Subversive art needs no introduction. The world constantly seems ever more economically, politically and environmentally unstable and the times always seem to be changing. Artists, unsurprisingly, use their own artistic means to protest and fuel changes in society, using a wide range of strategies. In many ways, the artistic debates prevalent in the 1970s are recurring today and the discussion about the position of the artist within an information and media society is one of these debates. One indicator of the art world’s renewed focus on this period and its discussions concerning the role of the artist is the recent symposium Rethinking Robert Smithson at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and the publication of the book Robert Smithson: Art in Continual Movement. Another is Fear at the Core of Things, an exhibtion of Christoph Schlingensief’s work at BAK in Utrecht.
Smithson’s artistic heritage provides an interesting and relevant case study in this respect. As a Land Artist he placed himself in a specific position in the social debate about the ecological crisis. Smithson questioned the increasing consumer culture, but was critical of what he regarded as the pastoral and picturesque fantasies of many ecologists. At the same time, he looked at ecology’s opponent, industry, from a geocentric vantage point and saw industry’s entropic activities as natural forces, an inevitable part of our chosen lifestyle. At the beginning of the 1970s Smithson started to envision the artist as a “mediator between the ecologist and the industrialist.” He believed “the artist must accept and enter into all of the real problems that confront the ecologist and industrialist.” Smithson saw the conflicting ideas about nature as an irreconcilable situation and art could mediate the differences. Ecology and industry continued to be practiced as “one-way streets [when] they should be seen as crossroads”. Smithson moved beyond these polarities charting a middle-of-the-road position with a willingness to cooperate. This choice was not necessarily a political one but also a practical one – some of his plans couldn’t be executed because both groups presented hurdles. This doesn’t make his position in the middle of the debate less interesting. Rather than pave or turf over the perceived scars of industry, Smithson chose to accept the landscape as it was, highlighting a history of human intervention while adding to that very history.
Christoph Schlingensief’s more contemporary work employs a different subversive strategy. He was neither mediator nor negotiator, but an activist provocateur creating a confrontation between opposing sides. “Media democracy art” was the term he coined to describe his attempts to unmask the world of everyday life, which he saw as a reality produced by politics and the media. One of Schlingensief's tactics was to call politicians’ bluffs in an attempt to reveal the consequences of their discourse: “playing something through to its end.” This strategy was most notable in his project in Vienna called Please Love Austria—First European Coalition Week (2000), which came to be known as Ausländer raus! (Foreigners out!). Shortly before Schlingensief came up with this project, the radical right-wing Freedom Party of Austria had been elected into the government coalition. The concept of the project was that a dozen real asylum seekers lived inside containers right in the middle of Vienna's touristic heart. Excerpts from speeches by FPÖ chairman Jörg Haider resounded across the square. Satirizing reality TV shows like “Big Brother”, the asylum seekers were surveilled by cameras and two were thrown out through web-voting daily. Instead of being voted out of the show, however, the candidates were voted out of the country and the winner received a residence permit. Schlingensief wanted to confront the Austrian public with the concreteness of public xenophobia and the new hate-politics rhetoric as a reality check. He created his own public forum, an ambiguous political event, and a mass of outraged people gathered in front of the containers. Schlingensief managed to create situations where opinions were brought to the surface and heated discussions occurred. The right-wing side of the political spectrum saw the project as an attack on them. While it probably was, Schlingensief claims it wasn’t: “What we do is self-provocation. We give an empty screen onto which you project your own movie. You have the returning problem the images turn back on you.”
Christoph Schlingensief, Ausländer raus–Bitte liebt Österreich, 2000, photo: Didi Sattmann.
These two dramatically different artists both use subversive strategies to bring light to certain issues: Smithson as a mediator and Schlingensief as an instigator. Actions such as Schlingensief’s tend to be symbolic and theatrical, aiming at the television cameras rather than any real change. It is highly effective at drawing attention to a problem and promoting public discussion of it. But it does get you on the wrong foot with the opposing group. Some even say he went too far and failed to make citizens conscious about a concrete political issue because the project was loathed by the left and denied by the right. Negotiating like Smithson leads to more concrete though perhaps more subtle results. It requires a degree of compromise, as well as shared goals and assumptions between the negotiating parties. That is not an option for radical activists. The works of artists like Smithson and Schlingensief are instructive, showing there is no one-size-fits-all solution in art or politics (where we most commonly see these strategies played out). It’s up to the individual to decide which suits their purpose best.
(Image on top right: Christoph Schlingensief, Ausländer raus—Bitte liebt Österreich, 2000, photo: Didi Sattmann.)