Transcript of the entire interview by Martin Krenn with Neala Schleuning, Neala’s appartment, St. Paul, Minnesota, 12 Feb. 2014 (English)
Krenn: When I heard about your book Artpolitik: Social Anarchist Aesthetics in an Age of Fragmentation (2013) I thought, oh that’s interesting. It’s a book that pursues an approach similar to that in my PhD project. We are both interested to look back to historical art movements from the end of the 19th to the 20th century and to trace different routes of political and social engagement in these movements.
Schleuning: And this book only begins to touch on all the different movements. There are so many others. These are just the big ones I identified.
Krenn: You wrote that the main interest for you was to discuss the idea behind these movements.
Schleuning: Yes, not only about the work that they produced, but what they thought about their work.
Krenn: And that leads me to my first question: why did you investigate these movements and why did you choose art although your background is in political science?
Schleuning: My background is in political philosophy and intellectual history. Over the years my interest in art has grown. I’m not an artist but I’m very interested in philosophy and early on, I was interested in philosophy of aesthetics and gradually that came to be an area that interested me. Particularly how it interacted with politics. My other great passion is political philosophy and I also think that increasingly we are living in a world where we are transitioning from a written to a visual culture. Almost like back to the era of Guttenberg when printing first came to be a great power in the way that information was transmitted and shared culturally and now I think we are moving into another phase. We are just beginning, but I think increasingly people are immersed more and more and more in visual environments and I was interested in how complex ideas like politics are conveyed in a visual environment. So that’s what started me on my research. looked at the big changes that took place at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Modernism saw itself as a rejection of the old at all levels and had to break with the past. The visual environment increasingly took on a political tone – and that’s what I started out to try to track, to see how it happened, and to see what the major visual voices were, if you can imagine visual voices.
Krenn: I think that especially in the period of the “classical avant-garde”, as Peter Bürger coined it, there is a special political approach. On one hand, movements were rejecting the traditions of bourgeois culture and bourgeois art and on the other hand Russian movements such as Russian constructivism developed the idea of artists being politically as well as socially engaged in society. Peter Bürger analysed that the goal of the avant-garde was the reconciliation of art and life and the dissolution of the boundaries between them.
Schleuning: Yes and Raoul Vaneigem wrote a book called The Revolution of Everyday Life in 1967. He again wanted to make art being a way of life into a way of living, but a revolutionary way of living.
Krenn: You analysed in your book how Raoul Vaneigem and the Situationists were following in the footsteps of Dadaism and the classical avant-garde, although they were sceptical about Surrealism. I think it is important to point out how different the concepts of modernism and the avant-garde actually are. In traditional art history there is a tendency to blur this distinction. Do you also observe this lack of clarity in your research and how would you differentiate these two terms?
Schleuning: Well, modernism is such a broad term. It covers everything but within modernism, there were people who were more specifically focused on an over political agenda. Modernism in art, in my mind, is an on-going debate more or less within the art community. What It’s about the kind of style, form and content in an art work But the political avant-garde in studying and creating the action to the larger society was shaping even the political reality of the larger society. Modernism did it in a kind of an abstract distant way, but the avant-garde wanted to directly impact and make politics and not just react to it and try to create art for its own sake. They were more interested in art as action and more interested in what art was going to do. I also don’t think that there is such a thing as postmodernism. Although there is kind of waning of modernism. I think it’s a continuation if you will, and a further degeneration of modernism. So the question is what comes next?
Krenn: Maybe the concepts of Reflexive Modernism or Second Modernism by Ulrich Beck are helpful in thinking about these newer developments. But let us get back to the classical avant-garde movements. I’d like to ask you how you value the political aspect of the classical avant-garde. Gavin Grindon, to whom you also refer in your book, describes one DADA event of this time (the distribution of the magazine Jedermann sein eigener Fußball [Every Man His Own Football], Berlin 1919) as a public event, in which they ‘ironically combined religious, military, and political forms of public performance with distributing a political paper’. (Grindon 2011. p.91) The distributed paper only consisted of four pages. Grindon argues that more attention should be given to such actions of that period, because they were highly politically charged. On 15 February, 1919, during the left-communist Spartakist revolt and one month after the murder of one of the revolt’s leaders (Rosa Luxemburg , January 15 1919), they performed this DADA event to politicize the streets. In this performance DADA artists used the public space as their stage. Walter Mehring, one of the participating artists, described the event as follows:
“We hired a horse-carriage such as those customary for Pentecost outings and hired a brass band, complete with frock coats and top hats, which used to play at veterans’ funerals, while we the editorial staff, six men deep, walked behind carrying bundles of Every Man … instead of wreaths. If we incited more mockery than inclination to buy in the fashionable West, our sales rose rapidly the farther we penetrated into North and East Berlin’s petit-bourgeois and working-class areas. Along the streets of grubby tenements, riddled by the machine-gun fire of the Spartakist struggle and sliced open by the Howitzers of the Noske Regime … our Dada-carnival was greeted with delight. … The periodical looked like becoming a bestseller – and would have, if we had not been arrested on our way home from serenading the government offices in Wilhelmstrasse. (We carried a supply of stickers saying ‘Hurrah Dada!’ for sticking on the walls of police cells.)” (Grindon 2011. p.91)
Schleuning: There was a focus on actions, performances and events creating a rupture in the audience and a real shock. Adorno called it the shudder effect. I see those as parallel kinds of terms. But DADA wanted to change everything. They wanted to literally get rid of art and they re-created it from the ground up. And that’s what they did. The Zürich DADA had night after night after night of these events, they were always different and people went to see what was going to happen. They were parallel in my mind, a parallel of a contemporary American phenomenon – what they called happenings. People would go expecting something to happen, to make something happen, to shake people up. But DADA really took on art and wanted to rewrite the whole script but they also wanted to engage the public politically. You mentioned their documents – the manifesto was an important aesthetic tool to raise awareness and motivate people to act. They didn’t just want to create different images. And what’s interesting when we look at the bodies of work of a lot of those artists they’ve are very multimedia using different kind of media, like collage and photomontages. They were not just painters or theatre people or just musicians they combined all of this into their events. It’s a shame that we don’t have more records of their performances because they were indeed cultural events that attracted people and changed how people saw art, what art could do and what it could be, as well as making active politics. Performance art is a kind of direct action, particularly if it moves the audience to engage as well. At the same time Dada had that edgy quality to it of attacking art. In 1913 Duchamp put the painting Nude Descending A Staircase into the New York Armory show and attacked the understanding of painting techniques at this time. In 1917 he went one step further and submitted for the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists a urinal with the title Fountain and signed it with R. Mutt (the manufacturer) that provoked a scandal and was rejected by the committee. The submission of a “ready-made” object art, just calling something art to challenge people’s thinking about art and what its role was in their lives – Dada artists were the first real group to challenge this. They were very strong in Germany and they also came out of that post First World War era. They were nihilists in some way and reacting to all the problems of the Weimar Republic and what happened in Germany after the First World War. The principle theorist of Surrealism, André Breton, liked what they were doing, but because of his rigidity he sort of rewrote the script and derived Surrealism out of that performance aspect.
Krenn: Nowadays we are used to these forms of aesthetics and we are quite familiar with the avant-garde art strategies of the 1910s and 1920s. But at that time for DADA artists every art experiment was new and the outcome was quite unknown. The same can be said about the Neo-Avant-garde and the Happenings of the 1960s. Futurists and Dadaists were pioneering these practices: they wanted to confront the public with art. They wanted to shock the public, but there were also several participatory aspects in their work, which are often overlooked, I think.
Schleuning: Yes, they didn’t create an object to be contemplated, they created an event to be engaged in. That’s why people had to come and be there to experience for example the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. And it must have been wonderful, this idea of political performance.
Another aspect that I think, which is important about DADA and every political artistic movement is that the art always seems to flourish when there also is a broader political climate, a radical political climate going on. I was really struck for example, when the Occupy movement first came into being. There was this sudden explosion of visual art everywhere across the country. And all the local occupy movements and of course most of the visual content now gets transmitted via the Internet and it was just this flood of imagery that artists were creating as part of all the energy generally. At the time Dada came on the scene, and there was also great political ferment generally across Europe after the First World War. A specific action I recall took place in Berlin at the inauguration ceremony for the new government for the Weimar Republic: Johannes Baader, who was one of the DADA artist threw flyers from the balcony nominating himself as the first president. The DADA artists, were very overtly involving themselves in the political process, not just in art. They set the tone for that. That still continues to this day. In a church Baader performed a court chaplain, which is very reminiscent of Pussy Riot actions. In the 1960s I had friends here who went to church to take their politics into the public arena. They stood up in a Catholic mass to protest the Vietnam War. But Dada brought the art into that kind of activity as well.
Krenn: DADA was radical in negating every form of tradition. It opposed the preliminary notion of art and it was also an antimilitarist movement. One could say that DADA was based on being against everything. But, and this is the difference to other movements, Dada was even against itself. Richard Huelsenbecks famous “Dada Manifesto” (1918) ends with: “To be against this manifesto is to be a Dadaist!” This was an important aspect of Dadaism right from the beginning.
Schleuning: I think anytime you attack tradition and make that a public statement you empower other people to question everything that they see and everything that they hear. So I think DADA said: look at this, look at that … we are making this urinal a piece of art … How can you restructure your reality? We are restructuring reality for you and therefore you can restructure your reality too. You can participate in that process of social change.
Krenn: Benjamin wrote in his essay The Author as Producer: “Before I ask: how does a literary work stand in relation to the relationships of production of a period, I would like to ask: how does it stand in them?” For Benjamin art has to be actively involved in social change. In his view artists cannot be apolitical. Therefore, the artist/author should not just stay outside of the relationships of production and write about them on the contrary his/her art practise should become an integral part of them. Benjamin gives us the example of the work of Sergei Tretyakov. I am fascinated by Tretyakov’s work and ideas. After reading his book Feld-Herren one thing surprised me though. Although Tretyakov was taking part and involving himself critically in the process of collectivisation of agriculture in the Soviet Union and was defining as well as embodying the emancipatory model of the ‘operative’ writer, he was not enough aware of the discriminatory politics of the communist party. In his writing he repeated the propaganda against “kulaks” (the higher-income farmers who had larger farms than most Russian peasants). To be fair, when he visited the communes in the 1920s the persecution of these independent peasants was not so advanced and had not escalated as much as in the 1930s, but the political foundation had been already laid. So my point is that it obviously didn’t make him a more conscious artist to actually be there. Maybe he would have had a clearer picture of the whole process and the underlying politics, if he were not so directly involved in it. What do you think?
Schleuning: Well, I think on the surface, just to make an academic analysis, we often don’t see our blind spots… And sometimes that political growth comes through engagements. For example there wasn’t in my mind a broad women’s movement until after the Anti-Vietnam war movement. And the women’s movement in this country emerged out of that, and it was like women were engaged in the activism and doing all this work and finally one day, one woman, mythological woman, stood up and said: ‘Why the hell are the men giving all the speeches and we are doing the dishes, what’s wrong with this picture?. Because I’m involved and I feel very liberated and now I want things to change for my life, too’.
And I’m always fascinated with the blind spots that people have. Years ago I almost did my dissertation on a Minnesota woman, Jane Grey Swisshelm. She was a journalist who came here in 1862, just at the time of the Dakota wars, the Dakota conflict, with the Dakota Indian people. She came from the east and she was an abolitionist and she was an early feminist and a very active writer, a very political writer. She was good friends with Mary Lincoln – Abraham Lincoln’s Wife. She was so offensive to local politicians in a largely right-wing Democratic state at the time (remember that the politics of U.S. parties changed 100 percent over time—e.g., Lincoln was a Republican) that they took the type from her press and threw it into the Mississippi River. But at the same time, that she was this progressive person and engaged with pushing forward all of these very radical progressive agendas in her writing and in her life, she hated Indians and she talked and wrote about killing them all and bashing their babies against rocks and, oh, just this vicious, vicious racism. My theoretical question was going to be: how do you have these two tendencies operating in the same person. That’s what I hear you, you asking about and I don’t have an answer, but it is a profound question.
Blind spots can be mitigated somewhat, I think, by artists being engaged in political community with others. If you aren’t open to others’ opinions and views, you can’t know that you can benefit from a community, or that you can be criticized in a loving, caring way. You have to always be open to different perspectives, points of view. This is the essence of creativity, of course. The artist must remain involved, not aloof, however limiting that may be to individualistic tendencies. A change in consciousness might move the artist to new insights. Maybe Tretjakov and Swisshelm could have made even more important contributions.
Krenn: This raises a new question. To avoid such blind spots as discussed the idea of political correctness arose. What do you think about it?
Schleuning: In the history of the political movements in 60s in the U.S. at a certain point the left collectively coined the term politically correct and what that communicated to the radical community was that we had to look beyond where we were as people and grow in new directions . Maybe it was a way of saying, we are going to look at this and change our own thinking. And then, unfortunately, the term got negatively co-opted by the right and is now primarily used by the right to discredit progressive thinking. It became a term of disparagement, which de facto endorsed retrograde thinking. But at the time it was a very positive concept because it meant well yeah I’m a feminist, but what do I think now about gay people? Maybe I ought to suspend judgment until I know more and see where they fit in the struggle and how I can help move their freedom forward. But that constant development of a personal critical mind-set was a key piece for a lot of people, which allowed them to grow beyond where they were. You know, at one point we were all against the war and then suddenly we were supporting all of these other very liberating kind of movements as well.
Krenn: You wrote about Adorno’s dialectic position in respect to ideology and artists who work on a political position.
Schleuning: Adorno isn’t Hegelian but he understands the concept of dialectics and understands the concept of the dynamics, the instructiveness of dialectics and the energy of it. And so that’s how he comes to articulate his own views of autonomy. Autonomy isn’t like the avant-garde that is outside. It is the avant-garde that is inside. He called for a “dialectical aesthetics” where each element was mutually dependent and mutually reinforced the other. Art “lives” in this tensions between the cognitive understanding and the materiality of art, between objective and subjective. But understanding is not reducible to a simplistic formula. Art must stand dialectically in relation to the immanent reality. He wrote, “Not experience alone, but only thought that is saturated with experience is equal to the phenomenon.” Meaning is a process of becoming. So for Adorno, the social context of art is critical, while at the same time, the artist can exercise autonomy in relation to the context. He talks about social contexts being embedded in the form. Then you dig around, what does he mean by form? My take from that is that the artist isn’t outside. Adorno was concerned about the artist staying aloof of any kind of capitalist aesthetics, He understood the power of mass media and mass marketing and what that aesthetic is doing to people. But at the same time bring with him in the form – almost like botanic form – bring that social context with him. The relationship between art and politics is expressed in Adorno’s concept of the form, reflecting the “double character” of art, “The liberation of form, which genuinely new art desires, holds enciphered within abouve all he liberation of society, for form – the social nexus of everything particular – represents the social relation in the artwork.” His understanding of autonomy was on the one hand separate, but on the other hand it carried, if you will, the dream of the revolution into art and into the confrontation with contemporary society. So, the artist had to be outside to be a critic but at the same time he had to have the right perspective.
Krenn: In your book you coin the term Social Anarchist Aesthetics. I’d like to ask you if you can explain what that term means, and to which art practices it relates. What makes Social Anarchist Aesthetics different from anarchist art? As far as I understood you also include artists with no anarchist background in your concept of Social Anarchist Aesthetics.
Schleunig: There is an on-going debate in the anarchist theoretical circles. In anarchist theory, there is a big split between the individual anarchist and the social anarchist. That goes back to the 19th century and the debate between the Marxists and the Communists, between Max Stirner in particular and to a lesser extent the English individual anarchists. But it was primarily a struggle in Russia, France, and in Germany in the 19th century over anarchism. What I’ve tried to do was to differentiate between an aesthetic of social anarchism, – which is the new term for what used to be called communist anarchism – and individualist anarchism, because I think that the social anarchists are trying to speak for the values of a collective society. It gets shaped or defined as opposed to individual aesthetics and I think capitalist aesthetics is based an individualist aesthetics because all the appeal of capitalist aesthetics is to the consumer who is never a member of the community and is never a member of the society, but is an individual. You are only viewed as a unit, as a consumer, as an individual consumer and your only collectivization under capitalism comes as a consumer. You’re one of the Pepsi generation or you belong to the Cornflakes group, or you belong to the Ford truck group, your society/community is defined by how and what you consume. Whereas in Social Anarchist Aesthetics or political aesthetics your society is a much richer experience and not tied to your consumption but to how you live your life and to your economic situation. So it has a more Marxist foundation rather than an individualist foundation to it. The art will be different, too, because of the community for which it has meaning.
Krenn: I wonder if this is really the case, because I think that capitalism does not only address the individual but also groups and communities. As you described capitalist aesthetics it reminds me of the phenomena of mass culture and the culture industry in the 40s, 50s and 60s, which has a new form today. I think today’s mainstreamed culture differs in many ways from the concept of culture industry as it was coined by Adorno and Horkheimer in the 1940s.And if one says that there still is a Culture industry ruling the world then it definitely can’t be described as a kind of monolithic block. Not everyone is “forced into line” and the taste of the masses cannot be standardised by such an industry. I would argue that capitalism also attracts this kind of collective sense of a group or a collective and it supports creativity as long as it can benefit from it. One example: on YouTube and on the web you find many groups/communities, which are based on “Fans and Consumer Culture”. It ranges from products such as new computer games, movies, comic books and so on … And there are also cultural phenomena such as Cosplay, a performance art in which mostly amateurs wear movie, comic and computer game related costumes and thereby create a subculture focused on non-commercial role play.
Schleuning: yes, but it is apolitical. A false community. Will the people in the Pepsi commercials take care of you?
Krenn: Well, these groups are not based on a left political agenda but these people are not passive consumers. They are far too creative and cannot be classified as brainwashed consumers manipulated by the culture industry.
Schleuning: Yes, but it is these groups are also focused on the product as consumers. The consumer is still reached individually because it is a fake community that is created. All the fans of “Subaru” get together and have a “Subaru” club. But that is not political. It is not political at all. The advertising doesn’t want you to do anything as a political group except buy more “Subaru”.
Krenn: I’m not so sure. I think for the advertising industry counts that people buy the products advertised. And if there was a self-organised community around one product it would be even better for selling it. I think they are not interested in politics as long as politics are not interfering with their interests. They don’t bother if the consumers are apolitical/passive or political/active.
Schleuning: But it’s not a political community. Because it doesn’t act together to do anything, and the message is to just buy more, not change the world.
Krenn: What are your thoughts about social media as a political tool?
Schleuning: The people, who are my friends on Facebook, we communicate information to each other over Facebook, but we don’t act together. There is a lot of writing about whether the Arab Spring was really created by social media or not – and most of the articles come to the conclusion that there is no political potential in social media in itself, because it’s a passive exercise and people aren’t acting together, they are exchanging information but they are not occupying. The Arab Spring in Egypt, for example, came out of a strong labor movement. Social media was way of communicating but it did not create the revolutions. The despair, hunger, repression, etc. and the collective desire to change that environment created the revolution. They share information about occupy and maybe a few people who are occupying used Twitter to communicate to one and another. But the media itself is not generating social change.
There is more information flowing. But it’s also bringing a lot of weird people together and giving air space to a lot of the crazy ideas that used to be filtered. You know, the crazy people have all found each other on the Internet and they exchanged their ideas. 20% of Americans believe that we have never landed on the moon. (Laughs) and they have clubs and websites and they talk to each other about this. I don’t think there is any social potential in capitalist aesthetics and I certainly made that case over and over, but I may not have made it as well as I might have.
We don’t know the man behind the curtain who is running the machine. Like in the Wizard of Oz. I just love that scene in the movie. You always have to know who the man behind the curtain running things is and corporations right now may appear to be apolitical, but they are not. They are pulling the economic strings around the world, not the nation states. The Citizen United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is very dangerous in terms of the tremendous power of money it unleashed. The corporations used to be limited in the amounts they could contribute to political campaigns, but that limitation was struck down. Now they can give an unlimited amount of money secretly to political candidates and they can buy a government. They are the great political force in this country but no one knows about which few people are aware.
Krenn: I’d like to come back to your book and ask you about the criteria for social anarchist aesthetics.
Schleuning: Social anarchist aesthetics incorporates some specific anarchist perspectives. First of all it’s grounded in community, the social. But it also brings in one of the core anarchist principles of direct action. That art must be action and that it has to do something, that it is not just about being reflective but that it plays an active role in society and in people’s lives. It also assumes the need for confrontation of power structures, the rejection of centralized power structures and the empowerment of people locally. So the idea, not just of community generally, but of specific communities is central. The Situationist International (SI) talked about local communities and even specific geographical communities and neighbourhoods communities. People can be members of many communities, but the art should always be embedded in those kinds of social experiences that are real and are grounded in place and in real time, grounded in a geographically and socially identified area. So, the other key thing is this confrontation with power that the art always has, the opportunity to address power structures, where they are, and who has the power and the belief that we can confront it.
Creating a story, a narrative, is also a characteristic of socially-embedded art. The stories we tell one another carry the visions, values, and dreams of the culture. The stories also speak to power relations in the community. For example, the Communists in Russia had a vision of the future, the Communist Party had a vision of the future and the situation of power – and how power situated in the community was a key piece of their vision. But the social anarchist vision is different. It interprets social organization and social power rather than representing it. I talk specifically about the key elements of the aesthetic and I really believe that we have to bring meaning back into art. Meaning is embedded in story. We’ve got bogged down in the appearances of art but we really have lost that sense of art having a deep and resonating meaning. Political art for me has to deal with realism and has to deal with representation.
The other question I think my whole book begs to address is the difference between art and propaganda but I don’t see that there is a conclusive distinction.
Krenn: I would say there is a major difference between political art and propaganda. Art must not deliver a message furthermore it poses questions and asks the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions on the respective issue. Political art should be independent from political parties to avoid becoming propaganda.
Schleuning: Ok. But people dismiss all political art.
Krenn: Yes, I also experienced that but I think art doesn’t primarily focus on answers or results. The artwork should be the result in itself as it is only completed by the different interpretations of the viewer.
Schleuning: Well, that’s the necessity, that it be critical, that it have a critical eye.
Krenn: There is a very interesting quote of the Marxist theoretician Christopher Caudwell in your book:
All art is conditioned by the concept of freedom which rules in the society that produces it; art is a mode of freedom, and a class society conceives freedom to be absolutely whatever relative freedom that class has attained to. In bourgeois art man is conscious of the necessity of outer reality, but not of his own, because he is unconscious of the society that makes him what he is. He is only a half-man.
Christopher Caudwells, Illusion and Reality (1937)
Caudwell is a very interesting theoretician of the 1930s and widely forgotten. Could you explain his understanding of art? How it is based on a dialogue with the public and on exchange with ordinary life.
Schleuning: Caudwell is very interesting. The woman that I wrote a book about, Meridel Le Sueur, first introduced me to him many, many years ago. The anarchists and the communists argue over whose ideology he followed and it’s just so unfortunate because he died so young at the age of 30 during his first battle against Franco in the civil war in Spain. In his book, Illusion and Reality (1937) he goes way back in history and talks about how art is coming out of this collective experience of tribal people, of people getting together to celebrate and even create their collective reality. This kind of community-based art is part of the natural living together that people do. It’s an expression of who we are, and of our highest ideas, collectively art always is. In an essay entitled “Beauty” in Studies & Further Studies in a Dying Culture, he talked about a dialectical understanding of art:
[…] there must be a community of desire as well as a community of perception. There must be a community of instinct, as well as a community of cognition. The heart, as well as the reason, must be social. The community must share a body in common, as well as an environment in common. Its hopes, as well as its beliefs, must be one. This hope, which is the opposite of science, we may call art.
In this country there was a powerful anarchist workers movement in the Midwest in the early part of the twentieth century. They called themselves the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They were called the “singing revolutionaries.” That is one of the most clever things in the history of political art in this country, because they took old familiar tunes that everybody knew how to sing and put political words to them and they published this Little Red Book – they called it – which is still in print. The original was small enough to fit in your pocket. People had the new lyrics in their pocket and they had already learned the tunes. In 1913, the Wobblies collaborated with John Reed and other artists to create the Paterson Strike Pageant, in horror of the silk workers who were on strike. It was an early example of social performance/participation art. So this idea of people as a group engaging in their art was really central to what Cardwell talked about. And I think it is sort of the essence of socialist realism that art is embedded in the daily lives of people and what they do together.
Krenn: In your book you discuss the concept of socialist realism in the United States? What do you mean by socialist realism in this context and why do you believe that this historical movement is still relevant?
Schleuning: In my book I am questioning the differentiation between Socialist Realism, Social Realism (apparently the acceptable American designation), and American Realism. Still another source coined the term “democratic Realism.” The confusion is unfortunate, because the impact on the world of art by the Russian experience was, indeed, widespread, especially in Europe and the United States. Each country took the concept in its unique direction, but all worked with the same set of expectations: that art had an undeniable link with politics in the real world. In the United States, the political realism was shaped by a Russian-inspired Socialist ideology and political agenda. It did not emerge from isolation. I have chosen to apply the same term, Socialist Realism, in all geographic settings. The debates within specific settings clarify how each parsed the ideological positions.
One example is the whole mural movement in this country in the 30th during the depression that was inspired by Diego Rivera. The idea was that this art would portray the real lives of people. One of the interesting things about, let’s call it political realism, today is that socialist realism once was highly circumscribed by the Russian Communist Party. There were certain conventions, certain images, you wrote about the workers lives or you portrayed the work of lives in photography or in painting, but the aesthetics was controlled by the Central Committee, because the communist’s view of art had to reflect an economic agenda. And so the images were of workers and the plight of their lives. There was a lot of emotionalism in the images. In this country that aesthetic was very powerful. The writers called it the Literary Left. is that Nearly every writer in the country was captivated by this vision, whether they were communists themselves or not. In the same way that the early Russian artists, the Wanderers did, they went out into the countryside and the inner cities and they looked at how people lived and they portrayed how people lived. For example, Meridel Le Sueur wrote a lot about women during the 30s and about workers. She was a regular writer for the Daily Worker, the Communist Party’s national newspaper. In addition to writing her own visions she also did this good party work but it was a very predictable message based on an economic analysis. Now, to come around to your question. Today I think that our real reality is fragmented, because not everybody sees themselves as workers. So there is a certain bunch of people, for example, who respond to labour movements, because they are working in labour organizing and they tend to respond to those kinds of images, there are people who are in the environmental movement, that’s their primary political point of connecting with imaginary, so you have that body of work. We have many different realities that are essentially not prescribed. Everyone is experimenting with how to do this. But they all are trying to connect with what’s really going on in people’s lives and not just the economic. There is all this feminist art and feminist imaginary, all this African-American art and African-American imaginary, etc. I see a lot of images from around the world of different countries, because people are also portraying real issues, political issues, where socialist realism was kind of focusing on this big communist picture so it was very restricted, but they are still all using realism.
Representation of itself is not creating change, but I think one of the benefits particularly in social media networks is that we see political imaginary right now. We are not seeing it on television. I am a great believer in decentralization, I think I picked this up decades ago from studying anarchism. But decentralization in this day and age quickly becomes fragmentation. How do we bring it back together and what is the big picture?
Krenn: The Situationist International (SI) occupies one larger chapter in your book. Can you describe why you are interested in them and do you think that their ideas and concepts are still important for today’s political art?
Schleuning: Well, I think the SI is important because they are the first who really take on in a very conscious way, with a set of tools, what they saw as capitalist aesthetics. They understood it completely. And the history goes back to the 1950s. They followed on the heels of the Letterist movement and Surrealism as political statements. But they really were the first to look outside of art, if you will. They looked outside of art at a competing art system that was dominating the worldview, the capitalist aesthetic., they identified these techniques to undermine the spectacle or the reality. First they named the spectacle, then they named the great power that Adorno and Horkheimer had called the culture industry but the spectacle was beyond the industry. It wasn’t just corporations. It was how this whole world of visuals impact and controls society. Second they had specific techniques and tools that they used and a lot of them were also geographers. They were interested in space and how you create new spaces and autonomous spaces. Probably the most important technique to undermine, their goal was very subversive, to undermine capitalist images, was the détournement. And it is quite fun and Adbusters of course is the contemporary voice of the SI and some of the images and the détournements of the SI are very clever and very funny and they have the viewer become participant in dismantling this illusion of the spectacle. It’s not really an illusion, the spectacle. It’s a created structure of control by images. So this wonderful thing to take apart and recognize that and to say to people, this is it, this is how you can unpack it and destroy it, it becomes meaningless then. They identified the spectacle, they came up with détournements as a technique to address that. But they also highlighted what other writers had written about in the past: the situation. Situationist International means that this idea of real anti-metaphorical space was important for people to understand and it was both geographically grounded but the situation can also be a dilemma, and can also be a place for tension and contestation for dialectical confrontation. This is a situation and this is how you can take it apart and understand it. So I think those were their key points. There was a lot of strong criticism of the SI and in particular the critics felt that they were too easily co-opted by capitalism. The more that they came up with clever ideas,the more that they were then just being incorporated in new advertising.
Krenn: Raoul Vaneigem gave an interview in 2009 in e-flux. He was interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist and he was addressing exactly what you were just saying. He decided to leave the SI, because it was finally recuperated by capitalism. So even the SI couldn’t resist it and even their members had to realize that.
Schleuning: And Guy Debord, who was the great theoretician of the SI was also aware of this, it was a concern that they always had.
Krenn: The SI excluded one member after another because they got kind of paranoid to be recuperated by capitalism.
Schleuning: Well, the surrealists did the same. Breton regularly rejected people from the cooperative. But the SI also had a profound influence on the 1968 student uprisings in France who were again creating in that strike situation autonomous spaces and political situations that were points of cultural confrontation. A central tactic of the 68’ movement in France was to occupy spaces!
Krenn: I think that the SI was really an interesting movement in the 1960s. They were able to deliver a message with just a few words and they developed new artistic techniques to raise political awareness. But nowadays subversive Situationist techniques are integrated in main-stream culture, used in media such as Internet, TV and print media. Situationist techniques are frequently used by the advertisement industry. For example there are these teaser billboard campaigns that at first don’t tell you which product they promote. There is a provocative slogan on the poster and one month later; only then, on the successive poster the actual product is advertised. And then you realize, ah this is not a subversive Situationist art project, it is just an advert. Ikea made one such campaign 2010 in Austria. Their slogan was: “For 90 years always the same theatre: The Salzburg Festival.” One month later they added their Logo and a new slogan to the poster: “Have you ever thought about new plays for Salzburg?” and they presented their new Ikea rag doll elk for 4,99 Euro.
Schleuning: But Adbusters meme of Occupy Wall Street captivated people in this country, this is an example of how situationist strategies can be successfully implemented.
Krenn: This is true. And the strengths of the occupy movement is that people are actually meeting each other face-to-face, similar to demonstrations of the anti-globalization movement. I made a photo and interview project about the anti-G8-demonstration in Heiligendamm in 2007. The whole demonstration event was entirely prepared by activists who regularly met with locals one year in advance.
Schleuning: Yes, it’s all local. They did this huge thing in New York with Occupy Sandy when they had that terrible storm and there was a wonderful picture in the Wall Street Journal of an Occupy Thanksgiving dinner of August. People sitting down only they didn’t identify that it was an Occupy dinner. They do a lot of educating and they created Strike, that is a non-profit corporation. They set up this non-profit corporation and they created what they call the Rolling Jubilee. They raised money through contributions to the website. They raised more than half a million in a short time and then they they bought debt. If the banks can’t collect debt they will sell it. They sell it for pennies on the dollar and you get 10 000 dollars’ worth of medical bills and you can buy them up for $20. So they went out and bought all this debt like in the biblical concept Jubilee. In Jewish society Jubilee, once every seven years debts were forgiven. Strike sent all these people letters saying your debts have been bought and it’s forgiven and we are not going to collect it from you. So they have done a couple rounds of that, and now apparently they are going to refocus on student debt because student debt is a huge problem in this country. But that’s what happens. Our society loves these big huge explosions but where the real work is done is on a day to day basis of getting in and helping people clean-up after that storm, get rid of the mould in their houses and throwing out the garbage, putting their furniture out on the street, they did a tremendous amount of work in New York and Rockaway that part in the heart of New York on the ocean that was hit so badly. They seem to be stepping up and then the on-going institutions have continued, like Food Not Bombs, Common Ground Collective (the first food aid group into New Orleans after Katrina), all those collectives that feed people during disasters. Usually the anarchists are the first people on the scene whilst others try to figure out how to do it. I think there is hope in that and that all of those actions build community gradually. There seems to be a lot of it, more than in the 1960s. In the 1960s, there were generational gaps and now they are involving whole communities of people of all ages and all backgrounds. So it’s wonderful. This is where my hope lies.