Speaking Difference

In Hito Steyerl’s “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Postdemocracy,” she proposes a way of relating art and politics that, instead of linking aesthetics and content (as when an artwork is taken to represent a political concern), considers what art can do when instrumentalized as a political gesture in itself. In this way, “contemporary art is implicated in transforming global power patterns.” Reflexively, acknowledging this potential demands that we artists and cultural practitioners have a clear idea of where we would have art and politics take us. What kind of future will our work build?

By conjoining art and politics in this way, Steyerl draws attention to the costs of keeping the two concepts artificially separated:

If politics is thought of as the Other, happening somewhere else, always belonging to disenfranchised communities in whose name no one can speak, we end up missing what makes art intrinsically political nowadays: its function as a place for labour, conflict, and…fun—a site of condensation of the contradictions of capital and of extremely entertaining and sometimes devastating misunderstandings between the global and the local…Art affects [contemporary] reality precisely because it is entangled into all of its aspects. It’s messy, embedded, troubled, irresistible. We could try to understand its space as a political one instead of trying to represent a politics that is always happening elsewhere. Art is not outside politics, but politics resides within its production, its distribution, and its reception. If we take this on, we might surpass the plane of a politics of representation and embark on a politics that is there, in front of our eyes, ready to embrace.

Extrapolating Steyerl’s ideas to another common binary, that of self and other, the result would seem to be that we are all implicated in each other. It may just be that I am excited by her keywords, but I can’t resist the temptation to extend her thought to my own curiosities. Negotiations of and between labour, conflict and fun extend from localized situations to globalized movements, and one would hope, progressions. Cultivating an awareness of how repercussions extend outward from a particular experience to social or political norms might be one way to steer them according to those shared ideas of what we could become.

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