Artur Zmijewski: Philosophy in Action
Philosophy in Action
(S. 121 – 129)

»… it’s rather that my perception of the world is unbearable for others…«

Artur Zmijewski

Philosophy in Action
Gerald Matt in Conversation with Artur Zmijewski

In this interview, Artur Zmijewski defines art as »philosophy in action«. He explains how this term is linked to an artistic practice which destabilizes political, social, scientific or religious status. The practice of art creates situations of conflict in social structures in order to reorganize social relations. By insisting on a certain similarity between the fields of art and philosophy bringing artistic activities closer to political tactics, Zmijewski sees art as being open to the possibility of social practices that are capable of unsettling the current political scene. The interview was conducted by Gerald Matt.

Gerald Matt: With your work you often cause public outrage. Indeed, your artistic strategy sometimes has a disturbing effect. In such works as Out for a Walk you take human disabilities and humans with disabilities as your theme by emphasising the difference between »normal« and »disabled« to the verge of the intolerable. Does that touch you personally? As well you said once that your film Out for a Walk is about failure?

Artur Zmijewski: I don’t deliberately torment the viewers – it’s rather that my perception of the world is unbearable for others. I speak in a language that doesn’t shock me, but sometimes proves problematic for the viewer.

Not only bodies are disabled. You also have economic or educational disability. Within society there exists a mixture of disabilities that often functions imperceptibly – for instance, ethnic difference can have the effect as mental disability. There also exists a linguistic disability – ›broken English spoken perfectly‹. I speak such ›pidgin English‹, which has become a trans-national dialect, myself. This mixture of disabilities creates a ›map of silence‹ – alienating people within the given community and making it impossible for them to articulate their needs. Society forms a network of disability that allows some to occupy certain positions in the social structure, while preventing others from doing so. The category of disability is a category of power – disability status is awarded arbitrarily and serves to exercise control over the body, over the places occupied in social structure, and over ›bare life‹: this baby is so disabled we should let it die.

The difference between disability and norm – look how fragile is the status quo between the community members: a minor transgression beyond the contract, beyond the allowed communication modes, and the relationship is disturbed, loses its effectiveness, finds itself on the verge of collapse. A small deviation already becomes a transgression, an offence. Artistic activity negotiates these limits of deviation, difference, strangeness. And it succeeds in pushing them.

Sometimes, however, art, culture, do nothing. This is what Dubravka Ugrešic, the Croat writer, talks about when she writes about the Balkans war that she did nothing to stop the slaughter. She didn’t pay attention to the venom produced by the politicians and broadcast by the media. And then, like in the former Yugoslavia, culture becomes an accomplice in crime – because it failed to say no.

Eye for an Eye is the model of a utopia, which is why I called it a failure. Still, as a voice in support of instituting radical human solidarity, as the proposition of replacing the ›barter economy‹ with a ›gift economy‹, it is a success, because the postulates it carries continue to be distributed.

The failure this film talks about can be understood in existential terms – it is a confrontation with the constraints of ›bare life‹, the organic vehicle of the human body. The picture offers no medical consolations or hopes. The viewer is confronted face to face with the cruelty of physical existence – with the results of a disease or accident. And no ›consolation discourse‹ obscures the fact and its social consequences.

GM: The song of deaf and dumb children in Singing Lesson is a mixture of screaming, howling, yelling or weird bursts of noise. The children try to imitate sounds they have never heard, with alienating results. Is the viewer intended to learn something about the beauty of what is generally thought of as deficient?

AZ: The film teaches that beauty is an ideological category and can be used to remove individuals from the field of exchange, the field of vision. The category of ›beauty‹ serves to exercise control over the body. These kids were taught that their voice is ugly – which filled them with shame. And shame is obviously an instrument of controlling our behaviour, taming our temperament. So, as Rancière would say, these deaf children make sounds but don’t speak. Singing Lesson 1 and Singing Lesson 2 turn these sounds into speech. In one interview I said about Singing Lesson: ›These deaf children sing. For many of them, the concept of sound means nothing – it has no designate. They experience it, at best, as a vibration. And now it’s their turn to create music – to sing. I think that deaf people create a parallel aesthetical, linguistic reality – they produce a different grammar of sound. Singing, they show they’re really different. And this is something you can’t falsify, can’t obscure with »awareness campaigns« about respecting difference. They’re different, and those who can hear try to exercise control over them, teaching them to articulate words. Their »deaf« words are, obviously, sloppy and lopsided, so they’re instantly »forbidden« to use them, because they sound bad. This double message effectively removes them from our – the hearing-able population’s – field of vision, and infects them with shame. This is how the social body has been fragmented – we’ve been divided into the hearing and the deaf, the homo and the hetero, the Jews and the Aryans, the well paid and the poorly paid, the well educated and poorly educated – it’s a tough job trying to stitch it back together. […] The deaf are indeed resurrected in this little film as others – intransgressibly different. And they ask, with deadly seriousness, the question about the possibility of unconditional acceptance for their difference.‹

GM: Eye for An Eye also has something to do with pleasure in one’s own physicality, enjoying one’s own existence. Bodily defects are displayed proudly and openly, the state of difference is relativised and loses its dramatic quality. It is not a matter of suffering or sympathising with suffering. Art as a speaking tube? Or a lesson in matters of the perception of self and others?

AZ: You can say these amputees start using the able-bodied – use them for their own benefit. This cynical action is affirmed in Eye for an Eye. So much for being a victim, so much for the mimicry of the disabled. In the contemptuous act of usage, they turn the able-bodied – literally – into their footrests. 

It is precisely film that is the realm of fantasy – the place where we don’t have to play the good and helpful because that’s the custom. In the space of film we can show our disability, laugh at it, and turn an able-bodied person into our own prosthesis. Film is a space of freedom – you can behave cynically, or even cruelly, and the viewers will think it’s ›just acting‹ anyway, so you have an alibi.

Eye for an Eye can be viewed as a model of relativisation, functioning as a social performative – serving to challenge the models, producing tragic effects, of rejection of the other, the freak.

Reality is a bit like we describe it. Our bodies are also like we describe them. Disease is pathophysiology’s narrative about the body. Old age is the narrative about the body told by the social security system. Bodies happen to be as society wants them. If it’s a nationalised body, for instance, one called up into the army, the narrative will be potentially tragic and lofty at the same time. Eye for an Eye is a narrative about the body that participates in modelling the body’s social image and speaks about radical, uncompromising forms of social solidarity.

Compassion is a concept invented for the purpose of the onlookers – it’s their alibi. I look because I sympathise, not because I’m fascinated by physical deformity – such as the sight of a legless man. And yet it’s also a roadshow of forms, a theatre of strange visual combinations, of unexpected shapes. I go to the hospital to visit the patients, not because it’s an extreme experience, a glimpse of the ›between‹, between life and death, between suffering and the comfort of a healthy body – a sight that hypnotises, fascinates, because it also pertains to us.

Art is a very effective instrument of pursuing cultural interests. It’s a cultural battlefield, a field of struggles that go far beyond the purely artistic dimension. These struggles – for the change of the status quo in politics, science, religion, customs, technology, and so on – have common ground with art. I think we’re having to do here with a fluid exchange of arguments and fighting strategies. And so, for instance, the ›induced field strategy‹ is often present in art. It’s a strategy from the field of politics – a daring action ›induces the field‹, causing a stir among the until-now passive players, a turmoil, and making it possible to pursue various ›scenarios‹ depending on how things develop. The strategy activates and visualises the force field of power and makes it susceptible to change. In art, it is rather the map of views that is aroused and becomes susceptible to change. Art, including literature, film, theatre, the visual arts, also has the ability to establish various lines of conflict within the field it controls. It can also ›sell conflict‹ – initiate it, and then hand it over to the media to manage it. The Polish artist Joanna Rajkowska proposes the strategy of changing the context in the field of conflict – when the context is changed, conflict loses its reason to exist, runs out of fuel. Oskar Hansen spoke in similar terms about architecture: ›They built these residential blocks near Bergen […], nearby stood some villas. And, of course, those in the blocks felt bad, because here they were, the lower class, in the blocks, and there were those posh villas. And he [Svein Hatløy] changed the situation without demolishing those blocks. […] He simply organised an outside space so rich those from the villas were attracted to it‹.

In any case, artistic activity can induce the activity of the given field and cause its elements to be significantly reorganised. A good word to denote an attack on the theoretical organisation of the field’s structure is ›rethinking‹ – though ›redoing‹ or ›re-visualising‹ would also be useful in art.

Art is the place of a similar division as in politics – a partisan division – there are ›protest parties‹, and there are passive parties that believe it’s better not to stick your head out. There are the ›conservatives‹ who praise the neo-liberal order, there are ›profit parties‹, and there are the revolutionaries. There are social activists and there are the ultra-conservatives. There are Catholics, women, and the nationalists. But the division is tacit – it is a division that occurs before our very eyes but then goes into hiding and remains, unspoken, in the background. Art is a mouthpiece, but, and this is what I like the best, it is also a ›philosophy in action‹, a social praxis that produces lasting, though usually hardly perceptible, results.

GM: Again and again you strike against the limits of social consensus and political correctness. What meaning does this term have for you?

AZ: Indeed, social limits are being tested. These limits are very tight – transgression or deviation are within hand’s reach. Still, I’m not against social limits as such – after all, they provide security to us all, me included. I read somewhere that tumours are blind alleys of evolution. That evolution, which, how else, goes on, experiments on our bodies and makes mistakes. Art, to me, is something like a blind force of social evolution. It produces mistakes, behavioural procedures, contexts, fantasies, scenarios that at first you don’t know what to do with. They are the ›disorders‹ that the social body experiences. Sometimes a proposition made by art is accepted – and the given way of conduct is naturalised.

The art world has become a global corporation – one of the biggest and most successful ones in monopolising and controlling cultural practices and in turning them into products that can be sold at profit. You can guess such ›invisible practices‹ invented by art ›infect‹ the social body. They inhabit it and become naturalised. The dominant view is that art criticises capitalism. However, it can also be so that it is capitalism that learns transgressive and ruthless behaviour from art. But also soft strategies of seduction and attraction. Perhaps it is the fine arts that has taught capitalism that the physical attractiveness of an object, its sex appeal, are a necessary condition for that object to be coveted – to become a product. Perhaps it is sacral art that has taught capitalism to fetishise the product through sacral images and sculptures that are cult objects.

Perhaps art is partly responsible for promoting ›helplessness discourses‹? For such a model of social activity whose effects are nowhere to be seen, which is so diluted that it alienates people from the result and legitimises ineffectiveness? Perhaps art produces cultural models of ineffectiveness and helps to shift the entire responsibility for social problems on politics? Such hypotheses are of anthropological nature. You can’t put the fingerprint-covered gun on the table and say, ›This is the weapon‹.

GM: In many works you touch on collective traumata, such as the National Socialist past of Europe. »Trauma« comes from Greek and means something like »wound«. In Favourite Theory of Art you speak of »niches of inattention« and »intimacy«, through which the artist can use his work to find the »permeable brainchannel« through which he can pass to the »mental space«. Is that one of your artistic »pickpocket tricks« for arousing national phobias and neuroses?

AZ: This isn’t my trick, these are, in my opinion, common artistic strategies. The niches of inattention are places where the social body has undergone anaesthesia – it doesn’t react to stimuli. You can say artists are ›masters of reverse perception‹ – they see what can’t be seen. They know the unknown. Or they know, semi-consciously, that which we ›don’t know we know‹. I believe it’s part of the artistic know-how and could be used as expert knowledge, as a cognitive method, in other fields.

GM: At the centre of your artistic strategy is the human body. To what extent is an interest in the classical genre of sculpture what you bring to your work in the media of photography and film?

AZ: If the body is the focus of my interest, it’s as part of the social body. The nationalised, not-your-own, conforming body. The body is our construction – the ›image‹ we offer on the markets of social exchange. I’m interested in what Grzegorz Klaman called the ›political economy of the body‹. Like the product, the body is a cluster of relationships, the point where various opinions and discourses meet: medical, political, artistic. Art too provokes the body to exist, appropriates it, imposes its own definitions on it, pulls it into emancipation discourses, but also imprisons it in its narratives – by, for instance, reproducing its liberal obligations. Art is slowly becoming a ›parallel discourse‹ – detaching reality from itself and equipping it with autonomous rights. It is partly like science, which serves as the power base for the operationalisation and technologisation of human life. The seemingly local art strategies proliferate, becoming part of politics, part of media language, part of the capitalistic definition of the product – the art market has in fact helped expand the notion of the product. It equipped it with a bunch of irrational qualities that codetermine commercial success.

You can say that science is the ›background discourse‹ for technology, just like political philosophy is the ›background discourse‹ for politics. Are the visual arts, as well as literature, theatre, cinema, also a ›background discourse‹? Or perhaps it is the human passions, desires, and existential anxieties that are the ›background discourse‹ for art? Perhaps art itself is a kind of humanistic technology – a device generating experiences, emotions, reflections?

It’s worth adding that the figure known as the ›artist‹ is also a cluster of relationships; the place where social fantasies, anarchic yearnings, and compulsive satisfactions of the sense of strangeness conjoin; where the consecutive codes of freedom are tested, and where the absurd becomes the duty.

GM: You studied with Pawel Althamer and Katarzyna Kozyra, and sometimes you exhibit with them and carry out joint projects. Your works show many points of contact, such as the concern with physicality, marginal social groups, provocation strategies etc. What parallels and what differences do you see in your artistic positions? Is there anything you would call a common tradition, from which you create? A historical reference figure or a certain discourse that was topical when you were students?

AZ: What is common is the assumption that the social realise is sensitive to artistic activity and can be transformed by it. That the symbolic tissue entwining society is alive and volatile, and artistic activity usually takes place on the symbolic level. Today the notion is already emerging that the artist-viewer division has been reversed – that the artist is now the viewer, and society is the artist. You don’t try to modernise society, you listen to it. You don’t accuse it of being narrow-minded and bigoted, but treat it like a partner – it’s not the artist who speaks, it’s the people. It’s not the artist who’s the wise guy here, but the community in which he lives. Consequently, art gives up its rank and importance, lays open its mysteries, and becomes egalitarian by being one of the goods available on the idea markets. The work of art becomes an argument in the debate, and can encounter a more powerful argument – then it loses.

GM: In The Impossible Theatre, your work was presented as following that of Tadeusz Kantor. Kantor treated actors as materials and let them act like marionettes; instead of props and costumes he used materials and object, which he set next to the actors as of equal value. His productions avoided such dramatic elements as a climax or an ending. His »reality of the lowest rank« was embodied by rubbish, or places and objects apparently of lower value. In your case, it is a matter of »true« theatre, where bodies that are »useless« in the eyes of a profit–oriented society take over the »lowest rank«. How does your work relate to the idea of theatre?

AZ: My actions are not theatre. They are for real – they are events that strive to be undistinguishable from human experience. They are not bracketed and sold as spectacle.

The profit-oriented society is a notion sold to us by capitalism. In reality, people are not born vying for profit but are trained for it by the system – they’re corrupted. The lust for profit is not a natural drive, like sexual drive, but is a cultural product. 

GM: For your projects you usually cast lay–people as actors. Do the characters act according to some kind of script? Do they play themselves? Is the performance largely based on improvisation? How is the plot structure conceived?

AZ: I never have a script, it’s always an improvisation. Following the course of events, the unpredictable, documenting. The event ›tells itself‹ and you have to identify the main lines of narration, the turning points, and show them when you edit.

Do the participants of my films act? Film, as Žižek tells us, is a space of fantasy where people can be themselves. What is forbidden in the ordinary human relationship is not censored here and people can be true to their subjective truth, their own nature. To the viewer, this can look like acting, like unnaturalness.

GM: What was the motivation behind your work Repetition (2005)? What was exciting about it?

AZ: The exciting thing was to repeat a canonic psychological experiment that reinforces a certain opinion about human behaviour. It was an attempt to enter a territory claimed by science, a place where arbitrary judgements on the human reality are pronounced – judgements impossible to verify for a layman. I was interested in potentially challenging, undermining the reliability of the results of Zimbardo’s experiment – considered to be indisputable knowledge. This is the purpose of the black legend of unethicality surrounding the experiment, which results in a de facto ban on repeating it. Thus the results can’t be verified. At the same time, this unethical experiment and the knowledge it generated are something every psychology student learns about. Science has no ethical second thoughts about using knowledge obtained through human suffering. In fact, Zimbardo’s attitude towards the results of his experiment has changed – he no longer speaks only of banally evil people, but also of the banally good ones, who are able to stop the violence. It was exciting to use the mandate of art to enter unethical territory – the artist can still be ›evil‹, can cause suffering, act on the verge of the law or beyond it – and has society’s informal permission to do that. However, he pays a tall price for it. ›The ruler no longer says: »You must think as I do or die«. He says: »You are free not to think as I do; your life, your property, everything shall remain yours, but from this day on you are a stranger among us.« So this is the price: art no longer participates in the play of the forces that shape the world. Unless we think like Rancière, for whom art is a passive device of the ›division of the sensible‹. It can cause certain groups or individuals to be seen and heard. It can also help to turn the ›animal voice‹ into clear and politically significant speaking.

GM: For your joint project with Pawel Althamer So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind you experimented with consciousness–altering substances…

AZ: We used peyote, hashish, psilocibin, LSD, and thiopental, or truth serum. Paweł also had himself hypnotised twice. We treated a walk with his several years-old daughter as a drug as well. Powerful means were used to talk about ordinary things – like that Paweł thinks that he was a bird in a past life, that trees are nerve endings sticking out of the ground. Paweł is doubtless a prophet and a medicine man, for whom there’s no place in official religion and official medicine.

We also tested our artistic privileges that allow us to make documentary films about taking drugs, even though drugs are illegal. We used film to do the same that Aldous Huxley did when he was writing The Doors of Perception. We tried to say that the world is interesting not only when it is ›commoditised‹ and can be priced.

GM: What are you working on at present? What project are you planning for the near future?

AZ: Further films, of course, and travelling.

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