(Note: This is an edited version of a longer letter sent to the Donau Festival and posted on the Labofli’s blog. The original letter is available here.)
Dear Tomas, Margit and the others reading this letter,
We are writing with a sadness that reaches to the tips of the fingers with which we type. This weekend the French Police, acting on the orders of the dictatorship of the growth economy, killed Remi, a young ecological justice activist. The ZAD du Testet where Remi was murdered is resisting the construction of a dam that is cutting down hectares of forest and destroying a richly bio-diverse wetlands eco-system just to water fields of industrial maize. Once again we are confronted with the fact that when people go beyond the symbolic, when they place their bodies directly against the machines of the system, the response is violence, extreme violence. We write this letter with sadness, love and rage in our veins.
We Have Never Been Here Before, the show that you invited us to present at the Donau Festival, is explicitly about the personal and political obstacles in the fight against catastrophic climate change and the accompanying workshop for artists and activists, explores both psychological and strategic questions of how we can act in the face of such challenges.
Looking beyond the front page of the festival website to the sponsors page, where we discovered not only Vienna International Airport, but also EVN which owns coal fired power stations and distributes gas across Europe. Then we saw that on the top of the list of sponsors is the distinct black and yellow logo of Austria’s biggest bank Raiffeisen. In 2011 Raiffeisen won a financial award for their funding of a Russian oil companies’ new refinery and for setting up export infrastructure for Siberian open cast coal! If our culture perceived these banks as part of the problem rather than as partners, perhaps the future would not be cancelled. If these companies were forced by popular social movements to shift their investments away from fossil fuels, maybe we would be winning.
“Art is simply paying attention,” wrote Alan Kaprow. In this world where our attention is being bombarded by neurone stimulating semiotic goods 24/7, the Labofii finds this definition of art fitting. We no longer have time for attention, the overload leads us to paralysing panic, where changing our world feels as out of reach as true joy. “The economic crisis” Franco “Bifo” Berardi writes, “depends for the most part on the circulation of sadness, depression, panic and demotivation.”
The Society of the Spectacle is “unity in separation” said Guy Debord. Two generations later, this vision perfectly describes our present, the realm of extreme separation where we are violently split from our food sources, from our soil, from our plants and our water.
For the Labofii “paying attention” is an inherently political definition of art, because a moment of “attention” is an act of disobedience and desertion from the chaos of a society of mass attention deficit disorder. The worlds that sustain our life have become alien, unknown planets. We feel alienated from the bacteria that makes up 10 percent of our body weight , we witness 200 species being pushed to extinction, and yet we think this will somehow not affect us.
Kaprow might have called paying attention ‘art’, Bhuddist call it “mindfullness”, neuroscientists “direct experience”, christian’s “contemplation” and in arabic it is know as “sabr” – a key practice of islam. This surrendering to the present moment that seems to be a central ritual practice of human society, bypasses the existential ego of the self and overcomes the anxiety of past and future. If art is simply paying attention, then not only does it escape from the prisons of the art world and from the clutches of the creative class’ monopoly on it; it enables us to make conscious ethical choices free from the terrorising autopilot of consumer capitalism.
It comes as no surprise that another cultural institution is providing the social approval and progressive sheen on companies whose toxic activities have nothing to do with a sustainable and just future. Your enthusiastic presentation of the festival says you desire “a paradigm shift in society”, but these companies continue business as usual and they are using art as the perfect mask of hypocrisy, a moral offset for their ‘sins’.
Many of our artists and intellectual friends fly from biennial to festival, from one city to another to make “radical culture”. It’s all part of the “rights” of the hyper mobile cultural class, a global generation that that has been uprooted from any material place, ripped from local communities, distanced from contexts where they might have some agency in transforming the material world. It suits the status quo that the radical thinkers and makers don’t have a territory, belong to nowhere and float in an abstract vapid world where no solution is graspable, where radical thinking has no anchor in action. But as John Berger says “to improve something, you really need to know the texture, the life story of that thing”, and knowing the story of somewhere takes a lot longer than a festival or a residency. According to some farmers it can take a thousand years to know a place. What is it in our culture that makes some people think that their presence to such events is so vital that it trumps the need to reduce global emissions? The capitalist chasm between our beliefs and behaviour is spreading as fast as the desert…
Of course, some will respond that “without flying the international art world cannot continue”, that in a climate of general budget cuts festivals desperately need money to put up shows that inspire, that we need to live in the “real world” and that sometimes compromises need to be made in order tosurvive… Such logic seems absurd to us: do we really want to continue the survival of the international art world at the expense of the survival of our species on this planet. Or do we want an art world that provides models for other ways of living and behaving in this one?
We were excited to read your festival’s statement entitled 10 YEARS REDEFINING ARTS. When you write that you want “a paradigm shift in society” do you think capitalist culture will somehow undergo a voluntary transformation? We think not. No real solutions to this crisis will be put in place by those in power if it means them not profiting from it. As escaped slave Frederick Douglas knew so well when he was fighting the horrors of the slave trade and declared “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. “
For us at the Labofii, our goal can be summed up with one sentence: to remove the ability of the rich to steal from the poor and dismantle the ability of the powerful to destroy our biosphere. The role of art for us is to make this process as creative, desirable and effective as possible – to stop the war of money against life in the most beautiful way possible. Sadly we don’t see how we can do this by being part of the Donau Festival without violently tearing our ethics from our aesthetics.
Perhaps in an age of extreme ecological and social crisis, the key questions artists and curators need to ask themselves are: Can these the institutions of culture be machines for amplifying our potential to transform the status quo, or are they palaces carefully engineered for us to play the fool in, whilst outside the kings and queens continue to play Russian roulette with our future whilst enriching theirs?
We have never seen the Danube river in its all its glory and we were excited to spend time with some of the art activists and friends we most admire, the Yes Men and Reverend Billy who are participating in the show. But how to do so without becoming part of the machinery that we want to dismantle? If we were cynical we would just accept the fact that we would be recuperated and go for it – it’s the “shitty reality”. But cynicism is simply another word for obedience to the system and we don’t want to dwell in the shit of reality, that’s why we make art.
And so we would like this letter, or manifesto, or whatever it is, to be a proposal for a dialogue about what a “radically new festival model” could look like rather than just a shut door that says sorry we can’t take part. We would like it to be the start of something rather than the end, something more than symbolic words or acts we share together. Something that helps put bodies in the way of the machine rather than greasing its cogs.
Yours in solidarity John and Isa.
The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination