Issue #45, 2014
Scene

Counter-Monuments, Precarious Sculptures And Ephemeral Choreographies, Or What Is To Be Done Against The Resurrection Of Fascism?
Cristian Nae

Chto Delat?, Face to Face with the Monument, Vienna, 15 May – 21 June 2014

Today, many debates on monuments seem to return, almost inevitably, to the distinction coined by Pierre Nora between collective memory and history. The first is conceived of by Nora as a supple and dialectical process of remembering and forgetting, socially integrated in the tradition – a totality of forms for organizing life connected with a series of practices that constantly assure its topicality, while, on the other hand, history appears as a modern mode of reconstructing and organizing the past out of its remainders, a mode which is due to an obstruction that, by an acceleration of social transformations, affects spontaneous access to this memory of the community.1 More often than not, memory is defined as lieu de la mémoire, a “materialization of memory in some places where a sense of historical continuity persists and in which memory crystallizes and secretes itself“.2 But are monuments materializations of certain practices of remembrance, practices that have become opaque in time for any spontaneous form of recollection and commemoration, that is, of constituting a temporary community around shared experiences? Are they remnants of a mode of visualizing history typical for an already obsolete cultural modernity? Are they traces of a memory that has been, since their inception, caught by history, that is, selected, conceptually framed and conveyed in symbolic terms – in other words, inevitably subdued to a certain ideology? And, more importantly, of what use is today the distinction between a memory of heterogeneous collectivities – fragmented, imprecise and spontaneously updated/materialized – and history as a meta-narrative that legitimates the hegemony of some dominant groups, insofar as the accelerated erosion in the symbolic status of monuments can represent the effect of a larger question, which regards not only fragmentation, but also an increasingly critical tension in the public sphere?

Europe has recently witnessed the resurrection of some fragments of nationalist ideology and the camouflage of certain fascist ideas and attitudes in rightwing political programs with a taste for extremism, autocracy and, simultaneously, messianism, coming as answers to an increasingly obvious lack of legitimacy affecting representative democracy in comparison to participative democracy and spontaneous forms of collective protest. However, this is the symptomatic fact for the way in which the articulation of power extends today over collective memory, fulfilling the task of history indicated by Nora, namely, that of dis-articulating any spontaneous attempt made by the community at creating coalitions and, thus, erasing any uncodified traces of historical experience – in other words, the task of functioning as an ideological state apparatus. Therefore, using Nora’s distinction can be useful, insofar as it reminds us of the fact that, basically, the articulation of community is a political gesture of a performative nature, for which the remembrance of the past aims at re-discussing and critically re-articulating the present – thus, at transforming the future. This participative version of collectivity emerges today against symbolic elements ossified in the towering forms specific to dominant ideology.3 Against such public rituals, it is sometimes necessary to temporarily alienate existing monuments, to reinvent the monument in precarious, ephemeral, invisible or performative forms – in the guise of some anti-monuments, if needed, polemic, anti-authoritarian monuments, capable of articulating a politics of commemoration that would empower certain social groups with developing their own rituals that emphasize certain spaces and gestures. Similarly, there is a need for history to develop an ability of recognizing its omissions and mystifications, to reactive the memory of oppressed groups, to present repressed narratives and gestures, and to re-articulate marginalized discourses and attitudes in the public space. In this sense, a monument can be the point of departure for a series of discursive practices combining intellectual frameworks of understanding and libidinal investment in images and places, in socially engaged artistic practices dramatizing the past and evoking a potential for revolt and public resistance.

Accepting these types of tasks, the artistic projectdeveloped by the artistic collective Chto Delat?at the Wiener Festwochen, Face to Face with the Monument, finds its pretext in an archeology of the Monument for the Soviet Soldier located in Schwarzenberg Square in Vienna. Placed in a rotunda close to the entrance of Belvedere palace, which marks a circular space dominated by the towering figure of this anonymous soldier (suggesting the liberation from the domination of national-socialism through the – armed – intervention of Soviet socialism at the end of WWII), this site of memory, most often ignored by tourists searching for the Viennese glamour, was a nexusfor a series of installations and performative interventions lasting about a month. These interventions aimed at releasing the destabilizing potential of these symbols (fascism and socialism) within the current socio-political configuration, in which global capitalism seems to have incorporated the creative resources that seemed to constitute until recently a reserve of the left, contributing to a radicalization of biopolitics. What can, however, offer a critically engaged discourse when faced with the increasingly intolerant Euro-centric conservatism and the camouflaged forms of socialism with nationalist nuances? How can a site for commemoration become a space for public negotiation, articulating dissensions, releasing repressed antagonisms and reactivating the inherent pluralism of the public sphere?

The project conceived of and coordinated by Chto Delat?, with an obvious participative and process-like character, incorporated various artistic elements: choreographies and performative dramatizations, a series of billboards connected with public lectures, a guided tour (in audio format) and film projections, as well as a temporary installation accompanied by a large mural painting, made in collaboration by participants to a workshop conducted by Nikolay Oleynikov, a workshop whose form, simultaneously precarious and functional, reclaimed the necessity of re-conquering the public character of the monument. Within the project, a number of artists and art collectives (such as Bankleer, Schwabingrad Ballet and Lampedusa in Hamburg, Ines Doujak, John Barker, Martin Krenn, Luigi Copolla, IRWIN, Oliver Ressler), as well as theorists (Oliver Marchart, Erich Klein, Johen Gerz, Suzana Milevska) have contributed to constructing a vast process of historical interrogation and collective remembrance.

The series of billboards directly aimed at the dramatization of history, involving the activation of hidden tensions, which are not easily found in collective representation (as in the case of billboardsby Oliver Ressler and IRWIN, focusing in different ways on the state forms of intolerance and social exclusion based on belonging to a national identity). In more general terms, the inquiry focused on Austria’s contribution to the repressive and closed policies of the European Union as regards migration, the relationship between European fiscal policies and the recent outbursts of nationalism both in the Union and at its borders (Bankleer, Schwabingrad Ballet and Lampedusa in Hamburg, Ines Doujak and John Barker). Indirectly, the artistic discourse has touched upon the hidden traumas and frustrations resulting from the Cold War in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet empire, as well as upon the ability of socialist utopia, as an export item of the October Revolution, to function as a “liberating agent“ in societies and cultures as conservative as the Austrian one. Next to the anonymous soldier, expats, illegal emigrants and underpaid workers building the underground networks of international politics (Ines Doujak and John Barker), those who constitute today the “multitude“ have gained a temporary visibility. Through its marked non-spectacular character, through the sometimes Brechtian attitude of the characters, through quotations from authors that keep on informing the contemporary political imagination, such as Gramsci or Pasolini, and through combining musical forms having a social impact, the project coordinated by Luigi Copolla, Masses and Motets, directly answered to the need for a social re-articulation of the collective body, for which the symbolic body of the monument could and should constitute a metonymy. While the guided tour imagined by Olga Egorova has offered an appropriate framework for an interaction between personal memory and a memory narrated by an imaginary witness of WWII, dance and mural drawing workshops upheld the participative aspect of the project at a collective level. These contributed to the material articulation of the notion that spontaneous cooperation among individuals can produce “multitude“, that is, a form of social bonding in which solidarity allows for a temporary cohesion of social groups, without refusing singularity and difference in the name of an abstract collective subject.

In fact, it is not the symbolic task of the monument, as an element of authority materialized in a sculpture and meant to survive to the passing of time, or a certain particular iconography (meant, in this case, to receive the transformative energy of socialism), that proves itself inadequate today, but the incapacity of its public forms of representation to constitute forms of remembrance that, by taking on a process-like character, would inscribe themselves in time, instead of eluding the latter, and could oppose a resistance to public policies at a micro-social level. These must be able to correspond to collective projections of marginalized or oppressed social groups, whose predominant form of expression – collective revolt – constitutes the nerve in the social body reached by the performative element privileged in the artistic project initiated and conducted by Chto Delat?. The choreographic element characteristic to many of the collective participative projects involved in this project can be juxtaposed with Jacques Rancière’s views, according to which choreography represents a predetermined form of spatial distribution of bodies and of their relationships, corresponding to the fundamental action of politics, namely the management of public space. In its mimetic articulation, choreography can potentially become subversive. When it takes on spontaneous forms, such as public demonstrations, this represents the elementary form of political action, the essential work of politics being the configuration of its own space that offers visibility to the world of subjects and its operations – in other words, a space for manifestation.

Interrogating the institutional framework in which the project took place, one can easily accuse the complicity between choreographic and choral projects invited and commissioned by Chto Delat? with the type of spectacular theatricality promoted by Wiener Festwochen, as well as the outsourcing character presented by many performative projects in contemporary artistic and curatorial practices.4 However, the paradox of recent critical projects in this genre developed in the public space, which presumably enjoy a great visibility, resides rather in the precarious involvement of the heterogeneous general public in the artistic scenarios and propositions, created most often for a professional community still, than in their amplitude and, implicitly, in their spectacular character they could imply. The latter has been smartly avoided by artists invited to the Viennese version of the project, via the specific modes of aesthetic articulation of the projects – rough, direct and sometimes even Poveristic. However, in line with Rancière’s conception, one could argue that precisely this offers a precarious articulation between politics and aesthetics – an insufficient space for public manifestation. Such a conclusion would be, however, too hasty. Through the discrete character of its interventions at the level of local community, Chto Delat? has made visible the increasing distaste for critical thinking of the Viennese middle class. It has revealed the huge background of collective oblivion and indifference, as well as the singularity and fragility of potentially insurgent positions in a public space always occupied by a tourism that capitalizes on the bourgeois charm of an imperial heritage. In a more general sense, the project emphasized the inherent deadlock of cultural left in communicating on large scale within a society in which revolution seems almost a utopia, and repressed tensions at the margins of Europe are eluded. However, what must be noted as regards the latter aspect is the fact that, under the increasingly critical threat of a fascism disguised in protectionist social policies, the aestheticization of politics and the choreography of masses engaged in the spectacle without keeping a distance between actors and spectators, which is so necessary to preserve the autonomy of art according to Rancière, would be more dangerous than the temporary articulation of fragile and ephemeral micro-communities politically engaged through artistic reconfigurations of the public space. This danger can justify today the precariousness of social processes generated by artistic processes and that of actual exchanges between personal memories of the viewers, symbolic materializations of memory in public places and collective amnesia. For, the symbolic reminder of a potential for social rearticulation, through a recognition in the present of marks and traces of the past, means, in fact, an important re-conquering of a public role for art and, implicitly, a re-affirmation of its ability to negotiate and publically expose repressed dissentions and hidden social tensions. According to Walter Benjamin, that which is not recognized in the present, not even in the shape of a flashing image shining for a second on the screen of memory before dissipating into nothingness, faces the risk of disappearing forever in the oblivion of history5, violently flaring up when words and images can no longer change a thing.

Translated by Alexandru Polgár

 

Notes:

1. ‑Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History – Les Lieux de la Mémoire“, Representations, no. 96, spring 1989, pp. 7–24.

2. ‑Ibidem, p. 7.

3. ‑A recent example involves the reconstruction, in Skopje, of a consumed history, materialized in an excess of monumentalization corresponding to the need of inventing and legitimizing a nationalist ideology, as well as externally imposing a solid national consciousness in an unstable cultural space.

4. ‑Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politica of Spectatorship, Verso, 2012.

5. ‑Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History“, trans. Harry Zohn, in Illuminations, Shocken Books, 1969, p. 255.