Tools for Civil Disobedience
Public Discussion on Tactical Media
Artists: Núria Güell and Jean-Baptiste Naudy (Société Réaliste)
Moderator and transcript: Ida Hiršenfelder
The discussion on tactical media took place at ARTos Foundation, Nicosia, Cyprus from 23rd to 25th May, 2014 in the frame of Cartography of transitions. A transitory Research Symposium and Meeting. The guest artists of the discussion were Jean-Baptiste Naudy from Société Réaliste cooperative and Núria Güell who both have rich artistic practice in the field of what might also be called tactical media, developing a number of tools for civil disobedience. At the beginning we agreed to follow one of the objectives of the discussion to map out the idea or transitory art as a concept and to explore versatile fields of its emergence in the context of artistic usage of tactical media.
Ida Hiršenfelder: Speaking about tactical media, I would like to know if you yourself could describe your artistic work as tactical media? Furthermore, is it a part of contemporary fine art, is it a part of media art? Can it be analogue, must it be digital?
Jean-Baptiste Naudy: Firstly of all, I do not have the slightest idea of what transitory art might be. Even the very word is extremely blurry, especially if you ask yourself a reverse question what art is not transitory. Secondly, about tactical media, I do not recognise it as a specific category of art production since every art production is mediatic i.e. uses media. Some art production may have a tactical relationship to the media that it is using, but I would not say that it is something related to new media, because I simply do not believe in the existence of media art in the first place. For me it is all part of the same field which is the field of art, which is a complex, multilayered, multi-oriented practice. The interesting thing about this field is also that it is very contradictory and antagonistic, but I would not like to categorise it as media art and look for subcategories like e.g. tactical. I would never define myself as new media or old media artist neither as tactical or non-tactical. I am just an artist and I am using media and tactics in consideration of the context.
Núria Güell: I agree with Jean-Baptiste. I normally would not use new media in my projects, only on rare occasions. Most usually I use traditional media in conjunction with people, laws, regulations, or other social normatives. But I do consider my work as a tactical process, because I usually have a very clear objective. Keeping that in mind, I design the best strategy to reach my initial goal. I do not describe myself as a new media artist or anything like that. I am also not very interested in the debate about definitions of certain types of art or anything like that.
IH: This lack of interest in categorizing particular types of art is understandable also from the point of view of the notion of transitory art as it was proposed by MoTA – Museum of Transitory Art, since it is trying to define that, which has not been defined or mapped out in the contemporary art production nor accepted by established art circles.
JBN: Actually, I am not against trying to find definitions, I am against categories. If you present the contemporary art as something archaic to the point that it is not able to integrate new practices, new approaches, or tactical usage of its own media then we have a problem. Nevertheless, this is a technical discussion about the art field. I would rather propose a completely ideological discussion about the art field. The fact is that 99% of the contemporary art production is repeating the dominant doxa, thus creating objects for the decoration of the cathedral of capitalism. In this context it does not matter whether one uses new media or old media, because this is not about categories, it is about divisions or splits or confrontations. Most of the art producers are still living in the ideological dream from the 90s, which came right after the cold war and the Fukuyama’s nonsensical notions like the end of history or the global village, which proposes that thanks to the liberal economy the American world peace and the Internet are going to make us all get along nicely. This idea, which was aimed at advancing the agenda of the West has ended in the beginning of 2000, yet a lot of artists are still imprinted by this ideology. By the end of the 90s social movements and the international organisations were contesting the status quo from Seattle to World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, etc. Fifteen years after the choice is clear. The artists have to take sides and start to employ tactical usage of their art. If one decides to take the dominant side, one needs not to use any tactics, because what one has to say is already embedded in the dominant discourse.
IH: I believe that to some extent your art practice might be understood as challenging the dominant discourse. Looking back at the history of the term, tactical media was first used for collective media interventions, guerrilla communication and radical entertainment or hacking the mass media from within. Apart from this narrow definition of tactical media in arts there are a number of other undertakings that might also fall under this term like challenging hierarchies and economic relations,, addressing geo-political inequalities, racism, sexism, nationalism, pointing out contradictions in legal system, mapping out social geographies, presenting statistical data, etc. What tactics do you use in your own art?
NG: In my work I would always work with existing laws and policies. In the initial research, I seek out the laws that are the representations of power relations of the institutions or the state. Then I take this same laws, and turn them upside down and inside out and actually play them against themselves in a sort of displaced legal application. For example, I found a law, which the banking system is using to help clients. I have made a master plan which proposed the application of the same law that regulates the money generating activity of the banks. I made a strategy in which the clients could play this law against the bank system. This is usually my methodology of work and my main goal is to subvert the status quo and especially to empower the people who would normally find themselves in submissive position in relation to the law. Initially, all my projects are realised first outside of the system of art or art institutions in the public space or wherever else. I seem to always have to have this two realities. I produce the work outside of the artworld and then I present it in the context of a gallery or museum.
JBN: Talking about tactics to challenge hierarchies, I think it depends a lot of the context. This is the problem with the theory of art because it is generalising situations that are extremely specific. The situation at the White Cube Gallery in London is not the same as the situation at the state museum in Russia. This means one cannot present the same work in the same way. For example, last February we exhibited in Budapest. The political and ideological cultural scene in Budapest is just frightening, since real-life crypto-fascist people are running this country. In this exhibition we started the show with a gay flag. I would never do this in Paris or London, because it would have no meaning, but in Budapest putting the rainbow flag as the standard of our discourse was a very powerful gesture. Another thing about hierarchies, I am also very skeptical when people proclaim that some fight is over. Like saying that the institutional critique is over. As long as institutions exist there should be also the critique of it. Same thing goes for feminism. Let me set two examples. We were invited to an European project in 2006 called “How to do things in the middle of nowhere?” The idea itself was very ideological to start with. The initiators were German based curators and from this perspective they were addressing Eastern Europe as a place in the middle of nowhere. The way we responded was not to propose a work about Eastern Europe, but we answered their question “With money!” Our project was actually a financial scam to fund exhibitions in Eastern Europe. The second example is about Documenta 12 in 2007. It was based on three topical questions: “Is modernity our antiquity?”, “What is to be done?” and “What is bare life?”. We were asked to develop a project and again we did something about money, since we believe that only a decadent bourgeois is asking oneself such leisure questions like what is to be done. We opened a bank account at a French multinational bank Société Générale. The first question we answered with a call for donations, the second question with the IBAN info, for the third answer we gave the access info to the people along with the login and password, so it became a collective bank account. We did not care what happens to the account or how the people use it, just to set the structure that allows people to do things. 24 hours after we had launched the account, it was closed by the bank server, because there were too many requests to change the password and to re-privatise the account.
IH: Interesting how you both worked on subverting the banking system. In the case of Société Réaliste the public outcome with re-privatisation was quite perverse. Núria, how would you compare it with your outcomes, given that one of the key questions about tactical media is how the actions are receiving public recognition of the wider public, not just the art crowd. How important is it for you to generate the public outside the contemporary art field or galleries and museums?
NG: At the moment, I am working on a project called Degenerated Political Art. Ethic Protocol. that is very similar to what you have just described Jean-Baptiste. It is a creation of a bank in a fiscal paradise or so called offshore tax haven. Its objective is to stimulate the people and give them tools and knowledge to create an autonomous economic system that would be completely independent from the states, European Union or the Central Bank, setting up a situation in which their interference would not be possible.
JBN: We are actually doing something similar in the Netherlands and it has to do with tax haven, banking operations and specific loans. This has a lot to do with what you Núria were saying about inverting the banking system and using it against it. We are going to use the free trade zone that is otherwise reserved for multinational corporations, using their very own legal system in order to allow ordinary people to stop paying their taxes, because only simple people are actually paying taxes. The top ten corporations in the Netherlands are not paying a single euro of tax money. They call this patriotic capitalism.
NG: Coming back to the question about tactics and still talking about our tax haven project, in a few days we going to present the project Degenerated Political Art in Barcelona. We already established a corporation in a tax haven. The founders of the bank are me and my partner Levi Orta and we used the designated artistic production budget in order to create a society in a tax haven. Taking advantage of the jurisdiction of the country where the subsidiary is based, this will allow us to evade the taxes related to any profits. We are going to send invoices to any of the museums that we are working with and from this time on, we will need not to pay any taxes at all, neither to Spanish nor EU government nor any other country. At the present time, at the Spanish stock exchange group is composed for 35 biggest corporations and all of them have their accounts in tax haven and they need not to pay any taxes. So our project is creating the same conditions, only in the context of the art world.
JBN: Just for information. Google Corporation is annually making 1 billion dollars of profit in France alone, of which it is not paying a single dollar of taxes, because it is domiciliated in Ireland. And then from Ireland the profit is transferred to Luxembourg, from there to Cayman Islands, from Cayman Islands back to Silicon Valley.
NG: Even worse, last year The Apple Company has forced the Spanish government to compensate for their losses of profits from annual budget, because they supposedly did not earn enough and the state had to give them the money.
IH: You take a very current sociopolitical problematic and make the contradictions and power relations visible. Does it also have an immediate impact in the wider public?
JBN: People are mostly aware of what banks and the corporations are doing, what art does is give them a specific flavour. This question of the audience is very 1990s problem, due to the emergence of so-called relational aesthetics. This discourse is very rotten, that is why I would not like to talk about it ideologically, but simply economically. It comes from a situation in France in the beginning of the 90s when massive state funding for culture was stopped. The main argument in the discourse was that art is too elitist and it does not reach the real people. Instead of funding art, they started to fund only socio-art projects, which means asking artists to do social work instead of social workers, but paying them less than social workers, causing also less efficiency, but making art useful. That completely displaced the work of the art and turned the artists into social animators, while pretending that this is some kind of cure for social illness. On the contrary, I think art is here to kill the ill men, to finish it not to cure it. I also think there is a no real difference between art audience and non-art audience apart from the accessibility of art. I do not like taking audience for stupid people.
NG: Responding to what Jean-Batiste has been just talking about. I agree with what has been said. I am also very much against the term responsible or conscience art. What I try with my art is to interpolate, to make an antagonist situation in the audience that feels committed to take position. The aim is to make a confrontation and force the people to take an ethical stand. The audience for me is very important. In my projects I see and meet a lot of different audiences, not only the art audience. I also received a lot of mails and correspondence from people that are not a part of the art world and they do not address the issues of art. This is extremely important for my projects. This happens in the process of naturalisation of the art projects, because they are often not talked about in the art press, but in the social press and alternative media. This allows me to arrive to different publics.
JBN: I would like to mention one example about the audience from the history of art. A Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica1 who was a member of a samba collective in a favela. He was invited to exhibit his work in fabric and textiles at the Museum of Art in Rio de Janeiro. So, he brought his fabrics into the museum along with dozens of favela inhabitants from the samba collective who were wearing the textiles. He kept it a secret until the opening of the exhibition and that was very tactful. At first, the security did not allow the people to enter the museum, but then he made them enter.
IH: Jean-Batiste, to me, your statement that it does not matter what the audience are is quite unsettling. Perhaps we should explain this in more detail. The audience may be racially or socially stigmatised, which means it cannot be possible to talk about audience in general, because a lot of people as you have mentioned do not have access to art. I would also imagine that the role of art is not simply to educate, but to make things visible. I would insist again on the question of the approach to the audience. I agree that the question could not be answered in the frame of relational aesthetics, which was justly criticised for imposing power positions of the white male and other colonial relations. The question would be, what have we learned in the past fifteen years. At the end of the day, the position of white male is also something white male should reflect. Núria, you have worked with migrants and highly unprivileged people a lot. How do you deal with your privileged position?
NG: I am very conscious of my privileges as a white European woman and I also have a lot of privileges as an artist, because I can say to the institutions quite freely that I want to do this or that. I see the institutions as someone who is able to provide the funds. When I think about the projects, I am also constantly thinking how can I use this privilege in order to subvert the conditions, the laws or to subvert the situation itself. The projects that I did with migrants, I made this situation very clear. I have this particular set of privileges as a white artist and we can do some kind of project together. It is extremely important that I am very clear with the people. What I actually do, is to instrumentalise the art. My aim is to do something concerning social relations, something other that art, but in order to achieve my goal, I need to make use of the institution of art.
IH: One of the privileges of the art is also class migration. For an artist it might be quite normal to live in a five star hotel while being completely penniless.
JBN: This is because it is not an economical privilege. Following what Núria said, it is about symbolic privilege. What is for example Oiticica’s privilege? He was a poor Brazilian gay guy, but he was allowed to enter the museum because he was an artist. And how he used the privilege is to make other people enter the privileged zone.
NG: The last project Black over White that I did in MACBA last month we did exactly this. Many people who are in contact with me following the project are not interested in art. They are interested in the issues that the work speaks about, but not in art.
JBN: Just one more thing about the audience. I strongly disagree with critics who say that our work is too complex and that people live in a TV culture and do not understand complex references. People are first of all not like that. They are reading books, which may not be academic, but they have their culture and they live in the middle of symbols and images. Karl Marx’s Kapital is a very intense and complicated book, yet it managed to fuel world social movement for the past two hundred years. And another thing about artists, they are workers just like everybody else. I am also very irritated by people who are wondering about revolutionary art, because there is a time to make art and a time to make a revolution, and when you are a revolutionary you do not make art at that moment. At the time of the revolution, like in Istanbul or Kiew, all the social roles fall.
IH: You were talking before about the idea of bringing people in the institution Jean-Batiste, which actually affirms the institution and mentioned that artists are workers just like everyone else.
NG: I do not believe that the artists are like other workers, because the artists have more responsibility from other workers. The artists have a public voice with interviews, films, texts, medias, which bring more responsibility. In my projects I am constantly thinking about how can I use this visibility in order to achieve my goal. The other thing is that in the history, the art has won an autonomy from different power structures like the church, the kings, the tradition and different powers, so I think the consequence of this is that art is now a freer space, and one can do a lot of things what others cannot, because people give other meanings to art. Some people may also think that it is less important or less serious, but actually artists can do a lot of very illegal things and do not have to face consequences. In my work for example I do very illegal things.
JBN: I agree with the difference in positions, but I am not so sure about the illegal part. If you do something very illegal and you try to justify it with art, you still go to jail. Well, come to think about it, maybe even not. William Burroughs killed his wife and said it was a performance.
NG: Yes, for sure there are things that even artists could not get away with.
JBN: Just to make it clear, with this notion of an artist as any other worker, I meant that artists have the same responsibilities regarding social issues and class divisions. The second point is that capitalism loves artists as a model of workfare. Why? An artist is able to work 22 hours per day 6 days a week all year round for 0 euros, just because it is his or her project. That is a perfect worker!
IH: So far we established that art which is tactical or uses tactical media must be grounded in the current sociopolitical atmosphere. In the continuation of the discussion I would be interested to talk about the visual output of your work. Núria, you claim that you do not use new media, but you use video, documents, analogue technical media. In this context I think you were talking about symbols in some of your works Jean-Batiste and you were addressing the question of language. So what kind of visual language do you use in order to convey your ideas? I am thinking of this in the relation to representational tactics.
JBN: When you cited my statement that art is full of symbols, I did not mean that art is symbolic, this would imply that art is a metaphor. And this is very dangerous because that is a question of inefficiency of art. Some people may dismiss it saying that it is only poetry. They fail to understand that poetry is not a metaphor, it is the reality of the language. It is the real potentiality of the language and art is the same thing. The infinite possibilities of the reconfiguration of the real. That is why freedom of art is to that extent a symbol for the freedom of anybody else. For example, Société Réaliste only uses common forms and things that are a part of our daily lives, like corporate logotypes or very basic visualisations of architectural projects. This basic forms can immediately be translate by the people and it gives them space to transform them.
I would like to say one more thing about tactics… We are talking lately a lot about boycott with our friends, about this very old topic for activists and leftists. About a year and a half ago we were for example attacked in Paris by people who accused us of taking part in a programme in Israel, saying that we are legitimising the Israeli politics. Contrary to their opinion, I think that the critique of Zionists is the strongest right in Israel and people need to talk about this things right there and then preferably with outsiders. Now, we have another question of boycott at the Manifesta 10 in the Hermitage. In this case I hold a completely opposite opinion, because Hermitage’s context is stronger than any work of art. I believe Putin is stronger than any work of art and if it would be stronger, it would not be shown there in the first place. So my problem in terms of tactics, positioning and treating the environment and superstructure of art is for example the case of Thomas Hirschhorn, who once stated he will never exhibit in Austria as long as the rightists are in power, yet at the present time I see him conducting symbolic vampirism with everything that looks revolutionary and at the same time he is posing as a critic of the boycott of Manifesta 10.
IH: This is a wonderful example, but then again, every institution is a challenge per se. For example working with MACBA is also a big challenge. Núria, how would you treat the visual language or what is your view of exhibiting for example the documents or the leftovers of the project in a museum?
NG: I try to make my language as clear as possible in order to communicate to as many people as I can. A lot of people that are not interested in the art context are interested in the work itself. The language is very plain and very clear that is way it is easy for them to enter into the work. The question of exhibiting in the museum follows this line, but I use it in a different way. In the museums, I mostly exhibit documents, but I would never consider this as an artwork. My artwork is what happens outside of the museum. Documentation is only something that has remained from the artwork, something for the museums and archives.
IH: Do you think that it is important to show the documents in order to promote the activities that were happening outside or just to justify the institutional framework in order that you can finance your activities?
NG: Both. On the first level I need the finances and I use the institutions to provide the funding, but on the second level, I am also interested in museums per se, because that gives me an opportunity to see the activities in a more reflexive way, to maybe notice something that did not happen on the in the activities on the streets but comes later. Because of this realisations I am in a way interested also with the museum context. But the work is never located in the museum.
IH: Maybe now would be the time to talk about the conditions for the production of your work. Is it self made, DIY, do you higher craftswomen and craftsmen to produce certain works or in what kind of context would you use the services of other people for realisation of the work? Do you sell your work or do you finance it with public or private funding and what is your ideological view of any of this funding sources for your art?
NG: I have a gallery that is selling my work, but actually not many people are interested in buying it though. The gallery does not support me financially. The financial support for my projects depends, sometimes I take whatever means I can find. A lot of times it would be produced by museums and institutions that invite me to produce the work and also provide the financial input. I also receive grands. For example the project Degenerated Political Art. Ethic Protocol. that I am doing in the tax haven is financed by a group of activists, because they are very interested in my proposal. Because they liked my idea, they also provided for my travel. A lot of people criticised me that it is not ethical to sell my work in the gallery, at the same time a lot of people say that the state with public money again means conforming to the policies of the state.
JBN: May I be very mean. People that have a problem with selling works in galleries are the people that cannot sell their work in galleries. Honestly, concerning the question of private and public money, I do have a problem with funding that is coming from Arab Emirates. They support museums everywhere, they are funding curators, giving hundreds of thousands of euros to make shitty projects. The financiers probably do not even see the project. However, money is nor good nor bad. When Hans Haacke put up his show in New York and attacked Cartier Foundation, which is based on a jewell company in France that was massively involved with apartheid in South Africa. The point is that Haacke found himself in the middle of the most famous museum of the world. He did not want to reject this opportunity, he rather exhibited the way how the museum wants him to exhibit, which means with the money from the apartheid. Regarding the production, we work in a completely non-studio environment. Of course, we make all the sketches and ideas, but we do not produce the objects ourselves. In a way, we are the engineers or designers of the artwork and then we address the specialists with machines and technical skills. Regarding production of the project. We never produce a project out of the blue. We are usually invited somewhere, we are given the context and financial framework and then we start to think about the work on the scale that is realistic. Our limit is that we do not pay for our own work.
IH: Can you maybe reflect on the ideology that is produced by EU and its funding? I think that we are starting to see the results of this policies that promote project and not-programme oriented work and most of all precarity. How do you work with EU policies that creates a extremely precarious situation for anyone. It usually goes along the line: all right, this year are going to finance women in technology, last year we were financing Roma crafts. Is it possible that art would subvert its own milking cow?
JBN: One of the problems with the planning of Culture 2000 or Culture 2007 for example is that they promise to give the money, but they do not give it to you. You first must have a loan of, say, half a million euros, and only after you have filed in all the reports you are in title to have this money returned. I know a lot of projects that went bankrupt, took a loan at a bank and then failed to comply to EU standards, because of stupid bureaucratic regulations. Everyone also knows that European Administration is an ideological machine. You only get financing if you comply to this ideology. The level of contradictions also depends on the amount of money. If you receive five thousand euros you are relatively free, but ask architects, when they are dealing with a project for hundred million euros. At that point, there is no freedom. But I trust artworks. If an artwork is strong it is stronger than the context, stronger than its own economy, than the audience, the art world, critics, curators, or stronger than Vladimir Putin.
NG: That is why one has to understand where the money is coming from when one is invited to exhibit at some museum or institution. Then one can think about how one wants to use this money. But one has to understand that all the institutions, some more and some less are opaque or non-transparent. And I accept any money as long as I can be sure that using this money I will be able to subvert something that has to do with institutions of power.
At the beginning the idea of a difference between the media art and contemporary fine art was somehow omitted, yet in Slovenian context, the definition of media art was very necessary to oppose the modernist power structures as well as relational aesthetics discourse from the 90s. There was a need to create a separate field for financing Internet based things, anything to do with programing, generative art, mechanics. At the end of the day, tactics and tactical thinking as a methodology may be applied in any art form, while tactical media in art production is still mostly describing practices like programing, hacking or mass media interventions. And yet again, what does this tell us about transitory art, is still a mistery.
1 Hélio Oiticica: Parangolés, Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, 1965