An essay by Anabel Roque Rodriguez

This year’s Berlin Biennial proclaimed the political turn in art and called out for political action from culture institutions. Since the financial crisis in 2007 we can observe the tendency of bringing contemporary social movements under the auspices of institutions. Exhibitions like “Demonstrations. Making Normative Orders” at the Frankfurter Kunstverein or the Festival Steirischer Herbst with the motto “Truth is concrete” are making their locations available for political art. In contrast, the proceedings at other arts events are being consciously disturbed by activistic elements, like the dOCUMENTA by the “doccupy Camp” or the Venice Biennial 2011 by the “Pirate Camp”.

Peace Wall by Nadja Prlja, Berlin Biennal 2012, Photo: Nadja Prlja

The forthcoming essay attempts to emphasize that art has the talent to translate political content into aesthetic strategies – the form vocabulary of art – and in this way to bring political messages onto the meta-level. This type of transfer enables less emotional debating, whereby new perspectives in the political discussion can arise as a result. The expression of aesthetic instruments can make stronger statements than political instruments can and they also play with expectations. They don’t have to legitimate themselves, like political methods do, as they can draw on other forms or strategies to convey their message through their designation as art.

In recent contemporary art there has been a shift in classical art criteria such as form or aesthetics to criteria such as performativity, social engagement, ephemerality and renunciation of an object. This new set of criteria allows more process oriented aesthetic strategies that focus on more pragmatic topics, develop new forms of expression, and experiment with new materials. Despite the diversity in the forms of expression political motivated art has, the site-specificity is a common characteristic. They are directed against ruling circumstances or point out untenable conditions. How explicit the initiatives proceed with their criticism, depends on their respective aesthetic realization. But the artistic strategy is always in dialog with the reigning conditions where they happen, independent of whether the campaign takes place in a public place or in a museum context.

Marcello Maloberti: „The Ants Struggle on the Snow”, Performance, Performa, New York (US), 2009, Photo: Gisella Sorrentino, Courtesy of the artist and Performa 2009, New York, via Frankfurter Kunstverein

Spaces in art are important for the contextualization of the actions or objects and they have the ability to change the meaning. The space can work as the inspiration source where a work or action is conceived or the other way round, where a space is influenced through the actions that take place there. Both situations are mutually dependent and are important for the contextualization of the artistic work or event. Political art is connected to the condition of presence or its absence, and third, the need to be experienced in situ through the viewer. The space becomes an essential part to promote the message.
In recent political art there can be tendency noticed that actions are taken into public space out of the museum context. This politicization of space is often a fight against the exclusion of minorities: women, ethnic groups, classes, states etc. and creates a political form of communication – a space for new forms of interaction – to “resocialize” this groups who are excluded in the art world.

Political art questions representation/presence, legitimation and power. How much they express doubt or protest depends on their relationship to the political situation. Politics can be understood in this context as the societal structure in which the connections between power, heads of state and order require perpetual negotiation.
In democratic structures power must be legitimized. Changes in the structures are influenced by society’s participation in the political system, for which there are several opportunities available. One possibility for this is protest, a common strategy in political motivated art. Examples of such pragmatic art are numerous: The Russian feminine activist collective “Pussy Riot” that acts against the Russian policy by artistic events in public space. Here the politicization of (public) space is shown through their choice of special location for their performances; or “Voina”, the Russian street-art group, nominated associated curators of this year’s Berlin Biennale, known for their provocative and politically charged works of performance art; also the cultural part of the Occupy Movement, Occupy Museums, uses the politicization of space as their strategy to push their message. All of this mentioned groups use art as a political tool to express protest and civil disobedience. These artists cannot work under the political conditions and feel the urge to show this discontent. The individual artistic working condition is connected to the political situation, society and living conditions.
The protest of artists working in certain political conditions is a result of not being able to work in a free, productive atmosphere. The performance in public space is used to show the conditions and raise (international) media awareness.

dOCCUPY Camp Kassel, 2012, Photo: source

The novelty of such artist activism is the strong involvement of social media, the internet, and the goal to engage as many people as possible. The artists function as loudspeakers for a broader group and create platforms for collective problems to be critically explored.
Hence they can be understood as an instrument, through which politics shift from an exclusively institutional representation to action, to be utilized in the public sphere of democracy. Instead of just trying to convince politicians or a political class, artists try to find ways to mobilize citizens to execute their rights: Rights that emerge when the private and public space collide, like the right to participate in society, the right for a space where culture can take place, the right of free expression, and the right of free assembly.
The collective within this public space is getting more global as certain concepts and conditions are spreading through globalization. The dynamics of the social developments around the world show that more and more people are getting engaged through artistic strategies that draw attention to their situation.
Igor Stokfiszewski, a member of the journal “Krytyki Politycznej“, characterizes the relation between the individual and the collective as the following: “[…] the dynamics of social development over recent decades has proven that non-negotiable characteristics, needs, and interests are becoming key elements of individual and group identities”.¹

¹ Igor Stokfiszewski: “Political Points in Art”, in Forget Fear, ed. Arthur Żmijewski/Joanna Warsza, Berlin Biennale 2012, 383.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anabel Roque Rodriguez is a curator and writer. Her research focus is: Feminism, Art activism; Performance of hierarchy and power in the West; territoriality; temporary artistic occupations, and the politicization of space in Contemporary Art. Contact: anabelroro [at]