Art = Resistance = Art

European Social Forum, Paris, 13-15 November 2003

This report aims to reflect on my understandings of what the European Social Forum in Paris was and how art is being discussed in terms of activism and resistance against capitalism and neo liberalism. It stems from an understanding of art as being inherently resistant and my concern with the assumption that art can be used in the direct and assertive organised movements for social change. These are the questions I have been thinking about, some of which I have started to investigate in this report.

What are the connections between art and Leftist politics?
What are the connections and tensions between localised resistance and the bigger fight for a new form of existence?
What is effective resistance, what are the tactics and how is it measured?
What are the motivations for social transformation through acts of resistance in the everyday?
What does anti capitalism mean in former communist countries? How was this represented at the esf?
What are the power relations that come into play during acts of resistance and activism?

The European Social Forum spilled out of four suburban quarters of Paris. The aim was to create an open gathering space where delegates from different organisations could debate action for ‘another world is possible’ and against ‘a process of capitalist globalisation’. The seminars we managed to get to were:

Migration and development in favour of a positive role for migrants in host countries and countries of origin
Jamming their culture, creating our own. Summit of anti-capitalist artists. (organised by the Movement of the Imagination)
Art, reistance, networking
Marxism and women’s liberation (organised by the Socialist Workers Party)

The hundreds of three-hour seminars, workshops and plenaries on offer over those few days meant that you had to be strategic in your decision making. This overwhelming structure allowed you to wander between the larger seminars. The smaller sessions warranted more commitment and concentration if you wanted to contribute to the debate.

The Forum was resting on uneasy foundations – there seemed to be a quiet resistance to moving forward collectively. The strength of the Forum is reflected in the diversity of self organised groups and the opportunity for them to network, find connections and discuss potential collaborations. The fragmented, self-organised groups each work towards effecting change on local levels, whilst tapping into the global network which represents a common goal of resisting neo-liberalism and capitalism.

It is significant that organisation and implementation happens at ground level, on a local scale and that those actions are then connected to the overall movement against capitalism. The esf will not move forward in a decision-making, organised fashion as that would go against the ideals of the fight itself (equality, decentralisation…). The esf cannot become a representative body or find itself in a position of power. The alternatives being discussed and implemented at a local level and at the esf, however, have to be in some way communicated to those in current positions of power in order to effect change. How are these ideals and movements infiltrating power structures and how effective are they? Is ‘another world’ working? Where’s the evidence?

The underlying politics of the esf are difficult to get to grips with as an outsider. Who is the esf, who is paying for all of this, who is pulling the strings? There are fractures within the movement itself, with the encroachment and appropriation of the movement by political parties and the introduction of hierarchical power structures. For example, at the wsf in Porto Alegre (2001), the Workers’ Party of Brazil (one of the organisers) used the Forum as a stage for their upcoming elections. Jimmy Barnes, the secretary of the trade union CND movement warned this week how the peace movement could be ‘destroyed’ by the take over of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stop the War coalition by Toroskyist groups (such as the Socialist Workers Party) and the Communist Party.
While the movements are highly politicised, they exist and operate autonomously of party-politics. To become a site for one political party goes against the idea of creating an open, networked platform for diverse political and religious beliefs fighting a common cause and cutting through party politics.

There is a tension between maintaining an autonomous organisation (strong campaign of resistance) and collaboration with political parties and governmental organisations (in order to move forward, grow stronger and effect change). To join that autonomous (networked) movement one must have to believe in the general purpose of that group. The purpose and integrity of that group is thrown into question when a stronger, more organised political body begins to influence its agenda. I would argue that this scepticism towards collaboration and influence is useful to consider when artists work within organised movements against capitalism.

‘There is no single locus of great refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, each of them a special case: resistances that are possible, necessary, improbable, others that are spontaneous, savage, solitary, concerted, rampant, or violent; still others that are quick to compromise, interested, or sacrificial; by definition, they can only exist in the strategic field of power relations…’
The movements represented at the esf had the potential to recruit young artists to work towards ‘another world’. I would like to outline some factors to consider around the appropriation of art into the larger movement against capitalism and neo-liberalism.

‘Activist art is to put one’s political commitment to the test’

Am I activist enough? Am I politically committed enough? Artists Alexander Brener and Barabara Schurz condemn curators, critics and artists who do not stand on the side of the oppressed to fight a political battle for new, non-discriminatory, cultural relationships. They call for a revolutionary politics which is directed at changing all society: a new form of existence and a fight against capital. This fight is to be done through small-scale, localised strategies of resistance – self organised groups which are autonomous and consciously opposed to all ‘dominant’ structures and mechanisms.

What is your motivation and for whom are you working for? are questions which could perhaps determine whether you can call yourself an activist or not. If the answer to either has anything to do with you then maybe you are not aloud to call yourself an activist yet – you are just using the misfortune of others and the social injustices of this world as fodder for your own work. Is it only when others (or a social ideal) come before you and your own self development that you can join the real movement for change?

I would argue that (‘effective’) artistic acts of resistance and activism do happen on localised, small scales, with or with out the support of specific movements for social change. The indirect approach to local and global change is key to the autonomy of these projects. There is a sliding scale of an artist’s motivation to change things and the effect an art project has. An artist more willing to directly effect change through their practice does not mean their project will be more effective than that of an artist who does not feel they have any responsibility to make the world a better place.

What are the actual (all be they temporary and contentious) alliances between socially engaged artists and organised Left political movements?
In Britain, some artists are interested in critiquing neo liberal political movements and shifts in social responsibility to the corporate sector. Is it possible to both collaborate with and resist these organisations? Can we both bite and shake the hands that feed us? Can we subvert the situation from within the power structures we seek to change? There are two schools of thought here, one which believes that parasitism is subversive and one which believes a parasite actually ‘mimics and excels in the strategies of the consciousness industry’ . This latter theory rejects the assumption that parasitism can be subversive and therefore liberating and condemns it for merely propelling the industry forward.
We have to decide for ourselves if a collaboration could result in subversion or if our role will be compromised and assist to move the system (that we are critiquing) forward. Perhaps some examples of collaboration combining elements of subversion include David Harding’s position as Town Artist in Glenrothes in the 1970’s projects by the Artist Placement Group and Jeanne van Heeswijk’s project, De Strip in Rotterdam.

Do we need a cultural revolution?

Michel de Certeau in his book The Practice of Everyday Life (1980) believes it is possible to resist ‘the dictates of bureaucratic reason’ whilst at the same time distancing oneself from more grandiose anti capitalist revolutionary schemes. Henri Lefebvre, for example, called for the need for a cultural revolution to ‘put an end to the everyday by shattering all constraints, and by investing the everyday immediately or gradually with the values of prodigality and waste’.
Certeau virtually abandoned the idea of complete revolution. He was interested in locating ‘more subtle moments of creativity and festivity within the delicate skein of everyday life as it was actually experienced’. He was focusing on acts of anonymous creativity and traces of resistance and a critical imagination. The ‘injustices’ one resists are localised and based on experience, rather than encompassing and over-arching. They are ‘silent and unacknowledged forms of resistance that break through the grid of the established order and accepted disciplines’.

It is these acts which can be traced in the practices of artists working collectively and independently. Some artists use art as a tool for social change (the Austrian artist collective, Wochenklauser, for example). Others adopt social and political scenarios as material for production (Nils Norman or Jeremy Deller, for example). In both, the autonomy of the event and the connection to a real situation mean there is potential to effect change. One is direct and the other indirect. Group Material (American artist collective 1979-97) stated: ‘Our project is clear, we invite everyone to question the entire culture we have taken for granted’.
What happens if it actually works and we manage to transform society? What is the result of protest, intervention, and resistance? How is it followed up and implemented? Perhaps the American artist- activist collective, Gran Fury, were on to something when they stated: ‘art is not enough’.

Sophie Hope (December 03)