Reality Under the Influence: A Guide to the Exhibition Those Who Control the Past Command the Future – Those Who Command the Future Conquer the Past
By Tone Olaf Nielsen, Independent Curator
INTENTION & MOTIVATION
Those Who Control the Past Command the Future – Those Who Command the Future Conquer the Past is an exhibition about ideology, or to be more correct, ideology’s effect on our perception of reality. Taking its title from a passage in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which draws a picture of a future totalitarian society that controls its citizens by means of surveillance, thought control, and rewriting history in order to make the past comply with its view of the world,1 the show examines how ideology structures the way we perceive of ourselves and the surrounding world. In short, how ideology constructs what we know to be reality.
To produce an exhibition that examines the notion of ideology at this point in time might strike some as odd. After all, the “collapse of socialism and communism” with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the surrender of more and more socialist and democratic governments to capitalist economics have repeatedly been said to mark “the end of ideology.” Capitalism’s triumphal progress, initially in the US and Western Europe, and since 1990 around most of the globe, is the result of a natural force “like the weather […] that comes and goes without any human agency to control it,”2 the argument goes, not the effect of global consent to a particular ideological model. In other words, capitalism is beyond ideology.
One could argue, however, that what we have in fact witnessed since the fall of the Berlin wall is a hegemonic shift of ideology from a collectivistic socialist/social democratic conception of society to an individualistic liberal/neoliberal conception of society. The surrender to pro-global market politics, in some countries attended by a gradual dismantling of the welfare state, has been accompanied by fierce culture wars and struggles for the right to determine society’s normative values, which testifies to a strong ideology-based politics. Thus, one could claim, as has Gregory Elliot, that our time is a “quintessentially ideological age.”3
With this in mind, it might be useful to encircle what the term ideology signifies and how we refer to it in this exhibition. Historically, the concept of ideology has undergone many definitions and remains highly contested.4 Generally regarded as a concept that seeks to explain the relation of ideas to their social context, the term “ideology” was first coined in 1797 by Destutt de Tracy to denote the science of ideas. Fifty years later, Marx and Engels would link the concept to the material base and define ideology as a distorted, false consciousness, which derived from and served to mask the social contradictions in a class society. Thereby legitimating a structure of domination, it could only provide symbolic resolutions to social problems and had to be vanquished by a revolutionary transformation of the social conditions, which had engendered it.
Later Marxists theorists removed themselves somewhat from this notion of “false consciousness” and redefined ideology as a system of ideas. Vladimir Lenin, for instance, defined ideology as the political beliefs of a social or economic class (i.e. bourgeois ideology or socialist ideology) and saw socialist ideology as a positive force in the development of a revolutionary consciousness towards a socialist state. Georg Lukács went on to claim that ideologies are not false per se, but false because they impose structural limitations on the classes, whose thoughts they represent.
Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser would distance themselves even further from the traditional Marxist opposition between ideology and truth/true consciousness and contribute with definitions, which have informed much post-Marxist, structuralist, and poststructuralist theory thereafter. Gramsci introduced the concept of ideological hegemony, which he defined as the dominance and control of one class’ ideology throughout society. Seeking to explain how the capitalist class had obtained hegemony, he abandoned traditional Marxist theories of power and claimed that hegemonic control was gained and maintained not solely through the deployment or threat of force in political life, but by manufacturing consent across class divisions in civil society. To Gramsci, no regime could sustain itself primarily through state power and armed force, but had to have broad popular support and legitimacy as well. This manufacture of consent, he argued, took place throughout the social order in institutions, relationships, popular culture, etc., so that an ideological bond between ruler and ruled was created. The subordinate classes would internalize the ideas, forms, morals, and interests of the dominant class and come to see them as “common sense” and the “natural order of things.” To Gramsci, the only way to end the hegemony of the ruling capitalist class was to break this ideological bond by establishing a “counter hegemony,” which focused equally on structural and ideological change. Only then could the subordinate classes acquire a consciousness that would allow them to question the ruling class’ right to rule.
Combining Gramsci’s theories with Lacanian psychoanalysis, Althusser theorized ideology as the realm of the “imaginary” and defined it as an eternal system of representation that expresses the lived relation between human beings and their conditions of existence. To Althusser, specific ideologies come and go historically, but the realm of ideology has no history: it is the universal means by which subjects are constituted and individuated as social identities.
Gramsci and Althusser would open the door for subsequent definitions of ideology as discourse in structuralist and poststructuralist theory and ideology as a system of signification or representation in post-Marxist and Cultural Studies theory. Common to them all was a rejection of the traditional Marxist opposition between ideology as false consciousness versus the truth/true consciousness on the grounds that “the truth/true consciousness” are themselves discursive. Michel Pêcheux, for instance, examined ideology as the inscriptions of social power in language. Figures associated with the literary journal Tel Quel generated a notion of ideology as the arbitrary, but motivated “closure” of the infinite productivity of language. Michel Foucault would abandon the notion of ideology all together and replace it with his power-knowledge theory, in which he argues that power is created and transferred through an “economy” of discourse where knowledge not only assumes the authority of “the truth” but has the power to make itself true. Knowledge is thus a discursive formation sustaining a regime of truth. Finally, Ernesto Laclau & Chantal Mouffe as well as Stuart Hall have in different ways rejected the close association of ideology with class in order to introduce notions of a plurality and conflict (Lauclau & Mouffe) and identity and difference (Hall) in relation to ideology. As Phillip Hammond writes, “What was needed, after the death of ‘that single, singular subject we used to call Socialist Man’, was a counter-hegemonic project capable of uniting a plurality of identities and interests, without obliterating ‘real differences’.”5 Laclau & Mouffe thus define ideology as a field of class-neutral elements, within which there is a struggle to articulate such elements to different hegemonic principles, whereas Hall characterizes it as a system of signification or representation that similarly to language endows phenomena and subjects with significance.
Informed by all the definitions above, Those Who Control the Past Command the Future – Those Who Command the Future Conquer the Past applies a broad notion of ideology as a process of meaning construction, which a) produces a re-presentation of the world and an interpretation of the existing social order, b) presents a model for what is a “good” society, and c) offers an account of the means through political and thereby social change is produced. Divided into three sections, the exhibition presents seven recent works by artists Runo Lagomarsino and Johan Tirén, who for the past decade, both together and individually, have been working with art that takes a focus on current power structures and the historical, ideological, political, and social constructions that sustain them.
In the first part of the exhibition, Tirén presents two projects, which in different ways address the ideological premises for Europe’s recent move far to the right in the political spectrum. In the second part of the show, four works by Lagomarsino put this move into a discursive and historical perspective. The last part of the exhibition presents a collective work by the two artists, which reflects on the possibilities of establishing a future “counter hegemony.”
Common to all the works is their attempt to encircle the moment, when ideology deconstructs; when ideology in a Derridian sense reveals itself as a mere “supplement” for the fundamental absence of any reality or truth outside of it on which to justify its continued operation. Ideology is disclosed as a mere linguistic construct, devoid of any meaning outside of the system of relationships in which it exists.6 With this encirclement, Those Who Control the Past Command the Future – Those Who Command the Future Conquer the Past exposes tiny cracks in the system from where to act resistantly.
The first work to encounter the viewer is Tirén’s large-scale video installation We’re saying what you’re thinking. Produced in 2005/2007, the work is a critical examination of the ideology, history, and strategies of Sverigedemokraterna (The Sweden Democrats), an ultranationalist and xenophobic political party that received wide support in Southern Sweden during the 2006 Swedish election. The work consists of three video interviews projected onto three large freestanding screens, in which the artist discusses the ideologies and growth of the Sweden Democrats with the party’s former secretary, Jan Milld, the party’s former press officer, Jonas Åkerlund, and the journalist Daniel Poohl, who for years has been devoted to the study of right-wing movements in Sweden.
In the work, Tirén applies a deconstructive methodology. Rather than aggressively interrogating the Sweden Democrats in a manner similar to that used by the political opposition and mass media in general, the artist takes his point of departure in a close reading of the party’s program, which he asks the party members to expand on. As such, the interviews become courteous conversations that provide the party members the rare opportunity to express their vision of the ideal society and its realization in full. However, as the interviews progress, inconsistencies and contradictions in the party’s ideology are slowly teased out by Tirén’s method of inquiry. Key concepts like “nation,” “culture,” “Swedishness,” and “normality” emerge as nothing more than representations without an original source or verifiable external reality on which to justify them. The interview with Daniel Poohl serves to analyze these contradictions further and contextualize them ideologically and historically.
We’re saying what you’re thinking becomes a testimony to the general political development in Europe, where extreme right-wing parties are gaining increasing influence at the parliamentary level and have succeeded in shifting the entire political spectrum far to the right. The work exposes Europe’s inability to deal with difference as a result of migration and questions whether it is the response of Europe’s established parties to these right-extremist currents that has paved the way for their increasing influence.
Tirén’s video installation is surrounded by the poster series Notes in connection with the celebration of a National Day, which he produced earlier this year on the occasion of the Swedish National Day. The series takes its starting point in the politically acceptable and often socially supported nationalism, which manifests itself during celebrations of National Days or national sports events.
In the series, Tirén points to the manufacturing of consent described by Gramsci and
examines how ideologically founded values and beliefs connected to the notion of “the nation” and “nationalism” are naturalized so they appear as truths. Juxtaposing idyllically charged imagery with text, the series closely mimics existing discourses and representations known from the social and political field. But by displacing them into the gallery space, Tirén discloses their constructed nature. The series leaves the viewer with a number of questions: What undercurrents do this socially accepted nationalism produce? How do they relate to the nationalism of the extreme right? And where, if at all, do they meet?
With those questions in mind, the viewer is led through a corridor with a title wall before entering the second section of the show, which presents four works by Lagomarsino. Installed in the center of the space, the first work to meet the viewer is Untitled from 2003. Consisting of one hundred length units drawn by hand on four pieces of metric graph paper, the work is a scathing critique of the metric system as a European compulsory standard by which to measure, administrate, and control land, peoples, goods, and ideas.
What appears to be an exact representation of a metric ruler, at closer inspection turns out to be an illustration of the impossibility of any unchanging and uniform measuring device. Neither the individual units nor their total length add up to any known basic unit in the metric system. Furthermore, the hand drawn units are so irregular that their exact length and width can never be determined precisely.
With these “imperfections,” Lagomarsino critically mocks the metric system’s claim to permanence, perfection, and measurability and exposes it as an arbitrary, imaginary construction. The system by which the West continues to colonize land, draw borders, control peoples, and administrate goods turns out to be pure fiction, and no universal grounds for the continued ideological hegemony of the West can be claimed.
To the right of the drawing, Lagomarsino’s second contribution is projected: the single-channel video installation Untitled (Extended Arguments) from 2005. Based on documentary footage from the 1973 World Cup qualifying football match between Chile and the Soviet Union, it repeats the goal scored by the Chilenian team during the match. What has caught Lagomarsino’s attention in regards to this match is a number of things. Firstly, it took place right after the September 11 military coup, where the democratically elected Marxist President Salvador Allende was deposed, and General Pinochet installed a right-wing military dictatorship that would last for 16 years. Secondly, it took place in the infamous Estado Nacional, a football arena in Chile’s capital Santiago, where thousands of political opponents were jailed, tortured, and executed by Pinochet’s junta. Lastly, the Chilenian team played against itself, as the Soviet team boycotted the event in protest against Pinochet’s regime. With no opponent, the Chilenian team “won” the match.
Untitled (Extended Arguments) is a pertinent examination of the rejection and silencing of oppositional voices and the responsibility of fellow citizens towards such silencing. With his continuous looping of the goal, Lagomarsino illustrates the moment when all opposition has been silenced, and democratic deliberation is replaced by totalitarian monologue. Yet, the Chilenian football players play as if nothing has happened, as if their involvement has no consequence. On one level, the work brings to mind the decreasing possibilities for civil disobedience and the unconstitutional incarceration of political prisoners after our September 11 and the subsequent War on Terror. On another, it questions what will be the effects of the shifting of the entire political spectrum to the right. With both left- and right-wing parties claiming the center of the political spectrum in the West, are we too approaching a situation where we have managed to silence ethnic, religious, and political others to get the final word?
Lagomarsino’s third contribution to the exhibition is the single-channel video Notion of Conflict, Dance of the Piñata from 2004. Installed behind the representation of the metric ruler, the work explores aspects of oppression and resistance through references to the piñata game.
An old Latin American game, where succession of blindfolded, stick-wielding people try to break the papier-mâché piñata figure in order to collect the candy/toys inside of it, the piñata figure has a complex history. It was allegedly brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo and later introduced to Latin America by the European colonizers, where it was used as a pedagogical tool in the “Christianization” of the “natives.” Today, the piñata has become part of popular culture and is used to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays and Christmas.
In the video, the viewer sees a blindfolded male figure trying to hit a piñata figure shaped as a human body dressed in a military uniform. When he manages to hit, the strokes are brutally violent. After a couple of minutes, the video slowly fades to black, leaving the viewer to ponder what happens after.
Shot in black-and-white with no sound, the video brings to mind images and memories of the Latin American 1970s, with its many coup d’états, dictatorships, accounts of torture and killings, and resistant uprisings. However, this history is ideologically contextualized by the appropriation of the piñata figure, which simultaneously points to the era of colonization as the institutionalization of these oppressive forms of violence and the subsequent forms of resistance, cultural translation, and hybridization that were to accompany the de-colonization of Latin America. With these dual references, Notion of Conflict, Dance of the Piñata not only raises important questions about resistance to oppression, but forces us to consider our own position in relation to this.
The sculptural installation Casi Quasi Cinema concludes the second section of the exhibition. Produced in 2006, the installation takes its starting point in Gillo Pontecorvo’s renowned film The Battle of Algiers from 1966, which reconstructs the events in Algiers during the Algerian War of Independence against France in the 1950s and is celebrated for its vivid recreation of the colonial war, the anti-colonial resistance, and its organized guerrilla movement.
On August 27, 2003, the US Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at the Pentagon hosted a screening of Pontecorvo’s film to its staff members, considering it to be a useful illustration of the problems faced in Iraq. Casi Quasi Cinema is a fictitious model of the cinema, where Pentagon could potentially have screened the film. The model includes benches and a cinema screen onto which the text of a flyer announcing the screening to Pentagon’s staff members is projected.
Through his focus on the reception and utilization of The Battle of Algiers, Lagomarsino makes visible the connections between a colonial past and an imperialist present. By appropriating Pentagon’s comparison between the Algerian War of Independence and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, the work not only points to how history is reused and reread over and over again for reasons of power enforcement. More importantly, it forces us to reconsider whether we can indeed claim that the era of colonialism has ended, or whether “Operation Enduring Freedom” (the official name used by the US government for its military response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States) is in fact an example of a neo-colonialism in the age of globalization.
Those who Control the Past Command the Future – Those Who Command the Future Conquer the Past is concluded with the joint work Waiting for the demonstration at the wrong time from 2003/2007. Installed in the corridor on the backside of the title wall, this large digital color print features two figures arriving to audio document one of the many EU Summit protests in the newly erected Ørestad area of Copenhagen, when Denmark held the EU Presidency in 2002. However, the landscape is devoid of people and the figures have arrived either too early or too late.
With a great deal of humor, Waiting for the demonstration at the wrong time gives an accurate picture of the current possibilities for a “counter hegemony.” Faced with the right’s claim to the center of the political spectrum and its appropriation of leftist goals, concepts, and terminologies, the left in the West appears disoriented and unable to act. The left’s current generations have arrived too late to take part in the 1968 revolts and too early to visualize valid alternatives to the current world order. The question arises whether the left of the West should look South for new ideas and new strategies. There, a new left seems to be emerging, which might just be able to deconstruct current representations of a defeated Western left.
1. Written in 1948 as a critique against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of Winston Smith and his degradation by the totalitarian state, Oceania, in which he lives. In the year 1984, Oceania is governed by The Party, whose omniscient, omnipresent leader, Big Brother, exerts control over his citizens by means of a number of controlling strategies expressed in party slogans. The title of this exhibition is a slight rewriting of one of these slogans, which in the novel reads: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” See George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949, part 3, chapter 2.
2. Quoted from Charles Esche, “Modest proposals or why the choice is limited to ‘how the wealth is to be squandered’,” in 2nd Berlin Biennale, Oktagon Verlag, Cologne, 2001.
3. Quoted from Gregory Elliott’s entry on ideology in A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, ed. Michael Payne, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999, p. 256.
4. The following summary of definitions ascribed to the term historically is based on Gregory Elliott’s and M.A.R. Habib’s entries in A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, ed. Michael Payne, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999, pp. 23-26, 252-57 & 226-28, various entries in The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism, ed. Joseph Childers & Gary Hentzi, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, pp. 84-85, 131-32 & 149-51, and Philip Hammond’s essay “Cultural Identity and Ideology,” in myweb.lsbu.ac.uk/philip-hammond/1999b.html.
5. Hammond, ibid.
6. My use of the term “supplement” is indebted to Pablo Henrik Llambias’ essay “A Supplement to the Danish Welfare State” in Trine Rytter Andersen, Kirsten Dufour, Tone O. Nielsen & Anja Raithel (ed.), Minority Report: Challenging Intolerance in Contemporary Art_Station 4: The Book, Aarhus: Aarhus Festival of Contemporary Art 2004, 2004.