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PROJEKT: POWAŻNE STUDIO

Protesting Images Questionnaire

Responses in Polish were translated to English by Łukasz Mojsak


We asked several curators, critics, theorists, artists to share their thoughts on the intricate relationship between images and protest. Below are their textual-visual responses. We would like to express our sincere gratitude to all of you who accepted our invitation. This is a timely and an important conversation.


1) Do images have the power of protesting and the agency to introduce change? Is this power historically determined?

2) How does this power work? What does it mean for an image to be politically efficacious? Is it a power of uniting or rather a power of dividing?

3) What can we learn from artistic and post-artistic practices – both in their visual and performative dimensions – when it comes to voicing protest, opposing power and imagining alternatives, both in reality and the imagination?


Bojana Piskur

Do images have the power of protesting and the agency to introduce change? Is this power historically determined?

The question is whether images alone have the power of protesting (i.e. do they carry a universal message), or is it a specific context that dictates this power. The context could be determined geographically, historically, economically, politically, culturally, etc.

Billy Bragg, a musician, recently said in an interview that music could never change the world. He said that music was an excellent way to unite people and to express solidarity, but the music alone was not so effective. Only the mass of people can change the world.

I would say it’s similar with images. Images cannot introduce change, only people who “use” images can.


How does this power work? What does it mean for an image to be politically efficacious? Is it a power of uniting or rather a power of dividing?

If we consider the political potential of an image, we are usually attentive to the possible changes in the social field that this image can stimulate or evoke. We think about the devices in an image (such as the motives, the narratives, or “meaningful spectacle”) that contribute towards raising political awareness in a social and economic order. We can even say that it is all about certain political pedagogy (i.e. propaganda).

But on the other hand, images also have to do with affects. For example, if there is a resonance between an image and “resistant corporealities”, an image can eventually become a resource for action. Affects are very powerful tool, but they don’t always bring change towards something better (some kind of liberation); on the contrary, affects can bring change towards something worse as well (for example, affects as they relate to totalitarianism, and that affects can, to some degree, be “orchestrated”, etc.)


What can we learn from artistic and post-artistic practices – both in their visual and performative dimensions – when it comes to voicing protest, opposing power and imagining alternatives, both in reality and the imagination?

There is a “battle for images” (as Manuel Borja-Villel put it) going on, and it has to do not only with history, with old and new images, but also with ideological and symbolic powers that produce these images.

Images have to “compete” for attention all the time. Art has a certain privilege as it is still relatively unaffected by this demand (at least that is its dream). However, art is more effective when outside of the confines of art institutions, because it can address people much more directly and without the omnipresent descriptive-interpretative apparatus. As Brian Holmes put it: “Art has a prefigurative role in the protest movements, it offers a foretaste of a better life; but it also puts things together on the spot, it constructs a different world.”

On the other hand, when we talk about images we must also talk about the absence of images. Not only in the context of a debate on representation and imagination, but also in the context of censorship, prohibition, ideology.


Bojana Piskur is a senior curator at the Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana, Slovenia
https://schizocurating.wordpress.com/


Wolfgang Tillmans

Do images have the power of protesting and the agency to introduce change? Is this power historically determined?

Yes. If I didn’t believe that, I would have chosen a different medium. I always believed in the power of affirmative images, not only critical and alarming images. Both play an important role and shouldn’t be pitted against each other.


How does this power work? What does it mean for an image to be politically efficacious? Is it a power of uniting or rather a power of dividing?

Affirmative images encourage. Activism is not only trying to change opposing views, but also to lift the spirit of like-minded people.


What can we learn from artistic and post-artistic practices – both in their visual and performative dimensions – when it comes to voicing protest, opposing power and imagining alternatives, both in reality and the imagination?

There is no reason for modesty here. Most progressive social change was accompanied by visual or musical art and design that carried liberating ideas to a wider audience. The proof of the power of art lies in the ongoing pattern of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes trying to limit artistic freedom of expression.


Wolfgang Tillmans is a German photographer
http://tillmans.co.uk/


Angela Dimitrakaki

Do images have the power of protesting and the agency to introduce change? Is this power historically determined?

In digital visual culture, we find this contradiction: although it is impossible to generate the affect (and not merely information and knowledge) required for protest, and even organise protest successfully without the use and mobilisation of the image, the overabundance of images reduces and tames this affect. Effectively, too many images mean trivial images. This contradiction impacts the use of images in social media and the press, but things are particularly adverse for so-called visual art, for the simple reason that artists’ images can also be the outputs of artistic labour to be traded (artists need to make a living just like everyone else).

I think therefore that in our image-saturated visual culture, it is impossible for images as such to introduce change, and no transfer of agency can take place from the individual or trans-individual subject to the image – no such transfer should be attempted. Moreover, we now have the exchange of images and visual data from machine to machine without the input of human beings in processing these images, and this does indeed create a very particular historical context for the politicisation of the image. We even have animated documentaries where the image can be both real and fictitious. Overall, the digital plane has raised, as we know, numerous issues about image and agency, and most of these issues are negative.


How does this power work? What does it mean for an image to be politically efficacious? Is it a power of uniting or rather a power of dividing?

Images do not have power as such. But they can mediate power in various contexts and assemblages. A collective body can come together thanks to this mediation, but the power belongs to the collective body, not the image. Clearly, in terms of an image’s political efficacy, the outcome can either be uniting or dividing. Images are ideologically charged, but it’s really up to the subject (individual or collective) to respond in a particular way, in the knowledge that this subject is also partly constructed through historically specific visual cultures. Overall, images have belonged to a culture of advertising since at least the 20th century. Even what used to be propaganda has succumbed to the tropes and functional processes of advertising, as the dominant and even hegemonic image framework – hegemonic in the sense that a consensus is achieved: we respond to images as we respond to advertising, being persuaded or not by their narratives, “buying the story” or not. Political parties and leaders understand this very well. Some people in the UK bought the story of Brexit, and images played a key role, though ultimately the material conditions of voters were decisive.


What can we learn from artistic and post-artistic practices – both in their visual and performative dimensions – when it comes to voicing protest, opposing power and imagining alternatives, both in reality and the imagination?

As regards images, we can learn, and even have learned, that images and performative bodies are mere nodes in very complex processes. Although capitalist labour thrives on the “project” (normally of a clearly delimited and relatively short) time span, duration is no doubt where political stakes lie. Humanity’s struggles exceed any singular generation, and I think the important thing is how to mobilise a sense of history (of continuities and discontinuities) to which images of protest also belong. This realisation is especially important for oppositional cultures such as feminism and anti-capitalism. However, even fascism (this is clear today) claims this cross-generational connection and articulation of demands. Politics does not belong just to the left – far from it. But the framework, the temporality we need to exist and struggle in, this is something we share across the political spectrum. We live in an extended modernity, principally defined by capital and the struggles against it, and so the lessons of continuity and discontinuity are important. I hope that the notion of cross-generational struggle takes over from the debilitating notion of utopia (currently, the bin for political change that is unlikely to happen in one’s lifetime).


Angela Dimitrakaki is a writer and Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland
https://www.eca.ed.ac.uk/profile/dr-angela-dimitrakaki


W.J.T. Mitchell

Do images have the power of protesting and the agency to introduce change? Is this power historically determined?

I would ask a prior question: what picture do we have of the power of images? Is it a physical power, like the wind bending the trees, even uprooting them? Or an electric current, a lightning bolt that strikes the tree? Or is it more like the rain that nourishes the tree, but could also wash it away?

Sometimes we talk as if we pictured images as agents of physical force. We say that an image is “striking”, that it “makes an impression”. Some images are thought to have a traumatic or morally corrupting effect, or (conversely) an edifying, calming effect.

Images do have power, but it is not the physical kind that has an invariable cause and effect relationship to people or things. The person or thing has to have some property of susceptibility to the image’s power. If we are going to rely on physical/chemical models of power, understood as “the agency to introduce change”, I would suggest the metapicture of the catalyst. In chemistry, this refers to a substance that seems to facilitate a reaction, but is itself unchanged. In other words, as a catalytic agent, an image can accelerate something that is already happening, but is not itself the cause of the happening. Like a catalyst, an image is inert, but its presence can produce a speeding-up of something that would have taken place much more slowly. The Vietnam War, it is sometimes said, was brought to an end by the journalistic photographs that revealed its horror. I very much doubt that this is a true statement: the photographs had an effect – they helped to mobilise political passion and acts of resistance – but in themselves they caused nothing. They served as catalysts for things that were already happening.

There are two kinds of image power, in my view: one is the power over subjects – a capacity to produce a response in a living being, especially humans. Animals also respond to images: a duck may be fooled by a decoy, mistaking it for another duck. The responses to an image that has power over a subject are incredibly various: delight, desire, horror, longing, surprise, pleasure, disgust, delusion. The image is a simulated presence, a re-presentation that can deceive or entertain.

But there is a second power that images have, and that is over objects. An image can make us see something more clearly, or reveal something that we could not have seen without it. An image can be true or false, accurate or distorted, clear or blurry. It is this double capacity of images to reach out to the world, to take power over things, alongside their capacity to have an effect on the beholder, which gives them their special catalytic magic. We could call these two powers the capacity for illusion, on the one hand, and realism, on the other. When we say that an image is “strong”, then we should go on to be clear about which kind of strength we are talking about.


How does this power work? What does it mean for an image to be politically efficacious? Is it a power of uniting or rather a power of dividing?

I don’t think it’s a choice between uniting or dividing. The two effects are indissolubly joined, and sometimes a single image can produce both effects. Some images bring people together. A political movement is often generated by a common image, a totemic operator that serves as something like a clan sign. The American flag is one such image. Despite its secular character, it is the closest thing Americans have to a common sacred image, which is why there has been a long-standing movement to prevent its desecration. Any image that possesses political power is likely to produce both a uniting and a dividing. To desecrate the flag is immediately to split those who approve of the act from those who disapprove. It unites the protestors who claim their right to burn the flag as an act of free speech; at the same time, it divides them from those who disagree with the statement being made by the act of desecration. So the general point about “efficacy” is: people have to care about the image. They have to be prepared to receive it. They have to think that it matters, and that what is done to it, how it is treated, matters. When it comes to images, it looks as if the power to join is inseparable from the power to split, to divide a society into “us” and “them”.

All this mainly has to do with the way images exert effects on people. When it comes to their power over things, their capacity for realism and truth, that power is in turn dependent upon a social contract of sorts. A community has to be in place that can agree or disagree about the accuracy of an image – its relative value in terms of realism or illusionism. A scientific image or a journalistic photograph depends, for its effects on subjects, on a consensus about its relation to objects. If the photographs taken of atrocities in Vietnam had been exposed as fraudulent, all their power to effect political change would have been lost. On the other hand, if the images had been presented as artificial and fictional illusions, as in the film Apocalypse Now, they could have a powerful effect on beholders, but not the kind that comes from claims of documentary truth.


What can we learn from artistic and post-artistic practices – both in their visual and performative dimensions – when it comes to voicing protest, opposing power and imagining alternatives, both in reality and the imagination?

We learn that there is an art to protesting, and that artful forms of protest (clever, timely, well-designed) are much more efficacious than brutal propaganda. Martin Luther King Jr. was a masterful performance artist who understood the power of television and the spectacle of non-violent resistance. He managed to make “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of “Public Safety” for Birmingham, Alabama, into an extra in his television spectacle. Connor’s behaviour, and the violence of the Birmingham police, was exposed to the nation. It was a key moment in the success of the American Civil Rights Movement.

But we also learn that so-called “non-artistic images”, brutal forms of propaganda such as racist caricatures, can have great power to mobilise mass hatred and violence. Iconic symbols such as the swastika and the Confederate flag still have the power to unite white supremacists. These images are invariably presented as forms of “protest” against the dangerously increasing power of minorities. So we have to admit that there is an art, however degraded it might seem, to propaganda as well. In that sense, images are best considered as weapons that can be picked up by anyone for any purpose. They are in themselves amoral and apolitical. It is when they are put to work that their moral and political meaning becomes evident.

The master of the protest image in our moment is Donald Trump, who has generated a cult of personality around his “brand”. That brand unites the forces of white supremacy, nationalism, unbridled capitalism and macho authoritarianism in a single toxic brew. His image succeeds in uniting an aggrieved, anxious, reactionary minority at the same time as it divides the American electorate in a schism that is reinforced by the two-party system. Trump has even succeeded in making the institutions of constitutional democracy – a free press, an independent judiciary – into “enemies of the people” that he represents.

The resistance to Trump has mainly taken the form of comedy and caricature. It is often said that, as terrible as he is from a political standpoint, he has been a great boon to late-night television in the United States. Millions of people tune in to see Trump ridiculed, parodied and exposed as the vulgar bully and compulsive liar that he is. Are these counter-images efficacious? Only time will tell. In the short run, they are completely impotent as political forces. They provide some comfort and entertainment to liberals, but so far they have made no difference. One problem with creating caricatures of Trump is that he is already a caricature in himself. Satirical images only reinforce the disdain of his opponents and heighten the persecution complex of his supporters. The moral of the story: don’t expect images to bring down Trump all by themselves: the law and politics have to play their roles.

It is important for those who are hoping for political change through images, then, to remember that most images are quite powerless. When images do have power, it is often quite unpredictable. Luck, timing, skill, intuition and historical contingency are crucial. Images are probably a necessary element in any act of political protest, but they will never be sufficient. As for the power of images to tell the truth, this is a power that is in deep peril in a historical moment like ours. We do not live in a “post-artistic” time, but in a “post-truth” era, when the authority of science is denied and professional journalism is denounced as “fake news”. Dangerous times for images, and for the human beings who make and use them.


W.J.T. Mitchell is Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago, USA, editor-in-chief of Critical Inquiry
https://english.uchicago.edu/faculty/w-j-t-mitchell


Ernst van Alphen

Do images have the power of protesting and the agency to introduce change? Is this power historically determined?

To answer this question, I first have to explain my notion of power, which is a Foucauldian one. This means that we shouldn’t focus on actors who use power as an instrument of coercion or influence. Instead, power is “everywhere,” diffused in discourse, in knowledge, in ideas of and regimes of truth.

Images have the agency to introduce change, but not as actors “who use power as an instrument of coercion or influence.” When activism uses images, it uses them as instruments of coercion or influence. When we see images as embodiments or conveyers of discourses, of knowledge and of regimes of truth, their power is more modest. Existing, dominant discourses or regimes of truth can be challenged by images.


How does this power work? What does it mean for an image to be politically efficacious? Is it a power of uniting or rather a power of dividing?

When images challenge, undermine existing regimes of truth, or discourses, or when they introduce new ones, they have the power to split existing regimes and discourses. It is the framework of existing, dominant discourses in which they intervene, or against the background of which they “work”.


What can we learn from artistic and post-artistic practices – both in their visual and performative dimensions – when it comes to voicing protest, opposing power and imagining alternatives, both in reality and the imagination?

Opposing the power of a regime of truth, of a discourse, confirms the regime that it opposes. An effective challenge does more than be in opposition. Artistic practices of protest usually do more than voice opposition: they challenge by deconstructing “regimes” of truth, or of power, for instance by adopting an ironic or parodic mode, or by reversing the hierarchical oppositions on which those regimes or based.


Ernst van Alphen is Professor of Literary Studies at Leiden University, the Netherlands
https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/staffmembers/ernst-van-alphen


Mario Pfeifer

Do images have the power of protesting and the agency to introduce change? Is this power historically determined?

It depends on what images we look at, I must say. Do images that are produced by artists carry the potential to actively protest? I doubt it. When Sharon Hayes carries signs in her performance I AM A MAN – that later appear as a slideshow in exhibitions – it does not match the protesters that once marched with Dr Martin Luther King. However, it might be an act of aesthetic protest in the now, but as far as I look at the artwork, its potential of actual protest is the opposite of what we see in newsreel footage from the 1960s.


Maybe art in its essence is not about protest in the context of public, political protest, but rather a symbolic form of visual representation of a discursive obstruction against the established. Visual representation might be a gesture of protest, but it is nothing like a protest by people on the street, inside a factory, or in front of a parliament.

The ambition of recently active collectives such as Zentrum für Politische Schönheit creates forms of public spectacle in order to protest against political will, agendas and the execution of conservative laws. However, it appears as an elitist gesture to perform a spectacle in order to motivate the public, to the extent that art in itself has trouble reaching that potential. Art too often hides from being art, which is of course its strength at the same time.

Christo might be able to create a soft image of protest attracting millions of viewers, participants, or occupiers if you like…


How does this power work? What does it mean for an image to be politically efficacious? Is it a power of uniting or rather a power of dividing?

The two most striking images that have been politically efficacious in the post-WWII era are – besides some other examples – from my point of view, these images:


Journalistic images. People might consider the artistic quality in the images, but I think that aspect diminished while seeing the tremendous impact these images had on socio-political debate, and our view of the dark side of history.

In recent times, I consider this image one of the most relevant, again besides some other pictures.


It is, unsurprisingly, not the work of an artist, but of a press photographer.

Whether an image joins powers or splits powers is not a characteristic of its efficaciousness. Only the image itself – with its symbolic power – can achieve efficaciousness.


What can we learn from artistic and post-artistic practices – both in their visual and performative dimensions – when it comes to voicing protest, opposing power and imagining alternatives, both in reality and the imagination?

I have doubts that purely artistic practices are comparable to activists’ modi operandi, both in their radicalism as well as the efficiency. I would even go so far as to question the motivation for both groups, since they might not share much in common at the bottom line. To voice opposition via art has a different dimension than joining a counter-movement on the street. Art can let you imagine alternatives in life. Activists take heavy risks to make those alternatives become a reality. Nevertheless, I do believe that both forms of practice can fruitfully help passive citizens seize power over their future society.


Image sources
  1. http://artpulsemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/2-hayes_sharon_inthenearfuture_1.gif

  2. https://www.neh.gov/files/divisions/public/images/memphis.jpg

  3. https://evansyonson.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/i-am-a-man.jpg?w=335

  4. http://www.mariopfeifer.org/blacktivist

  5. http://christojeanneclaude.net/__data/ede94ace92c5ea64fe15d3a57647934f.jpg

  6. http://www.tagesspiegel.de/images/kunstaktion-fluechtinge-fressen/13769722/1-format43.jpg

  7. http://i2.cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/130603134534-vault-1989-tiananmen-square-man-vs-tank-00004819.jpg

  8. http://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/150618170814-napalm-girl-vietnam-full-169.jpg

  9. https://timedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/falling-man-911-twin-towers-richard-drew.jpg


Mario Pfeifer is a German visual artist
https://www.mariopfeifer.org/


Witek Orski

Do images have the power of protesting and the agency to introduce change? Is this power historically determined?

I am rather sceptical about the animistic concept of images that protest. In the context of political protest, images are most often used instrumentally by subjects with specific world-views, rather than acquiring subjectivity themselves as actors of resistance. With a very strong impact in the affective sphere, they may provide the perfect weapon in political struggle and a very effective tool in building antagonisms. However, such “use of images” has little in common with granting them subjectivity and listening attentively to (or rather looking closely at) what they themselves want. Is it possible to introduce real political change by using images in this way? As shown by the impact of the authentic (yet reality-distorting) photograph of Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk after the presidential airplane catastrophe in Smolensk – yes, it is possible.


How does this power work? What does it mean for an image to be politically efficacious? Is it a power of uniting or rather a power of dividing?

The effect of images created in the field of visual arts seems particularly interesting to me in this context, because it marks an encounter of two contradictory strategies of working with images. On the one hand, there is the strategy that consists of instrumentalising the image in order to express a specific standpoint in terms of politics or world-view, whereas on the other hand there is the use of the image in order to pose questions (often related to politics and world-view). Both strategies have the power of uniting and dividing at the same time – the first unites internally the partisans and opponents of a given position, while at the same time cementing the divisions that exist between them. As for the second one, although it connects conflicted tribes in the face of difficult questions, it also distances the artist from both of the abovementioned communities. The strategy that consists of asking questions by means of the image is weaker, and its political efficaciousness is less impressive, but since it grants more subjectivity to images, I find it much more valuable, as well as politically and artistically prolific.


What can we learn from artistic and post-artistic practices – both in their visual and performative dimensions – when it comes to voicing protest, opposing power and imagining alternatives, both in reality and the imagination?

I think that an immense value of artistic and post-artistic practices can lie in their very ability to go beyond divisions imposed by the mainstream circulation of information. They may serve as a proposition of resistance that consists of asking questions, and not offering answers, and thus transgresses existing antagonisms in favour of agonism. As a consequence, the field of art and post-art could become a laboratory of experimentation with various forms of unobvious social alliances that subvert the existing conflict.


Witek Orski is a Polish visual artist
http://witekorski.eu/


Sebastian Cichocki (Consortium for Post-Artistic Practices)

Do images have the power of protesting and the agency to introduce change? Is this power historically determined?


We use images to manage political imagination, issue warnings, call for help, make accusations, pursue propaganda, gather under a common banner, inflict visual violence, cause shame, restore appropriate proportions, call a spade a spade, etc. We thus influence reality by means of images – no doubt about it. Despite the undeniable power of images, we (still) fail (in most cases). Above: one of 25 pro-EU posters from the “EU Remain” cycle created by Wolfgang Tillmans in collaboration with Between Bridges prior to the British Brexit referendum in 2016.


How does this power work? What does it mean for an image to be politically efficacious? Is it a power of uniting or rather a power of dividing?


Images both unite and divide. The efficaciousness of images is currently put to the test by all sides of the political dispute: from the circle of graphic artists working under the banner of Democracy Illustrated, to Gazeta Polska weekly, which shocks with drastic collages. However, in recent years we have demonstrated far-reaching naivety by mistaking the use of images for ecumenism. We believed that images would build the community, integrate, offer the last resort after the disintegration of other languages. But the power of images also consists of creating consternation, confusing languages, causing chaos, refuting rational arguments, lying. Above: Pepe the Frog, a figure appropriated from Matt Furie’s comic strip series Boy’s Club and used by the alt-right movement in racist, anti-Semitic and negationist memes, banners, t-shirts, etc.


What can we learn from artistic and post-artistic practices – both in their visual and performative dimensions – when it comes to voicing protest, opposing power and imagining alternatives, both in reality and the imagination?


Post-artistic practices (as Jerzy Ludwiński suggested at the beginning of the 1970s) have lost the characteristics that would allow them to be recognised as art, which include: clearly attributed authorship, materiality, museum architecture, titles, autonomy, specific duration and uniqueness, among other features. The practices in question, as well as the objects that result from them (if they exist at all), are seldom deprived of all these characteristics at the same time or immediately. It would be difficult to define these practices as “art after art” or anti-art. They are rather art beyond art. Post-art may inhabit such environments as political protest, food cooperatives, free universities, crypto-currency circulation, ecological activism and scholarly residency centres. Post-art is not limited by museum regulations: don’t touch, don’t copy, don’t use. Thus, post-artistic tools offer us immense possibilities as weapons of political resistance. Post-artistic practices stimulate and organise the political imagination. They are not models of a situation outside the art world; they are not art devoted to something. They are art inside something, within something, art which is that something. In the photograph: in 2016 Cannupa Hanska Luger, an artist from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, created mirror shields (and circulated instructions on how to make them) which were used in confrontations with the police during brutally quashed protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The policemen were thus able to see the mirror reflections of their own faces in the shields held by the protesters. Luger took inspiration from photographs of mirror shields from Ukraine’s Maidan, which he had found online.


Images sources
  1. http://tillmans.co.uk/campaign-eu

  2. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/pepe-the-frog

  3. http://www.cannupahanska.com/mniwiconi/


Sebastian Cichocki is a critic, writer, chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and cofounder of the Consortium for Postartistic Practice
http://artmuseum.pl/


Kuba Szreder

Do images have the power of protesting and the agency to introduce change? Is this power historically determined?

It is people who protest, not their products. Of course, protesting people make use of images as well as their own competence in creating and interpreting them. It is banal to say that images can release themselves from human intention or the original senses attached to them. No philosophical treatises are necessary to see it – it is enough to watch Polish television or fascists marching on the anniversary of an anti-fascist uprising, who mix symbols of fascism and anti-fascism in a truly postmodern fashion. Importantly, however, in a situation of political threat, artistic competences which had previously been lulled by warm water in the taps [a common metaphor describing the politics of the previous Polish government – trans. note], art market drip, or poorly paid (but stable) employment at the academy, begin to reveal their potential. Students of the Academy of Fine Arts begin to paint banners, practicing the “art of democracy”; graphic artists organise visual emergency units; and seemingly museified artistic actions (such as Akademia Ruchu’s performance Justice is the Stronghold of Poland’s Power and Permanence), previously known from black and white photographs, regain their colours once performed in front of the Presidential Palace. At the same time, Warsaw is witnessing the protests of angry “Żubrzyce / European Bison Ladies” (against patriarchy, the working conditions in art, the crisis of democracy), which raises the concerns of right-wing news-portal reporters and directors of artistic institutions. To make it clear, the art of democracy does not need to seek actualisation during demonstrations or in the aesthetics of barricades and banners (although I recommend devising, painting and carrying them as a sort of plastic arts political integration exercise). It might come in the form of the Nomadic Shtetl Archive, whose mirrored facades reflect the spirit of small Jewish towns, Monument to a Peasant, which travels around Poland like a mobile agora, “Polish Mothers in the Clearing”, who travel to the Vatican, plastic arts activities on tree stumps, poetic camps in the primeval forest [initiatives in response to the much-contested environmental policies of the current Polish government – trans. note], plastic arts actions against evictions, or re-enactment groups that liberate conceptual art from dusty archive shelves. As Antonio Negri said, beauty in the situation of social upheaval becomes a republican practice of freedom, a collective creation of social reality, a play with form, the poetry of the everyday. The point is to stick your tongue out at nationalism, to gain a new sense of realism, to demand the impossible.


How does this power work? What does it mean for an image to be politically efficacious? Is it a power of uniting or rather a power of dividing?

Images can be used in many different ways. Fights using images have been waged for decades – they did not start yesterday, they will not finish tomorrow. Fighting Polish Woman versus Poland with fascist tendencies: while women who use the symbol of Fighting Poland in their emancipatory struggles are chased through the courts, the police protect fascists who wear the same symbol on their medium-sized male briefs. Another “curious” story relates to the logo of the Solidarity trade union, appropriated by the participants of women’s protests from the work by Sanja Iveković, who in turn had appropriated it from posters that promoted voting in the first democratic elections in Poland. Solidarity (the “independent” trade union) has threatened to sue the protesters – a decision that the creator of the logo opposes, rightly arguing that the organisers of Polish Women on Strike are closer to the ethos of the initial Solidarity than the yellow trade union that insolently appropriates its (not only visual) heritage.


What can we learn from artistic and post-artistic practices – both in their visual and performative dimensions – when it comes to voicing protest, opposing power and imagining alternatives, both in reality and the imagination?

Above all, we can learn that irony and playing with form are the practice of freedom, embodied diversity and the autonomous power of the imagination, which can be used by all, not only by the few. These characteristics manifest themselves with full force in moments where history accelerates (rushes like a pilot in the fog). Only then does art become the practice of everyday life. A symbol, image or poster becomes dangerous when it captures the imagination and is raised by plurality. However, the point is not the massive absorption of images, but rather the propagation of their creation. Such situations reveal the creativity of many people whose reaction to a threat consists of aesthetic play with conventions, with language, with images. Using Stephen Wright’s terminology, we can say that the art of users manifests itself in the fact that they make use of their own competence, saturating demonstrations – and also the situations of everyday “weak resistance” described by Ewa Majewska – with a coefficient of art. It is the art of gleaning, the art of hacking, looking for loopholes, picking holes. It is symbolic piggybacking. The art that happens beyond the sacrosanct conventions of authorship or objecthood. In such a dispersed field, deprived of its own territory, art becomes dangerous; it ceases to be a barren game of recognition – a game whose arena can be found in times of social stagnation in the institutions of artistic or academic autonomy. As much as these institutions undoubtedly play an important social role – they are a function of the collective development of the autonomy of the mind or imagination – they are nevertheless subject to entropy, they drift towards boring self-centredness and scholastic tedium. As Jerzy Ludwiński – a figure often quoted in the circles of the Consortium for Post-Artistic Practices – wrote in his essay about post-artistic times: “It is highly likely that today we are no longer dealing with art. We simply overlooked the moment when it transformed into something entirely different, something that already escapes our capacity to name it. Beyond any doubt, what we are dealing with today has a greater potential.” Such post-art, based on the principles of exterritorial interdependence and cross-pollination, does not consist of replicating daily life, but in transgressing its conventions. It is particularly loathed by fascists, who – as Umberto Eco wrote – are disturbed by questioning the obvious, find otherness repulsive, hate the Enlightenment autonomy in all its manifestations, and whose hierarchical populism is essentially anti-democratic. Art may actually also be anti-democratic if it allows itself to be reduced to the role of embellishing corporate lounges or bourgeois salons. It is thus a fallacy to recognise all artistic forms as essentially emancipatory. Art (akin to other products of history) should be approached dialectically. Art not so much is but rather may become radically democratic when the protesting plurality makes good use of it.


Kuba Szreder is a curator, critic, Assistant Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw
https://wzkw.asp.waw.pl/katedra-teorii-kultury/


Wilhelm Sasnal

Do images have the power of protesting and the agency to introduce change? Is this power historically determined?

No, they don’t – in the contemporary world there are not enough viewers of painting. The visual arts are not the same as, for instance, film. Painting is something completely marginal.

My paintings do not have the direct power of protesting. They are politically engaged, they have a historical or political context. But what matters are the consequences and agency – (my) painting may be a protest, but a silent and personal one.

It has no agency.

For my last exhibition I created a poster that was completely autonomous, seemingly unrelated to the exhibition, but it was engaged.

Graphic works protest, posters protest. They work instantly – here and now. There is no need to break through their layers, as is the case with paintings.

For me protest paintings are works by Otto Dix and George Grosz after World War I, Picasso’s Guernica, but also paintings by Gruppa.

And these are not good times for painting, because it is slow, intimate.

Bombarding with petty images or photographs – this works. Instagram works.

But it is short-lived – like our protests.

Painting is slow, like a protracted sound.


How does this power work? What does it mean for an image to be politically efficacious? Is it a power of uniting or rather a power of dividing?

Images have such a nature because they are silent, they are mute, they do not scream. They might have some kind of soothing, conciliatory properties, but this is only my intuition.

The word does not appear – there is only the image.


What can we learn from artistic and post-artistic practices – both in their visual and performative dimensions – when it comes to voicing protest, opposing power and imagining alternatives, both in reality and the imagination?

It is impressive that posters – graphic works, often anonymous and appropriated by the crowd – acquire a certain rank. They support resistance, opposition. A certain unpredictability is interesting; sometimes something becomes a symbol by chance. It gains approval. It becomes overgrown. It quickly acquires meaning and then quickly disappears.

This is a time of short-lived images-symbols – this may be the reason why it is so difficult to gather people around, make them interested, retain them.

What matters is irony, ironic thinking, ridiculing.

Belittling the symbols is something that may stir a discussion.

There are a few symbols that simply ask for it – those overgrown with national pride.


Wilhelm Sasnal is a Polish visual artist
https://www.antonkerngallery.com/artists/wilhelm_sasnal


Żubrzyce / European Bison Ladies

Do images have the power of protesting and the agency to introduce change? Is this power historically determined?

Protest is a visual demonstration of presence. City scenery and postulates articulated in a specific way form part of it. ŻUBRZYCE / European Bison Ladies adopt the formula of DISSENT: NIE NIE NO NO is our fundamental message. Before specific work can begin, we articulate our dissent, our criticism, we show what is wrong. We consider naming oppression to be the lifeblood of change.


How does this power work? What does it mean for an image to be politically efficacious? Is it a power of uniting or rather a power of dividing?

The images of our performative actions mark a clash of unexpected factors:

1. A group of women: ŻUBRZYCE, Polish/European (European Bison Ladies), associated with calm and archaic power. The largest and strongest mammals, they live in herds; at the same time they are akin to symbols, under protection; they have lived on this territory forever, the oldest and biggest animals in Europe, acting together in solidarity: a monolith, a group. 

In Polish, “żubrzyce” is a seldom-used noun, seemingly difficult to pronounce, which makes it ostentatiously local, whereas our image, masks and NIE/NO banners are ostentatiously global and legible (American Bison, European Bison).

2. Articulating dissent to evil: NIE NIE NIE NO NO NO – this is our fundamental postulate.

We are against all oppression of various social, cultural, minority and oppressed groups. We name evil, anti-values, obstacles and oppression. We restore the significance of contemporary and fundamental values; we name what is NOT a value. We believe that positive postulates articulated onto the obscured field of oppression, onto blurred values, onto appropriated values, will not be put into practice; therefore we begin by showing the banners/articulating NO; we name oppression, we enumerate anti-values. We prepare the basis, the ground for change. We think that superimposing even the best postulate of improvement onto diseased tissue does not yield a result: the corrective force of a postulate melts in contact with dominant (or creeping) oppression, and the false use of the “quasi-symmetry” of democracy contaminates even the best of pursuits. If we say NO to misogyny, it means that the thus-named oppression does not belong among the values of democracy, and it will not remain invisible, and dissent to it will acquire a specific form and therefore become possible to repeat. It is a tool and language of dissent against the invisible floating wrongs that have spilled “democratically” in Poland.

Democracy cannot give voice to destruction and hatred on the same level as it does to construction and tolerance. Negative phenomena must be called by their name and rejected. There is no symmetry in accepting and tolerating good and evil

If the question concerns uniting/dividing, then we unite everyone who finds the current situation oppressive. Everybody says NO with us. Each and every one can be a ŻUBRZYCA.


What can we learn from artistic and post-artistic practices – both in their visual and performative dimensions – when it comes to voicing protest, opposing power and imagining alternatives, both in reality and the imagination?

By talking about or actually visualising natural power (ŻUBRZYCE) while also indicating evil – the backwards cultural, social and political force, full of hatred, negative – through its criticism and negation (NO NO NO NO) we offer a space to positively name what is valuable and can be repaired.

We combine the images of power, force and survival with the voices of the inhabitants of these territories since time immemorial; we refute criticism and the appropriation of space (nobody can tell ŻUBRZYCE: “you’re not from here”); appearing in masks of strong, archaic, wild animals that have survived, we refute the arguments concerning our appearance, which may or may not conform to invented and imposed standards that are oppressive and which function as a tool of rejecting solidarity and the community of postulating women – and that’s not all.

Everybody says NO with us. Each and every one can be a ŻUBRZYCA.

It is a different vision and visualisation of democracy – which may work only in a society with democratic foundations, and not in a society of non-equality, which steals the tools of democracy and uses them to impose the oppression of inequality, exclusion and hatred. WE SAY NO TO THE FOUNDATIONS OF OPPRESSION.


Żubrzyce are a Polish feminist artistic collective
https://www.facebook.com/zubrzyce/


Aleksandra Jach

Go Vegan!

My first encounter with protesting images happened absolutely by chance. Somewhere in a second-hand shop I came across a t-shirt showing a cow with a heart shape inscribed into the animal’s silhouette and the inscription “Go Vegan!” above it. I was 15 years old, I ate meat and I didn’t know English. I asked older people and I got a satisfying answer. I didn’t know anyone vegan. Frankly speaking, I could not imagine such a lifestyle at that point, but the t-shirt was great. I had no intention to stop wearing it just because it promoted something that I did not practice myself. During the few months when it served as my favourite garment, I had a range of conversations about not eating meat, killing animals, and the production of food. I began to realise the essence of the process in which I was taking part as the bearer of a certain message: that the manifesto worked independently of me. And therefore, in reply to questions from the editors of Widok: Yes, images do have the power of protesting: they have agency and introduce change; the character of their impact depends on the historical, political, social context, etc.

Today “Go Vegan!” would not be so powerful in Warsaw, a city that has recently been recognised as one of the vegan capitals of Europe. But it could turn out that I would eventually come across a meat-lover who believes in the conspiracy of “vegans, cyclists and ecologists”.

Reflecting on the political efficaciousness of protesting images, their power to divide and unite, and the conclusions that may be drawn from the artistic or post-artistic field, I’d like to concentrate on two questions: about the circulation of images, and the process in which protest transforms into revolution. A discussion about the way any kind of images work, their potentiality or efficaciousness, cannot be pursued without the awareness of the structures in which they function or in which we situate them. The images that acquire the greatest power are those that are properly visible, situated in proper communication networks, primarily at the online level. The presence of specific visual information on key social media platforms, supported by proper algorithms, tags and meta-data – invisible to the average user – shapes its position in regard to the mass of other information with which it competes for attention. Images do not work individually, but as a certain conglomerate of data – visual, textual and algorithmic. Such a dynamic of information spread requires a sufficiently clear message. It may adopt different forms – for instance a chart, infographic, or another kind of scheme that is associated with greater credibility. It is only an illusion. “All data is cooked”, as Geoffrey Bowker says.

Observing the manner in which the iconography of the most recent protests was constructed – both international and local – I get the impression that the specific visions used by these different groups are of secondary importance. It is also not very important who devised and created a certain image, in what technique and edition. It is not artists (understood as authors collaborating with cultural institutions) who lead the way in creating the visual side of the protests, but most often it is the “general intellect” (visual, in this case) that collectively generates the most powerful/visible content.

Writing about Occupy Wall Street and the protests in Tahrir Square, W. J. T. Mitchell is delighted by the multiplicity of images that accompanied both. He takes it as a proof of “plurality-in-unity”, and therefore of the preservation of various perspectives within a general opposition. Mitchell approaches the question of protest in a conceptual way, especially when he concentrates on the events in New York. He takes interest in the idea of “empty space” created by protesters through their reluctance to concretise their demands. In the term “occupation” and the activity it implies, the author sees the potential of highlighting the heterogeneity of approaches: a coming community...

As I think about the demonstrations that have taken place in 2017 in various places in Poland, I can see how important it is for the images of protest to mix. It might be that the volume of causes worth fighting for in the current situation is so high that occupation will not be enough. Girls dressed in black attend demonstrations in defence of the country’s Constitution. Mingling with them are “Żubrzyce” (European Bison Ladies) who didn’t limit their activities to the Białowieża primeval forest. Finally, a group affiliated with the Consortium for Post-Artistic Practices creates a modern-day rendition of a happening by Akademia Ruchu from the 1980s. I believe that such and similar activities have the chance to shape the networks in which these protesting images function. It is only through their shared presence in different fields, mixing signs, and the openness to quotation or borrowing that we can show that all fields of social and political activity (fighting for women’s rights, nature or the state’s Constitution) are equally important and influence each other, thus strengthening the images’ messages.


Aleksandra Jach is a writer, researcher and curator at Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź
http://msl.org.pl/