Introductory statement 03 - Steve Kurtz

Critical Strategies in Art and Media - introductory statement 03 - Steve Kurtz

Kurtz Steve

As a way to begin I would like to say something about Konrad: I have always admired his absolutely unrelenting pessimism. Everything is completely hopeless, and at the same time the guy never quits. He is doing work all the time; he never surrenders; he never gives in; he’s doing project after project, regardless if there is simultaneously a feeling of hopelessness. This is a state of consciousness he and I share — as in Gramsci’s “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Optimism of the will is one of the things that has always kept Critical Art Ensemble going. If you read our books, they are not the most inspiring writings interms of optimism — they tend toward a much darker viewof the world of global capitalism. But if you look at the kindof projects we do, there is an optimistic streak in them.

Jumping off from this point, I want to be the soft apologist for art and activism today, and say that I don’t know that it is really such a crisis in terms of “What do we do now?” It’s a crisis in rhetoric more than a material one. We are still using the language of postmodernism, when it seems like we should have developed new ways of speaking about the new forms of capitalism, media, technocracy, etc.

So starting with the Debord quote — yes, he said that art is a corrupt enterprise and there is no reason to be doing it. But you have to put it into the context of when he said it. What he was really thinking about was a modern conception of art, of what an artist is and what an artist does. The Enlightenment idea that art is a specialization in which one has a limited, territorialized choice of materials, behaviours and processes, was really not a very useful construction any longer. I think we all agree on that. I certainly don’t think I am very invested in calling myself an artist, or insisting that what I do is art. If someone wants to talk about it in that way, I will do that, because it is very practical to use a term that a lot of people understand and feel invested in. However, if we’re out doing a project and no-one talks about it as art at all, I don’t really care. I am just not invested in saving this term, and I believe at this point resistant cultural production is a dynamic process in which a number of institutions, discourses, and subjectivities are all interacting.

Within this complex interchange new arrangements of social possibilities emerge. So if you look at it that way, I am not sure Debord would object so much. I don’t think that he would say, “If that’s the enterprise, throw it out.” What was Debord famous for; what was his big contribution?It was to finally explain that the be-all and end-all is not the revolutionary dialectic as it had been traditionally described in Marxist literature. Exploiting the contradiction between the state and the economy so as to produce revolution was no longer the sole duty of activists. Debord’s program is much broader. For him, we have to consider culture. Those elements of society that were once considered superstructural abstractions of the economy that didn’t matter, actually do matter. They have causal impact in determining how we live, how we behave, and what the structure of society will be in general. So culture becomes an additional major battlefront.

How is culture going to be constructed? Struggles in representation are as significant as struggles for the factories. Today, in a globally developed technosphere, more so than ever. And so those of us who have the ability to manipulate representation well can make a significant contribution to antiauthoritarian causes. These resistant cultural practices should parallel direct action against the corporate-military state. A two-pronged attack is necessary and obviously then, these elements are going to bleed together. And in some cases it is almost impossible to separate them.

That’s where we are in Critical Art Ensemble — we are trying to work in this intersecting area. Hopefully these tactics are progressing and becoming more functionally numerous, even if our descriptions of what we are doing is bogging down. Can we at least have certain kinds of micro victories? I think so, and maybe these micro victories can grow to be large-scale arrangements absent of authoritarian influence. And they might come about in the strangest of ways. Many of you probably know that I was arrested on suspicionof terrorism. And if I may quote Peter — he said, “The FBI is arresting white guys? I thought they didn’t care any more about what we did.” Well, apparently they do. I kind of take that as: “Where there is smoke, there’s fire.” If they are arresting people for cultural action and trying to label it as “terrorism,” there is kind of an understanding on the other side that the production of culture is actually very significant.

This is where I say that it’s kind of strange. Because what came out of this activity was a precedent-setting case. What the government hoped to do was to use my case as a means to implode civil and criminal law. They were trying to say that if there is a contract dispute (which in my case, they made up and then imposed upon me, but that’s another story)… If there is a conflict in a contractual obligation, we reserve the right to say whether it’s criminal or civil. The power they were trying to grab is the ability to say: “We can arbitrarily decide who is a criminal.” Those of us here all know that for anyone living in the U.S., sooner or later there will be a contract dispute. Had we lost the case, the Department of Justice could indict whomever they wanted for fraud — a felony— simply because of an alleged contract dispute. This possibility activated many people — not just in the art world, but in the spheres of law, medicine, science, and so on, because Critical Art Ensemble does a lot of work in the intersection of art and science. And lo and behold, we actually won one. That precedent didn’t get set; it got thrown out of court. The wall between civil and criminal law was strengthened, rather than being torn down.

So it’s one of these strange events: even though artwork is kind of going along in one direction, it spins into this other area that has the potential for positive change. It demonstrates what collective organization can do. In the art world especially, it caused the art worlds — where one vector rarely interacts with another — to have a moment of unity. For example, those of us doing interventionist work rarely speak to the people doing commercial gallery work. That world may as well be another universe. But in this particular case, the many worlds began talking to each other. It made for an arrangement of solidarity that didn’t last, but it wasthere for a while. It showed what is possible, that meaningful exchanges can happen even in a very alienated, fragmented sphere of cultural activity.

This project, “Peep Under the Elbe,“ was one that we did last summer in Germany. This I think illustrates pretty well the kind of contradiction and conflict one can find in the fragmented world of cultural production. We did this in Hamburg, but really in Wilhelmsburg. For those of you who are not familiar with the city: there is Hamburg proper, and then there is Wilhelmsburg, which is an island surrounded by the splitting of the River Elbe. The island is a harbor and an industrial center, but it’s also a place where most of the working poor and the immigrants are channeled. It’s dramatic space of separation, a kind of cage for them.

Originally we were working on a project about the rat population,which is completely out of control. But as we looked around at the canals, we started noting how badly polluted they were. High bacteria content, metals, toxins —it was all in there. The residents were fishing (and eating the fish) and swimming in these waters, so we thought that maybe this was actually what we should be thinking about. We started testing waterways. This was a tactical response, it’s something we came to and we reacted to. We had a tactic for this situation; we know about testing. We’ve done food testing in the past, we can do water testing now. Then we made maps of the area to give the residents a very concrete way to identify the most dangerous places and the least dangerous places to swim and fish.

We went to the water bureaucracy and asked the water management people, “Are you going to do something about Wilhelmsburg, we’ve tested this, it’s a bloody nightmare.” And they were very honest, they said, “No, we have no money for that. All the money we do have is to go to the canals of Hamburg proper.” Critical Art Ensemble tested for bacteria; we tested for heavy metals; we tested for various toxins. The water wasn’t as bad as the silt, which was a total off-the-chart red zone given the amount of pollutants that were in it. We did advanced lab tests and simple on the-spot-tests. So there was a lot of biking up and down the canals. We gave people personal instant water test kits, so if  you’re fishing you can use this instant kit and decide if you really want to be fishing in a particular spot. Then in the popular places for fishing and swimming, we put up maps, saying: here is where we recommend you go, you’ve got your best chance of staying healthy in these locations;and here are areas we least recommend using as recreational points.

This brings me to the second thing I wanted to get at in regardt o conflicts and the alienations in the art worlds. In this example, there are many different demographics that had an interest in Wilhelmsburg — though most of them were not the citizens of Wilhelmsburg themselves. One demographic was the actual residents who were mostly just interested in paying their rent. They were not a strong political force. Then there was an organization called IBA, which was an international building exhibition think tank that focused on how to gentrify places. They had set up a very large office in Wilhelmsburg. This action generated the third demographic — housing/ cultural activists and activists for the rights of the poor who were generally from mainland Hamburg.

There was controversy to be sure. But the funny thing is that IBA is really a bunch of scam artists because Wilhelmsburg is never going be gentrified, it’s so polluted, it stinks so badly, the public housing is so atrocious that bourgeois people are never going to live there. IBA’s plan, however, was a New York East Village strategy — if Wilhelmsburgcan become a culturally hip district wealthy people will move there. IBA was handing out money to artists to do projects there. We took some to do our project, and some of the artists/ activist community of mainland Hamburg objected. They were of the position that one cannot ever work with IBA. The status quo was better than doing that. Others believed, like Critical Art Ensemble, that you negotiate with wealth, try to get as much as you can to redistribute, and give back as little in return that can be re-appropriated.

If resistant forces can get something for nothing, why not take advantage of it? That is precisely the situation that tacticalists take advantage of — we make the most of opportunities as they present themselves. And I can speak for Critical Art Ensemble on this problem: we’ve taken money from all kinds of horrible entities. I mean almost every awful technology corporation you can think of. Museum and festival sponsors are the worst of corporations looking for some cheap positive public relations. But this is a necessary negotiation; there is no pure position. As a tacticalist, I am dependent on what I despise in order to act. So it comes down to tolerances, setting precautions, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and there are always going to be these huge disagreements among stakeholders about choices that are made by different groups. I don’t really have a way to iron out this problem. It’s only an observation concerning the question we are discussing:“Why is there a crisis?” It’s partly because we are all in a kind of indefensible position, no matter what. Whether I do nothing or I do something, and that something is corrupted, we are always in a negotiation with everything we do, every time we decide we going to produce a project or take action.

Konrad Becker:

Any immediate responses from our participants on the stage? There are a few things I want to say — first, I am still not convinced that we are dealing with an honorable activity in art, but we can get to that later…

Steve Kurtz:
I didn’t say that we were!

Konrad Becker: I want to refer to what Ted was explaining about “boutique activism”, and it actually really bothers me. Steve, you represent a group that is a model of bridging the two worlds of art and activism. But what about the problem of this so-called “boutique activism.” Is this aestheticization of politics and aestheticization of activism? How would you respond to that?

Steve Kurtz: Well, it is of course always aestheticized, for one thing. But what is crucial is whether you are in control of that aestheticization. We try to be very careful about how we design and how we use aesthetics. We try to use them as a means to attract people to a discourse that they would probably prefer to ignore. It can function as bait. On the other hand, aesthetics and design are our disguise. That’s how we get into certain places and how we raise money. If you go and look at almost any of our field projects, art never comes up, which is intentional because we use designand aesthetics to make sure it does not come up. Instead, what is foregrounded is the topic we want to discuss: we want to shift the lens through which people are viewing a specific topic or image.

We are trying to impact how visualization occurs. Now, when it becomes just astyle — you go down to the anarchist bookshop and get your black bloc uniform — I can see why you would criticize that, but at the same time I am glad those anarchist bookshops are there reinforcing a proscribed set of identification markers. I think ultimately it helps, because they are good starting places for people to be radicalized and reclaim their sense of agency. I tend to have tolerance for this, because the boutique can be a way to get someone in the building. And even if it fails 80% of the time, you get 20% more than you would have otherwise. (Critical Art Ensembletends not to make judgments based on efficiency.)

As anti-authoritarians we are always in the minority position, our politics are never the dominant politics, they are always a form of resistance, and when we are in that minority position I think it behooves us to be fairly tolerant of people trying various forms of resistance at very different levels of intensity. I don’t think it helps us all that much to say, “I am drawing the line here, anyone on the other side of that line is part of the problem!” I can’t really live with that. But this is also not to say that serious criticism of locating oneself at a certain point along the continuum of resistance and not another is not valuable.