bob, 192

D Dada, 11, 17, 21, 22, 115, 116, 119–121, 124, 125, 131, 170, 178

Genosko, Gary, 126, 129 Gilerman, Dana, 96, 97, 105

Day, Richard, 166

Girard, Rene, 37

de Angelis, Massimo, 124

Gordon, M., 119

de Certeau, Michel, 14, 205, 206, 210,

Goya, Francisco, 41, 45

214–216, 217 Debord, Guy, 11, 14, 116, 121–124, 135,

Graeber, David, 160, 162, 165, 171, 214 Groeneveld, Jasper, 164

140, 162, 164, 188, 210, 211, 217,

Grosz, George, 118

224

Group of 8 (G8), 20, 170, 172, 180, 183–185, 188, 190, 192–194

Deleuze, Gilles, 14, 17, 121, 131, 161, 233 Diggers, the, 11, 20, 186, 198

Grupo de Arte Callejero, 10 Guattari, Pierre-Félix, 14, 15, 17, 25, 26, 120, 124–132, 160

Dink, Hrant, 152 Drooker, Eric, 15, 35, 36, 39, 41, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 56, 58, 60

H

Duchamp, Marcel, 27, 51, 52, 54

Hardt, Michael, 77, 81

Duncombe, Steve, 210, 212, 217

Harrison, C. 119 Hausmann, Raoul, 118

E

Heartfield, John, 119

Engels, Friedrich, 22, 175, 178

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 15, 22, 23,

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus, 51

258 | Index

24, 25, 173


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 257–262

Herman, Edward, 140

Lefebvre, Henri, 14, 28

Herzfelde, Wieland, 119

Lenin, Vladimir, 57, 120, 121, 131, 136, 170, 224

Hildebrandt, Rainer, 104 Hill, Christopher, 186

Lettrists, 72

Hoffman, Abbie, 165

London Psychogeographic Association, 72

Holloway, John, 159 Home, Stewart, 71, 72, 91

Lukács, Georg, 38, 50, 63, 173

Huelsenbeck, Richard, 118, 119

Lyotard, Jean-François, 83

Hughes, Robert, 53 M I

Malinowski, Bronislaw, 80

Iç Mihrak, 152, 153, 233, 234

Marazzi, Christian, 77

Improv Everywhere, 10

Marx, Karl, 15, 22, 23, 47, 60, 75, 76, 77, 79, 90, 121, 125, 136, 138, 145, 147,

Indymedia, 143, 168, 188

150, 175, 178

Infernal Noise Brigade, the, 186 Institute for Applied Autonomy, 10

Massumi, Brian, 117, 131, 132,

International Monetary Fund (IMF), 12, 41,

May First/People Link, 9

171, 173, 186

McClure, William, 122 McKay, George, 161–163, 165

J

Merkel, Angela, 163

Jordan, John, 31, 161, 163, 167

Mitropoulos, Angela, 117

Jung, Franz, 118

Mouffe, Chantal, 171 Mujeres Creando, 10

K Kant, Immanuel, 29, 38

N

Katsiaficas, George, 115

Negri, Antonio, 30, 75, 76, 77, 78, 81, 90, 92

Kelly, Susan, 129 Kenney, Padraic, 189

Neilson, Brett, 117

Kershaw, Baz, 201, 206, 216

New Profile, 236

Klein, Naomi, 63, 73

Nietzsche, Frederich, 14, 15, 24, 25, 28, 29

Knabb, Ken, 11 Kolonel Klepto, 207, 216

NOBESE, 247, 248 Noguez, Dominique, 177 Not an Alternative, 9

L Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination,

Nunes, Rodrigo, 166

10, 192 Laibach/NSK, 82

O

Las Agencias, 10

Obama, Barack, 10

Lasn, Kalle, 138, 139, 141, 142, 145,

Oil Enforcement Agency, the (OEA), 17, 201,

154

209–213, 217

Index | 259


Situationist International, 11, 16, 17, 21,

P Pasquinelli, Matteo, 82

28, 72, 115, 116, 118, 120–125, 131,

Picasso, Pablo, 56, 63

135, 140, 145, 146, 159, 161, 164, 210, 211

Pink & Silver, 12, 162–164, 173 Piscator, Erwin, 118

Solnit, David, 180, 210

Poerksen, Bernhard, 106

Space Hijackers, the, 10, 243, 244

Poldervaart, Saskia, 162

Starr, Amory, 171, 172

Provos, the, 164

Subcomandante Marcos, 78 Surrealism, 21, 22, 27 Swoon, 53, 54

R Rabelais, François, 181, 184, 191, 211

T

Ramsden, Hilary, 191

Temporary Services, 240–242

Rancière, Jacques, 14, 104, 209, 211,

Thompson, A.K., 173, 185

213, 217

Trapese Collective, 21

Raphael, Max, 56

Tute Bianche (White Overalls), 174

Raunig, G., 120, 123, 125, 129, 130,

Tzur, Uzi, 105

132 Reclaim the Streets, 22, 31

U

Reclaim The Streets, the, 161–163, 167,

Umsonst, 17, 115–118, 125–132

186

United for Peace and Justice, 9

Reeves, Phil, 97 Reverend Billy, 10, 18

V

Rhythms of Resistance, 186, 187

Vacuum cleaner, the, 251

Richardson, Joanne, 206

Van Gogh, Theo, 45

Richter, Hans, 115, 118

Vanderbilt, Tom, 200, 201

Roei, Noa, 104, 235

Vaneigem, Raoul, 121, 124, 161, 178

Roman, Leon, 166

Verson, Jennifer, 191, 195

Ryan, Mike, 166

Vienet, Rene, 145 Vigilla, Hubert, 46

S

Virno, Paolo, 29, 76, 90

Sarkozy, Nicolas, 163 Sasse, Sylvia, 82

W

Schafraad, Pytrick, 162

Warhol, Andy, 51

Scheidemann, Philip, 116

Wark, McKenzie, 88, 93

Schmitt, Carl, 37, 171, 172

Weis, Yoav, 106, 107

Scott, J. C., 186

Willett, J., 118, 119, 137

Seem, Mark, 124, 127, 131

Wood, P., 119

Shapira, Sarit, 97, 98

World Bank, The, 12, 171, 173, 178, 185,

Shukaitis, Stevphen, 160

260 | Index

186


Thamyris/Intersecting No. 21 (2010) 257–262

World Trade Organization, the, 138, 157, 185, 188, 201

YoMango!, 82, 93 Yesh Gvul, 235

Wright, Steve, 172 Z Zer-Aviv, Mushon, 112

Y Yes Men, the, 9, 10, 18, 82, 138, 199–201, 206, 207, 209, 211, 212, 216, 217, 231 Yippies, 11, 164, 165

Zizek, Slavoj, 81, 82, 138, 141, 145, 147, 148 Zollberg, Aristide, 158

Index | 261

Begüm Özden & Firat Aylin Kuryel, Cultural Activism, Practices, Dilemmas, and Possibilities  

http://presstoexit.org.mk/index.php?lang=en

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you