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What to do in 2006?
BY CHRIS THOMPSON
At the close of each year we make resolutions and invent scenarios about ourselves that we hope will have come to pass 12 months from now.
What would make the first day of 2006 something other than just another day? What could art possibly have to do with it?
In order to try and figure out how to answer these questions in a way that wouldnít make me sound to myself like a hopelessly hopeful broken record, I re-read some of the end-of-year musings Iíd written for this paper in the past.
I found one piece, written in the last days of 2003, which came out in the first issue of 2004 ó the "wishes for the new year" theme. In it I wished that Portland could try out its own version of French Fluxus artist Robert Filliouís COMMEMOR project from two decades ago, where he proposed that countries considering war should swap war memorials first, and hopefully instead.
COMMEMOR aimed, in Filliouís words, "to make the future generations aware of the absurd and murderous obscenity of all nationalisms ... to change the pompous and revengeful style of history-writing into a new, generous expression of our destiny." The article finished with a barely-disguised romanticism: "Portlandís version could put this into practice. Why not? To imagine a world in which peace would be something other than just the absence of or pause between wars ... Sounds like work worth living for, doesnít it?"
One of this historical momentís key studies of contemporary social and political life begins by tackling this very question of the possibility of peace. At the outset of their book Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe their project as an inversion of Thomas Hobbesís Leviathan; where Hobbes began his analysis with an investigation of a newly emergent social class and proceeded to theorize the form of sovereignty bound up with it, theirs moves from the theory of postmodern sovereignty, developed in their previous book Empire, toward a consideration of the emergence of a "new global class" they call "multitude." And where Hobbesís conception of social life was framed by a vision of war that "consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary," Hardt and Negriís multitude emerges from the condition of "a general global state of war that erodes the distinction between war and peace such that we can no longer imagine or even hope for a real peace."
Hardt and Negri describe their project in Multitude as an effort to rethink basic political concepts in order to construct a language with which to engage adequately with contemporary social and political life. Though they "give numerous examples of how people are working today to put an end to war and make the world more democratic," we are forewarned not to imagine that their book shall "answer the question, What is to be done? or propose a concrete program of action."
How to find a way to talk and think about art, the lives of those who make it and engage with it, and the forms of collectivity that they constitute, in a way that would have some bearing on precisely that question: "What is to be done?"
It was certainly the question that animated German artist Joseph Beuys, who was eager to propose and engage in practical political projects, and his notion of "Social Sculpture," which imagined social space as a living sculpture, a medium that could be worked creatively by everyone and anyone. This question was what prompted Filliou to convince himself and many others that artists could actually make some headway in imagining what peace might be if it could be something other than simply warís opposite. Indeed as Hardt and Negri remind us, the geopolitical stage is set such that war seems, for practical purposes, no longer to have an opposite.
On a certain level this question, "what is to be done?," is what motivates the making of anything worth making. To think historically about the various moments that have unfolded in and through the posing of and responding to that question, demands thinking of them as an interhuman intrigue that concerns itself with the individual and collective endeavor to become more fully human. This adventure of sociality, with its difficult forms of intimacy, its ambiguities, and its moments of dissolution of the certainty of oneís work and its purpose, is where one begins the work of imagining what peace might look like.
Chris Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org