Danish Art Book, 2008

How to activate in each situation the political potential inherent in artistic activity: that is, its power to embody the mutations of the sensible, and thereby contribute to reconfiguring the shape of the world?
  Suely Rolnik*


This paper follows a psychoanalytic approach in order to investigate the imaginary and political in the curatorial field in contemporary art for the simple reason that if art is about changing perspectives, I would prefer to reflect on the shift in my own perspective within the last three years instead of writing a more theoretical piece. I would like to reflect on how the focus of my interest has graduated from straightforwardly political works to more fictive works relating specifically to the imaginary. Besides, from the start, I have to admit I am old-fashioned in terms of believing in meticulously curated exhibitions with a rigorous intellectual impulse, in taking a strong curatorial position as opposed to an open-end exhibition format. Moreover, elaborating an individual view, in this case the view of a curator, is still vital for me.  

a forest and a tree
I curated the exhibition a forest and a tree in 2005 and spent the year beforehand working on it. The included works took place in different parts of the world such as Pristine, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Ljubljana and Texas. They were related to the artists’ own experiences about some particular situations—geographical or ethnical—but they insisted that each is related to some universal human conditions such as Emily Jacir’s from Texas with Love. In this work, Jacir filmed herself driving for an hour listening to a soundtrack. The motive behind the artist’s action was to ask a simple question to fifty-one people among her family, her friends and her acquaintances who live in Palestine: which songs would they want to hear if they had the opportunity to drive non-stop for an hour. (In Palestine, it is not possible to drive for an hour because of the Israeli checkpoints.) The artist compiled their suggestions and created a soundtrack to listen to when she drove. The action of driving freely, a small gesture that we take for granted in our lives, can mean the sign of freedom for the people living in a different land. Jacir’s work lays bare the naturalness of driving and the irrationality of its banishment. By focusing on a right that should be shared by everyone, from Texas with love conveys the idea of the right to have rights (The idea of a right to have rights is discussed in Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 296). No matter what gender, nation or religion, we can share the experiences in her artwork that calls for freedom. The work enabled one to move beyond the particular to a wider analysis.

The exhibition was supplemented by an in-depth thesis where I explored some concepts from political philosophy such as the particular and universal in the context of the selected artworks. Since the 1980s identity politics had been foregrounding the concepts of difference and the particular by recourse to post-colonial theory. The thesis argued that concentrating solely on the particular (in other words on the trees) restricted seeing the connections and equivalences between situations (in other words the forest). Moreover, in the United States identity politics was the way to read the works of non-Western artists, even in the 2005. The task I therefore set myself was to challenge this position and imagine different readings in relation to the works of mostly, but not exclusively non-Western artists.

Instead of presenting these works solely in their particularity, the challenge was finding a way to make explicit for the audience the connections between these works while being respectful of their particularity. At that point, the ideas of political philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe came to my attention. Their concept of radical universalism consisted of the universal as well as the particular and their method was a way to examine modern ideas with postmodern criticism. The concept of radical universalism therefore penetrated the analysis of the works and allowed me to highlight the equivalency of experiences rather than seeing things solely happening in distant places. Subsequently, I had the chance to take the exhibition to Vienna, Austria, which was something I had aimed for, due to the potential for attracting a diversity of responses and criticism. In Europe, the exhibition was quite positively received but the contextualization/theoretical framework seemed heavy-handed.

Working on a forest and a tree for a year allowed me the opportunity for self-assessment. I reflected on my interest in artworks which have definite and head-on political leanings. The appeal of artworks that use either documentary material or take a head-on political approach was related to my interest in works that tend to deal exclusively with reality. It also had to do with the differing proportion of the political to the personal where I was raised. According to Frederick Jameson, the political and poetic have gone through a radical split in the so-called Western world as a result of which political commitment has been re-contained, psychologized and subjectivized (Frederick Jameson ‘The Third World Intellectual in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,’ Social Text, No. 15 (Autumn 1986) 69). Yet elsewhere, as Jameson points out, and for a variety of reasons, even if a work seems private and invested with libidinal dynamic, it relates unavoidably to a political dimension. Psychology and libidinal investment are therefore to be read primarily in political and social terms. Even though Jameson’s observation helped me assess my relationship with particular artworks per se, I believe it is only half the story.

Art is social in the sense that it has its roots in a given society and even despite itself must relate in some way to the prevailing conditions, or to their negation (Situationist International, “Response to a Questionnaire from the Center for Socio-Experimental Art” in Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader, ed. Will Bradley and Charles Esche (London: Tate Publishing, 2007) 126). However, art is also the form, which allows things to be perceived differently from how they are usually imagined in normal life. It can reflect on what may have been in relation to what has been (Homi Bhabha, Based on his lecture at the Becoming Dutch Seminar, November 17, 2007), on the fictions between what is seen and what is said and what is done and what can be done (Jacques Rancière,The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2000) 63). Works of art may aim not only to reveal the most palpable and visible political aspects, but also the more subtle and invisible ones to delineate the shape of the present with economy of means, minimum gestures and small signs. Art is also about changing perspectives. Therefore, the imaginary is the most vital element within the arts not because it can offer utopian conclusions but because it might open different perspectives to people. I would like here to quote Nietzsche when he states: “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective knowing; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our concept of this thing, our objectivity, be.”

On the other hand, dissatisfaction with the conventional view of reality today – meaning, for instance, the mass media’s daily barrage of ‘reality’, of information about tragedy, disaster, human rights violations – made me reflect on the position of art and the artist. It also encouraged me to reassess the relevance/irrelevance of information in the arts. How can art distance itself from the production of images and information? According to Walter Benjamin, the distinction between information and story/fiction is that information comes to us having already been shot through with explanation (Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov” in Illuminations (London: Schocken, 1969)). Information works for its own profit, which depends on oblivion of everything else clearing the way for the naked truth of the present (Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2000) 40.). People are thus kept in the present only. Reflecting on these issues coincided with my interest in psychoanalytic theory and this interest changed/shaped my approach in a different way.

I am certainly looking at the picture but I myself am in the picture
My modified perspective is traceable in the exhibition I am certainly looking at the picture but I myself am in the picture. As the title suggests, the core idea was that one always should include him/herself in every criticism s/he is raising. In fact, the concept was born out of a video work by Mark Raidpere 10 Men (2003), in which he foregrounds the importance of projection by asking 10 prisoners to introduce themselves to the camera and project how they wish to be perceived in terms of persona. By utilizing projection as a means of transporting the spectator into the men’s imaginary world, 10 Men encouraged one to think about the capacity of projection to function as an entry into what we are capable of envisioning, dreaming, perceiving and transmitting and how projection shapes the way we relate to the world we live in.

This work inspired me to reflect on psychological projection. The more I reflected the more I realized how much projection penetrated our lives without us realizing it, and the more I connected it to my discomfort with some sort of criticism. The following paragraph is a quotation from the proposal: “In recent years, critical discussion of the contemporary world, of contemporary politics and society has conspicuously lacked depth. This applies as much to academia as it does to the media. Superficiality signifies a lack of thought from within. Reactions tend to be based less on a deeper critique of the system than on shallow attacks of a personal nature. Serious thought is substituted for the easier alternative of ‘scapegoat-ing’, of blaming others for the grievances of the world. Scapegoat-ing itself presents an ever greater dilemma because it tends to obscure basic questions such as the role and responsibility of the individual in today’s society. The mere fact that this shallow criticism leaves the structures of power intact suggests that something is wrong. Criticism of the status quo, of the duplicity and self-interest of those responsible for it may be justifiable, but to exclude oneself from this schema is hypocrisy.”

The title of the exhibition, a quotation from Lacan, aimed to encourage awareness of the responsibility of the individual in the viewer. Mapping projection in the threshold between the unconscious and conscious is believed to be constructive by virtue of reinforcing the inclusion of oneself in the picture. Only by starting from the personal—in this case not only by reflecting on the crucial role of projection in our everyday lives, but also by reminding ourselves of its reciprocal nature—can we draw possible associations between the specific and the universal. Projection, a specifically personal act that is shared by the entire human race, is an act that can encourage critical engagement by highlighting the everyday responsibilities of the individual and promoting a broader vision once responsibility is assumed. Unless projection is considered in this way, it is destined to remain eternally one-sided.

Another aspect of the process of the exhibition was also very formative for me, namely that   the concept was born out of a work of art rather than being an illustration of the idea of the curator. The vital task of the curator which is not to overshadow the artworks by using them solely as illustrations of his/her thoughts/ideas was made explicit by the organic process of I am certainly looking at the picture but I myself am in the picture. Furthermore, what differentiated the latter exhibition from the former was its loose connection with the political.

Immediately after I am certainly looking at the picture but I myself am in the picture, I co-curated nightcomers, the night program of the 10th Istanbul Biennial. It consisted of video screenings in various parts of Istanbul for the whole duration of the Biennial. The concept of the nightcomers came historically from dazibao, a radically democratic form of street poster hung illegally within the public space during the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a means of protest. With the nightcomers project, we tried to appropriate the initial premise of this political act into the sphere of arts while at the same time modifying it. The modification was to include the process of selection, which dazibao did not have.

The way nightcomers interrelated with I am certainly looking at the picture but I myself am in the picture was in bringing theory into practice, in learning to put yourself into the picture as a curator. First of all, nightcomers was primarily about anonymity. Although most contemporary art is produced collectively, we have a tendency to believe in the individual creators. In contrast, nightcomers sought to play up the aspect of anonymity rather than promoting individual works and artists; it gave visibility to the works while rendering them anonymous. Secondly, nightcomers took place at public sites in Istanbul that are outside the traditional confines of art in physical and intellectual terms, and it tried to engage an audience that is not necessarily within the contemporary art circuit. However, simply because a work is out there does not make it necessarily public. This project raised a lot of questions at least for me about how to make things public, how to relate to the public and which forms are still capable of rendering things visible. Since the aim of the project is to integrate art more directly into the realm of the social, I believe that matters of concern exist only if the affected groups circle them as such by making them visible and perceptible in the public sphere (Simon Schaffer, “Public Experiments’ in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ed. Latour, Bruno and Weibel, Peter (Cambridge, Massachussets: The MIT Press) 302). Thirdly, it allowed examining how art serves towards legitimating and normalizing existing power relationships. The most apparent analogy between politics and art seemed to me that both encompass the hierarchy of inclusion and exclusion. Art especially legitimates this power relationship in the selection process. Even if our aim for nightcomers was to be as inclusive as possible, the ultimate challenge would have been to stick with the concept of dazibao by showing every work that was sent to us and thus ironically, to reject the power of the curator.

Let’s Disengage
The process of self-assessment during and after a forest and a tree coincided with a visit to the 4th Berlin Biennial, Of Mice and Men. Out of a slew of work I was struck by one exhibit in particular: a video by Nathalie Djurberg Tiger Licking Girl’s Butt (2004), and it stayed with me for a long time. For the first time, her handcrafted clay puppets, which are animated by a simple stop-motion technique touched me more than most of the documentary pieces that I have ever seen. This experience made me reflect on questions driven by a desire for self-examination such as: What is the relevancy of fiction within the socially and politically engaged realm? Why can fiction be imperative in terms of empowering politically and socially inclined works? Is the creation of a fictional world escapism or can it be politically and socially engaged in its own way? Are fiction and reality mutually exclusive? These reflections led me to another exhibition project Let’s Disengage. This project was a crossroads since I had never fully considered the potentialities of fiction beforehand. Seeing Djurberg’s video coincided with my interest in Jacques Rancière and his statement, “The real must be fictionalized in order to be thought.” I was encouraged to scrutinize the potential of fictional works as a tool for critiquing social and political life without necessary recourse to head-on political lexis.  

Rancière further claims that the world is divided between those who can and who cannot afford the luxury of playing with words and images, since the distribution of genres - the division between the freedom of fiction and reality of the news - is always already a distribution of capacities and possibilities (Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2000) 57). In other words, it is a question of images and power and who has the access and who doesn’t. So what would be the advantages of the epic/fiction form in relation to political and social issues? To the extent that fiction disrupts the relationship between the visible, sayable and thinkable without necessarily claiming that, the work becomes political (Ibid., 63). If fiction allows the spectator, at least, to imagine more and other lives than his/her own then we resort to fiction in order to expand the moment. Fiction reflects on what may have been in relation to what has been and provides an opportunity to break with the common belief that there is only one reality, one space, one time (Jacques Rancière, “Regime Change: Jacques Rancière and Contemporary Art” Artforum International Magazine (March 2007) 255.). Fiction is not only a way to unite the existent and the imaginable but by drawing the audience into an imaginative universe, it allows them the experience of seeing from multiple perspectives. While eschewing explanation, fiction allows the spectator to interpret and make sense of the story.

A common criticism of fictional works seen through the blatantly political and social realm, which I shared before, is that they are disengaged from the harsh realities of the world, that they steer the audience away from reality. In a novel, for example, you may forget your identity or exchange it temporarily. That can be seen as escapism, as forgetting yourself. However, working on the proposal made me realize the conflict inherent in regarding these works as disengaged by asking: engage in what, disengage from what? “An artist can be committed but what does it mean to say that the art work is committed? Commitment is not a category of art.” (Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2000) 60.). Understanding the fictional space that the artists set up for critical play as something other than a retreat from reality makes a different approach possible. Rather than viewing fiction simply as a form of disengagement, we grasp instead what it enables the spectator to see and how it can help change the way we comprehend the world.

All in all, in my experience, after theory turns into practice, the fundamental issue becomes exploring the possibility of maintaining spaces of play; discovering how to produce forms for the presentation of objects and the organization of spaces that defy expectations. In this context, humor and fiction could be two of many means used to establish possibilities for allowing the spectator space to produce his/her own interpretation possibility and for  reactivating political power. The fiction as opposed to conceptual thought, involves evoking or telling oneself the multiple stories of a situation from the plurality of conflicting perspectives that constitute it (Lisa Disch, “More Truth Than Fact: Storytelling as Critical Understanding in the Writings of Hannah Arendt”, Political Theory Vol. 21 No.4 (Nov.1993) 665-694.). I, now, believe that only by employing or reversing perspectives and judgments is one able to see and imagine the world differently and therefore my future projects will foreground the productive potential of the fictional works as a tool for critiquing social and political life without necessary recourse to head-on political lexis.