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Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority

Posted on October 22nd, 2008 in Reviews of AK Books

Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority
Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland, eds.
319 pp.; AK Press, Oakland and Edinburgh, 2007

Reviewed by Alan W. Moore

The artist in capitalist society is necessarily a revolutionary. S/he is as well necessarily an entrepreneur. Between these two positions lies a wide gulf in understandings. The artist must strive to change society according to a vision, because s/he does not fit. Creativity is not an absolute good and value in this society, and the artist is absolutely committed to creativity. Still, the artist must survive, and so must do what that requires.

What is that? What is longed-for utopia and what is impinging reality? The divide between our dreams of a perfect world and the realities of our lives, between what is necessary and what is desired has shifted. The Wall is gone; new walls are a’building. The organizers of the Documenta 12 exhibition recently proffered the assertion, “Modernity is our antiquity.” In finding new coordinates for radical position-takings today, we are continuously picking through those ruins for stuff we can use.
Realizing the Impossible bespeaks an exciting upsurge of attention to a world of dynamic committed artistic practices, past and present. It is largely a book on contemporary art, concerned first with explicating artistic practice now and in the postmodern past.

Realizing begins with Christine Flores-Cozza’s interview with the late venerable Mexican-American artist Carlos Koyokuikatl Cortéz. Influenced by Rivera, Orozco and Posada, Cortéz’s stark woodcut graphic style grew out of the IWW milieu in Chicago, also home to a long-time Chicano/a community. Bill Nowlin interviews another strong-lined graphic artist, the Italian Flavio Costantini who portrays the historical actors of continental anarchism in shadowbox vignettes. Icky A interviews Clifford Harper, the English illustrator and “classic working class anarchist” who drew Class War Comix and the Utopian Visions series in the mid-1970s. These interviews comprise some of the most valuable parts of Realizing, primary documents that point to realms of hidden history.

A key group of essays in Realizing reach back to modernism. Patricia Leighten makes the broadest case for anarchist influence in the pre-World War I French avant garde. (She wrote Re-Ordering the Universe: Picasso and Anarchism 1897-1914, a key part of the social art history which revisioned classic modernism in the late 1980s.) In a chapter from her forthcoming book, she investigates the relationship between satirical cartoons and modernist abstraction, particularly the cubism of Juan Gris and Picasso. Like Antliff, she reads artists’ illustration work back into their oeuvres. Previous scholars followed the separations endemic to the period, during which each mode had its own salon. The new scholarly tack, influenced by the pressure of cultural studies, is now general (think Andy Warhol’s shoes). It was signaled as legit in 1990 with the Museum of Modern Art’s titanic “High & Low” exhibition.

Later in Realizing, Erika Biddle engages Dada, the privileged anarchist modernism, in a feminist critique. She discusses the women of the movement, Emmy Hennings, Sophie Taeuber, Hannah Hőch and Mina Loy, and gives vignette summaries of several others. Biddle rides a wave of recent scholarship on Dada women, which interrogates the movement for the light it sheds on the changing role of women and constructions of gender in the high Fordist period.

As a classic modern political movement violently suppressed from both right and left, anarchism’s relation to history is very often memorial. Nicolas Lampert’s story of the varied Chicago memorials to the 1886 Haymarket Square riots – most notable and incendiary among them the Police Monument – is a fascinating tangle. The essay is a valuable contribution to the literature of contest over public sculpture. Lampert discusses the competing monuments of the day – the injunctive bronze policeman in town and the graveside marker in the cemetery of the hanged anarchists. He then retails the history of actions artistic and incendiary around the memory of the event, and the political process that led to the current ambiguous memorial to “free speech.”

“El Grito del Diseño,” Dylan Miner’s piece on newspapers of the farmworkers’ movement, is exciting but curiously denatured. The author justifies the topic in theoretical and historical terms, then formalizes his objects. In my underground paper days, most design was done by sleep-deprived writers, and by volunteers off the street. Artists who wandered into the production room soon left, dismayed at rampant incompetence fully empowered. Chicano/a artists supported the workers’ movement with street, or field theater, silkscreened posters and murals, all important artistic achievements. Miner’s formalist project includes arguing that crooked type columns evidence rasquachismo (“stitching together,” a kind of arte povera), and that mixed typefaces express mestizaje (“miscegenation,” or hybridity). This is good new theory, yet the applications seems strained…

And it seems to slight more explicit significations. The El Grito masthead, with its 1950s wild western movie logo, and classic Zapata image enhanced by an M-16 blobbily magic-markered into his hands is rich. Reis Tijerina’s movement embraced armed struggle. This image announces it as historically justified, and as filmic spectacle. Miner discusses the complex political history of the Mexican-American working class movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s to set up links between early 20th century anarchists and el movimiento. (Carlos Cortéz figures here again.) Yet I longed for some analysis of the actual newspaper production process. An interview or two could yield helpful anecdotes. Even a careful examination of staff boxes would put some names into this historicized, theorized, and largely anonymized account.

Co-editor Erik Reuland’s interview with Gee Vaucher of the anarchist punk band Crass, far more than the Harper chat, opens a wide window on the English anarchist scene. Vaucher lived with Penny Rimbaud and others in the commune Dial House. She is a highly trained artist, conscious and connected. She describes her and Rimbaud’s contacts with NYC Fluxus artists, a gang of which expatriated to the UK after the bloody U.S. ’68. Vaucher’s work was always print-oriented – newspaper commissions, her own independent journals and books, and album art for the classic punk band Crass.

Erick Lyle’s report on the stencil art of Argentina is an exemplary work on the complex relation between street art born of political upheaval and its subsequent recuperation. During the economic crisis of late 2001, spray-painted stencil art was rampant in Buenos Aires, layered into “spontaneous murals” by anonymous artists. Stencilers used X-rays found in hospital trash, and were very economical with paint. During this extraordinary moment, protests, neighborhood assemblies and stencil street art were all tied together. Now protests in the street have become art in the museum, and street art has become a tourist attraction. Lyle deftly weaves in a political analysis of the Chavez-Kirchner rapprochement that paid off the IMF debt while debilitating the popular movement. He tells the story including chance encounters and late night meetings with stencillers in groups like Vomito Attack, BsAs Stencil, and Run Don’t Walk. Today stencil designs are networked online, and advertisers also use them. As Kyle’s conversations with Buenos Aires artists reveal admiration for commercial tactics of U.S. artists, he realizes that “the stencil was the aesthetic of a new participation that had long faded.” He details the assimilation into institutional and market art exhibitions in a fine work of “participant observer” art history.

Meredith Stern’s series of interviews for this book grew out of an oral history initiative. It is a close register of the cohort behind the contemporary upsurge of radical print-making in the U.S.. The artists consider the Black Panthers’ notions of revolution, gauging the effectiveness of one’s work, and whether or not they are part of an artistic movement. They speak of the economics of art – Realizing co-editor Josh MacPhee also runs JustSeeds, the online print cooperative sales outlet. Said Chris Stain, “I see myself as part of the self taught artist graffiti movement, made up largely of people who choose objects outside the house as their canvas.”

Roger Peet’s article about the Taring Padi group of artists in Indonesia who squatted an abandoned art school is an eye-opening international report, the fruit of a rapidly globalizing movement. The politically diverse Taring Padi made “art campaigns” around multiple social justice and ecological issues, producing matchbox covers and painting food stall tarpaulins in their drive to reach broad audiences.

Indonesia is a dangerous political environment for activists. Taring Padi’s squatted art school was once attacked by fundamentalists on motorcycles wielding clubs and swords. The “fundies” and local motorcycle gangs may have been egged on by the military: “It’s traditional for the government and the army to use fundamentalist groups to do their dirty work,” Peet writes, a colonial legacy from the Dutch who turned political differences into religious wars.

A survey of political art activities in Denmark is entitled “A Magical Land of Roving Santa Claus Armies, Pirated Energy Drinks and a Giant Squatted Urban Village.” Brett Bloom, a principal in the group Temporary Services, brings a mass of interesting historical and contemporary material into view. This is another instance of how the global justice movement, with its multinational constituencies of activists and interest in diverse spectacular tactics, has brought new attention to the political art and cultural work of years past.

Bloom is an engaging polemicist for what, in Lenin’s day would have been called the formalist and adventurist positions. For Bloom the collapse of state socialism also vitiated the political organizations which instrumentalize art, insisting that it be conservative in form and propagandistic in effect. “The fight for new forms of social reality,” he writes, “should more openly involve art and creative activities” that in themselves articulate new social formations or new world views. This is a brief for radical formalism, the old dream of the Constructivists squashed by Stalinist social realism. He also neatly inverts the infamous “TINA” formula (Margaret Thatcher’s remark that “there is no alternative” to global capitalism). For Bloom, the idea that there is no outside of capitalism this means: “There are no privileged places of resistance; every space can and should be contested.”

This account of radical Danish art begins with Palle Nielsen’s work in the 1960s building playgrounds for children, work he saw as directly related to political street demonstrations. This connection seems less mystifying if one considers CoBrA artists’ adulation of children’s creativity, and early Situationist ideas around play; the Danish artist Asger Jorn was centrally active in both groups. Bloom then retails the story of Christiania, the grandest of European squats, established in Copenhagen in 1969. The occupation action had its genesis at an art exhibition, the catalogue for which included proposals for remaking the abandoned barracks. Christiania became a self-constructed self-managed inventive municipality inside one of the west’s most expensive cities. Although it is a world tourist attraction, Christiania is presently under siege by a conservative city government and its developer allies.

The Solvognen theater group from Christiania undertook the spectacular Army of Santas action in 1974. The troupe dressed up and invaded stores to hand out gifts to children. Photos of policemen beating Santa Claus made papers across the country. The Solvognen action was preceded by King Mob’s legendary chaotic 1967 Christmas in London. Today the viral SantaCon parades continue the tradition in U.S. cities, although in a denatured (alcoholic) manner, without the edge of confrontation with consumerism.

The Danish Experimental Art School arose as a self-learning project by artists whose academies would not discuss conceptual art. This gave rise to the Canon Clubs, a group organized around the use of cheap Super-8 movie cameras. One artist from this group was selected for an important show of young Scandinavian artists in Oslo in 1970. He collectivized his presence at the biennial, resulting in a group tour and numerous actions in Oslo.

The better known group Superflex has recently used design strategies to combat corporate monopolies. The early work Copyshop was a storefront opened to “investigate the phenomena of copying.” Superflex’s “Guarana Power” drink project (2003) designed and produced a product with Brazilian farmers that allowed them to retain more of the profits that corporations appropriate from their commodity. The conceptual design group N55 concerned itself with “the production of daily life,” explicated in the online essay “Art and Reality.” Bloom concludes with the story of the Copenhagen Free University, a self-education project begun in London as the Info Centre study group. The CFU urge the ultimate in extra-curricular work: “Go where you live and establish your own university drawing on the knowledge in your networks.”

A central aim of Realizing is to draw together the activism of past and present. In “Conversation with Black Mask,” Iain McIntyre interviews Ben Morea and Dan Georgakas of the infamous mid-1960s Lower East Side action group. Black Mask were a group in the litorral between art and politics, distrusted by both artists and leftists. Their communiques were strident, their actions strange and potent. Black Mask devolved into the Family, which became known as the Motherfuckers. The recent strong emergence of the Motherfuckers as a historical subject is in large measure due to Ben Morea’s concern to inspire anarchists today with the ethic of active resistance. (The recent anthology Resistance: A Radical Political History of the Lower East Side edited by Clayton Patterson includes much more on MF.)

Dara Greenwald writes a straightforward account of the Videofreex, Catskills video activists who ran a pirate TV station in Lanesville, New York for five years in the 1970s. For several years the group not only analyzed and criticized mainstream media, they made their own and taught others how. They and other video groups became the documenters of the mass movements of the day. Among the dramatic tapes the group made was an interview with Fred Hampton just before his murder by Chicago police. Greenwald’s essay runs through the information and media theory behind the video movement contained in Radical Software (the journal is presently online), including Paul Ryan’s conception of “cybernetic guerrilla warfare” against the “perceptual imperialism” of broadcast television. Ryan and others developed ideas of the kinds of systems that would comprise a healthy “media ecology” based on anti-authoritarian ideology.

Carlos Fernandez’ article on Zapatista video and media work rolls the media emphasis forward and southwards. It is a dry but coherent explanation of the way this central movement advances its aims.

In the theory section of Realizing, David Graeber argues against the concept of the vanguard, the leading cadre of bourgeois intellectuals who guided 19th and 20th century revolutions in Europe. Graeber, an anthropologist, emphasizes the importance of indigenous societies in a networked global world. (He has just published a new volume called Possibilities.)

In his article on protest puppetry Morgan Andrews drives the whole route from postwar to post-911. In telling the story of the work of “puppetistas,” he begins with the fact that their work is now systematically targeted and destroyed by police. This repression is a tribute to the power of the imagery – it’s “state flattery.” Andrews historicizes the practice of radical puppetry back to the folk traditions of Europe which inspired the early career of Peter Schumann of Bread & Puppet Theatre fame. Schumann’s artistic environment in New York included the Happenings of the early ‘60s. Unlike those artists, however, his work was always political in intention, and the Bread & Puppet moved smoothly into a central position in the upsurging wave of guerrilla theater troupes opposing the Vietnam War.

Andrews discusses some of the many artists who worked under Schumann’s “cooperative hierarchy” in Glover, Vermont. Many went on to found puppet theaters in cities around the country, New York, Boston, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. The forum theater exercises of the Brazilian Augusto Boal inspired the puppeteers of Wise Fool, a troupe which played a key role in the anti-nuclear movement in western lands. The Zapatista movement of the early 1990s inspired David Solnit, and by 1996 artists choreographed the demonstration which confronted the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a pageant called the Festival of the Oppressed. Out of this experience came Art and Revolution, a viralized cultural activist group like Critical Mass. Puppetry was a key part of the dynamic new protest culture that came to public attention in Seattle in 1999. And drew police heat. Andrews details the chronology of increasing police harassment, infiltration, arrest of artists and destruction of puppetry. This is as handy an introduction to the subject of contemporary protest pageantry as I’ve seen, a brief for art driven by belief “in forms that speak louder than words.”

Kyle Harris’ text is less congenial to me. In his argument against shoddily produced “anarchist video,” he urges adoption of “classical narrative strategies” to build audiences accustomed to commercial media language. Better than that, it seems to me, is to try to identify the promising formal strains in the DIY work that is already being done. This classical Zhdanovianism, however, is followed in the book by MacPhee and Nato Thompson’s essay on the adventures of the Chicago Department of Space and Land Reclamation, a weekend project in the spring of 2001. The “disparate and bizarre actions” undertaken by this group – a giant trashball down the main shopping street, kiosks for free speech, “loiter” signs, and more – was solidly based in avant-garde principles. “Ambiguous aesthetic activity,” they write, “allows a language of communication that crosses multiple fields of identity and personal flavor.”

At the same time, the authors recognize that the personal connections within the project group were likely its most significant product. Open city or bourgeois delusion? Thompson is now a rising U.S. curator of contemporary art with roots in the “alter-globalization” movement. Can this primal dispute between propaganda and process be clarified? Art that looks out from a stage to an audience differs from work that extends the dialogic encounters of meeting and camaraderie.

Looking northward, Allan Antliff interviews Luis Jacob, a gay-identified Canadian artist involved with the Anarchist Free School in Toronto in the late 1990s. Jacob several times exhibited the minutes of organizing sessions for the school as an art gallery installation. Jacobs draws distinctions between artists who enact artist-run culture (as in exhibit spaces, magazines, etc.), punks doing DIY, and anarchists who enact an ethics of collective participation. “All join within the same society to form multiple dimensions of … a democratized culture.”

Jacob fuses his queer and his anarchist identifications, theorizing both together as sources of personal power. “To identify as queer…is to claim the space of not-normal as your source of personal power, rather than as the attempt to dispossess you of that very power. Queer is a defiance. It is fierce.” Anarchism, as a liberation struggle founded on joy, is its natural partner.

Anne Elizabeth Moore drops in a chapter on the “capitalistic nature of anti-corporate activism,” part of her new book Unmarketable. Moore’s text rehearses the lore of activist artists’ and copyright holders’ call and response to corporate branding and copyright law, that is, the practices of culture jamming, adbusting, subvertising and remixing. Noting that the venerable Reverend Billy regularly repeats the names of his corporate animi, she asks, “is culture jamming not worth the necessary reproduction of those aspects of our culture against which we revolt?”

Along with Kyle Harris, Moore rehearses an ancient dramaturgical argument: “Humor is not action.” Her example is David Letterman’s hoary gibes at his bosses General Electric. “Satire doesn’t unseat conventions; it reinforces them.” (The plays of Greek satirists were performed in the theater sacred to Dionysus – Drink up and laugh!) She discusses the necessary imbrication of media culture jamming and marketing. “Culture jamming dismantles the master’s house with the master’s tools, and then provides the master with blueprints for a better house and better tools.” Instead, Moore calls for “articulating the unacknowledged.”

Cindy Milstein weighs in with what seems like an afterword. She strives to synthesize various threads in the book, most particularly the long conflictual strain she calls critique vs. vision in radical art. She quotes German theater artist Bertolt Brecht’s famed aphorism that embraces both positions: “Art is not merely a mirror held up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Milstein inveighs against a “factory art” of activism, specifically the culture of puppetistas. I think this vogue for puppet-punching ignores the depth of this rich international strain of cultural production. Puppetry is material, not virtual; and it has a low threshold of entry (kids can do it), making it a gateway to a world of creative engagement. Milstein praises more sophisticated public performative work, like the United Victorian Workers march on a small town’s costumed Christmas stroll, and CampBaltimore’s local culture trailer which traveled the heart of devastated poor neighborhoods marked for redevelopment.

I am with Brecht. In building resistant creative culture, it’s all good. The project-based neo-conceptual political works warm my heart, just as Bread & Puppet did when I was young in California. Back then I didn’t understand the panel discussion presentation by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin of their film Letter to Jane. Now I get it. And I take my kid to see Bread & Puppet.

In their introduction, MacPhee and Reuland disavow vanguards because they have claimed authority. Still, someone has to put up the first poster. And the question remains, what is the relation of the activist creative world to the work of market and institutional artists who (however diffidently) claim the mantle of the avant garde? Today, making “exciting experiments in social reorganization” has become a genre in contemporary art, promulgated in art schools through recent formulations of relational and dialological aesthetics by the likes of Nicolas Bourriaud and Grant Kester. Just as oft-exhibited world artists consistently loot resistant subcultures for ideas and situations (e.g., Thomas Hirschhorn), so their formal work can profitably be assimilated into activist practice. Rather than rail against this appropriation, study and use its instances, which are institutionally validated. It is in this way that we can turn these alienated “succeeders” into an avant garde, and bind them back in to the political realm from which they continuously poach ideas. In this way radical democratic ideas, the smells of resistance and liberation, are continually advanced into the public realm.

Realizing the Impossible is a remarkable book. It contains just what I want to know about this century’s new instrumental art – utopian, resistant, effective strategies for the changes we want to see. The book is unlike others on art and politics, since it concerns itself principally with histories and issues more than with theories. There is just so much backstory that remains to be known and made known before we can effectively think the vital reconstructive new culture our times require.

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[Editors’ Note: To our knowledge, this review first appeared here.]