“Truth is concrete” – this was the sentence written in big letters over Bertolt Brecht’s desk in his Danish exile – quoting Lenin quoting Hegel quoting Augustine. In a time of extreme political turbulence it was a constant reminder never to forget the reality around in Europe of the late 1930ies. In another corner of his study stood – as Walter Benjamin writes in his notes – a little wooden donkey with a sign around his neck: “Even I must understand it”. So: For the next seven days we propose to take the possibility of concrete truth as a working hypothesis and to look for direct action, concrete change and knowledge. For an art that not only represents and documents, but that engages in specific political and social situations – and for an activism that not only acts for the sake of acting but searches for intelligent, creative means of self-empowerment: artistic strategies in politics, political strategies in art.
“Art is a leftist hobby” – we chose this obviously provoking quote of the Dutch right wing politician Geert Wilders as a negative motto because it was bothering us. Not only because it was meant to be offensive but even more because we could not as easily dismiss it as we would have liked to. Isn’t indeed the status of art reduced more and more to the relevance of a mere hobby? Didn’t indeed self-reflection and self-critique of art turn too often into self-involvedness or even self-indulgence?
One and a half year ago – when we decided on the topic and the format of “Truth is concrete” as a 24/7 marathon camp – the Arab Spring was still a spring. And the summer and autumn of Occupy hadn’t yet begun. The so called Euro-crisis was already all over the news and the nuclear catastrophe of Fukushima just had happened. The huge demonstrations and the disillusioning elections in Russia were yet to come. It was obvious that things were changing rapidly in many ways in many corners of the world.
And of course: Everywhere where politics and society were shaken up, artists were among the first to get involved, among the first to join the political and social movements. But the question that kept re-occurring was: How did art, how did artistic strategies play a role? Did they play a role?
It was clear, that this was a time where we – as artists, theorists, curators – had to question for ourselves what we were doing and why. How we position ourselves. What our responsibilities are. Not only in critiquing our own field, our own institutions, formats, but in the relation to our societies, to the world. I think, most of us shared the strong feeling that we could not just wait and see how things would develop, what answers would derive over time. We shared the strong feeling, that we not only had to try to understand our role in all this, but also to directly engage and take part in shaping the discourse.
“Truth is concrete” seems to come at a moment of a paradigm shift in the relation of arts and politics: A generation of philosophers that derived complex and abstract theoretical concepts from very own and very concrete political experience and engagement was followed by a generation of philosophers (and artists, curators for that matter) that continued their thoughts – but often without binding them back to a contemporary, concrete reality.
We got used to call concepts, cultural theories, art works “political” even if they are only quite distantly based on theories that themselves already were quite distant from the concrete impulses that sparked them. A very homeopathic, second-hand interpretation of political philosophy became the main guideline of contemporary art discourse.
The classic leftist idea of “the private is the political“ was meant to politicise the private. But it seems that it rather privatised the political. The idea of “the aesthetical is the political“ was meant to politicize the aesthetical. But it seems that it aestheticized the political instead.
So we learned to replace critique with criticality, the political with the post-political, neoliberal capitalism with cultural capitalism. But where the answers get too complicated and abstract, the desire for simple solutions is growing. Art seems widely to have lost contact with a larger base.
The constant awareness of the complexity of the notions of truth, reality or even politics seem to have manoeuvred us into a dead-end road: either we are too simple, or we are too complex, too populist or too stuck in hermetic eremitism. Either we include too much or we exclude too many. We reached a point where the necessary awareness that everything is contingent and relative is in danger of just becoming intellectual relativism.
That is why this marathon focuses on very consequent, even radical interpretations of what art could, should, must be: On an art that very directly and hands-on gets involved. The next seven days we want to investigate what art can be – and: what politics could be.
So what is to be done? Can art help solve problems that politics and societies themselves have ignored for so long? Should art be a social or political tool, can it be useful? And why should artists know what to do when nobody else does?
Art and politics always have been in strange love/hate relationships. With this project we purposely ignore many of the borders, conflicts and resentments. Art is not activism and activism is not art. But the common ground, the shared space is large and, I believe, growingly important. It is a space that offers a chance for art to be engaged, connected and relevant. It is a space that offers activism a chance not to get stuck in ideology, routine and functionarism, a chance to stay unpredictable and sharp.
It is this space which we built this camp on and from where we want to take a close look at what happens when the differences between art and activism lose importance.
By focussing on “artistic strategies in politics and political strategies in art we hope to stay concrete. To talk about specific tools and specific ways of doing and thinking. We hope to avoid some of the usual-suspect dead-end ideological discussions. We hope not only to think together but also to find solutions for implementing. To create collaborations that might be considered unlikely. Truth is concrete is an invitation to show each other what we do, what we developed, what we are good at. To exchange tactics and strategies.
The probably most popular definition of strategies and tactics in our field comes from Michel de Certeau, who called strategy „the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships that become possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated.“ Strategies belong to the ones in power.
Tactic, on the other hand “is the art of the weak”, that fights that power: it “operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of ‚opportunities’ and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids.”
But we chose the term strategies on purpose, not because we are an institution, and by such perhaps one of the “subjects with will and power” to which de Certeau refers. But we are also interested in how the consequent use of certain tactics, the combination of certain tactics, the invention of tactics follow strategies or form strategies. We also need a “base” to take the term of de Certeau – not to stockpile the winnings, but to collect our attempts, approaches, our tactics.
That is why at the centre of the programme of “Truth is concrete“ are short, precise, so called Tactic Talks: Just 25 minutes of presentation of one project, one action, one proposal, one tactic. These talks build the nucleus of a kind of toolbox in progress.
170 hours, more than 200 artists, activists and theorists. Additionally 100 grants. A machine that runs non-stop – often too fast, sometimes too slow. All day, all night. It produces thought, arguments, knowledge, but is also creates frustration and exhaustion.
So: Does this marathon not just mirror or even fulfil the neoliberal agenda of more and more, of extreme labour, permanent availability etc.? Does it not just prolong the race with which we are struggling anyways in our capitalist environment? Would it not be better to slow down, to take time?
We aim in the opposite direction. Taking a break is not going to help. This machine of 170 hours does not pose a task that can be fulfilled (like some mega exhibitions or the in the art field popular 12 or 24 hour marathons propose). There is no accomplishment. This marathon cannot be easily commodified, not easily be consumed. It in its way is Incommensurable. There is no right time to, it is not build around highlights. There are not the best couple of hours to grasp it the right way.
There won’t be one marathon, there will be many. Shorter ones and longer ones. Some on the search for depth on topics that one is already familiar with. Others searching rather for things that one has no idea about yet. Having to miss out is part of having to make choices.
In a way it is also a metaphor for political movements: Spending an hour or so at Occupy Wall Street you will talk to some people, see some tents, maybe smell some of the spirit. You come back, listen into some committee meetings, maybe next time start talking yourself. Or you move in. All is possible, but it will give you different intensities.
We are interested not only in the intellectual intensity this hopefully will produce. We are also interested in physical intensity. In the impact this meeting has on our bodies. And we are interested in the social, collective intensity. In the here and now.
The marathon is the centre, surrounded by a camp-like living and working environment, a social space with its own needs and timings. “Truth is concrete” creates a one-week community, mixing day and night, developing its own jet lag towards the outside world – at the same time being open and free for everybody to join.
The programme of the marathon is accompanied by one-day-workshops, several durational projects and an exhibition. And – most important – by a parallel “Open marathon” that is based on self-organisation: its content is produced entirely by the participants – everybody is welcome to fill the slots, spontaneously or a couple of days in advance.
“Truth is concrete” creates a one-week community, mixing day and night, developing its own jet lag towards the outside world – at the same time being open and free for everybody to join.
So is this all just too much? Maybe. But maybe we have no time to lose. The world keeps changing at a fast pace and the marathon is a work meeting – an extreme effort at a time that seems to need extreme efforts.
Dieser Text erschien am 21. September 2012 unter: http://truthisconcrete.org/texts/?p=90 von herbst. Theorie zur Praxis 2012 [16.7.2013].
[Dieser Text findet sich im Reader Nr. 1 auf S. 336.]