Elfriede Jelineks, Rechnitz (Der Würgeengel) [Rechnitz (The Exterminating Angel)]. Actors (from left to right): Steven Scharf, Katja Bürkle, and Hans Kremer. Photo courtesy of DPA.
What makes a gesture "political"? A young woman is chatting with a friend at a table next to mine. It’s lunchtime. Her eyes glance around the busy cafè, but their conversation flows without interruption. I notice her fingers sliding into her handbag. She draws something out, then puts in her mouth and under her upper lips. It’s snus, a moist tobacco popular here in Norway, where anti-smoking regulations are particularly strict. I noticed the same gesture time and again, in restaurants, bars, train stations, shops: Put it under the lips. Chew it. Snus seems to be stronger and more addictive than cigarettes, but the mode of consumption changes and it makes the difference: while the theatrical gesture of holding, slightly squeezing the rolled tobacco between fingers, bringing it to the lips, and inhaling the sweet smoke is dismissed as unhealthy, the contemporary one is a gesture performed with discretion. From the realm of modern provocation to contemporary forms of soft subversion, what constitutes a political gesture today? And how do artists develop political gestures? Provocative, shocking, diplomatic, strategic, anarchic, anti-conformist, eccentric, conservative, nihilist, hedonistic: How are artists, curators, and writers engaging the political within art? As for the snus versus the cigarette, in defining a political gesture in the realms of visual and performance art, the battle seems to be between those who go for histrionic gestures and those who look for more diplomatic strategies of action. But are there other possibilities in understanding the political in an artistic gesture?
Take Artur Żmijewski, for instance, artist and curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale. His opening statement for the Berlin Biennale is a categorical provocation: “Art must perform politics,” and "Politically committed art has often come to a tragic end." And indeed, from the title of the exhibition, "Forget Fear," to the Occupy movement at Kunst-Werke Berlin, to the installation of the Peace Wall in Friedrichstrasse by artist Nada Prlja, the whole Biennale is a gesture of political provocation. But what effects does a provocation of this kind produce?
Another eloquent example is the re-enactment of the 1945 Battle of Berlin, the defeat of the Third Reich, performed by amateur actors from Poland in Berlin and Warsaw on the opening day of the Berlin Biennale in April 2012. The re-enactment—aimed to question the contemporary use of historical re-enactments as a product of national identity—ends with reinforcing such ideas in the first place. While the Biennale addresses cultural transformation and political engagement, the re-enactment seems to be more a self-deceptive act: history will never stop repeating itself. In The Second Sex, French philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir describes women’s self-deceptive attitude as a result of the commonly accepted belief that they are second-class humans and therefore they need men, as women are missing some “elusive” elements of the self which endows men with freedom. In a similar way, Artur Żmijewski’s provocative political gestures seem to accept the belief that art has been downgraded to second-class status and therefore its political commitment needs to be reinstated, but the consequences of such gesture are clearly ideological: labeling political art that responds to curators "authentic" and excluding the rest.
Then there are also more "inauthentically" provocative gestures. The theater of German author and dramatist Renè Pollesch is a significant example. Pollesch’s political theater is an analysis of the dysfunctional reality of late capitalism: neurosis, the frantic rhythm of the megalopolis, pathological anxiety, and various forms of hysteria are pushed to extreme and most absurd consequences. By looping together social theory, pop culture, Marxist philosophy, gender studies, business and marketing languages, soap operas, and B-movies, Pollesch staged the reality of a world where human beings are engulfed in information and infinite networks of social relations which they seem to produce and reproduce. His irony is disarming insofar as it is uncontrollable, overwhelming. The represented pathological world is incurable, any redemptive thought or action pointless, any attempt to change the existing meaningless. Pollesch seems to be reinforcing this self-deceptive attitude.
Renè Pollesch, Throw Away Your Ego, 2011. Performance view, Volksbüne, Berlin.
The 2011 production of Throw Away Your Ego performed at Volksbüne, Berlin, explored the desire for appearance to match being, even though the inauthentic act emerges in full light as the real authentic. Referencing French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s examination of the Cartesian relation between mind and body (the program lists Nancy’s Corpus as recommended reading), one of the characters tries to figure out why we only perceive souls and not bodies: “I was so disoriented,” the actor exclaims, “because I was supposed to believe in some sort of inner being, but I didn’t; I only exist on the outside. Me. The mouth and the spirit are one and the same!” Surreal, excessive, freaky, inconsistent and comical, Renè Pollesch’s characters are political subjects: they embrace and embody the reality surrounding them. They are in the system, but not for or contrary to it, as they have no real cognition of what is happening around them.They exist within the circularity of a loop that spins itself to erasure.
However, society doesn't operate in the same ways of the curatorial gesture of Artur Żmijewski’s Berlin Biennale or Renè Pollesch’s theatre of the visibly inauthentic; merely complaining about dysfunction won’t change anything. American author, feminist, and activist Bell Hooks has said, "When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take hope away. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture." There is the constructive political gesture, and there is the experiential gesture, which contrary to Artur Żmijewski and Renè Pollesch, doesn’t necessarily produce symbolic monuments to the transformation of reality. Experience is knowledge that comes from an act of implication of oneself into a situation, of inhabiting a problem, without the necessarily analytic distance. Experience is constructive: Instead of issuing a provocative statement or exaggerating reality, experience might save us from making judgments or considering the political as a terrain of opposition and confrontations.
Carol Hanisch’s statement "the intimate is political" can be read in this light: experience of the everyday life is political and it doesn’t need great poses or gestures to be considered as such. Women might teach something to politicians and to fellows artists. A good example of the experiential gesture is Anne Waldman’s approaches to poetry, performance practice, and politics. In her excellent performance of her poem “Fast Speaking Woman,” Waldman explodes a patriarchal cultural and political paradigm through exuberant breathing and chanting, repetition and fast-speaking. “I’m a shouting woman, I’m a speech woman, I’m an atmosphere woman, I’m an airtight woman, I am a flexible woman, I’m a high-style woman.” And indeed, Waldman has “high style”: her performance is erotic, concrete, and politically inspiring.
Anne Waldman, "Fast Speaking Woman," 1974. Performance view, Backdoor Playhouse, Tennessee Tech. Cookeville, Tennessee. December 2, 2010. Presented by Center Stage & The Living Writers Project.
The artist herself suggested:
I want [my poetry] to be the experience... a sustained experience, a voyage, a magnificent dream, something that would take you in myriad directions simultaneously, and you could draw on all of these other voices and you could pay homage to ancestors and other languages--a poem that would include everything and yet dwell in the interstices of imagination and action.
Rather than a self-reflective or self-deceptive act, rather than explaining, commenting, or dispensing opinions, Anne Waldman exposes herself as woman and as embodiment of all women; her speech is clear, gestures are affirmative. Anne Waldman proposes questions of gender by taking a more subtle and constructive position as a woman and as an artist. Waldman does not analyse, complain or reject any political position; on the contrary, she embraces all possible positions with artistic intelligence, making visible different social and political conditions. "Fast Speaking Woman" is not a provocative action: She might raise her voice not to shout off the enemy, but to begin a dialogue. Waldman’s voice, through its rhythm and repetition, is a displacing, unexpected, electrifying political gesture.
Do I need to call myself an activist to be an artist who performs political gestures or an artist to perform artistic gestures? The battle between friends and enemies as the battle between cigarettes and snus is ideological, not political. Every artist who, as Carol Hanisch’s song "Do You Know How Beautiful you Are?" suggests, "boldly dare[s] to hold to dreams/so very often crushed/Dreams of things not ready to be born/ That won’t be rushed/ For it’s only those who work and dream/Who really keep us moving on," are already part of a cultural transformation.