03 03 06


Review (Group show, foyer of the Centre Jacques Franck, Brussels)

Hito Steyerl

The exhibition A(rt)ctivisme is only a small part of a three month long festival at the Centre Culturel Jacques Franck. And it tackles the question of the relation between politics and art just like the whole festival itself.

But the exhibition itself refocusses this topic in terms of the question of political communication. Many, if not the majority of works seems to be dealing with the question how to communicate, how to articulate, and also how to visually condense and convey political meaning. Thus, the overall impression is that it very much operates with the visual vocabulary of graphic design and advertisement. Many of the works deal with posters, or rather with the many ways posters can be used in public space. While one series of posters invites people for comments on prostitution, another series consists of posters being made during a workshop. Another work deals with the appropriation of commercial advertisement spaces by alternative communicators - that is by people who replaced commercial posters with political ones. Stickers are posted on a huge world map, putting it up for sale or claiming that it has already been sold. And even the status of the activist is questioned by a series of different cosmetic products marketed under that name. Thus in most of the works, the visual tropes of publicity and mass communication form some sort of point of reference. Those tropes are appropriated, subverted or reinvested.

Only a minority of works problematises the language of  political communication itself. Does it always have to be short, loud, obvious and compressed? What happens within this sort of communication? What sort of templates, if not stereotypes and cliches are produced by this sort of visual shorthand vocabulary?

A series of works by Marc Bis seems to ask exactly this question. On small panels, he arranges heterogeneous black silhouettes on multicolored backgrounds showing street scenes and the like. On these stages, groups of people are made to coexist, which rarely occupy the same urban territory, like colonial subjects and diverse modern and historical western figures. Instead of showing us those people or groups of people themselves, the artist only evokes their shapes, and leaves it to our imagination to fill in the blanks (or blacks in this case). The image which is thus created is partly a purely virtual one, which consists of the stereotypes floating about in the spectators minds. An automatic 'knowledge' is retrieved, which always already judges, what the black profiles stand for. The work seems like an illustration of Althussers statement, that any recognition is at the same time an ideological miscognition and as such it becomes a problematisation of the principles of quick and ready visual communication itself. What does this type of communication really transmit? Isnt it only able to transmit what people already think they know?

A similar question is posed by the work of Toma Luntumbue. He has arranged several childrens drawings books titled Color on a small table. Those books, filled again with black and white outlines of people in different situations are obviously supposed to be colored by the audience.  But these scenes are not exactly suited for children, they portray situations of massive violence, of executions in war, of street violence and so on. Are those situations  conveyed to us via the media by standardised formulas, close to those cliches in childrens books? And are they thus reduced to a black and white, binary world view in which all nuances are suppressed and which can be infinitely and industrially reproduced? Does it mean that the political communication practised by corporate media infantilises the viewer? In other terms: What does this type of political communication really communicate? Does it really convey information or at least empathy? A visitor answers this question in a speech bubble next to one of the figures involved in an execution and this answer summarises the whole problem of the mass media type of political communication: m'en fous. I don't care.

A very surprising example of political communication which deftly moves beyond the moulds of formulaic representation is the work of Aime Ntakiyila. He made blue round plastic panels with orange letters telling us: Aimé. Yes. The world is my home. The meaning of these panels is not instantly clear. In a surrounding dominated by strikingly clear, if not strident messages, it provokes a pleasant perplexity. Neither does it try to hijack advertising tropes, nor  to graphically condense and thus simplify more complex issues. It is thus at once singular and blatantly universalist. In a world, which is becoming more and more inhospitable to many, this simple and serene assertion is far from obvious. But nevertheless, it doesnt try to appeal, to convince or to seduce. The panels competely ignore the laws of mass communication and graphic design. Layout? Logo? Image? M'en fous. It just simply and  even modestly states an obvious fact. That this fact is not commonly accepted is shown by a case of censorship within the exhibition. The advertisement company JC Decaux, which owns the commercial advertisment spaces used by the group "Diables roses" for presenting political posters withdrew their agreement after a poster was put up which advertised a theatre production by sans-papiers. Maybe this example shows that political communication is never more efficient than when it fails, and thus shows us the vast invisibilities which sustain our world of logos and images. To reveal the limit of visibility and thus also of communication is something which the exhibition achieved only so to speak accidentally and even against its intention. But no image could be more resonating, than an invisible poster of legally invisible people.