[iDC] Art

Grant Kester gkester at ucsd.edu
Fri Dec 9 23:22:34 EST 2005

Dear All,

I have also been lurking on this debate since Trebor invited me to listen in
several days ago (thanks Trebor!). I don't feel I have much to offer
relative to the question of new media/digital media, etc. Very few of the
groups I write about make use of these technologies so I will leave comments
on them to the experts. I'm afraid the projects that I am writing about will
see almost anachronistic in this context. They include Navjot Altaf's work
with water pump design in villages in Bastar (central India). What makes
this work especially interesting is the complex political negotiations
involved in working with Adivasi (indigenous, non-Hindu) artist in central
India in the context of rising Hindu extremism. This is overlaid by an
equally complicated set of struggles over the privatization of water access.
Altaf manages to use the process of collaborative production of water pump
sites to intersect with both of these registers of power in village life in
very interesting ways. I'm also writing on Jay Koh and Chu Yuan's work for
the past seven years in Myanmar, under the nose of SLORC, where they have
slowly built the social networks necessary to sustain an artists-run center
in Rangoon and managed, in the process, to create new alliances among and
within Myanmar¹s often isolated artists. There are dozens of examples like
this (Huit Facettes-Interaction in Dakar, Ala Plastica in Buenos Aires,
etc.), often working in conjunction with particular political struggles or
movements, activist groups, NGOs, etc. This sort of "slow activism" doesn't
attract nearly as much interest as the "take back the streets" direct action
tradition, but I think it's quite valuable.

I sometimes find debates over activist art and new media seem more focused
on the technological "form" than on the material specificity and political
tactics of collective action in a particular context. For myself, this is
where the most challenging questions lie. I've been struck, for example, by
how few examples of actual projects or works have been offered in these
recent exchanges over activism and art. That might be one way to move the
discussion forward a bit. It's hard to draw much inspiration from the
canonical theoretical sources. Hardt and Negri, for example, are so allergic
to any form of organized collective action that they dismiss all NGOs out of
hand (Medecins Sans Frontieres is "completely immersed in the biopolitical
context ofŠ Empire," etc.). This sort of overheated rhetoric doesn't get us
very far in understanding how activist groups are working for change on the
ground. I'd advocate a movement away from theories that began at the level
of grand abstraction ("multitudes," etc.) and begin from the contextual
labor of political change. A little "plumpes denken," or vulgar empiricism,
so to speak. One step forward would be a rapprochement between those
interested in activist art practice in the digital/new media world and those
groups and artists working in a similar direction outside this world. I
don't know quite how to encourage these exchanges (which, of course, already
occur to some extent), but this forum has certainly raised some relevant
issues that run across both of these arenas. As is often the case, I've
particularly enjoyed Brian's honesty and insight.

Best wishes to all,
Grant Kester

On 12/9/05 7:03 PM, "Brian Holmes" <brian.holmes at wanadoo.fr> wrote:

> Robby Herbst writes:
> The thing I always come up against is how the
>> tools of deconstruction generally have been
>> applied against structures and ideologies that encourage sociail cohesion
>> and homogeniety.
> This kind of question preoccupied me for about five years
> (say, 1994-99) until I finally realized that deconstruction
> et. al. were not the driving forces of hyperindividualism
> and cultural fragmentation, but instead were epiphenomena -
> discourses that may have been aesthetically or
> philosophically interesting in their time but are now just
> academic placeholders covering up much broader social trends.
> Societies all over the world are being torn apart because
> the incredibly dynamic forces of free trade and
> financialization - with the attendant subjectifying barrage
> of advertising culture - are breaking down the institutional
> and even improvisational spaces where people used to have
> time to resolve their differences. That's a political
> problem. It demands answers to difficult questions about
> economic functions, about economic justice, and also answers
> to maybe even more difficult questions about how to slow
> down and tame that cultural tiger called the transvaluation
> of all values, which was something that the left had a
> better handle on up to around 68, but which was then taken
> over almost completely by commercially driven media
> experiences and consumer hedonism, who have been riding it
> to a very uncertain future.
> The economic questions are, imho, actually easier to answer.
> You just have to spend about five years reading the theories
> and comparing the realities! But it's worth it, it's
> necessary, and one of the reasons for the decay of society
> is that people don't do the minimum. What you ultimately
> realize (and some people may be able to get there much
> faster than I did) is that there are now a host of specific
> mechanisms leading to the recreation of a genuine ruling
> class - I mean, people who are so rich that they just aren't
> like you and me anymore, and further, they have the capacity
> to direct the way the society evolves. That kind of
> statement has been basically taboo for a generation. But if
> you don't find a way to say it then you're condemned to
> watch the process continue to unfold, silently. In the
> absence of any democracy.
> Step 2 is more difficult. What kind of society do I want?
> How can I express that? Where can I share that expression
> with other people? How can I learn to give up my first ideas
> and adapt them beyond what I perceive, feel, etc?
> Art has, at least in a small way, actually become an arena
> in which you can ask those kinds of questions and begin to
> have those kinds of conversations. I think that's worth
> defending and illustrating, particularly since it's
> something I'm halfway equipped for. I actually agree that
> the notion of tactical media, in particular, has begun to be
> fetishized, because it can be very simplistic, you know. The
> eruption of tactical media 6 or 7 years ago was important,
> because it showed that the image and symbol manipulating
> classes - which have become kind of important, not so
> marginal as they used to be - could actually do something
> political, and get out of that postmodern paralysis that had
> been the previous chapter of cultural history. But now I
> think there are a lot more complex things to take on.
> Artists (or anyone lese, for that matter) should not let
> their ambitions get restricted to things that become fads.
> I am going in a few weeks to Berlin to see an exhibition
> called "B-Zone: Becoming Europe and Beyond," where three
> women (Ursula Biemann, Angela Melitopulos and Lisa Parks)
> each explored the development and, let's say, the human
> ecology of a big piece of infrastructure  on the EU's
> southeastern borders (an oil pipeline from the Caucusus to
> Turkey, a road network heading out hrough Greece to Central
> Asia, and a statellite telecommunications system serving
> former Yugoslavia, respectively). It's extremely interesting
> stuff, which combines the full complexity of economic
> problems with all the formal, affective and intersubjective
> subtleties of art. Well, I and Ursula and Suely Rolnik and
> Maurizio Lazzarato, we all tried to make a case for this
> kind of work at an international meeting of museum directors
> in Sao Paulo a few weeks ago. As you can imagine, most of
> them are light years away from that sort of work (especially
> the millionaire collector types, etc.). But some others of
> course, are not. And I think that it is very important to
> defend the kind of artistic inquiry that those artists are
> doing, and also the kind of sociological and critical
> inquiry that I am doing. Because the art space is maybe not
> big enough, not direct enough, not important enough for
> these complex questions about society - but if we can't
> create the space to develop such questions in what seems to
> be our home base, where else are they going to get
> developed? This is also the kind of thing running through my
> mind when I read Saul's notes about trying to design a new
> program for art that consistently straddles the 2d-3d divide.
> Anyone interested can look at the transcripts of that panel
> here:
> http://forumpermanente.incubadora.fapesp.br/portal_en/.event_pres/simp_sem/cim
> am-e/relatos/index.html
> The point is not to draw attention that particular panel,
> but just to say that beyond the fetishization of
> simplicities, there is lots of important work to do!
> Including real activism, which I wouldn't say is exactly
> useless...
> best, BH
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Grant H. Kester
Associate Professor, Art History
Visual Arts Department, 0084
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, California 92093-0084
(858) 822-4860
gkester at ucsd.edu

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