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Geopolitics and Contemporary Art, Part I: From Representation’s Ruin to Salvaging the Real

In the 1960s and ’70s, politicization meant taking a position, establishing and following a political program, taking up armed struggle, putting one’s skills (including art) at the service of the revolution, fighting in the name of the horizon of state socialism, and acting in solidarity with anti-imperialist and decolonization struggles. Artists and militant networks were drawn together by political affinities, and Palestine, Vietnam, and Chile were symbols of anti-imperialism. This form of politicization translated into an aesthetic practice of international vanguardism, contestation, criticality, counterhegemony, and postcolonial memorialization and assertion, within the framework of a politics of representation. Since that time, however, this kind of politics has come to be perceived as a form of violent nationalism that led to authoritarian states and propagandist aesthetics. Politics has become inseparable from the neoliberalized political economy, as well as from culture.

Within representation’s ruin, what used to be “outside” of capitalism—like marginality, queerness, or race—has been symbolically incorporated and deprived of its capacity to disrupt and contest. Figures of otherness have disappeared and been subsumed into “lifestyle” options. The underclass is a blurry horizon disconnected from the flows of global capitalism; far from being a political figure, the underclass is sometimes subject to site-specific intervention, pacification, betterment, development, and community-building projects. Its emancipatory horizon lies in entrepreneurship. Moreover, in the twenty-first century politics is no longer representative, but what some theorists call “post-politics.” Following Jodi Dean, this means that politics now aspires to a superficial democracy that neutralizes antagonism and denies democracy’s limits and mechanisms of exclusion. “Post-politics” thus implies the disavowal of the fundamental division conditioning politics, as equality has come to mean inclusion, respect, and entitlement. “Post-politics” means consensual politics, the end of ideology, the neoliberal withering away of the state in some areas and its strengthening in other strategic ones, and the financialization of the economy.

Insofar as democracy has become the goal of political action, visibility has become a key feature. This form of politicization presupposes that displacing signs may contribute to destabilizing or mobilizing people, providing tools for articulations that can enable specific political goals. As a consequence, cultural production has become inextricable from political action. We must also consider what was made evident by the 2011–13 worldwide mobilizations: the huge gap that exists between government (political parties, elections, institutions) and the actual forms in which we are being governed, which give shape to our lives and the ways we make a living—according to the interests of international trade organizations and corporations. “Que se vayan todos,” or “They all have to go,” has been the motto on the streets of Argentina since the early 2000s, even if “they” all eventually end up staying. In Egypt, Tahrir Square took Mubarak’s head, and the Tamarod (rebellion) movement took Morsi’s. Collective self-determination was reclaimed in the streets, and yet the people’s goal was not to get organized and take power because, first, power creates the fiction that gathering and protesting is enough to change things, and second, because politics no longer works as representation.

If traditional forms of power were representative and lodged in institutions and persons, power is now hidden in infrastructure (a highway, a supermarket, software, fiber optics, a data center, corporate providers of energy and water) and materialized as spatial arrangements. Post-representative forms of power manifest themselves as the organization, design, and configuration of the world; these forms of power are architectural and impersonal, as opposed to representative and personal. Moreover, politics is also post-ideological, which means that critical disposition, symbolic gesture, political position, and everyday life are completely dissociated. This dissociation leads to pervasive contradictions: denouncing hunger in Africa, but drinking coffee at Starbucks; expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, but consuming Israeli goods; protesting against violence, but exploiting one’s own employees; opposing slavery, but buying clothing manufactured by enslaved people in Southeast Asia; expressing concern about global warming, but buying food in supermarkets; applying for government and corporate funds to produce projects that critique them. Our post-political and post-ideological era is characterized by a sharp discrepancy between political position, political action, and symbolic gesture.

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