The Work of Art in the State of Exile
“…The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe.” Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
“The Moment of Terror is the Beginning of Life” Front 242
“Only Anthropophagy unites us. Socially. Economically.Philosophically.” Anthropophagite Manifesto 1928
Imagine you wake up one morning and your country has dissapeared. Your bed and house are the same and your neighborhood is almost the same, but your neighbors seem to have changed and the city is changing even as you get out of bed. On the news a man that you do not recognize is making an inaugural presidential speech, introducing a flag and national anthem you do not recognize and he is speaking about a country, yours, that you do not know. Very soon you will begin to change as well, for with this shift everything from your religion to your education, your understanding of your family and basically your entire value system will be influenced by the changes outside and effect you in ways you could not even begin to imagine last night. In less than a decade you will notice yourself speaking in a different accent and addressing the world in a different manner than your mother taught you and soon you will not even recognise yourself and the transformation will be complete.
This is not the scenario of a B-Grade science fiction film or some bad pulp fiction novel but the reality of so many countries in the world following the end of the cold war. The citizens of countries like South Africa, East Germany, USSR, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and so forth have all experienced, within living memory these very extreme changes and in many instances even the borders of their countries have been redesigned. Even the Surrealists for instance could not for instance imagine the concept and perversity of an official Yugoslavian pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennial officially presenting the work of artists from a country that no longer exists.
The shifting of value systems and migration of identity is a dominant theme of logic that is central to the work of Milica Tomic, an artist who was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia but who now lives in Belgrade, Serbia. In the work called “I Am Milica Tomic” (CHECK) the artist, wearing a fragile, sexy white dress spins around and around in circles, going nowhere, but constantly moving saying “I Am Milica Tomic, Je Suis Milica Tomic, Ich Bin Milica Tomic” and so forth in (X how many ?) languages. The endless repetition and constant reaffirmation of the artists name of course begs the question “Who is Milica Tomic ?” or perhaps more importantly “What is Milica Tomic ?” The clue to both questions lies hidden beneath and beside her words, for as she spins she is being lacerated with bloody wounds across her body, her face and through the fragile fabric the white dress is being stained and slashed. Its not clear who the wounds are being inflicted by, nor what manner of weapon is being used. In fact it is not even clear that they being are externally inflicted for they simply manifest as the figure of the artist continues spinning undisturbed by the violent mutilation, always composed, always herself.
The question of identity has long been debated ad nauseum and especially in the past decade and a half but I feel it worth noting that in the work of Milica Tomic the question of identity is neither passive nor is it external. The self is a fluid, visceral, shifting body that exists in and is defined by desire and passion as much as it is coded with fear and guilt. Our identities are forged in pain and guilt by our church and schools as much as in desire by television, advertising and the consumer programs of global corporate culture. When Tomic makes the obvious and most basic statement of defining the self “I Am Milica Tomic,” she is at the same time being lashed and tortured and I would add that it is from the inside in direct response to that most basic assertion of self. How can anybody who was born in a country that no longer exists and who is older by some decades than the country where they live declare so simply and innocently that they know who they are?
The end of the cold war has in the past years given rise to an entirely different global power structure where a single powerful country now asserts itself as the world’s policeman with an indiscriminate right to attack any country it feels threatened by either physically, emotionally or in the case of Iraq symbolically. At the same time the military might of the USA is eclipsed in scale, power and ambition by its own global capitalist machinery that encodes virtually every aspect of culture across the planet, from the choices we have of which clothes or shoes to wear or what appears on our television sets and cinema screens. Even when there appears to be an alternative indigenous choice available it is very often little more than a cheaper clone of the original, in the same style as much as in content
The process of regime change and construction of global consumers is related to the old colonial strategies inasmuch as they all seek the same end, that being the capture and domination of peoples minds, if not their imaginations. When you control a persons value system and their language you effectively control them. Resistance thus demands the same strategy be used and subversion is possible only from within the same structural framework. Exiting the system entirely would be too easy and does not change anything.
So-called Identity Art or Multi-Culturalism is understood today as something far more fragile and visceral than the more nationalistic or heroic conception of self 2 decades ago. Following the end of Apartheid and the Cold War the world seemed to all of a sudden wake up and discover that the world was round and far larger than Paris, London or New York had previously wanted to imagine. All of a sudden in the art world began to court artists from South America, Africa, the Balkans, Asia, from places that hitherto had not even been acknowledged on any map of the art system.
To this end Documenta 11 was extremely important in asserting an image of the world as being Round, of acknowledging that not only did artists hail from literally every corner of the globe but that it was possible to find very talented artists working in a number of different and often contradictory ways in far off distant lands. Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta was instrumental in locating art practices from the margins and fixing them within the Occidental imagination. This Documenta was, more than any other exhibition ever, represented the shift into the mainstream of so-called Identity art and multi-culturalsm and integrating artists from the margins.
The exhibition redefined the notion of how an international is composed and enlarged the concept of a geographic margin to be a force worthy of serious consideration. Within a classic colonial structure the margin was always judged according to its proximity to the centre. An artist from Africa or Asia was judged according to how much their work resembled or deviated from that being shown in London or Paris. If the difference was extreme and the canons were entirely mutually irreconcilable, as in traditional practices or folk art, then the work from the margin was respected solely within a cultural history context, if at all. When however the work began to resemble very closely the work from the centre then the artist from the margin was dismissed as being derivative or even a pathetic parody of the centre. It was, and perhaps still is, inconceivable that an artist from the margin could arrive at a similar conclusion, or even improve upon, the conclusion of an artist from the centre. Conversely when an artist from the centre, like Picasso, was influenced by an artist from the margins they have been hailed as a genius for being able to integrate foreign canons into their work.
In order to gain access to the worlds art centres and art systems, historically the artist from the margins had to move to London or Paris or New York and establish themselves as local artists, without a history or a background outside their new city or adopted history. With Documenta 11 this physical move was no longer necessary. In part this shift was possible as a direct result of the speed of international communication and the efficiency of trans-continental travel. It is worth noting that little more than 100 years ago the French countryside was considered a margin and even an artist like Courbet had to migrate to the centre, to Paris, in order to show his work. As important as such a shift is, Documenta still short changed artist from the margins for the admittance into its hallowed halls, and all that it stands for, remained purely within the terms of the old classic Colonial structure of the margin being measured by its proximity to the centre. Documenta 11 stood out for its conservative and classical conception of art and the fact that the artists from the margins were admitted only inasmuch as their work lacked any sense of contamination from the realities of where they come from. The works that did originate from the margins were present only as empty signs of a cold internationalism, where the expressions were very palatable, refined objects within the logic of High Pluralist (Post) Modernism with the cold detachment of a market driven commercial art gallery system. Visiting the show the visitor could be forgiven for thinking that every artist on the show, irrespective of where they had been born, all shared the same experiences, the same value system and each lived with the very same privileges as an artist who had been born and grew up in on the upper east side of Manhattan.
This is only true inasmuch as “reality” or lived experience can be confused with the “EMPTY V” of television. Most of the worlds inhabitants today, under the age of 40, grew up on the same cultural diet of American television. Milica Tomic for instance is from a generation of post-global artists who were all born in a moment when the mass media had already proliferated to the point where children just about everywhere on the planet grew up watching The Smurfs, Dallas, Star Trek, The Bold and the Beautiful and of course MTV. However when viewed outside of the USA these icons of American culture no longer function in the same terms as they do in America, for the viewer is as influenced by their experience outside the television set as much as within it.
Following the tragic events of 11 September 2001, the USA began to understand for the first time what for the rest of the world, and especially the Third World, is everyday knowledge. Beyond the images of the television screen lies another reality, a world of change, chaos, revolution, dissent, AIDS, jihads, ethnic cleansing, civil war and culture clashes. The reality of television is one that is impervious to class differences, social injustices or the sweat shops in the east that grease the global capitalist system so that the USA can continue to “Just Do It.” For the vast majority of the planet the events of 11 September made no difference for we had all grown up in the presence of so-called Terrorist attacks by amongst others Baader Meinhoff, Carlos the Jackal, E.T.A. the I.R.A. the A.N.C. the P.L.O. drug wars in Comumbia, civil wars in Nicaragua, Angola, Rwanda, Palestine,Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Eritrea, Zimbabwe and so forth. For most of the world, basic human rights such as healthcare, housing or education cannot be taken for granted and millions are even denied access to self representation or the right to live in their own country. For the majority of the planet the world is a complex space of contested histories and painful memories.
For Franz Fanon the concept of the “Third World” was one that existed between the “First World” of Capitalism and the “Second World” of Communism, without choosing either side. Whilst this cold war binary system of opposites has ceased to exist, Fanon’s notion of a non-aligned “Third World,” that takes the best from both, should not be so quickly abandoned. For the world’s developing countries, ravaged by war, poverty, drought, famine and AIDS the piped dreams of televised reality are often the only escape, where the daily American soap opera at least reveals another world where dreams could come true. In 1928, just 3 years after Fanon was born, the Brazilian Oswalde de Andrade wrote his famous “Manifeste Anthropophage” in which he declared that “The quotidian love and the capitalist modus vivendi. Anthropophagy. Absorption of the sacred enemy. To transform him into totem…….. What happens is not a sublimation of the sexual instinct. It is the thermometric scale of the anthropophagic instinct. From carnal, it becomes elective and creates friendship. Affectionate, love. Speculative, science. It deviates and transfers itself. We reach vilification. Low anthropophagy agglomerated in the sins of catechism-envy, usury, calumny, assassination. Plague of the so-called cultured and christianized peoples, it is against it that we are acting. Anthropophagi.”
For Andrade the only intelligent option available to the world’s colonised people was the ancient practice of cannibalism, whereby the best parts of body and culture of the coloniser is devoured, digested and assimilated. Naturally of course a great deal is also defecated in the process, from which further infections of culture may grow. This manner of inverting that which oppresses the self can be applied to todays colonising global culture industry perhaps even more aptly and with greater precision than it was in 1928. The processing of the garbage and cultural effluence of the culture industry is the modus operandi of the DJ and hacker where the mainstream is devoured, recycled and infected with the virus of everyday life.
In contrast with the First World glut of mass media and international culture industry, stands the Third world reality of LIVED EXPERIENCE, a space that exists outside the detached cloned internationalism of American soap operas and conspicuous consumption. They are 2 parallel worlds that exists alongside one another and for the most part are mutually irreconcilable. Both realities exist simultaneously for as the USA was bombing Belgrade in 1999 the children of the same city continued watching Disney on television.
The events of 11 September have been called “the dark side of globalisation” for the disenfranchised Third World managed to bring the worlds most powerful country to its needs using nothing more than a vision and a few inexpensive box cutters. Having spent a lifetime fighting for the most basic human rights, the right to self representation, the right to speak for one’s self, the right to one’s own country, the right to freedom the so-called Terrorist has little to lose and everything to gain.
Today’s generation of artists who grew up in the margins or the ghettos have learnt their lessons from these Freedom Fighters of the past decades, from the guerilla soldiers that brought them their freedom at any cost. The difference between a “Freedom Fighter” and “Terrorist” is defined very simply by whose side you are on, whether you have the ability to speak for yourself or not. A Terrorist can only exist when the individual is denied access to a voice, to self representation, to an equal and consequential seat at the United Nations, to Freedom. If denied the only option available is to resort to subversive means and guerilla tactics since economically the battle would be lost before the began. Disenfranchised and denied no other voice the most effective method for effecting change is through violence, implicit or explicit. In the instance of Nelson Mandela and Ghandi the war against their oppressors was won and thus they are no longer considered “Terrorists” or even ex-Terrorists but as liberators.
Imagine an artist who has been influenced by the strategies of the freedom fighter, the passion of the terrorist, the Realism of lived experience, the perversity and free expression of Surrealism, the politics of the Realists, the eye for details of the Hyper-Realists, the experience of the ghetto, the pain of being disenfranchised and thus is borne the TerroRealist. They are united by what divides them more than anything else. They are united only inasmuch as they share a common disillusionment with the promise of the grand narratives of Democracy, Nation, Equality, God, Truth, Art, Justice and even History. More often than not, with some exceptions, these artists were either born into or currently live in a so-called Third World context where access to the control centres of power is limited. Within their work hides an intrinsic mistrust of power whether it be covertly in the form of language or history or more overtly in the form of a literal collapse of power and its structures. This violence, whether it is implicit or at times very much explicit, can be understood in terms of Fanon or Malcolm X’s belief that violence is the only way to challenge power and enforce change, but I would argue that the violence functions in a far more spiritual sense, as a purifying force or energy for their exists beneath the violence a deep sense of hope and the dream of a better world for all. Following Plato’s conception of the artist the Terrorealist is dangerous to society and lives alongside thieves, immigrants, refugees, outcasts and is themselves living in a state of exile, as artists as much as their work.
TerroRealism is not an intellectual position but a lived experience through which reality and real life infects the image, contaminating culture anthropophagically. The artists knowledge and experience of reality is consciously dragged into the context of art and where, in the presence of the work of art, neither the viewer, nor the work, is either neutral or innocent. The viewer by virtue of their presence within the art system is defined in terms of his or her class position and the art system is complicit for the luxury of the white cube is built upon the backs of the sweat shops in Asia and the Oil Wars in the Middle East. This voice of dissent cannot easily be silenced or assimilated as fashion for the dirt and noise of their contamination is not the cold intellectualism of the Third World imprisoned in Documenta 11 but a visceral, fluid, chaotic, dangerous world of vivid raw experience. This is not the silent native who has learnt how to walk and talk and dress like his master in order to win a little respect but who in the process loses all self respect and abandons even his own family.
The strategies used in this inversion of power are gleamed from the streets, bars, riots, toilets, brothels, prison cells and gambling halls. The argot of the street, the stench of sweaty bodies, jokes scribbled on the backs of toilets doors, pornography, the howl of two men in a bar on a Friday night all provide the clues to understanding the human being. In stark contrast with the cool aesthetic of politically correct posturing the TerroRealist subverts power of every kind by confronting it with contradiction, violence, danger, sex, dirt, humour and the unexpected.
For the TerroRealist the work of art is as physical and as consequential as the human body and equally fragile and vulnerable. This body is not the heroic body that survives of the Feminists or the 70’s Body Art, but the fragile body of Santiago Siera’s indigents who will bear the violent scarring of the tattoo from the exhibition until they die or the bloody wounds of Milica Tomic who is lashed in anger every time she asserts her self to be “Milica Tomic.” The right to simply state your name, to exist in the world as a human being, the right to a sense of self in freedom is born in pain and blood, with wounds and scars that are both physical and emotional.
The artists whose work can be understood within such a framework share a common sense of a loss of faith in the notion of a national identity for all either live in countries that no longer exist (like Yugoslavia, USSR or East Germany) or else live in a state of exile in Third World countries like Mexico or Senegal or are disenfranchised within their own country of birth like Northern Ireland or Palestine. The concept of exile is implicit in the TerroRealist work of art for the Institution of Art could be considered to be the exile of Reality. This displacement of lived experience and the purging of consequences from the art context makes it fertile ground for attack and hijacking. Very often works of art produced within such contexts exhibit a discomfort that may be either physical, moral or even emotional, that is a direct result of a clash of different lived experiences. The work of Art is always understood to be political and where every object, image or even colour is coded both culturally as much as it is in terms of class and race. This discomfort is a strategy that demands of, or incites within the viewer the need to assume a position in relation to the work of art. Unlike the grand narrative political art of the past the position demanded is not that of Cold War rhetoric or grand propagandistic statements but an intimate understanding of the daily politics of being alive. The decision to use a condom or not when having sex with a stranger in a world of AIDS is a political act with consequences, as is the decision on whether to drink and drive, or even to cross the road or not. The work of art thus functions in terms of a Relational Ethics whereby neither the viewer, nor the object, is being judged but the situation at least demands an acknowledgement of the complexity of the context. The work functions best within an ambiguity wherein the viewer must determine for themselves their own moral and aesthetic position and it is understood that the artist is as culpable as the viewer, but their guilt need not necessarily be the same since they do not share the same background, race or culture. We are all equal participants in the construction of contemporary art ethics and the work of art becomes political through the activation of a micro-politics or the Revolution of Everyday Life where every decision and every object is coded in terms of its relation to the power structures required to create a leisure space where the minimal art object can function at its reductive best.
The TerroRealist work of art exists within the space of a moral ambiguity, that simultaneously defines the identity as much as the world of the producer. This moral ambiguity is a weapon against easy assimilation. Since its clear that the value system of the ghetto and the white cube are mutually irreconcilable what would the consequences be of conflating the 2 into a single action or object ? The moral distance between the 2 is transformed into a working space where the artist functions as a interlocutor or a trickster being a simultaneous presence in both, living within the border and logic of order and chaos.
Whilst the art system has in the past decade actively sought out artists from the margins, few critics or curators seemed able to acknowledge or understand that the extreme differences in experience of the world and of everyday reality would intrinsically affect the way art is understood and produced. Perhaps the most famous examples of such culture clashes are the Russian artists Oleg Kulig and Alexander Brener. Whilst their performances and acts of direct aggression towards their audience may have seemed like biting the hand that feeds them to many in the refined European or American art system, the same acts would be understood entirely differently and endlessly debated and respected by intellectuals in contexts closer to the lived experiences of the 2 Russians. The rise of the TerroRealist phenomenon is as much connected to the nature of global politics and its imbalances of power and wealth as it is an art historical, highly coded precise response to the stalemate of Multi-Cultural Pluralist (Post) Modernism.
For the Yugoslav Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale Milica Tomic will attach 400 flashbulbs to the façade of the building, set to strobe at regular intervals. These flashes at once dematerialise the surface of the building, reducing the fascist architecture to a fading memory of a non-existent country. The architecture is scarred as is the retina of the viewers eye. There is a moral question of the danger such a work could inflict upon a viewer suffering from epilepsy or the shock it could inflict upon a pregnant mothers, dangers that are all as socially coded as they are locked into the privileged space of a privileged class. The object of the building that was fixed in terms of memory and in terms of history, suddenly ceases to exist in the physical world and is transformed into a scar against the back of the viewers retina, a space very close to memory. How many times has this same building been looked at by the same viewer at previous Venice Biennales without the context and history being considered. Being placed upon the façade the flashes exist within the space of the border for Yugoslav Pavilion stands as an embassy alongside the cultural embassies of all the other participating countries.
The Venice Biennale was established more than a century ago, in the golden age of Colonialism and all the prejudices and arrogance of that system are inscribed within the structure of the event to this very day. All the borders and Nationalisms of the real world are replicated within the event. The pavilions were constructed according to the same principles of power as it existed within the colonial European imagination at the time. The very same privileged hierarchies of Nation, Class, Art, Democracy, Freedom and Equality were present and replicated within the structure but only inasmuch as they reinforced the composition of power within Europe. Every nation that was invited to participate was considered equal, but most importantly those who were not invited did not exist and therefor the question of equality disappeared. To this day its an ominous omission for instance that from the entire African continent there are only 2 official pavilions, from South America only 4 official pavilions, from Asia there are only 6 pavilions as compared with more than 20 from central Europe. The disintegration of the Yugoslavian pavilion both in terms of the interjection of the strobe lights and the literal disintegration of the country formerly known as Yugoslavia into “Serbia & Montenegro,” illustrates the fragility of such hierarchies, of the perversity of nationalism.
The movement into the mainstream of the TerroRealist may be considered by many of its detractors as a selling out or a compromise. Such criticisms are still born for they once again favour anything produced in Manhattan, Paris or London to anything produced anywhere else on the planet. The TerroRealist work of art finds its way into the art museums and art galleries and biennales today through the same logic as HipHop artists, DJs or even Walter van Beirendonck’s “Aestheticterrorists” fashion label. There is a natural affinity between the punk underground of music and fashion and disenfranchised or the hird World. The TerroRealist work of art is a historical phenomenon that cannot be denied as artists from the margins begin to assert themselves on a global level, having little in common other than their economic and cultural isolation. I am certain that most of the artists whom I consider to be TerroRealists would reject this my own attempt at creating a logic of their production for that resistance to assimilation and to any nationalism of any sort is their strength.
TerroRealism is the response of artists connected historically to the Realist and Surrealist Avant Gardes, but who at the same time are responding to the world they live in. As such it is a reanimation of the reasons why Courbet went to jail and died in exile. Their work embodies a post 11 September Realism that has the very same reasons for existing as the attack on the World Trade Centre. Being courted by the art system is an attempt to defuse the energy and subvert the strategy by transforming it into just another fashion.