Realizing The Impossible, Reviewed by Alan Moore

Realizing the Impossible

Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland, eds. 2007
Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority
AK Press, Oakland and Edinburgh

by Alan W. Moore

The volume reviewed here bespeaks an exciting upsurge of attention to a world of dynamic, committed artistic practices, past and present. Realizing the Impossible, a collection edited by Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland, is largely a book on contemporary art, exploring politicized artistic practice now and in the recent past. It surveys radical art and art-making communities from around the world; the investigation spans a range of work, including those rooted in traditional genres, as well those which have created their own language of analysis. Realizing also recognizes the substantial part of the debt owed to international perspectives. It is constructed as a series of historical essays and close personal interviews, providing critical discussion and first-person experiential accounts of the pursuit of an “anarchist aesthetic.”

Realizing begins with interviews with Carlos Koyokuikatl Cortéz, whose stark woodcut graphic style grew out of the IWW milieu in Chicago. The Italian Flavio Costantini and the English illustrator and “classic working class anarchist” Clifford Harper are also interviewed. These and other conversations comprise some of the most valuable parts of Realizing, acting as primary documents that point to realms of hidden history. As a classic modern political movement violently suppressed from both right and left, anarchism’s relationship to history is very often memorial. Nicolas Lampert’s story of the varied Chicago monuments to the 1886 Haymarket Square riots is a fascinating tangle. The essay is a valuable contribution to the literature of contest over public sculpture.

Among the essays in Realizing which reach back to modernism, Patricia Leighten makes the broadest case for anarchist influence in the pre-World War I French avant garde. Leighten investigates the relationship between satirical cartoons and modernist abstraction in the cubism of Juan Gris and Picasso. She reads artists’ illustration work back into their oeuvres - a scholarly tack now considered legitimate art history since the Museum of Modern Art’s titanic “High & Low” exhibition in 1990.

“El Grito del Diseño,” Dylan Miner’s piece on newspapers of the farmworkers’ movement, is exciting but curiously denatured. He discusses the complex political history of the Mexican-American working class movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s to set up links between early 20th century anarchists and el movimiento. Yet, Miner formalizes his objects, arguing that crooked type columns evidence rasquachismo, “stitching together,” a kind of arte povera, and that mixed typefaces express mestizaje, “miscegenation,” or hybridity. His use of this theory feels strained, while more obvious significations seem slighted. Chicano/a artists supported the workers’ movement with street or field theater, silkscreened posters, and murals, all of which were important artistic achievements.

In a survey of political art activities in Denmark, Brett Bloom, a principal in the group Temporary Services, brings a mass of interesting historical and contemporary material into view. This is another instance of how the global justice movement has brought new attention to the political art and cultural work of years past, with the movement’s multinational constituencies of activists and interest in diverse spectacular tactics. For Bloom, the collapse of state socialism corrupted the political organizations which instrumentalized art, insisting that it be conservative in form and propagandistic in effect. “The fight for new forms of social reality,” he writes, “should more openly involve art and creative activities,” which, in themselves, articulate new social formations or new world views. This is a brief for radical formalism, the old dream of the Constructivists quashed by socialist realism. He also neatly inverts the infamous “TINA” formula (Margaret Thatcher’s remark that “there is no alternative” to global capitalism). For Bloom, the idea that there is no place outside of capitalism means: “There are no privileged places of resistance; every space can and should be contested.”

A feminist critique is contributed by Erika Biddle, who engages Dada, the privileged anarchistic modernism. She discusses the women of the movement, Emmy Hennings, Sophie Taeuber, Hannah Hőch and Mina Loy, and gives vignettes of several others. Biddle rides a wave of recent scholarship on Dada women, which interrogates the movement for the light it sheds on the changing role of women and constructions of gender in the high Fordist period.

A central aim of Realizing is to draw together the activism of past and present. A handful of interviews seek to find the historical links with work produced in the 1960s and 70s, possibly to inspire anarchists today with the ethic of more active resistance. In “Conversation with Black Mask,” Iain McIntyre interviews Ben Morea and Dan Georgakas of the infamous mid-1960s Lower East Side action group that walked the line between art and politics, with strident communiques and strange and potent actions that left them distrusted by both artists and leftists, new and old. Another look at this era comes from Co-editor Erik Reuland’s interview with Gee Vaucher of the anarchist punk band Crass, and opens a wide window on the English anarchist scene.

Dara Greenwald writes a straightforward account of the Videofreex, Catskills video activists who ran a pirate TV station in Lanesville, New York for five years in the 1970s. They not only analyzed and criticized mainstream media, they made their own and taught others how. Paul Ryan and others developed ideas of “cybernetic guerrilla warfare” against the “perceptual imperialism” of broadcast television, and envisioned the kinds of systems that would comprise a healthy “media ecology” based on anti-authoritarian ideology.

Looking northward, Allan Antliff interviews Luis Jacob for Realizing, a gay-identified Canadian artist involved with the Anarchist Free School in Toronto in the late 1990s. Jacobs draws distinctions between artists who enact artist-run culture (as in exhibit spaces, magazines, etc.), punks doing DIY, and anarchists who enact an ethics of collective participation. “All join within the same society to form multiple dimensions of … a democratized culture.”

Erick Lyle's report on the stencil art of Argentina is an exemplary work on the complex relation between street art born of political upheaval and its subsequent recuperation. During the economic crisis of late 2001, spray-painted stencil art was rampant in Buenos Aires, layered into “spontaneous murals” by anonymous artists. Today stencil designs are networked online, and advertisers also use them. As Kyle's conversations with Buenos Aires artists reveal admiration for commercial tactics of U.S. artists, he realizes that “the stencil was the aesthetic of a new participation that had long faded.” He details the assimilation into institutions and markets in a fine work of “participant observer” art history.

Along other contemporary veins, Kyle Harris argues against shoddily produced “anarchist video.” He urges adoption of “classical narrative strategies” to build audiences accustomed to commercial media language. MacPhee and Nato Thompson’s essay on the adventures of the Chicago Department of Space and Land Reclamation in 2001 deals with the balancing act of recognizing art and artistic expression as legitimate political action, as performed by individuals and collectives. The “disparate and bizarre actions” undertaken by this group – a giant trashball down the main shopping street, kiosks for free speech, “loiter” signs, and more – were solidly based in avant-garde principles. “Ambiguous aesthetic activity,” they write, “allows a language of communication that crosses multiple fields of identity and personal flavor.”

In his article on protest puppetry, Morgan Andrews drives the whole route from postwar to post-9/11. Andrews historicizes the practice of radical puppetry back to the folk traditions of Europe which inspired the early career of Peter Schumann of Bread & Puppet Theatre fame. Puppetry was a key part of the dynamic new protest culture that came to public attention in Seattle in 1999, and it promptly drew police heat. Andrews details the chronology of increasing police harassment, infiltration, the arrest of artists, and the destruction of puppetry.

Lastly, Cindy Milstein strives to synthesize various threads in the book, most particularly the long conflictual strain she calls critique versus vision in radical art. She quotes German theater artist Bertolt Brecht’s famed aphorism that embraces both positions: “Art is not merely a mirror held up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

The question remains: what is the relation of the activist creative world to the work of market and institutional artists who claim the mantle of the avant garde? Today, making “exciting experiments in social reorganization” has become a genre in contemporary art, promulgated in art schools through recent formulations of relational and dialogical aesthetics by the likes of Nicolas Bourriaud and Grant Kester. Just as oft-exhibited world artists consistently loot resistant subcultures for ideas and situations (e.g., Thomas Hirschhorn), so can their formal work be profitably assimilated into activist practice. Rather than rail against this appropriation, one could study and use its instances. It is in this way that we can turn these alienated “succeeders” into a true avant garde, and bind them back in to the political realm from which they poach ideas. In this way, radical democratic ideas, the essence of resistance and liberation, are continually advanced into the public realm.

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