Sunday, August 1, 2010

Between Art and Anarchism; Horizontalism in New Social Practices: Revolutionary Autonomous Communities and Artist's For Social Justice

From a small 10-foot plot of truly public space between MacArthur Park and the street, the smell of slightly overripe fruit sweating in the sun emerges every Sunday morning. Young and old residents of the community stand together in the piercing midday Los Angeles sun, beads of sweat pricking their temples and children scrambling underfoot. Each person sets two squash, four potatoes, four cucumbers, a bunch of grapes, and so on into a succession of nearly 200 overstuffed cardboard boxes. Around 2pm, a line of people of every age and color, begins to form. They wait patiently to receive their boxes of donated excess fruits and vegetables, bag of rice and beans, whole wheat bread, and a fruit pie. The volunteers and the needy are often one and the same. After the flurry of activity from handing out food, everyone finds a place on the shady hill near the sidewalk. They examine the bounty and swap amongst themselves, a second redistribution among neighbors.

This food program is the soul of an anarchist organization known as the Revolutionary Autonomous Communities. It has been occurring for nearly two years around MacArthur Park. Self-sustainability is the watchword for this organization. Enabling poor or underserved communities of color to support themselves through simple acts of mutual aid, like food redistribution (rather than relying on charity) is its primary motivation.

Similarly engaged in self-support strategies, a growing group of young artists meets monthly at the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia, CA gathering for forum discussions, guest lectures, and to plan collective actions dedicated to social justice issues. Known as the Artists for Social Justice, several members recently participated in a one-night performance entitled “Free Free Market” in Chinatown focusing on aesthetic exchange and participation as an alternative to the object-driven art market. One gave voice lessons from the rooftop of the small strip mall location, drawing diners out of their restaurants and passersby off the sidewalk. Others wrote letters on demand – greetings to friends, thank you notes, expressions of love. Another gave away small objects he had begged, borrowed, and stolen – trinkets that were imbued with narrative and the possibility of further exchange. These artists, many newly embarking on careers in a fraught art world, have banded together in a non-hierarchical collective to explore alternative opportunities closely connected to real socio-political issues.

In the shadow of the current economic crisis, it is unsurprising that non-hierarchical organizational techniques and responsive self-support networks are increasingly emergent amongst communities of artists and thinkers. Confronted by baffling sleight-of-hand economic strategies like the bundling of mortgage-backed securities and out-of-control leveraging, our traditional understanding of industrialized production has been fundamentally shattered.

This crisis of understanding has led to a climate of deeper questioning than this country has seen for decades – if our economy could fail so drastically, what other precarious values have we unknowingly embraced? What else could fall apart? This questioning of complacency has traditionally been the provision of avant-garde artists and anarchist radicals, who made objects and organized direct actions designed to “shock” the public out of their blind acceptance of systematic domination. In the past few years, however, these dramatic tactics have been replaced by process-based organizational techniques carefully aligned with socio-economic-political complexities and built on self-reflexive horizontal structures.

In the modernist avant-garde artistic tradition that coalesced after the First World War, art objects possess unique and immediate qualities that, as Walter Benjamin notes, shock the viewer into “a heightened presence of mind.”(1) As art historian Grant Kester explains, these objects are designed to rip viewers out of an uncritical state, forcing them to almost violently “challenge their faith in the very possibility of rational discourse.” Aligned in many ways with radical leftist ideologies, the avant-garde believed that Western society had, as Kester puts it, “come to view the world in a violently objectifying manner associated with the growing authority of positivistic science and the profit-driven logic of the marketplace.”(2)

These views overlap those of communist anarchism (3), associated with most revolutionary leftist social movements and influential to groups like the Anarchist People of Color, initiated by Ernesto Aguilar. Anarcho-communists emphasize the abolishment of class structures under capitalism, and strive to create autonomous spaces in which mutual aid and self-sustainability negate the need for a state apparatus (4). To shake the public out of complacency, anarchists frequently engage in marches, boycotts, sit-ins, and other such demonstrations. These can utilize either violent or non-violent tactics, designed to “create such crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. [These tactics] seek to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.”(5)

The similarities between the avant-garde and anarchism extend beyond their similar “shock and rupture” tactics; political theorists and art historians alike have declared both to be failed movements. In the avant-garde movement, this failure arises from a paradoxical hierarchy encased in the primacy of the art object. If the art object itself contains the power to elicit epiphany, than the artist is elevated to a status “uniquely open to the world,” and viewers that are open to the transformative experience of the object are likewise more educated and socially aware than those who are not.(6)

Anarchists struggle with a similar created hierarchy, often denouncing those with any connection to institutions and systems of the current society. This has led to an insular mindset dominated by ideologues, with adherence to extremism serving as a measure of commitment. The desire to completely dissociate has undermined the goals of systematic revolution and greater freedom, replacing one hegemony with another.

Complicating these intrinsic problematics is the proven ability of capitalist systems to subsume and harness radical tactics into new forms of control. Belgian political philosopher Chantal Mouffé writes: “The aesthetic strategies of the counterculture: the search for authenticity, the ideal of self-management, the anti-hierarchical exigency, are now used in order to promote the conditions required by the current mode of capitalist regulation, replacing the disciplinary framework characteristic of the Fordist period.” (7) As mass marketing employs the surface aesthetics of the avant-garde or revolutionary iconography to imbue brands with “cool,” strategies of the alternative arts movement are now foundational pillars of the worldwide art market, and corporate structures (as in Google or Apple) embrace a superficial ideal of egalitarian self-management, the “shock and rupture” tactics of the radical left are effectively deflated.

Because of this systematic adaptability, many have claimed “any form of critique is automatically recuperated and neutralized by capitalism.”(8) In the past few years, however, both artistic practice and anarchist organizing have come to embrace new strategies of radicality that are distanced from “shock” tactics in their commitment to a social and spatial awareness. Exemplified by the two Los Angeles groups (the anarchist RAC, and artistic Artists for Social Justice) that started in 2007, this radicality emerges in self-reflexive organization and practical exchange.”

A distinct feature of the Revolutionary Autonomous Communities Food Program is its status as a “truly horizontal organization,” where the givers are indistinguishable from the receivers. The political purpose of the program is not charity, but “self-empowerment, where working class neo-colonies are feeding themselves, and organizing to feed themselves.”(9)The program’s organization is constantly evolving, steered by members of the community and the RAC, who carefully consider the effects of distribution techniques on the creation of competition and the larger goal of self-sustainability. Since the program’s inception, the RAC has moved from numbering families in line to calling names (in order to get to know the regulars), and has increased its volunteer and membership corps to include many members of the community. Although the program runs into occasional disorganization and even some contentious arguments among members, a consensus-based, openly horizontal process allows for new ideas and growth.

Meanwhile, across the city, the Artists for Social Justice attempt to bridge class hierarchies in the art world by working collaboratively in a non-hierarchical group of 87 members. The collective has organized shows, performances, and discussions around various political and community issues; their most recent being an event affiliated with the Performing Economies show at the Fellows for Contemporary Art gallery in Chinatown. “Free Free Market” involved dozens of ASJ member projects that focused on gift economies, the exchange of aesthetic and social experiences, encouraging dialogue, and inhabiting spaces that are nontraditional for art (such as public space, strip malls, and classrooms).(10) Founder Evelyn Serrano says the group is dedicated to the process of working collectively and cooperatively, especially in analyzing ways of using dialogue tactically and allowing the structure of the group to shift and reform.

For both of these groups, their strategies of internal organization are not means to an end, but radical of themselves. Yet unlike traditional radical groups, who carved out strict “autonomous” zones designed to be separate from larger society (thereby creating their own hierarchies of exclusion within these zones), the RAC and the ASJ organize with a keen awareness of the multiple discursive layers of their social and spatial terrain. A member of the RAC noted “how we organize is how we are received by the community”. He acknowledged that their strategies, far from ossified, are constantly and critically reevaluated from week to week. He went on to admit that not all members wished to be identified as anarchists, that the purpose of the group was not to promote a specific ideology, but to facilitate the empowerment and self-sustainability of the MacArthur Park community itself. “You can’t eat theory,” he quipped.(11)

Likewise, although the Artists for Social Justice bills itself as a forum for people that are interested in non-traditional artistic practice, its commitment to social justice comes primarily from its working method as a collective. The group experiments with its own horizontal structure as a way to problematize the hierarchies of the art world and market-driven society in general. Its members approach art-making in much the same way. Strategies of exchange, dialogue, and social analysis are made overt in these art (?) practices, wherein the object produced is only meaningful as a way of understanding the process of questioning issues like public space, market exchange, or art world hierarchies.

These groups are markedly different from the traditional avant-garde (12) and radical left (13) because they internalize the notion that no terrain is neutral, and that durational dialogue between disparate groups is both necessary and futile according to rationalist thinking – there can be no dialogical endpoint, no rational consensus between discourses. Chantal Mouffé calls this “agonistic” political thought – as she explains, “an agonistic conception of democracy requires coming to terms with the contingent character of the hegemonic politico-economic articulations which determine the specific configuration of a society at a given moment.” (14)In other words, there can be no rational consensus without exclusions, and an organization built on the belief that a consensus between pluralities is desirable (and possible) is necessarily hierarchical.

This kind of thought is indeed radical; it throws into relief exactly the hegemonies of capitalist society, and critiques the “imaginary environment necessary for the reproduction” (15) of these power structures and hierarchies. But how is this radical thought utilized, and how do the manifestations of these organizational strategies sometimes fall short of their ideals?

In some ways, the RAC is a step ahead of the Artists for Social Justice because they are equipped to define a political ideology that preserves the integrity of these new strategies, as well as a measure of self-accountability. The goals of community self-empowerment are clear, and the actions of the group are directed aligned with certain desired outcomes (empower members to be leaders, address the needs of the community, engage the community in creating self-sustainable economies of exchange and mutual aid). Yet the accompanying anti-statist, anti-authoritarian articulations tend to be reductive in their language, and self-criticality on a broader social scale is less evident. Certain elements of traditional radical strategies still prevail, such as denouncing all funding and support from entities perceived to be part of “the system.” Though this is aligned with anarchist ideology, it begs the question as to whether the group can expand and promote its agenda beyond a small circle of supporters. (16)

For the Artists for Social Justice, the challenge of applying these strategies to affect lasting change (to the art market or broader social hierarchies) seems almost the opposite. The theoretical questioning and formation of new discourses is rigorous, and self-reflexivity in the practice of collective action is a primary activity of the group. But without a specific guiding goal or political thought process in the larger social arena, the projects that the group produces (like the voice lessons and letter-writing of the “Free Free Market” project) tend to remain soft, insular, and somewhat watered down among so many individual ideas.

Both groups share the problem of the creation of competition. In the RAC food program, participants occasionally squabble over scarce resources. Sometimes the food runs out before all the needy are fed. The Artists for Social Justice acknowledge that they exist within an art market, and are composed of a membership that is attempting to make a living as artists. For some of these members, being selected for a show or organizing a well-publicized project is crucial to their careers. As an 87 member collective cannot practically produce projects that include everyone, jealousies and individual competitions are inevitable. These shortages of resources are in some ways part and parcel of the horizontal organizing of both groups. Acknowledging and confronting this creation of competition has kept both groups experimenting with their structures in creative ways, and has kept them resistant to capitalist subsumation. This responsiveness and self-reflexivity will ultimately allow each organization to morph and grow tactically, allowing for the possibility of a more widespread critical questioning of intrinsic societal values.

Text by Sue Bell Yank

1. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Shocken, 1969), 238. (back)

2. Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 27. (back)

3. Communist anarchism theory influences groups like the RAC, as well as the larger Anarchist People of Color (APOC) movement. The main theorists of communist anarchism are Peter Kroptkin and Murray Bookchin (Wikipedia) succinctly defines the movement as one that “advocates the abolition of the state, private property and capitalism in favor of common ownership of the means of production, direct democracy and a horizontal network of voluntary associations, workers' councils and/or a gift economy through which everyone will be free to satisfy their needs.” For more, see Peter Kroptkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (London: Freedom Press, republished 1998). (back)

4. “Revolutionary Autonomous Communities, Los Angeles Food Program,” Anarkismo, December 18, 2008 . (back)

5. “Direct Action,” Wikipedia. (back)

6. Kester, 27. (back)

7. Chantal Mouffé, “Art and Democracy: Art as an Agonistic Intervention in Public Space,” Art as a Public Issue 14 (2008), 7. (back)

8. Mouffé, 7. (back)

9. “Revolutionary Autonomous Communities, Los Angeles Food Program,” Anarkismo, December 18, 2008. (back)

10. Evelyn Serrano, founder of the ASJ, interview with the author, July 20, 2009. (back)

11. Mauricio, member of the RAC, interview with the author, July 19, 2009. (back)

12. By the traditional avant-garde, I refer to a long tradition extending from the post-impressionists of the late 1800s to the post-war New York School of abstract artists including Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, and Morris Louis. Theorized most famously by Clement Greenberg, avant-garde discourse is characterized by, as Grant Kester puts it, “a concern with policing the boundaries between true art and kitsch” and an “opposition between conventional forms of language…and the metalanguage of art, which eludes the constraints of symbolic discourse to confront the viewer with immediate and overwhelming aesthetic force.” For more, see Kester, 25-49. (back)

13. The “radical left” encompasses a long tradition of revolutionary thought, with anarchism typifying the rejection of capitalist domination in favor of a free society. Many of the social movements associated with anarchism occurred in the late 19th and 20th centuries, and were often violently repressed by nation-states. Some of these include the labor movements of the early 20th century, including the Makhnovist movement during the 1917 Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. In North America, the student movements of the 60s and 70s had strong anarchist influences and utilized direct action tactics. For a brief history of anarchist movements, see Wikipedia, “History of Anarchism.” (back)

14. Mouffé, 9. (back)

15. Mouffé, 7. (back)

16. The modest scope of the RAC Food Program could be a deliberate feature of horizontal organizing, a recognition of the limits of this structure. If so, this would represent a drastic break from the revolutionary ambitions of the traditional anarcho-communist thought, the end goal being a complete overthrow of the current system. In my interviews with members of the group, however, goals of expansion were clearly evident; they talked about securing premises, setting up food storage, and expanding into neighborhoods across the city and possibly country. In terms of the practical logistics of setting up such an operation without the benefit of traditional forms of funding, however, the members cited a need to find “creative alternative solutions” based on the ideals of exchange and self-sustainability. This sets up a massive challenge for the group as it attempts to grow, but also the opportunity for innovative strategies.

John Aimani of RAC-LA clarifies ... Our 'modest scope' is indeed deliberate. Our goal was to focus upon the most vulnerable portions of this society, the working poor, the homeless and the undocumented migrant workers so as to demonstrate that we (and I say "we' for RAC is, in the main, composed of these elements) can work together to make our lives a bit better even in the throes of this downward spiral of capitalism. Yet, RAC is no social group. Nor is it a charity group. RAC is a revolutionary-organization-in-the-making dedicated just so to the "complete overthrow of the current system". We come forward with no spelled out "10 point program", no Gotha program, no bible, no Jesus, no leader. We come forward only with an eye as to how it is that we, as a people, can begin to work together, to study together, to eat together and, most important, to learn together. And we do so with the idea of not only survivial in this dying decaying decadent system but with an eye towards destroying it. RAC is a long-term project. Those with ideas of quick fixes need not apply. Those with ideas of leading us to this or that place, this or that state of mind, similarly will find their services not needed.