Critical spatial practice, forensic aesthetics, and Institutional Critique v. 2.0: What do these terms mean, and what tools do they give artists, architects, and activists in their aesthetic and political pursuits? Eyal Weizman and Nato Thompson are both writers, curators, and activists expanding these terms in discourse and in action. Both are also poised to publish books this summer. Thompson’s new book, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production, considers art production in an age of American neoliberalism and how artists might liberate grassroots political organizing, social networking, and even the history of art from the grasp of consumer capitalism. Weizman, meanwhile, explores the rise of the humanitarian sphere and how contemporary warfare and occupation have distorted its initial tenets of compassion and proportionality in The Least of All Possible Evils. Here, Weizman and Thompson join Anna Altman to discuss how cross-pollinating disciplines can generate new research methods, new positions of power, and new political aesthetics.
Anna Altman To start, I would like to discuss how both of your books, although quite different, approach curatorial concepts. Eyal, you wrote in your previous book, Hollow Land, that producing visual knowledge was an important part of understanding political issues. How do both of you conceive of curatorial work as a visual space to put forth political knowledge?
Eyal Weizman In the case of The Least of All Possible Evils, the art space becomes a site of cultural production that facilitates the presentation of spatial and other forms of political knowledge. When political or juridical research finds its way into the gallery, other considerations come to the foreground. Forensic aesthetics, a concept that I’ve developed in collaboration with Thomas Keenan, is a way of thinking through the juridical process curatorially as much as thinking through the presentation of juridical issues inside a gallery. Each one of these fields contaminate the other categories and open up new ways of seeing the very same things as they migrate from one institutional framework to the other.
Nato Thompson Similar to what Eyal is talking about, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production thinks through how one operates reflexively in relation to one’s condition of power. My curatorial concerns are “Institutional Critique 2.0.” When is research possible and under what conditions is the audience able to be receptive to that research? I write specifically about the United States in an age of neoliberal capitalism—and I cannot help but constantly obsess over Occupy Wall Street—but the paradigm of cultural production as a vast machine of conditions of power cannot be ignored and is so endemic to the machines of power that it requires constant reflexivity to navigate.
EW There is a clear analogy between what Nato is saying and The Least of All Possible Evils. When one interrogates activism, whether it is medical, humanitarian, grassroots, or an international law investigation, it is an investigation in relation to a larger political framework in which it is embedded and networked, and sometimes which it serves. The art world doesn’t necessarily corrupt activism’s aesthetics. (And by aesthetics I mean the way evidence is communicated, the way testimony is articulated, the conditions of speech and visibility, and forensic research.) Power itself controls the technologies that make testimony audible and evidence visible. For example, testimony emerges as part of independent humanitarianism in the ’70s and corrupts the medical project of humanitarianism. Activism’s use of international law sometimes plays clearly into the hands of power, as in the Israeli case, and forensic technologies now used for human rights purposes actually had their roots in precision-guided weapons and in military technology. The migration of concepts between different fields is a cause for concern. But, like Nato, I don’t think this is something that should make us adopt a purely critical perspective. Rather, this is critical practice; it’s not passing judgment.
AA Both of you operate from within a certain field and then question the webs that engender the power within it. You are both invested in ways to operate either outside of or in an oblique way to those nodes of power. I’m curious about what your strategies are to make sure that you don’t end up folded back into one of these complicit positions.
NT I think it’s healthy to position oneself within a condition of power in order to speak about power itself. I bring together artists who interrogate the political landscape in a productive way with people from related fields. You do it in a conscious way that tries to grow the audience so aesthetic research has a more palatable public voice and a way of distributing itself as a critique of power.
EW The idea of critical practice necessitates that you intervene in order to research rather than researching in order to intervene. You need to be part of a process in order to produce the very data that you would later like to reflect upon. I say this as a researcher and a writer about one of the most obscure forms of colonialism: you would never get very far as a researcher of Israeli military techniques or planning policies if you just go and ask the planners. You need to move them into action.
Ultimately, in order to work on the full spectrum of these techniques and to reflect on them, you need to have your feet in different places simultaneously, both in a critical space where you can interrogate aesthetic categories as well as work in the field or in the lab. It’s being in those places simultaneously that allows you to activate the full extent of your research. But this continues the contradictions between those fields. On the one hand, as an expert witness in a war crime case, it’s necessary is to be an objective and straightforward positivist. You have to say things as they are. But when you’re in your lab or in your curatorial space, a space that interrogates the aesthetics of things, you want to adopt a very different position.
NT Eyal, can you talk about the ways your work has engaged the human rights world and the juridical world despite the fact that these spheres employ a certain language and approach? Those approaches can be off-putting, but there’s so much potential for knowledge production to shape the language around human rights. But what have you found from your on-the-ground experience?
EW The Least of All Possible Evils started within the framework of international humanitarian law, with a mapping project and report that aimed to not only produce architectural critique—the kind that might appear in architectural magazines and galleries—but also to move architectural critique to where it has another effect, that is, to the juridical domain. You need to raise the stakes: architectural critique must move to the domain of international law. In the meantime I’ve realized by entering into all the paradoxes and difficulties and abuse of international law how impotent it is.
From the beginning, I thought what was interesting about that approach is that it happens in those two domains. On the one hand, the work we did was presented as evidence in the international courts in the Hague and in the High Court in Jerusalem. Bringing spatial evidence into court forced us to draw it in a way that would communicate to jurists, which is a very different audience than magazine readers or gallery goers. I’m very serious about communicating to both audiences. Some people think this contaminates art with research, and some people in the juridical sphere feel that a lot of our reading just over-complicates things that need to be said in a simpler way.
But what did you have in mind, Nato, when you said it was off-putting?
NT Cultural production is a way that the world already navigates itself. It exists in all these spheres regardless, but there’s just not a lot of consciousness about it. That’s something the arts can traditionally bring to the discussion, but it doesn’t have to come from that. What happens when these worlds collide? The artist Trevor Paglen—an old friend who I am also doing a project with—he talks in the art world about geography but he also presents his work about geography in the geography world. There, as in the art world, he talks about the aesthetics of research and how visual culture affects the way we understand space in Afghanistan or spy satellites or drone technology. Not surprisingly, many of the geographers are extraordinarily threatened by this approach. What happens when these cultures intermingle?
AA You are talking about realms of discourse and how they overlap, but I’m also interested in the different political contexts you each address. Nato, your book is about activism and art in a neoliberal context whereas, Eyal, your work has to do with the humanitarian sphere generally, and Israel-Palestine specifically. Is there something to be learned from one another in that regard?
NT Certainly cultural and knowledge production are very specific, and when it comes to resisting power through cultural production it’s important to understand those contexts. Cultural production is a part of capitalism and power, and it has to be radically qualified in order to state humble obviousness.
EW It might be a difference in tone between us, Nato, rather than in substance. I accept your critique of the art world but I am not especially concerned with how it abuses politics to create social capital. Whenever I am working within an art context, I find it to be an incredibly useful laboratory that works in tandem with the juridical or political spheres, because it speculates on what you do when you work in the human rights sphere or when you work in politics. But increasingly, people in the human rights world are incredibly frustrated with the way their discourse is being hijacked by powerful states, by colonial projects, and by international diplomacy, all of which has nothing to do with their political and moral ambitions. Humanitarian discourse is being taken by states to justify actions that have nothing to do with the original sentiment of aid or moral sentiments such as compassion, and so this speculation, this cultural transformation begins to operate across fields. Increased sensitivity to memory, trauma, and private history traverses both the art world and the humanitarian sphere because, after all, they are both nourished out of a shared culture.
NT Truth-claims and the technologies used to aestheticize them are something we’re both invested in. Technologies that produce truth are extremely sophisticated and there is vast paranoia around truth because of that. I focus on the activist art scene where no one believes truth-claims because a subversive artist is in fact perceived as being in bed with power. But that’s not just in the arts; it’s much more broad than that.
EW It is not about making a photograph sharper or better, it’s about the conditions under which it appears and, more broadly, how we comprehend the world through a set of images, through testimony, and through data. What you articulated are aesthetic problems. The conditions of truth, conviction, and probability: all those things are sensitive to aesthetic manipulation. You can’t give an account, tell a story, or make a juridical point without entering into a performative position, without understanding conditions of visibility or the meaning of gesture and color. To ignore that is to ignore the fact that truth isn’t just there lingering, waiting to be found; truth is produced. It is not something that exists prior to the investigation and then comes to be presented. It is a function of it.
NT Knowledge of the mechanisms by which truth is fabricated allows you to interrogate these fields in a way that enables social justice. Eyal, what would you like to see on an infrastructural level so that this kind of work becomes more sophisticated, more common, and more integrated into a radical approach that everyday people can use?
EW As someone trained as an architect, I would really like to see architecture students become activists, get law degrees or work with organizations operating on the ground in conflict zones. Then, somehow—without being apologetic about it—I would like to see them bring their own aesthetic interrogation and sensibility, their architectural and spatial knowledge, into those fields.
AA Would you say it’s an infiltration where you’re not just operating within a cultural sphere but you’re really an actor there? I mean that whether it be within a juridical sphere or the humanitarian sphere.
EW Absolutely. Both Nato and I have been thinking so hard about issues of complicity. Like Nato said, this is Institutional Critique 2.0. We understand that we need to operate within platforms that we cannot fully trust. Every discourse is complicit; they’re all embedded within different power networks and you just have to weave your way through it.
NT Institutional Critique 2.0 is really difficult because these platforms and power structures can totally paralyze you. That’s the worst thing that can happen: that you get so concerned that you’re somehow implicated in power that you cannot act.
EW Absolutely. The worst thing you can do to isolate yourself and pass judgment. We know that social capital and opportunism is part of it. There is no independent humanitarianism.