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Exhausted (art) geographies

An attempt to define the geopoliticality of contemporary art.

27. April 2018
Magazine > Feature > Exhausted (art) geographies

After many theoretical, practical and political attempts to define the geopoliticality of contemporary art, especially after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, we are faced with an impossibility to define the politics of geographic location outside the global map of the neoliberal distribution of power. Using different means of diversification – the old ones such as colonial, capitalist and patriarchal mechanisms of social and geographical (re)production and the new ones such as technological, scientific and (techno)cultural methods of social and territorial identification – our global world has become a geopolitical location where the majority of people do not belong. Inhuman chains of migrations together with catastrophic climate changes are ultimate geopolitical exposures of today’s social class structures within the neoliberal globality in the living age of permanent war.

Exhausted Geographies – as they are defined by Irit Rogoff – emerge from political, economic, climatic, war or other crises dealing with the (im)possible politics of belonging/identification “as material manifestations of territorialities and territorial claims that cannot sustain themselves.”[1] Many artistic practices, theories, exhibitions and critiques embodied as political displays of such exhausted geographies create geopolitical zones of discomfort, which refuse to be mobilized for territorial, national, ethnic, religious, economic or other geographies within the politics of global domination and (post)human exploitation. All those acts together shape the politics of today’s art, but the question of exhaustion still remains as an impossibility to break through a demanding and oppressive art system that adopts and reproduces the neoliberal conditions of everyday life.

If we put such exhausted geographies into Lefebvre’s concept of counter-space or differential space, with contemporary contradictions that those positions/locations create, it is possible to trace two tendencies: “the dissolution of old relations on the one hand and the generation of new relations on the other”[2] when it comes to the reproduction of social relations’ production, not only in art but in general. The conflict that fosters the explosion of abstract, homogenous and symbolic space (today’s neoliberal geography, which eliminates the prevailing differences by extremizing others) will produce, according to Lefebvre, a space that is other, that is to say, a new geopolitical space of social practice that: “will put an end to those localizations which shatter the integrity of the individual body, the social body, the corpus of human needs, and the corpus of knowledge.”[3]

The materialisation of such counter-space is possible to happen at least through the political articulation of social utopia, through emerging revolutionary strategies based on new spatial codes, which prove that space or geography nowadays becomes “the principal stake of goal-directed actions and struggles.”[4] This is the point where perpetuating exhaustion meets the politics of hope as a means of resistance to the resignation and global acceptance of all the mentioned crises as a fact of life.

Moving from theoretical insights to art practices, especially those which introduce geography into the sphere of political thinking and social life through transgressive voices, visual inscriptions and aesthetical glitches, there are several artworks which produce the politics of error as a trigger for new art or a differential one. This still unsettled and undomesticated art comes from the counter-space of the so-called contemporary art, the art which has for some time been (re)generating the borders of identification using the geopolitical relations of the globalizing, i.e. colonizing, machinery of the neoliberal state.

Margareta Kern’s To Whom Does the World Belong? art project[5] rearticulates the Brechtian question[6] within the contemporary capitalist world, faced with poverty, unemployment, homelessness, global disorientation and possible social resistance. The political montage of her work, which uses stop/slow motion animation, drawings, voice, poetry recordings, video documentation, sounds and silences, produces an inner voice which directs us, occupies our thoughts and reorients our actions, simultaneously creating the syncretic experience (aesthesis) of political affect.

Margareta Kern. The State of Body from the animated video series 'To Whom Does the World Belong?' 2013-2015. Video still

A voice can be heard signalling the end of trading at a stock exchange, lines of poetry are drawing the contours of a woman’s body, a body that is being dragged along a street in Egypt during the Arab Spring of 2011. Society defeated, a woman beaten-up by the police on one side, the neoliberal state and contemporary patriarchy on the other, feature in an image which has travelled the world.

This political spectacle of a scratched frame, of an animation suspended in the moment of aesthetical glitch, is at the same time the red thread of this art project – the thread which unravels the body of the state, economics and art. On the other hand, another video animation of this project, entitled “bodies that can’t take anymore. images that can’t take anymore,” takes us into the exhausting space of the contemporary artistic system, simultaneously tackling its politics and its politicisation. Margareta Kern uses a video featured in the TagesWoche newspaper on the occasion of an artistic and police intervention into the art-architectural Favela Café installation by Tadeshi Kawamata and Christophe Scheidegger.

Margareta Kern. ‘Bodies that can’t take anymore, images that can’t take anymore’ from the animated video series ‘To Whom Does the World Belong?’ 2013-2015. Video still

As part of the Basel 2013 Art Fair, the installation was set up at a public square in Basel, leased for the private art fair. This artwork provoked revolt from local artists and activists, who organized a party as a form of an activist intervention inside the installation. This in turn prompted a violent reaction of the police, directed at the activists, who refused to turn down the music in the late evening. It was at this moment that the video recording of police violence was made, actualizing the simultaneous collapse of the art installation and activist intervention as a collective artistic event.

Margareta Kern intervenes into this footage by politically editing the affect, more precisely, by leaving out any sound, repetitively skipping every third frame and restlessly shifting the recorded spectacle backward and forward. Into the “artistic event” she introduces the politics of the (absent) voice, which speaks of the art world today, that is, of its silent operational mechanisms, compatible formats of the art market and activist production, thus introducing the question: Can the art world speak today, to whom and on behalf of what? At the same time, Kern’s repetitive aesthetics of error ushers in the contemplation of a radical cut in the production and politics of an artistic event and leads us towards a moment in which we transgress the sensationalism of an image (and the spectacle of the event itself) to enter the space of political articulation of revolt and its social engagements. The art world today, as well as the mechanisms of activism and structures of the artistic system, mirrors the body of the state and the body of economics – bodies that regulate them.[7]

Another question is: What is the art world today at all? If we refuse artistic system(s), rules on how to get in or get out, if we ignore the not-so-new media, the precarious art-based research techniques of overproduction and IT ways of doing art, or if we do not care about promoting ourselves by our own means and all our human resource capacities that we own today as self-producers, what remains? In comparison to previous (neo-)avant-garde or radical attempts to crash canons, systems, oppressions, as well to break the rules of proper productivity when it comes to art(ist)’s creation, recognition and presence, this post-, inter-, trans- art world basically gives us freedom to do whatever we want but keeps for itself the power to decide what freedom is, or at least how much it costs. It is pretty hard to deal with it. There are not so many artists, probably not even any, who do not care about those rules of the f(r)ee art society, in particular if they live off of their art. So, the general diagnosis of today’s radical art(ist) is a state of compromise with the neoliberal system (whether it is artistic, social or geopolitical), but the question is how much.

Those questions appear when we meet for the first time Andreja Dugandžić’s ways of doing ‘just’ art,[8] especially when her REFUSAL to do ‘an other’ art materialises itself as the politics of error. This politics speaks about how to trigger a radically different future through the art which imagines, conceptualises and materialises the politics of freedom beyond the existing neoliberal, patriarchal and colonial modes of ‘how to normalise’ society. In such counter-systemic social circumstances, a project result or an art product usually occurs as an error, glitch, rupture or distraction. The red thread of Andreja’s words, sounds, images, affects, receipts, memories spread through the labyrinth of everyday life, making such fundamental errors possible – errors that resonate like the tautological statement: I do art to do art,[9] a promising, emancipatory and liberating statement when we know from which position someone articulates: I do.

The most obvious and the first to mention is a sound glitch that produces electrofusion, pop-art trash, humorous works. Together with Jelena Milušić, Andreja Dugandžić[10] founded the feminist electro band Starke[11] (2007), through which samples, matrices, lyrics and their voices scratch the shiny happy imagination of a civil society and its technologically supreme culture to come (after the 1990s wars in Yugoslavia, especially the bloodiest one in Bosnia). Focused on feminist issues and female power, Andreja Dugandžić contributed to this common sound act with lyrics and voice, as well as the performative appearance that indicated criticism, irony, humour and the impossibility to survive without compromising with the transitional re-traditionalized and impoverished society, in which female sexuality was disciplined in a neoconservative way. Starke produced and inscribed sound glitches into the technologized landscapes of reality, marking the cultural techno-bodies of the future by imperfection, by an error that comes from the present, from reality.

Internet connection is your erection
Internet machine I am your concubine
What is your IP What is your IP
Are you hetero, gay or bi
USB USB come on plug into me
(kiss dot cum)[12]

The motto of the band, SO LITTLE INPUT, SO MUCH OUTPUT, was a deadly sin for the neoliberal era, which finally arrived to the Balkans in a most devastating way.

Andreja Dugandžić. Dear Sisters. Living Archive Exibition. Zagreb 2011

The next sound performance was made in collaboration with Ilvana Dizdarević, aka Djane Elle.m. Together, in 2013 they founded a techno electronic duo called Black Water and Her Daughter (BDHW), much more glitchy and dark than the previous one. The poetry of these minimal beats and their screaming techno sounds appeared as a real-time response, an extempore intervention which occurs in various circumstances, both private and public, especially in off spaces. Staying in line with the feminist politics of doing and thinking everyday life, this poetry reveals deep intimacy, anger and pain, black love and revenge that scale from personal to public stages. Following those deep electro inside/outside shifts, BDHW made a public intervention: Murder close to the dance floor (2014).[13] This sound intervention into the colonized past of the beginning of WW1, which happened 100 years after the murder of the Austro-Hungarian crown prince Franz Ferdinand by the Mlada Bosna (The Young Bosnia) political organization, more precisely by Gavrilo Princip and his political friends in Sarajevo, was both: feminist and anti-colonial. The repetitive voice, glitched into the resistant subliminal messages, resonates the curved paths of the neo-colonial politics of history in Bosnia and Herzegovina on the occasion of this absurd centenary.

Words like murder and Sofia come from the political conscious as an echo that reminds us that history constantly repeats itself in a very symptomatic way. The murder of a pregnant woman, princess Sofia, is lost from this huge, kitschy and dangerous re-launching of a revisionist history, the history that suppressed the recent war in Bosnia with more important issues such as mourning for the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the process of Europeanization. The shouting proclamation: the war is not over denotes the permanent state of colonizing, as well as brutal patriarchal and nationalist histories, which have been perpetuated since the beginning of the 20th century by all available means – economic, political, cultural and, in this particular case of the centenary of WW1, geopolitical. Individual and collective artworks of Andreja Dugandžić speak in the name of women, the suppressed nature and subjugated histories of those who live around and share with her dark times of human exploitation in the sophisticated age of neoliberal patriarchy. This age, which realizes itself through diverse kinds of violence, such as economic, psychological, neo-colonial, physical, war, media, as well as the technologically empowered one, calls for an urgent response. It calls for a radically different world, a brave ideology to defeat this post-ideological mess of fake freedom, a strong voice to rise against the existing machinery of producing power, or at least attempt to do so. The question is, again: how much we DO compromise when we DO something? Andreja Dugandžić’s ways of doing art – choosing the red ink of feminist politics to contribute to radical common ideology – remind us that we need to stay out of this neoliberal machinery, to refuse, to resist as much as we can.

Katalin Ladik. Identification (public action). Vienna 1975

These examples and many other artistic attempts to refuse and resist the geopolitics of the present bring us to exhausted geographies and their material limits, enacted by political, economic, climatic and epistemic violence of today’s global map, shaped by the neoliberal distribution of power. In other words, an impossibility to step out of the perpetuating geopolitical past leads us to the permanent state of geographies in conflict. A good example of it – and maybe one that shows how geopolitical identification worked through the artistic system in pre-neoliberal times – comes from the Identification artistic action (1975), realized on the stairs of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna by Yugoslav artist Katalin Ladik. The occasion of her visit to Vienna was a group exhibition of Yugoslav avant-garde artists, during which she made two photographs where she stands in front of and in behind the Yugoslav flag placed at the entrance of this prestigious academy.

In 2016, Rona Kopeczky used this performative action to curate a series of field exercises in order to explore the contexts and practices of social, historical and political identification through the work of several contemporary women artists from Central and Eastern Europe.[14] On this occasion, she interviewed Katalin Ladik, who said: “I was playing with a possible scenario, with the idea of representing something that I would assume or not, like a role play, questioning the political, or any recognized and accepted schema, while I was there representing a country, in a position in which there were a lot of expectations, and the flag of this country was weighing on me as a burden (…) These stairs, they were the road to the world.”[15] This geopolitical (art) position, symbolically performed at the gate of the Western art world in the time of the Cold War, at the same time presents the permanent overlapping between an artist and her geopolitical identity, which is produced through various, mostly gender, national and class determinations; in the case of Katalin Ladik’s intervention, also through the most important ideological one.

Today, such a position needs to be explored and re-actualized through the relations among art economy, the politics of art exposure and the meaning of freedom inside the current state of art (as well as the state of society) in its comparative historical settings. It is obvious that the present meaning of freedom, mostly shaped by the neoliberal apparatus of the contemporary artistic system, confronts its political, theoretical and artistic limitations when it comes to resisting responsibility and radical subjectivity in many artistic practices. The meaning of freedom, (ab)used as one of the most powerful means of the neoliberal way of thinking, doing and living, reveals the fact that nobody stays out of this way, whether resisting or not. In such neoliberal conditions of everyday life, freedom has lost its historical, revolutionary or, more precisely, ideological meaning of collective struggle because it was distributed to individuals as a commodity of identity (self)production within the strictly controlled geopoliticality. Among the exhausted and emerging artists who resist this ‘contemporary’ state of art, the same question still circulates: How to radically redefine art geographies in order to resist or refuse the dominant political/economic neoliberal structure of producing both art and life? Instead of an answer, there is the politics of error. The politics that interrupts our social reality with a counter-historical emergency of facing the present and its utopian/dystopian future beyond the exhausted (art) geographies of today.

[1] Irit Rogoff. “Exhausted Geographies” (keynote lecture). Crossing Boundaries Symposium, INIVA, London 2010.

[2] Henri Lefebvre. The Production of Space. Blackwell. 1991. p. 52

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. p. 410

[5] Kern, Margareta. “To Whom Does the World Belong?” (2013–15).

[6] Reference to a film written by Bertolt Brecht, Kuhle Wampe Oder: Wem Gehört Die Welt?, and directed by Slatan Dudow, Germany, 1932.

[7] Petrović, Jelena. “The Politics of Glitch or Aesthetics of Error?” Catalogue of Margareta Kern’s solo exhibition “To Whom Does the World Belong?” Belgrade Cultural Centre, November 2015.

[8] Information about Andreja Dugandžić’s art practice is available here.

[9] This statement comes from a conversation with Andreja Dugandžić about art production within/out the artistic system of today.

[10] Besides Andreja Dugandžić and Jelena Milušić, Starke were supported by DJ Jasmina Malemedžija and later by DJ Ilvana Dizdarević.

[11] The name Starke comes from slang translation/adaptation of Converse All Stars shoes and is also used in the local slang as a word for an experienced woman.

[12] More at Andreja Dugandžić and Soundcloud

[13] More at Andreja Dugandžić.

[14] Rona Kopeczky. On Identification as Field Exercise. 2006.

[15] Ibid.

This text is protected by copyright: © Jelena Petrović. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Margareta Kern. ‘The State of Body’ from the animated video series ‘To Whom Does the World Belong?’ 2013-2015. Video still.