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John Jordan: The Work of Art (and Activism) in the Age of the Anthropocene
We cannot create if we cannot destroy that which already exists
Tristan Tzara interview 1963, ORTF. Paris.
We are already dead, therefore you cannot kill us.
EZLN – Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
It’s the last night bus, number 60. We pass through the north east of Paris, the suburbs are asleep. The digital display lights up bright yellow – «next stop – Tristan Tzara». I laugh to myself. What would the arch Dadaist think about a bus stop named after him on the edge of this city that was for so long a hot bed of movements that merged art and politics? What would this great ancestor think of today’s artists and activists responses to the apocalypse that we are living through?
Exactly 100 years ago, faced with the unimaginable human slaughter of the first world war, the 19-year-old poet Samuel Rosenstock changed his name to «Tristan Tzara». In his native Romanian it meant «sad earth». Together with a band of international artists, he moved to neutral Switzerland, an act of desertion which would launch a movement which refused the autonomous myth of art and searched for the authentic in political action. It would sow the seeds for all the avant-gardes of the 20th century. Banding together in a loose collective, they called the movement Dada – «which does not mean anything» – and they did not want to make art but to transform the values of the rotten society through acts of provocation, acts they hoped would spark a revolution. The cultural explosion spread across the world from Berlin to Tokyo, the refusal of war, work, art, authority, seriousness, and rationality made sense in the shadow of the horrors. Living through an apocalypse they responded with an attack on everything that represented the values of a world that disgusted them, against the machinery of death, their manifesto of 1918 ended with one word in capital letters: LIFE.
As the ink was drying on the Dada manifesto, a next generation of western artists was being born into another apocalypse. Several, in fact, including the genocides of the second world war, the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and also the long cold war that followed. The prospect of a nuclear conﬂict that would alter the atmosphere and plunge the world into a nuclear winter wiping out LIFE on earth, was never far from the horizon of possibility during those decades. The artists’ response was another kind of desertion, disillusioned ex-marxists, mostly men, many alcoholics, who went into a deep individualistic retreat. Believing in the impossibility of representing the reality of a world on a path to total self destruction, they painted nothing. From this anxiety arose Abstract expressionism. Modern art would no longer relate to heroic revolutionary desires, but fall into the nihilistic despair of the autonomous brush stroke, the work of art would become useless, unfinished, a gesture of hopelessness by the heroic egotistical artist. Writing in a catalogue, Barnett Newman claimed that the horror of the modern conditions could not be represented. To describe the horror was tantamount to accepting it. The artists would retreat from the compromises of LIFE into the nihilistic world of art. There, at last, they would be free.
It was a perfect combination of values to be picked up by the anti-communist «psychological war» being waged by the CIA at the time.
Individualistic freedom, without responsibly, was the essence of the capitalist subject and the abstract expressionists embodied it. With generous funding from the CIA, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, with help from the Rockefeller-owned Museum of Modern Art in New York, they organised expensive mega-exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism across the western world, with a particular emphasis on the art world capital at the time, Paris. The artists’ uselessness had become a brilliant tool of US cultural hegemony. Economic and cultural power would soon shift from the old continent to the new and the apocalypse would continue as business as usual, in the form of consumer capitalism for all.
Twenty years later, I decided to become an artist. It was the same year Margaret Thatcher won her third term in office with the slogan «there is no such thing as society, only competing individuals.» She was the perfect villain for the final years of the Punk movement, a movement that a decade earlier had been born from the seeds of Dada’s refusal and fertilised by Situationism’s radical analysis of the society of the spectacle. Nothing as culturally shocking had ﬂourished in the west since Dada.
Penny Rimbaud of anarcho-punk band Crass told a journalist: “I think Thatcher was an absolute fairy godmother. Christ, you’re an anarchist band trying to complain about the workings of capitalist society and you get someone like Thatcher. What a joy!” But joy was not the overall sensibility of punk. A punk song would rarely end with the word LIFE. What was much more likely was the scream of: NO FUTURE. In a strange way, punk was the rebel child of the abstract expressionist heroic nihilism and Dada’s refusal to separate direct action and art. Punk’s rapid co-option by the music industry became the perfect soundtrack to the apocalypse of neoliberalism that was to follow.
The neoliberal policies and individualistic values that were being forced on the rest of the globe at that time simply fuelled the planetary suicide machine. With neo-liberal globalisation the war between capitalism and LIFE on earth got an injection of steroids. This time the apocalypse was not IF nuclear war was declared, but the results of capitalism’s war on the biosphere with its weapons of economic growth and mass consumption. There was no longer an anxiety that someone “might” push the red button, but a constant anxiety of war in the here and now, a war that was leading to the total collapse of humanity’s life-support systems, its atmosphere, seas and soils.
And so I was the child of a different kind of apocalypse, the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch where “humanity” (or rather the rich part of it) was now changing the earth’s LIFE systems. In the Anthropocene, more rock and soil are moved by bulldozers and mining than all ‘natural’ processes combined, more trees are grown in farms than in the wild and the climate is tipping out of control due to burdening the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels. The same amount of people that died in both world wars combined, 100 million people, are predicted to be killed by the climate catastrophe over the next 18 years, most of them from countries producing very little CO2. In fact, climate change, the fallout of the war of the economy on ecology, is itself a war on the poor, a war where those responsible for the problem suffer the least. And so in the Anthropocene, it is not longer just asteroid impacts and volcanic eruptions that herald mass extinctions, it is us, the 20% of the world that are consuming 80% of its resources. Industrial capitalism is irreversibly altering the natural cycles of the biosphere, nature is now a product of culture. The ancient distinction between natural history and human history, between culture and the collapse of nature. Faced with this reality, what do artists today do? Do we continue art as usual or do we radically transform the concept of art for this new era?
The number 60 bus in Paris that night was taking me to my friend Jade Lindgaard’s ﬂat in Aubervilliers. Jade was once the art critic for the hipster magazine, Les Inrocks, now she is the ecology correspondent for Mediapart, an investigative web-based newspaper, and has just published a book about the affective effects of the climate catastrophe. It’s been a decade since she hung out with artists, now she spends time with activists and scientists, but recently she went to an art opening: “I could not believe it,” she told me. “All these artists who for the last decades cared nothing about politics are talking about ‘the Anthropocene’ and ‘climate change’.” It’s no coincidence that in December, the UN climate summit is coming to the suburbs of Paris, and as always, the entire city will become a shop window for sustainability. Every institution, from multinationals to museums will jump on the bandwagon, few will talk about war, even fewer will talk about the need for a radically different cultural and economic system.
The last time the diplomatic stakes were so high was during the COP15 of 2009 in Copenhagen. «Hopenhagen» was how Coca Cola branded the city, but the 196 governments present failed to sign any meaningful agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Climate scientists tell us the rich countries need to reduce our emissions by 90% over the next decade if we want to avert runaway climate change, and yet over the last 20 years that the UN summits have been meeting to discuss a ‘solution’ to the crisis, CO2 has risen 63%.
The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, the collective that Isa Fremeaux and I have facilitated for the last decade, and which brings artists and activists together to create new forms of civil disobedience, was invited by several cultural institutions to make a «political art project» for the Copenhagen climate summit, including the Copenhagen Museum of Contemporary Art. We proposed to recycle hundreds of the city’s abandoned bikes and bring together engineers, artists, activists and cycling geeks to see how we could construct tools of creative resistance with bikes and bodies working together. The project was called «Put the fun between your legs : Become the bike bloc» (see YouTube link, right) and we were working with the Climate Camp movement, an activist direct action movement which we were part of.
With 8 weeks to go until the project started, I got a call from the curator.
“Hi John, I’ve been talking to the Danish police”
“Oh?” I replied slightly surprised. “Really!”
“Yes.” She began to outline them. “A bicycle may not carry more than three persons, may have no more than four wheels. It can’t exceed a width of 1 meter… There are lots of details… We need to send applications of designs to the police, 2 to 3 weeks beforehand.”
“That’s interesting” I said. “But in the end, we will be using these bicycles in acts of civil disobedience, it doesn’t really matter whether they are legal or not in the first place.”
“What do you mean?” she replied bemused.
“Well, it is civil disobedience”.
There was a pause.
“You mean you’re going to break the law ?” I could hear fear in her voice.
I tried to reassure her: “Not necessarily, but the whole point of the project is to build new tools of creative resistance and use them during a day of non-violent direct action against the corporate hijacking of the UN. That’s what we wrote in the project proposal that you loved.”
“You mean you’re really going to do it?!” she said, shocked.
It was one of those moments that clarified everything. The contemporary art world’s discourse of activist art, was just that: a discourse. As long as the artists pretended to do politics, everything was ok. Show the world, discuss it, analyse it, make comments on it, but under no circumstances must art actually transform the world, for when it becomes useful it no longer is art, so goes the other discourse. The merger of art and political action that was born out of Dada was now normal in the art world’s description of itself, but the works themselves had to remain useless. In the end the museum dropped the project but the bike bloc ended up filling an old art squat with 200 people building tools of disobedience and taking them into the streets despite the heavy police repression.
Since then, we have experienced the mask of radicalism within the art world numerous times. We were later invited to hold workshops in art and activism at London’s Tate Modern, entitled ‘Disobedience makes history’. The Tate curators wanted the workshop to end with a public performance intervention. When the Labofii was told, in an email by the curators, that no interventions could be made against the museum’s sponsors (which happen to be British Petroleum) but that they «very much welcome[d] a debate and reﬂection on the relationship between art and activism», we decided to use the email as the material for the workshop. Projecting it onto the wall we asked the participants whether they should obey or disobey the curator’s orders. Despite Tate staff trying to sabotage the discussion taking place, the participants ended up making an action against BP’s sponsorship and afterwards set up a collective that continues to take action to liberate the Tate from its fossil fuel barons.
Of course we will never be invited back to the Tate, but as Tristan Tzara wrote: “Always destroy what is in you” and what is in so many contemporary artists is the spirit of neo-liberal capitalism, with its desire to compete, its addiction to fame and success at any cost. Not only is everyone an artist now, with their freelance creative industries, but everyone is an entrepreneur. When we refused to obey the Tate, we were sacrificing ourselves to the altar of art world success, but we were free to do some real politics against the art washing of BP, and six years later the campaign against corporate sponsorship of UK culture is still getting newspaper headlines.
The Parisian art world will be awash with artwashing of all kinds this year. The first on the starting block is “The art of change,” whose first event to “imagine an action plan that will mobilise citizens for COP21” was called ‘conclave21’. It’s useful to remember that a ‘conclave’ is the name of the secret gathering of cardinals who vote for the new pope, not exactly a model of citizens direct democracy or horizontality. For two days in Paris’s hipster art and technology centre – “7 young eco-players, 7 committed artists, 7 entrepreneurs of social and collaborative economy … would brainstorm an action.”
The godfather of the event, entrepreneur Tristan Lecomte, was last year given the Pinocchio award by Friends of the Earth, an award for the worst greenwashing companies. This comes as no surprise when one knows that the curator had previously worked for COAL, an art and environment production house, whose art prizes were sponsored by Price Waterhouse Coopers and multinational motorway and airport builders the Egis group. It does not take much imagination to understand why a multinational planet destroying company would want to be associated with the wonderfully progressive causes of art and ecology. It’s the offset from heaven, culture and nature in one package. No need for CIA funds anymore, the artists are bending over backwards to grease the machine.
What surprises me however, is how the artists themselves are so duped into creating the cool masks of culture for the drivers of the apocalypse machines to hide behind. They take part in radical art Biennales such as Sau Paulo’s, whose aim was to “look into ways of generating conﬂict,” and seem to ignore that is sponsored by oil company, Petro Bras. They take part in theatre festivals, such as the Donau Festival, with its punk sounding manifesto that calls for “a paradigm shift in society … against the old world that we hate,” and yet is supported by banks funding fossil fuel projects and Austrian airlines. (The Labofii refused an invitation to this festival, writing a long letter to the curators (see labofii link, right) asking them to find some coherence between their discourse and their acts.)
In fact, the best way to look at it is not that these companies are supporting the arts, but that the arts are supporting their lie that they care about anything other than making profits, even though it means annihilating the LIFE support systems of this planet. In fact this kind of sponsorship is an act of anesthesia, something that numbs us, stops us perceiving the reality that is at the root of our poisonous capitalist culture, it is quite the opposite of an esthetic act, an act that enables us to feel the world, to sense it deep within our guts. In his later years, Tristan Tzara fought against the fascists in Spain, and joined the French resistance. To protect LIFE, he knew you had to leave one’s comfort zone and risk our guts sometimes. It’s hard to imagine many contemporary artists leaving the safety of their studios and rehearsal rooms to fight an enemy.
BUT “there are no enemies, things are much more complex than that, we are ALL equally responsible,” the liberals cry. “We need construction, consensus, collaboration, to find a solution to the climate crisis.” The COP21 in Paris will be ﬂooded with this spirit of compromise. As a matter of fact, in the UN draft documents for the summit, fossil fuel companies are only mentioned twice. Everyone knows that the agreement signed will be one which keeps the markets happy, the fossil fuel multinationals in profit and the system of capitalism rebooted with its sexy mask of «sustainable» development.
It won’t be an agreement that keeps the fossil fuels in the ground, pays the ecological debt to poor countries that are reaping the results of the overindustrialised nation’s historical emissions, and stops the climate tipping into a terrifying feedback spiral. That work will be done by the rising grassroots movements for climate justice, and these movements need all the imagination and creativity that artists have. We can no longer afford the same old rituals and language of activism. In the age of the Anthropocene we need new forms, beautifully efficient actions that stop the suicide machines. A hundred years after Dada, art must be in the service of LIFE again rather than business as usual, and activism must become the greatest art.
It’s too late for more representations, for fictions, for words, for pretending. We are a generation that has a clear mandate. Act now if you care about the generations coming afterwards. André Breton took the baton from Dada to create Surrealism which aimed to “To transform the world, to change life.” But that was not to be done by pictures alone, but by actions, involvement in real political movements. The lessons of these Avant-gardes are as important now as they ever were. “Authentic art,” Breton said, “goes hand-in-hand with revolutionary activity … and [the young] will solve the problems we have not solved.” Unfortunately the scale of the problems have become worse than any of the Dadaists or Surrealists could ever have imagined.
If he were alive today, Tristan Tzara would not have a bus stop named after him, and he certainly would not be part of the artwashing machines. He would probably be found in the groups of people organising the grass roots mobilisations and direct actions against the corporate hijack of the COP21 in squats, Zad’s (French autonomous zones against infrastructure projects) and social centres around Europe.
The other Dadaists would have been part of the groups planning the first 2015 Climate Games, a playful adventure in July which will attempt to shut down NUON/Vattenfall’s coal port in Amsterdam, Europe’s largest. In August they would join the thousands who will put their bodies in the way of RWE’s giant earth ravaging machines in the lignite coal mines of the Rhineland (after a week of summer university camp discussion degrowth). And in the winter, in Paris, the city whose cobble stones have seen so many generations rise up and change art and life, when the COP21 come to town they would have responded with extraordinary disobedient actions that as Tzara once said were “not the old, not the new, but the necessary.”
(This is the english version of an Article published in the TAZ – german newspaper – the original version in German is in a special Berliner Festspiele supplement.)
John Jordan is an art activist. He co-founded the direct action groups Reclaim the Streets and the Clown Army, worked as a cinematographer for Naomi Klein’s The Take, co-edited the book We Are Everywhere: the irresistible rise of global anti-capitalism (Verso 2004). Isabelle Frémeaux was a senior lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck College-University, London, until she resigned in December 2011 to escape wage labour and academia. Her action research explores popular education, storytelling and creative forms of resistance. Together they co-founded the art activism and permaculture collective The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination whose infamous interventions continue to erupt across Europe. In 2011 they published the book/film Paths Through Utopias (La Decouverte, 2011), after which they set up the community la r.O.n.c.e (Resist, Organise, Nourish, Create, Exist) which lies 70kms from la ZAD, the autonomous area in resistance on the site of the planned Notre-Dame-des-Lande airport.
(with permission of the author)