Optimism of the Will: 2018 FIELD Reports on the Global Resistance to Neoreactionary Nationalism

Optimism of the Will: 2018 FIELD Reports on the Global Resistance to Neoreactionary Nationalism

Greg Sholette

“Another (art) world is possible,” theorist Gene Ray punned in 2004, wryly tweaking the upbeat motto of the World Social Forum with its vision of a different version of globalization from that of the corporate market hegemony then filling-in and exceeding all social, political and economic voids left-over from the Cold War. Ray asked, in light of widespread populist resistance to this process of neoliberalization, what position should cultural practitioners be willing to take?[1] Although this was only a few years after the dot.com crash, 2004 still harbored another bubble of sorts, one that has only just recently imploded. Brian Holmes defined this electronically powered effervescence as a movement in which, “building on the success of the Zapatista Encuentros and the first global protest in 1998,” activists tried to spread their message ‘“by any media necessary.”’[2] Amplified by both mainstream and independent, or “Indy” media, the role of cultural workers in these protests seemed to provide one answer to Ray’s question. But the sphere of culture extended even further, taking on a genuinely utopian dimension. Propelled into circulation by theorists Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, terms such as The Multitude and immaterial labor were invoked to explain the rise of a new political subjectivity made possible by post-industrial capital’s need to exploit intangible affective, creative and bio-political power.

Meanwhile, a diverse array of artistic forms fell under the rubric of Tactical Media: an ephemeral intervention into public space or mainstream media by practitioners of low-cost, DIY (Do It Yourself) forms of social and political expression. Much of this sentiment was manifest in the so-called Battle of Seattle of 1999 in which bandana-wearing demonstrators, union activists and artists carrying giant puppets disrupted a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO).[3] Fueled in large part by extraordinary promises of emancipation linked with the spread of new electronic communication technology, the alter or counter-globalization movement demarcated itself from the aspirations of trans-national business by dreaming of a socially networked world in which previously inflexible geopolitical borders collapsed as social justice and direct digital democracy swept the planet. This force allegedly came fully-loaded with a revolutionary potential that, rather than organize its resistance through trade unions or traditional party structures, was developing horizontal modes of leaderless connectivity and cooperation, as well as a post-modern form of collectivism.

Then came 9/11 USA, 3/11 Spain, 7/7 London and a series of terror attacks on unarmed civilians (including many lesser-reported attacks in the developing world), government-sponsored crackdowns on internet freedom, the invasion of privacy by the state, the commercialization of cyberspace and juridical limits on that sphere of seemingly limitless expression, and the 2007-2008 financial collapse, followed by widespread austerity measures and deep existential precariousness within everyday work and life. By 2011 people had had it. Led by young people reacting to their abruptly terminated futures, urban populations took over squares, plazas and streets in Tunisia, Morocco, Bahrain, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Greece, Spain, and of course Wall Street. Though many of these individuals and groups went on to develop long-range forms of activism the Arab Spring, Movement of Squares and Occupy Movement was short-lived, and in the case of Syria, where both tactical media artists and homegrown forms of creative resistance marked the start of opposition against the repressive Bashar al-Assad regime, has given way to one of the most tragic and devastating civil wars of all time, leading in part to a flow of displaced people northwards seeking refuge in more stable nations. A simmering reactionary sentiment began bubbling up as the enthusiasm of alter-globalism deflated. Whipped-up by well-funded conservative and far-Right ideologues opposed to immigration, capping carbon fuels, and the rights of women, people of color and the LGBTQ community these affects were cleverly linked with a loathing for the 1%, as the so-called alt-Right appropriated and détourned a political critique long considered the prerogative of the progressive Left.

Now, ten years after the “great recession, and fourteen years after Ray’s “Another (Art) World” bon mot, a vociferous form of reactionary ressentiment increasingly dominates the discourse against free-trade and open-borders, and the world of cyberspace has energized a very dark matter world of neo-fascists. From this perspective, Brexit and Trump should come as no surprise, for as The Guardian’s Nikal Saval summarizes, “millions have rejected, with uncertain results, the punishing logic that globalisation could not be stopped.”[4] Or as the late Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin stated immediately after news of the U.S. Republican victory ricocheted around the globe,

The power of Donald Trump falls into this category of false criticism of liberal globalization. The “nationalist” tone aims to strengthen Washington’s control of its subordinate allies, not to grant them an independence that they do not even claim.

What to make of this moment and its surreal, uncanny reality or un-presentness? For one thing we need to understand it in as much detail as possible, a project that this special issue of FIELD seeks to facilitate (more on this below). But we would also be ill-advised if we forgot Antonio Gramsci’s legendary statement regarding optimism of the will, a phrase he famously penned while interned within a fascist prison cell just under a century ago as global repression gave voice to a sublime resistance that went on to inspire millions in search of social justice. Our moment of tribulation is no different. The good news is that a vibrant Left global resistance exists, frequently manifest within the cultural sphere, and dialectically recalibrating itself in light of the rise of the populist Right and other reactionary forces.

In December of 2018 Vida Movahed stood on a telecommunications utility box on Revolution Street in Tehran without her headscarf (which she waved like a flag attached to the end of a stick), in protest against Iran’s compulsory hijab laws. She was quickly arrested. However, other women began to repeat this act. In response the Iranian government tried to prevent further protests by welding a peaked structure on top of utility boxes. An anonymous individual then circulated plans for producing a DIY device that would circumvent the peaked structure, and allow protestors to safely stand on the boxes again. They titled their plan “The Geometry of Resistance”.

In order to gauge that struggle this special edition of FIELD features more than thirty leading thinkers, artists and activists from around the globe who report on local and regional conditions of progressive cultural opposition at a time of extreme reactionary retrenchment. Some are passionate, others scholarly, a few have even written from a fervent first person perspective, but none lack conviction or commitment to a concept of justice involving freedom of expression, economic equality, environmental justice, individual identity and mobility as well as the expansion of democratic processes. And while there are definitely some unfortunate gaps in coverage, especially in Africa, what these global FIELD reports collectively provide is a core sample of the cultural and progressive political response to a rightward shifting geopolitical landscape.

Five interrelated themes or tendencies stand out in these reports. Perhaps most prominent is the fight against censorship and attempts by authoritarian states and politicians to repress the rights of immigrants, working people, LGBTQ, women and minorities, this is clear in reports from Bangladesh, Turkey, China, Serbia, Poland, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Indigenous Canada and Gaza especially. Secondly, we find an ongoing process of self-organization amongst politically-minded cultural workers, or what Marco Baravalle terms alter-institutionality in which micro-organizations continue to generate working models of “another art world,” though with more caution regarding the Internet than the days of either Seattle or Occupy. This tendency is exemplified in reports from Italy, India, Russia, Sweden, Germany, France, Spain (Barcelona), Puerto Rico and again Gaza, which lean towards the alter-institutional tendency, though none of these divide up so neatly as the report from Palestine, which intersects both trends, shows.

Along with these two distinct threads our global core sample is punctuated with reports on local struggles against climate change, gentrification, precariousness, colonial legacies and the white male privilege assumed by the populist Right. There are also a handful of accounts that take up a trans-global viewpoint in order to examine the ambiguous politics of social networks and Twitter activism of Black Lives Matter ( Chloë Bass) or the precariousness of academia in Southern Europe (Carlos Garrido Castellano). But one other significant theme is revealed in this global overview; a growing awareness that the very conditions of art’s social and political engagement in the world have become complicated and at times compromised, forcing more than one author to ask, as Kim Charnley does, why is it that “social practice is a category that has thrived under neoliberalism, even as the infrastructure of social protection and social solidarity has been dismantled.” Like me Charnley concludes we can only access the world we live in by recognizing contradiction, even as we struggle to change it. Therefore, we find a dual-critique running throughout many of the FIELD reports whereby both the global art market and the “creative” economy, but also certain forms of socially engaged art practice come under critical scrutiny.

Before I offer my own brief synopsis of these global FIELD reports, permit me to cite Rosa Luxemburg on the stubborn historical materiality of struggle and resistance:

Although we can no more jump over the stages of historical development than a man can jump over his shadow, nevertheless, we can accelerate or retard that development.

Luxemburg’s faith in the liberatory determination of the working class, of women and other oppressed peoples for freedom, democracy and economic justice, rested of course on a revolutionary, Marxist-Hegelian optimism, a grand narrative that intellectuals like us often spurn today. But perhaps, in this taxing moment of populist reaction and nationalist ferment, her words, as well as those of Antonio Gramsci, might also remind us that however impatient we may be for that other world to arrive we are tasked with honestly and critically facing this present, as it actually is, because, to quote Cornel West, a living leader of the Left, “you must let suffering speak, if you want to hear the truth.”

Demonstrators with Decolonize This Place prepare to enter the Whitney Museum in New York in protest of vice chairman Warren Kanders whose defense company Safariland produces the tear gas used against Central American women, children seeking asylum in the United States on November 25, 2018.


Up first is a report from protesters in Gaza on the #GreatReturnMarch as MTL (Amin Husain and Nitasha Dhillon) describe the remarkable resiliency and creative inventiveness of the Palestinian campaign for their right to return to their land, which has given rise to oppositional encampments generating a social infrastructure of free university classes, medical clinics and counter-tactical art practices. With its convergence of activism and art within a cooperative counter-space the Gaza protest camps exemplify one clear set of conditions for progressive resistance to the rising tied of ultra-nationalistic state politics. All of this is taking place as the Trump administration decided to slash over $200 million in aid for basic humanitarian services and the West invests in Gulf region culture, for example in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates where a spanking new Jean Nouvel designed Louvre Museum has recently opened, despite the well-documented human rights violations and migrant labor abuses in this kingdom and in the Gulf region more generally.

Alter-institutionality is what Marco Baravalle terms the type of counter-hegemonic spatial experiments found in Gaza. Baravalle is himself a co-founder of S.a.L.E. Docks, a former salt storage warehouse in Venice, Italy that he and other activists have transformed into a multi-use oppositional cultural center for artists, designers and other “creatives” unwilling to be captured and instrumentalized by either the art market or municipal forces complicit with gentrifying land speculators. Indeed, this form of arts-based self-organization runs like a red thread throughout these reports, from Palestine and Italy, to China, Korea, India, Indigenous Canada, Puerto Rico, and Russia, among other locations discussed in this issue. That said, the Rightward, macho, anti-immigrant turn in Italy and other countries over the past few years significantly raises the stakes for such embodied dissident spaces and micro-institutional platforms.

Barcelona’s post-15M municipalist coalition movement in Catalonia Spain is the subject of Alan Moore’s report involving co-ops, solidarity economies, co-housing collectives and other ongoing experiments in bottom-up self-governance that grew directly out of the massive 2011 occupation of the Puerto del Sol in Madrid where Moore is living. And from Athens, Greece we have a trenchant, first-hand account by Georgia Kotretsos regarding how the global and local art world responded to years of austerity, debt and falling living standards by generating an appetite for “protest art,” even as deeper institutional cultural structures did not change one iota. “Athens,” she ruminates “is the only cave in the world that has a skylight–even at night, it never gets too dark to see.” And yet, also out of Greece may be emerging a contrasting ray of light, as former Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis and socialist U.S. senator Bernie Sanders announce a new Progressive International movement whose mission is to “create a global network of individuals and organizations that will fight together for dignity, peace, prosperity and the future of our planet.” [https://www.transcend.org/tms/2018/12/it-is-time-for-progressives-of-the-world-to-unite-sanders-varoufakis-issue-open-call-for-new-global-movement/]

Despite increasing turmoil and repression by Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan there are still small groups of artists and intellectuals who manage to generate space for critical discussion, not only of the ruling Justice and Development Party, but also the commercial art scene. Erden Kosova describes the necessity of this double-critique made by feminists, LGBT collectives, cultural journals and alternative art spaces as a community that is nonetheless very much under siege less than a decade after the remarkable Gezi Park mass demonstrations in 2013. Also struggling is most of former socialist Yugoslavia where reactionary governments on the rise and even social-democratic Slovenia, are in danger of derailing to the Right. Reporting on post-socialist Serbia where nationalist, orthodox religious and crypto-fascist forces are gaining control, Rena Rädle focuses our attention on pockets of art activists also engaged in a double critique that rejects privatized corporate culture and the “ethnification” of the country by a reactionary government. Arrests followed. But as with other regional reports the capital of Belgrade has seen instances of self-organization alter-institutions by poets, artists, curators and Leftists who, despite evictions, seek to create urban gathering spaces for dealing with “social and political problems in a collective way.”

Poland’s slide towards more authoritarian policies started after the electoral victory of the Law and Justice party in 2016. Once installed in power the country’s constitution and judiciary were attacked through a smear campaign that also targeted Left oppositional groups, even as ultra-right-wing proto-fascists and ultra-nationalists got to march with police protection. With the judiciary being placed under the political control of the Rightwing government which uses the pretense of cleansing courts of post-communist influence, the only successful mass opposition was the Black Marches organized by tens of thousands of women protesting a total abortion ban demanded by a fanatically religious, but influential religious fringe. Writing from Warsaw, Kuba Szreder discusses the Consortium for Postartistic Practices, “a loose alliance of artists, postartists and not-not-artists, who seek to activate their competences beyond the narrow confines of market-oriented art world.”

This Right turn is indeed a global shift as much as a regional trend in the post-communist, so-called Former West. Kata Benedek and Ágnes Básthy report on Hungary and the recent condemnation of a popular Frida Kahlo retrospective at the National Gallery by pro-government Right-wing news media.. The charges? “Promoting communism.” The context involves Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor, who is a favorite of Breitbart News founder Steve Bannon who recently has moved to Europe to offer policy support for populist far-right parties. What makes Orbán Bannon’s hero? For starters Orbán’s xenophobic statement that he doesn’t want Hungary to be a multi-colored” nation. While the EU has voted to sanction Hungary for breaches of European core values including disrespecting human dignity, democracy and freedom, even some mainstream commentators such as Paul Krugman see parallels between this ominous trend in post-Communist Europe and the current situation in the USA, What Benedek and Básthy argue is that despite the country’s far Right trends, the Hungarian art scene —despite accusations of Leftism—remains largely elitist and connected to the global realm of high culture and big capital. Meanwhile the historic home and archive of noted Hungarian Marxist and Jewish intellectual György Lukács has been shuttered in Budapest and his statue removed from public view.

In St. Petersburg, Russia the collective Chto Delat (What is to be Done?) presents an internal group conversation about their own socialist-oriented project Rosa House of Culture in which participants debate the feasibility and ethics of establishing a counter-public sphere separate from the intellectually degraded consumerist society that surrounds them. Ideally they want Rosa House of Culture to operate with an “open autonomy” where people can practice “different types of commonality (depressive, without closeness, artistic, political, ecological, civil, gender, etc.)” but is that still possible in today’s Russian society? The case of imprisoned Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov is a painful reminder about what Russian politics is actually like for artists and dissidents these days. Contributor Oleksiy Radynski is in Kiev, Ukraine, some 400 miles (669 km) from Russian occupied Crimea from where he reports on the fourth year of Sentsov’s twenty year sentence (on terrorism charges Amnesty International describe as politically motivated) in a far northern Russian penal colony. Radynski describes the surreal logic of Sentsov’s fabricated crimes as part of a “newly emerging global mode of governance that operates under the logic of ‘alternative facts.” Sentsov is now on an extended hunger strike since May 14, 2018. As Radynski summarizes grimly, “‘post-truth kills.”

Even as Beijing and Shanghai sport “vibrant cultural districts,” acknowledges Bo Zheng, China remains an authoritarian state. He then goes on to report on SoengJoengToi (SJB), an association of seventeen independent cultural entrepreneurs housed in a ground-floor apartment in Guangzhou where Kungfu classes share space with underground movie screenings and discussion on gentrification. SBJ flies under the radar, at least for the moment, while in South Korea curator Heng Gil Han describes the alter-institutional space which recently evolved in Central Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Plaza when trade unions, indebted students, civic organizations and even blacklisted artists helped oust the country’s corrupt president Park Geun-hye in what has been described as the Candlelight Revolution.

In the center of Asia there is a jungle-covered, multi-ethnic region surrounded by other nations that almost seems like a country unto itself. Assam is indeed a state within India that is home to some of the world’s most biodiverse rainforests and other ecosystems. The massive Brahmaputra River runs directly through Assam and on its shores an experiment in aquatic alter-institutionality is under way within a once abandoned, but now refurbished ferry, rechristened Periferry by Mriganka Madhukaillya and Sonal Jain (AKA Desire Machine Collective). Peiferry was itself home to an event earlier this year entitled Assembly of Desire that encouraged “intense and dynamic interactions between diverse practitioners from completely different fields,” at a moment when the region’s extraordinary ecology is threatened by top-down authoritarian governmental action to impose a series of mega-dam projects owned by private interests.

Assam is also home to four million people who are often called “Bangladeshis”–these are primarily Bengali-speaking Muslims who are accused, without evidence, of crossing into Indian territory roughly between the 1950s and early 1970s. They are now under threat of losing their citizenship and right to vote, possibly followed by mass deportation by Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government (though the process started earlier). Admired by Donald Trump, anti-Muslim populist Modi even appointed a “scholarly” committee to prove Hindus are the original inhabitants of the country. One bright spot however is a decision by India’s Supreme Court to eliminate a 157 year old colonial law against homosexuality. Thus far Modi has been silent about the ruling.

Next door in Bangladesh proper, the government is poised to enact the Digital Security Act /DSA (2018), which would replace and also enhance the dreaded Information and Communication Technology Act/ICT (2006). The ICT, and proposed DSA, criminalize “malicious” comments (very broadly defined) about any constitutional body, and has been used to target journalists, academics, artists, students, bloggers, social media users, and private citizens by imposing up to fourteen years in prison. An existing bill describes as espionage any secret recording of government, semi-government or autonomous institutions. It comes as no surprise then that the report by the Katatare Prajapati Collective is entitled “Digital Highway becomes Digital Jail,” as a recent wave of high school student protests paralyzed Dhaka city, following the death of two students by a speeding bus. The consequence of the protests included the arrest of over a hundred people, many for things posted on Facebook The Katatare Prajapati Collective urges the government of Bangladesh not to follow the authoritarian lead of neighboring Indian and Pakistan.

Long-overdue land reform is the pivot point for Nkule Mabaso’s report from Cape Town, South Africa, a process Trump recently sent a bizarre paranoid tweet about the supposed killing of (white) farmers. As with other late-night digital delirium from the White House, this one was based on a neo-fascist conspiracy theory. Back in the real South Africa, Maboso describes what it is like for a visitor to be ubering past squatter camps lining the highway from the airport, evidence of failed land policies. Her report begins with her listening to talk show hosts distressed about the reversal of more than a century’s old Natives Land Act of 1913 that helped establish Apartheid by preventing blacks from either buying or renting land, leading to their expulsion by force. She describes a 2013 photographic-based exhibition on the anniversary of that act entitled “Umhlaba” (Earth), that documented what Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor scathingly though cooly described as one part of the massive, global “economic consolidation and efficient distribution of labour and capital.” That enclosure process in the post-colonial world still reveals staggering after effects, while reversing this historical scandal has been exacerbated by decades of economic neoliberalization. From Australia, where much publicized friction between newly elected President Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is really just a sideshow, deregulation has turned the nation continent into a “narcissistic prosumer” society, reporting collaboratively, theorists Nikos Papastergiadis and Danielle Wyatt address the problems of socially engaged art within this neoliberal context. They assert the necessity of reconfiguring the means of both aesthetics and cultural pedagogy via forms of artistic participation “from below,” because, they insist, “Without a broader toolkit of evaluative and critical approaches we cannot call out participation that is hollow or co-opted. And worse, we lack the capacity to cultivate the possibilities of new coalitions and forms of commonality.”

Remaining in the Southern Hemisphere, but moving laterally across the globe to Latin America André Mesquita introduces us to another once progressive, “Pink Tide” nation undergoing severe social and political implosion. “How much remains of what was not?” is a somber report on current circumstances in Brazil following the 2016 (so-called “soft”) coup by far Right politicians who ousted elected Leftist President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party through questionable parliamentary maneuvers, and who have more recently, and even more ominously, propelled far Right candidate Jair Bolsonaro into the president’s office . Focusing on the repercussions of this takeover within the cultural sphere, Mesquita discusses a 2017 campaign to close the exhibition Queermuseu and vociferous Rightwing attacks on theorist Judith Butler, denouncing her writings as pedophilic. As in Hungary, Poland, Serbia, Bangladesh, India, and Turkey, the Brazilian Left is caught up in a basic struggle to resist the censorship of free expression, especially the voices of marginalized minorities. Mesquita nevertheless asserts, “it is necessary not to fear terror but to fight urgently its advance.”

Conditions in nearby Colombia are equally distressing as we discover from the Bogota-based consortium of authors, Jimena Andrade, Victoria Argoty, Daniel Castellanos, Camila Cifuentes, Miguel Estupiñán, María Gamarra, Guerthy Gutiérrez, Susana Lyons, Silvia Valderrama, Esthefanny Yague, and Nicolás Vargas. Recent strides towards peace between the state and FARC-EP and ELN guerillas hit a massive roadblock with the election of ultra-conservative President Iván Duque, who is now threatening to rollback the fragile, but historic, peace agreement forged between the government and the FARC-EP after a half-century of armed struggle. Notably, the FARC-EP have already laid down their weapons. Meanwhile, it is again those at the margins –young women, indigenous people, Brazilians of African descent and the LGBTQ community (which suffered over 100 murders in 2017), who remain targets of repression by activist evangelicals, wealthy conservatives and the populist Right.

It would be dishonest of me not to also acknowledge and call-out the rising authoritarian shift by Left-leaning governments in Latin America, including the tragic move towards dictatorial policies and state violence in such once hopeful Pink Tide nations as Venezuela and Nicaragua, where socialist oriented economies are being destabilized by a combination of the defective but irrepressible appetite of neoliberal capital and domestic practices within, and, at least in the case of Venezuela, threats of U.S. intervention from without (including meetings between coup planners and Donald Trump’s administration.), all of which has lead to increasingly undemocratic and repressive conduct including attacks on, and killings of, demonstrators. Though also noteworthy is a promise by Cuba’s new President to back same-sex marriage, something that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago .

In Latin America “North,” the recent election of progressive presidential Mexican candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador offers one of the few cautiously positive stories of 2018. “Yes, but not quite so” is a report from Puebla by Alberto López Cuenca that focuses our attention on some of the paradoxes of Mexico’s cultural scene over the past decade. Cuenca points out that while contemporary artists have begun to openly address issues of entrenched violence, state surveillance, and gentrification, the institutions that support this critical work remain essentially conservative and unchanged. And as with other FIELD global reports he cites a rise in self-organization amongst artists, even as Mexico simultaneously becomes a hub in the trans-national corporate art market, making substantial egalitarian structural transformation within the culture industry a formidable challenge. The nearby island of Puerto Rico is, lest you think otherwise, an outright colony of the United States; its population treated as second-class citizens compared to those of the mainland. Anyone who doubted these facts was chastened by years of harsh economic austerity and the blatantly dismal FEMA response to two devastating hurricanes in 2017 that led to the death of some 3000 people, not 16 as Trump initial celebrated. Libertad O. Guerra and Angel ‘Monxo’ López-Santiago not only recognize this political awakening, but link the island’s struggles to those of Latinx, working class, and people of color in the South Bronx and Lower East Side, New York City. Focusing on the socially affirmative process of Community Land Trusts, Guerra and López-Santiago propose a culturally oriented mission to “reanimate the gaping voids” of underrepresented communities via the archive, “because we know that our history can be found there.”

The archive and the act of remembering as a conscious political and critical process is also central to Jeffrey Skoller’s report from the other side of the USA, where he quotes storied Bay Area, California poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti imagining himself awakening after a fifty year sleep to find that “faceless investors with venture capital” had “wiped out any unique sense of place, turning the ‘island city’ into an artistic theme park without artists.” Using a commercialized city bike program that is taking over his Berkeley neighborhood as his primary target, Skoller expands his critique to a broader wave of urban transformation acerbically stating that a corporate groupthink has, “without irony or self-consciousness, commandeered, appropriated and monetized the very language and concepts that have defined the progressive politics, counter-cultural social forms and creative thinking in the Bay Area over the last fifty years. This too is the creative art of social practice.”

Two thousand miles (3,431 km) to the West and North is the largest source of surface freshwater on earth, the Great Lakes or les Grands-lacs that are clustered on the border of eight states between the U.S. and Ontario, Canada. The landscape around them is primarily forest and prairie interrupted by farmland. Once a solidly liberal-minded region it is increasingly threatened by forces of carbon and mineral extraction, by lead contaminated drinking water (recall Flint, Michigan among other locations), and by avowedly racist, anti-immigrant and anti-union politics. The local voting population greatly assisted Trump’s entry to the White House. But with a dose of hope, our report on the region from Dan S. Wang shines a light on the Milwaukee-based group Voces de la Frontera (Border Voices), who mobilize teams of artists to design, print, paint, and assemble signage on short notice for actions in favor of Latinx dairy workers, immigrant’s rights, striking teachers and Black Lives Matter. He cautiously suggests the next election will not go Trump’s way. Given recent revelations of financial irregularities, hush money payoffs, the abominable treatment of immigrant families, the saddling up to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite convincing evidence he ordered the murder of US based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and a general tenor of incivility that many feel led to a brutal shooting spree in a Pennsylvania Synagogue, one can only hope the American voters have grown tired of Trump’s grotesque Frank Underwood knockoff and will choose to cancel the next episode.

From the Great Lakes we move Eastward and slightly North across the ancestral lands of the Cree, Anishinaabe, Blackfoot, Chippewa/Ojibwe, Algonquin, Iroquois, Wyandot, Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous peoples within Canada, as Lindsay Nixon, herself of Cree-Métis-Saulteaux extraction, reports that between 2017 and 2018 Indigenous artists witnessed substantial interest and increased funding that coincided with the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation. However, Nixon rhetorically then inquires: what now? Now that the so-called Reconciliation year is ending, will the country go back to ignoring native people after more than 400 years of colonization? Was it all a “trend”? And amongst Indigenous artists, what about feminist, queer and trans people, will they too find reconciliation?

Almost directly due south five hundred miles (730 km) the city of Philadelphia (my own place of birth btw), has been reaping the benefits of the greatly overheated New York City real estate market as artists, musicians, designers and other “creatives” relocate two hours away by train to “Philly.” And in William Penn’s city of “Brotherly Love” Nato Thompson reports that pro-Black Lives Matter candidate Larry Krasner was recently elected District Attorney, and the alter-institutional Spiral Q space is active producing posters, banners, puppets and performances in support of immigrant rights and against the presence of Federal ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) offices in the city. After weeks of “Occupy ICE” with encampments outside City Hall, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is terminating a data-sharing program with ICE.

Across the the pond in Ireland we find another one of the few brightish spots in our global review, as Dublin-based Emma Mahony describes the history-making vote by the country’s predominantly Roman Catholic population to overwhelmingly repeal language in the country’s Eighth Amendment that provided legal status to an unborn human fetus, the same as its mother, making abortion, even in the case of rape, a crime (Ireland was the first country to vote to allow same-sex marriage as well in 2015). Inspired by both union marching banners and the work of Renaissance paintings, Mahony reports on the elaborate multi-colored banner “Madonna of Repeal,” carried through the streets of Limerick in support of Irish women’s reproductive rights. And just across the channel in the United Kingdom, Kim Charnley tackles the aftereffects of Brexit on politics and culture, including suggesting that the effects of austerity and rising poverty played a role in the Right populist rejection of the European Union, but also the overall anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiment in some parts of Britain (though notably not Northern Ireland, which strongly voted to stay in the European Union). Both urban and rural culture has since seen an increase of socially engaged art and “place making,” though at times these creative venture have operated as a vector for gentrification, and all the while an illiberal and vigorous alt-Right edges itself into the UK’s political sphere using social networks and populist rallies as in other European nations and beyond.

From Gothenburg Sweden, Fredrik Svensk reports that artists in that social democratic nation also confront a growing antisemitic, neo-fascist movement as well as anti-union conservative politicians, spreading gentrification and an increasing class divide. The country’s policy makers have sought to contain art within the realm of academic research, limiting the power of politically engaged culture, but as Svenk points out, such efforts at weakening art activism “will not happen without resistance.” Meanwhile, Germany’s fractured Left confronts its own anti-immigrant sentiments and rising Right populism eager to exploit the uncertainties of the present moment, as recent mass demonstrators chanting “lying press” and “Germany for Germans” evinced in the eastern city of Chemnitz. A couple of days later tens of thousands of anti-racist demonstrators attended a packed stadium concert in that same small city. And from the Northernmost corner of Germany, Karen van den Berg turns our attention to sustainable, interdisciplinary planning initiatives that appear to be giving rise to a “new artistic self-image,” returning us to Baravalle’s notion of an alter-institutionality, which confronts both the forces of neo-fascism and neoliberal deregulation, as well as the marketization of culture.

And next door in France, Vanessa Theodoropoulou reveals a similar progressive, cultural response in Paris to the catastrophic triad of the migrant crisis, debt crisis and climate change, including reporting on a remarkable symposium that revealed an “incredible network of actors from various fields, producing non-spectacular, almost invisible in the mainstream art world, critical contents, objects and actions.” In recent weeks, the tensions bubbling just below the surface in France (and neighboring Belgium) have rocketed into view as yellow vested demonstrators reject President Macron’s tax hikes on working and middle class fuel consumption in what appears to be a bid to make the country more competitive. Notably, as with the Euro-Maidan uprising in Ukraine, France’s Mouvement des gilets jaunes mixes together participants from Left, Right and Center as the neoliberal version of globalization takes another blow.

Finally, four non-site-specific reports round up this global overview because, after all, we do live on a planet undergoing accelerating waves of de-territorialization and re-territorialization. Though based in Brooklyn, New York Chloë Bass makes a strong and sobering review of Networked Culture, concluding that despite the successes of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo if social media represents where we are as a society then in light of Trump it is also “the clearest manifestation of easy answers, poor fact checking, uninformed public opinion, and corporate-control of information.” Carlos Garrido Castellano addresses Trans-Locational Precariousness and what he calls “Iberian political surrealism,” as he moves from his native Spain to Lisbon, Portugal, then to Cork, Ireland, and on to South Asia, all in an effort to continue his scholarly research into socially engaged art. And out of Quebec, Marc James Léger cannily takes on the Nato Alliance with a contrarian view that brings together Guy Debord’s A Game of War board game with the British art collective Class Wargames and their avant-garde inspired “ludic subversion against spectacular capitalism.”

Dear friends, these reports were crafted by a generous and astute group of international contributors, please read them thoughtfully, critically, and dare I say with at least a cautious modicum of revolutionary optimism. For in spite of the tumult of our surreal, unpresent moment you will discover that this generally dark global report card hosts a number of reasons for hope. Our task, as hermeneuticians of the social “now,” as artists, activists, teachers, historians and critics of history from below, is to connect these various nodal points of site-specific opposition into an alter-constellation of trans-local resistance, doing so not just theoretically, but also practically, materially, and whenever possible with that most disarming and lethal weapons of dissent: insurgent, delirious laughter and the truth. The enemy will never know what hit them.

Dr. Gregory Sholette is a New York-based artist, writer and activist. He is a founding member of Political Art Documentation/Distribution, REPOhistory collective, and Gulf Labor, an artists’ group advocating for migrant workers’ rights constructing Western branded art museums in Abu Dhabi. His individual art explores issues of artistic labor and political resistance, and his critical writings document and reflects upon several decades of activist art. He is author of the books Delirium & Resistance: Art Activism & the Crisis of Capitalism (2017); Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture (2011) both Pluto Press, and co-editor with Chloë Bass of Art as Social Action (Skyhorse Publishers, 2018). An occasional contributor to FIELD Journal, he teaches at Queens College, City University of New York, and co-directs the project Social Practice Queens.


Notes

[1] Another World is Possible was a key plank of the first World Forum for social justice program in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2001. Gene Ray’s essay “Another (art) world is possible: Theorizing Oppositional Convergence,” was initially presented as a paper on a Radical Art Caucus panel at the College Art Association in 2004, and later published by the journal Third Text, vol. 18, Issue 6, (2004), pp. 562-572. An online PDF is available at: https://www.yumpu.com/en/embed/view/AyhQvo6nUpOdcTZD. Accessed on-line December 11, 2018.

[2] Holmes is referring to Zapatista Encuentros or encounters in which members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or EZLN) gathered to discuss their objectives before posting them online. See: Brian Holmes, “do-it-yourself geopolitics,” in Collectivism After Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination after 1945, edited by Blake Stimson and Greg Sholette (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), pp. 273-292.

[3] Between November 30 and December 1st 1999 over 4000 loosely organized protesters confronted outnumbered Seattle police who responded with tear gas and riot control tactics. Demonstrators grabbed world news headlines and successfully brought the darker side of globalization to the public’s attention. At the time the event appeared so significant that one Chinese observer commented, “I think this is as significant for the west as Tiananmen square was for us. It is unprecedented. Governments will have to respond.” Larry Elliott and John Vidal, “Battle of the Seattle streets,” The Guardian, November 30th, 1999. https://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/dec/01/wto.johnvidal3. Accessed on-line December 11, 2018.

[4] Technically Saval wrote this one year after Brexit and eight months after Donald Trump was elected U.S. President, though it remains accurate a year later. Nikal Saval, “Globalisation: the Rise and Fall of an Idea that Swept the World,” The Guardian, (July 14, 2017): https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/14/globalisation-the-rise-and-fall-of-an-idea-that-swept-the-world. Accessed on-line December 11, 2018.