We’re Here to Make Friends
‘DOES THE END
JUSTIFY THE MEANS?’ this is
process, there is no end, there are only
means, each one
had better justify itself.
– Diane di Prima, “Revolutionary Letter #26”
Keep smiling, keep shining
Knowing you can always count on me, for sure
That’s what friends are for
For good times and bad times
I’ll be on your side forever more
That’s what friends are for
– Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, “That’s What Friends Are For”
I came home on the evening of December 19th, 2016, to a flurry of messages from Friends on Facebook prompting me to check-in as safe. There had been an alleged terrorist attack at one of the Christmas Markets popular here in Berlin (which left 12 dead and 56 injured). On the same day, two other major attacks made headlines. One involved an off-duty riot police officer, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, gunning down Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey. The attack occurred at the opening of a photography exhibit, Russia Through Turks’ Eyes, at the Cagdas Sanat Merkezi Modern Arts Center in the Çankaya district of Ankara.
I was shown the now-iconic photo of a man standing in a pose like the Statue of Liberty, a gun fashioned where a torch should be. I knew immediately that this went down in a contemporary art space due to the coldness and clarity of the light behind the scene. It seemed like this liminal environment gave my colleagues a particularly high degree of comedic license because within a few hours there were jokes about how hot or stylish or fuckable the shooter was, how fat the ambassador was, or how poorly hung the artwork was. Despite days of searching, despite the fact that the perpetrator actively destroyed the work in the exhibition, I’m still unable to find any Western news source able to tell me who any of the artists in the exhibition were. It is pretty irrelevant, it would seem.
What ISIS’s attack in Berlin and the actions of the Russian and Syrian governments in Aleppo show is that there are plenty of people who do possess clear images of the future, images of the future that are perhaps not so far from the dreary isolation we experience in the present – or would have us return to a distant past. Authoritarian enclaves, however disparate in their histories, methods, and scope, still have the propensity to embolden one another within and outside of the borders of a territory.
There is a gap between the theories that we make use of to understand political arts practices and the practical agendas of those who might want to maintain or ramp up the fear that already constricts our movements. But from Royal Oak, Michigan, to Aleppo, how can we mind this gap? Since the election, there have been a lot of articles circulating on social media that provide some insights on how to combat fascism now that it is here. But fascism is not suddenly appearing. It is not coming to us from elsewhere. It is making itself seen and it is growing. If the idea of labeling this growing political trend as fascist makes some readers squirm in their seats or otherwise scoff at the ubiquity of the term, we must at least admit that there is a populist authoritarian movement brewing in the West, with foundations in the petty bourgeois.1 This growth requires us to reconsider our militancy in the face of it or lack thereof. We’re going to have to pay close attention to the relationships that we can count on; we’re going to have to come to an understanding of who our friends are, who is on our side, and how we can continue to grow and strengthen anti-authoritarian movements.
‘Prefigurative politics’ or simply ‘prefiguration’ has been a modus operandi among many self-organized autonomous or anarchist groups in the West of recent memory. The career of the term ‘prefigurative politics’ since the 1970s lies largely within the radical organizing communities that see prefiguration as a way of living something in order to bring it into being. That ‘something’ is often a way of relating to another person or persons that moves away from the alienated conditions of daily life under capitalism. To ‘prefigure’ first implies that there is a ‘figure’ of a social order to embody in one’s daily actions before it takes place. The anthropologist David Graeber, writing at the height of the anti-corporate-globalization movement writes of prefigurative politics that “It’s one thing to say, ‘Another world is possible’. It’s another to experience it, however momentarily.”2 Social movements are messy, and resistance is not always easy or ‘safe’. That being said, there is nothing more life-giving than enacting the spontaneous or loosely-planned will of an indeterminate ‘we’. It is in the immanence of this indeterminacy that new pathways to a better world open up – like when you have taken the Brooklyn Bridge with others and someone stumbles upon a way to get to the other side and you take it together, or when a newfound friend is in need of or offers you water. For me the most powerful memories I have from participating in social movements lie in the way someone’s face lights up and their energy changes the moment they choose to act with their own bodies to fight with others, with no coercion or directions from above, and realize they can. There is a need to create distinct images of a future we’d actually want to live in. There is, of course, an urgency around the need to stand for justice and fight in defiance of the structures you oppose. There is also something new that opens up when you see self-organization in practice, the creation of a model of existence that can stand on its own, almost as if indifferent to the oppressions that exist elsewhere. We need more of this.
Rather than operating solely on the foundations of would-be efficient strategies that come to us from elsewhere, or relying on a vanguard to seize power and implement revolutionary change on behalf of the masses, a prefigurative approach traditionally seeks to create a new society in-the-shell-of-the-old by developing counter-hegemonic modes of interaction that embody the transformation before it exists. Or as Carl Boggs puts it, the impulse is to embody “within the ongoing political practice of a movement… those forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal.”3
To ‘prefigure’ is to collapse the distinction between the means and ends of a practice. One might distinguish a mode of organizing that operates on the basis of prefiguration from, say, those led by groups like Socialist Alternative who offer salvation to those who join the ‘party’ or back the politicians they have chosen to collaborate with a sovereign power. Otherwise, it could be said that many of the non-profit organizations birthed in the wake of the Ferguson Uprising do little to ‘prefigure’ the sense of justice they seek when salaried employees become the executors of the monetary donations elicited from the social unrest of the dispossessed.4 We can look to social movements to better understand the nature of ‘prefiguration’, but what does it look like to operate on the basis of a prefigurative political art practice? What might it look like if this tendency informed artistic interventions at large?
It has been increasingly popular among those on the so-called ‘left’ to decry the widespread lack of faith in the future, or at least the inability to manifest coherent images of it, that plagues the contemporary subject. Theorists like Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Mark Fisher, and Franco Berardi have written volumes explicitly hoping to make us more concerned about the incoherence, or lack, of any hopeful future-oriented political project. Certainly, my work has been informed by my fear of this as well. Sometimes I feel like I might drown in the waves of criticism and critique that seem to wash over the various initiatives folks undertake to organize themselves, or speak out against injustice, or simply articulate sound alternatives. And what are we aiming at? Revolutions concern not death, but life and improving it. Many of my colleagues in the arts are by and large doomsday sayers, well-written Marxists with hands that are too soft, “left accelerationists”, or liberals crippled by the fear of the fascism that they didn’t realize was always already there who are quick to react, primarily with criticism or a kind of stale allyship.5 And isn’t it so easy to tear apart the ideological basis for an event, as opposed to suggesting a concrete step to be taken, or putting your bodies on the gears. In short, critique is easier than being a good friend. Put another way, it is easier to analyze and deconstruct the pitfalls we have taken thus far on our journey together than to prefigure a new social order.
After Occupy Wall Street (OWS), political artists on the ground are increasingly less anxious over whether or not the work they are doing is to be counted as ‘art’. And in many ways, the question of whether you are an artist, activist, or concerned citizen continues to be less meaningful in our movements, when we are left with the question ‘what can be done right now?’ This question echoes with all the more tremulous sincerity as the ‘neo-fascism’ of the West becomes more visible, or as the ‘alt right’ assumes more power, and with the understanding that organized resistance has not yet produced an an effective counter-attack.
Yates McKee points out in the introduction to Strike Art that his text is fundamentally ”a strategic address to those working in the art field more specifically to consider how the various kinds of resources at our disposal might be channeled into movement work as it unfurls with ongoing moments of political rupture.”6 For a long time now, artists have been staging encounters through which political action can flow. Activists have been harnessing the tools and skills that derive from an artistic sensibility, or from their ‘artist friends’. This difference is also less important as we move away from the distinctly Modern question of the division between Art and Life. Perhaps if we go a step further, we can collapse the distinction entirely and simply ‘act’ in the face of the authoritarian subjects that prefer we didn’t.
On the other hand, there is a growing complacency around what gets counted as political activity, and likewise what we mean when we speak of political art. In her keynote address for Open Engagement in 2012, Tania Bruguera outlines the stakes of ‘Useful Art’ or ‘Arte Util’: “I place usefulness in art at the center of what social art should be. Usefulness is the responsibility of social art. It is its form of communication and its context. Usefulness is what makes art social.” She goes further by suggesting that a work of art is only political if the artist is taking a personal risk. Her demand for social art to be ‘useful’ is reminiscent of Gramsci’s general understanding of what gets counted as ‘political activity’ that we see throughout The Prison Notebooks. In making the distinction between the role of the professional and ‘organic’ intellectual classes as part of the antifascist movement in Turin, it becomes clear that for Gramsci, whether a certain tendency is political or not depends on its direct, material engagement with existing power relations and structures.7 To be political is not merely to have an opinion, or even to express that opinion loudly or colorfully – as did the professional intellectuals – but to effectively take the risk, with your own body, in combatting fascism – as did the ‘organic intellectuals’. For Gramsci, the development of an organic ideology is a key component of an anti-fascist uprising insofar as the organic intellectual evaluates and analyzes the situation before him and responds with haste, and with consent to the counter-hegemonic ideas and ambitions of the working class (for they are his friends), acts upon it.
For Bruguera, her long-term projects involve a careful planning process in order to ensure that the work is firmly rooted in the context – the various institutions, publics, places – through which they manifest such that the risk falls on that of the artist as much as possible, rather than putting social actors in the line of fire. Bruguera reiterates what is meant by a political art practice in her keynote address at the International Council of Museums Conference in 2013 by saying “if you guys want to deal with political art, you have to take risks and take a stand. That is what politics means.” When we speak of political art, we speak of the work which – in its confrontation with the political – requires the artist to take a risk. Art about politics is not political art. But perhaps what is needed from the arts in the our time is for the role of the artist to dissolve entirely into the space of the social with newfound urgency. In an effort to facilitate change right now, under the threat of structural violence, political arts practitioners can stand to learn from a prefigurative sensibility that prioritizes the process of lifting each other up as life unfolds in common.
In the spaces and the work where the spirit of prefiguration is a key component, I have found a refreshing interest in the opinion of those who have gathered to take action together, as opposed to the opinion of supposed experts or those who are traditionally considered to have more authority to speak. Or at least, this is intended to be the case. In the absence of a rubric that predetermines the standard methods for social engagement (based on hierarchy or type – age, gender, class, profession, role, etc.), the friend emerges as a crucial figure. The concept of the ‘friend’ becomes more meaningful because the other discursive frameworks for indicating trust or say-so fade away. It would be dangerous to assume that a ‘friend’, however, is someone who simply seems to share your political values, your artistic sensibilities, reads the same magazines, or wears the same shoes. It is also harmful to assume that the ‘friend’ is something you can determine based on your proximity to another’s social or geographical locations; this love-of-the same is a corrupt form.8 Instead, the ‘friend’ is a relationship based on a camaraderie that reveals itself through time and through activity in common (particularly in a struggle, maybe). We say to our friends, “I’ve got your back,” and we mean it. In fact, the most basic way we understand who our friends are is that they are the ones who stand up for us in times of need. They defend us in the face of our enemies, and we are always there to fight for our friends. To be a friend is to make oneself vulnerable; to be a friend implies that you are willing to take a side; it is to open oneself up to the possibility of being an enemy. In the opening, a social safety net is formed from the sticky residue of the relationship(s), and the vulnerability is mediated through it. Friendship understood in this way necessitates not only personal, but collective, accountability as it evolves over time. This isn’t a game. We’re here to make friends.
Friendship is a form of life. It is an incessant, shape-shifting ‘we’, one against the line that separates and divides the interior from the exterior. Friendship as the perpetual state of becoming the ‘with’ that we always already are.9 Friendship is dangerous to Empire. We can see this in the infiltration tactics of COINTELPRO10, where a primary mode of sabotage focuses on fostering distrust within a group by inserting enemies into the spaces where friends are purported to be. Years after the widespread use of these infiltration tactics, we still see movements torn apart by this fear.11 Often this fear is inflected with unresolved misogyny, racism, classism, and other forms of systemic oppression that choke everyone from the outside in. Fear means order, atomization, and crippling anxiety. Love means disorder, health, and insurrection. Fear is born of control. Love is born of vulnerability. In a similar way, friendship is also dangerous to the arts institutions that would have us make work in the form of socially engaged projects with ‘communities’ primarily conceived of instruments that can signify social cohesion and acceptance.
One of the things that Gramsci helps us understand is that insofar as there is intellectual activity going on everywhere (for everyone has an idea of the future), the only meaningful distinction we make when we speak of someone as having the identity of ‘an intellectual’ (in other words, a ‘traditional intellectual’) is that their thought takes place within a general sphere of social relations, just as a worker is not a proletarian because they labor (for we all labor), but because their labor is positioned in a market such that it becomes a commodity.12 Capital is essentially dead, only staying barely alive by extracting more life from workers. Most successful ‘political art’ is dead, too, subsisting off extracting vitality from social movements and putting it into the most sacred of dead spaces – the Museum. In this way, there is a kind of violence at the core of contemporary political art practices that are underwritten with the force of singular authorship, that depend on the ‘cultural hegemony’ of the traditional intellectual. It is a myth that mirrors that of state apparatuses of control, a kind of subdued repression. It is a violence because its existence is dependent on the subtle denial of licensure over the construction of images of the future that matter to the confines of those counted as legitimate participants in the field. In this way, to be a political artist is often counter to the position of the friend because it relies on denying ‘the community’ full access to the life-giving ability to compose an image of a future together, understand its implications, its strategies, and spontaneously act accordingly on their own terms. In this way, the personal risk that the artist might take can be rendered meaningless if the artist is not willing to be accountable in a sustainable way to the community.
In another way, this idea of the ‘political artist’ – the tension between those with cultural hegemony and those without – is inherently false and imposed upon us from elsewhere. Bruguera’s insistence that the artist take her time in order to mitigate the risks for other social actors is based on a bourgeois conception of the role of artist in society that we need not accept. This mirrors the intentional manufacturing of racial tensions in the industrial factory imposed by the owners in an effort to suppress resistance. These and other divisions permeate the collective psyche to the degree that we continue to impose them upon ourselves, possibly with even more vengeance. There is a way that we do more harm than good by distancing ourselves from the communities we work with out of fear of intervening where we don’t belong. Many cultural workers, especially after having attended art school, are just as much in positions of material poverty or just as much indebted as the next guy. It is hard to discuss it when there is so much professional (or academic) posturing that is the function of the idea that your images-of-the-future matter if and only if you are paid to make them, or worse, the idea that you need to have an answer when someone in the Arts asks you ‘so what are you working on right now?’. We don’t want to talk about this poverty because we are ashamed of it. We don’t want to ask because we might embarrass someone. In America, this is what keeps us from asking the family next door if they have enough food to eat but it is also what keeps us from asking the other artists we might work alongside if they received the same stipend or truly asking our would-be friends ‘what can be done now?’
We live in strange times, increasingly precarious times, scary times that are poised to only get scarier unless we seriously intervene. Friendship has been and always will be the basis of political action. The point of prefiguration is bringing the future into the present and the primary way that we do this is in the forming and nurturing of our relationships with one another in the ways we enact them on a day-to-day basis. Doing this work well might mean a total restructuring of what is meant by political art (or political activity in general). It might mean that we abandon our comfortable stations altogether in favor of building stronger alliances within and among our friends so that, for one thing, we can better understand who the common enemy might be. To be a friend is the ultimate risk and it is the risk the artist needs to be willing to take.
- Trotsky, Leon. “Fascism – What is it?” The Militant, January 16, 1932. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1944/1944-fas.htm ↩
- Graeber, David. “The New Anarchists,” The New Left Review: Issue 13, 2002. ↩
- Boggs, Carl. 1977. Marxism, Prefigurative Communism, and the Problem of Workers’ Control. Radical America 11 (November), 100 ↩
- This is not imply that those organizations are not generally doing good work. ↩
- For example, what even is this shit? https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/14/fashion/safety-pin-ally-activism.html ↩
- McKee, Yates, “Introduction” Strike Art (Verso, 2016), 25. ↩
- Gramsci’s explicit defense of the autonomous and rhizomatic force of the factory-council movement against fascist Italy, comes in the second volume of The Prison Notebooks: “The Turin movement was accused simultaneously of being “spontaneist” and “voluntarist” or Bergsonian. This contradictory accusation, if one analyses it, only testifies to the fact that the leadership given to the movement was both creative and correct. This leadership was not “abstract”; it neither consisted in mechanically repeating scientific or theoretical formulae, nor did it confuse politics, real action, with theoretical disquisition. It applied itself to real men, formed in specific historical relations, with specific feelings, outlooks, fragmentary conceptions of the world, etc., which were the result of “spontaneous” combinations of a given situation of material production with the “fortuitous” agglomeration within it of disparate social elements. This element of “spontaneity” was not neglected and even less despised. It was educated, directed, purged of extraneous contaminations; the aim was to bring it into line with modern theory (Marxism)—but in a living and historically effective manner. The leaders themselves spoke of the “spontaneity” of the movement, and rightly so. This assertion was a stimulus, a tonic, an element of unification in depth; above all it denied that the movement was arbitrary, a cooked-up venture, and stressed its historical necessity. It gave the masses a “theoretical” consciousness of being creators of historical and institutional values, of being founders of a State. This unity between ‘spontaneity’ and ‘conscious leadership’ or ‘discipline’ is precisely the real political action of the subaltern classes, in so far as this is mass politics and not merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses.” ↩
- See: Hardt & Negri. “Of Love Possessed”, Commonwealth, 2009. Also, Berlant, Lauren. Desire/Love, 2012. ↩
- See: Esposito, Robert. “Ecstasy”, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community. Stanford University Press, 2010. ↩
- Churchill, Ward, and Jim Vander Wall. The COINTELPRO papers: documents from the FBI’s secret wars against domestic dissent. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1990. ↩
- t is still relevant for us to understand how to protect one another. https://crimethinc.com/2009/06/25/towards-a-collective-security-culture/ ↩
- “The traditional and vulgarized type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist” (Q123) ↩
Great article, thanks for writing it!
This was a great read. Thank you!