Catch a Sleepless Fish is the inverse paraphrasing of Disturb the Water to Catch a Fish, the twentieth stratagem of the Book of Southern Qi. The Book of Southern Qi contains thirty-six stratagems, dastardly illustrating military operations, formalizing to go behind the lines of the obvious, describing tactical warfare. This article borrows these stratagems in order to sketch artistic practices that would go behind their own lines, perform art in or through other social fields and diffuse divisions between art and life. However, the point in which military stratagems are different from artistic practices is crucial: it is their lack of definition of an objective. While the Book of Southern Qi is built on the dispositif of classical warfare that has a clear goal and a clear enemy, artistic practice today has an additional problem to solve: next to defining its stratagems, it would also have to define who is the enemy. Which fields and forces are to be claimed? Here, the relationship between operation and objective inverts: thought as practices, the stratagems of the Book of Southern Qi research how to act without knowing whom to beat. Instead of being firm on the enemy, they are firm on the lines they want to go behind and the territories they would like to enter, whatever one might be confronted with having arrived. Thought as practices, they first and foremost become a body of speculations, raising energies for the future.
In addition to the stratagems of the Book of Southern Qi, I borrowed two concepts from biology and from Greek mythology – Camouflage by Mimesis or by Cripsis and the Trojan Horse – in order to extend this sketch of future artistic practices.
1. Deck the Tree with False Blossoms makes one practice operate under the radar of another one. It sets up a double agenda for a work in which one practice has to be efficient and produce fast results (the blossom) and the other one can grow silently underground (the tree). It functions through the pretention of beauty by the blossom which catches all the attention. Deck the Tree with False Blossoms is potentially an enjoyable or social practice since it allows setting up activities without making them instantly productive. It can be used to resist expectations of efficiency within artistic production and to emphasize instead desire and the pure time that has been spent as central parameters. It plays with the relation of labour and time or the idea of productivity. It is subversive not through resisting productivity but through overproductivity, through silently breeding more than what was planned. In the shade of another production, it allows for undirected action to take place. Deck the Tree with False Blossoms resembles the cuckoo’s breeding: entrusting the baby to foreign wings so that it will be fed well. Norwegian choreographer Ingri Midgard Fiksdal, for example, recently proposed for the production Stormen at Henie-Onstad Art Centre to practice the full length of the piece (1 hour) every day once and to use the rest of the rehearsal time to read together.
2. Borrow a Corpse to Resurrect the Soul names a very old practice to integrate with an existing institution and to engage either in resurrecting its concept in opposition to the current state of affairs, twisting the way the institution operates (activism), or making visible the intertwined relationship of the institution and aesthetic values (institutional critique). Either way, it uses the confusion of social and artistic parameters to call conventions and laws into question. Most of the times it operates in legality and, in that way, differs from the Trojan Horse. Rather than a deception it is a transparency or visibility practice, staying true to democratic values and frameworks for political action.
Today the Danish group Superflex is using a deviated form of this practice which could be called “Borrow a body to give birth to a soul / Hyperlegality”. Instead of integrating with one public institution, the group makes contracts with various institutions and through these contracts superimposes foreign procedures onto them. The concerned institutions then have to change their course of affairs for a while in order to fulfil the contract. The practice of Superflex gives birth to a new administrative soul through a juridical framework. Hyperlegality produces a timely limited new institution.
3. Camouflage by Mimesis or by Cripsis is an artistic practice applying the theoretical concept of a simulacrum. It differs from the biological phenomenon of camouflage in respect of its objective. Whereas in nature it provides survival for an already existing creature, when applied in arts it is often used to create another body (of knowledge, of work, of people). Camouflage by Mimesis or by Cripsis practices to blend into a background while being alien to its principles or core. It uses the background to gain resources. It differs from Deck the Tree with False Blossoms in its directedness and productivity; the camouflaging body has a clear intention and range of action. Rather than a form of breeding, Camouflage by Mimesis or by Cripsis is a counter practice to ideologies of autonomy of art in society. This might become obvious in the recent project of Israeli artist Omer Krieger in which he became an artist of the State of Israel working with the state’s obligations, demands and resources. The point of attack in this project is not the concrete functioning of one institution but the relationship between political and artistic engagement per se.
Camouflage by Mimesis or by Cripsis is very secretive and does not show itself before having completed its mission. Its secrecy is where it holds the potential for
3.a. Hypercamouflage, the tactic by which the camouflaging object can even blend into itself and betray its own essentials. Hypercamouflage is a double agent without beliefs, it does not have truth or friends; it is a pure tactical action unpredictably taking sides in relation to every current situation. As revolutionary as it is in its disintegration of subjectivity, it is to be handled with caution, for it can backfire. It might become impotent when the multiple blending in does not allow for engagement with any of those territories. In that case, it stays an endless potential without material expansion.
4. Disturb the Water to Catch a Fish is a simple practice to deviate the existing lines of division or conflict – ideological as well as physical – and generate new orientations. It basically practices to confuse chains of thinking, make the fish lose orientation and force new navigations. The United Nations, for example, use it as stratagem to superimpose micro-conflicts on war or civil war situations in order to deal with the source issue. There are a number of educational programs that also practice Disturb the Water to Catch a Fish for thinking outside the box, to come up with new concepts and an interdisciplinary approach to science or economy. This is the point where the practice bares its ambiguous quality: where, for Markus Miessen, confusing conventional behaviours and concepts adds up to breaking through pragmatic politics (an administrative version of politics) and producing political politics (concepts that critically challenge the framework of what is considered to be political) and is, thus, a subversive practice in itself, Disturb the Water to Catch a Fish might, on the other side, turn into a simple creativity tool for an economy operating majorly on interdisciplinary, innovation-driven and arbitrary power models. The moment at which it links to specific, goal-oriented practices such as Borrow a Corpse to Resurrect the Soul is when it actually intends to create a persistent dissensus and, thereby, create an interaction between presumably unconnected social groups. This might be quite apparent in Christoph Schlingensief’s project Foreigners Out!. The German director placed 12 asylum-seekers in a container and, borrowing the format of the Big Brother reality show, invited the Austrian population to vote one person out every day and to deport them to their native country. In Foreigners Out! the subject, title and set up are global and provoking enough to involve different people within a theatrical/political apparatus in which they, most likely, will not agree but maybe start to interact.
5. Point at the Mulberry Tree While Cursing the Locust Tree is a war machine. It practices to use analogies and innuendos to speak about the enemy and, in that way, claims X to be Y. With this simple operation, it actually articulates thoughts rather than accusations. Point at the Mulberry Tree While Cursing the Locust Tree creates guesses and speculations not only about who or what might be the potential Locust tree but also about what a Mulberry tree can become. Point at the Mulberry Tree While Cursing the Locust Tree is to be taken literally: when one would, for example, like to talk about capitalism but, for diverse reasons, the obvious naming of capitalism does not make sense, the dilemma is solved through bringing up related phenomena, for example recession, wealth, labour or intellectual property. Through proposing to speak about those instead, the original topic gains in complexity and brings up a fresh discursive territory. An impersonal application of Point at the Mulberry Tree While Cursing the Locust Tree turns a slight intentional misconception into a collective process of speculation. It tricks the desire for representation with its own weapons.
6. Deceive the Heavens to Cross the Ocean assumes that too much transparency (Yang) can hide true reasons. It claims a false reading of a work covers an actual intention and makes a whole debate or topic appear. This is where it differs from Point at the Mulberry Tree While Cursing the Locust Tree: it is not merely interested in phenomena but in the discursive and political positions around it. It ironizes its opponents by appropriating ideologies. This practice is used preferably in titles that proclaim an already known or over-clear position while the project is secretly hitting another target. It is necessary for the title to be in some way affecting for Deceive the Heavens to Cross the Ocean to work, it has to be a stumbling block and redirect attention. This can be seen in The KLF’s The Manual which pretends to be a handbook to make a number one hit and thereby lays open how the music industry and neoliberal entrepreneurial ideology work together.
7. Trojan Horse is a Greek mythological stratagem that causes a target to invite a foe into a securely protected space. It is an attack on the presumed consensus and conventions in a field of knowledge or engagement. It is capable of breaking through conventions through smuggling an artistic practice into other social fields, making it appear as an artwork (the wooden horse). For the artwork to become a real Trojan Horse, it needs to release lethal elements at one point and cease to be an artwork, either on an ideological or on a practical level. Its revelation marks the strategic difference to Camouflage by Mimesis or by Cripsis and makes it recognizable as a concept with undefinable dynamics. The Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative, initiated by Finnish political economy theorist Akseli Virtanen, has from the very beginning been thought of as a Trojan Horse: this counter investment fund for precarious workers that mimics the investments of the most competent investors in the New York Stock Exchange was launched as an artistic project at Documenta 13 in Kassel. Operating on the stock market, it is expected to become efficient within the field of finance and transform private profits into shared resources. This might be its lethal capacity. The Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative makes clear the mutual effect of a Trojan Horse stratagem. This might be the truly speculative side of the Trojan Horse practice: using artistic production for getting into the skin of another field and, by that, articulating desires that would have exceeded one or the other territory. The Trojan Horse practice is a catalyst for the question who is the enemy.
8. If All Else Fails, Retreat has only one rule: if you are about to lose, retreat! The argumentation is simple: if you cannot complete what you have set out to do, there are only three options: surrender, compromise or escape. Surrender means defeat, compromise means half defeat, but escape keeps all future chances open, it takes away the glory of victory from the opponent. However, beyond these striking arguments If All Else Fails, Retreat leaves you with a question: If all these practices are dealing with the breaking of the boundaries between art and life, each one pursuing a specific procedure that breaks through the parameters and bodies of knowledge of the different fields, what are the secure territories for them to retreat to? Is art a secure territory for art? By questioning its retreat, the practice of If All Else Fails, Retreat resettles art’s engagement in society.