Editorial for A Prior Magazine 15 (2007)

What is Bare Life?, one of the leitmotifs for this year’s edition of Documenta, has been the starting point for this issue of A Prior Magazine, our second contribution to the Documenta Magazines Project. As has been often cited, the term owes its present currency to the writing of Giorgio Agamben – the philosopher du jour within the art world and beyond – who himself followed Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Michel Foucault’s thinking around political power in post-Holocaust Europe, with a post-9/11 update. Many discussions around bare life trace Agamben’s thoughts in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998 in English), which relies on the Ancient Greek distinction between bios and zoé – political life and bare/animal life – and conceives of sovereign power as a drive to diminish the distinction at the expense of civic agency, as exemplified in the Nazi Death Camps. For Agamben, this horrific example of the “state of exception” from law is not understood as absolutely “exceptional”, rather, it becomes the model for an all too common concentration of power within contemporary democracies.

Agamben’s line of thought hits on something that we can all see: in the prison of Guantánamo Bay – which is exempt from any jurisdiction – in the sweatshops of the Philippines, in the continually prolonged refugee camp-life of Gaza or Darfur, but also within the inner cities, the gated communities, and the televised realities of the West. And yet, bare life is not a given. Our contemporary conception of life is under multiple pressures, today perhaps as never before, as “right to life” lobbyists, the advances of genetic science, and the juridical prowess of states and corporations (to name a few of the conflicting interests) seek to redefine life in its most basic form. How, then, does this question of bare life resonate in art, in theory, and in our attempts to understand the contemporary? A Prior approached the question of bare life, not as a solid state of juridical exception, that would illustrate or elaborate the definitions set out by Agamben, but as a state of theoretical and practical uncertainty, allowing fundamentally disparate voices to shape the question anew. In the pages that follow, artists and theorists, activists and historians consider this “state of uncertainty”…

Three writers were invited to address the work of Valérie Mannaerts, who is the feature arttist of A Prior 15. Monika Szewczyk discusses Mannaerts’ practice in terms of “bare life”, but understands the term in the sense of vitality, energy, life force, and protracted experimentation with organic form – a life that is not strictly human but also animal, monster, and substantiated “ghost”. The question of life emerges as the object of “an experimental knowledge” – a notion that finds recourse in the writing of Giorgio Agamben, albeit in his later study, entitled The Open: Man and Animal (2004 in English). Here, both our understandings of bare life and of Agamben’s conception of it may be reconsidered. Mannaerts herself contributed to A Prior with the four-part series A Monster of Loch Ness Feeling: photographs of (found or made) objects and drawings in certain specific places. Each component of the series could easily exist on its own, as studies/confrontations of form, place, and position, were it not – as is distinctly elaborated by Jeroen Boomgaard and by Kersten Geers – for the specifics of the relationship between object and context, work and viewer, content and understanding, framed image/flat surface and a seemingly limitless landscape, between the definable and indescribable. Here, then, the aforementioned “state of uncertainty” gains palpable dimension.

In a further de-centring of the notion of bare life, A Prior 15 also engages with the work of Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula, two artists whose critical, cultural, and socio-political explorations address and implicate the theme of life quite distinctly from Mannaerts. In their work, we read questions about the possibility of, as well as opportunities or models for, civic engagement via artistic praxis. One may say that the ancient notion of bios is given great distinction in both their works. On the one hand, Martha Rosler presents a version of her series Bringing the War Home (1967-72/2004), which during the Vietnam War and in the wake of the recent invasion of Iraq powerfully sought to re-articulate domestic, everyday, “regular” life (that we are often fed in the pages of House Beautiful magazine) through the lens of war. The project is accompanied by an extensive conversation around the Martha Rosler Library between Dieter Roelstraete and Rosler (as well as Anton Vidokle, who organized the project through e-flux) – what emerges is an altogether different way of understanding Rosler’s art as well as the critical universe that books build. On the other hand, Allan Sekula offers an in-depth (pre)view of his Documenta 12 project: Shipwreck and Workers – Version 3 for Kassel (2007). This is accompanied by an extensive commentary on this as well as previous Shipwreck and Workers series and on the broader context of the artist’s work by the respected Sekula scholar Hilde Van Gelder. Here an expansive understanding of labour emerges that cuts against the grain of the instrumentalizing forces of global capitalism, and asserts labour as a noble, poetic, and essential part of human life.

More light and a mounting (though perhaps productive) uncertainty regarding how art, and artistic and theoretical discourse, could actually deal with a contemporary notion of “bare life” is found in the five contributions that comprise the final Visions section of A Prior 15. Maria Hlavajova, in conversation with A Prior co-editor Andrea Wiarda, elaborates on how she runs a critical art organization that confronts what she terms “urgencies” in the contemporary world, all the while exploring/asserting the position of the artist as a public intellectual. Hlavajova clarifies her critical intentions with reference to the founding of BAK, basis for contemporary art in Utrecht that she continues to lead, and to this year’s Dutch contribution to the Venice Biennale, which she is curating. In the spirit of exchange fostered by the Documenta Magazines Project, A Prior has elected to republish a text by Marius Babias, which first appeared in an issue of Idea magazine (a fellow Documenta Magazines Project participant) that was devoted to the theme of “Populism, Public Sphere and Terrorism”. Babias meditates on the zones of indifference (formerly also understood as the Public Sphere) where bare life is located, according to Agamben, and seeks to articulate a mode of resistance against the installation of the “state of exception”. Rudi Laermans locates another site of bare life – namely, reality TV shows such as Big Brother. For him, what is produced in these sites of bare or naked life, referred to as “border zones”, is a deceptive definition of commonalities (common-ism) that inform our understanding of basic instincts. The realm of representation is further critiqued by Dirk Lauwaert, who analyzes the subtle shift from fiction to documentary and the strategic refusal of social or political “representation” in Barbara Loden’s only full-length film, Wanda (1970). And Hito Steyerl discusses how documentary work becomes both more abstract and less intelligible: “The more immediate documentary pictures become, the less there is to see; the closer to reality we get, the less intelligible it becomes.”

Throughout, “a state of uncertainty” is delineated. And for the time being, it is perhaps the most productive way of thinking through life.

In the mean time: Sarkozy has just won the French presidential elections, promising more working hours, or at least the possibility to work longer hours – with uncertain consequences for the value of labour – and tighter immigration laws, tough crime fighting, and a firm hand on all those who do not wish to fit into his (himself a son of a Hungarian immigrant) and many others’ views of French “advance” – all this doubtlessly requiring exceptional measures. On the other side of the Atlantic, Bush has just exercised his veto power against troop withdrawal from Iraq, or at least against any fixed timetable he may be accountable to – tying the United States to an indefinite state of war. Another 21 Afghan civilians were killed today by US-led forces. In other words, “life” goes on as a worldwide drive to maintain states of exception, while proclaiming moral rightfulness.

Andrea Wiarda _ Monika Szewczyk

Published 17 July 2007
Original in English

Contributed by A Prior Magazine © A Prior Magazine / Eurozine

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