Image by Alice Alexandrescu.
This year’s edition of Artivistic brings the fields of art, politics and academia together under the theme of TURN*ON.
Eventually, the investigation about systems of representation – be they semiotic, informational or political – might slip into the one psychoanalysis considers the most elementary and surreptitious of them all: sex. That’s precisely where the Artivistic gathering got into in its fourth edition, which happened in Montreal from 15th to 17th October. To be exact, the theme under which the event tied the fields of art, politics and academia together was TURN*ON – according to its curatorial statement, ‘a fragile bridge extending, over a valley of which the depth you cannot see, to a life centered on pleasure, consciousness, togetherness, understanding, and joy’.
Formulated this way, the concept seems to be a response to the well-worn verses by journalist Eduardo Galeano, in which he states that utopia ’causes us to advance’ only because it ‘lies in the horizon’. With turn on, Artivistic proposes that the forces that move people forward and bring worlds into existence are not far away: in a scenario emptied of grand narratives, the desire (of the self?) should gain preponderance over any masterplans (of the party?).
So, if libido is the why, could we say that art is the how? As crude as it can be, this comparison makes clear that aesthetics, just as politics, mainly operate in the level of methods. They are more concerned with the way desire is manipulated (often repressed or enhanced) than with its ontological truth. Language cannot explain affect, and it shouldn’t pretend to – the best it can do is create spaces for its continuous exercise.
In that sense, what really stood out during the event were the workshops. I wouldn’t go as far as to agree with the idea that such activities are a distinct genre within the contemporary art circuit. Workshops indeed revitalize the exhibition space – however, they do so not by occupying it with new forms, but by proposing new forms of occupying it. In Artivistic, these interfaces ranged from diy electronics and card game design to pornographic filmmaking and even a kind of un-workshop on workshops! Among those, there was a remarkable amount of projects concerning the performative of one’s own identity.
In fact, the workshops punctuated Artivistic in a not much different way than the everyday activities of cooking and eating in group (or translating things to French or English – it was a true bilingual event). One thing led to another, keeping the gathering together in spite of the healthy excess of participant autonomy allowed by the organization crew. Of course, the concentration of (almost) all activities in the same place helped building this integration. This was a strategic option, very coherent with the intimate theme of this edition; the former Artivistic, about un.occupied spaces, had been distributed in different venues throughout Montreal.
The integration of the participants was so successful it had the minor side effect of creating an almost self-centred environment. Even though some activities would have been very interesting for people outside regular art-audience, it was hard to see among the public someone besides those that were immersed 24/7 in the event. For instance, it was a pity that the orgasmic birth workshop, which introduced alternative ways of pregnancy and labour, had no pregnant women participating.
This paradoxical isolation was imploded in the last night of the event – most ironically, not by the long-waited closing performance Resist Me Release Me: Turn On Act On, which artist Shu Lea Cheang had been organising with the participants throughout the gathering, but because of its impending cancellation. It seems that the managers of the venue where Artivistic was happening had not understood that the event would contain nudity and explicit sexual acts, and took account of this just in time of the final soiree. Since they had no public license to host this kind of activity, they said it was impossible to have the performance there: either it had to be suspended or transferred elsewhere.
The organizers explained this incident to the participants and called for a collective decision. That immediately ignited a very intense discussion, where it became clear that what was at hand was not mere censorship, but a very subtle negotiation of the different spheres that Artivistic addressed. The autonomy people were requesting was not sexual, but artistic – ‘we do not intend to do an orgy, but performances’, as someone said. Hence, it was not a simple conflict between raw libidinal impulse and oppressive morality; it concerned more complex, structured systems – i.e. art and Montreal society, both already contradictory in themselves.
I dare say that some solutions proposed in this debate – for example, live-streaming the works from another place or ‘censoring’ performances in real-time – were way more interesting than any prescripted show might have been. These proposals were the sign of an art that was alive and kicking, ready to respond emergencies and fight back, instead of just claiming its secular, innocuous freedom (a freedom that critic Julian Stallabrass very cunningly regards as supplementary to that of the market).
The result was that in a couple hours the whole programme for the night was adapted and moved to a venue nearby, in a beautifully orchestrated, self-organized effort. Unfortunately, due to limitations of structure and space, not everything that had been planned before could be presented. Nevertheless, the accident had allowed the necessary hands-on without which a turn on just fades away, and something bigger was engendered in the process – I’d say revolutionary freedom, a kind of autonomy that, as the old leftist maxima states, must always be conquered.