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|OKK| - Organ kritischer Kunst - organ of critical arts
|kritische Kunst zwischen Insurrektion und Affirmation|
Critical art between insurrection and affirmation –
looking back at six semesters at the UdK
Written by Organ Kritischer Kunst / Pablo Hermann
When art theorists such as Marius Babius claim that protest art, or political art, is dead, he is not without reason. However, there are still moments when art and artistic producers step away from self-referentiality and product-based working methods and commit their work to the ‘cross-societal’ agency of protest culture - in the face of the liberalisation of the functions of the state such as education and healthcare and growing restrictions in civil liberties (i.e. the security debate).
As long as university decision making boards have uneven voting systems, student protest can be regarded as a legitimate and often the sole medium to articulate within protest culture and an integral part of university dialectics.
Student engagement in the development of teaching, research and self-administration is increasingly guided by economic measures and the economisation of public educational institutions is taking on increasingly shocking directions, as highlighted during the protests against tuition fees and the implications of the Bologna process.
What is important is efficiency and increasing productivity - terms borrowed from business management terminology which can be measured against a single parameter: monetary value.
At the UdK (Berlin University of the Arts) different forms of protest have evolved as a response to various developments and events.
From my involvement as a politically active student (between 2005 and 2008) I wish to give an account of various approaches: art and protest actions within the range of civil disobedience and creative protest on the one hand, and an understanding of an artist as a driving force for social change on the other.
The following is a brief description of the various actions:
a) Protest at the University of the Arts – a review
Meine Akademie (‘my academy’) was a project dealing with how business and politics interconnect with the academy, focussing on the example of the Volkswagen University-Library of the TU (Technical University) and the UdK. The artist group Meine Akademie was made up of students from the UdK, the HfbK Weissensee (Academy of Fine Art Berlin-Weissensee) and the Grupo de Arte Callejero from Buenos Aires. The group collected and visualised background information on the connections between the VW corporation and the educational institution. The aim was to conduct research on its economic background in order to understand the essence of PPP (public private partnership) within educational institutions.
The involvement of large corporations in higher education in the course of the neoliberal restructuring of the public sector can be experienced in every day situations. In VW trying to enter the area of state higher education, expanding the model of the corporate university beyond the private sector, a prime example of the commercialisation of education has been created, illustrating the application of profit values to a site traditionally associated with free education and research.
This gives a sense of how education will be negotiated between state and industry in the future. Decisions on education will increasingly become subject to economic interests and will be made under the influence of the business sector.
Given the fact that art cannot be thought of in the absolutes provided by economics one has to ask whether academic freedom will be guaranteed under such circumstances.
Kola Campaign (2006)
This campaign was motivated by various allegations regarding Coca Cola’s social and environmental record, such as pollution and depletion of ground water around their factories in India and the resulting loss of livelihood for farmers in the surrounding areas. A second case involved reports from Colombia, where the local management (particularly from the filling plant in Carepa) was alleged to have collaborated with paramilitary death squads, in one instance leading to the death of labour union members at the Coca Cola factory.
[ fussnote: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/586/408361/text/ http://www.labournet.de/internationales/co/cocacola/coca_cola.pdf ]
The products of the multinational corporation had been sold in vending machines, cafeterias and cafes across the university, implying a certain competative dominance which could be witnessed wherever their products were offered. Protest was organised in the form of a panel discussion in which various allegations against Coca Cola were presented to representatives of the company.
Regarding direct artistic practice I would like to mention at this juncture the artistic intervention on a Coca Cola advertising hoarding, which had been hung over the entire facade of the main UdK building during the 2006 World Cup. It was suggested that first intervention was due to ‘damage’, as the banner had been slashed in T-shape. According to rumors in the university, the culprits had argued that the light necessary for working in the studios had been blocked by the hoarding. The last intervention, where the 8m tall bottle was meticulously cut out of a Coke Zero hoarding, was an interesting case.
Once again, the unnerved company removed the banner within a few days, until someone revealed to them that this act was in fact an artistic intervention, and belonged to an artistic discipline - that of ‘visual hijacking’, which could also be an effective form of advertising. Having been taken down in the morning, the hoarding was up again after a short time, and, to the surprise of many, with the bottle still missing! This serves as a concrete example of how critical art can be made impotant through recognition and affirmation, when those criticised through such activity themselves subvert the protest action for their own image-making.
A few days later Coca Cola advertisment at the UdK came to an abrupt end, as the governing body of the university (after a decision by the student parliament to boycott Coca Cola) asked the advertising agency responsible to remove the hoarding for good.
Since summer 2006 Coca Cola products are no longer sold in any official Student Services facility in Berlin.
ausser haus (2006):
Unoccupied professorships, students without classes, secretive decision making in the self-governing bodies and bullying within the boards had all contributed to an unacceptable situation in the fine art faculty of the UdK. In addition to this there were structural problems that could not be resolved by the more conventional means of board meetings. As students (of the student union, various courses, and the student parliament) we saw the ideal of academic freedom endangered, whilst we ourselves had no opportunities to intervene. The idea that universities are open spaces, autonomous from economical and political ideologies, seemed to be a distant one; as was the idea that all were involved in decision making processes, particularly those for whom the system was actually designed – the students. The ineffectuality of the boards of administration, the increasing pressure of economisation and the resulting threat of workshops closures, and the apathy of the students led to the decision that large scale protest was the only possibility for students to break free.
The annual end of year show is the most public and effective means of self-presentation for the university, so it was decided at a general assembly of students to boycott this event and to organise an alternative show titled ‘ausser haus’ (which may be translated as out of the office) in a self-organised space. With a minimal budget and within a relatively short space of time, an exhibition of around 150 students was put together in a four story disused factory in Berlin Wedding. The exhibition caused a stir, attracting considerable attention from outside the university.
Everything from local to international press turned up to hear the students’ demands. At the same time the UdK3000 panel was initiated, a forum to discuss the theoretical framework of the protests. In addition there was a protest during the ceremony in which the BDI cup (Bund der deutschen Industrie- Association of German Industry) was awarded to the UdK as part of the image campaign ‘Deutschland, Land der Ideen’ (‘Germany, country of ideas’). The cup itself was ‘liberated’ by a group of artists.
On the second anniversary of the award (in 2008), the plaque bearing the same name in the entrance foyer of the university met with the same fate!
Shortly after the production of a list of demands by the students some of the most pressing issues where resolved. The protest was in part successful, and started, though tenderly, to break the deadlock at the university.
Structural debate (2007)
Out of those problems highlighted at ausser haus was an attempt for structural renewal within the faculty of fine art. This attempt was facilitated by a group of professors holding a majority on the faculty board, who were effectively free to conduct such attempts as they saw fit.
In line with the old habits (meaning in the same as before the protests described above) decisions were taken within small hermetical groups while the majority of university members where excluded from the process. This led to a group-veto by the student representatives, using a right provided to them by law to ensure the rights of under-represented groups within universities’ self-governing structures. As a consequence, the decisions at stake had to be postponed until an external commission had conducted a review. The structural review commission appointed by the university
authorities undertook an analysis over several weeks, conducting in depth conversations with all parties involved. The commission was to a large extent in favour of the students’ demands, about 80% of which were regarded as desirable.
However, only a small portion of the initial demands were actually met. Until today the problems within the fine art faculty are far from being resolved, as most of the structural debate questions remained unanswered.
KiK-Box goes Heiligendamm (2007):
In contrast to the previous protest actions which were directly linked to our university and addressed internal problems, the KiK-Box project at the G8 summit had wider-spanning implications and was based on a social approach.
The project container of the Institute for Art in Context [FUSSNOTE: Masters course at the UdK] student council was transported to Camp Reddelich near Heiligendamm in order to establish a platform for media-activism. In cooperation with other groups of activists (Indymedia, nadir, KanalB and others) the G8 TV project for alternative media coverage was launched. In developing a web-based electronic comunication network from the very centre of resistance, alternative political coverage could be supported efficiently and productively. Many national and international journalists, activists and freelance commentators used the network established in the KiK-Box.
http://www.koloniewedding.de/pablo_masterarbeit.pdf (page 36 ff)]
b) Of the necessity for protest and the associated critical art:
„It seems as if we had until now simply stated the obvious, moving in an argumentative circle: in order to develop an anti-capitalist form of art, a break with the capitalist art system has to be made. It is in no way trivial to render this relationship explicit: as this problem allows us to challenge the existing concensus, as well as rejecting the set of beliefs which determine the thinking about the relationship between art, criticism and politics today. [...] There is good reason to assume today that the consensus [of real existing capitalism as a hegemonial element / ed.] is crumbling. The (regained) strength of global anticapitalist struggles and criticism has increasingly challenged the neo-liberal uniform thinking of recent years. Radical art movements could provide an important contribution to further undermine this disintegrating consensus.“
(Fußnote: translated from: Gene Ray, Henrik Lebuhn, Kunst-Kritik-Politik, in Analyse und Kritik, August 2006, P. 30-31. Or on: http://www.linksnet.de/de/artikel/20081 )
Through the examples described above one thing becomes clear - that none of the discussion necessary to constructively tackle the problems within the university would have taken place without the protests that preceeded them. Artistic protest and critical art can be taken as a serious means of expression, using creative means to deal with conflicts and grievances that would otherwise be neglected or not addressed. The formation of student or artistic protest cannot be seen as pranks by students who have nothing better to do, but as part of an self-aware and articulate student body striving for autonomy and participation.
Student protest is an active antidote to the increasingly clear and familiar tendencies towards an understanding of the university as a service provider and holding company. In the case of the art universities, an illusion of artistic freedom is a consolation for subsequent self-precarisation and/or subordination to the exploitative circuit of the market. The restructuring towards a system driven solely by consumption and value creation can be observed on every level of politics and society. Achievements in health care and education, established over centuries, are now successively being reversed while a material economisation in all areas of society seems unstoppable.
The current economic and social crisis in which we currently find ourselves has its origin in exactly these profit maximisation processes defined by the doctrine of capital. An ethical analysis and scrutiny of the academic research and teaching practised rarely takes place. Just such a meta-aesthetical examination of culture is however essential, particularly in the arts. The basis from which we look at art must be shifted away from the material parameters currently employed. Culture today functions as an outsized, fundamental element of post-fordist capitalism, putting pressure on global societies and welfare systems with increasing violence. It is little suprise that within art education the practice of subject, profit and efficiency oriented production is dominant, weakly conceiled under the guise of a bohemian artistic spirit.
Art not measurable under economic terms is little recognised, systematically marginalised and at times appropriated. The demand for output, market-efficiency and self-management and the tendency to attribute a commodity or fetish character to artistic production is superimposed on the original function of culture, that of an aesthetic ideal within the principles of enlightenment. This ideal implies certain social and ethical consequences which can no longer be avoided. If it is not the sensibility of artists that can articulate the pressingly necessary warnings within the cultural and social discourse, who can?
One should think that the art university, according to its self-proclaimed ideal of academic freedom and the ‘ethos’ of individual artistic development as practiced in the fine art classes might equally foster the development of a reflected position regarding the economisation of ones own practice. In reality the UdK (with the support of the senate) is mainly concerned with recruiting prominent art stars, funded with the ever tighter university budget.
Meanwhile, a small group of determined students strives to bring teachers into the university with whom they can develop a theoretical basis for the establishment of a critical artistic practice. These conflicting interests have led to controversies and open conflicts in the past. [Fußnote, http://udk-berufungsverfahren.blogspot.com/]
From the point of view of the students, these conflicts and compromises are welcome, as they do at least in part make way for and render visible the scope for change and development.
C) The meta-aesthetic discourse, the scope of critical art:
The dimensions in which we operate in regard to this problematic of so called critical art, shifting far beyond an aesthetic analysis towards the realm of ethics. This prompts an existential positioning regarding the market, marketing, art-parcours and sponsoring. It is exactly this ‘social sculptural’ [FN: in reference to the notion of social sculpture as coined by Joseph Beuys] aspect that the aesthetical discourse and theory of production in the university lacks. This discourse does take place outside of the university, but unfortunately it’s protagonists never make it through the appointment procedures for teaching posts.
”[...] In art, an ethical objective also has to be made transparent and addressed. An attempt is made to foster the ‘should-be’ in its ideal state, out of the ‘being’, the living reality. One of the functions of art is to aesthetically amplify reality, which also indicates an ideal condition. Both serve to create an awareness of values and thus a reflection from aesthetical towards ethical ends takes place. It is the connection of ethics, as the ‘science of morality’ with aesthetics as the ‘science of sensory perception[...]”
[FN: Erich Statter, philosopher, ”Lexikon freien Denkens“, 2000, Angelika Lenz Verlag]
With the rise of immaterial conceptual art it seemed that the systematic reduction of artistic activity to the production of aesthetic consumer goods had been overcome. However, conceptual art neither introduced a fundamental rethinking of artistic responsibility, nor did it step out of the circle of monetary value creation. An applied deconstruction of object fetishism and the myth of the artist, moving towards a social and ethical understanding of the artist’s role that reflects society and the individual seem a long way off, while a real deconstruction of the artist myth seems impossible.
The aesthetic viewing of art, as currently practiced at art schools, is relatively interdependent with economic factors. Aesthetics remains bound to certain aspects that can be traced back to a logic of material production. The axiom reads: ‘art must have a material quality, otherwise it is invalid.’
The artistic, creative act is reduced to the product or the result, yet remains associated with ‘pure practice’ due to the lack of critical evaluation in the professor-led classes – meaning that the student is left to create ideas out of her/himself, and again often having to assess these single-handedly. The necessary basics for this are rarely provided. The safety net that remains is the construction of the idea of artistic autonomy and freedom. Criticism in art education would need to have the aim of providing an overview of the categories for assessing ones own work, but in practice, critical evaluation is rarely conducted. When it does take place, it stays within the controlled and delimited realm of the dominating understanding of art; the market-oriented parcours of the so called ‘bourgeois art-paradigm’ (Ray/Lebhuhn).
The functional aspect of art needs to be reevaluated, namely as a philosophical, informative or politically enlightening tool, instead of being a ‘genius’, seemingly non-functional fetish-product.
The myth of the artist shaped the predominant image of ‘the artist’ and the ‘artistic product’ up until the postmodern era. The model of the artist as (male, white) subject, the loner fighting away in his studio creating his own world and defying the social and political reality, is out-dated and will hopefully soon become obsolete. The (new? old?) concept of the conscious artistically acting subject has to go beyond personal positions. Of course artists have to reflect the self and their appropritate modes of expression, but this has to go hand in hand with collective modes of production and presentation. The personal and the socio-political are not merely disconnected levels any more, subject to different aesthetics or ethics, but ought to be seen as a meta-aesthetical complex, independent of subject-fixation.
Another means of aesthetic reflection – organic aethetics
With reference to both modes of aesthetic reflection described above, I am going to introduce the notion of organic aesthetics, a notion which makes a step towards overcoming the conventional, classic and aesthetic understanding of postmodern art.
Organic aesthetics implies the reflection and questioning of the predominant aesthetic discourse on a broader social level of ethics; or more explicitly, an ‘ethical reflection of art’. The organic aesthetical perception of art thus shifts from a subject-based notion (‘aesthetic experience’) or an object based notion (product), towards a social reference level beyond the mere perception of art. It makes a shift from a materialist point of view towards the existential, meta-physical. To put it in economic terms, the organic aesthetics analyses aesthetic social added-value.
The term ‘organic’ as a category of aesthetic reflection means the widening of the current subject/object level parameter. This can happen fluidly, in a pulsating, growing, constantly modifying motion. Aesthetics transforms from a static, abstract perception of art into an applied, ever-changing aesthetical analysis adjusting to its respective context. The notion of ‘social aesthetics’ approximates the idea, though it does encompass merely the interaction of subject, object and observer. Organic aesthetics goes a step further in opening the ethical field adjacent to aesthetics, including it into the aesthetic reflection of art. This being a vital and rhizomatic process, I chose to use the term ‘organic’.
d) Real-political dimensions of critical art
“More than ever cultural producers tend to presume that there it is not possible to circumvent the system of bourgeois art. In its elaborate variant this position is founded on assumptions from the rather pessimist trends within the Frankfurt School. They claim that artists can at best practice the art of the ‘double game’, described by Brian Holmes as ‘liar’s poker’. The term describes the attempt to operate inside and outside the artworld at the same time, oscillating between the different systems of culture and politics, art and society. On an individual level, this is certainly the most flexible and safest option. Such a form of art may be pleasant or even critical or self-critical – but certainly not anti-capitalist.” [FN: Gene Ray, Henrik Lebuhn, „Kunst-Kritik-Politik“, Analyse & Kritik, 2006]
Influenced by the dialectics introduced by the Frankfurt School, different artistic tendencies and methodical approaches have evolved. These coincide more or less with so called avant-garde art in the sense that both can be attributed to a critical practice based on cultural theory. The phenomenon of systemic affirmation embedded in the creative act itself, as postulated by Horkheimer and Adorno, implies a neutralisation of artistic autonomy, an autonomy which at first appears secure, and is often presumed by artists.
The postfordist understanding of cultural production and the implied flexibilisation of production/creation and private life is not circumvented through the creation of ‘critical works of art’, which in fact act as ‘symbolic legitimisation’ of the hegemonic regime, according to Bourdieu. Of course, repeated attempts to temporarily break this ‘bourgeois parameter’ have been made throughout history, taking for an example the Situationist positions of the late 50s and early 60s. However, culture industries and the academy succeeded in neutralising such attempts by means of widening their frame of artistic recognition (a nice example of which might be the ‘visual hi-jack’ of the Cola bottle on the façade of the UdK).
Equally, “the ‘platform for autonomous student projects’ (Interflugs), which is to a degree incorporated into the structure of the university, could be seen as a playground for student self-organisation and opinion formation within the institution. The link-up with the university administration and an annual budget based on this connection preserve a tightly fit degree of participation and service provision – but can a dog bite the hand that feeds it? And to what extent is Interflugs basically on the same wavelength with corporations which urge their employees to work independently and on infinitely flexible terms – ultimately a strategy for increased productivity? How can we be critical about precarious working conditions in the cultural sector if we are constantly practising them ourselves?
Nevertheless, such a form of ‘personal responsibility’ might still, in some cases, exceed the mere pretense of autonomy, producing subjects whose experiences and beliefs motivate them to transgress the borderline from performance to political action on day X. If such a borderline actually exists.” [FN: Interflugs]
To do list for critical art:
Critical art aims to enact autonomous, freely obtainable, politically relevant criticism in the artistic and cultural sphere. It is about the creation of openness, where work beyond practical constraints can take place, unaffected by economic structures, regulations and conditions.
Critical art has to be discussed in practical terms. Particularly within the academy it is important to provide such platforms for artists, projects and discourses. Outside the academy such practice should be supported by numerous not for profit spaces in Berlin, creating a broad network of critical cultural spaces.
Equally a realistic discussion about the reclamation and re-use of art for non-commercial purposes has to take place. Copyright laws maintain the logic of consumer goods and the idea of intellectual property. But what seems existentially reasonable at the current stage has to be rediscussed in the wake of the collectivisation of knowledge and culture, as copyright regulations are the result of a basic commercial concept. As such, they serve as another means of regulation of mass distribution, while conformly stabilising artistic creation on the basis of the construction of singular authors in a system of ‘originality’, and its marketing.
According to Flusser, the building of networks is the foundation of any critical culture; and the free flow of information and discourse is the founding stone for a liberal, cultural and telematic society. Subjective and artistic individual positions should incorporate themselves within a collaborative, collectively organised cultural model. This form of ‘repositioning’ should not take place under ideological terms- as this does not entail an inherited hierarchical model but an anti-authoritarian value system without leadership, which, in the widest sense excludes the concept of the Avantgarde.
The use of ‘multiple names’, ‘multiple lables’ or other aliases would be an opportunity to showcase a shift from subject-based aesthetics towards organic, rhizomatic, society-oriented aesthetics. It belongs to those artistic practices which stand for a different notion of artistic production, as one amongst numerous decisions. Examples for further practices would be creative occupied houses, artist-run galleries, self-organised education projects, off-spaces, independant media and autonomous research, that is to say practices that intervene actively into realities, the (urban) environment and the media.
”[...] the future revolutionary society where dialogue prevails, constantly produces information. By means of the thus generated flood of information, the old discourses break down, and in the telematic society, no authorities exist. It is, due to its networked structure, completely non-transparent and cybernetically self-conducted. This is why Telematics is also desrcibed as the ‘cosmic brain’.”
We, as critical artists, have not explicitly taken up the cause of producing anti-capitalist art, and should not let ourselves be exclusively rated against such principles. Nevertheless, we claim to participate through our work, in paving the way for the necessary transformation of the forms of cultural production.
There was a time before capitalism and there will be a time after capitalism!