Uncompromising Hostility

Gulsen Bal and Lanfranco Aceti In Conversation

The topic of the conversation focuses on contemporary issues related to the engagement of the artist with society in times of 'war on terror'. In particular the issues of multiculturalism, trans-nationalism and inter-faith dialogues will be analysed within an artistic journey.

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the "state of emergency" in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.

Walter Benjamin

The spirit of artworks is not their meaning and not their intention, but rather their truth content, or, in other words, the truth that is revealed through them.

Theodor Adorno

Gulsen Bal: For fairly obvious and empirically convincing reasons in the new political understanding of globalism, concepts of 'political engagement' are emerging everywhere. In this multiplication of political changes, particularly in reference to post-9/11, what kind of 'new political' strategies are being brought to the aesthetic developments of contemporary art practice?

Lanfranco Aceti: Well, I would start by saying that the real issues have been censored. I was shocked by some of the images of 9/11. People holding hands and jumping off the Twin Towers was probably one of the most desperate representations of this tragedy: the impossibility of escape. This brought memories of family history from World War II and the comment of my father who said: "Cowards, they didn't leave them a route to escape... At least during the bombings we could run on the mountains." I believe that there is no escape and that the 'clash' between secularism and fascist applications of multiculturalism has generated an 'emergence,' as Virilio would say, that of a 'rediscovery of civic and civilised engagements.' For this reason, after a few months I created a series of works and one of them was titled 'Bloody Falling Rain,' made with digital media, blood and glass. The idea was to cover the surface of the image with real blood to represent the impossibility of escape from the visual and psychological imprisonment of the tragedy itself. The images remained private until now and were only presented at the Harvard Divinity School as part of a paper on aesthetics I delivered at the World's Conference on Phenomenology. Certainly the rules of engagement have changed. They have changed in that there were no other alternatives; no escape route was left but to face the present political times.

Bal: Well... You have been trying to create a platform for a possible dialogue between the traditional aesthetic notions and at the same time have produced contemporary applications, mostly in the digital medium. You have taken the digital diversity beyond its mere presence as a work of art. As a Londoner you experienced 7/7... What kind of effect has it created on your recent work made in London in this period? Could you briefly evaluate this effect and its relation to Uncompromising Hostility, which seems to be a harsh title?

Aceti: I really hope that it is harsh enough... "Towards the kind of religion whose fruits are moral evil and a darkening of the mind the rational idealist can only show an uncompromising hostility." I took this title from the words of Aldous Huxley on religion in his book Ends and Means. This time the work has come out immediately, I didn't have to wait 5 years, [laughs] and has become public without having a period of reflection as I did after 9/11. I guess it is because I have been reflecting on the issues since then and this time I was not surprised by the events, but just angered and annoyed, not so much with the terrorists but with Western society and Britain in particular, which with the excuse of multiculturalism has allowed the growth of religious fundamentalism and intolerance towards secularism in society. It has allowed the growth of a tumour in a country that was renowned and respected worldwide for it rational analyses. This country offered Darwin, Huxley, Orwell to the world and nowadays is proposing a law to restrict freedom within the arts in order to protect religious beliefs. I personally find religious beliefs that advocate violence blasphemous and those who violently impose these beliefs on the public space apostates. Unfortunately for the past 30 years nothing has been done about it. At the time it seemed a convenient approach not to defend secular freedoms.

Bal: We do know you most from the work you created within the parameters of 'Interactive Integrated Media' in the project 'slaves4sale' which focuses on political and philosophical issues. In this artwork you introduced and analysed issues of multiculturalism, fascism and moral responsibility of the artist. Could you tell us what kind of mechanisms you are employing to address issues associated with the nature of representation?

Aceti: I think the problem, nowadays, is the impossibility and the unwillingness of people to distinguish between multicultural expressions. It is not that I have become neo-conservative all of a sudden. I do not believe in revelations, theological or political.... [laughs] I am a very rational person and try to understand what issues have generated particular problems. Globalisation and multiculturalism have been used as tools to import cheap labour into Western societies, recreating ghettos that are reminiscent of Dicken's descriptions. At the same time they work as platforms to escape poverty and gain freedom from oppressive societies. But what happens when there is no escape, when the displacement of immigration means a transfer from one oppressive situation to another? This is not a justification to acts of terrorism, but it is an accusation against the unwillingness of the institutions to attempt to integrate the 'foreigner' into a secular society, to exploit 'the other' for economic advantages, without offering equal social mobility and requiring the same standards of respect for the 'other' that are imposed on its citizens. The other problem is the pretence and acquisition of rights by minority groups that believe that they can abuse the system and have no responsibilities toward other minorities groups and the secular framework within which they operate. It is also an accusation against those who take advantage of a social system to thwart it. People who do not want to be part of a society, but take advantage of its economy, and want to live in communities ruled by tribal cultural practices. More importantly it is an expression of disgust towards governments that, for political and economic reasons, have tolerated these phenomena and allowed dangerous double standards under the umbrella of multiculturalism. For example, why can women's and gay's human rights be trampled on in the name of multicultural and/or religious cultures?

Bal: So the issue of multiculturalism appears to be a problem of the establishment... And the discourse of the trans-nationalism and trans-cultural issues have been negated or were born dead... After encountering several 'atmospheric' conditions of democracy, the attention goes to: NO MEDIATION, NO REPRESENTATION while according to Deleuze it somehow ends with 'a challenge to the world to exist!'

Aceti: I disagree that it was born dead. An example is the Italian film The Girl with a Pistol by Monicelli, nominated for an Oscar in 1968 as best foreign film. It is the story of a Sicilian girl who is dishonoured and has to kill her boyfriend in order to be accepted back into society. She follows him to London in the 1960's and tries to kill him. In the process she learns English, has a couple of boyfriends, one of whom is gay, and finally decides to abandon her cultural heritage by forgetting revenge and marrying an English doctor. This is to say that multiculturalism should be an evolutionary process by which a culture, or better said a 'civilisation,' which is comparatively 'inferior' because it does not have respect for human rights, can actually evolve and improve. The concept of honour killing in the South of Italy, for example, made that particular culture, in a human rights' comparative analysis framework, a culturally inferior civilisation. What multiculturalism has so far said is that 'as a minority you don't have an obligation to respect other diverse minorities,' each community is entitled to perpetuate tribal beliefs. This for me is paternalistic, imperialistic and patronising. Someone from any other area of the world can learn to appreciate differences, can evolve and break free from the 'negative' characteristic of its society and reach an even higher level and contribute to the new host society. According to the reasoning of contemporary multiculturalism, the character played by Monica Vitti in the movie should still have done her honour killing, served jail time and created a community of 'mafiosi' in London. Let's not forget that the Sicilian mafia is a cultural expression and therefore the killers who work for it should not be prosecuted. I wonder if anybody has used this argument in a court of law... [laughs]

Bal: What is so striking is the underlying argument for the total politicisation of everything, of course. Let's ignore the question of aesthetics for a moment. My question at this point lies in the failure of multiculturalism. The establishment's policy was developed in order create a 'negative' representation of the 'Other,' or it is rather proving the existence of the 'negative'... Karl Marx says in the German Ideology "the ideology is pure nothingness and all this reality is external to it." Do you think that it is possible to export in this case not culture, but democracy?

Aceti: I think that it is impossible to export democracy. The only thing that can be exported, and not imposed, is culture, and this can generate diverse forms of democracy and civilisations based on diverse cultural traditions. Within one cultural context what other cultures can appreciate is the degree of freedom of the individual and the possibility to realise themselves in the fullest. But this has to be embraced through freedom of choice and spiritual growth, which is what the left has expressed with Gramsci and the applications of multicultural groups tend to negate. This is what upsets me the most, the fact that the contemporary left looks at the 'other' as some kind of 'bon sauvage.' A savage that offers a bourgeois romantic anthropological fascination and has no possibility of cultural evolution.

Bal: Through a 'matrixial' space of relation in Giorgio Agaben's notion of 'Bare Life,' new topological zones of exclusion and/or inclusion are introduced within a social structure based on the classic meaning of the term. These relations are recapitulated in the context of a variety of cultural materials based on transformation and/or difference and externalising and/or internalising. In the case of today's failure of praxis, what could the process be?

Aceti: I actually agree with him and more importantly I am not deluded into thinking that Western societies are perfect 'democracies' to export. These societies have developed concepts of human rights, secular space and intercultural dialogue that are extremely valuable, but at the same time the globalisation processes have created entire categories of people who are disenfranchised. People have been imported as cheap labour from all over the world, transplanted from a rural village in Afghanistan, for example, into the centre of London without being give the opportunity to 'appreciate and appropriate' the hosting culture. This makes me ask a big question: are our democracies sound? Are they degenerating in fascism or national fascist states? I tried to answer to this with an exhibition titled Global Doubt.

Bal: This is where any contextualisation of a 'representation of politics' has to be questioned with reference to Victor Burgin's old distinction between the 'representation of politics' and the 'politics of representation.' How can a critical space be established in the scope of this passage?

Aceti: This is very problematic because I don't believe that there is any 'political space' left. Not at least in traditional terms. The space for political discussion has disappeared for complex reasons; one of them is the axis between governments and corporations. In this context the citizens, 'citoyen of the French enlightenment,' have become merchandise, less than slaves. In this context the representation of politics is only a form of entertainment. Even worse, the citizen with his ethical and political thinking is not part of the state, but a soldier hired on a corporate contract. When I worked on the Global Doubt exhibition my question was if Western societies were slipping towards a new national socialism. In particular looking at Abu Ghraib I asked why nobody behaved like Socrates and drank the hemlock. In that case the soldiers should have refused to obey illegal orders, saved their honour, that of their country and uphold more than 2700 years of civilisation. Unfortunately they didn't and still ended up court-martialled and discharged with dishonour. I am still with the great doubt that we are in danger of losing our democracies and this is because of multicultural rants that are not related to the respect of the 'other,' but to the enforcement of a 'representation of politics' where each community is reduced to a ghetto of incommunicability.

Bal: The modern is now this abstraction. The participation of the work, the labour, in every singularity and its exchangeability is actualised almost in an abstract community. Therefore, 'who speaks' is meaningful which mirrors of an 'autonomous' existence...

We know that you are an Italian national who lives in London. How do you identify yourself in the parameters of trans-nationalism and trans-culturalism within your creative journey? How do you characterise this in your work?

Aceti: To answer this question I have to explain something very important, my family was almost destroyed during WWII by the allies. My mother was 2 years old and almost killed when her hometown was razed to the ground and members of her family died. My town is surrounded by war cemeteries where 16 year old soldiers who died to free the country are buried. I am a product of 'good globalisation,' whereby the individual, through struggle, is empowered to spiritual and personal growth, like the Sicilian girl played by Monica Vitti. But I am also aware that reality is not so simple, my freedom and my realisation has been constructed on the blood of hundreds of people. That is what makes me truly international. I owe my life, literally and as an artist, to Americans, English, French, Italians, Polish, Australians, Indians, Germans etc. They died to build this society in which I can find my own way to express myself and which I do not want to see destroyed by fascist religious fundamentalisms and attacks on secularism, supported either from the political right or from the left. The left in particular appears to have lost not only its Gramscian way but also the beliefs in the empowerment and cultural evolution of the individual. In Deleuzian sense this is my abstraction, an abstract community made of those who died for a greater good, the common historical memory of those before me. This is what empowers my creative journey.

Bal: Well... It is perhaps necessary to attempt another brief account of involvement through the most recent crystallization of new political understandings of globalism, esp., since you have paraphrased at one of our conversations that "you are an Italian with a heart of a 'negro'...

Aceti: I paraphrased a slander that Truman Capote wrote: 'Italians are niggers at heart'. This may sound very strange but I am discriminated against today for the fact that I am white and yesterday because I was not white enough. In the 70's Italians were the 'negroes' of Europe. Nobody remembers it, but not even 30 years ago Italians in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, France, England and America were discriminated against. They emigrated in their hundred of thousands and died in their thousands doing miserable jobs. "No entrance to dogs and Italians": you would find these signs on shops and other public places. Italians were killed by racist Germans passing by just because they were Italians, with a slightly darker complexion, a similar situation to that of Turks in Germany in these days. I have an historical memory as well as my own memories and these make me critical. The US discriminated against Italians from the late 19th century to the late 20th century: Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent Italians accused of murder and killed for political reasons in the States. Look at John Travolta, he is the transition point when being Italian in Saturday Night Fever and Grease starts to become 'cool' in the States and around the world and is not just synonymous with the mafia. All this is to say that humans reason by stereotype. It is up to the individuals to change those stereotypes. I strongly believe in it, in the possibility of evolutionary cultural change, something that multiculturalism denies in its premises. Interesting is the case of Wafa who has finally stated to the Arab world and the West that this is a war between barbarism and modernity. Multiculturalism has produced a silencing of intellectual thinking: we have to wait for somebody with an Islamic background to exercise a criticism in order not to be accused of 'racism' by ignorant commentators and 'religious hatred' by more sophisticated pseudo-intellectuals. This is the ghetto of incommunicability that has been created at all levels, which will benefit only the right and generate more tensions within society. The protests in London and around the world inciting the murder of Europeans have done very little favor to eradicate stereotypes. The almost total absence of a secular Islam on the scene is unfortunate [most secular Islamic Algerians were killed while the world looked the other way, for example] and with its absence it becomes more and more difficult to present the other side of the argument. At the moment looking at somebody who is of 'Islamic race' is of course synonymous with terrorism. This 'Islamic race' is a questionable 'idea'. It is another of those post-modern idiotic/spin concepts... then we should have a Christian race, a Buddhist race, a Jewish race, etc. Here I have to make an important point: I don't believe in races. If I have to admit that there is a race, then I will have to admit that Christians, Jews and Muslims are genetically different. I will have to admit consequentially that these people have been created genetically different according to 'religion'. This implies denying the historical truth of religious conversions, evolution and throwing Darwin out of the window. It means that there have been three different Gods that created these people. And which one of these three gods is the 'Holiest'? And I am not ready to get on this idiotic path of reasoning that will offer more weapons to fracture, divide and separate communities.

Bal: Ultimately, where does this really get us? Do you think that there is a hope that something will change?

Aceti: It will change only if and when the dialogue, as Zizek put it in one of his articles on the New York Times, will be a ruthless critical engagement and not a patronizing stance or a cultural relativist illusion. Zizek advocates the value of European atheism, but atheism played a small role in what instead was a large anticlerical European tradition. Priests in Italy in the late 19th century were called cockroaches; try that today... with any clerics. The left in Italy is running into the Vatican to be endorsed as a political force. This didn't happen in the late 19th century when Italy had just become a state and was at its lowest with the Vatican.

The issue, I think, is that the Islamic world has to decide if it wants to go through the sausage factory of industrial globalization: with its values, advantages and disadvantages. They have to decide if they want to do what the Italians did, what the Turks are attempting to do, in order to step into the parameters of a civilized society that does not have to be necessarily a copy of the Western world.

Religion, with its paraphernalia of power and cultural control, is not part of it. These are tough cultural choices that require clear public debates. And I haven't seen many of those around.



(First published in After Image magazine - Special Issue on Art and Activism, NY, September 2006)