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“It’s About Time to Start Acting” – Art, Protest and the Public Space

By Lieven De Cauter

The optimism of Green parties has ultimately failed. Activists and politicians have to remind people of the imminent catastrophe; this is the only way to find solutions to today’s problems.

GEJ: What is wrong with the world today?

Lieven De Cauter: There is a hegemony of optimism in today’s world. It’s everywhere. And I feel this is quite problematic, as in my view optimism has failed: neoliberalism is optimistic, the industry is optimistic, politicians are optimistic, the entrepreneurial spirit is optimistic. Today we are all supposed to become entrepreneurs: one of the goals of Flemish education, for example, is supposed to be fostering entrepreneurial spirit in young people. I think this is insane. What we need is solidarity, the civic spirit; entrepreneurs don’t make the world a fairer place, they don’t solve issues like climate change; entrepreneurs are very much after their own profits.

And the optimism that has dominated our societies, the optimism of the press, the NGOs and the Green parties, has ultimately failed. We see that ecology is today off the agenda. No one wants to deal with it, because pessimism has bad press. But this denialism cannot go on forever. We need to convince people that we are in danger, and our children are in danger, and our grandchildren… well, they are in even deeper shit.

If we could do to that, then there would be more political will, I am sure. We need to start looking reality in the eye, and inform people about the imminent catastrophe, without falling into political melancholy.

Do you think Green Parties have failed somehow? And if so, why?

There needs to be a consensus that capitalism as it functions today is not the way to go forward. I believe that today there is no alternative to finding an alternative to the system we live in. We know with scientific certainty that our world is heading to a major disaster on all sorts of levels, and I do feel that the Greens have failed bitterly in their task to wake up Europe and the world, and to convince them to act. Now they behave like most other parties, they stopped being apocalyptical.

The only way forward is to remind people how great the current problems are: if the public started caring, mainstream politicians and governments would start caring as well. Public opinion is still very important for politicians here in Belgium, and most of Europe.

We can’t let the post-historical attitude dominate: we should not believe that that it’s too late for activism, and too late to change the way things are going. We should not give up on our goals; and I believe that the feeling of urgency could convince people that it’s about time to start acting. If you are convinced that the roof of your house will fall on your head, you will act. Everybody, every single person on this planet, needs to wake up and start acting.

That means in order to stir people up, we need to make global warming an issue in the public sphere. About this you write: “The public sphere is today more than ever, the virtual space of the media. Street protests turn open space into truly public (political) space, only if they are reported in the media.”

If you think of Kant’s essay “Answering the question: What is enlightenment?” he argues in favour of “the public use of one’s reason”, and he specifies that by this he means publishing in newspapers. I believe that the idea of the public sphere was always connected to the media, and all sorts of media are important for protesters, including television, newspapers, internet and social media.

This is not just true for Europe, but also for countries like Iran, Egypt or Turkey. You can see how important the media are, by looking at the different attempts of states and multinationals to control or silence the media.

You’re referring to authoritarian states, but do you think the Western countries have sometimes a similar stance towards the media? Meaning, do you think they want to silence the media, by using different, and more sophisticated, means to achieve this goal?

For the time being there is no attempt to put down the media as the governing elites do in Turkey or Iran. But the suppression and criminalisation of activism is still a well-known phenomenon in Europe. Here in Belgium for example, Bart De Wever, the Mayor of Antwerp, who I see as the most powerful man in Belgium at the moment, has forbidden several demonstrations, and has been very repressive when it came to expressions of the freedom of speech.

But that’s only one example, there are many others as well: the Belgian energy corporation Electrabel, for example, has sued Greenpeace Belgium for being a criminal organisation, and a group of activists has been persecuted because they have protested against GMO potatoes in Wetteren by symbolically destroying a field.

Are symbolical acts that important?

Symbolical acts, like trespassing, often have a bigger impact than demonstrations or opinion pieces in newspapers. Civil disobedience can ignite huge debates, and therefore it is no wonder that many activists are accused of being members of criminal gangs. This happened to the activists of Wetteren too. The charges of being ‘a criminal gang’, of ‘organised crime’ against the Field Liberation Movement have been dropped, of course, because the law is clear on this: political activism and organised crime are two different things. Nevertheless, the abuse of law to criminalise activism is happening again and again, even in this calm and peaceful small country, called Belgium. This is how governments try to stop people from expressing their opinions.

Also, in the last few years the situation has become somewhat worse than before. We have witnessed recently, that the army has been very present in the streets of Belgium, following the attack on Charlie Hebdo. This idea of the state of exception is now a very popular policy amongst representatives of the neoconservative right in Belgium, and it’s also part of a global trend, and the criminalisation of activism has been one of the most worrying developments of the post-9/11-era.

But does an activist has to be ready to break the law when it comes to achieving their goals?

Not everyone; so far I have not been breaking the law. But I think everyone has his or her own task and preferred role in the struggles, and I do believe that in some cases it’s necessary to break the law. My role, for example, is to write, rather than to sleep in the camps – even if I wouldn’t be against it sometimes.

In a struggle you need not only activists, but you also need lots of public intellectuals and academics, writers, artists, and even architects, in order to follow up on the issues and to support these heroes who fight on the frontlines of the struggle.

And breaking the law can have quite some impact. There is for example a group of activists in Belgium, who are fighting against the development of a new prison in Haren, near Brussels, and the fact that they are occupying the space there, for almost a year now, is very effective.

They are occupying space that is not theirs, that’s civil disobedience. This is a form of protest that is necessary, and very effective, as the occupations at Tahrir square, Puerta del Sol and Zucotti Park have proven. But they are only effective because of the media. Without the media, the police could take the protesters away, and no one would know about it, so it would have no effect at all. That is why I am now organising a taskforce to give them academic back-up and media attention. Therefore, I always tell activists: they need to be ready to use the media, even if they are sometimes not too sympathetic towards the press.

 

We see that ecology is today off the agenda. No one wants to deal with it, because pessimism has bad press. But this denialism cannot go on forever.

 

Femen has been very present in the media due to their use of provocation. They have staged a number of topless protests against authoritarian leaders, and last December some members of the movement have pretended to beat up Mary and Joseph in the nativity scene on the Grand Place in Brussels, to protest against austerity measures. Do we need these kinds of provocations in our struggles?

I don’t think I would morally condemn them, I might even say, I sympathise with these actions, but I also think that provocations are often not more than just gestures in the wild. Activist who only provoke don’t have a follow-up on their actions and they don’t have a clear programme. Femen has a dodgy side…

For me the future of activism is the transdisciplinary organisation of civil society: this would allow activists to form a coalition where they have a public space to share and exchange their ideas, and they would have a number of specialists on their side to help them out in the field they need. This would enable them to confront and even beat their opponent. A good example is stRaten Generaal, an organisation in Antwerp that has managed to stop the construction of the so called “Lange Wapper bridge” a huge viaduct that was supposed to extend the city’s ringroad over the North part of the city. In this case everything was in place from the side of the local government: there was a political consensus, the whole architecture was planned, there were permits, big capital was ready, and so on. The whole project seemed to be unstoppable, and through yet civic activism, with a good counterplan and by forcing a referendum on the issue, they managed to stop the project. The participants had a large civic base, they had people who were devoted to the matter and they developed a plan, and a counterplan, so that they could say to the city government: “we have better plans than you.”

That’s what I call paradigmatic activism. This is the kind of success that should be studied with a microscope, so that we can learn how they achieved it.

So you say activists have to identify the problem, and experts need to come up with a way to solve it?

Yes, you need all kinds of experts. You need people who understand the political, you need lawyers so that you know the law better than your opponent, you even need to know the media better than the mainstream media knows itself. That’s lots of different experts.

And what’s the role of the artist in a struggle?

I think it’s very hard to generalise. We can’t speak of “the artist” and “the struggle”, we have to look at concrete examples first. This year, for example, we put on a performance with an artist, Anna Rispoli, that re-enacted the protests that happened in the last 40 years on the steps of the Stock Exchange in Brussels. It was a big event, the opening of the world famous ‘Kunstenfestivaldesarts’. So it was art indeed, but then it was most of all a social political ritual, implicating many people and the public (both were actors, if you want, I wanted to be on both sides: on the steps and seeing the spectacle. But in the end I was acting out my speech against the visit of George W. Bush to Brussels in 2005 on the steps).

 

The only way forward is to remind people how great the current problems are: if the public started caring, mainstream politicians and governments would start caring as well.

 

This is an important act in order to protest the “Disneyfication” of the city. Recently we have also ‘picniced the streets’: we have organised two grand public picnics in front of the Stock Exchange to demand to make the square (Beursplein) finally car free. This was an act of civil disobedience that overpowered the mayor, so he gave swift permission to avoid confrontation. But now the government wants to use this car-free zone to build 5 new parking lots around the ‘hyper centre’ and to turn the centre into a gentrified theme park or shopping mall. Thus the ‘mallification’ and Disneyfication of Brussels seems unavoidable. And in this newly created area, of course, beggars, homeless people and political protests are absolutely unwanted, like in a shopping mall or a theme park.

With the above mentioned performance, we were reclaiming the steps of the Bourse and we protested the ongoing neoliberal transformation of the city.

This way the artist became a mediator in a complex social issue. Suddenly you have a new role for the artist and a new paradigm of art: this has nothing to do with the old narratives, or the discussion with art history anymore; all the normal parameters of art are gone. The activist use of art is a new counter-expression. And here the artist can have a really new role, in which the old measures don’t count anymore. About the performance at the Stock Exchange, I  said: “I am not sure if it’s great art, or not; but I don’t really care.” And Anna Rispoli, the artist fully agreed. Of course, the event was great and the video might be turning in the next Documenta, or in Art Biennale, let’s hope…

You have also mentioned architecture earlier. Is the role of architects different form that of the artist?

Architecture is since ages a political and social art form. It has never been autonomous, because architecture needs sponsors, people who pay for the buildings and monuments. Therefore the work of the architect is always a reflection on the social and political situation of the time; architects – who are more likely than artists to work in teams – are much more involved in the happenings of the actual world, and therefore it is no wonder that they regularly show up in social actions and experiments, particularly in urban activism. A good example is the group called Collective Disaster, who have set up a public toilet, to promote the idea of sustainability and have called it “The Temple of Holy Shit”, which later became “The Factory of the Black Gold” in  Parckfarm, a collective community garden experiment in Brussels. This was a humorous, dadaist intervention in the service of ecological issues.

What makes places of protests, like the Zuccotti Park or Gezi Park special?

I would call Gezi Park and other emblematic spaces of protests Heterotopias,– using the term of Michel Foucault: “actually realised utopias”(his words). They are utopian in the sense that they are trying to make direct democracy happen, “here and now”. A witness of the happenings on Tahrir square told me: whether the girls there have left their headscarves on or not, their relation to public space, to gender and to men has changed overnight. These places develop a new form of agency, and that’s very political. But on the other hand, some of these parks also create microcosms, heterotopias (other spaces, spaces of otherness), where local food production can be practiced (like at Parckfarm), where people can share what they have, and where they can look for solutions to tackle today’s huge ecological problem and respond to the problems of globalisation that today’s cities are facing. These ‘utopian heterotopias’ – at the same time political spaces and cultural spaces, if you want – and the activities people practice there can become potential laboratories of the future, hetero-topias in the sense that they are space of otherness and for otherness…. We will need these spaces badly in order to mix the very different communities of our cities.

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“It’s About Time to Start Acting” – Art, Protest and the Public Space

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