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Intimate Politics: An Interview with Andreas Broeckmann

10/08/2012
Lawrence Bird

Andreas Broeckmann writes on art, machine aesthetics, and digital culture. He is director of Leuphana Arts Program at the university in Lüneburg, and has played key roles at transmediale – festival for art and digital culture, ISEA2010 RUHR, TESLA-Laboratory for Arts and Media, Berlin, and V2_Organisation Rotterdam, Institute for the Unstable Media. Lawrence Bird interviewed him on our current experience of media and civil society. Image: A. Broeckmann, transmediale 2007 (© Jonathan Gröger)

Lawrence Bird: It’s often said that we inhabit the city differently today because of our engagement with media and media technologies. This has been one of your main concerns, and it makes for a very interesting intersection of media theory and public realm theory. Where does this preoccupation come from on your part?

Andreas Broeckmann: I have arrived at these questions not so much from a theoretical or academic perspective, but in response to specific artistic practices that I was interested in. For my own thinking about this area, the works that the artist group Knowbotic Research were working on in the 1990s were seminal. The participative public installation “Anonymous Muttering” (1996), for instance, initiated a radical clash of the physical urban space with the virtual ‘space’ of the internet, interlacing the activities of the participants in a way that created a strange intermediate zone – maybe we could say that it allowed people to place themselves _in_ the medium. In the series of projects that followed under the title “IO-dencies” (1997-99), Knowbotic Research further explored the possibilities of becoming active, of acting in a virtual environment in a manner that was connected to activities and events in the physical space.

Anonymous Muttering, Knowbotic Research (1996).
Anonymous Muttering, Knowbotic Research (1996).

I was working quite closely with the group at the time, presenting some of the projects in Rotterdam where I was a curator at the V2_Organisation, co-authoring texts, organising workshops, etc.. This was a great opportunity to think through the issues of the new, hybrid public sphere that was opening up because of the Internet. In order to understand the works, it was necessary to develop a differentiated conception of what it meant to “be public” or to “become public”. The topic returned, for instance in projects I was involved in by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer in Rotterdam, or a publication on Polish video art by the WRO agency, or a major curatorial on a media facade in Berlin, or, for that matter, more recent projects by Knowbotic Research, like “Be Prepared Tiger”, or “MacGhillie”. Personally, I believe that privacy in all its guises – from camouflage and the absence of surveillance to “a room of one’s own” – is one of the great privileges of a modern individual. Contemporary media and communication technologies have transformed the possibilities of being private dramatically, just as the notion of what it means to be public is subject to drastic changes. And artists are articulating these changes which we are all part of, giving us opportunities to reflect on what is going on, and to imagine how things might also develop otherwise. I think that my interest in the relationship between publicness and intimacy is fed both by a personal sense of urgency and and concern, and by the inspiration I get from artists, not to fall into despair.

Lawrence Bird: Fascinating. So would you say that in the direction media are now evolving, there’s actually an increased scope for private “being” — not just in terms of a potential for increased anonymity and independence, but in terms of a richer and more developed individuality? To a greater degree — or perhaps qualitatively different — than was possible in earlier stages of modernity?

Andreas Broeckmann: Unfortunately not… I say that privacy is a privilege exactly because it is becoming such a rare condition these days. The developments that we speak about are, of course, not unidirectional and homogeneous, but very diffused and heterogeneous, and open to quite different interpretations. For many people, a platform like Facebook or Google-Plus is a way of discovering a new form of sociality in which they try out different ways of being public and being private.As for myself, having been brought up with the Critical Theory analyses of the Frankfurt School, I find it difficult not to see these optimistic readings as dangerously naive – it would be a bit like exploring your inner self in the highly regulated and commercial spaces of a shopping mall… I would not go so far as to say that privacy has completely disappered — as though we were now living in a global village of Big Brother containers, or in a vastly extensive version of the Truman Show. But I do think that today we lack a more widespread critical sense of resistance to the regimes of commodification that have taken the place of what were once “privacy” and “social relations”.

screen shot, Google Plus product tour (captured 2012).
screen shot, Google Plus product tour (captured 2012).

Lawrence Bird: You spoke about the concern of “falling into despair”. How general would you say that motivation is? I don’t know if you’ve thought about it this way, but I’m thinking in terms of Occupy, and the other social movements, many of them enabled by media and engaged by artists, which seem to generate new, and some evidence suggests quite lasting, relationships of trust and hope. Many of these seem to come in response to a recent loss of faith in corporations, governments, financial institutions — older social groups that had an important role in old definitions of “public”. I wonder if your comment connects with a widespread yearning for hope, in response to conditions that might well produce despair?

Andreas Broeckmann: I dare not speculate about the longevity of the relationships that have been built by the different branches of the Occupy movement, but I am skeptical about the longevity of anything that is built on specific internet-based media platforms. Facebook, for instance, was launched in 2004, that’s eight years ago, and the German and many other non-English Facebook services are no older than four years. That’s a very short time, and we might want to remember that platforms like Google (*1998), Facebook, Flickr (*2004) or Twitter (*2006) are not part of the natural environment, but recent services offered by profit-oriented companies which, just as well as they may rule the internet world throughout the 21st century, might also get drowned in the swamps of global capitalism (whose regime includes “customer confidence”).

I would refute the assumption, implicit in your question, that many of the people who protested on the squares in Madrid, Cairo, Washington or Athens last year were people who previously had faith in their governments, or the institutions of capitalism. Of course they didn’t, and quite rightly so. What was special about last year was that there is a new, articulate generation of people who would not put up with the situation of stasis, hopelessness and frustration that has paralysed major parts of global societies since 2003 when, in February of that year, millions who took to the streets around the world in protest, were not able to stop the US government and their allies from starting the war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The inflection of this event is different in different parts of the world, but I believe that we share that moment. And this is where the protests in the Arab countries, and those in Spain and Greece, hit the squares on a parallel trajectory: In the same year of 2003, the German government started the implementation of what was called the “Agenda 2010”, a project based on the EU’s 2000 Lisbon agreement of economic restructuring, with the aim of making Europe more competitive on the global market. Since then, in Germany we have seen an erosion of the welfare state, drops in income for lower and middle classes and a huge increase in precarious jobs. But some economists also say that the reason for Germany’s relatively healthy economic situation today, compared with, for instance, Greece or Spain, is that these countries failed to reform their debt-pampered economies. Which is why there is a certain reluctance today in Germany to protect privileges for the Greek middle class, privileges which German citizens already had to give up years ago.

Tahrir Square on February 11, by Jonathan Rashad (CC-BY-2.0, 2011).
Tahrir Square on February 11, by Jonathan Rashad (CC-BY-2.0, 2011).

above: Tahrir Square on February 11, by Jonathan Rashad (CC-BY-2.0, 2011).

My point is that if we take things into a more extended historical perspective, and if we count our lives not in short Twitter months, we can see how the struggles, the hopes and the despairs of today are part of a broader set of transformations. And we can see that in these transformations there are forces at work which have a huge inertia and which need to be worked on and battled with both patience and long-term strategies. Like any other revolution, and like in the theatres of the Occupy movement, the one in Egypt may have started on Tahrir Square and the mobilisation of people through media-based social networks, but to complete that revolution, a difficult and drawn-out political struggle needs to be fought. Maybe that is the necessary realisation that hit “the movement” this past winter.

Lawrence Bird: And what form might those long-term strategies take? It’s a huge question perhaps, but do you have any ideas about the shape this restructured public sphere might have to take, what forms of governance and participatory democracy for example, to sustain a more permanent change?

Andreas Broeckmann: Personally, I believe that for the foreseeable future many political struggles will continue to happen in the ‘arenas’ of political institutions like governments, parliaments and other election-based structures, in political parties, public administrations, in transnational and inter-governmental decision-making bodies, in trade unions and NGOs. It is a realm that will only partly be affected or influenced by the online world, and even if the emerging public sphere of the Internet and its social media forums implies a huge expansion and diversification of the mass media dominated public sphere of the 20th century, this expanded public sphere will not necessarily have a bigger impact on political processes than the ‘old’ public sphere did. The experience of the ‘movement’ in Egypt today might be analoguous to that of the APO (the extra-parliamentarian opposition of the students movement) in 1960s and 70s West Germany, i.e. realising the necessity of getting involved in existing state institutions (“the long march through the institutions”), which brought members of that generation to power some 25 years later in universities, in parliaments, in national governments. The relevance and standing of the new Egyptian parties is not proven or disproven in the first elections; it is decided when in ten or twenty years from now they may or may not have been able to change the social consensus about democracy, rights, and freedom.

Reichstag Berlin, Norman Foster architect, image by Malte Ruhnke (GNU 1.2, 2006).
Reichstag Berlin, Norman Foster architect, image by Malte Ruhnke (GNU 1.2, 2006).

Lawrence Bird: A confession here: I’m an architect, so I always assume, perhaps naively, that a built infrasructure can play a role in these kinds of transformations. In your opinion, might a material intervention be a necessary part of those changes — distinct from, though perhaps in dialogue with, the mediated public realm? What kind of physical (urban) spaces might serve as a counterpoint or moderator to the transience of the Twitter world — and are those spaces any different from the urban spaces we have now?

Andreas Broeckmann: I doubt whether architecture in the narrower understanding of the term will play much more than a symbolical role in these struggles and transformations. Of course, the built environment, especially the way in which public space is configured, plays a significant role in how public life can unfold in cities. And there are political issues to be fought over: for instance, I find it curious how in many of the European cities the authorities allow the construction of one shopping mall after the other, pushing the social and commercial activity of shopping into privatised and highly regulated control spaces, and then those same authorities are surprised when the neighbourhoods in the vicinity of these malls deteriorate because the normal shops are abandoned or have to be closed, making room for trash and money laundering businesses. The resistance against such developments can at times most effectively be fought in local parliaments that, at least in Germany, have to give their consent to such major construction projects. This makes it necessary to join a political party, get elected into the local parliament, sit around in meetings, deal with all sorts of issues of public interest, etc., and be there when the application for the next shopping mall is up for decision…

Neukölln Arkaden, Berlin, image by Clandestino1975 (CC-BY-SA-3.0, 2010).
Neukölln Arkaden, Berlin, image by Clandestino1975 (CC-BY-SA-3.0, 2010).

Of similar relevance is the designing of the digital sphere through software ‘architectures’ – both in terms of individual applications and services, and in terms of the overall technical infrastructure, both hard- and software, and its governance. The critical discussions around the status of ICANN and, more recently, the public protests against law-making initiatives like SOPA and ACTA, have shown that protests can in fact have an impact on such structures. Yet, that impact will remain cosmetic if the public outcry is not followed up by sustained political work through which the drafting of and the decision-making on such laws is factually influenced. This is what lobby groups do, and this is what social movements also have to do, finding whatever possible and suitable political instrument or institution through which to act.

The major arena of constructing and designing the new political sphere will be in law-making, and I believe that the movement needs critical lawyers, historians of economy and charismatic intellectuals more urgently than architects – although, of course, everybody has an important role to play and no-one who wants to contribute should be sent away.

Lawrence Bird: And how about artists — do they have a role in this? To provoke, perhaps? To articulate social and political conditions? Would you say that whatever that role is, it can be part of the sustained transformation you’re talking about — or do they need to step down into a governance role to take part in that (Vaclav Havel being one example).

Andreas Broeckmann: In my understanding of art, there is no particular role that it can, or even “should” play. I would argue that the most important aspect of art for society is its autonomy and the fact that it has no particular responsibility. Art can beautify, it can decorate, it can irritate, it can disturb, it can question, it can affirm, it can simplify or complicate. Such an “open program” of course implies that individual artists or groups, or specific projects, will take a particular political stand, will try to influence a social or political situation — will seek real impact. This is a form of activism that art can borrow from political groups and movements, but it is not the activism that is crucial for the artistic practice, it is the transgressive articulation that artists may achieve in their own dealing with social realities. I want to emphasize that this is my understanding of art, and I fully respect people who think that art can and must be more engaged in social processes in order to be relevant. But again, I think that what art can give us most importantly is what happens in a zone of freedom that is morally, aesthetically and sometimes also politically more risky than anybody who acts in the political arena — save for the mavericks — would want to be.

So the question, “what should artists do,” can in my understanding only ever be answered: “they should do whatever they do.” It must be the best thing that they can do, they have to be precise in their formulations and realisations, they have to be committed, diligent, and daring. It is wonderful if they can, in that way, help proliferate good ideas and push the political situation in a good direction. But by the same token I believe that it is equally wonderful if artists ask questions that are impossible to answer, or pointing out unsolvable ethical dilemmas, or remove the mask of an opponent only to don it themselves.

There is, in my eyes, certainly no obligation to go into politics like Havel did. Artists are not always people with a high moral reputation, and stepping into the political arena like Havel did requires stamina and a certain habitus. And there are many ways in which people can intervene in social and political processes. Take the example of Aliaa Magda Elmahdy who posted a photograph of herself naked on her website and sparked a huge debate about the situation of women in the Islamic world. This was not an art project, but it shows what work in the realm of symbols can achieve.

Women in the Revolution, image by Gigi Ibrahim (CC-BY-2.0 2011).
Women in the Revolution, image by Gigi Ibrahim (CC-BY-2.0 2011).

Lawrence Bird: If I could I’d like to steer the conversation in the direction of your thinking on “the wild” — perhaps it relates through the transgressive nature of art you’ve just been discussing, and the tricky relationship of that to civic functions, governance, and related realms of responsibility. Cities have been conceived as set apart from the wilderness — within the city lay the realm of humanity, civility, politics; outside its walls, the wild, monsters, raw life. Girorgio Agamben makes the case that the violence of  our times equates to the obliteration of that line: between political life (zoe) and bare life (bios).

In light of what you’ve already said about art and transgression, and the value of that; and the precarious status of privacy today, and the danger of that; your understanding of media and the political movements underway today which involve some significant transgression of the boundaries of authority, I’m willing to bet you have a more nuanced take on this issue. What’s our condition now with regards to the edge of the wild? Is it a constantly shifting boundary, what Agamben refers to as the caesura? Does it imply a human condition interdigitated with an inhuman condition, like a werewolf, or cyborg? Does our humanity in fact find its source in the wild?

Andreas Broeckmann: The questions that you raise are of course extremely complex and very difficult to do justice in the current context. So allow me to shirk the anthropological discussion, which I guess I don’t have a particularly original opinion on anyway. When I spoke about the “wild” as an aspect of digital art a few years ago, it was in a half ironic, and half romantic way: ironic in the sense that art that makes use of digital media is technically conditioned and requires a “tamed” environment to function at all; even what is referred to as ‘glitch aesthetics’ is predicated on general functionality, the glitch being only a minor aberration, not a substantial fault. Yet, as you would gather from what I said before, I am also ‘romantically’ attached to the idea of an artistic practice that transgresses these technical functionalities and explores failure, dysfunctionality, misuse, or uncontrollability as categories of aesthetic experience. I’m thinking of artists like Gustav Metzger, Jean Tinguely, Herwig Weiser, or JODI, who in their works perform, we might claim, the potential wildness of technology. This is mostly a controlled, at times even metaphorical wildness, whereas the true wilderness of technology, if we want to go there, is probably the realm of the accident that Paul Virilio has so poignantly written about. An “art of the accident”, as we entitled a festival in Rotterdam in the late 1990s, is, I believe, only possible in the realm of metaphors.

What I’m currently wondering about is whether in our 21st-century cybernated world a notion of “nature” as something different from culture maybe disappears completely, as we have full Google-ised view and total measurability of what happens on Earth, from millimetre shifts of tectonic plates to carbon dioxide output of cattle. In such a world, there would be no room any more for the “wild”, only for different degrees of pollution on the one hand, and endangerment of species on the other…

In the long run I have trust in the finality of all existence, and the futility of all human efforts. But in the short term, that is, in our lives, I believe that we have to work to make the world a little better, or at least do our best to not make things worse than they are.

Monkeymania, by JODI (screenshot from:  http://compositeclub.cc/monkeymania/index.html)
Monkeymania, by JODI (screenshot from: http://compositeclub.cc/monkeymania/index.html)