IS ‘UNCOMFORTABLE KNOWLEDGE’ THE BASIC PRINCIPLE OF POLITICAL ART?
Is art a suitable medium for Political change? Through generations philosophers and artists discussed and analysed the relationship between art and politics without arriving at any concrete conclusions. The increasing rise and recent phenomenon of art activism has sparked discussions relevant to the question if art has the ability to function as an arena and medium for political protest and social activism. Art activism tries to change existing conditions, and not just criticise them, by merging together art and social action. This merger of the two is possible in the 21st century due to the constant abolishment of quality and taste from the different artistic avant-garde movements that allow for the incursion of art within the social dimension. Contemporary art activism tries to make art useful since the critique about arts usefulness has caused many artists of the past to abandon art all together and follow a more ‘useful path’. Art activism tries to relate art and utility as a way of improving society. In other words, is becoming more about usefulness and sometimes this can be controversial in relation to arts sovereignty. This is not a new position since the phenomenon of Russian avant-garde, in a similar way, wanted to use art in order to change the world. Vladimir Tatlin specifically with his piece ‘Monument to the third International’ believed that instead of art being separate from everyday life, it should be incorporated into every aspect of human existence in a constructive and universal way. However, it can be argued that this comparison is misleading since the artists of the Russian avant-gardes in the 1920s were supported by the Soviet authorities. Therefore, their belief to change the world through artistic means was merely for the reason that they had the support from the authorities. Art activism, on the contrary, has no reason to believe in external political support since it acts on its own. From its beginning, art was inseparable from society as philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle argued that the act of artistic creation, which they called ‘mimesis’, was not separate from the real world since art represented different notions within society. Today we live in a world of self-exhibitionism due to the increased use of the social media. Politics are constantly using the means of aesthetics in order to present their ideologies, concerns, propagandas or statements to the people through the use of media. However, concerningly, questions of contemporary ethics remain less discussed.
The relationship between politics and aesthetics has been explored several times by various philosophers throughout the years and most recently by Jacques Ranciere in his theory on ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’. Aesthetics means what comes from sensible experience, in other words, the experience of a common world. The aesthetic problem is not about beauty and is not necessarily connected with art, it is about the experience of a common world and who is able to share this experience. Art is concerned with human experience and implements the human capacity, and this is why there is a strong connection between aesthetics, politics and art. As Ranciere states in a conversation with Mark Foster Gage, ‘Aesthetic is political before being artistic’ (Yale University, 2016) and this is because art, since its beginnings, was mainly concerned and influenced by society and the world. In the case of political art, it takes an existing aesthetic–which is that of politics- and implements it and reinterprets it into an artwork. In this way aesthetic is political before being artistic. Some artists such as Tania Bruguera believes that:
Political art is the one transcending the field of art, entering the daily nature of people, an art that makes them think. Political art has doubts, not certainties it has intentions, not programs; it shares with those who find it, not imposes on them; Political art is Uncomfortable knowledge. (Bruguera, T. 2010).
Political art is a creative output to be carefully considered and not a confirmation of what someone already knows. It encourages us to constantly reframe our values, to consider what we think to be right or wrong and also helps us to understand the motivations of people other than ourselves. It is this ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ that sticks with us when we are not in front of the art, and I think this is the basic principle of political art. However, is art suitable enough to be the right medium to address political or social problems? If that is the case, what approach should art follow when referencing to such political issues? This thesis sets out to explain and attempts to answer the above concerns through an analysis of two main case studies, namely Forensic Architecture and the artwork named ‘The Green Line’ by Francis Alys.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTURAL CUSTOMS AND THEIR INFLUENCE IN ARTMAKING
‘A custom is defined as a cultural idea that describes a regular, patterned behaviour that is considered characteristic of life in a social system’ (Crossman, A. 2019). In other words, customs can be simply described as a common way of doing things. People that come from the same country or share the same or similar culture usually have the same customs. Customs are inherited from one generation to the next usually through socialization, and over time they become crucial and significant of social life. When people emigrate from their country of origin their traditions, values and their customs are aspects that they keep hold of since these are the elements that formulate their identity. An emigrant is a person that leaves their own country in order to permanently settle in another. Its only when they arrive in that particular destination that they call themselves immigrants. As people migrate a cultural diversity can be achieved from the constant exchange of different customs. Immigrants have to adapt in their new environments and learn the different customs that may be present. Not only that, they have to maintain the customs and values from their homeland. A question can be raised here on whether those customs that people bring get lost or prevail? Many of the artists that I will reference in this dissertation have something in common, they have experienced migration. They all respect the customs and the cultural exchanges they have struggled with and they all decide to highlight them in a very creative and different way.
As an artist I mainly get inspiration from my own personal experiences. Having grown up in Cyprus, moving to London two years ago it became very clear that my cultural heritage, the customs and the values that I understood being meaningful to me, have formed my identity. London, as a multicultural environment, offers a very different understanding of those customs. Being away from what up to now I considered ‘home’, I found necessary to include certain aspects of my culture and experiences to my art practise as a way of reconnecting with my roots and heritage. Moreover, the army, being an eye-opening experience for me, has matured my understandings of the gravity of living in the divided island of Cyprus. Exposed to the reality of the impact of war, I see the necessity of giving depth and value to my pieces. In present times, in a globalised society, these distinctions of customs and values of heritage have never been more contested and more re-evaluated, and this is because of the major and constant increase of migration. According to the World Migration Report in 2020 (IOM, 2020), there was an increase of approximately 122 million in the estimated number of international immigrants. Migration is becoming a global point of reference, however, the narratives and the debates around it today are very much different compared to 15 or 20 years ago.
Francis Alÿs was born in Belgium in 1959. In 1986 he decided to move to Mexico, leaving Europe behind, as part of his mandatory military service. Alÿs’ then artistic practise would focus on Mexico leaving behind his architectural career. In a similar way, Eyal Weizman was born in Haifa, Israel in 1970 and he also migrated to London in order to pursue his architectural career. Both of those artists’-exiles-are not compared to forced-migrations since both migrated due to personal reasons and not political or social pressures. However, both of them have had to adapt and negotiate between the different cultures as in the case of any immigrant. Most of the discussions around artists such as Francis Alÿs and Eyal Weizman are mainly surrounded by land politics and are focused on local geographic coordinates.
Forensic architecture is an interdisciplinary research group consisting of a team of architects, scientists, artists, lawyers and filmmakers that explore human right violations and state crimes by using the build environment as a starting point. Forensic architecture is a research agency. The team is retained from charities and human rights group to investigate alleged crimes and abuses. ‘We are pathologists of Buildings’ (Tate, 2018, 0:46) meaning, their practise addresses an analysis of buildings through the title ‘Forensic Architecture’ (Figure 1). Their work has to do with the intersection of architecture and violence as they use the tools of their trade to restructure their surroundings and redefine their profession. They consider themselves investigators as they figure out what has happened within different instances and are mainly help Communities who have been affected by those incidences. The group was found and is led by the architect Eyal Weizman, originally from Israel, a country with ongoing conflict and unsettlement. Being exposed to the impact of war from a young age, it felt mandatory for him to construct a team that would deal with such incidences of state violence and human right violations. Justice is always their main goal.
One of the main events that stigmatised, not only Weizman, but most of young left-wing Israeli was the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. While he was still a student, he was a volunteer in the planning office of The Palestinian Liberation Organization. It can be clearly seen that Weizman was always involved within the sphere of politics and the main reason for that was his origin and his surrounding influences. After coming across the outdated Jordanian maps that the Palestinian planners were relying on instead of modern cartography, Weizman, decided to collect and transfer information from Israeli open sources to them. He could easily do that since he had access to the Israeli sources as an Israeli citizen. That was when he started thinking of maps as a way of representation of the oppressed and as a way to reveal the brutal nature of the occupation. His skills and tools as an architect helped him to link architecture with political convictions in order to look at human right violations from the Israeli government against the oppressed Palestinian communities. Weizman’s dramatic style often gives Forensic Architecture a more emotional impact as it emanates from his personal experiences and a deeper part of who he is.
After the constant abolishment of all the criteria of taste and quality by various avant-gardes, in today’s world of contemporary art, almost anything can be declared as art. Since the boundaries of art have been constantly blurring, we find art practices, on the one end of the spectrum, aiming-and-reaching-their- metaphysical-heights and on the other we find research agencies or activist groups such as Forensic Architecture. This is the case of Activist Art. Activist art, tries to change existing conditions within the society rather than just criticise and question existing political and social problems – characteristic of Critical art. Nevertheless, Forensic Architecture was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2018. Therefore, if we consider Forensic Architecture as art does that mean that art can bring social and political change, and if so, does that put their sensitive investigative work at risk by transforming it into a spectacle? The issues arising form that question has to do mainly with the idea of ‘aestheticization’ and ‘spectacularity’ both discussed by Guy Debord in his writings. ‘Art cannot be used as a medium of a genuine political protest—because the use of art for political action necessarily aestheticizes this action, turns this action into a spectacle and, thus, neutralizes the practical effect of this action.’ (Groys, B. 2014). This means that the attention is diverted away from the actual political issue hence it can be argued that the importance of the issue is diminished. Having said that, Forensic Architecture, by entering the sphere of the artworld, may lose its value as it can weaken their investigations and the importance of the data that they present in a court. As Eyel Weizman stated ‘[they] accused us of being ‘artists’ of being special effects, of fabricating the evidence’ (Harper, P. 2018).
While forensic architecture creates curious exhibitions that involve the sort of spectacle of a crime, there is a strong argument for the entertainment, or the casual spectator being questioned as misunderstanding the art for the crime. During the recent exhibition that Forensic Architecture had at the ICA, in 2018, various short films, presenting the evidence that they have collected regarding different cases, were presented as if they would to a jury (Figure 2). One of the short films present the evidence from an investigation of the murder of two young boys, by Israeli forces, during a protest in the town of Beitunia in May 2014 (Figure 3,4). Both of their deaths were recorded on security footage of two nearby shops. The footage was used by forensic architecture as part of their investigation that eventually led to the arrest of one of the policemen in November of the same year. The short film presented at the ICA exhibition shows that footage of the murder on a repeat loop, zoomed in and out and cross referenced with still photographs and testimonies from people present during the shooting. What Forensic Architecture does is very valued. It can be clearly seen how vigilant the team are about the different cases they undertake, and even though that particular investigation resulted in charges being brought to Israeli police, some questions could be raised when presenting such vivid footage in a gallery space. ‘It is hard to see what Forensic Architecture’s video will add to the situation other than a potentially traumatic spectacle’ (Harper, P. 2018).
There is always a clash when trying to combine art and social action in art activism. The main reason for that is because when art is used for political action that particular situation is aestheticized and is eventually turned into a spectacle, something to be observed by passive viewers, therefore the practical effect of that action is neutralized. In further support of that idea is a recent example of an artwork in the Venice Biennale in 2019, Christoph Buchel’s Barca Nostra (Figure 4). The Swiss Artist decided to present the wreck of the fishing boat that sank with more than 1,100 migrants in 2015 near the Italian island of Lampedusa. Almost 800 migrants lost their lives, with the majority of them being trapped in the hold of the boat. The wreck was positioned right next to a cafe in the Arsenale with viewers giving the slightest attention while passing by. In a similar way as Forensic Architecture does, ‘the commemoration of such tragedies into a spectacle risks diminishing – if not exploiting – the suffering associated with the [situation and in that case with the] migrant crisis. (Tondo, L. 2019). Lorenzo Tondo also states that:
‘displaying that wreck in such a purely artistic context – far from the institutions that were responsible for the tragedy or the communities that witness this kind of horror year in, year out – risks losing any sense of political denunciation, transforming it into a piece in which provocation prevails over the goal of sensitising the viewer’s mind. (Tondo, L. 2019).
The reason why the work of Forensic Architecture has social impact is because it functions outside of the artworld. The change occurs before they present their data analysed and their investigations in a gallery space as part of an exhibition. The use of art venues for the presentation of their data and as a means for getting their message out to the world ‘might seem a bit dilettante, in relation to the hard facts of human rights disputes and war crimes cases’ (Moore, R. 2018). An argument that can be discussed in relation to that is how significant is this for the artworld not to recognise practices that move beyond the gallery space? Some may argue that the exhibition is another place that could raise questions to the public, like how does architecture and art relate to forensic architecture? And the idea that such questions can be discussed in an exhibition space more than they can be discussed in a court. This further supports the argument made earlier about how the attention is diverted away from a situation once is aestheticized and turned into a spectacle. The aim of Forensic Architecture is not to discuss questions like how the art and architecture relates to the group but in bringing change, something that is not going to happen during an exhibition but during the presentation of the evidence collected in a court.
An artwork gives an inside on the mind that created it, the reasons or the journey behind each artwork. The creative process opens up new possibilities not only for the observer or the viewer but also for the artist himself. An artist working practise emanates from that individuals bodily being and their responses to different situations, therefore, the work produced can be conceived as the intentionality of the artist. Here the idea of ‘Poiesis’ and ‘poiein, “to produce” in the sense of bringing into being’ (Agamben, G. 1999) is relevant. The central idea of poiesis ‘Is the experience of pro-duction into presence, the fact that something passed from nonbeing into being’ (Agamben, G. 1999). In other words, artists bring something new that was not existing before into presence and that is different to each and every one of them since they all have different influences and approaches to their surroundings. The reason behind political art is mainly personal experience and memory. Artists such as Doris Salcedo wants to create political art because they feel the need to, and it feels mandatory for them to include such elements in their practise. They do not necessarily create political artworks to effect change since art may not be suitable enough for such role. Doris Salcedo is a Colombian born, visual artist and sculptor whose work is mainly influenced by her experiences in Colombia. Her work is mainly composed of everyday life materials such as chairs and tables that are arranged in different installations or manipulated with a vast ray of materials such as concrete and glass (Figure 6). Salcedo comes from a country that is under constant war, she was always exposed to conflict; always seeing the world from the perspective of the defeated people and not from the perspective of the triumph. Her public sculptures probe both the lone human soul and our shared societal values, offering not answers but a space for reflection and critical engagement. The themes and subjects related with her work have to do with historical incidences of trauma, violence and racism that makes her work undoubtedly political. She uses gallery spaces or unusual locations to create art and environments that are politically and historically charged. As she mentions in an interview:
‘I don’t think art can solve problems, I’m not doing anything for these families, I’m not doing anything for these victims and that’s a reality we have to face when we talk about this kind of art that is trying to address the political issues, art does not have the ability to redeem.’ (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2011, 0:38).
The criticisms that can rise when, in the case of Forensic Architecture, presenting criminal evidence in a gallery space with vivid and brutal documentation can be resolved when artists choose to follow a more poetic approach to art making. Unlike Forensic Architecture, Doris Salcedo approaches such controversial events by producing poetic works of art. In order to dignify a human life, she decides to come back to beaty because she believes, that is where we find dignity.
Forensic architecture is an activist group dealing with real life situations. The main goal is not to produce an exhibition or art, but to re-examine, analyse and solve alleged crimes. Since Forensic Architecture functions within the social the morality of its practise may be questioned during an exhibition. As a stated above the presentation of criminal evidence for the mere entertainment of spectators is questionable and some may argue that is immoral. Even though what Forensic Architecture does is very valued and very carefully considered it might not be enough to deal with the poetry of changing a public opinion. Is it enough to be Forensic when dealing with Justice and truth?
POIESIS AND ART
Up until now, politics and political negotiations had no practical actions in our life due to their constant failure as they have offered no way out of conflict. There are always arguments when we talk about the relationship of art and politics due to the difference of their nature. Instead of trying to fuse the two why don’t we move to a more poetic way of thinking or a softer approach to politics when it comes to artmaking. Art was used and still functions as way for the depiction of historic events. There is always a tension when talking about the relationship of art and politics on whether art can bring social change or even if the artistic means used for the reflection of a political statement are morally right. The answer to those problems could be a more poetic approach to politics when it comes to art. It is not necessarily for art to become social activism in order to intervene within the sphere of politics because art is not the appropriate medium for that. When artists decide to enter and operate withing the socially ameliorative context they are immediately judged in regard to the morality and the ethical implications of their work. Moreover, the affectability of the artwork is also judged since artists such as Suzanne Lacy that wants to ‘literally move people around’ (Lippard, L. 2010) with their work have taken up the burden of effecting social change rather than just opening up conversations or spark arguments regarding social implications. ‘At a certain point, art has to hand over to other institutions if social change is to be achieved: it is not enough to keep producing activist art’ (Bishop, C. 2011). This is because art is simply not equipped for such task, however, it plays a vital role in sparking arguments and discussions that may lead to the possibility of change. That is the case when we have to allow poetics to be more involved. We have made the split between aesthetics and ethics but actually poetry has a huge amount to offer and this is where artists such as Francis Alÿs comes in the discussion.
FRANCIS ALYS ‘THE GREEN LINE’
Francis Alӱs has attempted to explore the relationship between politics and poetics through most of his artworks but more specifically through his artwork ‘The Green Line’ (Figure 7). Francis Alӱs is a Belgian born, Mexico based artist who’s characterised by mainly performative based art that explores land-based poetics, urbanity and spatial justice. He travels the world creating his interventions in response to the places he visits. In general, the work of Francis Alуs is always characterized as poetic and open for interpretation. In 1995 Alÿswalked from a gallery in Sao Paolo, around the city and then back again, with a can of blue paint that was dribbling in the creation of his piece ‘The Leak’ as a response to the concerns and views that the public had, regarding art institutions. It was in 2004 when he re-enacted the same performance but this time holding a green can of paint and walking across the border that separates Jerusalem known as ‘The green Line’. The piece was firstly shown as part of an exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 2005 and later in 2007 in David Zwinger gallery in New York. By using poetic acts Alÿsreferences the political and economic crisis of contemporary life.
Mark Godfrey In ‘A story of Deception’ comments that Alÿs’s practise, ‘manages to find poetic and imaginative ways to address the urgent political and … economic crisis of contemporary life..his strategy of creating imaginative actions to address realworld subject invites us to assess the relationship between poetics and politics’. (Godfrey, M. 2010). Francis Alӱs wants the viewer to understand ‘The Green Line’ as a ‘political’ work of art but at the same time he wants us to see it as an artwork that poses the question: in what way can a work of art be political? Let us first take into consideration the title of the work by considering its two-axioms ‘Sometimes doing something poetic can become political. And sometimes doing something political can become poetic.’ (Alÿs, F. 2004). The first theorem that can be extrapolated from the title is that poetics and politics are separate and stand in an antagonistic relationship from each other. This theorem links to the Platonic way of thinking that the arts were separate from the community and as Ranciere mentions in Politics of aesthetics, ‘Plato states that artisans cannot be put in charge of the shared or common elements of the community because they do not have the time to devote to anything other than their work’ (Ranciere, J. 2004). Therefore, artists were excluded from the community according to the idea of Aristotle of what characterises a citizen; ‘someone who has a part in the act of governing and being governed’ (Ranciere, J. 2004). Plato identifies the fact that there is an art to politics but does not allow the reduction of politics in the form of poesis.
The second-theorem, deriving from the title of the artwork itself, is that the use of the adverb ‘sometimes’ both enforces and undermines the differentiation between politics and art. This is because, with what we can understand from the title, there are occasions where political acts are poetic as well as times where poetic acts are political. This introduces the possibility of the incursion of the poetics in politics and the appearance of the political within poetics. Moreover, the second theorem further supports the idea of the first that states that art and politics are separate, however this time one can see the connections of the two as well as what makes them distinct. The third theorem deriving from Alӱs’s title introduces how these two terms can come and occupy each other’s place without reducing politics to mere representation and art into crude didacticism; in other words, without disintegrating what makes poetics and politics unique. Francis Alÿsintroduces the possibility that allows art to intervene in the sphere of politics. The poetic act can become political and yet retain its autonomy from politics since Alÿsmay reference to politics ‘without assuming a doctrinaire standpoint or aspiring to become social activism’ (Ferguson, R. 2007). At the other end of the spectrum the political can take a poetic form without surrendering everything to mere semblance. In his Politics of Aesthetics Jacques Ranciere references to what he calls the ‘dream of suitably political work of art’, which is:
… in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the sayable and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as vehicle. It is the dream of an art that would transmit meanings in the form of a rupture with the very logic of meaningful situations (Ranciere, J. 2004).
Francis Alÿs presents us with an allegory of the political through his piece ‘The Green Line’. By performing the ‘meaningless’ act – as he calls it – of walking the green line with a dripping can of green paint he allegorises it and hence transforms it into a metaphor for the political. By doing this, Alӱs makes the people-abandon their original assumptions on the situation and makes them divert their attention from the pre established facts of the situation. It makes the people step back and step out of the situation in order – in the case of the Green line – to witness the absurdity of it. As Mark Godfrey mentions in story of Deception ‘such poetic acts … can also create a space for new ways of thinking that will lead in turn to ‘the possibility of change.’ (Godfrey, M. 2007). Unexpected absurdities, such as Alÿs’ performance, are memorable and could also become the starting point for a wider discussion. Also, most of the work of Francis Alÿscan be condensed into a concise image and translate a socio-political situation into a single visual form. This allows the opportunity for rumours. The distribution of that condensed image within the vast public, beyond the artworld, by platforms such as the internet or simply by mouth, opens up discussions about the situation that may lead to the possibility of change. It is through this strategy that sometimes doing something poetic can become political. The political power of art has nothing to do with making a political statement and if that was the case, we would not be able to separate and distinguish between the two.
However, artist such as Suzanne Lacy prefers to “effect change … [and] literally move people around, or ahead”, (Lippard, L.R. 2010). This idea is put forward by most supporters of activist and socially engaged art.
‘Given the market’s near total saturation of our image repertoire, so the argument goes, artistic practice can no longer revolve around the construction of objects to be consumed by a passive bystander. Instead, there must be an art of action, interfacing with reality, taking steps, however small, to repair the social bond.’ (Bishop, C. 2011).
This idea seems to be present in Suzanne Lacy’s artwork ‘The Crystal Quilt’ (Figure 8). The Crystal Quilt was a 3-year long public artwork that included a series of lectures that was aimed for the empowerment of older women. The project ended with a performance on the 10th May 1984 in Minneapolis, were 430 women over the age of 60 gathered to discuss their views on growing older. The performance was broadcasted live on television with more than 3000 attending people. The broadcast resulted in a leadership training program for older women and two major exhibitions including the documentation of the event. This artwork by Lacy can prove that art may lead to social change. However, this idea could be controversial since the autonomy of art could be questioned. For the funding of such major projects, artists have no other choice but to collaborate with sponsors. Once a project is funded by a sponsor, its autonomy is immediately depreciated since it is thieved by the organisation that funds it. Moreover, in the case of participatory art the viewers are transformed from passive viewers to active participants and activators of the work and this can be clearly seen in most of the parts of The Crystal Quilt since without the participants the project would not occur. In that case, the viewers themselves are becoming the producers of the work. Going back to Claire Bishops essay, ‘Participation and Spectacle: Where are we now?’ we can see that there is a tension between art and social practises. As Bishop mentions:
The social discourse accuses the artistic discourse of amorality and inefficacy, because it is insufficient merely to reveal, reduplicate, or reflect upon the world; what matters is social change. The artistic discourse accuses the social discourse of remaining stubbornly attached to existing categories and focusing on micropolitical gestures at the expense of sensuous immediacy. (Bishop, C. 2011).
In other words, social practices accuse art of focusing primarily on the representation and reflection of the world. They find art amoral and ineffective since it constantly throws established systems of value into question, including morality. However, when it comes to social practises morality plays a vital role. With that being said, the autonomy of social practises is controlled. Moreover, another argument is that ‘the political power of art has nothing to do with making a political statement.’ (Fisher, T. 2009). Art would become just a mere representation of politics, therefore aestheticizing it and presenting it as art. This further supports the idea about the autonomy of art mentioned prior. When an artist makes a political statement the ability of art to disrupt the sensible is deprived.
This is the case when a more poetic approach to political works of art may be the answer to the problems that I have stated above and earlier when analysing Forensic Architecture or activist art in general. Alys himself stated that:
Poetic licence functions like a hiatus in the atrophy of a social, political, military or economic crisis. Through the gratuity or the absurdity of the poetic act, art provokes a moment of suspension of meaning, a brief sensation of senselessness that reveals the absurd of the situation and, through this act of transgression, makes you step back or step out and revise your prior assumptions about this reality. And when the poetic operation manages to provoke that sudden loss of self that itself allows a distancing from the immediate situation, then poetics might have the potential to open up a political thought. (Alÿs, 2007, p.40)
A politically motivated artist will ‘aim to make the weaker position seem the stronger’ (de Certeau, M. 1988). An artist that is aware of the aesthetic exception will choose to follow a technique similar to a tactician instead of that of a strategist. In other words, those artists, and in that case Francis Alÿs, will use a carefully planned strategy to achieve their goals, instead of a strategic approach since the setting-of-strategy, according to de Carteau, is always-the-purview-of- power. Their aim is not to make a direct statement or take a confrontational position because that is not the role of art. And since art and artists do not have the power to function within the political sphere to manipulate or bring social change, they use the means of poetics to achieve that. Alÿs through ‘The Green line’, achieves that by posing questions, in order to force those involved to ask them to themselves. This is the case when people may step back and out of a situation in order to revisit and revise their beliefs and assumption regarding a particular case.
Francis Alӱs references the green line however, he does not take a position either in favour of the Palestinians or the Israelis and he makes no direct investment in the situation hence, he is rejecting the traditional idea of ‘politics’ in the usual sense of taking a position. There are various interpretations of Alÿs’s performance since one can argue that the non-intrusive line he forms with the green paint is an attempt to point out the benefits of the 1949 line that was drawn by Dayan in comparison to the solid concrete walls and barrier that were built in different cities around Jerusalem since 2002. However, certain qualities of the work speak against that. The ephemerality and temporality of the green line that Francis Alÿs marks, may lead to the idea of unification of Jerusalem. Moreover, the act takes part in the centre of Jerusalem with Alÿs passing from neighbourhoods and borders without taking the slightest notice from the people of the city. This could reference back on the action of Dayan drawing the green line on the map without taking into consideration the way that the actual space was used by the citizens and by simply drawing the line from a position of power. Another conclusion that can be extrapolated from Alÿs’s artwork has to do with the complicated nature of political art and the possibility of change. When Alÿs was walking along the Jerusalem border with the dripping can of green paint people took the slightest notice of his action and in a way ignored it. Some may argue that no matter how much effort someone puts on something – in that case Alÿs had to walk 24 km dripping a total of 58 litres of green paint – if he is not in a position of power then change will not occur. When Dayan traced the green line on a map with a pencil in 1948, he put minimum effort however since he was in a position of power the green line that he draw was the border that separated Israel and Jordan until the Six-day War in 1967. Alÿs attempts to translate social tensions into narratives with the hope that the action would become a story/rumour, that will survive the actual event in order to intercede in the imaginal landscape of the city of Jerusalem, in the case of the Green Line, and, hence actualizing the work. How Alӱs focuses on the way that he transforms his work into enigmatic and concise images or texts shows that he is an artist that believes in the importance of the aesthetics as ‘he recognises that in boiling down a project to its postcard text and image, its poetic character can be retained, its openness to new interpretations and new uses guaranteed’ (Godfrey, M 2010).
Francis Alÿs explored several times the question whether art can lead to a social change or whether it has no purpose and this can be seen clearly in one of the titles of another performance ‘Paradox of Praxis 1 Sometimes making something leads to nothing’ (Alÿs, F. 1997) where he pushed a huge block of ice around the city of Mexico for 9 hours until it melted to a paddle of water. Through ‘The Green Line: Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic’ (Alӱs, F. 2004), Alӱs tries to answer that as it questions the capacity of art to lead to a true political change. He presents us with the idea that through the absurdity of art different perspectives and opinions can emerge that can intervene to the sphere of the politics since up until now the time consuming and expensive political negotiations have offered no way out of conflict. Art does not need to take an activist role to transform a pre-existing condition, but it can create the spark for discussions that may lead to the possibility of change.
Art can take many forms. This is because of the constant abolishment of all the criteria of quality and taste from the different avant-gardes throughout the years. The involvement of politics with any kind of cultural activity may immediately pursue the viewer to draw conclusions regarding the efficacy of the work, and in what extent there is a significant response from the public either in favour or against the critics or statements emanating from it. T. J. Demos argues that ‘To ask whether or not art could be “effective” on the level of national and international politics can only invite its own negative response, bringing about a state of melancholy disappointment. (T. J. Demos, 2008). This utilitarian way of thinking is not necessarily present in the work of Francis Alÿs and more general in politically motivated artists that choose to follow a more poetic approach when it comes to art making. The efficacy of those artworks is not purely didactic. It is uncovered in more subtle ways and usually it poses more questions than answers to the viewers. It forces the viewers to question their values and revisit and re- evaluate their beliefs regarding a particular situation. Following the previous statement by T. J. Demos he goes on saying that:
For if answered in the positive [meaning that art can be effective] – as is the tendency of those activists who reduce art to politics – then the obvious danger, beyond the obvious ones of idealism and naivete, is the instrumentalization of form and the submission of art to a sociological, bureaucratic assessment. (T. J. Demos, 2008).
This could be the case of Art activism that directly links to one of the main case studies of this dissertation, Forensic Architecture. In general activist art is always judged in relation to its efficacy due to the fact that it functions within the society and because of the nature of activist art in general, which is to bring social change using the means of art. After extensive and thorough research, I have come to the conclusion that a politically motivated artist should follow a more poetic approach in art making. We have made the split between aesthetics and ethics, but poetry has a huge amount to offer. What led me to write about the relationship of art and politics were mainly my personal experiences of living in an environment where conflict was always present. As a politically motivated artist I aim to find ways that I could address those issues without reducing-politics to mere-representation-and-art-into-crude-didacticism and I think this thesis helps to navigate through that. To conclude this writing, I believe that ‘Uncomfortable Knowledge’ is the basic principle of political art and that might be the way for art to bring social and political change.
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