Escaping the Arts of Governing: Notes on Jonas Staal’s PhD Defense

Jonas Staal declares himself to be a propaganda artist. Given the pressures to professionalize, it is unusual for an artist to describe themselves with a term often associated with authoritarianism. Yet, unlike many artists passing through formal art education, Staal has no interest in reflecting and commenting on the ambiguities of the world, but rather proposes to change it.

Staal earned early notoriety from The Geert Wilders Works (2005–2007), a series of public memorials that implied the death of the populist Dutch politician. Wilders perceived these works as a death threat and took the artist to court. Staal sent out invitations announcing the trials as a ‘public debate,’ listing his lawyer, the prosecutor and judges as actors in a theatre piece that became The Geert Wilders Works – A Trial I-II (2007-2008).1

In 2012, Staal co-founded the artistic and political organization New World Summit (NWS). As a kind of alternative United Nations, NWS provides a platform for representatives of groups excluded from the democratic process, many of whom have been blacklisted by authoritarian governments or as a consequence of the US-led ‘War on Terror.’ Assembling in specifically designed sets in contemporary art and theatre contexts, NWS can be read as a performance of democracy, recalling its roots in the ancient Greek Agora. In 2014 NWS was invited by Amina Osse, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Rojava (the self-declared ‘non-state’ of West Kurdistan fighting for autonomy in Northern Syria), to design and build its first permanent parliament; marking a shift of the organization’s activities from spaces of representation into the midst of conflict.

Last year Staal launched the New Unions campaign, bringing together representatives of trans-democratic movements across Europe to propose future scenarios that reject demands put forth by ultra-nationalists to splinter the EU and austerity measures installed by the political and economic elite. Indeed along with other works, such as the Congress Of Utopia (2016), Artist Organizations International (2015) and Freethinkers’ Space (2012, 2010), one can ascertain Staal’s enthusiasm for organizational forms as a means to generate controversy, critique and pursue alternative political imaginaries.

In January, I received an email invitation from Staal’s studio to attend his PhD defense at Leiden University. While I was not expecting Staal’s PhD defense to be so dramatic or absurd as The Geert Wilders Works, I did keep his neo-Brechtian methods in mind as I filed into a tightly-spaced auditorium alongside many inquisitive others, including Staal’s examiners.

The program was split in two sessions. The first, a public lecture “Propaganda Art from the 20th to the 21st Century,” in which the artist summarized his thesis research and arguments, presenting the collaborative design and construction of the first people’s parliament in Rojava as his artistic work. “Propaganda = power + performance” was a formula he returned to, in which performance has a double meaning; as the kinds of gestures and enactments we are familiar within the theater and performing arts and also how, for example, the military-industrial-media complex ‘performs power’ to shape reality. Tracing the beginnings of modern propaganda to a secret British office active in the lead up to World War I, Staal claims its significance to modern democracy movements and thus argues for practices of ‘emancipatory propaganda’ to represent, give shape and enact emergent forms of power for a more just and equitable world.  

Staal reworks theories conceived by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman who describe modern propaganda as the monopolization of power in mass technological society, and adopts Judith Butler’s writings about recent modes of public assembly for a practice he names “Assemblism.”2 I found his brief discussion of the work of his fellow propaganda artists in Rojava and Azawad, a contested region in Northern Mali, fascinating. Staal relayed an anecdote of Rojava artist Abdullah Abdul, who had his close replicas of lost and looted Mesopotamian artifacts intercepted by border guards anxious about smuggling and was thus prevented from exhibiting in Europe. In a recent video produced by the NWS, Abdul concurs with Staal’s thesis when he says: “As the YPG (People’s Protection Units) fights, we also fight with our art.”3

The second part of the program, Staal’s PhD defense, took place in Leiden University’s Great Auditorium. Established in 1575, Leiden is the oldest university in the Netherlands, and while the Great Auditorium is modest in scale, it is impressively detailed with sandstone walls, stained glass windows and carved wooden benches. Presided over by the faculty dean, the academic formalities and accompanying regalia emphasized the pageantry of the proceedings. While it did have the character of a theatrical courtroom, given that Staal’s examiners included his supervisor Henke de Velte, the legal scholar and activist Radha D’Souza (who has participated in NWS), and the artist and Professor of Performative Arts Nicoline van Harskamp (who has exhibited alongside Staal), this was a collegiate and congratulatory affair rather than an inquisition. Their questioning veered from the narcissistic (e.g. “Why didn’t you respond to my comments on your thesis?”) to the perplexing (e.g. “Could you describe your practice as a kind of queer theory?”). If anything, Staal proved himself to be capable under such interrogation – he was never lost for words. All examiners praised Staal’s achievements in delivering a well-argued and extensively researched thesis. Indeed, one of his examiners proposed that it may serve as a handbook for future generations of propaganda artists, a suggestion that could yet unfold if, as de Velte indicated, it is taken up by a “prominent US publisher.”

Staal can appear at times to be didactic, overly-confident and opportunistic. It is notable that members of his team were at the entrance to these events, distributing copies of an essay on the art of contemporary propaganda he had published only days before in De Groene Amsterdammer,4 a long established independent weekly journal. Indeed, Staal’s people were also distributing simple but suggestively designed books of his thesis to select interested parties. I must admit the artist personally handed me the last copy as I was leaving his post-defense reception, and thumbing through his introduction I read the following disclosure:

Naturally, this thesis written by a propaganda artist on propaganda art, is itself a work of propaganda. It is a work of propaganda art that, in the tradition of conceptual art and institutional critique, appropriates the form of academic writing, including its entire scholarly apparatus, as artistic material.5

The satire implied in this statement is ambiguous, as it is an undeniably burdensome task to produce an original work of scholarship, and it led me to question Staal’s intentions of exploiting his PhD examination as a performance and promotional opportunity. Was it simply part of an ongoing performance of radical politics in art or an enactment of what David Joselit names “art power,” the potential of art as cultural and economic capital to bring together financial and intellectual interests with mass appeal?6

In Leiden, I learned a Dutch saying that translates as “high trees attract wind.” Staal is a figure who seems unafraid to confront authorities and so attracts considerable criticism. I think it is fair to ask whether those invited to speak at NWS necessarily represent the interests of the people they purport to, or if Staal’s formal and aesthetic modes are appropriate for certain alternative or indigenous political practices with which it attempts to engage. Arguably, it is his academic pursuits that distinguishes Staal from his peers such as Renzo Martens and Ahmet Ögüt, notably all men, who have in recent years founded institutions that exploit their artworld profiles for social causes (or vice versa).

In Gerald Raunig’s 2006 text, “Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming”7 the theorist is critical of proponents of institutional critique and in particular Andrea Fraser’s often cited text “From the Critique of the Institutions to an Institution of Critique” (2005). Raunig argues that Fraser forecloses the possibility of artists being effective beyond the institutions of art with the seemingly defeatist statement “we are trapped in our field.” Fraser, who was incidentally an early supervisor of Staal’s research, claims that the failure of the avant-garde was not the destruction of the institution of art but rather its expansion. She writes:

With each attempt to evade the limits of institutional determination, to embrace an outside, to redefine art or reintegrate it into everyday life, to reach ‘everyday’ people and work in the ‘real’ world, we expand our frame and bring more of the world into it. But we never escape it.8

Yet, to bring more of the world into the frame of art seems to be precisely Staal’s strategy. This includes the practices of emancipatory struggles alongside the practices of states, corporations and elites who enact power through art. As Staal must well know, art is not simply a calling but a career choice. He acknowledges his privileges as a “stated” European cis-white male who often collaborates with the (formerly-)colonized and the problems (and opportunities) that this produces. While his supporters might argue that he uses his status to leverage activist concerns, his detractors may well accuse him of exploiting his activist associations to leverage his professional ambitions. Indeed, it is difficult to comprehend Staal’s success without the support of influential art organizations such as BAK, Utrecht, where he was a research fellow (2013-2016) and e-flux, with whom he has published several essays. Both are platforms that promote critical practices and give voice to emancipatory politics and in doing so have become significant institutions in themselves. So while Staal’s coupling of militant activism and artistic professionalism might seem questionable to some, there is some precedence. I’d venture that the ambiguity that hangs over Staal’s success is a quality that many ‘professionalized’ artists are envious of.

Raunig urges critical artists not only to “partner” with institutions of art (museums, the art market and to which we might now add academia) but to flee, shift, transform and be an “adversary” to their “arts of governing.”9 He calls on artists to connect with political practices and social movements and to adopt an ongoing “critical attitude” as an immanent “instituent practice.” Now that Staal has been received in the great halls of academia and art, can he continue to “betray the rules of the game,” given that he may well have written the handbook of how to do so and instituted it as well?



Image courtesy of Studio Jonas Staal. Photo: Ruben Hamelink

  1.  See the account in Jonas Staal ‘Law of the State, Truth of Art. Two Case Studies of Art as Evidence,’ Oncurating: Imagine Law, iss. 28, (January 2016).
  2.  See Jonas Staal, ‘Assemblism,’ e-flux Journal, 80 (March 2017).
  3.  See New World Summit (NWS), ‘Rojava: artists Abdullah Abdul and Masun Hamo,’ (6 September 2017).
  4.  Jonas Staal, ‘Eis het onmogelijke’ (Claim the Impossible), De Groene Amsterdammer, (17 January 2018).
  5.  Jonas Staal, Propaganda Art from the 20th to the 21st Century, unpublished thesis (2018): 38.
  6.  David Joselit, After Art (Princeton and Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2013).
  7.  Gerald Raunig, ‘Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming,’ Transversal Texts: European Institute for Progessive Cultural Policies Journal, (January 2006).
  8.  Andrea Fraser, ‘From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,’ Artforum, 44:1, (September 2005): 100-106.
  9.  Raunig quotes Michel Foucault from his 1978 lecture What is Critique?: “Facing them head on and as compensation, or rather, as both partner and adversary to the arts of governing, as an act of defiance, as a challenge, as a way of limiting these arts of governing and sizing them up, transforming them, of finding a way to escape from them or, in any case, a way to displace them …”

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