Thursday, July 31, 2008

from "Data Recovery" publication Producing Dissent: Personal and Political Methodologies

Producing Dissent: Personal and Political Methodologies

In their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky mapped out the “propaganda model”: the intricate relations between mass media outlets and corporations, which lead mass media to filter certain information so that a public consent is manufactured. This process of “manufacturing consent” was responsible for shaping much of the discussion after 9/11. When the enemy is to be defined, mass media outlets are generally there to manufacture an anonymously approving public opinion. In the case of Iraq, we learned that, contrary to the insistence of the US and UK governments, there were no “weapons of mass destruction”. Recently, a newspaper revealed that some of the individuals presented as “political experts” on a number of news networks were employed by multinational corporations whose capital flow was impeded by Iraq’s then-regime. We know the story. Wars are increasingly waged on the level of information manipulation. The demon sitting at the information switch, as mentioned by Stephen Wright in his text Data’s Demon written for Data Recovery publication, actively participates in biopolitical control mechanisms, determining the borders of bare life; in the above mentioned context justifying Guantanamo’s existence for quite a long time in some people’s eyes.

Judith Butler gave a lecture in UvA Amsterdam in last March about possibilities of producing critique in academia. How new subjectivities can be created through active dissent came again to the foreground of discussion. Remembering Arendt’s underlining of civil disobedience as a moral obligation made me think one more time how it is not possible to even breathe today without taking a subjective political position, that it is an obligation more than ever. What is the role of contemporary art in producing active dissent? Many contemporary artists are interested in intervening into the borders between activism, social work, individual participation in political debates and creative production. The new subjectivity of artistic producers has turned the political potential of contemporary art into a common discussion.

While Data’s Demon switches on and off, it is not very suprising that processes of knowing and non-knowing become more involved with artistic strategies and researchas a new subjective position opening political potential to discussion in contemporary art. Particularly, artists -positioning themselves with changing realities and circumstances of the day- engage with recovering some certain histories untold and deliberately disregarded. They question the positions leaving some certain histories untold. Who produces and disseminates information? What makes a piece of information privileged or non-privileged? Why do some stay and some become part of the collective amnesia? How does knowledge production as such sustain some some political positions? And how can we dispute over that knowledge production?

For these concerns Jacques Rancière’s comment in the panel discussion "Artists and Cultural Producers as Political Subjects: Opposition, Intervention, Participation, Emancipation in Times of Neo-liberal Globalisation" that took place in Berlin in 2005 is published as part of this publication. Here, Rancière elaborates on the relationship between arts and politics by criticizing the strategies of certain documentary practices and 'relational aesthetics'. It has been observed by some that the comments he has given are what the art world wants to hear about itself. For me, he makes two important points in this speech: first he suggests the political is not the “outside,” the “real” that art would have to reach, that art should be politically committed to find; then he says “politics begins when there is a disagreement on the “reality of the real,” a dispute on the “given” itself”. He underlines the inherent criticality of artistic methodologies and points exactly towards the subjective position of producing dissent by disputing the given itself as a political potential in cotemporary arts rather than creating re-politicized parodies for the sake of being political.

Many of the knowledge producing activities initiated by artists dispute the “given”. How to confront and dispute the given, how to read against the grain of consensus? The artistic methodologies of research and process play a pivotal role here. Political potential performs itself almost as a double edged sword – it is so easy to fall back into a didactic well of witnessing, self-placating and trying to convince the audience about the political commitment of the artist. That’s why Data Recovery –as another exhibition that departs from the political potential of knowledge production – turns around the different artistic methodologies of the artists involved rather than using them for a certain conceptual illustration. The performance of covering is underlined here as a performative generic action word for the difference created by different artistic methodology as in the example of each artist’s covering the same song differently. They all work on the same notes and same original recording but the outcome is generally very different.

Methodologies make the difference; when the artists perform information in their work, it is not always the degree of politicness of that piece of information that creates the political potential but the twist coming with the artistic methodology. This performativity taking place, dirreneht reframings of the real as called by Ranciere, follows the changing, transforming characteristic of information. Just like Borges masterfully suggested in his well-known story “Uqbar, Tlön, Orbius Tertius”. In this well-known story, an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of Orbis Tertius, a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world: Tlön. In the course of the story, the narrator encounters increasingly substantive artifacts of Orbis Tertius and of Tlön; by the end of the story, Earth is becoming Tlön.

Recently, upon hearing about Data Recovery, a good friend asked “But isn’t everything performative these days, let along information?” referring to the current popularity of the term performative in contemporary art. Responding, I realized I’ve been thinking about my own daily relationship with information: receiving and writing e-mails, keeping an active blog to report about things I do and things I am interested in, reading certain blogs as part of my daily news updates, spending some hours in front of youtube watching diverse stuff and surfing across the information accumulated in wikipedia where I sometimes contribute. This online and casual information in transition, appearing as a sort of recording in transformation, happening and taking place, makes it impossible not to think of a performativity inherent to knowledge. While accesibility of this info-sphere in transition is providing us performative as a keyword, the situation is not a rose garden at all. Especially in countries like Turkey where spaces like youtube is constantly closed with court orders finding separatist and anti-Kemalist material online dangerous. Furthermore, one must not disregard another fact: Networking communities like facebook seemingly provides access but they are more used for scrutinizing privacy, tracing consumer habits and etc. Turkish army recently traced some number of men who were escaping from their obligatory military service through their info profiles on facebook.

Within these complex affininites of information in terms of its production, scrutinization, distribution and so called accesibility, my proposal or conceptual framework for Data Recovery takes its title from the performative process of salvaging data from damaged, failed, wrecked or inaccessible primary storage media when it cannot be accessed freely or simply gets lost. For me Data Recovery refers to illegal activities, attempting to break the distribution and production nodes. ”Can data get recovered?,” wonders Stephen Wright at the end of his text “Data’s Demon” and he says:

“Among the most forward-looking art practices today make use of the socially critical potential of data as an artistic material. Yet it is obvious that the aesthetic use of data – and of data tout court – is a eminently ambivalent phenomenon. For better or for worse, data makes things happen. But which is it? For better? Or for worse?”

This is a question for the visitor/reader to decide. Meanwhile let us elaborate on the works constructing Data Recovery to see how the exhibition produces its subjective position. Julie Ault and Martin Beck ‘s collaboration Information, a supersized wall mural, looks like a statistics chart that can be found in a sociology or economics textbook. The work gives an account of the history of the poverty measuring guidelines deployed by the U.S. government since 1964, merged with a graphic rendering of the increasing income gap between the wealthy and the rest of the American population over the past twenty-five years. Ault and Beck are interested in dismantling and building levels of analysis to process the relationship of art with information. The artists experiment with transforming a piece of social science information in an artistic format. Every Information mural is different and yet each of them is an accumulation of ongoing research since Ault and Beck update us with the recent changes in their data every time they are invited to create this mural. The artists actually take an existing piece of information into their hands- not something actually hidden but something not dissemminated, thereby reminding us the role of information in the politics of manufactured consent today.

While Ault and Beck activate their dissent about poverty policies in this artistic context, Michael Blum approaches the failure of the twentieth century systems from a witty and provoking angle in his essay performance video Three Failures (2006). In what he calls “a fairy tale about communism, social democracy and capitalism”, Blum brings together unexpected material about Sergei Eisenstein, Winston Churchill, Isaiah Berlin, Adam Smith and many others, weaving them into one story he performs in Malmoe, Riga and New York. As these cities merge into one bloc in our “global village”, this sequel to Wandering Marxwards (1999) keeps saying that all three phenomena -communism, social democracy and capitalism- are intermingled with each other, almost three faces of one story that fails. Michael Blum nourishes his critical position by putting himself on an ambivalent edge. What he does is more than what is on the cover; that is a playful take on these “failures”. By deciphering or re-reading the story inbetween the lines in his humourous way, he makes us question the positions from where privileged knowledge is produced and disseminated and reiterates the need to make personal and thus political re-readings of one’s own.

Vienna-based women art and media collective Klub Zwei’s work centers on critiquing dominant modes of representation and developing other approaches. In their new work Vaeter Taeter (2007), they choose to confront two women, Helga Haufbauer and Patricia Reschenbach, whose fathers were Nazi perpetrators. Interviewing Haufbauer and Reschenbach, they focus on the women's personal memories to trace what is missing in collective memory and especially how these two women’s lives are shaped by the past in terms of their identities, personal relationships and political sensitivities. Although we rarely see them personally in the work, we get to know Jo Schmeiser and Simone Bader of Klub Zwei through the framing of the shots and the intriguing and committed questions they pose. Their attempt to record personal histories of people living their lives today affected by National Socialism has built an exclusive body of artistic research in this field. Klub Zwei’s way of dealing with this history reflects their very personal way of political activism that shows itself with their different projects. For them, history is an actual and tactile series of images and stories to be re-presented.

Banu Cennetoglu’s site-specific installation Determined Barbara creates a temporary zone of occupation in the exhibition space to make the viewer confront the existence of Determined Barbara (“decisive” and “resolute” are also used in some reports on internet) - a SFOR [UN’s international peace forces]military training ground which displaced 704 inhabitants when it was built before the war in Glamoc in former Yugoslavia. Cennetoglu plays with the fictional language of documentary photography in this temporary occupation zone to communicate Barbara and the so-called stabilizing operations based there as a conflicting fiction created by a state of exception- that is peace stabilizing forces’ turning the villagers into refugees by their excepitonal right to provide and preserve peace. While Barbara turns peace into an ambiguity with its existence, for Cennetoglu – who conceived the series as a road trip between : Belgrade, Banja Luka, Sarajevo and Glamoc, the four cities that have a relationship with Determined Barbara – the performance of reporting itself becomes one of taking sides. Her deliberate way of impeding the distribution of the information she recorded is a part of artist’s “covering” methodology. The conceptual language she formulates points to a sharp awareness about the risk of dealing with “difficult matters” in the space of contemporary art.

Susanne Kriemann’s photography and text oriented work is driven by a critical curiosity about monumental structures as embodiments of ideology. In her own words, “the points of reference include the tension between historical objects and collective identities, and the re-contextualization of these objects within the space of the museum.” An intensive and intuitive research process lies behind each piece; she collects all the existing information about the objects of her curiousity before determining the format of the artistic outcome. The power of Kriemann’s work comes from this process and reaches its crescendo in the extraordinary transformation of that collected information. This time the centre of her attraction is Berlin’s 12,650,000 kilograms load test body “Grossbelastungskörper”, which was erected in the Tempelhof district as a commission by Albert Speer in 1941 and registered as a historical landmark since 1995. The publication 12,650,000 mimics the format of Artforum exactly and is accompanied by the artist’s photographic installation of the same name which is on display in Neue Nationalgalerie as part of 5th Berlin Biennial. Printed in only 100+10 copies, 12,650,000 opens with construction pictures of the object, repeats the same quoted image of “Grossbelastungskörper” for 380 pages and ends with the artist’s own photograph of the object in scaffolding again during official state renovation executed in 2007 and 2008. This complex and 1,6 kg “artistic edition” not only questions the value of the monument as an artistic object but also highlights Artforum as a market value determination tool displaying hundreds pages of artistic commercials.

Stockholm-based Goldin+Senneby define themselves as a framework for collaboration between artists Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby dedicated to exploring notions of economic fiction and immaterial place. Working actively since 2005, they – demanding refreshed terminology for discursivity and research process- are engaged in an ongoing research practice, revealing its different steps at different places in various formats within an expanded time span. They claim that Looking for Headless is a process of constructing fiction and, at the same time, having the narrative play into the domain of the factual. What Goldin+Senneby stage operates as a catalyser creating the communicative, contextual, and most importantly, “performative” space of Data Recovery. It appears as a gesture of writing a meta-language for performative knowledge production, reframing fiction and the real and cross-texturing the fictitious non-spaces. For Data Recovery, they commissioned the writer John Barlow to write a crime mystery about Goldin+Senneby’s investigation into an offshore company in the Bahamas called Headless Ltd. And sent him to Bahamas to conduct the research for them. Barlow wrote a fictionalized travel journal about his findings and/or lack of findings in Bahamas, which will be a chapter of the novel Looking for Headless- a crime mystery based on Goldin+Senneby’s research process. And it will be Barlow himself, instead of Goldin+Senneby, coming to the opening at Gamec to be on stage with me, the curator of the project, talking about his Bahamas experience “looking for Headless”.

As final words, the exhibition will communicate itself more through its performative process space. In the mean time, I hope this publication will work as a good accompaniment.

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