Uprisings at MUAC

If an art necessarily imposed the shock or vibration the world would have changed long ago, and men would have been thinking for a long time. Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma II, p.152

The crowd’s chaotic moment is indeterminate, but to fetishize this indeterminacy dematerializes the crowd, extracting the affective intensities rupturing a given setting from the rupture itself, as if a crowd event were nothing more than a semantic confusion. Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party, p.126

An age that has lost its gestures is, for this reason, obsessed by them. For human beings who have lost every sense of naturalness, each single gesture becomes a destiny. Giorgio Agamben, Means Without Ends, p.53

“Uprisings”, curated by Georges Didi-Huberman, traveled from the Jeu de Paume to the MUAC (University Contemporary Art Museum) in Mexico City in the Spring of 2018. The exhibition gathers documents, artworks, photographs and books that represent, embody, document or symbolize historical events or aesthetic strategies relating to moments of political agitation, social disorder, acts of insubmission, insurrection or revolt. Erudite, thoroughly researched and exquisitely curated, “Uprisings” is reminiscent of the grand exhibition at the Grand Palais and the Neue National Galerie in Berlin (2005-6), “Melancholia”, curated by Jean Claire. “Melancholia” deployed 25 centuries of the history of the malady in the West, from affection of the soul and source of genius to changes in its iconography in 250 artworks divided into 8 sections depicting the “sacred malady” from Dürer to Ron Mueck passing through La tour, Füssli, Goya, Friedrich, Delacroix, Rodin, Van Gogh, Munch, De Chirico and Picasso. Similarly canonical and wide-ranging, “Uprisings” embraces insurrections from the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, and can be inscribed in the tradition of films such as Chris Marker’s Le Fond de l’air est rouge (1977), which casts a nostalgic gaze upon the socialist revolutions of the 20th Century on the eve of their failure by being betrayed or having become dictatorships, or Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Ici et ailleurs (1969-1974), a view on the history of revolutions that led to the failure of the Palestinian revolution as they lost the war and their struggle began to use terrorism as a strategy against Israeli occupation. Like Le fond de l’air est rouge, Didi-Huberman’s “Uprisings” is an atlas of conflicts across the world filtered through the Modern narrative of emancipation through revolutionary takeover and the values of the Enlightenment. This narrative implies that the dispossessed have the right to revolt and to fight for their rights, to overthrow the State, to contest oppressive social structures and to break from subjection through subjectification. In other words, the exhibition celebrates visual manifestations of the basic democratic rights granted by the tradition of the Enlightenment of freedom of speech and assembling, marching, demonstrating, distributing pamphlets, seeking to dismantle oppressive forms of power. But because Revolutions and power take-overs tend to end up in trite places, the exhibition focuses on the recognition of humanity’s right to rebel to produce freedom of equality through the contagious desire that underlies those rights.

The exhibition brings together an extraordinary array of documents and artworks relating to Athens 1944, Dada and Surrealism, the Spanish Civil War, May 1968, Budapest 1956, Algerian Independence, Plaza de Mayo Mothers in Buenos Aires, the Birkenau Concentration Camp, Situationism. In the Mexican version of the exhibition, there appear traces of Estridentismo, Ayotzinapa, Zapatismo, Lecumberri, the Mexican Revolution, the 1985 Earthquake, artwork by Silvia Gruner and Vicente Razo, photographs by Agustín Casasola, Graciela Iturbide, Tina Modotti and Enrique Metínides. The curatorial apparatus divides the exhibition into five open-ended sections: “Unstable (Elements)” shows things, people and situations of being fed up, the immanence of entropy and change, faith and indignation; “Intensities,” gathers works and images about rising up and beginnings of struggles as a simple gesture that embodies contagious emotion; “Exclaimed words” deploys the poetics of insurrection and the need of slogans and words to be said when rising up, so we see arms up, open mouths, printed and shattered words, books, manifestoes, posters and pamphlets; “Conflicts” encompasses images that crystalize moments of strikes, confrontations, demonstrations, barricades; “Indestructible desires” gathers works about the resilience of desire in oppressed populations that revolt surviving, like immigrants or refugees, or by commemorating those disappeared by State power.

Many of the images included in “Uprisings” can be categorized as trade-mark images [images de marque], that is to say, they are images that became emblematic of historical events and acquired power to signify them by means of their circulation in the regime of visibilities; the circulation has made them part of history, contributing to a collective sensible memory composed of mechanically reproduced images. The problem is that trademark images simplify facts; they are images made out of events conceived to circulate in the first place in the mass media. These images are incomplete, carry solidified meaning and embody fixed signifiers. For instance, Pedro Mera’s photographs of the Zapatistas in San Lázaro in the Mexican Congress in 2001 signify the moment in which indigenous peoples took over speech at the heart of a State power that refused to recognize them for centuries; the problem is that the Zapatista struggle is reduced to an iconic moment of visibility; what these images do not show, is the repression against them or their ongoing experiments with autonomy, which are more subversive than their appearance in Congress. For Didi-Huberman, however, images “touch the real” not in the sense that an image offers us univocally the truth of a reality, but in Walter Benjamin’s sense: an image burns when it touches the real offering knowledge thereby contributing to historical knowledge. Thus, for Didi-Huberman, images are ashes from the tomb of memory that we encounter in a contradictory temporality. Because every memory is threatened by forgetfulness, we must know how to read the knowledge an image offers, which implies being capable of discerning where the image burns, where it holds a “secret signal,” a crisis that has not been appeased, a symptom.1Georges Didi-Huberman, Cuando las imágenes tocan lo real trad. Inés Bértolo Fernández (Madrid: Círculo de Bellas Artes, 2013). Images are therefore sites where the ashes are not yet cold. In Uprisings images burn because historical scores still need to be settled; above all, this collection of burning images must propel us away from the political slumber that has characterized the past winter years. This is possible because for Didi-Huberman, when memories are evoked, images can make desires burn. “Uprisings” is therefore a search for the lost gestures that found politics inscribed in our visual and archival history. If the current darkness of our times cannot let us see, for Didi-Huberman, it is politically crucial to delve into our impulse for freedom that underlies the philosophical, historical, political and aesthetic aspects of uprisings, which he posits as endless, sovereign gestures. He proposes this iconographic study of the affective strata underlying collective emotions leading to disobedience and rebellion. Focusing on the dialectic between potential and power, we see in the exhibition images that depict and document collective emotions beneath social protest. If Marker’s and Godard’s films announced the beginning of the winter years, Didi-Huberman’s exhibition seeks awakening from the current global political slumber reminding us that uprisings deploy a power that is desire and that is life, and that this dynamic, based on passion and emotion, is capable of rising up subjects toward freedom. A revolt expresses for Didi-Huberman a tendency for freedom that is innate in humans, and thus his theory of uprisings begins by referencing Jean Vigo’s 1933 film Zéro de conduite in which school children revolt against their teachers, enacting a primary and universal gesture of refusal of a certain state of affairs. In this narrative, constructed through meandering through the history of Western thought (from Greek mythology to Hegel, Kant, Bataille, Freud, Benjamin, Nietzsche, Foucault, Canetti, Thoreau), insurrection is not only innate but a right, and civil disobedience is potentially political action. It follows that uprisings have an aesthetic aspect: the physical rising up of surfaces as well as entropy is the natural tendency for metamorphosis and change, analogies of which we see throughout the exhibition. For instance, Bande rouge by Roman Singer (2005), a video that shows a ribbon being lifted by forceful wind coming from the floor, or of the gesture of being slowly fed up as in Jack Goldstein’s video A Glass of Milk (1972) in which a hand slowly but steadily bangs on a gradually spilling milk from a glass. In the exhibition there are also critical pieces, such as Vicente Razo’s Revolucionario Institucional (1994), or commemorative ones, as Francisco Toledo’s 43 kites bearing the faces of the students disappeared by the State from Ayotzinapa in 2014. There are also symbolic images, such as Tina Modotti’s photographs celebrating the Mexicanness of the 1910 Revolution; or gestures that embody insurrection, like Jochen Gerz’s performance Crier jusqu’a l’épuisement (1972) and icons of revolt, like the widely known image of Thich Quand Duc, the Buddhist Monk who immolated himself in 1963 in Saigon to protest prosecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Images and artworks are thus inserted in the dialectic between power and potential: power in Nietzsche’s sense, which is the power to affect and to be affected. And this, for Didi-Huberman, is an essential plastic principle: the appearance of forms in perpetual metamorphosis fueled by desire, whose potency is inexhaustible.

By focusing on the potential – in the double sense of power and virtuality – of desire to produce freedom and equality, Didi-Huberman, however, takes us through “Uprisings” from the winter years, back to Paris in May 1968. In retrospect, this moment of insurrection was seen as a moment of collectively liberated desire characterized as excess and as the first stage of the revolution. For students (more so than for workers), the problem became to plug desire in a way that its processes could not be interrupted by the social body, that its expressions remain collective. What counted back then, was the infinite spreading of desire and to protect the eruptions, uprisings, enthusiasms from being captured by a social rationality of power at the moment in which they were born. The question that May-sixty-eighters were asking (as seems to br Didi-Huberman in the exhibition) was, if there could ever be, one fine day, in history, a collective and during expression of liberated desire that would not be betrayed and that neither would it remain as pure explosion without consequence, and how?2Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium” Chaosmosis Texts and Interviews (1972-1977) ed. Sylvère Lotringer (New York: Semiotext(e), 2009), pp. 35-52. This position corresponds to “spontanéism,” a theory developed by Bakounine and Rosa Luxembourg (and criticized by Lenin) according to which revolutionary movements develop spontaneously, without having to pass through political organization. Spontaneity was valorized as the embryonic form of struggle that led to violent confrontations with repressive forces, to occupy factories in May ’68.3Ernest Mandel, “The Lessons of May 1968” (July 1968) https://bit.ly/2QSbpR8 In other words, the experience of May ’68 was described as spontaneous, although we know that working-class spontaneity is never a pure spontaneity, but the result of the fermentation of political work that leads to political organization. From this point of view, burning images calling for spontaneous awakening propelling the collectivity to act upon our desires of insurrection is a conservative proposition. This proposition is in line with our current present of restoration in which the Western Modernist frame of resistance has been superseded by the current manifestations of capitalist absolutism. Unprecedented forms of State, social and corporate violence now obey to complex, abstract and global processes. Our enemy is faceless. When people rose up last century, they knew what they wished to overthrow and what condition they sought to bring to an end. We no longer do. Capitalism and social media have plummeted the use value of language to zero; between us and the world stand lies, and social organization – or the desire for social organization – makes us powerless. Power, infrastructure and everyday life are inseparable; states are holograms shielding complex corporate and private forms of government, and the only shared experiences we can have is coming together in front of a screen. In spite of this, the political grammar of our era – as neoliberal democracy – is very much grounded on the same enlightenment values on which “Uprisings” is premised. In the context of the political ambiguity of protests worldwide in the past decade because political identities are now so fluid that they can be channeled in any direction, we can argue that the masses now have a hard time uniting as a class and are only able to stand out as minorities demanding recognition, even if their actions are the expressions of a class. Another shortcoming of the exhibition is the fact that it leaves out recent expressions of insurrection like the Jungle of Calais, la Zad, Zapatista Caracoles and other forms of indigenous self-determination (like vigilantes), which represent autonomous organization of forms of life aiming at communal survival and a return to earth. Out of consideration are also the uprisings in the Parisian Banlieue (2005) and London (2011). They have been left out perhaps because they are not perceived as legitimate as they do not reflect a sort of popular will and neither are they set against any structure in particular, but were based on sheer rage. Perhaps these populations do not count as “popular will” because they are perceived as “irrational.” Also excluded are expressions like Sumud, Capoeira, Boycott, turning one’s back to power or autonomy. And yet, thanks to these practices, we now know that the universalized French Enlightenment frame for socio-political change is now beyond obsolete.

Irmgard Emmelhainz

Sublevaciones @ MUAC, Mexico

References   [ + ]

1. Georges Didi-Huberman, Cuando las imágenes tocan lo real trad. Inés Bértolo Fernández (Madrid: Círculo de Bellas Artes, 2013).
2. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium” Chaosmosis Texts and Interviews (1972-1977) ed. Sylvère Lotringer (New York: Semiotext(e), 2009), pp. 35-52.
3. Ernest Mandel, “The Lessons of May 1968” (July 1968) https://bit.ly/2QSbpR8


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