Aesthetical and Political Constellations – An Artist’s Reading Diary

Lets talk about: artivism/dramaturgy/practice

My first encounter with the term »artivism« was in the mid-2000s, in the aftermath of Carlo Giuliani’s death at the G8 summit protests in Genoa, in the midst of the rise of notions such as »multitude,« »virtuosity,« »immaterial labor,« »exodus.« This coincided with the start of my engagement in the field of dramaturgy, another term then up-and-coming in the field of contemporary performing arts in Europe, dance in particular, and somehow none of it seemed immediate to me. Important, yes, very, theoretically, politically; but slightly removed from what I perceived as my own artistic concerns and practice.

Let’s talk about: institution/immunity

In his eponymous text published in 2005 Aldo Milohnić [1] used the term »artivism« to address »political interventionism [that] resorts to cultural-manifestation techniques,« but even more importantly to question whether contemporary »art is destined to again assume the function of an asylum for critical political operations,« outside of »highly aestheticized, contemplative, and benevolent bourgeois art that remains secluded behind the safe walls of art institutions.«

Let’s talk about: public/infrastructure

The uniform whiteness of tute bianche has since been abandoned as a unifier, and we’re witnessing (and taking part in) a more diverse stance toward notions of institutions and public and infrastructure.

Let’s talk about: protest

Today, in the post-Occupy era of public performance and public protest, Chantal Mouffe again questions how to envisage artistic strategies in politics and political strategies in art, but advocating a strategy of engagement with institutions that would lead to »a multiplicity of agonistic spaces where the dominant consensus is challenged and where new modes of identification are made available.« [2]

Both Milohnić and Mouffe are aware that »critical artistic practices, in whatever form they are conceived, are no substitute for political practices, and that they will never be able, on their own, to bring about a new hegemonic order« (Mouffe).

Let’s talk about: contemporary

So, how do we engage, publicly, (in) the contemporary, as citizens, as artists?

»Art is often criticized as an autonomous sphere where critical operations have been displaced and thus paralyzed, and if everything that is ever done in art is bound to remain merely art, isn’t that its main weapon rather than its weakness?« [3]

Let’s talk about: political

I am constantly being asked if my work is political.

And for a while I struggled to answer that repeated question. Until I realized it was not a question at all, it was a demand.

Let’s talk about: urgency

The pressure on artists (and a wider cultural sector) to justify their position in contemporary capitalist society, through community work, social work, therapy work … all those social services that are deteriorating in our former-west and former-east societies – has recently seen an uptick in the demand to not just engage, but do so as political activists, »artivists.«

Today, in the age of absolute disenchantment with the (political) establishment (think Donald Trump, think the dead left of Europe, think offshore tax avoidance and living under the poverty line) the artist is pressured to take up politics. And as the crisis of representation in democracy has »hit the representation machine of theatre at its core,« [4] the only way to take up politics is to do so in the public sphere. I ask myself »can art, instead of doing politics, lend its instruments to make the public sphere rise again, at least from occasion to occasion?« [5]

Let’s talk about: audiences

We’ve been talking about audiences for a decade or so, about their number, their satisfaction; but now the artist’s statement has to breach the walls of the white cube, the black box, the institution, the audience of the event – it is imperative it extends beyond to influence society as a whole – an artist today focuses more »on the relations that [their] work will create among [the] public and on the invention of models of sociability.« [6]

Let’s talk about: sociality

And, so, frequently we’re asked to create so-called participatory art that instills a temporary, momentary sense of belonging without actual social or political responsibility, without thinking about the economic and social conditions of the artist’s work; to take part in »micro-utopias« (Bourriaud) of the present where active participants play at being social without any real effect upon the antagonist space of the public, learning how to settle the world better, producing a precarious, fleeting, and affective sense of sociality with no »belonging, enduring, material, or local character.« [7]

Are we confusing »the audience with the public instead of always viewing it as separate from the public, as something by means of which we temporarily leave the public outside?« [8] Can there be talk of public, social, political, with no (political) responsibility?

Let’s talk about: work

What is political in (artistic) work?

Not only the output of our work, but the conditions under which the work occurs.

Not how the work reflects on these conditions, but how the conditions are, inadvertently, reflected in our work.

As Macherey has stated some time ago, an artwork »never arrives unaccompanied: it is a figure against a background of other formations, depending on them.« [9]

It is important, and political, that we address these questions in our own context, in my case the one of the field of contemporary performing arts, with its largely nomadic, dispersed, unorganized, nonunionized workforce;

and, in the age of the free-for-all, to ask can we still do things collectively;

are we ready for radical art in the age of »radical consumption: the consumption of the body, presence, human actions and abilities, physical strength, spiritual power and affects;« [10]

or are we ready to passively accept that »the projection of obscene pleasure into the value of artistic life takes away the artist’s public role – the antagonistic and uncapturable autonomous position connected to shaping the common by conceiving and creating new forms. [Bojana Kunst warns us:] As a consequence, political engagement on the part of the artist is changed into a burlesque or a fashion trend.« [11]

Let’s talk about: crisis/consumption

»We live in a time of the disappearance and rearticulating of the public, the disappearance of the public sphere.« [12] Counted and surveyed for its multitude of opinions, audiences have in the past decade been seen less as possible collectives, and more as »target groups« of ideal neoliberal subjects, individuals to be sorted into categories as active consumers. But art is a space of friction, »a space [says Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula] where a work of art and the spectator come together to produce a crisis, as well as mutual recognition.« [13]

We live in the age of »exploitation of sociality and human relationships for the generation of market value.« [14] The placebo-involvement of so-called participatory theater, the nightmare of the so-called »sharing economy« of companies like Uber (personally I prefer the term »collective consumption« to »sharing economy«), the museum-factory (that Hito Steyerl writes of) where exploitation continues to take place.

»Theater is the space where things are real and not real at the same time. Where we can observe ourselves from the outside whilst also being part of the performance. It is a paradox that creates situations and practices that are symbolic and actual at the same time.« [15]

Let’s talk about: collaboration/collective/community

Where does this leave me? In the impasse of desire (Lauren Berlant) to be an artist, thus be present in the public with my work and opinions and ideas and further desires and fears, to have a continuity of artistic practice amid the pressure of structural inconstancy. To strive for a complexity of the performance’s reality that redirects single-perspective notions of truth toward the ambiguity of multiple perspectives and dialogue.

I keep thinking I saw Bojana Kunst write somewhere:

we do not keep bees for their honey

but I’m unable to find the quote.

I’ve seen many/some argue that theatre (or performing arts) has fallen to a peripheral aside in contemporary society. I’d argue its political potential may be in the space it offers the audience to experiment with ways of viewing, with imagining oneself differently when confronted with a live-posed question, and possibly with our own role in society, our own difficult citizenship.

Artistic work is intrinsically a temporal constellation that opens up aesthetical and political potentiality in our contemporary society, a condensation of time and space, projected and in-progress, work and non-work, artivist and amateur.

Let’s talk about: constellation/happening

The political stake of performing arts is not to present a different social reality, but rather to stage the existing social reality under different terms, to question, to »mobilize passions« (Mouffe).

The political stake of performing arts is to sift through the multitude, seek points of community, instigate collectives and collective actions, to build constellations in place of missing infrastructure, not as a side activity, but as an integral part of our artistic practice.

So, let’s stop performing shows. And let’s assemble in happenings!

  1. Jump Up Aldo Milohnić: »Artivism,« in: transversal / EIPCP multilingual webjournal, 2005, [accessed August 29, 2016]
  2. Jump Up Chantal Mouffe: »Strategies of radical politics and aesthetic resistance,« 2012, [accessed August 29, 2016]
  3. Jump Up Tea Tupajić, in the editorial on »The Immunity of Art« in: Frakcija Performing Arts Journal, no. 66/67, 2013.
  4. Jump Up Florian Malzacher: Not Just a Mirror. Looking for the Political Theatre of Today: Performing Urgency 1 [Berlin 2015]
  5. Jump Up Bojana Cvejić: »Theatrocracy, or the art of dramatizing the public,« [accessed on August 29, 2016]
  6. Jump Up Nicolas Bourriaud: Relational Aesthetics. Dijon 1998, p. 28.
  7. Jump Up Bojana Kunst: Artist at Work, Proximity of Art and Capitalism. London 2015, p. 65.
  8. Jump Up Ibid., p. 72.
  9. Jump Up Pierre Macherey: A Theory of Literary Production. London, 2006, p. 61.
  10. Jump Up Bojana Kunst, Artist at Work, Proximity of Art and Capitalism. London, 2015, p. 22.
  11. Jump Up Ibid., p. 151.
  12. Jump Up Ibid., p. 181.
  13. Jump Up Florian Malzacher, Not Just a Mirror. Looking for the Political Theatre of Today: Performing Urgency 1. Berlin 2015.
  14. Jump Up Bojana Kunst, Artist at Work, Proximity of Art and Capitalism. London 2015, p. 52.
  15. Jump Up Malzacher, op. cit.