RESPONSE–ABILITY

A CONVERSATION BY ETCETERA (LORETO GARIN GUZMAN & FEDERICO ZUKERFELD) WITH GALIT EILAT.

ETCETERA: Two years ago we have participated in the October Salon in Belgrade that you have curated (together with Alenka Gregoric). Then, the curatorial statement was focused on the sense of responsibility and the ways, or the ability to response towards different world-views, and especially about the roles of producers and/or consumers of culture. -Today looking to the multiplicity of the events that are happening around the world (which also affect the global cultural structures and the art system itself) such as massive claims for the preservation (and/or recovery) of the public space, the use of public resources and against the authoritarianism or the corruption. Do you see an increase in the sense of collective responsibility toward the state of the world?

GALIT EILAT: Yes, I see fundamental changes in the way that people from different nations and different geographic regions respond. In general terms, the different responses are directed to the various governing
systems, yet the reactions have a similarity, in the sense that they all demand a radical change in the governing system.

ETCETERA: Could be interpreted as a “response” based on a resurgence of the sense of common ethics, a collective responsibility?

GALIT EILAT: The significant turning point that I see now is the power of solidarity that enables the people to respond. This can be translated to response – ability / to be able to respond. And to respond in a way that is
different from what we know in the past. This time the responses do not negotiate with the governing system, the response to power is NO. Saying no to negotiation maintains the force of the response without the need to
compromise.

ETCETERA: How is possible to generate or stimulate a sense of responsibility or more commitment inside the professional field of contemporary art world for what is happening outside the contemporary art sphere?

GALIT EILAT: This is somehow a funny question. Underlying it there is an assumption that there are two worlds or that the world even has an inside and an outside. The contemporary art world is not a nature preservation site. It is not a separate unit. It is already inseparably engaged and it takes an active part in the world. This can be seen through its role in economy, ideology, nationality, etc. Nevertheless, I chose to work in the Israeli Center for Digital Art, with all its specificities, in order to transmit universal values to Israeli society. That decision must be construed as an attempt—as with the early twentieth-century avant garde—to use the artistic act to express the hope for a rectified, liberated society, and to outline an ethical horizon that enables criticism of the existing situation, highlights its contingency as the outcome of social and political decisions, and sets out to introduce alternative models to the dominant ideology or political thought. The rejection and fear of “recruited”, “engaged,” or “political” art in Israel is no different from anywhere else, which does not change the fact that the objection to politically committed art or politically committed artists is, in itself, a political act, because it tries to subordinate and discipline art in a consensual manner that reaffirms the status quo. One can regard the social sphere in relation to the institutional demand for obedience, and then object to it—for instance, engage in resistance, protest, art, and the introduction of freedom in a sadly oppressive reality where freedoms are negated.

ETCETERA: Based on the same curatorial text you wrote: “simulation, experiment and re-enactment of events – in that particular order – may be understood as methods of shaping contemporary reality, reviewing it and understanding it better.” Looking to the enormous sense of performativity which some of the current protest and demonstrations are taking today: how do you understand that those representational methods (simulation, experiment and re-enactment) apply to the current social scenario?

GALIT EILAT: When I wrote “simulation, experiment and re-enactment of events – in that particular order– may be understood as methods of shaping contemporary reality, reviewing it and understanding it better”, I meant that simulation, experiment and re-enactment in this order are tools that are used to create indoctrination. Looking today at the different demonstrations around the globe it is true that there is a visual similarity but it is more on the level of mimicry, I am not sure I would call it a re-enactment of events or a simulation because it often seems to lack of review or analysis.

ETCETERA: How do you understand the conflict as a phenomenon which stimulates contemporary artistic practices and a new production of meaning?

GALIT EILAT: What is a conflict zone, and how does it affect artistic praxis? It is a territory with conflict between different states, between citizens of the same state, or between the state and its citizens. A conflict is not always announced or perceived as a war, and working as an artist or curator in a conflict zone is not a matter of choice. The choice is whether or not to address the conflict as the focal point of one’s practice.

According to Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903–1994), one of the most outspoken twentieth century Jewish thinkers and Israeli public intellectuals, a person is doomed—and accepts his fate—to live under the apparatus of the state. The state, however, is a mere framework because there cannot be a democratic state with a consensus over shared content. Over the years, in his appearances in various TV shows and films, Leibowitz maintained that the governmental apparatus called “state” has no added value, implying that the state is an instrumental apparatus. Unless one adheres to anarchism, one must sustain this governmental apparatus. A citizen of a state is not free, but this is an inevitable necessity because living together requires a uniform set of rules. This gives rise to a conflict between a person’s value as an individual who in principle objects to any domination over himself/herself and any form of governing, even that which enables life together as a community.

According to Leibowitz, this is the very core of the political conflict. All the different political systems, programs and constitutions, are attempts to confront this problem. Democracy, as opposed to other forms of governing, strives to reduce governmental authority to the necessary minimum, even though it is, Leibowitz argued, still excessive. Yet there can never be agreement over values, since values cannot be reasoned, hence one may only fight over values. With this he posited the value of human life and human freedom as supreme values. It follows from Leibowitz’s words that a democratic state is not based on values or established due to values.

Rather, a democratic state is supposed to cater to the citizen’s basic necessities (to serve the citizen), whereas a totalitarian state is one exactly based on values that prevail over the citizen. The model proposed by Leibowitz for a democratic regime founded on conflict— that is, a constant tension between the citizen and the state, between civil freedom and citizens’ rights on the one hand, and legal obligations on the other—is not new. It recurs in different forms in Marx and his discussion of the class struggle, later in writings by Chantal Mouffe, who argues in favour of political agonism, as well as thinkers such as Howard Zinn and others from the Marxist left.

Galit Eilat is curator, writer and founding director of The Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon. She is a research curator at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, The Netherlands as well as the President of the Akademie der Künste der Welt in Cologne, Germany. She is part of the curatorial team of the 31st Bienal de São Paulo (2014).

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