Where would propaganda stand in the ‘early days of a better nation’ while the world is contemporaneously beset by the War on Terror, Fake News and other effects of the will of Trump and of Bannon and their likes on the contemporary political landscape? Hailey Maxwell looks through Jonas Staal’s work to open up some horizons.
“To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.”Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?
Jonas Staal, Propaganda Art in the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA : MIT Press 2019
Jonas Staal consistently spectacularises the performance of governmentality within the sphere of art. He is perhaps best known for founding organisations which facilitate the assembly of populations and political bodies currently situated within the state of exception. His organisation New World Summit (2012) has created large-scale architectural spaces to facilitate the gathering of assemblies of individuals from contested regions such as Basque Country, Palestine, Azawad, Somaliland, Baluchistan, West-Papua and Tamil Eelam. His preoccupation with notions of stateless democracy, self-determination and alternative models of governance underpin the majority of his oeuvre including works such as Congress Of Utopia (2016), Artist Organizations International (2015), Freethinkers’ Space (2012, 2010), and the Scottish European Parliament at the CCA, Glasgow (2018). The artist attracted both controversy and court action in the Netherlands with his series The Geert Wilders Works (2005–2007), twenty-one installations appropriating the form of public memorials which incorporated the image of the leader of Dutch right-wing populist Partij voor de Vrijheid. Staal duly capitalised on the spectacle of the scandal; accused of “threatening a member of parliament with death” the artist reframed his trial as ‘public debate,’ listing his lawyer, the prosecutor and judges as actors in a theatre piece that became The Geert Wilders Works – A Trial I (Cantonal Court Rotterdam, 2007) and The Geert Wilders Works – A Trial II (Court of The Hague, The Hague, 2008).
His new volume Propaganda Art in the 21st Century (2019) elaborates on his doctoral thesis and proposes an expanded conceptualisation of ‘propaganda’ to include the creative and critical gestures of emancipatory movements. His point of departure is the rather bizarre, largely unsubstantiated assumption that the reader does not know that propaganda is produced by Western democratic nations “Whatever happened to propaganda?” he asks. “If we are to believe popular media, propaganda was born and died with twentieth-century dictatorships.” While the political intentions of the cultural products of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union – from the films of Leni Riefenstahl to the Constructivist works of El Lizzitsky and Aleksander Rodchenko are indeed extremely well known in the West, it is quite a stretch to imagine that after the Cold War and the Global War on Terror that ‘popular media’ reader would be completely blind to the insidious and pervasive techniques of seduction utilised by capitalism (Staal chooses to aim his critique at democracy itself rather than the neoliberalism which currently defines its operation.) Scholarship has long registered the varied ways that Western governments have instrumentalised art as an ideological weapon during the post-war period, such as Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (1999) and Cultural Capital The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain by Robert Hewison (2014). Laying the foundations for a theory of 21st century propaganda on such an unconvincing foundational strawman creates a sense of confusion about what kind of text Staal is writing as well as who he imagines might be reading it, and where in the world they might be.
The debate around the role of art within the revolution is laboured ground. The most obvious and well-known interested parties include the likes of Marx, Jacques Rancière, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri as avant-garde collectives from the Surrealists and Situationist International to Guerrilla Girls and Pussy Riot. Indeed, the enormous popular appeal of Banksy is due to the revolutionary tropes and easily accessible critique of the Western state formed via pointedly anti-fine art materials. That this discourse is quite so rich and vast is not apparent from Staal’s book and it remains unclear whether the author’s silence on these well-known voices amounts to a refreshing disregard for hermeneutics or a surprising ignorance. The book’s first half amounts to a dizzying tour of myriad examples of propaganda from Pope Gregory XV to the 1937 Paris World Exposition, with a visit to Clement Greenberg inbetween. In less than forty pages Staal presents three centuries worth of examples of fine art objects, popular entertainment and cultural policy drawn from Europe, America and China, organised in a vaguely chronological order. The book’s narrative resembles the method of documentary maker Adam Curtis in films such as Hyper-Normalisation however at times Staal’s large range of examples and montage-like form has the paradoxical and reductive effect of both flattening and universalising the history of his field of inquiry. Despite the book’s title, reading the text as a manifesto rather than a historical survey provides a much more engaging and satisfying reading.
What emerges in the latter half of the book is far more interesting. A chapter on the complex morphologies of American War on Terror propaganda addresses the manner in which new forms of theatricality and spectacle are registered by expanded state realism. He recounts interesting details of the manner in which the American military-industrial complex has permeated and fortified itself ideologically via the popular entertainment industry, in particular video games such as Call of Duty and in popular war and disaster television and film. This infiltration of ideology into popular culture Staal proposes, transforms citizens into ‘spect-actors’ who perform the ideological work of the state in their daily lives (something Michel Foucault conceptualised as biopolitics). More compelling than his account of the propaganda of President Trump and Steve Bannon is the section on ‘State Abstractions’ –which begins with government techniques of redacting documents to dehumanise their subjects and make invisible state violence and evolves to incorporate the making unseen capital, geographies and people. The effects of practices of voiding and erasure of the diary pages of Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi upon declassification are linked to the iconoclasm and cultural vandalism of Islamic State. It is this section which most clearly introduces the rather important stakes of Staal’s practice and inquiry– what the state makes visible and invisible, and how art can be instrumentalised as a vehicle for recognition and representation such as by the exemplary efforts of organisations such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter and the Black Panthers.
When the practices and testimony of stateless artists are given space to speak for themselves, Propaganda Art in the 21st Century contributes to a valuable canonisation of the highly inventive acts of resistance stateless people. In particular, Staal is interested in those creative gestures which both model and reinvent institutional forms, such as the Azawad Artist Association founded by Mazou Ibrahim Touré – an artist, and militant fighting in the struggle for self-determination of the Azawad region in northern Mali. We learn that culture is foundational to the struggle for Rojava, the contested, autonomous region of Northern Syria/West Kurdistan which derives its model of stateless democracy from the writings of imprisoned revolutionary and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) founder Abdullah Öcalan in which self-governance, feminism and communalism take a central role. Within the neo-Constructivism of the Rojavan project art is conceived as an industrial tool and revolutionary weapon, referring to older models of revolutionary culture the French revolutions and Soviet Union. Collective consciousness, identity and solidarity is promoted through education, popular song, theatre and art by Tev-Çand cultural centres. The means of cultural heritage production are seized within the fascinating sculptural practice of Rojavan artists Abdullah Abdul and Masun Hamo exemplified by projects such as Women from Rojava (2014) which responds to the looting of cultural and archaeological heritage by both Western archaeologists and the Islamic State. Diyar Hesso of the Rojava Film Commune which promotes popular cinema and the work of filmmakers such as Séro Hindé tells us that “The first thing in a revolution is that society needs to reorganise itself. And this is how the revolution affects the arts: the arts themselves are reorganised.”
Jonas Staal is a propaganda artist in that he utilises his privileged status as artist and in the case of this present volume – as an academic – to give representation and thus legitimacy to peoples and organisations struggling for recognition. While these gestures are certainly important in terms of platforming the inventive and dynamic emancipatory cultures of populations rendered unseen and voiceless by the West, it is not clear how self-aware his artistic practice is. Jonas Staal is also a European professional artist who regularly disseminates his interventions within the political struggles of marginalised subjects and collectives within elite cultural and educational institutions across the globe. What does it mean for an artist like this to situate the construction the Rojavan people’s parliament as part of his own artistic oeuvre? While Staal’s book rightly insists that cultural gestures of democracy are not politically neutral, neither is his own mobility, nationality or institutional umbilical cord. Throughout the book Staal makes no distinction between ‘art’ as creative action – a child drawing for example, or ‘Art’ as something which is announced by the artist and produced by institutions.
What is perhaps most interesting about this book is the perspective it gives the reader in terms of the tendencies Staal’s practice represents within contemporary art. There is a certain disingenuity in the artist’s suggestion that contemporary artists are discouraged from concerning themselves with social and political issues. Contemporary art has long been interested thematically with democracy and social organisation intersected with concerns around globalisation and decolonisation and professional artists are expected to be transnational actors, producing projects in museums and galleries scattered across the world.
Staal’s oeuvre arguably represents the apotheosis of interest in these themes within the context of almost two-decades of relational aesthetics, a tendency developed theoretically by Nicholas Bourriaud, Grant Kester and Claire Bishop and exemplified in practice by the likes of Liam Gillick and Tom Marioni. Within relational aesthetics also understood as the “social turn” a practice of art is less identifiable in formal or material terms i.e it is a painting or sculpture, but on the insistence of its artist that the work is ‘art’ and that it takes place within or has links to art institutions. Belonging to a denominations within this tendency within which artists appropriate and perform the work of ‘non-art’ professions and discourses, Staal (possibly inadvertently) draws attention to the similarity between artist and statesman both as the sovereign able to declare the state of exception and as a creative, mobile facilitator able to extend his remit into all facets of everyday life. If Joseph Beuys suggested that “anyone can be an artist” then Staal’s position seems to imply that so too, anyone can do politics.
Staal’s book suggests that in writing the narrative for the future of Europe, we would do well to take instruction from outside the Western political canon. The utopian will to imagine and insist upon a different way of doing social organisation demonstrated by the people of Rojava and Azawad amid grave political discrimination and violence reinvigorates the possibility of an alternative political sphere. “Even those in power once had to get to power” he writes “propaganda and propaganda art begin to emerge from those very first states of organisation, of building infrastructures through which reality can be constructed anew.”
While the late Alasdair Gray’s epigrammic entreaty “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” became the shibboleth for the movement’s radical imagination, the Scottish Independence movement of 2014 ultimately failed to deliver much by way of cultural vanguardism or experimentation and indeed the significant transformative potential of culture was largely ignored by even the most ardent utopians. Much has changed since Staal’s last visit to Glasgow. The sober reality of a Scotland soon to be outside the European Union and potentially outside Britain means that cultivating desire for a new kind of future is absolutely vital. On moving forward, Mazou Ibrahim Touré has prudent counsel:“The first thing to do is not wait until others recognise you -other states, in this case. The first thing to do is to be confident of oneself, to understand that you represent something, because if you have not accepted and internalised that then others will never recognise you.”