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Freedom and Self-Instrumentalization

(Published in Framework june 2007)

By Frans-Josef Petersson

Freedom and Self-Instrumentalization

In the Swedish election 2006 the Sverigedemokraterna, a right-wing, extremist party got 2.9 percent of the votes and is currently represented in half of the municipal councils in the country.(1) As I am writing this, the latest polls would grant them a place in the national parliament in the next election.(2) At the same time, a new feminist party, Feministiskt Initiativ, attracted a lot of attention but got a mere 0.7 percent at the ballots and no representation anywhere. And of course, the Social Democrats lost the election to the Alliance for Sweden, a right-wing coalition of four parties who, ironically, won the required votes due to a strategic use of political nostalgia and basic social democratic jargon. I mention this to portray a political situation permeated by anxiety and uncertainty, where belief in progressive social politics has been replaced by nostalgic sentiments about a glorious, and supposedly lost, welfare society. This mode of government is characterized by an apparently contradictory belief in limiting state intervention in the field of economy on the one hand, and the use of political institutions to control communication and cultural practices — the lives — of citizens on the other. Whether regarded as an effect of, or a reaction to globalization, such policies of economic de-regulation paired with an increased cultural regulation seem to be increasingly accepted across the political spectrum. While the role of the nation-state is changing, its influence over our lives is not necessarily weakened.

What interests me is what kind of art, and what kind of artists, are produced under such circumstances, characterized by a severe displacement of a historically constituted balance between autonomous individual and sovereign state. What are the consequences on the aesthetic and political sensibilities permeating artistic practice? Viewed as a general tendency the situation is obviously not particular to Sweden, but this is the context I will deal with here. I will address these issues through practices coming out of a generation born, like myself, in the seventies – most of them raised in a culture permeated by a strong faith in the benevolence of the state while also having witnessed the continuing deterioration of the Swedish welfare system. With no ambition to form general conclusions, I will focus on a particular set of artists that were all educated in Nordic academies from the mid-nineties onward, when post-modern pluralism and relativism had supposedly “freed” art from the oppression of modernist compartmentalization. The period saw the still ongoing process of professionalization, institutionalization and internationalization of the contemporary art world, where a generous national support-system not only provides reasonable working conditions (for some) but also opens up doors to the global art scene (for a selected few). By all liberal standards, this generation must be considered to be made up of supremely autonomous individuals: free from oppression and provided with the social, economic and above all artistic means to be at liberty to do “whatever they want”.

When Johan Tirén attended the Art Academy in Copenhagen some years ago, he witnessed how the rise of a relatively small actor such as the populist Dansk Folkeparti displaced the entire political spectrum — something which has undoubtedly informed his interest in the relationship between the surface of established culture and the darker undercurrents flowing beneath it. In his three-channel video-installation Vi säger vad du tänker (We’re saying what you’re thinking) from 2005, he investigates the changing ideology and political practice of the right-wing extremists in Sverigedemokraterna. The work consists of two interviews, or informal talks, with leading representatives from the party, Jonas Åkerlund and Jan Milld, who are given the opportunity to present their political views. This is contrasted with a third interview with Daniel Poohl, a journalist who has been reporting on present and past strategies of extremist groups for many years. The work was shown this winter in the lobby of the city hall of Lund in southern Sweden, under the auspices of Creative Manifestations of Public Dissent, an ongoing curatorial collaboration between artist Luca Frei and curator Marianna Garin. The screening was a direct response to the election — where Sverigedemokraterna had huge success in this particular part of the country — in an act that arguably transgresses the line between art and political activism, through its use of this existing artwork as a form of protest, or with the instrumental purpose of awareness-rising. However, Tirén’s work was finished one year earlier, for an exhibition at Konsthall C in Hökarängen outside of Stockholm, and it is this context that I am primarily concerned with here. At the time, the Sverigedemokraterna was still a small and fairly insignificant party and at Konsthall C, the work was a bit different, presenting more complex, political connotations. To appreciate this work requires an understanding of the particular historical environment of Hökarängen, as well as the conceptual underpinnings of Konsthall C.

Initiated in 2005 by artist Per Hasselberg, this institution deals explicitly with the heritage of the Swedish welfare state as manifested in the meticulous planning and building of Hökarängen. This was a model for accommodating citizens in small-scale, neighbourhood units that was later implemented in the planning and construction of Stockholm and other cities around the country. Hasselberg quotes the architect and social democrat Uno Århén in saying that the aim of these structures was to “create social-minded individuals, with an active interest in common matters, with ability for critical thought and collaboration with other people. In short, to facilitate the growth of democratic citizens, for whom liberty and autonomy is combined with a sense of social responsibility”. An important aspect of this was to integrate natural meeting places in the built environment, and in Hökarängen a central laundry room was designed to also function as a local community centre — a place for people to perform their daily chores but also socialize with their neighbours. Konsthall C is situated in this very space, with only a glass wall dividing it from the still functioning laundry room. One could describe this institutional practice as trying to engage productively with a certain form of political nostalgia, by creating a space where invited artists work site-specifically with projects that in different ways use contemporary issues to reactivate this historical model.

Tiren’s exhibition effectively turned this space into a metaphorical echo-chamber, bouncing past and present notions of what constitutes a good life and a just society on and off the walls. His conversations with Milld and Åkerlund lays bare the emptiness of notions of culture and identity integral to SD ideology, but here it also compels the audience to question what notions of culture, history and identity are integral to the historical welfare system permeating this particular context. How present notions of nationalism, conservatism, and racism are in the ideology of the so-called Swedish model — and how this presence affects our understanding of the transformation of this particular form of government — remains a matter of contestation. Although his questions are critical, the fact that Tirén lets Åkerlund and Milld publicize their political message can be considered controversial. However, I understand this as consistent in Tirén’s views, which are also expressed by Poohl. In his interview, it is stated that the success or failure of SD and their ideology depend entirely on how they are met by the political establishment. To marginalize such forces, while at the same time letting their populist ideas permeate one’s own message is after all a well-known political strategy. Tirén’s practice requires trusting the viewer to react as a moral subject rather than as a passive consumer of political ideas. I view the exhibition as a clear argument for the aesthetic sphere as a valid form of critical publicness — where artists and institution not only stage themselves as objects for public discussion (i.e. art criticism) but also take an active part in constructing a sphere for critical thought and debate.

Let me clarify that while the practices I consider in this text encompass documentary and journalistic strategies, as well as political activism and grassroots campaigning, I regard them under the normative of category of autonomy. By this, I mean that as far as they constitute political statements, they do so under the heading of aesthetics, understood as an alternative mode of political agency that aim to constitute a privileged sphere of autonomy within the political. In other words, I consider these practices not as statements about politics from an aesthetic point of view, but as acts that are both political and aesthetic, i.e. containing within themselves specific ideas about art, politics and society. Tirén’s exhibition at Konsthall C can thus be considered as taking a critical stance towards state-power, in an ambition to construct de-centralized civic structures where citizens can engage in critical debate independently from the various experts and technocrats governing them. At the same time, it must be said that such practices depend on a centralized power to articulate their supposedly autonomous position — a state that incorporates within itself, and supports, such an autonomous sphere of participation and debate. I have noticed that a common feature for artists situated in the sphere of post-relational and activist-oriented practice — including the ones featured in this article — is an emphasis on art as facilitating a particular form of “freedom of action”, as well as a desire to use this supposed freedom for a particular political purpose.

On this topic I would stress that there is nothing natural about the freedom of art, and that autonomy is always a matter of negotiation within a more or less clearly defined framework. The autonomy of the aesthetic sphere is not just about the government allowing (and providing financial support!) space for art and culture. This is made particularly clear by the case hitherto described, which emphasizes precisely the role of social engineering in producing individuals who wilfully subjugate themselves under the “common good of society” as defined within, and by, the centralized power of the state. In other words, one must entertain the notion that this system tends to produce self-governing individuals (i.e. artists) who desire to be subjugated under such a centralized power, and that such desire permeates the very act of pursuing freedom under the auspices of art. At the same time, the transformation of the welfare system can be described in terms of a neo-liberal political rationality increasingly integral to western liberal democracies, which, in effect, undermines the independence of institutions in relation to one an other and to the market. Earlier, this independence upheld a certain amount of tension between the capitalistic economy and the democratic political system. This transformation of the welfare system is leading to a situation where the values of the market permeate the same institutions as well as the social and cultural practices they circumscribe. In other words, this expansion of economic rationality to earlier non-economic spheres and institutions include the way we relate to each other. While liberal democracies have traditionally been built upon a distinction between moral, social and economic practices, it is often stressed that this new rationality produces individuals that are entrepreneurs in all aspects of life. Supposedly, this creates a tension within the state, between traditional forms of social engineering and present forms of neo-liberal governmentality, i.e. between the centralized engineering of democratic citizens and the informal production of rational and market-oriented subjects. When interiorized, this undoubtedly produces ambivalent sentiments that may sometimes be articulated in the form of nostalgia, and where the dictate of freedom, of being expected to “realize one’s own potential”, is often met with strategies of self-instrumentalization.

I will go on to consider this topic in relation to a set of recent practices that depart from the idea of the benevolent state, while retaining its defining power by addressing verily confronting it in a way that entertains a certain unresolved conflict: Föreningen JA! /The Association YES! (Johanna Gustafsson, Fia-Stina Sandlund, Malin Arnell, (Karianne Stensland-remove this name) Line S. Karlström and Anna Linder) and Anna Eineborg. The former criticize patriarchal structures in the art world from a feminist perspective, and has also devised a specific strategy to enable public art institutions to achieve equality in terms of gender and ethnicity. The latter criticizes state policies on surveillance by informing people of new legislation and taking upon herself to “supervise” government institutions through various ways. A common feature of both practices is that they do not settle with articulating a general critique but rather involve themselves in actively addressing the state with the explicit aim of affecting its policies and/or practices. They are both critical of a discrepancy between the official and actual practice of government institutions, but seem to retain some kind of faith in the possibility of democratic processes and organize themselves according to traditional grassroots models like forming an association (JA!) and setting up a mobile information office Eineborg. There is also a difference between their respective practices, in that the feminist goal of equality is actually in line with official state ideology (though hardly implemented), while the issue of surveillance is situated at the very core of the government’s desire to control its population and monitor potential threats to national security.

JA! stands for Jämlikhets Avtal (Equality Agreement) and is basically a contract to be signed by Föreningen JA! and a museum or an art hall, stipulating that the staff, the exhibiting artists and the purchases of the said institution have to be perfectly balanced in terms of gender and ethnicity. The idea of devising a contract and trying to implement it arose when the artists Johanna Gustafsson, Fia-Stina Sandlund and the performance group High Heel Sisters (Malin Arnell, Karianne Stensland, Line S Karlström and Anna Linder) were invited to Konstfeminism (Artfeminism), a historical exhibition of feminist art that toured four institutions in Sweden 2005-2006. When the artists met up for a conversation to be published in the catalogue, they ended up formulating a critique of the context they were in, where the exhibition was seen as a way for the participating institutions — Liljevalchs Konsthall, Dunkers Kulturhus and Riksutställningar — to polish up their image on equality and gender issues. The huge scale of the enterprise, with over a hundred participating women artists, was seen as a convenient way to balance bad statistics while in effect de-politicizing the included practices by compartmentalizing them according to historical/anthropological perspectives.

To re-politicize this context, the artists decided to work together and their participation in the exhibition consisted in forming Föreningen JA!, and calling a press conference/performance at the opening at Dunkers Kulturhus. After presenting the unsatisfying statistics of the participating institutions, they confronted the directors with the contract, the Equality Agreement, and offered them to sign it. They all declined. It must be stressed that the objectives stipulated in the contract would by no means be in conflict with the policies of the institutions. On the contrary they coincide with what is already recommended by the Ministry of Culture, and JA!´s incentive is precisely this gap between these recommendations and institutional practice. As I understand it, JA! view their action as trying to help the institutions to live up to their publicly funded mission, and it should also be said that they were not merely trying to prove a point but were actually intent on convincing the directors to sign the contract. However, the result was a conflict where the institutions felt humiliated, and accused JA! of using patriarchal strategies, of hiding behind the auspices of an art-project, of being more interested in protest than communication and so on. Moreover, someone pointed out that it would not be legally possible for a public institution to enter into such an agreement with a private association.

I would say that it is precisely because of their failure to get the contract signed that JA! were successful in articulating a critique that was not institutionally assimilated, which could be described as a success rather than a failure, since their action will potentially have more profound and interesting consequences in the long run. It is not, as the art-critic Dan Jönsson would have it, because JA! were able to point to the limits of contemporary art to politics (“where the apparently all-inclusive artworld could not reach”), but on the contrary because their practice doesn’t allow for demarcations to be drawn between art, politics and society. (3) Writers who criticize JA! for subsuming politics under art (Jönsson), as well those who claim that they subsume art under politics (Boel Gerell)(4) presume an initial division between these dual spheres which, in effect, treat political issues as something external to art. But approaching politics as the other, which must be either repressed or extrapolated from the sphere of art, in itself constitutes a de-politicizing of aesthetics. In other words, even the common practice of treating politics as the necessary external reference point of critical discourse actually tends to reinforce an artificial opposition between l´art pour l´art and l´art engagé, which in contemporary criticism has often meant exorcising aesthetics from the politicized sphere of art (ironically leaving artistic practice without aesthetics as a perfect correlative of the post-political practice of “politics without politics”).

As I understand it, what JA!´s action does is, quite on the contrary, to politicize the aesthetic sphere precisely by pointing out its potential limits towards state-power, here in the guise of publicly funded art institutions. Rather than engaging in antagonistic resistance of the kind that is easily assimilated, JA! make a strategic use of their identity as artists by incorporating representatives from government institutions into a performative scenario that might destabilize preconceived roles and attitudes. If the supposed freedom of art is met with this tendency to instrumentalize one’s own identity, this must clearly be understood in relation to an increasingly institutionalized artworld characterized by a professionalization of the role of the artist as someone who wilfully subjugates her-or himself under a system structured by particular interests. Such a system requires its subjects to be exceedingly sensitive to the desires articulated within specific contexts, and the general integration of institutions and markets will, undoubtedly, result in an increasing particularization of the commercial art market and government funded practices. As is already evident, the former will become increasingly integrated with the expectations of the commercial sphere and the latter with expectations articulated by, and within, government institutions.

The much debated issue of instrumentalization is thus relevant not primarily because art tends to be subsumed under the specific agendas of market, state or other interests, but, above all, because artistic labour is subsumed under a rationale that facilitates for, or even requires, art to be evaluated according to “professional standards”, i.e. how efficiently it meets the demands and interests of a particular context. A political understanding of autonomy can thus never be a question of freedom from commercial, state or other interests for the simple reason that what one desires may very well coincide with these specific interests. Therefore I find it interesting that even though JA´s aims in this case do not diverge from official policy, they show that art is not always and necessarily subservient to the centralized power under which it is subjugated. There remains a difference, a conflict, between the sphere of aesthetics and the state — within which, and by, it is constituted — which JA! reinforce in their very attempt to transgress. This has aroused both enthusiasm and antipathy, with already mentioned Boel Gerell describing JA!´s action as “totalitarian”. To me, it rather seems that the artists are asking to be treated as citizens in a democracy and understanding artistic practice as an integral sphere of such a society. Although no-one would deny that art is integrally a part of society, there is obviously nothing self-evident about how society is integral to art, i.e. how it is in art.

This scenario of institutionalization and professionalization can also be described in terms of art adopting the role of service-provider in a dual motion of integrating and distancing itself from the institutional sphere under which it operates. The question of autonomy in relation to this discourse of art-as-service must, in other words, be understood as artists being increasingly integrated (economically, socially etc.), which is giving rise to the need of establishing a distance between practice and the system in which it is integrated. While JA! offer a traditional form of institutional critique directed against a particular set of art institutions, Anna Eineborg expands the field of critique to incorporate government institutions, such as the Security Police, as a site for her practice. Having initially trained as a lawyer, but finding the institutional framework of jurisprudence too narrow, she enrolled in the Art Academy in Stockholm from which she graduated last year. In works like Citizen Profiling and The Errand she explicitly addresses what she describes as an “increasingly oppressive government”, using basic democratic rights as her instruments.

Citizen Profiling, which was recently shown at this year’s spring salon at Liljevalchs Konsthall, is a kind of mobile office that provides visitors with information about state policies, current legislation and new propositions. It also contains literature and commissions of inquiry from government institutions, as well as information about directories — such as the PKU-directory containing DNA-information and the files of the Security Police — that contain, or may contain, vital facts about individual citizens. Eineborg also provides pre-printed application forms for those who want to request to be removed from a particular directory, or be informed about what it says about oneself in a specific file. Furthermore, the artist is present in the office herself to engage in dialogue with visitors, some of whom have even approached her for legal counselling.

The Citizen Profiling-office also displays documents from another of Eineborg’s projects called The Errand. This work consists of the artist’s ongoing attempt to get the Security Police to provide her with the names of their personnel, and is comprised of mail correspondence between her and the government as well as documents from the court proceedings she has been involved in during the project. After appealing to the highest level, Eineborg has still not received a single name (even though several are actually published on the Security Police´s own web-page), while she herself has had to reveal her identity to the counterpart (when forced to take the matter to court, she no longer had the possibility of being anonymous). The principle of free access to public records — granting public status to every and any document received or produced by a government institution — is considered a cornerstone of Swedish democracy, but The Errand suggests how spuriously this is actually implemented.

I have discussed a set of contemporary practices in relation to what has been described as a transformation of a particular form of government, namely the deterioration of the Swedish welfare system apparently resulting in a permanent state of anxiety, paired with a sense of meaninglessness associated with a (artistic) desire for freedom. Citizen Profiling / The Errand by Anna Eineborg certainly fulfils the conditions of a successful projet engagé in providing visitors with information, application forms and thus being useful in the sense of having a notable (though small) effect on society. I am less interested in how Eineborg uses the supposed freedom of art — how she instrumentalizes her identity as an artist for a specific purpose — but am more interested in how her practice stages this freedom as coinciding with the limits of her sovereignty as a citizen, in something I would describe as a dual motion of incorporating and delineating the state and the sphere of aesthetics. Contrary to JA!, Eineborg is explicitly interested in investigating these limit, and while doing so, giving the abstract procedures of government bureaucracy sculptural qualities, making them intelligible, even physically tangible. This process can also be described as defining different positions in the ongoing struggle of delineating the world, where surveillance is increasingly integral for the transition to a mode of government operating through the managing of risk rather than through a specific set of ideas about the future. The issue of surveillance exemplifies a culturalization of politics, where the lack of ideological differences puts all emphasis on how matters are talked about: instead of discussing surveillance in terms of its political and moral implications, and instead of discussing security in terms of progressive foreign policy, these issues are transformed to a matter of avoiding potential and undefined threats. In this kind of society, there should be ample room for artists as self-styled entrepreneurs with professional expertise in a particular form of, potentially useful, risk management (i.e. art). But perhaps the practices here described point to the possibility of another role for aesthetics, besides that of being immediately subservient to such rationality.

Language editing by Anne-Sophie Cardinal. The writer is a freelance curator and art critic living in Stockholm. His latest publications —The Marcel Broodthaers Displacement Trick (Uri Förlag 2006) and The Belfry. An Anthology of Bat Poetry (Oei 2007), both written and edited together with Karl Larsson — deal with issues of conceptual writing and editorial practice on the fine line between literature and art.

(1) See the web-page of the Swedish Election Authority (
(2) With 4.3 percent according to a poll published in Aftonbladet March 2007, and 3.5 percent according to a poll published in Svenska Dagbladet April 2007.
(3) Jönsson, Dan. (2006) Kritik och konservatism. Samtidskonstens alternativa teater, Hjärnstorm # 88-89.
(4) Gerell, Boel, ”Konst: Lede Fi”, Expressen 21 October 2005.