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On the invisible-yet-undeniable: walking political


One of the things we at n.e.w.s. are most attentive to is the agency of the invisible-yet-undeniable, that is, the imperceptible yet sometimes incontrovertibly active presence of what, for lack of better words, we are prone to call angels, spirits or ghosts. Understandably, we’re not sure how to measure this agency, though we are convinced it is somehow graspable and that in many cases its conditions of possibility are linked to developments in art. We’re not even sure how to detect it, or what to do with it if we did. Radar and sonar were developed during World War Two in order to thwart the lethal agency of the invisible yet undeniable submarines and long-range bombers. But whatever the interest of radar aesthetics, the radar metaphor has played itself out and we now find ourselves seeking entities and energies so stealthy as to elude even radar detection. Our methodology for detecting and measuring their agency is cobbled together from a variety of sources: counter-espionage manuals, angelology, lie-detection technique, natural-language search engines, conceptual litmus testing and just basic walking around sniffing in the shadows. We call that “research” in our grant applications, presumably to give them some semblance of seriousness. The real comedy in all this is the extent to which things can be mistaken for what they actually are… In this realm, more clearly than in others, error is our guide – and in the following instance, our very example.

The past eighteen months have witnessed the emergence of a highly original form of mass political dissent in the public space of the Armenian capital, Yerevan: walking political. Grammatically, one might prefer the term “political walks” were it not for the fact that this particular mode of contestation is all about walking, not the trajectory walked. There is neither starting point nor destination; rather, walking itself has become a dissenting political activity with a horizon: political transformation. And this walking is at once utterly invisible and utterly undeniable as political action. If the walkers-political look for all the world like people strolling along the street, it’s because that’s what they are. And if the regime knows full well that such walking is the body politic’s organic refusal of its legitimacy, it’s because it is that too.

Of course, protest marches and demonstrations are tried and true mainstays of democratic politics: bodies and banners amass in the streets to give collective visibility to demands and to articulate aspirations which the powers-that-be would prefer to ignore and leave in silence. In one respect, walking political stems from marching in the streets. Nothing about the February 2008 presidential elections in Armenia was fair or free, and when Serzh Sargsyan was proclaimed president elect, the opposition, alleging massive electoral fraud, descended into the streets in mass. Protests went on for days, with opposition activists occupying prominent public squares, before being moved on by police. Ultimately, the regime revealed its criminal essence when, on March 1, it gave orders to military police to disperse the peaceful occupation of the streets using lethal force, leaving some ten protesters dead. Subsequent demonstrations were forbidden and efforts were made to establish the pretence of normalcy – a situation that does not preclude walking in the streets. And this is what almost spontaneously occurred. Every evening, opposition activists would join ranks with other pedestrians at appointed times and walk and talk. Invisibly, yet undeniably. First on the Northern Avenue, and subsequently until today in Saryan Park, in the centre of Yerevan.

I underscore “almost spontaneously” for though it must have seemed collectively the logical and suitable response to the situation, it is worth considering the conditions of historical possibility of such a solution. On the one hand, it was a way of pursuing the protest marches by other, more discrete means – a form of soft power, more difficult to forbid for a regime intent on upholding the façade of democracy (it would be impractical to arrest all the pedestrians of Yerevan, a city particularly given to evening ambling). On the other hand, what one might refer to as the “double ontological status” of walking political – a mere walk and, additionally, an expression of dissent – is highly reminiscent of the double ontology of activities practised in another realm of human endeavour: contemporary art. For close to a century now, it has become clear that when framed as art, something can be both what it is and a proposition of the same thing. It can be, as analytical philosophers glibly say, both an artwork and the mere real thing. I call this type of art “redundant,” using the term not pejoratively but descriptively. The type of art I refer to as redundant inverses the primary-secondary logic: it is, in this case, first of all a walk, and only in an accessory way a proposition of same. It may not be entirely coincidental that a significant number of Yerevan’s more active political walkers are in fact practising artists… including most notably the conceptualist and erstwhile n.e.w.s. contributor Karen Andreassian, who with a group of students has produced a series of performative documents on the practice, including a book and a website, under the title “Ontological Walkscapes” (http://www.ontologicalwalkscapes.format.am), to be inaugurated at the 2009 Istanbul Biennale, opening this week, curated by the collective What, How and for Whom. The project actually goes much further, using art-informed walking as a heuristic practice for reading the post-Soviet landscape. At any event, walking political seems to share this corrosive duplicity of post-mimetic art practice. This is significant because art, for all its bluster about being an agent of change in society, is usually on the trailing end of shifting forms. This time, however, it just may have lent a certain mode of being to a new form of political action.

New because it both tantalizes and antagonizes power while remaining inassimilable to power’s available language. In the words of political theorists Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau in their classic Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, “antagonism escapes the possibility of being apprehended through language, since language only exists as an attempt to fix that which antagonism subverts.” Language, here, is seen as a conventional power, challenged by an as yet unknown, unheard-of and thus unspeakable antagonistic force. The hegemonic language of mainstream politics – which must always present itself and indeed see itself as being, as it were, the only game in town – is thwarted by an antagonist that eludes it by remaining invisible per se. A perfect strategy to push the inherent paranoia of power to the buckling point. Laclau and Mouffe continue: “Antagonism, far from being an objective relation, is a relation wherein the limits of every objectivity are shown – in the sense in which Wittgenstein used to say that what cannot be said can be shown.” Walking political may well be seen as an absolutely singular, everyday, on-the-ground instantiation of the antagonistic challenge to power Laclau and Mouffe so incisively describe in the conceptual terms of political philosophy. The walkers political do not so much speak their truth to power (actually disregarding it entirely and reclaiming their public space) as show power its repressed awareness of the impossibility that penetrates it through and through.

There is indeed something paranoia inducing about such practices, for when power realises it is being contested, but is unable to see exactly where, every sign may become a symbol of its imminent implosion. As a political strategy, the originality is clear: rather than being premised on making its cause as visible as possible (Look at all these undocumented people! All these unemployed!! All this misery!!!), this type of action goes invisible, blending into the walkscape of the city, leaving power scrambling to recalibrate its radars to its antagonist’s elusive and potentially infectious self-evidence.

Whether or not walking political owes some modicum of its formal or logical possibility to the strange destiny of cutting-edge art practices of recent years, it clearly can be interpreted – and potentially enriched in terms of its self-understanding – using the conceptual tools and vocabulary of art criticism. The dialectics of visibility and invisibility, and experiments with redundant activities having double ontologies have been tested effectively in the field of art discourse. But rather than focusing these art-critical energies on the political walkscapes alone, the thrust of Karen Andreassian’s Ontological Walkscapes project has been to see the entire political landscape of Armenia – and the same would hold, with some variation, for other former Soviet republics – as a field for walking erratically, as what might be called a “post-Soviet errorscape,” and to use the contents of the art-historical toolbox to make sense out of this array of collectively authored inadvertent monuments.

Walking as an artistic practice is a well established method (and it is worth recalling that “method” itself is derived from meta- (above, or after) and –odos (road), roughly designating the road once taken): from the “anti-walks” of the Parisian Dadaists of the 1920s, to the psycho-geographical Situationist dérives of the late 1950s, the cross-country treks of the Land artists, and the contemporary erratic ambulatory architecture of the Stalker collective, art-informed deambulation has achieved the status of an autonomous artform. The art-historical challenge is to sunder it from this enfeebling autonomy, assert its use value, by injecting art-specific deambulatory tools into the decreation of consensual perceptions of the post-Soviet landscape, with its abandoned factory towns, established in the middle of nowhere in the logic-defying Soviet distributive mindset. This mode of praxis is very much in the spirit of one of the project’s major inspirations – the largely forgotten factography movement from the pre-Stalin years of the Soviet Union. In the words of one of its leading theorists, Viktor Pertsov, a primary concern of factography is to “plunge a whole range of exceptionally important skills from the sphere of art into life’s construction.” And in factography’s constructivist epistemology, the construction of facts is inseparable from their interpretation.

Interpreting the overlapping ontologies of the post-Soviet errorscape – an erratic landscape replete with errors, where only overgrown vestiges of collectivism remain, rotted by vapid consumerism and nationalist jingoism – involves using the systematically overlooked yet eminently heuristic tools of the Soviet epistemic heritage. And through walking, the goal is to “walk up” a vast archive through bodily experience that is coextensive with those errorscapes themselves… a Sisyphean task, to be sure, “perennially in search of the present tense,” as the factographers acknowledged, but one whose by-products are potentially very revealing. For, by this logic, walking is a decreative practice, enabling us to (de)create facts by exposing the contingencies behind their false self-evidences. Perhaps therein lies the strange agency of the invisible-yet-undeniable: and in an attention economy awash with the fruits and fructifiers of “creativity,” it is refreshingly decreative.

Stephen Wright