Revolt and Agonism
Virtual Democracy and the question of post- identity in the work of Tanja Ostojić.
Published with Mart Catalogue 2012
Rapidly transforming definitions East and West of Europe – Global Market Capitalism has profoundly altered concepts of identity old and new. In mutual accord, the seamlessness inroads created with the advance of new technologies and transnational exchange continue to transfix contemporary imagination. Now freely interchangeable as recipients and content creators our shared capacity for organization and political agency reverberates with a complex multiplicity that contemporary discourses seek to harness as a force effecting social change. As with all social change, points along a trajectory affect it; therefore this text concerns itself with locating particular catalytic points in the Eastern and south Eastern European, route to and assimilation of, the global new media revolution of recent years. Drawing on aspects Lacanian psychoanalytical theory along with Julia Kristeva’s aligned theory of semiotics; I will consider strategies of politicisation with respect to identification and dis-identification arising on a post communist experimental field of experience and how this can be problematized in relation to Chantell Mouffes theory of democratic agonism. The project (Looking for a Husband with EU Passport2000 – 2005) by Berlin based contemporary Serbian artist Tanja Ostojić, will function as an exemplar of critical conditions surrounding transitional assimilation points within global media practices.
In the ten years prior to the fall of the iron curtain in 1989 the communist state system operating in Eastern Europe harshly suppressed freedom of speech, press and assembly, all of which enable the production of the life of publics. Under the imperatives of communist political praxis, independent opinion was criminalised, and virtually every member of society had to guard against their own guilt, insofar as self-censorship silenced its participants. Locked down behind the communist uniformity and schematism of thought, the absence of comparison, evaluation and open debate, profoundly affected intellectual and artistic development across the Eastern Bloc.
In the effort to effect change on the intellectual and cultural impasses that had developed around life behind the Iron Curtain, anti communist dissidents, in pursuit of intellectual freedom went underground. During which time, they formed necessary connections with their Western counterparts in defiance of state imposed isolation. In Czechoslovakia, for example, dissident philosopher Julius Tomin, in 1978, sent a letter to four Western Universities asking them, to support his efforts in creating underground philosophy seminars, to be held in his apartment. Responding to the urgency of the call, Western European intellectuals began to gather in solidarity, and in 1980, the Jan Hus Educational Foundation was established by a group of British philosophers in Oxford University. The work of the foundation ran over a near ten year period, with influential philosopher such as. Richard Rorty, Paul Ricoeur, (1980) Jacques Derrida, (1981) Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jacques Merleau- Ponty(1984) named among its involved supporters (Day,1999 )
Member of the Jan Hus Foundation and professor of literature, Dan Jacobson went to communist occupied Prague in 1983, as part of the foundations underground programme. The intention of the visit was to set up a seminar for English speaking Czech writers. Jacobson gave an account of his experience of life behind the iron curtain at the time. He stated; “What I had found was worse than I had expected _a crushed and eerie silence […] the subdued wretchedness of the demeanor of the people” (Day, 1999, p.198). The public exterior of compliance to state injunctions, however, by no means represented the increasing power of dissent that had begun to take shape in the underground activity of those years leading up to the fall of the Berlin wall. In 1986, Jacobson revisited Czechoslovakia and noted a major change in atmosphere. As Barbra day writes, Jacobson ‘‘became aware of a strong sense of urgency, of life going on under the crust conducted by impressive, attractive people who were not crushed at all” (Day, 1999, p.200).
Gathering aggregate force, the unofficial discourse of Eastern European counter movements, gained distribution in multi-contextual spaces of circulation, through the phenomenon of samizdat (home publishing), underground University Lectures, home seminars and discussions of oppositional political stance. Reflecting what Nancy Fraser terms the subaltern counterpublic, Eastern European underground movements opened “a parallel discursive arena where members of social groups invent and circulate counter discourse to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs” (Warner, 2002, p85). A self-determination by a self constituted public that enabled “the transposition from the act of private reading to the figuration of sovereign opinion”, that eventually brought about the internal collapse of an oppressive regime in the Eastern Bloc (Warner, 2002, p.89).
The communism that existed in Yugoslavia differed from the communism in other Central and Eastern European countries due to the Tito-Stalin rift of the late 1940s. “Being independent of Moscow brought Yugoslavia a special relationship with the US, which included the guarantee of special access to Western credits in exchange for Yugoslav neutrality and its military capacity to deter Warsaw Pact forces from invading Western Europe” (Delevic, 1998, p.3). After Yugoslavia broke with Stalinist Soviet Union in 1948, Tito embraced Modernist art and architecture, as a method of asserting ideological distance from Moscow, (Nevenka, 2002). Through Tito’s open cultural policy, the art’s began to thrive and by the 1970’s across the Western world, Belgrade was considered the canonical home of Avant Garde theater. On the wave of the experimentation, in 1971 the Student Cultural Center was also established in Belgrade, marking a period of radical change in artistic production, as it broke from modernist entrenchment into the dematerialization of conceptual and post conceptual art (Nevenka, 2002). Raša Todosijević former founding member of Student Cultural Center in conversation with art critic Dietmat Unterkofler stated that, “during the times of the SKC we were in intense contact with artists all over Europe, even in America. We had contacts with the Vienna Actionists; with the people from Art & Language around Kosuth; with the Italian Arte Povera scene; and a little later with the “Young Wilds” from Germany. It is an interesting fact that Czech artists for example sent their works to us so that we could send them to western countries” (Unterkofler, 2011, p.1). The vibrancy of this transnational exchange did come to an abrupt end however, after the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe in 1989, Yugoslavia no longer held the geopolitical importance the US had previously attributed to it (Delevic, 1998). Following Yugoslav war during the 1990’s and severe austerity perpetuated by multilateral economic sanctions from the west, gradually complete isolation from international contact ensued. Not again until the later part of the 1990 to early 2000’s when Serbia gained UN membership did the weight of isolation begin to lift, where once again civic and artistic agency could begin to approach self determination.
Personal becomes the political
Now over twenty years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the incursions of western neo liberal order on social and political landscapes of Eastern and South Eastern Europe have brought into sharp relief, questions of Identity. Questions critically tied to the complex nature of questions about democracy in its entire ideological spectrum, from its potentiality as a route to self actualisation, to its polarity, as source of exploitation and exclusion. With due account, to the underlying cultures, discourses and practices that together give identities their complex and differentiated forms, I aim to approach the question of identity. How it is stabilised through utopian logics of inclusion and also how it is deconstructed, following “realist logics of exclusion, struggle and criticism” (Groys, 2008, p.169).
In sourcing the necessary coordinates from which to approach the question of identity, I will draw from psychoanalytical theories of the unconscious in pursuit of a critical examination that “specifies the semiotic as a psychosomatic modality within the signifying process” (Kristeva, 1984, p.73) that leads from the collective and on to differentiated knowledge of the subject.
For psychoanalytical theorist Julia Kristeva, “the subject as always elsewhere, unconscious, drive motivated, a “sujet-en-proces” a split subjectivity-in-process” (Becker-Leckrone,2005, p.164-165). This process orientated understanding of subjectivity remains in a constant state of negotiation between semiotic and the symbolic aspects of signification. The symbolic order is signified within the social domain, while the semiotic unconscious by contrast designates an emotional field, articulated through primary processes, in other words, connected to instincts. In this sense the semiotic opposes the symbolic, which correlates to the stricter denotative language that fixes identity within the symbolic fabric of the world. Therefore, considering the function of these interchangeable and abstract equivalences in constituting the subject, it becomes clear, that transformation within the social order cannot come about without a transformation of the subject and meaning. As visual art is an activity of the sign it is also event through semiosis can occur, in the release or agitation of what the symbolic order tends to repress. For Kristeva this process is termed a revolution in poetic language, the epidermalisation of the subversive semiotic, through which meaning and the subject can be altered fundamentally. From this basis of understanding, I will consider in the first part, the 2000-2005 web-based projectsLooking for a Husband with EU Passport by contemporary interdisciplinary and performance artist Tanja Ostojić, as a critically productive example of where “affective and somatic forces enter language and culture” and devise the space through which the personal becomes the political”(McAffe, 2005, p.113).
Looking for a Husband with EU Passport 2000-05 is a project that foregrounds an unmediated desire for agency, protest and critique against the bio-political injunctions place on South- Eastern European citizens without the privilege of an European Union passport. The project is presented to the viewer in the form of a website advertisement where Ostojić, positions herself in real-time search for a husband with an EU passport, described by the artist in terms of ‘KZ WW2, concentration – camp aesthetic, (Ostojić,T. 2012). The viewer is confronted with deeply unsettling image of the artist, standing naked without expression and with all hair removed from her body and head. Formulating critique of the underside and dark surplus of sexually commodified images of women posted on RussinBride.com or AsianBride.com. Ostojić, leverages the critical potential of advertisement, exploiting its direct association to discourses and practices of free market economy. Subverting the image of marketed reality, Ostojić instead presents an uncompromising epidermalisation of the trauma that underlies the social, economic and political conditions of migrant women, whom Ostojić terms “Prisoners of Europe” (Ostojić,T. 2012).
Through this image performance, the semiotic appears through the visual sign, as an un-integrated “insistent energy and heterogeneity that deeply disrupts something within the signifying function” (Silverman, 1998, p.28). A disruption that can be said to occur in the realisation that Looking for a Husband with EU Passport is not art for art sake but art for realities sake. Occupying a state of painful exclusion, the artist is presented as the radicalised Other, suspended in a state indefinite detention, alleviation for which, can only be arrived at through the nature of affect on the part of the viewer, for example, empathy, guilt, jouissance etc., in other words, through a kind of investment and trading of libidinal economy within symbolic chain of signification that transcends nation states.
The Question of Post Identity
Occupying virtual reality, beyond the authority of nation states, Looking for a Husband with EU Passport, opens out directly on to the question of post-identity, signification for which, occurs through both dialectical oscillations and negation between identification and dis-identification, power and resistance. The artist’s identification with a project that sets out to undermine a prohibitive juridical structure that regulates the movement of the non EU body exists along side the artist’s politics of dis-identification with fixed positions and boundaries. Paradoxically the virtual, domain, while representing a site of necessary identification also represents a site where a certain stabilisation of dis-identification can be preformed. The mediating strategy as (live web presence) takes on significant importance in this regard, as the artist can address everyone simultaneously. This web-based audience is scattered and transitory and as a result of the arbitrary nature of the participating audience, there is a lack of coherent organisation that can be termed identity. What occurs, in spite of this, is a community of subjects or public who share the experience of the artwork.
Moving across virtual synaptic space, strategically bypassing the symbolic prohibition of movement specific to place (Serbia), the work is opened to outcomes unregulated by institutional processes and governance structures. These symbolic structures are rejected in favour of imaginary simulacra with which the artist identifies. This identification with imaginary simulacra as a form of dis-identification with the symbolic structure of states enforces a sense of the artist as object, devoid of a constitutive place or identity, a preformative strategy of displacement that confronts its audience with the image of the artist as she approaches the point of almost self-annihilation.
Conventional political discourse tends to sharply distinguish between the public and the private domains, yet through Ostojic’s Looking for a Husband with EU Passport, the audience is led directly into an experience of radical ambiguity, and an encounter with the hybrid subject of a post-communist condition. A dialectical negation that lies in the apparent dissolution of the structural order between subject and object, public and private and the artist and the role she assumes. Engaging with the notion of a radically unbounded public sphere, the audience that this project generated was global in its reach, engaging the random surfer to the particular addressee, the male EU passport holders.
The artist received hundreds of responses from potential husbands from around the world, and eventually succeeded in discerning a suitable individual, a German artist by the name of Klemns G. The artist arranged their first meeting to be held as a public performanceCrossing Over, 2001 to be held on the lawn in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade. A month later the two were officially married in New Belgrade. In 2005 as a result of inadequate fulfilment of visa requirements, the artist’s then made the decision to divorce on the occasion of the opening of her Integration Project Office at project Room 35 in Berlin, 2005 where the artist also organised Divorce Party 2005 (Ostojić,T. 2012).
Revolt and Agonism
Julia Kristeva theorizes the fault line of traversable boundaries of the public/private, drawing on the affect of abjection. Kristeva understands abjection as one of the most painful and ambiguous manifestations of the narcissistic crisis.For Kristeva the crucial feature of abjection is its “resistance to definition, its objectless negativity, the abject has only one quality of the object –that of being opposed I” (Becker-Leckrone, 2005, p.151). Kristeva argues that ‘abjection draws the subject to the limits of its own defining boundaries, this crisis of place (‘’where am I’’?) Precipitates a crisis of meaning and identification (‘’is that me?’’) (‘’what am I’?)’ (Becker-Leckrone, 2005, p.32). For Kristeva however, if the violent nature of the drive directed at the self, is redirected into language and culture it constitutes and undermines the stable distinctions between the “lives of the psyche and the life of the polis” (Ziarek, 2005, p.2).
In this regard Looking for a Husband with EU Passport circumscribes a sphere of appearance within the public domain where the affective forces are reinvested in the practice of what Kristeva’s terms revolt culture. On art, possibility & democracy ‘Which Public Space for Critical Artistic Practices?, political philosopher, Chantal Mouffe argues for definition and calibration of public space, but rather than Kristeva’s model of revolt culture, Mouffe calls for conflictual consensuses of agonism within existing democratic structures (2006,p149-171). Mouffe expresses this political space by arguing that “every hegemonic order is susceptible to challenge under the climate of an antagonistic society and the extent of this antagonism (enemy/friend) is determined by the different types of we/them relations, according to the way we/them is constructed” (2006 p149-171.). The main task for democracy that Mouffe has identified is the diffusion of potential antagonisms, a sort of discursive taming that is constructed on an agonistic common ground where mutually respected adversarial forces meet. Mouffe also emphasises the importance of the affective dimension in the field of politics, which she refers to as ‘the passions’. Though Mouffe refers to the passions unlike Kristeva, she makes no attempt to elaborate on the constitutive dynamics of affects (abjection, disgust, melancholia etc.) or how precisely they might reinforce or destabilise ruling hegemony. In quite abstract terms, Mouffe sees the passions as the constitutive bond that leads to the realisation of collective political identities. However when attempting to define the critical function of art in the development of a plural conception of democracy, Mouffe considers it necessary to exclude the passions when they are presented to the public as the negative gesture. Mouffe states, “there is too much emphasis on dis-identification at the expense of re-identification” (2006, p.157). ‘This negative perspective, she states, while claiming to be very radical, remains trapped within a very deterministic framework’ (Mouffe, 2006, p.157). It seems that Mouffe’s concern, is, that the determinism of dis-identification within critical art practice can impose an accepted way of seeing within a hegemonic order that does not correlate with the “necessary manifold practice, through which identities are constituted” (Mouffe, 2006, p.154). It is from this point of perspective, that one must question the emphasis put forward by Mouffe in terms of dis –identification in favour of re-identification. If we are to consider the truly serious appearance of language withinLooking for a Husband with EU Passport, it is immediately evident that its bare dis-identificatory position has the power to bring the political out of its concealment, by directly designating a required awareness from the viewer, of political field from which the artist’s dis-Identification must take place. Paradoxically dis-identification in all of its hybrid alterity leads us to the recognition of the artist’s sovereignty that emerges precisely at the moment when the rule of law is suspended or dis-identified, “as sovereignty names the power that withdraws and suspends the law” (Butler, 2004 p.60). However, if we are to apply Mouffe’s rejection of dis-identification as a political strategy within contemporary critical art, Ostojić’s work belongs to the category of anti-political, radical determinism. I would argue that Mouffe’s model of agonistic identities belong to an understanding that permit only allusions to the nature of affect or the passions, within contemporary critical art. Mouffe’s model excludes the practice of dis-identification so that question of the actual relations between the psyche and the polis are fact subordinate to an agonistic need for a boundary of identity that constitutes agonistic discursive space to begin with. A boundary of Identity which Mouffe refers to as the, we/them relation, it is my opinion that the political associations of we/them are asserted too rigidly. The strategy of dis-identification within Ostojić’s project delivers to its audience a confrontation with a subject of un-relenting revolt against identification because of its social positionality. Ostojić instead performs the affects of a private abjection of the inassimilable split in subjectivity into public virtual space. In doing this, the potential violence of abjection against the self is redirected, not toward an antagonistic space of violence towards the Other, but towards a restructuring of the symbolic order, as a direct address to a political consciousness and the question of democracy from the position of an Eastern European periphery. What becomes clear at this point is an understanding that the affective relations of drives are as much in operation within the subject as they are in social relations as conflict. It is the particular character of this relation that is important in realising the integrity of agonistic space. The question then is what reconfigurations of drive need to be acknowledged in the production of greater transparency within the discursive domain of agonism?
Cultural theorist, Frances Restuccia in her essay, Black and Blue: Kieslowski’s Melancholia, states; “a process of globalisation devoid of melancholic dimension that maintains rather than denies loss and death will only sustain a demeaning, destructive, racist conception of the other” (Restuccia, 2005, p.204). In order to prevent against deep antagonism of this kind, that continue to produce deadlocks within society, Restuccia calls for the assimilation of loss and death into the globalising symbolic order. The author proposes this model so as to recognise “the inassimilable otherness within us and the exorbitant alterity of others” (Restuccia, 2005, p.204).
Looking for a Husband with EU Passport appears on the fault line between public and private, subject and object, the national and global, art and life. It is from these unstable boundaries of distinction that the inassimilable alternity of the artist remains open. It is art political gesture of this kind, which lead to necessary discourses of identity that are radically open to the complexity of the self and its relations.
Butler.J., 2004. Precarious Life, The powers of Mourning and Violence,London Verso Press
Day, B., 1999. The Velvet Philosophers. Claridge Press.
Groys, B., 2008. Art Power, MIT Press.p168
Leckrone Becker. M., ed J. Wolfrey, 2005: Julia Kristeva and Literary Theory. New York, Palgrave, Macmillan p151
Mouffe, C., 2006. ‘Which Public Space for Critical Artistic Practices?’, Cork Caucus: on art, possibility & democracy, ed. Tara Byrne (Cork, Ireland: National Sculpture Factory & Revolver Press, pp149-171
Silverman, H.J., 1998. Continental Philosophy VI: Cultural semiosis, Tracing the Signifier London: Routledge p86
Warner, M., 2002, Publics and Counter Publics, Cambridge, Zone Books. p85.
Ziarek, E.P., Chanter. T, eds. 2005. Revolt, Affect, Collectivity. The Unstable Boundaries of Kristeva’s Polis. New York, State University of New York. p113
Kristeva, J., 1984.Revoloution in poetic Language. In. Redman. P, ed 2000. Identity; a Reader. Sage publications London in association with Open University pp 69-75
McAfee, N., 2005. Nk Political Affections: Kristeva and Arendt on Violence and Gratitude. In: Plonowska Ziarek. E, Chanter. T, ed. , Revolt, Affect, Collectivity. The Unstable Boundaries of Kristeva’s Polis. New York, State University of New York press pp113-125
Restuccia F.L.,Nk. 2005. Black and Blue: Kieslowski’s Melancholia In: Plonowska Ziarek. E, Chanter. T, 2005. Revolt, Affect, Collectivity. The Unstable Boundaries of Kristeva’s Polis. New York, State University of New York press pp193-207
Delevic,M., 1998. Economic sanctions as a foreign policy Tool;The case of Yugoslavia .Available: http://www.gmu.edu/programs/icar/ijps/vol3_1/Delvic.htm. Last accessed 12th Sept 2021.
Nevenka,S., 2002. Contra aesthetic: the struggle for the New Art in post 1968 Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Available: https://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/12226. Last accessed 12 Sept 2012.
Unterkofler,D., 2011. Raša Todosijević in conversation withDietmar Unterkofler .Available: http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/interviews/629-raa-todosijevi-interview-dietmar-unterkofler. Last accessed 12 Sept 2012.
Ostojić,T,O.2012.Looking For a Husband with EU Passport. M,T.Tanner.