Monday, 3 August 2009

Human Rights and Beaux Arts

Land of Human RightsFriends from the Austrian city of Graz have published a book entitled Land of Human Rights: Artistic and Activist Strategies of Making Human Rights Visible (edited by Laila Huber, Judith Laister, Anton Lederer, Margarethe Makovec and Oliver Ressler). It is an international collection of essays dealing with one of the most salient problems of today's world: how to make human rights visible. There are chapters devoted to issues of migration, labour, exploitation, precarity, and so on. The editors of the book state their purpose on the cover: In a world of images, visibility has become a political necessity. Whoever wants to achieve changes in society, must not only make him or herself heard but also seen.

Obviously enough, we live in the midst of a "visual turn" in our culture, social communication, and theory. It goes far beyond the notion of the "society of the spectacle." Images are neither friends nor enemies by themselves. It is rather the visual culture that constitutes another field of struggle, wherein we encounter images as our possible, or impossible, allies. We not only find ourselves enslaved in, manipulated by, or alienated into images, but also empowered by them. Wherever there is alienation, there can also be intimacy. And even visionary politics is ultimately about vision, and its visibility.

No wonder it is so urgent to think about human rights and their visibility in this new context. We need art and artistic practices as a vehicle of social change we are striving for. And I would contend that in the realm of human rights artistic practice is not just a vehicle -- it is a site of strategic intervention. We need to make human rights visible not because we do not hear about them enough. Quite the opposite, we are all too often overflooded with corrupted "human rights" discourse.

How can images be a remedy for corrupted speech? We saw it a few years ago on the occasion of Abu Ghraib. The war in Iraq was thouroughly decorated in "human rights" concerns. In Poland, many liberal intellectuals such as Adam Michnik considered the invasion as a "war to end torture in Iraq." And there was no word, no speech capable of contradicting this conviction. Only after a dozen of months, when the photographs of Abu Ghraib saw the light, did the speech of warmongers become slightly less self-assured.

We need more visual interventions of this sort. We urgently need to scatter the smokescreen of "human rights" discourse clouding the European Union's border and migration policies, especially the activities of the Frontex agency. We need to countervail the newspeak of those "free to choose" with images of actually existing neoliberalism. So we need activist and artistic strategies, and we have to further our strategic reflection. The reader Land of Human Rights is an impressive contribution to this task.

Adam Ostolski

PS. There is also a modest contribution by Joanna Erbel and myself: "The Artist-Citizen: New Directions in Political Art in Poland." We write about transformations in artistic practices accompanying the political and economic transition in Poland. We record a recent shift from a liberal and individualistic understanding of human rights to a broader vision of rights implicit in social and artistic struggles. Enjoy!

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