Image courtesy of Ztohoven.
Image courtesy of Ztohoven.
February 26th, 2013 · Esther Belvis Pons

The Politics of the Social in Contemporary Art



Discussions around the politics of the social in contemporary art are taking place in all sorts of scenarios: informal gatherings in alternative spaces, public squares and parks, university campuses and cafés, and, of course, galleries and museums. The Tate Modern in London recently hosted a one-day symposium titled “The Politics of the Social in Contemporary Art,” which presented work from artists working in the blurred fields of social practice and visual art, such as Etcetera, Ztohoven, Renzo Martens, and Wafaa Bilal, among others. The emergence of participatory, interactive, and collaborative art practices has stressed several concerns that address not only the capacity of these practices to intervene in social relations, but also their particular way of performing politics within the public sphere. The revivification of social movements and the reoccupation of public spaces by the citizens affected by the global financial crisis through the Occupy movement has intermingled perspectives and interests, activating a specific social agenda. This one responds to current political matters and triggers actions that often perform between the boundaries of art and the social.

An example of that is the work of the collectives Not an Alternative, from New York, and WochenKlausur, from Vienna, who have both staged discussions of issues regarding housing and urban planning in New York City as performances. These collectives often use processes of appropriation to further their message: In the case of Occupied Real Estate, Not an Alternative used the imagery and tools of real-estate corporations to perpetrate their own actions and empower the citizens affected by this problem.

The interdependent relationship between politics and art has given birth to the development of intermedial practices that often engage participants in global actions. Often these artworks allow participants to become socially engaged in practices that might not be referring to their immediate context, but rather address a topic of social interest beyond the particularities of their territory, or that explore the tensions emerging between individuals and socially constructed spaces. This would be the case, for instance, of Renzo Martens’s Enjoy Poverty or Wafaa Bilal’s A Call. The latter premiered simultaneously at the Aaran Gallery in Tehran and at a parallel opening at White Box in New York, as the Iranian government denied Bilal an artist’s visa. Thus, the artistic proposals are also mediated by specific contingencies. Each piece responds and triggers its politics through the network of institutions and individuals that make the artwork possible. This embedded understanding of art and the social surfaces of the negotiations appears among the cultural institutions, the artists, and the broader public sphere.  The comprehension of the pieces is consequently described by the disciplinary barometers that are used to present and interpret the artwork.

Stating discomfort and disagreement through social intervention is one the aims of the Latin American collective Etcetera. Regarding their political tendencies, the collective made an interesting point stressing how working closely with the human rights  group H.I.J.O.S. (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Forgetting and Silence) increased their motivations and affiliation to a particular cause but also triggered certain tensions and difficulties that appeared when performing some of their committed interventions. This is an interesting point, as these practices are framed by relational parameters that perform within a constellation of affects and effects.

So, the political implications of collaborative art appear in the act itself, of establishing personal and artistic commitments that are obviously marked by ethical issues. In her keynote speech, Shannon Jackson gave evidence of the need to rethink the politics of the social in contemporary art through an interdependent approach. It is important to find a discourse to help us describe these practices within a wider context and beyond the assumption of dissidence or disruption. In this regard, she proposed the term ‘antagonism’ through the ideas of Mouffe and Laclau to spark new directions in the discourse of art and politics. Antagonism understands and explicates the interdependency that emerges in the creation of socially engaged artwork; often, practices include our ideological opponents or are even built through a network of partners that we recognize as the constituents of a system with which we don’t agree.  The supporting system that surrounds the piece becomes therefore explanatory. This approach  might enlighten how dissensus has been managed and included in the creative process and might also prompt a more in-depth approach of analysis regarding politics and contemporary art.

It is not surprising that many practices try to discuss the faults and weaknesses of democracy, as the current social fracture responds to the neglects and crimes carried out under its umbrella. That is the case of the Czech guerrilla collective Ztohoven, who promoted The Moral Reform by hacking the mobile phones of members of parliament. Some members received a text containing a statement of complaint of the abuses committed as politicians. As each text had a sender of another member of Parliament, the work generated a moment of confusion, but also a discussion that emerged through an exchange of texts which were collected by Ztohoven and made public. Thus, the politics of contemporary art navigates through the spaces that construct the social, and as Ztohoven pointed out, for them these are the institutional space, the public space and media space. Contemporary artists find in the bordering and unexplored spaces a position from which they ca temporarily trigger action; an action that can be politically ambiguous too.

The range of practices shown at the Tate gives evidence that their impact and comprehension has not been yet circumscribed in a paradigm. This is probably due to the fact that their complexity demands systemic and interdisciplinary reflections that are still under construction, as art has always been.


Esther Belvis Pons is a researcher-artist and writer based in London and Barcelona. She recently received her PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom. 


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