The Vectors of the Possible at BAK in Utrecht are not exactly spatial – that is, the directions they take are not based entirely in geography or place. More than anything their directions are temporal, with magnitudes comprised of political and social units. The exhibition, relating to next month’s 2nd Former West Research Congress, explores the concept of the horizon in art and politics. With such a loaded subject, guest curator Simon Sheikh has commendably organized a didactic and philosophical exhibition that doesn’t beat viewers over the head. With a slight sense of humor, Vectors… makes serious (and often timely) topics palatable for more than just political scholars and cultural theorists.
Vectors… realigns the temporal frames of sociopolitical horizons, ranging from a few hours to thousands of years. French writer George Sand wrote that “every historian discloses a new horizon”. By challenging the position of the horizon, the artists in Vectors… turn Sand’s statement on its head: the search for new horizons discloses new histories. Centering on the political and the social, the exhibition undermines modern historical narratives relating to place, identity, ownership, nationhood, and democracy.
Nearly every work in some way addresses political protest or champions a minority point of view. Beginning with Freee’s Protest Drives History, a photograph with no visible horizon itself, the exhibition explores the individual and the collective as agents of historical and political processes. In the image, two people hold a giant banner espousing the work’s title. The work itself is not so much a protest, but an affirmation of the expansive, if perhaps slow (this is a historical timescale after all), power of dissent.
Two other artworks seemingly question the power of protest, positing it as something that is, itself, bound within certain conventions and horizons. Waiting for the Demonstration at the Wrong Time is a photograph of artists Runo Lagomarsino and Johan Tirénon on an empty road, having arrived hours early for a demonstration against an EU summit. The work poses an “If a tree falls in the woods…” question. Conversely, Sharon Hayes’ slide projection installation, In the Near Future, depicts her revisiting protests of the past. Alone, she holds up signs from past demonstrations in cities around the world. Her placards seem bizarre, making little sense in their new context. In one image she holds a sign declaring: “I am a man”. Vague, apolitical signs like, “Actions speak louder than words” and “When is this going to end?”, make us question the idea of free sociopolitical action. Such action exists in very specific forms and can be ineffectual without the critical mass, or context, of a formal or organized protest. Expanding the temporal vectors of political possibility in these scenarios shows that they don’t necessarily work. Are there other ways to object, or is the scope of political protest truly limited?
Other works are themselves a form of protest, addressing very real and contemporary issues. Artist collective chto delat/What is to be done?’s musical film, The Tower: A Songspiel, for example, is a surreal artistic reenactment of the debates and critiques surrounding the controversial Okhta Centre (formerly Gazprom City) in St. Petersburg, Russia. Looking at the intersection of art and activism in real life, Hito Steyerl’s film, Universal Embassy, documents an artist/activist project based in the former Somali diplomatic mission in Brussels. The embassy assists sanspapiers, undocumented individuals, while questioning the notion of statelessness, borders, and universal human rights.
Two projects look to the past, using archival materials to either bring to light lesser-known historical narratives, or re-imagine ones that could have been. Ultra-red’s Vogue’ology is a thorough archival investigation of the New York gender-bending House/Ball scene, most famously documented in the film Paris is Burning. Using sound and historical materials, the project archives a minority group’s acts of empowerment and social resistance through mimesis, mockery, and instrumental fantasy. Elske Rosenfeld’s, Our brief autumn of utopia revisits and documents an un-adopted constitution written in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The work questions a present in which the course of history was not dictated by the political exigencies of a finite historical moment.
Finally, Matthew Buckingham’s The Six Grandfathers, Paha Sapa, in the Year 502,002 C.E. opens the widest lens on an expansive horizon. The work extends a modern historical conflict back into prehistory and 500,000 years forward into the future. The work is a photograph, appearing very much within the American landscape tradition. Like archaeology in reverse, the image shows geologists’ predictions of how the eroded presidential faces on Mt. Rushmore will appear ½ million years from now. A long timeline next to the photograph chronicles a dark and shocking struggle for the land, mostly conducted in modern times between the US government and resident Native Americans. In this retelling, the US government is clearly cast in a poor light, but ultimately this land belongs to no one. Time is the greatest geopolitical mover.
John Lennon asked us to imagine there’s no countries. This isn’t quite as easy to do as he might have suggested, but the artists in Vectors… show us how art can help visualize this type of possibility. If anything can be said about the horizon, it’s that it can never be reached; the horizon is itself a vector, always moving away from us. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be challenged. Imagination is central to exploring the possibilities and impossibilities of expanding horizons, political and otherwise, and Vectors of the Possible demonstrates the roles that artists can play in mobilizing and channeling our imaginations to this cause.
~Andrea Alessi, a writer from the Netherlands.
(Images: Runo Lagomarsino & Johan Tirén, Waiting for the Demonstration at the Wrong Time, 2003/2007; Freee, Protest Drives History, 2008; Sharon Hayes, In the Near Future, 2009; chto delat/What is to be done?, The Tower: A Songspiel, 2010; Ultra-red, Vogue’ology, Scene One: The New School Encuentro, performance at The New School, New York, 8 May 2010; Matthew Buckingham, The Six Grandfathers, Paha Sapa, in the Year 502,002 C.E., 2002; Courtesy BAK)