The Spectre of the Avant Garde: Contemporary Reassertions of the Programme of Subversion in Cultural Production


2008, Andere Sinema

1. The triumph of being taken from behind

After the fall of the Eastern block in 1989, a general consensus seems to have been reached concerning the validity of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of the “End of History”, even among critics. For his discourse seems to provide illuminating insight into the development of 20th century cultural production regarding its political ambitions. From an objective point of view, cultural producers appear to have become increasingly modest in this regard. Apart from the political sphere, the cultural world used to be the place where creative forces grouped together to design alternative realities. Later, this radical agenda evolved to include concrete design interventions that contributed to the gradual transformation of reality on a local level. More recently, cultural forces started to limit themselves to the production of cognitive maps, data-events or ‘infoscapes’ that, in an entertaining fashion, allow the audience/consumer to contemplate reality in all its complexity and contradiction.

Instead of going through a hundred years of historical references, for didactic purposes it is more interesting to see how this evolution – from revolution to reform and onto contemplation – is sometimes congealed into a single oeuvre. Think, for instance, of the work of avant-garde architect Rem Koolhaas – one of the founders of the infamous Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).

– Let us begin with Koolhaas’s 1972 pamphlet Exodus, or: the voluntary prisoners of architecture. In it, he dreams of an “architectural warfare against undesirable conditions, in this case London”, about “an immodest architecture committed not to timid improvements but to the provision of totally desirable alternatives.” [1] In other words, this project expresses the desire of a radical architecture to determine, shape and enhance society’s desires instead of curtailing them. According to Koolhaas’s vision, the urban population would desert London and subject itself voluntarily to the absolute architecture of Exodus. Here, he comes uncannily close to ‘ultra-modernist’ Le Corbusier’s impatient tabula rasa attitude to Paris, albeit with a different, postmodern agenda. In Exodus Koolhaas believes that this radical architecture coincides with the spontaneous, innermost desire of the contemporary crowds.

– Secondly, we have Koolhaas’s observations in ‘Tabula Rasa Revisited: Mission Grand Axe, La Défense Paris’, a 1991 text. There he claims that “there is one major limit to our imagination – the limit of a new beginning” and admits that “Le Corbusier […] certainly had been too drastic in removing one of the most universally admired examples of urban culture.” [2] Starting from this philosophy, Koolhaas invents a ingenious, sly formula that enables him to perform a partial, more humane transplantation of the urban tissue. He argues that buildings older than 25 years should be demolished to create more space for the next generation of architectural developments.

– Finally, in his current project for the CCTV Television station and headquarters Beijing, Koolhaas comes to the following realization: “a pact between the two sides – a coalition of the unwilling, no matter how sincere – could easily close a perspective that had just been opened, a refusal of the Promethean in the name of correctness and good sense foreclosing a maximum China, particularly if it were triangulated by foreign scepticism.” [3] His point is that the ideals of the designer can easily be perverted by the economic and political interests of the employer. A healthy dose of irony and scepticism is thus needed, according to Koolhaas, to facilitate the desire of the client while retaining critical distance from the end-product. In this way, Koolhaas manages to have it ‘both ways’. On the one hand, it enables him to side with the sceptics and moralists who maintain that the CCTV-building functions as a censorship tool for the Chinese state – what Louis Althusser would call an ideological state apparatus. On the other hand, with the aid of ironic design measures such as designing an a-phallic building for a ‘top-down’ state agency or locating the censorship office next to a public axis, he manages to remain optimistic and hopeful about the positive influence of the booming television industry on the future democratization of Chinese society.

Of course, with this final step in Koolhaas’s development – call it the cynical ‘triangulations’ of a once radical architect with the stubborn inertia of reality – we seem to have reached an altogether different endpoint than the one we stipulated above. There, instead of this pragmatic cynicism, history ended with the tendency on the part of cultural producers to refrain from the compulsion to act and only produce cognitive maps. Leafing through Koolhaas’s latest book, Content: triumph of realisation, we nevertheless see how Koolhaas once again manages to have it both ways. On the one hand, this book confronts the reader with a bulk of spectacular, ultra-pragmatic and rather formalist designs such as Casa da Musica in Porto or the already discussed CCTV-building. Simultaneously however, the reader is ‘served’ a mass of obscure data and maps that inform the reader – often in a rather ludicrous way – about the fundamentally perverse nature of the processes that gave rise to the buildings. So how should we interpret the coexistence of these seemingly contradictory ‘endings’? One possibility would be to see it as the most sublime ending to the history of cultural production. Think, for example, of architecture critic, Wouter Vanstiphout’s recent statement. With reference to the CCTV-building, he claimed that we shouldn’t be ‘too hard’ on Koolhaas. Out of all Western architects that profit from the property-boom in China today, he was the one that has mapped and charted China’s megalopolises for more than ten years. Isn’t it all too clear from claims like these that the production of maps and datascapes as such serves as the perfect legitimization of a building practice that would do anything to reach the ‘triumph of realization’? Koolhaas does not even have to legitimize his design decisions anymore or to show how his building is going to facilitate China’s democratization. Notwithstanding this ‘perfect ending’ to cultural producers’ century-long struggle with their commitment to society – which, as is clear from Vanstiphout’s comment, is also the end of criticism – Koolhaas’s solution is anything but unproblematic.

Think of his seemingly authentic complaint of constantly being ‘taken from behind’ or, to use his own words, ‘triangulated’ by the Other/society. In light of his heroic pragmatism, this might be interpreted as a cynical reference to the architect who has ‘made his peace’ with the dirty reality behind the ‘triumph of realization’. The question remains, however, why a design practice that ‘heroically’ accepts today’s perverse conditions as inevitable, continues to produce ironical meta-commentaries on this perversity. Unless these remarks are merely empty – which should further encourage cultural producers to get over it – we suggest that they serve as negative proof that somewhere deep inside cultural actors still believe in the possibility of a radical cultural praxis. In short, all this talk of the commitment proper to cultural production proves that repression of the avant-garde legacy is seldom that absolute. In most cases, a ‘nostalgic kernel’ subsists that runs counter to the official historicist-realist stance of cultural producers, however distorted it might manifest itself. In Koolhaas’s work, for instance, this hope is ‘inverted’ into a constant complaint about the impossibility of subversion in architecture.

2. To hell with your impossibility of subversion

But even if the prevailing, ambivalent attitude of cultural producers towards the possibility of subversion proves that they are still plagued by the spectre of the avant-garde, this does not make their position less questionable. The triumphant way in which the cultural sector today boasts about the number of cultural projects realized, comes at a high price. They have to actively distance themselves from their old avant-gardist aspirations and accept the fact that there is no alternative to the liberal-democratic organization of society. Although cultural forces have never been more conscious of conspicuous local and global processes, they nevertheless stick to their standard retort that they will never be able to ‘really’ change the problems at hand. In short, because of this double structure, cultural forces can retain their cosy position of inaction, which enables them to reap the rewards that come from agreeing with the ‘End of History’-thesis while maintaining their belief that their actions somehow counter the present-day late-capitalist hegemony. In light of recent cracks in the peaceful surface of the post-historical society such as the riots in the French banlieue, it is more than ever necessary to challenge this relaxed, fetishist position. As a first step, we must work through some of the common assumptions that support the complacency of cultural forces.

The first assumption is contained in the popular thesis that “there is no such thing as subversion.” It suggests that subversion is impossible since no authentic place exists from where such a pure, radical act could be performed. This, of course, refers to an act that subverts the given limitations of the symbolical field in which one operates. Due to this presupposition, contemporary cultural producers see themselves as the prisoners of an impossible dilemma. If, on the one hand, they choose to occupy a position outside of the system, they threaten to lose their ‘right to speak’. If, on the other hand, they stay plugged into the matrix in order to subvert the limits of the possible from within, they can’t avoid endorsing – at least in part – the specific demands and desires of the existing order. According to this view, it is therefore essentially impossible to be subversive without compromising one’s own position, without accepting that an absolute subversion is impossible. In practice, this means that only small or soft subversions are deemed possible as a weapon against the dominant ideological mechanisms.

To dismantle this conviction cultural forces need to be reminded of the position of their colleagues working under the harshest and most repressive political regimes. In these totalitarian situations, recourse to mainstream media proved an effective formula for dissident forces to subvert the existing power relations. Take, for example, the performances of the Slovene avant-garde rock-band Laibach in the context of the ‘late-communist’ Yugoslav regime of Tito. Here, we are confronted with a situation in which cultural forces could generate considerable popular support precisely because they were forced to level their criticism in an encoded form in the language of the mass-media (in talk-shows, radio-performances, etc.). They would never have been able to generate so much support if they had kept their revolutionary desire in pure form and hid themselves in the underground circuit. Precisely because Laibach acted from an ‘in-between’ position – not really mainstream, nor simply part of the underground – they managed to convince the regime that they were the mouthpiece of widespread popular dissent. This made it very difficult for the regime to openly discredit, eliminate or exile them. [5]

This situation thus exposes the truth of the pathetic lamentations about the “impossibility of subversion”. It is precisely in this acute position in which cultural actors are forced to act from within the system, in which one abandons all hope for an authentic, autonomous place disconnected from the network, in which one is forced to encode the subversive message in the language of the mass-media that a real subversive movement becomes possible. Only by fully endorsing this masochistic, intermediate position, can cultural producers utter that disturbing voice – as Laibach did before them –which, although it arises from the network, can nonetheless not be given a proper place without undermining the network as a whole. The fact that we are always ‘part of the matrix’ is thus no reason to accept that the forces we fight cannot be bypassed, or that the injustices we struggle against are an inevitable spin-off of the system. Is this resignation not the worst possible way to compromise on one’s desire?

According to a second assumption, the present crisis is caused by the fact that today the locus of power is strategically kept open by the ruling classes in order to prevent possible attempts at subversion.. This opinion is often accompanied by the nostalgic lamentations that, when all is said and done, it was easier to be subversive under dictatorial regimes. West-European cultural forces like to confess to their Eastern-European colleagues that they envy them because they still experienced the ‘cruel happiness’ proper to late-communist, totalitarian societies. With this, they don’t deny that cultural production was subjected to ruthless censorship. In their view, however, precisely this rigidity generated a unique vessel of inconsistencies that could be manipulated by dissident cultural practices. In short, according to this popular conviction, cultural forces are better off if the existing order would play out its ideological power mechanisms in an unmediated and direct way… just like in a dictatorship. Inversely, cultural actors situate the present ‘impossibility’ of subversion in the careful way in which the existing order hides its political and economic machinations underneath the objective discourses of the university and the market.

What is conveniently forgotten here is the fact that the state apparatuses in former dictatorial regimes could only safeguard their power through a clumsy bricolage of official dogmas, spontaneous beliefs and unwritten rules. Think, for instance, of the socialist regime in former Yugoslavia. A multiplicity of ideological entities co-existed in one space: the belief in a strong leader, the idealization of the Heimat, the dream of a bi-hierarchical system in which a strong civil society and the Party would balance one another and so on. In what sense is this any different from our ‘Third way democracies’ in Western-Europe where the people are kept political enthused by mixing leftovers of socialist ideology with neo-liberal concepts? In short, contrary to what cultural forces would like to believe, the locus of power in former dictatorial regimes was kept vague and unconscious for strategic purposes. In addition, a clear codex of what was allowed for cultural production and what not was nowhere to be found. It is more realistic to say that the Eastern European avant-garde was confronted with a form of censorship similar to that of the age restrictions applied to contemporary films – clearly lacking any hard and fast parameters. Consider, for example, the fact that Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 has been given an age restriction of eighteen supposedly because of its explicit language, while movies like Men in black are open to all age categories.

One of the most ingenious cultural interventions relating to the fundamental vagueness of rules of censorship, is the comic book series Buscividas by Trillo and Breccia produced during the Argentina Junta. [5a] The subversive genius of Trillo en Breccia was that they anticipated the act of the censor. They themselves applied censorship to their drawings by adding black spots and enigmatic letter-combinations that looked like hidden codes, partly blotting potentially offensive things out. This ‘consciously naïve’ application of partially specified rules of censorship in a comic strip that appeared almost daily in newspapers generated widespread confusion. Amongst readers it caused indignation because of the limit imposed on freedom of speech. For the official regime it was unclear which government agencies had applied the censorship or even whether the comic books contained any politically subversive messages at all. [6] In this way, Trillo & Breccia’s comic strips laid bare the paradoxical structure of censorship as such. At the same time, they showed that the best way to tackle censorship is to over-identify with it and apply it even more rigorously than it is by the censors.

3. When society commands you to subvert

We can easily add a third standard rationalization to this short list. One that is contained in the criticism that cultural producers do nothing more than to initiate innocent acts, that they never put their “money where their mouth is” by taking over the ruling power structures or testing out new societal forms. What is behind this popular accusation is, off course, the desire for a cultural avant-garde that exerts a real impact on society – even to the point of flirting with terrorism. The feelings of frustration that drive this discontent are surely justified. However, we believe that it detracts from a more crucial and urgent task for cultural production, a task that is situated on its own level. We are referring to the necessity to question the supposed self-evidence of the subversive potential of cultural forces. By distorting a known psychoanalytic term, we could refer to it as the ‘subject supposed to subvert’. [X] In other words, the problem here is the compulsive way in which the programme of subversion is appropriated by cultural producers. In the process, they risk forgetting that, in our present late-capitalist situation, the subject is commanded to be subversive from all sides. Think of all the obscenities, scandals, reversals, and transgressions that enter our living rooms through all kinds of media. More important for cultural actors, however, is the fact that most subversive aesthetic formats such as parody, shock treatment, and guerrilla design, have by now been hijacked by mass media.

Take, for instance, the recent information campaign of Sensoa – the Flemish Service and Expertise Centre on Sexual Health and HIV – that bore the slogan: “clear arrangements make good sex”. This campaign was launched to deal with the difficulties people experience in expressing their specific sexual expectations and preferences as well as respecting those of others. Senoa saw this as a major cause of social frustration and aggression. In a very provocative way, the campaign proposed an alternative sexual ethics. Rather than directly using your mouth to satisfy the sexual desires of your partner, you should first use it to clearly discuss your expectations and limits as well as those of your partner(s).
What immediately strikes us here, is how a formerly subversive way of dealing with the incongruence of human desire, is here presented by the government itself as the solution! We are referring to the sadomasochistic contract that attempts to articulate all hidden emotions that are usually at play in sex in clear clauses, i.e., in terms of inalienable rights and duties. From a Lacanian-Marxist perspective, however, the sadomasochistic contract does not undermine the power imbalance between the sexual desires of partners but merely finds a modus vivendi for it. Humiliation, for example, is not forbidden in the sadomasochistic relation… as long as it has been agreed upon beforehand and is stipulated in a crystal-clear calculation of the ‘pleasures and efforts’. Rather than a real alternative, sadomasochism can thus be understood as an interim measure to discharge the stress of a normal heterosexual relationship – with all its unexpressed social obligations – in a formalized setting.

The fact that this practice no longer takes place outside of the public gaze does not change anything about its status as exception. Instead of total sexual emancipation, the Sensoa-campaign is rather a receipt for disaster. It creates a society that labours under the illusion that all matters ‘between the sheets’ have been taken care of. In actual fact, however, this seemingly transparent interaction can only lead to more desperate attempts to discharge the discontent. [7]

Another example of the current ‘imperative to behave subversively’ is the design competition for a city brothel held in Rotterdam with the disarming title “Palace for the Queens of the Night”. [X] This design competition was organized to formulate an answer to the plans of the right-wing municipality to simply wipe out the informal prostitution area in Rotterdam. The organizing foundation – an interest group who defends the rights of the Rotterdam street prostitutes – asked designers to come up with a more liveable and progressive setting for prostitution activities. [8] The winning entry entitled, RedLightPlatform of architects Jasper Jägers and Ronald Hoogeveen is exemplary for the stance taken by engaged designers vis-à-vis the prostitution problem. In order to tackle the stigma that still stubbornly sticks to ‘the oldest profession’, the duo designed an alternative city brothel in the heart of Rotterdam. More precisely, they proposed to erect their RedLightPlatform on an empty lot opposite the central train and subway station called Blaak, situated close to the market place and the boulevard along the river Maas. Apart from this, they also ‘revamped’ the entire prostitution-programme by ‘cross-breeding’ different forms of prostitution and enhancingits seduction-capacity through the use of architectural tricks. The result was a spectacular ‘drive-through’ building in which the prostitutes featured as hypermodern entities creatively defending their niche in the sex economy.

However subversive this solution might seem when compared to right-wing-populist or neo-conservative policies, it is far from unproblematic. On paper the RedLightPlatform appears to enable all involved partners in the prostitution-event to satisfy their own desires and interests in a collective win-win scenario. Prostitutes can earn their living in a controlled and hygienic environment. Sex customers get their money’s worth without the fear of becoming the victim of blackmail, infighting amongst sex lords or sexually transmitted diseases. But do we not encounter the same phantasm as in the Sensoa-ad? Despite all its subversive violence, also the RedLightPlatform merely finds a modus vivendi with regards to the structural injustice to which the prostitute is subjected. How serious should we take those prostitutes who insist that they are doing what they have always dreamt of, for example? Jägers and Hoogeveen’s entry is in other words a convulsive way to come to terms with the commodification of the body in a positive way. Situations like this confront us with the problem of the contemporary myth of the cultural force as the ‘subject supposed to subvert’. This confronts us with the following pragmatic paradox: today’s imperative to undermine fixed social norms through a ‘bombardment’ of subversive, unorthodox measures itself becomes the most important obstacle to real subversion. By uncritically affirming the myth of the ‘subversive cultural actor’, the cultural sector is complicit in late-capitalism’s tendency to reproduce the same social injustices under a progressive jacket.

4. From the artist qua fool…

How can we further specify the subject position behind the current stream of pseudo-subversive cultural actions? One possibility would be to compare this position with that of a fool or clown. The hilarious nature of many of the entrees for the competition Palace for the queens of the night seems to affirm this association – one design, for example, resembled an aroused vagina whereas another looked like an erect penis. They obviously represent phantasmatic projects that are not designed to be realized. This connection is also supported by the fact that nothing happened after the exhibition of the design proposals, something that is not unusual for this sort of competition. It nevertheless made a significant impact: due to the extensive press coverage, prominent representatives had the opportunity to consider a wide variety of creative design solutions. And yet, after having enjoyed so muchattention and enthusiasm, cultural forces simply left the scene and continued their ‘business as usual’. If the design proposals succeeded in challenging the way things are normally done, it had a very limited scope. It hardly had any impact beyond the museum or discussion table. The fact that the municipal government succeeded in appropriating this cultural initiative – as proof of their willingness to talk about ‘issues that are on people’s mind’ – without evoking any protest from those really involved is perhaps indicative of the limited attention span of these cultural forces.

This conception of the contemporary cultural avant-garde as a bunch of fools nevertheless fails to reflect its true nature. Slavoj Zizek’s depiction of the fool might be helpful in this regard: “The fool is a simpleton, a court jester who is allowed to tell the truth precisely because the ‘performative power’ (the socio-political efficacy) of his speech is suspended.” [8] The Zizekian definition is strikingly different from the commonplace interpretation of the fool as a coward who only shoots his mouth off when he cannot be held accountable for it. This can be compared to the stereotype of the artist who only dares to propose radical alternatives when he is sure they won’t be realized. For Zizek, on the other hand, the fool is a person whose heart is in the right place, whose criticism is completely justified and directly addressed at the culprit. What makes of him a fool is the fact that he fails to realize that the only reason why he is allowed to tell the truth without suffering the consequences is because he poses no threat to the criticized object.

Exemplary in this regard is Michael Moore’s early TV-series, The Awful Truth (1999). In this series of short sketches, we see Michael Moore as an honest, politically engaged person who does not shrug away from unravelling every social injustice he encounters on his path and demand an explanation from the culprits. In one episode, for instance, he addresses the fact that skin colour and descent still play a determining role in American society. This he does by defending the seemingly ridiculous thesis that although the North won the American Civil War, Southern values are nonetheless hegemonic in the U.S. The viewer is bombarded by a host of statistical data,which proves that there still exists a clear hierarchy between ‘white’ Americans and their fellow ‘black’ citizens. He shows, for instance,how black people work for less money per hour, which means that many of them have to hold down two full-time jobs to manage their household. Surprisingly enough, however, this open proclamation of the awful truth on prime-time television provoked no outraged reactions – not from black or white quarters. The television show merely served to vent some pent-up frustrations and shame about this structural inequality at the heart of American society without solving anything. In this way, the performative force of Moore’s charges were neutralized.

With the aid of Zizek’s enriched notion of the fool, we can also specify more precisely in what waythe Dutch art-collective Atelier van Lieshout ( AVL) fails to be truly subversive. It is all too easy to depict AVL, based our first definition of the fool, as a bunch of idiots who make good money with obscene artworks but for the rest have nothing fundamental to tell us. This would not do justice to AVL’s work. Like Moore does with the US, this art-collective tirelessly confronts Dutch society with its awful truth. The painting Recycling / shit trio (2001), for example, could be read as a sublime metaphor for creative capitalism, which considers even the excrement of the city – prostitutes, the underground gay scene, problem neighbourhoods, old buildings, etc. – as fertilizer for the regular economy. The work Mercedes with 57mm Canon (2001) combines two popular Dutch phantasms – that of self-management and risk management – to form a vehicle that is both scary and hilarious at the same time. Finally, the bacchanalia of AVL-ville (2001), with which AVL managed to gulped down the huge art budgets of ‘Rotterdam Cultural Capital 2001’, is a good example of the huge amounts of money that are spent today on innovative, creative workers (from graphic designers to knowledge workers) while social welfare measures are ruthlessly being cut. The problem of all these public stagings of the repressed truth – which is essentially a perverse, exhibitionist strategy – is similar to the one we encountered earlier. Just how subversive are these actions in a context in which perversion has become the norm? Think, for instance, of the way in which Bert van Meggelen – intendant of Rotterdam Cultural Capital – warded off any criticism of the money-consuming debaucheries of AVL-ville with the statement that “cultural capitals generate more capital than it costs.” [9] Van Meggelen’s reproach that AVL threw in the towel too quickly, must also be interpreted from this marketing-perspective, that is, as a loss in return value. The official message to the cultural avant-garde is clear: ‘keep up the perversion, please!’. Today, this has become the motto of a new generation of city managers: cultural subversions are stimulated with the reassuring thought that in the long run they will contribute to the dynamic image of the city – an invaluable asset in the global competition to attract the new creative class.

5. …to the artist qua knave

We are now better able to identify the true problem of the design competition for an inner city brothel. Rather than the position of the fool, the designers occupied what Zizek calls the position of the knave. He defines it as follows: “The knave is […] a crook who tries to sell the open admission of his crookedness as honesty, a scoundrel who admits the need for illegitimate repression in order to maintain social stability.” Was the designers’ primary concern not also to ensure the smooth running of the prostitution game with minimal negative impact on all involved parties? In the process, they might have endorsed the existing asymmetric power relations within prostitution, but then again, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. The cultural producer consequently ends up in the same fetishistic position as today’s capitalist: someone who sincerely believes that the maintenance of certain inequities is sometimes necessary to prevent more societal disruption. Take, for example, the current liberalization of the Dutch housing market and the criticism that it mainly benefits the upper middleclass and, of course, the real estate sector itself. Surprisingly, supporters of this policy agree with their critics and openly admit that this liberalization will widen the divide between different classes. In the same breath, however, they claim that it is nevertheless a necessary move, not only to prevent the housing market from total collapse in the future, but also to generate the funds needed to be able to guarantee the social infrastructure. The original self-critical stance is thus deprived of its performative dimension. Instead it functions as a kind of ‘seal of authenticity’ for socially responsible entrepreneurship.

We should not make the mistake, however, of reserving the position of the knave for corporate crooks alone. The logic of the knave suits people who openly oppose capitalist developments equally well – think, for example, of those who argue that it fails to meet the demands of the people and serve only to enhance the profit margins of abstract stakeholders. Characteristic of the knave is his/her belief that solutions can be found through open and undogmatic problem solving strategies. This archetypical reasoning of the knave brings us back to the cultural producer and more precisely to the fact that it does not really determine the course of society (in the way that political or market-related decisions do) but is only engaged in it as a creative expert. Cultural actors consequently often find themselves caught in a strange ‘in-between-zone’ in which they criticize the same societal developments in which they operate as creative consultants or crisis-managers.

The work Ontroerend Goed, Geinschuurtjes uit en thuis (2001) of Dutch artist, Ida van der Lee is typical for the kind of cultural production found in this in-between-zone. [11] This art ritual was motivated by the construction of a high-speed railway through the small village, Abcoude. It was designed as a safety valve for the frustrations of the community caused by this invasive operation. The work consisted of a funeral procession in which one of the wooden cottages that had to be demolished to make room for the railway, was symbolically carried out of the neighbourhood. In this way, the artist wanted to create a symbolic space in which the inhabitants, as she puts it on the website, “could mourn their loss and give the disappearance [of the summer cottages] a place in their lives.” [12] The fact that her intervention played an instrumental role in the construction of the high-speed line – by channelling local frustrations, for instance – made the artist no less convinced of her act. In fact, she sees it as a small price to pay if cultural production can regain its socio-political relevance and impact in the process. This makes of her a knave par excellence.

The designs for the competition, ‘Palace for the Queens of the Night’ obviously suffer from the same crookedness. The designers of the RedLightPlatform, for instance, sold the ‘no nonsense’, pragmatic attitude towards prostitution as a new type of honesty. The problem is not that cultural forces figure out creative solutions for real social problems – which in itself is a noble ambition. What is problematic is the fact that the inscription of prostitution in ‘the urban economy of spectacle’ is rationalized as a necessary sacrifice on their part to be able to addressthe precarious situation of the prostitutes. Precisely the latter puts them in the position of the knave. We have already argued that this “heroic realism” is possible only through a fetishist disavowal of the commodification of the human body – even though this is clearly legible in their design. In this sense, the designer qua knave is somebody who speaks from within what Jacques Lacan defined as the “Discourse of the University”. [13] The universitary subject is somebody who constantly produces critical knowledge on the existing societal order, and on this basis, organizes progressive acts, without, however, transgressing the ruling “Master Signifier” behind this order. Translated to the design competition, this means the following: no matter how many sacred cows are slaughtered in the process, one thing remains beyond reproach: the idea itself of an inner city brothel run by a super-capitalist pimp. Herewith the cultural producer operates according to the University Discourse – s/he paradoxically secures the hegemony of capitalism by taking on a pseudo-critical pose.

6. The subversion of a subversion

To detect and analyse the fundamental phantasies of the cultural avant-garde in the age of the End of History is one thing. The more difficult practical operation, however, is to come up with strategies to ‘traverse’ these phantasies. The analysis in itself already supplies the coordinates of such an intervention. As we argued above, present day cultural forces have become the object of a particular transferential relation in which society treats them as subjects that are supposed to subvert. Because of this, the cultural producer gets caught – or lets him/herself be caught willingly – in an extremely perverse loop, through which the dominant order reproduces itself by openly feeding upon the very same forces that it previously had to repress. The first step towards a renewal of the project of the avant-garde consists in becoming conscious of the social investments in the position of the cultural actor, of the latter’s instrumentalization as the ‘inherent transgression’ of the late-capitalist order. At the same time, this determines the standard by which every cultural counterstrategy has to be measured: does it succeed in sabotaging these investments and instrumentalizations? More precisely, does the cultural intervention subvert the dominant subversion? In the conclusive part of this essay, I shall briefly sketch three cultural strategies that perform such a ‘subversion to the second degree’.

1) The first strategy consists in staging the principle of the inherent transgression as such, or put differently: to make it autonomous.
The avant-garde rock band, Laibach’s music video Gebürt einer Nation is a good example of this strategy. In this video they stage the ambivalent tendency of the former socialist Party of Slovenia to celebrate their own “tribe and blood”. This created an uneasy situation in which the inherently universalist-socialist order could only reproduce itself by flirting with the fascist desire for an own independent state united in one pure ethnical ‘will’. Herewith they obviously transgressed their own ‘official line’. The subversive genius of Laibach is situated in the fact that they understand how contestation of the norms of the ruling socialist regime – considered as a standard move for Eastern Europe’s dissident culture – totally misfires because the regime itself already offers the most systematic transgression of its own values! Laibach’s song disrupts this complicity between the norm and its inherent transgression by presenting all contradictory tendencies and beliefs as ‘one’ tight-fitting whole. Gebürt einer Nation thus confronts the listener/spectator with the ‘birth’ of a hyper-obscene father who makes his power absolute by openly revealing his lack. -In the case of the Slovene socialists, this refers to the fact that socialism only becomes possible when limited to the own clan, when it is cleansed of all foreign elements.

2) The second strategy consists in ignoring the mechanism of the inherent transgression and fully affirming the official line.
This ruthless obedience to the letter of the official policycan be found in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. The basic insight of the movie is that if one wants be subversive today, you have to pull out all stops in defending official ideals such as ‘freedom & democracy’. Think of his cheap insults, of the way in which he shamelessly invaded the privacy of politicians, and his use of statistics and slogans to manipulate the facts.Onequite simply must be prepared to do everything G. W. Bush does! The fact that Moore succeeded in getting his audience worked up is indicative of the subversive success of this strategy. With his television series – referred to above – Moore was merely one of the many ‘wisecrackers’ on television that evoked a lot of liberating laughter with their open proclamation of the truth. Fahrenheit 9/11, however, annoyed not only neo-conservative republicans, but also the most devoted leftist souls: people who normally insult with the same ideological fervour as Moore does. It is not difficult to see why Fahrenheit 9/11 was also seen by former allies as idiotic entertainment and political monkey business. Precisely because Moore over-identifies with the American Dream from an empty place in time and space, it confronts the leftist camp with the realization that they, unlike the right, are not willing to dirty their hands for completely valid ideals like freedom or justice. The general confusion caused by Moore amongst those in the leftist camp as well as within the ranks of the Bush administration, reveals that it is much more subversive to take the ideals of society absolutely seriously – much more subversive than the anarchist protests in the streets of Genoa during the G8 summit or the playful cultural elite in so-called ‘artistic free-states, for example. [15]

3) A third and final strategy also consists in negating the internal transgression, but then, in addition, staging this negation as such.
This strategy is applied in a series of paintings by Belgian artist Kristien Vanmerhaeghe entitled Amateur Interiors. On amateur porn pictures of masturbating women and copulating couples, she carefully blotted out all traces of the sex scenes and meticulously restored the spatial environment. By erasing the subversion from the image, the everyday, often homely settings are ‘stained’ with a mute innocence. In this way, Vanmerhaeghe lays bare the false subversiveness of cyber-sex. On the one hand, staring at fake sex scenes on the Internet is propagated as a transgression of our normal, everyday relationships. On the other hand, it serves to consolidate normality: the virtual ‘discharge’ of frustrations takes away all necessity to undermine the fundamental cause behind the discontent. These paintings therefore reveal that in this age in which we are all encouraged to charge the dullness of everyday life in the post-historic age with ‘mediamatic’ transgressions, it is much more subversive to abstain from this superficial demand to enjoy, or in other words, to subvert this subversion itself. This is the only way in which the ‘nothing’, concealed behind the command to subvert, can come to the fore as such. [16]

By taking the circularity between the status quo and its subversion as the object of subversion, these three cultural strategies undermine its effectiveness – even if only for a brief moment. In this way, they unmask activities considered to be subversive as nothing but compulsive gestures inherent to the rule of the law itself. Only by such a ‘traversal of the phantasy’ can cultural producers reconnect with the legacy of the avant-garde: the rejection of the traditional role of culture as a technical discipline that invents creative solutions to deal with society’s inconsistent demands and, more affirmatively, the belief in the cultural producer as a revolutionary who “marches ahead of the masses”. These three cultural strategies prove that even in an age in which the possibility of an alternative ‘utopia’ is considered to be impossible by both left and right, one can nevertheless take the first steps towards unsettling this consensus. This labour consists more precisely in “looking awry” at the existing, so-called post-historic society and in working through the unacknowledged phantasies that limit the capacity for thought and action of its subjects by keeping them in a permanent state of subversion.

1. Rem Koolhaas, S,M,L,XL, 010-publishers 1997, pp. 6-7.
2. Ibid., pp. 1091-1135.
3. Rem Koolhaas, Content: triumph of realisation, Taschen 2005, p. 487.
4. In VPRO’s cultural programme RAM (broadcast on Nederland 3 on the 29th of February 2004).
5. See the essay, ‘Full Spectrum Provocation’ by Alexei Monroe in this issue.
6. See the essay, ‘C stands for censorship’ by Aarnoud Rommens in this issue.
7. The designs for the competition, Palace for the Queens of the Night were exhibited in March 2003 in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. See also: and
8. Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, Verso 2001, p. 206.
9. I owe this point to Benda Hofmeyr who deals with the vicissitudes of AVL-ville in her essay in this volume.
8. Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, Verso 2001, p. 206.
13. Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire Livre 17: L’envers de psychanalyse, Paris: 1991.
14. This ‘empty place’ or ‘place without qualities’ is exemplified by one of the songs featured in Fahrenheit 9/11 entitled I’am a patriot (and The River Opens For The Righteous), by Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. The lyrics read as follows: “I am a patriot / And I love my country / Because my country is all I know / I ain’t no communist and I ain’t no capitalist / and I ain’t no socialist and I sure ain’t no imperialist / and I ain’t no democrat and I ain’t no republican / I only know one party and its name is freedom.” These lyrics illustrate that Michael Moore’s film cannot simply be interpreted as a mouthpiece for the Democrats during the US presidential election campaign.
15. The only thing one could perhaps blame Michael Moore for is the fact that he places too much emphasis on George W. Bush the person without realizing that the latter is simply a figurehead. The ‘real Master’ is in fact those who wield expert knowledge. An alternative strategy would be to follow Zizek’s advice and produce the Master instead of taking the evident one for granted. Slavoj Zizek, Iraq: The borrowed kettle, Verso, 2004, p. 138.
16. Vanmerhaeghe’s paintings thus create a space analogous to the psychoanalytic setting: a space in which people can enjoy their right not to be subversive. See Slavoj Zizek, ‘The historicity of the four discourses (unpublished) and BAVO, ‘Enjoy the right not to enjoy!’, AS no.173, pp.142-156.

Bibliographic entry:

BAVO, “The Spectre of the Avant-Garde: Contemporary Reassertions of the Programma of Subversion in Cultural Production,” in Spectres de l’Avant-Garde, ed. BAVO, Andere Sinema (AS) #176, Antwerp, 2006, 24-41.

Tags: Activism, English

Categories: Art

Type: Article