Or, how is individual subjectivity managed and negotiated with the rise (and fall) of global institutions?
“I’m searching for words to describe the period of history we’re living through. To say it’s unprecedented means little, because all periods were unprecedented since history was first discovered…I’m looking for nothing more than a figurative image to serve as a landmark…
The landmark I’ve found is that of a prison. Nothing less. Across the planet, we are living in a prison.”
I begin with this quote from John Berger as an introduction to my experience of the 4th Former West research congress, which was held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, in what was once, or what was the former, West Berlin, making this iteration of the congress particularly unique. Past editions were held in Utrecht and Istanbul, organized by the Dutch organization, BAK, (basis voor actuele kunst, which I know I’m not going to be able to pronounce properly) under Maria Hlavajova.
Now that I’ve mentioned Hlavajova, it would be a good time to discuss the general theme and the slippery definitions surrounding this concept of the “Former” West, which was conceived by Hlavajova in 2008, and how it relates to the Berger quote with which I opened my talk. To parse that title would leave us with a question of obsolescence or expiration, in which we can speak of the subjective interiority of the West and all its associations with capitalism, with colonialism, and with civil society as things of the past. To place the congress and the period in history marking its conception would leave us in a period not only of rethinking “post-1989” histories, but the period following economic collapse, preceding Occupy, and occurring alongside the Arab Spring. Not to contradict Berger, however it is difficult to deny the unprecedented levels we are living through at this point in history.
As for Hlavajova, to speak of the West as former has yet to be fully realized. Referring to Berlin, while there may be a former east, why was there no former west? And here she quotes the artist Hito Steyerl, wherein the former west remains “a good idea”.
In his introduction for the first day’s proceedings, Dr. Bernd M. Scherer, director of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, HKW herein, laid the groundwork for this historical inquiry into the former-ness of the West, with the claim that “History can be told retrospectively and prospectively. In the case of architecture, it can be said that ‘first we build architecture and then architecture builds us.’” Scherer was referring in this case to the structure itself that would be our second home for the next seven days, where from 10 in the morning to midnight, we would be subjected to a series of lectures, workshops, performances, and hangings around the central themes of former West.
Of the HKW’s place in the discussion, Scherer described its genesis as “a symbol of space, openness, freedom, and unity, making it a political project from the start.” A gift from the United States, in 1957 (as the former Congress Hall) to the people of Germany, the HKW meant to signify how the West saw itself and wished to be seen, with the building’s largest auditorium housing up to 15 translators at a time, allowing proceedings to commence in no less than 16 languages.
Then in 1980, as Reagan and Thatcher began laying the groundwork for an inherently Euramerican neoliberal agenda, the roof of the HKW collapsed. Whether this was a metaphor or foreshadowing of an end to broadly accepted East-West dynamics, the collapse of the Berlin wall (nearly a decade later) would plant the seeds of Former West, when Hlavajova lamented that “if democracy had been achieved, what would be left for art to fight for?” The rather wistful inquiry had been posed without fully grasping what this democracy would entail: In this case, it meant equating (or confusing) freedom with the freedom of the market. Thus, the formerness of the west had not transpired, rather it had transmogrified into another institution entirely; much like the collapse of the HKW’s roof, there remained the foundation of exploitation, of oppression, and of censorship, upon which these “freedoms” were built.
…no political power in the world can prevent children being born. Only afterwards can power transform a precious little life into a miserable existence without a future.
Jasmina Tesanovic, “The Diary of a Political Idiot”, Granta 67: Women and Children First
Returning to Berger’s assertion that, “Across the planet, we are living in a prison,” the 4th Former West congress gave two strands of thought for tracing its contours. Insurgent Cosmopolitanism and Infrastructure would describe what Irit Rogoff called “the ways of the world” and means for human life to go on within this prison, whereas the insurgent in the cosmopolitan arises with the reality that individuals representing themselves, alone, can only come up against other individuals. Another two strands, Art Production and Dissident Knowledges, proposed ways out of it.
Rogoff’s discussion on infrastructure served as a conscience, a time to reflect on the measures taken to stamp the otherwise uncontrollable into submission. Echoing Adorno that, “Within a predetermined reality, freedom becomes a vacant claim”. Before moving forward, the strand on infrastructure was a means to take a good look around and understand how we even got here – which drew the ire of the heads of Goldsmiths where Rogoff had come from. The gist being that, “Your department is so negative. All you ever do is critique.”
Throughout the congress, Berlin locals complained incessantly about that having been the longest winter in recent memory. It wasn’t supposed to be snowing in March, and the possibility that this was the price that the Western world had to pay for its manipulation of the “natural environment,” in creating a coherence in which humanity can thrive. And yet the terms become debatable, because it is precisely these questions of “thriving” and “humanity” around which the formerness of the west–in light of the collapse of the economic dimension of neoliberalism—“oscillated” (Solomon 2013). To describe the groundwork laid by the built environment which made the infrastructure of the west possible, one would have to go back to modernity, to enlightenment, and in the process mire oneself in the ideological muck that made the west what it was, and the rest what we are now. We speak of change, we speak of progress, but all of this takes place relative to an existing construct, an established infrastructure.
Those who once left for the West
for a normal life for their children
to get away from this trash
this Soviet mindset—
are returning today to Russia,
where the local diumvirate has created a more or less
decent environment for the middle class
and reasonable conditions for business.
Not, of course, like in the good old days,
but still better than now
in the barbaric socialist West
where the self-proclaimed people have gone into the streets,
the anarchists and the immigrants,
and hung huge banners
from the buildings:
“Capitalism is outlawed!”
Kirill Medvedev 2 April 2012
This brings us to the current crisis of a world in transition from an industrial to a financial to a cognitive economy, wherein we were asked not only to “imagine” the west as former, but to consider what kinds of global futures could come of it. Former West thus became a crash course in neoliberal imperatives that played integral roles in the Arab Spring, in Occupy, in Greece, and in the more recent movements in Taksim Square. To echo Marian Pastor Roces, it was not looking for solutions, but a means to calibrate a terminology: an episteme and ontology with which we could grapple with “the end of an epoch”, or at least a means to understand why this epoch of capitalism and free market valorization invites inquiry towards a third way; in which the necessity of objectifying the world can be re-thought and redefined.
Hlavajova’s proposition, or rather the prospects to what we now witness in this conflation of the market with the multitude, of the citizen with the conscript, and the cosmopolitan with the human, was a way to turn politics into “the method, rather than the subject,” of art, in order to realize of a way beyond both communism and capitalism. Rather than fetishize politics through art, politics would thus be absorbed into the practice of aesthetic exertion–without neglecting the need to clear aesthetics of the stale air of Euramerican ideology. Should art have a cause to fight for, art cannot be apolitical in that “it flawlessly mirrors the society in which it arose,” making it a vehicle for both capitalism and democracy to fold into one another.
The transition thus results in the paradox of objectifying the world through financial and cognitive capital – where dollars and the English language are designated as “universal” terms for exchange, currencies for both negotiating and creating the limits of an infrastructure that now went beyond geography as we once knew it, and for quantifying an otherwise subjective site: the individual. The rise of cognitive capital in the midst of increasing subjectivity is best exemplified by what Boris Buden referred to as the “sivisation” (CV-zation) of the self. Sivisation meant extending the citizen into the infrastructure, which in the context of a cosmopolitanized, global governmentality, displaced human life into algorithmic and logistical institutions. In the realm of art production, the CV becomes a narrative of human existence, highlighting the neat overlap of human life with artistic labor.
As discussed by both Ranjit Hoskote and Homi Bhabha, this imagined future of cosmopolitanism, wherein a person without a president is “unprecedented”, calls for a situation of common vulnerability that Bhabha spoke of as “a recognition of the humanity of others [that] calls out an equal share of responsibility in us.” Thus, we risk rendering the world not only into a playground of porous borders, but a massive game of every wo/man for her/himself. As an ongoing narrative of this cosmopolitan existence, the CV also casts a shadow by mobilizing the bare life of the “unprecedented” into a state of perpetual precarization.
For the perpetually precarious, this contemporary state of nature, how do we re-imagine the nation as mobilization and the human as mobility personified? Moreover, how can these ideas be transplanted to a place where economic collapse is the status quo, and class warfare is not an intellectual exercise, but a reality we have to face day in, day out? And what politics do we practice as artists and art educators when dysfunction and instability are themselves the foundations and not the features of the state?
Neoliberalism in the Philippines is not merely an agenda or a measure to fall back on at a time of austerity, but the only opening from which we are able to operate. Borders may one day be rendered fictional by an ethics of mobility, but this very porousness has already replicated or reflected a narrative of imprisonment. Thus, Neoliberalism is not an ideology to transplant along with the ghost of the former west, but a term in which we can recognize the sole guarantor of this artificial peace.
This is a transcript of the lecture I gave about the 4th Former West: Documents, Contellations, Prospects to members of the Department of Art Studies. Included are (what I can remember from) my answers during the open forum.
Benjamin dela Pena, “Embracing the Autocatalytic City”
Kirill Medvedev, “America: A Prophecy”
Lawrence Vale and Annemarie Gray, “The Displacement Decathlon”
Mark Greif, “Apocalypse Deferred”
Natasha Ginwala and Vivian Ziherl, “Sensing Grounds: Mangroves, Unauthentic Belonging, Extra-territoriality”
English Disco Lovers