Defining Anarchist Art: Gleanings from a Roundtable on Realizing the Impossible

Realizing the Impossible

Josh MacPhee:

We put together Realizing the Impossible because we wanted to read a book that explored the relationships between art and anarchism in a myriad of diverse ways, but it just didn’t exist. That’s often the reason people put out books, because they want to read something and they can’t find it, so they try to bridge the gap. Relationships between art and anarchism are an under-explored subject. While there are a lot of anti-authoritarians producing artwork, there’s not a lot of intellectual work theorizing how that art exists in the world, and how it’s different from what other political cultures have produced.

As with all left social movements, in anarchist activism there is an antagonism towards art as a result of the idea that social transformation comes from the difficult and tireless work of organizing and activism, and art is something that needs to be pushed to the side when “real work” needs to get done. Realizing the Impossible is a collection of writings, art, and interviews that argue against that idea, and demonstrate that cultural work is not a side show, but a main event. A look at history will show that most dramatic social transformations have had strong cultural components.

When creating art, one of the things I have always tried to ask myself is, “is this effective?” I believe it’s valuable to express myself and I think that’s why most artists create art, but if we want to claim our art and culture as somehow leaving the realm of simple self-expression and intervening into the political landscape, then we need to ask deeper questions about what our art does, who it effects, why and how.

I want to quickly bring up a couple of examples in the book that raise these questions. First, in his essay on Danish anti-authoritarian art practice, Brett Bloom introduces us to Christiania, a squatted free city on the edge of Copenhagen that has been in existence for almost 40 years. Christiania largely came into being as a result of conversations started at an art show: its actual beginnings look and seem more like an art gesture than traditional activism or organizing, and its existence has always had an extremely aesthetic component.

Another essay in the book is a critique of contemporary adbusting techniques written by Anne Elizabeth Moore. In the essay she demands that people attempting to critique corporations semiotically need to do more than create self-serving parodies of corporate logos, but dig much deeper. We need to really study and understand how corporate semiotics and branding works, and we need to build a resistance practice that we can assess is having an effect on corporations, not inadvertently supporting their world view. I think these are both good places to start a conversation about art and politics.

Cindy Milstein:

Josh and Erik Reuland asked me to write a piece for this book on what art would look like in an anarchist or antiauthoritarian society. For me, the way to think about that was to figure out how to get from here to there, and what role art can play in that

One of the things that might be interesting to talk about here is the dual role of art as vision and critique. On the one hand, art imagines what is beyond the present, or what are the possibilities we see that can move us toward a freer, more humane, decent, joyful, and beautiful society. At the same time, art can be against authority. It’s simultaneously social critique and social vision. I love that the title of the book ends up reflecting this, reflecting exactly what I would understand the role that anarchist or antiauthoritarian artists should be striving for.

In this ahistorical, fragmented time period, when there’s always a new product, a new edition of the iPod, when things get forgotten almost before they even happen, it’s unfortunate that a lot of anarchist artists also seem to have a sense of ahistoricism, of forgetting the context we’re in. Whether artists are radical or not, art is always a form of memory, documenting historical events or revolutions, social struggles or daily life: How can we create art that helps us remember?

These three things—vision, critique, and remembrance—all come together in the example of the United Victorian Workers, which was organized in late November 2005 by an artist/activist collective as a counterpoint to the Victorian Stroll in Troy, New York. The “unofficial” version “gave a presence to those whose labor built the city by dressing in Victorian-era working-class apparel and performing a period-inspired strike during the event.”[1]

What I appreciate about this action is how it confronts forgetting precisely in a place of nostalgia—where what’s remembered about the Victorian era is the cute, quaint, authority figures of the police, or the well-dressed upper class in the community. The people who were exploited by the Industrial Revolution are lost in this official re-creation of the past. So this piece asks people in the present who are already gathered to remember history to really grapple with the current reality of it.

It’s ... envisioning what we want our public spaces to look like. It’s a place where we can remember together; a place where we can dialogue; a place where there’s the ability to start engaging with what we want in our communities. And it is done by a group of people together, collectively.

Ron Sakolsky:

This event in Troy both subverts the spectacle and is subverted by the spectacle: this brings up the question of gestures, the need to move from creating mere gestures to creating fissures in consensual reality. These fissures allow people to imagine other possibilities within the present reality. The Surrealists called this a revolt against miserableism, against the misery which is the only possibility of conventional reality.

Mark Reed:

In defense of gestures, without social movements a lot of the time what we do feels like gestures. I’ve been involved with a couple of “gestures” through the last couple years, like “One Night of Fire,” where we had about fifteen hundred people show up in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge and take the train to Coney Island, and by the end of the evening we had about five hundred people skinny-dipping off Coney Island. It was ecstatic and wonderful. The politics of it were implicit, almost invisible. It was gestural, but a gesture that can keep that kind of politics alive in some way, keep it tangible in some way. It’s about territory, reclaiming public space and taking it over however we can.

Nato Thompson:

Josh and I worked with Emily Foremen on the chapter of the book about the The Department of Space and Land Reclamation (DSLR.)[2] DSLR took place in May 2001, and had a noble goal, which was to reclaim all visual, social, and cultural space in Chicago, and return it to those who live in it, work in it, and create it.

Such manifesto-esque activities are useful. The idea basically came out of a project that we organized in 2000 called Counter Productive Industries (CPI), which was trying to fuse activist models into art models, just to produce models. The late 1990s and the early part of this decade were acronym friendly. So we were CPI, and our goal was to flood the financial district of Chicago with counterproductive material. We had this idea for an alternative mail system that would come through the gallery, pick up counterproductive stuff, and disseminate it throughout downtown via a series of dispensers installed by the artist collective Temporary Services.[3] People were also using telemarketing; we had a development office whose goal was not to raise anything. The basic idea was to use an industry’s production model against itself, which is great. I worked as a temp for a long time, and I was deeply invested in turning their tools against them. But it turned into, well, you know how it is - it had a lot of activist language around it, but it basically was just art kids feeling like we were doing something innovative. We realized we might have been on to something, but we really needed to try to develop the art/activist model better. We had to think more about audience: Who was coming to this thing? Who was participating? What were the social networks we were engaging?

We decided to try something more activist. DSLR was fifty-nine interventions in public space over seventy-two hours. We also used this place called the Butcher Shop. We got a bunch of graffiti crews who were really cool to do the interior design, put some couches in, some nice houseplants; it was comfortable, and people had breakfast, lunch, and dinner there and hung out. We tried to get people from diverse networks in Chicago so it wasn’t just artsy, but also included activist and community organizing groups. In terms of this hub, we were thinking that a key aspect was time, and spending time getting to know each other. We also wanted to break down the barrier between audience and social actor; the audience was ideally only those participating. That’s why we tried to get as many people to participate as possible. With fifty-nine different projects and fourteen different activist groups from around Chicago, we had at least one thousand people invested in radical politics move through that space over the course of the weekend..

Let’s just face it, though, there’s this strategically naive approach to the public sphere. We were invested in an audience who already cared about radical politics, and we were trying to develop ties between these people. We found that the people most interested in DSLR were those already disillusioned from their various spheres, whether it was elements of the South Side hip-hop community who were sick of the larger hip-hop community, artists who were sick of being artists, or activists who were sick of being defined by activism they didn’t identify with themselves. Just people who thought their categories were pathetic and boring—which they are. But it was also a lot of people who we were familiar with. It wasn’t some kind of “Whoa, our audience has expanded by leaps and bounds.” It was pretty much creating a cohesion of a community we were already aware of.

It was an important moment for us because it really made community happen: that was useful, but what else was happening that year? 2001 was a very political time! People who came to our projects were also coming from the FTAA protests in Quebec City; they still smelled like tear gas when they walked into the event. We can’t extract our project from that historic moment. It’s one thing to talk about political gestures when there is no appearance of a movement doing shit, versus radical political moments and art movements happening in conjunction with social movements; that’s a very different world that you’re operating with. We felt it; the moment was inspiring.

Also, community building needs to be contextualized in terms of how it produces itself within a community of resistance and being open about what that community can be. It’s easy to beat the shit out of yourself for all the things that don’t work, but we’ve got to take mental notes when we see things working. There’s a practice of articulating anarchist art that’s not embarrassed of its deep convictions toward change. It’s important for us to produce a model of social participation with art that is different from a lot of the models at work in the art world, where people slide into corporate models. We’re not dumb, we’re just without better models. In New York City, how many people replicate the gallery model? So we’re trying to find ways to participate culturally without replicating this alienated environment. How do we produce a cohesive environment that gives social meaning, that does something or that translates into action? That’s what we were invested in, and I think it worked.

Jordan Zinovich:

Thinking about DSLR, there’s a long tradition in San Francisco of the Suicide Club and the Cacophony Society[4] doing this kind of thing -- creating an audience, then drawing audience members out to engage directly with the “artists.” Those are the kinds of interventionist critiques that charge us up, generating recurrent spaces where we can create, where we can face other people in situations that have very few bounds, very few rules. And when we step away from those kinds of spaces we leave with a sense of potentiality and also a kind of emotional investment in art. I think there’s a question of aesthetics that we haven’t addressed: we need an aesthetic that allows us to invest emotion in moments and in creativity with a kind of joyousness. We need an aesthetic that isn’t tied to ideology. Our old aesthetic strategies have restricted us in a lot of ways over the years that I’m finding very disturbing right now. I’d like to see us somehow tap generative spaces in ways that evolve, that don’t simply remanifest an autonomous zone, but that generate ongoing and developing free zones where we’re developing and refining our own limits. There’s no performance divorced from the audience - there’s a unification that happens. Temporary contacts bond us in all kinds of intimate ways—naked in the sea at Coney Island is a great example. The people who shared that experience were living their politics. You step away from an experience like that with the sense you’re part of a large, productive, centerless, creative audience.

Josh MacPhee:

I don’t want to uncritically accept absurdist or nonsensical gestures as being inherently liberatory. Capitalism is extremely flexible, and increasingly it understands its own misery and it temporarily creates fissures in itself in order to capture people and reimmiserate [sic] them. You see it everyday in how advertising increasingly absorbs more and more surrealist and absurdist gestures as a way to capture audience because people are so numbed by everything else. Capitalism’s most powerful aspect is the ability to commodify social relationships.

Chris (an audience member):

In the absence of a global movement that inspires and channels the activities of artists—for example, the International—what kind of movement should we have that would cause this kind of inspiration, that would get people excited about putting up stencils, making radical woodcuts, and putting out matchbooks that have radical slogans on them? Do we need to build this political movement first, before we get the artistic community on board?

Lex Bhagat:

The relationship of artists to the International brings up an important question. Artists allied with social movements are not necessarily anarchists or producing “anarchist art.” I think we should try to define anarchist art or decide that we cannot. Josh, you touched on a definition by saying that what distinguishes anarchist art from other progressive movements and their propaganda is an idea of effectiveness. So what is the anarchist idea of effectiveness? How does one draw the distinction? Is it even important to draw such a distinction, or might we be better served by speaking more generally about propaganda, community art, or various ways of critically engaging with one’s audience and subject

Josh MacPhee:

I call myself an anarchist out of my own personal background and affinity with a social history more than a feeling that anyone else needs to call themselves anarchist or something needs to be defined as anarchist in order to be of value. But I do think that deriving from the history of ideas and movements self-defined as anarchist there are values that are different than those embedded in other histories. Anarchism is invested in direct democracy; this is extremely different from the goals of the Marxist and Liberal traditions and Marxist social movements. Within anarchism there is an important utopian impulse that is marginalized, and even berated, by other Left ideologies. Anarchists hold to the idea that your means are your ends, that you can’t have a distinct difference between the two. This leads to a significant difference in an idea of efficacy. In Stalinist Russia, to be an effective artist you had to paint bigger tractors with happier drivers: that’s not what’s effective to me. To me it’s important to think about this through a distinctly antiauthoritarian lens.

Cindy Milstein:

Anarchist art may or may not be connected to social movements. What’s more crucial is how anarchist art works in terms of social relationships. Precisely because capitalism and other forces structure how our social relationships function, this is significant. Humans can structure forms of domination and oppression, but also, qualitatively - what is distinct about the anarchist tradition is a sense of profound participation in which we can all substantively help to transform society—not occasionally, but constantly. And anarchists struggle for a time when we can all continuously do that, when we can self-govern—and that such direct decision-making would include forms of culture. I’m more interested in how we change society. The precondition for change is a genuinely public sphere where there’s both cultural production and dialogue, and they relate to each other. Social critique and social vision have to happen in public, because that’s where ultimately we’d work on the process together of having society look different. So it isn’t just that at this historical moment we’ve lost momentum or that we can’t do radical art; it’s that we always need to produce critically engaging and visionary art precisely for what I understand anarchists to be struggling for: this idea of an ongoing process of continually approximating a better, brighter world, where more and more of us are making that world happen - a world in which we’re more individuated and our communities are collectively self-determined and self-managed. Coming out of the recent global social movement, such a vision has increasingly gotten lost in how we now understand how anarchists produce art. There was this powerful moment where suddenly there was visibility for antiauthoritarian art again, and people who understood themselves as antiauthoritarians in a social movement making culture. But then anarchist artists started copying each other, repetitively. In my essay, I use the example of Art and Revolution’s puppetry. We take trash, because there’s too much trash right now under capitalism, and we take things that are free, because we don’t have money, and we produce things that are completely the same, free, and everywhere. You see it across the world, several years later, on a video of a protest in Korea or Germany, where all the puppets look exactly alike. But that’s exactly what’s happening in this historical moment: our individuality is being robbed from us. That’s how I ended up, ultimately, with the question of how to reclaim critique and vision.

Rebecca (an audience member):

I remember the first time I saw Art and Revolution back in the 1990s. It blew my mind in terms of what I recognized a demonstration could be. Later, I saw Bread and Puppet and was even more inspired. So, really, it’s easy to understand why there are puppets everywhere: they work! It may be true that the puppets are beginning to all look alike. But every culture has a tradition of puppetry: it is a basic, ubiquitous form of human culture, like music, dance, or calligraphy. Bread and Puppet theater has been around for fifty-plus years and has performed thousands of times, so it becomes understandable that their aesthetic has become a tradition. This is how culture works. It’s repeated all over the world because culture is global now.

Cindy Milstein:

Certainly, there’s something beautiful and empowering about us having a sense of global solidarity and traditions, about being inspired by each other. But Bread and Puppet is a single person who has a vision, and people come and attempt to make the puppets under one person’s vision. That, to me, is problematic in terms of the conversation here, where we’re talking about participation and process, about rekindling the imagination. Often the reason that all puppets have begun to look similar, is that a small group of activists have gone all around the world explaining how to make puppets in the Bread and Puppet style. There are hidden hierarchies behind such cultural production, and a lack of process in terms of even deciding if we want the puppets to look the same. Sure, maybe we would want them to look the same, but that sameness seems to be something created after the process is lost, and that is what anarchism, or more broadly the libertarian Left, would bring: that the process of art is just as important as what we end up deciding on and even creating. We might settle on similarity, but if there was an open, face-to-face decision-making process, people might decide to make different-looking puppets, perhaps with a design emerging out of the local context, materials, or circumstances. Moreover, the puppets themselves would then be reflections of our creativity, our very ability to imagine something different, and this is part of imagining a different world altogether. We have to practice social reconstruction, including through art, to become good at it, and good enough to therefore finally replace hierarchical structures with nonhierarchical ones—otherwise we will always fall back on allowing someone else to “design” the world, from art to the economy to politics.

Dara Greenwald:

I lived at Bread and Puppet, and I did what Peter Schuman wanted me to do, because that’s what everyone does when they go there. But I consented to do it, everyone did. It’s not at all like my experience working with antiauthoritarian collectives like Victorian Stroll, the Pink Bloque, or other groups where you all together have responsibility and your ideas all contribute to the whole project. I think a lot of people who are antiauthoritarian culture-makers would say that process is one of the main pieces of making the work. I guess it goes back to a subject formation, when you do stuff collectively, and your voice matters as much as the person sitting next to you in visioning what it is; we become new subjects through that, and it’s very different than doing the labor of making a thousand frogs for a puppet circus of someone else’s design. These are totally different practices, and you learn totally different skills. It speaks to the idea of looking at some tendencies that might be described as an antiauthoritarian art process. I don’t know about an aesthetic; that’s being debated here, too. Videofreex would never say they’re anarchist, but they believed in decentralized communications, they believed in local content connected to global movements. They didn’t care about politics. They cared about videotapes and making videotapes, and communication structures and changing how communication structures happen, so that media is not one-way from one corporation out to the population, but that the communication is two-way and interactive.

Alan Moore:

I’d like to talk about these words “art” and “anarchism.” We can look at them in terms of the trajectories of different cultures, because clearly there’s an anarchist culture in which people have no problem identifying themselves as anarchists. There’s also an art culture, let’s say a high-art culture, wherein antiauthoritarian sensibilities don’t lead to an identification as an anarchist. Then there are cultures that have a language; all the time in this book you’re seeing these things mash up against each other. People talk about the knowledge gap, but it isn’t really a knowledge gap per se. Rather, different histories are bouncing up against each other. Any of us who try to straddle the political participation culture and art culture will find deep confusion between the two, and about what the two are doing. For example, in the art world you go to a big group meeting, and no one knows about process and how to actually figure out patriarchy and carrying out meetings—basic activist skills are lacking deplorably. Then you go to the political activist community and people are operating like it’s still 1945. Both groups love self-hatred. We all feel this disconnect. One of the things we can do is find space where these differences can find a new language together. We are talking about discursive communities. It’s about not getting into your safe ground with your social capital and language, whether it is anarchist theory or postmodern art theory; it’s ways that you can interact with each other, ways in which you are humble in the inability of language to get things done. And finding someplace we can do that together, that’s the trick.

Nato Thompson:

I’ve always suspected that capital has infused the ways we see ourselves as cultural producers—the ways in which the anarchist community reifies itself as a community through avant-garde models, as does the art community. I had an epiphany a few years ago: if you have radical politics and you don’t actually get shit done, what is that? That’s just a scene. To what degree are our rhetoric and politics of anarchism just producing a power inside our subgroup? That is about capital. That happens in both the art world/radical professor in college art world and every weird nook in radical politics; everyone has their own version of this. Trying to see that in the ways we think about action is really important because it allows us to be aware of the ways in which we posit our cultural production as meaningful.

Canek Pena-Vargas:

In terms of this question of effectiveness, I think it’s helpful to try to think about the many goals that we have with artwork, what we try to do with it. I’m sure there are a million of them. One of the goals has a lot to do with what we talked about before: being able to do self-healing sometimes. The problem that I have with a lot of anarchist art that happens in New York is that I show up and I feel like it isn’t speaking to the issues that I have. I’ll look around and I’ll feel alienated from a lot of people because I’ll feel like I’m the only person of color, or the aesthetic that’s being put out there doesn’t speak to where I’m from or make me feel proud of who I am. I think that that’s a problem. I think that having solidarity with other groups, and being able to go out there and work and build with other organizations or social movements that you’re not necessarily comfortable with, and being able to articulate where we’re at with each other and really develop identities together like that in a visual way, that’s all helpful. When we start to work with these social movements, we start to get into their idea of what effectiveness is. For some organizations, effectiveness means winning a certain campaign against a slumlord or whatever thing they are confronting at the time. Artwork can serve these goals: the goal of this artwork is to really embarrass the hell out of this slumlord so that he gets the hell out of a building.

Sometimes the goal is to give an aesthetic megaphone to a movement, to be able to communicate with masses of people to say this is who we are, this is our analysis, this is what we want to do. And to do it in a way that is not just hard language..., but in a way that is visual, inviting, and exciting. I see organizations who are struggling on a day-to-day basis, like Movimiento Por Justicia Del Barrio[5] in East Harlem, and one of the biggest problems they’re having is communication with communities. So, what I do, through Visual Resistance, is provide free graphic and art and design work for these organizations. I get to learn about all these different groups and what they’re doing and their process, and then I help them articulate that as artwork.

Josh MacPhee:

This relates to what Cindy articulates in her essay, that we often end up creating art that is addressing the way that capital functioned 100 years ago and doesn’t necessarily address the way it has changed and is operating today. Hearing what Canek had to say, it is clear that we need to be doing both, making art that attacks the old models of capitalism as well as the new. Clearly the members of this community in East Harlem are fighting for the same basic concerns and rights that a community in that same geographical location in East Harlem were fighting for 100 years ago. Even though capitalism has evolved and changed, it hasn’t changed that much. We need to simultaneously address that and also address the fact that the privatization of public space is something that has been happening for over 200 years; it’s not a new phenomenon. Increasingly, what we think of as public is private and what we historically think of as private, our innermost thoughts, are being made public through the way that the Internet operates. We have these huge corporations who own Myspace and Youtube and all of our thoughts, ideas, and creative labor get dumped for free into these web platforms that we have little or no control over, and that we certainly don’t own. Somehow we need to address issues like this, which are more on the edge of capitalism’s current incarnation. Not only is it enclosing the commons that we share, but enclosing our own internal mechanisms of resistance. We need to connect the battles we’ve had to fight for hundreds of years over who gets to control the roof over our heads with these new enclosures.

Endnotes

1 For more on the official Troy Victorian Stroll, see http://www.troyvictorianstroll.com/about/index.cfm. For the unofficial version, see the “Action” section under the “Projects” header at http://www.daragreenwald.com/.
2 see http://www.counterproductiveindustries.com/dslr/, as well as Josh MacPhee & Nato Thompson, "The Department of Space and Land Reclamation" in Macphee & Reuland, Realizing the Impossible (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007).
3 see http://www.temporaryservices.org/
4 see http://www.suicideclub.com/
5 see http://www.narconews.com/Issue42/article2037.htmlRealizing the ImpossibleRealizing the Impossible

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