The LIMA Collection 2015: Activism
Within the historical context of modernist art, the notion of ‘activism’ tended to point towards a threshold beyond which artistic practice transformed into something else, a purely ‘political praxis.’ To become an activist was to leave behind the semi-autonomous sphere of modernist art in order to embrace another form of ‘autonomous’ agency: one that would act directly on everyday life, rather than continuing the ‘bourgeois myth’ of aesthetic freedom. In this sense, activism in the purest sense of the word is dissimilar to the category of ‘socially engaged art.’ Whereas socially engaged art was derided by most modernist critics for placing ‘subject matter’ above formal properties of the ‘medium,’ it is easy to see how this argument does not apply to say, Dziga Vertov’s Eleventh Year or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Clearly, to conceive of a political practice devoid of ‘aesthetics’ is as problematic as the claim the total independence of an artistic practice. What is far more interesting to consider is the space in-between art and politics; in other words, the space of ‘political aesthetics,’ which is not determined by any specific, political program, but filled with an anticipatory, even utopic desire to explore the potentiality of media. As Martha Rosler writes in her classic essay “Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment,” “not only a systemic but also a utopian critique was implicit in video’s early use, for the effort was not to enter the system but to transform every aspect of it and – legacy of the revolutionary avant-garde project – to redefine the system out of existence by merging art with social life and making audience and producer interchangeable.”
My screening explored this multiple space of ‘political aesthetics’ in relation to the video collection of LIMA, an archive that has its own specific history, thereby informing the particular paths I choose to follow. The screening started with brief recollection of one of video’s ‘utopian moments’ : the opening of Nam June Paik’s Global Groove (1973) which presented a futurist vision of a transnational media culture, bathing the screen in psychedelic color and submitting the spectator to an intense modulation of iridescent images, a throbbing, pulsating, electronic flow. “This is a glimpse,” the voice-over states, “of a video landscape of tomorrow” as a dancing couple gyrates before our eyes. Global Groove is vintage Paik in its projection of a bright future of global connectivity inspired by the techno-optimism of Marshall McLuhan, which is only slightly tempered by Paik’s critique of the one-sidedness of broadcast television. A second clip from Global Groove – “This is participation TV” – which gives instructions to the spectator to, for instance, “close your eyes” forms a slightly comic, if feeble attempt to ‘activate’ the passive viewer of television.
The ideal future of Global Groove would never come to pass, allowing us to reappraise the wish image that Paik attached to early video technology from our different vantage point in the present. Paik’s Global Groove attempted to transform the media system of broadcast television from within, yet there were other utopian models of video to draw upon in the 1960s and ‘70s. Rosler, for instance, pointed at a ‘systemic’ critique of video, which unlike Paik did not wish “to enter the system but to transform every aspect to it.” This alternative mode of video practice has become known as ‘Guerilla Television,’ a collective-based mode of video practice, which attempted to establish more democratic forms of production, distribution and reception (by means of ‘feedback’ mechanisms) in an attempt to render broadcast television obsolete. Guerilla Television was represented in the screening by an excerpt from a program (1972) of the video collective Global Village. In this clip, Yippie foreman, Abbie Hoffman, is interviewed – “our aim is to delegitimize in the people’s minds the institutions of the court” – before the tape ends upon an idyllic view of an alternative lifestyle in progress – a young couple making love in a deserted park.
Following this brief introductory section, with its dichotomy between the utopian models of ‘Global Groove’ and ‘Guerrilla Television,’ the program consisted of three sections (and an epilogue), which proposed various, intersecting genealogies of video, which emerged from, yet radically transformed the early politics of the medium.
The first part, dedicated to ‘pseudo-events, simulation and the re-make,’ contained an excerpt from the mock documentary Eternal Frame (1976) by the video collective Ant Farm. This artist group had its roots in the Guerilla TV movement. In Eternal Frame, Ant Farm takes the defining ‘media event’ of the 1960s, namely the assassination of President Kennedy, as its topic resurrecting the telegenic politician as an ‘Artist-President,’ who addresses his audience with the ironic observation that “I am, in reality, only another image on your screen.” Eternal Frame was followed by Neïl Beloufa’s Sans-titre (2010), which relates to a more contemporary form of media event: the terrorist attack. Beloufa interviewed a few witnesses of a terrorist raid on a villa near Algiers in the 1990s. The interviewees are represented by actors – usually filmed from the back – who wander through a paper replica of the villa like so many ghosts returning from the past. It is never clarified why the terrorists invaded the villa as the anecdotes constantly contradict each other.
The second part assembles two videos that present a kind of media commentary by means of montage and/or voice-over. The title of Klaus vom Bruch’s Der Geisterseher (1979) refers to the Gothic genre of the Schauerroman and, in particular, Schiller’s Der Geisterseher: Aus den Memoires des Grafen von O** (1787-89). Schiller’s novel diverges from the Enlightenment’s supreme faith in the faculty of reason, exhibiting a fascination with spiritualist séances, conjoining the phantasmatic images created during such sessions to an ineluctable web of political conspiracy. In turn, Klaus vom Bruch’s video compels us to compare the television set to the pre-cinematic contraption of the phantasmagoria, which induced shock and terror in its audience by seeming to materialize specters in their midst. Der Geisterseher, which bears the logo of “Alternativ Television” – a local television station vom Bruch established with Marcel Odenbach and Ulrike Rosenbach in Cologne – transfers the ghostly séance to the site of the television set. As a caption scrolls by at the bottom of the screen – “why men love technics so much” – the viewer is treated to the repeated image of a rising mushroom cloud. Whereas the media commentary of Der Geisterseher is developed with a minimum of words, Oliver Laric’s masterly Versions (2009) represents a more elaborate form of video essay which considers the subversion of the ‘authentic’ image by the very logic of digital production, rather than by any deliberate act of media critique. Presenting a set of astounding examples, Versions traces how bootlegs, copies and remixes increasingly usurp the status of the ‘original’ in the age of digital production, insisting that the copy need no longer be considered inferior to the original.
The third part of the screening returns, in part, to the strategy of Paik’s Global Groove which sought to infiltrate the media system. However, what David Garcia and Annie Wright, as well as the collective General Idea, propose is not an alternative mode of televisual programming, but the appropriation of an existing format of televisual participation, namely the game show. In David Garcia’s and Annie Wright’s Endgame (1982) the artists become the presenters of a quiz which the viewer can participate in at home. Between the several quiz items the artists comment on the way the mass media and tabloid journalism are part of our daily lives, uniting us all. In General Idea’s Shut the Fuck Up (1985) we are once again confronted with the question: What has become of the utopian dream of Global Groove? In a both hilarious and disconcerting fashion, Shut the Fuck Up parodies the media clichés of the artist that are constantly placed in circulation: “As the artist struggles to muffle the cacophony of the media in his larger context we hear these words rising above the din...” . General Idea’s video implies, however, that no single act of ‘media critique’ will ever succeed to jam the media signal, to drown out the noise that has become the medium’s true message.
To round out the program, I ended with Anouk de Clerq’s Oops wrong planet (2009). As the LIMA catalog states, the video displays “images of a forsaken nocturnal desert landscape.” The images “are depicted in austere, cool black-and-white, and yet, are not quite desolate or static: a subtle undulating movement is visible in the hills. Only sporadically the sloping sand dunes and the starry sky appear razor sharp – they are mainly clouded by white noise or interference to the image. The same noise is also audible: the soundtrack includes a parallel auditive landscape with a succession of clear notes, creaking sounds, snatches of telephone tones and crowds of people talking, as if an attempt at communication were taking place.” Oops wrong planet receives its name from the habit of autistic patients to refer to their condition as ‘wrong-planet syndrome.’ Withdrawing into their own world, white noise forms a safety buffer, with communication happening at a distance. Anouk de Clerq suggests that such an autistic reflex is triggered in us all by electronic media. The pixilated image of Oops wrong planet seems to offer a vista of a distant planet (and an other time?) that is interrupted by brief bursts of static as if the channel of communication is stretched to its limit. Yet this futuristic image also maintains a relation to an already obsolete past, imitating not only the grainy texture of early video, but also the slightly rounded corners of the analog television screen.
Eric de Bruyn