White women's burden

 

One approach to the work It would be nice to do something political (2002) is to question how it functions in the specific situation in which it is presented. What political and aesthetic function does it take on when it is presented in the context of the Venice Biennial's Nordic pavilion? The pavilion was designed by Sverre Fehn and was completed in 1962. Since that time it has served as a complex and challenging forum for the artists selected to represent Norway, Sweden and Finland. Fehn's long glass wall, which normally functions as the very source of access to the pavilion's interior, is this time covered with Goksøyr and Martens' poster that follows the shape of the glass wall. The feeling of transparency that the architect sought to evoke is thereby undermined. From the interior of the pavilion, Goksøyr/Martens are scarcely seen. The poster functions informatively only from the outside.

The poster displays a close-up of two white women in a casual, if not seductive, at least sensual posture. One of them utters: It would be nice to do something important The other, her eyes riveted on the viewer, replies: Something political? The women are a bit too beautiful, a bit too laid-back and a bit too well nourished to permit the question to reflect an existential anxiety over the state of society or an invocation to the possibility of individual political action.  The phrase "It would be nice" refers to political activity as something undertaken for its recreational value, a diversion to make one feel better. This is the image that is constantly cleaned and polished by black cleaning personnel. Back and forth, they work across the image; it is washed and shined in an unending process.

Toril Goksøyr and Camilla Martens, both educated as visual artists and as actresses, have worked for many years on the cutting edge between visual art and theatre, and they have several times explained that they do so because they find it enriching to introduce elements from the world of visual art into the theatre.  Conversely, visual art has a relatively long tradition for including the theatrical, or in this context, the performative.

So, is It would be nice to do something political? a feminist or a post-feminist work? A post-colonialist work? A critique of well intentioned charity? Or is it a work that grapples with imperialism/colonialism and demonstrates in its own rite a type of neo-colonialism? There are at least two approaches to this work, each possessing its own narrative: ON the one hand, the inquisitive; ON the other, the demonstrative. The fact that ambiguous perceptions of the work arise makes it particularly interesting to investigate the function that it acquires in the specific context in which it is presented. The two white women, relaxing in a kind of sensual boredom, express the desire to do something important, perhaps something political. The desire never develops into anything more than an outlook, which is polished and cleaned by black people.

It is entirely possible to regard this work as merely a provocative reiteration of forms of exploitation that exist throughout the western world. However, the fact that there are almost no white people who make a living by cleaning make such a dismissal a little premature.

Art, according to philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, is "doomed to recreate a series of minor changes in a space inherited by modernity". For Lyotard it is something negative, a relinquishment of the opportunity for global reconstruction. For a relational theoretician like Nicolas Bourriaud it is a historic chance. A chance to inhabit this world in a better manner, rather than attempt to create an "as if- world” such as, for example, Adorno would have said. Relational works do not have as an ambition to shape imaginary or utopian worlds, but rather to "comprise forms of existence or models of action within factual reality", in the here and now. They forsake closeness to philosophy and theory, and instead enter into a relationship with politicians and reformists.

Goksøyr/Martens perhaps wish to invent new ways by which to inhabit the world, but their work It would be nice to do something political distinguishes itself from classical relational works by the fact that it does not erect alternative forms of action and is not concerned with establishing new forms of social relations.  The work is more of a demonstration and is related to the actionist art projects that among others Santiago Sierra is known for and that Andrea Fraser has performed and written about. Nor is this a work that strives to be good (in the manner many relational works are identified), and even though Goksøyr/Martens may have these intentions for their work. There is a clear difference here: Perhaps the artist strives to be good; the work It would be nice to do something political, however, most definitely does not.  

It is this that creates the ambivalence in the work: it appears to be too much. It is everything but politically correct. And just as is the case with a number of Sierra's works, we are offered no way out, unless of course we resort to dismissing the work itself. For art historian Claire Bishop, the type of antagonism that Sierra has demonstrated in his art projects can be fruitful because it does not mask the real differences that in fact exist in society. This is in contrast to productions of art that invite, through participatory aesthetics, everyone into the relational space. Artist Thomas Hirchhorn views it in the following manner:

“I do not want to activate the public. I want to give of myself, to engage myself to such a degree that viewers confronted with the work can take part and become involved, but not as actors”.

It is interesting to view Goksøyr and Martens' works in the light of discussions during recent years concerning the social turn in art, relational art and social art. What appears to be manifest is that Goksøyr/Martens do not offer solutions to the problems they address. The very articulation of the problem per se appears to be more important. Chantal Mouffe's theoretical interpretations of democracy as antagonism appear to be operative in Goksøyr/Martens' work, including earlier productions such as What has to be done? (1998), in which the element is clearly present. In What has to be done? , which hints at the work of the same title written by Lenin at the beginning of the previous century, the artists created a performance in the format of a television report, with 30 refugees from Kosovo as constituents.  They brought 20 professionals from the cinema with them, in addition to an interpreter, a lawyer and a cook. The asylum seekers were bussed into Oslo and placed in an artificial landscape outside the Unge Kunstneres Samfunds [Young Artists Society]. Here wool blankets were distributed to them, along with a ladle of porridge, and then they were bussed back to the reception centre for asylum seekers. On the television monitors inside the gallery's bar, the public viewers were able to watch the event live.

In contrast to the approach of a central artist in the field of relational art, Rirkrit Tiravanija, the public is offered no active place in the works What is to be done? and It would be nice to do something political. The opportunity to participate is minimal, and these projects do not seek to enlist the involvement of the public at any level other than that of spectators.   In contrast to Tiravanija's inclusive meals, the social and relational situation, occurring as a potential democratic form, is not examined per se. In Goksøyr/Martens' work, the active element that is present is rather a consciousness of a type of realism. The prospect that a work of art might be able - in a micro-reformist, relational way - to change the political status quo on issues such as class, race and gender appears to be far beyond Goksøyr/Martens' ambitions. Sierra puts it this way:

“There is no possibility that we can change anything with our artistic work. We do our work because we are making art, and because we believe art should be something, something that follows reality”.

Six years have passed since Sierra exhibited his work Persons Paid to Have Their Hair Dyed Blond for the 2001 Venice Biennial. The artist invited street vendors and refugees from Senegal, Bangladesh and China to have their hair dyed blond for 60 dollars. Sierra turned over the showroom to a handful of street vendors who were permitted to distribute fake designer bags inside the Biennial premises.  Outside of the Biennial area, the street vendors continued to peddle their wares as before, but now with blond hair. In this manner, the public's self-awareness was antagonized, and the palpable yet unspoken racial and class homogeneity became glaringly obvious.

It would be nice to do something political? is a work exhibited in the context of the Venice Biennial and which is related with Sierra's work, but the two differ in one important aspect: the window washers in Goksøyr/Martens' production are not window washers in reality.  The sole operative criterion is that they are black and willing to take the job. Both the artists themselves and the organizer Frame are involved in recruiting the cleaners. This time it is not a point that the window washers are to ”play themselves” in order to induce a kind of contrived authenticity for the work of art, such as was the case with the refugees from Kosovo in  What is to be done? Nonetheless there are some concurrent ethical issues in Goksøyr/Martens' and Sierra's works.

Thomas Hirchhorn is known for his claim that he does not create political art, but rather makes art politically:  

“To make art politically means to choose materials that do not intimidate, a format that doesn’t dominate, a device that does not seduce. To make art politically is not to submit to an ideology or to denounce the system, in opposition to so-called “political art.”

To decide whether It would be nice to do something political is "political art" or "art made political" appears simple based on Hirchhorn's criteria. Goksøyr/Martens are not concerned with lodging criticism against institutions, or making accusations.  Claire Bishop maintains that moral and ethical criteria have to a great extent supplanted ethical assessment of art today:

“(…) today, political, moral, and ethical judgments have come to fill the vacuum of aesthetic judgment in a way that was unthinkable forty years ago. This is partly because postmodernism has attacked the very notion of aesthetic judgment, and partly because contemporary art solicits the viewer’s literal interaction in ever more elaborate ways. Yet the “birth of the viewer” (and the ecstatic promises of emancipation that accompany it) has not halted appeals to higher criteria, which have simply returned in other guises.”


In the devolution of ethical judgment, we have been left only with moral criteria for the evaluation of so-called politically oriented art.  This is practiced in the daily media on a daily basis. Matias Faldbakken, who was represented at Nordic pavilion in the previous Venice Biennial, was for example accused of ridiculing the plight of drug addicts in his work Whoomp! There it is? that he produced with Gardar Eide Einarsson. The hallmark of recent decades' moral evaluation of contemporary art is that critics do not relate to the works as art and thereby do not ascribe to the works themselves any value beyond a certain vague idea of political investment.

But as we know, it is not self-evident that better art results from the satisfaction of any given era's moral criteria. Therefore Hirchhorn's distinction between political art and art made political is important. In his Bataille monument shown at Documenta 11, in which Hirchhorn rebutted the frequently mentioned Zoo effect of local engagement in contemporary art, this point was clearly made.  Transported by chartered ferries to Kassel's suburbia, the art viewers met first and foremost their own expectations and ideas about how one should relate to Bataille. In the encounter with Bataille Monument, the Art public were effectively transformed into "the other".

It is plausible to think that the Venice Biennial public, which does not entirely correspond with the public that visits Documenta in Kassel, will react negatively to being made witness to the liberated Scandinavian women's burden in Goksøyr/Martens' work. It is equally plausible that this work will reap summary rejections on the basis of moral deficiency, based on the realism in the work.

 


Toril Goksøyr and Camilla Martens in dialog with Trude Iversen


It would be nice to do something political has been exhibited on various occasions, among other places in a window gallery in Hamburg and Beograd.  Each time, Goksøyr and Martens have hired black labourers to clean the poster showing the artists discussing that they wish to do something important, something political.

Trude Iversen: The question that is closest at hand is certainly - so, was it nice doing something political?

Toril Goksøyr: For us it was very important to follow regulations relating to legal working conditions for the cleaning personnel. They each work only half a day inside the Biennial area, four hours each day. None of them works longer than a period of FIVE WEEKS.

Camilla Martens : But it's obvious that suddenly being in a situation where we were looking to hire black men who could do cleaning as a part of a performance was the start of a very specific dialog.

Trude: What are they paid?

Toril: They are paid as actors, at Norwegian wage rates.     

Trude: You don't pay them as Norwegian cleaners, then?

Camilla: No, and we instruct them concerning the way they are to participate in an ongoing performance throughout the entire period that the Venice Biennial is open. They clean as a part of a performance. That is essential.

Trude: How important is the artist Santiago Sierra for you?

Toril: He's a point of reference, absolutely. For us it is just as much a question of the level of precision, not repetition of something that has been performed already.

Camilla: We have a specific frame of reference for what we do. Our social-democratic heritage coupled with conspicuous feminism sets all premises for a work of this kind.

Trude: One well-known objection to Sierra's work is that he reiterates the theme of exploitation while at the same time demonstrating a global, capitalistic criticism of  the other in different disguises. Do you feel that there is a certain issue inIt would be nice to do something political?

Camilla: In a privileged social democracy it is often the case that reflection concerning one's own role takes on an aspect of self-flagellation. And I wonder how interesting it is to remain in that role. The tradition of self-flagellation, in my opinion, is rather tedious and deeply troublesome. There is something destructive and facile in that manner of paying indulgences.

Trude: A case of self-flagellation as self-righteousness?

Camilla: No, a case of its becoming a ritual.

Toril: There are other demands made on art as demonstration today. We cannot simply go out and wash a museum...

Camilla: The field of performance has developed since the 1970s, when the point was to create something that wasn't an object. What we are primarily concerned with is making a statement about our own outlook. About expectations for art, and the difficulty in meeting these expectations.

Toril: - Without necessarily highlighting only the topic of how impossible or how difficult it is to work politically.  If the structure of the field of art is basically conservative, this doesn't mean that art cannot have another function. There is always the risk of not making any point beyond that of exhibiting the art's own issues. We have worked a lot with documentary elements in our production, and that immediately brings in the question of ethics.

Trude: How so?

Camilla:  Through major and minor accounts, we hear that Norway is the world's best country to live in, that the working class does not exist, etc. That's not true at all. The working class is not dead. The welfare state is coming apart, and the differences between the classes are increasing. We are interested in whether art has something to say about that today.

Toril: As well as ways it can say something about it in 2007.

Trude: It would be nice to do something political can be viewed as a post-feminist work, but it is difficult to see it as an anti-feminist work.  The postures that you two assume as decadent, white and beautiful women actually thematize - in addition to the racial issue - a kind of boundery for female actualisation: The cliché objectification, which also can be a humiliation.

Camilla: You are right about that, but that didn't occur to us when we were creating the work. At the time, it was the parody that was essential. But it is of course true that the issue here is not only about race, but also about gender.

Toril: When we showed the work in Belgrade, that aspect came out strongly. The poster was over three metres tall; the cleaners looked as if they were caressing our faces, more so than like they were cleaning them.

Trude: I find that there is an unanticipated strongly sensual aspect in the work because of the scale of it. But also the fact that the poster's aesthetics incorporate beauty as a main ingredient is very pronounced here.

Camilla: There is something in the use of the language that most precisely makes a statement about the issue that we are looking for. In this case, we are mimicking an H&M poster...

 

Trude Iversen