Performing Protest, Volkmar Muehleis

Lecture at LUCA School of Arts

The title of this symposium is Performing Protest. Without a question mark. I would like to put one. The relation of performance and protest is not evident. In fact, it is a relation of arts and justice.
I would like to tell you a story, to lead us into the complexity of this relation. There was a girl, born in 1962 in Teheran. When she was three years old, her father went to prison. With her fourth birthday he wrote: “My dearest Parastou, today you are becoming four years old, and they even did not allow me to see you and to cover your beautiful face with my tears. You are still too young to understand, what kind of place a prison is. Maybe you are blaming me, that on such a special day I cannot be with you, to exert for your smile and pleasure. Yet I hope that you will understand me, if you are growing older and read this letter later on, and that you can be proud of me, who so often sat in prison for the freedom of all others. My daughter, love Iran, how your mother and I are loving  Iran. Your father, Geselghalee Prison, April 2, 1966.”
Two years later, her father came back. The parents were opposition leaders against the regime of the Persian Shah. Shortly before the Islamic Revolution in 1979 – Parastou was then sixteen years old –, a bomb exploded in their home, when her mother and younger brother were in there. Both survived. In 1984 Parastou began to study art, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Teheran. Her parents continued their political work. After the six years of her study there, she got the opportunity to follow mastercourses in Germany, at the Academy in Offenbach, nearby Frankfurt. The move to the West meant a cut in her artistic way of working. In 1997 she participated in exhibitions in Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna. Then, November 21, 1998, her parents were ritually assassinated in their home. A year later the Iranian Ministry of Information declared officially that the murderers were linked to the Ministry.

How to perform protest?
It was in 1999 that I first met Parastou Forouhar, the same year when she began to work on an installation about her parents called Documentation (picture 1). This work was some kind of a catalysator – it presented in an informative way all the juridical documents and journalistic articles about the assassination, together with a copy machine, next to copies that the visitors could copy and distribute. It was a documentation with a gesture, placed in exhibition spaces in Frankfurt, Offenbach and Graz. It was silent, just presenting the facts, inviting a gesture, a hand. It was not a performance. It was not an event, a happening. That what had happened, was an execution. How to react on an executor, linked to the authority itself, the government?
First of all, legally. But how to deal with a regime where the juridical situation – that murder is a crime – does not match with the policy, namely that this crime was committed by people officially linked to the Ministry of Information? You are fighting with a double-faced authority then, in the hypocratic, kafkaesque, cruel world of reality, ideology and executive power. In artistic terms, Parastou Forouhar reacted with a lot a different images and artworks on it (pictures 2-5). At the same time, the regime does not follow artistic rules. In 2008, ten years after the killing, she said to me: “Are we further away now from the moment the crime took place, just because time has passed? At this point, time is a very deceitful element, as no change has happened, nothing is cleared up. We are still standing like in the very first moment … How can you prevent, that the perception does not become banal during the repetition of something? Actually, nothing changed … there is no step forward. But how can you deal with this? How to repeat something without turning it into banality?”
So there is a legal fight, and there is an artistic work – as well related to it as well apart from each other. Further on, there is a fight for memory. In traditional terms, it is the right of those in grieve to remember the death of their dearest in front of their graves, every year on the date of their deaths. So since 1999 Parastou Forouhar goes every autumn to Teheran. Together with her family, she is protecting there the home of the parents of being erased, and due to the ritual the march to the cemetery every year is highly political, as a momentum for opposition leaders. In 2008 she was reflecting how she could  address the killing of her parents ten years later. She did not want to make an artwork again, like Documentation. I asked her why. She said: “Regarding all of my artistic works I have a distance. I am also creating a distance with regard to matter … But I could not have shown my parents through this distance.” Her installation Documentation was a gesture but did not speak with her own voice. Now she wanted to speak. Not in artistic terms, not as a novelist or poet. But as a witness. So she wrote a book with her memories and reflections concerning the 24 travels she did to Teheran since 1999. It illustrates her question, how to prevent a repetition from banality, and in itself the book is an answer to it.
This is not the end of the story. But let us come back to our question: what about performing protest? The example of Parastou Forouhar reminds us of some crucial aspects in the relation of arts and justice. First of all, they are not only different domains, they know different experiences, urge different longings, ask for different activities, in different places. The experience of injustice attacks  human integrity, our sense of being human. We are not simply human, we have a sense for it, a relation with ourselves, depending from our relations with others. It is a fragile balance. Because it depends on understanding, first it can be attacked by words and the meanings they are carrying. Words are not innocent or neutral, they are spoken by someone. Someone shaped words and concepts for an attack, others said these words, someone meant these words, other ones carry them out. Words are the ultimate way to hurt us in our integrity, that is one aspect where the idea of the performative is coming from, the idea of speech-acts, formulated in the 1960s by J. L. Austin and others. The wrong word can destroy our whole perception of a situation. And it is only with a verbal excuse that you can react properly on it. Because it is language that carries understanding with others and within ourselves. First you are human, then you might be an artist, and to be human is not the same as to act like an artist.   

So the experience of injustice is different from the one of art. But also the feelings. Injustice is violating you, mentally or even physically. You can flirt with violence in the arts. But as soon as you really hurt the visitors or participants, the law changes the register, from artistic freedom to the right of human integrity, also in physical terms. In the relation of human and artistic rights, this is right. And in artistic terms it is due to a notion of art, that knows a significant difference with aggressive violence. Art breaks rules, not human bodies. But furthermore art should not only open up something else – like also violence can do –, but open up by being open in itself, urging an open atmosphere, a welcome for opening. Parastou Forouhar reminded me of the common source of democratic politics and arts: liberty. And the philosopher Jacques Rancière described the democratic relation of arts and politics in a very proper way. Every relation has two sides, two perspectives on what might be the same relation. There is, like Rancière said, politics of the arts, and there is an art of politics. Common to both of them is public perception. The political question is: who can be perceived in public space and who not, to be represented? The struggle in public representation starts there, in the public perception. At the same time, the arts are designing and exhibiting images in public perception. They can play a role in the political struggle for public perception and representation. The art of politics begins with the public perception. And the politics of the arts are coming to terms, if images influence this struggle for public perception.  

Further on, the activities differ in the ethics of justice and the aesthetics of art. Another philosopher, Hannah Arendt, presented here still very defying ideas. She reminded us that activities know a certain interdependency, linked to different hierarchies. How are the activities of just daily work and consumption, of making something, of acting together and of contemplation related to each other? Again, the key question is: what allows us a life worth living, what allows human integrity? Because of its feudalistic economies, in ancient times people would have favoured free time to contemplate, to debate, to think, to reflect science, to enjoy artistic presentations. The vita contemplativa is a life free of daily work, free of producing, in aristocratic terms even free of acting with others, because an absolute barrier of power separated the noble from the ordinary. But this means, that the contemplation needs a counterpart, written books, models of science, artworks. Therefore, Hannah Arendt argued, the vita contemplativa highlighted the connection of reflecting on what is made, the activities of contemplation and production. In these ancient times working was for slaves, peasants and craftmen, while acting with others – as a democratic virtue – belonged to the very short democratic exception of the aristocratic rule in Antiquity.       

Now, how did this change in modern times, and what can we learn from it for the relation of making something, in terms of art, and acting with others, in terms of politics? Hannah Arendt put the attention on the dramatic change of this ancient hierarchy between free contemplation on the top and daily work at the bottom. It was Karl Marx who recognized the structure of this hierarchy in  economics. Staying true to economics, he did the same as what one of the theoretical founders of capitalism, Adam Smith, did, he turned the hierarchy upside down. Capitalism and socialism are both based on labour, daily work and consumption. Now the production is not linked to contemplation, but to labour. This means in terms of hierarchy, the vita activa is now dominated by utilitarism, the rule of the usefulness. What characterizes labour and daily work? Pure necessity, circulation, repetition, the joy of small pauzes, familiarity with natural processes. As physical beings we cannot get rid of the necessity to feed our body etc. We can only delegate the work to others, to work for our food, etc, this means to other people, as slaves or poor, or to techniques and technology. Delegation does not lead to liberation in this case. Technology stays under the same circumstances of necessity, circulation, repetition, small pauzes, natural processes. In labour and technology there is no freedom. What about liberation in the making, the production then? First, here we are only freeing us from ourselves in favour of objects and products. We are not working endlessly, but for a concrete goal. At the same time, the dominance of labour and technology forces the results of production into their own conditions of necessity, circulation, repetition, consumption. The practice of making something changes. While in ancient times the arts were much more related to contemplation, today they are heavily linked to labour and technology. The effect? Different notions of art. Daily circulation of art in event- and popculture today, art in service of aristocrats back then. For Hannah Arendt the whole problem is, that neither in ancient times nor today the acting with others stands really central, while this, according to her, would be the only activity that offers not a private liberation, but one in public, with and thanks to others, a democratic one. Again, how can the activity of performance be related to public protest?

One last and further remark, before I will end this reflection. The relation of performance and protest is one of performance and criticism. As a term, we speak of the performative in human sciences or of performances in the arts from the Sixties on. But we are not alone. The German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz has recently shown, that the term performance infiltrated psychology and economy as well, from the same period on. Psychology and economy are further more linked by the psychological misinterpretation of humans as economic ressources and the idea to manage these ressources, linked to the uprising of management in entreprises as such. Performance is not producing something, an object, performance is a happening, performing means something to happen. The dominance of necessity, circulation, repetition etc. in modern societies, due to the hierarchy of labour and technology, results in a paradoxical concept of time. Because of the dominance of short-term repetition, there is no far perspective, what future normally stands for. We have to look forward, but on our own shoes. This as a metaphor. Performance in economical terms means: I am circulating endlessly in short-terms, but right here and now where I am circulating endlessly something happens, wow! And to which extent differs this description from the artistic performance? Andreas Reckwitz would say: Performance is completely incorporated in capitalist society and therefore it very often misses critical potential. Performance needs someone else who recognizes it. It needs the viewer. But regarding the media this means, it is due to the economy of attention. Digital social networks today are theatres of attention. So Reckwitz advices us quite radically to separate activities from viewing, not to urge attention. The problem is: like this you are separating activities from public space. So the question is then: how can you regain public spaces as political territory, not as market places for performances as events? And what kind of artistic strategies can you use for this? 

To give just one example at the end: the Belgian artist Françoise Schein discovered in Rio de Janeiro to her surprise, like many others, that the official maps of the city do not include the many and large favelas, even if about 2 million people are living there. This means, about 2 million people do not have public streetnames, so they have no public address. They are allowed to vote in communal buildings, but they cannot be registrated via personal addresses. To this extent, they are anonymous in public space. In the communal administration there do exist correct, inofficial maps of the streets, even if the streets have no names. But it is not the political will up till now to publish these maps. In 1999 Françoise Schein did the following: she created an organisation to raise fundings, so that she could implimate these correct maps, even without streetnames, in hugh artistic public murals in all the favelas, accompanied by drawings and images of the habitants and extracts from the Declaration of Human Rights. Until now, with this ongoing participative project, she realized murals of these maps in more than nine favelas. As an artist, she did not want to add something exterior to the situation, but just help to correct it, as a catalyst, to regain not only public, but political space, via highly political images, even if they show just the nameless streets where people actually live, so that hopefully one day these people can become full citizens, recognizeable, at their signified own address.