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