(P065)
The state of the art: the anthropology of art and the anthropology of the state
Location SOAS Senate House - S211
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 4

Convenor

  • Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (Higher School of Economics, St Petersburg) email

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Short abstract

What is the place of art and aesthetics in the anthropology of the state? What is the place of the state in the anthropology of art? This panel will bridge the anthropology of art and of the state through a comparative exploration that draws on a broad range of ethnographic case studies.

Long abstract

What is the place of art and aesthetics in the anthropology of the state? What is the place of the state in the anthropology of art? The second question seems more universal in a comparative ethnographic perspective — the state is a recognizable artistic patron across societies — while the first seems denote legacies of authoritarianism. Existing scholarship in this field takes its cue from Benjamin's observations about the 'aestheticization of politics' under fascism, as well as from the role of art, from constructivism to socialist realism, in Soviet-type societies. This line of research is contingent on the understanding of art as a specific modern cultural concept, the one that isolates aesthetics as an autonomous field and re-assembles it with politics in specific locations. But this view holds neither for contemporary art, which critiques this 'purely aesthetic' perspective, nor for the contemporary anthropology of art — specifically for Alfred Gell's reconceptualizaton of art as a form of agency. How might the relationship of the anthropology of the state and the anthropology of art look like given these two advances? What, from this point of view, is the relationship between the state and political aesthetics today? In what ways might contemporary governance be approached as an art? What is contemporary political art, and what are modalities of contemporary politicized art? The panel seeks a comparative exploration of these questions that would draw on a broad range of ethnographic case studies.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

State of the art: the anthropology of art and the anthropology of the state

Author: Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (Higher School of Economics, St Petersburg) email

Short abstract

The paper discussed the relationship between the state and political aesthetics from the point of view of several recent projects within the 'ethnographic conceptualism' approach.

Long abstract

What is the place of art and aesthetics in the anthropology of the state? What is the place of the state in the anthropology of art? The second question seems more universal in a comparative ethnographic perspective — the state is a recognizable artistic patron across societies — while the first seems denote legacies of authoritarianism and state socialism. Existing scholarship in this field takes its cue from Benjamin's observations about the 'aestheticization of politics' under fascism, as well as from the role of art, from constructivism to socialist realism, in Soviet-type societies. However, this line of research is contingent on the understanding of art as a specific modern cultural concept, one that isolates aesthetics as an autonomous field and re-assembles it with politics in specific locations. This view holds neither for contemporary art, which critiques this 'purely aesthetic' perspective, nor for the contemporary anthropology of art — specifically for Alfred Gell's reconceptualizaton of art as a form of agency. How might the relationship of the anthropology of the state and the anthropology of art look like given these two advances? What, from this point of view, is the relationship between the state and political aesthetics today? In what ways might contemporary governance be approached as an art? What is contemporary political art, and what are modalities of contemporary politicized art? This paper discusses these questions from the point of view of several recent projects within the 'ethnographic conceptualism' approach.

The Culture State: German theatre, Bildung, and Political Self-cultivation

Author: Jonas Tinius (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) email

Short abstract

Germany boasts an exceptionally rich tradition of publicly funded theatres that is deeply entangled with the self-fashioning of the modern German state. This paper explores the notion of Bildung to unpack this reciprocal relation between public artistic institutions and federal cultural politics.

Long abstract

The German 'theatre landscape' has emerged through phases of republicanism, centralisation, and decentralisation that have shaped Germany over the last 200 years. Recognised by the UNESCO as intangible world cultural heritage, its theatres are part of the country's political self-fashioning as a modern state. As "products of collective memory work" (Macdonald 2013) and "administrators of cultural memory" (Kaiser et al. 2010), the idea of the German 'culture state' (Kulturstaat) reflects Germany's long tradition of state patronage for the arts and, moreover, of theatres as sites for self- formation and political commentary that, in turn, legitimised their public role. This paper investigates the pivotal role of 'Bildung' or self-cultivation, which originated among the Romantics as a liberal political notion that regarded the state as a facilitator of personal self-development of aesthetic sensibilities, rather than a dictator of artistic styles. To what extent does this notion still hold value in a postwar, post-fascist, and post-socialist Germany, and how does its contemporary cultural politics envision the cultivation of citizenship through the arts today? How have artistic institutions as ethical traditions shaped modern German statehood, and how have changed and challenged conceptions of 'German-ness' over the course of the 20th century affected the role and value of the country's artistic institutions, especially theatres?

Community Art and the State in the Cracked Art World: The Politics of Public Arts Funding in Contemporary Northern Ireland

Author: Kayla Rush (Queen's University Belfast) email

Short abstract

Despite long association with movements criticizing or calling for changes to state policies, 'community art' or frequently receives state funding. This paper examines this tension in the case of Northern Ireland, exploring the ways in which artists critical of state policies navigate these issues.

Long abstract

Since the 1960s, the area of artistic practice known as 'community art' or 'socially engaged art' has become a prominent tool of social movements and those seeking social and political change. Community-based and socially engaged methods have strongly influenced practices in contemporary art as well, as noted by authors like Bourriaud and Sansi. These practices, which eschew a 'purely aesthetic' perspective in favour of art with social and political aims, have long been linked (though not exclusively) with left-wing politics and social movements, and with critiques of state neoliberalism. At the same time, community art has received substantial state funding in countries around the world, and community artists continue to lobby for increased state support. In order to obtain these funds, artists must discursively align their own goals with those of the state, even where they are critical of their funder's political views and actions.

This paper seeks to ethnographically examine this tension, taking as its case study community art in Northern Ireland. Here the state-sponsored Arts Council of Northern Ireland is the primary funder of community art, and artists and arts organisations continue to seek this funding year after year, despite deep disagreements with numerous state policies. How do community artists manage this tension within the particular political context of Northern Ireland? How do these negotiations appear in the artworks and projects they create? What implications does this ethnography have for state-sponsored community art elsewhere in the world? And what can such an ethnography tell us about Northern Ireland?

The art of suing the state: Arctic oil and Norway's Trial of the Century

Author: Ragnhild Freng Dale (University of Cambridge) email

Short abstract

This paper seeks to explore how aesthetics, performance and politics are understood differently by state representatives, artists and environmentalists in a landmark lawsuit over Arctic oil in Norway, and asks how their contestation shapes our understanding of art's relation with the state.

Long abstract

This paper explores how state representatives, artists and environmental NGOs draw different boundaries between art, politics and reality in a landmark lawsuit over Arctic oil. Last November, Greenpeace and Nature and Youth met the Norwegian government in court, accusing them of unconstitutionally allowing new petroleum licenses in the Barents Sea. The case has been called Norway's Trial of the Century: nothing less than the future of petroleum, the country's largest industry, is at stake. Some eight months earlier, a theatrical mock trial using representatives from politics, NGOs and universities as witnesses for and against Arctic oil, had been staged during the Barents Spektakel festival in Kirkenes. Everyone invited turned up, except the state and the oil industry.

The state employed a similar stance in its engagement with the actual court case: beforehand, governmental representatives sought to delegitimize the grounds of the case and 'Americanizing' Norwegian politics. In the courtroom, the state's lawyer accused the plaintiffs of staging an 'environmental-political performance'. He drew a clear line between the court proceedings and the events taking place outside the courtroom, including public events, media debate, and an artwork of ice placed prominently outside the court.

This boundary drawing between illegitimate and legitimate, performance and reality, creates a paradox, as the state itself regularly engages in staging announcements concerning the petroleum sector. Delving into these different understandings of the interface between performance and politics, this paper deliberates how contesting what counts as legitimate aesthetics creates new connections between political artwork and the state.

Normative Aesthetics and the Staging of State Power During the Sultan's Public Birthday Celebrations in Brunei Darussalam

Author: Dominik M. Müller (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology) email

Short abstract

This paper explores how during the Sultan of Brunei's public birthday celebrations, state-power is performed by multiple actors and means. These festivities serve as an aesthetically productive site where asymmetrical power relations, symbolic exchanges, and reciprocal dependencies are staged.

Long abstract

In Brunei, the Sultan's colorful three week-long birthday celebrations are the most spectacular public event. They provide an institutionalized "anti-structure", in which the public sphere is temporarily transformed and exceptional activities take place, some of which would normally contradict Brunei's restrictive normativities of public entertainment. These celebrations, and numerous events "held on the occasion", annually serve as an aesthetically productive site where asymmetrical power relations, symbolic exchanges, and reciprocal dependencies are staged between the absolute monarch and "his subjects". These "subjects" comprise various groups who play their role in accordance with state-defined categories. They also include commercial actors staging "good citizenship" vis-à-vis the ruling order's normative requirements through visual and performative means, resulting in a situation where a political personality cult and commercial advertising fuse, distinctions between individual and corporate "subjects" crumble, and the Gupta'ian notion of "blurring boundaries" between state and society acquires Brunei-specific meanings. Aesthetics, here, are inextricably linked with state power, but this symbiosis generates unique cultural forms. Participants also include graffiti sprayers honoring the Sultan, and singers/dancers who otherwise rarely participate in public culture. The event's anti-structure integrates them on the condition of playing their assigned role: co-producing state power. They also appropriate this power, however, and affect its contents.

I will ethnographically illustrate how this Brunei-specific cultural realization of the state is annually performed. Brunei's "national ideology" (MIB) and "Islamization" policies increasingly inform this spectacle, although its multidimensional ingredients-a symbolic firework of all sorts-are much more hybrid than official narratives of orthodoxy suggest.

Aestheticizing Kazakhstani Futures: The Place of Children in Space-Age Landscapes

Author: Meghanne Barker (University of Chicago) email

Short abstract

In imagining national futures through architecture, public art, or propaganda, states often employ seemingly divergent aesthetic tendencies: space-age futurism versus children's bubbly cuteness. This paper examines the aesthetics of futurity within urban landscapes of contemporary Kazakhstan.

Long abstract

State aesthetics often point populaces towards collective aspirations, with futuristic aesthetics inviting citizens to imagine and anticipate realization and actualization. At the end of the twentieth century, Buck-Morss notes the "passing of mass dreamworlds," followed by a "new atmosphere of cynicism" (2000:276). However, Kazakhstan offers an example of continued aestheticization of aspiration: the new capital city of Astana's striking architecture in the middle of the steppe have dominated discussions of Kazakhstan's aesthetic regime, garnering descriptors such as "space-age" and "sci-fi" from Western visitors, while leaving locals feeling left behind (Bissenova 2013, Koch 2014, Laszczkowski 2013). Another aspect of the ideologies and imagery surrounding Kazakhstani futures - one that has received less attention - holds up children as the future of Kazakhstan. Children not only feature in political billboards with President Nazarbayev in designated places such as schools and libraries, but, moreover, images of and by children appear throughout urban public spaces. How do these seemingly divergent aesthetic tendencies - the shiny, sleek lines of futurism and the cuteness of childhood - come together, sit in tension, or compete with one another? How do children experience them? This paper explores public aesthetics of childhood and futurity in contemporary Kazakhstan, drawing from long-term fieldwork in Almaty, along with examining the place of childhood in the 2017 World Expo in Astana, themed "Future Energies." Understanding the public place of childhood in urban, futuristic landscapes, I argue, helps us to understand broader aesthetic projects of state modernization and anticipation.

What is in a hole? Failure's work in Georgia

Author: Francisco Martínez (University of Helsinki) email

Short abstract

Based on a material and discursive analysis of urban holes (de Boeck and Baloji 2016), the paper accounts of the kinds of affective responses that infrastructural failures generate in the everyday life of Tbilisi.

Long abstract

Infrastructural failures can be taken far-reaching entanglements, showing a complex relationship between material aesthetics and political affect, the tragic and the ironic, and the individual and the collective. The transdisciplinary method of the research combines episodes of ethnographic fieldwork with a typology of holes, an exhibition, a workshop, and 12 semi-structured interviews with contemporary artists and curators. Oscillating from the aesthetic to the social, this paper considers how brokenness is experienced, governed, and materialised in Georgia and the way failure does not simply make statecraft appear contingent, fragile, and contestable, but also reinforces its power and prevents local people to think critically about the present (Frederiksen 2014).

In the study of how infrastructural failures can be socially operative, we can correlate the different degrees of brokenness with state projects of legibility (Scott 1998; Chu 2014) and how political sensibilities are articulated (Rancière 2006). Attempts to create order might appear to produce the disorder they proclaimed to contain (Weszkalnys 2013), and failure can be a way of occupying the present, triggering various kinds of official activities (Ssorin-Chaikov 2003). The paper sets up to contribute to the understanding of the relationship between states, persons and the built environment, and how the elements of statecraft are experienced and reflected aesthetically. Holes are an under-theorised part of urban infrastructures, despite their relation to both political discourses and the experience of cities; they convey not a lack of situated knowledge, but the 'gaps' and 'voids' in the relationship between state and society.

Actionism as Anthropology: Katrin Nenasheva and the New Politics of Performance Art in Russia

Author: Angelina Lucento (National Research University-Higher School of Economics) email

Short abstract

This paper argues that Katrin Nenasheva's Actionist performances constitute anthropological experiments. They examine the ways in which the Russian state governs its citizens, while also unearthing pathways to resistance through the aesthetics of live and New Media performance.

Long abstract

I specifically examine Nenasheva's most recent performance projects: Punishment (2016) and Between Here and There (2017). During Punishment's twenty-one days, the artist publicly demonstrated punishments meted out to orphaned children, who had been deemed "mentally retarded" by state organs. She also collaborated with former orphans by caring for their physical and emotional wounds in spaces associated with state power, such as the public park next to the Kremlin wall. In Between Here and There, she spent a month visiting sites around Moscow that "mentally retarded," incarcerated wards of the state told her during interviews that they would most like to see. During these performances, Nenasheva wore virtual reality goggles containing footage of the spaces inhabited by the incarcerated citizens she interviewed before initiating the action. In both cases, the artist chronicled her experiences and invited commentary on the social media networks Facebook and VKontakte. Through these collaborations with the most marginalized members of contemporary Russian society, whose daily lives are directly controlled by the state, Nenasheva revealed the material and immaterial aesthetic practices through which the Russian state inscribes the notion that masculinity and heteronormativity constitute health and power into the bodies of its citizens. Her tactile, spatial, and linguistic analyses also begin to show how these inscriptive aesthetic practices might be diverted in the act to create a new kind of politics that transforms the state's power structure from patriarchal-vertical to matriarchal-horizontal. In so doing, Nenasheva's work offers new insight into the meaning of contemporary political art.

Ukraine's new Lenins: Art and a decommunising state

Author: Diana Vonnak (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology) email

Short abstract

Analysing decommunisation policies and activists' criticisms about state-promoted monumental art in Ukraine, the paper develops a link between predictability in artistic interpretations and governance in creating and attributing political goals in monumental art.

Long abstract

Lenin statues were toppled across Ukraine soon when the Maidan revolution escalated. What started out as a protest action was soon codified by the state: the Parliament adopted a 'decommunisation' package that outlawed what they defined as communist symbols and toponyms in April 2015. Meanwhile in Lviv, in Western Ukraine, overwhelming celebrations were held at the centenary of Metropolitan Sheptytskyi. As a museum was renamed, a large statue erected and dozens of exhibitions were opened honouring the Metropolitan, some activists joked that Sheptytskyi was the new Lenin. Occasionally they said the veneration was 'socialist in form, nationalist in content', turning the well-known Soviet-era slogan of Russification inside out.

I argue that decommunisation laws and activists' criticisms attribute similar powers to art objects and expect the state to utilise those. The paper reconstructs these implicit ideas that make the structural comparison possible. It analyses citizens' subject-positions as recipients of certain symbolic landscape and aesthetic canon. Toponyms and leaders' statues serve as easily legible moral and political exemplars that stand in a fairly transparent metonymic relationship with the political leadership, the state, occasionally the nation. Thanks to this legibility and transparency, the interpretive scope of the promoted monumental art is narrow enough to reduce unexpected effects. The paper develops a link between predictability in artistic interpretations and governance in creating and attributing political goals in monumental art.

When tourism aesthetic rules - Tourism promotion as a mode of stagecraft and as an aesthetic force in Mubarak's Egypt

Author: Karin Ahlberg (University of Chicago ) email

Short abstract

This paper explores how tourism turned into a mode of stagecraft and an aesthetic force in the late Mubarak era. Based on fieldwork with tourism actors in Cairo in 2011-2013, it interrogates the intricate politics of image curation, tourism capitalism and rule by tourism aesthetics.

Long abstract

In the Mubarak era, Egypt's tourism industry expanded significantly and state financed tourism marketing underwent professionalization. Outdoing official goals throughout the 2000s, tourism became promoted as the "sector that leads the way" to national prosperity. Based on fieldwork with tourism actors in Cairo in 2011-2013, this paper interrogates the intricate politics of image curation, rule by appeal and tourism capitalism. In particular, it highlights how tourism turned into a mode of stagecraft and an aesthetic force in the late Mubarak era.

First, I show how the regime used romantic and stylized touristy images in its international statecraft, projecting an image of Egypt as open and reforming. Second, I explore how recycled advertising material circulated in domestic popular culture, making tourism aesthetics a prolific ingredient of national imaginaries. Albeit presenting an Egypt attainable only for tourists and the rich, the dominant "touristy Egypt" resonated among the population, because it concretized the country's "real potential," beyond present misrule. Concluding that Mubarak's Egypt was marked by the rule of tourism aesthetics as tourism images and imagery were not only a means of advertisement but a predominant mode of imagining and ruling the nation, I suggest that the art of governance became an art in curating the façade of the nation. The force of this aesthetical paradigm can be understood through the ways that artful interventions, challenging and destabilizing this façade, were, alongside oppositional activities, not only condemned, but presented as acts of betrayal and defacement of Egypt's holy image.

Imagining Institutions Otherwise: Art, Politics, and State Failure

Author: Chiara De Cesari (University of Amsterdam) email

Short abstract

In this paper, I present a research proposal to study the role of artistic practices in reimagining failed or failing polities and to examine the connection between the social turn in art and dissolving social infrastructures.

Long abstract

In this paper, I present a research proposal to study the role of artistic practices in reimagining failed or failing polities and to examine the connection between the social turn in art and dissolving social infrastructures. To achieve this goal, I propose to look at contexts dominated by protest movements against state repression, corruption, or neoliberal restructuring in Lebanon, Palestine, Hungary, Italy, and the Syrian diaspora. The central research objective is to understand how art can reimagine institutions in the context of state failure, and how it can affect the political imagination, institutional change, and citizenship. I focus on what I call anticipatory representation: the proliferation of micro-utopias or creative institutional experiments that instantiate "counter-states," which both critique the state and engage its apparatuses in various ways, potentially prefiguring new forms of common life. I take an innovative, comparative, and intersectional ethnographic app roach to the intersections between art, formal politics, and policy, as well as between increasingly transnationalized art worlds. This research extends the anthropology of art by connecting it to theories of governmentality and the state under neoliberal cultural capitalism.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.