THIS TIME IT’S PERSONAL: POLITICS AS AN EXPANSION OF THE SELF
Graduates mentioned: Timo Demollin, Loidys Carnero, Anastasia Kubrak, Juan Pablo Mejía, Rein Verhoef
Back in 1971, a museum could still forbid using art as “active engagement toward social and political ends.” (1) In that year Hans Haacke was prevented by the director of the Guggenheim from revealing how a single man, Harry Shapolsky, had jacked up the rents of impoverished New York neighbourhoods. (2) How different that is from today, when exhibiting social injustice has become the main current in contemporary art.
The basis of this “political” approach can still be seen as problematic today, but now for another reason. One could object to Haacke’s form of institutional critique that it leaves the murky position of the artist out of the picture – the work fails to negotiate how Haacke’s participation at the Guggenheim itself contributes to gentrification.
While visiting the graduation exhibitions at the Sandberg Instituut, I noticed that some artists have not used art as such a disengaged social tool. Those who intrigued me the most have managed to do something else. They somehow effectuated a double movement: the work takes up a situ-ation that always harks back to the involvement of the artist … in that very same situation. In the works of Timo Demollin, Loidys Carnero, Anastasia Kubrak, Juan Pablo Mejía, and Rein Verhoef, the artist’s own entanglement in a certain state of affairs is also highlighted. To such a degree that the personal is already part of the analysed condition, a part of the world. Thus the personal becomes political, which in turn becomes personal …
How this approach differs from that of the likes of Hans Haacke, is most striking in the work of Timo Demollin, precisely because it has partly inherited the strategies of institutional critique. In Mutual Support, on show at Looiersgracht 60 as part of the group exhibition by the graduates of Fine Arts, he presents some of the in-house equipment of that same space. This assemblage ranges from standing tables to soup cups, and from plastic trays to exhibition walls: all objects that can be rented for an exhibition or any other event. Demollin examines the transition of the venue from a cardboard and postcard factory to an exhibition space that now partakes fully in the culture industry. Here, the difference from Haacke is that the title, Mutual Support, should be read with as little cynicism as possible. The artist examines the underlying economic structures of art, while fully acknowledging the mutual interest both the artist and the venue have in the trade of symbolic and financial capital. The position of Demollin is in no way detached from the situation he analyses.
The artistic move of testing the underlying economic conditions of art by asserting one’s own position is also present in the work of Loidys Carnero. His installation Untitled (Blue Curaçao) comprises multiple boxes of the blue liqueur imported from Curaçao. The work follows the history of an orange that was brought to the island by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, but there grew so bitter that only its peel could be consumed, and even then only in distilled form. As Carnero traces colonial trade routes, he finally imports the bottle back to the Dutch mainland, home to the famous Bols distillery. Carnero uses the transportation of goods from one country to another as a case for testing both political and personal relationships. The parable of Blue Curaçao analyses how the trajectory and (violent) history of a commodity can be superimposed with the construction of our identity. Just as Bols adds a blue colouring to the otherwise colourless Curaçao drink – to make it more exotic, more real – we can also think of our own identity as constructed with the aid of additives. We are “impersonating ourselves”, as the artist calls it, and this is especially true when trying to function abroad in another culture. This examination of the blue liqueur leads not only to a demystification of the commodity as an artificial product, but also deconstructs cultural identity.
On a more abstract level, designer and writer Anastasia Kubrak focuses not on goods themselves, but instead on interfaces. In an ambitious publication, she analyses the power of digital applications and frames this discussion in the context of a pre-eminently urgent question: that of citizenship. Kubrak interviews legal activists, design strategists and software engineers, before then tackling the demise of citizenship in digital times in essay form. She asserts that the position of a rights-bearing citizen (a legal member of a sovereign state) has been weakened to the position of a terms and conditions-compliant user (a mere profile on a digital platform). The citizen is being embedded in the many sensory technologies of digital applications, be they mapping, transport, housing, banking, shopping or searching for new relationships. As such, the digital platform has become the only prism through which public space is experienced. It is thus not the state, but rather privately owned digital platforms, which format the self and its political agency.
The main question in Kubrak’s work remains how the user can be “repoliticised”, or how they can take back agency of the feedback loops in which they are trapped. Even if the status of a user is more fluid than that of a citizen (identity can be manipulated online via a VPN connection, for instance), the structures of power will not change. As Kubrak observes, “The freedom to create a new identity does not come with the ability to control either who owns the data associated with it or what happens in the background.” (3)
Being fully aware of her presence in algorithmic feedback loops, the work remains true to her observations as it results in a non-digital publication. While fully endorsed by the digital circuit she describes, she takes up a position outside it. This could be seen as archaic, but perhaps that is precisely the point: no matter how “small” the data put online ready for extraction, it all adds to the ambient force of algorithms.
Besides Anastasia Kubrak, Juan Pablo Mejía also handles the operation of design in a form whereby visual studies are used to tackle a political issue. In his case the goal is to disentangle the aesthetics of conflict.
In a 35-minute video entitled Salpicón, Mejía arranges dozens of fragments from the climaxes of telenovelas and other defining moments of Colombian television. Juxtaposed with an elucidative voiceover, the inherent relationship between Colombian politics and the structure of the telenovela is made obvious. In doing this, the figure of the Salpicón cocktail, itself a wild mash-up of various tropical fruits, is used to analyse how Colombian melodrama has supplanted politics. The dramatic political life of Colombia is dissected as a particularly violent Salpicón: a mix of politics and TV drama that becomes impossible to disentangle. “You don’t do politics, you do theatre!,” screams an actor in one of the telenovelas (4) quoted in his video. It is exactly this kind of “theatre” which now frames the political arena. The soap opera, either in the form of a telenovela or as politics, has become the battleground of power. Remarkably, the video participates fully in the visual culture it is describing: no distancing or irony is needed – or even possible – to analyse melodrama and its effects.
Although sculpture is not the natural domain in which one can both display a given reality and assert one’s own presence in it, Rein Verhoef’s work Unconditional Void comes close to doing just that. By placing wooden objects in a grid precise down to the centimetre, he formulates a stark repetition of nine singular columns. These sculptures bear marks of their making and their function: either a recess in the base, for lifting by a pallet truck, or round shapes to hold large tubes in place. Through its seriality (and because it has a working fluorescent lamp attached), the assemblage of the columns presents both the surroundings of a large storage space as well as objects which are themselves stored.
In translating the experience of working in a warehouse into a spatial prop-osition, Verhoef takes up the aesthetics of one of the most important forms of architecture in an age of online shopping: storage. An anonymous architecture par excellence, whose main function is that of display. The scale is important here, as it is monumental, beyond human scale. As Verhoef notes, “A monumental behaviour towards the spectator will not cause the beholder to become a subject and the piece in question an object.” (5)
One could object that all artists do exactly what I have tried to describe above: show their personal involvement in an external reality. However, most art that succeeds in this effort is confined to a personal space: either the artist’s body or the studio (6) (7), is used to reflect upon the outside world. Here, by contrast, some of the graduates of the Sandberg Instituut are not trying to conjure political forces merely within a personal experience, but turn the situation inside out by spreading the personal out into the outside world. It is not an easy task to make art whilst knowing that everything can be subsumed under capitalism. One possible step forward, though, seems to be first and foremost to address one’s own complicity in the systems one is dissecting.
Laurens Otto is a Brussels-based curator and editor. His fields of research are contemporary art and visual culture. He is co-director of the Bureau for Cultural Analysis, which investigates the theoretical and material ramifications of mass cultural phenomena. Within this frame he is currently setting up the magazine RESOLUTION, which combines essays and artistic projects to confront the impact of digital images. In addition, he is associate curator of the Lusanga International Research Centre for Art and Economic Inequality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.