The following has been sent to us by John Roberts as his contribution for this week:
The expansion of the terrain and horizons of art and politics over the last 20 years has been remarkable. Not even during the 1960s has there been such a concentrated focus on the form of art’s political engagement and its possibilities, with the rise of relational (post-relational) practices, participatory work, new forms of community practice, and the general re-temporalization of art into project-based and environmentally directed activities. This has been accompanied and shaped by, in turn, of course, a vast outpouring of theoretically ambitious writing on the ‘social turn’; indeed, the writing and the live-work occupy a shared, transformative place, drawing its mutual energies from extra-parliamentary political forces, counter-cultural allegiances, and a range of extra-artistic, interdisciplinary knowledge. Indeed the radical terms of this repositioning are now almost commonplace: the ‘social turn’ is not simply a revival and elaboration of art ‘outside the gallery’ (that postmodernism somehow ‘forgot’ about) nor does it represent the last gap of the artist as ethnographer blind to the consequences of his or her field research into the ‘other’); everyone is incredibly sensitive (in the keeping with the character of Peter Winch’s ideal ethnographer) to the dialogic conditions under which the recovery of ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ of others is produced and performed; everyone is in mutually transformative dialogue. In this sense, this body of work neither ignores nor solves the ‘transmission’ problem inherited from the anti-imperialist critique of the ethnographer. Rather, it recognizes it as a constitutive constraint of the art-political and representation, and therefore, as something that the participatory or dialogic ideal seeks to work through. It is possible to see aspects of this Freirian-type solution across all manner of recent work, whether community-based or not. Which is not say that this work sees the transmission problem as a false problem. For much of these conversational, participatory practices, in the spirit, of the anti-representationalism of Deleuze and Foucault’s infamous exchange in 1972, still have a residual orientalist attachment to the notion that the collaborator-interlocutor of the artist-activist (unbounded by the received words of the “representative”) miraculously speaks the truth. In other words, this work formally accepts the premise of shared dialogue, but insists that truth under conditions of oppression, exclusion and coercion speaks only one way: from represented to “representative”; the truth of the “representative” is always a limited, or degraded speech. Speech is indeed asymmetrical in these terms, but its asymmetries are themselves asymmetrical; if the speech of the represented is asymmetrical with the “representative” it is not symmetrical with itself; at some point this symmetry will have to have be broken by the externalities of the asymmetrical as such. So, even if we can detect the signs of the original sin of orientalism in the art of the new participatory ‘social turn’, it is politically delimiting to dismiss all this work on the grounds that it extends the importune life of the ethnographer; for the art-political relation is precisely this contested terrain - that is, until workers and the dominated freely exit the class-relation as an asymmetrical representational relation. This means that we need to set up a quite different understanding of the contemporary relationship between art and politics, in order to expose some of the problems of this work and art’s ‘social turn’ generally; the radical ethnographic critique of the (hidden) ethnographer in all of us is not enough.