Radical media, politics and culture.

Kim Paice, "Art, State, Sabotage"

Kim Paice writes:

"Art, State, Sabotage"

Kim Paice

In recent years, government has tended to see an ever-narrowing line between art and threats to the state.

When, on February 8th, Austrian artist Robert Jelinek — founder of the artists collective Sabotage — flew from Vienna to Cincinnati via Amsterdam and Detroit, he was carrying art and literature for the exhibition "Incorporated: a recent (incomplete) history of infiltrations, actions and propositions utilizing contemporary art" at the Contemporary Arts Center.

Between Detroit and Cincinnati, Homeland Security confiscated 33 passport-works by artist Heimo Zobernig, educational leaflets, and personal items from Jelinek’s belongings. Officials left an incomplete receipt for items in one suitcase.

They later explained seizing the art because it was “produced by an anarchy group called Sabotage which does not believe in international borders.” After a period of what one participant called “civil” negotiation, authorities returned the passports and literature to the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati on March 2. They are on view in Incorporated until May 8th.

CNN and other media outlets quickly compared the seizure to controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition in Cincinnati. Yet, the recent incident has new markings. Seizure of a foreign national’s property amounts to an international incident and fosters cultural isolationism.

While hardly comparable to criminal actions in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, this event also occurs on the world stage. It tells us that 15 years since the Mapplethorpe scandal, federal authorities have yet to learn that crusades against pornological and political art generate an audience and demand for such art.In 1990, philosopher Judith Butler went so far as to claim that Senator Helms created Mapplethorpe. She made an intriguing point!

Cincinnati Center director Linda Shearer reports that “convincing people of Cincinnati that contemporary art is important” has been among the biggest challenges that she and the Contemporary Arts Center have faced. The success of Incorporated suggests that they are taking the high ground in this battle.

Matt Distel is the talented curator who organized Incorporated. His insightful work and Shearer’s no-nonsense vision distinguish the Center.
Incorporated includes works of artists’s collectives: Atlas Group, Newsense Enterprises, Institute for Applied Autonomy, Sabotage, and Yes Men. The show is spirited and intelligent, sharing much with Nato Thompson’s Interventionists exhibition, which was held at MASS MOCA in 2004.

Distel highlights artists who mine the techniques of the state to challenge the state’s authority and free-reign policing. Viewers leave Incorporated knowing quite a bit about resistance and how to take up tools of the state, such as fingerprinting, document issuance, media manipulation, and surveillance creatively to redefine the nation-state.

Sabotage’s video installation tells us the group aims to create a deterritorialized borderless faux state called State of Sabotage, which shares many tenets with the Greens. This state’s name comes from the French word “sabot” meaning “wooden clog”: “At the beginning of agricultural mechanization French farm workers threw their shoes into harvesting and processing machines (which were taking their jobs), thereby blocking the complicated mechanics of the mowing and threshing machines and rendering them useless. For the sake of their labor, they engaged in ‘sabotage’.”

SoS had planned to establish an “embassy” and hand out passports and soup in a performance at the Center that was cancelled.

SoS supports the convention of Staatkunst (State Art), notably with boots by H.R. Giger (the Swiss Surrealist who created the alien for Ridley Scott’s film Alien), electronic music by Franz Pomassl, and soup by Anabelle Hulaut. Its manhole works honor the obliteration of hierarchies in Franz Kafka’s novels and the industrial music of Einstürzende Neubauten.

The Institute for Applied Autonomy uses current technologies to document state policing and reinforce counter-strategies. IAA highlights text-messaging as means to summoning activists on the fly and, in a “critical cartography,” details paths of least surveillance in NYC. As viewers register a finger print to activate this work, it is clear that, in a step up from the age of mechanical reproduction, the information era affords new possibilities and imposes specific conditions on life.

Creative disinformation and “noise” inform practices in Incorporated. Chicago’s Temporary Services intervenes in cityscapes and advertising. Their work makes us cognizant participants rather than consumers absorbed in everyday life.

Newsense Enterprises contributes a wooden frame to a lobby window where employees of the Center contribute the trash and refuse that they generate with each day’s labor.

The Yes Men trickster performance troupe infiltrates mainstream media and demonstrates that art can undermine public concensus behind corporate and governmental actions. In a widely televised report that played on BBC World News, one Yes Man impersonates a spokesperson for Dow Chemical. He asserts that Dow now takes responsibility for chemical leaks in Bhopal and liquidate Union Carbide (assets of $12 billion) for restitutions, healthcare for surviving victims, and remediating the site.
While Incorporated is humorously subversive, its messages are nonetheless hardhitting.

Atlas Group’s photographic archive of car bomb remains are disturbing relics of a relentless civil war in Lebanon and a kind of life about which most Westerners know practically nothing. Atlas Group documents such absent knowledges and imaginatively tells stories that haven’t been told, as, for example, that of Souheil Bachar who was kidnapped and held with four Americans in the “Western” hostage crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Such archival work begs questions about affect and narrative: why haven’t certain stories been told?; why do we privilege certain kinds of documents or testimony?; and what are the differences between what is lived and what has happened?.

When Atlas Group’s Walid Raad visited University of Cincinnati on March 17th, the audience was preoccupied with the potential for confusing art with terrorism and fiction with fact. Afterward, Raad reported that the FBI had finally explained why in May 2004 it had linked Steve Kurtz’s art with terrorism. You will remember that the morning that Hope Kurtz died, on-scene medics alerted FBI to “suspicious” biotechnological art in the Kurtz home. The couple co-founded the Critical Art Ensemble. In the search that followed, officials found Kurtz’s invitation to the Interventionists exhibition, which images a car bomb photograph by Raad. This image, they admit, was among primary factors that motivated charges of mail fraud.

As the CAE defense team reports, “American authorities leap all too easily from ideological criticism to terrorism. What's more, the CAE's legal battle reveals that the government has made thinking into a crime: a citizen can be arrested without having committed any act of terror, or without having done anything illegal at all.” There is little doubt that Incorporated speaks pointedly about this era of volatile information and state-sponsored fear.