02 2012

Pictures that refuse to go back inside

An artist talk on revolutionary images

Elske Rosenfeld

The following text is a re-edit of a talk given at the conference “Narrating the Arab Spring. New Questions, New Modes of Resistance and Activism and New Politics”, that took place at Cairo University from February 18th – 20th 2012, one year after the large scale street protests that led to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, and a week after renewed protests against the ongoing violence and repression exerted on protesters by the military and police, most recently in the form of the state-condoned, maybe orchestrated, massacre of pro-revolutionary supporters of the Al-Ahly football team after a match in Port Said on February 1st. The talk was addressed to the conference’s audience, consisting of speakers and participants from different Egyptian and North African / Middle Eastern universities, and, to a lesser extent, from the Arab literature and Middle Eastern Studies departments of various European and North American universities, as well as a large number of local students from Cairo University.

Dear Colleagues,

I am very honoured and excited to be here and to present to you a few thoughts and materials from my work, but I am also a little apprehensive about talking to you in the situation we find ourselves in with this conference in Cairo at this point in time. 

The materials I am presenting to you are from my work on the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989/90, specifically East Germany, that I lived through and took part in at the age of 15. I did not start revisiting and researching these events until almost 20 years after they took place. My art and writing on revolution has been produced from the relative physical, but also conceptual safety of hindsight. My research was not produced in or for a revolutionary situation itself, but works on its historisation much further down the line. When talking about revolution during an ongoing revolution the stakes are, of course, on a completely different scale.    

With this in mind, I would – before I start – like to dedicate my talk to the activists behind the Askar Kaziboon campaign, who have collected images and video recordings of the revolutionary events, only to return them directly and perpetually to the revolution itself as tools in the war of images[1] that the Egyptian revolution undoubtedly is. At the Askar Kaziboon (“Military Liars”) gatherings, images of the slaying of protestors by the armed forces, secret service and the police throughout the twelve months since the revolution commenced, are shown to local audiences across town, in the neighbourhoods, and at Tahrir. During one screening, footage of military atrocities was projected onto the building facing the ministry of defence, and at another onto the headquarters of the Egyptian state TV, which the regime secures with barbed wire, tanks and scores of armed military guards.

The activists’ conscious, strategic, and courageous use of images makes them performative in, rather than representative of the revolution, and conflates and integrates art and politics in a way that is, I suppose, the horizon (often the far horizon) of much of the art produced in the Western political art scenes and certainly of my own work with revolutionary images.  

Although I myself have not made work on, or inspired by, the Egyptian revolution, my work is nonetheless deeply impacted by it. Since I work on the past from and for the present, the premises of much of what I do are currently on hold. The context of my work until a year ago was a situation where the thought of experiencing revolution once again in my lifetime – as a mode through which emancipation might take place – seemed illusionary. My work on revolution was by definition a work on history as it is configured by and itself configures present imaginaries that in turn dictate what futures are or are not conceivable. With the beginning of the Arab Spring this present, that is the context of my work, has become a completely different one.

In this sense the writing of this talk, my holding it here and discussing it with you, is an experiment in trying to see if, and what of my work on the revolutions of 1989/90 still holds, or how it must be reconfigured in the light of what has been happening here and, inspired by what happened here, world-wide.

I brought along with me images and materials from East Germany that I will use to talk about the revolution there, but also, and more importantly, to talk about the images themselves. 

The first video consists of stills taken from recordings of the first meeting of the Central Round Table of the GDR, showing the agitated bodies, faces, hands, mouths, eyes of the different protagonists that gathered here, moving the revolution from the street to the setting of a structured assembly for the first time.

The Round Table was put in place as the central political institution alongside the discredited government and parliament in December 1989, two months into the revolution, for controlling and taking over many of these institutions’ functions and responsibilities.

What we see in the images is a constellation of people and groupings that was not at any point proportionally representative of the political landscape in the country (which at any rate was changing rapidly); rather, it was a manifestation of the players most directly involved in the revolutionary struggle itself: the new forces, such as the citizens’ movements, anarchist and social, peace and environmental groups on the one hand, and the governing institutions of the old socialist state on the other, that gathered around the table in numerical parity.

The Round Table’s stated aim was the preparation of free and fair elections and the writing of a new constitution for the GDR. Beyond these initial limited goals it became increasingly involved in the day to day running of the country, where the government could no longer be trusted to act, including the upkeep and transformation of its economic structures, social systems, health care, schools, etc.

The image that I am showing you next to the Round Table images, shows the document that was produced over the course of the three months of the assemblies’ operation: it is the draft for a new constitution for the East German state. Co-written by all participating groups of the Round Table, it is the attempt to inscribe the demands of the revolution into constitutional law. It formulated the basic premises along which the country’s social, political and economic system was to operate – creating a framework for society that built on the experience of the East German socialist state and its failure, while at the same time continuing to address itself to its founding promise of a fairer, more equal society. The draft was to be put to public referendum after the elections, as well as discussed, finalised and put into force by the new parliament.

However, things took a different turn three months after the Round Tables had started their work, when Western backed conservative parties – that had been absolutely marginal to the revolutionary process itself – won the elections on the promise of rapid reunification and the instant introduction of Western standards of living and thanks to their massive support and pay-rolling by the West German conservatives.

With this change to representational democracy through the elections, the revolutionary forces that had manifested themselves on the streets and in the assemblies, such as the Round Tables, were effectively written out of the political process once again, with the citizens movements and groupings that effectively started the revolution garnering merely five percent of the vote. Simultaneously, the modes of radical democracy that were enacted throughout the revolutionary period at the Round Tables, in the squares and streets, in factories, schools and universities, even in prisons, where prisoners’ assemblies had been set up, came to a more or less instant close.

The draft for a new East German constitution was also obsolete. It was never put to public referendum or even brought before the newly formed parliament as had been planned.

There is a loss in this translation from revolution to representative democracy that the subsequent historisation of the revolutions in Eastern Europe – its reduction to the story of the triumphant victory of Western democracy – leaves unaccounted for. This loss and its disappearance from view in the dominant narratives that circulate today about 1989 pose a cultural and symbolic problem that is central to my work and that I will get back to later in my talk.

The situation in Egypt and in other current uprisings and protests across the world seems to be taking a different course, as democratic parliamentary elections per se are no longer the uncontested endpoint and seeming redemption of the revolutionary demands. Clearly, the Egyptian revolutionaries are doing something far more radical than catching up to a supposedly superior model of Western democracy.[2] Instead it seems that revolutions, such as the one in Egypt, but by extension the protest movements that are rising up alongside representative democracies in many countries across the world, generate their own, fundamentally different modes of politicality.

In a recent Al-Jazeera interview[3], Egyptian activist Wael Eskandar claimed that elections, while they may represent the choices of an electoral majority, can in no way replace the protest in the streets and squares. Similarly, protestors across the world are no longer looking to representative democracy, party politics, or even alternative political structures, such as those of charities and NGOs, as an arena to pursue their political demands, but chose instead to create spaces where they may spontaneously gather outside and break free from the social and symbolic structures that regulate these established political avenues.

Observing these developments, I find myself hoping that what was closed in 1989 may have been opened up again, that politics – declared dead by the proponents of the “End of History” in 1989 – will once again be possible, in Egypt and beyond, precisely on this juncture between structure and its opening and rupture that the practice of revolution perpetually re-activates. Developments in Egypt and beyond seem to suggest that democracy might cease to be the post-revolutionary point of return as the suspended social, political and symbolic structures settle back into place.  Might it instead be the repeated rupture and suspension of this order – revolution if you will, itself – that becomes the mode through which democracy operates?

If we read these events through Jacques Rancière’s[4] notion of the Political as recurring instances of disruption in the normalised physical and symbolic order of things, a radical breach with Western concepts of emancipation comes into view. Revolutions no longer implement progressive political projects along a linear historical trajectory, but open spaces of the Political in the cyclical shifts between the rupture/opening and the re-institutionalization of the orders that be.

What has impressed me so deeply about the events in Egypt over the last weeks and months, is the wisdom and persistence with which the revolutionaries, returning again and again to Tahrir and to the streets, have worked at the precise point where rupture comes to be sutured up into order and status quo once more. Practices, such as the Askar Kaziboon, have done something very similar on the level of images and narratives, breaking them free from those processes in which they, too, are set to be ordered, identified, assigned their place, and closed off. By using the images in such a way, they help to keep open, rather than closing down a continuing space of political potentiality.

My work on the revolution of 1989 has similarly focussed on the processes of representation and historisation that are used to contain and domesticate the radical potentiality of the revolutionary experience. But what might it mean to put one’s work at the disposal of a revolutionary community that dispersed over 20 years ago?

In East Germany, after all, this community had rapidly dissolved. Only a few months after people had started taking to the streets, to joyfully assemble outside the ordering divisions the state normally imposes and manages, many returned to the safety of the established structures of nation state and representative democracy that succeeded to present themselves as without reasonable alternative.

How might one then address such an ephemeral and short lived community[5], without cynicism, and without trivialising it, when it is so encrusted in narratives that make any appeal to it inevitably seem utopian and naïve?

These have been the challenges of my work of recent years and I have found myself taking recourse to art and its potentials for producing knowledges that cut through and suspend such fixed narratives. Much of my work has been an experiment in how archival materials might be used to call upon, rather than represent and identify the revolutionary community of 1989. Documents such as the images from the Round Tables and the constitution draft that we are seeing here have more or less completely disappeared from public view. Where they point to anything beyond the trajectory from Fall of the Wall to Re-unification, where they attest to democratic practices outside of the Western concept of democracy, or to the collective work on a political project different from it, they have become unreadable. These aspects of the revolution may not have been erased from people’s memory, but they can certainly no longer be spoken about. Without any language in which they might be shared, they survive only as muted private, individual memory.

Yet, documents such as the ones I am showing you persist. I found them in the so-called Archive of the Opposition of the GDR in Berlin. As Derrida and others stipulate, the archive conditions its own readability[6], but I would argue that it also always exceeds the instructions for its use that are inscribed in it. Documents that elude dominant readings of history make up a large part of the archive’s contents, forming a large body of residue, that cannot be accounted for in the narrative languages available to us in the present, but that remains physically there. The documents survive as potential witnesses of histories that cannot at present, but may in future potentially be told.

I have been trying to use the images that I am showing you in precisely such a way. The image of the constitution booklet that we have been looking at is in fact part of a video, which I will now play. In it, you see my hands turning the pages of the constitution that I am reading front to back in real time without sound. In the installation that I produced it for in 2010, it was juxtaposed with the public, highly emotional reading of the constitution draft in 1990 at the last meeting of the Round Table.

While the text is potentially available for visitors to read along with me – reminding us of the concrete contents of the revolutionary demands – I also, and more importantly, use it as a placeholder for the potential futures that the historical developments in 1990 foreclosed, returning the document and the futures it speaks to to the public realm. While my reading starts as a solitary exercise, the projection opens it up once more for the community of visitors across the duration of the show.

Similarly, I use the images in the slideshow to summon, rather than identify a community. I extract the stills from the video and strip them of their sound, to see if the women and men in the images may be set free to gather once more outside the identities to which subsequent narratives of representation and historisation have fixed them down.

What kind of community might be able to recognise itself in the facial expressions, and bodily gestures and tensions, and the excitements, flows, traumas and ecstasies that these call forth, when they don’t have to identify themselves in words?

Ultimately, though, my work must be measured by the degree to which it manages – much like the work of the Egyptian media activists – to engage images in such a way that they break open not only the historical discourses in which they are enclosed, but also those processes by which they threaten to become neutralised as commodities within even the most critical Western art and discursive scenes.

This pertains not only to the strategies inherent in the works, but also to the contexts in which they are shown, the ways in which they make themselves accessible to

the specific foreclosed revolutionary community of 1989, and at the same time address all viewers as always also part of a universal human community that exceeds and challenges the structures that subjugate us into all and any of our specific subjectivities.[7]

By placing my work in contexts outside the traditional venues of the international art scenes (such as the commemorative events that took place in 2009), I intervene concretely in the officially produced narratives in which the revolutionary experience has come to be written out of history – trying instead to create spaces in which it might be revisited as shared and contested experience.

Showing this work in the contexts of international art and discursive scenes, I conversely question alternative historisations that conflate the revolution with the nationalistic reconfigurations that followed it. Such reductive narratives play into the hands of those on the right who claim that the revolutions in Eastern Europe were pro-nationalist and anti-communist all along, and not – as I would contest – a last collective appeal to the communist ideal from within the region’s state socialisms themselves. I insist instead on the specific potential that was foreclosed in these revolutions as well as their relevance as fundamentally political experiences, hoping to return them as resource to the discourses of the critical left.

As for Egypt I wonder what methods artists will find for resisting the appropriation of images into those Western-focussed and funded cultural flows, in which they feed the need for exoticism, heightened political drama and novelty. I look forward to seeing what strategies you all find for navigating the need to serve the revolution locally and, at the same time, use these images’ potential for disrupting the narratives that continue to be told about the Middle East in the West and that the revolutions here have already told us to revise.

A final set of images that I will show you now are from a recent video piece that charts my attempt to connect my own localised and specific experience to a revolutionary time/space that persists across concrete historical instances.

The video uses footage from a short film about the end of a strike outside a factory in France during the revolts of 1968. The woman in the picture refuses to go back to her appointed place inside the factory after a few reforms have been achieved. I juxtapose this footage with my memories of the end of the revolution of 1989 that came flooding back when I first chanced upon this film clip at a screening a few years ago.

Eventually, I step into her place – marking it off as the space of a perpetual, trans-historical, revolutionary outside, that is not bound up with a particular history or biographical identity, but that is always potentially there to be taken up, again and again, across time.


[1] The phrase was used by Egyptian media activist Khalid Abdalla at a presentation of the collective Mosireen at Forum Expanded at the Berlinale, February 2012.

[2] In: Tunisia, Egypt. The Universal Reach of Popular Uprisings, February 2011, http://www.lacan.com/thesymptom/?page_id=1031, Alain Badiou claims that it is

“obscurantist to say ‘this movement claims democracy’ (implying the one that we enjoy in the West), or that ‘this movement pursues social improvement’ (implying the average prosperity for the petit bourgeois de chez nous).”

[3] Al Jazeera Inside Story Egypt One Year on and still unresolved?, January 26 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2012/01/201212681025356822.html

[4] Jacques Rancière Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy, 1998

[5] The revolutionary community has been theorised (by, among others, Giorgio Agamben in The Coming Community, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, and Maurice Blanchot in The Unavowable Community, Barrytown/ Station Hill Press, 2006), as per definition always ephemeral, liminal and constituted precisely in its inability, unwillingness and in fact, ontological impossibility to enter into permanent structure or shape.

[6] Jacques Derrida Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, University of Chicago Press, 1998

[7] The way that revolutions call upon a universal community of „humanity as a whole“, enacting a “communism of movement” is elaborated in Badiou (2011, see above) for the example of the Egyptian revolution.

Pictures that refuse to go back inside