Orient Express From Eastern Helsinki (and Eastern Europe) with LOVE

BERLIN: HIPSTER SUPREMACY AND POPULIST ART?

  • Welcome to Berlin
    Welcome to Berlin
  • Wu Tsang
    Wu Tsang
  • Hipster class war
    Hipster class war
  • Anna Uddenberg
    Anna Uddenberg

 

You know that someone is an amateur in contemporary art if s/he talks only about public art services. (The only exception here being the people who work in them, i.e. museum professionals.) There is of course nothing wrong with being an amateur. For art educators and students of art history it is also very natural to spend time in museums, because (together with schools) they form the core of their business.

 

But I cannot even remember when I would have been in Kiasma, the contemporary art museum of Helsinki. I respect the pedagogical efforts of the staff. I believe the museum fulfils well the needs of the visitors (over half of them are for the first time in a contemporary art museum). But heavy users have their own jazz clubs, star restaurants and film festivals. In arts too.

 

When we, the contemporary, or should I say post-contemporary art professionals are at home, we go to galleries. Most of the places I visit are grass root. My favorite in Helsinki is Third Space. I just heard the other day that not even the critic of the main newspaper had ever been there. I don’t criticize him for that. The scene is like a smorgasbord. Even pros do not know what they could or should be monitoring. Sometimes it feels that there is no scene, no community. There's too much fragmentation.

 

If there is anything gluing the scene together, it is the biennales. All famous biennales are big enough to contain at least something, which fits your taste. There are some accentuations, though. Venice is the place to go for career games, Kassel Documenta and Istanbul Biennale are for deep-minded art thinkers, and the nomadic Manifesta is political and discursive.

 

Berlin is political, nearly populist in its black-and-white manifestations. Seeing a political slogan on a blackboard has never really given me the kicks. I need the art in the ‘art’, at least to some extent. I was a bit worried when I came here.

 

I was happy to find out that this year there is not much fake theory or bullshitting in the biennale. I have nothing against theory (I am a philosopher), but mostly the ‘discussion’ you encounter in these huge exhibitions is just ‘art talk,’ loose cut-and-paste chat and dialogues which are performative safe havens for the people who already think and act alike. It all reminds me of Theodor Adorno’s critique of Bertold Brecht’s theatre: the people who agree with Brecht go to see his political play and then they say ‘that’s exactly how it is’.

 

I wanted to find singular works and spend some time with them, so I did not even try to see everything.

 

Akademie der Künste had Hito Steyerl in the basement. Two different video installations dominated the huge but still claustrophobic space. Steyerl is able to stimulate people politically and aesthetically. Her touch, based on research, performance, documentation and the atmosphere of technological and political paranoia always make me think about issues in a new way. The story of Sadam Hussein’s dream to rebuild the tower of Babel is eccentric, grotesque and somewhat tragic. The clips, which included a lot of surveillance technology, landscapes from Iraq and documentation of the research made for the project, made me feel that the world is far too complicated for me to understand.

 

I had other love affairs, too. Anna Uddenberg’s series Transit Mode was fun to watch, maybe even a bit therapeutic, as the body, its poses and the selfies taken with it have become such a mess these times. Uddenberg’s human sculptures and photos are empty shells, consumers without any human touch. Wu Tsang’s series on human rights and emotional reactions was minimalist, ironic and humorous, including statement texts like for example Rage AKA Fucking Angry. This was maybe the only really accurate reason for calling the exhibition post-internet. But of course it is not always important to get the curatorial concept. I definitely was no interested in it this time.

 

The main thing for me was Halil Altindere’s ’music video’ Homeland (2016) a rap piece and a political video about immigrants in Europe. There was great footage, one example being a train arriving to Berlin main station with a load of people on its roof. And the musical piece was just fantastic (sadly not yet on Vimeo). For long I have been thinking that it is weird how little hip hop and the contemporary art scene have been mingling. You have seen nearly everything in contemporary art, from video games to traditional folk dances, but not really hip hop music. Altindere’s team is very good, and so the film and its music really shakes the experience of Europe, its borders and the identities which are right now under heavy crossfire. I found Altindere’s earlier work, Wonderland (2014), on Vimeo (see link), and liked that too.  It is interesting how he wants to create hip hop community projects, which are partly not his own expression, but the expression of the group she wants to have dialogue with. A star of the future.

 

I saw many nice works. From time to time I still got tired of political art, and I felt again that a lot of it is actually populist. It is just about reinforcing political affects. Today there are less ego-centered white middle class artists who pose with people from Third World countries, and political art is less about preaching, but still it is too often too simple and somewhat cheap.

 

Of course, this is the problem of everyday politics too. It is not always easy to be leftist, feminist, against racialization and for liberal sexual politics, at least if you want to perform it. Work on these topics becomes too easily banal ethical education, appropriation and ego-tripping.

 

Anyway, I love Berlin. It is truly the European capital of contemporary art. If we talk just about political art, it might even serve as the capital for the whole globe. And, like most white, liberal, leftist and educated people with a green, feminist twist, and an urge to find organic vegetarian food, I enjoy hanging out in its hipster areas, where life is somewhat easy, partly because most of the things I want (food, art, bars, non-aggressive atmosphere) are packaged into the one small area.

 

For me being in Berlin has always been learning about politics. My first trip to the city was when I took part in a fake-political EU youth conference in 2000. We wrote a cocky memorandum and drank a lot of beer. I met nice people, but I also met a lot of the kind of players which were the reason I left leftist youth politics years ago. I returned 2003 with a friend from Montreal. We found a place to stay in Kurfürstendamm. Every day I walked through the city to discover new art joints. As I was just about to open my own gallery with a bunch of friends (ROR, Kallio), I studied what it meant to have a grass root space. Berlin was full of them. It was the time of the Second Gulf war. I went to demonstrations and learned how the leftist adrenaline junkies were even worse in Berlin and I realized how the culture of resistance was more important for many than the cause itself.

 

This summer I have been to Berlin twice. Three weeks ago, I traveled to the city with my philosophical twin, the Slovak philosopher Jozef Kovalcik. We write together (right now on scenes) but we are also planning to launch an own academic journal, so we needed to find an easy and cheap solution for meeting each other. For some reason we ended up staying in the Mercedesque West, on Kurfürstendamm. Of course we went to eat and drink to the European capital of hipsters, Prenzlauer Berg, and the Turkish Kreuzberg.

 

It was great to walk from Ku’damm to the East, and to see the change of class and culture in the city, not just the change in the city from West to East, but to discover the historical dynamics. But what is so clearly visible from a class point of view in the West needs more theoretical interpretation in the East. Hipsters are middle class kids who perform downgrading. Sometimes this stirs up mixed emotions in a lower class intellectual.

 

In Kreuzberg we ordered a glass wine and sat down to write. Suddenly the ‘critical mass’ of 5000-10000 cyclists passed us. Cars got stuck, and the Turkish drivers and passangers came out and tried to discuss with the green activists. One adrenaline junkie provoked the drivers by biking too close to the cars, and, probably unintentionally, hit one.

 

Only 3 cyclists were not white. If I’d been in charge of a large mass demonstration where probably 99% of the participants belonged to the white middle class, I would have studied well the route. For me this was about white supremacy, ethnic aggression and class aggression, and I felt sad for the Turkish guys in their cars. Maybe they couldn’t make a statement by biking? In many countries having a car signals that you have made it, if you are conceived of as an immigrant.

 

Now, when back with my colleagues, I encountered another type of hipster aggression, this time more clearly anchored to just class. We were served 1312 beer (see pic 2) in a small café in a squatted building. 1312 stands for “all cops are bastards”. Pasolini criticized the Italian leftist movement of the 1970s by saying: the boys of the bourgeois throw stones on the poor boys of the working class who have had to take the job of the police. This was exactly my reaction to the 1312 beer in Berlin, in the heart of the downgrading middle class area of Prenzlauer Berg. Why not attack also cleaners and truck drivers with beer design?

 

Hipster politics might not, in the end, of course, be more of a problem than any other everyday movements, which are based on mass thinking. It is just that when we are talking about so privileged ‘kids’ (all white, most of them middle class), it is sad how little they understand their own position. There’s no sensitivity.

 

To not be conscious and sensitive about your privileges is one of the biggest problems in today’s politics, I think. ‘Personal is political’ hasn’t changed the fact that the successful working class male who’s protected by the labor movement, the upper class white heterosexual woman who recognizes only gender as a privilege and the downgrading hippie / hipster seldom play their cards in a fair way. We need to be careful with both our power and our use of victim capital.

 

Well, will be nice to get back home. Two nice things happened. Two days ago Finland got a feminist party. It looks like this movement will be truly multi-faceted and aimed to increase equality. Last week the leftist party chose Li Anderson, a young bilingual intellectual, to chair the party, taking in also Suldaan Said Ahmed (who’s peaceful security walks I have taken part in) to a visible role in the lead. It is historical, we have a refugee up there.

 

As a white (+), heterosexual (+) male (+), and as someone who comes from a poor background (-) and who has lived through an immigrant childhood (-), I have and I haven’t got and had privileges, but looking at Berlin this week made me think how much more important it is to make visible and be careful about the ones you have. That’s your capital and following that it is your responsibility to use the power in the right way. That responsibility has to be taken care of in arts too. Could privileges be the topic for the next biennale?

 

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