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Art versus empire

Robert Hassan

Robert Hassan is a Research Fellow in Media and Communications at the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University, Melbourne. His most recent books are The Chronoscopic Society (Lang, New York, 2003), and Media, Culture and Politics in the Network Society (OUP, Buckinghamshire, 2004).

The recent Empires, Ruins + Networks conference at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image came as a timely, if tentative intervention in the growing ‘crises’ of art and politics in these postmodern times. One surmises that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s controversial book Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000) provided the inspiration for part of the conference title and the theoretical impetus behind the many issues it explored.

The judgment of Empire bodes ill for the economy, for society, for politics and for culture. The authors argue that the interaction between neoliberal capitalism and the information technology revolution has produced a powerful system-logic. Since at least the mid-1970s, they argue, the whole of society has become connected, interdependent, and oriented towards the imperatives of capital. ‘Empire’ is thus the empire of capital; the interrelation of ubiquitous computing and omnipresent commodification that has seeped into every nook and cranny of contemporary life. The ‘ruins’ are the wreckage of a civil society where institutionalised politics are wholly ineffectual. And ‘networks’ are the global digital logic that makes this baleful prospect realisable.

A premise of the conference is that the theory and practice of art as a language for critique and as a dimension of a politics for change lies somewhere buried and lifeless beneath the rubble of civil society. Under the regime of neoliberal Empire, art that is not explicitly conceived as a commodity is nonetheless instantly commodifiable. Critique is either non-existent as part of the process of production or it is muted or distorted by the artifact’s exchange value. Coupled with the ineffectuality of mainstream politics, the crisis of art means that principle ways of understanding and changing the world have been repressed and silenced. Reading our children’s books and/or marvelling at, say, the ‘authenticity’ of a Tracey Emin is as good as it is going to get in terms of setting the world to rights or gaining insight into our contemporary condition. Mark Latham rapidly drops one solution for another and the obsession with the dregs of Emin’s life disconnects (and silences) the public politics of feminism from the highly marketable public persona of the artist.

Speakers at the conference, however, lifted the lid on another, presently subterranean logic that is emerging as the dialectical antithesis of neoliberal Empire. Across the world through many differing modes of articulation, networks, art and politics are coalescing in the production of alternative spaces for other ways of seeing and being. Digital technologies are central to this process. Artist/activists are increasingly turning to new media to connect and to collaborate as much as to produce the video or extend more traditional forms of visual art. Moreover, networking through the internet has made many projects observable to others who may want to connect with the existing connections. Through such networks art and politics simultaneously exist both locally and globally.

Highlights of the conference were many, but space allows for the mention of only a few. Keynote speaker Okwui Enwezor argued that the emergence of more collective work in art signals moments of crisis in society and a political reaction to these crises. He cited the political/artistic works produced by the Sarai collective based in New Delhi ( Here theorists and artists from across the planet contribute to discussion lists, develop visual art projects and produce politically-oriented readers in new media theory and practice that are freely downloadable. Sarai, its website reads, is interpreted as “a very public space, where different intellectual, creative and activist energies can intersect to give rise to an imaginative reconstitution of urban public culture, new/old media practice, research and critical cultural intervention.” As Greek curator Marina Fokidis showed, Sarai has a sort of European-based equivalent in Stalker (2004) a Situationist-inspired Italian architectural collective.

The neoliberal empire takes ‘flexibility’ as its lodestar and ‘information and communication technologies’ (ICTs) as the solution to all problems. Ross Gibson, in his paper “Agility and Attunement” showed how, in a dialectical turn, these processes are being adopted and adapted to produce outcomes that work against the grain of the rigid instrumentalism of the neoliberal way. ‘Flexibility’ in the hands of ICT practitioners with a critical perspective on the dominant order, Gibson argued, may be a highly effective (and potentially deeply subversive) form that could be applied to developing new forms of politics. In this, Gibson echoes Geert Lovink and his theory and practice of “tactical media.”

Nikos Papastergiadis, co-organiser of the conference, closed the 2 day meeting with a reminder that art and politics intertwine. Their immanent power emerges as a “critical vector”, he argued, only when ideas “exist not only in the content of the work, but also in the way it joins up with the experience and ideas of other people.” In other words, in a world characterised by the “banalisation of information”, artists and activists need to make their own collaborations, develop their own matrixes of meaning and articulate these as critical and/or political interventions.

The difficulties facing the renewal of civil society through revivified forms of politics and art are considerable. Conference delegates came only with questions and pointed to scattered chinks of light emerging from the darkness of the ruins. In this sense the conference, one hopes, can be a catalyst for further explorations. What is clear is that collaborative and collective artistic practice will become increasingly political and radical as the crises of neoliberal postmodernity deepen. The key task is to develop ways to connect these emergent political and aesthetic languages with the everyday concerns of people before they become commodified and/or safely marginalised. What is also clear is that in a world reduced by ‘time-space compression’ and bounded by a single circuit of capital, the response must be both local and global, utilising what Ulrich Beck has termed global “networks of diversity.” These will be possible only though critical, aesthetic, political and tactical use of ICTs to create new spaces of meaning and resistance that form the basis of a new politics. The Empires, Ruins + Networks conference showed that this has already begun.

Empires, Ruins + Networks, ACMI, Melbourne, April 2-4

Robert Hassan is a Research Fellow in Media and Communications at the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University, Melbourne. His most recent books are The Chronoscopic Society (Lang, New York, 2003), and Media, Culture and Politics in the Network Society (OUP, Buckinghamshire, 2004).

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 39

© Robert Hassan; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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