ART AS COMMITMENT - International conference

Saturday, December 7, 2013
Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, Maistrova 3, Ljubljana

Speakers: Keti Chukhrov (Moscow, Russia), Miklavž Komelj (Ljubljana, Slovenia), Hito Steyerl (Berlin, Germany), Ravi Sundaram (New Delhi, India), Raluca Voinea (Bucharest, Romania)

The conference is organized by the Igor Zabel Association for Culture and Theory in cooperation with the Museum of Modern Art plus Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova. The conference is supported by the ERSTE Foundation.

About the conference
Today, in a time when everything indicates that the crisis - economic, financial, political, environmental and social - will only intensify, when numerous artistic, cultural, political and social forms of resistance and critical assessments are bursting out globally in a search and demand for a world beyond the neoliberal order, art and the art system are again confronted with the urge to reflect upon their role and status in these challenging conditions. This seems to be even more pressing since for more than two decades contemporary art's development went hand in hand with the processes of globalisation that the "old first world" used to triumphantly spread the doctrine of neoliberal capitalism after 1989.

In the frame of these departure points, we would like to reflect upon the role and position of committed art today. We do not consider committed art solely as something that exists necessarily outside institutional frames and discourses and as something opposite of so-called autonomous art. Instead, we propose to take into consideration various contemporary economic, ideological or political perspectives, such as the conditions of art production, the blurred division of labour between artistic work and so-called regular work, new formats of exhibitions, new institutional models and so on.

Committed art in this sense has the capacity to subvert "units of measure" - time that is perceived on two levels: on the level of artwork and on the level of labour. As Maurizio Lazzarato has noted, art can interrupt capitalist time, introduce an "order of difference" into this rationalized time and produce new meanings. Many artists have dealt with disruptions of time through the topics of laziness, play, stepping out of the art system, or making their own archives, exhibitions, spaces, etc. Our interpretation of committed art would therefore consider not only artistic production as such, but would also extend to the relationship between artistic work and social labour as a whole.

The question to be asked is: how can art be socially and politically viable and emancipatory and, at the same time, overcome pure social and political utilitarianism on the one side, and being trapped within political, economic and other power systems that art tends to criticize on the other side?

In his text "Commitment", Igor Zabel, art historian and curator from Slovenia (1958-2005), deals with these questions by examining the complex and internally contradictory relationship between so-called committed and autonomous art, which, according to him, should be re-thought through, conceptualizing both concepts in relation to each other: "On the one hand, in the light of critical art, we realize that a pure, autonomous art cannot remain outside political reality and that it is precisely the autonomy of this art that allows it to be appropriated by dominant - and sometimes repressive - political regimes. On the other hand, it also appears that a critical and political art (which is based on a clear awareness of its social and political position and role) cannot escape being exploited by the system. Precisely because it is art, it can be appropriated by the very powers it tries to fight against. ... Such tension and contradiction between the two poles, however, are what still allow art to create values that cannot be completely absorbed either by the marketplace or by ideological functions, with the result that art continues to act as a point of resistance in society."

According to Zabel, art is able to create specific values despite being trapped in political, economic and other power systems that exploit it. Zabel opts for the social and political viability of art and at the same time (by critically re-reading Adorno) puts an emphasis on the political use of autonomous art. According to him, autonomous art can, or rather, should again, have a political function and also act as a point of resistance. Today, these questions might acquire new importance, especially if we take into consideration that, on the one side, critical deconstruction of the practices and discourses of power has become an extremely powerful current in contemporary art (which is in itself an indication that the art system has already managed to absorb quite a lot) and, on the other side, the fact that art is often evaluated and supported in relation to its usefulness - be it in an economic sense by generating economic value (art as commodity or, for example, projects of urban renewal and cultural industries), in an ideological sense (e.g. projects for supporting social cohesion, sustainable development, etc.) as well as in a political sense, since critical art practices are nowadays as much a part of strategies, questions and demands as social movements are.

The aim of the conference is to discuss such questions as:
- What should be committed art today and what is the difference when we talk about art as commitment?
- How can art be socially and politically viable and emancipatory and at the same time overcome pure social and political utilitarianism?
- How can art create specific values despite being trapped within political, economic and other power systems that exploit it?
- What are the possible artistic and curatorial strategies toward autonomous art and its political effects today?
- Has conceptualization of art as an autonomous field finally become a matter of history, or is it precisely in this direction that one should seek its power in the future?
- Which are the practices that we could learn from?

Programme, Saturday, December 7, 2013

9.30-10.00: Welcome Note by Zdenka Badovinac/Moderna galerija, Urška Jurman/Igor Zabel Association, Christiane Erharter/ERSTE Foundation
10.00-10.45: Keti Chukhrov: No Art, Without Sublation of Art
10.45-11.30: Miklavž Komelj: Text as Explosion: Djuna Barnes' The Antiphon
11.30-11.45: coffee break
11.45-13.00: discussion with Keti Chukhrov and Miklavž Komelj moderated by Zdenka Badovinac
lunch break - on the spot
14.00-14.45: Raluca Voinea: What Other Words for Commitment?
14.45-15.30: Hito Steyerl: The Rules of Engagement. What Are Artistic Rules of Engagement?
15.30-15.45: coffe break
15.45.-16.30: Ravi Sundaram: Art, Visual Politics and the Challenge of the Postcolonial Event
16.30-17.30: discussion with Raluca Voinea, Hito Steyerl, and Ravi Sundaram moderated by Bojana Piškur

Abstracts and short biographies

Keti Chukhrov: No Art, Without Sublation of Art
The dichotomy of committed and autonomous art preserved its viability as long as the theories of the avant-garde remained valid for contemporary art. Such a priori viability of the avant-gardes was conditioned by the belief in the unmediated political and social impact of art, by the capacity of both - political activism and artistic practice - to be political agents. This standpoint had its grounds: aesthetic avant-gardes were seen as inseparable from the political ones; but since the end of the 1980s, the idea of art's impact on the social sphere has gradually become an imaginary. At present, contemporary art as well as its institutions happen to be in crisis after realizing that their political power is collapsing. On the other hand, the indigestible modernist object is also not viable: such objects are not produced any more. They are impossible after minimalism and conceptualism.
Meanwhile, social engineering is often accomplished in the frame of cognitive capitalism much more effectively than in art, so that the emancipatory interventions of engaged art, with its ardent rhetoric of anti-capitalism, are just part of it. So then perhaps contemporary art - in both of its forms, engaged and autonomous - should reveal and even claim its own capitalist unconscious and declare its demise, as Hegel once declared art's demise. This would then again generate the terrain with no art at all. But that would no longer be a quasi-avant-garde sublation of art but rather the self-rejection of an institute. And then the question is: what could this terrain of no art be about?

Keti Chukhrov (Moscow, Russia) is an art theorist and philosopher. and holds PhD in Comparative Literature and Doc. Habil. in philosophy. She is an associate professor in the Department of Art Theory and Cultural Studies at the Russian State University for the Humanities and a head of theory department at the National Center for Contemporary Art. Since 2003 she has served on the editorial board of Moscow Art Magazine. Chukhrov has authored numerous texts on art theory, culture, politics, and philosophy which have appeared in periodicals such as, among others: Afterall, Artforum, Brumaria, documenta magazine, e-flux journal, New Literary Review, and Springerin. Her full-length books include: To Be - To Perform. 'Theatre' in Philosophical Criticism of Art (2011); Pound &£ (1999), and two volumes of dramatic poetry: Just Humans (2010) and War of Quantities (2004). Chukhrov lives and works in Moscow.

Miklavž Komelj:Text as Explosion: Djuna Barnes' The Antiphon
The title of the conference Art as Commitment can also be read as a point of departure for criticism of the notion "committed art". Matej Bor, the author of the first book of revolutionary poetry that emerged from the Yugoslavian Partisan movement during the Second World War, Previharimo viharje (Overstorm the Storms), has commented on this notion as follows: "And yet - were my 'Storms' 'committed' poetry at all? I think, they were an explosion." In this sense, my paper will explore another text connected with the Second World War that has been sometimes described as an explosion as well (a nuclear explosion within the language, as T. S. Eliot put it), although in a completely different way: this text has the fame of being extremely obscure, illegible and "aristocratic". Djuna Barnes' play The Antiphon (1958, revised version 1962), stylistically reminiscent of the Elizabethan-Jacobean idiom, stages a family reunion in Gothic ruins at the beginning of the Second World War: the characters are confronted with each other and with their own innermost fantasies. Some interpretations proposed a reading of this play as criticism of patriarchal ideology and fascism - but they were not radical enough. A close examination of the play reveals the emerging of the patriarchal and fascist-like violence from out of the very strategies of supposed liberation and subversion, which are reproducing the ideology they aim to subvert on account of leaving unquestioned the phantasmatic frame in which the project of "liberation" takes place. In order to evade such a reproduction of oppressive ideology, Barnes proposes an examination of the relationship between language and economy. The political gesture, as proposed in the play, is to stay confronted with "the utmost meridian and parallel" without any escape, in order to reveal the radical contingency of every necessity.

Miklavž Komelj (Ljubljana, Slovenia) is an art historian, poet and translator based in Ljubljana. He has published seven books of poetry, a collection of essays entitled The Necessity of Poetry (Nujnost poezije, 2010), and a study on art made by the partisans in World War II in Slovenia, How to Think Partisan Art? (Kako misliti partizansko umetnost?, 2009). He has also published Slovene translations of works by Fernando Pessoa (2003, 2007), Pier Paolo Pasolini (2005, 2007), and César Vallejo (2011).

Hito Steyerl: The Rules of Engagement. What Are Artistic Rules of Engagement?
Hito Steyerl's (Berlin, Germany)
films and essays take the digital image as a point of departure for entering a world in which a politics of dazzle manifests as collective desire. This is to say that when war, genocide, capital flows, digital detritus and class warfare always take place partially within images, we are no longer dealing with the virtual but with a confusing and possibly alien concreteness that we are only beginning to understand. Today, the image world, Steyerl reminds us, is far from flat. And paradoxically, it may be in its most trashy and hollowed-out spots that we can locate its ethics. Because this is where forms run free and the altogether unseen and unrecognized toy with political projects at the speed of light. It is where spectacle and poverty merge, then split, then dance.

Ravi Sundaram: Art, Visual Politics and the Challenge of the Postcolonial Event
The citation of the "postcolonial" in Documenta 11 (2002, artistic director Okwui Enwezor) was followed by a period where art practices from Asia, Africa and Latin America set up a new visibility. Aided by new infrastructures of production, these art practices overlapped with the political-visual presence of the non-governmental sector. A decade later, the political challenges for postcolonial art are greater than ever, confronted with fragile sovereignties, media spectacles and the clutter of global event-scenes after Web 2.0. There is a new disturbing dramaturgy of visual politics today that postcolonial art practice has to deal with. I will be referring to the challenges posed by social-media-driven aesthetics for art practice, which is particularly strong in postcolonial worlds where the mobile phone is the main image/video-making tool in the hands of the many. In this presentation, I want to revisit the optico-political register of this domain, confronted with the claims of new event-scenes from Syria to India.

Ravi Sundaram (New Delhi, India) is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, at which in 2000 he co-founded the Sarai programme. Sundaram has co-edited the Sarai Reader series, The Public Domain (2001), The Cities of Everyday Life (2002), Shaping Technologies (2003), Crisis Media (2004) and Frontiers (2007). He is the author of Pirate Modernity: Media Urbanism in Delhi (Routledge, London 2009) and No Limits: Media Studies from India, Oxford University Press (2013). Sundaram's essays have been translated into various languages in India, Asia and Europe. His current research deals with urban fear after media modernity. He has been a visiting Professor at the School of Architecture and Planning, Delhi, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the University of Oxford.

Raluca Voinea: What Other Words for Commitment?
What other words for commitment? Generosity, dedication, modesty, consistence, honesty, free of strategic thinking, enthusiasm, candour, hope, humour, naivety, inexhaustibility of the capacity to start it all over again every day. How many artists or cultural workers do we actually find with all of these traits? In current times, this question could probably extend to the whole of humankind, with the exception of those affected by certain diseases/ disabilities that allow them only a partial connection to reality.
Does being committed even matter these days? One talks about dissolution of borders, relativity of laws, irrelevance and oppression of traditions, multiplicity of myths and rituals, polyamory... Commitment to traditional values (mostly associated with patriarchal and colonial societies, but not only) is definitely not even worth mentioning. Equality, fairness of chances, dignity, this set of equally universally recognized values, followed less and less in public policies and private economies all over the world, are the ones that usually come to mind when talking about committed art. What can artists actually do to serve these values? They can expose injustices, present contradictions, frame hypocrisies, criticize and imagine something better. Do they need to be artists to do this? Can they do this through the means of art in an equally meaningful way as if they were social workers, doctors, historians, psychotherapists, chemists? Why is it still that there is so much pressure on and expectations from artists to be committed? Are they really that powerful?
I will present some cases of art from Romania that I consider committed according to different standards, in different contexts and depending on who's judging - cases through which I justify my obsession with staying and working in this place, still. As a conclusion to my presentation, but not necessarily related to it, I will suggest a concrete proposition for the future. I have only talked about it in private so far, to a few friends. Nobody denied its legitimacy.

Raluca Voinea (Bucharest, Romania) is an art critic and curator based in Bucharest. Since 2012, she has been the co-director of Association (a member of the network). She recently curated the exhibitions "We Were So Few and So Many of Us Are Left / Anca Benera & Arnold Estefan" and "Km. 0. Representations and Repetitions of the University Square", both at the space in Bucharest. She is the curator of the Romanian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale with the project "An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale" by artists Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuş. Since 2008, she has been the co-editor of IDEA Arts + Society magazine, published in Cluj, Romania. Voinea is especially interested in researching how contemporary art practice and artistic research enhances our common understanding of the social and political. In 2010, she was the recipient of an Igor Zabel Award working grant.


The Igor Zabel Association for Culture and Theory was founded in 2008 by Zabel family members and ERSTE Foundation. The association's objective is to work with Igor Zabel's heritage, highlight and evaluate the importance and ongoing influence of his work, especially the work he performed in the field of visual arts, as well as to support art and cultural theory and contemporary curatorial practices in the Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe and beyond. Igor Zabel (1958-2005) was a Slovenian curator, writer and cultural theorist who was actively involved in many fields of theory and culture - as a philosopher, author, essayist, modern and contemporary art curator, literary and art critic, translator, and mentor for new generations of curators and critics of contemporary art. In his theoretical and curatorial work, he tirelessly called for the profound exploration of those political, social and cultural undercurrents that had the potential to give us a better understanding of modern and contemporary art.

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