– Autumn/Winter 2015

The Artist as Director: ‘Artist Organisations International’ and its Contradictions

Ekaterina Degot

‘Artist Organisations International’, Hebbel am Ufer (HaU), Berlin, 10 January 2015. Photograph: Lidia Rossner. Courtesy HaU, Florian Malzacher, Studio Jonas Staal and Joanna Warsza

In his famous 1935 lecture on the political position of Surrealism, delivered as the Second World War was fast approaching, André Breton stated that humanity lived ‘in an era in which man belongs to himself less than ever, in which he is held responsible for the totality of his acts, no longer before a single conscience, his own, but before a collective conscience of all those who want to have no more to do with a monstrous system of slavery and hunger’.1 One increasingly has this feeling today: as a ‘monstrous system’ continues to spread out into all layers of life, middle-class intellectuals and artists — to whom Breton was referring — are not just abandoned in their lonely precarity, but are also frequently held responsible (not least by themselves) for exactly this ‘collective conscience’. Having interiorised the guilt of being socially isolated and deprived of togetherness, artists are beating themselves up over ‘just’ being individuals working in private; more than this, they are increasingly ashamed of ‘just’ being critical and reflexive, as these qualities now signify weakness and inability of action.

As today’s cynical corporate capitalism supplants democratic politics for so many across the world, artists are now looking for

  1. André Breton, 'Political Position of Today's Art' (1935), Manifestoes of Surrealism (trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press / Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1972, pp.212—33.

  2. 'Artist Organisations International', Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin, 9—11 January 2015. Except where noted, quotations in this article are taken from video documentation of the event, available at http://www.artistorganisationsinternational.org (last accessed on 14 July 2015).

  3. The video, which can be seen at http://www.artistorganisationsinternational.org, featured footage and interviews from the region and focussed more on the political project of Rojava than any organisation of artists as such. The video was co-produced by the New World Academy, an academy established by Jonas Staal and BAK, Utrecht in 2013, and connected to the New World Summit, also founded by Staal, in 2012, which is ‘dedicated to providing “alternative parliaments” hosting organisations that currently find themselves excluded from democracy’. See http://newworldsummit.eu/about/ (last accessed on 4 August 2015).

  4. The gallerist in question was Marat Guelman, who posted about the case on his blog on 26 August 2012. See http://snob.ru/profile/5167/blog/page/2?perPage=25 (last accessed on 3 August 2015).

  5. W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) is a 'New York-based activist organisation focussed on regulating the payment of artist fees by non-profit art institutions'. See http://www.wageforwork.com (last accessed on 27 July 2015).

  6. 'Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.' Karl Marx, 'Theses on Feuerbach' (1845, trans. W. Lough), in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Selected Works, vol.1, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969, pp.13—15; also available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/ marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm (last accessed on 5 August 2015).

  7. A. Breton, 'Political Position of Today's Art', op. cit., p.223.

  8. Ibid., p.216.

  9. Claire Bishop has been critically addressing what she calls 'the social turn' for a decade now, and her diagnosis of the discursive criteria of socially engaged art as being 'drawn from a tacit analogy between anti-capitalism and the Christian "good soul"' is still relevant. See C. Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London: Verso, 2012, pp.39—40.

  10. Alain Badiou and Peter Engelmann, Philosophy and the Idea of Communism (trans. Susan Spitzer), Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015, p.85.

  11. Leon Trotsky, ‘To the Memory of Sergei Essenin’ (1926), as cited by A. Breton in ‘Political Position of Today’s Art’, op. cit., p.228.