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FESTIVAL BREAK 2.

4: POTEMKIN VILLAGE
NOTES ON ART, SPEECH, AND PUBLIC ACTION
a symposium project 5-18 November 2007

“My life in art”, a hopeless piece of literature found on the flea market not so long ago. No publisher, it was just a type-
written document of 798 pages, yellowed by the years. It cost one Euro – which made it superfluous my hesitation in
spoiling money in such things. To the point now: “My life in art” narrates the ups and downs (more downs than ups) of
the artist Alexander de Koshko-Weiss, from his childhood to his renunciation of art. You can google the name, you will
find nothing for (no need of a little bird to tell you that) it is only a penname.
I will spare you the first 352 pages (how, at the age of 6, young Alexander had a revelation in front of a painting of
Rembrandt, his suffering in the art academy as his art was despised by the other students and his teachers, his martyr-
dom as miserable, unknown genius, etc) to arrive to the passage that is of some interest for us.
We’re in 1966. Far away there in the People’s Republic of China, the Cultural Revolution is raging. Our Alexander, who,
if he is rather an untalented painter (as prove the few drawings that sprinkle “My life in art”), is nonetheless a remark-
able debater, goes to a meeting organized by his fellow students. The scene starts when Alexander suddenly wakes up
(apparently, he did not stand the three hours of various speeches and lectures given by the others) as a certain Jan,
the little Red Book in his right hand, is discoursing on the role of art in society.

“I opened my eyes only to find this unpleasant vision, the blond and puffy Jan, hysterically grasping his precious
neo-Bible, the little Red Book, and ordering the others to shut up. He screamed: “The purpose of our meeting today…
(interruptions), the purpose of our meeting today is precisely to ensure that literature and art fit well into the revolu-
tionary machine as a component part. They must operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people
and for attacking and destroying the enemy. They must help the people fight that enemy with one heart and mind”.
People burst in applauses. “We, artists, must destroy the institution from within the institution! (Trotskyist! shouted
somebody) and guide the masses in their struggle against the imperialist domination…” That was enough! I could not
bear this shit. I stood up and yelled at him: “You, intellectual of my ass, do you know what Chairman Mao does with
people like you?!” I couldn’t go any further, hands seized me and I was thrown out of the room… “Capitalist traitor!”
and “Fascist swine!” have been the last words I’ve ever heard at the art academy”.

I confess: I have some sympathy for Alexander de Koshko-Weiss. Not only because of his scepticism when it comes
to the revolutionary role of art within society. Not only because he assumed his, at that time, not-too-welcome posi-
tions. In fact, my empathy also stems from a personal identification with his inability to stand a few hours of lectures
in a row. Let’s be honest: does it never happen to you? Confronted with this one who carefully reads, line after line,
his twenty-page text, this other one who regales your eyes with a minimalist power-point presentation of two images,
that other one who happily indulges in a 75 minute lecture while all the surrounding stomachs are tragically rumbling…
What did you do then? Did you listen? Did you dream of something else? Did you stand up and say: ‘Ok, guy, cut the
crap’? Did you promise to yourself that never ever again you would attend any other boring symposium?
Now, let’s confess something: we have a problem here. In the frame of our festival, we have decided to organize a
symposium. Does it mean that we too will fall in this trap of boredom? Can we even entertain the idea to avoid it?
And – oh, terrifying prospect – what if boredom was only the least problematic of all the issues related to symposium-
making? You see, we don’t lie. We spare you nothing of our doubts and questions in this difficult process.
At some point, the situation improved. One day, we arrived at the office, a smile on our face (the same smile that had
deserted our lips since we had been stricken by the pre-symposium depression). Was it possible? Had we eventually
found some tricky solution to defuse these practical and conceptual mines that paved our curatorial way? Had we dis-
covered a magic design in which our symposium would embody, in its form and content, our issue of “artistic Potem-
kin village” – and at the same time (two birds with one stone) could offer a certain entertainment? Oh, the bad word!
Ok, ok, let’s say fun, or pleasure instead. Yes. Alas, our satisfaction didn’t last. The symposium issue was definitely
booby-trapped. The more delimited artistic areas we trespassed while working it out, the more conceptual devices
exploded loudly.

Take this one for instance. For weeks, we have had a recurring nightmare. We are in a beautiful, huge auditorium.
On the speakers’ table, a little army of coffee cups, sugar bags, skim milk packs, and delicious cookies is ready for
inspection. The video projector is softly spurring. It looks perfect. As nobody has arrived yet (it’s normal, we all know
that people are always late), we decide to wait fifteen minutes more before starting. Half an hour passes. One hour.
Still, we’re ten: three speakers, and the festival’s team.

Because it’s the risk – we all know it. It stems first from the overbid of art lectures, workshops, symposia, colloquia,
conferences that are organized (worldwide, there is one taking place every seven minutes, accordingly to the latest
research of the Office of Social Criticism, Benedict Anderson University, USA). How can we compete? Why should be
our symposium more attractive for the public than other? By the way, which public? Who would be tempted by discus-
sions filled with esoteric references – object petit a, différance, deterritorialization (try to say it ten times quickly at a
stretch) – private jokes, and intellectual gossip.

If the main question is that of the relation – better said the mediation – between the “artistic Potemkin village” and
“reality”, which kind of interfaces do we have in mind? That such question suddenly surfaces is not a surprise. First,
it is inherent in the almost organic process called “elaboration of a festival”, when one day matters such as venues,
promotion, or sponsorship force you to define the public you’re addressing – a public whose sight you might have lost
as you were driven by organizational dynamics. Here is the turning point: you realize that, so far, you have conceived
something that looks probably fine to and for your professional milieu, but whose impact on the city and its inhabit-
ants could very well be rather marginal. Like the outdoor installations or performances, the symposium crystallizes
uncertainties. Should it concern only your art fellows? How to extend the audience? What is the meaning of such an-
nexation move?

As well, it is clear that questioning the way we communicate with each other and with the public increasingly draws
attention in the art milieu. We attend more and more experiments, from the parody of justice to the “return to roots”
that revives the original idea of the symposium, drinking party and moment of conviviality. Are we so bored by our
own discourses that we need all kinds of amusements? Have we talked so much that we are now struck by the incan-
tatory, useless aspect of this kind of meetings? Are we trying to renew, or simply to re-adjust, our means and ends of
expression?
Notes on art, speech, and public action: a symposium project poses a general question (what is speech?) in
a specific realm – art. It proposes to investigate this special form of communication, its rules, structure, and objec-
tives. It is a reflection on the place from where we speak, how we speak, to whom we speak. In which spaces does art
speech originate, develop, resonate, belie, dissent, or transgress?

Based on the idea of movement from one stage/staging to another, and of displacement, “Notes on art, speech, and
public action: a symposium project” refers to and borrows from other forms of speech, from performance to demon-
stration, from theatre to propaganda.

Planned during the festival, the project is made up of three experiments:

1 MY LIFE IN ART (which has three parts) - November 10, 2007


- The Soviet Kitchen
- I’m in a demonstration
- I’m writing an applications
2 GUERRILLA GIGS (ongoing)
3 WHERE ARE THE MASSES FOR ART? (ongoing)
Each part focuses on one setup/context and what it implies for communication, testing the limits of the lecturer, the
public, and speech itself.

1 MY LIFE IN ART
“Down with the lecture!”… No reading. No power-point presentation. No video projector. No laptop. The era of the
moderator is over. The time of the commentator who tries to be even more brilliant than the lecturer is history. We
decide to opt for straight talks and conversations. Perform the lecture! No big deal. Nobody asks you to behave as an
actor. We just define circumstances under which the talk can become uncontrollable, due to the physical setting or the
behaviour of the public. It’s in your hands now.

We have defined three moments that not only seem recurrent in the life of any person involved in art making, but also
prove archetypal of the “artistic Potemkin village”.

The Soviet Kitchen


You know the story. In the seventies of last century, Russian people used to hold in the kitchen their discussions on
the current political situation. The kitchen was the only private space, far from unwelcome ears, able to contain a
few people. Nowadays, life is happier. Life is more beautiful. Any institution will invite you to spit on the institution,
to imagine the best way to destroy it. You’re paid to be subversive. You can even become the director of a subversive
festival (they generally include in their title something with tactical, strategy, radical, guerrilla, resistance… apparently,
we have inherited from the idea of avant-garde this military-oriented vocabulary) that is subsided by the government.
You discard the suspicion of recuperation with a contemptuous gesture. You’re above it, because you know. In fact,
you even think that by using the institution to pursue your own goal, you thwart this clumsy recuperation trap. Poor
you! Naïve you! These guys have always been more refined than you ever thought. But what should you do then?
Should you hide in your basement and do underground things to maintain certain honesty?
So, what about getting back to the old good time? What is really subversive should not escape the four walls of the
kitchen after all!

Setup: the outside world is cold and hostile. But we don’t care. We’re all packed in the kitchen (some coffee is on the
fire) and we indulge in criticizing whatever. It’s so nice to be one of the happy few.

Hey, Look at me.. I’am in a demonstration!


So, you’ve debated plenty of subversive ideas. What a satisfac-
tion. Unfortunately, the next step is rather difficult: now, you
go public. All busy with your own dream that art has an impact
in society, that it has a role to play, that it will make the differ-
ence, you hardly notice that nobody gives a shit. An amazing
artwork in the public space… and only the usual small crowd of
fellow artists, curators, and museum directors marvels – that’s
the sad reality. You will say: is it that important? After all, now-
adays, thanks to PR and other internet means, “public sphere”
tends to get new meanings. The sole reference to the intention
of doing art in the public space is enough. Oh, of course, you’ve
read Laclau, and Mouffe, and Habermas… and you got pretty
good ideas as to what should be done. The problem: appar-
ently, your pretty good ideas don’t seem to be shared by your
target, the public.
You’ve created this very nice art space that does community projects for youth. Each month, a new artist comes
for making something new with the kids. And what happens? They’re not interested. The situation is so disastrous
that the municipality, that was generously supporting you, has decided to close your space – a supermarket will be
more useful for the district inhabitants. The girl there… she’s not nobody. She’s a performer. It’s now three hours she
performs in the street. But the people around look at her as if she was: 1) drunk or crazy; 2) in quest for publicity;
3) transparent. You explain them: “no, no, it’s art”. Then, you get two reactions: 1) people go away with an amused
smile (“it’s only art, they’re a bit strange, these artists, it’s nothing important”); 2) they observe the surroundings and
try to locate the hidden cameras. What a mess. So, guys, it’s time to really catch attention.

Set up: a square, a tent, banners, indifferent people passing-by, a stage, and a loudspeaker. How does it feel to
stimulate the masses? ... We promise there will be hot coffee and sausages.

I’m writing an application

Your name? Your age? Your nationality? Please describe your project in no more than 150 words. Use bullet points
wherever possible. Please describe in what way your project is new and original. What are the objectives of the proj-
ect? How will they be achieved? What activities are planned? Where and when will the activities take place and how
long will they last? How will the co-organisers co-operate in the implementation of the project? How will the project
implement the communication/dissemination plan? Who will benefit from the project? What is the added value of the
co-operation on a European level? What results are anticipated on a long-term basis? Please state briefly and concise-
ly your project’s primary target group, and why your project is aimed at this target group in particular. How will you
publicize and raise the profile of your project and its results? How will you involve the media to ensure wide coverage
and impact beyond specialist target groups?

The coffee next to you is getting cold. The ashtray is full. It’s already ten days you’re postponing this task. But you
have no choice now. The deadline is tomorrow. The application must be sent. What a headache. A few years ago, did
you ever imagine that, one day, you would have to write such a thing? Did you ever conceive that art can be described
in such terms? You did not study marketing. Yet, that’s now what you have to do. You always wanted to talk frankly
about your projects. And here you are… checking carefully the website of the foundation and trying to spot the key-
words (intercultural, multicultural, community, conflict, dialogue, reconciliation, civil society…). Yes, you will have to lie.

Setup: one table, one chair, all the spotlights on you. In the background, a big picture filled with application forms.
Tell us how you write yours…
2 GUERRILLA GIGS
Inept conversation in anonymous bar
THE NOSTALGIC: You know, as I’m getting older, I indulge more and more in introspection. I come to realize how
strongly some almost forgotten event or person has influenced my worldview.
THE OTHER GUY: Well, man, it’s called idiosyncrasy.
THE NOSTALGIC: You see, last time, I was asking myself how the hell my work ethics has been shaped.
THE OTHER GUY: You’ve got so much time to lose?
THE NOSTALGIC: Come on! It’s important! Where do your models of conduct, principles, and ideas come from? How
come I have developed such black and white a vision of the world, ‘we’ versus ‘mainstream’… And then I remembered!
As a teen, I was a fan of Indie rock. All this stuff is the way my Indie legacy has survived in my artistic practice!
THE OTHER GUY: What a crap. Gosh, man! Are you back to 80s Manchester? Lost in Washington D.C. looking for a 5$-
entrance ticket Fugazi show? That’s really bullshit.

The Ecclesiastes
Let’s agree to the idea that “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing
new under the sun”. Why should we always try to invent forms when attractive earlier experiments are offered to our
grateful re-appraisal? Based on this invigorating observation, one question: what would happen if indeed we trans-
posed some Indie rock ideas into our symposium project?

La de di la de di da diddy
- The Libertines, “The boy looked at Johnny” -
Do you like The Libertines? Have you seen the documentary with footage images that show them performing in the
flat of one of their fans? The police comes (the neighbours have complained about the noise). As Doherty and Barât
hear the policemen in the corridor, they briefly look at each other and start playing “Guns of Brixton”. It’s nice.
The Libertines have been pretty good at guerrilla gigs. They would post a message on their website at the last minute,
people would gather in some mysterious location (to be found on the basis of cryptic instructions) and go to some
basement or living room where the band would perform.

After all, if the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed will go to the mountain. So, if the public will not
come to contemporary art lectures, contemporary art lectures will go to the public. How? Imagine yourself, it’s 19:55,
you pass the entrance door, you check the name on the mailbox (yes, that’s the first time you enter this building), and
climb the stairs up to the second floor. 19:59, your finger is on the bell-push. 20:00, the door opens. You look around
yourself. You’re proposed a coffee (or a glass of wine if you prefer). Your hosts are pleased to welcome you at their
home. A few people sit in the living room. They have been invited for the occasion. Which occasion? Darn it, for your
lecture!

Risky business, isn’t it? It is a straight confrontation in, to intimacy. There is no mediation between this small audience
3 WHERE ARE THE MASSES FOR ART?
Ah, Vladimir Ilyich, if you were sitting in our office, you would be so proud of us. Your inspiring example has enlight-
ened our quest. The mere utterance of your famous “What’s to be done” thrills us as it carries the promise of solu-
tions.

“The Birth of Agit’ Prop”


Act 1, scene 1: Lenin and Lunacharsky sit in some anonymous room. The air is filled with cigarette smoke (because ev-
erybody knows the Bolsheviks were chain-smokers)
LENIN (thumping his fist on the table): We need to promote art as means of agitation!
LUNACHARSKY (approvingly): You’re right. What do you propose?
LENIN (wide horizontal hand gesture): First, we’ll put slogans everywhere, on the walls of buildings, on fences, ever-
where!
LUNACHARSKY (enthusiastic): It’s great.
LENIN (finger raised): Then, we’ll do monumental propaganda!
LUNACHARSKY (excitingly): What do you mean?
LENIN (opening his arms as if to embrace the whole universe): We’ll erect temporary plaster monuments to all the great
revolutionaries in all the cities!
LUNACHARSKY (admiringly): What a wonderful idea.
LENIN (looking at the radiant future): We’ll organize an unveiling ceremony for each monument, and we’ll make a
speech about the revolutionary to whom it is dedicated!
LUNACHARSKY (ecstatic): Amazing.

The question is twofold. On the one hand, it’s about efficacy of carriers: how to convey, through artworks, the stron-
gest message possible to the widest audience possible. The softer and somewhat more refined version is: how to
create conditions for artworks to be perceived, commented and appreciated by people, how to strengthen their impact
once they are displayed in public spaces. In other terms, how to implement an explanatory (to say the least) dimen-
sion of, through, for the artwork? On the other hand, it’s about response. To convey a message supposes that there is
somebody who receives it, before even understanding, accepting, or refusing it. And here, all that was fine and good
becomes more slippery. What if – horrible question – there was nobody? The message would vanish in vacuum. Scien-
tists have overcome this terrible perspective: they keep on sending Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and the Pi sign through-
out the Milky Way without too much hope of extra-terrestrial answer. Are artists, curators, and art theoreticians able
of such steadfastness and selflessness? As we mass produce all kinds of art works and art talks for all kinds of audi-
ences, driven we are by objectives of communication, we lose track of one basic question: where are the masses for
art?

Well, let’s look for them. Let’s grasp them! True, you cannot force them to enter the symposium auditorium. But you
may perhaps sneak out of the peaceful lecture hall and reach people where they are.

Our idea: very simple - Let’s amplify art speech!


Our problem: no big deal - We need an instrument.
Our solution: a loudspeaker, the trustful ally of (sound)
dictatorship.
History: On the Black Book of unfortunate devices which
got the favour of political regimes, the loudspeaker
features prominently. Gleefully spitting up either the
impressive results of the five-year plan, the names of
purged traitors, or songs on happy workers and military
victories, at each street corner it delivered its unstop-
pable, hysterical babbling, transforming the life of poor
citizens into noisy hell. Nowadays, the loudspeaker
pursues its bright career in many other, less political
nevertheless as intrusive, realms; cars passing with
deafening techno music, repetitive announcements in all
kinds of public spaces (trains stations, subways stations,
shops…), essential component of any demonstration or
parade…
Let’s contribute to some new field of development.
Our proposal: a small space, preferably with a window. You go solo. The loudspeakers are placed outside. It’s ready,
you can start talking.

When does communication turn into invasion? When does the artistic good willingness of sharing become enforcement
and abuse? Could art speech be more than a mere urban spectacle, one more street noise?

text Stephanie Benzaquen & Špela zidar - viSualS tjeBBe van tijen + Flickrleech & GooGleripper
www.Break-FeStival.orG

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