Thursday, 10 September 2009

Art, activists and ripped trousers

In my last entry I wrote about activists who fought Kyoto University by putting up cafés on the campus where they would squat and associate with friends and guests. In 2007 Endô Reiko, a part-time teacher at Ritsumeikan University, initiated a hunger strike while squatting on the campus to protest against the system of dismissing part-time employees automatically after a maximum of three years. Inspired by this, Yamada Shirô, a student at Kyoto Seika University similarly went on hunger strike later the same year to protest against the high university fees, and afterwards he began raising chicken and pigs on the campus. Other students sabotage campus festivities by suddenly starting to cook their own food on the campus and inviting others to join their party until they are chased away. As I'm based in Kyoto, these events have a special interest for me as a local phenomenon, but I also think there is something in them of general interest. In some of the recent issues of the journals Vol and PACE there are some essays that, I think, throw an interesting light on these struggles, and I will use them as my point of departure in this blog entry.

Is there a common denominator in these struggles? It’s often pointed out that that they all target the “neo-liberalization” of the universities or in other words their transformation from institutions relatively independent of the market into profit-hungry corporations in which teachers are increasingly turned into flex-workers, students are mass-produced for a precarious labor market, and campuses are increasingly subject to control and surveillance (and prettified by chic restaurants and glass-covered skyscrapers).

However, we strikes me most is that these activities seem to be conceived of as a form of art. In fact, it is easy to find similarities between these acts and art. These similarities also distinguish them from more traditional forms of political activity (think electoral campaigns, demonstrations or petitions).

To start with, they are often performed by individuals or small groups, who prefer to rely on impact rather than large numbers. Yamada himself explains:

In a trial of strength, we are sure to lose. Better than that is to use a little imagination, irony or humor, including setting up weird buildings. I can’t think of any other method and in the end I think it will have effect. Activists have been demanding too much until now. What matters is not how many handbills you hand out or how many hours you spend in conferences, but rather something I think can be called art. In practice, it means doing what you think is fun somewhere where it will attract attention. (Yamada 2008:171)

Shiraishi Yoshiharu comments that in Japan "there’s no organization of students that can conduct a strike, like in Europe or North America, so what Yamada did was that he used his own body as a stake in the struggle instead” (Shiraishi 2008:172).

A second similarity to art is that these acts are meant to be more than mere means to achieve some purpose. As the activists themselves stress, the acts are fun and meant to be enjoyed for their own sake, even when they are physically excruciating. “I wasn’t thinking about dying or anything else as desperate as that. I just wanted to do it in an enjoyable way”, Yamada explains (ibid 170).

But the third, and in my view most interesting similarity is that, just like art works, these acts seem to aim at ambiguity, working most effectively the more ambiguous they seem. This ambiguity usually stems from their power to question and challenge norms and borderlines. That slightly nervous feeling which makes their activities provocative in the eyes of some (Is this really defensible? Aren’t they going a bit too far?), is also what makes them thrilling, funny, and memorable to others. While street parties have already begun to become normalized as a part of the standard repertoire of young activists, this provocative quality can still be found in squats of various kinds. Squatting doesn’t just mean the occupation of a building or part of a building. One of the members of the Oasis project – a group engaging in what they call “art squatting” – occupied the seats on a train by lying down, proving that you can squat even being on the move (Takemura 2008:15). Even street gigs or graffiti can be seen as forms of squatting, since they at least partly occupy audible or visible space. They thus raise the question of who has the right to control what can be heard or seen. Squatting in this wide sense can be seen as a common element in all of the examples of activism mentioned above.

Another way of producing ambiguity can be seen in Yamada's principle of not asking permission from the university authorities for his activities.

When I started raising chicken on the campus, guys who do some foolish circle activities came and asked me if I had gotten permission from the university. Of course I hadn't. Again, when the people of the music circle wanted to do a guerilla live concert, even they went and tried to get permission. Then they got upset when they were refused. Sure, I understand their anger, but why on earth ask for permission in the first place if you're doing a guerilla live? Pretty strange, in my view. In any case, that's why I go on doing my things without asking permission. I'm ready to discuss with people if they have complaints. Not with authorities, but with other people who use the place. In that vein, by doing things without permission people will finally just think "Oh there they go again". What's really important is to create an atmonsphere of not asking permission. (Yamada 2008:171)

This statement is in itself clear and unambiguous. The power it nevertheless has to create ambiguity stems from the struggle that is latently or openly taking place over the use of the campus and in which onlookers are invited to try to choose a side. While some will identify with the authorities, others will feel drawn to the activists. My hunch is that among the latter, many will pick the side of the activists, not only because they are "right", but because of the fun and attraction of ambiguity itself.

A conspicuous result of this valuation of ambiguity is that, unlike established forms of political activity (again think of electoral speeches), these artistic forms of activism relinquish the conceit of a firm possession of truth. The activists don’t provide answers, but raise questions. Possessing an answer would (perhaps) even diminish the impact of the act. In the end, the question “Is this really defensible?” reveals itself as being a question posed to society itself, rather than at the activists.

What’s art? Why necessarily use that word? Instead of answering these questions, Kim Yu-nan [of the Oasis project] explains that ‘We’re still thinking, but while thinking, we act’ and encourages me by saying that ‘it’s better to act and see than to worry’. And according to Kim Gan [also of the Oasis project], constructing judicial precedents is also a creative act…” (Takemura 2008:14)

Just like art, this form of activism is caught in a difficult balancing act. It must avoid being in simply in the “right”, but that doesn’t mean that it can permit itself to be simply “wrong”. Falseness is just as bad as truth. Creating moral ambiguity is a much more delicate and difficult business than simply abrogating moral responsibility. The latter makes art boring and predictable. The point is not to dodge moral questions, but to find the balancing point where they lack clear-cut answers.

* * *

I am aware that I have strayed far from the few examples of activism I started with. But blogs are for wandering. I know very little about the activists I have quoted (although it would be nice to meet them some day). So rather than trying to represent their way of thinking correctly, I'd like to simply give free rein to my own throughts and conclude with a few reflections on politics and ambiguity. What does it mean that a form of politics exists that, rather than delivering clear-cut "messages", delights in producing an art-like ambiguity?

Sure, politics and art don’t always need to be ambiguous. But fighting solely to defend the truths one already possesses is a sure way to make oneself conservative and predictable. The feeling such acts generate is fatigue: do I really have to do all this over again? It is a politics we have seen before, a politics without new actors or new lines and which has turned into an administrative game, that of assigning the opponent a category. But politics in a more emphatic sense (here I rely on Jacques Rancière) consists in challenging and upsetting the game as such, in the struggle that enfolds when neglected groups, until now invisible and inaudible, suddenly make their appearance and declare the game invalid. Politics is not a game. It is the appearance of what does not fit. You can participate in politics without having to share any common rules. Politics is to find the points where the seams of order will yield. It is when the trousers rip open.

I wrote "neglected groups", but I could probably just as well have written "individuals" or "energies" or "impulses".

In any case, politics can probabably be defined in the following way: as any attempt to redefine the limits of freedom. Children and activists are experts of politics.


Shiraishi, Yoshiharu (2008) "Gakuhi zero en wa Tôyako samitto kara hajimaru", pp 172-172, VOL, No. 03.

Takemura, Masato (2008) ”Oashisu purojekuto ni sôgû shite”, pp 14-16, PACE, Vol. 4.

Yamada, Shirô (2008) "Motto momeyô! Goneyô! Aru gakusei no hansuto", pp 168-171, VOL, No. 03.

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