Re-enactments versus Re-enactments: European Artists Tackle Populist Aesthetics

Lynda Dematteo
Aernout mik, Shifting Sitting II, 2011.
photo : Florian braun, courtesy of Carlier | Gebauer, Berlin

Populist movements have assimilated the practices of anti-establishment artists and made use of both performance and détournement-based practices. Faced with populist re-enactments, what can artists sensitive to the disintegration of national imaginaries and determined to resist the vulgarity and violence of populist images do? After examining populist re-enactments, specifically those of the Northern League and the Tea Party, I will outline the direction taken by some artistic research in Holland and Flanders.

Populist Replays Versus the Memory of Emancipating Struggles

Populist leaders are engaged in a systematic reversal of the historical symbols of national emancipation. The process is now so common that it has become a kind of political tactic. Such techniques of cultural struggle were developed in the protest movements of the 1970s: one intervenes in the symbolic order in order to expel one’s opponent from its symbolic space and strip it of its attendant values. The spaces reclaimed by the radical right thus lose their emancipating dimension and take on a new meaning that is inverted or displaced in relation to the original historical significance of events. It is important, therefore, to distinguish subversion from counter-subversion when the latter is used in the place of the former; it invents nothing but reclaims forms of action developed to resist oppression and turns them to the opposite end. It is actually an act of subversion aimed at the political imaginary of one’s opponent. Such uses accentuate the crisis in moderate parties, which are not always clear on their opponents’ modus operandi.

When Umberto Bossi created the Lega Lombarda by replaying the 1167 Oath of Pontida, he turned the meaning of an ancient national symbol upside down. In his view, oppression was embodied no longer by Teutonic knights but by Rome and its financial irresponsibility, and by its corollary, the unbearable financial pressure put on small businesses in northern Italy. His political objective was radical; he wanted to take apart the Italian nation so it could “be reborn free and pay less tax.” The demands of the Northern League are echoed in those of the American patriots who joined the Tea Party forums. On April 19, 2009 — the anniversary of the first battles for independence — Stewart Rhodes’s Oath Keepers organized a rally on the historic Massachusetts battlefield at Lexington, near Boston. There, they swore to defend the American constitution by disobeying orders, notably those aiming to disarm the populace.1 1 - See This radical movement is also a refounding of the nation in the guise of political provocation. At both Pontida and Lexington, populist replays force disturbing distortions onto national symbols. They create antagonistic political imaginaries and signify that the definition of the nation is no longer consensual. The Northern League talks of secession, and various points of the Oath Keepers’ oath prefigure civil war. In both cases, what is forcefully affirmed is the will to re-create a phantasmic country — Padania in Italy, and the America of the Founding Fathers in the United States — as democratic symbols are emptied of their content by the paramilitary groups reclaiming them. Why does the same ritual scheme reappear in two counties as different as the United States and Italy? Is it merely a question of opposing the claims of a translocal form of governance viewed as foreign? The stakes no doubt run far deeper than those openly declared by the players.

Enacting populism in its mediascape, exhibition view, Kadist Art Foundation, Paris, 2012.
Photo : A. Mole

Populism, or the Real Phagocytized by the Imaginary

Observers may note that these are replays, but they don’t always understand the specificities. It is therefore important to consider the meanings in which these restagings are cloaked for the political actors undertaking them. These two political symbols, Pontida and Lexington, have already received heritage status (almost immediately in the American case) and have seen many, sometimes contradictory replays. They have been (and continue to be) sites of costumed re-enactments. But these populist performances are particular in that they make a mockery of solemn discourses by introducing screwball details — elements of anti-structure;2 2 - Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1969). they are parodic replays. The political imaginaries thus created don’t quite work, because we only half believe them. They have an instrumental function that doesn’t escape their protagonists. Moreover, some leaders in the Northern League have been exposed as utterly cynical and as corrupt as their predecessors. Thus, we move outside the frame of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community.”3 3 - Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verso, 2006). If the imaginary makes community in its modern version, here we are faced with a phantasmic formation born of the rejection of the symbolic pact and the accentuation of crisis instead.4 4 - Mario Barenghi and Matteo Bonazzi, L’immaginario leghista. L’irruzione delle pulsioni nella politica contemporanea (Macerata: Quodlibet Studio, 2012).

In reality, these populist oaths dismantle the community, and the symbols — replayed for laughs — function with an inverted meaning. They speak to us of the internal dissolution of nations and of a refusal to take part in any collective effort to set things aright. The participants’ patriotic speeches ring false. The populist replays intervene in contexts of major crisis. They have a powerful territorial dimension: one defends one’s freedom and property against immigrants, or against an offending power that is seen as foreign. They mark the radicalization of a right-wing electorate that has contracted to anti-state and ultraliberal positions. These performances also have a “blood and thunder” aspect: they are designed to impress political adversaries.

Participants are inhabited by a particular imaginary, one that casts back to a mythical past and is distanced from the reality in which the majority lives and thinks. They seem deaf to all rational argument. These disconnected imaginaries work to the extent that they stir desire, action, and even emotion, and one feels impotent before their political force. Unlike other political forces, the far right works on irrational levels. Its representatives have an instrumental and simplified relationship with history; they do not hesitate to reclaim historical imaginaries heavily laden with meaning in order to more effectively mobilize their followers. The historian Jill Lepore suggests that the Tea Partiers’ history is in fact “­anti-history,” or even “historical fundamentalism,” as they have no real wish to return to the time of the Founding Fathers.5 5 - Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 2010), 8.

Populist replays provoke a new war among imaginaries, but one beyond ideological confrontation; the most terrible threat that they contain is no doubt the carefully constructed ambiguity, mixing corpora, confusion and the use of deeper ideological strata, far beyond traditional distinctions. In 1997, anthropologist Marc Augé cautioned against the invasion of reality by fiction.6 6 - Marc Augé, La guerre des rêves (Paris: Seuil, 1997). Images in circulation model the real and create so much confusion between the two registers that any test of reality is itself compromised. Augé called for a morality of resistance that could restore the border between reality and fiction (which is necessarily partial). This is precisely the point at which contemporary artists intervene: they, in turn, re-enact populisms to better show the public the confusion that they engender.

Making Visible the Confusion between the Real and the Imaginary

Working with populist images seemed both necessary and urgent at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. In his film Videocracy, Erik Gandini shows how deeply affected Italian society has been by the Berlusconian imaginary imposed on it since the 1980s by the private television networks. Faced with distribution difficulties in Italy, his documentary was presented at the Venice Biennale in 2009. It exposed the effects of the systematic denigration of women, disfigured by plastic surgery and reduced to sexual objects. The film mourns how television visibility has become the sole sign of individual success, independent of any merit, and denounces Berlusconian power’s turn to the “people.”

Artists began to wonder how best to take apart these representations. Aernout Mik and Matteo Lucchetti proposed to replay populism, as populists replay the community in media outlets, but to better liberate the public. The use of video was crucial to these artists, as it allowed them to intervene directly in the media order and impede the circulation of populist images. The installations by Dutch artist Aernout Mik have been pioneering in this sense.7 7 - His work was exhibited at the Jeu de Paume gallery in spring 2011: page=article&idArt=1916&lieu=7. In his silent films, he stages crowds, groups, and experimental or anti-structural meetings. The scenes that he shoots have no narrative logic, and the characters seem driven by an unknown causality. Thus, he creates a feeling of strangeness with regard to news images. Through these offbeat scenes, he wants to show us that relationships among individuals are established at levels whose basic determinants we do not always see. Starting from Victor Turner’s analyses, Mik reflects on the ways in which citizenship is disturbed by populism and shows how citizen status remains unstable and subject to conflict.8 8 - Elie During and Marta Gili, Aernout Mik. Communitas (Paris: Steidl, 2011), 7.

Aernout Mik,
Schoolyard, 2009.
Photo : Florian Braun, courtesy of Carlier | Gebauer, Berlin

Two of Mik’s films are particularly interesting for our concerns: the first deals with Dutch populism, the second with the case of Berlusconi. Schoolyard denounces the stigmatization of young Muslims in Holland. It presents a high-school class in which students of various origins oppose the vigils that keep them from entering the institution. After the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh, the populist leader Geert Wilders imported the antiterrorist discourse of the Israeli far right to Holland. Young people of foreign origin have been described as “street terrorists.” The artist targets the very absurdity of these populist amalgamations. To better dismantle them, he brings them together in a video montage associating scenes of suburban youth in revolt with those of funeral processions from the intifada; we see Dutch students carrying the motionless bodies of their comrades in their arms. In Shifting Sitting, Mik challenges the separation of powers in contemporary Italy. The film puts the always-confident Silvio Berlusconi in the dock before magistrates — above him, clearly visible, the motto of the Italian justice system: La legge è uguale per tutti.9 9 - The law is the same for everyone. In the viewers’ gallery, members of the public demonstrate wearing cardboard Berlusconi masks. The scene imparts an impression of chaos, at once joyous and disturbing. Mik’s works directly confront us with the most disquieting aspects of the contemporary; he stages group scenes free of reference points in which archaic and violent behaviours bubble to the surface.

The young Milanese artist Matteo Lucchetti pursues a similar goal. Starting from an overwhelming assertion — communitarian kitsch has invaded the media and contaminated reality through broadcasting — he sets out to deconstruct the images that influence our political choices without our having taken the time to examine them closely or to ask questions.10 10 - Interview with Matteo Lucchetti on the Kadist Web site: v=CLhsLuLyKe8. The artists who have joined him strive to find new possibilities for influencing contemporary political iconography.11 11 - Many artists have been involved with the project: the international collective Alterazioni video, Heman Chong, Luigi Coppola, Danilo Correale, Foundland, Nicoline van Harskamp, Steve Lambert, Olivier Ressler, Anna Scalfi Eghenter, Société Réaliste, Jonas Staal, and Superflex. This aesthetic project was born in Antwerp, a Flemish city especially affected by the populism of Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, a far-right political party); the artist residence AIR Antwerpen (Rotterdam) took on the work of analyzing populist visuals12 12 - Merijn Oudenampsen (dir.), “The Populist Imagination. On the Role of the Myth, Storytelling and Imaginary in Politics”, Open: Cahier on Art and the Public Domain, no. 20, Rotterdam, (2010). and the relationship between art and propaganda. The installation Enacting Populism in its Mediascape was presented by the Kadist Foundation in Paris during the presidential campaign of April 2012. The exhibition space was set up like the headquarters of a political party in which the works could be seen, simultaneously, as propagandist artefacts and as contemporary art objects. Here too the artists played with different levels of confusion: art — propaganda, real — imaginary, politics — populism. In effect, they endeavoured to illustrate Ernesto Laclau’s thesis that populism is the truth of politics in a democratic regime, and hatred of one is merely the counterpart to hatred of the other. However, they neglect to question the representations of people conveyed by populisms. Are they all emancipating? To some degree. They generally betray a condescending vision of working-class milieus.

Enacting populism in its mediascape, exhibition view, Kadist Art Foundation, Paris, 2012.
Photo : A. Mole

In their works, the European artists struggle to highlight the confusion of the real and the imaginary that characterizes populism. They build on classic anthropological analyses in an attempt to produce gestures that are both artistic and political, and they manage to do so with greater or lesser success. Some works are not free of a kind of ambiguity: the difference between populist images and their artistic replays don’t always leap to the eye, and this is disturbing. Artists simply seize forms of populism and give them a new twist. One may certainly settle for merely opposing a new, antagonistic imaginary to that of populism, but in doing so one perpetuates the culture war. Rather, one must oppose it with a real overcoming. Yet replaying populism is a delicate operation addressing cultural elites; it risks missing its target. No doubt, even more ambition is called for; perhaps new emancipating myths need to be created — by putting the imagination to work, certainly, but always in order to outwit oppression by images.

[Translated from the French by Peter Dubé]

This article also appears in the issue 79 - Re-enactment

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