Ruhr Triennale in Jahrhunderthalle, Bochum, Germany 20-22 September
What is a ‘Training Camp’ organised for and by artists and activists? What would ‘Training for the Future’ mean at an International Arts and Music Festival? The Drouth was at ‘Training for the Future’ at the Ruhr Triennale.
How can artists and creatives respond to the new populisms of the far-right? Indeed is art ( – a field which is often times notorious for hiding away and dissembling its own engagement with, and manipulation of power – ) equipped and motivated to make any such response? There are some critics who would argue that the power of the alt-right is being diffused not just through political but comprehensively through cultural channels. Amongst those who would make such claims are Propaganda Artists.
For those artists – working against the new right – it is a matter of urgency that we move beyond the tired definition of propaganda as purely a tyrant’s tool à la Hitler or Stalin, used simply to manufacture consent under totalitarianism. These artists are sanguine about propaganda and its uses, and also of the possibility of developing a new emancipatory infrastructure via propagandist techniques in a cultural war. The obvious pretextual questions for them would be: ‘Can a reality exist which is free from propaganda?’ and ‘Does a reality exist without the play of power politics?’. And for those artists it is through the performative assembly, enacting propaganda as representative of collective demands rather than elite interests, that makes for emancipation rather than manipulation. It’s all very well, of course, to refer to this type of operation as ‘utopian’, inasmuch as a utopia is a reflective model which can inspire and help us to assess and critique the actual. But surely, it is in the mobilisation to realistic action, rather than settling for the ideal and utopianism, that things become more fraught, more dangerous, more worrying in their historical connotations?
A Training Camp sounds, on the face of it, like something no self-respecting artist should ever attend. Far less organise and promote as part of an arts festival. Is the prescribing of behaviours and the orthodox orientation of bodies for set pieces the type of engagement we should expect from even the most committed of artists? For that is the sort of activity –is it not? – which we expect in such a format. –From the summer sport camps of the body beautiful regime, to the terrorist/freedom fighter guerrilla warfare camps of Al Qaida, the IRA and PLO, and the training for rhetorical engagements at the party political retreats –each one of them seeking the right body ‘tone’ and ‘performance’ for the ‘good fight’.
There are some strong clues right from the beginning however, that the organisers of this particular camp, artist Jonas Staal and curator Florian Malzacher, were not wearing believers’ helmets but funny hats –many of them. In their introduction to the programme we already encounter their ironic detournement of the standard revolutionary Marx –evidently the intention is to ‘reclaim the means of production of the future’. That definitely opens up some satirical possibilities, and reveals a commitment which is buoyed by mental agility, lightness of touch and a breadth of vision. And confirmation of that approach is surely found in the range of ‘trainers’ brought into engage, described as ‘futurologists, progressive hackers, extraterritorial activists, transnationalists, theatre makers and artists’.
The fact that no-one is designated as a ‘teacher’ but each as some type of ‘operator’ has some significance here. But what is that significance? Is it just because this training is specifically ‘performative’ that makes it not ‘education’ as such? Does it betoken a different sort of learning –more of an ‘imprinting’, like the learned behaviour we see in nature rather than learning as a result of human instruction? A more ‘engaged’ way of learning? The belief that there is something wrong, something lacking in regular ‘education’ has after all been around for a long time, from John Dewey’s notions of education as a society renewing itself, and Freire’s advocation of education as an active liberation and enabling. Back in the 1960s Sartre was already accusing industry of forcing the universities to abandon disinterested enquiry for specialised disciplines which could be put to use in the world of advanced capitalism.
But this event wasn’t just aimed at the old Left and Right certainties and fighting one globally dominant economic system though … it had a much broader and more variegated scope than that. In their introduction Staal and Malzacher also speak of our era as one of ‘increasing global crises’. Sure, the cynic might say, when has there ever been an age not in crisis? Perhaps the best way to think of this though, is in terms of that definition found somewhere in Gramsci, to the effect that a crisis is when the old refuses to die and the new refuses to be born. Accordingly, we might say that the overarching question or metathematic, if you like, of this event, could be summed (in quasi-Dewesque terms) as ‘how do we give birth to our new minds and our new bodies?’
It’s a question that allows us to invoke some powerful avatars of the likes of George Orwell and Pier Paolo Pasolini. For not only were those literary figures possessed of intellectual, verbal and mental agility, but they both literally threw their bodies into the struggle. They both sought, and largely developed new ways to obtain and give welcome for new stances and attitudes in society: to making an entrance, to sustaining a position once there (in the Spanish civil War,and against the ‘natural’ fascism in Italy), and to deciding for themselves when the time was right to leave. It was precisely that sort of healing and apportioning of respect and right to time and place, that characterised so many of the presentations at this training event. The group Arrivati, for example, are a collective of people of colour in Germany, who call themselves as ‘Cultural Invaders’, and set out to stake a claim performed in public space through a series of co-ordinated and composed dance movements and songs, like the welcome dance and the song for ancestors which they workshopped at the event.
If the aim was indeed to exhaust and mesmerise the ‘old’ ways, so that the new would be a natural progression, then the format of a three-day event with a choice between two three hour workshops each morning and afternoon was certainly one plausible method of success. The range was impressive: from a presentation aimed at reclaiming our online data (from the likes of facebook) by demanding that our personal operations there are recognised and paid for as work done , to another which aimed at revealing the ongoing effects of colonialism and the consequent ineffectiveness of the concept post-colonial, to an examination and re-enacting of the Kurdish women’s revolution via a workshop titled ‘killing the dominant male’ and a session focussed on building a material model for a non-human democracy… and many others …
The ‘means’ for creating plausible futures was thus precisely not about outlining new orthodoxies, manners or etiquette, but entailed a hotchpotch vision of possible worlds to be remade and futures reclaimed from some pretty nasty, cruel and aggressive alternatives currently on offer across the globe. If we question the world we live in at fundamental levels of disposition, outlook and demeanour, then we might come up with some fairly unexpected ways forward. In one workshop the ‘Army of Love’ sought to open us up to love people we might not feel ‘attracted to in the first place’. It brought to mind Jean Genet’s conclusion about the Palestinians after he spent time in a PLO training camp –‘They are in the right because I love them’. Just so the future will contain many truths that for the moment still resonate provocatively – like the possibility of a new birth – with an air of the unlikely and the absurd.