In 2012 I wrote about the restlessness following the economic crisis, foreshadowing the cultural transposition of the social state of anxiety. I announced a switch in paradigm within political art and its engagement, and a wave of socio-political unrest among the younger generation ready to make its debut on a political scene that has been ravaged by crisis and the suspicion of corruption. I foresaw a new generation of the political act, but mostly the refusal, the protest and its imagistic and conceptual corollary: from the approach of tactics, ideas and props, to politically engaged “serious” art; I foresaw upheaval and a Game Change set around the concept of subversion. It was at the same time that the opening of the Visual Kontakt Laboratory was announced, a curatorial space with its first mission to articulate the concept of “Subversive Art”.
Since then, enough time has passed for the effects of the crisis to set in the conscience and cultures of the societies affected. Eastern Europe has witnessed the rise of populist organizations, which due to their inefficiency and fragility brought them to the verge of collapse. The Greek crisis of 2015 brought to power, by democratic choice, a communist party, victor of a referendum which, theoretically, legalized theft, only to oppose it in political practice – thus undermining its own legitimacy and democracy itself (or rather, what the popular interpretation of democracy is). In Ukraine, imminent bankruptcy pushed the government closer to Russia; the political and civil groups constituting the Ukrainian society formed a coalition and overthrew the Government. Russia responded with an invented “hybrid war”, disguising its troops as terrorists/rebels. Exiled soldiers invaded Crimea and attached it to the Russian Federation. Separatist territories declared their independence, also under the unofficial Russian guardianship, and, in the meantime, the somewhat “old school” authorities are up against a conflict on three fronts: the seizure and alienation of Crimea, communist rebellions in the Eastern regions of the country, and far-right extremist rebellions on the West, while cobelligerent Revolution-era neo-fascist groups are disappointed in the moderate politics of the Government.
The failure of the Arab Spring greatly facilitated the Islamic space. Unlike the “provincial” East, Western Europe faces threats from two sides: on the one side, misfortunate people are drowning in the Mediterranean while desperately fleeing destabilized areas and, in the absence of specific integration politics, they “haunt” EU territories in unorganized groups (a disturbing reminiscence of the friendly “barbaric tribes” of the Roman Empire, which, under the pressure of invasions, found shelter, but not integration, throughout the Empire)1. On the other side there’s ISIS, sprung from the void of power created by the Syrian civil war and the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Iraq, an accomplished diffusion beyond frontiers.
The Arab Spring might have saluted Facebook and Twitter for their ability to mobilize the protesting masses, but ISIS went even further by literally transforming them into instruments of brainwashing. Thus, during the “War on Terror”, terrorists were able to create a transcontinental state with a distinct governance and an economic stability. Thousands of Western Europeans fight by ISIS’s side.
The terror attacks in France and Belgium, or the massacre of tourists on the Tunisian beach unsettled the European democratic virtues: Je Suis Charlie provoked an outburst of anger in favor of the “right to freedom of expression”, but once the words and the candles were gone, the editors of Charlie Hebdo announced that they would not publish “controversial” materials anymore. Only 6 months after Je Suis Charlie, a tourist had his car broken into and searched by British police, without any refund for the damage caused, only because of an “Iran Is Great” flower-shaped bumper sticker, which was actually the logo of a campaign popularizing Persian culture. The lack of compensation is unsettling: it’s sort of like a moral penalization. Je Suis Charlie offers freedom of expression against extremism, not in favor of Islamic culture, or so it seems.
Similarly unsettling is the celebration of Osama bin Laden’s death. The excitement overwhelmed any examination of the assassination, or the possibility of abduction and condemnation of the terrorist leader. The burial at sea, performed by Islamic ritual (in less than a day after death), shows respect for religion, but in the eyes of the free world the assassination raises questions about habeas corpus and its circumstances. And finally, Edward Snowden’s case, which, beyond the diplomatic and political upheaval, has the corollary stringency to rethink judiciary practices and the minimalist cultural evaluations inoculated by the media: for some a traitor, for others a hero, Edward Snowden is a bit of both, and it is here that the antithetic thinking goes out the window.
In Romania we are witnessing unrest and protests, the efforts of a new generation to make political statements: the anti-RMGC protests brought together various groups of people and, despite the abuses, violence and the support of violent acts of the locals of Pungești in a similar matter, the protesters succeeded in postponing the gold mining in Roșia Montană, and also to show their power to the authorities. The slogan “United We Save …” is the concept and the standard recipe for the efforts that followed. Somewhat better organized, but still lacking an identity, taking only a position of refusal and demonizing the adversary, this young generation managed to tip the scale of the most recent elections in favor of President Klaus Iohannis. Together with “United We Save” the ecologist and heterogeneous aspects remained traits of the generation: in the summer of 2015 the leading protests are devoted to saving forests, the annexation of the Republic of Moldova and a bizarre and sordid socio-media campaign about a rape: the youth mobilized itself and signed petitions for the arrest of the culprits who are awaiting trial, their condemnation before the actual trial, and also for the introduction of forced sterilization into the Penal Code, all of which are supported by a media frenzy containing both calls for a revolution and tabloid-like materials: the very same periodical presents “dirty details” of the unfortunate event, social investigations, editorials and instigation to lynching. i
Listing these instances of Game Change seem to be confirming the emergence of subversion as a conceptual vein. But it is not so.2 The nature of subversion and its orientations, even when it is manifesting concomitantly everywhere, is endogamous because, having infiltration and defalcation as principles, it can only manifest within a well-defined and isolable structure. We can undermine a culture, a habit, a political regime, a status quo, but only in a contained manner and provided that we recognize its internal mechanisms, so that our action is controllable within what we are undermining, without trespassing its limits into areas we are not familiar with and which may take us by surprise or even disturb our intentions. Subversion and all of its annexed concepts, aim to ease a situation or a fixed structure, taking advantage of its rigidity and isolation. Hijacking a plane is a lot more frightening than a hostage situation, for example, in a bank, because of the essentially enclosed space: the linear aisle offers visibility and strategic advantages for the attacker, and the flying aspect excludes any escape route or access of rescuers from the outside. These dangerous tactics maintain their leading principles not only in the area of conflicts and terrorism, but also in the peaceful environment of arts and ideas: we can undermine only that which poses as standard-setting, fixed and distinct by excellence (in the sense of clearly defined, isolated). Thus, even though “rebellion” and “grumbling” are very fashionable throughout the Western civilization, and even though insubordination can be easily rendered profitable in various fields and domains, applying subversion is a provincial act comprised through itself the nature of tactics and their objectives. It is the infiltration from the edge (or even beyond the edge) of a singular and recognizable core that requires localization, isolation and the definition of what its margins are. The more subversive we are, the tighter the environment we operate in, and, the easier to undermine something is, the more it is distant and isolated. An example from local politics: as the intensity in criticizing the EU, NATO and West rises, we get more of the isolationist and autarchic rhetoric of a violently delimitated construct: Romania the cultural, Romania the social, Romania the political, Romania … etc. The reverse of this works as well: when the opposition towards communist-era habits rises, and also does, theoretically, the pressure towards openness and connection to Western civilization, the arguments and the actions become more local, more distant from the global flow. This was the first paradox of the concept of subversive art: the more it expanded and deepened, the more troglodytic it became in ideological morasses and local anguishes: provincial hysteria, pompous and useless calls for order, death threats, pseudo-scientific explanations and intellectual vomit have accompanied our work on every step these last few years.
Subversive Art is a concept forced to submerge into its immediate environment, the public scene, to delimitate it, to recognize its particularities and the points of abrupt differences to the Western ideological engines, in the heart of which, nominally, it has been integrated. The points of exoticism hide irreconcilable differences, loopholes or ideological excess. Western or not, the chosen environment is different, has a different socio-cultural structure and negotiated a distinct agreement between tradition and modernity. At first glance, the ever changing character of our society seems inadequate, because of its implicit fluency, for the germinating conditions of Subversive Art. But the endless transitions imply in its conflictual engine the constant recovery, conservation and attempt to immobilize the values in motion. Romanian society is one of the most well preserved post-revolution cultures of the region; the only ones even “purer” are outside the European family, and seem to be posing a threat to it. By post-revolution societies I don’t mean new establishments appearing after the “Revolutions” of 1989, but the system of idiosyncrasies created throughout four decades of deep penetration into the inoculated revolutionary mentalities lacking the alternative of a socialist system. The social and political values that consolidate the relationships between people, transmitted to us to this day are ones of a false ochlocracy: ochlocracy, because existence is subjugated to spontaneous will which is imperative and inclined towards the violence of the masses, of the “herd”; false because spontaneity and unanimity are achieved by the actions of provocative agents, agitators, and the secret intimidation of those who dare to oppose. The political conscience of the Romanian population has a bipolar trait, oscillating between the individual’s instinctive fear and overestimation of authorities, and the importance and sovereignty of the community. Until this very day the favored path towards acquirement of Power is “emanation”, an act of simulation of the “healthy origins” and political courting of the masses on behalf of the elite.
Behold a key for the concept of subversive art: it is mistakenly regarded as rejection (intrinsically partisan) of authority, oriented not towards the undermining of excessively personalized exceptional ones, but rather the seemingly amorphous and chaotic masses, which in reality always gravitate around a fixed axis, be that economic, politic, social or cultural. In the case of the latter ones, the axes are folkloric, and their core archetypal. The task is easier, as the revolutionary culture has, in the search of everlasting unanimity, done a thorough standardization of the individuals. Thus, if the traditional, organic folklore is presented as a diverse archipelago, the modern mysticism has succeeded in a thorough fusion of the archetypes and their equal spreading into the layers of society and throughout the area (the “small cultural revolution” synthesized doinas, tales or traditions which weren’t actually in use anywhere, but were the melting pot of a vast diversity). Subversive Art was pronounced in 2012 and to this day it points out and tackles a series of sacred archetypes and taboos which come to the aid of post-revolution reality. This measure has not been taken upon so as not to jeopardize its proper course.
The Ozosep project, with its two contrasting parts, consisted, firstly, in the cultivation of a wheat field within the gallery premises and, secondly, the use of the straws, mixed with clay, to create the participants of a nationalist dispute around the topic of the Szekler flag, a dispute provoked and hosted by the Visual Kontakt platform. The chapters are states of the two distinct evolutions of the latin terra: on the one hand țăran (translator’s note: Romanian for peasant), reference to mystical life of the village, from where our spirit originates, and the deformed integration into urban modernity of the last 40 years; and on the other hand țară (t.n.: Romanian for country), the core around which the primitive nationalism of the 19th century was built and still holds on to.
Church, the second archetype, was present in Orthodox is Better, with multiple versions of combination of modernity with tradition: from perfect syntheses between contemporary technology and paleochristian spirituality, to irreducible confrontations of value, illustrated by a competition of blasphemies, and to a religious horror vacui, result of the conceptual minimalism of consumerism, with the addition of compulsive symbols: anytime, on any means, in any context, without ever stopping.
The homosexual is the embodiment of evil, filling the moral void of transition with its perverting and seductive powers. In reality, homosexuality doesn’t conceptually exist in Romanian culture; it’s more of an absent presence, a mysterious and atavistic shadow. Very few of us actually know any homosexuals, though we are fascinated by their obligatorily exotic, decadent, hidden and profound lives. There are only a few veritable homosexuals in the public eye who make themselves heard; however, the spectrum fuels a real and palpable phenomenon with a recognizable, loud and large number of people: the homophobes, a group which, whenever glimpsing the transient shadows of homosexuality, always take the time to rise up against it and insist vocally and triumphantly on normality. It goes without saying that very few have actually seen a homosexual, and even less are familiar with their “customs and traditions”. But since not even the most hardcore believers have ever encountered the devil either, all this noise is meant to, imaginarily, keep it from ever visiting.
And finally community, the embodiment of the values and mechanisms that keep us together; Chicken Putsch illustrates the democratic election of the President of the Republic: from chicanes and dead chickens thrown in his yard, to the quasi-unanimous trust gained after elections, even though, essentially, it is the same person: both a carcass with its name written on it and the keeper of a nation. Just like in any post-revolution state, the community is forged by war: war with the invaders (Local Municipalities) and internal hygiene (Muian Project). In the case of the invaders, dozens of artists represented by books were at the end of a path that had to be taken bent or even kneeling. But still hundreds came to see the foreigners. In the second case, the act of hygiene itself, and its “sanitaries”, provincial post-revolution intellects, rushed to offer written or televised materials that brought about their own transformation into pornography and their exposure to the heart of that community which they themselves prepped by “sanitation”.
Each time, the procedure consisted in gathering the okhlos around a subject matter and encouraging them to have a “debate” about it. This has served as material for the resulting products. Within each project, Visual Kontakt worked with the “material offered by the client”, always permissive with the incontinence of the okhlos to soil their own values. Towards the end, this tactic required refining, because several opinants were trained throughout the projects. Blasphemy, pornography, obscenity, violence, all integrated in the projects of Subversive Art, serve as materials delivered through the most transparent provocations and offered to the okhlos, often only to start a new uprising. One of the accomplishments of Subversive Art was the crystallization of the shallow tactics of manipulation required: black propaganda, the undermining of the idiosyncrasy of art as representation, and the false belief of being in control.
The most significant conquest is the concept derived from the sui generis-like self-portrait of the okhlos: with an unsettling unanimity, even while talking about others, it doesn’t cease to talk about himself, about its very own construction. In hundreds of registered insults, “taking a stands”, protests and death threats, the Visual Kontakt group, formed by young adults with partially or completely Western education, and conservative and Christian inclinations, come off as nihilist revolutionaries, atheists, and on the payroll of foreign governments (most likely the Russian Federation). The okhlos resemble the homophobes in that they are both groups who fight all sorts of evil creatures. A remarkable overtone is the “revolutionary” feature: post-revolution societies have forgotten that Revolution does not mean the contesting of something, but to try to fundamentally change that thing. Thoroughbred communists would describe us as “reactionaries” or “counter-revolutionaries”. But the post-revolution culture is conservative only towards itself: it is trying to justify its own transformist roar, its anxiety and endless internal unrest by defining ancient and rigid notions as “new” and “rebellious”. The more than 60 years ago stigmatized individualism presents itself as postmodern, even though it’s an ancient invention of the Church. Countless discoveries are being made today of things that have been there since the dawn of time. The most important one of them is that art, like many other things, is dangerous.
In June 2015 the “Subversive Art” project has come to an end. I am not looking to essentialize it in these few pages. For that purpose, Visual Kontakt is already working on a detailed album of images and theory, which we hope to make available as soon as possible. But that won’t be tomorrow, nor next week. In the future, we will dedicate ourselves to another concept, which will be announced in the weeks to follow. As before, the real stakes will be revealed only at the end. There will be lies too.
1. The above text was drafted in the beginning of August 2015. The incident refers to “Calais jungle”, not the Balkan Migrant Crisis. The reference to the fall of the Roman Empire has a less alarming connotation than the “debates” – actually, calls for genocide – regarding this topic in the public opinion. The comparison does not stand for “siege” and the “rejection of the invaders”, but rather emphasizes the need for coherence, synchronization, administrative functionality and cultural force (superego), through which humanitarian aid and the integration of migrants can be carried out in the EU, unlike the chaos that labeled the last period of the Empire, and eventually lead to its destruction.
2. While in the “real existent” West we can distinguish incipient changes of paradigm, in Romania we are witnessing a new generation of adaptation: protest, “Generation Y’s” basis for political action, which is not an act of subversion, but rather an explicit and superficial expression of disagreement. Its subversive components, like propaganda, infiltration, defalcation, etc. are following older models of communist agitations that have been adapted to modern-day circumstances and technology. In Germany there’s the “Pirate Party”, and in Romania we have the “traditionally” structured protests: motivational confusion and factional fragmentation, having as liaison agitators who impose random slogans borrowed from participants. The protest seems aimless, and without any concern for reaching a specific goal, but rather just to consume oneself. The recorded progress is not the result of the ideas (Pirates) or techniques (Occupy Wall Street), but of the technological adaptations: the securist (translator’s note: person working for the secret police agency of Communist Romania) disinformants of yesterday become today’s bloggers, and the liberalized individual has the same value as the “cannon fodders” of past parades. Even actual insubordination is only considered a traditional neurotic outburst, bearing the same lack of organization as it did in the past, making its neutralization a child’s play. For the sake of the concept of subversion, this distinction cannot be neglected.
i. The reader will have noticed the prima facie enumeration of certain instances of common knowledge, and the lack of insight into its mechanisms. The focus of Subversive Art is not the disclosure of subtleties and secrets of the realities presented to us, nor is it revealing or exposing; its end result doesn’t pursue the abstruse reasons of politics, but the upheaval provoked by the faulty understanding of those who watch it and experience it. We are not interested in the reasons and the mechanisms that set in motion migration or terrorism, but in the consequences of the way these notions are simplified for the understanding of “everyone”, and the effects of the way “everyone” interpret these notions. A conceptual novelty of the studied period is the history of the imaginarium (mostly due to the efforts of the historian Lucian Boia): today we can acknowledge that human imaginarium is just as real as reality because of the anxieties that it may provoke. We don’t care about the reasons for which the Obama administration killed Osama bin Laden, but we care about who’s taking the responsibility for the killing, as for many it is an extra-judiciary act of justice, legitimized only by the masses’ moral condemnation. Thus, it would seem that if enough people believe in a thing, then statehood and justice, foundations of modernity, will submit to this belief. Others think that the assassination was an act to silence those who might reveal the US’s implication in the attacks of 9/11. Once again, belief prevails.
In contemporary consciousness media has reached a critical level of simplification, “manipulation” and altering of information; because of its omnipresence, it has become the vastest channel of contemporary imaginarium, a hegemony similar to the Church in medieval times. Truth is disclosed to us through television with the same sanctity and belief as it was from the pulpit. Both today and during medieval times, people were aware of the fabulist aspect, but passed it to the transferring agents, disregarding it from the structure, which remained sacred and beyond contestation. Between the Middle Ages and Postmodernism, Modernity arose, which, up until recently, was perceived as a complete change of paradigm. The 19th and the beginning of the 20th century present completely opposite aspects of tradition and modernity. Latter is supposed to be guided by reason and science, which leads to progress, unlike the timeless world of tradition, with its cyclic destiny and fusion of reality and myth. But these days myth is just as much pervaded with reality, as it takes scientific forms and authority. And a world in which reality and myth live side by side is a “progressive” extension of the medieval concept. The values of our society, assiduously reconfirmed by media, are ancient archetypes, and the instances of Game Change are signs of the adaptations of these archetypes to new strains. If we outline its divisions, it becomes an alarming theory: Modernity is not a distinct structure of values, but a technological arsenal of ideas put in the service of human atavism. Postmodernism seems to become aware of this deficit and points towards the idea that the renegotiation of these relations should be a project for the upcoming period towards which we are headed to.
Lucian Boia also describes in his tradition-modernity comparison, the transformation of the archetype of the excluded: according to the historian, in the Middle Ages it was lepers and heretics who were rejected by society, while in 19th century’s Modernity it was convicts and madmen. This archetype resembles Ianus: it has two sides, one physical and one spiritual – the deformed leper matches the convicted criminal, and both heresy and madness are diseases of the spirit and the mind. Postmodernism also has this double archetype: the terrorist and the pedophile, with their specific derivations. The terrorist is a Western archetype, presented as the opposite of the ideals of peace, safety and prosperity which appeared after the Second World War. Though, because of the Islamic world, it is presented as religious, with the corollary of criticism and the destruction of religions – a naivety, since the mystic feeling is part of the heavy nucleus of humanity – the terrorist is frightening for his refusal to accept a lifestyle that new generations consider inherited, unique and excellent. The pedophile, often classed among homosexuals (whom we will meet again), appears at the same time as the interconnection of human with economy, specific for Postmodernism, where existence becomes even more bound to profession, thus appearing a long and complex series of compromises, which eventually lead to the excessive valuing of the pre-professional, pre-social state of grace experienced by children. The pedophile is loathsome because he destroys the innocence of childhood, which later serves as a place for refuge from the inevitable chaos of a lifetime.
An even more dangerous mistake of Postmodernism is its relation towards Classicism. Its complete rejection is explained by the downturn of the totalitarianisms that generated it: Postmodernism associated Classicism with the argument of authority and the stifling linearity (which aren’t actually traces of Classicism, but of its 19th century scholastic interpretations; Renaissance recognizes liberation in the classics). As with any instance of critical movement, the confusions of these past years are bringing us towards a contemporary interpretation of the classics. To encourage the gradual re-gaining of strength of the masses – considering that an authority weakened by its own citizens will not commit violations – there has been firstly a levelling, and later an equivalence in the discourse. The Greek crisis and the referendum for the nonpayment of the debts, together with the dramatic decrease in popularity of the Government that requested it, and later “betrayed” it, bring back to use notions and concepts that seemed to have fallen into disuse: mobile vulgus and demagogy. Again, with one eye on the classics we interpret the Snowden failure, forgetting that if every secret agent would do as he had done, there would be chaos, but if none would, then the gates of totalitarianism would be wide open again. And because of the Crimean crisis geopolitics is on the table again, a 19th century pseudo-scientific discipline derived from the concept of the world divided into empires around the Garden of Eden.
The fundamental problem is not conscience, which will always oscillate between real and imaginary, but the willingness to assume them both: excessive connectivity helps us glide the responsibility form ourselves towards an abstract network: the group, the society, the system. We pity the immigrants and the way they are treated and abandoned at sea or in a hostile social desert, but we delegate our empathy to the State, which has a functional task, not a moral one towards the situation. And when the State takes action, it is reminded that this is not amongst its duties. Hurling in abstract procedures and individual responsibility is one of the contemporary materializations of Unassuming. We find it’s opposite in the paragraph about the case of hysteria in Romania: in an explicit campaign to “destroy” the accused, the media has transformed the abstract duty of the authorities into everyone’s very own specific stake. Journalists have harassed the families, magistrates and prosecutors involved in the case, threatening the authorities with the publication of compromising materials if “justice is not served”. The suspects were condemned to a total of 47 years in prison, due to the pressure the media has had on the case. One of the tabloids described the (alleged) attempt of one of the suspects to kill himself as a triumph of the press and civil society, gaining approval and acclaim on social media, as if it were a victory of a campaign and an act of justice. The second form of Unassuming is the game between the mystical and the real. Sliding from one into the other always causes an annulment: if Holocaust is declared a myth, it loses its relevance, and if the “New World Order” is declared real, it will lose its benign fable aspect. It’s an ancient archetype of language, just like calling on demons make them appear and disappear as we like.
Each of the instances described uses one or more concepts approached by Subversive Art: infiltration, defalcation, disguise, sabotage, authority etc., but none of these is subversive unless the concept is turned into technique, similar to the way in which traditional atavism perceives modern “values”: as a set of increasingly refined devices. The difference is that in our days they are subversively instrumentalized by nations fundamentally grounded in traditional (Neo? Pseudo? Crypto? Meta?) thinking and directed towards an organization with extremely advanced control, communication and technology, resulting in history’s biggest discrepancy between intellectual and economic resources. Subversive Art isn’t subversive in that it states the adaptations of these idea-instruments to present times, but in that it distinguishes the inertia that invokes progress while the notions realign to the historic patterns, particularly classic and medieval. Because of the extremes it reaches and the advanced volatility of the ideas, the resulting amalgam is spectacular: those governed behave as if they are the ones governing (the case of Greece, Romania, Occupy); terrorists are drafting their own medieval bandit country, equipped with the latest ideology and technology, imitating a “real” state (ISIS); the State commits the same abuses that social pressure is meant to stop, but with its full approval, and with vehement criticism of a lack of extremism (the assassination of bin Laden, Ukraine, the Romanian nationalist civil society); the reinterpretation of the fundamental human rights, similar to the addendum to the constitution of Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but pigs are more equal” (Je Suis Charlie) etc. In the context of Postmodernism Subversive Art is subversive towards its own revaluation: we witness its insubordination and triumph over a social lead, a democratic “conquest”; Subversive Art tells us about the theocratic instincts from behind “democracy”. It relativizes the concept of Progress, speculating about its eventual capping and, in the light of Postmodern freedom of information, is searching for signs of the twilight of the mind.