United States of Europe

Crawford Art Gallery, Cork

Cork was the final destination for this cultural roadshow that offered ‘various reflections’, in the form of artworks by an invited selection of curators and artists, on the theme of Europe today and what constitutes a European identity. Alongside these works were presented sociological studies in the form of video interviews with 50 people from a total of 10 countries, an interactive laboratory (‘a creative environment for real-time exchange about Europe today’), and a series of associated debates in the various host cities including, in Cork, Dreams of Freedom?, organised by the National Sculpture Factory. The whole affair was funded by, amongst others, the Goethe-Institut de Paris, the Partner Consortium, the European Commission and the EU Cultural Programme. The title, the project’s premise and the passport-styled catalogue all triggered a scepticism on my part, suggesting that what was on display was an instrumentalization of art, its use by a ruling bureaucracy, if not to promote certain ideals, then certainly to fill the space of genuine political debate on the subject of the current European democratic deficit. The combination of the almost propagandistic title and the relatively autonomous space of art clearly amounted to an exercise in disarmament – how could the devisers of the project be accused of indoctrination when here it took the form of a typically open contemporary art exhibition, with an opportunity to get your voice heard and be represented through the device of The Laboratory, where you could ‘Share your points of view’ (see the U.S.E. Website, http://www.go-use.eu/en/laboratory/index.html).
The dominant affect of the actual show was overload: way too much information and way too many voices. It was dominated by video work, some within specially constructed spaces and others left to fight it out between themselves in the open: a chaotic competition for time and attention. The cacophony of competing voices was such that I often felt like simply blocking my ears and hoping it would go away: an apt metaphor, perhaps, for a large proportion of the peoples of Europe’s relationship to the structure, institutions and project of the European Union. So in this respect, at least, United States of Europe did manage to convey a sense of the experience of ‘today’s Europe’.
Kennedy-Browne’s installation How Capital Moves appropriated testimonies from an Internet forum run by former employees of ‘The Company’. This text was then used as the script for a video in which a Polish actor performs different stories of hurt and betrayal, while dressed in a variety of pyjamas. The piece has a very theatrical quality and clearly references the performative aspect of much modern labour: it is not enough that you sell your time, you have to sell your private personality as well – even to the point of voluntarily wearing joke costumes to work, formally demonstrating your personal capacity for ‘fun’. How Capital Moves is an effective piece of work, laying bare the ‘red in tooth and claw’ nature of global capital while mimicking the slick style of corporate presentations.
It shared a superficial resemblance to Reinigungsgesellschaft’s Risk Society, an art-piece that could easily have formed part of the sociological component of USE. Reinigungsgesellschaft on their website describe their work as an ‘artistic venture at the point of intersection between art and society’. In their multiple channel video projection, young Germans described their hopes and expectations for the future. They are filmed in mid-shot, against a monochrome background facing the camera in a self-enclosed studio, in other words, without context. The style of the piece was again very professional, and the participants also clearly understood the importance of presentation. They expressed such banal expectations for the future that it made me hope that what was involved was some kind of bone-dry German humour. Its title, Risk Society, suggested it might have been. Risk Society and How Capital Moves, when played off each other, could well be viewed as forming a narrative of sorts – the latter acting as an early warning system for the young people of the Risk Society (a term which German sociologist Ulrich Beck used to describe a society increasingly preoccupied with the future and the possibility of failure and disaster).
The individuals portrayed in Anna Konik’s video installation, In the Middle of the Way, had failed to understand or play their parts in the system, and so had been expelled from the body social and onto the streets of Russia, of Poland, of Austria. The representation of these outcasts was not shiny or slick – instead the low resolution and jerky camera work laid heavy emphasis on the fact that its subject matter was the socially marginalised. They were filmed in their everyday locales, and told their stories. Viewing the work positively, it did allow narratives to be presented that are not normally made visible by mainstream media or, if so, only as a warning as to what can happen if you fall through the cracks of ‘society’. Konik, in an artist’s talk held at Sample Studios in conjunction with the USE show, stated that she felt she worked in a collaborative way with her subjects, but acknowledged the potential accusations of exploitation in representing the ‘other’ and stressed her constant interrogation of her own practice and a desire to grant visibility in an unexploitative manner.
On the second floor, and with its own separate space, Arthur Żmijewski’s Democracies took the form of a video installation: monitors showing footage from a number of public events in a variety of European countries. Headphones prevented a cacophonous melange of conflicting protest; instead each remained in their own space, which problematized an easy reading of democracy as the chaos of competing voices. These were all public gatherings where people came together to give public expression to beliefs or interests held in common. For the most part they were political gatherings of some form: an anti-NATO protest in Strasbourg, a loyalist march in Belfast, anti-abortion rallies in Poland, the funeral in Vienna of Jörg Haider. Also included were footage of football supporters in Berlin at a match between Germany and Turkey and a battle re-enactment in Poland. These public articulations of feelings and beliefs both performed and constituted collective identities. Each individual video seemed like a matter of fact documentation of an event in a very low-key, low-fi style, a style that makes claim to a certain disengagement and transparency of representation.
Taken together, however, the conflicted push and pull of the antagonistic political positions and belief systems served to suggest that a real ‘United States of Europe’ would be far from easy to achieve. Perhaps along one line Żmijewski’s work is concerned with the appearance of public events, with showing how the ‘impersonal, accurate representation’ made possible by video gives little more than the most superficial of understandings of what is at stake. The sporting events and political protests, whether from a left or right position, looked very similar, unless, that is, you were familiar with the particular symbols and rhetoric. What the viewer was left with was the fundamental difficulty of representing positions that are irreconcilable, positions in opposition to such a degree that some ‘third way’ consensus could never achieve more than a watering down of the terms. So perhaps Żmijewski’s work is about a collapsing of different forms of representation, the political and aesthetic, into each other? Does contemporary political representation amount to no more than bare visibility and audibility? In modern liberal democracies, like the European Union represented in the Crawford, conflicting belief systems may be seen and heard, but only in the gallery and other spaces of aesthetic display, where the conflict can be resolved into a celebration of the pluralism of the state. I leave the last word with Jodi Dean:

This aesthetic focus disconnects politics from the organized struggle of working people, making politics into what spectators see. Artistic products, whether actual commodities or commodified experiences, thereby buttress capital as they circulate from the streets to the galleries. (The Communist Horizon, 2012)