On “The Art of Being Many” at Kampnagel and Elsewhere

Some very personal notes on cohabitation, performance and politics

To the ‘assembly of assemblies’ that took place at Kampnagel was given the title ‘The Art of Being Many’[1], which I found very fascinating as far as it points at some kind of opposition between the art and the many. This is of course just a personal intuition and among the diverse fascinating meanings that the title entails. Such an opposition was probably not meant – why should it be? Still, I would here like to follow up on the reflections that the unclear border between the opposition and the mere juxtaposition triggered in my mind.

I’ve to admit that my intuition cannot be explained by anything if not the latent prejudice that I cultivated in these years taking part in diverse gatherings that conjugate performance and politics. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the question regarding the relationship between the performative and the political is very urgent today, as the widely discussed aesthetisation of politics shows no less than the equally largely problematised politicisation of art. Notwithstanding this urgency that I strongly feel at a personal level, I usually don’t fit in with such events. ‘The Art of Being Many’, like ‘Truth is Concrete’ (Graz, 2012) or ‘Performative Utopias’ (Helsinki, 2013) before it, was no different in this sense: Curiosity soon gave way to irritation that transformed in surprisingly reactionary thoughts which in turn produced some kind of sense of guilt in me that regards the total acceptance of my self as not-activist and in the worst cases as ‘openly’ bourgeois.

Still, ‘The Art of Being Many’, like ‘Truth is Concrete’ before it, reminded me that these mixed feelings don’t matter because it is very important that we (the many) do not stop thinking about performance and its political potential. This is why I try here to collect some partially organised reflections that came up during the days with the many, an experience which I treasure because it indeed provided me with a renewed urgency to rethink the performative and the political and also with a tool to do it: the concept of assembly. In particular, what I’ve been reflecting on is how the performative and the political could form an assembly. In other words, how do they inhabit and share the same space?

I am very critical towards activism in the arts. Notwithstanding this but actually because of it, I decided to enter this reflection by refusing the idea according to which it is too late to take seriously art practices as agent of change, be them critical or not. Rather, I believe that it is crucial today to widen the horizon of the political in art in order to go beyond the short-sighted activism – or worse ‘artivism’ – that ends up defusing its potential. Here is where the concept of assembly emerges as a particular fertile perspective, first and foremost by being a space where very different entities come together.

If the performative and the political are tackled within artivism as different but intertwining concepts, what are the potentials of approaching them as two radically different entities? In the spirit of reconceptualising their relationship beyond activism, it could be an interesting exercise to imagine them coming together in an assembly where their radical difference is respected as such, setting aside for a moment the temptation to solve their radical differences into a new identity.

Between art and politics differences are indeed diverse, but one I would like to keep in mind here is that while the politics can provide us with more or less convincing reasons, “valid art and literature provide us with intelligent and subtle incomprehension.” (Here I’m widely borrowing from Jalal Toufic (2003) who actually distinguished art from sciences but I feel that it makes sense to extend it to politics in this context.) My imaginary assembly then starts from here and moves on to explore the potential that derives from co-presence of two concepts and entities that differ radically.

The assembly represents the place where citizens gather and discuss the conditions of their inhabiting. It is indeed their cohabitation that makes them citizens. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a citizen is “the inhabitant of a particular town or city” and citizenship regards the set of rules that these forms of co-habitation imply. However, as Tristan Garcia (2014) writes, a rule is a paradox: “In order for a rule to exist one must claim that it is impossible to do certain things that can be done. A rule is therefore the collective and individual conception of the dyadic possibility and impossibility of possibilities”. The paradox of the rule points at the core of the political potential of art that, notwithstanding neoliberal capitalism, “still cherishes the idea of that which can always also be otherwise imagined” (Pascal Gielen, 2013). In this sense, performance can unfold its transformative potential not so much in terms of impact on society but rather as carrier of the impossible possibilities within reality.

Standing in contrast to the clarity and convincing reasons of politics that legitimately looks at precise objectives, performance unfolds its political potential by virtue of its imaginative power. Mark Fisher argues that “by persuading us that there is only one liveable reality possible, neoliberalism slips into the ideology of realism”. Such ideology matches the aesthetisation of politics in the recurrence of sentences like “there are no possible alternatives.” What if the political potential of the performative flourishes by revealing that reality can suddenly appear as contingent and not necessary? This is what happened to a certain degree during the panel “Vogue and Voodoo[2]” at “The Art of Being Many”, which not by chance let performance and politics exist in the same space as two radically different subjects.

Imagining performance and politics as citizen in this assembly, if I think back to the panel “On Materiality and Decision” at Kampnagel in September, this is the contribution that performance as citizen would have brought to it. In particular, since decisions are also based on a set of rules and thus live the paradox of the “impossible possibilia” (Garcia), letting performance live as autonomous subject next to politics means indeed to ask essential political questions: How far can the inhabitant change the rules of the space it is inhabiting? In other words, how large is the margin of action of art within society? And, in a panel on decisions, could performance be envisioned as something that is able to create problems instead of solving them?

Politics is indeed much more about problem-solving than problem-creating, and this is another radical difference that in my imaginary assembly should be accepted as such. Gathering the performative and the political as autonomous subjects in the same assembly would enrich it with conflict and would force ourselves to face another fundamental question for the many: What is the political potential of sharing when what we share is a space shaped by conflicting impulses?

Here, politics as citizen could be widely informed by the conflicting coexistence with the questions, the uncomprehending and the imagination brought by performance. Keeping in mind the paradox of the impossible possibilia, it could escape the ‘no-alternative’ rhetoric to embrace imagination and thus take part in the construction of the future.

“Timing (and breaks)” is the title of another panel of “The Art of Being Many” that in my imaginary assembly would enjoy the cultivation of differences separating the performative from the political. The performative would oppose the “what if” to the political “what it should be” so that the latter could go back to think about the future. In this sense, re-establishing the category of the future as possibility is one of the most political things that performance can do just by inhabiting the same space as politics while still producing forms of incomprehension and thus imagination.

There is one last important remark to be made. The only space able to host my imaginary assembly is indeed the theatre, being it endowed by that imagination of art institutions which historically “served the purpose of being able to see the world as also always possibly otherwise” (Gielen, 2013). Moreover, institutional space is one of the only places left where it is still possible to envision the cultivation of differences. In this sense, there will be soon time to collect these initial reflections and investigate inside art institutions what the new terms of the assembly between performance and politics could be, not forgetting that maybe also politics has something to say to performance. Only then it will be possible to rethink the relationship between performance and politics but for now – instead of forcing performance into the clarity and objective-oriented modality of activism – we could maybe leave it where it works best, in the theatre (here I’m borrowing from Jill Dolan, 2005) – where it can instil the doubt on whether we’re dealing with reality or with fiction; where it can remind us that the reality outside is first and foremost a historical product and thus it is subject to transformation.

Livia Andrea Piazza  |  November 2014



[1] The Art of Being Many was organised by Geheimagentur, WAV and other artists from Gängeviertel Hamburg, FREIFUNK, Showcase Beat le Mot and the Graduiertenkolleg ‘Assemblies and Participation.’ It took place at Kampnagel on September 27th and 28th 2014 (http://the-art-of-being-many.net/)

[2] The Assembly was made up by the following sections: materiality and decision; timing and breaks; blockade and panic, vogue and vodoo; sounds, system and voices; affects and documents; real fictions. Each one, organised by its own group, proposed a different way of assembling.

List of Quoted Texts:

Jill Dolan Utopia in performance: Finding hope at the theater. University of Michigan Press, 2005

Mark Fisher Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? Winchester: Zero, 2009

Tristan Garcia Form and Object: A Treatise on Things. Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

Pascal Gielen Institutional Immagination in “Institutional Attitudes. Instituting Art in a Flat World”, Valiz, 2013

Jalal Toufic Distracted Tuumba Press, 2013

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