the government of the world must be entrusted to satisfied
nations, who wished nothing more for themselves than what they had.
If the world-government was in the hands of hungry nations, there
would always be danger. But none of us had reason to seek for anything
more... Our power placed us above the rest. We were like rich men
dwelling at peace within their habitations.
How do we get organized? There's a simple answer: you go ahead
and do it. People have gotten organized under much more onerous
conditions than these... The problem of getting organized is a matter
of will. The activities of thousands of people around the country
and the world have made a tremendous difference in the last thirty
Nowadays there are only three sources of information: art,
the media, and gossip.
How do people change the conditions of everyday life? This is the
first question raised by Lyn Löwenstein's "interventionist"
art. Löwenstein sees art practice as a research tool for mapping
and revealing the dimensions of the imaginary and the institutional
in society. Her most recent work - the present installation Bridge,
and its predecessor, Do Others Before They Do You (2001) - investigate
popular activism as an expression of consciousness. These assemblages
present culture and identity as a complex set of relations, which
everybody (not only artists) can alter as they see fit. Löwenstein
draws attention to the circumstances where this happens, examining
the intersections of ordinary creativity and home-grown political
This art can be thought of as responding to a set of ongoing debates
about culture. Towards the end of the last century, the theorists
of culture seemed to have reached a dead end in conceptualising
change. After Althusser and Foucault, late capitalist ideology appeared
as an object of planetary scale and inertia, infiltrated into every
aspect of life, so comprehensive in scope and force as to rule out
the possibility of systematic change. This equation now looks too
severe, too literal; rooted in the assumption that nothing can be
done short of revolution. To get "outside" or beyond this
position, we can look to the forms of popular culture, which have
supplied resistance to abuses of power since the days of the medieval
Guising and dis-guising, the making of slogans, masks, banners,
props and costumes, street performances, the mobilisation of folk-motifs
and forms: these are all time-tested techniques for subjecting the
behaviour of elites to what Bob Scribner called "observability"
and what John Llewelyn calls "dis-illusionment". As Peter
Burke, writing of an earlier era, pointed out:
The square... of the "common people," the square of bazaars,
puppet theaters, taverns, that is, the square of European cities
in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and subsequent centuries [once] itself
constituted the entire state apparatus with all its official organs.
It was the highest court, the whole of science, the whole of art.
The entire people participated in it.
Löwenstein's reproductions of real-life activist props attend
to the vitality of this popular repertoire. A demonstrator dressed
as Death, clutching an inflatable globe stuck to a frying pan, makes
a point about the end-results of, say, Exxon company policy, faster,
more cogently and to a wider constituency than a journal article
or Greenpeace bulletin.
Löwenstein's objects represent this kind of irrepressible
aesthetic activity on several different levels. On the one hand,
they oppose the "manufacture of consent" - Noam Chomsky's
term for the machinery of visible and less visible inducements that
persuade people to throw their weight behind the status quo. This
machinery has been in place for decades, orchestrated by the handful
of corporations which own the mass media. Löwenstein started
exposing the narrowness of media norms in her earlier News of the
World (1999) piece. Here, data from ethnographic and medical research,
challenging assumptions about "norms" of gender, were
prepared as sheets imitating newspaper headlines. These were distributed
in central Edinburgh and Liverpool, producing surprise and a raising
of consciousness in the minds of passers-by, confronted by information
which the daily press normally filters out. The operation produced
an aesthetic shock, as in the affect released by a type of joke:
an inversion of expected categories, solemnly enacted in the guise
of official visual forms and distribution systems.
The materials of Bridge work in a similar way, against the grain
of pessimism about our “consumption” of news, but here
including an element of melancholy - or frozenness - in keeping
with the theme of a pause. We consider the banners and their messages
- arranged as they might appear at the end of a surreal demonstration
- surreal because the causes and localities represented are so diverse.
Such agitprops evoke the complex motivations of their creators and
bearers. In ordinary life, the distortions of mass-media coverage
become glaringly visible particularly when we see its "information
filters" applied to events about which we have direct knowledge:
either because we have local expertise, or the advantage of a first-hand
account from people who were there. Globalisation in part means
widespread experience of how the media operates. This has encouraged
the growth of a novel folk culture that is media "savvy":
less inclined to believe in its newspapers or politicians, more
aware of the kinds of visuals which will ensure media coverage,
and, most importantly, capable of producing its own version of events.
The same market-driven technology that might well have been supposed
to saturate daily life with Orwellian dis-information has thus enabled
a massive expansion of samizdat publications and actions, movements
spearheaded as much by local activism and grass-roots political
awareness as by artists and writers. Samizdat was originally the
general name for any kind of media, surreptitiously publishing material
officially banned during the Cold War, notably in the old Soviet
Union and Eastern Europe. Political satires and "magical realist"
fictions were prominent among these products, copied on ancient
mimeographs and circulated by hand. The term then could be applied
to any kind of alternative or censored work that somehow gets published
and disseminated despite the authorities' best efforts. Alternative
art, journalism and scholarship thus worked to keep open the possibility
of complexity (and thus of change) in cultural analysis and practice.
This sort of activity bypasses that endemic handicap of the mass
media: simple-mindedness; the inability of soundbite journalism
to handle or present complex agendas.
Since the late 1960's, artists contributed to the development of
strategies for coping with the censoring power of consumerist media.
Situationist and performance artists based their interventions on
carnivalesque precedents, designed to produce a "world-turned-upside-down"
détournement of the media version of culture. In the 80's
and 90's, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, among others, occupied
this stance of public interventionism, working with billboards,
television and T-shirts to turn the conventions of advertising into
a critique of itself. Situationism, in this sense, has never really
gone away, because its central practice consists of a flexible set
of tools, drawing strength from the institutions of popular culture.
During a residency in Italy, Löwenstein explored grass-roots
creativity in a series of snapshots (A Small Collection of Improvisations,
1999). Each shows an example of how people improvise what they need
from the materials to hand: a screen for a window made out of orange
plastic trellis, or long hair skewered in place with a toothbrush.
These images point out the ways in which ordinary life produces
occasions for creative improvisation all the time, with absurd and
sometimes beautiful results.
Situationist strategies of this kind allow artists to avoid the
necessity of "facture" production values. Eighties interventionist
or appropriationist art often adopted the standards of manufactured
surfaces, imitating the high level of finish of western commercial
products, with surreal or comic effects. In reaction to this "commodity
art," unable and unwilling to compete with its economy, artists
working in the nineties embraced a "lo-fi" aesthetic,
retaining the values of wit and surreality. So Thomas Hirschhorn,
for instance, uses cardboard, garbage bags and sticky tape, along
with videos, paperbacks and xeroxed texts, to construct his installations,
shrines and laboratories. Another object in this kind of work is
to frame the art in such a way as to turn the audience into participants;
so Jeremy Deller recently staged a 1980's battle between police
and striking Yorkshire miners, with the aid of a local historical
Löwenstein’s Bridge, like its predecessor, Do Others..
(2001) mobilises similar themes: she makes the investigation of
lo-fi popular form the primary subject. Popular protest follows
a lo-fi structure of transmission: repetition, imitation, personal
reproduction, the use of "found" forms. Anyone can make
a banner, a death mask or a mad-cow hat because we have the templates
for these objects and their uses in our heads: a type of intellectual
capital. As Walter Ong pointed out, folk culture is not interested
In this morass of commonly shared mnemonically structured knowledge
there is [no] answer to the question, "Who first said..?"
Everybody is quoting everybody else, and has been for tens of thousands
of years before the written records began, on purpose and with a
feeling of achievement.
Löwenstein is interested in the range of causes that actually
motivate people to take to the streets, and in the creative variation
of their homemade communication. The artist's decision to recreate
these props and banners herself - rather than, say, collecting and
displaying originals - underlines an important quality inherent
in these kind of cultural objects.
Art objects are in a sense magical; they produce an uncanny sense
of presence, they have a primitive relation to the real. But folk
magic is functional and disposable: corn dollies, effigies and hobby-horses
are made out of whatever lies to hand, used at the required time
and then discarded. It is not necessary to keep the object because
you can always make a new one; the object is merely one manifestation
of the form. It is the enactment of the form that is magical. At
this point, Löwenstein’s interest in everyday improvisation
as a form of bricolage, and in the materials of home-grown demonstrations
This collection of objects, then, is imbued with the spirit of
this kind of anonymous, collective invention, moved into another
space, where it metonymically represents the minds and motivations
of the makers. Some of these we can understand immediately, others
are opaque or mysterious, with an unfamiliar context or language.
But even the plainest among them are and are not "think-bubbles";
they invite us to imagine the complexity of intentions that brought
them into existence. Löwenstein's "de-contextualisation"
of these objects displaces them into the field of aesthetic attention,
inviting us to pause and speculate on the repertoire of ideas, hopes
and beliefs maintained in popular forms, and its potential for instigating