“The is a curious thing about anti-Semitism is that anti-Semitism is like alcoholism. You can go for 25 years without a drink, but if things go bad and you find yourself with vodka in your hand, you can’t get rid of it”.1

“Retro avant-garde” a term contrived by Neue Slowenische Kunst, is based on the premise that traumas from the past affecting the present and the future can only be healed by returning to the initial conflicts. We should use conflict as a tool. Raise the issues from the past that we are so afraid to touch. Open the wounds that are still so infected. Open them to clean them, take out the puss. It will hurt but only then is there a chance that it will heal properly.

Conflict, division, and instability do not ruin the democratic public sphere – they are conditions for its existence. Here there should be agitation and provocation to be found; a democratization of the conflict is needed, where new ideas and new players are allowed to participate. We have to be as irresponsible as possible, since it is only in this way that we can reach the core problems.

In the film 80064 (illustrations), Artist Artur Zmijewki persuades Jozef Tarnawa, a former Auschwitz prisoner to have his camp number on his arm re-tattooed. The man hesitates, but finally, gives in to Zmijewski’s strenuous persuasions. The scene in the tattoo shop depicts (and re-enacts) the conformist mechanism of the total acceptance of fate and of subjection to inhuman rules, which gave the camp prisoners a slight chance to survive. The film is very disturbing and morally problematic, yet, Zmijewki created within this situation of conflict, an extremely significant document about the human condition.

Throughout history, literature and mythology we can perceive the trickster, also considered the conflict maker, as the one who helps us see the world differently. Figuring out points of divisions between the sacred and profane, the dirty and clean, high and low, important and unimportant as well as marking and also violating the boundaries. He shows us that we can cross them, that it is not enough to point, or to even mark the boundaries, the taboos, the problems. One has to take the risk, violating these boundaries too; be the queer patriot, the seventh son, the strategic farter. Be the signifying monkey, even though you could fall off the tree.

We have to show that we could cross the boundaries, while encouraging ambiguity and confusion. Make it clear that nothing is clear; yet reveal that change could happen nonetheless. Keep people on their toes by maintaining a potential for change; so we don’t relax in our a sense of knowing. Make sure there are problems, or pick at the ever-present problems, but do it using humor, there should be a tongue-and-cheek element.

Once more, it should be done by using humor, by fooling around or doing the unexpected, by not respecting the sacredness/or sanctity of history, nation, religion and of course art, and the art world practices it enshrines. “When human culture turns against human beings themselves the trickster appears as a kind of savior.”2 Today we need the trickster, in this world where racism, fear, borders, walls, checkpoints, continuous violence and conflict thrive.

“Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argue3 that a fully functioning democratic society is not one in which all antagonisms have disappeared, but one in which new political frontiers are constantly being drawn and brought into debate—in other words, a democratic society is one in which relations of conflict are sustained, not erased. Without antagonism there is only the imposed consensus of authoritarian order—a total suppression of debate and discussion, which is inimical to democracy. It is important to stress right away that the idea of antagonism is not understood by Laclau and Mouffe to be a pessimistic acceptance of political deadlock; antagonism does not signal “the expulsion of utopia from the field of the political.” On the contrary, they maintain that without the concept of utopia there is no possibility of a radical imaginary. The task is to balance the tension between imaginary ideal and pragmatic management of a social positivity without lapsing into the totalitarian.”(4)


1 Iain Pears, International Herald Tribune, 11.8.2003
2 Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes this World , p. 279
3 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics
4 Clair Bishop, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, October 110, Fall 2004, pp. 51–79.

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Retro avant-garde


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