Okwui Enwezor on Art's Ability to Prescribe Political Change

Okwui Enwezor on Art's Ability to Prescribe Political Change
Mona Hatoum, “The Negotiating Table,” Performance 1983
(© Mona Hatoum, Courtesy the Artist and Haus der Kulturen der Welt)

"Meeting Points 6," a series of talks, performances, and films by a range of international artists reflecting on civic antagonism in the Middle East and North Africa, stopped over in Berlin this weekend. The program, which previously traveled to Amman, Beiruit, and Brussels was curated by Haus der Kunst director and Documenta 11 artistic director Okwui Enwezor. ARTINFO Germany’s Alexander Forbes caught up with Enwezor the day after the opening to discuss diagnostic art, Jihad, and the permanence of struggle.

How did you get involved with “Meeting Points” and develop this concept of working with the Arab Spring?

I was invited nearly three years ago by an organization called the Young Arab Theater Fund to consider organizing Meeting Points 6. I considered that invitation very carefully, and the contexts in which the project would take place appealed to me a great deal in the sense that one doesn’t get the opportunity very frequently to work in such a complex and expansive geopolitical and cultural landscape. After due consideration I accepted on the condition that we give it a little bit more time. It was supposed to be opening in 2010, but we needed more time to consider what was possible and not to make it another biennial, and they accepted.

Last night you were talking about art being diagnostic rather than prognostic, which I found really interesting, but I was wondering to what extent a diagnostic art is prescriptive?

The point I was trying to make about a diagnostic position is that we’ve live in a truly euphoria of moments of transformation throughout the 20th Century. What has happened through that euphoria is that we’ve projected too much into the future, into the utopian component without due consideration of the consequences. If you remember, in the '50s Western artists and intellectuals who were strongly supportive of the Soviet Union had to come to terms with the actions of Stalin. And that meant that a properly diagnostic approach would have helped those artists and intellectuals to create a certain distance between the totalitarian instincts of the Soviet regime and their own intellectual commitment to Marxism as a scientific notion. But that is not to say that one cannot hope in art. That’s not to say that one wants to prescribe a way which art can act in the public domain but to say that events that the Arab Spring as new ways of thinking the present, might only be possible in art through the diagnostic process rather than through the euphoric prognosis.

So it’s more of a pointing towards something and opening up the possibility?

Precisely, than just simply leaping into the void, exactly.

It’s interesting how, lately especially, a lot of these international art exhibitions are becoming overtly political. You have the Berlin Biennale whose curator said the other day that he’s more interested in the political implications of art than the art itself, or something like that. But you’re asking art to remain autonomous, to not being activism in and of itself but maintain a more dialectical approach?

I’m not at all opposed to activism in the methodology of practice. But, activism in and of itself cannot be the only strategy that can make sense in every context. What I found persuasive and interesting in the context of the Middle East and North Africa was the subtle, nuanced shift from activist-based practices to what I consider civic-based practices. The artists never describe their work as civic-based, but they offered a new insight that for me was really revealing and something that I want to follow in my own curatorial research to advance forms of consideration without intermingling Occupy Wall Street with “art that can change the world,” in that sense. I make a distinction between the realm of politics, which is the realm of subjectivities of expression and actions, and the realm of the political, which is the realm of structures through which one can act. So, when I mentioned the political as an advance from [Alain] Badiou, which is the realm of what Badiou calls “politics as truth procedure.” Art obviously is, dialogically, dialectically, inside this process of politics as truth procedure, so I want a much more complicated view of politics and art in this way, simply the production of politics.

You also talked about Jihad as one of your major influences in developing the exhibition. From a Western perspective, the popular conception of Jihad is that of extremist Islam, but you’re working more from the side of moral antagonism?

What I began with was the construction of Jihad as a form of spiritual struggle. That does not evacuate the possibility of violence as part of that spiritual struggle. It depends on how that is deployed. But what I was more interested was the philosophical dimension of Jihad as struggle, the principle of struggle in this sense. Not the cartoon version of that, which has become commonplace: the ideological struggle between political Islam or fundamentalist, activist Islam. One of the things I wanted to talk about in terms of “Locus Agonistes,” the location of struggle, that this struggle is much more philosophical, the struggle for something meaningful from the construction of civitas, the construction of citizenship, and the construction of civility. Civitas you could say is the construction of an awareness of community, citizenship, the collective, civility, in terms of modes of exchange. These need patterns of negotiation that are intrinsically sites of struggle but this struggle in the context of Jihad is not about violence, or at least the apocalyptic, nihilistic violence that we currently associate with Jihad.

So it mirrors the move within the art from looking at a specific political contact to looking from a more metaphysical, ontological standpoint?

Yes, precisely.

How did you go about choosing the artists that would, as you suggested, minimize the space between spectacle and spectator? I know Mona Hatoum has a performance today, but that’s a piece from the '80s?

From the '80s, yes. The format of "Meeting Points" has been different in every location. In Amman it was really only a one-day performance that then was installed, it’s still ongoing. It’s a long sound installation that will last for one year. In Beirut it was an exhibition; it was a workshop, and there was a series of exhibitions and performances as well. In Brussels it was kind of split between the two. But here in Berlin, in many ways it’s responding to a sort of temporal thickness, a moment of convergence and a dissipation of that convergence. That’s why we set up the structure of three stages through which the public can move. These are metaphorical stages, not literal stages. But each stage still represents a core aspect of the project: a stage of performance where we will present solos and monologues, things that are absolutely not theatrical, so there’s no delimitation of the space of the spectator and the space of the performance. Second, is the stage of discussion, where we evaluate, think and reflect on the meaning of the Arab spring in relation to the production of the civic. Then there’s the stage of the visual, which is a retrospective of the great Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay. The spaces then create constellations that blur the boundary between each other. They touch in very specific ways but they also open up other apertures where you can see what’s going on in the project. 

It brings a kind of urgency to the exhibition as well. One of the interesting things with being that it’s a year after the start of the Arab spring and that, I think for a lot of people it’s left the front of their mind, so it brings a certain urgency back to that point.

We didn’t plan it in that way. It was in January and then we looked at the calendar and said “Whoa.” These coincidences speak to the timeliness of the project in relation to historical events that are still unfolding. So, we’ll see. The exhibition opened in the midst of really this huge sense of global unsettledness and we’ve seen so much happening and it’s going to Greece, to Athens. Who would have thought! Events have transpired to bring about that sense of urgency. In a paradoxical sense, we are the beneficiaries of this and, for whatever it’s worth, it positions the articulation of the project in the incredible analytical proximity to what is going on currently.