What Happens When We Really Intervene?
Recent interventions in the art field have revealed the stakes in art’s so-called neutrality.
The response to a contentious workshop by Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (LABOFII) at Tate, for its direct critical engagement with Tate’s BP sponsorship, was as follows, “Ultimately, it is also important to be aware that we cannot host any activism directed against Tate and its sponsors, however we very much welcome and encourage a debate and reflection on the relationship between art and activism.” (*4)
The encouragement of debate in the place of action is what education theorist Paulo Freire describes as anti-dialogue or an “alienating blah, blah, blah,” as it actively severs the connection between dialogue and action.
If not dialogue, it is for the preservation of art that intervention should not occur, as is the case with the justification for the continuation of Manifesta 10 after the state’s declaration of a ban on “gay propaganda,” its involvement in waging war upon its neighbors, and the withdrawal of a number of artists. Curator Kaspar Konig warns of the potential misuse of the exhibition “…by political actors as a platform for their own self-righteous representation…” with little clarity as to whether it is the artists themselves or politicians who may be engaging in such “self-righteous” activity. This criticism of artists who engage in direct political messaging as “moralistic,” “worthy,” or “self-righteous” is related directly to the notion that art and artists if not neutral should be ambivalent in their desire for change, representing the complexity of situations rather than direct political positioning.*6 *(6)
This was recently made clear again in the protests surrounding the Istanbul Biennial whose theme “Public Alchemy” was taken up as an invitation by local activists to protest Biennial sponsors who are directly involved in the city’s gentrification program that has led to thousands of evictions and was the subject of major protests in Gezi Park in 2012. Their action, titled “Public Capital” on May 10, 2013 involved a group of artists and activists wearing T-shirts printed with the names of forcibly gentrified neighborhoods in Istanbul. Throughout the event, members of the group stood up from the crowd and draped him/ herself on the floor in the middle of the room using a piece of cloth printed with the logos of related companies. According to activists and bystanders, the performance was put to an end by the Biennial’s organizing team who roughly picked up protesters and carried them away from the venue. The police were called and an activist arrested for video recording the proceedings and, in particular, focusing on the Biennial’s curator. It was clear that the Biennial’s goals to “activate social engagement and public fora to generate a possibility for rethinking the concept of publicness” did not include unsolicited critique. Instead, in their terms, the aim of the Biennial and Public Program was to “…open up the idea of a real public sphere to all kinds of different voices, even conflicting ideas, in which people can talk without fear and without obstructing one another.” Additionally, they stated that “…impeding such platforms only reproduces the methods that obstruct freedom of expression…” and that such platforms entail “…talking, listening and trying to understand each other…” as the way to engage in change. Such a liberal notion of public discourse, however, bars conflictual relationships and suggests that art world spaces can provide an otherwise empty meeting ground, obscuring the many entanglements and complicities of the arts in that one might debate (or protest) in such a public forum.