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Invitation to War: the dangers of post-Voinai

(sketch for a political art practice)

Veda Popovici
On Friday, the 16th of March 2012, the artist activist group Voina (Russian: „war”) had a public presentation at the National Museum for Contemporary Art situated in the House of People in Bucharest. Each person attending this event had to pass through a control of his/hers belongings and a body control through a metal detector, including the Voina artists. They were even longer and more thoroughly searched. The reason for this is that the building is a military objective. A space totally dedicated to State authorities, it hosts various institutions of „national importance” like the Parliament. We consider the event an invitation to warii. The war is against today's form of the Romanian State, a police state that has progressively strengthen its repressive character in the last six months. The fundamental right to protest and contest state authority has been and still is seriously broken. Too many activists and not only have been picked up and fined abusively and even physically assaulted by the military arm of the State, the privileged Jandarmeria. Inside the House of People, the war can only be symbolic, a representation of that real war through which the protest is, as each day passes, domesticated and annihilated. We have come to war in the only way we can: with toy guns. Just as freedom of speech is just a toy and protest just a simulacra in the eyes of the authorities. We played the role of harmless harlequins, toyterrorists, a role that the same authorities attribute to artists. Responding to a symbolic war invitation, we try to push the limits of security and surveillance at the security check of the Museum. The toy guns are confiscated at the entrance, the art gesture is amputated in the hallway of the Great House. The reason: with toy guns one can threaten and create panic. In the space that the State dedicated to contemporary art, contemporary artists are not welcome if they undermine its authority. Two pistols out of five manage to get across the tough security check. Throughout the presentation, anyone could observe the other guns left next to the metal detector. At the first floor of the Museum, the Voina presentation is about to begin. At this moment, we place ourselves in front of the obedient audience, two of us holding our guns at sight. The others are wearing the message: „I came to Voina, but this plastic gun had to stay at the security check of the Museum”. Although we threaten the audience with our guns, nobody panics. We are perfectly safe in the most guarded building in Romania. The limits of security and surveillance seem unreachable. A threatening as a simulacra and the neutralization of any conflict, this is the only Voina possible at the House of People. Arnold Schlachter, Bogdan Drăgănescu, Mihai Bumbeș, Mihai Lukacs, Veda Popovici

Invitation to war is a reaction to the exceptional event of having the Voina group, an artist-activist collective well known for their provocative actions towards the Russian State iii in the privileged location of

power and authority in Bucharest, the Palace of the Parliament, popularly known as The House of People. The latter is the post-89 name given to the original House of the Republic, a project of the Ceausescu regime started in 1983 and yet unfished. The popular name of House of the People can be viewed as an ironical attitude towards the promises of the cynical “Republic”, both in its pre-1989 bureaucraticcommunist definition and its post-1989 capitalist-liberal so-called counterpart. The construction is currently the second largest building in the world and houses today the Parliament, the Secret Service, private companies contracted by the State and the Museum of Contemporary Art. It is not an accident that the building was named by Ceausescu a “house”, a word which in Romanian has a basic connotation referring to the domestic realm, the home and family. Trying to envelop, besides political authority, other forms of social authority, Ceausescu portrayed himself as Father of the Nation. Although the authoritarian communist regime has been declared in 2006 by the representatives of the State to be illegitimate iv, its privileged place of affirming authority was paradoxically not negated but consolidated. Today, the building holds more than ever the potentiality of total control and of enveloping in a single body of authority all institutions of power. The uncritical event of having a presentation in such a location is responded with an ironical invitation to war. In other words to be polite, not political. Drawing on the context that makes possible such a situation, we see in it not something exceptional, but rather consider it revealing for an important tendency within the contemporary art systemv. The current place of critical/political art within the art system can be traced from at least three important developments: the death of institutional critique, the growing tendency of the art market to dominate institutional policies and the process of capitalizing engaged art from Eastern Europe. Following these three major phenomenon, the contemporary art system exerts a continuous request for the production of so-called critical and political art, for which a special place in the collection, the exhibition or the catalog has already been prepared, in other words a formal, polite invitation to war. We name invitation to war the dynamic by which the art system with the use of its authority imposes on its subjects to produce “political” art. In this new configuration of power relations, new types of critical strategies must be developed by the subjects to reclaim agency. Necessarily conscious about the type of context the Voina event described above was placed in, I would associate a post-voina character to this agency. The term post-Voina is an attempt of naming an attitude placed in a post-war, meaning a postconfrontational dynamic of relating to power and authority. It coincides with the move post-anarchism tries to do, by relativizing dichotomous relations between the oppressed/the rebellious and the State/agents of authority. Post-confrontational strategies in political art may include identification, mimicry, over-identification. Placing oneself in a pure confrontational dynamic can easily be framed and coopted. Rather, to make the move for a post-voina type of attitude is to try to weaken authority by occupying a place that is not outward opposite but anti-authoritarian with the use of certain identification strategies. For example, as employed in the Invitation action by using the toy guns, engaging in toy-war, ironically identifying with the toy-terrorists the art system needs us to be vi. This type of strategy bears, however some risks: the use of identification needs a first phase of affirming authority to subsequently threaten its legitimacy and thus weaken its power. Which brings us to the dialectical character of the post-voina concept: it also means the neutralization of any critical or threatening position that political art could have by turning criticality into

mere style. It is accepting the continuous, pressing representation of art as harmless, the toy-terrorists status that power has installed for artists, in other words accepting the invitation to war. It is b eing conscious about a context such as the one in which the Voina presentation was carried out, but not critically reflecting on it. In other words, cynically ignoring it. Not long before the Voina visit to Bucharest an occupation at the Faculty of History took place. The 100 hour sit-in, in which artists were also involved, had the privilege of having the Rector of the University of Bucharest, one of the most important men in the country to come down to the occupied space in the middle of the night. Among many things he said, there was one that especially caught my attention: “But this, what you're doing, it's just symbolic. It's only art, it remains in the realm of performance or happening art”. It might have been the first time he was ever using the term “performance art” or “happening art”. And it was most relevant in what context he was doing so. Reactions were not late to appear at these words: “it might not be just symbolic” or “no, definitely this is not art, it is politics”. The position of such a powerful person, his political attempt of neutralizing a political act by coding it as art, is not a single case, but represents a continuous tendency of the contemporary political authorityvii. It is at this point that the continuous invitation to war of the art system can be understood as a structural tendency of authority today. Contemporary art has a great potential of “sheltering” antiauthoritarian and anarchist political acts. By way of accepting its invitation to war, the artist can affirm the neutralization of any critical or threatening position that political art could have. I argue that a postanarchist position in contemporary art must necessarily deal with the ambivalence of post-voina, in other words the dangers of post-voina.

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This paper was originally presented at the Anarchist Studies Conference in Loughborough, 3-5 September 2012. Invitation to war is an action conceived by Arnold Schlachter and Veda Popovici, performed by Arnold Schlachter, Bogdan Drăgănescu, Mihai Bumbeș, Mihai Lukacs, Veda Popovici Details on the Voina practice can be found here: http://plucer.livejournal.com/266853.html On the 18th of December 2006, then president Traian Băsescu made a public statement in which he condemmend the previous authoritarian communist regime and declared it criminal and illegitimate. The statement was backed by a report written by a collective of scholars: Vladimir Tismăneanu et al. (ed.), Raport Final, Comisia Prezidențială pentru Analiza Dictaturii Comuniste, (ed. Vladimir Tismăneanu, Dorin Dobrincu, Cristian Vasile), (Final Report, Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship), Bucharest, 2006. We define art system as the sum of all the institutions dealing with contemporary art including commercial art gaelleries and auction houses, and the relations between them. It functions through a specific configuration of power relations and distribution of authority and capital. A certain strategy of identification was also employed in another project in which some of the persons involved in the Invitation action, including myself, were part of. The Shelter at the House of People, took place between the 25th and 29th April in the same spaces the Voina presentation was carried out. An excerpt from the statement affirms that: “The House of the People (Ceauşescu's Palace) will be transformed temporarily into a real house of the people, where, for a few days, free education, free health services, free food, political therapy, a bit of everything that now is disappearing, will be provided. Still, there is a sensation that it's too little and, maybe, already too late, so we don’t know if we can avoid adding a dystopian dimension to the whole situation”. Details on the Shelter can be found here: http://postspectacle.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/presidential-candidate-invites-you-to.html and in the Bezna zine, #3, dedicated to the events at the Shelter: http://archive.org/details/Bezna3. The January-March anti-governamental mass protests happening in the streets of Bucharest and in other several cities in Romania have been gradually neutralized by their estheticized representation in massmedia. Although not coded exactly as art, this estheticization is analogous to the representation operated by the Rector of the University of Bucharest by the way of the debordian concept of spectacle. See a more developed analysis in Veda Popovici, “The carnival, the spectacle and the non-event” in Bezna zine, #2, March 2012, available at http://archive.org/details/Bezna2apocalypseProtestsMarch2012.

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