The quality of urban life, the urban experience, as well as cities themselves, have become commodities in the past decades, while the aggressive expansion of tourism, consumerism and commercialized production of knowledge has, in the words of David Harvey, penetrated almost every aspect of the urban political economy.
The economic crisis has absorbed surpluses in all parts of the capitalist world, deepening class and social differences, while capital has successfully relied on its external expansion and ever newer cheaper territories for its own reproduction. In parallel, more visible spaces, such as cities and capitals, have become polished generators of neoliberal aesthetics and ethics.
Even though the ruptures and resistance pockets are growing, city residents are finding different ways of self-organizing and resisting the pernicious and far-reaching consequences. However, regardless of how deteriorated it proves itself to be, this stage of capitalism seems to keep resisting and manages a status quo over any seriously dramatic systemic changes.
In times laden with a semblance of a freedom of choice, cities are becoming more and more populated, but also increasingly stratified. Depoliticized action is institutionally verified, although the scope of our activities becomes subject to even greater marginalization without reliance on these same institutions. How can we establish different relations or dialogues, produce open heterogeneous communities and solidary proactive action from below? How do we fight for spatial and other public and common goods? How can cities achieve greater “democratic control over production and exploitation of surplus”?
Today’s communities are artificial products that emerge within branded festivals, and which are ultimately much more directed at designing individualist simulacrums of community than they are at the production of real democratized socialization. Such creative aesthetic constructs of a more beautiful future under the shackles of the neoliberal dream will inevitably end up as forms of destruction.
But what are we to do, then? Creative squadrons in urban centres of the capitalist periphery have only just begun their work on the devastated spaces of labour and their deindustrialized heritage, for the most part disregarding the warnings from world capitals such as London, Paris, New York and others, about the consequences of neoliberal urbanist revitalization models, the uncontrolled rise in real estate prices and the increasingly louder dissatisfaction of the ghettoized, pauperized population from the periphery. At the same time, we are cut off from any infrastructure and fragmented, we are well-networked but we have not built relations of mutual solidarity, we participate but we do not see the effects of our participation.
The Paris Commune is difficult to imagine here, as we are only offered various forms of creative and technocratic pacification in the field of supposedly deideologized cultural policies and project markets. Without the means of production, we are left with prompt subversions and anomalies in principle, available to be appropriated and commodified at any time.
However, with the awareness of structural constraints and the reach of cultural artistic practices, artists and cultural workers must try to act towards the production of different, more emancipated relations, and a society that can actively reflect on and participate in social change. Confronting politicized artistic imaginaries with complex urban relations and practices nevertheless potentially opens up space to social alternatives, and can foster collective forms of action and socialization.
If we accept that there are no safe zones of progressive activity and that they will inevitably be exposed to capitalist patterns of the historical moment, we enter into a somewhat more nuanced space of conflictual relations, which, in order to be able to be critically inspected, must exit the galleries and atelier spaces and arrive onto the streets. This is not the first time that artists have decided to replace certified art spaces with the street as a place of resistance, the pulsating place of everyday life from which art is created even when it seeks to distance itself from it. In that case, the street, as the main space of action, necessarily becomes a space of interaction, within which art and artists are not distant and privileged observers of social processes and practices, but only stakeholders in the collective efforts at building a different world.
Therefore, within the framework of The Ilica Project: Q’ART, which has a long-term goal of finding collaborative management models at local levels and responsibly activating empty spaces, we have set up an exhibition of sorts in the main city street, consisting in four different artistic interventions, which share a sort of situational impulse towards the critical revolutionization of everyday life.
Until we produce the conditions for systemic changes, we should at least try to distance parts of the development of our cities from further accumulation of capital, and focus it instead towards developing common urban policies and the well-being of local communities and its population. Artists are unlikely to be able to deliver the social and political avant-garde by themselves, but they are certainly invited to participate in the process.
Word, message, last testament, and resistance to neoliberal regimes in the structure of an image. The image is the main city street. The main street is located in the deindustrialized capital of the capitalist periphery. This work emerges in a complex, tensed interstate of the verbal, the semantic and the manifest, and the visual mis-en-scene of disappearing urban localities.
In the illusion of the post-ideological, in times clogged with consumerist messages and appeals to consume, authors Ivana Nikolić Popović and Aleksandar Battista Ilić play with the politically of artistic language and public messages, using them at the same time as a means of agitation and interpellation in the mediation between institutions and the state, its residents and potential beneficiaries.
The phrases they use, such as, “How much does a square of culture cost?”, “material conditions of production”, “Art is dead, long live the artists!”, are already familiar, yet reframed, altered, deconstructed. The authors meld words that apparently become sharp, humorous slogans that polemicize with the context. They write on the devastated spaces in Ilica and open new communication channels, broadening their audience beyond the safety of the artistic field. The language of art is most focused and clear when it speaks up with the consciousness of the social reality and its materiality which it is attempting to articulate.
Nikolić Popović and Battista Ilić use their interventions to detect the urbanist vacuum and lack of communication with local and state institutions. The once vibrant spaces, trades, factories and cooperatives, now stand empty… Is there such a thing as urban commons and could this be the function of resocialized public spaces? Could they be allocated for cultural purposes and community art? Can surplus value be poured into further forms of socialization? Can art avoid complicity with capital, or can it merely verbalize it, prior to being absorbed by it?
The antinomical foundations these relations rest on demand of us to relinquish the illusion of art as an untouchable ethereal abstraction. Art needs its working spaces, its resources and conditions for production, in order to be able to participate in the emancipatory social processes from which it draws its imageries.
To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, art and artists have to be positioned in relation to the productive relations of their time in order to evaluate their own position and the position of their labour in these relationships. Through their work, the authors enter into a space of negotiation with the social structures of power, as well as with the audience from whom they seek political subjectivity and the reflection of their own spaces of resistance.