Are we as afraid of contemporary art as we are afraid of the refugees?
The artworks of Thomas Keenan (USA) and Sohrab Mohebbi (Iran), with Charles Heller (USA) and Lorenzo Pezzani (Italy) entitled “It is obvious from the map’’ which can be seen at Galata Greek Primary School (being used as an art gallery nowadays) offers a comprehensive analysis of the notion of refugee crisis in the conflict zones around the Mediterranean within the scope of the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial.
It is obvious from the map’’ examines the role of two different types of maps: The maps, so-called ‘primitive’, that are being used by the refugees and the high-tech digital ones that are used by the NATO and the governments both for controlling, and for monitoring the refugee activities. This article will focus on the concept of ‘surveillance’ on the basis of using digital maps by NATO and the governments in order to reach a better understanding regarding the motivations and methodologies behind the concept. The notion of surveillance through these digital maps seems quite in a relation with the aspect of ‘Liquid Surveillance’, which was introduced by Zygmunt Bauman in his book, having the same title. Bauman states that the concept of ‘Panopticon’1 continues to be valid, yet what is called ‘Liquid Modernity’ also comes to the light as a result of ‘Liquid Surveillance’:
‘‘Liquid surveillance’ is less a complete way of specifying surveillance and more an orientation, a way of situating surveillance developments in the fluid and unsettling modernity of today.’’ On the previous days, Bauman’s talk “Why are we afraid of refugees?” was published by Al Jazeera English and has been circulated in social media. In this video, Bauman refers to the refugees:
‘‘And whom do they meet here? The precariat. Precariat lives by anxiety. By fear. We have nightmares. ‘Precariat’ comes from the French word ‘precarite’ and ‘precarite’ in loose translation means ‘walking on moving sands.’’
While Bauman refers to the refugees, he also emphasizes the translation of the word ‘precariat’ as ‘walking on the moving sands’ in a broad sense. This attribution of the word as ‘walking on moving sea’ finds a place to itself in Thomas-Sohrab’s art piece. Just like the all-seeing eye of NATO through high-tech map systems to monitor the refugee boats, the viewer also finds the opportunity to experience the notion of “monitoring” from a power-based perspective. A deep feeling of guilt, growing inside us, often accompanies this perspective of view. Precariat who ‘walks on moving sea’ actually keeps floating anxiously in the middle of the sea until the moment that the fuel level of the boat drops.
While people were stuck in the NATO area, facing with the death every second, although it is known that they are being monitored by variety of tools, including helicopters, ships and surveillance systems, no intervention was attempted on that occasion. Refugees, including babies, were struggling for their lives and 63 of them were already dead as they washed up on shore. Due to the fact that NATO and other governments were absolute powers, no one has been accused or punished after that disastrous occasion. Juridically speaking, since the ‘cause death without help’ has not yet been defined as crime in the law, no institution took the responsibility for that. Yet, we all know that who is capable of ‘walking on the sea’ or not. That is exactly why, refugees are not allowed to ‘walk on the sea’; if they do so, there are some certain consequences that they have to face as it has been experienced by numerous times by precariat throughout the history.
In order to broaden the subject, it is essential to point out the historical attributions of the words that we use to refer to an outcome of an artistic creation process. “It is obvious from the map” is defined as “a work” in the exhibition text provided by the biennial. However, I believe that it would be more appropriate to refer it as “an art piece/artwork” since it has an emotional and artistic response beyond its market value as well. Art theorist and painter Wassily Kandinsky defines an art piece as ‘‘the source of our feelings and the age of the child.’’ Thus, while constructing a theory on top of this terminology, it is important to emphasize the emotional aspect as it evokes certain feeling in the eye of the viewer. I believe that “a work” can be seen as a result of an industrial production process, highlighting a group of mass-produced, soulless items. The question is that whether there is an intentional avoidance of using the term “art piece”, rather than calling it “an artwork”. Same problem occurs in Turkish translation as well, by referring an artistic object as “sanat işi”, instead of “sanat eseri” or “sanat yapıtı”. This is, ultimately, an age that one cannot easily use the term “art piece” without being labelled by the historical discourse itself. The great narrative of modernism and its confident people brought us wars, genocide, concentration camps, and Vietnam War etc. Furthermore, we are talking about an era, which witnessed the usage of the atomic bomb. All these destructions have taken us away from modernism and threw into a new era called post-modernism. Bauman approaches this distinction as a transition period from a solid modernity to a liquid modernity. In this new society, the more freedom we have and we are promised to have, the more we can freely express ourselves which, at the same time, causes a way to escape from the big thoughts ad their ambitious owners. From that moment onwards, there were no mandatory surveillance as we see in Panapticons; but instead, people were voluntarily watching the others and being watched in social media. This, of course, meant to be the end of the modern art. The brave new art was opposing to any kind of specialization. The masters who were dealing with big mottos and high art were already dead, and everybody was the subject of art as ‘artist’. Art had entered into everyday life; there were new trends and anti-art formations occurring. (Haven’t this new world system brought us the war in Iraq, the refugee crisis, and the increasing anxiety of the precariat etc.? The answer is, yes. Indeed, modernism brought us nothing good. However, post-modernism went even further and has brought the end of history. This is more frightening, which is a different story to tell.) With appearance of Marcel Duchamp who is well known for his ‘Fountain’, these inventions have found themselves a name under the title of “contemporary art”. What happened to ‘feelings’ when these changes happened? It would be a betrayal not to talk about Spinoza when it comes to feelings:
‘‘According to Spinoza, all emotions can be reduced to three basic emotions and they are their combinations … Being and acting power (desire), this power increase (joy) and diminution (sadness).’’
In this new era, it seems that the art of power has been weighed by its gradually decreasing power. Here, it is a true pleasure to believe the possibility of increasing weight of the very existence of art and its action power (desire) by referring its outcomes as ”art piece”, rather than “artwork”. This kind of an emotional approach allows us to understand the condition that painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky has for an art piece in a better way: the condition of being a source of emotions. If we place a compass in the middle of emotions and ‘contemporary art’, we can draw a circle covering a wide range of historical discourse and evaluate this dual relation with ‘Liquid Modernity’ and ‘Liquid Surveillance’ under the light of Bauman’s concept. Using this compass relationship in a broad way on such a relationship opens a new way of writing a critique of the “It is obvious from the map”. The existence of this art piece as contemporary art becomes quite meaningful once the audience is in charge of exposing sensational aspect of it as active receivers. All in all, while the increasing population of refugees is expected to reach 1 billion in 2050, we can find many different references in the “It is obvious from the map’’ regarding this issue. This shows both the power of contemporary art and the differentiation of our post-modern world as it introduces different problems to us. Besides all these, we hear a question from one of the refugees at the exhibition: ‘‘Are we animals? Or are we human beings?’’. It is quite obvious that no easy answers can be given to this question even in this brave new world.