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Abstraction, evacuation of resistance and sensualisation of emptiness

Marina Gržinić

All the versions of this article: [English] [slovenščina]

Art institutions and art projects of today, produced in the capitalist First World, function on the basis of unbearable abstraction. This means that an enormous quantity of creativity is being released, however, it remains cut off from that which is most important, namely, resistance. In other words, artistic strategies and tactics that generate different forms of resistance have been evacuated. Artistic forms entail a lot of innovation and creation – but where are the forms of resistance? How to engender resistance that opens up the possibilities of change?

It is my argument that the experience of this void in the First World is different from the one in the Second or the Third World, for almost nothing that has been produced in the Second or the Third World is reflected consistently in the First World of capitalism, let alone included in the genealogy of the latter. His[s]tory is being written for the First World of capitalism, things are being capitalized for the First World, and whatever resists this process is left out of this (his)story. What is more important though is are we going to articulate a new space, a space of our own?

Every history is a struggle. Have we formed another space? Who or what then is the driving force that rearticulates the social and the political space in a given context, and adopts art as its mode of expression and fight, which, at the end of the day, is the gist of radical art and radical cultural practices. Giorgio Agamben observes that every living being assumes a certain form, which means that if you do not have a form of life you do not have a life either. The issue at stake is the question of what kind of form is still capable of rendering things visible and politically revolutionary. Perhaps it is the images, the method of work or the process; perhaps it is speech, the so-called performative politics. This is why we talk about processuality, about production of knowledge, or about theory, which is not written but rather spoken in a public space.

It is perfectly clear that in the present day we are dealing with more than just a gesture of exchange and production; we are dealing with a delineation of political lines within a certain space, with a codification of this space and with the establishment of power relations. Once that line is crossed, once things become contaminated, the radical and political ideas from those coming from the Second and Third World(s) are put apart, projects and people are removed or sucked into the system of friendships and obscure collaborations.

The second key moment is the economic moment, the art market, which today, more than ever before, exerts influence on what acquires visibility and what is included in other interpretations. Some projects question art as a repressive institution and search for answers to questions how this institution is codified, how it is perceived, how it is structured and who holds sway over it. The third key aspect I would like to point out is in the relations of ownership as exhibitions and projects belong to someone, they have specific owners, economic (multinational) as well as symbolic. Fathers do exist, and I am talking not only about patriarchy but also about the so-called institution of masculinity; the latter is disseminated by various individuals and institutions or groups that present themselves as the owners of contemporary art, cultural and political terminology. When we touch upon such relations and the institutions of power that govern a specific space, all relations of lightness come to an end.

Donna Haraway stated: it is perfectly clear who the players are, who has a voice and who is relevant to every area. There are only a few chosen ones; everyone else is excluded from this story. In these relations, the patriarchal institution of masculinity and power is still central. This is when things become complicated for what is at stake is not only the construction of a system but also the fact that, by constructing a proper system, we point out the weak spots of the other system, the one that is supposedly ideal. Accordingly, things deteriorate: the other party feels threatened.

Capitalism is a cannibal and in order to be able to “devour” everything and everyone it is ready to transform itself into an inventive or even social [capital], if the need be such. The matrix it relies on is not a utilitarian but a cannibalistic one. The capitalist engine has an inherent need to possess new forms of production and expressions of creativity, because the capitalist logic survives by continually producing a surplus value of goods, including works of art.

Suely Rolnik, a psychoanalyst and professor at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo, and head of the Centre for Research on Subjectivity, identifies similar implications. In her essay “The Twilight of the Victim: Creation Quits Its Pimp, to Rejoin Resistance” [1] she exposes the purpose behind the need for the continual production of new forms of art and life, which is to ensure a subjective consistency for structures such as theory, criticism and official institutions, while in the same breath other artistic and cultural production may be swept off the stage of the “world,” along with all other deactivated sectors of the economy. Or, in other words, that which is happily shared by today’s art, criticism and official institutions is creativity, but this is creativity without resistance. For modern capitalism, this wellspring of “free” invention power and inexhaustible artistic creativity is a virgin resource, an untapped vein of values that should be exploited. Rolnik describes this process of the fresh blood supply for the capitalist (cannibalistic and blood-sucking) system – which coincides with the deactivation of entire sectors not trendy enough and too demanding artistic, cultural and social strategies – using the expression “kidnapped inventions,” whereby the task of the kidnappers is accomplished by various systems, theories, criticism, institutions and practices. [2]

Yet here we are not referring merely to the necessity of re-establishing a link between art and life that characterizes modernity, since, as Rolnik says, if life and art are still divided the reason is the deactivation of creation within the broader sweep of social life and its confinement to the artistic ghetto. This situation has already been resolved by capitalism and incomparably more effectively than by art. [3] To remain in the artistic ghetto as a separate sphere (so-called “autonomy of art”), which in the previous system served to imprison the power of creation, means to keep art separate from the power of resistance and restrict it to being the source of (surplus) value representing an easy means of survival for the pimp – the capital (machine).

1. Contamination of creativeness and politics

We no longer work, but create. This is the process of subjectivisation through production in the time of post-Fordist global capitalism. This process transcends dualism and focuses on the shaping of subjectivity, but not through work – rather it employs creation as an activity that re-defines work and literally hides abstract exploitation. Because of this, the explanation of immaterial labour is of key importance for the explanation of the process of subjectivisation in our contemporaneity. Understanding these processes necessitates the re-connection of creation and the power of resistance, and the freeing of both from the grip of the pimp, i.e. the capitalist system. As Suely Rolnik explains in her essay “...[w]e need to place ourselves in an area where politics and art are intertwined, where the resistant force of politics and the creative forces of art mutually affect each other, blurring the frontiers between them.” [4] This is an attempt to place us in a thoroughly contaminated area, “first on the side of politics contaminated by its proximity to art, then on the side of art contaminated by its proximity to politics.” [5]

Rolnik further observes that “[a]t present, certain artistic practices seem to be particularly effective in dealing with these problems [relating to the dissociation of creation from resistance]. Their strategy consists of precise and subtle insertions at certain points where the social structure is unravelling, where tension is pulsating due to the pressure of a new composition of forces seeking passage. It is a mode of insertion mobilized by the desire to expose oneself to the other and to run the risk of such an exposure, instead of opting for the guarantee of a politically correct position that confines the other to a representation and protects subjectivity from any affective contagion. The ‘work’ consists in bringing the forces and the tension they provoke into existence, which entails the connection of the power of creation to a piece of the world grasped as energy-matter by the resonant body of the artist; and it consists at the same time in activating the power of resistance.” [6]

I would like to emphasize that we have to think in a much broader sense about the pimp, capital, and take into account its linkages with the art market, art institutions, theory, criticism, tourism and educational institutions, from art academies to universities. What is, in fact, happening today in contemporary art is the formation of a specific set of technologies for de- and/or re-territorializing capital, which puts into process the rearticulating of hierarchised structures that include people as a component and which exclude art and cultural practices in accord with institutional models.

The new vocabulary proposed by Rolnik – which in addition to “kidnapped invention” includes such terms as “contamination of art and politics,” “contagious art practices,” “radicalised theory” – has rarely been used previously in the field of art and culture. But if we consider certain events in the art, cultural and social-political arenas of Slovenia, on the local level, and more broadly in relation to Documenta and the various biennials, Manifestas and big Balkan shows, we can see the importance of using such paradigms to name in precise terms the processes of expropriation and exhaustion, abstraction and evacuation that are taking place in contemporary art and culture.

What Rolnik calls “kidnapped inventions” is exactly what happened to the underground or “Ljubljana alternative movement” that developed in the 1980s in Slovenia. This movement was literally kidnapped, taken hostage, and released when it was already symbolically dead, abstracted from interpretations and segregated by academic writings and theoretical non-writings, at the beginning of the 1990s and continuing until today. Throughout the 1980s, the whole underground, or alternative culture in Ljubljana was kept under harsh political and economic censorship, a hostage of the communist political party in power, and which was cut off from any kind of civil-society space. Although this same underground was of crucial importance in the formation of the civil society towards the end of the 1980s in Slovenia, which supported the emergence of numerous heavily marginalized sexual, political and cultural minorities, it has not yet received a single serious theoretical or critical review by the official theoretical and political structures in Slovenia.

Which is that form of struggle that can make things visible and politically revolutionary? It is not sufficient to restrict the consideration of art to creativity only.
The 1980s saw the emergence of political art in Slovenia – political not by virtue of its content but owing to the emergence of the political subject within the field of contemporary art that was precisely the underground or the alternative movement. This spelled a great difference compared to the 1970s or earlier periods, when formal art dominated culture in Slovenia. The 1980s underground production cut through and fought the emptied tradition of formalism that prevailed throughout the 1970s and therefore encountered vast resistance and obstacles also regarding its reinterpretation. Insisting on such genealogy means disrupting the abstract struggle for the old form of expression and counteracts it by introducing a rearticulation of art, culture and social productions completely excluded from History. This denotes an act of cutting into specific space. An act that compels this space that has been living happily its own “abstract” story to re-establish itself. As Alain Badiou would say, this is indeed an “event.”

What is more, the alternative practices in Slovenia were not merely evacuated and abstracted, they were literally “kidnapped” – excluded and completely marginalized – at least twice and in very blatant ways. The first time was in 1997, when the city of Ljubljana was declared the “Cultural Capital of Europe” – precisely because of its reputation in the 1980s and early 1990s for its non-institutional strategies that were, for the most part, conceptualised, produced and organized within the alternative and, later, independent spaces. The event Ljubljana – “Cultural Capital of Europe” (for one month) proved to be a disaster for the independent scene, which was left without any infrastructural investments or a substantial program.

The second “kidnapping” took place in 2000, when Manifesta 3 was held in Ljubljana. Although proclaimed as a pure act of transnational and global artistic vision, Manifesta 3 was, in fact, commissioned by the Slovene state, government and the Ministry of Culture, along with the main managerial artistic and culture institutions in Ljubljana, and not the other way around. Manifesta 3, with its outside reinforcements, legitimised on an international scale the power of the major national institutions of art and culture in Ljubljana (led by Cankarjev dom, Cultural and Artistic Center in Ljubljana). Once more, the leading independent (!) institutions, such as ŠKUC Gallery, Metelkova, and Kapelica Gallery, which had been crucial in constructing the paradigm of contemporary political and radical art and culture and new media productions in Slovenia, were not included in the Manifesta 3 project. Manifesta offered a perfect camouflage for the codification and acceptance of fake and abstract internationalism in the so-called Slovenian national realm.

Rolnik cites the example of Bilbao with its Guggenheim museum building to illustrate the operation of evacuating resistance from creativity, which transforms the object of art into a pure trademark. For Slovenes, this is precisely what occurred in 1997 and 2000 in Ljubljana. “At issue here is an operation of great complexity that can intervene at different stages in the process of creation, and not only at the end. Its effect at that point is just more obvious, because it coincides with the moment when the dissociation makes itself felt on art’s products, reifying them in two ways: either transforming them into ‘art objects’ separated from the vital process whereby the creation was carried out, or treating them as sources of a surplus glamour-value, attached to the logos of businesses and even of cities, like Bilbao, for instance.” [7]

The case of Metelkova represents an intermediary point in this genealogy of dissociation of creativity from resistance. The situation may be summarized as follows. Metelkova is the name of a street in Ljubljana on which the barracks of the Yugoslav People’s Army had been located. After Slovenia’s Ten-Day War for independence, in June-July 1991, the Yugoslav army withdrew from Slovenia. The new generation of underground hard-core punk activists, independent artists and activist groups asked the City Council of Ljubljana in 1991 to give this former military complex of empty buildings to independent artistic and cultural organizations. After promising to do this, the Ljubljana City Council secretly began the demolition of the Metelkova buildings with the aim of constructing a commercial centre on the site. Activists, intellectuals and artists then occupied the area as a squat in 1993, and to this day it remains a site of conflict between the independent art and cultural scene and the Ljubljana City Council. In 1993, municipal authorities cut off the water and electricity supply to Metelkova in an attempt to put a stop to the cultural activities and force the activists, intellectuals and artists to leave the squat. By depriving the activists and artists of basic services, the city essentially took Metelkova hostage. The city of Ljubljana then “kidnapped” the Metelkova invention of organizing the area as a central cultural and artistic space in Ljubljana for the new millennium. In fact, the city is now financially supporting the development of the Metelkova site by constructing a complex of museums there.

It is necessary to rethink Metelkova within the context of a biopolitics through which the state produces and administers the life of its citizens. Giorgio Agamben argues that global states today play with and against two entities of life: modal life and bare (non-modal, naked) life. Modal life exists in Western democratic states in the form of life-which-chooses, life with style, and consumer life. Bare life is, on the other hand, life that serves only as the foundation of sovereignty. According to Agamben, the foundation of sovereignty is, then, based on a concept of bare life; the sovereign body fulfils its role of being sovereign based on its right to take or give/permit life (rights or style) to citizens. [8] This is what happened with Metelkova when, in the 1990s, the city of Ljubljana cut off the electricity and water supply. The kidnapped Metelkova citizens were transformed through this clear biopolitical action into denizens, or ‘denied citizens’, to borrow a term from Tomas Hammar. [9]

Šefik Šeki Tatliæ, a theoretician and media activist from Sarajevo, helps us to develop this even further: “(…) what displays sovereignty is a model where bare-life is not destroyed, but converted, exposed as a cultural practice of life-with-modality in cases where Western pop and heavy metal music allegedly have been used to torture prisoners and may serve as a banal example or a display of the power of sovereignty where cultural practice is displayed as a weapon by exposing differentiation.” [10]

In the process of global capitalist production, bare life is a primary source of labour force. Our subjection to the capitalist machine takes place through uncertainty, marginality, and permanent fear for one’s life circumstances and through the absence of a firm employment option, i.e. through precariousness. The uncertainty of life is connected with the uncertainty of work, and this is a topic that is central not only for modern biopolitics but modern radical artistic practices as well.

2. Performative politics of formalized values

We live in a realm of immaterial production of ideas, images and communication, connections and emotional relationships. These processes do not provide the meaning of life, but life itself. An example of performative politics is provided by everyday advertisements that continually instruct us about our intimate lives and fears. In such a situation, it is a commodity that speaks, and as Antonio Conti says, it does not talk about its content but about our lives, needs and social relations. [11] Commodities talk about the form of our lives, and about how we should think, where we should travel, and about what we should buy regularly if we want to live well. Obsession with communication, talk and language is obvious today, since all three are subjected to information and communications technologies, and the time has come, as Conti argues, to re-conquer their potential. This re-conquest is, for example, the “counter-cultural” production of information relying on the theory and practice of an open code and on the principle of “creative commons.”

This is also an act of dematerialization of the art object; it is a process of destabilization of meaning through action rather than through the production of objects. It is also an act of destabilizing perception and meaning through naming. Speech serves not only to convey commands and instruction for labour operations, but allows denoting processes as well. As Paolo Virno argues, language is not just an artefact of real life that conveys our relationship with nature, but it is also part of our biological matrix co-substantial and specific to human nature. [12] The tongue is a biological organ in an intermediary place between thinking and political action. Or, as Franco Berardi Bifo maintains, any resistance or disobedience in the communication process is a process of marking and producing various denotations. [13] Communication also lies at the root of the production process in which it plays a crucial role. The work process today relies on words, transmitting through language and speech labour commands and instructions that is, as Antonio Negro argues, something completely different from the “Habermasian reconciliation with communication.” [14]

Virno noted that in the present day the boundaries separating intellectual activity, political action and work are blurred. The Post-Fordist type of (precarious) labour itself absorbed much of that which is understood as political action. And this fusion of politics and work represents a new physiognomy of the modern crowd. [15] Instead of radical politics, an abstract formalization of labour processes and art activities is what is at work. It is possible within such a context to state that the political, due to processes of performativity (that engage only and solely in describing the logic of the speech act, being evacuated from any content), leads to an abstract formalization of art and cultural activities. What is taking part is a transition from the politics of memory to the memory of that what used to be a political act.

Using “paradigmatic forms of the human,” Agamben establishes the genealogy of the human represented as an arrangement of animal-like figures escalating and ending in headless and thoughtless snobbish figures. These are not just metaphorical but political figures of human development within the capitalist First World’s genealogy administered by the capitalist anthropological machine that is clearly moving in the direction of an increasing emptying, abstraction and formalization of what is to be perceived as the human. In his book The Open. Man and Animal (2002), Agamben writes about such an increasing abstracted formalization within the genealogy of the human, depicting in such a way the development of the human toward a mere form or a snobbish gesture without content.

How do these relationships appear on the level of art and culture? There is an almost axiomatic work of art – a sentence uttered by Mladen Stilinoviæ from Zagreb who in 1997 accurately defined the initial multiculturalism as an ideological matrix of global capitalism: An artist who does not speak English is not an artist! This sentence, a work of art of the 1990s, synthesizes capital’s “social sensitivity” to all those multicultural identities that should reveal themselves in the 1990s to the world (to be read: of global capitalism) and begin to talk in that world – in English, no matter how broken this English be. However, today’s performative logic which is in perfect harmony with the abstraction and evacuation of global capitalism and which is working toward an emptying of any content, requires the correction of this sentence: An artist who does not speak English well is not an artist! This is the grand performative and snobbish lecture of 2000 within the first capitalist world that we still have (although never good enough) to master! As a result of these processes of evacuation, the alternative scene was literally swallowed up and exhausted by the over-institutionalised (official) culture in Slovenia, while theory was usurped and commercialised by the capitalist system (a pimp indeed, as Rolnik puts it), becoming part of the theory industry.

If we consider the construction of the youth hostel Celica (“the prison cell”) in 2003 in Metelkova – whereby the former Yugoslav army barracks prison was renovated, with financial support from the city of Ljubljana, into a shiny youth-hostel theme park, painted in hues of red, yellow and orange – we see just such a turnover. This can be understood as the city re-establishing subtle control over partially autonomous spaces without the open use of force and in a way that is directly related to the systematic gentrification politics of contemporary cities and states. [16]

Rolnik theorises such processes in precise terms:

In order to extract maximum profitability from this inventive power, capitalism pushes it even further than it would go by means of its own internal logic, but only to make an ever more perverse use of it: like a pimp, it exploits the force of invention at the service of an accumulation of surplus value, taking advantage of it and thus reiterating its alienation with respect to the life process that engendered it – an alienation that separates it from the force of resistance. On the one hand, you have a turbo-charged inventive power freed of its relation to resistance, and on the other, a tension. Easy-to-assimilate ‘ready-to-wear identities’ are accompanied by a powerful marketing operation concocted and distributed by the media, so as to make us believe that identifying with these idiotic images and consuming them is the only way to succeed in reconfiguring a territory, and even more, that this is the only channel by which one can belong to the sought-after territory of a ‘luxury subjectivity’. And this is no trivial matter, for outside such a territory one runs the risk of social death, by exclusion, humiliation, destitution, or even the risk of literally dying – the risk of falling into the sewer of ‘trash subjectivities’, with their horror scenarios made up of war, slums, drug trafficking, kidnapping, hospital queues, undernourished children, the homeless, the landless, the shirtless, the paperless, those people who can only be less, an ever-expanding territory. If trash subjectivity continuously experiences the distressing humiliation of an existence without value, luxury subjectivity for its part continuously experiences the threat of falling outside, into sewer-territory, a fall which may be irreversible. The prospect terrifies it and leaves it agitated and anxious, desperately seeking recognition. [17]

Are not the stories we receive daily through the mass media evidence enough of the deepening gap between these two subjectivities? In Slovenia, for example, we witness the horrors of life and sheer chaos endured by the Roma people, as well as by others such as the “erased.” [18] Abroad, in the world at large, we see the horrors of wars supposedly intended to preserve civilisation, as well as such atrocities as decapitations, and many other kinds of misery.

Such expressions of dominance over bare (naked) lives allow the political oligarchy in transitional societies to constitute itself as sovereign, to demonstrate the practice of sovereignty to the nation. As Tatliæ explains:

Post-socialist and former Eastern European societies perceive global capitalism not through future inequalities, class divisions, but with a willingness to prepare their states/economies to adopt global capitalism. European Union demands from transitional societies are seen as an implementation of several extremes, such as, for example, the implementation of an information society, but with the false predisposition that it is a mere technological structure, followed by extreme economic imbalances, extreme class divisions, fascistic nationalistic regimes decoded as mere figures in endless political games, with the following unequal distribution of knowledge to certain local social structures which conduct the whole process. [19]

The biopolitical in Slovenia decodes itself in a way that, as Tatliæ stated, “it firstly patches its own linear progress toward modal civilizations by accepting a ‘non-repressive’ democracy, but only as a countermeasure to the former, ‘repressive’, communism. Functioning as a fictional platform, which if read through post-modernist practices, works as a collective phantasm: the West should accept us, because we were oppressed by communism.” [20]

The process is completed, first, by taking advantage of the deepening gap and, then, by strengthening different political positions and developing fake solutions, which are ultimately processed through the mass media.

3. The state of emergency and its visual codes

The abstraction processes (the processes of evacuation, performative formalization etc.) pointed out earlier in the text have gained currency in the very heart of representation politics. They can be defined as the disintegration of oppositions within the image, for example, representation of politics that erases differences between the subjective and the objective, or between the national, nationalistic and the space of resistance; disintegration taking place at the very centre of the “space” of the image. This is one of the results as well of the current new media technology processing techniques onto the visual system of images.

Jonathan L. Beller [21] in his attempt to formulate a political economy of vision also explores the processes of abstraction. He connects the growing abstraction of the medium of money in capitalism and the evolution of image production in post-modern times. Therefore, we can link the abstraction of money in capitalism with abstraction procedures in the fields of contemporary art, culture and theory. This comparison between the money economy on the one hand and the visual "economy” on the other brings out the alienating effects of image making in a techno-capitalist society. According to Jonathan L. Beller, I can say that we are today confronted not so much with the abstraction of our senses (this being a typically modern phenomenon), but with the absolute sensualisation of abstraction, i.e. of the contemporary emptiness of the neo-liberal individual within global capitalism.

This is a new turn in the genealogy of capitalist abstraction that cannot be treated in an old way, as a matter of alienation of our senses (Adorno). [22] The current state is just the opposite: it is characterized by the full sensualisation of the capitalist processes of abstraction; it is characterized by the full sensualisation of emptiness and of totally formalized values that are becoming completely empty of all content in the “historical” sense (Agamben). A good illustration is two art movies that are not ordinary Hollywood blockbusters. One is Lost in Translation (2003), by Sofia Coppola, and the other Broken Flowers (2005), by Jim Jarmusch. In both films, the image of white capitalist emptiness, hollowness and a disinterest in any kind of engagement, politics or action reaches a maximum. The white kind (portrayed through Bill Murray, the main actor in both films) is engaged only in elevating its own hollowness to a dimension of sensuous delight, that the Second and Third World will never be “capable” of reaching. In this process we can again observe Agamben’s genealogy of the human from animal to snob.

Processes of abstraction and evacuation are used as well in the depiction of public space. Tom Holert names these processes that aim at reduction and abstraction of differences in a public space as “visual programming of the political space.” [23] With such visual programming, the public space is transformed from a political public space of action and confrontation into an apolitical performative spectacle of posing for the camera. In order to establish a precise logic of such processes, Holert engaged in an analysis of three distinctive events in Great Britain in the summer of 2005: the Live 8 concert, the G8 summit and the terrorist attack on the London tube.

Visual programming of the political space in the case of Great Britain events in 2005 involved precisely the difference between the representation of the crowd as something positive, creative and above all non-problematic on the one hand, and on the other, as something negative, or a protesting mob. If we consider the difference between the representation of the crowd at the two events, the Live 8 concerts and the G8 summit, we encounter, as Tom Holert points out, a completely different story. While the Live 8 crowd was presented as important – including from the viewpoint of the UN Secretary General – when it comes to aid for Africa, every voice is significant and it is necessary to gather as many people as possible and inform and educate them, the role of the crowd at the G8 summit in Edinburgh was presented as negative. The story that evolved there was indeed different, although it was part of the same framework – the struggle for justice. Crowds in Edinburgh were presented as an aggressive mob. Cameras waited by passively, and owing to special circumstances, when protesters found themselves entrapped between the town and the repressive forces maintaining public order, the cameras captured only the images of the brawl, and rioting was then presented as a cause leading to the intervention of police forces. This was an example of the coding of the political act that has almost become a rule. [24]

Mass media exploited the Live 8 concerts to the utmost. Their manner of depiction combined the images of anonymous individuals with the crowd behind them and images shot from camera cranes or helicopters that alternately reminded one of a survey camera and of the visualization employed by casting agencies when presenting faces and portraits of models to appear in new fashion catalogues. A similar approach was employed even after the terrorist attacks: one or two bloodstained Londoners, as two actors in an apocalyptic game, says Holert. The description of such procedures enables us to consider the issue of visual programming of the political space with greater accuracy. What is of great importance as well is the process of isolation and theatralisation of the individual set against the crowd. It is more and more turned into an actor playing in a movie about the end of the world.

Another, perhaps even more telling example of such “visual programming of the political space” is revealed in the video by Austrian artist Oliver Ressler entitled This is what democracy looks like! [25] This is what democracy looks like! records the first Austrian anti-globalisation demonstrations on the occasion of the World Economic Forum on July 1, 2001 in Salzburg. The demonstrations against the World Economic Forum (a private lobbying organization of major world capital) in Salzburg were ferociously handled by the Austrian police: 919 demonstrators were encircled and held captive by the police in the open space of the City of Salzburg for more than seven hours. The video film consists of visual material from the demonstrations, edited and spliced together with the additional reflections of six demonstrators on the events in Salzburg. [26] The video is a precise re-articulation of the event that also shows how mass media and the general public are caught up in a process of falsification and the misinterpretation of facts, relations and positions. The importance of the video work is multi-levelled.

First, the video is an accurate analysis and representation of the anti-global and anti-capitalist demonstrations in the heart of what is considered to be Western liberal democracy. The analysis of the media, state repression forces, i.e., the police, the public expression of calls for civil rights to be upheld and the whole structure of the clash between the repressive state apparatus and the civil rights demonstrators is recorded here, edited and voiced from the centre(s) of the capitalist Empire and not from somewhere else, where basic democratic rights are under heavy attack anyway.

In short, from the way the video is structured it is possible to discern some of the key elements of contemporary capitalism, state repressive forces and how these conspire to cause what are supposed to be Western liberal democratic rights to disintegrate – and simultaneously to be reconstituted, albeit always in a different manner. When processes of the inalienable basic right to demonstrate, to criticize and to demonstrate publicly ostensibly threaten the fabric of the capitalist machine, they are immediately transformed (in other words, without delay) into a state of exception, at the place of intervention. At such a place, liberal democratic rights are simply reduced to paper tigers with no teeth at all. The video therefore presents/encodes democracy in contemporary capitalistic states as a point of deadlock between two blocks. And what is waiting to be put into action? It is precisely the “state of exception.” Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher, stated in the mid-1990s that the juridical norm of 20th century capitalist democracy is precisely the law of exception, and what we witness in the video is likewise the complete and terminal fusion of the biological body, but without the polis.

Indeed, the encircled demonstrators, detained for several hours in an open space, actually embody the paradigm of the (concentration) camp rather than that of the open public space of the City of Salzburg. This is again something that Agamben formulated, saying that the bio-political paradigm today in Western civilization is the (concentration) camp and not the City. Power is not simply in the hands of the sovereign, nor in the hands of a single class or group, and cannot therefore be articulated only at the level of a consciousness, as a case of distorted consciousness. The materialistic paradigm is not enough here. That is why for Ressler power in the video is not the “obscure camera of ideology,” but through an analysis of movements, density of moods, body approaches in the contexts of the demonstration, Ressler produces a lucidity that can almost blind us, the viewers. For here power can be identified at the level of investment in the body. According to Foucault, nothing is more material than the exercise of power; Ressler takes precisely this path toward visualization, to quote Foucault, showing “the architecture, anatomy, economy and mechanism of how the body is disciplined.” [27]

This can be clearly seen in the structure of the video, which shows us the architecture of the body-body relationship (the encircled process of pressure); the economy of deprivation (the hours of immobility) and the mechanism of fear and anxiety. And what is more important, here we see the structure of power in the field of vision – the power of surveillance and the eye of the power, the video codes in the most current way.

There is a certain backdrop of visuality, a sorting of bodies, scales, lights and gazes, in the mass media, especially in corporate television. And it is trying to convince us by means of its purported general objectivity of the balance of forces in the field of active demarcation. What is hidden in such (TV) programs is the space between the eye and the gaze or the image of vision. The image of vision, as is consistently illustrated by Ressler’s video, is something other than the eye, it comes from the outside, emanates from the field of the Other. The gaze is always something precarious, contingent, dependent, and unstable. In general we can say that looking is something contingent. The excess, the surplus of the gaze that surpasses the naked eye is something that is structured around a manqué, a lack, and a disfiguration.

An objective camera eye simply does not exist, which is why the camera angle in Ressler’s video blends with the perspective of the demonstrators. As viewers, we are in direct relation to the events by seeing them through the demonstrators’ viewpoint. The place of the image of vision and its reversal are crucial. And as regards the image of vision, it is more important to include the third element between the body and that image, namely power. The way the visual materials (visual documentation) and the statements/interviews of the six demonstrators are spliced together is not one of illustration. The images do not illustrate the statements or vice versa. The interviews in Ressler’s video are specifically designed to encode what is at stake in the visual field of power.
What is clearly presented here is that the relationship between the visual and the discursive is not one of correspondence. There is no common territory, as it were, in which image and word happily meet; instead, they meet each other in a “non-space,” but with a relation to power, as Foucault would say. This is exactly Ressler’s video (medium) of power. Oliver Ressler’s video is a masquerade about democracy. Under the mask of democracy in the capitalistic liberal democratic systems of today we encounter the (Scmittian/Agamben) – “state of exception.”

Last but not least, it is necessary to read the apparatus of repression in Ressler’s video as a mere semblance of justice. Yet Oliver Ressler’s video is also an act of power; it shows the internal power of the demonstrators, as they are capable of articulating precisely what their own position is, rethinking their moves, contemplating their present position and their possible future defeats. With its proper exhibitionism the anti-globalisation movement claims back for itself a position of power. Because power is grounded in the spectacle. The video is therefore also a process of rendering the body of the anti-globalisation movement spectacular (but without commercialisation!). To put it in a nutshell: it is much better to exhibit power than to be the instrument of power, such as the police are – the apparatus of repression – in the final instance. Through the video analysis, the anti-globalisation movement completes a short circuit: it exhibits power embedded in its spectacular function. It is a re-articulation of the proper position as an emancipatory act.

Despite all qualms about civil society, the stereotypical manner of showing its political manifestation is problematic. When the mass media re-code these, civil society is, as a rule, shown as uncivilized and its attitude towards the government as uncultivated. Tom Holert emphasizes that the images of the declarations of political will are acceptable for the general public only if they come with a flavour of entertainment and if they are not too complex. And when the mass media, with the help of repressive state apparatuses, re-shape these images transforming them into a threat to the democratic global order, the view radically changes: a discursive crowd turns into a group of confused and raging elements expedient for portrayal. Ressler’s manner of presentation and depiction is precisely the opposite.

What has to be stressed is the polarity of the mass media depiction of demonstrations, which is an integral part of the neoliberal ceremonial. In his excellent analysis Holert defines these two poles as follows: on the one side stand civilized forces of order and politics that are prudent and pacifying in their dogmatism, and on the other miserable, rhythmically swaying souls interested only in how to trigger uncivilized disorder. The ceremonial is expedient for the production of images that make possible the reshaping of the space of political opposition and democratic representation into the space of direct participation, which is in effect the transformation of the political space into an apolitical public space.

Robert Pfaller writes that today “we see democracy only as something that we can be involved in ourselves,” as something in which we see ourselves included directly or we cannot think about democracy. Precisely this reduction represents the neoliberal strategy for the elimination of the political public. [28] Therefore, what is at issue here is whether we are part of the direct participation or that we do not know what democracy is at all. According to Holert, this form of direct participation is a process of the voluntary surrendering of people to the great mass media gallery of faces, and the process of manipulation and evacuation of the discursive power of the crowd. Instead of ensuring democracy, “direct participation” in fact represents precisely the opposite: the loss of the political power of people and its immersion into a shapeless collectivity.

Similar apparent interactivity is offered today by a number of artistic performances conceptualised in such a way that they carefully cultivate the possibility of eliminating the dividing line between the stage and spectators, creating the illusion that the actors and spectators, as in some magical trance, can transcend the border and exchange places by crossing the dividing line. In his critique of such an approach to interactivity, Jean Baudrillard points out the circularity and conversion of both of the sides which lose their roles and specific places. This circularity actually denotes the end of the political subject.

Insisting on difference is, therefore, no less important than the political program itself.


Sonja Grdina




[1Suely Rolnik, “The Twilight of the Victim: Creation Quits Its Pimp, to Rejoin Resistance,” Zehar, No. 51, 2003, p. 36.

[2Ibid, p. 35.


[4Ibid. p. 36




[8See Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004), originally published in Italian as Aperto. L’uomo e l’animale (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2002).

[9Cf Tomas Hammar, Democracy and the Nation State, Research and Ethnic Relations Series, (Aldershot, England: Dartmouth, 1990), quoted in Šefik Šeki Tatlic, “Post-Modal Reproduction of Power,” in: Marina Gržinic (ed.), Art-e-Fact: Strategies of Resistance, No. 3, 2004, published on line http://artefact.mi2.hr

[10Cf. Šefik Šeki Tatliæ, “Post-Modal Reproduction of Power,” in: Marina Gržinic (ed.), Art-e-Fact: Strategies of Resistance, No. 3, 2004, http://artefact.mi2.hr

[11Cf. Antonio Conti, “Politiche del linguaggio,” in: Insorgenze della communicazione, Posse, Manifestolibri, Rome, January 2005.

[12Cf. Paolo Virno, “Un movimento performativo,” in: Insorgenze della communicazione, Posse, Manifestolibri, Rome, January 2005.

[13Cf. Franco Berardi Bifo, “Interferenze media-attive,” in: Insorgenze della communicazione, Posse, Manifestolibri, Rim, January 2005.

[14Cf. Toni Negri, “Communicazione ed esercizio del comune,” in: Insorgenze della communicazione, Posse, Manifestolibri, Rome, January 2005.

[15Cf. Paolo Virno, Grammatica dela moltitudine. Per una analisi delle forme di vita contemporanea, Deriveapprodi, Rome, 2002, p. 41-42.

[16Cf. Ralo Mayer, Katharina Lampert and Moira Hille, “Example Celica, YOUTH HOSTEL, Metelkova, Ljubljana,” in: Marina Gržinic (ed.), The Future of Computers Arts, Maska and MKC, Ljubljana, Maribor, 2004.

[17Suely Rolnik, op. cit., p. 35.

[18Erased residents or izbrisani are a serious political issue in contemporary Slovenian history and politcs. Jim Fussell reports on line, on February 26, 2004, the following accurate description of the case: ťOn February 26, 1992, the newly independent state of Slovenia deleted the names of some 30,000 residents from the nation’s civil registries. The targeted population, which came to be known as izbrisani (erased residents) were not of Slovenian ancestry, but were so-called ‘new minorities’ including ethnic Serbs, ethnic Croats and ethnic Bosnian Muslims, ethnic Albanian Kosovars and ethnic Roma which the government sought to force out of the country. Twelve years later the Slovenian Government has still not yet acted to fully redress this massive violation of human rights. Critics of this radical action by the Slovenian government have sometimes characterized the mass erasure as soft genocide or administrative genocide. A more appropriate term is probably ‘administrative ethnic cleansing’or ‘civil death.’ In the case of Slovenia, the izbrisani were targeted for elimination solely on account of the non-Slovene groups into which they were born. The policy must especially be condemned because it was a partially successful policy, causing over one-third (12,000 out of 30,000) of the targeted population to leave Slovenia. When officials asked an izbrisani for his old Yugoslav passport the top right corner would be cut off, making the document useless and marking the bearer for further discrimination. The izbrisani (erased residents) were not forced out at gunpoint and their homes were not burned down as in Bosnia, nevertheless they lost their jobs, medical benefits and sometimes were deported for minor offenses. Ultranationalist politicians characterized the izbrisani as war criminals, swindlers and undesirables.Ť http://www.preventgenocide.org/europe/slovenia/

[19Šefik Šeki Tatlic, op. cit.


[21Jonathan L. Beller, “Numismatics of the Sensual, Calculus of the Image: The Pyrotechnics of Control,” Image [&] Narrative, web magazine on visual narration, No. 6, February 2003, http://www.imageandnarrative.be/mediumtheory/jonathanlbeller.htm; this author is mentioned by Tom Holert, see next note.

[22Cf. Tom Holert, “Mass-Media Acts: On Visual Programming of the Political Space: Photo-Op-Effects,” four texts published in Camera Austria, Graz, No. 88-91, 2004-2005.



[25Cf. Marina Gržinic, “This is what democracy looks like!, video by Oliver Ressler, 2002, Boygirl, video by Aurora Reinhard, 2002, Hostage: The Bachar Tapes, video by Walid Ra’ad, 2001 = This is what democracy looks like!, Video von Oliver Ressler, 2002, Boygirl, Video von Aurora Reinhard, 2002, Hostage: The Bachar Tapes, Video von Walid Ra’ad, 2001,” in, Barbara Könches (ed.), Peter Weibel (ed.) Bilder codes, Karlsruhe: Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, 2002, pp. 54-60. Cf. Marina Gržinic “Oblikovanje in spodbijanje (dokumentarnega) pomena v umetniškem delu,” Borec, No. 621–625, Ljubljana, 2005, pp. 318-330. This is what democracy looks like! (38 min, Austria, 2002, English-German) was awarded by ZKM, Karlsruhe at the International Media Art Award 2002. In conceptualising the work, Ressler also drew on other anti-globalisation demonstrations (in Seattle, Prague, Davos, Quebec and Gothenburg) and on his video about Italian activist groups – Disobbedienti (2002, with Dario Azzellini). In both videos the main emphasis is placed on the active participation of protesters and other activists, and on their narratives that are perceived as “unofficial” comments on the events, as opposed to the official comments communicated by the media and other “neutral” or “objective” representatives and public opinion makers.

[26In official comments, protesters and (left-wing) activists are frequently stereotypically depicted as chaotic violent persons, or as a (half)wild mob brandishing slogans, or similar. This depiction serves, among other things, as a justification for (brutal) police intervention, but above all it is used to systematically eliminate the essence of the violence perpetrated by the repressive bodies and of the symbolic violence of state and capital powers in general. Ressler hence exposed precisely these relationships of subordination in the context of public expression of opinion and with reference to the fundamental right of free speech, expression and association. One important fact is that the interviews were recorded several weeks later in order to ensure distance and deliberation and avoid momentary emotional states and responses.

[27Michel Foucault, “Body/Power,” in: C. Gordon (ed.), Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge, Harvester Press, Brighton, 1980, p. 57.

[28See Robert Pfaller, “Die philosophischen Irrtümer der Kunst” (an interview with Justin Hoffmann), Kunstforum International, No. 164, March - May 2003, p. 386, quoted in Tom Holert, op. cit.