October 2003
volume 1, issue 2


Dark Matter, Las Agencias, and the Aesthetics of Tactical Embarrassment 1

In January and February of 2003 the focus of mass media outlets around the world converged upon a series of historically unprecedented street demonstrations organized in opposition to the pending US war in Iraq. Estimates range from six to ten million protesters left their homes and businesses to occupy urban spaces in over sixty nations2. As unique as these events were however, one can find significant precedents in an earlier cycle of mass demonstrations against global capitalism organized by a wide range of activists from anarchists and eco-feminists to militant labor unions and youthful Trotskyists as well as farmers, house wives and "naked" people. As the artist Alan Sekula described the memorable 1999 protestation against the World Trade Organization

“There were moments of civic solemnity, of urban anxiety, and of carnival. Again, something very simple is missed by descriptions of this as a movement founded in cyberspace: the human body asserts itself in the city streets against the abstraction of global capital….” 3

Sekula identifies three important characteristics of this new type of mass mobilization that distinguish it from much of the massive anti-war rallies of the 1970s including, 1. unified opposition to the global diffusion of a largely intangible corporate capitalism; 2. the playful, even carnivalesque nature of much of this protest, and; 3. a connection between actual bodies in space and the disembodied realm of cyber space. To this perceptive list I will add a fourth attribute: the elevated visibility of creative forms of expression that range in appearance from the highly organized, to the informal, to the simply eccentric. Certainly in the 1980s public protest was often infused with artistic elements yet this never reached the degree of saturation witnessed in recent mass demonstrations. High and low, pre and post modern now mingle as conspicuous, paper-maché puppets and digitally produced agit-prop imagery share a public stage that is as discontinuous as the movement itself appears to be. But in so far as the internet, email and wireless technology appears to have radically changed the mobilization of street activity it raises the following question: does this counter-globalization imagination indicate that new variation of left, cultural politics has emerged? As a tentative answer to this question I offer this brief case study of one, contemporary art collective known as Las Agencias or "the agencies."

Las Agencias is an informally structured collective of artists and activists based primarily in Barcelona who have produced a series of multi-disciplinary art campaigns confronting nationalism, militarism, the gentrification of local barrios as well as projects that support squatters rights and migratory “guest” workers. According to the group's website Las Agencias is actually a cluster of smaller formations including, the graphic agency, the media agency, fashion and accessories, spatial (dealing with the occupation of the public sphere), and "catography," (photography and cat support).

A good example of one approach that group member Jordi Claremonte describes as "tactical embarrassment," was the portrait-shields Las Agencias manufactured as a means of annoying riot police during public rallies. The group laminated life-sized, photographs of children, their fists raised and faces sternly confrontational, to large plastic panels. Those charged with civil defense are forced to strike at images of unarmed kids in a skirmish both physical and psychical. Precedents to the creative tactics of Las Agencias can be found most recently in the late 1980s AIDS activist group Gran Fury but also as far back as the Dadaists. Still, Las Agencias and groups like them have taken the concept of artistic parody to a different level. A good example of this is Las Agencias derisive assault upon the lifestyle marketing typical of global corporations. Their Prêt A Revolter or “ready to revolt” protest couture is an example of this expanded campaign. Prêt A Revolter consists of colorful clothes that contain hidden pockets permitting the wearer to conceal materials for buffering police batons or to conceal cameras for documenting abuse by the constabulary.

Yomango is a more recent offshoot of Las Agencias counter-lifestyle work that integrates a range of “anti-consumer” products and services with everyday acts of public sabotage. Yomango, itself a slang word for shoplifting and a play on the popular, European Mango clothing label offers adapted clothing and shopping bags specially designed for “disappearing” products out of the retail outlets of global emporiums. The Yomango campaign also provides free workshops on how to defeat security systems through orchestrated teamwork that on one occasion, to mark the Argentinian riots of December 2001, took the form of a choreographed dance session. Here shoplifting becomes a type of civil disobedience in which reflexive kleptomania is directed against the homogenizing and instrumentalization effect of global capital. While Las Agencias and Yomango exemplify certain new tendencies within activist art their work may appear so removed from the notion of traditional artistic practice that it seems to be something other than art. This is precisely one of the salient features of the latest activist aesthetic: the impracticality of drawing lines between art and other forms of social creativity including political activism.

Defining this tendency and accounting for its historical lineage is an important challenge for radical artists and scholars.

But before stepping up to that task it is necessary to see that the battle waged over art’s symbolic value ––one side favoring an autonomy and transcendence, the other social utility–– has already been lost and with neither side the victor.4 This has not happened simply because art is now a relatively specialized slice of the overall leisure and entertainment industry. Nor is it the result of solemn artistic debates over issues such as beauty or the recent emphasis on community-based or “new genre” public art in which artists are encouraged to venture into local communities and work with homeless people, “at risk” youth, and even assist in crime prevention. In each of these cases art remains a privileged (if at times sidelined) activity carried out by a specialist practitioner. Instead, the current crisis of artistic autonomy stems, at least in the U.S. context, from two relatively prosaic circumstances. One of these is the growing privatization of the not-for-profit side of the art industry that seems to date from the emergence of a post, cold-war economy. The other factor is the increasing conspicuousness of non-professional or informal, creativity within the broader cultural landscape. It is this latter activity that I have somewhat mischievously dubbed the "dark matter" of the art world. The term is borrowed from the science of cosmology and refers to the enormous amount of invisible material predicted by the Big Bang theory but so far never directly perceived. Its presence can only be inferred indirectly from the motions of astronomical objects. Likewise, the dark matter of the art world also makes up most of its universe. Notably this dark matter is not as dark as it once was.

Today, an ever more accessible technology for manufacturing, documenting, distributing as well as pilfering images and information has dramatically ended the isolation of a whole range of informal creative activities. Until very recently, such things as home made crafts, amateur photography (and pornography), self-published newsletters, fan-zines, underground music and comics as well as non-professional collecting practices have had little impact beyond their immediate community of producers and admirers. One can hardly escape an encounter with this heterogeneous production as it radiates from homes and offices, schools and streets, community centers and cyberspace, especially in cyberspace. Qualities that were anathema to modernist notions of serious art such as fantasy, nostalgia, and sentiment appear essential to the content of this informal artistry as it ranges from the whimsical to the inspired, from the banal to the reactionary, and from the obscene to the seditious. Is it possible therefore that the majority of creative activity in our post-industrial society remains invisible to the institutions and discourses – critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators and arts administrators–– who manage and interpret contemporary culture?

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