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Disbelief as a medium. Sven Augustijnen
by Francesco Manacorda, 2006

BRUSSELS, 6 MAR. - There is an Italian journalist called Francesco Manacorda who

writes for the centrist national newspaper called La Stampa. He is an expert on finance

and has been their correspondent in Brussels until 2000. He has followed from a

vantage point the suspect story regarding the European Parliament’s move to the

Belgian capital. And there is also an art critic called Francesco Manacorda, working as

a freelance journalist. He has curated an exhibition on artists’ investigations into the

mechanisms of television news formats and newspapers, titled The Mythological

Machine (University of Warwick 2004). One wonders which are the textual and

discursive marks in the following article that will make you decide whether the writer is

one or the other – or whether they are co-authoring this text.

 

On the one side we have art critical discourse, on the other everyday political life’s

reporting; in the shared ground between them is the construction and management of

narratives, visuals and stories. If there is a space here for expanding on the unresolved

problem of art and life, it is within the paradox that art truly turned into life is

unrecognisable as such. In this sense, art that claims to want to dissolve the

boundaries between art and life should substitute declarations of intent and instead

achieve this goal by inserting itself into the structures of reality, thereby rendering inane

the use of the term ‘art’ altogether. Would that be the enigmatic solution of the historical

avant-garde dilemma?

 

Recently, I have been toying with the idea of organising an exhibition of contemporary

practices that intend to merge art and life. The project would try to push such a

contradiction in terms to its extreme. In fact, to be truthful to itself, the art projects and

therefore the whole show would have to be invisible and secret. Its viewers would

neither know nor be told that what they encounter is art. The utmost indicator of

success would be the avoidance, perhaps even the necessary loss, of the word art.

The possibility of identifying such a project would eventually undermine the work’s

infiltration in the domain of reality, creating a gap in our perception of life, which in

modern aesthetics is called autonomy. However, the most irresolvable contradiction

seems to be another one. How can you call such a project an ‘exhibition’ or ‘show’ –

literally: exposing something, extracting it from life – when both these terms

presuppose a visual delimitation of a portion of existence aimed at the identification of

its specificity? Would this project not only hinge on the notion of the end of art, of its

dissolution into the life continuum, but also put in jeopardy – through the attempt to

reach an indistinguishable status between art and life – the very notion of exhibition?

How do these ideas mutate when a portion of what is considered life is infiltrated by

art? Do art and exhibitions themselves resist their own dissolution? Why should we live

without art?

 

A newspaper can be the platform for a project that could nonetheless be identified as

an exhibition without putting such a concept in [terrible] danger. The newspaper’s

medium is information; and information consists of reporting through the use of verbal

and visual language on something that has taken place somewhere else. This involves

the practice of showing, exposing and making visible, strategies that also pertain to

contemporary art, with the exhibition embodying its public life. Both art and news base

their narrative efficacy on the notion of belief – for the latter this consists of the trust we

have in the degree of truthfulness that the journalist can achieve; while in the former

something makes sense as soon as the whole set of additional elements that form the

inter-subjective art discourse is activated by the piece.

 

Sven Augustijnen’s project Panorama (2005) consists of an eight full-page insert to the

main financial Belgian newspaper De Tijd, in which the artist conducts an exhaustive

and meticulous investigation into the non-official settling of the European Parliament in

Brussels. The story has a significant amount of dark sides – enough to make the

journalistic case necessary and relevant to any newspaper reader. The same insert

was then posted to every single EU Member of Parliament, to make sure that its

‘exhibition’ would reach yet another part of its ‘audience’.

 

Perhaps we can borrow an interesting notion here to identify the significance of

journalistic infiltration in relation to the history of art’s insertion into ideological circuits.

Camouflage is a military technique that allows a troop to be concealed in a particular

visual situation, in order to seize the enemy in a moment of suspension of disbelief.

That happens whenever somebody thinks that he is clearly seeing something, which is

in fact a different entity disguised in order to occupy a privileged position. Similarly, it

also denotes the mimetic capacity of certain animals to blend with their environment for

defence or predatory purposes.

 

Does Sven Augustijnen’s art aim to ambush life through the disguise of the artist as a

journalist? His infiltration of the system that produces information is not geared towards

seeing to what extent the information apparatus produces knowledge or fiction. It is

rather meant to short-circuit the conditions of belief that the apparatus can generate by

its sole functioning. The structure is the message: the newspaper functions on the thin

line between validation and guarantee of truth. Is the news truthful because it goes

through the paper’s filtering function, or is it the paper’s commitment to reaching out for

the truth that grounds our belief? Not being able to answer this is precisely the scope

for Augustijnen’s insertion. His goal consists in the act of furthering the complexity of

the truth-lie relationship by using very common mechanisms of decoding and reporting

events.

 

The readers of Panorama are struck by a very cerebral experience of the uncanny: the

inability to establish whether the material they are looking at is dead or alive, fiction or

real, art or life. In this case, then, the point does not seem to be about merging art and

life, but rather making visible the creases generated by their structural insolubility into

each other. The boundaries between art and artifice are blurred to include any kind of

narrative within them, as if aesthetic strategies were carried out in everyday behaviour,

thereby positing a possible inversion between art and life. Life dissolving into art is

decadentism, art dissolving into life is utopian avant-gardism; but what would be an art

that actively works to deprive you of the critical ability to distinguish the two? Perhaps

we could consider as both a principle of good art and one of the consequences of

groundbreaking journalism the effect of turning upside down your acquired capacity to

identify what you are looking at. An old expression of Anglo-Saxon reportage says:

‘Dog bites a man, that’s no news, but when a man bites a dog, that’s news’.

 

Researching for this article, Francesco Manacorda has been trying to get an interview

with the former French foreign affairs minister Roland Dumas. He was the only official

figure questioning directly the lease contract signed between the EU parliament and

the Espace Leopold that sealed Brussels as the unofficial capital of the EU. Dumas’

letter to his Belgian colleague of the time Mark Eyskens is reproduced in Augustijnen’s

newspaper. On the same page Eyskens declares never to have received any letter nor

to have been involved in that story. To no avail: Dumas has not agreed to a

conversation with the Italian journalist. Here follows, as a temporary dead-end, the

illustration of critical research bumping into the real. The reader can be assured that

any development or reply will be published on the forthcoming issues of this

newspaper.

 

The fax which Manacorda has sent to Dumas can be found on the gallery’s website.

Panorama exists in three versions: Dutch, French or English. Contact the gallery for a

free copy.

 

 

Source: Gallery Newspaper 51, March 2006