« We cannot create if we cannot destroy that which already exists »
Tristan Zara interview 1963, ORTF. Paris.
“We are already dead, therefore you cannot kill us.”
EZLN – Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
(This is the english version of an Article published in the TAZ – german newspaper – the original version in German is in a special BerlinerFestspiele supplement including articles by Tim Etchells and Jan Fabre)
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 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, 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, 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 expressionist 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, 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 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-optation 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 global 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 humanities 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 humanity) 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 of 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 fall out of the war of the economy on ecology, is itself a war on the poor, a war where those responsible for the problem are the least affected at first.
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 nature collapse. Faced with this reality, what do the 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 critique 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 artist 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, the CO2 has risen 63%.
The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, the collective that Isa Fremeaux and I have facilitated for the last decade, 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 » and we were working with the Climate Camp movement, an activist direct action movement which we were part of.
With 8 weeks to go till 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.
“They say that there are laws about what constitutes a ‘bicycle’ in Denmark.”
“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 metre… There are lots of details… We need to send applications of designs to the police, 2 to 3 weeks before hand.”
“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 the day of non violent direct actions 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 museums 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 liberating 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 free lance 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 the CIA funds anymore, the artists bending over themselves 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 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 anaesthesia, 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 aesthetic 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 ones 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 by this spirit of compromise. As a matter of fact, in the draft UN 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 over industrialised nations historical emissions, and stops the climate tipping into a terrifying feed back spiral. That work will be done by the rising grass roots 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. 100 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 the 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 gone worse than any of the Dadaists or Surrealists could ever have imagined.
If he was 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.”
“… ice sheets are melting faster than the models projected, but resistance is beginning to boil. In these existing and nascent movements we now have a clear glimpses of the kind of dedication and imagination demanded of everyone who is alive and breathing during climate change’s ‘decade zero.’ ”
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything , 2014.
“To hack is to differ”
Mackenzie Wark, Hacker Manifesto, 2004.
Do you want to take part in co-creating what could be the most innovative mass disobedience action against climate chaos? Does the border between street action and cyberspace excites you? Do you want to plot the worlds first Non-violent Civil Disobedience Direct Action Adventure Game ?Are you an artist, activist, hacker, gamer, graphic or web designer, who loves collaborative projects?
In the lead up to the protests at the Paris COP21 Climate Summit in December 2015, The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination is joining forces with the climate justice movements to co-create a new form of disobedient action: Climate Games.
This mass participation transmedia action framework merges the street, bodies and cyberspace, and will turn the city into a total creative resistance event open to all. During Climate Games, teams aim to achieve missions, which allow them to score points by taking action against the root causes of climate change, in one city or beyond. These will be non-violent forms of creative action, from blocking lobbyists from influencing the United Nations to performative interventions, political street art to shutting down an open cast coal mine, These actions take place without central coordination but teams can use an open-source smart phone application to report in real time on their achievements.
Throughout 2015, Climate Games will be developed via a series of hackathons, spaces of intense cooperation and self-management, using popular educational tools, games and horizontal forms of decision making that will bring artists, activists, designers, scientists, hackers, architects, gamers, performers and other citizens together to conceptualise, and build the Climate Games together. Thus, we will explore the edge between public space and cyberspace, the virtual and the real, the world of gaming and the world of activism.
From the 2nd to the 7th of June, the second hackathon will take place during the 2 Degrees festival at Arts Admin, London. On the 7th of June we will test certain elements of the Game in a warm up round in the city of London.
During this Hackathon, we will carry on with the work that started in Ghent, developing further the game play, rules, overall narrative and aesthetics of the Climate Games as well as the development of the website. It will not be a space filled with geeks on computers, far from it ! Ours will be a lively workshop that shares knowledge and introduce newcomers to forms of creative resistance. We are calling on anyone who wants to defeat those who play deadly games with our climate to join for a week of collaboration and creativity.
The hackathon is free but places are limited. If you would like to apply please fill in the form here. The deadline for applications is Tuesday 5 May. We will let you know if you have a place by Monday 11 May. Please note that food will be provided during the Hackathon for participants and that there will be a small fund for travel bursaries. However participants will need to organise their own accommodation.
To ‘hack’ is to redesign the use of something, to make something do something it’s never done before, #hackcop aims to transform the way we plan and carry out creative resistance in the name of climate justice, using the combined knowledge of citizens and experts working together.
For more info contact:
Tu as envie de participer à ce qui pourrait être l’action de désobéissance de masse la plus innovante qui soit contre le chaos climatique? La frontière entre le réel et le virtuel te fascine? Tu es artiste, activiste, designer, joueur, hacker, et tu adores les projets collaboratifs? Rejoins nous au Lieu Unique les 18 et 19 avril!
Pendant les mois menant aux mobilisations lors du Sommet COP21 de l’ONU sur le changement climatique à Paris en décembre 2015, le Laboratoire d’Imagination Insurrectionnelle (labofii) organise une série d’événements pour créer une nouvelle forme d’action de désobéissance: les Climate Games.
Ce cadre d’actions de masse transmedia vise à fusionner la rue, les corps et le cyberspace, et va transformer la ville en un champ de résistance totale, ouvert à tou-te-s. Pendant les Climates Games, des équipes vont tenter de réussir des missions qui leur permettront de marquer des points en agissant aux racines du changement climatique, à Paris ou au delà. Ces actions non vionlentes et créatives, qui pourront aller du blocage des lobbyistes qui sabotent les négociations à l’ONU jusqu’à des interventions théâtrales, la fermeture de mine de charbon ou des actions en ligne, prendront place sans coordination centralisée, mais les équipes pourront utiliser une application de smart phone pour reporter leurs succès en temps réel.
Pendant toute l’année 2015, les Climate Games seront développés grâce à une série de hackathons et d’ateliers pendant lesquels les participants travaillleront collectivement à l’élaboration de tous les aspects des Climate Games: développement de la platforme interne-smart phone app, règles du jeu, récit, création des missions, etc. Ainsi nous explorerons ensemble la frontière entre l’espace public et le cyberspace, le réel et le virtuel, le monde du jeu et celui de l’activisme.
Nous vous invitons à nous rejoindre de samedi 18 avril à 10h jusqu’à dimanche 19 avril 18h, pour un week end d’intense collaboration ludique et créative afin de poursuivre l’élaboration des Climate Games. Ce week end sera en effet la suite d’un hackathon d’une semaine en Belgique en mars, ainsi que d’une résidence du Labofii au LU dans le cadre du projet 0.CAMP organisé par PiNG. Il incluera également des présentations d’autres artistes participant à 0.CAMP.
La participation à ce week end est gratuite, mais les places sont limitées. Merci de vous inscrire en remplissant ce formulaire avec le 1er avril (réponses envoyées le 5 avril). Il est important de pouvoir participer à la totalité du week end.
Pour plus d’info, n’hésite pas à contacter info (at) labofii.net
Last chance to see : “We Have Never Been Here Before” (watch an extract of the show here from centrale fies, Italy) At the fabulous Im-possible futures festival, Vooruit, Ghent.. Before the London gig on 1st June at the 2 Degrees Festival, Arts Admin (where we will also be running a hackathon for performers, activists and artists info coming soon …
Dans le cadre de la campagne Requins 2015 et à l’occasion de la sortie du livre Joyeux bordel, Attac organise un week-end de formation : « Joyeux Bordel – Art, activisme et chaos climatique. Une introduction aux stratégies et tactiques de résistance créative ».
Vous avez envie de (vous) mobiliser pour lutter contre les causes du chaos climatique ?
Organisé à l’occasion de la sortie du livre Joyeux Bordel – Tactiques, principes et théories pour faire la révolution, cette formation examinera un éventail d’approches, du canular au démantèlement stratégique, du théâtre invisible au travail médiatique, pour aboutir à un design collectif d’une action pour la justice climatique.
Organisé conjointement par 350.org, les Jeunes Amis de la Terre, Attac, Les Liens qui Libèrent et le Laboratoire d’Imagination Insurrectionnelle (Labofii) , le week-end sera animé par John Jordan et Isabelle Fremeaux du Labofii, avec la participation d’Andrew Boyd, co-auteur de Beautiful Trouble , la version originale du livre.
La participation est gratuite mais les places sont limitées, merci de vous inscrire en remplissant ce formulaire (cliquez ici) avant le 22 février.
Are you an artist, designer, hacker, gamer, activist, … ?
Do you want to take part in actions balanced between physical and virtual reality?
Join in on the Climate Games during the Hackathon #hackcop Ghent
In the lead up to the protests at the Paris COP21 Climate Summit (Dec 2015), The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, GroenFront!, Climate Express and Multimedia Design KASK Ghent join forces in the creation of a new form of disobedient action: the Climate Games. The goal: transforming the city into the playing field of a mass disobedience action.
During the Climate Games teams score points by completing peaceful, creative missions that target the root causes of climate change. Taking place in the city, all participants coordinate their actions by means of an open source smartphone app.
Throughout 2015 these Climate Games will be developed during a series of Hackathons involving activists, artists, designers, hackers, gamers, scientists, architects … We are calling on anyone who wants to defeat those who play deadly games with the climate to join for a week of collaboration and creativity.
The first Hackathon takes place between the 16th and 21st of March in Vooruit, Ghent
This Hackathon plans to work primarily on the game play, rules, overall narrative and aesthetics of the Climate Games as well as the development of the smart phone app. It will be a lively workshop that shares knowledge and introduce newcomers to forms of creative resistance
Participation is free of charge, but places are limited
Transport, accommodation and meals are at participants’ expenses
Interested? Then fill in this application form before March 1st.
In collaboration with Multimedia Design KASK Ghent, Kunstencentrum Vooruit, GroenFront!, Climate Express & The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination.