4th Ars Baltica Triennial of Photographic Art
Don’t Worry – Be Curious!
Remarks on Postdemocratic Insecurities and Contemporary Art Production
"You have to ask me and not yourself if you want to understand me." (1)
Johann Georg Hamann to Kant
The exhibition Don’t Worry—Be Curious! is the outcome of our trips to countries around the Baltic Sea and of the conversations we had with artists, curators, and cultural producers. It was not until then that the theme gradually became clear: In awareness of the global political and economic situation in which individual and collective fears are instrumentalized, we were struck by the positive energy of many artistic works that encourage us not to subscribe to the general pessimism, but rather to address the problems and fears, to ask questions, to express criticism, to be open for something new, and to enjoy day-to-day coexistence. By no means does this imply that the causes and social consequences of fears are harmless—quite the contrary.
The Insecure Society
Sociologists like Richard Sennett, Zygmunt Bauman, or Wilhelm Heitmeyer stress that a quintessential idea behind modernity—namely, the interplay of economic progress and social integration—is increasingly being abandoned in today’s global capitalism. The economic development has currently led to a reduction of jobs and social benefits. Those who are excluded from the job market are driven into poverty, while those who remain in the job market are asked for more commitment, flexibility, and willingness to take risks. Both mean a loss of orientation and autonomy for the lives of individuals. The institutions of new capitalism induce not trust but anxieties about unemployment, loss of social status, poverty, and uselessness. The reasons for the negative outlook on the future are often not concrete but diffuse, as they are dependent on volatile market structures and can appear entirely without warning, making them all the more threatening.
The insecurities that are sold as inevitable system necessities are in fact intended; they are, as Richard Sennett put it, “programmed into new capitalism.”(2) They intimidate people and serve economic efficiency. In an issue of Newsweek from 1997, the American economist Robert J. Samuelson wrote, “Something [...] needs to happen in the rest of Europe. If workers never fear losing their jobs, there’s little reason to restrain wages. Some uncertainty, anxiety, and fear are essential.”(3)
For the most part, the state and politics are powerless against this, or rather they turn themselves over to the laws of capital. The awareness of the inability to influence economic (and political) processes heightens citizens’ sense of their own powerlessness, not only regarding the development of one’s own life but also in the face of the society’s course of development. “People used to fear the unknown. Now, they are horrified of the unavoidable.“(4) These fears are bolstered by predominantly negative coverage in the media that deepens the impression of a dire condition that defies change. The consequences are familiar: resignation, disenchantment with politics, or the search for someone who can be blamed. With the help of populist propaganda, aggression is seldom directed at the state but rather, because it is “‘easier’ and involves less risk for the individual, [...] at foreigners, the weak, and those who supposedly ‘violate the norm.’” As Wilhelm Heitmeyer writes, it is about “confronting one’s own insecurities with a stabilizing normality of hierarchies, sense of belonging, and enforcement of norms, therefore gaining a kind of awareness of control.”(5) The insecurity is offset by an ideology of inequality.
Postdemocratic State of Affairs?
The democratic system is facing enormous challenges throughout Europe because politics has no solutions to global problems, social stability has become unhinged, and the faith in liberal democracy is dwindling.
Northern Europe’s so-called welfare states are steadily abandoning the principles of solidarity and redistribution. Social democratic parties are under pressure and are being replaced by conservative to right-wing populist parties in the governments of a growing number of countries. The euphoric expectations of eastern EU countries regarding the Western social democratic system of values have been disappointed, because global markets’ system of rules and regulations determined the transformation processes, while people’s rights and equal opportunity have fallen by the wayside.
The new uncertainties have the effect that people do not look to the future but rather towards a system of values, as they existed before the beginning of real socialism. This is similar to a reorientation evident in many western European countries that recalls the values of the 1950s: demonstrative middle-class behavior, the return to religion, and even courses on etiquette are only a few of countless examples. This new conservatism quickly combines with the desire for protectionism, that is, the discrimination downwards against other social standings, or outwards against foreigners. Hence, it is not surprising that a populist drift has manifested itself throughout Europe.
Populist arguments are usually racist and nationalistic and thus often find fertile ground in Eastern Europe, where for decades nationalism has been associated with an antitotalitarian stance—in other words, enjoys a positive connotation. On the one hand, national pride improves one’s self-esteem and produces a sense of stability and power. The other side of the coin, however, is the derogation of foreign groups and the ambivalence towards democratic values. Based on the example of Germany, a study done by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence of the University of Bielefeld on “group-oriented misanthropy” substantiates that the greater the national pride of those questioned, the less important democratic accomplishments are to them.(6)
Populist argumentation, which meanwhile can be heard among the centralist parties, exploits fears and creates concepts of the enemy—especially with regard to immigrants—yet obscures the actual problems and their complex causes. “To manipulate the figure of the immigrant as a security threat (or even worse, of the Muslim as a civilization threat) is the most expedient way to cover up much more difficult negotiations over the dismantling of the old welfare state, while avoiding complaints about its replacement by a hodgepodge of changing dispositions that obey no particular sense of justice or even economic rationality.”(7)
Because the centralist parties fear the discontentment of the masses, they hesitate to make reforms and give in to populist pressure. Limiting immigration as an answer to integration problems, encroachments on the freedom of the press, and dubious identity campaigns are but a few indications of this. Colin Crouch sketched the scenario of a postdemocratic world: structures of democracy such as elections and parties technically remain intact, but instead of programs being discussed, people are courted; decisions are not made by representatives but by lobby groups and brain trusts; the opinion of the masses is influenced by the media, which increasingly serves the political interests of the corporation; security forces are armed, and so on.(8)
All of these are reactions to the legitimization pressure under which the countries find themselves because of their pursuit of free-market policies that shirk social responsibility. Even global terrorism and the fears it induces have given countries an ersatz legitimacy, as Zygmunt Bauman contends.(9) With its politics of domestic security, the state protects citizens from an alleged threat of terrorism and criminality, thereby regaining their trust. The most effective instance of this in Europe is in Great Britain, where the Regulation of Investigatory Power Act (RIPA) governs visible and hidden surveillance methods and allows local authorities to take action against asocial behavior using methods common to the secret service. In the meantime, the 4.2 million cameras comprise a blanket surveillance system (CCTV—Closed Circuit Television) that tracks even minor “crimes” such as littering or adolescent misbehavior. The goals are crime fighting, social cleansing, and, in schools predominantly, behavior management—in short, the exposure of undesirable human behavior.(10) But who is deciding the criteria of what is desirable or undesirable? Is the authoritarian democracy, in which the state knows what is good for everyone, the model of Europe’s future?
Whether one calls it postdemocracy or authoritarian democracy, the described phenomena conflict with a basic principle of democracy—namely, pluralism. However, lack of pluralism prevents social contradictions from finding legitimate expression. “Because there is no debate on possible alternatives with which people could identify, political passion finds no outlet within the democratic system. This explains the increase in certain forms of collective identification that define themselves according to ethnicity, religion, nationality, or moral issues.”(11)
Don’t Worry – Be Curious!
The works of art in the exhibition Don’t Worry—Be Curious! do not serve as illustrations, explanations, or valuations of the social situation sketched above, nor are they a call to political activism. Only a few of the projects explicitly deal with the issue of fear. Instead, the artists address such diverse topics as migration politics; cultural clichés; “normality” and “differentness”; the mechanisms of understanding and misunderstanding;. What unites the works is their democratic and candid approach to social issues as well as a positive and often humorous prevailing mood that makes the observer want to engage in something new and scrutinize his or her own patterns of perception and thought. The artists allow diverse voices equal say, whether by concretely involving others in the execution of their projects or by depicting complex correlations from a manifold of perspectives. In other words, all of the works are an expression of plurality.
Just how heterogeneous the various approaches are, shall become evident in the following examples. Petra Bauer’s video Rana (2007) takes the story of a Muslim girl, who had a baby while still a minor and was put through the mill of the Swedish rights and welfare system, as the point of departure for profound reflection on how various people are able to evaluate a situation differently due to their social and cultural character and how, in the process, the perspective of the person concerned falls by the wayside. In conversation with Annika Ruth Persson, the artist explains how Hannah Arendt’s writings served her as a tool to examine power mechanisms and systems of norms that are behind interpretations of the events. While Hannah Arendt’s political theory acts on the basic assumption that everyone is in a position to adopt the perspective of the other, monological views of various social and interest groups coexist side by side in the public sphere.
Unlike Petra Bauer, who identifies polyphony as a social defect, Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen initiate workshops in which real choirs are formed whose participants write songs about things that touch us all: the gripes and discontentment with things big and small, with social injustice and details from everyday life. One cannot help but laugh about the Complaints Choirs, whose public performances are captured on video, not just because one recognizes oneself in the dissatisfaction and faintheartedness that is a part of it, but primarily because it is absurd to sing complaints merrily. But this is precisely what makes Complaints Choirs so powerful: the negative mood of the list of complaints is transformed into positive energy by the merry music and the pleasure in coexistence.
At first glance, Julita Wójcik’s action during her residency in Bergen seems absurd. She appropriated advertising slogans from the New York subway’s security campaign, set off for nature, and hollered the slogans over a megaphone into the solitude of the Norwegian landscape: “If you see something, say something. If you see a suspicious package or activity on the mountain path or a road, don’t keep it to yourself. [...] There are millions of eyes in the country. We’re counting on all of them. If you see something, say something.”
The artist uses the shift of context to reveal the absurdity of the campaign, which is not conducive to security but instead induces social strife and fear, for even the most innocent object or person becomes suspect. “The more unclear and indefinite this fear,” claimed Bauman in the interview with Lukasz Galecki, “the more desperate is the search for concrete objects or persons who can be blamed for your diffuse fears.”
The diffuse nature of fear is also the subject of Sven Johne’s work A Walk through Lusatia. He explores the alleged return of wolves to eastern Germany, which has citizens in a state of fear, although no one has ever actually seen one of the wolves face to face. By night Johne followed the trail of the wolves and photographed each of the destinations, which turned out to be desolate villages—the loser regions of globalization. In this respect, the wolves stand for the eeriness and intangibility of a threat.
Like Sven Johne, whose interest was awakened by a newspaper photograph on the Internet, Anna Baumgart uses media images as the point of departure for her works. She transforms shocking worldwide images back into three-dimensionality, as with the Associate Press’ photo of the woman with burn bandages on her face that became a symbol of the terror attacks on the London underground in July of 2005. The image became a media icon because it conceals something, thereby fueling the sensation-hungry imagination: How deformed is the face? What other horrible things happened? The photograph develops a life of its own, one that has little to do with what actually happened. Baumgart visualizes this doubt about an image’s claim to truthfulness by only forming the front of the sculpture; the back is left paintless, thus referring to the gap behind the images.
The relationship between images, concepts, and clichés is also the focus of the artist duo J&K. For the 4th Ars Baltica Triennial Janne Schäfer and Kristine Agergaard developed an installation consisting of three-dimensional photo collages that incorporate experiences and images from their research in Baltic countries. The artists stylize themselves as part of a scenario in which pre-Christian and Christian elements intermingle with the contemporary. The locations depicted include the Latvian Pokaini Forest, home to pagan places of worship, the famous pilgrimage site Hill of Crosses in Lithuania, and the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius. The visitor is greeted by two welcome girls positioned next to an archway like saints. The archway itself incorporates painterly elements of icons as well as elements of baroque altars when, for example, the portrait of one of the artists is multiplied into a flock of angels on top of the arch. Another group of figures encompasses animals that hark back to typical Baltic animals like the snowy owl and alludes to shamanism. Although the snowy owl figure is staged as a kind of magic leader, it is unclear which of the figure groups dominates. The artists are interested in staging a clash of cultures that challenges given notions of a region or a cultural group and emphasizes the diversity of cultural influences.
The guiding principle of this work, as with numerous others in the exhibition, is its openness for the unexpected and curiosity about the complexity of life. From the moment of birth, curiosity is the vital driving force in dealing with one’s environment—learning and surviving would be impossible without it. The curiosity awakened by art serves no purpose and encourages us to not let ourselves be taken in by the simplicity of neoliberal argumentation or the numbing strategies of the media.
Dorothee Bienert, Kati Kivinen, Enrico Lunghi
1. Taken from Wolf Lepenies’ speech at the awards ceremony of the German Book Dealers’ peace prize on October 8, 2006.
2. Richard Sennett, “Die Angst, überflüssig zu sein,” DIE ZEIT, May 19,2005.
3. Newsweek 36 (1997): 89, as cited in Heitmeyer, “Wo sich Angst breit macht,” DIE ZEIT, December 14, 2006.
4. Boris Kagarlitsky, “Of Fear and Change” in Don't Worry - Be curious! 4th Ars Baltica Triennial of Photographic Art catalogue.
5. Wilhelm Heitmeyer, “Neue Kultur der Anerkennung,” in This Land is My Land, (Berlin: NGBK/Nuremberg: Kunsthalle Nürnberg, 2006), 89.
6. Brian Holmes, “Invisible States: Europe in the Age of Capital Failure,” in Capital (It Fails Us Now), ed. Simon Sheikh (Berlin: b-books, 2006), 46.
7. Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (Cambridge/UK: Polity Press, 2004).
8. See the interview with Zygmunt Bauman in Don't Worry - Be curious! 4th Ars Baltica Triennial of Photographic Art catalogue.
9. See Reiner Luyken, “Big Brother ist wirklich ein Brite,” DIE ZEIT, January 11, 2007.
10. Chantal Mouffe, “Das Ende der bipolaren Welt. Was nun?” in Zurück aus der Zukunft: Osteuropäische Kulturen im Zeitalter des Postkommunismus (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 2005), 146.