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Marwa Arsanios in conversation with Anton Vidokle: why does naming something art deprive it of a political dynamic?

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 :slight_smile: 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

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Below is the second and final part of the above conversation between Marwa Arsanios and Anton Vidokle. 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.

AV: Yes I’ve read about the Aleppo rebuilding plans, I even met an architect in Beirut who is working for a company that was bidding to design this, a large Lebanese firm. A friend of mine was in Diyarbakir just a few weeks ago and she says this strategy is already being implemented by Erdogan: the areas that were just destroyed by the Turkish army in the last six months are already boarded off, and the ruins are being demolished to be rebuilt as condos. The fighting is still going on, but the construction companies and architects are already there and they started development. The idea is to house Syrian refugees there in order to change the demographic (to replace Kurds with Syrian Arabs), although it’s not clear to me how the refugees are going to pay for these condos. It seems that what used to take decades, like in Beirut, is now virtually instantaneous.

Art enters this in several ways: the new apartments will need to be decorated, so there will probably be an increase in demand for decorative paintings. This is not the kind of art market you and I participate in, but it is nevertheless a market. At the same time Hito Steyerl points out that genocidal warfare is often followed by a kind of a boom in contemporary art. Which actually makes sense if you think of Beirut—Steyerl was actually referring to a peculiar contemporary art boom on Sri Lanka, following the destruction of the Tamil Tigers.

MA: This totally applies to what happened in Beirut. An artist friend of mine recently said to me that by making such statements, you are dismissing a whole period of experimentation in the beginning of the 90s. You are also dismissing the artists’ practices and intentions that have nothing to do with market, because it did not exist in an emphatic way at that time. You are basically dismissing artists and art. His idea is that this statement flattens all those moments when art is happening through friends conversing, or testing things out, or doing something together, or performing some weird play and failing and doing it and failing again.

Of course I do not mean to flatten this amazing and scary and hesitant process, and I do not mean to dismiss a memory and a history that belongs to him and to which he belongs because it must have been very formative. But I want to emphasize that the corporate and slick art scene in Beirut is related to a post-war economy, of which many things were part in the 90s, and culture is obviously not isolated from this. Warfare, real estate, international money, etc. are thus all connected, and now big capital is shifting territories to this new contemporary art industry. I guess it’s another bubble that will crash, and the question is how long can the 1% or 2% sustain their interest in art.

AV: I’ve also been thinking about this idea that art has to come from an inner urge to say something. Of course that’s how most of us work and it may be the main criteria that differentiates fine art from everything else. But this is a rather recent thing, and if I think about most historical art, almost all of it was commissioned by religious institutions, the court or aristocracy. Artists were given a topic to address and they just did it, and this didn’t diminish the art they made. Its interesting that now this reasoning is often used to criticize an artist, as if they’re making their work because there’s a market for it, or because its popular with curators and institutions, etc. There’s a famous anecdote about Marcel Broodthaers: when he started making art objects after decades of writing poetry without much success, he wrote that he wondered if he too could make insincere objects and get ahead in life. But his insincere objects ended up being more interesting than a myriad of sincere but mediocre objects other artists were making. So if this is the case, well then cheers to calculation and insincerity if it produces more radical and surprising art.

MA: So-called “subjectivity” is overrated and maybe this goes back to my friend telling me that I am not giving enough importance to each practice as I am structurally reading a period in time, which dismisses the individual practice. But I think I am doing this on purpose because I think the praise of individuality is a problem. I appreciate subjectivity when we are talking about a structural problem.

I think I would appreciate the autobiographical more if it is a commission. I really like the idea of a commission now, not only in the sense of a relation between an institution and an artist but also like the story I told you, a person asking an artist or writer to join their cause. Solidarity is not enough, why not more?

AV: I can’t watch Daesh videos. I guess it’s strange to speak about something I actually have not seen first hand, but merely know through hearsay. But I just do not want to watch them. I also can’t watch horror movies because I get really scared and this feeling of being afraid stays in my head for days, so I avoid them. Jalal Toufic did a lecture once about films in which the filmmaker actually warns the audience to stop watching and leave the theater, because images they see, even if staged and pure artifice, are completely real to their unconscious, because the unconscious does not differentiate between reality and representation. As he was talking about this, one of the people in the audience, I think an artist from America, suddenly stood up, interrupted him and started loudly speaking to everyone in the room that this must be a ploy, that Jalal is a fake, an actor, and this is a performance staged by someone, that this is not real but pure artifice. Jalal was trying to say that everything is real for your unconscious and you must be careful which images you take in (or put out) because even if consciously you know they are art, they still affect you, and at the same time someone in the room is totally questioning Jalal’s own reality.

MA: I was not there, but this is amazing!

AV: Getting back to art and a possible political project: a few months ago a group of young writers, journalists, artists, curators from Russia published a manifesto “In Defense of Society.” I translated it to english and you can see it here. They are proposing a new political platform where various different parts of society can create an alliance to resist the current Russian government and protect their interests—an alliance of workers and intellectuals, ethnic minorities, LGBT, and so forth. It’s a pretty straightforward leftist socialist take on things, and yet it seems to me there is something fresh about it because it not only opposes the current regime, but proposes detailed changes to construct a better reality. The other interesting thing is that while this is written specifically for Russia, it describes a condition that can be applied to virtually any country right now. Would you subscribe to such a political project?

MA: Yes I just read this, it’s great, and I agree that some of the specific demands, especially regarding labor and taxes, are very refreshing. And I would totally adhere. I have a feeling that the same process is happening here with a social movement that’s still young but also fed up with a corrupt political elite made of oligarchs, private developers and corporations. It is also related to a “post-Soviet capitalism” that has been exhausted. Basically the ‘90s neoliberal project is coming to an end and slowly dismantling while the political elite is trying to distract people from politics and make its last millions and business deals before leaving.

But I think something is missing here, also in many leftist positions worldwide these days, and in this particular case it is Russia’s involvement with the war in Syria. And this might be a Putin political interest now, but also it is a historical alliance. (This is nicely encapsulated in Ali Cherri’s film where he uses footage from the Syrian cosmonauts flying with a Soviet mission over Syria and talking live to Hafez Assad from up there telling him how beautiful Syria looks from his space ship.) So many leftists don’t know how to deal with this question. And it might be because the Syrian regime is Baathist leftist.

I was having a conversation the other day about this with my friend Samer Frangie, and he said to me, “Maybe what we need are new tools. Our old leftist tools are becoming useless in dealing with this world. Calling ourselves leftists with such tools is becoming ridiculously nostalgic and we are stagnating. There is one main question that we need to think about today, and it is how to deal with cruelty.” I thought he was abstracting everything and reducing it to a purely moral question. But he then replied, “Yes, I need to abstract in order to separate leftist thought from action and find new ways to act because I think we are stuck in our old thoughts.”

AV: This is exactly what I felt was missing in Egypt. I was in Cairo a couple of days after Moubarak was removed. It was a celebratory moment and also surreal because even though so many people were bravely fighting to bring about this change, and sacrificed so much for it, it was also quite clear that no one had a plan for what to do after, or even just a general consensus on what kind of a society or a country people want, other than getting rid of Moubarak and the security apparatus. The tendency of ephemeral progressive alliances to unravel as rapidly as they form is something characteristic of our time within the left. It was similar in a way with Occupy and numerous other spontaneous movements of the last decade or two. For example, in Spain in 2006, before the financial crisis and way before Podemos, there was a popular movement in Barcelona that crossed over class, nationalist and other types of lines with a single cause of affordable housing. Homeless people were demonstrating with young professionals, artists, anarchists, nationalists, lawyers etc., because suddenly everyone felt that housing had become un-affordable. They had an interesting, negative slogan which left a lot of room for just about anyone to join, it went: "You are not going to own a house in your fucking life.” But it quickly unraveled.

MA: Yes! This is why the idea of separating thought from action can redefine praxis. Something like housing can unite the middle class, lower middle class and working class and bring them together around a specific demand. It’s as if we should go back to the idea of efficiency in politics in order to achieve certain demands. For example in a more dysfunctional situation like Lebanon and the garbage crisis, people did come together with one basic demand. It was an ecological demand targeting a corrupt political elite. And then a big portion of the middle class supported the alternative candidates in the municipal elections, which were close to victory. This suggests that our work should focus on enlarging the middle and lower classes, which are suffering from the real estate and garbage crises, and that we should stop confronting the world because it’s not as radical as we would like it to be “in theory.” This is not to say that we should lower our demands but rather connect and be in tune with these demands.

AV: Sure, you could be right… Another way to go about this could be to make demands that are so ambitious that they overarch all our differences: be they class, religion, gender, ethnicity, education, etc. One such demand could be: Immortality and Resurrection for All!