April 30, 2012

"Who's Afraid of Accumulation?" (Part 2)

Part 2 of Dr. Philip Ursprung's guest essay on Thomas Hirschhorn's Swiss-Swiss Democracy:

What was the exhibition about? Hirschhorn “besieged” – as he put it – the Cultural Center during 50 days. He was present during most of the exhibitions time. He transformed it into an environment of knowledge. The walls were decorated with the “democratic” colors pale red, pale blue and pale yellow. Some walls were covered with texts, newspaper clippings, and photographs. A miniature landscape with a toy train evoked the alpine landscape of Switzerland. There was a library containing books about democracy, a computer for free internet access, a photocopy machine for free use and a bar. Hirschhorn printed a daily newspaper, which he distributed for free. In an auditorium the philosopher Marcus Steinweg presented daily lectures. And in the theater space Gwenaël Morin staged his adaptation of William Tell every evening. The presence of the artist, the philosopher and the theater director during the entire exhibition was an explicit reference to Joseph Beuys’ legendary 100 day performance Organisation für Direkte Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung during Documenta 5, in 1972.

Whereas Beuys had criticized the authoritarian structure of the postwar political system in German, Hirschhorn with Swiss-Swiss Democracy intended to “go beyond democracy.” There was no catalogue, just an invitation card. Its cover shows a collage by Hirschhorn. We can see the photograph of an American soldier torturing an Iraqi prisoner in the Abu Ghraib prison, dated 2004. Under the photograph there are the emblems of the three founding cantons of Switzerland and the Swiss emblem, marked with 1291, date of the foundation of the Old Swiss Confederacy. “I love democracy” is handwritten on the torn out cardboard. Hirschhorn juxtaposed an image of the cruelty committed in the name of democracy in Iraq and the symbols of the Swiss democracy. Violence is related to “democracy”, and Switzerland was related to what happened in Abu Graib, yet there is another democracy that Hirschhorn loves. There are two Switzerlands – “Swiss-Swiss” – and two ideas of democracy. Hirschhorn added teardrops with ball-pen to the images. Like medieval pilgrim statues of Saint Marie who is represented crying – as if deploring the gap between an ideal world and the sinful reality – the collage seems to deplore the cynicism of today’s politics both in the United States and in Switzerland. On the reverse side of the invitation card Hirschhorn explains, manifesto-like, the intentions of the exhibition:
“'Swiss-Swiss Democracy' wants to go beyond democracy, it is not a provocation. Together with Marcus Steinweg, Gwanael Morin and his theater troop, I want to besiege the Centre Culturel Suisse during eight weeks. With this presence and with this daily production, I want to de-idealize democracy and destabilize the ease of the democratic conscience. I am against the utilization of Democracy, against the absurdity of today’s direct democracy in Switzerland, my country, and I am against the election of Christoph Blocher as member of the federal government.”

The Swiss Ambassador to France had warned the Department of Foreign Affairs about the exhibition after receiving the invitation card. And in fact, immediately after the opening the right wing press started a campaign against Hirschhorn for insulting his native Switzerland and Pro Helvetia for abuse of tax money. At the core of the campaign was the rumor that during the performance of
an actor had urinated on a poster depicting Blocher and vomited into a voting box. Of course, this never actually happened – some observers stated that the actor only made an allusion to these gestures, and some say that nothing at all happened --, but the media and then the politicians immediately reduced the entire exhibition to the idea that Hirschhorn was attacking the Swiss democracy. In short, the opinion dominated, that the artists was violating the innermost values of the Swiss identity and that Pro Helvetia had to be punished because it funded the provocation.

I do not want to enter into the details of this scandal. The left defended the exhibition, the right was against it, Pro Helvetia tried to find a balance, stating that this were the opinions of the artist, not the agency, etc., etc. Needless to say that hardly anyone actually saw the exhibition in Paris. However, even those who were against Blocher – as the majority of the art critics and the media of the political center and the left – and insisted on the artistic freedom, did not really defend Hirschhorn. The reaction of the Paris correspondent of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung is revealing for a problem that goes beyond the obvious subject matter of the exhibition and touches the very structure of Hirschhorn’s work. In the view of this critic, the “installation, a variation of a random sample of bricolage made out of masking tape and cardboard that is typical for Hirschhorn operates solely accumulative.” In his view, Hirschhorn had repeated the same principle as in earlier exhibitions such as the Bataille Monument. He quotes an earlier article from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung where the author had stated that one could compare Hirschhorn’s exhibitions of Hirschhorn with a “web-Page or an illustrated journal.” The same applied to Swiss-Swiss Democracy: “A brainless action, presented as denunciation, which develops on the surface, but not in depth.”

The critique of the accumulative nature of Hirschhorn’s work is typical for the reception up to today. I find it more important to analyze this critique than to reconstruct the mechanisms of the scandal. The fact that right-wing politicians don’t like Hirschhorn’s art is not surprising. However, it is striking that so many art critics could not – and still cannot -- tolerate the formal structure of Hirschhorn’s work and criticize it precisely for its repetition, superficiality, and accumulation. Could it be that this accumulative structure is the main reason for the harsh reaction both by the politicians and the critics? Are they afraid of this accumulative structure? What if Hirschhorn holds a mirror not only to the problem of the exploitation of democracy, but also to the realm of art? Could it be that not only capitalism but art itself is rooted – on a symbolical level -- in the logic of primitive accumulation? Why are so many artists eager to hide their sources; why is the relation between the labor invested into a work of art and the finished work of art so problematic? Hirschhorn, of course, is neither able nor interested in denying the commodity character of art – after all, his artworks are sought after by collectors. But structurally he addresses an issue that is usually disguised by his peers, namely the fact that every artist accumulates symbolic capital in his oeuvre and symbolically dispossesses other oeuvres. In laying his cards open – for instance in declaring his sources, in making obvious his methods, in constantly being present in his public exhibitions – he makes transparent the process of accumulation and simultaneously makes clear that most of his peers don’t show their cards. The structure of his oeuvre is in this respect comparable to the structure of open source software. Anybody can partake in the process of production; no one is a priori dispossessed, or excluded. In openly displaying and laying out the act of accumulation, Hirschhorn not only reveals the scandalous basis of capitalist and artistic expansion, but he also shares the means of production with others. The seemingly endless connection of images and texts, the “precarious” structure of a combination that seems open to new arrangements and alternative configurations, the invitation to everyone to join and follow the process of production symbolically opens up the realm of art to a broader public and inspires it to position themselves politically. And it also symbolically represents and actually performs what those in power – be it political, economic or symbolic power -- fear most, namely the loss of control.

IMAGE: Courtesy Le Temp.ch

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