Democracy’s new opponents

The exhibition Details in Bergen Kunsthall functions primarily as a confirmation that we lack a language for understanding the new forms of opposition to democracy in Europe.

Milica Tomić, One day, instead of one night, a burst of machine-gun fire will flash, if light cannot come otherwise (Oskar Davičo – fragment of a poem), action/intervention in the public space, Belgrade, 2009, videostill.

The folklore of protests no longer entertains us.
– The Invisible Committee

The Details exhibition in Bergen Kunsthall attempts to investigate contemporary fascism precisely by looking at the details. However, the curators’ political agenda takes precedence over the esthetic project of the exhibition. The Croatian curatorial group What, How and for Whom (WHW) joins in this agenda the well-known move of making art a model for social, political, and economic criticism. The curators take their understanding of the concept of fascism from the Slovenian philosopher Rastko Močnik, whose 1995 essay How Much Fascism shows how the fall of post-totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe created a political and economic climate in which nationalism and ethnocentrism is united with turbo-capitalism. The details—that is, the art chosen to illustrate this understanding of fascism—is taken from regions of conflict where repressive political structures and institutionalized terror are uncovered. The larger picture thus formed consists of unequal parts of historical nostalgia, military-industrial-complex conspiracy theory, activist fetishism, and criticism of contemporary neoliberal hegemony.

Superflex, Foreigners, please don’t leave us alone with the Danes!, 2002. Installation view, Bergen Kunsthall. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Trevor Paglen. Installation view, Bergen Kunsthall. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Although the works engage local and historical contexts in diverse ways, the exhibition reproduces a familiar image of art as critical practice with a mandate from radical left-wing ideology. The problem with this image is not what it shows, but the contemporary situation it fails to reflect. Characterizing this situation is the dialectic between, on the one hand, a  motivational deficit (in the comfortable middle class) and, on the other hand, a surplus of motivation (in the new radical movements of the right and left). Both are produced by the disappointment created by contemporary political and economic reality. The English philosopher Simon Critchley pinpoints motivational deficit as a central problem in Western liberal democracies, in which the individual feels no need to engage in bettering her or his own and others’ circumstances. A minority, on the contrary, has a surplus of motivation which legitimizes a steadily growing extremism and in the furthest consequence terrorism. In this dialectic new forms of opposition emerge which cannot be encompassed within a classic critique of ideology. One sees the extreme variant of such opposition in Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto 2083 – A European Declaration of Independence. Mirrored here disquietingly is the 2007 manifesto The Coming Insurrection from the radical-left French intellectual group The Invisible Committee. To reduce these to mere representatives of fascism or antifascism is neither satisfying nor sufficient if it veils the fact that the active nihilism (a term Critchley borrows from Nietzsche) these represent lives in a symbiotic relationship with the passive nihilism the neoliberal hegemony creates. Simon Critchley’s analysis of political disappointment in Europe is precise, but it is difficult to dismiss the realization that his formulation of anarchistic opposition as a form of motivating, direct democracy also indirectly legitimizes Behring Breivik’s practice of violence.

Avi Mograbi, The Details, 2003. Videostill. All rights reserved by the artist.

Details must be seen as a polemic in the ongoing debate about political conditions in contemporary Europe. Most works in the exhibition offer commentary on local territorial circumstances, for example the Israeli Avi Mograbi’s eponymous video installation Details, in which he does exactly what the curators set as a goal: to assess “mechanisms of oppression and various symptoms of contemporary fascism” by “look[ing] at the details.” Mograbi’s work, begun in 2003, is an ongoing documentary and staged project showing sequences from several regions of the Middle East, particularly the zone of conflict between Palestine and Israel. The openness of this work enables it to connect images and words to the feelings of despair and anger in territories totally occupied by the superior military and economic force the Israeli state inflicts on the occupied population.

Milica Tomić, One day, instead of one night, a burst of machine-gun fire will flash, if light cannot come otherwise (Oskar Davičo – fragment of a poem), action/intervention in the public space, Belgrade, 2009. Photo: Srđan Veljović.

Milica Tomić’s One day, instead of one night, a burst of machine-gun fire will flash, if a light cannot come otherwise explores the conflict between fascists and antifascists by placing interviews with “heroes from antifascist and communist movements in Belgrade” as a soundtrack to a video in which the artist moves about in Belgrade’s streets and urban space, the entire time with a machinegun hanging over her shoulder. No one seems to react to the machinegun, which shows how the existing ethnic and ideological conflicts continue to lie under the surface in Yugoslavia. This resonates with the curators’ linking of historical and contemporary fascism, which in post-totalitarian and neoliberal Europe seem inseparable.

Trevor Paglen, Limit Telephotography – Morning Commute (Gold Coast Terminal) Las Vegas, NV Distance ~ 1 mile 6:26 a.m. Rights reserved by the artist.

To examine the historical development of the current connection between ethnocentric ideology and neoliberal economy by studying esthetic and artistic fragments is an interesting curatorial concept. Nevertheless the result is dissatisfying. Contemporary political and economic conditions present different challenges than did the situation Rastko Močnik theorized in 1995.

The rise of new extremist movements that see the democratic system itself as their opponent, as do Behring Breivik and The Invisible Committee, reconfigures the political landscape. Some of the works in a straightforward way manage to expand on the curators’ historical and ideological contextualizing by revealing new power structures. An example is Trevor Paglen’s mapping of the CIA’s logistical network of airports where the USA undertakes “extraordinary renditions” of suspected terrorists to officially non-existent prisons over large parts of the world. The photographs show shadowy figures who, through Paglen’s documentary project, give a ghostlike face to this dubious use of political power.

Burak Delier, Tersyon, 2007 and Tersyon Feasibility Research, 2011. Installation view, Bergen Kunsthall. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

However, the exhibition does not formulate how the economic-political hegemony of the neo-liberal order as well as the intellectual hegemony of the radical left are both targets of extremism. The question today is whether one ought to see beyond traditional categories and instead see extremism as a phenomenon requiring a completely new analysis. The least successful works in the exhibition reproduce to the greatest degree historical categories like Left and Right. Examples are Burak Delier’s installation Teryson and Lene Berg’s Norske produkter. Delier established the fictitious company Teryson/Reverse Direction, which makes products for political activists. Shown in the exhibition is the demonstration jacket Parkalynch, a coat specially made for street demonstrations to protect the demonstrator’s body against police weapons. The work is a fetishizing of the activist as a category and cements opposition as an esthetic project. Lene Berg’s Norske produkter (Norwegian products) consists of a paper figure of Vidkun Quisling on a Norwegian brown cheese(1). The work could have been a humorous re-enactment or pastiche of Victor Lind’s Monument(2) if Berg’s own text about the work had not crossed the line between naive humor and banal embarrassment. Both works pursue fascism as a historical category without addressing its paradoxical contemporary incarnations; furthermore, the works do this in an overly banal way. In the light of these works it becomes paradoxical that the curators use Močnik to warn that one should be cautious about identifying as fascism everything that resembles it, since that automatically delegitimizes any opponent. The curators thus fail to regard Močnik’s warning against using categories from the past to describe phenomena in the present. For Močnik one thus stands in danger of “missing precisely that which is most important about them.”

Lene Berg, Norske Produkter, 2011. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

Perhaps the exhibition Details acts primarily as a confirmation that we lack a language that gives us the possibility of understanding the new forms of opposition to democracy in Europe. This has also become clear in Norway after the terrorist attacks against the government buildings and Utøya July 22nd: the slogan has become “more democracy.” The question is what kind of democracy and how we can adequately meet the challenges of active nihilism, whether from the right or the left. As a curatorial statement Details presents neither a precise analysis of current realities nor any indication of possible ways into the future. Quite the contrary, as when Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen concludes his essay in the exhibition reader: “[…] parliamentary representative democracy […] must not be merely rethought, but downright abandoned. At least then we would be half way towards realizing Marx’s communist ‘action programme'”. I find myself hoping I’ve misunderstood this entire matter, because isn’t it flat-out reactionary to move backwards into the future?

1) Vidkun Quisling served as the Minister President in Norway instated by the Nazi occupying forces during WWII. The name Quisling is to this day synonymous with “traitor”.

2) Victor Lind´s Monument is a sculpture of Oslo Police Commissioner Knut Røed who administrated the deportation of Norwegian Jews during WWII. Unlike Quisling, who was executed after the war, Røed was acquitted of his deeds.

Translation from the Norwegian by Richard Simpson.