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Towards a Conceptual Militancy

Towards a Conceptual Militancy

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Towards a Conceptual Militancy

133 pagine
2 ore
May 27, 2016


Towards a Conceptual Militancy is aimed at the interested art-viewing public, artists, the politically disillusioned, and readers of both European Philosophy, particularly of Speculative Realism/OOP, and Accelerationism. This book calls on the artist to mount a defence of subjective freedom in opposition to the twin objectifying factors of Science and Capital, personified by growing surveillance technology. Presenting the artistic declaration of freedom as exemplary of how the subject might circumvent its objectification, Towards a Conceptual Militancy brings art back into the social sphere following decades of cultural commodification.
May 27, 2016

Informazioni sull'autore

Mike Watson holds a PhD in Philosophy from Goldsmiths College. He lives and works in Rome where he is a critic, theorist and curator.

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Anteprima del libro

Towards a Conceptual Militancy - Mike Watson



Despite recent widespread opposition to capital across the Western world, we could be forgiven for thinking that we are doomed to serfdom at the hands of an uncaring and unanswerable system that is fast developing in tandem with an ever more advanced network of surveillance. It is perhaps due to the absolutely immutable nature of capital that political sentiment has at points migrated into the realm of art. Whilst, on the one hand, arthas become more politicised since the economic crisis, on the other hand protest has at points taken on the characteristics of performance art. Indeed, there is something in the abstraction of poetry, or of art in general, that can resist the dry and ostensibly rationalist auspices of finance capital. This is not because art stands outside society, or because it has some intrinsic properties that might prove exemplary of a better way of life. Art is as complicit with capital as any other realm of society, as can be seen in an art market increasingly dedicated to investment. Indeed art objects, in their inherent lack of a use value, have little other than their investment value to offer a world dedicated to profit.

Yet it is precisely in this uselessness that art’s political calling resides. In a senseless world led by a runaway financial machine in which political and intellectual opposition is so far embedded as to make critique impossible, the uselessness of art offers a refuge.

There is a freedom to be found in art’s abstractions, something liberating about poetry. Further, without standing fully outside of the capitalist world, art operates as a liberated space within capitalism as it only holds a fictional value. In this way art can provide, if not a bulwark, then a refuge from the world we want to change, allowing us to declare things as somehow other than they really are.

If nothing else works, at least art might, and when it invariably doesn’t, we can at least take comfort in the fact that we never really expected it to, and then try again. Many will find this hypothesis unconvincing, but for now this ‘trying’ is the best antidote some have found to the madness of an increasingly controlled and capitalised world. For now any more lofty assertions as to art’s political capacity risk giving a false hope. Though it is in the serious, diligent and continued application of art to political ends, such as in the work of Tania Bruguera, Oliver Ressler, Mark McGowan (aka the ‘artist taxi driver’), Fiamma Montezemolo, the occupied spaces of Teatro Valle, MACAO, SaLE Docks and the Isola Art Center, that social breakthroughs may be made. These latter spaces, situated across Italy in Rome, Milan and Venice, have offered a unique political response from a cultural perspective, as will be discussed here in chapter four.

This book is principally an attempt to combine concerns at the degradation of the British social system – particularly in light of the dismantling of the welfare state and the ubiquity of surveillance – with positive insights gained through an observation of an emergent form of art activism that has transformed the alternative left in Italy via a commitment to ‘common ownership’ of the arts and culture.

Above all, it aims to bring forward the highly problematic link between art and leftist politics, highlighting what art can offer in terms of the reclaiming of individual subjectivity, which – it will be argued – is central to the formation of positive relations and, via them, communities adequate to the challenge of addressing the negative and controlling auspices of finance capital and other forms of domination.

Chapter one highlights the centrality of mimesis and illusion to art’s potential political capacity, whilst talking about the work of Tania Bruguera, Mark McGowan and Fiamma Montezemolo. Chapter two – addressed to the left – deals exclusively with a political malaise, setting out the rationale in art mimicking political processes. The similarity between art declarations and declarations of power forms the central premise of this book, as it is argued that the free self needs to be reclaimed spontaneously and in the moment, so that community can be declared. This runs contrary to the vision of temporality embodied both by communism and neoliberalism, in which freedom (political or economic) is constantly deferred. This is elaborated upon in chapter three via an examination of democracy and subjectivity approached through the work of Oliver Ressler. Chapter four addresses the role of the state and education, arguing for an acknowledgment of the illusory basis of political power. This is expanded in chapter five, where concrete examples of arts activism are discussed (including the above mentioned Teatro Valle, MACAO and the Isola Art Center). Finally, the sixth chapter defends the possibility of a political art even in spite of the marketisation of the contemporary art world.

Chapter One

Art as Mimesis of Political Mechanisms

With 50,000 people reportedly escorted to safety from the Mediterranean to the shores of Italy in the first six months of 2015, there is a coincident shift in demographics visible on the streets of Rome, the city I have made my home since 2008. This is just the figure for people who have taken that particular route. Many more are clearly entering Italy on a continuous basis via other coastlines and borders, desperate for work and financial stability: an estimated 150,000 illegal immigrants per year.

Year on year for the seven years that I have lived in Rome it has been apparent that illegal immigration is increasing exponentially, due in part to increasingly intolerable living conditions in Central and North Africa, and Syria. This manifests most visibly as an increase in homelessness emanating out from Termini, Rome’s central station, down towards Via Merulana and the Parco del Colle Oppio, situated on one of the famous seven hills upon which Rome was built. At times, small clusters of tents appear on pavements, grass verges and in parks and lay-bys. This phenomenon goes unreported in the local and national press, as does the often sudden disappearance of these small communities, who are presumably moved on and, in some cases, detained by the forces of law and order.

Some unfortunate immigrants find themselves processed in Rome’s Centre of Immigration and Expulsion (or CIE) situated in Ponte Galeria, a district on the city’s periphery, heading towards the beach at Ostia. Dubbed the Italian Guantánamo by its critics, Ponte Galeria CIE is privately run and said to maintain its cells and facilities in appalling sanitary conditions, according to the few journalists who have been allowed to enter. The poor circumstances would appear unjustifiable in light of the fact that the facilities are managed by GEPSA (Gestione Penitenziari E Servizi Ausiliari, or Management of Penitentiary and Auxiliary Services), which is itself a subsidiary of Cofely, an energy management company in turn controlled by Engie, a French multinational energy giant with an annual revenue of just under €75 billion. Whilst recent changes in the law have reduced the maximum period of detention in a CIE to 3 months, the conditions reportedly remain unbearable with insufficient supplies of basics such as soap and toilet paper. On the night of 4th- 5th July 2015 despair led to a revolt in which a group of male inmates burned mattresses and tried unsuccessfully to force open the gates of the detention complex.

From the safety and distance of the art world, it is hard to relate to the conditions experienced by Italy’s most impoverished inhabitants, who are invariably immigrants. One reason for this is a lack of representation among the immigrant population in cultural circles. Other than one or two relatively privileged ‘expats’, the art world in Italy is overwhelmingly comprised of natives from the middle and upper-classes. This, though, is surely no reason for art practitioners to ignore the problematic issues of immigration and racial identity in Italy or elsewhere, or indeed the myriad other problems that arise from globalisation, including growing migration amidst calls across Europe and the US for the increased patrolling of borders.

The issue of immigration is symbolic of the wider issues created by the gradual encroachment of capitalist forces on public or ‘common’ space. It is also indicative of the ways in which the demand for capital can strip an individual of their political subjectivity. Illegal immigrants have no political rights and, as such, their existence suggests that human rights in themselves are malleable, negotiable and insubstantial. The law is based on words, on proclamations that are made and are agreed upon, but can then be reneged upon. It will be here argued that this process – which involves the demarcation of space as much as the designation of political subjectivity – can be mimicked and exposed via politically engaged artistic practice, demonstrating that we all have a right to wield power.

Following upon a reinvigoration of political art practice that has occurred since the start of the worldwide economic crisis, Towards a Conceptual Militancy aims above all to highlight the tendency for socially engaged artists, activists and art-activist collectives to interpret concrete political and juridical practices within the artistic sphere, thereby demonstrating that we can all make creative and spontaneous political claims, both on an individual and collective level.

One of the strongest examples of this kind of practice can be seen in the work of the Cuban-born US-based artist Tania Bruguera, who ran the project Immigrant Movement International, from 2011 to 2015, in Queens, New York. During the project, Bruguera ran a flexible community centre that addressed the concerns of immigrants locally, soon finding that people would come looking for practical legal advice or help with their English, rather than looking solely to engage in artistic practice. In this respect Bruguera’s practice could be seen to highlight the need to fill the gap in social welfare and education, which has been left as the neoliberal global financial system hollows out the unprofitable realm of welfare and social provision. Further, offering social services as art also demonstrates that the jurisdiction of the state is not sacrosanct and that, as such, we are free to grow something up within the empty space created as governments abandon their social obligations.

In a world in which it is increasingly difficult to act politically, due to the firm hold that finance

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