Issue 2/2019 - Illiberal!
During the fall of 2018 artist Roee Rosen and Ana Teixeira Pinto were both invited to contribute, howbeit in very different ways, to the 6th Athens Biennial, titled “Anti”. In early September 2018, it became public that artist Luke Turner had asked the curators to de-platform another artist in the show, Daniel Keller, whom he accused of trivializing anti-Semitic harassment on twitter. The curators declined to des-invite Keller, and issued a statement saying they found “no hard evidence” Keller bore anti-Semitic feelings. After becoming aware of the controversy Ana Teixeira Pinto decided to withdraw her consent for the biennial to reprint a text of hers, formerly published by Texte zur Kunst. Roee Rosen, on the other hand, confirmed his participation. The following article is an abbreviated version of an e-mail exchange between Teixeira Pinto and Rosen, concerning their thoughts, doubts, and positions vis a vis the debate that was raging on social media.
Sun, Nov 4, 2018, 11:07 AM
It was good talking with you in Paris. I will travel to Athens this coming weekend to give my talk, and our discussion remains in my mind. I spoke with people who know the Athens Biennial team, especially some curators with whom I worked during Documenta14, one of whom responded she felt the whole thing was over the top and that she found Turner's letter “just vulgar.” I felt compelled to do this, as Luke Turner sent me a rather agitated and aggressive e-mail (it was addressed to “Dear Roee,” but clearly sent to everyone involved, warning us of the dangerous anti-Semitism by proxy the biennial is disseminating). Initially I wanted to answer him, at the very least to express my sympathy, but I ended up not doing so, thus far at least.
As for any “neo-fascist sympathies,” I know neither Poka nor Kostis Stafylakis hold such political views. But they do work around the notion of overidentification, which can, of course, be misinterpreted at first glance. It is true that what they are trying to do is provocative, and that the possible misinterpretations and appropriations can be terrifying. But I also have to admit that I’m weary of a growing moralistic entrenchment in the artworld these days, for it might jeopardize the very critical and free position art should have (and by that I don’t mean in any way to condone any kind of Neo-fascist drive). As Banu [Cennetoglu] said in her Documenta14 work: “Being safe is scary.”
I also received some e-mails arguing against (before the opening, mind you) the shallowness of the “Anti” exhibition, but blaming the curators for not being sophisticated is irrelevant to my own need to sort things out.
Sun, Nov 4, 2018, 12:39 PM
I never met any of the people involved personally, thus cannot comment on whether they are aggressive or obnoxious, but I don’t think that is relevant to the content of the discussion either, which, to me, is the question: is there a nexus between what one could call micro-fascism – e.g. coordinated attacks on social media or positions that can be described as cohering around an anti-political correctness stance – and the current surge of far-right doctrines? I don’t think the relation is a direct one, but I don’t think we can dismiss it either, it is no coincidence that “social justice warrior” is an alt-right slur (and just consider for a second the misogyny and homophobia implied in a term like “my bitch”, Victor Klemperer’s work comes to mind here, as he points out semiotic violence paves the way for material violence).
To your point concerning “freedom”, in my view lofty gestures such as “we decry censorship” or “we stand for artistic freedom” belong to the field of morals, and thus deny the very essence of politics, which is always context-specific. Appeals to liberty in this narrow sense can (and often do) clash with freedom in a broader sense, and I think at the moment the lionizing of “artistic freedom” is contributing to political unfreedom, by creating a toxic, and intimidating environment. Most importantly there is a lot of structural violence involved in the sustaining of values such as “freedom of speech” or “artistic freedom” – you only have to look at how these values are weaponized against minorities to see what I mean, just consider the “Open Casket” case [a highly" controversial painting by Dana Schutz exhibited in the Whitney Biennial 2017] or the Mohammed cartoon controversy. Besides, it is always those who struggle to change the status quo who came across as “aggressive” or “unhinged”, those who align themselves with it have a great deal of institutional weight on their side, hence always seem levelheaded. My decision to withdraw was not based on the suspicion the curators might be closeted Nazis, I simply do not wish to add another layer to the ongoing debate because in my view this debate, as it is framed at present, is not a debate worth having. I felt divestment was the best strategy.
Sun, Nov 4, 2018, 2:59 PM
Just to be clear: I really appreciate your sharing these thoughts and apprehensions with me, and I identify with them, to an extent. But my main concern was whether this constitutes grounds for withdrawal. As for Turner, I don’t know him either; in describing him as “aggressive” I simply meant that the e-mail implied a call for (negative) action from all artists involved.
As for freedom and unfreedom, I have to think about your point. I think there’s a distinction to be made between positions driven by market-based consensus and plural permissiveness –wherein everything is equalized in a numbing way and art loses its bite as oppositional praxis – and positions that pursue the esoteric or stage themselves as pathological (overidentification, for example), where the risk may indeed be obfuscation or misinterpretation, but market value, corporate interest and certainly an endorsement of political hegemony seem far-fetched.
Mon, Nov 5, 2018, 6:01 PM
I can see where you are coming from, and in principle I agree, but within the present context overidentification does not work as an artistic strategy, on the contrary, I think overidentification, ambivalence and cynicism have a use value for the far-right: the libidinal investment in crypto-fascist themes is adding to that which they claim to be subtracting from. Failing to see that has a lot to do with a corporate reflex: affirmation and overidentification are default settings of meaning production in our field, and it’s just easier to dug one's heels in than to rethink one’s positions anew. As they said this is a disagreement about tactics and I disagree with theirs.
Sun, Nov 11, 2018, 7:26 PM
To me the most important thing to confront are these two contemporary dangers: on the one hand, the presence of crypto fascist tendencies and tropes that can slide from symbolic or verbal ambivalence to actual violence (which I believe is basically the accusation meted against the Athens Biennial); on the other hand, what should be perceived as an extremely severe or punitive measure: the boycott (and Luke Turner clearly aimed at actually debunking this biennial). This call to boycott, sanction or withdraw, coalesces with other new or evolving experiences: the aggressive nature of social media, and its resolute demand for assertive and unequivocal positions, imbricated with harsh, quick and categorical judgment calls.
I admit that from the very beginning I was taken aback by the way Turner collected, archived and displayed the “evidence” of his twitter exchange, lumping together extreme hate posts, with ambiguous jokes and insinuations, and with things that seem to fit in only due to a conspiratorial mindset. But to me, more alarming in logical terms is the chain by which one accusation of anti-Semitism lead to another, and another, in what I would term accusation by proxy: a young, apparently mentally unstable, though nasty female artist, posts anti-Semitic imagery, thus the person who rises to her defense, Keller, is also colluding in anti-Semitism, and by extension the exhibition that hosts him is also guilty of perpetuating anti-Semitism.
I had a long discussion yesterday with Kostis, one of the curators, who told me this nightmare has an almost surreal sense of reversal, as he was one of the few people in Greece who actually wrote about the dangers of latent and covert anti-Semitism. He also told me that they tried to negotiate with Turner, offering him to publish a text about his position in the catalogue, or host a panel discussion in the biennial, but to no avail: he demanded that they kick out another artist because he felt he was anti-Semitic based on a twitter-exchange; however annoying, Keller clearly is not anti-Semitic, and in my opinion the demand was impossible for any decent curator to accept.
What I also find disturbing is that even someone as smart and sophisticated as Sven Lütticken would not only condemn the Athens Biennial, but be so resolute, using insulting terminology (“nauseating,” “Terminally dumb”). There's a glide from summarily judging the political stance, to a critical assault on the curatorial-artistic stance, based on a page long press release (not a full essay, let alone the actual exhibition). These Greek curators clearly are NOT the enemy, but their condemnation was resolute and ugly in the way social media seems to demand, somehow.
Tue, Nov 13, 2018, 12:34 PM
I see it differently. I don't think the curators or the artists involved are politically aligned with any far-right movement – that is not the issue here. I do think however that their casual take on alt right themes and tropes feeds into the far-right creep, and this is of enormous consequence. I met countless students who start by taking an interest in Nick Land – whose name still carries enormous currency in the artworld – and thereon wander into very dark places. Understanding the coded nature of white supremacist language – for instance the term Rhodesia popping up causally in Land’s blog – is not easy for young people with little political literacy, and walking back from such places proves a daunting task when you are not equipped with the theoretical tools to dismantle this – at first glance airtight – rhetoric. This is why it is irrelevant to me whether those involved identify as left wing; they are, in my view, denying the racist content of these materials by insisting they be read as edgy, provocative or anti-normative: “thriving adversarial attitudes” as their press release puts it. Their whole vocabulary is antipolitical and obscurantist, drenched in white nihilism. They speak of “Kek (…) a deity of chaos” and describe “cunning villains” and “manipulators” as “fascinating characters”. They call Steve Bannon a “classical reactionary,” which is quite the euphemism. They refer to Land, to Bitcoin, to transhumanism, but the political content of these theories and technologies remains undefined in any but the vaguest of terms, as “attitudes that demand new alternatives.” At the same time, the curatorial team made an aggressive statement of their own denouncing Luke Turner for slandering the biennial. To me this is the sort of game made possible by the way white privilege and white innocence work in tandem – i.e. you will never be confronted by the political consequences of the “theories” you fetishize; if taken to task you say the critique is made out of malice.
To your question: what are the curators to do, I would answer with another question: why invite incompatible positions (like mine) in the first place? I can only see this as a cynical attempt to court controversy, whilst playing divine arbiter, or claiming to represent “both sides”. I felt instrumentalized and that’s why I do not regret withdrawing my text, hope you understand.
Wed, Nov 14, 2018, 9:34 AM
Of course, I think your withdrawing is understandable and legitimate, I have no problem with it; the points I tried to raise were different.
To begin with your final (rhetorical?) question: why did the organizers invite someone like Keller in the first place. To answer, if we put aside the twitter exchange that was made public by Turner, as he demanded that Keller be disinvited, I can well imagine them finding Keller's work, a documentary on the Seasteaders Plan, pertinent. So – “inviting in the first place” does NOT seem to me unearthly or clearly wrong, even if one dislikes the work or disagrees with it. I will be hard-pressed to think of an international exhibition where I saw eye-to-eye or liked everyone, which I think is not even a desirable thing. Having thus answered, we return to the question of the demand to oust the work, which I find resolutely wrong, and for which, once they did not accept it, the curators were attacked.
Now, on the nature of that attack and its logic. On Turner's site there are indeed appalling incidents of belligerent anti-Semitism. But his open letter did not address an anti-Semitic organization, or even an anti-Semitic individual – it aggressively tried to boycott a group exhibition in Athens, treating it not only as an enemy, but the worst kind of an enemy, the one you are unwilling to negotiate with. I try to imagine myself in his shoes: I would have to feel like a crusader – and what exactly is the purpose of this crusade? Who was this holy crusade targeting?
My other point was to call for self-reflexivity in terms of the public reaction. You speak of “Obscurantism,” but in terms of correctly applying political and symbolic guns, is this really aiming at one of the dangerous entities and individuals that are around us? And how tempered is the reaction? I find the public condemnation politically obscurantist from another direction: lumping together phenomena that are completely different. By publicly and symbolically lynching people who are not anti-Semitic you do not fight anti-Semitism or hurt it in the least. You speak about confused students going down a slippery-slope. As a teacher I have to think about this point seriously (so far, I always assumed it is better to let students confront what’s out there and tackle it independently, but perhaps it is more complex); however – I see dangers and confusion in this sort of violent negation of others based on obscure accusations by proxy.
There was a recent essay by Eva Illouz titled “The Next Stage of MeToo”, on the occasion of one year of the MeToo movement. As she hails it as the important movement it is, she calls for the next stage, that will entail reflexive distinctions between the criminal and the hurtful, means to relativize punitive responses, and cases and conditions of forgiveness. For me it is a crucial sensibility that has its applications on what we are discussing here as well.
Wed, Nov 14, 2018, 12:30 PM
To your statement, “they are not the enemy,” I beg to differ: the problem of racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy would be easy to tackle if it was confined to the bona fide neo-Nazis – you know, the ones you have “hard evidence” about. There are not that many of those, and yet the far right is in power in half of the world! This is the case because its frame of reference seems “normal” or commonsensical to a great many people, people who even claim to be left, nominally, or that work in traditionally liberal or left-leaning institutions. This is why I feel context matters, at present those who lionize trolls as champions of free speech; far-right iconography as aesthetic avant-garde; or equivocate about racist content are indeed aiding the enemy.
To your point about conflating “real anti-Semitism” with “trolling”, I do not, I can tell the difference, but I can also tell you that online that difference is immaterial! Trump’s election made it clear. You can also look at this recent case in France concerning the Ligue du LOL [this example was inserted a posteriori]. The high-profile journalists involved – most writing for left-leaning publications btw – all swiftly said they never used slurs themselves, obviously they didn’t have to: they created a milieu that signaled to others, less canny, there was open season on women and minorities, thereby creating a hostile environment for all but their posse.
Regarding Metoo, I disagree with Illouz, to me the point of the movement was precisely to draw attention to the continuity between the hurtful and the criminal; to say that it is the normalization of the hurtful that lays the groundwork for the criminal.
To me that the curators are not able to grasp the problem with their modality of aesthetic engagement is truly disheartening. By now a lot was written about the aesthetic strategies of the alt-right, but instead of challenging it politically they feed into the way this movement (and the investment portfolio that goes along with it) is marketed to the Western middle classes as something edgy, disruptive and taboo breaking. Howbeit unwittingly, it aids the normalization of a structure of affect, which is aligned with a far-right project. And even if just a tiny bit, it ends up contributing to the festering pile of sadistic policy we are knee-deep in!
To your question about whether the backlash is proportional or rather an overreaction: I don't know the answer and don't even think the answer can be known before hand, it all depends on what emerges out of the discussion, hopefully, a better understanding of the nexus between aesthetics and politics, and of online dynamics. In any case, I do not think an art exhibition is something that ought to be protected at all costs. “Culture” will not save us from the ongoing fascist onslaught, rather the opposite: “culture” is the privileged site where a new set of barbarisms is taking shape.
Wed, Nov 14, 2018, 3:32 PM
I do agree with much of what you say, but reading the “Anti” text, it seems to me the curators DO NOT identify with the modalities of engagement they list – but point to “anti” (as in contrarian or anti-normative) attitudes as these are manifested in all sorts of positions, some of which they describe as collapsing unto themselves, other as being in power even as they maintain an “anti” rhetoric, some as self-incommensurate, as reactionary, as “dark” etc. I do think that the way they framed the topic is likely to create confusion, and can be charged with “obscuring.”
To clarify the context of the “enemy or not” question: I did not mean to imply that they are benevolent right-wingers rather than blatant Nazis, but that they belong on the left. They have more to do (quite literally, as in working together and belonging to the same community) with the Greek gay activist and artist Zak Kostopolous who was lynched recently, than with the right. You may argue that their choices and strategies are ill-serving, risky or obfuscating, but to frame them as right or even center seems to me both unfair and incorrect.
Open letter by Luke Turner (with links to the Twitter exchange):
Response letter by the Athens Biennial:
Article by Shut Down LD50 (SDLD50) against the Athens Biennial:
Sven Lütticken against the Athens Biennial::
Second, more detailed response letter by the Athens Biennial:
Homepage of the Athens Biennial: https://anti.athensbiennale.org/en
Eva Illouz, Es ist Krieg, in: DIE ZEIT, Nr. 42/2018, 11th October 2018, https://www.zeit.de/2018/42/metoo-bewegung-jahrestag-bilanz.