If You Lived Here Still…
Interview with Martha Rosler
How would you define the term “political art”?
I avoid this term because is something imposed from the outside, by managers , that is museums, dealers, institutions to make a certain kind of art activity legible within their institutional frameworks. So I always think that when terms like this are applied is always saying don’t worry, it’s not going to hurt you, you know what I mean? That it’s a way of containing the actual reach of the work and reassuring the institution that they could actually exhibit without someone actually setting fire to them. And to me it usually signals a moment in which the effectiveness of work like that starts to decline, because it’s already visible within the normal ambits of the institutional framework, within the system of art.
How do we make the representation activating in order to open up real social processes? How to break down the distance that the institution itself produces?
Well, I don’t have general rules, but one thing that make me think about it is that behind you is the green point DVD that I made in 1992, when this work was shown in the museum I advertised it in a local paper without mentioning that the place was museum, I just said what metro lines to take to it, so one way to do it is to direct information about it that simply doesn’t refer to it as aesthetic ,artistic , institutional frame, and if possible also to place the work itself somewhere outside, perhaps simultaneously , in other words to create a more direct communication rather than relying on what the institution itself is doing, that’s not always possible but certainly is the strategy.
Sometimes newspaper articles by journalist are also helpful in interviews where you can explain who the work is directed at rather than talking about art audience, you just have to use your sense to figure out your strategy.
You mentioned the term “culturalization of politics”; we see that participation, self representation, self empowerment, mobilization, etc. that were once the main forces in social, political and artistic expression have been co-opted and nowadays play an important role in neocapitalist production. What could you say about the strategies of representation in addressing questions that have to do with actual life?
The strategy of representation and recognition has been recognized by social forces of power, so how do you move towards a reformation and efficacy is by recognizing that simply being represented, for example as feminists, women, as people of color is not adequate to your aims and not to be fooled with thinking that simply by being represented you have managed to achieve questions that have to do with actual life, with one’s ability to have a decent life, with a decent income, not to have predatory rich people and banks and other institutions capturing all the wealth, so you have to keep in mind always that you are not asking simply to be represented, that you also demand the actual changes and the way power is distributed is part of it.
And I think this is important because this goes back to the question of yesterday about the way that identity politics as it has been called, which is the politics of representation and recognition have become the form of political correctness meaning that they are only about the representation and don’t go to larger questions.
Where are the limits in the representation of the social ?
Certainly the whole idea of talking about someone, to people in power, so that those people can be helped is unsuccessful, because, in fact, and that has been recognized for a long time, that what is necessary is empowerment by people themselves rather than someone speaking for them which always implies someone speaking from an elevated position to someone below. But again if the groups were talking about simply want to represent, that is not adequate, but those groups always know what in question is, the distribution resources and the ability to be in control to create a decent life. Those of us in the art world who imagine that simply by having images of people who need help that somehow they are going to get help and everything will be fine, you know the charity strategy, that is not effective.
In the project that we are exhibiting here I quickly realized that having an exhibition on homelessness, to have it in the art world is idiotic and liberal, so the first exhibition was about contesting housing with people talking about their fights to keep their homes and to keep their neighborhoods before I even wanted to open a discussion in the second exhibition about people who are forced out of their homes, so the first was the battle, the second was the unsuccessful and than the third exhibition was about visions of change.
It seems that there is no way out, that the “enemy” became part of us… does the production of subjectivity become a terrain of the central conflict?
Well I just actually started to think about it myself and I have no formula, no recipe and not many ideas except that is something you have to talk internally all the time and not as self-accusation but as a strategy thinking. I m not so sure if it is that different from when bourgeois people decided to join proletarian struggles because they also settled internal values. I think a sort of facing honestly what need to be put aside, without turning yourself in somebody that you are not. And one of the interesting thing about the internalization of some of the problem, problematic elements, is that it offers you the possibility of making use of them, to speak to others that are not involved in struggle but rather… so I don’t have anything to say really except that this is the current problem.
Precarization creates people who try to constantly repackage themselves (well the flexible personality), to suit the social and economical needs. So that can be the focus of organizing itself, by actually focusing on questions like of identity shift and always tie them to the fact that this is about labor. I’m particularly interested at the moment in talking to people about invisible labor of various kinds. Both that kinds performed by women on the street or drug dealers but also of course the invisible labor that all of us who use the Internet are performing, the way that just becoming a flexible personality is actually engaging labor benefit of others. But this requires, you know, a lot of work.
Against speculation, action!
I think certainly by incorporating the cultural sphere and the cultural elements in this question of labour, is very important. I think the whole question of YOU WILL NEVER HAVE AN HOUSE IN YOUR FUCKING LIFE relates exactly to that what is being addressed, you know, should you have a house? But there is a moment in which campaigns like that are really important regardless of weather, as we have said yesterday, the person standing next to you at the demonstration might have an entirely different frame of mind, that is ok. If movements become powerful than political elements starts separating, but I don’t think you need to worry about that in advance, you just have to be aware that there are going to be people who ultimately are going to split and say I’m sorry I cannot stand with you, this is not what I’m interested in, but this is a campaign that is economic obviously it is about economy but also the self, and about entitlement and what aspirations do you have for your life, and this is of course not only economic but also highly cultural and social. It seems like the right way to work among young now because they understand this immediately, that it is about the fact that the future appears to be foreclosed. So, talking to people about a foreclosed future in more global terms is too much. Just start in one place.
What role does the institution play nowadays?
Well the institution itself is trapped. Funding, governments demand that the institution play a role in the society , that they interpret the cultural for the whole population, that they allow the representation of various subaltern groups, that they appear to be a space of Enlightenment, education and activity, which used to be like some institutions were charging against that door only to discover it is open. So that can be very dangerous because it is a form of co-optation, but when the institution itself becomes involved in actual action in the street, that’s when their funders, the government gets really angry and worried and says; “but you are here for representation, not for social action.”
I think we should leave the institution to just be a sort of space from which bases to operate and not to ask them to get involved in anything, so let them be and just make use of the platform they provide. I think this is very important, and I know that there were incidents in Barcelona, with MACBA, which severely endangered MACBA actually and I think probably is better to let the institution to sit there like a giant box and be what it is.
It’s us who need to do the activism not the institution, and again, these are things that I have been thinking recently, because I’ve recently been discovering the degree to which the role of social educator is demanded of art institutions. It used to be in Europe that that was exactly the opposite what museums were supposed to do. Museums were to offer the individual space of contemplation and quite and the white box and to keep out other world, the real world, in the space of aesthetic appreciation and contemplation, perhaps self transformation, but that is old now and certainly in this century that is not the model of the museum even in Europe anymore. It’s the educational institution, the interpreter of people’s lives and experiences and reinterpretation of the past. But you know these things are valuable and particularly the reinterpretation of the past or news from elsewhere, perhaps the exhibition like my own, this one, is actually something that is really valuable to the people up riding outside. This is why Chantal Mouffe said; “don’t abandon museum.” I thought of her like she was a little bit old fashioned but I understand her point, don’t give up that space.