Marc Garrett interviews John Jordan and Gavin Grindon about their collaborative publication, A Users Guide to (Demanding) the Impossible.
Published by Minor Compositions
“This guide is not a road map or instruction manual. It’s a match struck in the dark, a homemade multi-tool to help you carve out your own path through the ruins of the present, warmed by the stories and strategies of those who took Bertolt Brecht’s words to heart: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
Marc Garrett: In the introduction of your publication it says that it, “was written in a whirlwind of three days in December 2010, between the first and second days of action by UK students against the government cuts, and intended to reflect on the possibility of new creative forms of action in the current movements. It was distributed initially at the Long Weekend, an event in London to bring artists and activists together to plan and plot actions for the following days, including the teach-in disruption of the Turner Prize at Tate Britain, the collective manifesto write-in at the National Gallery and the UK’s version of the book bloc.”
I think readers would be interested to know how the ‘teach-in disruption’ and the ‘collective manifesto write-ins’ went?
John Jordan: I was not at the first Turner teach-in so can’t give first hand account. From what I’ve heard it was a wonderful moment where the sound of the action penetrated into the room where the Turner Prize were being held, as the back drop of the channel 4 live link up. Kind of perfect, because it was a sound artist who got the award.
As for the National Gallery event – this was held during the evening after one of the big days of student action. Having spent the day being trampled on by her majesties police horses, a load of us went up to the National Gallery and mingled in front of Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximillian, opposite a corridor that held a Courbet painting. It was a perfect placement as Courbet of all the 19th artists was really the one who understood the role of art within an insurrection, putting down his paintbrushes to apply his creativity directly to the organising of the Paris Commune of 1871 just as the impressionists fled the city to the quiet of the countryside. Only to return a few years later when Impressionism was launched, as a kind or artistic white wash over the massacres of the Commune, a return to normal bourgeois representation. Courbet had used the rebel city, a “paradise without police” as he put it, as a canvas to create new forms of social relationships and new ways of public celebration, including the destruction of the monument to Empire and Hierarchy, the Vendome column.
Several hundred artists and art students at a given moment sat down and occupied room 43, telling the staff that we would leave once a collective manifesto had been written. Which is what happened. Small groups of 10 or so were formed as the guards and director of the gallery paced up and down unsure of how to react, each group worked on points for the manifesto which were then read out and merged in ‘The Nomadic Hive Manifesto’ – http://www.criticallegalthinking.com/?p=998 – it was an extraordinary moment of collective, emergent intelligence, a reclaiming of a public cultural space from the realm of musefication and representation.
MG: ‘A Users Guide to (Demanding) the Impossible’ features quotes by individuals and groups, who have inspired many of us in the networked, Furtherfield community. But, I am also aware that you may be part of a younger generation, presently experiencing the brunt of education cuts imposed by the current government coalition. Could you explain how these cuts are effecting you and your peers?
JJ: Well I wish I was a younger generation !!! I’m 46 years old, it was written for the youth !! You should talk to some arts against cuts folk, I can put you in touch if you need to?
Gavin Grindon: I’m not exactly ‘the younger generation’ either, but I guess I’m in a strange position between. I recently finished my PhD, so a lot of my friends are either students or just becoming teachers. There aren’t many jobs about, academic or otherwise, and most of them are doing multiple part-time, short-term jobs to make ends meet, without the assumed security or career progression of a generation before, and the cuts are only going to exacerbate that situation. I guess what’s new is a recession on top of these kind of precarious work conditions, which extend far beyond the University. With part-time, hourly-paid and non fixed positions, replacing real jobs.
Of course it’s damaging, but it’s also been inspiring to see students responding to turning over lessons to discuss the cuts and seeing them on the streets. It’s politicised a lot of young people, and there’s an opportunity there. At one of the University’s I work at, it was great to see the art students working together to make protest banners, not in their studios but in the foyer, where other people could see and join in. And when I started talking with them, we began to realise that with all the technical resources of an art school at their disposal, it was possible to be much more ambitious and imaginative than just making banners or placards, the standard objects of protest. But the history of a lot of art-activist groups who had these kind of ambitions isn’t taught, never mind the more popular history of the arts of social movements itself. And it’s not just about knowing and being inspired by some great utopian tales of adventure, or understanding yourself as part of a historical legacy – it leaves you strategically disadvantaged about what can be done. So starting a conversation with these students, was, as JJ says, kind of the idea behind the guide.
MG: There are various other creative protest groups such as UK Uncut (http://www.ukuncut.org.uk/) and the University for Strategic Optimism (http://universityforstrategicoptimism.wordpress.com/), whom I interviewed live on Resonance FM, December last year (http://www.furtherfield.org/radio/8122010-university-strategic-optimism-and-genetic-moo). Are you connected to any of these creative activist groups, and are there any others in the UK you would like us to be more aware of?
JJ: Yes – I’ve worked with UK Uncut, and was unfortunately arrested in Fortnum and Mason, whilst recording the BBC 4 afternoon play, but that’s another story! There are lots of interesting groups that work on the edge of art and activism, right now a space to keep an eye out for and to visit is THE HAIRCUT BEFORE THE PARTY – http://www.thehaircutbeforetheparty.net/ – set up by two radical young art activists who have opened a hair dressers that offers free hair cuts and political discussion about organising and friendship, rebellion and the material needs to engage in it. The salon is in 26 Toynbee Street, near Petticoat Lane and open till November. It’s an interesting example of a medium to long term, art activist project that attempts to create new forms of relationship and affinity, and sees itself as building radical movement and not simply representing them.
GG: Yeah, again the idea of the text was to build on the connections that are already there, which THBTP does too in a more informal, social way. And for sure, you shouldn’t be seen at the June 30th strikes or UK Uncut’s support actions without a flash new haircut. I should also get a plug in for Catalyst Radio – http://www.catalystradio.org/ a new 24/7 DIY UK-wide activist radio station, which started up the other week and is still growing, and brings together a lot of radical radio projects from around the country.
MG: Do you share a mutual empathy and respect for other protesters elsewhere such as those in Spain and in Greece, and in the Middle East?
JJ: Of course. Although it feels like the camp protests are lacking a conflictual approach and without the mixture of conflict and creativity, protest can easily be ignored, which is a bit what has happened with all the European camps. Although sitting here in the British library its easy to be critical ! Whatever happens, those involved in the camps will have tasted politics, new friendships, alternative ways of organising etc… As for the middle east, its all still in flux, who knows what will happen and the role of artists and musicians has been pretty key in setting the powder kegg alight there..
GG: Yeah, though I think there’s a tension between the symbolic solidarity of occupying city squares and the strategic differences between activist practices in different countries. I think solidarity between these struggles is massively important, though I’m personally not sure how it’s best to manifest that here right now.
MG: In the User’s guide, it mentions the workshops in art and activism at the Tate Modern, held by the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (Labofii), entitled it ‘Disobedience makes history’. And that Laboffii “was told, in an email, by the curators that no interventions could be made against the museum’s sponsors (which happen to be British Petroleum) [..] decided to use the email as the material for the workshop. Projecting it onto the wall they asked the participants whether the workshop should obey or disobey the curator’s orders.”
What I find interesting regarding this episode is both that a big institution would take the risk of inviting in art and activist culture to their usually, protected environment whilst being sponsored by British Petroleum; and the different forms of controversies reaching the public from such situations. I am surprised that Laboffii would even consider doing such a project in the Tate Modern in the first place, but also pleased, because of the dialogue that has come out of the clash of different political contexts. So, isn’t it the case that we need to explore issues of corporate corruption further within these big institutions so that those who would not usually consider such things are suddenly faced with the issues?
GG: I’m sure JJ has plenty to say about this. But more generally, it depends *how* they function as a platform. An art gallery or a university can be a great discursive space to explore issues, but the bounds of that debate are also strictly limited in lots of ways. This is a problem with the idea of a bourgeois public sphere. Most often, that boundary is that you can debate whatever you like but questioning the basic systemic assumptions on which such spaces rest isn’t possible, at least not in a practical way. The lab’s workshop at the Tate tried to question exactly that kind of assumption about what culture is for, and who it benefits. But for many activists from social movements, who have less faith in the public sphere and its institutions to resolve issues by discussion, that neutered debate is more of a problem than a benevolent gift to the public, and they have to take a different approach. Its not necessarily opposed to those institutions as a whole, but just asks them to make good on what they claim to be.
JJ: It’s a long story, but the key is to be able to put one foot inside these institutions and to be not frightened to KICK. But not to KICK symbolically, to really kick, to really shake them up and to be able to let go of one’s cultural capital. The Labofii will NEVER be re-invited to do anything at the TATE, bang goes all our chances of a retrospective in the fashionable art activism world !!! 😉 But, what we gain is that we were free ! When the curators told us that we could not do anything, could not take action against BP and we refused to obey them, we were free, we could do what we wanted because they could not give us anything in return. The Zapatistas say, “we are already dead so we are free” – when power can give you nothing you want, you can do anything.. this is a very powerful moment. To see the faces of the curators, the head of public, the head of security etc during the meeting where they tried to censor the lab, was priceless – they had always had power over artists, because artists will normally do ANYTHING to get their work in the Tate, but we did not care, we cared about the politics, about the actions, about climate change and social injustice – we were more powerful than the institution in that moment because we were no longer dependent on them.. it was one of the most beautiful moments… and now the movement against oil sponsorship is spreading everywhere. The message is simple, give up your cultural capital throw away your dependence on these institutions and be free…
MG: I come from a background of hacking, social hacking and D.I.Y culture, and instead of going to University I chose to be self-educated, creating alternative groups for self discovery and art with dedication to social change. And even though, many are fighting the education cuts right now, what are your own ideas around self-education, do students really need to go to college now that there are so many different forms of information and ways in creating one’s own place in the world ‘with others’?
GG: A lot of experiments with autonomous self-education have sprung up recently which ask just this question, like the Really Free School (http://reallyfreeschool.org/), there are even some more institutional business-model experiments online with peer-to-peer education. But at the same time the catchment of both of these is relatively narrow at the moment, so I think there’s still a place for these kind of education institutions, and there are interesting radical experiments going on all over, either by individuals or whole departments, although the cuts to institutional funding for education by the government changes the playing field again, so there’s an opportunity for something like this to become less marginal, both inside and outside the university.
MG: JJ, In 2005 you wrote, Notes Whilst Walking on “How to Break the Heart of Empire”, in it you write “Radicals are often vulnerable souls. Most of us become politically active because we felt something profoundly such as injustice or ecological devastation. It is this emotion that triggers a change in our behaviour and gets us politicised. It is our ability to transform our feelings about the world into actions that propels us to radical struggle. But what seems to often happen, is that the more we learn about the issues that concern us, the more images of war we see, the more we experience climate chaos, poverty and the every day violence of capitalism, the more we seem to have to harden ourselves from feeling too much, because although feeling can lead to action we also know that feeling too much can lead to depression and paralysis…” How the hell do you remain positive when you know how many horrible and disgusting things are being done to decent folks and the planet all of the time?
JJ: Unfortunately there are no magic recipes that can protect us from such feelings, a lot depends on context on our particular situations etc. But here are a few tips that have helped me keep the despair of capitalism at bay:
1) Resist the spell of individualism that capitalism tries to weave around us, a spell that chains us to the fantasy of autonomy and keep us in a state of sadness and paralysis. Break this spell and its toxic chains by realising that you are part of a greater whole, that working with others gives us strength, that seven minutes making real friendships (face to face) is more political than seven days glued to a computer browsing social networks in a trance, that inevitably fails to shake the loneliness of modern life.
2) Build a gang, a group, a collective, a crew – remember the joy of plotting things together, the power and possibilities when work and imagination is shared. In fact, imagination finds it’s insurrectionary potential when we share it, when it’s freed from the privatised ego, escapes from shackles of copyright and the prison’s of the art world.
3) Learn the skills to work together with others, consensus decision making, group facilitation, conflict resolution etc. We need to re learn collective working methods, capitalism has destroyed all our tools of conviviality and we need to reclaim them back, recreate new forms of being together.
4) Redefine Hope. Not as something that will come and save us, like a saviour, but as something that comes from not knowing what will happen next, something that takes place when we act in the immediate moment and don’t know what will happen and trust that history is made from acts of disobedience that did not necessarily have any idea of what the next step was…
5) Remember that victory is not always what happens, but what did not happen. Social movements tend to forget this. Look at all the nuclear power stations that WERE not built, all the wars that did not happen, the laws that were never passed, the free trade agreements that were never agreed on, the repressions that the state could not get away with, the gmo’s that were never planted. One of my favourite books, what I call prozac on paper, is Rebecca Solnit’s HOPE IN THE DARK (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28048.Hope_in_the_Dark) – it’s a lovely little book which redefines hope in the most beautifully optimistic way, recommended reading when capitalism seems irresistible.
6) When everything appears useless, try to change your conception of time… think deep time, not shallow modern now time, but think about the generations that went before you and those that will come after you. Try to imagine what the generations of the future will think about your actions, imagine those from the past that fought for the emancipation of slaves and yet never saw the results of their actions, those who died for the eight hour day, for the right to build a union, the right to vote or publish an independent magazine. Spend time imagining how those alive in 50, 100 years will view your life and work…
MG: In the publication, you mention Marx and Debord. “We can all be engineers of the imagination”…”that our “general intellect”, all the collective knowledge and skills we use in making things, are taken away from us and embodied instead in the machines of our work. What would happen if we somehow re-engineered these machines if we did what Guy Debord argued and started, “producing ourselves… not the things that enslave us.” Do you see the recent cuts across the board as an example of how the powers that be are actively dis-empowering the working classes?
GG: Definitely. The cuts aren’t just about an experience of ‘austerity,’ however long term, but constitute a historical attack on poor and working people. They’re an attempt to technically recompose the material of the institutions, structures, ideas and habits people live through, in order to limit their ability to resist and remake them for themselves. In factory production, that involved the local restructuring of machine-labour, but later at a wider level Keynesian economic restructuring. This neoliberal restructuring of education is an extension of capitalist discipline into a new area, an attack on a social space which has historically been a base for social change. The government has made this pretty clear by, for example, David Willetts’s dictate amidst these massive cuts, to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, that the Tory party’s vacuous advertising slogan “the big society” become a core research area, replacing the less ideologically narrow area of ‘communities and civic values’; and the Department for Business and Innovation’s concomitant rewriting of the 1918 Haldane principle, that research directions are best decided by researchers through peer review.
The optimistic take on this is not that it’s an inevitable recuperation of resistance, which was the position Debord tended towards in the end, but that capital is always on the back foot – that its own developments are driven by and a response to social movements. That it’s an open dialectic (or if you prefer, not a dialectic at all). There’s a kind of neurosis to it, although rather than excluding the other to maintain its ego, the state is including everything to stave off other possibilities – you can see this in the language. The whole discourse of ‘participation’ and networks in business (and since the 1990s, also in art), is as Boltanski and Chiapello observed in their book the New Spirit of Capitalism, a recuperation of the language and terms of 1960s social movements – movements which first properly gave birth on a mass scale to the kinds of self-consciously autonomous and creative politics, or art-activism, which we talk about in the guide. Likewise, the big society is focused on mutuality, and there’s a strange recuperation of libertarian and radical thought by the thinkers behind it like Phillip Blonde. In this case, you’re left with a stunted vision of the anarchist idea of mutual aid, without any institutional aid, and structurally limited mutuality. But rather than simply critique this, I’m interested to look at how we might otherwise structurally and materially embody other kinds of social relation. Obviously this starts on a much smaller scale, and is often more directly materially embodied. University departments’ attempts to support radical philosophy within existing institutions and setting up new autonomous radical art institutions are two possible, but not mutually exclusive, directions here. As, of course, at the most local, accessible level, are the art-activist practices and objects we discuss in the guide.
3 different links to download the publication:
The Font used was Calvert is by Margaret Calvert, designer of our road signs.
Words: Gavin Grindon & John Jordan Design: FLF Illustration: Richard Houguez Original Cover: The Drawing Shed Produced by the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, London, December 2010. www.labofii.net Anti-copyright, share and disseminate freely.
More about Minor Compositions – a series of interventions & provocations drawing from autonomous politics, avant-garde aesthetics, and the revolutions of everyday life.
Crude awakening: BP and the Tate. The Tate is under fire for taking BP sponsorship money. Does corporate cash damage the arts — or is it a necessary compromise? We asked leading cultural figures their view. Interviews by Emine Saner and Homa Khaleeli. guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 30 June 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/jun/30/bp-tate-protests