Nada Prlja: the Left, Language and Writing
By Vlad Morariu
The room with dim lights, fixed on the tainted autumnal-yellow, fabric-covered walls of the Palazzo Rota Ivancich, is hot and congested. I note the artist’s subtlety in maintaining a structural correspondence with the setting of the first Red Discussion: both are incomplete and somewhat intentionally unfinished. In 2013 a visually assertive red paint seized two of Calvert 22’s white walls; but painting remained imperfect towards the ceiling, splotches clumsily reaching the upper limit of the cube, as if painting work had been done in haste. In Venice it is much more difficult to work with the space, with its semiotically laden decadence: crumbling ornaments, stained immemorial mirrors, rotten plaster, and cracked floors point towards the Palazzo’s former beauty. We learn that the owner had spent her childhood here and we are allowed to mythicise it. But in the early evening these ghosts go on retreat: from the hollow centre of the red table I am looking at the low-wattage light bulbs and clearly discern their yellow filaments, projecting on a crowd of human-shaped shadows on the wall.
The audience in this room is hardly disciplined. This is also a transit space to the rooms where Prlja is showing her Subtle Subversion series, escorted by her re-appropriations of Borko Lazeski’s paintings and the sculpturesal installations inspired by, between others, Olga Jevric. In the opposite direction one hears remains of the Macedonian pavilion’s opening speeches. A conversation takes place around the red table. Yet the shifting shape of the public, and the fermenting sound of English-es, vibrating technological devices, and hand-and-leg movement, make me think it could have taken place anywhere else: a train station, a public square, a student union, a sit-in.
Maurizzio Lazzarato is first to speak and I am aware he had decided to speak in Italian. I am convinced that he speaks of ‘apocalyptic times’ to address, at least obliquely, Ralph Rugoff’s ambiguous ‘interesting times’. I am pleased that I understand enough Italian to be able to scribble down the English translation of Rivoluzione: no social revolutions – easily captured in the web of reproductive capital – without political revolutions; rivoluzione as necessarily anti-capitalist. I am thinking about the wonderful coincidence that I am Romanian and that I understand Italian quite well – this language that one million Romanian badanti and agricultural and construction workers now call home. I am at an advantage, because those seated at the table understand less than myself. They rely on what is scribbled on the red table.
I turn to Chantal Mouffe and I cannot help fixating on her splendid accent, with that distinctive ‘R’ pronounced from the throat. It is powerful, rounding up a commanding tone, which I find decisive and persuasive. It adds up to the memory of the first reading of the book she co-authored with Ernesto Laclau, and the strong impression it left upon me. She mentions Michel Foucault, in passing, and I write down ‘All artistic practices are political’ (but they can either reinforce hegemonic constructions or disrupt them). The 1980s, post-Marxism, post-structuralism; however, it is Jacques Derrida that comes to my mind. Not the Derrida’s of Spectres of Marx, since I take it as a given that Marx’s specters have already been with of all instantiations of Subversion to Red. But a Derrida whose deconstruction would read through agonism and hegemonic disarticulation, articulating itself against political and economic institutions, structures, and apparatuses that connect state, cultural power and capital’.
With a white marker of different widths, I draw lines from Mouffe to Charles Esche and Laura Raicovich. They share an understanding of the semantics of progressive cultural practices, such as those established by Charles and Laura. It is hard to overlook the perlocutionary effect of Charles’ sentences, spoken in an English with insular modulations, unspoiled by his command of a Dutch that he perfected whilst running van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven: precisely when he insists on Western European de-modernisation, counter-colonial, counter-capitalistic and, significantly, counter-patriarchal. I remember how Hannah Black spoke, in the first Red Discussion, about the undoing of capitalism as a practice of undoing gender. In words with transatlantic inflexions, Laura approaches a topic very dear to me – hierarchies of cultural institutions as indexical to the social organisation of Western societies; she argues that we need to reinvent cultural institutions (yes, we do!), through recuperating time and through self-care, within communities that nurture an ethics of cultural work shared with the entire world.
Artan Sadiku is very close to my heart: we are both Eastern European and born a few months apart; whilst I remain stranded in Brexitland, he has returned to be socially and politically active in Macedonia and the ex- YJugoslav space. It is with practice in this context that he speaks about forms of work that escape market-dominated models of capitalist production and reproduction. His points remind me of Dave Beech’s and Nina Power’s terms from the first Red Discussion: capital, labour, state, violence, alienation and self-criticism. Different contexts, however, different working classes, different forms of violence. With Artan I had a long discussion in the afternoon, prior to the opening of the pavilion, as we were returning from the Arsenale. It concerned writing: we were thinking about the uselessness of the descriptive, in writing. For example, the description of times which are, to return to Lazzarato, truly apocalyptic – and we know well that they are so. But is there a writing that survives the apocalypse? How would it look like? I thought of Gail Day and Mark Fisher, both present in the first Red Discussion. Gail mused upon the elusiveness of the future – how obsessed we are with ruins of mythical pasts. Mark Fisher talked about desire, authority and the public sphere; but since his tragic disappearance I am much more inclined to return to his words – Slow Cancellation of the Future – and use them as an interpretative grille for the present. Perhaps, then, Mark could have also thought about a slow cancellation of writing. And yet, this is precisely what I am doing here: writing, drawing, tracing.
I am trying to think through the relation between these different speeches, discourses, languages, and writing, as inscribed, at least momentarily, on the red table. It appears to me this is a strand one identifies with clarity in Nada Prlja’s work, which approaches writing, linguistic idioms, and language performativity. We may look, for example, at City Operated (2006 – ongoing) – the series of public interventions where Prlja transforms the meaning of right-wing graffiti on city walls, through changing letters and words. We could think about Foreign Language for Beginners (2010) – the work shown at Manifesta 8 in Murcia, where Nada investigated the ambiguous interpretation of the letter of the law, as formalised in the language of the Tercer Grado system. We find it again in the manner she used the traumatic experience of the Peace Wall – which blocked the southern part of Friedrichstrasse during the 8th Berlin Biennale – to return to the graffiti scribbled on it, in the White Cube Gallery in London, in 2013. Yet it seems to me that Red Discussion goes a bit further than all these. The project is – to use one of Fisher’s favourite terms, itself lent from Derrida – hauntological: it affirms, without ambiguity, that it lets itself be haunted by Marx, or at least, as Derrida would say, ‘a certain spirit of Marx.’
I think it is important to ponder on the significance of this artistic act of affirmation and allegiance, precisely at this historical juncture. Derrida first used this phrase at the beginning of the 1990s, at a time when Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of the end of history decoded the victorious march of neo-liberalism in Eastern Europe and beyond. Almost three decades after the end of history we are facing the prospect of the extinction of all humankind; and whilst much of the art world has skilfully borrowed, used and abused Marxist vocabularies to describe the crisis at the end and after the end of history, it has not always been the case that an engagement with the plane of communal action was present. This is where I locate the value of Red Discussion as an itinerant and iterative performative: I see it not so much as a work of art that engages with the genre of performance, where a collection of left-wing intellectuals would perform themselves – what would be the point of that? – but as an articulation of speeches that, from a certain Marxian tradition and working with a certain Marxian heritage, perform – which is to say, do what they say they do. I believe Red Discussion ought to be understood precisely as conjuration of Marx, or Marx’s spirit, which, to use again Derrida’s words, indicate ‘a certain experience of the promise that one can try to liberate from any dogmatics and even from any metaphysico-religious determination, from any messianism.’
The distinction in question here is important: instead of linguistic fashion, politicised language; instead of appropriation of politics, political deconstruction; instead of theory divorced from practice, practice-based theory. Prlja’s project does not promise to reveal, or discover an essence of a ‘new left’, but rather a great family of authors, themes, and concepts which, though not always fitting together harmoniously, share a connection to the world of critical action and practice, the world of the performative, the plane of social and political struggles where artistic and curatorial practices must necessarily be included. And I want to explain why this feat is important, by invoking one of Roland Barthes’ often-forgotten notes from his work dedicated to myth and ideology. We may well remember Barthes famous example: a newspaper image of a young black man in French military uniform, saluting the national flag. The image lends itself to a visual analysis, upon which myth adds itself as an ulterior signified: France as a great Colony who looks after her sons indiscriminately. But it does so through robbery and theft: it puts history and memory at a distance – in this case, the biography of the young black man is almost erased, or at least becoming accomplice in the signification of French imperiality as unproblematic and self-consistent. Myth is as fraudulent linguistic operation: as meta-language, it depoliticises speech. What enters myth as tension, contradiction and struggle comes out as ‘a harmonious display of essences.’ It is here that Barthes makes two interesting observations. First, that what opposes myth is political language: language that represents states of affairs by and for a speaker that intends to change them. Second, that myth does not belong to the revolution, precisely because revolutionary language is absorbed in transformative action. Importantly, this is not to say that ‘the Left’ does not produce myths; but it does so in as much as it stops being revolutionary, or when revolution becomes The Left.
Having participated in both Red Discussions, what appears to me with most striking clarity is precisely how history, memory, and experience are condensed in these living languages and speeches. Far from perfunctory (even perfunctory ideological), they are energetic; far from formulaic, they indicate themselves with the practical necessity of a world of action they are drawn from. But they gather their force from the very fact that they remain momentary and provisional; their authority and resistance to appropriation rests on the fact that they do not occur twice, in the same way and the same fashion. Red Discussion stays well away from the seduction of mythification; but it does so at the expense of remaining modular and self-deconstructive. How else could one interpret the disembodied segments of the table from the first Red Discussion resting on the walls of the Palazzo Rota Ivancich? This writing, these traces, remain fragmentary, inconsistent, unfinished. With its white connecting lines, sometimes continuous, other times fragmentary, the red table does not offer a self-consistent narrative: it does not claim to describe, much less to prescribe anything. Its signs convene on the red table much more like the Venn diagrams of mathematics or contemporary poetry: indeed, if one believes Barthes, these are languages that resist myth, infra-semiological systems of signification whose ideals are not to reach the meaning of words, ‘but the meaning of things themselves’. This may well be the only way in which writing, after the apocalypse and after the end of history, remains possible.