Vectors of the Possible

During the short period between the opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the parliamentary elections held in East Germany in March 1990, a new constitution for East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or GDR) was drawn up in a series of round table meetings and discussions. Since the outcome of the elections favored parties recommending a swift reunification with West Germany, this work was soon obsolete. But what kind of state and which subjects would it have produced had it ever been effectuated? What future would it have brought about, being neither the Communist regime of the former East Germany, nor integration into its capitalist counterpart West Germany? These are speculations that arise in the excavation of the documents and recordings of these proceedings undertaken by the artist Elske Rosenfeld, herself a former subject of the defunct GDR. In her ongoing work, Our brief autumn of utopia (2010), Rosenfeld urges us to look at this lost history, not in order to resurrect or rewrite the past, but in order to imagine another, alternative future. At stake is what imagination of the future and past is proposed: how a work of art produces other imaginaries of the world and its institutions, rather than merely reiterating already existing ones, even in so-called critical terms (i.e. affirmative critique). It is a question of horizon.

Now perhaps we can say that the East German legislators were swept up by the forces of history—that they were, already then, out of time. But what could be meant by metaphors such as “the forces of history,” and how might we understand timing and timeliness in this context? In her installation In the Near Future (2009), Sharon Hayes tries to project the recent past into the present, to be out of time while acting in real time. On thirteen occasions, Hayes went out to a different location mainly in New York City, parading around with a sign from a protest movement of the past. How are such statements readable now, and what do they mean when they are no longer the expression of the people, as signified not by the crowd of demonstrators, but by a lone figure holding a sign, putting her body on the line? It is, then, not only history and the history of struggles that are being put on display, but also our actuality; the gesture asks which struggles, and not least forms of signification, are adequate today. At stake is a questioning of the very format of the demonstration, historically and in the present, as well as the singular body taking part in it, forming it, and the histories and actualities of that body.

Artists Runo Lagomarsino and Johan Tirén also take up the demonstration in their contribution to the exhibition, a single photograph documenting an event entitled Waiting for the Demonstration at the Wrong Time (2003/2007). The image is a portrait of the two artists, of the “artist-as-protester.” Lagomarsino and Tirén are equally out of time, not too late, but… too early in fact. We see them standing alone on a country road at the site of a planned gathering protesting a European Union summit, some wintertime morning, a couple of hours prior to the manifestation. Again, this work reminds us of the timeliness of action and presence, of being at the right place but at the wrong time; as such it recalls the problem of any revolution or revolutionary leader: when is it the right time? How soon is now? When is that time imminent on the horizon? And it is furthermore a comment on the artists’ locality—Scandinavia—and its societies’ presumably consensual relationship to political deliberation, an image that has, since the troubles of Gothenburg in 2001 and Copenhagen in 2009, long since been shattered. Here violent events are present through their absence.

Also dealing with the aesthetics of protest, but employing a large billboard rather than a small photograph, artist group Freee likewise stages themselves in a particular situation, in a political space as politicized subjects circumscribed by that space. The artists are shown in the middle of a huge quarry that completely engulfs them, eliminating perspective, skyline, and any sense of localizable space. The monumental scale of the environment belies the size of Freee’s own five-meter-long banner depicting the statement Protest Drives History (2008). Situated in a barren landscape with no visible perspective, one can ask what history is possible without a horizon, and thus a sense of movement backwards or forwards. On the other hand, the horizontal line of the composition of the image, and thus the one presented to us, can be said to be that of the banner itself, pointing not only to its potential meaninglessness and the abandonment of its enunciative powers, but also its potentiality and futurity. By positing the horizon as an image and not just a metaphor, it implies a specific aesthetics—not only an aesthetics of politics and political movements, but also a politics of the aesthetic.

An entirely different image and metaphor is the foundation of the video Universal Embassy (2004), in which artist Hito Steyerl documents the history of this activist project, established by artists in the former headquarters of the Somali diplomatic mission in Brussels. Hosting and assisting sanspapiersindividuals who are fighting for legalization or official recognition, the embassy not only attempted to explore the possibilities of the narrow juridical space it managed to identify, but also worked on making possible and nurturing the basic, everyday social bonds that homelessness, destitution, illegality, and clandestine living tend to make precarious and fragmentary. The embassy is a deliberate contradiction in terms, and of terms: a Universal Embassy. It is an impossible—but actual— embassy that represents those who are not represented, and gives space to those without a state. A utopian question is inherent in the undertaking: can we imagine a world without borders, without the state and its monopoly on granting rights? Can we imagine universality as equality?

Sound art collective Ultra-red’s installation Vogue’ology (2010) comes out of a current investigation into sound and spatializes an analysis of political terms within the New York gender-queer House/Ballroom community. Vogue’ologyanticipates the articulation of such an analysis by exhibiting a series of text pieces produced in collaboration between Ultra-red and members of the scene. These text pieces, or protocols, guide communal reflection and analysis of sound recordings, testimonies, and historical objects, forming a collective articulation of political terms that can be employed to organize the massive archive of ballroom dresses, trophies, photographs, video, and ephemera, and places them within a horizon of visibility and readabilty. The collective archiving project is an attempt at a different way of conceptualizing political practice beyond the critique and production of political representations as we know them. For Ultra-red, sound and the question “what did you hear?,” amplify another mode of aesthetic operation within political struggle—the political organization of listening.

From the instances of utopia and pleasure invoked by the works of Steyerl and Ultra-red, we move to a rather dystopian take on our actuality in the form of artist collective chto delat/ What is to be done?’s film The Tower: A Songspiel (2010). It is based on actual documents and speeches from current Russian political culture, and on an analysis of the conflict that has developed around the planned Okhta Center development in St. Petersburg, where the Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom intends to house the headquarters of its locallybased subsidiaries in a 403-meter-high skyscraper. This has provoked one of the fiercest confrontations between the authorities and society in recent Russian political history. Presented as a Brechtian play, with the people as the chorus, and decision-makers and intellectuals as soloists, _The Tower _offers a vision of the crushing verticality of power in contemporary Russia. The horizon is presented as purely vertical, with all decisions and debates being imposed from the top down, by the few toward the many.

If the Gazprom tower is indeed a monument to the power of capital, it can be compared to that monumental symbol of American hegemony that is Mount Rushmore. Consisting of a digital photograph and a timeline, Matthew Buckingham’s The Six Grandfathers, Paha Sapa, in the Year 502,002 C.E. (2002) reconsiders Mount Rushmore as a cultural, political, and social symbol by imagining its inevitable disintegration. Having worked with geologists, Buckingham estimates that it will take approximately 500,000 years for the portraits of the four U.S. presidents carved on Mount Rushmore to erode and become unrecognizable. With its disappearance, the paradox of Rushmore’s meaning as a declared “shrine to democracy” intensifies: it is carved on land stolen from the Native American Sioux tribe and made by an artist who was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan. The work attempts to imagine what the mountain will look like in the future, as its power to represent fades alongside the histories it tries to suppress.

If every age is grounded by a specific horizon—a particular view of the world—how must such a horizon be placed in order to be effective as well as affective: as nearby or faraway, unattainable? As real, or as wholly imaginary? The horizon is not only reflected in terms of the image, of visualization, but also in terms of vicinity and velocity: are we close by or a long way away? Is it receding or emerging? And is it approaching fast or coming at us like a slow train? The works in this exhibition establish certain horizons—proposals of what can be imagined and what cannot. They can thus be seen as vectors, reckoning possibility and impossibility in (un)equal measures, but always detecting and indicating ways of seeing, and thus of being, in the world. The works are performing ground research into horizontality, but in terms of image production and conceptualization. Vectors of the Possible thus suggests what can be termed an ontology of the horizon, of its placement and function within political imaginaries.

A text written by Simon Sheikh, the curator of the group exhibition, Vectors of the Possible, on view at BAK from 12 September till 28 November 2010. For more information regarding the exhibition, please see here.