Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long 20thC, Gerald Raunig, New York: Semiotext(e), 2007.

Review first published in MAP Magazine, Issue 12, Winter 2007.

One doesn’t have to be an anti-intellectual nay-sayer to wonder if critical
theory is not paradoxically at its pretentious worst when addressing issues of
immediate political consequence. Theory can frequently be distant from its
adopted concerns: too often theorists respond to the injustices of the world by
treating actual political complexity with equally complex but abstracted
jargonised contemplation.

That distantness, especially when exacerbated by exclusive language, seems
bizarre if not intolerable when the jargoniser is himself distant not only from
the social realities of the subjects objectified by his theorising, but also
from those men of action who might seek to redress inequalities at point of
need. One could equally maintain, however, that there is good reason to preserve
distance between theorist and both the needy and the activist. The macro might
necessarily be the domain of the removed political planner without whose
direction nobly intended action would remain disorganised and ineffective.

Then again, by way of contrast to the above dichotomy, a closer
constructivist relationship between critical social theory and critical social
practice might see a genuine mutuality emerge which stops short of macho
you-have-to-be-there activism and macho my-abstraction-bears-best-witness
theorism. Gerald Raunig is to be found on this ‘third’ ground, and his newest
publication presents 20th and 21st century highlights of art as/and activism
seen from the vantage point of what might be called, borrowing from war zone
journalism, the embedded theorist.

Raunig’s central point from the perspective of a philosopher who works behind
enemy lines is that art making and political activism can be seen more
productively as a series of linked practices, and as such, usefully, the classic
dualism of art as too aesthetically preoccupied to effect political change, or
‘art’ as too politically concerned to really approximate art, can be
circumvented. By way of translator Aileen Derieg, he describes this linking as
the ‘transversal concatenation of art and revolution’, an interconnectedness
which sees ‘neighbouring zones of art and revolution open up from both sides’.

Raunig builds a case for this reading of concatenation by consistently
connecting theoreticised politics (with reference to ideas in the work of
Deleuze, Foucault, Hardt and Negri amongst others) to actual episodes of
intervention posited as critical artistry. After all, states Raunig, ‘it is not
only activist art that docks into a political movement, but political activism
also increasingly makes use of specific methods skills and techniques that have
been conceived and tested in art production’. So, broad sweeps of to-be-expected
anti-capitalist theorism are cleverly balanced in the book with timely
micro-detail about the creative practices of protestors as witnessed by Raunig
in situ.

For example, the author recounts the activity of members of a 2002 protest
camp set up on the French-German border to lay critical siege to the Schengen
Information System in Strasbourg. The SIS is in effect a filing cabinet of data
on individuals seeking visas and asylum, and thus functions as a policing
mechanism of all border movements. The critical social action of the camp was
steered fittingly by the noborder network and was designed to operate counter to
the agendas of the SIS at the real/physical and virtual level. Eschewing
conventional violent demonstration, four ‘experts’ from Noborder Silicon Valley
wrong-footed authorities by enacting a pantomime hack of the back-up servers for
the SIS in some suburb in Strasbourg.

With requisite props of fluorescent vests, laptops, cables and gadgetry, the
event was as much a symbolic tableau as an instance of direct disruptive action;
the reality of the data ‘theft’ was perhaps immaterial when set next to the
political debate released by the ‘play’. The artists-activists took pains to
brief media at all stages, reinforcing the bonds between art, politics and
intrasocial digital networks. Raunig’s review of concatenation is not really a
rewrite of the art and activism of the long 20thC. It is more a demonstration of
the blending of often untouchable critical theory with the pragmatics and the
imaginary of creative political intervention. Now, either his story is unwitting
advocacy of pleasant protest too creatively self-conscious to have impact, or it
is a demonstration that when praxis actually exists as theory worked through
creative action, compelling and affective critique of social injustice might
emerge beyond cliches of violent dissent. I suggest, at risk of establishing yet
another dichotomy, that Raunig persuasively presents the latter.