On Making Bridges
new work by Lyn Löwenstein

Louise Milne

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.
Winston Churchill

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 years.
Noam Chomsky

Nowadays there are only three sources of information: art, the media, and gossip.
Susan Hiller

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 protest.

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 carnival.

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 re-enactment society.

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 originality:
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 come together.

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 change.


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