Marina Gržinić: DECOLONIALITY OF TIME AND SPACE
When I was asked to talk about time and space as artistic media in the 1960s and 1970s, this meant to talk about performance art from that period. The performances from that period were those where time and space (mostly in relation to or with the help of video recordings) were used as a material for construction of Western subjectivity. But I am interested in thinking about performance through its reenactment, which we can see everywhere around us these days. A major trend nowadays by artists is to repeat their own performances from the past, or to reenact some other performances from the past as a core of their art works, or to engage in a performative repetition of paradigmatic terms. The latter is best illustrated with the reusing of the word “former” from former Eastern Europe (that describes a precise geopolitical condition) for an empty performative but fully ideological move of de-re-framing of what is functioning today powerfully as Western Europe. The latter wants us to think that is “reborn” presently as former Western Europe. But more about this in the final part of the text.
Nevertheless, at the center of all these cases, from art works to discourses, remains the logic of repetition, being as well the logic of the functioning of global capitalism. As already developed in my previous texts for Reartikulacija, Santiago López Petit claims in his book Global Mobilization: Brief Treatise for Attacking Reality (2009), that global capitalism is an event and not a process, as global capitalism is nothing else but the repetition of one single event, which is the unrestrainment of capital (in Spanish des(z)boc(ka)amiento), which can be more colloquially grasped as the “unrestraining” or “unleashing” of capital. Different than previous historical forms of capitalism, global capitalism requires two repetitions working at once. These two repetitions are the founding repetition and the de-foundational repetition. They both create a rather paradoxical time and space, an entanglement of time and space, a term also used by Achille Mbembe when writing about the postcolony – on Africa – in 2001, stating that power and capital are acquiring a new dimension, that of an entanglement. So what is this all about? On the one side, with the founding repetition, the system of hierarchy is being constantly reestablished, leading to a constant reconstruction of a center and of a periphery; and on the other side, the de-foundational repetition presents itself as the erosion of hierarchies, producing dispersion, multiplicity and multi-reality.
In the 1960s and 1970s, unlike today, we only had the repetition of the center and the periphery. This is why instead of the global world, we would talk about the cold world – whoops, Cold War – functioning with the dividing of the world into two. But today is about two repetitions, repeated at any moment and in any place, that entangle the world. This entanglement is not a plural space of the social, political and economical, as often stated. On the contrary, it is a situation that does not allow for any kind of division. Entanglement means owning, and not unifying. In the end, it is a situation of co-propriety of power and capital. This is why, when somebody from let’s say Ukraine or Moldavia (I cannot say Slovenia, as we are the model of servitude to global capitalism), talks about a center and periphery, the well-educated Westerners laugh about what they term “the old division,” as what they see (as the French would say) is “multiplicité, multi-réalité…” This was precisely the narration of Sarkozy that stated in his infamous Dakar speech, when visiting Senegal in 2007, “Oh, you Africans, you talk about colonialism, but it was not so horrible, and today you have all these opportunities…” As argued by Mbembe, it was unthinkable that this clown, the product of the horrendous West European, French colonialism, could come to Africa today and claim that Africans have to stop living in the past, and accept the “benefits” of colonialism.
But from time to time, amidst this multiplicity and multi-reality, the police come, as they did in Greece when the students protested, and, without any “openness” towards the multiplicity of the students’ multi-reality, imprisoned hundreds of them at the university campus, or in France, in the meantime, when hundreds of Roma families were sent back to the periphery of the European Union, to Romania, and look – we could see the foundational repetition working quite mercilessly, and even more being backed up by, yes, hundreds of the EU laws that from Brussels “democratically” advise the EU member states. In case of France the EU “protested,” but the point is that precisely out of the EU’s multiplicity of hegemonic directions, that support and reinforce the EU institutional racism, was France able to deport hundreds of Roma families to the, as it is termed “non- existent,” periphery of EU.
To understand the difference of the logic of the repetition in contemporary art and culture in the 1970s, and today, when in global capitalism the two repetitions repeat at once, I will make a detour to contemporary performative arts. The 1970s are important as they are seen as a line of division between two forms of labor, that of Fordism and that of post-Fordism, which are also two periods in capitalism that mark the radical change in the way in which the processes of exploitation are conducted and the possibilities of resistance conceived. Post-Fordist mobility and precarity presently redefine migration processes, hiding the internal logic of global capitalism that has a tendency to reestablish slavery as the mode of labour in order to make more profit (graspable in the recent months, with the EU imposing the lifelong working period until death, so to speak, and with the EU policy “proposing” pensions below the guaranteed minimum for life, etc.).
At this point, our main thesis is that in the performance art from the 1970s, which is presented as an antithesis to contemporary reenactments, that is, as something original, is, in fact, already at work a repetition, precisely the foundational one, the one that repeats the center and periphery, and the self-sufficiency of the Western Institution of Art. This is a provocative statement as the Western performance art from the 1970s was always seen as something “non-mediated” and therefore an “original,” being on the other side of today’s reenactments.
The first performance I want to analyze is from 2009, has a title “Movement.Privatized” and was conceived and realized by Ana Hoffner, Austrian performer of the new generation. It starts with the reenactment of a video performance by the American artist Bruce Nauman from 1967–1968 entitled “Walking in an exaggerated manner in the perimeters of a square.” (Presented in Reartikulacija, No. 9, 2009). Hoffner, while repeating it, differently from Nauman, explains it; the analysis she points out while reenacting Nauman’s work is her work. I will expose some of the points brought up by Hoffner. I quote: “Nauman’s movement, in the privacy of his studio, exploring the relationship between the body and the space, was recorded by a camera, just like mine” – Hoffner states in her performance – “in order to be accessible to the audience. His walk is exaggerated – it is excessive, elegant, and perhaps even existential. Like many artists from that period, Nauman shows art as a process, as an activity, as work. This work, however, is not just a representation of the so-called reality. Art is something that is going on. Bruce Nauman’s walk within the perimeters of the square can be art as well. The artist walks in his studio, like a master in his house, a citizen in his country.”
Nauman is, therefore, I would say, as pointed out by Hoffner’s interpretation, completely self-sufficient just as is the art system that supported him, there was no evidence of the world surrounding Nauman in his performance from the 1970s. Hoffner stated that the square has to be specifically emphasized as a symbol of abstraction and erasure in modernity. She explains that the square not only forms a part of an art work, but it also marks the mode of functioning of capitalism, and it is maintained through its continuous proclamation of itself as the centre that absorbs all peripheries. It functions, I would argue, repeating the center of Western capitalism as being completely self-sufficient to itself. The “Other” in this situation is a total periphery, a desert, a nonexistent entity.
The second reference comes from another reenactment by Ana Hoffner, performed in 2010, entitled “I’m Too Sad to Tell You, Bosnian Girl.” Hoffner’s performance begins with her crying and, as she states, from that moment on, she records her live performance. Hoffner’s crying repeats the performance by Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch video artist, who cried for the camera, too, and filmed his tears in 1971, entitling his work “I’m Too Sad to Tell You.” You can find, as with Nauman, the original online on YouTube. If you want to get the whole performance “I’m Too Sad to Tell You, Bosnian Girl” by Ana Hoffner, you will have to invite her and pay her!
Hoffner explains: “Bas Jan Ader is so sad he can’t even say why, there are no words that can describe his sadness, and therefore, there should be no further explanation. Instead, the emotions themselves hold the validity. Their form becomes the content of an artistic work. ‘I’m Too Sad to Tell You’ – the title suggests that the reason for Bas Jan Ader’s tears is secondary, he hammers at the intensity of emotions, at their justification as emotions, independent of the context of their emergence.”
If Jan Bas Ader was crying because of the bloody colonial past of the Netherlands, of its history of colonizing other territories, enslaving, mutilating, killing others – this we cannot know. However, Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee, in his essay entitled “Live and Let Die: Colonial Sovereignties and the Death Worlds of Necrocapitalism” (Reartikulacija, No. 3, 2008), explains this accurately. He talks about the Dutch East Indies Company practices of conquering markets, eliminating competition, securing cheap sources of raw material supply, building strategic alliances, etc.
But let’s be clear, it is not a secret that no one was /is interested in the reasons, since the crying is sufficient; the sorrow of the Western artist, this is enough, no matter why.
What I want to say is that, for Bas Jan Ader, the Other, the remainder, the rest of the Dutch social bond, in the 1970s, does not need any historical explanation. As commented by Hoffner, “Bas Jan Ader puts the observation of himself into the contents of an artistic work.” In his work, in the 1970s, the Other, the remainder, the former colonized, like the migrant today, is just an insignificant product, since the whole structure, the social link, the time and space, they all serve the re/production of the Western subject, which is what is put at its center. The remainder does not count. The remainder can thus also be read as the work that seems to be wasted and that nobody knows what to do with except for, maybe, as stated by Alenka Zupančič, when there is an attempt to regulate it through the science of ethics.
For us, on the contrary, the way in which the remainder, “the thing,” “the object,” the Other, will be articulated is of vital importance, as this articulation opens the question of the place of art in politics. This is why the title of Hoffner’s performance has the addendum “Bosnian girl” – it says: I’m too sad to tell you, Bosnian Girl! That gives us a precise point of the possible radical political rearticulation of time and space of contemporary Dutch society, and I will say of the new Europe as well, as includes in its reenactment the traumatic remainder of contemporary Europe, – the Srebrenica genocide in 1995, and the war in BiH.
If we return to Bas Jan Ader, what a waste of tears for “the loss” that is only for himself, as we have no clue why he was crying, though from this waste, the institution of art and the society makes a surplus enjoyment, a profit for itself. In Bas Jan Ader’s case, we have the knowledge that “does not know itself” to such an extent that it can actually be prescribed in the manual for contemporary reenactments. This is why Lacan, in his seminar from 1969-70, in the book XVII, On the other side of psychoanalysis, comes out with a rather surprising claim (as emphasized by Zupančič) “that what is being stolen from the slave (and appropriated by the master) is not the slave’s work, but his knowledge.”
That is why the content of the 1970s’ western performances is seen as an “original,” while what is in fact being repeated under this “originality” is the western art autonomy (not being capable to think of anything else than of its empty institutional autonomy as its key ideology), reproducing as well the “simple” logic of the Cold War division between the West, as the center, and everything else, as its non-existent periphery.
Therefore, the two major points are: in the performances by Western artists of the 1970s, contrary to common thinking that we have to do with an original art work, already a singular repetition is at stake, the foundational repetition that left the content so to speak “untouched,” as what is repeated is the Western art’s ideology of its “autonomy”; in the 2000s, the reenactment repeats again the foundational repetition of the center and of the periphery, but it is now hidden beneath its form. This form is today only an aesthetical style, to such an extent that is more and more prescribed in manuals for contemporary reenactments of past performances. What we get today is not just an upside (turned) down (the supposedly “original” performance content being reenacted as an empty stylish form), but what we get is the contemporary performative reenacted Western ideology (of autonomy of art) made again so to say “unconscious,” presented now in the form of a game or joke to which is given a life of its own.
How does this reenactment work in the context of the so-called relation in between East and West of Europe? Former Eastern Europe and present Western Europe are no longer in opposition today, but in relation of repetition. An excellent case of such a repetition is the project Former West that was started in The Netherlands as an International Research, Publishing and Exhibition Project, for the period 2009–2012, curated by Charles Esche, Maria Hlavajova and Kathrin Rhombergn (http://www.formerwest.org).
Former West is not at all a joke, although it could be seen as such, but is a perfect logic of repetition, as the key logic of the global capitalism of today. What the project does? It claims today a perverse demand of equal redistribution of “responsibility” and “positions” between the East and West of Europe. That is, it is answering as well specifically to the demand urgently imposed by Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall claiming that East Germany and West Germany are to become “equally” outdated. This is of course abundantly financially supported by new European cultural financial institutions.
In the case of Eastern Europe, the former means that the processes of evacuation, abstraction, expropriation imposed by the West are actually “over”; as it was proclaimed by Germany in 2009, celebrating its 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with the slogan: “Come, come in the country without borders” (and I will say without memory as well). But in the case of the “former” (as it should be at least written) Western Europe it implies a purely performative, empty, speculative gesture. While the East is excluded more and more from the materiality of its history, knowledge, memory, etc., the West is just performing it. It plays with a speculative format of itself; it wants us to think that its roots of power and capital are fictional! But this is not a strange move today, as it comes in a time when we talk about financialization; the word former in front of West presents a speculative matrix that gives the West the possibility to not be conscious of its own historical and present hegemonic power – and therefore not responsible for it. This speculative character of the former Western Europe resembles with perfect accuracy the speculative character of financial capitalism at the present, as well as its crisis. Be sure that in the future we can expect projects, symposia and statements in which the imperial colonizing forces, Britain, France, Netherlands, etc., will try to prove how they were also colonized in the past, and that what is happening to them in the present is the result of some strange forces having nothing to do with the internal logic of capitalism itself that has two drives only, making profit at any cost and privatization.
All these projects imply that it is possible today, as we are all in the same “merde,” or simply put crisis shit (however, what is forgotten is that this was produced by the First Capitalist World), to talk about “former” Western Europe in the same way as we talked about the former Eastern Europe in the last 20 years. Former West is presented as an unquestionable fact, not even as a thesis, as the former West does not imply not even quotation marks.
Former Eastern Europe is not an adjective, but a placeholder in the time that is accelerated to such a degree that the politics of memory presents itself as a memory of what was once political. What was once political is transformed through the perfomative repetition into pure a ideological knowledge, but with a proviso saying that therefore we should not be preoccupied with it, as it’s all just a pure process of performativity anyway. With the performative repetition, the processes of voiding, emptying, extracting, eschewing are going on. The former Western Europe makes imaginary what has already been identified as material in the former Eastern Europe, it transforms the materiality of past knowledge, of histories and strategies into imaginary levels. To put it differently, what was important at the level of content (the materiality of a certain history) is now made simply obsolete, ridiculous. Or, the now reborn former West, the old colonial power, wants to convince us that it is capable for a process of decolonization, but, as stated by Achille Mbembe, without self-decolonizing itself. Similarly to financialization this new decolonization is a “fictive decolonization.” As Mbembe explains “fictive” decolonization is decolonization without democratization, or, as what we see in the European Union “fictive” decolonization is decolonization without contesting its structural racism. The structures of exploitation, inequality and racism stay in such a way untouched in the EU, more accurately they are reinforced; the consequences are disastrous.
Marina Gržinić, philosopher and artist. She is researcher at the Institute of Philosophy at SRC of SASA in Ljubljana and professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.