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September 30th, 2012

Freedom of expression, performativity and civil disobedience



To reconcile art and life seems to be a rather difficult endeavor, also for the proponents of freedom of expression. In this issue of Seismopolite, for example, Ré Phillips gives us a trustworthy account of how her intitial optimism on behalf of art’s ambitions as a weapon of peace receives an unexpected reality check as she joins the scene of the Palestinian Freedom Theatre with the spectacle of the Martin Luther King Singers, notwithstanding the contemporary importance of his ideas.

Still, the artistic act of creation often seems to contain an inherent resistance to ideology. Does this make art suitable as a kind of civil disobedience?

The increased attention to performativity in recent years has sharpened the perception of artworks as sets of acts in which memory and history are transformed by the very same creative gestures that represent them.[1] Hence, just as much as the cumulative acts that constitute the work of art quote, iterate and point beyond each other and to their future meanings, they also point beyond the work as finite material and idea. Rather than an objective entity, the work of art becomes a call for iteration of its constitutive, creative acts, in which the normativity of its own scripture is reset, transformed and potentially reversed.

In the encounters between traditional and new media technologies that take place in the Phitakon festival of Isaan, Thailand, David Teh locates precisely such a genius for resisting reification by cultural and historical narratives and media-ideologies, as much as the necessity of inscription and discourse itself. These performances reappropriate photography and cinema by integrating the camera in traditional rituals that center on the enigmatic propensities of the Tool (phi). They not only seem to relativize the globalized, western forms of vision with which these media have been rigidly associated, but directly challenge media history and specificity, e.g. by reminding us of how modern media such as cinema have their local, media-historical roots in performance traditions. In the Phitakon, even the very idea of inscription – of recording as archived discourse – becomes problematic, to such a degree that the distinction between recording an event and performing the act of recording itself, evaporates. The rituals perform a mise-en-scène of the very possibility of their inscription, according to Teh: Ever renewing and “recording” a tradition by only hinting at its inscription, their archive becomes self-consciously “live” and performative, never an object, yet crucially open to integrate any discourse that should seek to reify it.

Even when seen as objectified idea or entity, of course, the work of art still may or may not address its own creative gestures as processes – gestures that could eventually be followed/ repeated by a reader/ spectator. According to Farrah Karapetian, precisely this distinction between an artwork which does not reveal the processes of its creation and one that maintains a “transparency of process”, is crucial to realizing the political potential of art, particularly at a time when any institutional critique itself seems doomed to become institutionalized, just as the most radical idea would sooner or later have to succumb to the vocabulary of the contemporary art market.

Despite its institutional obstacles, Karapetian makes the case for the “transparent” artwork’s form of “civil disobedience”; its potential, she explains, to relate the spectator/ reader to a community of “shared concerns”, hereby reformulating Hannah Arendt’s opposition between the civil disobedient and the conscientious objector who, contrary to the disobedient, only acts according to “shared interests”, and hence only according to conscience – a capacity which in Arendt’s definition is strictly individual.

Imprisoned images

Emília Tavares sheds light on the politics of the archive in the context of Portuguese official history. Her article deals with the film 48 by Susana de Sousa Dias, in which the artist has filmed police photographs of prisoners who became victims of torture under the Estado Novo-regime. These images’ testimonies threaten to disappear irretrievably, due to the abstract and stereotypical manner in which they were constructed as identification documents by the regime – but also, and not least due to their inaccessibility (they lie enclosed in archives which cannot be visited by the public) and neglect by official history.

The film rebuilds each of these ex-prisoners’ profiles as a civilian and a citizen, in a montage of images and words aimed to ‘create a space of thought for the spectator’ (Susana de Sousa Dias) that would lie beyond any easy emotional appeal. According to Tavares, these artistic recontextualizations weave the means by which to resist the superficial and generalist reading of history.

In a longer feature Keith Hussein reminds us of the actuality and political relevance of the films by Fatih Akin in the contemporary political discourse on immigration in Europe. Hussein shows how Akin’s Auf der anderen seite (2007) deconstructs nationalist myths and provides a wider context for the representation of culturally different Turkish-German identities, by combining social and cinematic discourses related to accented and diasporic cinema. Akin’s cinema is proven apt at a time when not only dominant Eurocentric approaches to cinema often fail to challenge the narratives of the nation and of the diasporic condition, but when also the German coalition government is undergoing a serious rethink of its post-war multicultural project.

For a sad example, this led to Angela Merkel’s recent, categorical statement that ‘German and foreign workers could not live happily side by side’.

Perhaps  could also this be a good reminder that art, as Emília Tavares comments in her article, rather than being a setting in which victims are exhibited, should summon the spectator to the task of recognizing all potentially irretrievable images.





[1] See also ”The performative archive”, Seismopolite 2