Representation of Politics/Politics of Representation
Basically, what I have to say here is simple: when people talk about politics in an artistic frame, they\'re lying. Indeed, the lies they tell are often painfully obvious, and worse is the moment when you realize that some will go forever unchallenged and take on, not the semblance of truth, but the reliability of convention. In a period like ours when the relationship to politics is one of the legitimating arguments for the very existence of public art, the tissue of lies that surrounds one when entering a museum can become so dense that it\'s like falling into an ancient cellar full of spider webs, and choking on them as you struggle to breathe. Now, the mere mention of this reality will make even my friends and allies in the artistic establishment rather nervous; but it is a reality nonetheless. And like most of the political realities in our democratic age, it has directly to do with the question of representation.
Does anyone doubt there exists a politics of representation? Such people have clearly not looked at the television during a political campaign. But worse, they have not looked at social movements. They have not witnessed the endless capacity of people who do not occupy positions of elite power, and who do not enjoy direct access to major media, to project their messages nonetheless, by means of signs, images and gestures. Nor have they realized how effectively artists can work in such »outside« contexts: one need only think of Gran Fury, amidst the New York Aids activism of the eighties; of Ne Pas Plier, with the jobless people\'s movements in Paris in the nineties; or of the many artists who have participated in recent counter-globalization demonstrations and campaigns. Artists can play a vital role in this kind of »picture politics«.
At the same time, it is easy for artists to heed the injunction of the museum, the magazines and the market, which say: »Picture politics for me.« Do a picture or a sculpture of politics, carry out the representation of political conflict, as in the installation piece by Thomas Hirschhorn, Wirtschaftslandschaft Davos, shown at Kunsthaus Zürich when Hirschhorn won the prize for »Young Swiss Art« in 2001. This work uses model houses, toy soldiers, real barbed wire and other ready-made materials to represent the besieged Swiss valley where the world\'s most powerful people annually meet. Hirschhorn\'s style can be referenced to »dadaist collage«, observes one critic; but his major source is »the practice of excluded people who know perfectly well how to get their messages across, by using whatever they find.«  In this case the excluded people are those who confront the barbed wire at the World Economic Forum. And since counter-globalization has been a hot subject, representing them is a perfect way to become popular in a museum.
Hirschhorn goes further, though, because he turns a bit of ordinary life into a representation of politics, with his Bataille Monument in a Turkish quarter of Kassel. This life-sized library, snack bar and makeshift TV studio is a participatory project, whose effects in the neighborhood itself I won\'t presume to judge from a distance. What concerns me is the way he manages its relations to the artistic frame. On the »taxi stand« where visitors awaited to be ferried from the Documenta 11 to the site of the monument, Hirschhorn placed a quotation from the American artist, David Hammonds: »The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It\'s overly educated, it\'s conservative, it\'s out to criticize, not to understand and it never has any fun... So I refuse to deal with that audience, and I\'ll play with the street audience. That audience is much more human, and their opinion is from the heart. They don\'t have any reason to play games, there\'s nothing gained or lost.« Hirschhorn claims to have abandoned the framing structures of contemporary art, for a more authentically engaged social practice. But if that\'s the case, why the taxi, why the exposure of the site to visitors\' eyes, which turns the social project into a representation? What kind of game is he playing?
In his case there are certainly things to be won - like the prize for Young Swiss Art, or the Marcel Duchamp prize for the promotion of French artists, awarded to Hirschhorn by the ADIAF association in the year 2000. The Duchamp prize is sponsored by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, a transnational consulting company, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. Kunsthaus Zürich, where Wirtschaftslandschaft Davos was shown, is regularly funded by the Private Banking subsidiary of Crédit Suisse, which ranks 31st on Fortune\'s Global 500 list. Documenta 11 was sponsored by Volkswagen, Deutsche Telekom and Sparkassen-Finanzgruppe. Does all this sound familiar? In the contemporary art game, the picture of excluded people\'s politics is worth a lot to the included - including transnational corporations. Of course I\'m aware that the prize commissions are independent, just like exhibition curators. Their independence supports the notion of an autonomous artistic sphere, separate from the economic nexus that sustains it. These kinds of separations, between abstract financial decisions and their substantive effects, are exactly what the protestors at the Davos meetings refuse. Hirschhorn retains an interest in the artistic frame he claims to leave behind. Yet he seems particularly uncomfortable there; and it\'s intriguing to see how he ups the symbolic stakes in the Davos piece, formulating a direct critique of transnational capitalism even as he is pursued and courted by the corporate-backed prize commissions.
How does picture politics work, when it is associated with a proper name and presented within the contemplative frame of the art institution? Invariably it produces statements like these: »I represent the people«, or »I represent a social movement«, or »I represent the excluded« - which are the classic lies of representative democracy, when it serves to conceal private interests.  Of course, this root fact makes myself, a self-styled »critic« writing in catalogues and magazines about the relations of art and politics, into one of the baldest liars of them all. And for some perverse reason I want to tell you how it\'s done.
Rules of the Game
Liar\'s poker is easy to play. The deck is composed of kings and aces. One person draws, and names the card in his hand; the other judges if he\'s telling the truth. If you draw an ace, it\'s easy: you have no choice but to say it\'s an ace. If you draw a king, then the game begins: because you can always bluff. Each time you claim to hold an ace, the other player must look in your eyes and decide if it\'s real. If he thinks it\'s not, he calls your bluff; and if he\'s right he wins a dollar, or ten, or a hundred, depending on how high you\'ve set the stakes. If he\'s wrong, you win the same. And if he doesn\'t do a thing, he loses fifty cents, or five bucks, or fifty dollars, and the card goes back into the pack, so that no one ever knows if you were telling the truth.
For our purposes, the artist draws the cards, and the public calls the bluffs. Nowadays, of course, the artist often plays as a team with the curator or the critic; so those relations are never entirely certain. As for the cards, the ace is political reality, and its image in the museum is highly attractive. This gives the artist a great advantage: because to prove an ace is a bluff, you have to go out looking, whereas the public prefers to stay inside the museum. The artist, however, also has a great disadvantage, which is that the house - I mean the people who run the game, the founders, the funders, the boards and directors - actually can\'t stand aces, and if they think the artist really has one, they will never let him or her set foot inside the museum. So in both cases the artist has to bluff his way through, either claiming political engagement to live like a king inside the white cube, or hiding it to siphon off money, resources and publicity for use by a social movement. Occasionally, when the lie is too grotesque, the public will call the bluff; and then the artist has to give up some cultural capital. Even more rarely, it turns out that the artist is really involved in a social movement, in which case he or she is soon fated to disappear from the museum.
Now there\'s an obvious question: Why would anyone want to play such a game? In fact the question can be asked about anyone playing by the unbearable rules that hold in almost every social field today. These are the rules of inequality, exploitation, domination - those nasty realities we have to lie about in polite democratic society.
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