Jill Magid
Gerald Raunig
Stephen Hobbs
Dr Achille Mbembe
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17 feb 06 20 feb 06 26 feb 06 02 mar 06

17 february 2006

Nathaniel Stern

Fri, Feb 17 2006 7:30 am


Howdy. nathaniel stern, art-geek, here. I'm leaving off bios and things about my own work - you can visit the link to my site below if you'd like to know more about me.

Rather than begin or respond in the format that seems to have already taken shape on this list, I'd like to pose a few questions-as- provocations that may write across some of the points made thus far - this is not to devalue anything anyone has said, but rather to propose an/other discourse, perhaps a stab at the "non-totalitarian and non-transcendental," a way to further 'complexify' and avoid too much reduction in face of a good argument... Some notes and things: Are there no aesthetic choices made, something not spectacularly beautiful, when we watch Stephen Cohen drinking his own enema?

In South Africa and beyond, is there any mode of art-making, of not- art-making, of art-labeling, of art relationality that is completely apolitical, even if aesthetic in origins? In a country where, until 11 years ago, producing art always already meant a challenge to the apartheid state on some level.... I feel an Agamben "inclusion through exclusion" coming on.

I think intention, and not passivity, is the only way of completely avoiding any and all political acts in a work of art - and the signification of absence would most likely speak volumes here. Altho I applaud any and all references to Trey Parker, especially when involving American-government bashing, I wonder about these as necessarily being diametrically opposed: art-for-sale or public art.

That being said, the word 'transgress' itself, despite its definition of going beyond or outside boundaries, presupposes said boundaries. I'd propose a discussion where countries, artists, arts, etc, are more "boundary projects" (Haraway), emergent and relational. Incipient, perhaps? An intervention, then, might be said to attempt 'transfiguration,' and aesthetic art-works (verb, not noun) could be a counter-investment in modes of perception itself (albeit, most often, looking), on some level; "aesthetic art" has been on this trajectory since the Impressionists, and I'm not sure anyone is yet to escape that discourse....

I often surprise myself at how quick I am to jump in, argue, take a side and debate when two sides are posed, even if beforehand, I never would have taken either of the two categories to be my choice.

nathaniel (a boundary project) stern



Ed Young  - view profile

Fri, Feb 17 2006 12:36 pm





Good Morning all. Nathaniel, I am really sorry if I made you feel you had to choose a category (was that me?). I am the last to propose such strategies, but I guess my frivolous commentary will be taken seriously from time to time. But, to pick up from yesterday, I wish to outline some of my own concerns surrounding what is commonly known as socially engaging. And I am not so clear about some of these issues so perhaps some of you can shine a torch on the matter.

An artist doesn't really exist unless they're having exhibitions in a gallery. And an exhibition never really happened unless it's been covered by an art magazine. Ad space is taken out in magazines to advertise the shows. And to keep the general communication system going. The system is based on the idea that magazines will cover the shows. It's not a direct financial relationship, where reviews are actually paid for. But it is nearly. On the other hand, it's a system that seems to work quite well.

Matthew Collings

The bulk of our knowledge of the international art world, and in many cases within the local South African art scene, is based largely on what we read in magazines, art books and the art press. To most individuals these exhibitions exist mainly in written form and within the viewer's personal mental constructions. It is a different world to that of international metropolitan art centres such as Paris, New York and London, with their corps of professional critics, curators and above all, internationally recognised artists.

It is interesting to note the international art world's acceptance of this status quo. However, it also functions within its own structures and complexities. Kendell Geers has commented that:

Life in the art loop is very fragile, even for those you think are secure. Not even the cover of an art magazine is a guarantee for longer than six months.

It should also be remembered that this applies mainly to those who have already broken through the international art system. Because of a lack of engagement and critical exploration, most young South African artists are easily satisfied with a mere mention in the popular press. Making the cover of the only art magazine in South Africa would be beyond the ambitions of most.

My interest is situated partially within the aspect of how the viewer constructs his/her own mental picture of the events of an exhibition. However, I am also interested in how the artist is able to manipulate and guide the media.

My work has constantly referenced media responses, thus the works developed parallel to the media interest that has frequently surrounded my production.

I believe that the public arena that this work occupies is located in the media, not just in news articles but also in the form of SMS wars with the “but is it art” debate. And this is where it gets really interesting. Because it starts involving audiences and debates from regions one would never dream of engaging, even elderly ladies. And because these responses remain mostly negative, the debate gets heated. I am not interested in a good debate. I am interested in any debate. So when this kind of strategy can be used to engage a wider audience it is good enough for me.

This is what I meant yesterday: when the term “socially-engaged” art gets mentioned, one is immediately reminded of community based work, political work, Stephen Hobbs and urban development with ‘Senegalese man', and the like. But for me if this term can mean pissing off (or should it be pissing on?) the general public, it is a good start. When I am confronted by a local Long Street street kid saying: “I saw again what you did in the newspaper today, now give me some money, I want to go swim”, then I think something is starting to work. Don't get me wrong; I am not dismissing community-based work. But in this case I feel that there are so many areas where development can take place. Socially engaging work is a very broad term. And I think that this broad spectrum should be considered as a whole. And what better place than the media…


Nathaniel Stern  -

Sat, Feb 18 2006 7:54 am


Only pointing out the opposing sides you inadvertently set up in your first sentence/email, so no need to apologize - but I'll gladly bank that apology for the inevitable day when I am insulted by something  
you say or do.



marion hamm  - view profile

Fri, Feb 17 2006 3:57 pm


hello, all   I'm coming to this debate from a different framework - that of "artistically engaged activism", if you want. I have participated and written about Reclaim the Streets in London and the European noborder network, and am now working with and writing about http://indymedia.org.uk .   In this framework, art comes in big time, but more as a practice of appropriating public space; only very rarely as participation in "the art world".

Artistic practice within the framework of radical politics or "activism" doesn't ask for political correctness, and it doesn't care much for definitions of "art" or "politics". The criteria is more one of "efficiency for a social movement".  

I guess this approach touches on what Gerald refers to when he asks: "How could a kind of immanent transgression be imagined, in which masks cover nothing other than more masks, in which transgression is not a matter of a prefigured border separating two identities from one another, nor a matter of destroying that border, but rather of changing its quality?"   I'll give you three examples of this "artistically engaged activism":

(1) Tactical Frivolity (2001), (2) The Yes Men, (3) Claremont Road Campaign (1994). I'd be interested to hear your views about this type of art - does it belong in this discussion? How does it relate to the practice many of you are engaged in? How does it relate to the artworld in general, are there connections? Can you point me to other projects that may have a similar approach?   (

1) During the protests against the World Bank meeting in Prague, 2000, a bunch of frivoulously dressed pink fairies came closest to the heavily securiced conference center, some of them even managed to enter and chat to the delegates: http://www.burngreave.net/~nick/Pinkbloc.htm   A clip on the indymedia-video "Rebel Colours" shows the fairies dancing towards a line of riot cops guarding the conference center, accompanied by samba drums. The cops retreat. The carnivalesque play with meanings of protest, feminity, sexuality caused irritation. Only for a little while though, the clip ends with the frivolous fairies running away in all directions, trying to escape the truncheons of the riot cops. Quoting from Kate Evan's report:   "Doing an action in a carnival costume is mental. For women, facing all-male riot police, it is a way of exploiting our vulnerability, making them see that we're people, not just things to be hit. We all got hit, but there were some charmed moments. Caz hung back when others ran, walking in her huge silver costume. With her pink confection of hair and voluminous skirts she was like the figurehead of our march, a woman, alone. She and the line of pigs met, and they didn't hit her, it was like for a moment they couldn't hit her; they pushed her instead."  

Art as activist practice: The objective was to shut down a meeting of the imf and worldbank whose politics are highly objectionable. The method employed by "tactical frivolity" was unexpected performance, involving costumes, dance, sound and a resolute determination not to be stopped. The practical preparation process involved, amongst other things, communication with other parts of what is now called "global justice movement", taking material and sawing machines to Prague, making costumes with many others in the convergence center, talking about the tactics with hundreds of other activists.   The actions of "tactical frivolity" in Prague could be read as an art performance - using tools of visual communication, an instinctively efficient knowledge of the challenging potential of aesthetics, being able to imagine a visually powerful performance ("the artists gaze"), the skills to materialise this imaginary performance in real space.   And these actions could be read as "socially engaged" - not just because they were participating in a big protest, but also because the process involved engaging and skill sharing with a global activist community, thereby building a positive environment for creative activities.  

But then, this doesn't work if we apply the definition provided by Ed Young quoting Matthew Collins ("An artist doesn't really exist unless they're having exhibitions in a gallery etc").

And I doubt that Tactical Frivolity would have been prepared to perform, say, in the London Barbican. I guess this would not be seen as particularly efficient from a direct action point of view. It might have turned the Tactical Frivolity Crew into well-acclaimed performance artists, but I would assume that this was not part of their objectives.  

(2) The actions of the yesmen are another example for "transgressive action", that is not a matter of destroying the border between art and activism, but rather of changing its quality. They are much closer to the artworld than Tactical Frivolity - have had lots of media attention, exhibited in "official" art spaces etc.

Check them out: http://www.yesmen.com/ ;-) and here: http://www.theyesmen.org/  

(3). A third example would be the use of art practices within "Reclaim the Streets" in London. If you want some background about this "imaginative form of political articulation", you could browse their website http://www.reclaimthestreets.net/ , or have a look at an article I wrote a while ago: http://republicart.net/disc/hybridresistance/hamm01_en.htm .  

Art practices were especially visible during the campaign against the building of the M11 link road in London, 1994, one of the precursors of "Reclaim the Streets". For months, people occupied Claremont Road, one of the roads earmarked for demolition. A quote from the magazine "aufheben" http://www.geocities.com/aufheben2/auf_mckay.html in an article that was published in Steve McKay (ed): DiY Culture: Party & Protest in Nineties Britain, 1998), describes the use of art practices within the framework of "reclaiming space":    

"People took over the tarmac of the street itself, and only part of it was open to vehicles. (...) One of the elders of the campaign initiated the closing of the main part of the street to traffic by building artworks on the actual tarmac. These works of art were made from objects in the natural and artificial environment: tree stumps, chains, bicycle parts etc. This was followed by the turning of the street itself into a 'living room' by using the furniture, carpets, fittings and other objects from some of the houses on the street to make actual rooms on the street. Each had its own character. These rooms did not simply operate as art - they were functional as living spaces. This came to be seen as a deliberate echo of (idealized) pre-car communities where children could play in the street, neighbours socialize etc. without fear of being knocked down. As more objects filled the street, and more people took over the road, Claremont was also becoming a virtual no-go area for the police. In the early days, a local sergeant would patrol regularly and knock down the artwork each time he went past. But eventually he stopped going down the street at all. At the time, we felt we had excluded the police through our own numbers and power etc.; but in fact part of it was that the police were being diplomatic. When they deemed the time to be right they came in when they wanted - as on the 2nd of August when four of our houses were evicted and demolished with the aid of riot police.

Throughout, however, people led the police to believe that all the artwork and other objects in the street were easily movable, but in fact many of them were cemented into the street, or filled with earth and rubble so they could function as barricades. In sum, this daily existence of thoroughgoing struggle was simultaneously a negative act (stopping the road etc.) and a positive pointer to the kind of social relations that could be: no money, the end of exchange values, communal living, no wage labour, no ownership of space."  

I was trying to find some pictures of these artworks on the web. This is the best I can come up with:



Looking forward to your comments  




Narda Alvarado

Fri, Feb 17 2006 7:34 pm




"socially engaged" greetings to everybody from La Paz city



joseph gaylard

Fri, Feb 17 2006 9:30 pm


And to you too narda