[-empyre-] re/claiming and unsettling / continuing artistic practices

Kamen Nedev kamennedev at gmail.com
Thu Mar 8 18:24:05 EST 2012

On Wed, Mar 7, 2012 at 3:34 PM, Johannes Birringer
<Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk> wrote:
> kamen argues:
>>This notion - of retreat, of losing the centre - is something I'm researching right now in terms of art practice>
> could you elaborate on that, and your proposition that citizens "produce public space",  perhaps also in response to Alan Sondheim;s justified skepticism, and his mentioning of the "resilient governing forces"?

Ah, indeed, retreat as recession (= "to recede").

This is actually slightly off-topic here, especially with regards to
pin-point the nuances that distinguish resistance, resilience,
recalcitrance, etc.

But, yes, in the light of the 15M movement in Spain last summer, and
the Acampada Sol phenomenon - and ESPECIALLY the late reaction and
poor performance of the different Culture Commissions in different
occupations all over the country - I started pondering the idea of
what might define a critical aesthetic practice which could be truly
adequate to these phenomena and to the historical moment we're

My initial impression - which was later confirmed by the
OccupyWallStreet phenomenon - was that the contemporary art sphere was
responding to this with the received wisdom and the aesthetic language
of critical art practices from the 1960's and 1970's of last century.
Not an inspiring sight.

Some of the strongholds I came accross in this process came from
critical thought, and some of them manifested themselves in actual
direct activist practice.

On the one hand, already back in 2009, Hal Foster, David Joselit, and
Yve-Alain Bois launched an open call for discussion on the notion of
"Recessional Aesthetics". The resulting debate was later published in
"Recessional Aesthetics: An Exchange", October 135, Winter 2011, pp.

But, back in 2009, Paul Chan published his talk "The Spirit of
Recession" (October 129, Summer 2009, pp. 3-12.). There, he attempts
to outline an aesthetic understanding of the current recession, and
resorts to an interesting etymological reading of the term, and,
eventually, finds an empowering aspect to it in the significance of
the recessional hymn in church service:

"For the other definition of recession has to do with the church,
namely, the time after church service when the clergy departs and the
people who make up the congregation are left to themselves. As the
church authorities leave, a hymn is sung. This is called a
recessional." (Ibid., pp. 10-11)

"And it is here, in the act of leaving and singing, that the idea of a
recession gains its transformative potential. For a church without
authority is blessed indeed. The end of the service announces the
beginning of another kind of time: no more commands for sacrifice and
expressions of faith; no more sermons from the book of Progress; no
more exchange of prayers. Time holds no more duties and returns to the
poeple a sense of being neither guaranteed nor determined, and inner
composition unburdened by the anxiety of influence, one which finds
its own shape only when power recedes. This is the time when thoughts
turn away from the authority that captures their attention from above
and from within, and toward the radical demands of life after church."
(Ibid, p. 11)

Now, in an (apparently) wholly unrelated context, I was deeply
impressed at the events surrounding Acampada Sol between August 2nd
and August 5th 2011.

In preparation for the Pope to Madrid, the authorities, fearing the
response of activists, decided to cordon off Puerta del Sol and this,
somehow, "behead" the protest movement. Partly, this was done with the
assumption that, this being August in Madrid, most people would have
left on holiday. But the authorities must not have been reading the
salmon pages in the newspaper - most of us were skint and had to stay
in Madrid for the summer, so Sol was soon besieged by a crowd of over
10 000 demostrators, demanding access to the square.

Of course, the principle of non-violence upheld by the movement meant
that forcing our way through the riot police cordons was not an
option, so for most of the first day, it was mostly a stalemate.

Then something interesting happened. Frustrated at the impossibility
of moving forward, and following someone's chant os "Ciao! Ciao! Ciao!
¡Nos vamos a Callao! (We're off to Callao!)", all of us followed suit
and left the main square behind to concentrate on the nearby square of
Callao. Then, a demonstration started from there and proceed to block
the traffic and take over most of the major avenues and streets of the
city centre. The operation was repeated the following three days,
until, eventually, on the 5th of August, the demo reached Puerta del
Sol, only to find the police cordons had disappeared and access to the
square was open. So, the demo entered the square triumphantly, held a
long general assembly, partied for a while, and, like an exceptionally
lenghty flashmob, abandoned the square once more.

There is nothing exceptional about this, historically. Retreating from
a position, abandoning a stronghold in order to regroup is old hat, at
least in terms military tactics. In the West, this idea of
strengthening one's hold on a position not by taking it over but by
retreating from it, was exemplified in Napoleon's maneouvre at
Austerlitz, where he abandoned the tactical centre of the battlefield
- the Pratzen Heights - only to make the Russo-Austrian forces weaken
their positions by extending their frontline.

But, re-reading Paul Chan's "Spirit of Recession", and the debate in
October, this made me try to relate these urban action tactics with
aesthetic approaches.

And this is how far I've gone in this sense. I've entered
correpondence with a number of artists, trying to gauge their response
and working on how to articulate a project from this standpoint. But
it's all work in progress, nothing definite in sight.

Regarding Alan's skepticism - why, he has every reason to be
skeptical. As we have already seen, slogans, methods, tactics are
quickly appropriated and defused, nothing new here. This is, in a
sense the resilience of power you mention.

To my mind, the question is not in finding an approach, a method, or a
practice which can somehow be immune to assimilation and
appropriation. The question is how to continue being a moving target,
shifting gears, adopting new tactics, new approaches, new practices,
and remaining a few steps ahead of the riot police (and, for that
matter, the contemporary art biennales).




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