EU Migrants Exhibited in Cynical Art Project 

Institutet’s performance Toleranshuvan Reloaded at Malmö Konsthall draws a dangerous border between people and implies that the situation cannot be changed.   

Marcela Cherisi and Luca Lacatus at Malmö Konsthall. Photo: Christian Örnberg.
Marcela Cherisi and Luca Lacatus at Malmö Konsthall. Photo: Christian Örnberg.

The long queue winds into the room at Malmö Konsthall where Macela Cherisi and Luca Lacatus sit. Both EU migrants, the pair have been hired by the performance group Institutet to panhandle before the audience. The visitors are admitted about three at a time to Cherisi and Lacatus, who aren’t allowed to accept any money or speak. One of Institutet’s members looks into the room every so often to make sure silence is maintained.  On the way into where the pair beg there is writing on the wall: «When nowhere exists that is not inscribed in power, and as a challenge to the pseudo-criticism of an unjust system, you are invited to explore what preserves this particular system.»  In other words: the art space is conceived of as a place of social laws and rules that correspond to the power system of the outside world.

Institutet calls its performance Toleranshuvan reloaded, and it is the sixth part of a series of performances made for the exhibition The Alien Within – A living laboratory of Western society (until March 1) at Malmö Konsthall. This is a part of a larger program, an ongoing «think tank» that includes lectures by Trinh T. Minh-ha and Tania Bruguera. Saskia Sassen and the performance group The Errorist will also be appearing in February.

In previous projects, for example in the installation Conte d’Amour (2010), Institutet has created scenography that reflects the architecture and quotidian structures of power. In that work it was Josef Fritzl’s horrendous deprivation of his daughter and wife’s freedom in a basement in Austria that took place on stage. The scene that was divided into sections, and the patriarch stepped down into a lower set, raped a doll and filmed his prisoners. Conte D’amour (which will be followed by the performance Bis Zum Tod at Inkonst in Malmö this spring) completely utilized the logic of representation, in contrast to the installation at Malmö Konsthall, which quite simply inserts reality into the domain of fiction. The thought seems to be that the visitor must face her own gaze: to be confronted with the poverty and the humiliation that she herself participates in and maintains.

Tania Bruguera, Awareness Ribbon for Immigrant Respect Campaign, 2011. Photo: Camilo Godoy.
Tania Bruguera, Awareness Ribbon for Immigrant Respect Campaign, 2011. Photo: Camilo Godoy.

It might be worth recalling how in his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas described the art-contemplating middle-class as a representational economic class, which in the late 18th Century created a market for thought through the media and public institutions. I mention this because Institutet is aware of the economics surrounding art and the discourses it breeds. Anders Carlsson is the artistic director of the group and stated to Swedish Radio’s Studio Ett that it is perhaps true that the project’s participants have no choice, that for economic reasons they cannot reject an offer of paid humiliation. He was then asked if he is exploiting anyone:

«Who is not exploited? Our society is based on going out and exploiting each other, and now you sit here as a representative for the media and become interested in this thing, so there is exploitation on many levels and with many parameters, so to speak. Our society is a competitive, winner-takes-all society, which has led to the visible presence of grave poverty on our streets. The question is what are we going to do about it? Do we want things to be like this?»

Carlsson continues that «we» (who have been defined as the antithesis of those who beg) carry around our liberal, humanist ideals, and simultaneously must live with the proliferation of poverty and misery. The question then becomes: «What is it like to be such a person?» Note that this makes clear distinctions between different people and different lives, with a very dangerous, albeit classical, division: Zoe, the vegetative life, the biological life that exists only in that it is (Luca and Marcela’s quiet existence) is set against bios, the reflective life that is characterized by the ability to reflect on its existence (the contemplative viewer). Institutet’s performances stages a «we» that provides them the opportunity to reflect on their moral angst through the konsthall’s reflective surface, and a «them» tasked with redeeming these feelings.

One might object, as Institutet did vis-à-vis Studio Ett, that even this article is actually a sort of exploitation. Habermas would maybe agree with Carlsson on this point. The difference, however, is that my purpose is to critique Institutet and Malmö Konsthall because they actually sustain a fundamentally inhuman dichotomy, not to simply reiterate how unjust the world is. To abdicate responsibility for ones own actions by pointing out the reprehensible judgment of others is cynical. Of course we can reflect on our own position in a general hierarchy of power, but is that enough? What exactly is the purpose of Institutet’s lesson in ethics, where the logic seems to be that everyone just exploits each other, and where on the level of principal, there would be no difference between critical journalism and an artwork that dehumanizes bodies to point out that everything is totally unjust?

That said, I do think it is good that Institutet reflects over how their work is captured by the media buzz. They should also get credit for paying the actors well, and providing them with the necessary papers and relatively good employment conditions. It is just the cynicism that I cannot deal with, and which I want to stress is a choice of attitude – not a necessity. Malmö is, after all, crawling with political groups that set out every day to improve the situation of EU migrants, including through political pressure, and they have not been without success. It is possible, in other words, to act and bring about change – hierarchies are not fixed.

Institutet, Evil in Lümmelberga, 2014  Photo: Linnéa Carlsson.
Institutet, Evil in Lümmelberga, 2014
Photo: Linnéa Carlsson.

Cynicism is also present in the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s practice.  In November, she gave a lecture as part of the same series of performative works at Malmö Konsthall.  Bruguera has made herself known for a work involving Russian roulette with a live revolver, which she performed before an audience twice in 2009. The trick was accompanied by a lecture about art’s political role and the conditions of artists. Bruguera has also staged cocaine distribution at a performance in Colombia, and had conducted projects on migration and migrants’ rights. Her work functions best when it builds on long-term involvement, with ambitions to actually let marginalized groups themselves describe how they see political and social oppression. In other cases the participation can feel less thought out: to be forced to witness someone else’s suicide attempt goes beyond all limits as to how people should act towards each other, even in the art space. The questions that can be formulated in the aftermath of such a work are interesting in and of themselves: was it a real weapon, and to what extent was the threat a fiction? And, is the border between life and death the final territory for political art – the place where the logic of representation is forced to become tragic reality?  But it is worth considering how much value beyond the sensational such an explicit action actually possesses.

In his review of The Alien Within in Kunstkritikk, Fredrik Svensk called for more precision in the show, and in the questions that were glimpsed in the dominant installation Animatograph by Christoph Schlingensief. Svensk pinned his hopes precisely on the program of activities that would continue in the exhibition’s name.  The hope was that this would shed more light on the theme staked out by the show: how can art function today as a catalyst for analyzing a world that constantly demands confrontation with political propaganda, and politicized fear? I don’t know if I have any constructive answers to questions surrounding how I, let alone everyone else, should navigate our political anxiety, or the feeling that we stand before an auspicious future.  No, it has not been constructive, rather that which has been presented at the konsthall has suffered from a lack of basic analysis of what political art actually does.  No one wants artists to produce utopias, but it should be possible to create a multifaceted intellectual analysis of the situation, while avoiding a fundamentally unacceptable exploitation of people in the name of art.