Between art and activism

Submitted by AWL on 7 October, 2014 - 6:31 Author: Luke Neal

As the Labour and Conservative parties staged their annual conferences, an exhibition entitled Politika: Art & the Affairs of the City was staged in a former cotton mill in Ancoats, Manchester.

Curated by the “insurgent art activist” collective Upper Space, 20 artists put on a programme of workshops, speakers and activities “to generate starting points for an answer, another view, in order to to sustain another ideology against consumerism and the disempowerment that it represents”.

Perhaps the best element was Politika’s attempt at engagement with the residents of Ancoats, who have been involved in a fight to save the Ancoats Dispensary, the only surviving Victorian hospital in the country. Politika worked with them to create a banner celebrating the community securing £770,000 to regenerate and turn the Dispensary into a community centre.

Most of the artistic content was overtly political and loosely leftist.

Steve Lambert’s towering, illuminated structure bearing the words “capitalism works for me!” featured prominently, each edge adorned with true/false score boxes which the viewer was invited to vote on. Lambert says, “we need the courage to begin discussions [of the alternatives to capitalist crises] in order to move on to a better vision of the future”.

He is right, asking these questions is crucial. Yet a recurring trait of this show was a reluctance to go beyond merely framing the question of an alternative future. It is, however, possible to say more about that future without being either prescriptive or utopian. And this requires class politics.

Other featured projects included the Helsinki based Robin Hood Minor Asset Management Co-op, which speculates in the world of financial capital then distributes the revenue amongst “radical projects” and the co-op’s members. Its inclusion reflects the sentiment, popular amongst certain sections of the left, that we are in a new age of “informational” or “cognitive” capitalism where the antagonism between labour and capital is no longer the fundamental dynamic which governs social relations. These projects promote the idea that if only financial capitalism can be used in a more ethical way, we might be able to redistribute wealth on a mass scale. They fail to understand the tendencies of capital accumulation.

In their piece “Act of Parliament”, Manchester based interventionists Shift//Delete turned the Gherkin building in the City of London into “a 180m high erection for deregulation and global capitalism” projecting lasers on to the tower to add further phallic features. They claimed this was in response to “Parliament’s failure to criminally prosecute the financial institutions and employees that caused the financial crisis”.

While the spectacle is admirable, taking the most reckless bankers to court is no solution. Our maladies are systemic, not individual, and necessarily require an equally systemic response, going beyond a few creative individuals. It requires an organised revolutionary socialist and labour movement

In response the corporatisation of public space, there was the Brandalism project, an “unauthorised exhibition” to “facilitate the reclamation of our right to the city and the unfinished project of the revolution of everyday life”. Brandalism reappropriates public space from corporate advertisements. Their approach strikes at authentic concerns: the enclosure of public space, mass alienation, the abstracted predicate of modern consumerism — i.e. labour. As Marx long ago said in Capital Volume 1:

“It is now no longer the labourer that employs the means of production, but the means of production that employ the labourer. Instead of being consumed by him as material elements of his productive activity, they consume him as the ferment necessary to their own life processes.”

This point is useful for considering our own place in cultural production and social change. While, advertisements, for instance, are a visual embodiment of the hegemony of capital, momentarily reclaiming the space they occupy with our own propaganda treats the symptom but not the root cause. Paints and lasers alone cannot compose the obituary of capitalist society.