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Illustration: www.zersetzer.com

Illustration: www.zersetzer.com

Art and Resistance: An Interview with Börries Nehe and Aurel Eschmann

InterviewHow do we find images and develop counter-strategies that embolden others and create a narrative for global struggles today?

Yellow rubber ducks floating over demonstrators’ heads in Bangkok, pink gangs reclaiming streets and houses from patriarchal violence in India, women dancing blindfold in Chile while chanting “The rapist is you!”, yellow umbrellas defending protesters from tear gas in Hong Kong — all over the world, people are standing up to old and new forms of authoritarianism with creative and subversive strategies that engage the senses. Powerful symbols and almost iconic cultural artifacts can emerge from struggles against various forms of authoritarianism. These resound around the world, gaining visibility and inspiring other counter-strategies and resistance efforts.

There are, however, thousands of initiatives, interventions, mobilization efforts, and spaces that play a part in defying authoritarianism on local and regional levels, but do not reach a global audience. Because of this, they are not able to inspire and encourage people elsewhere. This is a missed opportunity and a real loss.

Street art or a large-scale public campaign, a poem or a space for poetic inspiration, a small, subversive media company, a political theatre collective or a satirical meme: effective counter-strategies undermine and defy the symbols and language of new and old forms of authoritarianism and create a powerful counter-aesthetic. Authoritarian ideologies often appeal much less to the head—through strong arguments or logical strategies—than they do to the gut, by means of striking images, emotional performances, and the aestheticization of politics.

Alongside a precise and systematic analysis of the global rise of authoritarianism that we are currently experiencing, the above means there is also a need for counter-strategies that deal with the emotional politics of authoritarianism and convey emancipatory alternatives in a different way, with radically different sensory experiences.

In order to bring together existing counter-strategies and inspire future ones, an editing collective formed by the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies (IRGAC) and kollektiv orangotango is working on a handbook that showcases resistance and disobedience toward authoritarian regimes, movements, and ideologies. Contributors from over 25 countries—activists, journalists, artists, and scientists—have been in continuous exchange while working together to create the book, which will also be accompanied by an online platform.

Collecting and connecting different experiences raises many questions, such as: what are successful emotional and visual counter-strategies? How can authoritarian populist discourse, communication strategies, and reasoning be undermined? Which images aid and abet disobedience and resistance? What roles do aesthetics, sensory experiences, and symbols play in these kinds of counter-strategies and in conveying alternatives to authoritarian rule? And what might an emancipatory counter-aesthetic look like?

We spoke with Börries Nehe und Aurel Eschmann, two of the project’s initiators, to learn more about the handbook.

This exciting project has the title “A Global Visual Handbook of Anti-Authoritarian Counterstrategies”. How did the idea for it come about?

AE: A range of different people from within the foundation and beyond are working on this project. We started discussing it a year ago. Börries is heading the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Neoliberalism in India and China, and I’m just starting a PhD project on this topic in India and China.

During various discussions, we’ve noticed that an analysis of authoritarianism always comes to the same conclusion: standard explanations are not enough and authoritarianism cannot be explained through the economic system alone. And it is not just about demagogues who make use of clever tricks to come to power. There are also elements that mobilize people by appealing to them on an emotional level — a deeper, psychological level enables this form of mobilization. This has already been demonstrated in various ways. People are not won over solely on the basis of rational arguments: there is another aspect that comes into play.

Even though this is recognized, it does not cross over into counter-strategies often enough. These tend to be examined to understand what arguments they put forward and what needs to be achieved. Less focus tends to be placed on the experiential spaces, psychological aspects, or the transformations contained within the counter-strategies. We saw a gap in the field, and that was the starting point for us.

So you’re focusing on the emotional aspects of struggles?

BN: We think that authoritarianism, the authoritarian transformation of capitalism, and related social upheavals can be better understood if actual struggles are looked at. It’s often the case that analysis is very much concentrated on the stakeholders within a regime, but focuses less on where the actual struggles are taking places or on the strategies adopted by these struggles. Examining this can open up new perspectives. It’s not a side issue, it’s a part of it.

The disadvantage for those fighting against authoritarianism is that they can’t use the same tools as the regimes — they can’t use lies, manipulation, or intimidation. The methods available to authoritarians cannot be considered. That makes things difficult when you want to appeal to people on an emotional level.

AE: It’s true that an emotional strategy for emancipation must deploy different methods. Any kind of regime or political hegemony functions on the basis of subjectivization, and is informed by mass psychology. But counter-strategies can come into play on this level too.

This is where we come in. We want to examine the mosaic of counter-strategies to achieve a better understanding of authoritarianism, but also to understand how successful resistance efforts operate, how they emerge, and how they are adopted. What kind of alternative subjectivities and experiential and relational spaces are enabled or advanced through these counter-strategies? What works? Since we are focusing on lived experiences, the resistance movements must have already taken place.

BN: The success of protests is often very much temporary, hard to measure, and it can change. The moment of protest is always ambiguous, and it can drift away in another direction afterwards.

Rebellion and rebellious acts have been increasingly monopolized by the authoritarian right. Counter-strategies therefore often appear to defend bourgeois statehood. The Left is now in the position to work jointly with—if at least not authoritarian—liberal or neoliberal powers. It’s a case of minimum consensus. But we’re looking for rebellious acts in counter-strategies, and for a perspective of resistance that goes beyond a liberal, bourgeois understanding of society. Our question is, how can we come up with a language, an act, an aesthetic for rebellion to combat the status quo? Or, is revolution necessary?

It seems like you are looking for that necessary transgression of boundaries. Was your starting point to look in detail for things that could interest and embolden others?

BN: We decided that we needed to talk more about the actual counter-strategies. Analysis is important, but what is happening around the world in terms of resistance to authoritarianism, and how much of this can be translated to a global level?

There are movements and stakeholders all over the world, most of whom are not aware of the existence of others. We thought, let’s try to enhance visibility and network these people with each other. The idea for the book came about in this way, by degrees.

By the end of the project we aim to have produced a handbook as well as a platform that will facilitate networking. More broadly, it’s also about aesthetic and artistic forms of resistance, and about creative strategies that make use of all available means of artistic  defamiliarization and freedom.

AE: We did not plan a book right from the beginning. We knew, however, that we wanted to closely examine counter-strategies and ask what movements could learn from each other. We also consider how exchange can be organized, how political strategies can be combined with practical experience, what works, and what doesn’t.

So your aim is to work on strategies that are used now and that were used in the past.

BN: Exactly—we want to look at what strategies are successful. That is only possible by assuming a dedicated empirical view. Knowledge transfer is a goal of ours, in fact. When reading the around 130 submitted contributions, we realized how encouraging it is just to see them all. There are things that have been happening all over the world that we had no idea about, such as the graffiti intervention in a mid-sized city in India, which received no media coverage here at all. We got to hear about places where a collective is doing fantastic work but you just don’t hear about it. There are small-scale temporary projects that we can learn from.

And of course, there are larger struggles, symbols, and forms of resistance. For instance, there is a contribution about the Zapatistas, who in May 2021 began a journey through Europe in order to share, to connect, and to report on the forms of resistance and possibilities their struggles use.

There are arresting images that have functioned as expressions of resistance for decades, such as the white headscarf of the “Madres de Plaza de Mayo“, which became a symbol in Argentina for courage against the military junta. Today, a green bandana symbolizes feminist rebellion against patriarchal oppression, discrimination, and violence there.

Not all art, and not everything artists do, is progressive, non-compliant, or political. There has always been art that supports the state and panders to regimes. What criteria have you applied when it comes to evaluating the contributions you have received?

AE: The contributors outlined to us why they view their action as a counter-strategy. There are many formats and artistic actions that at first glance don’t appear disobedient, but within their respective local or regional context are incendiary. They open up an experiential space that mobilizes resistance to authoritarianism. A simple green bandana, nothing more.

Of course, there were cases where we couldn’t judge whether they were actually examples of resistance, or whether they were conformist. We were able to fall back on the international expertise of Börries’ colleagues for these. In any case, it’s difficult to say: this is anti-authoritarian, that is conformist.

Did the contributions that were submitted show that the world we live in is a global one? In other words, through the projects you received from different global regions, was the whole world in the end represented?

BN: This is also an issue when analyzing authoritarianism: identifying the factors that are comparable and unifying, or the stories that are entirely dependent on the local context, is difficult. We have seen this in counter-strategies too. I’m familiar with the green bandana from all over Latin America — it’s an identification symbol for the global feminist struggle. The Zapatistas’ 1994 uprising inspired a number of collectives all over the world. It is not for us to decide what is universally applicable. Rather, we’re looking at what is happening to the globalization of the respective symbolism, to the struggles making use of it.

When published, will the book actually be a typical handbook, with to-do lists, background information, guidelines for action?

AE: We had a lot of discussion about this. Our aim was to enable many people to learn from many others. But we would rather let the resistance efforts speak for themselves, instead of generalizing things by way of a handbook, which would suggest that they only work in a certain way.

There are of course stories about forms of protest, which kick off a victory lap of sorts. The example of the yellow ducks, for example, which were originally used in China to bypass surveillance algorithms. The image of the tanks on Tiananmen Square was re-imagined with giant yellow rubber ducks replacing the tanks. This became a symbol of resistance in Hong Kong, and in Thailand too. The submissions also showed us that there were many local protest movements with similarities, and for us it is about connecting them with each other.

BN: Not all experiences offer something specific that could be put into practice by others, and the project is not about that. We’re not just creating a handbook: we want to show the beauty of resistance too, the magic of the struggle.

AE: That’s what makes the experiences translatable.

How do you differentiate between art and artistic renderings, and “just” an action? The boundary can be fluid.

BN: Having a demarcation line is not really important to us. It’s more about experience, communication, and that what is transmitted beyond linguistic discourse. We are looking at the aesthetics of resistance, not whether it’s art or not. We have seen from those who have submitted contributions that they don’t make this differentiation either.

AE: Art plays an important role in the book, but it is not an art book. It’s about experiences. We have a contribution from someone who looked at how civil unrest in Gezi Park in Istanbul created a backdrop of noise. When people there are banging on pots and pans to create change in their city, that is a creative protest. Strictly speaking, it’s not art. The tents near Delhi in India — those are protest tents. They are really practical, they are needed, but they also change the aesthetic of the city, and suddenly create an entirely different image when viewed through an artistic lens as an installation in public space.

Were there submissions of more typical art works for inclusion in your book project?

AE: We didn’t want to limit the project to protest art. It’s not only about mass demonstrations. The book also includes contributions by painters and film makers. Works of art were submitted that were not explicitly conceived as works of resistance when they were being created.

Art in public spaces can quickly turn into a type of protest performance. But we have, for example, a contribution from Turkey where an artist began to sketch the dreams of people living under the Erdoğan regime. She created huge posters of the dreams and hung them on walls in alleyways. It was also interactive: people could draw their own dreams anonymously. The primary aim was not to mobilize the masses and there was no defined goal as such, but there was another kind of insight behind it. And it still took place in a public space.

What’s next for the project?

BN: We received around 130 contributions from 46 countries and made an initial selection of around 40 from these. We have identified some gaps, of course. To fill some of these in, we are actively looking for content on certain topics or from certain regions. But we’re are not claiming to represent the whole world and all its struggles.

AE: We are already seeing that a lot of contributions have come from countries where authoritarian transformations are taking place—India, the Philippines, Brazil, Turkey. These countries also have a strong tradition of resistance. We can also see that authoritarianism is not only a problem outside of Europe: there are also contributions from Hungary and Poland. But we still have gaps, for instance from China, where the most strikes globally take place, and where an unbelievable amount of resistant art is created despite monitoring and surveillance. This is not yet reflected in the submitted contributions to the extent that we would like.

BN: There are also two contributions on the European border regime, and contributions on the topic of colonialism. The idea is not only to create a book but also a platform that allows artists and activists to network and learn from each other. We want to immortalize these moments of resistance in a format that many people can access.

AE: This is also important because history can all too quickly “overwrite” these counter-strategies and they are in danger of being forgotten. Capturing these moments in history where everything seems, or is, possible, and celebrating them a little: that’s what this project wishes to do. The online platform will be launched alongside the book, which we aim to publish at the end of 2022.

Yellow rubber ducks floating over demonstrators’ heads in Bangkok, pink gangs reclaiming streets and houses from patriarchal violence in India, women dancing blindfold in Chile while chanting “The rapist is you!”, yellow umbrellas defending protesters from tear gas in Hong Kong — all over the world, people are standing up to old and new forms of authoritarianism with creative and subversive strategies that engage the senses. Powerful symbols and almost iconic cultural artifacts can emerge from struggles against various forms of authoritarianism. These resound around the world, gaining visibility and inspiring other counter-strategies and resistance efforts.

The interview was conducted by Kathrin Gerlof and first appeared in maldekstra #13. The translated version appeared first at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s website. Translated by Gráinne Toomey and Hanna Grzeszkiewic for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

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