We Might have been Telling Ourselves the Wrong Stories All Along – And the Weather has Nothing to Do With It
by Ana Teixeira Pinto
Reflecting on last summer’s ‘big art events’ – the Berlin Biennale, documenta 13, Manifesta 9, Taipei Biennial – from the back bench of a political economy art exhibition in Greece
Can one deduce a people’s psychology from the climate? I visited Thessaloniki briefly last June. It was hot, but none of the other usual clichés seemed to apply. At the opening of the show “It’s the Political Economy, Stupid” at the Contemporary Art Center (CACT), all the artists were introduced to the head of the local Goethe Institute. When he was asked about the crisis I overheard him saying something to the effect: “the crisis is a good thing because finally things get done.” German racism in a nutshell, I thought. The recurring idea that southerners need disciplining and that in order to make them more industrious you should use a stick rather than a carrot. For all the buzz the Bild Zeitung covers<<which ones?>> elicited they are just the rude version of every diplomat’s opinion, by no means the exception to the rule but rather the exception that masks the rule. And for all the rhetorical spin of austerity apologists, their newspeak is but the most recent iteration of a discourse that has been around since the industrial revolution, namely that the poor never work quite enough and that if bad fortune befalls them they have only their own ineptitude to blame, while those speaking from a position of privilege – like the Goethe Institute’s director, who will never have to struggle to support his family after a 30% salary reduction – never see the essential asymmetry at play.
All creditors represent the crisis as a contract: debts once incurred must be repaid. But what contract theory always conveniently brackets out are the sociological conditions that precede the contractual conditions. Greece didn’t suddenly indulge in a spending binge. When the market collapsed the Greek economy contracted, and tax revenues went down while the deficit went up. Greece protected its financial sector and in the same breath had to start repaying the loans it had previously made when the financial sector was in full swing. But the crucial factor lies in the set-up of the euro monetary system, which was designed to limit the capacity of EU governments to borrow and spend. The euro nations are not – unlike the United States and Britain – allowed to finance their own government’s debt. The policy currently in place has the ECB lending to commercial banks at negative interest rate – that is, lower than inflation – so that these banks can lend back to the Southern governments at a 7, 8 or even 9% interest rate, skimming off the profit. The so-called crisis is little more than a scheme to refinance the banking sector at the expense of the taxpayers, while exporting wage suppression and the increasingly precarious conditions that German workers face to the European periphery. When it comes to which taxpayers will have to be sacrificed the German political equation is clear – obviously the Greeks do not vote for the Bundestag. And though voting is the only form of political participation tolerated in Western democracies, the electorate is prevented from having a significant impact on policy since the determining issues never find their way into the ballot box. The invisible of free market economy is not its ‘hand’ however opaque that hand may be, the invisible of free market economy is the extent to which a state sponsored – and violent – process of coercion is recurrently used to keep markets running.
Under dire political circumstances, artworks are met with impatience or impossible demands, as was the case with the seventh Berlin Biennale, which tried to showcase the visuals of uprising – seemingly failing to understand that, though it photographs well, uprising is not essentially visual. Curatorial blunders aside, can art effect political change? Sure it can, but probably not the kind that people seem to expect when they complain that nobody exits a gallery feeling like setting fire to trash cans. To whine that art doesn’t compel immediate action is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the aesthetic works. Though we tend to forget it, the democratic privilege of being a speaking subject is concomitant with the modern regime of representation through which the banal, the overlooked or the negligible have found their expression. Jacques Rancière invites us to think of the political as that which effects a distribution of the sensible, instituting a set of relations between the perceptible, the thinkable and the doable. The political defines the way a class of human beings partakes in the common world, while governance implies the selection of a number of concerns which are said to determine our situation and the sense we can make out of it (see Rancière’s Nights of Labor:The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France). In Rancière’s view, politics is a stage upon which certain issues or plans can be brought to public scrutiny, while others are suppressed, barred from articulation and thus rendered invisible. The nature of this exclusion becomes clearer once one comes to establish that the motor of history is the struggle for recognition. From this perspective, art and politics are fundamentally contingent notions. Only the reconfiguration of the aesthetic can force open the gap between what is and what can be, or describe the activity of overcoming the negative – what Hegel called Aufhebung (sublation) but which can be also appear as the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt (estrangement): that which would make the dissonance or flaws in the ideological compact become apparent, thereby making it possible for a discursive change to occur.
No wonder that what we came to call the “political turn” is often associated with a reevaluation of modernism, and no wonder a preoccupation with history presided over the orientation of last summer’s biggest exhibitions. But to give credit where credit is due, with the Berlin Biennale of 2010 Kathrin Rhomberg had already sought to rehabilitate realism in order to redefine the genealogy of modernity. Though the show was much maligned it raised a crucial issue, namely how urgent it has become to re-access our recent history, later echoed by documenta 13 and the last Manifesta. Equating industrial economic restructuring with modernist poetic restructuring, Manifesta 9, The Deep of the Modern, sits squarely at the crux of the matter. Tim Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy – Political Power in the Age of Oil details the history of the relationship between carbon-based fueling sources and modern political systems, focusing on how conservative governments understood that as long as their national power grid was dependent on domestic fuel provided by unionized miners, labour would be able to demand higher wages, social insurance, voting rights, and a share of economic gains. As the book makes manifest, the history of coal mining in Europe is inextricably intertwined with the rise of mass democracy and the shift to oil, concomitant with the rise in imperial strategies, was, in fact, the result of a fight against labour, and a means to reduce democratic pressure. I did not visit The Deep of the Modern and I am told the show had manifold shortcomings, but even so the question of how fossil fuels shaped both the horizon of modern democracy and its limits seems fundamental.
On a different note, documenta 13 represented history as a dark and dangerous place in which the laws of cause and effect get distorted, akin to the “Zone” in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Similarly to the “Zone”, every time one enters it, one exits at a different place, and though history also can fulfil one’s wishes, these are not the consciously expressed ones: Whereas in 1945 Lee Miller bathed in Adolf Hitler’s Munich bathtub the same day he committed suicide, the last decades brought all of the late fürher’s dreams to fruition – Germany is an undisputed super power, Europe has been voided of Communists and Jews and the South is a vast labour camp.
Perhaps this sad irony came about because, as the 2012 Taipei Biennial suggests, history is a monster who can foresee and thwart human agency. The exhibition evokes the Taowo, an ancient Chinese monster to whom the power to see into both past and future was attributed, and which over the course of centuries came to signify history itself (see David Der Wei Wang’s The Monster That is History). But it might also be that we have been telling ourselves the wrong stories all along – and the weather has nothing to do with it.