On Art and Populism: The Next Universal – An Interview with Laboria Cuboniks

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

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11/12 2015 With the publication of their Xenofeminist manifesto this spring, the anonymous feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks sets the terms for a massively ambitious project. Their goal is to synthesize a new universalism, one that overrides the still-dominant paradigm that derives from the western white-male. Their collectively-authored text, subtitled A Politics for Alienation, is just a first step in a multi-faceted critique that will draw from the various strands of their respective disciplines. While building on the accomplishments of identity-based politics of the last century, the collective argue that the historical moment for this type of analysis has passed. Before reading the manifesto, the urgency of Laboria Cubonik’s program was not clear to me, but it now seems obvious. I look forward to the book they are now working to produce. We spoke through the medium of Google Docs over the past couple of weeks.

I am always interested in origin stories. I realize this approach is a bit contrary to what I understand the Laboria Cuboniks enterprise to be, but…where did you guys meet?

LC: We met up at the Navigation as Emancipation summer school during the summer in 2014 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, in Berlin. It was organised by Armen Avanessian, Peter Wolfendale and Reza Negarestani. It was basically a two-week program for those interested in pursuing what has been deemed “neo-rationalist” philosophy. (The term “neo-rationalist” sounds a bit harsh, but it basically concerns new understandings of reason and its function for an age of complexity). What bonded us was the fact that many of us had experienced animosity for avowing things like reason, science, technology and/or mathematics — having been accused of “bowing to the patriarchy” for working with and alongside such perspectives, and we all felt a collective need to denaturalize such disciplines from a de jure masculine grip — that the white-male dominated histories of those disciplines does not mean that their future is bound to the same fate.

That experience became your identity then. So how does Laboria Cuboniks now speak in public? On the web only or also IRL?

LC: Our name is actually an anagram of the Nicolas Bourbaki group of mathematicians from the 20th Century, who advocated for abstract and generic approaches to the field — so there is some definite kinship with their pursuits. We’re (currently) six people from different disciplines spread out across three continents right now. But our identity is not so important. More important for us is to begin developing conceptual tools under the umbrella of xenofeminism — a feminism arguing for abstraction, cognitive augmentation in the face of complexity, and a politics able to think an intersectional or “relative” universalism as a gluing operation after decades of identity politics that emphasize particularisms.

So much to unpack here! The Xenofeminism Manifesto gives a thorough articulation of these ideas. I guess what I am trying to do is first look at the context through which you are speaking as a way to articulate those ideas but in a different way. I understand the Laboria Cuboniks identity is not so important, but I am interested in the way it allows you to speak as one voice. Xeno means “other” (as in xenophobia) so this other voice you are adopting is one made possible by internet, is that correct?

LC: There’s no doubt that without the internet we couldn’t work together, being as spread out as we are (although time zones are a problem — just ask our Australian member who joins in video chats at ungodly hours!) This “other” — or “alien” voice as we’d prefer — that came through the manifesto was a pretty arduous process. But it was also quite interesting to work between horizontal and vertical modes of collaboration, moving between diffuse and top-down editorial authoring. The manifesto for us is a foundational document implicitly mapping out a program of work. It needed a unified voice to articulate these perspectives in a cohesive way. That said, we’ll continually rework our formal approach with each project. The book we’re developing, for example, will take on another strategy altogether as a “forking” of the manifesto. We’ll each prepare contributions in our various areas of competence, elaborating critical points that have been raised since the release of the text, potentially with other authors included as well. It will be a curious exercise. On some issues there isn’t a consensus amongst us, so those tensions will be more visible and hopefully help demonstrate a commitment to “impurity” we believe is necessary to address anything on the level of the social. One cannot get very profound in the manifesto form, so we’re very conscious of the fact that many passages should in fact be proper essays in their own right. We want to start pushing the concepts as tools for reappropriation, similar to the function of something like Git-Hub where coders can build off existing projects, orienting or augmenting them in new directions.

I think these tensions are evident on the level of form, in the sheer density of the text. Its got forward propulsion at the cost of elaboration on the many different avenues of inquiry it proposes. Forking seems like the necessary next step. At the same time, the format of the manifesto and the Laboria Cuboniks identity are what make it possible to articulate such an encompassing set of concerns. Again, in the interest of getting you to spell things out, what is the unifying factor here? To quote from the Xenofeminist Manifesto, does “embracing alienation” as a position and “the synthetic potential of a groundless universalism” properly express it?

LC: You’ve basically nailed it — in the (positively) generic sense. What unites us are several fundamental commitments: the first being an affirmation of alienation as a necessary, cognitive and pragmatic “state” to be mobilised for any substantial change to take place at the scale of the normative. The perspectives that arise from “alien” encounters could mitigate against the way the familiar obstructs the effects of new knowledge. Alienation can never be a “total” thing — it expresses a relation between things/people/activities — so any talk that we are “totally alienated” is rubbish. Such a statement disavows this definitive relationality! One of our main issues is the ossification of norms as facts — when plastic norms become naturalised as a truth of biology, physiology, ecology — or even certain economic orders. In order to disentangle the two, we require a state of “alienation” from those inhibiting normative modes, to construct new ones that operate as a collective horizon for navigating the desire of what we do want as a social body. This generative alienation is a means for thinking through the social, technological, economic, ethical and sexual ramifications of new knowledge(s) — rather than falling trap of alternativeless naturalization. We embrace the power of plastic norms as a counter-hegemonic project, provided they are seized as plastic — that is, subject to re-invention. We can’t simply advocate for a politics celebrating the margin anymore, we require a thinking and pragmatics at a scale of the so-called “total” (and therefore naturalized) global scale of the neo-liberal modus operandi. This scale, in our view, can only be navigated and put to other functions when we can properly think the planetary complexity of 21st Century life — a scale that requires thinking from the nano-second to the geological, which is surely an alien proposition given unaided human phenomenology or intellection.

Can you expand on how you are using the term “plastic” is this connected to “the synthetic potential of a groundless universalism”? I still need that notion clarified.

LC: Definitely. What we discuss as “plastic” most certainly has to do with how a universalism for the 21st century needs to function. What taints the notion of universalism is (quite rightly) it’s Modernist legacy, where we have seen the deployment of “universalism” as: a) a schematic top-down plan, where every difference is subsumed into its over-arching form; and b) as a particularity that is falsely inflated as a universal model — a specifically white Euro-Male “point” or perspective is projected as a dominant mode of orientation globally. On the latter point, we suggest this is no universalism at all. It’s a bloated, disproportionate particularity that has delivered to us global structures of colonialism and capitalism. This is an illogical universalism, a falsely conceived and implemented abuse of the term that does not live up to the potential of its name.

As an important and useful response to this violent (false) universalism, we have seen the development of fields like post-colonial theory, identity politics, queer theory and strands of feminism that highlight marginalized perspectives and voices lost to Modernity’s “inflationary” modes of operation. Addressing critical issues like the “site” or context “from where one speaks” has been a collective effort to emphasize the importance of particularities and give necessary attention to unheard voices and unmapped positions (in art, we saw these tendencies manifest in site specific practices, for example). After decades of such theorizing, though, this almost exclusive focus on particularities has lost sight of the global neoliberal hegemony we are all forced to live by. Calling for a reworking of the concept “universal” should not be taken as a side-swipe against those invaluable theoretical contributions mentioned earlier. It is to face up to their inherent limits in the face of the hegemonic core that has only increased in dominance, and whose scale is gargantuan. It would be a failure to not properly acknowledge those limits and overestimate the usefulness of certain theoretical frameworks, just as Levi Bryant has pointed out how Lacanian psychoanalysis does not offer sufficient tools to adequately examine something like climate change, for example.

Our project is a counter-hegemonic one, which definitively means taking on issues of scale (not only politics understood in its’ local, on-the-ground, phenomenological form) and reformatting what we mean by “universalism”. This is similar to when Rosi Braidotti calls for a feminism unsatisfied by the margins that instead seeks to occupy the centre. To us this signifies a feminism willing to construct what that centre — a normative proposition — could be. This new universalism still requires much thought, to go against the “false” variant we have already been subject to historically. For this universal to live up to its name means not to do away with the important work that’s been done on particularisms, but instead turn our focus to the engineering of a kind of abstract “glue”, in order to plot out coherent relations between particularities — or “solidarities”, in a way. Part of our approach to this concept of universalism is drawn from mathematics, wherein Fernando Zalamea (calling on the work of Alexander Grothendieck) has written about “relative universals” and has begun working with these ideas within a social framework. Now clearly, we are not suggesting an achievement in mathematics can be readily mapped on to the social. But what we can make use of is a functional concept of a bottom-up universal — including the ability to move back and forth between local and global scales. Because this universal is an implicit (bottom-up) and not explicit (top-down) variant, its field of reference is not fixed in stone, but is constituted by the relations it constructs. While we have much more thinking to do on this topic, one thing is clear — if we are going to gain any sort of political and cognitive traction against the almost total subsumption of life to neo-liberalism, we require strategies at a proportionate scale, able to face up to our complex plight — an urgent plight yielding increasingly to (climatic, social, and economic) injustice. It is not sufficient to be against our situation in the negative, but rather to focus our thought towards the affirmative construction of a post-catastrophic world we want.

The position you have mapped out is clear and compelling, and it provides useful insight into a global situation that might otherwise be experienced as an impasse. I am curious to know more about the “conceptual tools” you are planning to develop under the umbrella of xenofeminism. Can you say more about this next step in the project?

The next steps will more distinctly reflect our poly-disciplinary backgrounds — each member delving into the ramifications the manifesto has had upon our thinking since its release (including the myriad of external reactions that it generated — both positive and negative). Having each been infected by alien fields of knowledge in the process of intensively working together, our imminent horizon will be to integrate this conceptual contagion to our respective fields of practice.

http://laboriacuboniks.net/

This is one of ten posts made to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).

Rosemary Heather is a freelance writer based in Toronto and Editor-in-Chief of Q&A, an information retail project focusing on interviews.

On Art and Populism: SMP – Social Media Politics

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

arendtHannah Arendt

Selfie populism leads to mob rule, but its delusions are the fault of the elite

09/12 2015 Reading Hannah Arendt is helpful when looking for the origins of certain assumptions we hold to be true about democracy. In her book On Revolution (1963), she notes that the persuasive power of the American Revolution lay in its material basis — what’s known today as the “American Dream.” Arendt writes: “the conviction that life on earth might be blessed with abundance instead of being cursed by scarcity, was prerevolutionary and American in origin.”1 Knowledge in Europe about the American colonial experience had the effect of breaking the psychological impasse of the belief that the rich and poor lived in an unchanging natural state. This lay the groundwork for the role played by what Arendt calls the “social question” in the revolutions that followed, starting in France, that ushered in the modern age. In Arendt’s terms, the social question is the ability of political institutions to ameliorate the problems of need faced by the poor. Innate to this historical development is the notion that fairness is a shared social value; it is one of the building blocks of liberal democracy we enjoy today. Seeing this value eroded by an overreaching rentier class is one explanation for the current groundswell of popular unrest.

The success of Populist political candidates in the US and Europe suggests that this covenant of our political institutions is perceived to be broken. As a result, voter allegiance with Populist alternatives is arising spontaneously, all the while being manipulated by demagogic operators. The American journalist and left activist Chris Hedges has made covering this epochal unrest his beat for some time now. A former war correspondent, the Pulitzer Prize winning Hedges has written twelve books, including five titles that anatomize what he suggests is not merely the moral decline of the US, but signs of the collapse of [its] political and cultural institutions. He sees Donald Trump, whom the New York Times likens to an American Berlusconi, as an inevitable symptom of a political culture made bankrupt by liberal and right-wing elites equally. “It was only a matter of time before a demagogue whom these elites could not control would ride the wave of alienation and rage,” he writes, noting that “Trump is not making a political revolution. He is responding to one.” Hedges’s point is echoed by Chantal Mouffe, who warns that the cheap satisfactions that come with moralizing against the populist tendency, come at the expense of understanding the reasons behind the increasing success of right-wing populist parties.

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The anthropologist David Graeber, who wrote about his experience with the decentralized political movement Occupy in his book, The Democracy Project (2014), notes how the financialization of capitalism creates a sense of the waning legitimacy of mainstream institutions. Most people are aware that increasingly 1% wealth is “no longer from the fruits of industry or commerce but from sheer speculation and the creation of complex financial instruments.” This process affects aspects of daily life that were previously untouched by high finance — student loans or municipal bonds, for instance — ensuring that an increasingly larger proportion of public commons gets implicated in the financialization of debt.2

I am sure it is nice to be a recipient of the outsized gains that ensue from a casino capitalism. However, it’s probably not a great gameplan in the long term. Harvard Business School’s Michael E. Porter, billed as a “leading authority on competitive strategy,” is acclaimed for introducing the idea of “shared value” as a business concept. Porter points out, it’s only common sense that if you mire your populace in debt and limit their ability to participate in the economy by paying them low wages, diminish their quality of life by cutting social programs, all the while degrading their environment through the practice of greedy, unregulated business practices, in the end you won’t have any customers. It’s as simple as that. Elites ignore Arendt’s social question at their peril. In a widely-circulated article, the self-described billionaire Nick Hanauer says as much. Hanauer attributes his success, not to being particularly smart or hard-working; instead,

What sets me apart, I think, is a tolerance for risk and an intuition about what will happen in the future. Seeing where things are headed is the essence of entrepreneurship.

And what do I see in our future now?

I see pitchforks.

Writing on the same topic, the Political Scientist Ira Katznelson describes Populist currents roiling democratic countries with an elegant and an all but devastating accuracy:

there is a sense that constitutional democratic forms, procedures, and practices are softening in the face of allegedly more authentic and more efficacious types of political participation—those that take place outside representative institutions and seem closer to the people.

The idea that Populist political options would seem more authentic because they offer a more direct expression of the people’s will, puts me in mind of other formats of popular participation we take for granted today. The digital tools we group under the term “social media”, for instance. Perhaps a world-wide citizenry who now have a daily habit3 of expressing themselves directly on the internet assumes that this behaviour naturally extends to the way they exercise their political franchise as well. Maybe Populism is merely an expression of a new kind of social media politics? The selfie as a model of political identification bodes rather poorly for the future of our democracy; it also, however, suggests that other, more positive developments might be possible, in the sense that this is a new type of conversation and it’s just begun.

This is one of ten posts written to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).

Rosemary Heather is a freelance writer based in Toronto and Editor-in-Chief of Q&A, an information retail project focusing on interviews.


1) Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, (New York: Viking, 1963) 21-25.

2) David Graeber, The Democracy Project: a history, a crisis, a movement (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013) xxi-xxii.

3) On August 24, 2015, Facebook had, for the first time, one billion people worldwide use its service in a single day. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34082393

On Art and Populism: The Political Populism of Art Censorship

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Goshka Macuga’s Notice Board,  2011

Goshka Macuga’s Notice Board and Model for a Sculpture (Family) take on pointed resonance when presented in the context of the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition

11/11 2015 “After 70 years of relative stability, history is on the move and we are all in its grip”writes Michael White in the Guardian. He cites three factors in his diagnosis of epochal change: failures of elites; divisive, panacea politics; and fragmentation of the centre — by which he means, I believe, a crisis of legitimacy within the status quo that makes alternatives look plausible. White is writing about the November 1st elections in Turkey, which saw incumbent Recep Erdoğan get returned to power by a decisive margin. He could very well be talking about similar events in Poland, where the right wing Law and Justice party recently won the vote with a commanding majority. Indeed, the casual observer looking for signs of a populist resurgence around the globe is spoilt for choice. You could almost say the dominoes are falling, to use the Cold War terminology, only this time the Communist threat gets replaced by a more shape-shifting enemy.

Poland provides a good case study here. For the first time in its twenty-five year history of post-communist democracy Poland gets a government of single party rule. The promised legislative agenda that got them there represents a significant departure for a country that has beenthe leading liberal reformer in Central and Eastern Europe. It’s a shift that pushes in the direction of the demagogic Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, whose factious (and anti-migrant fence-building) style of governance includes undermining the foundations of liberal constitutional democracy. In both countries, populist tactics provide the winning formula for a tightening grip on power. In Hungary, Orban has been at it since 2010, most recently using a clash of civilisations rhetoric to inveigh against Middle Eastern refugee claimants, stating the influx puts Europe’s Christian identity at risk. Poland has also seen an opportunistic xenophobia in Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s assertion that refugees are “bringing parasites” to Europe, among other inflammatory statements.

In Michael White’s article, he discusses a parallel and apparently contradictory political trend of dynasticism, citing the recent elections in Canada where the son of Pierre Trudeau (Canada’s JFK) became Prime Minister, as well as the strong likelihood that Hillary Clinton will become US President in 2016, as two examples among many. With the dynastic option, the basic factor of brand recognition helps solve the question about who we choose as our leaders — and it’s true, I am Canadian and there is about zero chance Justin Trudeau would be Prime Minister today if it were not for his famous father.

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Goshka Macuga’s Model for a Sculpture (Family),  2011

Populist and dynastic politics share in common the ability to simplify things in the same way a brand helps simplify the consumer choices we make. Succinctly stated, brands formalize visual attributes into a set of values and emotions. The replicability of a logo creates a shortform statement about the consistency of a product, amounting to a kind of argument for why it’s worthy of our affiliation. If the goal of the brand is to be always and instantly intelligible, what by contrast is the goal of the artwork? Simple answer: to be intelligible in the first instance. “Make it new” is a modus operandi for the contemporary artwork that stretches back to Ezra Pound. The artwork fulfils its function best when it allows us to see something again for the first time.

This is especially true of Goshka Macuga’s work. At the heart of the artist’s practice is an invitation to revisit what we think we know about something, or more precisely, to think again about objects and the circumstances they can be said to embody. For Macuga’s contribution to the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism show the circumstance would be episodes of art censorship in Poland, where the artist is from. One point of reference is a 2000 presentation in Warsaw of Maurizio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora (1999), a life-like figure of the Pope felled by a meteorite (and so lying on the floor) that resulted in huge controversy including destruction of the work by two members of the public. The Kunsthalle presents two works by Macuga that were originally commissioned by the same gallery where Cattelan’s work was shown. Notice Board presents an extra-long bulletin board covered in the press clippings and ephemera produced in response to a number of art controversies in the country, while Model for a Sculpture (Family), 2011, is a large concrete sculpture, seven-metres high, of two figures hovering over a child reading a book.

Macuga’s sculpture is made in reference to Cattelan’s work, and to Oscar Bony’s La Familia Obrera (Working-Class Family, 1968) from a May 1968 exhibition in Buenos Aires that was eventually shut down due to police censorship. By substituting one censored piece for another Macuga makes evident the social dimension of an artwork’s meaning. If Bony’s work, a performance on a pedestal by a real life family, served to highlight the plight of the low-paid working class in Argentina, with Macuga’s version the nuclear family is rendered in the traditional materials and style of the sculptural monument so that the piece takes on resonance of the social conservatism of the artist’s home country. These are the conservative values promoted by the Catholic Church so predominant in Poland, and so knowingly scandalized by Cattelan, who comes from a country that like Poland is 95% Catholic. Just as Cattelan vanquishes the Pope, Macuga would appear to vanquish Cattelan with the stolidity of Polish society. That might be the joke of the piece, its slapstick conceit, but Macuga’s point is more about how artworks can bring the public sphere to life, in the process articulating the values it deems to be most important. When viewed in the context of the Kunsthalle Wien exhibition,Model for a Sculpture (Family) takes on another implication, appearing to incarnate the “family values” platform that delivered the Law and Justice party to victory.

English political theorist Margaret Canovan has written that Populism should not be dismissed as a political pathology, but instead needs to be understood as a distinct interpretation of democracy, one that sees within its mechanisms a redemptive possibility. It’s this kind of Populist romanticism that Macuga’s work serves to undercut, if only by showing how the condensation of meaning into cultural symbols is a transient and context-dependent proposition.


This is one of ten posts written to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).

Rosemary Heather is a freelance writer based in Toronto and Editor-in-Chief of Q&A, an information retail project focusing on interviews.

On Art and Populism: Is the populist groundswell today an effect of the internet?

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Syriza protest Greece

A by country list of popular political movements

27/10 2015 In previous posts I discussed why political populism tends to get dismissed as an unworkable political tendency and why it nonetheless stands as a legitimate response to current political conditions. What results is an apparent stalemate between a desire for change (reactionary and progressive) and the entrenched interests that prevent it from happening. It’s a situation that creates the expanded contemporary moment we find ourselves in, one shot through with equal parts risk and possibility. The populist tendency is regarded with misgiving by the vested interests it is marshalled against. This is of course because it’s hard to find silver bullet solutions to highly complex problems. But it also may be an indicator of “how isolated our elites and their media mouthpieces have become.”

The French political economist Guy Sorman makes a useful distinction between populist tendencies and civil society, which assumes that to be effective the former would have to be absorbed into the latter. He also says all contemporary populist movements share use of social networks on the internet as a means of mobilization and expression. Its an important point perhaps too easily overlooked. Taking into account the way populism’s ability to “galvanize new forms of political engagement”gets intensified by the internet, I put together an expanded list of today’s populist movements. The list includes recent mass movements that are popular but can’t be defined as populist because they lack a definitive leader or political party affiliation. Note that many of the populist tendencies listed below emerged within the last 5 years.

Arab Spring (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan) Uprisings for democracy that spread across the Arab world in 2011 (in the order listed above). The role social media played in these movements is acknowledged to be significant. Four years on, lack of civil society traditions sees the Arab Spring momentum stalled or moving in reverse, in some cases to catastrophic effect.

Alternative for Germany/AfD Germany’s Tea Party. While initially formed to demand Germany abandon the Euro, the AfD has become increasingly xenophobic. It’s been an apparently successful shift helping “German voters overcome a deeply entrenched taboo against voting for a right-leaning party.”

Bernie Sanders (US – Democrat) The so-called “socialist senator” is galvanizing voters in the US simply because he addresses issues like income inequality and advocates for federal stimulus spending. Building a financial base through small donations, it remains to be seen if he poses a real threat to the“dynastic, seemingly unstoppable Democratic nominee frontrunner”, Hillary Clinton.

Dansk Folkeparti/DF (Denmark) One of the Danish People’s Party’s stated goals is to prevent Denmark from becoming a multiethnic society. Winning 21% of the popular vote in June elections, the DF “once seemed quite extreme but now they’re mainstream” — to the extent that they have pushed Denmark’s political landscape to the right.

Donald Trump (US – Republican) Is Donald Trump’s Rhetoric Distorting Reality? asks a clickbaiting recent headline. The idea has some plausibility if it’s a reality measured in wall-to-wall media coverage backed by a personal fortune counted in the billions. As a populist candidate, Trump is the genuine example of the phenomenon, using xenophobia and bribes to manipulate voter emotion.

English Defence League/EDL Cas Mudde, scholar of the radical right, calls emphasis on the most extreme and photogenic radical right groups “misguided.” While admittedly a fringe tendency, the EDL’s anti-Muslim platform backed by thuggish street protests can be filed under the category of populism that is deleterious to the public order.

Freedom Party of Austria/FPÖ (Austria) Founded in 1955, the far right FPÖ can be included in the anti-migrant wall-building strain of populist tendencies. Although they surged in popularity in October elections, it was not enough to unseat the Social Democrats, Vienna’s governing party since the end of WWII.

Five Star Movement/M5S (Italy) Led by comedian and TV personality, Beppe Grillo, the party first gained electoral success in 2013. Following the recent resignation of Rome’s Mayor, disgraced by an expense scandal, an upcoming election in Rome looks to favor M5S, “now the most popular party among Romans sickened by years of graft and poor public services.”

Finns Party (Finland) Forming part of the country’s ruling coalition after elections in April, the Finns Party is typical of populist parties in Europe, being Eurosceptic and anti-migration. Its platform includes the suggestion that “young women should be persuaded not to study and instead give birth to Finnish babies.

Forza Italia/FI Founded in 1993 by Silvio Berlusconi, four time Prime Minister of Italy. The centre-right party is the best recent example of cult-of-personality populist politics, aided no doubt by Berlusconi’s personal television empire. Its current state is disarray, populist allegiances having shifted to either comedian Beppe Grillo’s M5S or the Northern League, which calls for independence for the north and an end to the Euro.

National Front (France) Led by Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie, the party’s long time leader (1972-2011). Signaling Marine’s more mainstream intentions for the party, the elder Le Pen was in August expelled from the party in the wake of his statement that the Holocaust was “a detail of history” (a view he first expressed in 1987).

Party for Freedom/PVV (The Netherlands) “Mass immigration is leading to the dilution of cultural identity in the European Union member states” wrote the PVV’s Geert Wilders in an opinion editorial in the Wall Street Journal coauthored with France’s Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League. It’s a show of unity that may belie a more significant weakness, as 2014 European Parliament elections saw a drop in the extremist party’s support at the polls.

Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident/Pegida(Germany) Anti-Islamist protest alliance founded in Dresden in 2014. Leading weekly street protests that have been moderately successful in Germany, “the group’s demonstrations elsewhere in Europe have not witnessed significant participation.” Plans to form a political party look unlikely to go ahead.

Podemos (Spain) With origins in the anti-austerity Indignados series of demonstrations in Spain, Podemos was founded in 2014. Led by the 36 year old academic Pablo Iglesias, Podemos gained in regional elections in May of this year but more recent polls show a softening of support in advance of a general election on December 20th.

Occupy (Global) – Starting in 2011 with the occupation of New York’s Zuccotti Park, the anti-capitalist movement grew to see Occupy-related events staged in 951 cities in 82 countries. In part inspired by the Arab Spring and Indignados movements, in the US Occupy is often described as the left-wing populist counterpart to the right-wing Tea Party. Current activities include activist debt relief.

Syriza (Greece) A snap general election in September gave the left-wing Syriza a decisive victory, bringing some measure of stability to Greece and a mandate for legislation of reforms — at the same they will be doubtless confronting the reality of “what it means for the radical Left to govern in the world of global capital.”

Tea Party (US) – A symptom of ideologic dysfunction within the US Republican Party, the Tea Party movement recently expressed the full force of its nuttiness by forcing John Boehner, the already right-wing Republican Speaker of the House to resign, for not being extremist enough. A movement started in 2009, the Tea Party shares in common with the Arab Spring and Occupy decentralized leadership and lack of a uniform agenda.

UKIP/United Kingdom Independence Party (UK) Founded in 1991, this right-wing, Eurosceptic party started to get traction within the mainstream of British political life in the last two years. Showing the volatile nature of populist politics, the BBC recently reported that party insiders believe UKIP’s future is uncertain; “the party will be over in a few years’ time.”

This is one of ten posts written to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).

Rosemary Heather is a freelance writer based in Toronto and Editor-in-Chief of Q&A, an information retail project focusing on interviews.

On Art and Populism: Political Populism – A Fresh Start for the 21st Century

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Slavoj Žižek

There are solid reasons why the populist tendency in politics now seems ubiquitous

20/10 2015 A quick formulation for the phenomenon of political populism could be: a tendency that gains in traction to the extent it departs from reality. To flesh this idea out it will be important to define what “reality” stands for in this equation. More of that to come.

First, some laboring of metaphor. Populism allows for a politics of aspiration, cut loose from the anchor of pragmatism. It’s an idea of a polity adrift that assumes eventually it will have to be hauled back to the dock. This means someone like Donald Trump, currently frontrunner by a wide margin in the Republican race for US Presidential nominee, cannot in the real world be the captain of the ship. Or he could be, if he became a different Donald Trump, one whose insalubrious personality and “policy views bordering on gibberish” became subordinate to the time-honored protocols and procedural methods by which the real business of government happens in the US. You see the problem here?

Like an America that cheered raucously for the Pope on his recent visit there, mostly because he represents his own special category of celebrity, the Trump phenomenon exhibits specifically American characteristics of being overblown and pretty much indifferent to the facts. By contrast, recent events in Greece provide a more European example of traits inherent to the populist tendency. In July this year, upon receiving diktats from another pulpit, that of the so-called Troika, for bailout conditions that include ongoing harsh austerity measures, the ruling Syriza party used a referendum to ask the Greek people whether to accept the terms. When the result of the vote was “no” (over 61%), the party promptly turned around and accepted an even harsher deal to secure the Troika’s bailout. “SYRIZA” may be an acronym that stands for Coalition of the Radical Left, but the political party that acts under its name can’t escape the fact of its membership in a transnational economic order, one that supersedes the interests of any one nation state that might benefit from the lifeblood of its own capital. This conflict between the will of the Greek people, succinctly expressed in the July 5th referendum, and the acceptance by its elected leaders of the bailout’s punitive economic measures points to a wider dilemma. In an article in which Slavoj Žižek calls Syriza’s response heroic (because pragmatic), he also writes: “The “contradictions” of Syriza are a mirror image of the “contradictions” of the EU establishment as it gradually undermines the very foundations of a united Europe.”

10-donald-trump-debate.w750.h560.2xDonald Trump

Shifting down to a micro-level, I draw personal anecdote to suggest a parallel between the situations in Greece and the US. A friend in New York, highly regarded by me, recently told me she would consider voting for Trump but never Hillary Clinton because she “takes money from Monsanto.” Throwing caution out the window, I’ll go ahead and say I believe Hillary Clinton, like Barack Obama, are both progressive politicians. Yet to state such a belief is to strain my own standards for credulity because of the degree to which both are in the pocket of corporate interests. Even if Clinton takes money from lobbyists who also work for Monsanto or Exxon this is simply a necessity, a reflection of the massive scale of resources required to run for President in the US (unless you are a billionaire). Taking this into account is not meant to excuse Clinton, but it certainly does provide an example of the “reality” I mentioned earlier. In both countries, legacy political institutions are more or less functioning according to the global standard, and yet remain mired in the “three C’s” of politics when conducted as usual today: complexity, compromise and outright corruption. As Žižek, well-known expert on the topic of the Real, says: “The lesson of the Greek crisis is that Capital, though ultimately a symbolic fiction, is our ultimate reality.”

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Hilary Clinton

If I used nautical metaphors earlier on in this text to evoke the idea of a political moment losing its connection to reality, I’ll revisit the concept but with on-the-ground imagery this time. In a previous post, I spoke about the risk innate to populist politics of the polity straying into “uncharted territory.” What this means is concessions made to the immediatedemands of the voting public as channeled by a populist politician are arguably incompatible with the larger legislative workings of government. Events in Greece provide a very recent example here in that no short term mechanism exists to implement the people’s desire for change expressed by the July 5th referendum. This includes the option of a so-called Grexit, which Zizek points out in a follow up article was in fact “the enemy’s plan.”

By the same token, concerns such as the everyday effects of our era’s massive income disparity lack an obvious democratic remedy within the current system. The politician or political party ready to acknowledge these facts1 will get voter traction, but at the same time be considered not serious candidates by the political establishment. The reason for this is apparently that mainstream political operatives exist simply to function as the respectable face of the economic system that backs them. Against the prevailing sense of deadlock this situation creates, our moment sees many proposed alternatives emerging. If they are in inchoate form, that’s okay. To state merely that an alternative is needed is the first step. This after all would seem to be the gambit made by the Occupy movement, which proposed itself as a model form of direct government. Working in a self-organized fashion and without mediation of a political representative, its gesture was to occupy the ground of the present. If Occupy has moved on to other initiatives, it’s important to recognize that the movement anticipated many of today’s developments, not least the addition of the term 99% to our vernacular. It’s a conceptual tool that may prove decisive in the emerging political landscape to come.

This is one of ten posts written to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).

Rosemary Heather is a freelance writer based in Toronto and Editor-in-Chief of Q&A, an information retail project focusing on interviews.

 


1) For instance, the currently surging in the polls, independent US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Sanders was interested less in academic arguments…than in hard numbers that “exemplify the disparities he sees and feels and hears about from people.”

On Art and Populism: The Unpopularity of Art

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

Donald_Trump_August_19,_2015_(cropped)Donald Trump

13/10 2015 One of the discarded ideas I had for the title of this blog, which looks at the topic of political populism as it relates to art, was “Plebiscite.” Populism and plebiscites share the idea that the people are sovereign. Commendable on the face of it, the ideal of direct democracy has limited practical application. The expression of popular opinion that a plebiscite allows risks being too immediate (too emotional, too self-interested) and therefore risks failing to protect the broader public interest. Looked at from this perspective, it’s easy to see why the phenomenon of political populism, whether an impulse arising from the right or left, will always be regarded with mistrust. By seeking out alternatives to established political parties and actors, the populist impulse presumes to appoint the fringe candidate or party as its direct representative. However effective an expression of popular discontent, this bypassing of mainstream political avenues would seem to carry the risk of steering the polity into uncharted territory.

Art is a product of its history and institutions, and by this measure, Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism project is motivated mostly by the need to see its own values preserved. Tendencies on today’s horizon suggest these values are under threat: migration as a crisis, and nationalism as an exclusionary phenomenon, the demagogic tendencies of some political parties, and the unpredictability of democratic power — in the words of Chantal Mouffe, populism has the potential to create “a terrain…for the emergence of collective identities whose nature is inimical to democratic treatment.”1 The openDemocracy website notes that the perception of political populism’s current omnipresence derives in part from the newness of this development in Europe, where “historically populism has been a marginal phenomenon…unlike in the Americas (North and South).”2

Tensions within Europe may be one reason for the rise of political populism on the continent, but wider forces are driving the phenomenon. Arguably, the semi-legitimisation of populist political alternatives is a symptom of a larger transition being undergone in the West. In part, this can be attributed to the way digital technology remaps the landscape of the public commons, to good and bad effect. Digital diffuses power across its network, bringing with it new standards of transparency and accountability in public life. At the same time, digital infrastructure enables asymmetric power advantage. The web is an amplification tool, with a wide reach disproportionate to the resources required to have such an effect.

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In his book The End of Power (2013), Moisés Naím argues we are now in an era where power is both more constrained and more anarchic. Although a useful observation about 21st century’s new dynamic of power redistribution, it’s a thesis that fails to acknowledge a bigger and apparently entrenched problem. Today’s transnational economies and the global class of the 1% subjugates the nation state, such as recently happened in Greece, and erodes the tax base — with ruinous effect to the social fabric. Writing from the UK, George Monbiot states “Our political system protects and enriches a fantastically wealthy elite, much of whose money is, as a result of their interesting tax and transfer arrangements, in effect stolen from poorer countries, and poorer citizens of their own countries.”3

And this is rather the case everywhere. Globally, art organizations find themselves embattled. Operating according to a business model that includes public money, they get characterized as being undeserving of tax revenues. The political pressure to justify this largesse results in the education and outreach programs of today’s contemporary art institutions — not in itself a bad thing. Regardless, at its base the practice of contemporary art is not a popular endeavor. Artists work within a context that will be most intelligible to an audience educated about its traditions and precepts. While representing a shared inheritance art can reasonably be perceived as only speaking to the few. Of course this shouldn’t matter. Public money benefits everyone in one way or another, including an encompassing range of initiatives within the private sector. However, the tradition of the public sphere that includes art carries within it many of the common values — like free speech and critical enquiry — that could be considered a threat to the global elite’s highly successful project of public funding cuts for the poor and middle classes and wealth accumulation for the rich.

George Packer notes that populism is a volatile tendency that “flourishes in periods… like our own, when large numbers of citizens…feel that the game is rigged against them.” It’s a truth that explains the ascendance in the United States of Donald Trump, a billionaire demagogue who connects with his audience because he is an independent with no association with institutions rightfully perceived to be corrupt by the general populace. That Trump continues to have a strong lead amongst Republican candidates for Presidential nominee, despite his noxious (and farcical) political ideas (deporting millions of undocumented immigrants; building a wall between the US and Mexico) suggests the degree to which the traditional options are discredited.

If contemporary art can be said to represent a set of values, it’s important to identify what they are and how artworks are understood to embody them. This is the first of an ongoing series of blog posts that will lead up to and accompany Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition and On Art and Populism symposium. The blog proposes to look at what these values are, why they are worth protecting, and what historical circumstances are currently at work to undermine them, as articulated through reference to art and its institutions.

1) Chantal Mouffe, “Right-Wing Populism: The Mistakes of the Moralistic Response”, The Populism Reader (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2005) 63-68.

2) Cas Mudde, “Populism in Europe: a primer”, openDemocracy, 12 May 2015 https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/cas-mudde/populism-in-europe-primer

3) George Monbiot, “To us, it’s an obscure shift of tax law. To the City, it’s the heist of the century,” The Guardian, 7 February 2011 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/feb/07/tax-city-heist-of-century

This is one of ten posts written to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).

Rosemary Heather is a freelance writer based in Toronto and Editor-in-Chief of Q&A, an information retail project focusing on interviews.

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