Marx Among the Palms:
The Uncapturable Radicality of Bert Theis
Better ten palm trees than a thousand oaks! (1) – Bert Theis
If I look back to when this intellectual adventure began, I have to admit that I was never under the illusion that it was concluded. Nor was there the hope that it would conclude. The certainty has always been there however that here and now, we will have to fight to attain it. (2) – Toni Negri, “Sul comune”
Here the future is already present / Those with companions will not die. (3) – Franco Fortini, “L’Internazionale”
Art has been a key tool in the struggle. And struggle has been an important tool in Bert Theis’s political and personal trajectory, particularly his radical aesthetic and linguistic experiments within and against the social configurations of the art system and its “power structures” (be they productive, ideological, cultural, or economic). “It’s important to reiterate that artists and educators are not neutral players, nor can they consider themselves vectors of a particular form of creativity and knowledge that relates to the struggle,” emphasizes Silvia Federici in a text devoted to the production of commons in cities (4) and the way in which new genre public art (5) is skillfully used to “build consensus, shore up communities, and quell conflicts” (6). It is power that takes advantage of art to legitimize its own forms of expropriation and capture.
When I think of the relationships or differences between political art and activism, some of the different terminologies and meanings can be found in the work of Lucy Lippard. Political art tends to be “socially concerned,” and to relate to and explore political issues without entailing direct action. Talking about political art requires establishing a model category, often simplifying and diminishing the relationship this kind of work has with its originating contexts—thematizing the political arena without referring to the means or modes of production, or to shifts in language or creative functions. Activist art, on the other hand, tends to be “socially engaged,” (7) instrumental to the struggle, and aware, in Marxian terms, that what is being dealt with is not a theoretical problem: it is, on the contrary, an enemy to be beaten. If art and activism historically have been set in hegemonic antagonism to one another, and continue to be considered total opposites within both the cultural and activist spheres, many art institutions (biennials, forums, festivals, artworks, exhibitions, and conferences) have recently started operating a form of sabotage and draining themselves of their radical elements.
They enlist radical politics only as an object to be exhibited; it is often simply articulated as a mere regime of representation without being transformed into a space of effective subjectivation. Is it possible to still believe in the emancipatory power of art and the social redistribution of creativity without reinstating the old modernist categories of engagement? The antagonism between artistic expression and activist demands is ideological and useful in breaking down the conditions for the possibility of art as politics and of artists as social agents, contributing to the idea that symbolic production is unable to generate the transformative effects that only direct action allows. From Theis – who always knew where to position himself in the struggle – I learned to seize the not-always-unintentional complicity of this “obedient” governmental machine that is the art system, with the subsumption (in many cases) of a type of art that contributes to strengthening the creative economy. “The Trojan horse may have been the first work of activist art,” Lippard asserts. “Based on subversion on the one hand and empowerment on the other, activist art operates both within and outside the besieged fortress of high culture or the ‘art world’.” (8)
According to Gregory Sholette, the legacy of activist art, when not actually concealed, is devalued to the downgraded contribution of institutional critique (9) This process of revision is apparent in the most recent book by Miwon Kwon, who draws up a genealogy of site-specificity based on three paradigms (10): phenomenological and experiential; social and institutional; and discursive, avoiding the fundamental impact of activist politics on post-1960s practices in the redrafting of public space, the definition of its nature, and the modes of production of contemporary art. Among the many insubordinate subjectivities of the plural roles he played – as artist and militant, indefatigable organizer and sophisticated intellectual, pedagogue and teacher, inflexible philosopher and ironic utopian – the “subcurator” Theis produced an inventory of critical terms, genuine political concepts, to ascribe tension and creativity to the narratives and agents of enunciation about ongoing conflicts. These included audience-specific, dirty cube, dispersed center, and above all, fight-specific—terms that deterritorialize art from its usual spaces through a process of subjectivation that even now remains one of the most potent instituent, critical, and molecular practices I have ever come across. Art engages in a specific struggle and does not restrict itself to just illustrating or representing. Fundamentally, art can be a question of placement and antagonistic “counter-position,” with the purpose of supplying the instrument essential for turning over into counter-subjectivity. It is nonetheless necessary to clear away all the misleading ambiguity that arises around many of the rhetorical arguments about public art attributed to the work of Theis (which is not theoretical but invested by politics, and thus proudly partisan) in order to understand how his art is entirely unrelated to the spectacularization of relational aesthetics, with which it has often been compared. Nicolas Bourriaud described the symptoms of a trend in which artists, interested by new models of social relations capable of temporarily interpreting the space, have embraced intersubjectivity, relationality, and public engagement as new forms of participation and value-based negotiation (11). This does not take into account the dimension through which an artwork engenders participatory behavior – a characteristic feature of community-based practices, which is accompanied by misconceptions of democracy and emancipation that instead correspond to new forms of widespread control used to neutralize existing or potential forces in a given territory. No transfer or decentralization of power takes place, but instead a spectacular influence is exercised on the decision-making process.
When Theis arrived on the international scene following his invitation to participate in the Venice Biennale in 1995, Luxembourg, like many other non- European countries (such as China and the African nations), did not have its own pavilion. So he built a temporary structure—the fake pavilion Potemkin Lock (1995), a simulacrum squeezed between the Belgian and Dutch pavilions— causing a diplomatic incident, or what Theis called “territorial pissing,” the “inevitable reflex of the bureaucrats of culture when art is expropriated for purposes of national self-representation.” (12). Once inside the pavilion, visitors found themselves in an agreeable space furnished with deck chairs where they could take a pleasant break while listening to Potemkin Lock Venice Rap, a soundtrack created by mixing samples from a radio interview with Marcel Duchamp – who, paradoxically, never exhibited at the Venetian fair. Neither the Dutch nor Belgian pavilion organizers had given Theis their consent for the construction, despite the fact that the biennale directors and the Venice municipality had stipulated this as a condition for the project going forward.
From 1997 onward, with his participation in the Skulptur Projekte in Münster, many of Theis’s public works took on the phenomenology of an anonymous and antispectacular platform en plein air, running counter to both the authoritarian logic of the monument and the modernist ideology of functional and axiomatic utility. Critical of soziale plastik, or “social sculpture,” the white and indeterminate platform/dais/ramp, as described by Marco Scotini, became a sort of Brechtian “podium of contemporary ‘whatever singularity’,” (13) a setting for an unlimited number of behaviors and “non-focused systems of social interaction” (Erving Goffman). The Philosophical Platform (1997), which reproduced the symbolic volume of Raphael’s stylobate (the subject of debate among Greek philosophers in the School of Athens fresco at the Vatican), was installed in front of the Prince-Bishop’s castle in Münster, a building designed by architect Johann Conrad Schlaun and the last example of Baroque in Westphalia. “The first philosophical platform in the world,” Theis liked to point out, whose epistemological function was of “concrete and practical value to the public,” (14) as the installation was available for an unspecified series of unpredictable horizontal functionalities. Much more than “philosophical karaoke,” this empty stage (Theis related how, concerned that it would not produce any results, Kasper König suggested that he organize at least two weekly events, something that Theis refused to do) wasn’t just a place to speak in public: it became the site of multiple and unplanned activities. “Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself,” wrote Karl Marx (15). On the platform, one could pass the time; relax; walk around; skate; cycle; or organize dance competitions, concerts, plays, meetings, birthday parties, and even philosophy lessons. An association called Die Freunde der Platform (Friends of the Platform) was even formed, fighting for the platform not to be dismantled but to become a permanent structure for the public to use.
According to Scotini, “Marx went to the school of class struggle. Anyone painting a solitary scholar bent over his books in the British Library has not understood a thing, or does not want others to understand. The writings of the Moor from Trier were produced while listening to the songs of the weavers from Silesia, observing with sympathy the barricades in June 1848, organizing the workers in the Socialist International, trying to offer concerned directions and support before and during the Paris Commune, and attempting to understand it afterward” (16). With Dialectical Leap (1998), Theis, who as a young man had militated in the Revolutionary Communist League, conceived his Independent Subcurator Project for Manifesta 2 in Luxembourg in 1998. Every weekend, he organized a thirty-minute journey in a scented shuttle bus, accompanied by the sounds of African percussionists, to the house in Trier in which Marx was born. Theis described the journey as being from Manifesta 2 to the birthplace of the author of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, from Luxembourg to Germany, from the city of the banks to the author of Das Kapital—in short, from art as an advanced post of neoliberalism to the “revolution against Capital,” to use Antonio Gramsci’s famous expression, and all this without Theis ever losing his sharp but always gentle sense of humor.
“There is no longer a shadow of a doubt: in paradise man is born lying down, nude, under a palm tree,” Theis noted in 1998 for his work Ten Fingers / Le dita della mano (1998) (17). For this piece, ten white islands formed by podiums and shaded by Mediterranean palms were scattered through the park in Volterra. Opposite stood the town’s majestic fortress-cum-prison, a structure representing social control, lives sequestered, time stolen—a place where art doesn’t enter. As with all his platforms, the public could use these to recline, dream, or sunbathe. The work encouraged “unproductive” use of time, inspired by Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, who in 1880 began writing his famous pamphlet refuting the right to work (a critique of that “strange delusion [that] possesses the working classes of nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway… the furious passion for work” (18) and claiming instead the “right to be lazy.” Theis offered a counter-politics of time in an era of absolute governance by time—an offering echoed in his Warburg Spirale. Un monument aux vivants (2002), which prompted visitors to follow its curved and spiraling forms; Monument to the Living (2002), a form excluded from modernist town planning in favor of rectilinear layouts that “don’t make us waste time”; and his contribution to the third Gwangju Biennial, Russel (2000). The latter was another open platform, organized as a hanging terrace with exotic palms and sand—a sort of avant-corps or “architectural prosthesis” for the biennial entrance building that invited visitors to remain inactive, to take a break.
Another episode that revolved around the informal and contextual discursiveness of Theis’s research into the audience-specific nature of his work was Growing House (2004), created for the fifth Shenzhen International Public Art Exhibition. In the sprawling Asian city – marked by urban conglomerations, ever-faster and uncontrolled growth, and the fierce capitalization of public space (a political laboratory controlled by capitalism in one of the most populous megalopolises in the world), where all areas are open to economic investment and speculation – Theis installed an island in the middle of a park. Another pavilion with palms (tropical vegetation once again) grafted onto a platform that was shaded by a cotton canopy, it was inspired by the ancient idea of a nest dwelling, in which living spaces grow with the organic development of nature.
Better ten palm trees than a thousand oaks! The subsequent action of planting trees in Milan became an act of resistance (and disobedience) against the municipality’s plan to privatize the historic working-class district of Isola and do away with the park in Via Confalonieri. The first clandestine palm was planted during the Art-Chitecture of Change exhibition (2005), curated by Scotini. In the middle of a verticalization process that affected the entire neighborhood, urban spaces were the subject of (real-estate, financial, and marketing) speculation, and the expropriation of freedoms adopted the vocabulary of the creative industries, functioning as an indicator of economic value and demonstrating their impossible outsiderness. In this context of a hegemonic neoliberal agenda, the irreversibility of rampant gentrification, and the invisibility of the socially disadvantaged, how is it possible for art still to exist in public space? There is no longer room for ideals; space is fully occupied by the materiality of the relations of production, power, and struggle.
Jürgen Habermas’s abstract notion of the public sphere as a shared, reconciled, democratic space accessible to everyone – in which all citizens feel they are universally represented as they rise above conflict – collapses. Feminist and postcolonial theories on the politics of the production of subjectivity have shown how public space, as a place protected from conflict and heterogeneity, is simply founded on the censure of differences. Isola Art Center has been the heart of a program of resistance that has generated a variety of insurgent social models, of bottom-up creative forces dedicated to the struggle, of opposition to the dominant model of urban construction and the imbalances created by the politically and economically driven programs of urban transformation. It is less “a dimension capable of overturning the state apparatus” (19) than it is an assertion of the triad (of the revolutionary machine) of “insurrection, resistance, and constituent power” (20) capable of creating ungovernable, dissident zones. The many-faceted efforts of political and artistic activism, Gerald Raunig goes on to say, do not aim to institutionalize concatenation; constituent power creates possibilities that lie outside of constituted power, testing different models of political organization, collective forms, and modes of development that resist reterritorialization and structuralization (21). Following the demolition of the Stecca, Theis chose the path of noninstitutionalization and diaspora, often finding himself isolated with regard to many in the art system. He doggedly continued to fight, however, because defeat, just like victory, is never irreversible.
The etymological origin of the word radical is “root.” And the term grassroots doesn’t simply mean “movement from the ground up,” bringing to mind Theis’s struggle alongside people-led movements and self-organizing and self-governing groups (such as OUT (Office for Urban Transformation), Isola Art Center, the Pepe Verde community garden, the occupation of Macao, and the RiMaflow factory), but also that every blade of grass has its own roots. Says Lippard, “An artist can function like a lazy gardener who cuts off the weeds as a temporary holding action. Or s/he can go under the surface to the causes. Social change can happen when you tear things up by the roots, or – to collage metaphors – when you go back to the roots and distinguish the weeds from the blossoms and vegetables… the Trojan horses and the four horses of the Apocalypse.” (22) Theis, who commented ironically on idleness as a productive, antigovernmental force of time liberated was not a lazy gardener but a militant firmly rooted in an uncapturable counter-subjectivity – an artist who had no need to learn to “deprofessionalize,” (23) as Federici writes, in order to “cultivate a different type of creativity from that usually associated with artistic expression. His was the creativity generated when we alter our relationships with others, finding the courage to resist the forces that oppress our lives in the power of cooperation.” (24).
Elvira Vannini (2019)
Elvira Vannini (1975) is an art historian and art critic. She has a PhD in Contemporary Art History from the University of Bologna, is a graduate of the School of Specialisation in Art History and has hosted seminars and given lectures in numerous institutions. Currently, she is a lecturer in the department of Visual Arts and curatorial studies at NABA – the Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti – in Milan. She has published pieces both in contemporary art magazines and in titles linked to political movements, including OperaViva Magazine, Alfabeta2 and Commonware.
- Bert Theis, “Ten Fingers,” in Arte all’Arte 98, exh. cat. (San Gimignano: Maschietto & Musolino, 1998), 134.
- Toni Negri, “Sul comune,” in Toni Negri: Arte e multitudo, ed. Nicolas Martino (Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2014), 101.
- Franco Fortini’s new translation of the lyrics of “The Internationale” dates from the 1970s.
- Silvia Federici, “Produrre il comune nelle città,” in Reincantare il mondo. Femminismo e politica dei commons (Verona: Ombre Corte, 2018), 156–57.
- The definition of “new genre public art” was not based on specific types of materials, spaces, or languages, but on the concept of audience, public, relationship, communication, and political intentionality. See Suzanne Lacy, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Seattle: Bay Area Press, 1994).
- Artists and the art system are often the unwitting—though sometimes conscious—actuators of a policy of capitalistic urban development at the expense of entire classes of working people. See Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 281.
- Lucy R. Lippard, “Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power,” in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis, (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 349. She also writes, “Whereas community-based art is grounded in communication and exchange, activist art is based on creative dissent and confrontation. Community-based practices tend to be affirmative, while most ‘political art’ is rejective of the status quo.” See Lippard, “Time Capsule,” in Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader, ed. Will Bradley and Charles Esche (London: Tate Publishing and Afterall, 2007), 409.
- Lippard, “Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power,” 341.
- See Gregory Sholette, “News from Nowhere: Activist Art and After; A Report from New York City,” in Third Text 45 (Winter 1999): 45–62.
- See Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
- A new curatorial rhetoric places emphasis on performativity, temporality, and flexibility, directing these concepts toward exploring temporary mediation systems of artistic production via the diffusion of terms such as kiosk, platform, and station—“places where people come together and then disperse”—in order to underscore the attempt to create incidental communities. These terms recall the old modernist aim of modernizing culture in line with industrial society (El Lissitzky spoke of his Proun projects as “stations between art and architecture”). They reached their apogee in the cumulative project Utopia Station, curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003.
- “Conversation between Bert Theis and Carlo Dolci,” in Zeitgenössische Skulptur. Projekte in Münster 1997, ed. Klaus Bussman, Kasper König, Florian Matzner (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje, 1997), 416.
- Marco Scotini, “The Platform Factor: The Podium of Contemporary ‘Whatever Singularity’,” in Bert Theis: Building Philosophy (Chamarande, France: Domaine départemental de Chamarande, Centre d’art contemporain, 2011), 84.
- “Conversation between Bert Theis and Carlo Dolci,” 413.
- Karl Marx, Grundrisse [1857–61] (Notebook I, “The Chapter on Money”), trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin Books and New Left Review, 1973), 172–73.
- Gigi Roggero, Elogio della militanza. Note su soggettività e composizione di classe (Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2016), 42.
- Bert Theis, “Ten Fingers,” 135.
- Paul Lafargue, The Right to Be Lazy (1883), trans. Charles Kerr, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/paul-lafargue-the-right-to-be-lazy.
- Gerald Raunig, Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007), 25.
- Ibid., 26.
- Ibid., 65–66.
- Lippard, “Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power,” 338.
- Silvia Federici, “Produrre il comune nelle città,” 157.
Mudam Luxembourg, ed. Bert Theis. Building Philosophy – Cultivating Utopia, Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2019 (English/French)