Agit-Prop (1982)

“Agit-Prop,” Parachute, no. 28 (September – November 1982), pp. 42-44.

Click to read

International Performance Art Series 1982
Mercer Union, Toronto July 19 — August 9

It was unfortunate to give the performances in this international series the name (or the pretense of the name) Agit-Prop because now we must call the bluff of art and consider it primarily in those terms. Simply stated, the works are not and cannot be agitational propaganda under the formal conditions of presentation that the performances accept. Agit-Prop historically was a means to propagate the Bolshevik revolution among the proletariat and an illiterate peasantry after the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. For a short period, artists abandoned their studios and their work took form for the masses in theatre, street demonstration, film, posters, and the rolling billboards of agit-trains and ships. The social conditions of revolutionary Russia and failed pre-revolutionary Germany (pre-1933) that urgently pressed these forms and leftist artists into service, however, do not exist today in a period of victorious capitalism. If the revolutionary Russian poet and agit-propagandist Vladimir Maiakovsky could say that “The revolution of substance—Socialism, Anarchism—is unthinkable without the revolution of form—Futurism”, today, the revers —formal innovation—does not lead to politics or revolution. For today, if we had to find the formal equivalents to a pervasive capitalism (what capitalism allows and what legitimates it), we could only name semiotics and the “critical” artwork that bases itself on this analysis.

The title of this series directs attention to politics. Without this title, we could not say that these performances were any different in nature than any other performances. Does that make all performance art political? For this series then, it becomes more a question of what is political than what is performance here. A question immediately arises: What is political in political art? But then the title refers us back to when art was political during the historical period of agit-prop, to how those artists proceeded and to the writings that they left to teach us their practice.

In these current performances what is named, who is addressed and who is spoken for? What class is the work directed to, and how does the audience’s highly specialized competence affect the works’ effects? If these questions were addressed, instead of a commitment to an art discourse and art spaces or an adherence to “critical” art strategies, then these performances might have found the terms basic to agit-prop. Missing from the performances, and fundamental to agit-prop, were a clear and observable sense of political purpose and a relation to the audience understood through the direction of the works’ formal effects.

These means need not be reductivist or crude. After all, the practitioners and theoreticians of a political art were such formal innovators as Brecht and Eisenstein. So much of the form of contemporary performance owes to the examples of these two artists, if not in a direct affiliation of influence: montage, reportage, alienation effects, separation of all the elements of a production, introduction of projected texts and films into performance, etc. Brecht and Eisenstein may have differed in technique—an alienation effect in Brecht and an ordering and regulation of shock effects for Eisenstein—but they were united in the purpose, didactic effect and class basis of their art. Brecht could ask “What was the good of a constructivist stage if it was socially unconstructive?” (“On Experimental Theatre”, 1939) because he believed “Only a new purpose can lead to a new art. The new purpose is called paedagogics” (“On Form and Subject-Matter”, 1929). In his 1925 manifesto, “The Method of Making Workers Films”, Eisenstein brought the issues of purpose and effect together. His “class approach” introduced “a specific purpose for the work” and “a choice of stimulants.” After “making a correct appraisal of the class inevitability of their nature,” the choice examined the reaction to effects that were specific to a certain class and the accessibility of that class to the stimulants.

When we come to the performances in this series, it is a different matter. Generally, we probably could consider most of the artists leftist and anti-corporate media. It is presumed all performance/critical/semiotic art is. The opening performance, Bruce Barber’s Vital Speech/Agit-Lecture, exemplified some of the automatic presumptions of this approach, presumptions that negatively reproduce the content of their critique in the performance’s relation to its audience. In the notes to his performance Barber states:

This work will be presented in the form of an agitational lecture which should reverse the usual lecture form where the fetishization of knowledge is a priori in the construction and maintenance of passive and alienated consumption... The intention of the “Agit-lecture” is not to fetishize know-ledge or package it for consumption but to allow the audience of potential consumers to become active participants in the critical construction of their knowledge... The intention is not to produce propaganda, but the more urgent need at this time which is to demystify and deconstruct forms of contemporary propaganda contained in forms of popular culture, advertising, newspaper and newsmagazines as well as those examples of “live” political rhetoric that we are subjected to on a daily basis.

We can take the intention expressed here, if not the form of presentation, to be the concerns of much of the other performance work. (But this intention is already a form and a relation).

Barber chose to “deconstruct” the advocacy advertising of arms manufacturer United Technologies in Atlantic magazine in comparison to their hard and software military advertising in Air Force Magazine. His performance was a demonstration of this deconstruction through blowing up parts of text in slides, rhetorically reading the written texts and comparing them to editorial copy in Atlantic. Among the many problems, is first, Barber did not find a new form of presentation as he claimed—it was fetishized in another way. Moreover, this “agit-lecture” has chosen to remain in the critical mode, secondary to that analyzed, rather than finding the forms for an active propagandizing. (In collaboration, Brecht could “treat organization as a major element of our artistic work. This was possible because the work as a whole was political.” And Eisenstein could both make an analysis and produce a positive effect on the audience.) Secondly, in claiming a conspiracy between United Technologies, advertising and politics, Barber failed to realize what seems obvious: that this advertising intention is never deep. The editorial-like advertisements are too clumsy ever to be taken or accepted as editorial copy of or by any magazine. Perhaps Barber should have studied the reception of these advertisements rather than automatically have presumed a naive response on the part of its original readers and the present performance audience. Barber may wish to avoid authority and fetishization in his speech, but they are part of the very method he chooses — deconstruction and semiotic critique. (Ironically, this new form of commitment has done more than anything to reconcile modernist techniques to the sign processes of late capitalism.)

Perhaps it is unfair to concentrate on Agit-Lecture and so judge the others since it was hardly a performance in their terms. If I do, it is because intention there has not been formalized; it remains a clear strategy that is usually obscured in the “critical”, formal presentation of media content in performance itself.

Not all the performances used the same critical devices to make their own critiques. In Every step could be the wrong to take, Marcel Odenbach wished to oppose the behavioural norms of media by presenting something else. That opposition was performance. (Still, the dominant critique is implicit in the statement associating television “with a mode of appearance as an expression of socio-political consciousness and conduct.”) Odenbach’s actions in his elegant formal set-up did not achieve the concentration, intensity and presence that he wished in counterbalancing a tape of the slick North American evening soap opera Dallas with his own performance. The rhythm, pacing and climax of Odenbach’s performance could not match what he calls the “brutal banality” of Dallas, but which in turn judged his performance. Mediation overwhelmed presence in this performance, for good or bad.

Some presentations simply did not work as politics or performance. Sonia Know’s Moving On was a pretentious procession of clichéd images passing between performance and live video, a performance throwback more reminiscent of a disconnected notebook.

If these artists attempt to make their performances critical, then Elizabeth Chitty’s History, Colour T.V. & You attempts a critique that is entertaining. For Chitty, “History” is a metaphor for communications: “Colour T.V.” an all inclusive communications environment no different from “History”; and seduction that means by which we as the “You” come into relation to the performer and the audio-visual technology of the performance and, by implication, the media. The performer herself is brought into relation with the various technologies through a montage effect and a conversational mode that is not quite given or explained to the audience. The montage/collage of the title is repeated in presentation where it accumulates as a device rather than condensing a critique. In presenting so much information as recorded or live images, definitions, music and popular songs, in the end what does this montage performance, that is entertaining and well-constructed, actually present to us? Does it perhaps accommodate us too readily to what it wishes to criticize? Placing and reproducing popular/commercial culture in the format of a performance (under the aegis of a critical, therefore elitist, connoisseurship) seduces us to the performance’s own entertainment, not to arriving at our own critique.

We can talk of the effects and the effectiveness of these performances, whether they were successful as performance or successful as politics. Each, however, has its own notion of what politics is, which, in its own terms, saves if from accepting any traditional view of politics or assuming it as an act. For instance, there were elements of Stuart Brisley’s The Georgiana Collection which were highly effective as performance but left no room for the audience to act in any political sense. Brisley’s cadenced invocation of desolate urban waste and human misery through a repetitious text conflated existential and sociologized descriptions of vagrancy, biological and medicalized descriptions of ecological decay and urban blight with the breakdown of psychological separation of inside and out-side. The literary qualities of this text in conjunction with slide images of waste culled from this area of North-West London were more effective than Brisley’s own actions, the burnt refuse at the entrance and the breaking of glass, all of which seemed too representational. By the end of the performance, mainly through the repetitions and in-versions of this text, the audience was convoluted into the position of subject/object of this voyeurism, left in general unease, dislocated from action.

Martha Rosier in Watchwords of the Eighties was the only artist who attempted to be politically effective in terms of direct reference to a contemporary political reality. The direct reference for this American artist was the Right taking power in the United States. Its context was conveyed through slides of newspaper articles of American policy and Reaganite elegance alternating with documentary images of Central American revolution and anti-nuclear marches. These were played off rap music and by the end of the performance indigenous Central and South American folk music. Carrying a fake over-sized ghetto-blaster, Roster scrawled the “watchwords” over the images; at first as a street-kid grafittiist and then as an urban guerilla sloganist: Reaganite “quality” became socialist “equality”. This language change (taking words over) coincided with the change from ghetto to guerilla, but this symbolic transformation (its implied effectivity) was no more than an inventory of what we already know. Outside of the performance it is hard for us to translate her activeness into more than an activist stance.

In criticizing these performances under the heading Agit-Prop, I do not propose what is truly political in political art. Preliminary to any possible political import to work, I think we must examine the legitimating structures of our own particular discourses and practices. In an unpublished fragment (translated in John Willett’s edition, Brecht on Theatre), Brecht indicated the first steps. Under the heading “representation of sentences in a new encyclopaedia”, in which we might substitute “performance” for “sentence”, Brecht wrote:

1. Who is the sentence of use to?
2. Who does it claim to be of use to?
3. What does it call for?
4. What practical action corresponds to it?
5. What sort of sentences result from it? What sort of sentences support it?
6. In what situation is it spoken? By whom?

(Agit-Prop was organized by the Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff and took place there between July 9 - 25, 1982. The two performances that did not travel to Toronto were Marcella Bienvenu, Arrival and Ulrike Rosenbach, Meeting with Eve and Adam).