Duck-Rabbits Against Fascism: Post-Artistic Postcard from Warsaw
On the sunny and hot Saturday of June 2nd 2018, over seventy artists, intellectuals, and activists met in the Arsenal Gallery in Poznań, Central Poland. They discussed the historical and present dimensions of art’s and literature’s struggles against fascism. The participants assembled under the umbrella of “Workshops for the revolution”, organized by the gallery in commemoration of 50th anniversary of May ’68. The gallery imagined itself as a safe space to discuss matters of emancipatory politics, feminism, gender issues, and anti-fascist struggles. Paradoxically, the gallery itself proved not to be safeguarded against the conservative surge, as it was vehemently attacked by right-wing media and politicians. And yet, it bravely provided the infrastructure and resources needed to discuss artistic anti-fascism as a theoretical and practical challenge.
The meeting was prepared by the Consortium for Post-artistic Practices, a loose alliance of artists, post-artists and not-not-artists, who seek to activate their competences beyond the narrow confines of the market-oriented art world. As motto of CPP (acronym resounding so similar to the Communist Party of Poland, the memory of which is currently being erased by the right-wing’s urge to rewrite history) serves the passage from Jerzy Ludwiński’s essay on “Art in the post-artistic age” (1971): “Perhaps, even today, we do not deal with art. We might have overlooked the moment when it transformed itself into something else, something which we cannot yet name. It is certain, however, that what we deal with offers greater possibilities” (Ludwiński, 2007, p. 26).
The sigil animal of CPP is a duck-rabbit, known from the optical illusion frequent in philosophical debates on language and perception. In the case of CPP, a swarm of post-artistic duck-rabbits inhabits the realm of art beyond art, indulging in hybrid practices saturated with artistic imagination. In debates originating in CPP, a duck-rabbit signifies what Stephen Wright calls ‘double ontology’ (Wright, 2013, p. 22) of practices and objects which have both form and function, conceptual potential and practical use, are this and that, not-not-art with possibilities much greater than ‘just’ art. Though what constitutes not-not-art and ‘just’ art is rather debatable, as the distinctions are blurred. It would be a mistake to look for the formal qualities to create a stringent demarcation, projecting on meshwork of hybrid practices a theoretical abstraction of clearly separated fields. People are not caged in their narrow specializations, they move between fields and modes of action. I share the intuition of Wright that the social relation of use is of primary importance to understand what he calls as “extraterritorial reciprocity” (Wright, 2013, p. 29). How one uses artistic competences and idioms changes the status of objects and ideas used. Just as Rasheed Araeen quipped while discussing aesthetic means of responding to the challenges of 21st century: “Only through an exchange of ideas beyond the constraints of the institutional or academic space can we hope to see the light at the end of the bourgeois tunnel” (Araeen, 2010, p. 78). The key intuition, practiced by CPP, is that artistic competences unfold in various modulations, under surprising circumstances, more often than not in response to social and political urgencies.
Just look at the twin image above. Two groups of people marching under the same banner, which says “Art and Literature against Fascism”. One group is composed of artists and writers, who assembled in support of the Popular Front against fascism in 1936. Another is not-not-artists block marching on the streets of Warsaw in 2018 as part of anti-fascist demonstration. The CPP-affiliated initiators of this more recent action referenced the historical photograph, at this time (March 2018) exhibited in the National Gallery of Art Zachęta at the exhibition about art in the inter-war Poland. They copied the slogan, re-painted the banner, and put it back on streets in the context of ongoing anti-fascist struggle. To a visual vocabulary of a street protest, postartists block added surplus imagination and conceptual density, a flavor of art world, famously described by Arthur Danto as an “an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art” (Danto, 1964, p. 580) and put it to a better use. It could be argued against Danto that such functional usage of artistic sensitivities does not diminish the conceptual dimension of art in question, but rather enhances it exponentially. It is not only more functional art, it is much better art, precisely because it was refunctioned and repurposed in response to the political urgency, referencing here Walter Benjamin’s take on Bertolt Brecht’s concept of functional transformation (Umfunktionierung) of the apparatuses regulating artistic production (Benjamin, 1970, p. 4). An image exhibited on the wall of a large gallery is ‘just’ a documentary photograph. When taken to the street it is brimming with senses and references, opening a historical dimension, recasting the fundamental question about fascism and legacy of anti-fascist struggles. And yet it is not gestural, as ‘just’ art tends to be, it can be and is replicable, used and reused. It signifies a political position, adds a pinch of artistic awareness, and frames it in well-made design.
Adding artistic flavors needs time and effort. Analyzing it solely in terms of costs and benefits, it might even prove to be rather wasteful, or a bit too playful. For this reason, post-artistic practices should be rather considered as collective luxuries, discussed by Adrien Rifkin (Rifkin, 2016), not driven by a bare necessity, but rather motivated by the aesthetic play of reason and desire. Not-not-artists attend anti-fascists demos anyway, why not to make use of this opportunity to play. Fun and anti-fascism. Does it sound like a folly? Or a waste? Well, the times are dire, and fascist threat is real, stakes are high, and morale is low. In order to survive, the collectives of duck-rabbits find their ways of practicing the art of anti-fascist living, here and now.
This requires overcoming distinctions between art and not-art, form and function, aesthetics and use, authorship and collectivity. Sometimes such actions evoke collective intelligence, at other times are individually articulated propositions for collective play. Imagine a dozen of very colorful flags, painted with patches of pink, blue, green, and yellow, a deconstructed rainbow in the abstract expressionist style, carried by a group of protesters, surrounded by more pointed anti-fascist or pro-democratic slogans. A positive aesthetic disruption on background of reds and blacks. These are “Mood enhancers” by Kasia Kalinowska, double ontology in action, art works used by joyful collectives of friends and allies. If such flags were firmly placed in the gallery system, their ontology would flatten to a status of mere art. When set on streets, they blink, shift perceptions, neither typical banners nor abstract paintings. It does not mean that “Mood enhancers”, and other suchlike activities, are totally detached from the worlds of art. On the contrary, they were exhibited as diploma works at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw or even in a group show orchestrated by the Museum of Modern Art a couple of months later. But they were exhibited as indexes of their multi-layered ontology, pointing outside of the white cube, not pretending to be a discrete object of contemplation, but rather a prop of aesthetic activation by a coalition of the willing, on basis of mutual trust in shared intentions (we are all in this together). If exhibited otherwise, as ‘just’ art, they would lose the depth of meaning, which emerges in the interplay between abstract and concrete. Such gestures are exercises in radical modesty. Ewa Majewska talks about power of “weak resistance” (Majewska, 2018), which is not heroic and gestural, but more common and usual (as Wrights points out – “usual” sounds almost like “use”). If one liked to play a role of romantic genius, turning the entire demonstration into a work of (his) art (somehow it is a very male ambition), it would only become pathetic, as nobody would like to play t(his) art game. It would be a futile protest and a bad art. To work out, aesthetic ‘mood enhancers’ must be served as an invitation for play. They are seasoning rather than main course. They are generous, but not commanding, alluring and playful, deceptive enough to be challenging, resistance in color. Not ‘just’ art, rather not-not-art, post-art or somehow-art. An appropriate form of protest for swarms of duck-rabbits.
Sometimes the artistic competences, which inform a given action, must be concealed to realize their potential. They need to work in disguise, for example by pretending to be a regular, historical exhibition, like it was in the case of exhibition Estranged. March ’68 and its Aftermath, on display in the Polin Museum of Polish Jews between March and September 2018 (Romik and Koszarska-Szulc, 2018). The exhibition, curated by Natalia Romik and Justyna Koszarska-Szulc, tells a diligently researched story about the events of Polish March 1968, when between 13.000-15.000 of Polish Jews were expelled from the country in result of vicious anti-Semitic campaign. The fiftieth anniversary of these events could not have unfolded under more dire circumstances, as in February 2018 the right-wing government yet again payed the same-old card of polish nationalism. History repeated itself as a tragifarce.
Considering the circumstances, calling this exhibition art in disguise is a bit misleading, as it suggests that it is ‘just’ art pretending to be a proper exhibition. It is something entirely different, a historical research directed by artistic competence to set post-artistic traps on friendly and unfriendly audiences. To interpret artworks as traps and traps as artworks is not a new trope. The anthropologist Alfred Gell formulated this concept in his essay “Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Trap”, in which he deconstructed the distinction between art and artifact (Gell, 1996). In response to Danto’s claim that things either have meanings (and are called art) or functions (and are called artifacts), Gell argues that there is a group of objects, which is both functional and meaningful. Both art works and traps alike are not defined by their supposed lack of function, but rather their capacity to materialize complex intentionalities of their creators and victims. Gell talks about art-traps and thought-traps, comparing galleries to poaching grounds, where artists as hunters try to ensnare visitors in the flows of meanings. In his own words: “Every work of art that works is like this, a trap or a snare that impedes passage; and what is any art gallery but a place of capture, set with what Boyer calls ‘thought-traps’, which hold their victims for a time, in suspension?” (Gell, 1996, p. 37).
The curators of Estranged set many of such thought-traps in their exhibition, not only by curating a harrowing narrative of historical anti-Semitism, but also by responding to its ongoing performance. A user of this exhibition is not treated as a mere tourist or a witness, but rather as an active participant, a perpetuator or a protestor, s/he is compelled to respond. And as a majority responds with rightful ire to the injustice done, others fall into this trap by performing their own anti-Semitic roles. By calling out Polish anti-Semitism the exhibition provoked an outrage of Polish anti-Semites, who responded by activating all the dirty tricks of anti-Semitic hate speech. Curators, expecting such response, left one of the exhibition walls empty. At the time of writing, it is being filled with examples of anti-Semitic hate speech provoked by the show. This sad collection serves as a wake-up call to the ones who would like to believe that the days of anti-Semitism are long gone. By making use of their post-artistic competences, the curators contributed to a challenging task of breaking this vicious cycle. Even if history repeats itself, it is up to us to set the stage of this repetition.
Kuba Szreder is lecturer at the department of art theory at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Graduate of sociology at the Jagiellonian University (Krakow), he received a PhD from the Loughborough University School of the Arts. He combines his research with independent curatorial practice. In his interdisciplinary projects he carries out artistic and organizational experiments, hybridizing art with other domains of life. In 2009 he initiated Free / Slow University of Warsaw, with which he completed several inquiries into the political economy of contemporary artistic production, such as “Joy Forever. Political Economy of Social Creatvity” (2011) and “Art Factory. Division of labor and distribution of resources in the field of contemporary art in Poland” (2014). Editor and author of several catalogues, readers, book chapters and articles. In his most recent book “ABC of Projectariat” (Polish edition, 2016), he scrutinizes economic and governmental aspects of project-related modes of artistic production.
Araeen, R., 2010. Art beyond art: ecoaesthetics: a manifesto for the 21st century. Third Text Publ, London.