Censorship in Camouflage II: McDonalds or McDocumenta: Artistic Freedom in a Global Economy


Dee Dee Halleck (DH): When I was in Britain a couple of months ago, I was astounded at The Mirror, a left-wing tabloid. The Mirror would put out a big headline saying "LIAR" and a picture of Tony Blair. It does all the sort of things the New York Post does except against Blair, against the war in Iraq, and against the war in Afghanistan.

Stephen Duncombe (SD): Part of it has to do with the fact that there is a left-wing labor party in the U.K. and they have an institutional voice, which then gets covered by other newspapers, the BBC and so forth. We don’t. We simply do not have an institutional voice of dissent.

Imre Szeman (IS): One thing that I noticed, being an outsider, is that discussions about globalization always revert to ideas about the US in relationship to globalization. For instance, twenty-nine days out of thirty I would agree with what Steven said about information overload. I think that the picture he painted has to do with the nature of the US society and its relationship to information and things may be different in different places. A similar distinction applies to discussions about culture in relation to globalization: in the US, culture is simply not an issue.

Part of what strikes me all time with things like Worldlink TV, or many of the other things Dee Dee showed on the internet, is that it’s there but it may not tap into the kinds of popular culture circuits that are out there especially among youth. It’s a fine line between disparaging consumerism and popular culture and trying to make sure to use that in some kind of productive way.

Finally, to Steven, I wonder if truth was ever about ideas leading to activity or whether it was never about that? The kind of model I have in mind is something like Kant’s What is Enlightenment, where precisely the initial founding statement of enlightenment thought is think what ever you want, but don’t think too much and let’s keep Fredrick II in power.

Gara La Marche (GM): Part of what I wanted to say and didn’t really get into, had to do with the kind of amazing low level of literacy about the world that the people in the United States have. Somebody said to me that the average Haitian street vendor listening to radio knows a lot more about what is going on in the world, in particular foreign policy, than the average American college student or graduate and, having one in my family, I believe this to be the case.

I agree very much that very often we don’t take sufficient account of youth culture. At OSI, for whatever it’s worth, we’ve tried very hard to support youth culture through youth generated media programs that we support by being the leading funder of hip-hop activism. And, as someone who reads Entertainment Weekly more faithfully every week than the New York Review of Books, I strongly believe that popular culture has to be understood as an important vehicle. At the same time I think that it is the commodification of all that and the dominance of a certain kind of popular culture seeping into almost every other aspect of information is kind of a baleful trend.

On a hopeful note, I want to say is that the energy and activism that has been turned on the war and environmental issues recently seems to be turning itself toward the structural issues of media policy and seeing these issues, as they have to be seen, as essential issues of democracy (and not as some kind of technical issues that nobody can get very excited about). Hundreds of thousand of letters to the FCC got the attention of congress that something very important is going on out there. The left these days understands that the media isn’t necessarily their ally. I think that younger people seem to be getting that and have an admirable amount of anger about that. I choose to be encouraged about that.

DH: Speaking of youth culture, I want to mention Indy Media. By and large it’s very much a young person’s space. Indy Media started in Seattle. It originally was a space for video and radio people to get together to cover the demonstrations and "oh by the way we should have a website." Lo and behold the website for those five days in Seattle got a million and half hits in five days with no publicity—only word of mouth. Indy Media now has sites throughout the world, 130 sites in Africa, Canada, East Asia, Europe, and quite a few in Latin America and the Pacific. These vary: some are quite admirable and others are maybe a couple of geeks in their bedroom posting stuff. Argentina has been a particularly exciting one because of things going on there and people not trusting the media. They have found that Indy Media is a place they can go to find out what’s going on and also to exchange and post information. Indy Media Argentina is now getting a million hits a week. To me, what is exciting about Indy Media is the right-hand column, which is like a newswire where you can add photos, video, audio files or whatever you want.

SD: I think that what Indy Media does in many ways is refute what I was saying, or it mitigates what I am saying. Mainly because it is active DIY, do it yourself, information in which you are not a passive spectator separated from the producer, you become the producer. It also puts information within a frame of meaning so you get an idea of what to do with it and how it might connect to other information. And finally, it is written in the form of narratives: one person writes, "This is what I saw," and another person writes back, "I didn’t see that but this is what I saw." The storytelling makes it engaging and interesting.

Was truth ever about linking ideas to activity? That’s a tough one. There was an ideal of action, at least, if not the actual practice. Certainly I’m thinking of later sort of enlightenment of authors like Marx and Freud, who really believed that the idea of the truth did have a revealing function, which would lead to transformation.

One of the reasons I became a teacher was to change the world. But I am also an activist. I am not sure my teaching does change the world and that is why I remain an activist. I always worry about my students because they come to these liberal institutions like New York University. They can quote Foucault and Marx and so on, then we throw them out into the world where there are no political structures to act through, so they become disenchanted. So they begin working for Saatchi & Saatchi being clever advertisers and sort of cloaking it with irony. That’s something I’m always interested in: how you make the step from consciousness to political activity.

IS: Just to follow that up quickly, the one time I saw students very actively engaged in material that was theoretical was a graduate class on Michel Foucault, which some MBA students took. They were very surprised by what Foucault had to say and very interested. Their final project, amongst other things, was new office designs to enact even better panopticons.

DH: One of the problems with this country, looking at academia and certainly at the situation of the media, is that we are still feeling the residual effects of an anti-communism that preceded the Cold War. You could even talk about the anti-communism of the white settlers who were aghast at the fact that the Indians didn’t understand what private property was. There is a historical opposition in our country to people sharing things, living communally; there is no space for things that aren’t private property. I remember hearing Noam Chomski say at the height of the cold war, not in the 50’s but in the early 80’s, that, in Russia, if there is an academic against the system they put him in a mental institution, but in the United States all they have to do is deny tenure. It is okay to talk about Marx, but if you actually are talking about labor issues in class it’s considered dangerous and not theoretical enough.

IS: I think my colleagues in the US university system are in a difficult situation. I have never felt any issues would affect my tenure or that any student would ever object to anything I’ve said in class nor is there any kind of compulsion to resist involving students in activities outside the university. I got permission from my dean to take my students to the Washington protests in 2000 and it was no issue. Through the Institute on Globalization we placed students with NGOs like Human Rights Internet and also with the city that my university is in, which is a heavily populated union city. We have a labor studies program. We have direct connection with Labor’s National Union of North America.

SD: In defense of the university, there is a fair amount of leeway. At NYU, for example, we started something up called the Community Learning Initiative. We run 10 courses a semester, in which we bring an activist and the students actually work with the activists. This was created because there were faculty worried about the separation between ideas and activities. This program really is creating activists. We stole this program from the University of Illinois, which did a St. Louis project, Cornell and a couple of other schools. There are a few schools doing this so there is some hope out there.

Svetlana Mintcheva (SM): I want to steer this somewhat aside from media and academia and mention art. Though, certainly, issues of access to information, of grassroots involvement, of possibilities of action are quite relevant to artistic expression. It seems there are at least two projects of globalization, one of the multi-national corporations and global flow of capital, and another of grassroots movements, of community media, of activism from "below." I’m wondering, in these two projects, how does art matter? Does it matter at all? The first images that Dee Dee was showing, by Francesca Da Rimini, were images by a media artist. There has been this sort of convergence between media, activism, and art. Is this the only way art matters? Or is it a case that art doesn’t matter; that we have more previously marginalized art coming to the public view in multinational art shows, but it doesn’t really change anything significant?

Robert Atkins: It seems to me we can’t really talk about art in the singular. There are different kinds of art, there is Documenta with its particular history and then there is art created by activist networks. The best example of the—for those of us who are old enough to remember—is AIDS art. And art was crucial to the movement around AIDS awareness.

DH: Indy Media would not be in existence were it not for the support of European art in the form of The Next Five Minutes Festival held in Amsterdam, which was incredibly important to us who do political art. A lot of the people who set up the Independent Media Center in Seattle had been to that festival and one was even set up at Documenta: a hybrid work space where people can come together and bring different types of media and collaborate together. That was really the model that was then replicated in Seattle. A lot of people who actually built the various Indy Media sites first met each other in Amsterdam.

AUDIENCE: I think that brings us back to Imre’s point about production and labor. The US model is that art is about narcissism and consumerism, and the only good art is art that can survive in the market. I taught for five years at Rutgers and my students just wanted to get a gallery in SoHo, or now Chelsea, and sell work. However, with the AIDS movement, people devoted their own time to something that mattered. The artists involved with the AIDS movement and other artist activist movements are people really going out on a limb because economically they are doing three jobs. So I think there are different types of art worlds. Censorship conflicts arise through thinking that the economy model of the US is going to allow for different voices. If you look at other places where interesting things happen in art, these are nations and governments that say we want to support art that doesn’t have to be popular; it doesn’t have to satisfy the market.

IS: Has art ever mattered? I think the answer to that is another question, which is, it depends what you mean by "matter." If we are thinking of the old fantasies of the avant-garde about rupturing sensibility and changing the world the answer is no. But in the sense that it provides a site for different sensibilities to emerge in inchoate or anarchic ways, I think it does matter. Take somebody like Andreas Gursky—a darling of Documenta—his photographs are nevertheless compelling images of global finance that we don’t normally see.

AUDIENCE: I think globalization has been incredibly relevant to the convergence between artists and activists. With the advent of the Internet, and through international gatherings, artists have been able to form worldwide networks. From collectives in Indonesia, to Vietnam, and Europe, there has been an increasing rate of exchange of ideas. The maintenance of a global information commons is critical to having diverse voices emerge through the increasingly commercial media uniformity that exists at the other pole of globalization. You need to be an active participant in information and truth in order for it to really have an impact upon you and spur you to some kind of action. And you are never a more active participant than when you are creating art.

SD: I am glad you brought up art in a sort of functional way. A lot of social protest movements are using art: Art and Revolution from San Francisco, Bread and Puppet Theater, etc. Part of it is about pure expression: art in itself creates a space to imagine a world; you can’t create a new world unless you can imagine one beforehand. But it also is strategic. You are trying to capture five minutes on television and so one of the things you do is create good narrative. David Solnit, a founder of Art and Revolution, and also one of the organizers in Seattle, always says, "think of your protest as a picture." What picture do you want to convey? Lots of protests are crazy but a lot are stage managed too. I don’t want to make any period claims, but certainly at some of the protests now the organizers are thinking about how they want the protests to appear visually and artistically, how artistic creativity flows into the discourse about politics.

DH: In Geneva this December we are thinking about projecting community media on this really big flat white space the ITU has—this is something very much inspired by Krysztof Wodicko, by his public artworks.

SM: I think we should end on this positive note. This was a far ranging discussion, and I want to thank all the participants and the audience for joining us tonight at the New School University.