13 10 07

How are we able to politicize exhibition practice?

Dmitry Vilensky

The experiences accumulated in many recent exhibition projects that claim their relation to politics already allow us to attempt a generalizing analysis of what this type of projects actually is and what it could be. In the following, I would like to sketch out these potentials in the form of points to initiate further discussion.


To make exhibition project politically means to actualize the idea of soviets as a collective organ which produce and govern all forms of activity. It is important to transform the governmental logic of curating through the creation of Artistic Soviets, which would be involved in the making of the exhibition project as political undertaken from its earliest phases onward. It is the Artistic Soviet that could serve as a prototypical social model, capable of formulating and realizing its goals independently, taking on the function of an alternative power, an open system for interaction with society at large.



The true politicized exhibition produces new models of communication and positions itself as a form of counter public space. These projects should challenge the established relations what is accepted in the society as political and what is accepted as aesthetic in art. It takes as a point of departure the subjective space where true politics begin. As Jacques Rancière has once precisely remarked:

“Political action consists in showing as political what was viewed as ‘social’, ‘economic’, or ‘domestic’. It consists in blurring the boundaries. It is what happens whenever ‘domestic’ agents —workers or women, for instance— reconfigure their quarrel as a quarrel concerning the common, that is, concerning what place belongs or does not belong to it and who is able or unable to make enunciations and demonstrations about the common. It should be clear therefore that there is politics when there is a disagreement about what is politics, when the boundary separating the political from the social or the public from the domestic is put into question. This is why Politics generally occurs ‘out of place’, in a place which was not supposed to be political”.
And the space of visual art production can be transformed into such a place.


To make exhibition politically means to find an embodiment to an activist approach to art. In this sense, it continues the tradition expressed in Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”. In this sense, these exhibitions need to avoid purely contemplative at all costs; in fact, such passive aesthetization represents a fundamental danger. Instead, the political exhibition demonstrates the possibility for aesthetic and social change, revealing the difference between what the world is today and what it could become.


The process of making exhibitions politically strives to address an audience that differs from the traditional audience of an art-exhibition in terms of social origin and class composition. It mobilizes the spectator to find himself as a political subject. But it realizes quite differently from the direct experience of participation in political action.

The actualization of the political potential of the “spectator” happens through the sharing the aesthetic experience, and it happens when everyone is approached with the challenge to become an engaged co-author, calling for solidarity through experience taken in common.


The politicized exhibition searches for alternate spaces to undertake its representations. Today, it seems as though the tactic with the most potential is not to choose between entrism and exodus but use this two strategies simultaneously.  The main thing that we should keep in mind by choosing combinations of different tactics is the strategic goal to reclaim a surplus value that such projects create. This surplus value should become common and be dispersed back into everyday struggles and we should impose as more limitations as possible to limit the use of it for the profit of the institutions.


The politicized exhibitions arise in the process of interdisciplinary interaction. This process is not based on pre-determined knowledge, limited by the traditions of pre-existent disciplines (i.e. sociology, economics, philosophy, urbanism etc.). Instead, art becomes the spark and the catalyst for encounters between these fields, presenting them with new challenges and goals. This leads to the erosion of the dogmata of knowledge and the narrow approaches of professional guilds, and brings about a process of knowing, a creative cognitive process based in the micro-politics of establishing a new relation between disciplines and share the process of self-education of one small group with broader community.


The process of making visual art projects politically aim at achieving cultural hegemony. However, this striving toward hegemony has nothing to do with the old models of party dictatorship in cultural policy, or the dominance of one political discourse or one unified aesthetic style. Instead, it entails the strategic construction of the hegemony of subjectivity, critical and irreconcilable to any and all forms of sovereign power.


The formal-aesthetic practices of the politicized exhibition create a new temporal mode of existence through the dialogue with the spectator-participant. As an immediate embodiment of (counter-)public space, it uses the creation of public architecture to erode the boundary between art and life. In doing so, it employs the aesthetics of cinema and is subject to the logic of participation, becoming an open multi-media archive or a library, existing on foreign territory as a sit-in.

The logic of participation—based on the discursive-political involvement of the public with the creation and operation of the exhibition—should not be confused with interactivity, which is so fashionable in almost all branches of the exhibition-industry today. The latter does little more than to supply the spectator with an illusion of endless possibilities for intervening in the process of the art-work’s creation. However, more often than not, this is nothing but a purposive development of the consumerist relationship to the product. Interactivity is always under rigid systemic control, based on the sophistication of the newest technologies, usually advertising its sponsors in a more or less overt form.


The political exhibition erodes the traditional autonomy of individual artworks by placing them into the public space of the exhibition. In this way, it works as a resonator for the differentiated political contexts that singular artworks will entails, bringing about a montage of subjectified polyphony.


The process of creating politicized projects is self-critical with regard to its possibilities and the legitimacy of its power.


It goes without saying that these points for discussion have a certain ideal quality, but their postulates are little more than an extrapolation of the possibilities that existing  exhibition practices already provide. It is this new experience that allows us to speak of realism—and not of utopia—when we talk about the repoliticization of art. To confirm this idea, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to an important observation by Paolo Virno:

“I have the impression that to speak about utopia today in positive terms is a little like living beneath one’s means. That is, all of the things are today within arm’s reach, beneath our eyes, and within here and now in which we live. Looking more deeply at the things is as if the elements of this utopia were all visible, but hidden under the slab of ice, like something that participates in some way in our present and that is part of the visible order. The difficulty is rather in acting with a kind of fullness of the times where everything is expanded, where, how-ever, some forces rather than some other prevail. Everything is localized even if poorly guaranteed. In the exodus, you go elsewhere, with actions, praxes, and initiatives. No longer an ideal in itself of unobtainable utopia, now we live in a time in which if we ever collide with an absolute reality of the ideal and its tangibility”.


Dmitry Vilensky


other languages

How are we able to politicize exhibition practice? ¿Cómo podemos politizar la práctica de la exposición? К вопросу о политической выставке