Us and them, here and. there, now and then

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1 Us and them, here and there, now and then By Andrey Shental STINA ÖSTBERG 1

2 STINA ÖSTBERG, still image from Objet Trouvé, 2015, image courtesy of the artist. When it comes to politically engaged art that talks about labour and exploitation, artists always face the problem of how one could (re)unite us and them in the form of the Us with a capital letter as well as how one could (re)connect here and there into one spatiotemporal unity, be it world, globe, earth, universe or, more recently, contemporaneity. How we, the privileged, i.e. intellectuals, artists, or filmmakers, could appeal and talk on behalf of them the exploited, the silent, the powerless? How could we talk about them without being paternalist or populist? How can we speak, being here, in the advanced economies, sitting in properly air conditioned auditoria with good acoustics [1] or standing in the galleries with immaculately white and constantly re-painted walls about them, 1 2 based there in their remote invisible call centres or collapsing garment factories? What does it mean when we finally decide to travel there in order to meet, talk to, and document them while they are working or while they are rehabilitating themselves on their vacation? Or, more generally, how could we speak about their local problems and suggest solutions, using our own experience, knowledge and strategies once implemented or simply developed according to our own context (capitalism, patriarchy, etc.)? With the emergence of new forms of art activism, essay films, and artworks reflecting the global circulation of images these problems that have been haunting intellectuals for many decades became relevant anew. In this context Stina Östberg s Objet Trouvé could be called a film about film or a meta-film,

3 which rethinks the trajectory of political filmmaking in the long 20th century with all its problems, doubts, and concerns. The explicit reference to Jean-Luc Godard (his interview on Tout va Bien downloaded from YouTube) as well as implicit allusion to Harun Farocki (the Lumiere workers leaving the factory that appear in the end) make one read it as a revision of this history that was updated for the post- Internet context. It asks: what is political cinema today, when politics is dispersed across the World Wide Web in the form of ready-made flat objects? Historically, the most obvious recipe for how to make a political film was to stage or reenact a strike, protest movement, or revolution, which was a popular genre in the first half of the 20th century. This type of film is by definition dramatic, intense, and catching, because it represents nothing but the quintessence of politics, where every single mise en scene and every shot is endowed with universal significance of the event the real politics taking place in the real time. However, when these grand narratives demised and were successfully superseded by disaster films and war movies, it inflected towards documentary filmmaking that privileged first-person experience and those intimate relations with the masses. Since then many artists and film directors have started to attend demonstrations, marches, or protests in order to make statements concerning this or that event. Today, in the post-critical and postpolitical times, it became increasingly popular to produce such films, but quite often these attempts to make something political dialectically also led to increased formalization. Notwithstanding the actuality of their subject matter, they could be reduced to mere observations and commentaries and thus tended to be tendentious and one-sided claims. It seems that Objet Trouvé is aware of these limitations and tries to find an inventive and original way to talk about politics in the situation, when every comment made before the camera could be manipulated in such a way that it would support the opposite position, as happened recently with Russian television: Östberg, on the other hand, aims to totalize the political spectrum by means of the rhetorical figure of allegory that is quite rarely used today. The Glory of Work, the monument situated on Möllevångstorget Square in Malmö, Sweden, functions as an anchoring point that stitches together the broad range of actors and perspectives. This controversial statue represents one female and two male workers one each side, where the former, standing behind men s backs, helps them to hold the huge stone with the image of a factory. As if paraphrasing typical public opinion polls quite popular on YouTube, Östberg interrogated different protestors (Christian, male feminist, vegetarian, etc.) as well as buyers at the market who narrate their own interpretations. As a result, they sincerely project and reveal their own ideals, values, feelings and belongings concerning political struggle. By doing this indirectly and through interaction with an 3

4 STINA ÖSTBERG, still image from Objet Trouvé, 2015, image courtesy of the artist. inanimate object, politics is depicted not as a dogmatic activity (as it is at stake in many documentaries), but rather as a creative, imaginative, and reflective process. The construction of we in this episode happens not so much in relation to them, but rather on the axis: now (politics disseminated through YouTube) and then (political propaganda by means of monumental sculpture), that presents the class struggle in its historicity. The development of political films also went in another direction and changed its focus from the outside to the inside, establishing a new binary besides the above-mentioned. It happened not without radical changes in Marxism and in its political strategies. The so-called autonomists, who developed a bottomup theory of society, focused more on everyday life and direct engagement, rather than class struggle in its orthodox definition. Autonomists insisted that the working place and the interaction between workers be it a factory or an office is not economic, but political in its nature. Since then exploitation on a daily basis became the major subject for filmmakers, who tried in different ways to sneak inside those closed and secured zones. Emphasizing the fact that it was strictly forbidden to shoot inside factories, Godard whose interview is incorporated into Objet Trouvé poignantly explains why it is so: the exploiter never tells the exploited how he s exploiting him. Therefore when one shoots inside these sanctuaries, he or she inevitably unveils exploitation, making it objectively present and intelligible for its subjects. 4

5 Nowadays, however, this strategy does not work as it did before, since at least in certain industries the situation is completely reversed: exploitation there should be unveiled, exposed, and disseminated via the Internet. For instance, in some fashion magazines bosses ask their employers to post photos from their business trips on personal Facebook pages and tag each other to show how lucky, happy, and satisfied with their job they are. Thus the main motto of contemporary labour politics could be formulated as do what you love (DWYL) [2] the ostensible demonstration of workers alleged love and passion for their jobs (as if they were hobbies or pastime activities). The more traditional types of labour also follow this logic when it becomes permissible to film inside the factories (and it is precisely what Östberg did in one of Sri Lanka s locations). These forms of exposure of labour create a new system of screens that hide the exploitation even more radically. While being open, at 2 https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/01/in-the-nameof-love/ the same time it becomes invisible, so one could say it functions as a mental act of disavowal. Even if we understand that wage labour is a form of slavery or exploitation, when its demonstration is made in such a barefaced manner, we reject the reality of our perception. The only thing that can seemingly disrupt this order is the intervention of the real, where the so-called Foxconn suicide could be quite telling. Only after shocking tragedy did these images, which had been received with indifference, become political again. For instance, it happened after the scandalous BBC documentary showing Chinese workers of the same factory sleeping at their desk tables in front of open wires after promised improvement of conditions. Objet Trouvé decides to outflank this problem by entering from another side. Early on in the film one can see an image from Tijuana with a view across a fence to San Diego. A few clips later the image is precluded by the bed linen drying on a 5

6 STINA ÖSTBERG, still image from Objet Trouvé, 2015, image courtesy of the artist. clothesline. This textile commodity is given as present-at-hand and appears as a contemplative object completely withdrawn from both its use and the process of its creation (the same way we usually see things ). But later, this textile reappears during its production at the hand-stitching factory. These images are superimposed with the sound of the Malmö protesters and particularly the man who is talking about the importance of labour, because it produces value in society. Therefore Objet Trouvé demystifies commodity fetishism of an object that embodies human labour, so the relations between social processes that produce objects and the objects themselves become somehow tangible. But the fabric not only indicates the material instantiation of labour, but also visualizes outsourcing of industry and what David Harvey called uneven geographical 6 development or, in other words, the economic disparity and asymmetry between us and them. The geopolitical location of the fence that later is covered with the bed linen is indeed the borderline between the United States and Mexico a fact the artist highlighted in our correspondence. Thus it is not a mere border, but another screen that makes the difference between labour migration (moving from a second- to a first- world country) and vacation (moving from the first- to a second-world country) disappear. By introducing another inanimate actor, Östberg adds another layer of meaning and complicates the social relationships encompassing it. Moreover, this linen is even given a third meaning. In the film it appears overlapping the famous monologue of

7 STINA ÖSTBERG, still image from Objet Trouvé, 2015, image courtesy of the artist. Ingmar Bergman s film Persona read by a doctor to the main protagonist Elisabeth, a theatre actress, who suddenly became numb. She says: At the same time the chasm between what you are to others and to yourself, the feeling of vertigo and the constant desire to at last be exposed. Or: Commit suicide? Oh no. That s ugly, you don t do that. But you can be immobile, you can fall silent. Then at least you don t lie. These phrases read under the image of the linen drying on a clothesline indicate that the person behind it got tired of constant self-exposure and became the object of the viewers gaze, an immobile and silent inanimate object, a commodity, a piece of Sri Lankan fabric. Taking this into account we can assume, that this linen is a quasi-object and a quasi-subject that testifies not only how human relations are perverse due to the division of labour, alienation, and reification, but also that this new form of control and exposure of labour that became indistinguishable from leisure time makes people even more object-like. To make something politically is another common strategy among film-directors and artists from Godard to Thomas Hirschhorn. To make film politically instead of making a political film means to change the focus from its subject matter to the very mode of its production. This has two aspects: to be reflective of the representation of politics (on the level of its signification) and a new type of participation; a worker who buys a small movie camera or a still camera and films his vacation is making a political film says Godard in the same interview. That s what I call a political film. It s the only film he can make he adds. The type of labour one is forced to 7

8 perform, along with the position in society one occupies, determines how he or she spends his or her free time, what his or her expectations, destinations, and forms of entertainment are. Objet Trouvé starts with the exalted voice of a North American tourist who wants to share with her online friends pretty insane and almost unbelievable stories she had experienced in her life. Östberg illustrates it with the found WWI photographs of unknown and forgotten people as well as viral videos of contemporary misérables women and men dancing and flirting in front of the camera awaiting recognition. [3] On the opposite side we could see Mudee (Cagata), the Filipino seamen or the helpless man as he calls himself, who was given a camera by the artist to shoot whatever he wanted. He decided to document his everyday routine on the vessel where he works, as well as his collection of images of flowers that he grew at home and graphics of ships that he painted (all of them reshot from the laptop screen). So we simultaneously have one person, whose vacation is always deferred and whose only entertainment is based on nostalgic digitized and mediated memories of his home, and a person who from very young age traveled around the world, collecting stories that she considers authentic and unique. These two types of narrative that look differently in fact could be described by what Raymond Williams, in a quite different and a more nuanced context, called structure of feeling implying not ideology or world-view, but rather meaning and values as they are actively lived and felt [4]. Östberg highlights how these specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships are formed and distributed in a time when the difference between labour 3 Hito Steyerl. I dreamed a dream. 4 Williams, R. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP: 1977, p and leisure is diminishing, but instead of offering a definition, classification, or rationalization she puts them forward as simply present and topical. These YouTube and Facebook confessions are pre-inscribed in the very structure of the Internet. In this film several examples of dubious, similar, and needless stories, images, and videos populating internet form certain patterns and schemes with easily substitutable elements (like preexisting forms for web design, power-point presentation or film editing). Therefore what we see is not the feelings, experiences, or impressions as such, but the very patterns that predetermine how people s lives and activities are lived and felt, because at the very moment they are being lived and felt, it is implied that they will be published online in all their poverty. Objet Trouvé takes into account different forms of political filmmaking produced throughout the 20th century, but recontextualizes them in the new system of production and distribution. Therefore it interrogates how one could make a political statement that would represent global inequality and exploitation in the increasingly scanned, digitized, and mediated world, where everything is downloadable, transmissible and manipulative? It also asks how one could use the old methodologies like exposure of unveiling, when the spectacle is already unveiled and criticized? In order to do so it uses a complex narrative structure and establishes a relationship between the images and objects they seems to represent that is quite unusual for such films. This system could not be reduced to the traditional montage techniques (unlike those of artists who are nostalgically attached to them). Instead of undertaking a semiotic deconstruction of the filmic structure, it rather shows the everyday montage as it happens on the screen of any user who could watch various video

9 series, listen to different audio tracks, and look through numerous images in a browser or on a desktop. But making it look like a random assemblage of things and stories, it in fact works closely with human attention and makes one discern anchoring points, parallels, and repetitions, that create a complex cartography of the world, where us and them, here and there, now and then are no longer correlates of each other, but comprise tightly entwined networks. But unlike those theories that accept them affirmatively, Östberg uses this methodology critically, revealing how equating subject with object is a threat to human subjectivity s capacities to act. Andrey Shental Andrey Shental (b. 1988) is an art critic and independent curator based in Moscow. He holds a BA in Art Criticism at the Moscow State University (Russia) and MA in Critical Theory at Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at the Kingston University (UK). Together with Joao Laia he co-curated nomadic video-programme Now Showing: Austerity Measures (London, Lisbon, Porto, Athens, Barcelona). Since 2013 he is senior editor of the arts section at the educational online platform TheoryandPractice.ru. He is also contributing to several publications including Artchronika, Colta, Art Territory, Idea, Moscow Art Magazine, Mute, Art Leaks and Frieze, where he published reviews, interviews, and essays on art, culture, philosophy and politics. Stina Östberg (b. 1977) is an artist and independent curator living in Gothenburg, Sweden, where she took her master s degree in fine art at Valand Art Academy in She has exhibited both in Sweden and internationally, such as the Bucharest Biennale and at Malmö Konsthall. Östberg s practice manifests itself in video, photography, and textile, often interwoven in the form of installation. She describes her practice as a survey on nonlinear thinking and plural focal points. Core elements in several of her pieces have been topics of work and labour and it s relation to ideas of desire, time and production. 9

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