Revisiting The Art-Life Balance In “The Square”
The film The Square (2017) does not have a tight plot; quite on the contrary it can be said to be built on vignettes, or, even more precisely, by performances. Now, ‘performance’, of course, recalls Performance Art, the art movement that started out in the 1960s; and as The Square is dealing with the contemporary art world, this connection is in no way accidental. Yet, the movie’s protagonist also explicitly cites the work of Nicolas Bourriaud, who wrote extensively on the art of the 1990s, which he differentiated from the issues and problems that were raised by the art movements of the previous decades (cf. Bourriaud 2002: 7f.). He distinguished the two in as far as Performance Art was following in the footsteps of avant-garde modernism, with its attempts to disrupt the standardised flow of our daily lives, and to sketch out bold utopias in form of manifestos. Meanwhile, for the art of the 1990s, or as he calls it, Relational Art, “the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real” (ibid.: 13). The Square opens up a discussion between these two conceptions of the role of art within society, the one leading up to the ’60s/’70s, and the other starting out in the 1990s, which are based on two different interpretations of modern life. Let us look at them separately and see what different forms they take within the movie.
a. Performance Art. The transfiguration of our daily lives
Performance 1. Christian (Claes Bang), the protagonist and a museum curator, is on the street, walking to work. Suddenly, a woman’s voice is heard, crying for help. After some moments of indecisiveness, he and another man halt and wait for the woman who comes running towards them. With tears in her eyes, she tells them that a man is coming after her and asks them for protection; and sure enough, shortly after, a man runs towards her, which the two accidental helpers, standing between him and her, intercept. The man seems to give up and walks away begrudgingly, the woman thanks them, and the two men congratulate each other on de-escalating the situation. A few moments later, the punchline: Christian is missing his cell phone and wallet. What had happened a few moments earlier was but an act, a performance.
Performance 2. Clearly the most memorable scene of the movie is the one set in the restaurant. It is the gala celebrating the opening of a new exhibition, and right before dinner starts, the guests are invited to witness an artistic performance. Standard routine. An announcer establishes the setting of the performance: The jungle — “Soon you’ll be confronted by a wild animal. … If you show fear, the animal will sense it. … You can hide in the herd, safe in the knowledge that someone else will be the prey.” Entrance of the artist: A muscular and topless man on crutches, but not for support, rather to imitate the gait of a gorilla, which he has transformed into. The audience laughs at his ape-like sounds. The performer moves to a fellow artist, who is part of the audience, and starts teasing him, putting his finger into his ear or his napkin on his head. At first, the artist plays along, but it quickly becomes apparent that the performer goes too far; unable to stop the harassment, the poor artist is chased out of the hall. The audience becomes uncomfortable, so Christian tries to end the performance by presenting the performer and clapping. To no avail: The performer stays in his role and shuts up Christian and the clapping audience. At this point, everyone is just looking at their plates; the performer’s appearance, with his muscular body and heavy crutches, becomes menacing. He now starts harassing a woman, at first playing with her hair, then suddenly pulling her to the floor, in an act that can only be described as an attempted rape. At first, nobody reacts to the woman’s cries for help, but as soon as one man stands up and starts hitting the performer, others rise, and start striking and kicking the artist, thus ending the performance.
Of course, there is a minor detail that differentiates the first event described above from an actual performance: It is a theft. This means that it had actual material consequences, while art, provocative as it might be, is supposedly always bound by the contract of inconsequence to the viewer or participant. Even if an artistic performance will potentially make us uncomfortable (which is often the goal), we still know that in the end we will get out unharmed. And yet, the whole event does follow structurally the intention of what Performance Art was all about: The transfiguration of the everyday life through an event-like disruption (cf. Fischer-Lichte 2004: 315; “Wiederverzauberung der Welt”). After ‘helping out’ the desperate woman, the two men are excited about the rush of adrenaline and having done something that they didn’t know they were capable of. Directing the audience to such a moment, where it has no choice but to step out of its comfort zone, has always been an important aspect of Performance Art.
When Marina Abramović mutilated herself in her performance of Lips of Thomas in 1975, as described by Fischer-Lichte (cf. ibid.: 9f.), the performance culminated when part of the audience could no longer bear remaining mere witnesses, but stormed out to help the bleeding artist. The ‘point’ here, of course, was to bring the audience to a point, where it decides to break the institutional frame of remaining mere viewers towards an ethical decision borne out of an instinctive desire to help. The same goes for the performance in the restaurant described above: In the end, the men of the audience themselves become animalistic in a purely biological instinct to defend one of their tribe against the aggressor. It is obvious that this was the performer’s intention right from the start: To prove that subliminally, under the cultivated guise of the everyday life, there still run the currents of instinct and tribalism. In as such, this performance, just like Abramović’s, follow the footsteps of an artistic conception that was borne out of the modernist avant-garde: To disrupt a calcified life that has been wedged into processes of rationalisation and habitualisation.
This conception of art, with its prime focus on shock (cf. Bürger 2007), as conceptualized (for example) by Sergei Eisenstein or in Brecht’s estrangement (from which Walter Benjamin drew inspiration), builds on a conception of the modern daily life as being completely rationalised, a machine-like entity, which has essentially alienated people from each other. Not only industrialisation and the development of the assembly line, but also urbanisation, with its busyness and perpetual duties, with the standardised channels of communication and transportation, have created a system of synchronicity but also of segmentation and fragmentation; a trend that has continued till today — for example, the meeting app Bumble has a section for dating, for friendship, and for networking. Within each segment, there are specific sets of rules that determine our behaviour: dating isn’t friendship isn’t networking. And within each segment, our bodies need to perform: performing in work, performing in love, performing in one’s social role. It is a world where everything is in perfect order, but in its anonymity it is an essentially inhumane one, and this is what the avant-garde fought against.
So it is this that the avant-garde, and by extension, Performance Art, wanted to disrupt; a line of critique that can be traced up to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and later. But of course, not each disruption is aesthetic, or even desirable at all, as we could see in the theft above. A terrorist attack disrupts the lives of many people, but neither can this be a solution, nor does it break through the alienated order of things (even though it also awakens animalistic instincts in us, of hate and revenge). How do we differentiate between a legitimate (i.e. aesthetic) disruption and an illegitimate one (like a theft, or a terrorist attack)?
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If an automated life is essentially alienated, then the answer to that must essentially lie in authenticity; as alienation implies a deviation, a distortion of something antecedent and ‘untouched’. Theft is no more an authentic encounter than the standardised exchange between cashier and buyer, inherently channelled through economic processes of exploitation and inequality; a terrorist, blinded by indoctrination, can kill his fellow human beings in cold blood because he does not perceive them as equals. If we look at what the performances of Abramović or the performer in the restaurant were after, the reaction they wanted to elicit, then it can be best described as a somatically charged ethical action that was triggered by a disgust for human suffering and injustice. This offers us a category, by which we can judge if a disruption was authentic or not.
It is this somatic ethical experience that Adorno elaborated in the last chapter of his Negative Dialectics, the “Meditations on Metaphysics”: “the new imperative gives us a bodily sensation of the moral addendum — bodily, because it is now the practical abhorrence of the unbearable physical agony to which individuals are exposed” (Adorno 2004: 365). The authentic can thereby be reactivated by a reconstitution of the body through an experience — no longer the working, functioning body, but a pre-social, pre-conditioned one that witnesses an inherent (if also instinctive) sympathy of human beings for each other — to protect the artist from her own self-harm, to protect the woman harassed by the performance artist. It is not the animalistic or instinctive that becomes the ideal of such a conception, not necessarily a Rousseau-ian paradise, but rather the discovery of the somatic disgust against suffering that awakens an ethos: that suffering should not be, and of a deep sympathy of human beings for each other that has been tarnished by class, ideological, and economic dynamics. The corporeal reaction opens up the chance to a different relation of the body to the outside world, just as much as to fellow living beings. The goal, then, of this “shock to thought, communicating vibrations to the cortex, touching the nervous and cerebral system directly” (Deleuze 1989: 156), is to produce an action (helping the artist, helping the woman), and by that an acting body (to speak with Benjamin: a politicised body); but a form of action that is inherently different from one’s day-to-day business. It is to reconstitute “the sensory-motor unity, but by raising it to a supreme power” (ibid.: 161), which means that our reactions to outside events (like someone getting hurt) are authentic reactions, in as far as they are not filtered by socio-economic forces (cultivation, education, obligation). An authentic reaction is therefore one that genuinely originates from us and is in direct symmetry with the world — “there is a sensory-motor unity of nature and man, which means that nature must be named the non-different” (ibid.: 162). In short, such an attained authenticity would also reconstitute our autonomy. The alienated relation of humans to the world is also based on sensory-motor processes, in as far as it is based on action and productivity, but it has been distorted by processes that have reduced the subject to a machine-like entity, rendering its reactions mechanic and therefore spurious. The difference lies between a passive and heteronomous action, and an active and autonomous action.
The possibility of such a sympathy, as rare and hard to elicit as it is, feeds the imagination with forms of society that could render such interactions the norm — free from exploitation, from alienation, from suffering. This is why the avant-garde was so obtrusively utopian —be it in form of manifestos, or the experimentations with the communes of the ’60s and other “authentic” and “alternative” micro-societies (and cults). These set themselves apart from the ‘outside world’ as separate territories, untarnished by society’s demands, thereby also necessarily negating the actual state of the world as it is — full of wars, torture, famine, poverty, and exploitation. From this realisation that the world should not be as it is, that it should not continue in its current course, in short, this experience of estrangement (i.e. of the world becoming strange), arises a self-reflexion that allows us to change our behaviour towards the world and other human beings. This puts all hope into consciousness and its ability to change our habits and automatisms — once we’re aware of a bad habit, we can get rid of it. This motif stems from the Enlightenment, which conceptualised that self-awareness and self-reflexion about a situation would result in rational actions and ways of lives. This increased rationalisation of the world, as the thinkers of the Enlightenment envisaged it, would provide it with an order that inherently guarantees freedom and justice, mimetically aligning itself to a well-ordered cosmos. But such self-reflexion necessarily needs to find something beyond the swamp of alienation, which it intends to return to; it therefore necessitates authenticity (a possible authenticity as well) as a point of reference, lighting the way from beyond.
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But is this moment of instinctive elucidation not just as constructed as our normalised interactions? Can we not equally construct situations of competition and rage that are as biologically ‘authentic’ as our somatic desire to help each other? Are these instincts not rather tribal more than they are humanitarian, forcing these micro-communities to be as closed as the ‘inauthentic’ society? Did the avant-garde not enforce the modern tendencies to segmentation in its vast amount of –isms, as much as they strived for a pre-rational totality? The appeal to the irrational, instinctive, pre-rational in us was appropriated by other forces and interests not much after its ‘liberating’ interpretation in the avant-garde of the ’10s and ’20s — the propaganda machines of the 1930s, which have continued their work long after the fall of Nazi Germany, were just as happy to make use of such seemingly pre-rational dynamics. On the other hand, the ‘rational’ technological and scientific process, the way it was envisioned by the Enlightenment, lest it become inherently inhumane, needs to be linked to authenticity. If that link fails or becomes corrupted, there is nothing to prevent the efficient machinery of the concentration camps. With this double collapse, of the pre-rational as much as of the rational, this whole discourse faces an impasse. Following the thesis of Paul Virilio, one might even say that this whole discourse of authenticity “was from the beginning linked to the organization of war, state propaganda, ordinary fascism, historically and essentially” (Deleuze 1989: 165).
In The Square, this is shown in the development of the ad campaign for the new exhibition. As to arouse public attention, the marketing team decides to go with a provocative theme: A Swedish homeless child is blown up in front of the camera. The outrage is huge, the media reproaches the campaign with insensitivity towards the “vulnerable members of society,” as they say. And yet, this outraged appeal to ethics does not lead to a changed behaviour towards the homeless. Despite the ‘instinctive disgust’ against the explosion of a child, things run their old course — the beggars remain ignored. This leads to the following questions: Do such methods a) really reach an untouched authenticity, if these instincts can directly be exploited and appropriated for economic and political gains; b) necessarily lead to the intended reaction, an action that is genuinely human, and not potentially also to acts of revenge and discrimination; c) really lead to long-term changes, instead of mere adrenaline rushes.
What the scene with the ad campaign also uncovers, is a tendency that cannot be overlooked — namely the appropriation of methods of provocation for marketing by advertising firms, in the course of which art’s claim to autonomy becomes questionable. The ad in the movie, which was supposed to draw attention to the exhibition, uses methods that pertained to the avant-garde. Does that not mark the blurring of the lines between art and marketing, self-promotion, attention-seeking? If this is the case, then maybe art nowadays needs to be found somewhere else, in another space and with another set of problems.
b. Relational Art. Intersubjectivity and commitment
Performance 3. The museum organises a party where Christian meets the woman who has interviewed him earlier. They end up having sex. Of course, a one night stand is far from being an artistic performance, but the awkward and unerotic way the scene is staged makes it look more like the pre-planned stages of a ritual, a sequence of practiced actions and movements, in which the two are more actors than agents. But the central thing comes in a following, equally awkward scene, where the interviewer confronts Christian about the one night stand and asks him, if what happened that night didn’t matter to him, etc. (he even forgot her name). Now, the scene is awkward because we feel that it is inappropriate for her to confront him about it — after all, wasn’t it clear that it was all only a one night thing? It was a one night stand by the book: hooking up after a party, etc. And yet, is not the question raised here of the non-committal nature of such human encounters that we seem to be taking for granted? And if a one night stand is marked by its inconsequence, a trait that primarily pertains to autonomous art, can we not say that it is our daily life that has become aestheticised?
Performance 4. After Christian’s phone gets stolen, he tracks it down on his laptop and sees the building it’s in. How should he find out in which apartment the thieves live? His assistant comes up with an idea: to spread an angry, accusing letter in each of the apartments, telling the thieves to give back the phone, the wallet and the cufflinks, and to bring them to a Subway where he’ll pick them up. They decide to go for it, even though the building has 13 floors, forcing Christian to laboriously spread the letters in each apartment’s front door. While the whole thing has a specific goal, getting the stolen things back, in its exorbitance and excess it has something of an artistic performance. And indeed, Christian gets his possessions back, even with the money still in the wallet. But something unexpected happens: An immigrant boy waits for him in the Subway and reproaches Christian for accusing him of being a thief, as his parents now believe that he is one and have taken away his toys. Christian tries to get rid of him, but the boy is persistent, and later even waits for him in front of his apartment, demanding an apology. Christian tells him that it was “nothing personal,” but he later decides to apologize with a video call. When that doesn’t work, he goes to the building where the boy lives and tries to apologize in person, but a neighbour tells him that the family has already moved out.
One might say that the two examples above only tangentially remind us of artistic performances. But what is remarkable here, is that they both draw a different picture of daily life than the other examples above. Of course, the one night stand, in its ‘ritualised’ procedure, reminds us of an understanding of daily life as it is based on the process of alienation. But what’s in focus in both examples is something very different: the non-committed nature of our relation to the world. Just as much as Christian thought that the one night stand wouldn’t have an aftermath, he didn’t think that his letters could have another consequence than him getting his things back; he doesn’t feel responsible for the boy’s troubles. While the first conception sketched out above, based on avant-gardist ideas, paints the image of a dense net of daily duties, here we have encounters that don’t really ‘touch’ us, don’t really pertain to us. As Deleuze phrases it concisely:
“The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film” (ibid.: 171).
This is another vision of modernity, where our relation to the world is not marked by total rationalisation, but rather by an indifference to the things happening to us. This does not necessarily contradict the first vision, as it can just as well be said that the reduction of humans to ‘machines’ has made them more indifferent to what’s happening to them. And yet, it leads to different answers to the questions, what we should do about this. If disrupting the ‘machine’ (seemingly) offered the possibility of uncovering the authentic current running below it, then the weakened relation to the world is, quite the contrary, counteracted by tightening our bond to the world.
Deleuze’s Cinema Books, apart from being film-theoretic treaties and commentaries on Bergson’s Matter and Memory, also sketch out this changed vision of modernity as it was first reflected in the avant-garde of the ’10s and ’20s (where film as art has begun), and then, impacted by historical circumstances, in the post-WWII art movies from Italian Neorealism on. While the avant-garde movies preferred singular moments of shock that would inspire us to change the course of the world, something happened after the end of WWII; namely what Deleuze calls the loss of the sensory-motor bond. This specifically refers to an inability to react to the outside world, the confusion about how to move in the destroyed European cities, the inability to handle the horrors that were witnessed. Instead of a proud monument to humanity’s progress, as it was envisioned in the 19th century, the world’s rationalisation no longer appears as an inherently rational project; in the end, we are no longer sure what kind of world we are living in. We have, as Deleuze says in explicit reference to Kierkegaard, lost our faith into the world.
This also means that we are no longer confronted with a body that is expected to perform (be it authentically or not), but rather a body that inherently fails — fails to fill the world with meaning, to produce anything lasting, to do good without at the same time causing incredible harm. If ‘just being rational’, as the faith in progress following the Enlightenment stated, is no longer the remedy to create a better world, then it’s simply no longer possible to decide what is to be done. This denies the access to any authenticity that could resolve the condition of alienation, and leaves, as the only ‘sensible’ option, only indifference — what Deleuze calls the “pure optical and sound situations” (ibid.: 172). Hence, this vision of modernity is much bleaker than the one above, as a utopian escape into an authentic world with a restoration of genuine sensory-motor schemata (performing body, meaningful action) is no longer conceivable. What is needed, is something else: “We need an ethic or a faith, which makes fools laugh; it is not a need to believe in something else, but a need to believe in this world, of which fools are a part” (ibid.: 173). But how can such a faith be conceptualized?
Considering that the ethos sketched out in part a., the one defining the art world from the avant-garde up to Performance Art, is confronted with insurmountable difficulties, we can negatively point to the elements that such a new ethos would need to possess. 1) If the event-like disruption of the alienated course of things, culminating in (active and autonomous) action, fails, then the alternative must lie not in a singular action, but an overreaching stance (mode of existence); 2) if the ethos doesn’t originate from a somatic reaction, it cannot pertain to a specific faculty (instinct, reason, imagination), but must be inherently problematic; 3) if the answer doesn’t lie in a reacquired productivity of the body (e.g. reappropriation of labour), then the body is inherently a failing one (unable to realise meaningful actions); 4) if a return to authenticity proves impossible, then the alternative must like in a certain constructivism; 5) if denying our societal and worldly relations to attain a state of autonomy doesn’t lead to the desired result, then such a conception must necessarily be relational and committing; 6) if an escape is equally impossible and/or undesirable, then the world we are turning towards must be immanent to our daily lives; 7) if the answer doesn’t lie in a withdrawal to exclusive territories and cannot be attained by confrontation with the actual state of the world, the new conception must be participatory (inter-subjective) and nomadic.
Discussing all these points extensively, or even evaluating if such a new conception can hold, cannot be done here. But let us sketch out in simplified form what it could look like, with help of the theories of Deleuze and Bourriaud.
If we start out with the basic assumption that every relation is based on three elements — the ‘subject’, the ‘relation itself’ and the ‘object’ — then we can group the points above as following: 1–3 concern the ‘subject’: its stance, its faculties, its body; 4 and 5 concern the ‘relation itself’, its nature as constructivist and committing; 6 and 7 concern the ‘object’, the society and the world, which are now understood as being participatory, nomadic, and immanent.
The ‘subject’. “The sensory-motor break makes man a seer who finds himself struck by something intolerable in the world, and confronted by something unthinkable in thought” (Deleuze 1989: 169). The collapse of overarching sense-structures (be it religion, the state, or traditional humanist conceptions) following the ‘disenchantment of the world‘ has been part of the cultural discourse for a long time now, and it has reached its peak not only in the historical experiences of humanity’s cruelty during WWII, but also due to the monstrosities of colonialism. While certain social theories, as much as the efforts of the avant-garde, but also Existentialism, have tried to propose alternative structures of sense and meaning (even in light of the absurdity of life), it seems that they all, based on an unsustainable notion of authenticity, were bound to fail. It seems like the only alternative left for us is total indifference. For if we are mere visitors in this world, are we not to travel lightly? To give it all away as easily as Kierkegaard’s Abraham, but without expecting the world to be given back to us? But it is exactly this experience of something “intolerable in the world” that shakes up this nihilist equilibrium. This might recall the disruptive experience of the avant-garde sketched out above, as its ethos was also borne out of the experience of something that should not be. And yet, “believing is no longer believing in another world, or in a transformed world. It is only, it is simply believing in the body. It is giving discourse to the body, and, for this purpose, reaching the body before discourses, before words, before things are named” (ibid.: 172f.).
Is this once again the return to an authentic body, untouched by society’s grasp? We would miss the point if we drew the distinction once again between authenticity and alienation. It is not about an action that should be facilitated, but rather about finding a mode of existence to face the world — like timid people that feel that they ‘don’t belong in a room’ and assume a corresponding posture. It is not about the body’s relearning to perform, but its general stance towards the world, ways of ‘being in the world’ which, even in indifference, remains a stance as we face a world that we cannot grasp: “The categories of life are precisely the attitudes of the body, its postures.” (ibid.: 189) — “To think is to learn what a non-thinking body is capable of, its capacity, its postures” (ibid.).
Confronted with the problem of our stance towards the world, we are faced with a choice, as “choice no longer concerns a particular term, but the mode of existence of the one who chooses” (ibid.: 177). Choosing one’s mode of existence is not the same kind of choice as choosing one’s favorite flavor of ice cream. It is inherently problematic, as there is a “difficulty of being,” a “powerlessness in the heart of thought” (ibid.: 166), as there is no faculty in us (reason, imagination, instinct) that could point us to the right choice. This task will necessarily fail: “There is no such thing as any possible ‘end of history’ or ‘end of art’, because the game is being forever re-enacted, in relation to its function. A new game is announced as soon as the social setting radically changes, without the meaning of the game itself being challenged” (Bourriaud 2002: 18f.). But still, we are perpetually confronted with the choice of our mode of existence, and it is this, which perpetually hinders our turning away from the world. And it is in seeking for this “discourse of the body” that we learn that what is happening in this world does indeed concern us, just as Christian learns in the end that his actions have had very real consequences and that he has an obligation towards the ones affected by it — even though he realizes this too late.
The ‘relation’. When our relation to the world is tightened, our encounters also matter again, they create an ob-ligation, in contrast to duties. While duties are owed within singular, structured encounters and segments (I ‘owe’ the money for the things I buy in the supermarket), obligations affirm that our actions are committing and affect the world as much as the people around us. As the text of the film’s eponymous artwork, The Square, says: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.”
That an artificial frame, the artwork, is needed to establish this relation, is indicative that what is at stake here is not an authentic community, but, as we’ve seen above, something that originates from a choice, namely the choice for a mode of existence. Christian’s careless life of non-concern was just as much a matter of choice as another one, and it was neither ‘less authentic’ nor is his latter ethical realization ‘more truthful’. They are simply different modes that originate from different choices. Both are equally constructed. No outside criteria, be they instinctive, rational or imaginary, can ‘prove’ to Christian that he has lived wrongly, but it seems that as soon as he allows for the encounter between himself and the boy to happen, he also steps out of his bubble of indifference. Considering that the path to any authenticity is blocked, the only alternative remains with a certain constructivism (for which, of course, there are also very different interpretations).
The ‘object’. “[I]t is not in the name of a better or truer world that thought captures the intolerable in the world, but, on the contrary, it is because this world is intolerable that it can no longer think a world or think itself. The intolerable is no longer a serious injustice, but the permanent state of daily banality” (Deleuze 1989: 169f.). While the modernist confrontation with the world lead to impulses of escape, of finding an alternative, this conception remains purely immanent. This also means that the relation to the world must not occur with ‘another’ world (the world of the future, of an afterlife), but within the world we are already inhabiting. So, when Bourriaud asks: “is it still possible to generate relationships with the world?” (Bourriaud 2002: 9), then he, just like Deleuze, means this world.
Therefore, the change Bourriaud sees in Relational Art, in contrast to avant-garde conceptions, lies in its chance of “learning to inhabit the world in a better way, instead of trying to construct it based on a preconceived idea of historical evolution” (ibid.: 13), as it was sketched out not only in artistic manifestos, but also in social theories. This also means that “the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist” (ibid.).
The world as it is does not necessarily need to be negated, as it was in the modernist conceptions; if there is ‘no escape’, then maybe it is within the world as it is, that change needs to occur, which changes the status of utopia: “Social utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies” (ibid.: 31), so that “[t]hese days, utopia is being lived on a subjective, everyday basis, in the real time of concrete and intentionally fragmentary experiments. It seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbours in the present than to bet on happier tomorrows” (ibid.: 45). Such an art ultimately “tightens the space of relation” (ibid.: 15), instead of trying to find alternative spaces, like the commune of the ’60s and its many cults. It is no longer about negating the world as it is by means of confrontation and “conflict,” but about with help of “negotiations, bonds and co-existences” (ibid.: 45), giving way to “convivial situations,” which are “part of a ‘friendship’ culture’” (ibid.: 32). We are no longer to withdraw ourselves to an area of autonomy with a selected group of people, but to move freely within the societal territory — in some sort of nomadism.
There is one scene in The Square that offers a vision of such a conviviality: Christian is in the mall, sitting on a bench with his daughters’ many shopping bags, waiting for them. Suddenly, he gets a call, so that he urgently needs to get back to work. He asks different people for help to guard his shopping bags while he searches for his daughters, but nobody reacts. He then sees a beggar at the mall’s entrance and asks him to guard his things, which the latter, confused, obliges to. The one seeking help is now in the role of the helper and for a short moment, these two form a friendly micro-community. An example that Bourriaud cites seems to be going into a similar direction, namely Jens Haaning’s Turkish Jokes from 1994: The artist “broadcasts funny stories in Turkish through a loudspeaker in a Copenhagen square,” and thus “produces in that split second a micro-community, one made up of immigrants brought together by collective laughter which upsets their exile situation” (ibid.: 17).
What happens in these two examples? We could say, “the ‘deviation’ and random encounter between two hitherto parallel elements” (ibid.: 19), as the beggar, who is part of a society running parallel to the bourgeois one, and Christian meet (or the immigrant boy and Christian). In this context, Bourriaud speaks of “lasting encounters” created by art, which “turn out to be lasting from the moment when their components form a whole whose sense ‘holds good’ at the moment of their birth, stirring up new ‘possibilities of life’” (ibid.). The encounter between the beggar and Christian didn’t last, as it was only a gesture, not a stance, but it also shows us that in the end, art might not be happening where we are expecting it to happen — in galleries, auctions, workshops — but within daily life itself, which is full of such encounters, if we only allow them to happen, if only we allow for deviations in the straight lines of our habits. So we are not to counteract against segmentation by rediscovering a totality, but rather to find ways within these segments to open up potentials for new forms conviviality. For example, while it might be said that apps like Tinder segment the dating process, not only by channelling the communication through a specialized app, but also by dividing the process of getting acquainted (first visual attraction, then chatting, then meeting), they also offer the possibilities for people from different walks of life or day-to-day rhythms, which would normally ‘run parallel’ without meeting, to encounter each other (how often this really happens, is another question).
This might seem like an optimistic solution for a situation that started out so bleak. And while Bourriaud indeed seems to be a lot more optimistic than Deleuze, we must not forget that withstanding a condition without any access to authenticity or ‘Truth’, with the necessarily problematic structure pertaining to it, will always be the more difficult choice than falling back to ideologies that promise us everything that we wish for.
Adorno, Theodor W.: Negative Dialectics, Routledge 2004.
Bourriaud, Nicolas: Relational Aesthetics, les presses du réel 2002.
Bürger, Peter: Theorie der Avantgarde, Wallstein 2007.
Deleuze, Gilles: Cinema 2. The Time-Image, University of Minnesota Press 1989.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika: Ästhetik des Performativen, Suhrkamp 2004.