Marwa Arsanios is an artist living in Beirut. She is one of the co-founders of 98weeks research project and a part-time teacher. Here she speaks with e-flux's Anton Vidokle about the relationship between art coopting politics, and vice versa. The second part of this interview will be published later in September.
Anton Vidokle: Dear Marwa, hi, how are you doing? I wanted to see if you would like to do an interview with me for e-flux conversations. There is no specific deadline or topic, and we can start immediately.
Marwa Arsanios: Hi dear, would love that. What would be the focus?
AV: Let’s talk about art?
MA: Well, art seems to be a subject I want to avoid, or at least I want to avoid labeling a conversation as “art.” I don't really know why. Maybe I have an idea that whenever something is labeled as art it looses its dynamic and the political dimension that motivated it. From where did I inherit this idea? Or maybe if something is labeled as art it is up for sale and we would be calling for the markets' attention. In this sense, avoiding the label of “art” has been a tool of resistance? I don't know how efficient that is. Or maybe lately I have been disappointed by a certain art conversation that has become more and more corporate and professionalized (at least that's what I have been hearing), which is also not very emancipatory. I found other conversation topics much more motivating—from politics to garbage to sex What has made this conversation so dull lately? I think I can talk better about works, specific works, or artists. Maybe that's it.
I think there’s been a shift in the scene here in Beirut that is not very convincing. The conversation has shifted from being about culture and politics to becoming more and more about art—and that does not mean art history—but more pertaining to stuff, things. I am still thinking what do to with that. What are the structures, motivations and economies behind this shift?
AV: A friend sent me some pictures this morning: paintings by an Austrian artist I have never heard of, a certain Manfred “Odin” Wiesinger who is apparently the favorite artist of Norbert Hofer, the right-wing favorite in the Austrian presidential election. The paintings are neo-Nazi kitsch with thinly veiled symbols, for example a prewar map of Germany in one background. Of course the mythical Arian name Odin is also a cryptic nod to fascist circles in Europe.
As paintings they seem pretty lame: the guy just isn’t very good technically and doesn’t have much pictorial imagination. But it’s interesting that an artist, in our time, would essentially style himself after Hitler, who also started as a painter.
A couple of years ago I watched a documentary film by a British filmmaker who was making an argument that the center of the Nazi project for Germany was largely an artistic, aesthetic project of shaping what they thought would be a more beautiful Germany: free of undesirable foreigners, communists, homosexuals, the infirm, elderly, etc. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, Boris Groys writes about the Soviet Union during the Stalin era as a total work of art: one very much in keeping with certain desires of the avant-garde.
It seems to me that art is deeply intertwined with major political forces, so much so that it’s almost frightening because of certain disastrous situations, like the ones above. So I wonder: Why do we feel that the act of naming something art deprives it of a political dynamic?
MA: The totally kitsch reproduction of Nazi aesthetics is interesting and it’s unsurprising that Wiesinger would be Hofer’s favorite artist. There’s a revival of right-wing and fascist aesthetics that is being foregrounded with the right wing currently gaining political power in Europe.
So we know what ideological structures we are dealing with. Maybe this clear entanglement of art into political projects is less scary or less provocative than... I want to say contemporary art structures, but it is not really contemporary art per se. It is something else.
AV: So I wonder why do we feel that the act of naming something art deprives it of a political dynamic?
MA: We can do something that does not necessarily look like art and insist on calling it art, and this is an interesting gesture per se. But, whenever we do something that looks like art and say “this is art” it loses its political dynamic. This might be an old problem and we might as well say “who cares if this is art or not.” But then again, we fall into the problem of nihilism that contemporary from which art often suffers.
Sometimes calling something art becomes totally apolitical and assimilated, and other times it is a very political gesture and brings a new political dynamic to the foreground. But this seems to happen more on the level of micro-politics.
So, to which politics are we referring? Because maybe what I am talking about is the politics of art that are inseparable from art market politics. This is not to say that there’s no agency within this at all, but rather that this agency is contingent to those politics.
AV: I’m not sure that we really know the ideological structures we are dealing with today—it seems to me they are mutating and changing. I think most of us still think that the ultimate evil is the market, neoliberalism, the establishment, co-optation, etc. Meanwhile we have these extremist people appearing, such as this Nazi painter in Austria or the people making videos for Daesh. I do think they are making a kind of contemporary art, be it kitsch or propaganda, and they do not plan to sell it at art fairs or show it in museums or biennials. It seems to me that they see art as a weapon that can and sometimes does actually kill. On the other hand more and more people have been getting killed, jailed or physically punished for making a certain type of art recently. Like cartoons for example, or poetry, or performances. So I am not sure why we see art as this sort of “who cares” type of field, so entrapped by its internal politics, that it has to struggle just to maintain some fraction of agency. It seems that the edges of this field, our field, are in fact an active battle zone, not a metaphoric one but an actual battle with casualties and mortality.
Not so long ago a lot of people were thinking that history has ended—history in the sense of ideological class struggle, geopolitical conflicts and so forth. After the end of history we were supposed to be primarily engaged with the arts, because politics would have similarly come to an end. I was flying Austrian a few years ago and thought about this while looking through the airline's in-flight magazine: 99% of the content was about art, design, architecture, dance, theater, cinema, music and fine food. It was as though nobody really works in this country, there are no more struggles, and everyone basically just enjoys aesthetics, culture and the art of cooking, like some extremely posh version of communism: basically the totality of life became art.
But we’re not there anymore and history is back, and it’s not impossible that the next time I fly Austrian that its magazine will contain images of neo-Nazi art.
MA: I recently visited Istanbul for an opening and left a day before the coup happened. There, I met an exiled Syrian writer who asked me, within a very casual conversation, “why don't you make some work about the Syrian question?” I tried to escape the conversation but he caught me again and pressed me to answer, and I started telling him that such work needs to come from an urge and personal place. But then I started telling him what kind of work I would do—very naively and sometimes ironically but it ended up being a nice conversation. I am naturally defensive to these kinds of conversations, but in this situation it seemed we were discussing a political project rather than being propagandist. The conversation wasn’t about a certain representation of the Syrian question or the refugees or... It was more like a conversation on the possibilities of politics and aesthetics outside of a merely representational sphere.
He really believed in culture as a tool. And I understand his project because it was not culture as diplomacy but it was politics. This made me leave my prejudices about the “instrumentalization of the arts” aside and stop wanting to defend the boundaries of the arts to and join him.
On the other hand, counter to Daesh’s videos, how can we start engaging in an art that is shamelessly engaged in some political project outside of the propaganda, outside of a certain diplomacy and outside of a certain usefulness, or maybe this is just impossible? And maybe the uselessness is an amazing political tool?
Ahmed Nagy, in the first chapter of his novel “The Use of Life,” describes an apocalyptic situation coming out of a series of natural disasters; the desert winds, earthquakes, etc. That would destroy the city of Cairo to the extent that the inhabitants, or those who remain, could not even imagine the possibility of rebuilding it. The scale of the destruction was massive, parts of the pyramids were destroyed to pieces, etc.
This is the opening chapter of his book before he takes us back to his day-to-day love adventures in the city for which he was jailed for supposedly “disturbing public morals.”
This first apocalyptic scene is not about a war-ravaged city but some kind of an ecological disaster. Nagy was jailed for the sexually explicit content of his book. But maybe also for daring to imagine the city of Cairo destroyed, for daring to imagine the pyramids in rubble, for daring to imagine the consequences of climate change and the desert revenging and sending its winds and earthquakes back. It was a war between urbanity, heritage, nationhood and the desert on the other side.
So yes, people can get jailed for this material. In the meantime, they are already planning and bidding to rebuild Aleppo. So maybe the plan to rebuild Beirut was already in the making in 1984... I don't know how I got here but maybe your question about the return of history triggered that.
Nagy represents forced exile with a counter political project that is trying to think about culture as politics. Nagy, who dared to imagine the pyramids destroyed is in jail. And some planners and developers are now plotting how to rebuild the historical city center of Aleppo so it looks like it was before the war but also as a luxurious place for tourists and the upper class.
*Image of Marwa Arsanios via Medrar TV