Lina Alvarez Reyes performs speech in front of the Norwegian Parliament. Photo: Rädle & Jeremić.
With this text I hope to contribute to the understanding of transformative artistic practices. The works discussed here are “Red Winter” and “Rolling Classroom”1, two connected artistic interventions carried out by Vladan Jeremić and myself in Norway. The relation of art and politics is one of the central issues in our artistic practice and we have gathered substantial experience of how this relation looks like and works in practice. Nevertheless, we are also interested in problematizing it theoretically, so as to generate new impulses for our practice. In my contribution I aim to develop a theoretical framework to discuss the conjunction of politics and art. Both works presented here deal with the language of political agitation, while occupying different places on the “passage” from the artistic to the political field. I will elaborate upon these differences, thus demonstrating under which circumstance artistic language can translate into the language of everyday experience, so that it can contribute to political articulation and practice. In short, the question I will try to answer is: How can artistic practice be transformative beyond the artistic field?
Artistic practices that reach out to the political field evolve along manifold contradictions. This is unavoidable, as in political practice, it is necessary to take sides and to deal with changing situations. Likewise, the analysis and critical evaluation of art that expands into both the aesthetic and political field encounters difficulties in finding adequate categories. One of the inevitable concepts that critics, theorists and other thinkers use when it comes to the analysis of the political in art, is the notion of artistic autonomy, with the discussion usually revolving around the axis of the autonomy-heteronomy relation. These disputes arise from contradictory readings of the historical avant-garde’s legacy in Western art theory production. Often they end up defending artistic autonomy in one or the other way, seeing, in the tradition of Adorno, autonomy as a precondition for critique or truth in art2. Above all, these disputes can’t be separated from their structural function in the ideological struggle and are often affected by the “spontaneous ideology of the art field”.3
Transformative artistic practice claims to go further than establishing autonomy or critical distance within the ideological field. These practices have moved away from criticality and other ideological models4 formed by institutional art discourses and the art market. Their socialization and distribution takes place under terms that are extrinsic to the art field. In order to scrutinize such practice, a concept is needed that allows us to comprehend relations between the ideological field and other fields of social production. In order to think the relations that determine artistic practice, I rely on Rastko Močnik’s theory of artistic practice as ideological practice and ‘secondary elaboration’ of socially determined ideological formations.5 To conceptualize transformation and political practice, a dynamic model is needed. For that I propose Nicos Poulantzas’ concept of the economic, political and ideological class struggle that figures as the motor of social transformation.6 These concepts have in common their description of society as a ‘complex social whole’ (Althusser), where the production of social reality is not exclusively a historical necessity, but also the effect of the ‘relative autonomy’ of ideological operations and political practices. As such, they can help us illuminate the structural place and agency of artistic practice in relation to politics, which is the central subject of this text.
Before going into the details of “Red Winter” and “Rolling Classroom”, let’s look at the language of political agitation, which is a central aspect of both works. The most condensed form of political language are slogans. One of the insights political activists shared with us in discussion was that a political message is more likely to be understood if it is written down as a slogan rather than symbolized in an artistic manner. This conclusion came from their experience with designing agitation material and involving artists in the development of it. This is certainly true insofar as it would be easier to get someone to repeat the slogan and message if it was written as a simple phrase. Whereas they might not be able to reproduce the message contained in a complex artistic representation of, let’s say, the struggle against the privatization of common goods. Anyhow, the way in which people relate to a given repeated slogan, whether they identify with it or not, will depend on their personal mood, ideas and values, the circumstances they are living in and their political interest at that moment.
Let’s take for example a slogan from our work “Red Winter”, written on one of the banners put up around Levanger’s main square, “Stop oil drilling in the Arctic!”. A hypothetical art critic reading the slogan might agree with the message, but could say: “This is bad art, there is no critical reflection, true political art is never explicitly political”. Maybe she feels the lack of a metaphysical dimension, or she wants to defend the autonomy of art as the last refuge of critique. The actual reaction of a citizen of Levanger, on the other hand, was quite straight forward. When we handed the Red Winter newspaper over to him, he said: “What do you want here? Go away, you are sponsored by Putin.” As a member of a political party (as we learned later on), he understood that the slogan undermines Norwegian interest in oil drilling and therefore serves Russian interests.
With these examples I want to sketch the problem of political articulation in the art field, or through artistic processes. In the first example, the political activists expected of art that it would enhance their political message, only to realize that artistic representations are too complex for this purpose. This is because they (as Močnik argues) represent refracted images of reality, which means they don’t reflect a social problem as a mirror, but work upon already existing ideas of that problem. When, in the second example, the artistic representation was reduced to a slogan, it was understood as a political message by the politician and the art critic, even though the installation of this slogan on the public square was nevertheless part of a concrete artistic operation. Let’s say then, the effect of the slogan here was a kind of an ideological confusion.
From these examples we could add that the effects of artistic practice are confined to the symbolic field. But we have to take into account that artistic practice itself is “re-worked”, or even replaced by other dynamics of social production. In the following text I will try to show how a “passage” from the artistic, ideological field to the political field occurred in “Red Winter” and “Rolling Classroom” while elaborating upon the transformative aspects of these works.
For “Red Winter”, we researched the historical and contemporary emancipatory struggles in Levanger and the surrounding region with the aim to generate figures of political agitators that would deliver speeches on the main square of the city. The idea was that these agitators, equipped with the arguments and worldview of their time and their struggles, would meet today and deliver speeches commenting on the contemporary situation. The point of departure was the three-day-long workers’ uprising that took place in 1851 on Levanger Square, which was noticed internationally and covered by the news in Paris and London at that time. It was triggered by the arrest of Carl Johan Michelsen, who agitated for the first Norwegian labor movement led by Marcus Thrane. The figures of the agitators represented the first Norwegian labor movement, the antifascist struggle during WW2, emancipatory movements of the Roma and Sami in the last decades and current environmental movements. For the action, banners with slogans were put up all around the square, situated in the center of Levanger, at the historical location of the uprising. The four speeches that we had earlier recorded with actors from the local theater group were emitted through loudspeakers from the square’s speakers’ pavilion. The newspaper “Red Winter”, containing the speeches, drawings and slogans, was installed at the pavilion’s speaker’s desk and was distributed to passersby.
Speakers’ pavilion and banner “Away with private security companies and mercenary armies!” Photos: Rädle & Jeremić.
Speakers’ pavilion and banner “Day labourers, harvest workers, domestic servants, nannies, elder care workers, sex workers, become organized!” Photos: Rädle & Jeremić.
Although the work drew on a local tradition of historical folk theater7, there was barely any similarity with reenactments of historical events. There were neither costumes nor actors, only the voices of agitators resounding across the square from the empty pavilion. From their historical positions – but also aware of the present day situation – the speeches referred to the experience of their struggles and analyzed mechanisms of exploitation from then and now. In their speeches, they defended their demands, claimed political, social and economic equality, and called for radical change and revolution.
Here, the transformative aspect of the artistic method lies in the re-articulation of historically existing conceptions of radical change, which were reactualized in the context of contemporary social struggles. In a kind of experimental setting, principles or concepts were elaborated and their operability tested within a wider social context, here on the public square, where the historical uprising started. Herein transformative artistic practice differs from both traditional reenactments and typical methods of contemporary art. A transformative approach doesn’t take historically documented speeches or other non-art material and transfer them as a ready-made to the art field, but rather reworks the material (here the demands) into tools for an ideological intervention into ongoing struggles. A new constellation occurred that made space for the imagination of a new, contemporary, political subject.
Speakers’ pavilion and banner “Stop oil production in the Arctic!” Photos: Rädle & Jeremić.
Discussion at Levanger municipality and on the square. Photos: LevArt.
Talking about language, it’s worth considering the comment of playwright and author of the historical reenactment “Red Winter”, Thorvald Sund, during the public discussion about our intervention. In order to be truly political, he proposed, we should have written the speeches in the local dialect instead of using Bokmål, the written language that, in his view, was imposed by the Danish occupiers. Without going into the details of the Norwegian language conflict, his comment hints at the general difficulty of politics to integrate local particularities, here expressed in different dialects and in the particular histories of oppression and struggle.
With this critique he, consciously or not, targeted the problem of political representation, which was touched upon, though not concretized in “Red Winter”. The agitators remained an abstraction within the work. As there was nobody up there in the speakers’ pavilion, the place of the political subject was left empty, which was, at the same time, an invitation to anybody and everybody to occupy this position.
We can say that there is a transformative quality in the speeches of “Red Winter” as they formulate a new political agenda. However, there was no connection made with political forces that could take it up. When we developed the next steps, based on the intervention in Levanger, we tried to get closer towards the political dynamic. In the context of the “Karnevalet” in Oslo, we organized the workshop “Red Winter Oslo” to prepare speeches that would be delivered at the carnival parade. The idea was to involve interested people, addressing issues of importance to them during the parade, in this way politicizing the manifestation.
The Rolling Classroom of Love and Resistance
The carnivalization of protest is a much discussed phenomenon, with social movements sometimes using carnivalesque tactics during protests in order to confuse power relations and try to protect themselves from police repression. The “Karnevalet” in Oslo was not initiated by a social movement, rather it was the joint effort of Oslo’s art and cultural scene to reclaim the cultural sphere in a time when the far right rules the parliament and to make a statement for an intercultural society, against racism and discrimination. Our workshops were attended mostly by artists and random visitors of the Intercultural Museum of Oslo, and we discussed how the “Karnivalet” could become a more outspoken political manifestation, identifying issues that should be addressed. In those days we went through a process of learning from and listening to one another, with people expressing feelings of loneliness and alienation in regard to their relations with others and “society”, and addressing a sense of injustice and of relentlessness of the political system. While for some, this exchange, in what we came to call the “Collective Classroom of Love and Resistance”, was at the core of the process, others formulated speeches, reached out to other interested groups and organizations, and prepared actions that were to be performed in the streets. For that, we designed the “Rolling Classroom”, a mobile tribune that speakers could talk from, whenever they felt that it was the right moment and place.
Moving of the “Rolling Classroom” and passerby holding a speech. Photos: Rädle & Jeremić.
Rachel and Rena perform speeches. Photos: Rädle & Jeremić.
The parade departed from the immigrants’ neighborhood, Grønland, and stopped from time to time at buildings and squares marking different social struggles, where dance, music and theater performances took place. To keep the “Rolling Classroom” moving within the overall dramaturgy of the Karnevalet was a task in itself, and many helped to make it happen, contributing their energy and giving support in all possible ways.8
In a kind of prayer to the gods, artist Anita Hillestad, whose speech was performed by Rachel Dagnall, addressed the situation of artists in Norway, living on the edge of poverty in a society designed for the super-rich and called for wages and healthcare for creative workers. Indigenous studies researcher Amanda Fayant formulated a response from the Thunderbird Women to the Indian act of 1857 in Canada, exposing how the implementation of colonial patriarchal law affects the position of women in indigenous communities. Speeches we had written before for “Red Winter” were delivered, and Shahzad Ah and other people with special needs from the UngMetro Fredagsklubben, spontaneously spoke up for their cause, from the tribune. Several inspired passersby climbed up and shouted out their message to the people, one of them calling on people to “take their masks off and show their real faces”, while the carnival parade moved on. Lagging behind the great parade, the “Rolling Classroom” had to take a shortcut to the Parliament, one of the stops of the carnival. When the procession with its loud and meanwhile ecstatic expression disappeared, Eshraq Jah, a survivor of the war in Syria waiting for her request for asylum in Norway to be accepted, started singing without words. Radicalizing her contribution to the workshop, which she had condensed into the slogan “Love is not a feeling but an action”, with this gesture she fundamentally questioned the concept of verbal articulation as a means of making change.
In front of the National Parliament, the last speech was performed by Lina Alvarez Reyes with activists of the “Peace in Colombia” support group.9 The recording of the speech was shared on the social media page of the group. It was the testimony of a character called Ursula about the ongoing killings of Colombian indigenous social leaders, three years after the signing of the peace treaty in Oslo, written by Katharina Barbosa Blad and Ileana Alvarez Reyes. This testimony generated a rupture within the flow and creative chaos of the parade. The music and dancing stopped and the carnival crowd and everybody else on the square listened to Lina’s voice calling for an end to bloodshed.
Lina Alvarez Reyes and the “Peace in Colombia” support group perform a speech in front of the Norwegian Parliament. Photos: © Sébastian Dahl
A double rupture
What happened was something that could be described as a double rupture. If we understand (with Bakhtin) the carnival as a suspension of imposed norms, where people come together as equals, stripped off their socially determined roles and behaviors, the intervention of the “Peace in Colombia” group could be seen as a rupture exposing the very reality of life experiences and struggle of the indigenous communities in Colombia. In this moment, the dramaturgy of the carnival as a celebration of a kind of pre-social condition of unity appeared to be a far away utopia. But it also brought about a real moment of strength, where it was possible to open space for political articulation.
While the political subject was abstract in “Red Winter”, it emerged with Lina’s speech and the activists of “Peace in Colombia”. They transformed the “Rolling Classroom” into a stage for political articulation that reached beyond the folklorist expression of the carnival parade. Artistic practice can bring about concepts, methods (here the workshop that involved activists) and tools (here the rolling tribune) that might be used in political struggles, and here is the very moment, when art expands the political. When the transformative artistic act takes place in a politically charged situation, and its method and practical potential is recognized by political actors as a means of struggle, a new quality emerges, which can be expressed in political terms. The institution of art as ideological apparatus is losing importance and institutions in the political field are becoming dominant, with their forms of organizing agency, creating meaning, and distribution of value. These social movements will continue to evaluate the utility of artistic means, and negotiate whether an artistic form or method should enter into circulation, for example to serve educational or propagandist aims.10
Politics versus Art
The new dynamic that seizes the artwork now, emancipates the artistic method or object from its artist-creator and the ideological field of art, which comes to have hardly any control over its use or misuse. Distributed under new, now non-artistic terms, the political artwork depends on the relations of the political field, and might be subject to modification by it. The moment of “creative expansion” and playfulness has ended and artistic practice is being replaced by political practice. In a worst case scenario, the work could be censored, the artist arrested, blacklisted or even persecuted. Here we arrive at the contradiction of “political art”. Art and politics can not be conflated, but rather, as I have attempted to demonstrate, they exclude each other. In the introduction, I used the image of the passage of artistic practice from the field of ideology to the field of politics. When moving to the political field, the critical distance, artistic practice established within the field of ideology (through the ‘secondary elaboration’of ideological formations), can only be realized by establishing a critical distance within the political field, and therefore the arena of struggle shifts towards art versus politics.
Coming back to the question I posed in the beginning, how then can artistic practice be transformative in the political field? If artistic practice wants to expand the political, it needs to participate in politics, establishing a critical distance within the political field. This struggle of ‘art versus politics’ can bring about new concepts and approaches in political practice. To be transformative, artistic interventions need to be created with political consciousness and be explicit about what kind of politics an artistic practice advocates, here and now, and with which political forces it is affiliated. To creatively apply Poulantzas here, this consciousness arises from the struggle of antagonistic dynamics of political, ideological and economic practices. Obviously, artistic practices (as other cultural practices) play a role in the formation of class consciousness, but my point is here that they can contribute to a change of consciousness only if they have effects in the political field. That means that artists and other cultural workers need to get rid of the idea of expanding the institution of art and need to understand that it is political practice and the way of political organization that needs to be “expanded” and transformed. And, as social practices, artistic practices can be strong and meaningful only if they emerge out of an ongoing process of mutual learning, consultation, solidarity, and building alliances with others. A particular capacity of artistic techniques in this context might be the translation between languages of subjective and collective experience and the operationalization of abstract knowledge systems in concrete situations. Nevertheless, when it comes to “The Rolling Classroom of Love and Resistance”, it was mostly the non-artistic, non-specialized, apparently unrelated activities and engagements, and the emotional work of all who were involved, that brought about a process of collective knowledge production and mutual education in political articulation.
1 “Red Winter” came about following an invitation by Anne-Gro Erikstad, in 2014, in collaboration with LevArt, a project space for contemporary art in Levanger; see: http://raedle-jeremic.net/pdfs/about_red_winter_web.pdf . “Rolling Classroom” was created for the “Karnevalet” in 2019, in Oslo, upon invitation by the Carnival Union, an artistic collaborative project between Hanan Benammar, Gidsken Braadlie, Camilla Dahl, Marius von der Fehr, Lisa Pacini, Pia Maria Roll and Venke Aure; see: http://raedle-jeremic.net/pdfs/about_rolling_classroom.pdf
2 Along these lines, the critic Grant Kester describes the defense of autonomy in the discussions of the curator Nicholas Bourriaud and the critic Claire Bishop as “a reaction to growing anxieties about the vulgar taste of an incipient middle class”. In: Grant H. Kester, The One and the Many, Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context, Duke University Press, 2011, p.14.
3 This phenomenon of ideological argumentation is concisely termed “the spontaneous ideology of the art field” (alluding to Althusser’s “spontaneous philosophy of the scientists”) by Oliver Marchart, who argues that Ranciere’s theory of political aesthetics delivers the ideological instrument for keeping explicitly political art out of art institutions. In: Oliver Marchart, Conflictual Aesthetics, Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere, Sternberg Press, 2019, pp. 12-14.
4 Roughly, we can differentiate two tendencies of critical practice in ‘contemporary art’. There are art practices that, in the tradition of critical theory, claim autonomy within the ideological field of art, and in this way generate a critical distance from where the artist unmasks the truth about human society, the art system, political corruption, etc. And there are practices that emerged in the 1990s, inspired by the work of thinkers such as Deleuze and Guattari, Nancy and Badiou, that attempt to create prefigurations of ideal (communist) communities. The reflection of ‘new communist’ thinking from the 1980s in (post-)relational aesthetics is discussed by John Roberts in: John Roberts, “Introduction: Art, ‘Enclave Theory’ and the Communist Imaginary”, in: Third Text, 23:4, 2009, pp. 353-367.
5 Rastko Močnik, drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin and Pavel N. Medvedev, develops his concept of artistic practice on the premise that artistic practice takes place in the sphere of ideology. Every ideological system is conceived as a system of signs that are modified by class interests. Both, sign and system are products of the class struggle, and represent a refraction of the social conditions. Hence, artistic practices do not mirror social reality in the form of a simple representation, but work on existing ideological representations, creating a ‘secondary elaboration’ (Medvedev) of ideologically refracted reality. Močnik further shows, through a model combining Medvedev’s ‘secondary elaboration’ with Levi Strauss’ concept of the ‘total social fact’ (which comprises the object and the subject, or the ‘thing’ and ‘native representation’, see: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1987), how the structural place of artistic practice changes during the course of history, in pre-capitalist, bourgeois, socialist and late-capitalist societies. See: Rastko Močnik, “Teorija umetničkih praksi”, in Teorija sa ideologijom, FKM, Belgrade 2019, pp. 211-243.
6 Nicos Poulantzas developed a concept of class that tackles the discrepancies between class practice, class consciousness and class determination. Taking up Althusser’s concept of overdetermination, he sees class practice as primarily determined by its place in the dominant mode of production, but also by the ideological and political forces in a specific moment. More precisely, according to Poulantzas it is the ideological, political and economic class struggle that forms and reproduces social classes and institutions. See: Nicos Poulantzas, Classes in contemporary Capitalism, NLB, 1975, pp. 15,16, pp. 29-30.
7 The title “Red Winter” was inspired by the dramatic play “Raud Vinter” by Thorvald Sund, based on the Levanger riots in 1851, and performed in Levanger for the first time in 2006.
8 Our special thanks goes to Madeleine Park and Shahzad Ah, Rachel Dagnall, Joana Gelažytė and Tim Kliukoit, Camilla Dahl and Lisa Pacini, the artists from Nesodden – Land of the Free, the activists of Fred i Colombia, the group from UngMetro Fredagsklubben and Halvor Valle.
9 The recording was shared over 1500 times and had more than 27000 views. https://www.facebook.com/watch/FredIColombia/2190378337958563/
10 To put it in Poulantzas’ words, at a certain conjuncture, as part of a greater strategy, artistic methods can be integrated into political struggles.
Rena Rädle is a Belgrade-based artist whose research-oriented work in collaboration with Vladan Jeremić comprises installations and artistic interventions in public space. In their joint practice, Rena & Vladan explore the relation between art and politics, unveiling the contradictions of today’s societies. They use techniques that are easy to reproduce and distribute such as drawing and prints, and simple materials such as textile, cardboard and wood, and they insist on their artistic production’s use value and social & ecological awareness. They develop the transformative potentials of art in the context of social struggles and in collaboration with social movements.
Copy editing and proofreading by Mike Watson
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.