18 01 07

Mind wide shut. Art in the age of fear

Hito Steyerl

Lately the BBC reported that 6000 out of around 30.000 African boat people didnt make it to the Canary Islands.[1] They drowned on the way or went missing. These are only the figures for a single year: 2006. The number only comes to life if we compare it to other numbers. It´s about 5 times higher than the figure of casualties in the conflict between Lebanon and Israel in the same year. Around twice the number of the dead of the so called 2nd intifada. Or the victims of 9/11. Could any one imagine the coverage, if this amount of people would have died during an earthquake or a terror attack? At least one month of breaking news, special features, an incessantly talking army of experts for risk and relief. But there is just an eerie silence around the fate of the boat people. How comes? These people weren´t just killed because of weak boats, strong winds or other whims of nature. Their cause of death is European fear.

Fear is Europes common denominator; it is it´s clandestine currency. After the failure to ratify a common constitution, the only thing European citizens wholeheartedly share are their anxieties. The threat of terror, the threat of immigration, the threat of downsizing, virusses, crime, global warming, virtually anything can be constructed as phobia. There is fear of too much or too little change, fear of the world, fear of oneself. Even the infortunate ones which keep drowning in the European seas are the object of intense anxieties. It would be perfectly understandable if boat people were afraid of Europe, since a death toll of about 25% is indeed fearsome. 

Unfortunately it makes no sense to point out the irrationality of this type of fear, because irrationality is precisely what it is all about. There is a simple reason for the failure of reason. Fear is very productive, and if one dare say: attractive. We like it and actively support it. We vote for it in droves. The success of right wing and so-called populist parties all over Europe is an effect of a longstanding addiction to fear. Because if ones life is threatened, this implies that one is still alive. Fear runs through the veins like adrenalin, or a drug. It is the contemporary form of consciousness: Mind wide shut. 

It makes no difference that many of the threats are imaginary. The fear itself is real. Even more real than reality itself. Because it makes things real. Take the wall in Ceuta: a monument to European fear. Yes, there is a European identity. No, it´s not humanism, christianity or other sublime ideal. It´s fear. As simple as that.


It´s fear, stupid.

Fear has lots of qualities we like. It is intense, abundant, it multiplies, unlike people it travels freely and swiflty. Similar to digital information it can be copied not only without loss of quality but even substantial improvement. It is subject of intense enjoyment, a paradoxical desire in disguise. Fear feels real - unlike reality itself. 

But fear is more than that. It is a popular commodity form of affect; it is branded, appropriated, marketed, maybe even franchised. The shiver of the attractions of the vanity fair, the spooky feeling of horror films, the special effects of angst and trepidation are being mass produced by media machineries and coated with ready made reality. Paolo Virno has reminded us, that this pervasive and existential fear is linked to the loss of traditional community and the nascent state of the crowd. It cannot be contained by common ritual or its modern counterpart: a public sphere of communicative rationality.[2] On the contrary: fear itself is the form of the contemporary public. It constitutes a widely globalised common, swaying with the rythmn of breaking news.

In an interesting text, Brian Massumi has described the color-based US terror alert system as an instrument to synchronize the affects of the American population. There is no need for explanations anymore – just flash a color at the people (anything between red and yellow that is; green is not an option) and modulate their moods.[3] In this mode, power addresses itself straight to the senses. It is not only aestheticized. It has become sensible, it has penetrated perception as such. And now we realise that fear goes way beyond being an individual state of mind. Fear arises, when politics is exercised as aesthetics.

Politics of the monochrome

And this is where art comes into the picture. Because if the politics of fear articulate themselves as aesthetics, it might also be possible to counter them on this level. If fear works through the senses, why not think of different sensibilities? If a set of colors flashed at a population changes their emotions, why not arrange a different set of colors?

Fear seems to be a crossroads, where politics and art meet up again – although not in the usual mode of discursivity. Contemporary politics generally seem to work much more in the mode of feeling. The colors of the terror alert system are just one example of how politics addresses the senses. But adopting the aesthetic strategies of the monochrome is a much more widespread phenomena. Just think of the series of recent color revolutions: the rose revolution in Georgia (2003), orange revolution in Ukraine (2004), green or Cedar Revolution in Lebanon (2005). Even the presumed „coming of democracy“ to Irak after the elections in 2005 was briefly called the „purple revolution.“ The name comes from the color that voters' index fingers were stained to prevent illegal multiple voting. The „blue revolution“ was the name of the protests of Kuwaiti women to gain the right to vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections.[4] In each case, the connection with a particular color was sufficient to evoke feelings of hope or fear within the public – regardless of any political content. The color became a brand name for a specific political affect instead: a politics of the monochrome. A color, which turns straight into action.

But what is this politics based on? Lets explore this specific type of political aesthetics further. It is clear that the monochrome is a genre with a long tradition in modernity. What was the function of the monochrome when it first appeared in the art world? Right from the start a strong contradiction arises within the interpretation of monochromes. In 1921, Alexandr Rodchenko exhibited three monochromes together - each in one of the three primary colours. He intended this work to be a manifestation of “the Death of Painting.” In contrast to that, Kazimir Malevich’s “White Square on a White Field” of 1918 was rather understood to be a concentration on the essence of art (“pure feeling”). The monochrome could thus be interpreted either as the end of art or as „pure feeling“. It could be interpreted as the „death of painting“ or a completely new beginning in art.

The function of the political monochromes is very similar. They both signify the end of politics as such (end of history, advent of liberal democracy) and at the same time an era of „pure feeling“. They signal simultaneously the death of politics and its radical renewal on the level of perception – by appealing on „pure feeling“.


Crisis of representation

But the monochrome as form also points to another development. In the Western art history of the 20th century it manifests a crisis of representation, which ultimately brings about the destruction and leaving behind of the traditional form of panel painting as such. Artists freed color, form and ultimately the objects from the confine of the frame. The frame was attacked, exposed, destroyed, and later simply left behind.

Does the appearance of the political monochrome, almost a century later, not point out a similar „crisis of representation“ in politics? It seems, as if we were slowly leaving behind the framework of the democratic nation state, as we left behind the frame of the traditional panel of the painting.

But why then do some events completely drop out of frame: like the 6000 missing and drowned? What causes this selective anaesthesia? It seems as if the missing and drowned got lost in a void beyond feeling. A zone of total insensitivity, which triggers no feelings whatsoever, a white zone of death from which color is as absent as emotion. This zone constitutes the blind spot of the politics of feeling, a point zero of fear, which nevertheless structures our perspective on it. This void is the ground for the figure of fear. And its uncanny silence expresses the crisis of representation as such.

[2] Paolo Virno, Grammatik der Multitude, Vienna: Turia + Kant 2005. P 37ff.

[3] Brian Massumi, Fear - (The Spectrum said).

[4] Informations from Wikipedia entry: Color revolutions,  

Hito Steyerl


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Mind wide shut. Art in the age of fear Den Verstand fest verschlossen. Kunst im Zeitalter der Angst