I guess the worst thing I can say is that I’m writing this on the 1st of May – International Workers Day. I should be out marching or something – but for what and with whom?
I didn’t realise it before, but May Day was officially declared a celebration as early as 1889, and has grown ever since as an international holiday. All that nineteenth century creativity somehow puts the following hundred years to shame. What was the big idea in the 1900s? Science and Technology? Free Markets? Pragmatism? Mass Murder?
Anyway, in England, the country of my birth, they have a typical compromise for May Day where the holiday actually falls on the Monday nearest to the 1st of May, so most people just treat it as a day off.
If they want to march they have to take a day’s leave from work, on the holiday itself there are no rallies, there is no testing of the powers of the state, no politics, just more consumption opportunities. If the 1st of May could be seen as one of SUPERFLEX’s tool proposals (let’s make a holiday for revolutionaries and see what happens), then the Brits already know how to disarm it. It goes back to Edmund Burke I think, and the conservative reaction to 1789. It wasn’t always true, remember Oliver Cromwell – but it is now, and seems assured of staying that way.
So, forget Britain, and see what tools could do in places less confident of themselves and all they have already achieved. At least, that’s what I said to myself 18 months ago when I moved to Denmark/Sweden (Malmöhagen, as someone said recently). Of course SUPERFLEX were one of the main attractions to the area. I could work with them, as I am, and maybe use their idea of ‘tools’ to think through some ideas for the art institution itself.
‘Tools’, in their terms, seem to me to be an idea about underlying structures – about how things can be different if you do something with the engineering of a situation, and then stand back to watch the results. Applied to an art hall, the approach has to be equally deep-rooted in terms of what and how things are managed. It means changing the
purpose of spaces in order to investigate their possibilities again. In the Rooseum in Malmö we have a building, a little money, a provincial city and a reasonably dynamic region. To adopt (and adapt) the SUPERFLEX methodology, we have to ask what we can do with these raw ingredients – though it can start to sound too much like cooking now.
How can we have a ‘real’ and relevant role in this place and with the people here? How can we reasonably impose art culture or expect
people to seize the opportunity we try to provide? How can we be friendly while still staying difficult – because difficulty in the end cannot be avoided, can it? How can we turn the Rooseum from a place with set expectations and limited possibilities into a tool for a community – be that local, regional, artistic or whatever? I don’t want to answer that question here – it’s for another time and place – but simply to point out how the approach (the philosophy) of tools can be put to use – and not only regarding the actual ones SUPERFLEX themselves provide. At the least, thinking about tools in this way tells us that we can certainly no longer be guardians of a fixed cultural legacy, nor confident arbiters of taste, at least not in any way other than as capricious gatekeepers of palaces for calm continuity.
What thinking about these questions also provokes is a need to have some polar opposites, or dialectics, with which to juggle. For me, two quotes from an artist and a philosopher provide one set of columns on which things can be constructed. Vito Acconci in 1980 spoke rather prescriptively about the “… gallery as a place where a community could be called to order, called to a particular purpose…”. But only twenty years later, in a discussion on hospitality, Jacques Derrida seems to have completely opened out the question again. He now talks about the necessity to simply say yes: “Let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female.” This call seems more urgent than ever in the light of recent political events in Europe. How can we start to put a value simply on saying ‘yes’, on welcoming and being welcomed, on hospitality for its own sake? Only, it seems, by speaking clearly of its significance in our lives, of the pleasure of providing for others that global capitalism can only phrase in terms of charity. If we can make places in the world where the diversity of a city or a community is a key to its richness, where identity is based on ‘cosmopolitanism’ rather than ethnic essentialism, then we can maybe celebrate globalism rather than oppose it as a tool of profit-driven expansion. And saying yes to the stranger, even in an art institution, could be its beginning.
Again in relation to SUPERFLEX, I have used another term to describe what they and a few other artists seem to be doing. It also has some application in relation to institutions. ‘Engaged autonomy’ seems to me to provide a way of on the one hand avoiding the Greenbergian reductivism that is, at least in today’s depoliticised artists, a certain (privileged) space to do their own thing. What it can mean is best described in terms of specific artistic autonomies, such as the economic autonomy granted by state funding for research or culture, combined with a low level integration of market opportunities. The SUPERGAS project in which shares are sold whilst the research is sponsored through both the art system and independent aid agencies is a perfect example. Other ‘engaged autonomies’ function in similarly ambivalent spaces that are, as with the ‘tools’, mostly identifiable at a structural level. For instance, they may exist where institutional critique crosses with an individualist, ironic and perhaps humorous detachment, or where the production of the praxis of life in an art institution confronts sociological or anthropological research (look at the way people behave in an art bar). These different forms of ‘engaged autonomy’ provide the means by which the slippery enclosure that is contemporary art can have some purchase on the world without falling into crassness or affirmation of the status quo, something that is a constant danger once market mechanisms are adopted or art-life barriers are crossed. In terms of institutions themselves, ‘engaged autonomy’ provides exactly that combination of real local effectiveness with a leftover modernist aspiration to utopian escapism without which the sites of art can also descend into a related kind of affirmative populism. Utopia of course should remain a proble-matic term, not least because it can provide vain intellectuals with an excuse to endlessly postpone their ethical judgements of present actions. Yet its purchase on the imagination makes it hard to reject out of hand, and the genuine aspirational desire for such a thing has been behind most of the last century’s greatest artworks, as well as its worst political tragedies.
Perhaps the most appropriate role for utopia today is as a ghost or a spectre. It cannot be a coincidence that Marx, in the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, refers to Communism as a spectre haunting Europe, an already dead idea revived for a new age. Maybe the ghost can gain some weight and substance again today. Sitting in an office in Malmö – a city that, as William Burroughs noted, is built around a graveyard at its absolute centre – I wonder how those polarities of local and international, relevance and experiment, nihilism and possibility might be negotiated now. And I see in SUPERFLEX and their tools some ways to move between these rocks and hard places. They can help us to move beyond the legacy of modernism, to get behind the institutional surface – not as a form of negative critique but as a way of investigating other possibilities of what such places might become. I re-member the cry of the old Socialist Workers party, “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”. Well, I don’t have the end, but “Neither Utopia nor Affirmation…” seems a good start today •