Art pop

Delicate, thin, transparent and boundaried arrangements, ready to burst at any time. By Ajay R.S. Hothi and Christabel Stewart

Curated _1Ali Cherri, Pipe Dreams (video still), 2012. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Imane Farès 

Ten years ago in Bubbles, Peter Sloterdijk proposed the concept of a “pneumatic parliament”. A giant transparent dome, it would be parachuted into conflict and post-conflict zones, inflated (which would take no longer than 90 minutes), and would contain seating for 160 representatives. “The philosopher noted that some ‘failed states’ among the customer target group might be ready for the full parliamentary ‘experience’,” wrote Brian Dillon in his Guardian review of the book. “A lucrative secondary market would arise in educational theme parks dedicated to potential state systems: democracy, monarchy, aristocracy and outright tyranny.” This concept is one of the bases expounded in Sloterdijk’s epic treatise, which attempts to examine life nurtured within a given space but understood by its enclosures. In other words, the philosophy of constructed society. 

Curated _2Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava and New World Summit, New World Summit - Rojava (installation view of construction of the new parliament and surrounding park in the city of Derîk in the autonomous region of Rojava in early December), 2015. Photograph by Ruben Hamelink/New World Summit. Courtesy the artists 

Curated _3New World Summit, New World Summit - Brussels (installation view of Moussa Ag Assarid (left), writer and representative of the National Liberation Movement of Azawad, debating with Shigut Geleta (right), head of the diplomatic division of the Oromo Liberation Front), 2012. Photograph by Ernie Butts. Courtesy the artists 

Clearly, the idea of the pneumatic parliament is a joke about the speed at which foreign governments can “install democracy” in post-conflict zones (and not a particularly good joke either, in this writer’s opinion – Sloterdijk’s strengths lie elsewhere). The cynicism that foregrounds the perceived ulterior motives accompanying military interventions in foreign lands has become all too common in the decade since Sloterdijk’s proposition. Of course, this is nothing new: philosophising on democracy has always culminated in the warning that its structure may be corrupted by insidious agents, or what James Russell Lowell called “poisonous exhalations from lower and more malarious levels” in his 1884 essay “On Democracy,” later compiled in the book Democracy (1886).

For generations of people who grew up in the West and never had it so good and who suddenly have to face the consequences of irresponsible financial movement, constant threats (actual or otherwise) to societal safety, and the non-guarantee of a future with top-down social security, philosophising on the tenets of democracy can seem fruitless. Take the current example of the mass movement of refugees from the Middle East as an indication of a shift away from political philosophy to the actions of realpolitik. Speaking in London in late 2015, Kelly Greenhill, author of the grandly titled Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy, noted that the act of migration was itself an act of realpolitik made so states can pressure other governments into conceding to economic and/or political demands. Indeed, the term realpolitik itself was defined by its inventor, the author August Ludwig von Rochau, as a practical solution to German federal unification, distinct from Gefühlspolitik (sentimental politics) or Prinzipienpolitik (principled politics). 

The practicalities of politics shouldn’t turn into a debate between “realism” and “idealism”, though it often does, to the detriment of those who are the focus of that debate. Does introducing the concept of realpolitik, for example, dehumanise the act of migration by reading it through a superstructure? Similarly, does accepting the idea of a superstructure itself make one an uncompromising ideologue? As Sloterdijk notes, these perceived superstructures can actually be read as nothing more than mere bubbles – delicate, thin, transparent and boundaried arrangements, ready to pop at any time. Perhaps there is a middle ground that can be traversed, one that can still provide philosophical and practical outcomes?

The New World Summit is an organisation that hosts political groups with no formal international presence. Founded by the artist Jonas Staal in 2012, the first summit took place as part of the seventh Berlin Biennale and comprised representatives of seven organisations that have been internationally designated as “terrorist groups”. The second summit took place in 2012 in Leiden (home to the Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism at Leiden University), and discussed the concept of the “terrorist”. Professor Jose Maria Sison, co-founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army, was its keynote speaker. The third, at the 2012-13 Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India, was raided by police, and three members of the Summit, including Staal, were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The fourth, in 2014, was the Summit's first museum survey, The Art of the Stateless State, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, Ljubljana. And the fifth, in 2015, involved the design and construction of a public parliament in the autonomous region of Rojava.  

Curated _4Naeem Mohaiemen, The Young Man Was, Part 1: United Red Army (film still), 2011. Courtesy the artist

Curated _5Naeem Mohaiemen, The Young Man Was, Part 1: United Red Army (film still), 2011. Courtesy the artist 

Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967) is comprised of 221 individual propositions, essential to its original function as a manifesto for the situationists, whose work was fundamentally a commentary on the state of the contemporary world. The situationists were after the creation of a “moment” – a specific situation that alerted the public to see past the “spectacle” of media-distributed information.

These individual moments of liberation are echoed by Naeem Mohaiemen in his 2012 film The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army), approximately half of which is made up of sound and text projected onto a black screen. The film, a history of the radical movements of the 1970s in Bangladesh, focuses on the hijacking of Japanese Airlines Flight 472 by the Japanese United Red Army, which then requested to land in Dhaka, because it saw Bangladesh as an ally in revolution. The film questions how we understand what international political solidarity might look like. We could also compare Mohaiemen’s examination of the subject matter to our own reading of the “migrant crisis” (as we are told it is) of the present. How are political crises presented to us through the media? What questions can we ask of media representation in order to see whether, in the longer term, images can be picked apart and reconstructed to meet new political aims?

Curated _6Ali Cherri, Pipe Dreams (video still), 2011. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Imane Farès  

Curated _7Ali Cherri, Pipe Dreams (video still), 2011. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Imane Farès 

Ali Cherri’s 2012 installation work Pipe Dreams features the removal of a statue of Hafez al-Assad as its key conceit. The work centres on a telephone conversation between Assad and Muhammed Faris, a Syrian cosmonaut on a mission as part of the 1987 Soviet space programme. There are “infinite loops” (in Cherri’s own words) that the work aims to expose, from the deification of heroes (both Assad and Faris, but also figures once seen as young revolutionaries within the broader region, that include Moammar al-Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak), to the act of iconoclasm, as a means of pre-empting social malcontent, as we have seen it arise in Syria over the past five years.

Curated _8 

Curated _9Meriç Algun Ringborg, The Library of Unborrowed Books (installation view at Konstakademien, Stockholm), 2012. Photograph by Jean-Baptiste Béranger. Courtesy the artist 

Meriç Algün Ringborg’s ongoing project The Library of Unborrowed Books, which the artist began in 2012, focuses on personal identity. The installation is a library made up of hundreds of books that have never been borrowed from the Stockholm Public Library. On the one hand, it suggests wasted ideas and fruitless creative endeavour; on the other, it interrogates the reliability of structures and organisations that govern the dissemination of messages. The question is not whether these projects succeed, by germinating an alternative set of materials within a superstructure, but whether that superstructure is reliable. We shouldn’t be afraid of asking if these bubbles need to be popped. §