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Review:
ART AND REVOLUTION - Transversal activism in the long twentieth century by Gerald Raunig
(semiotexte, 2007)

Barbara Huber     print
 
In the long and hot winter of 2007 i found this book under my Christmas tree. The title promises quite a lot but stays quite unseizable on the other hand. Transversal activism? Art and revolution? And that all in one book?

The book starts with a definition of revolution - or rather as Raunig puts it - related to the description by Deleuze and Guattari of "revolutionary machines", a definition that will accompany us throughout the whole book.
Raunig is taking us on a journey from the Paris Commune (as an example of a revolutionary machine) and the cultural politics within the Commune over the Situationist International, to Proletkult and Viennese Activism. He ends the book with contemporary approaches within Art/Activism by taking the Publix Theater Caravan as an example and describes their approaches from the Volxtheater to the moving Caravan.
His approach within the book is to link the ideas of Activism and Art, and to search for historical and contemporary examples, which managed to get the link between revolution and art in a transversal way. Transversality means here: leaving the borders of the one and melting into the sphere of the
other.

The idea of writing such a book is a quite ambitious project, as the topic is quite broad. For newbies in this area though, it provides a nice introduction. Raunig is for example drawing a line between bourgeois/conservative revolutions and a revolution that has as its aim to change the state without taking over the power of the previous government to avoid repeating the structure state that just has been removed.
Through the very eclectic approach and the selected case studies within this topic, every chapter can be read as a little story and/or case study. Sometimes these can lead to some kind of aha-effect, also for people who are familiar with the topic. So i didn't know that the French painter Courbet actually was minister of culture within the Paris Commune - a fact a whole chapter is devoted to. Here he puts the focus on the question of cultural politics within a revolutionary context.
Also the part about German spiritual activism in the 1920's is interesting in the light of activism/revolution and art. It shows how activism can be read, understood and used completely different than we generally undestand it now.

One of the main ideas within the book is the idea of disruption of practices. He describes in a rather nice overview the ideas of Proletkult. Here he focusses on Tretyakov and Eisenstein and their theater practices and, within the same chapter, smoothly switches to the Situationist International and their actions.

Throughout the whole book Raunig is taking the already mentioned machine theory of Deleuze and Guattari as a blueprint for researching in each of the chapters the particular processes. But, to be honest, I left the first chapter a little confused, not knowing if i was not understanding this machine concept properly or if it is according to the author just a concept that can be interpreted and bended in various ways. But not only that. It might even be that by sticking so closely to this theory, he is actually limiting his approaches on subjects and objects of research. So he is dealing mainly with theater practices because the question of orgiastic (re)presentation and disruption (always in line with the machine theory) is most visible there and fits easily within the context of that theory.
Whereas we as readers, are left with an open question whether this applies as well to the other arts, like painting or sculpturing. Not withstanding the fact that he is leaving out film, literature and most astonishing - since the final chapters are dealing with contemporary practices - approaches in new media completely. And this is not due to the fact, that approaces new media would not fit within the context at all. Just thinking about the medium radio alone opens up a history of revolutions, art and disruptive practices.

For readers who are familiar with the topic, some chapters are a mere re-telling of already known stories (like the history of the paris commune or viennese activism).
His concentration in the last part of the book, on practices coming from
Austria seems to uncover a certain lack of solid research. Strange here is also his pretty obvious Euro-centrism in the selection of subjects and their description (the Zapatistas are just mentioned once and are in fact the only thing he is mentioning from outside Europe).
He is aware though of this and mentions it in a sentence which seems at this
point unfortunately more like an excuse. Not that it is not ok to write the story of european practices just that a clear definition of the field in the beginning of the book is missing.

In the chapter about Viennese activism he criticizes briefly and for the first time the (non)contribution and (non)involvement of women. But then again he leaves out this critique when talking about the SI, while it would be certainly fitting here. In the rest of the book the question of female involvement is reduced to a footnote of art history while listing dryly some female names on one page. This seems done rather to fulfill an alibi as critical writers nowadays cannot leave out the gender question. It is a pity that female criticism is not transversal enough to be discussed seriously. Surely, part of female/feminist critique is not leaving it's 'genre' so to say, but he overlooks at the same time approaches within feminist/female/queer contexts that are pointing to new interpretations, and transcending the boundaries of traditional academic theory, art, activism and politics!

For those familiar with the topic it is certainly too selective and uncritical in certain parts with a little taste of 'Beliebigkeit' that does not leave the reader until the end.
All together though a nice collection of stories and an overview over certain happenings in history but should defenitely be read in addition to other things. A good add-on for your library and defenitely a book that triggers discussions.

Bio:
Barbara Huber is a professional unprofessional writer, artist, teacher, translator, manager, non-manager, activist, radio/audioactive, networker, librarian, cook, drinker, (non)smoker, festivalhopper, streetroamer, streamer, ecological thinker, free souler and-you-name-it. She lives in Linz and Bratislava.





 

 


 

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