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Becoming deontological -- a politics of deontologizing art / an art of deontologizing politics

02/08/2014 - 02/08/2015 (tz: Europe/Amsterdam)

At one point in the mid-1980s, Sandinista leader Tomas Borge quipped in reference to some local grievance that “it may be true even though Ronald Reagan says it’s true.” It took his interlocutors a moment to get their heads around such a counterintuitive statement — after all, the US President so systematically distorted information that his assertions seemed to provide a pretty reliable benchmark regarding disinformation. Borge’s comment was less about obdurate “facts” than about how antagonistic outlooks may inadvertently tease hidden assumptions to light, compelling us to reappraise what no longer seems worth thinking about — if only we pay attention. The logic behind the “Borge paradox” is of enduring validity, particularly for untangling and reweaving the narratives of that conflicted decade; more contemporaneously, it is highly useful in helping us to understand — rather than to merely acc​ept — the stance of what is to date the most ambitious enquiry into the articulations between art and the political in 1980s Latin America. Losing Human Form is based not on a chronological but rather a political understanding of the eighties, which it sees as beginning prematurely in 1973 with the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Popular Front in Chile and only coming to an end with the emergence of Zapatismo in 1995. Losing Human Form in its current configuration doesn’t actually examine the Sandinista experience — or that of the FMLN in neighbouring El Salvador, though the potential is definitely there — but these may well be focal points for future instantiations of this ongoing, collective research project, undertaken by the Red Conceptualismos del Sur (RCdS).

To say that Losing Human Form is supremely thought provoking is true, yet somehow misses the point because the kind of thought it provokes is ultimately less about the substantive content of the examples it has chosen to analyse than about their categorial errancy, their defining slipperiness and recalcitrance to fitting into existent categories of any kind. In a word, Losing Human Form’s provocation is as an integrally deontologizing proposition. In that respect, it takes the idea of losing human form very seriously: in those years, caught “between terror and fiesta,” where “the martyred, messianic body had to give way to the naked, dancing body,” both art and politics were obliged to follow suit, losing their ontologies to emerge, unexpectedly, as unrecognized forms of energy. In terms of content, the project looks at how art was sundered from itself and repurposed to political ends; in terms of form, though it certainly makes use of the attention-focusing device of the exhibition, the overall experience is more like walking through the pages of a three-dimensional book. Not that there are no artworks on display; there are, but comparatively few in comparison to the 600-odd documents of all kinds showing mass demonstrations, banners, graffiti, punk concerts… as if self-conscious “art” were only mustered as further evidence or for its testimonial value. The sense of bewilderment this provokes immediately reveals to what extent we rely on known ontological categories to make sense of what we are seeing; and to what extent, too, we lack the words to even name what we are trying to see.

This point is underscored by the project’s other facet: the publication, conceived as an extensive glossary of some two-dozen entries which the research collective deems to be useful contributions to retooling of the existent conceptual vocabulary: “DOING POLITICS WITH NOTHING,” “OVERGOZE,” “P(A)NK,” “SOCIALIZATION OF ART,” “TRANSVESTISMS,” etc. However, even armed with the proposed terms, one would be hard pressed to nail down the practices’ modes of being — indeed, everything is done to foil such terminological (and hence ontological) capture. A passage from the entry on practices challenging heteronormativity, “LOCA / GOING LOCA,” holds for the project as a whole: “the subversion of an order of power cannot be articulated by laying claim to some ‘other’ identity, as a mere dissident otherness (liable to be neutralized through seamless integration into the pacified discourse of diversity), but rather as deterritorializing drift, as becoming.”

Of course, it could be reasonably countered that the performative frame of the exhibition is enough to ontologize anything as art. But therein lies what is perhaps Losing Human Form’s key achievement — to have foiled the performative capture that would stabilize the practices in any given ontology. Consider for a moment how the project has been received by hostile critics. When the exhibition opened in October 2012 at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, many were reviewers understandably excited to see such practices exhumed, particularly at a moment when Europe’s social-democratic consensus was in death throes. But hostile critics saw something else, arguing that this was not art, but just activist tracts, pictures of violence and street protest or whatever. Beneath such dismissive remarks lies an odious political worldview, and yet… And yet given that the exhibition opened with the Internationale playing in the antechamber and progressively radicalized from there, Losing Human Form is clearly not seeking to establish consensus regarding events from a decade now held at a safe distance, but deliberately seeking to bust up such consensus. One can’t have it both ways, contrary to what social-democrats like to believe. In other words — those of the “Borge paradox” mentioned above — it may not “be art” even though reactionary critics say it’s not art. And indeed they seem to be the only ones to have spotted what is Losing Human Form’s most radical dimension.

This is not to say the reactionaries are right — just that they noticed something crucial that others either overlooked or dared not mention. In Losing Human Form, art is not performed as such, but is wrested from the ontological body of art, broken down into component parts, energies and competences and then redistributed into other bodies. It is socialized into graphic actions, emerging in siluetazos as a “visual tool that opened up a new and dissensual ‘social territoriality’,” injected as a conceptual device by a group like CADA into their NO+ action, multiplying exponentially the number of people involved in world-making (and not mere “art” making). In virtually all the practices included in the project, the coefficient of art (in terms of energy and self-understanding) is as high as the specific visibility as art is deliberately impaired. It would be anachronistic to embrace as art today what, at the time, did not understand itself to “be” art, but rather to be a use of art. Léon Ferrari — whose Nosotros no sabíamos, an archive of clippings from the Argentinian and Uruguayan press documenting that civil society did know about the ongoing genocide, is one of Losing Human Form’s hardest-hitting projects — is on record as saying that he himself wasn’t sure and didn’t care if what he was doing was “art” or “corrosive critique” or whatever…

A more recent art-historical assessment of the project, this time with all the academic trappings, reinstantiates the “Borge paradox.” The author notes how the project engaged practices “without aesthetic content—particularly those involving overt acts of violence,” suggesting “a sort of total identification, however problematic, with political strategies” (rather than, say, just art) assembled in what is described as “a completely creative, imagined sort of ‘map’.” The temptation is strong to dismiss such convention-laden comments as beside the point, but it may be, once again— if only one can hear them — that they provide heuristic insight. It’s true that Losing Human Form is made up of practices where art is deliberately sundered from its aesthetic function, allowing it to be repurposed for political ends. And this is precisely what the supposedly “completely creative, imagined sort of ‘map’” sought to bring into view: a deontologized territory where the stable categories of art and/or politics are redistributed as conceptualisms — a category of action deliberately inscribed in the organizing collective’s name to avoid the art / politics binary. In a way, the art historian is right to put inverted commas around the collectively-made map that gives a visual representation of the practices in the project: it is a self-conscious example of counter-cartography and provides a “seismic image” of two ordinarily unassimilable ontological landscapes — that of art, and that of the political. Yet rather than proposing some sort of ontological fusion, it operates as a kind of shifter: a deontologizing map.

What are the politics of deliberately thwarting the ontologization of an action as art? Why would an entire project be premised on an implicit politics of deontologizing art? Perhaps the best way to answer these questions is to invert them: what is one to make of the art of deontologizing politics? And this really is the question raised by Losing Human Form: the type of work showcased by the project owes its very condition of historical possibility to the fact that, by and large, it didn’t look much like politics to the dictatorships and their successors whose hegemony it challenged. It looked decadent, debauched, fucked-up; certainly it didn’t look pro-régime; but nor did it appear political at all, at least not in the then-dominant understanding of what was political. Straight-laced régimes saw the practices’ subjectivity as that of lowlife scum, vandals or perverts — fair game for police truncheons, but no threat to established political order. To put it concisely, two ontological misprisions meet in the practices brought together in Losing Human Form: the “this-is-not-art” that underlies the contemporary project can be seen as mirroring the “this-is-not-politics” that clung to the practices when they emerged in the 1980s. Put in different terms, Losing Human Form shows how these practices had managed to deontologize politics and not so much reontologize it in a different way as withdraw the political from the ontological realm altogether. What does that mean, to “withdraw from the ontological”? Isn’t all being endowed with an ontology? Suffice it to say that what these practices did was to withdraw the political from the realm of being and make it into a mode of becoming. Politics has an ontology, one that evolves in time; the political, on the other hand, eschews ontological capture.

A more minimalist reading might argue that these practices were simply not seen as politics, although they were: for instance, although the Cucaño group’s Intervention in the Cathedral (premonitory of many “identity-correction” practices that would emerge a generation later) was not identified as art, it was indeed art in disguise. By such an account, it is only fair that these practices be identified as what they were — for it is an identity of which they were systematically deprived, or which they strategically avoided. But this sort of “social-democratic” interpretation fails to do justice either to the practices themselves or to their exhibition. The enduring validity of these context-compatible practices, beyond their specific content, is precisely their ontological elusiveness. 

Rather than seeking to bring about an ontological shift of any kind, both Losing Human Form and the practices comprising it experiment with strategies of remaining forever one step ahead of ontological capture under one aspect or another. The project neither seeks to “artify” what was never understood as art, nor to assign the political to any specific mode of being. Yet, it is all about art, and all about the political — and to this end, develops a highly novel theory of transmission or dissemination; one that deserves our full attention. Art, as it uses the term, is not geared toward a horizon of spectatorship; it is not even necessarily visible. Rather than an autonomous entity, present to itself, it emerges as a context-dependent set of tools, energies, competences. Such that you never really know when, or to what extent, it’s taking place. Art’s way of becoming deontological.

La Habana, July 2014