The Politics of Small Gestures: Chances and Challenges for Contemporary Art
by Mika Hannula
It’s kind of a funny thing. We increasingly find ourselves in a peculiar, weird situation in which contemporary art seems to attract attention and interest for almost everything but its content. There is more and more talk, more and more buzz and hype about its market value, social hipness and entrepreneurial cleverness, not to forget the image it offers of flexible and oh-so-nomadic individual identity. What so very often goes missing are the content and the issues that contemporary art deals with and confronts. You know, themes like identity, sexuality, love, death, and, not to forget, gardening.
This book is an attempt to close the gap between the hype and the substance, between superficial interests and “goods internal to a practice”. (MacIntyre 1985, 219)
It is an effort to see and articulate certain works and actions of contemporary art as vehicles for thought. Not as products, not as spectacles, and not as authentic expressions of something called reality, but as, well, something different, something else. And yes, that something else is the politics of the small gesture.
I will argue for a version of contemporary art that is a part of our everyday experience. I want to see art as a partner in crime. A crime of passion, that is: participating in the processes of shaping and making the content of concepts and symbols. A web of processes that aims at generating sustainable conditions for knowledge production. It is a version of involvement in contemporary art that focuses on what it has to say to us about our lives. It is not high up there somewhere, and neither is it down there anywhere. It is near, within sight, so close it tickles our imaginations.
It is about meetings. Clashes and collisions. Careful caressings and wildly swaying wunderbaums.
The starting point for our journey is the necessity of positioning ourselves within the broader framework of contemporary art. My value-laden proposition is to see contemporary art as a field within contemporary society that wants to be and is part of the whole fabric of which a given context is made. It is not in the vanguard, it is not conservative, and it is not nostalgic. It is active, right here, right now. It consists of acts and gestures that are available, accessible, self- reflective and self-critical. They are also, not to forget, highly enjoyable as challenges to our ways of understanding who we are and where we are the way we are. When some of these notions, or more precisely, when enough of them are combined, they provide a way of stealing back the momentum for content-driven choices and acts within this field.
What I am talking about is the politics of small gestures. A small gesture is a political act that is either visible or embedded in works of art. It is these significant, distinct acts that I will be walking with and talking with throughout this book. They are gestures that are not the work of art in itself and are not the issue or theme of the work in question. What I am fascinated by are these embedded, significant gestures and choices that make the given work what it is; i.e. what makes it tick, and what turns it into something special. They are gestures that make the work become possible. Gestures as goods that are internal to a practice and which are found embedded in the work, in how it was made, communicated or, for example, mounted in an exhibition. They are acts through which these works become specific singularities in the process of being experienced by someone in a particular site and situation.
Small gestures are by no means happening solely in contemporary art and visual culture. They obviously have anecdotal cousins outside the sphere of contemporary art. Acts such as we all remember, or acts that are more marginal in their overall significance. Acts such as the German Chancellor Brandt kneeling at the Warsaw War Memorial in 1971, in the depths of the Cold War. An act like the speech made by the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim in 2004, when receiving the prestigious Wolf Award in the Israel parliament, the Knesset, by simply reading out the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, which guarantees all its citizens the same social and political rights, regardless of differences of race, religion and gender. Or the very specific, but not so well-known or appreciated act by the Finnish ice hockey player Esa Tikkanen, who used to drive the players on the opposing NHL team crazy by talking non-stop in a strange and unintelligible mix of Finnish, Swedish, English and made-up words. They even found a name for it: Tiki-talk. Or the act, and now we slip back into the domain of contemporary art, of the Norwegian painter A.K. Dolven in noticing that a great many of the people who bought her paintings – extremely subtle, delicate works painted with overlapping layers of grey on grey that you only can sense and perceive in direct contact, not via photographs – tend to place them in their bedrooms.
In a word, they are acts that make a difference. An act as a small gesture that generates enough room of its own for it to survive and to avoid falling into the safe havens provided by dichotomous juxtapositions of us and them, and inside and outside. It is not just a matter of numbers, and it is not just a matter of deciding a priori what is allowed and what is not – referring here to the current trend for returning to simple, minimal modes of expressions, often combined with a desire to stem the flood of annoying cross-medium experiments.
It is, thus, a small gesture that becomes something of its own – challenging, cherishable and enjoyable – in the constant tension between contemporary art as a fully commodified product and contemporary art as a conservative tool for high-brow cultural politics that seeks to juxtapose and separate good and bad, us and them. (For a recent example, see the Danish Cultural Canon project at www.kum.dk.) Instead of pre-set hierarchies, a small gesture stands for a plurality of means of expression, a plurality of competing life worlds, but at the same time it emphasizes that both of these are only possible if there is enough room for something called reasonable disagreement and loving conflict. In one significant way, I want to deny the often-used excuse that claims there are no alternatives. Instead, it is and it always will be about how we can both articulate and push those alternatives forwards – and back again.
How this is potentially possible within contemporary art and visual culture is something that causes a couple of nervous laughs, and even more cynical sneers. It is a task that purposely goes against the mainstream, and yet at the same a time a task that believes it can find enough elements in the practices of contemporary art and visual culture that might actually pull it all together. The four core elements are availability, accessibility, self-reflection and self-criticism.
With availability I want to address the notion that contemporary art is not taking place behind closed doors. It is brought into the public sphere, in fact, with a dedication to co-constructing those open spaces. Availability also indicates that it is a means of expression that quite strikingly emphasizes content over medium specificity, even if in each case the tools of the trade have to be mastered and known. Thus, contemporary art can – as we have all witnessed so many times – take almost any form, from things on a wall to walks in a park, and back to serving tea to the unemployed. It seems that ultimately contemporary art can be anything it wants to be or can imagine itself becoming. The point to remember is: Everything that is possible is not necessary meaningful in itself.
The kind of contemporary art that I am after and referring to is accessible because it does not predominantly refer to itself, to art history or art theory, but to our everyday experiences. It is everyday experiences, not as some glorified magical excursion into the depth of our souls, but as wary, tacky instances of how we perceive and comprehend who we are, where we are, who we are with, and how we relate to ourselves and our surroundings. But accessibility also has a demanding side. For anything to be meaningful and comprehensible, accessibility requires a site and a context. They have a history, a present tense and a future horizon that should be kept as open and flexible as possible. This is a process of shaping and making a context that happens simultaneously on the level of physical activity and discoursive action.
Contemporary art is self-reflective because it certainly does not claim to be innocent. It is perfectly aware that every act is a part of a continuous series of acts. Acts that do not happen in a vacuum or a neutral zone. They are acts that claim something, deny something else, and stand still, leaving room for something worthwhile to emerge. Self-reflection is about the awareness of being part of the game, part of the problem. Through self-reflective acts we recognize both how we constantly have an effect on the outside world and how that outside world has an effect on us.
Finally, the self-critical attitude spells out the necessity of understanding that whatever it is that we claim is meaningful and important today will not necessarily be so tomorrow. This also means that our claims are versions from within multiple seas and deserts of versions – often competing and conflicting with one another. Self-criticality underscores the necessity of being open to criticism from both inside and outside, and also the responsibility to participate in critical discourses.
With availability, accessibility, self-reflection and self-criticality we have a broad background for the main chances and challenges that contemporary art provides. What follow in the individual chapters here – with the helping hand of numerous examples of artistic practice – are reflections on the following themes: What is a small gesture?; How are context and locality to be defined?; What is required by committed participation?; and Why can the MORE LOGO idea be seen as an alternative way of shaping a critical position?
However, before getting into the main chapters, let me sketch an outline of the changes that have made the immediate presence of contemporary art possible. There is a certain ‘thisness’ characterized by its vulnerability that allows it to be perplexed and questioned, but not to give itself over to passive surrender and docility. This is a presence characterized by its ability to be open to challenges that question its own ways of being and perceiving. A certain particular kind of presence, a kind that creates the chances for a specific singularity, chances that rely on being exposed to influences and challenges, but facing them constructively and head on, not passively with ultimate resignation, or merely waiting and whining about them.
We are talking about a phenomenon that touches every part of our lives. Changes that are bound to have serious effects on almost every human activity, contemporary art included. In short, what is different today from, say, the mid- 1980’s is a set of alterations that come together in one word: communication. The world we live in is a different, not necessarily at all a better, place, because across the broad spectrum of possibilities the quantity of communication has both increased and become dramatically cheaper. By communication I am not only referring to sending oh-so-smart SMS’s around and around the globe, explaining in immaculate detail to people who don’t want to know it what you had to drink in the bar next door.
An increased volume of communication spells significantly cheaper travel, faster and more accessible internet infrastructure and networks, and a growth in international collaborations. Communication is the reality of fewer hurdles before and rules against the movement of ideas, capital, materials and people across the borders of nation states. We all know this, but precisely because it is so mundane a fact it has to be stressed. Things move and go around faster and cheaper. As ever, information is about power and power structures – and about how to use and abuse them. But information is not solely a captive of certain visible or invisible power players. It is as an opportunity, a raw material that is available around you much more than before. If you want or desire examples, please click yourself into the Wikipedia’s websites, or simply enjoy the sound bite from the head of what is perhaps the most successful recent reorganizer of people’s ways of travelling by plane: “Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, said he hoped to introduce gambling facilities on flights by 2007. The European low-cost airline thinks the move might generate so much revenue that it wouldn’t have to charge passengers for airfares.” (The Economist 5.11.2005)
The crucial point now is how to connect quantity with the question of quality. And here we get closer to the idea of politics as politicization, not as party politics or as politicking, but as something that questions and throws off balance the habits of our hearts and that makes us create and imagine alternatives. In the words of Michel Foucault, what we are talking about is the means available for eventualization. (2002, 200) We will return to the idea of eventualization in detail later on, in Chapter 5. It is about shaping the agenda instead of just standing to one side and watching it being shaped. And yes, it is asking, again and again, before you start running and acting, why do you do what you do? In other words: What is it that you want and desire to do?
It is very evident to most of us that there is obviously enough quantity, but not enough quality in all kinds of cultural production and intervention. The dilemma of quality is, of course, a truly honest dilemma without any clear-cut solutions. It is a process towards which one has to strive. A complex, demanding process that is guided by certain ideas and attitudes. The most important, and simultaneously the most difficult, is the problem of time. In other words, when striving for quality of participation within the public sphere, speed kills. And it really kills amazingly effectively. Speed kills in terms of not enough attention to detail, not enough time reserved for the activity itself, and not enough scrutiny of how it is to be presented and communicated further.
The fact that speed kills might be the first and most dangerous obstacle. And it has a couple of close cousins that must be acknowledged. Available, accessible, self-reflective and self-critical contemporary art opposes conservative tendencies, full blown commodification, excessive focusing on the financial aspects, the society of the spectacle, and instrumentalization of our life worlds. It is suspicious of nostalgia, mysticism, appropriation and pastiche. It strongly opposes nationalism, chauvinism, essentialism and racism.
Thus, it is rather clear what the version of contemporary art that we are pushing to the fore here is against. It is equally crystal clear that being against this or that, no matter how despised these thises and thats are, is not enough. It is not enough as a credible intellectual effort and it is not enough as an act of trying to make and maintain a chance for critical positioning and participation. What is required is a vision that guides these activities. A vision that is passionate, playful, but very serious. It is grounded and committed, situated and self-mocking. It is a means of being able to laugh at ourselves and with ourselves.
An act that has a certain impossibility inscribed into it, a certain productive failure. A certain specific and singular presence that does not strive for a predetermined goal. An act such as the following: an act as an act within the contemporary field of art, but not an act as a work of art. An act that was carried out a couple of years ago by a very young artist, and an act directed, with compliments, at a couple of internationally prominent curators. An act that is very strongly linked with its context and location as a relative periphery.
An act that consists of presenting valuable gifts to the visiting curators. Gifts that, on this occasion, came in the form of the artificial stones commonly used in window decorations. A gift the size of a remarkable chunk of stone, but as light as a handkerchief. A gift given to professional people making lots of professional visits on that same day. A gift that you could not put into a bag, and a gift that you could not just throw away unintentionally, because you could not hide it or push it into a trash can. A gift given with a warm-hearted wish and with a nasty twist. A gift from a north-country boy from a north-country land that is so proud of its pure, authentic nature. A gift that spelled out with such sarcastic accuracy the whole potential minefield of confusion between where we come from and how we are represented, by whom, for what – and why.