The Politics of Shame in Artivism: The double-edged sword of recent artistic interventions on the migrant ‘crisis’.
Author: Bénédicte MIYAMOTO – Université Sorbonne Nouvelle
OpenDemocracy declared that “2016 will be remembered as the EU’s year of shame”i for its handling of the so-called migration ‘crisis’. Public shaming stipulates that any experience of shame is a consequence – and a proof – of guilt. Using shaming as a strategy for protest art, holding up a mirror to politicians, entails that the issues represented are due to political actors, and that the crisis is human-made. In the case of artivism devoted to the so-called migration ‘crisis’, the accusation is aimed at the structural and systemic violence of Western migration policies and the militarized borders.
How effective is this strategy? How does art – mixing a language of formal representation usually at one remove from current issues and a message of protest – navigate the pitfalls of victimization and spectacularization? And can weaponizing shame escape the media tropes that have been repeatedly used and abused to represent the plights of migrants?
Politics of shame – art as contentious politics
Contesting is largely the ethos of 21st-century art. Regarding the plight of migrants, artists have responded by resorting to highly visible and often in-situ interventions, which re-engineer and weaponize the politics of shame. The Chinese artist and activist Ai WeiWei describes this by explaining that “art can still be used as a bargaining tool”ii. The artists involved seek to shame governments, institutions and audiences at large – a process of civic education through visual means for which the term “artivism” was coined as a portmanteau of art + activism.
Through artistic reactions, creations and events, artivists raise awareness by relying on the shock experience and powerful mediation of artworks. The formal distance between a current issue and artistic expression is supposedly abolished; the formal inventions supposedly serve a political discourse and the political statement are supposedly understood through formal innovation.
Where does this shaming take place? The political in art has always been intimately bound up with its space and place. The place of choice for shaming interventions by artivists is by excellence the public square. Public shaming operates through comparison with societal norms, and therefore has to happen in the forum, since feelings of shame are produced when a discord is perceptible with the values held by those around you – hence creating public disgrace. Occupying a public square is a participatory form of aesthetic experience, as well as a historical citation of protest. As such, it is an aesthetic performance occupying physical space that is a radical alternative to previous forms of art with a message. They are designed to be episodic and public, involving collective interactions and innovative forms. This places artivism in the field of contentious politics rather than protest movement, because this art defines itself as an episodic action, performed by newly self-identified political actors, and according to innovative collective actioniii. In this transgressive form of contention, the shock value – both of form and content – is essential to the trigger of shame.
In keeping with the protesting nature of their topic, many of these art forms and visual shocks have stood as a public criticism of politically-constructed borders by also eschewing the traditional presentation spaces reserved for their genre. For example, the Barca Nostra – the shipwreck from which only 28 of its estimated 700 migrants crossing over from Libya survived – was moored to the edge of the Venice lagoon, in front of the 2015 Biennale (https://www.labiennale.org/en/art/2019/partecipants/christoph-b%C3%BCchel). Typically, artivist visuals are installed in public spaces without authorization, and documentaries chose alternative distribution networks. The art world has its own limitations and borders – be they the art world’s patronage system, its gatekeepers, and its networks of privileged spaces, such as exhibitions, galleries and fairs. It is thus far from what Jacques Rancière calls “privilege of voice”.iv Having to escape its own borders presents the art world with a particular challenge when it tries to join the public square. But this engagement with the public forum at least attempts to resolve the issue of the fabricated images’ entanglement in the rarefied world of art market.
Public shaming seeks to assert social exigency by obtaining maximum social impact, and it does force governments into some forms of reputation damage control – art has leverage precisely because, increasingly, there has been “jostling for symbolic capital in the reputational economy of cultural entrepreneurship.”v For example, the 2016 action art Bundeserpressungskonferenz (i.e., federal blackmail press conference, a pun on the German term for federal press conference) was held at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theatre to launch the project Flüchtlinge Fressen (munching on refugees) by the artists from Das Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (ZPS) Phillip Ruch, Cesy Leonard, Stefan Pelzer and André Leipold, who planned to feed volunteer refugees to tigers if their political demands were not met (https://www.gorki.de/de/fluechtlinge-fressen-not-und-spiele). The intervention relied on the shock value of its reworking of Juvenalian satires, in the mode of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick. It counted on word-of-mouth support and expected bungling and shame-faced attempts from the authorities to control the public damage. Relying on a spontaneous response of public disobedience or protest from its audience is “the dream of every Aktionskünstler (action artist): a passing of the baton to civil society”.vi
The choice of the ephemeral, the guerilla technique, favours illegal intervention and is a strategic key for contentious politics. Sarah Mekdjian explains that with artivism on the so-called migrant ‘crisis’, “the ephemeral is an integral part of how these interventions function; they aim not to install a new system but to constantly destabilize the established and the legitimate.”vii Bearing witness to this destabilisation are the fake CCTV surveillance posts perched on absurd, compact, doorless and windowless security compound homes by Nigerian-born, Brooklyn-based artist Olelakan Jeyifous, in his 2016 Condition of exile (http://vigilism.com/Condition-of-Exile). His sculpture illustrates the knee-jerk reactions of clannish, insular securitisation and the reinforcement of hostile environment, which are the background to the adoption of accusatory terms such as migrant ‘crisis.’
These controversial and media-savvy moves engage a necessary political dialogue, but also tend to intervene by using viral-ready iconography, staying rooted in shock – and stock – images of migration and ‘crisis.’ Media-coverage repetitively presents migration as disruptive, anomalous and as an impoverishment for the host society. By reusing their imagery, art side-steps the historically dense and varied mediation of art on migration. This is especially disruptive when art avails itself of the over-represented visuals of the border crossing – expounding on the visuals of dehydration or drowning fatalities of the Mexican or the Mediterranean passages.viii
Efficacy or exploitation of artivism’s shame strategy?
Within the artistic community, questions have arisen about the efficacy of representing the migrants’ plight. The exploitative pitfalls of the subject matter are clear for all to see – as the recent controversies around the Barca Nostra or the Athens-Kassel biennale Documenta 14 have brought this to the attention of both critics and the public (https://www.apollo-magazine.com/documenta-athens-kassel-tourism/) – especially in the context of the emergent and complex “politics of documentation and the counter-politics of witnessing”.ix
Questions arise over the moral acceptability of artivism and the limits of art’s ethical responsibility when the audience is faced with art installations of salvaged migrant objects, for example. Some of the more critically acclaimed were those that involved fundraising rather than political shaming and shock, such as the works of Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Sean Scully, Julian Opie and Jeremy Deller using crayons salvaged from the Calais Jungle for the Multicolor March 2019 exhibition by the refugee charity Migrate Art. But these still remain disturbingly self-referential – a variation on the artist’s ‘brand’ and the frontier between public service and self-serving is often uncomfortably thin.
There remains an irreducible ambiguity, a dissonance or “dissensus” as described by Jacques Rancière in Dissensus on Politics and Aesthetics: “Aesthetic art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy and thrives on that ambiguity (…) That is why those who want to isolate it from politics are somewhat beside the point. It is also why those who want it to fulfil its political promises are condemned to a certain melancholy”.x The question is at the heart of art’s core expertise. The burden of art is its limited capacity to create change, but its expertise is in making visible. How is this visibility used as an agent of change? The violence of the shaming reflex is rarely matched in artivism by any definite proposal for change. This makes explicit the difficulty of matching the gravity of the issue with an appropriate artistic expression – and the very real risk of aestheticizing a crisis.
Although the good faith of their public engagement, and their credential and positionality has rarely been attacked, it is the use of current symbols that has dismayed both audience and critics. What exact political representation is artivism proposing in its aesthetic and political sense? What agency does it offer a voice to? Has there been a “re-distribution of the sensible”,xi have the voiceless accessed political discourse though this mediation? Have the migrants become intelligible and visible in a process of political subjectivation?
The criticism is, on the contrary, that migrants have been objectified and victimized. Great care is often taken towards the authenticity of the objects displayed, with artists deploying their well-honed provenance skills as when Ai Weiwei correctly ‘sourced’ his collection of 14,000 life jackets salvaged from the Lesbos Island for his February 2016 art installation at the Berlin Konzerthaus, for the Cinema for Peace Gala. But more often than not, there is sparse attention or feedback on the authenticity of the voices, and artivists are accused of spectacularizing the issue.
This overtly political discourse remains necessarily framed by art history and the language of form remains necessarily detached, disengaged from the real. The world of biennials has been especially hungry for social relevance in the wake of the 2008 crisis, the rising criticism of its one-sided globalisation, and the competition of art fairs. It therefore embraced artivism for migration issues, but experienced backlash as this example from the Documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens. During this controversial biennale, Rebecca Belmore, an indigenous artist from the Anishinaabe tribe, who is particularly notable for politically conscious and socially aware performance and installation work, has not been spared this criticism after her Biinjiya’iing Onji /From Inside 2016 marble migrant camp tent pitched in front of Athens’ Parthenon (https://www.rebeccabelmore.com/biinjiyaiing-onji-from-inside/).
What other forms are possible? Interactive, participatory, direct action and performative approaches all share the skepticism towards the violence of artivism, the brutal provocation of using shame that in fine victimizes the migrant. Less stigmatizing art interventions, that refuse to rely on shock and shame, are concerned with avoiding objectification, as seen for example with projects such as “We Look to the Sea”, a weeklong print project by Edwige Charlot with local schools in Maine (http://www.edwigecharlot.com/). These are often based on empathy first and foremost, though conversation and reflection.xii
Another legitimate issue is the fact that artivism uses a crisis mode that can be particularly harmful to the migration debate. There are first issues of short term and long-term efficacy. The ability to create changes in state policy and public perception is well documented in the case of for raw images and photojournalism. Both show the limited efficacy of the feeling of guilt, the acute sense of identity which triggers action in the short term but compassion fatigue in the long term.
The moral outrage triggered by politics of shame is a force that needs a scapegoat. A focalisation on the passage of the border, and therefore on the trope of the smugglers, has played the game of fortress Europe, a fortress against immigration, protecting through hi-tech surveillance and sub-contracted law enforcement – and this has partly exonerated the political world from consequences. The choice of the Barca Nostra as the migration memento mori of the Venice Biennial is a case in point. The boat, knowingly bought by Libyan traffickers, was well past its prime when it collided with a European freighter that was trying to come to its rescue. The guilty party are here, conveniently, the smugglers.
Artivism also often latches on a point in time: the border-crossing. It is thus overly-influenced by the fallacy of the term crisis and it locates its ‘decisive point’ – the etymology of crisis – in the act of passage. Artivism is after all subservience to other mediations – because shame works by using peer pressure and not the surprise that comes from defamiliarization. Therefore, artivism operates best within pre-existing codes, just like shames only pushes the buttons of pre-existing societal norms. Too often in the case of art on migration, artivism is subservient to a short game which victimises the migrants; and provokes shame by centering a European, largely white, un-uprooted, host nation gaze.
Artivism, thanks to an intensifying transnational display and visibility, acts powerfully on our perception of current events and forces engagement with a memorable political message, and educates through outrage. But due to its weaponization of shame, it also reinforces the prevalent migration narratives, for example, the ones reduced to its North-South experience and to the image of migrants as victims.
i Barbara Spinelli, April 19, 2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/2016-will-be-remembered-as-eus-year-of-shame/
ii Ai Weiwei in ‘The Politics of Shame: Ai Weiwei in conversation with Anthony Downey’, The Large Glass: Journal of Contemporary Art, Culture and Theory, Museum of Contemporary Art, 25.26 (2018): 28–42
iii Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow & Charles Tilly, “Dynamics of Contention”, Social Movement Studies, 2:1 (2003): 97-98, DOI: 10.1080/1474283032000062585
iv Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics. Edited and Translated by Gabriel Rockhill. London and
New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
v Paul O’Neill and Mike Wilson, “Introduction” in O’Neill and Wilson (eds.) Curating and the Educational Turn, London: Open Editions, 2010. p.20.
vi Quote from the interview of André Leipold by Summer Banks published in Exberliner, “Feeding on refugees: The Center for Political Beauty”, June 16, 2016. https://www.exberliner.com/whats-on/stage/andre-leipold-interview/
vii Sarah Mekdjian. “Urban artivism and migrations. Disrupting spatial and political segregation of migrants in European cities,” Cities, Elsevier, 77 (2017): 39-48, p. 47.
viii Anne-Laure Amilhat Szary, “Walls and Border Art: The Politics of Art Display”, Journal of Borderlands Studies, 27:2 (2012): 213-228, DOI: 10.1080/08865655.2012.687216
ix D. Hicks, and S. Mallet (2019) Lande: The Calais Jungle and Beyond. Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2019. p. 20
x Jacques Rancière and Steven Corcoran. Dissensus on politics and aesthetics. London, New York ,Oxford, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. p. 133.
xi Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the sensible. Edited and Translated by Gabriel Rockhill. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
xii Marie Ruiz and Bénédicte Miyamoto, “Revisioning Art and Migration,” in Ruiz and Miyamoto (eds.), Art & Migration: Revisioning the Borders of Community. Rethinking Art’s Histories Series, Manchester University Press, 2021.