Brian HOLMES on Fri, 24 Dec 2004 04:16:56 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> A Reply to Coco Fusco

As a critic it's important to read your peers, and try to assess the
pertinence of your own work in the mirror of theirs. So I was curious to
read Coco Fusco's recent article on mapping
[ questioning_the_frame].
However, I must say that her continuous assertions of cultural authority
leave me feeling highly ambivalent. On the one hand, the threads of
historical memory she brings up are extremely welcome. On the other, her
unwillingness to engage with current conditions and projects tends to
reduce the past to a complaint: Why isn't it the present anymore?

It's true that the raw fact of being older than the majority of the
people in a given crowd can make you feel uncomfortably lucid. When I
went to a conference on so-called "locative" or GPS-based media at the
RIXC center in Latvia, I found most of the projects quite naive,
developing a few stylistic traits of situationist psychogeography in the
absence of any geopolitical critique of power relations, or any
philosophical critique of instrumental rationality. In effect, a
Cartesian worldview has been built into the computerized technology of
graphic information systems, which are undergirded by megaprojects of
military origin, or what I call "imperial infrastructure." But rather
than just giving a disciplinary lecture with all the answers stated in
general terms, I tried to show how changing conditions had made the
once-subversive traditions of psychogeography quite superficial, to the
point where the aesthetic forms the artists were using seemed to render
the very infrastructure of their projects invisible. And when I recently
published that paper out of context in Springerin, I took the time to
name all the artists and projects in question, so as to establish the
precise referents of the critique [
lang=en]. I wish Coco Fusco would make that kind of minimal effort, as
it would bring her sharp observations into contact with actual projects,
and open up a space of possible transformation.

More to the point: When I began my work on mapping, about four years ago
now, as a direct result of involvement in demonstrations against the
policies of the WTO and IMF, I too felt that the most important
reference was the history of the Third World movements of national
liberation, in their relations to the Western civil rights and new left
movements of the 60s and 70s. In an early text that was finally
published in the book Moneynations, I tried to show how the very concept
of the Third World, and then above all, the reality of the Movement of
Non-Aligned Nations, acted to open up new imaginary and real spaces
within the dominant bi-polar map of the Cold War
[]. I asked the
question whether the emergence of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre
could be compared to the Bandung Conference in 1955. Obviously, the
answer was that it could not: both because the current antisystemic
movements do not (yet) have the strength that Bandung represented, and
because the operative modes of opposition may well have changed
fundamentally since 1955.

The global importance of the Third World movements lay in the new kinds
of international solidarity that they helped provoke.  But something
important remains unstated in Fusco's references to these movements, and
this is the fact that the major links that tied them to the First World
do not exist anymore (nor, indeed, do the movements themselves, for we
are talking about specifically national movements in the period of
decolonization). One of these links was an aspiration to create a
non-Stalinist form of communism, according to the examples given by the
successful Cuban and Vietnamese guerrilla insurgencies, and also by
Yugoslav self-management (one must remember that the non-aligned
movement came officially into existence in Belgrade). Another powerful
link was the notion of cultural authenticity, or inherent difference
from the Western norm, as a liberating foundation upon which newly
independent nations could be built. This Third World concept served as a
basis for the struggles toward a multicultural society in the First
World. Today, however, the egalitarian aspiration to a self-managed
communism has no objective touchstone in reality, leaving those who feel
its lack in a deep state of ideological disarray. At the same time, the
notion of cultural authenticity has been largely usurped by nationalist
or fundamentalist projects which, although they have fortunately not
eradicated all work towards equal rights in a multicultural society,
have nonetheless made it very difficult to raise the banner of cultural
or ethnic difference as a rallying-point for international solidarity.

Instead of relying on the old internationalist slogans (Third Worldist
or proletarian), the transnational movements of dissent that gathered
strength throughout the 1990s tried to use the communicative power of
the discourses of human rights that had gained currency in the 80s,
largely through the resistance of people in the former Eastern bloc to
totalitarianism, and in Latin America to dictatorship. It was
subsequently necessary, in the late 90s, for the Western participants in
these transnational movements to take the further step of putting their
own bodies on the line, of taking direct action against the
international economic institutions, in order to go beyond the abstract
character of the human rights discourse. This was a way of responding,
in the overdeveloped countries, to the sacrifices of the many "IMF
riots" that had been held, often at great cost of life, in what was now
being called the Global South. Anyone who believes this step was taken
by middle-class white kids acting on internet fantasies, in the absence
of direct input from social movements around the world, quite obviously
didn't go to any of the demonstrations and paid no attention to the
planning process or the reports.

The point, however, is not to suggest that a brief flare-up of worldwide
protest has brought about any substantial change. It is rather to recall
what a difficult and long-term effort is really needed, both to grasp
the way that transnational state capitalism now functions, and to
articulate large-scale resistance. When Josh On  [] or
Bureau d'Etudes  [] make their
complex charts of contemporary power relations, one can be assured that
the cold and abstract character of the results is very painful to them.
I can testify, particularly in the second case, that they are acutely
aware of what is missing from such documents: namely, some affective
indication of resistance from below, who does it, how they work and why.
What has been achieved in such cartography projects, however, is a
contribution to the very large-scale effort to rebuild a critical grasp
of the oppressive forces that create the dominant map of the world. This
kind of power-mapping is a necessary prelude to any effective resistance
or counter-proposition. The fact that the difference between such
efforts and the current military maps used by the Pentagon does not
appear clearly on American TV is hardly something you can blame the
artists for! There is a difference between general culture critique and
constructive critique directed toward people carrying out specific

Somewhat like Coco Fusco, I often wonder why contemporary artists appear
so broadly unable to infuse the dominant map with representations of -
or even better, direct links to - the many and diverse dissenting groups
and alternative philosophies that are now emerging in the world, or that
have remained active over decades. Unlike Coco Fusco, however, I don't
think it's useful or necessary to berate artists today for not having
been born earlier. The great philosophical frameworks of national
liberation and egalitarian self-management that were able to articulate
far-flung resistance movements in the past are inoperative in our time.
The urgency is for real individuals of all generations, on all
continents, to put their heads and hearts together and create new
articulations. The specific job of writers and organizers is then to
give those articulations conceptual clarity and popular currency, so
that they can effectively challenge the absurd world-views presented on
American TV.

As to artists, for whom the naked power structures of the contemporary
world must now be quite visible, I encourage them to delve more deeply
into the diverse efforts that are being made to resist the imposition of
a homogeneous control structure on the entire world. This requires
looking outside the boundaries of class, ethnicity and nationality, as
certain artists and intellectuals of previous generations effectively
did. To live up to the great examples of the past then means imagining
something quite different for the future. Need it be said that certain
kinds of imagination can serve as the first steps towards a
transformation of reality?

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