Dossier | Notes on the potential and limits of Embedded insurrection

  • Camille Turner, Miss Canadiana, Dakar, 2004. Photo: Wayne Dunkley

Notes on the potential and limits of Embedded insurrection
By Sophie Le-Phat Ho

On November 11, 2008, French Anti-Terrorism Police arrested around twenty people, mostly in Tarnac, a small village in the Corrèze region of central France. Nine were subsequently accused of “criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity” in connection with the sabotage of train lines which had caused delays on the French railways. Very little evidence has been presented against them, but central to the prosecution is their alleged authorship of a book, The Coming Insurrection, and their association with what a scare-mongering French government and media have termed an “ultra-left” or “anarcho-autonomous movement.” (1)

I am part of a generation that tends to find inspiration in, and romanticize, all things Situationist without having knowledge of the specific context in which they arose (and the illusions that they might hide). The arrogance, the revelry, alongside the wit, the intellect. In that sense, The Coming Insurrection (2) by the Comité invisible can be seen as a familiar, yet contemporary, intervention into the landscape of cultural products pertaining to political theory and praxis. At last, a thesis that we can relate to “in our lifetime” and find much-needed dis-alienation through direct references. Indeed, the notion of “cultural products” would benefit from being “reclaimed” outside of academic circles in order to fuel our critique of critique, so to speak. There is value in considering objects through the level of the intensity of feedback loops that they create in terms of inspiration. Despite it being imperfect, one of the main values of The Coming Insurrection lies there: in intensifying current analyses of the world.

The following proposes a dialogic exercise in articulation and intensification with the ideas of another cultural product, the forthcoming book byproduct: On the Excess of Embedded Art Practices, (3) with the collaboration of its editor Marisa Jahn. (4) By virtue of their differential objectives, The Coming Insurrection and byproduct treat the idea of sabotage in vastly different yet parallel ways. Difference is inherently productive. But let us see of what. Let us figure out a “by-product.”

Lesson One: Target the networks.
Power is no longer concentrated in one point in the world; it is the world itself, its flows and its avenues, its people and its norms, its codes and its technologies. Power is the organization of the metropolis itself. It is the impeccable totality of the world of the commodity at each of its points. Anyone who defeats it locally sends a planetary shock wave through its networks.(5)

There is little way to deny the interconnectedness of today’s world. This is something that the practitioners of what artist/writer Marisa Jahn calls “embedded art practices” seem to have embraced, whether in a politically conscious way or not. The idea of “byproducts” arose from conversations with curator Joseph del Pesco. Both had curated exhibitions that “examined the insertion of projects into non-art contexts.” 6) Jahn co-organized “Shopdropping” (Calgary, Vancouver, San Francisco), which featured “artwork inserted into systems of commerce that includes tactics such as reverse shopping to performative self-insertion into circulatory systems.”

Despite the differences in backgrounds, affiliations and periods of practice, what brings together the contributors of byproducts is their interest in “interventing systems and institutions” and in “engaging structures of power as both a conscious or instinctual subversive reflex that in turn goads a self-inquiry and self-knowledge.” Such systems can include: industry, research, development, law, factories, mass media, government, and so on.

For each a different level of embeddedness. For each a different configuration of hooks. For each a different time of retention. The targeting of networks can be done in many ways. From tactical media to documentary protocols, (7) the “performative mastery, the agility in social navigation” varies. Indeed, the idea of embedded art practices developed in response to what Jahn and del Pesco felt were shortcomings of interventionist artwork. Critical of the “touch-and-go” dimension of many interventionist works, Jahn deplores the fact that there is often not enough at stake for the artist:

What concerns [us] about interventionist works is the critical and privileged distance between the artist and his/her context. Relatedly, a historiographical problem of the critical writing around interventionist artwork has been an emphasis on the sensationalist aspects of the work—the evidentiary—often photodocumentary—moments attesting to the fact that the work existed in the real world. Equally problematic are when the passerby or bystander is unwittingly enscripted as “the man (or woman) on the street” character and he/she does not have the opportunity to participate in its alteration. More compelling are those projects that do not have an ending pre-scripted and allow for the participant-viewer to alter or influence its outcome—this is ultimately a curiosity about those projects that offer a framework that enacts politically consequential shifts. I suppose it’s a question about armatures for emancipation.

Has interventionist work developed from a superficial understanding of networks? In the end, what do these interventions really do? Would they benefit in becoming more self-reflexive? Or is tactical media, by definition, about avoiding showing one’s vulnerabilities?

Lesson Two: Move away from identity.
From a strategic point of view, indirect, asymmetrical action seems the most effective kind, the one best suited to our time: you don’t attack an occupying army frontally. Identity is no longer to be “reclaimed” or “defended.” Identity is what any type of institutionalized form of belonging seeks to fixate, file, archive and, in turn, co-opt. Identity is the bearer of borders. On the other hand, the Comité invisible is everywhere and nowhere at once. As another group, Os der ikke findes (We who do not exist), states, “The pirate lives on the water and thus does not live anywhere. [Foucault’s point is that] pirates are better than the police. To travel is better than to spy... Movement away from identity is politics [for Foucault].” (8)

In contrast, some practitioners of embedded art do not aim to become “invisible” and explore the very notion of identity. As Jahn argues, “many embedded projects begin with a curiosity about the contingency of identity, the conditions of subject-formation, the politics of subjection... the artists are driven by existential or experiential questions but, given a politicized sensibility, their work takes on subversive inflections.”

What is common between a politics of a movement away from identity and that of using identity as a starting point is the notion of an indefinite identity, resonant with “the rejection of a stable identity, but also a refusal to be called to account or to reveal that which the public sphere expects and demands.” (9) In the case of embedded art practices, what is at work—another byproduct, as it were—is a certain process of despecialization. While there exists a well-founded critique of artists who might conflate their role with that of social workers or community activists, embedded artists put themselves in a situation that complexifies the knowledge ecology and thus widen the potential for critique. How can one build a good critique—or be a good artist for that matter—if one does not know what one is talking about? To a certain extent, embedded practices have the potential to remedy to the romanticization and paternalism prevalent within community (art) practices.

Lesson Three: Never forget knowledge/power.
The circulation of knowledge cancels hierarchy; it equalizes by raising up. Proliferating horizontal communication is also the best form of coordination among different communes, the best way to put an end to hegemony. What is “knowledge production” in the context of embedded practices? For Jahn, the dissemination (or “broadcast”) of these practices is central for the artists—“their work signifies from a very contextualized position.” As she argues, “Removing the work from its context risks political deracination, the loss of originary intent... [Embedded artists] resolve this question in part by using the system they intervent to produce the work, and using its language as the primary artistic medium.” For example, the core medium of Refresh is the court transcript that relays the conversation between artist Kristin Lucas and the judge responsible for “changing” her name to her current name.

The important thing is to cultivate and spread this necessary disposition towards fraud, and to share its innovations. For communes, the question of work is only posed in relation to other already existing incomes. And we shouldn’t forget all the useful knowledge that can be acquired through certain trades, professions and well-positioned jobs. Jahn notes that “embedded practices rely on the invitation of another institution or host; what makes these works edgy is their capacity for that hospitality to turn to hostility, the prospects of subversion, a talent or knack in applying a skill or mastery to render this tension productive and towards compelling ends.”

Today, there is a necessity to come up with new ways of creating alliances and finding accomplices. As proclaimed by the Comité invisible, “We don’t want to occupy the territory, we want to be the territory.” Can embedded art practices contribute in building solidarity at all? By virtue of infiltrating the “machine” and thus witnessing “our state of truly catastrophic dispossession [that] the normal functioning of the world usually serves to hide,” (10) what do they end up destabilizing exactly?

Communes come into being when people find each other, get on with each other, and decide on a common path. The commune is perhaps what gets decided at the very moment when we would normally part ways. It’s the joy of an encounter that survives its expected end. It’s what makes us say ‘we’, and makes that an event... Why shouldn’t communes proliferate everywhere? Will embedded artists proliferate? According to Jahn, many artist work-placements are arising today due to the “valorization of creativity in making industries more efficient and intellectually adaptable” as well as “governmental-initiated programs to stimulate the cultural sector and render it more economically viable.” She believes there are many projects in which the artist’s work becomes instrumentalized towards the organization’s needs but more challenging are those that resist a full assimilation and insist on a critical function. Hence, the extent to which byproducts can contribute to a certain decentralization of power remains to be seen.

Final Dispatch: The risks of embedded practices.

Given the above, one could ask the timely question: “How risky can art be?” (11) The very idea of being embedded implies an enclosing, an infiltration. But who (or what) is being enclosed—that is, co-opted—exactly? This is where “performative mastery and the agility in social navigation” become critical. And where thinking of embedded positions, while potentially mind-bending, is most productive. On the margins of this workforce that is effective and necessary for the functioning of the machine, is a growing majority that has become superfluous, that is certainly useful to the flow of production but not much else, which introduces the risk that, in its idleness, it will set about sabotaging the machine. In a sense, embedded artists themselves are the very byproducts of today’s world, revealing their own intertwinement in the current networks, which in turn affect the terms and conditions of sabotage. Between direct action and indirect action. Between comrades and accomplices. Between identity and flux.

Ultimately, embedded practices might question the notion of agency in the context of “interventionist” work/art. Where risk seems minimal by virtue of the necessary adherence to existing configuration of networks, that is, of power (for embedded practices to actually take place), the risk seems at once significant due to the very idea of embedded praxis. As the contributors of Marisa Jahn’s book show, embedded artists cannot help but being affected as a result of their voluntary act of infiltration. This affect and its potential for self-transformation constitute a risk. It would be interesting to further inquire on the way artists evaluate that risk. But in the meantime, byproduct shows that many have decided to go ahead. As the Comité invisible claimed, “to no longer wait is, in one way or another, to enter into the logic of insurrection.”

NOTES
1. From Tarnac 9 website.
2. English translation of L’insurrection qui vient (2007), Tarnac 9.
3. Set to be published in 2010 by YYZ Books (Toronto) REV (New York City), it examines artists’ projects whose artfulness lies in building micro-worlds within other non-artworld systems. While parasitically reliant on the socioeconomic structure and symbolic order of other dominant systems, these artworks—or “byproducts”—exploit loopholes, surpluses, and exceptions in order to affirm individual agency and complicate the mechanisms of their dominant “host.” Includes contributions by Paul Ardenne, Felicity Tayler, Steve Mann, among many others.
4. Thank you to Marisa Jahn ( www.marisajahn.com ) for her collaboration in the research and editing of this piece.
5. The Coming Insurrection: http://tarnac9.wordpress.com/.
6. All quotes, except those from The Coming Insurrection, are taken from email exchanges with Marisa Jahn.
7. See “Documentary Protocols I and II” (Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery), curated by Vincent Bonin: http://ellengallery.concordia.ca/en/reflexion_protocol1.php and http://ellengallery.concordia.ca/en/reflexion_protocol2.php.
8. Os der ikke findes (We who do not exist), An explosive force of freedom, 2009: http://www.metamute.org/an_explosive_force_of_freedom (last accessed September 2009).
9. Idem.
10. CI, “Fourth Circle,” TCI.
11. See Wolfgang Sützl and Geoff Cox, eds., Creating Insecurity: art and culture in the age of security (Autonomedia [DATA browser 4]: 2009).

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