On the Transformation of Myths.
“Enacting Populism” is an on-going project on the possible relationships between art practices and the populist mediascape that connotes the current political zeitgeist of Europe.
This is the way in which the project is presented when I have to say, in few words, what is the curatorial research about, that I have been working on for the last year. It is never easy to frame something that has begun to open up a space for critical reflection without the claim to have arrived to any conclusion and perhaps to not reach one either. I think this discursive space that has been opened should address the imagery that informs our political choices, our involountary understanding of our contemporary democracies and their images. All this in this specific zeitgeist, when a growing disbelief towards politics has progressively expanded in the name of an affirmation of right wing populist discourses all over Europe. An ongoing phenomenon over the last two decades, at least, that has attained a dominant position in the European scene after a slow appearance in several countries, in a typical climate of what has been defined as a post-political scenario. Namely, where consensus politics has replaced the former ideological agonistic space of democracy and consequently fuelling this lack of belief in democracy and in its possibilities (1).
In fact, when political ideologies ceased to give shape to political agendas, with the end of the Cold War, the western parties started to progressively mirror this ending with the flattening of their positions in the public debate, beginning to respond only to a general capitalist discourse about a global market that needed to find its way. From that point the political action softened the natural agonism of democracy, thus creating a lack of opposite and distinct political projects. This situation left space for a popular frustration to arise and a consequent articulation of it by demagogues, and by those who understood how the space of politics slowly moved from being representative to openly playing with its representation in the media. Yves Citton, in this regard, described populism as a “valuable ability to connect with the feelings and perceptions experienced by (large segments of) the people” (2), and he defines it so in opposition to demagogy. He also speaks about the importance of the affective element, introducing in the debate a key concept to understand how “each of us is moved by a variety of collective movements”.
So, if the populist zeitgeist we are experiencing in Europe seems to belong only to right wing parties – making the current populism one with conservative and xenophobic discourses – the concept in itself is not ascribable just to this genealogy. Ernesto Laclau was one of the first to acknowledge to populism a dimension inherent to any democratic regime, looking at it through a historical perspective and not just as a right wing party phenomenon. Understood in a polar system, together with institutionalism as its counterpart, populism and its antagonistic dynamic can surely lead to the dissolution of the social community if they are the only protagonists in the public discourse. But at the same time “democratic politics requires the construction of a ‘people’ on the basis of one or more empty signifiers as well as an antagonism between ‘us’ and ‘them’ “ – states Laclau (3).
So, the visual strategies that take place on a daily basis in the media sphere, on a purely visual level, in order to create alternative, cheap and fictional feelings of belonging, or rather in order to ‘construct’ that empty signifier that is ‘the people’, might not only be seen as a completely negative production of our times. They can also be seen as materials that can be easily deconstructed, so as to offer clearer visions on how democracy looks like in our times. The process of enacting populism, to make the aesthetic strategies embedded in the creation of a consensus visible and apparent, comes together with interferences put at play with the mediascape in which the artistic projects find new potentialities to impact the contemporary imagery on politics.
Enacting Populism started towards the end of 2010, in the form of an artists residency (AIR Antwerpen) and as an artist’s panel discussion (Extra City, Antwerp). I thought that symbolically Antwerp was the right place to kick off such a project. Back in 2004 in Antwerp the Vlaams Balang (4) was voted the most successful radical right-wing populist parties in Europe as a whole. In such an epitome of European populism I fully developed the idea of enactment, that granted in its concept that double layer to keep the representative and the activist sides of the artistic work together.
The project is now being developed into an exhibition at Kadist Art Foundation during the last two months of the presidential elections campaign in France. The exhibition space is here interpreted as a sui generis political bureau in its appearance, immersing the show in an ambivalent space where the works can be seen as part of a contemporary art exhibition, as well as elements belonging to a political party office where a campaign is being prepared. The participating artists are: Alterazioni Video, Heman Chong, Luigi Coppola, Danilo Correale, Foundland, Nicoline van Harskamp, Steve Lambert, Oliver Ressler, Anna Scalfi Eghenter, Société Réaliste, Jonas Staal, and Superflex.
Paraphrasing the title of an essay by Martha Rosler, written in 1975, titled “For an Art Against the Mythology of Everyday Life” (5), with Enacting Populism I would affirm that we are in need of new, positive and emancipatory myths, as Yves Citton (6) states. It is this approach to artistic practices, I believe, that can represent an escapism or an action against the bad mythologies that surrounds us, and to which we usually refer to as ‘populism’, in a quite simplistic way, failing to understand how this term is more broadly representative of the contemporary condition of the politic sphere and of its manifestation.
(1) Paraphrasing Chantal Mouffe’s analysis that can be found in its full and articulated form in Mouffe Chantal, On The Political, Routledge, 2005.
(2) Citton Yves, “Populism and the Empowering Circulation of Myths” in Seijdel Jorinde , Melis Liesbeth and Oudenampsen Merijn (eds), The Populist Imagination, Open magazine no. 20, Nai Publishers, 2010. p. 61
(3) Laermans Rudi, On Populist Politics and Parliamentary Paralysis. An Interview with Ernesto Laclau, p. 75, in Seijdel Jorinde , Melis Liesbeth and Oudenampsen Merijn (eds), The Populist Imagination, Open magazine no. 20, Nai Publishers, 2010.
(4) Vlaams Belang (English: Flemish Interest, VB) is a Belgian far-right political party in the Flemish Region and Brussels that advocates the independence of Flanders and strict limits on immigration, whereby immigrants would be obliged to adopt Flemish culture and language. The party rejects multiculturalism, but accepts a multiethnic society as long as people of non-Flemish backgrounds assimilate into Flemish culture. Vlaams Belang is the name given to the historical Vlaams Blok, which adopted this new name and changed some controversial parts of its statute after a trial in 2004 condemned the party for racism. (wikipedia)
(5) Rosler Martha, “For an Art Against the Mythology of Everyday Life”, in Rosler Martha, Decoys and Disruptions. Selected Writings, 1975-2011, The MIT Press, 2004.
(6) “(…) I believe we should mobilize an economy of affects and a mythocracy of narratives in order to carve a representation of the political process where both the strenght of populism and the dangers of demagogy appear under a more empowering light.” Citton Yves, “Populism and the…”, cit.
photographs by Aurélien Mole