|forth year: 2001/2002||series of lectures: lectures / conversations with lecturers / lecturers|
The aim of this presentation
is to reflect on the relation between artistic strategies and political
strategies, their differences and similarities. During this task, I will
focus on a single strategy, i.e. the strategy of multiple names. You might
ask yourself what a multiple name is. To be honest, multiple names are
quite common. A multiple name is a name, which can be used by anybody.
Santa Claus, for instance, is a multiple name. Anybody who uses the name
of Santa Claus, puts on a beard and wears red clothes becomes Santa Claus.
In the art field this is a fairly common practice and Neoism is a movement,
which is the most famous for extensive use of multiple names, in particular
the name of Monty Cantsin, Karen Eliot and occasionally also Luther Blissett.
So, let's start with Neoism and its use of multiple names. First of all, what is Neoism? Neoism is a neo- or retro-avantgarde practice with various roots: its roots can be found in Pop culture, Punk and New Wave on one hand, and fine arts on the other. One of the definitions of Neoism (paradoxical like all definitions of Neoism) is that Neoism is a movement, which tries to simulate the impression of a movement called Neoism. Another definition of Neoism is that Neoism is a prefix (Neo-), and a suffix (-ism), with nothing to be found in between. The second definition gives you a hint of what Neoists generally tend to do, since their movement does not have any real content: through their practice they reflect the 'new' as such. In the autumn of '77, people who were later to become Neoists developed what they called an Open Pop-Star concept. They agreed that the name Monty Cantsin should be open for anybody who wants to use it. According to their theory, the advantage of using this name was that as soon as Monty Cantsin became famous anybody performing under this name will also be famous (if only anonymously). This is the PR-side of the medal. However, at the same time the star system would be opened and democratised. In fact, the name started spreading via the mail art network so that an increasing number of mail artists started using this name. However, soon the name became associated with a single individual, Istvan Kantor, an individual who was the most active in promoting this name. And it was him who defined Neoism (once more rather paradoxically) as a mass-movement of individuality. It is clear that this means that Neoism is a mass movement of multiple names, i.e. of 'post-singular individuals' (John Berndt). The idea of multiple names spread further, the next one being Karen Eliot, a name invented by Stewart Home as an opposition to Istvan Kantor. So what happened was that with this multiple names concept, the multiple - this kind of artwork so typical for the times of recession - was transferred through Neoism from the work onto the artist him/herself. It was not only the work, which was now relatively cheap to obtain, it was also easy to obtain your identity as an artist, therefore the artist became a sort of multiple. On a more theoretical level, these collective pseudonyms were of course directed against the Western philosophical ideas: ideas such as (in the words of Stewart Home) identity, individuality, value, and truth.
If we stop here for a moment, and take a look at the genealogy of the multiple proper names idea, we find that one of the very first pre-figurations of a multiple identity can be found within the Dada movement. In 1920, Raoul Hausmann announced that anybody who joins his Christus Gesellschaft and pays a fifty Mark membership fee would become Christ. The direct forerunner of the Open Pop Star mail art concept was an idea brought forth by the mail artists Stefan Kukowski and Adam Czarnowski who, in 1975, 'discovered' that the name of the radio-station Oslo Kalundberg is actually an anagram of the name Klaos Oldenburg - as you see this does not entirely match the name of the famous Pop artist Claes Oldenburg but they decided to push this fact slightly aside. So, using the mail art network they asked all their friends to assume the name Klaos Oldenburg. If we return to Neoism, then it was Stewart Home (as I have already mentioned) who invented the rival name Karen Eliot. In a flyer from 1988 it was stated that Karen Eliot materialised from within the social forces in the summer of 1985: it tells you that if you become Karen Eliot, you have neither a family, nor parents nor have you ever been born, and your personal history consists of all the actions of all the people that have used the name before. The name Karen Eliot can be strategically used for a series of actions, interventions, exhibitions, texts and so on. After the year 1988, Home tried to specify the Eliot-concept. By then he proclaimed that Eliot is less of an individual person who can be everybody (which is Michael Tolson's definition of a multiple name) and closer to a context which was created discursively by almost 300 people. And since Stewart Home was increasingly entering the art world and starting to organise exhibitions in galleries, the name was becoming an everyday occurrence within the art field and thus the name became what Home called a 'multiple signature". Eventually, people in the art world - people Home did not know personally - took over the signature and in October 1996 the Liverpool Arts and Design Festival launched a Karen Eliot retrospective. The committee faked (although you cannot really speak of a 'fake' since there is no original) a Karen Eliot biography with photographs, home-movies and press articles. The funny thing is that, in order to create this persona of Karen Eliot, they actually stuck to the statistically defined average British artist, who is (according to a survey of the Arts Council) represented by a female, between 30 and 35 years of age and does not work with paintings or sculptures.
Today, one of the typical problems of the multiple names concept is that the multiple name in many cases stays in a way connected to the inventor or the main proprietors of that name. There might be many reasons for this, but one of the main reasons might be found in the fact that the inventors themselves are tempted not to cut all the links between themselves and their multiple name. During the first years in which the name Monty Cantsin emerged, the 'true' or 'real' name of the respective individual was placed in brackets behind the name of Monty Cantsin. What they announced was not Monty Cantsin but, for instance:
Monty Cantsin (Istvan Kantor)
It appears that one of the deeper problems here seems to be that no matter what strategies you choose in order to relate to the multiple name, one or several individuals will always occupy an empty tag through certain hegemonic manoeuvres, thus disabling you to 'keep it' completely 'free', as it were. Secondly, one of the reasons for the success of collective pseudonyms probably lies in the PR-potential of the anonymity concept. For many observers it is tempting to discover which individual 'really' stands behind a multiple name.
After this 'historical' part, let's turn to the political part. One of the political examples for the use of multiple names is the Angry Brigade, which was responsible for a series of bombings in the late 60's and early 70's. Their concept was basically a multiple name concept. In one of their manifestos (Communiqué 6), they state the following: 'These are the tactics of the revolutionary class movement. Where two or three revolutionaries use organised violence to attack the class system ...there is the Angry Brigade. Revolutionaries all over England are already using the name to publicise their attacks on the system.' And in Communiqué 9 they proclaim: 'The AB is the man or woman sitting next to you. They have guns in their pockets and anger in their minds'. Basically what they are saying here is that the revolutionary class movement can be found wherever two or three people attack the class system - there is the Angry Brigade. So this is exactly the way in which the multiple name concept works. But it does not stop here. In a highly poetic Communiqué they say: 'Then we were scared...like any newly born baby opening our eyes to a gigantic blow - we got frightened...AND IT FLASHED: WE WERE INVINCIBLE ...because we were everybody. THEY COULD NOT JAIL US FOR WE DID NOT EXIST. We started daring out into the open, talking to friends, to neighbours, to people in pubs, at football games...and we knew we were not alone...'. Again, you might notice that as soon as you proclaim that you are everybody you will eventually find out that you do not exist. The logic behind this is obvious: if everybody is the Angry Brigade than the Angry Brigade does not exist (as the Angry Brigade). At this point I would like to give you two further quotes in order for you to get an idea of what they were writing - it is really amazing. For instance they claim: 'The Brigade is hitting back. Now we are too many to know each other (...) We are not in a position to say whether any one person is or isn't a member of the Brigade. All we say is: the Brigade is everywhere.' And they continued in such a manner until the movement was crushed. However, it was re-formed in 1983 and they started issuing communiqués and manifestos once more. Yet, by then, they did concede that it is impossible to 're-form' if you are not an avant-garde party, simply because everybody can be the Angry Brigade. So they claimed: 'It is not possible for the Angry Brigade to "re-form". It wasn't an organisation, nor was it a single grouping - but an expression of the anger and contempt many people up and down the country had for the State and its institutions. In this sense the Angry Brigade is with us all the time (the man or the woman sitting next to you?) - it neither appears or disappears (or re-forms) but is the natural manifestation of revolt when that revolt is directed against the heart of all that causes suffering: the State.'
What I would like to do now is to link this with a theoretical concept by proposing the idea that the multiple name in politics is very similar to what the political theorist Ernesto Laclau calls an empty signifier. The term empty signifier does have a very precise meaning. To put it in a nutshell: for Saussure, a sign consists of a signifier and the signified. The signifier is the material substance of the sign (the words I utter, for instance), while the signified is what we might understand by that in our 'mind'. The revolutionary innovation 100 years ago consisted of the insight that there is no necessary relation between the signified and the signifier, it is an arbitrary relation. But where does the meaning come from, how is the signifier connected to the signified, how does the process of signification work? Basically, the point is that the meaning emerges from the relation of differences between the signifiers. Relation of differences between signifiers means that a signifier can only assume or enter this process of meaning creation by entering a differential relation with other signifiers. (For instance, you only know what father means if you also know what mother, daughter, son and so on, means. Therefore, the meaning of father is not essentially or necessarily connected to the signifier but it emerges from a whole system of differential relations.) Laclau took up this concept by claiming that in politics you can have more or less empty signifiers. For instance, think of the notion of freedom. Many people can gather under the banner of freedom, but the point is that the higher number of demands are placed under that banner the less specific the content of freedom becomes. That is to say, the higher number of particular demands or meanings are gathered under one empty signifier the less specific the generated meaning is. For instance, if a union movement is fighting for higher wages, this is a particular demand. Yet, how can they foster their own position? They have to build a coalition with other movements, which are fighting for a different cause. In a situation where a relation between all these movements has to be established there has to be a common denominator between all these movements, and what happens is that the particular demand for higher wages, for instance, which in itself is nothing political, turns into a political notion as it is universalised. The result is that it is seen as having a wider impact not only for the union movement but for the entire society. So by erecting the antagonism between the enemy - for example the state which refuses to offer higher wages - and all other movements a universal element is introduced because the particular demand does not only signify 'higher wages', but also serves as a link between a number of groups, thereby assuming the role of an empty signifier like 'freedom' or 'attack against the state'. So, from the perspective of the coalition of demands or groups, the only thing that unites them is their opposition against the state. Therefore, what you have here is both, a universal element and a particular element.
Basically the empty signifier is a signifier which has become so universal that anybody can use it in order to, let's say, fight against the state (or whoever the enemy is). But as soon as it is so universal, the particular content of your particular demands is lost. So there is a direct relation: the more universal it gets the less particular the specific meaning actually is.
So if you connect this to the question of multiple names you will see how close the latter logic comes to the logic of the empty signifier. Because what happens with multiple names is simply the following: You have a name - like the Angry Brigade - which is so universal ('we are everybody') that it has lost any specific meaning. The only meaning of the Angry Brigade is that they are fighting against the state and the class system. Therefore, the only thing, which links 'the man and woman next to you', is that both are fighting against the class system. Apart from that there is no meaning and it would be very hard to find any particular demands within the manifestos of the Angry Brigade. So, in my opinion, the discourse of the Angry Brigade is a great example for the empty signifier logic, which, in the end, is also the logic of multiple names within the field of politics. It is a great example because it pushes the logic to the extreme thereby demonstrating that a completely empty signifier can only exist phantasmatically (in the first part we claimed that the universal empty name always has to be incarnated by some particular individual) since what the discourse of the Angry Brigade actually proposes is the following logic: Angry Brigade (everybody). There is no space for a political or hegemonic move, as we have complete emptiness on both sides:
Therefore we can claim that the Angry Brigade failed, not because it was violent, but because it became an entirely empty signifier and lost all meaning. It did not allow for the movement of politics, which is the movement between the universal and the particular. Instead, this link was established by the Angry Brigade in a merely imaginary fashion, not as a movement but as the identity of the universal with itself.