Let art save democracy!


2006, Metahaven

Or, can relational art also subvert today’s imperative to re-stage non-capitalist social relations in this so-called post-utopian age?

Architects/philosophers Gideon Boie and Matthias Pauwels (BAVO) offer an exciting critique of art’s relationship to neoliberal policy. Both through examples and by in-depth analysis, the authors find that ‘the idea that art cannot but accept the ruling system in order to be of any social significance today, enables cultural forces to remain active in a capitalist reality they “theoretically” denounce. ‘ How to escape from this ‘interpassive’ deadlock? Pauwels and Boie argue for an art that radically forces to ‘choose sides’.

Introduction: tear down the house of people
The key question of the Museum of Conflict programme, based on a quote in the inaugural catalogue of MNAC by Nicolas Bourriaud, was: ‘Can art take over the location of power, being a symbol of openness and democracy?’ It is useful – if not essential – to take this question apart. The first phrase makes up a valuable question in its own right. The second phrase is not a question, but a blunt assumption that straightforwardly directs the reading of the question that precedes it. This reduction of argument is symptomatic of the role that is assigned to art in the current post-communist era, both in the West and the East. Art is thought to be able to occupy the empty place of power as emptiness and can as such safeguard society from regressing into the unbearable closures of totalitarian regimes – of which the House of People in Bucharest is the epitome. The concept of art as symbol of openness is obviously problematic. While art is supposed to represent openness and democracy, it evokes at the same time their opposites: the traumatic ‘inhumane’ experience of closure.

Jacques Rancière identified both opposite aesthetical configurations as an answer to the post-utopian condition, as two éclats caused by the undoing of the alliance between a political and artistic radicalism.(1) Both the ‘aesthetics of the sublime’ and ‘relational aesthetics’ are ways for art to dodge the impossible choice between merely conforming to the current power regime or believing in an aesthetic utopia (which is considered as totalitarian in its own right). This explains the problematic relationship between art and the House of People in Bucharest. While art – the last vestige of democracy – rejects this ‘totalitarian’ building, it is nonetheless attracted and attached to it as a sublime image of an unbearable societal closure. However, if this building is really a sublime symbol of a totalitarian past that clashed with the wishes of the Romanian people, would it not be a good idea to demolish it and allow the Romanian people to take a piece of marble stone as a souvenir – as happened with the Berlin Wall?

To reflect upon the political role of art, we think it is essential to move beyond the image of the House of People as a prime instance of ‘totalitarianism’. Moreover, it is necessary to identify the ways in which the ‘relational’ idea of art as a symbol of openness creates closures in our post-utopian ‘Westernized’ world. Firstly, we consider the relational conception of art as the ideal complement of the current capitalist subject. Secondly, we believe it reflects the basic contradiction that underpins capitalist society, both on an ideological and economical level. In conclusion we suggest a few actions that potentially free relational art from these constraints and thus repoliticize art.

Relational aesthetics with Dutch characteristics
Whereas Nicolas Bourriaud’s idea of relational aesthetics still presents itself as a critical alternative to common aesthetics, we think Jacques Rancière was right to posit its conceptual framework as the hegemonic aesthetical regime in post-utopian conditions. In the Netherlands especially relational aesthetics have become all-pervasive. Take for instance the socio-cultural events that were enacted under the banner of WiMBY!(an abbreviation for ‘Welcome in my backyard!’) in Hoogvliet, Rotterdam. Hoogvliet is a post-war neighbourhood that – within the framework of the ‘Big Cities Policy’ – is being heavily restructured at present. The official policy is set up to boost the social atmosphere in the neighbourhood. The actual restructuring, however, boils down to a blunt rearrangement of the property relations.

It is typical of the Big Cities Policy that it has, apart from a demolishing scheme, a huge budget for cultural projects that are initiated bottom-up. In this space WiMBY! functioned as anonymous container that gathered cultural actors from different backgrounds (designers, architects, artists, urbanists) to reflect upon the restructuring schemes. As a ‘multiple author’ – as Boris Groys would have called it – it was asked to engage with both the victims and the project developers and figure out interactive interventions. The outcome was aesthetical activism of an eclectic nature. It organized temporary events (open air festivals, cooking workshops) and collective design sessions (inventing a new imaginary Hoogvliet, mapping the social-spatial logics of the neighbourhood, etc.). It created virtual interfaces so that people were enable to learn about the logics of urban space via websites. It intervened in the urban setting through refurbishing the public area with new playgrounds, a pet cemetery, projecting colourful photographs on the grey housing blocks, etc.

Although it is not acknowledged as such in the official discourse, the framework of relational aesthetics is a clear point of reference in this interactive cultural project. The nature of all these micro-interventions is deeply ‘relational’ since their official aim was to provide an alternative to ‘the current general mechanisation of social functions’ that is happening in Hoogvliet. Social housing has become a commodity; it is inscribed in the economical schemes of globally operating project developers. Art is used art as “a factor of sociability and a founding principle of dialogue.”(2) Amidst the socio-economic cleansing in Hoogvliet, WiMBY! was a symbol of openness that provided the different forces (private and public parties, civil partners and individual citizens) with a platform to connect, reflect and negotiate their respective desires and alternative project planning protocols and design experiments. WiMBY! seems the perfect incarnation of Bourriaud’s famous statement that: ‘One of the virtual properties of the image is its power of linkage, (…) flags, logos, icons, signs, all produce empathy and sharing, and all generate bonds.’(3)

The art of idealistic conformism
WiMBY! is also perfect to analyse the practical implications of Bourriaud’s conceptual framework. Strikingly, WiMBY!’s strong social ‘constructivist’ commitment did not prevent it from accepting the massive destruction of Hoogvliet as a historical fact. Its very name testifies to that. ‘Welcome in my backyard!’ are the words local people were supposed to utter. WiMBY! presented itself as being critical of the demolition programmes since they engender unrest among the people. Yet, its passionate plea for openness addressed primarily the local people. They were asked – rather, they were demanded – to use the opportunities the restructuring offered to broaden their social world, to overcome their inactive instincts, and accept the nomadic nature of today’s world.

This ambivalence at the heart of WiMBY! brings us to the basic contradiction in many current debates concerning the relation between art and politics. Debates will often be in favour of a ‘third way’ that unproblematically merges conformism and social activism. Bourriaud argues: ‘It is not modernity that is dead, but its idealistic and teleological version.’(4) In other words, it is believed that only if art is able to accept the given social reality – i.e. the ruling capitalist regime and all the forces within it – will it be able to fulfil its natural role to ‘open up’ and expand this reality through artistic practices. ‘This is the precise nature of contemporary art exhibition in the arena of representational commerce;’ Bourriaud claims, ‘it creates free areas, and time spans whose rhythm contrasts with those structuring everyday life, and it encourages an inter-human commerce that differs from the “communication zones” that are imposed upon us.’ The precondition for this is, again, that cultural forces shed the authoritarian, utilitarian, idealistic and teleological expectations they mustered and accept the given social and political reality in order to be able to move on. We are thus confronted with a cynical situation. The acceptance of the ruling capitalist regime, and the renunciation to politicize the current socio-economic organisation is presented as the precondition to ‘democratize’ and ‘open up’ reality.

How can we further analyze this situation? It should be clear that this ‘third way’ creates a kind of idealism too – or straightforward utopianism, if you like. This becomes apparent when Bourriaud inverts the what he calls ‘negative melancholic’ tendency in the work of Jean-François Lyotard. ‘Postmodern architecture’, Lyotard wrote, ‘is condemned to create a series of minor modifications in a space whose modernity it inherits, and to abandon an overall reconstruction of the space inhabited by humankind.’ In Bourriaud’s opinion, however, this very ‘condemnation’ comes to the fore as a chance: ‘a chance… in order to learn to inhabit the world in a better way, instead of trying to construct it based on a preconceived idea of historical evolution.’(5) It is at this point that art is again invested with major expectations. As symbol of democracy and openness, art is regarded as blessed. Its task is no longer to subvert capitalism, but to prevent the current capitalist regime from its self-induced closure. Art brings this off by using the virtual property of the image to engage all parties in a new dialogue and build a new sense of community on a local level. In doing this relational art seem to hold the belief that – despite all the criticism one levels against capitalism – there is ‘something more’ in it that is worth preserving.

Shut up and give us art
It is significant that art’s democratic role is heralded as inevitable at the very moment that the virtue of democracy itself has become increasingly corrupted due to capitalism’s multiple forces. The urban arena is chock-full with populist images that refer to safety, wholeness and identity, icons of various religious fundamentalist ideas, corporate identities, etc. One cannot turn a blind eye to the massive mobilisation of the ‘virtual property of the image to create bonds’ for all sorts of dubious causes. The argument we advance is that all this shows that the conceptualisation of art as a ‘symbol of openness and democracy’ principally compensates for the abovementioned renouncement of the democratic consciousness in the political realm itself. While the current regime is not ready to query its own workings, the art sector is granted the responsibility to politicize the fraying social fabric.

WiMBY! specifically targeted informal spaces of social exchange that have not yet been commodified – a kennel for dogs, a hang-out spot for youngsters, an emergency space for schools, etc. – and granted it critical value. Although the critical potential of these types of spaces is still unclear, the benefits of strictly dividing labour between the ruling elites and cultural forces are obvious. In the typical psychoanalytical situation of ‘transferential relationship’ two partners always complement their mutual shortcomings. So the advantage is that while the current elites openly state that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism, the art sector keeps up the appearance that there still is some commitment towards democracy and openness. As such, the aesthetical regime compensates for a hiatus in the ruling order; it claims that it is incapable of doing more than adjust all social relations to the logic of capital. Thus it prevents people from giving up their confidence.

This ‘winning combination’, however, only works insofar both partners stick to their implicit yet strict division of labour that supports their cooperation. The conformist character of this type of art that establishes new bonds becomes clear the moment cultural forces take relational art’s own presuppositions very seriously. ‘Relational art takes as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.’(6) What would happen if WiMBY! had claimed that all the buildings to be demolished were genuine places of social exchange? That it would consequently be unethical to demolish them – even when they do not meet contemporary living and esthetical standards. Conversely, what would happen if WiMBY! simply argued that also the remains of social space had better be demolished – fake as they are? This gesture would not only cause the strict division of labour between both partners to collapse. It would also establish a situation in which the local people would lose confidence in the ruling power – a situation the ‘new social bonds’ had been trying to avoid.

The functionality of relational art’s dysfunctional nature
It is necessary at this point to connect Boris Groys’ ideas about ‘multiple authorship’ with his recent plea for ‘equal aesthetic rights’.(7) The past years we have witnessed a major redistribution of the rights to authorise the social sphere. In the Netherlands, artists – and especially ‘relational artists’ – have become necessary partners to involve when restructuring the balance in larger cities by demolishing social housing structures. It is their merit that popular demands are taken seriously and that hot political issues such as radical democracy were put to the test. In Romania, too, the art scène occupied a niche in the House of People, a symbolical seat among the political assemblies. However, it would be misleading to claim that these practices of ‘multiple authorship’ entail ‘equal aesthetic rights’. Making cultural forces privileged partners merely grants them it a marginal and relatively unimportant jurisdiction – at least from an economical or strategic point of view. It is clear that the ‘multiple authorship’ is after all a formal equality that should not apply to Dutch or Romanian society as a whole. While being a partner, art is never granted the full political mandate to redesign the social organisation in a way that endangers the interests of the ruling powers.

This inequality in ‘aesthetic rights’ allows us to contextualize the anti-essentialist character of relational aesthetics. It cannot conceal the fact that cultural forces cannot take an essentialist viewpoint. They are not allowed, as it were, to claim the whole House of the People. This is only a privilege of the ruling powers. The transferential relation between art and politics can best be understood in terms of what Slavoj Zizek has called ‘interpassivity’.(8) Cultural forces can propose whatever they want to democratize and open up a given situation, as long as their proposals do not endanger the control of capitalist developers of this situation. Here we come upon an ideological function of relational art that has been concealed so far: it is the provision of an ‘ersatz’ social space by using the virtual property of the image to create a bond between the ruling regime and the people – rather than a real intervention in the political space by confronting the dominant relations of power and production. The scandal, if you like, is that through this simulation of a sphere of openness and respect, cultural forces mobilize the people to – as David Harvey stated – ‘act against their own desire’.(9) Once included in this sphere where all the parties – project developers, local government, and the people – freely negotiate their respective desires, people can no longer choose to politicize their frustrations.

The same holds for the cultural actors themselves: the idea that art cannot but accept the ruling system in order to be of any social significance today, enables cultural forces to remain active in a capitalist reality they ‘theoretically’ denounce. Bourriaud’s conceptualisation of ‘relational aesthetics’ as then re-enactment of modernism’s liberation and emancipation, without its direct servitude towards a specific political-ideological system. This idea is based on the assumption that any such servitude would turn art into an authoritarian, utilitarian, rational teleological and/or political messianic force. This phobia of functionality – expressed in Bourriaud’s sneers at ‘cultural Darwinisms’ – transfers upon relational aesthetics a ‘functionality to the power of two’. Relational art is functional in the current socio-political system because it is non-functional. True to the democratic ambition to ‘do nothing’ but ‘keep open’ the situation it operates in the service of the current power regime.

The economic benefit of zones of exception
We cannot limit our interpretation of the deadlock of relational art to the sphere of ideology. This would further feed the misunderstanding – for which Francis Fukuyama is largely responsible – that capitalism itself is here to stay as a natural and essentially ‘good’ development. Capitalism is the end result of all developments. Yet, people for whatever reason cling to the image of another world of social harmony.

Bourriaud posits that Marx saw in art, besides mercantile and semantic qualities, a representation of a ‘social zero’: ‘an interstice term used by Marx to describe trading communities that elude the capitalist economic context by being removed from the law of profit: barter, merchandising, autarkic types of production, etc. The interstice is a space in human relations which fits more or less harmoniously and openly into the overall system, but suggests other trading possibilities than those in effect within the system.’(10)

This statement ignores that we deal with one of the basic contradictions of late capitalism as defined by Ernst Mandel, i.e. the very fact that in order to reproduce itself capitalism is forced to neutralise herself ‘in her own womb’.(11) While it may seem that the commodification of social relations is all-pervasive, it is clear that capitalism must violate its own laws in order to keep itself alive. People in the Third World are forced to use their own pre-capitalist means of subsistence and are kept outside of the logic and logistics of profit. The First World is confronted with countless examples of pre- or non-capitalist forms of production that are re-enacted. Take the growing numbers of ‘creative flex workers’ who increasingly depend on strong family ties for their social security and health, and their close network of co-flex workers for possible commissions. These informal human relations are not ‘outside’ of the capitalist system, as we are made to believe, but are an integral part of it. It is a principal law of capital that it will always seek to ‘externalize’ the costs of its reproduction towards non-capitalist socio-economic formation. Not only is the social family network exploited to outsource the high costs of social welfare, the informal creative sector is mobilised to recreate bonds between people and the ruling regime. Is it then not cynical to summon art to repeat this logic?

Can art symbolize the ‘crack within’?
This self-contradictory state of capitalism has an immense impact on the debate of the political role of art. It disproves the basic claim of Bourriaud that ‘all social relations today become mechanised and commodified’, which clearly reflects the Leftist myth of the market as an all-powerful monster. Instead of giving way to the compulsory idea of finding new strategies to break open our capitalist order, we think it is more effective for cultural forces to take the advice of Slavoj Zizek and address the ‘structuring of the order itself’.(12) In the context of Hoogvliet it is clear that its capitalist regime – i.e. the local government and the project developers – in order to reproduce itself is forced to permanently subvert its own capitalist logic. In order to avoid social uprising the regime has no choice but to open up the fixed restructuring schemes and allow some space and consideration for social interactions. In this way, any discussion about how to subvert the ruling regime has to take into account that each system – also the current capitalist regime – is always already subverting its own logics. The new democratic regime in Romania clearly and symbolically shows that by allocating a space for the art sector in its own heart.

The key question is whether cultural forces will use this inconsistency or ‘crack’ in the system to downplay the asocial character of the current regime. In the restructuring schemes in Hoogvliet this inconsistency is used to argue that the developers are not ‘the bad guys’. The developers are willing to consider and meet social demands. The seat for the Romanian art sector right at the heart of power, the House of the People, suggests that even within the heavily restructured Romanian society there is some place left for critical thinking. In both cases the crack in the system is thus mobilised to soften the blows the people suffered. It is a matter of negotiating between capital and the community.

Is relational art able to manipulate the existing ‘gaps’ in the system so as to bring the people to the point that they are no longer willing to negotiate their longing for deep social relations with capitalist firms that seek profit? This would allow them to subvert the dominant capitalist logic of compromise that prevents their desire to be fully realised. In short, if art is really committed to democracy, it has to short-circuit the myth that human beings are split between individuality and equality, economic profit and solidarity, and that they always have to find a proper balance between these values to prevent catastrophe. The long history of social revolt shows that when it comes to satisfying their desire for freedom and equality, people are all too eager to give up their very individuality and self-interest. We think art is perfectly capable of redesigning this anthropological phantasm of man as a ‘third way’ being.

Art can draw on some strategies to short-circuit this logic of the constant compromise that is imposed by liberal democracy and be ‘relational’ at the same time. That is to say, the relational artist can either unambiguously act as a ruthless capitalist who couldn’t care less about social values. Artist Santiago Sierra is known for his fierce anti-capitalist stance and is at the same time straightforwardly capitalist in his performances. This type of artist uses budget to make temporary workers destroy the last remains of the social fabric. Or, alternately, the relational artist can act as an radical altruist who is unwilling to even consider cooperating within the capitalist regime of creative destruction. The latter position would be taken up by a WiMBY!-activist who believes that the housing blocks about to be demolished are invaluable places of genuine social exchange. Consequently, she chains herself to the building in an attempt to block the restructuring process. Both radicalizations of the relational position will no doubt take it beyond the point of merely dressing up the current status quo. They force the different parties to take sides. The capitalist regime will be forced to spit out its best pupil, or it will be forced to show that they do not care about social bonds and new communities.

We believe that a consistent and ethical choice is more than ever needed when it comes to the issue of whether art can and/or should occupy the place it is granted in the infamous House of People in Bucharest. Every partial occupation is after all always in danger of compensating for the refusal of the new power elites to be fully democratic. Its return to the people remains symbolical, that is: ‘not total’. We propose alternative scenarios. What would happen when the MNAC refuses to occupy a side entrance of the House of the People (stating that this is only a fake opening of the locus of power to the Romanian people) and claim the entire building (to set up a ‘shadow’ parliament that debates on all current political decisions that affect Romanian society)? It would clearly show that this genuine symbol of power is still closed off for the people and occupied again by new elites that are only willing to open up to their cultural agenda – if not their political agenda. Inversely, what would happen when the MNAC propose to demolish the building and return the material leftovers of the former regime, the marble blocks, to the people?

If the House of People really is a sign of collective pain – a sublime image of the suffering of the Romanian people – can we then accept that a bunch of politicians and cultural actors opportunistically (mis-)use this building for its ‘Bilbao effect’? Since the House of the People symbolises the immense sacrifice of the Romanian people, we think it is ethically justified to propose it be demolished and its material shared. The idea is not to neglect the suffering of the people, but to redistribute the wealth of the House of the People and enable the people to remember the past – not to misuse it.

1 Jacques Rancière, Malaise dans l’esthétique, Paris: Editions Galilée, 2004.
2 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002
3 ibid.
4 ibid.
5 ibid.
6 ibid.
7 Boris Groys, ‘Multiple authorship’, in: Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic (eds.), The Manifesta Decade – Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions in Post-Wall Europe, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005, and Boris Groys, ‘The politics of equal aesthetic rights’, in: Radical Philosophy, Issue 137, May/June 2006
8 Slavoj Zizek, The plague of phantasies, London: Verso, 1997
9 David Harvey, A brief history of neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, 2005
10 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002
11 Ernest Mandel, Het laatkapitalisme, Amsterdam: Van Gennep, 1976
12 Slavoj Zizek, The indivisible remainder, London: Verso, 1997


This text was first published as part of a newspaper to announce the conference Regimes of Representation: Art & Politics Beyond the House of People, Bucharest, January 11, 2007

Tags: English

Categories: Art

Type: Article