Radical media, politics and culture.

Dark Matter, Las Agencias, and the Aesthetics of Tactical Embarassment

hydrarchist writes:
Dark Matter, Las Agencias, and the Aesthetics
of Tactical Embarrassment

Gregory G. Sholette

photo courtesy of Las Agencias
and Jordi Claremonte

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 nations (2).
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

“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

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

courtesy of Las Agencias and Jordi Claremonte


In so far
as this shadowy realm is unburdened by the ironic posturing or careerism
of the high-art tradition it fulfills what is arguably a widespread
tendency to participate in creative labor not dictated by necessity,
but by desire. And while one can question the a-political nature of
most of this work, or following Adorno dismiss it outright because
its “low” subject matter reflects, rather than negates
the manufactured escapism of mass culture, I prefer instead to focus
on the self-directed and counter-productive nature of this activity
and argue that structurally speaking, this largely invisible, creative
work is closer in spirit and market value to politically engaged,
activist art than either of these are to commercial or fine art. In
this sense, and this is crucial for my argument, creative dark matter
is strongly related to the practices of artists who self-consciously
work outside the parameters of the mainstream art world for political
and socially critical reasons including, but not limited to, Yomango
and Las Agencias. Nevertheless, it is the emergence of creative activism
into a broader visual arena, one in which the participants become
visible not only to each other but also to the centralized institutions
of the art world, that presents new possibilities as well as traps.
Consider for example the way a few, relatively safe "political"
artists in the mid to late 1980s were selected from a far larger field
of activist dark matter and permitted access to the museum. Therefore
if increased visibility is a necessary strategy for political action
it is not without its own danger. At the same time the need to frame
this new wave of activist art in a radically different way from previous
art history is conspicuous. As activist and theoretician Brian Holmes

the ideologies of resignation, despite the dense reality of governmental
structures in our "control societies," nothing prevents
the sophisticated forms of critical knowledge, elaborated in the peculiar
temporality of the university, from connecting directly with the new
and also complex, highly sophisticated forms of dissent appearing
on the streets. This type of crossover is exactly what we have seen
in the wide range of movements opposing the agenda of neoliberal globalization.
" (5)

Where then
are the historians of darkness? What tools will they require to move
beyond a mere description of these shadows and dark practices and
towards the construction of a counter-public sphere? In this short
text I have, as always, attempted too much. Clearly, more research
is needed on how alternative or counter economic forms link up with
collective patterns of engaged art making as well as how one measures
the relative autonomy of critical art practices in relation to the
culture industry. One thing is clear however; the construction of
a counter-public sphere will necessitate that we move away from the
longstanding preoccupation with representation and towards an articulation
of the invisible. To be seen, seeable, embodied, to block something
from another’s view, to take as well as give away the very means
of seeing, these are the new terms of battle. With it comes a new
horizon filled with possibilities as well as risks. Lets hope we historians
of darkness are up to the task.

________________________________________________ __________________

Agencias is a network of autonomous groups, working on the construction
of biopoilitical antagonism. The fields which deal with the construction
of culture and lifestyle are no longer separate from those that deal
with the construction of the political body." http://www.sindominio.net/fiambrera/web-agencias/

For more on Las Agencias see: http://www.sindominio.net/fiambrera/web-agencias/

Information about Yomango is at: http://www.yomango.net

________________________________________________ __________________

This essay is based on several recent lectures and essays I have produced
about art activism and informal art. For more on this concept please
see, "Dark Matter, Activist Art and the Counter-Public Sphere"
and "Heart of Darkness: a Journey into the Dark Matter of the
Art World," available on line at http://www.artic.edu/~gshole/

BBC News World Ed. Monday, 17 February 2003, 13:01 GMT at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2765215.stm.

Waiting for Tear Gas a photo-essay by Allan Sekula in the book 5 Days
that Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond. Alexander Cockburn, Jeffrey
St. Clair and Allan Sekula. (Verso, London, NY: 2000.)

For an elaboration of this position please see my essay, "Some
Call It Art: From Imaginary Autonomy to Autonomous Collectivity":Collectivity"
published in the book Dürfen Die Das?: Kunst als sozialer Raum:
Art/Education/Cultural Work/Communities, Ed. Stella Rollig and Eva
Sturm, (Verlag Turia & Kant, Wien, Austria, 2002). 161-184. and
also viewable on the website of the European Institute for Progressive
Cultural Policies EIPCP at: http://www.eipcp.net/diskurs/d07/text/sholette_en. html

Brian Holmes, "The Flexible Personality: For a New Cultural Critique,"
in Hieroglyphs of the Future: Art and Politics in a Networked Era
(Zagreb: Arkzin, 2003) also at: www.noemalab.com/sections/ideas/ideas_articles/hol mes_personality.html