Digressions of the Resistance (2000)

At this moment I am in the vanguard.
The letters that had to be written have been written, the housework is done, I have only to concentrate on my subject. I have only one aim and it is before me: I‘ve got to start and reach the conclusion of a text on the notion of resistance.
The field is clear, unobstructed; only the open landscape is before me. I am the vanguard of myself.
I am followed at the distance of a few centimetres –twenty, maybe- by the rearguard of myself. I cannot go without it. Only a thickness of flesh separates that part of me which is in an advanced position from what simply follows. These few centimetres make a significant difference.
I remember that, in the war-stories that I read as a teenager, being shot in the back was the greatest dishonour: it meant that one was fleeing the enemy. Similarly the traitor was condemned to be shot in the back. And in fascist propaganda, the partisan was represented in the gesture of stabbing in the darkness and in the back.
But the opposing rethorics of collaboration and resistance1 as well as those of vanguard and rearguard seem today emptied of their original meaning. This is precisely because the signs of a frontal opposition aren’t visible anymore. It is the very thinness of the sheet, its third dimension between recto and verso that seems enormously enlarged. It remains, though, only conceptually visible.
If resistance looks today like an almost decayed notion, this is because we experience a fragmentation and dispersion of social rules; we all work, in the western societies, a similar matter, we mould the same clay. How can you resist the one who pays you? How can an artist resist those who grant him his living?
But, without comparing welfare societies to the Nazi invader (what Paul Virilio does, in relation to technological progress)2, it’s unavoidable to see how the space between collaboration and resistance is at the same time conceptually enormous and physically thin, like a line that we cross ten times a day.
The reason is partially in the very notion of resistance. Resistance –here the example of World War II, if extreme, is also eloquent- is to move by definition in the same space as the adversary, to share the same physical space and similar symbolic weapons (“taken from the enemy”)3. “All resistance is ambiguous, as its name indicates”4; it implies participation in an imposed system, an understanding of the adversary’s mentality, a constant sequence of compromises, a guerrilla war where there are no frontal attacks or defences but instead displacements, deviations, encirclings, ambushes.
In this regard resistance appears to be a disturbance activity, comparable to that of a guard that operates in the rear to slow the enemy’s advance. The meaning of rearguard lies in this après-coup: in action that follows observation and reflection, in reaction to a stimulation or an attack (or an excitation like the Freudian Reiz). This is where rearguard seems to be in a more interesting position than vanguard; to be in the vanguard is –for an artist- pure creation, advancing in an unexplored land, researching new formal fields. But technology will always be faster than any artistic avant-garde; to rush after it doesn’t make much sense. Maybe today’s artistic avant-garde are the creators of computer programs, and the artists who use such programs are a mere para-avant-garde.
I find it more interesting to linger in the space of the “just passed” than to run after a passing fashion, or to be a fashion. This attitude of attention and reflection defines the rearguard. To this attitude corresponds a predilection for those moments in history just after the event: a stasis in time that prefigures the knowledge that nothing will be the same as “before”, even as we are still present in the echo of this very “before”.

Slowing down and disturbing the enemy’s action are duties common to rearguard and resistance. If we wish to consider the artist as a resister, we need to indicate his enemy. Once the artist was a client of a noble man or a confraternity; then he became an entrepreneur in a world of entrepreneurs; he is today an application-form filler and a grant-dependent; such grants are given by institutions. Is the institution the artist’s enemy?
Artists exist to disturb; this is their most widely accepted function5; this is why the relationship between artist and institution can only be based on misunderstanding; constant misunderstanding, mutual exploitation, space sharing, interchangeability of roles: there is no alternative to such an intercourse when we see how even art which has institutional critique at its core is re-absorbed in the institution. The interlacing is such, actually, that every artist is as institutional as a museum director, and every museum director as oppositional as an artist6. This is a relatively recent phenomenon; a post-68 effect, I would say.
The institution needs its opposite: in its constant work of self-legitimisation it needs people who disturb; it needs, particularly, to select and protect those who disturb with aesthetic, not aimless or chaotic means. In this regard art is a form of re-composition; it is not by chance that we have art-therapy, along with horse-therapy; it is not by chance that graffiti and rap music are preferable to riots and broken-in shop windows, and find, therefore, broad ways of distribution and support, both institutional and commercial7.
But to see things from another point of view, how does one loosen the contradiction of carrying on resistance towards what one materially depends on: ministries of culture, foundations, academies, collectors, galleries, museums?
Most artists resolve it by competing in the same space and under the same conditions, that are given to the artistic scene: which means making war to each other. Why not? Why not make, also, war with each other; why not make contacts and create a network of relations and alliances and seek protection? But the error would be, I think, to lose one’s autonomy, to identify oneself as a participant in a “scene”, moving one’s pawns on a chessboard already sketched.
The only form of artistic resistance I can imagine today is this one of dis-institutionalising it, taking part in other spaces of discourse and relation that cannot be defined as art specific. Like political utopia, resistance no longer has its traditional place; it must constantly occupy new places.

I will remain in an allegorical mode, recalling my personal experience of heterotopia. It was around the first months of 1977 in Italy. The era of the post-68 “institutional” leftist groups was over, but it wasn’t yet the moment when the groups organised in the Autonomia8 would kidnap a mass movement that still existed, still searched for new forms of presence. Already, in the winter of 1976-1977, there were those who broke into expensive shops to “expropriate” not bread but smoked salmon and caviar, demonstrating their subordination to the clichés of bourgeois luxury. Meanwhile there was still a great desire for a new conviviality in new spaces. In these months many condemned buildings in the city centres were occupied by groups of young leftists or low-income families.
At that time people also went out to demonstrate for cheaper cinema tickets. In retrospect this seems a ridiculous demand; it is ridiculous to think of invading public squares and streets just to pay a few liras less to see a Hollywood movie in a cinema hall belonging to a multinational, in the almost complete lack of alternative spaces. But the alternative space, in those days, were the same streets and squares; you would arrange an appointment with a few individuals, you would go there some days later. Finding yourself surrounded by dozens, you would start walking and would have ten thousand behind you. We would go from one movie theatre to the next; a delegation would go in, turn the lights on, make a short speech to the audience, go back to the waiting crowd, move on.
All that did not, strictly speaking, make any sense. Or, rather, the sense of all that was: I) to constitute a community, absolutely imaginary, utopian if you wish, lacking its own office and its own scene, doomed to appropriate only momentarily a set of public spaces meant for a different use: the squares, the streets, the movie theatres; II) through a pretentious and oblique objective (nobody was really interested, not even for free, in watching an Italian B-movie or an American comedy) to show the existence of a public authority and a resistance to this authority, and to do it in ways that were not necessarily those of a confrontation between workers and capitalist in the factory. It showed that resistance can inhere in claiming a simple pleasure, a simple right to choose that has been taken away.
The aim was not directly to change society or to express an individual right. It was to claim as “public” the entertainment spaces; to take entertainment out of its private sphere and confound the boundaries between entertainment, pleasure and public right. To claim a right to the spectacle without really caring about the spectacle, was a way of widening the boundaries of the political itself; it was a way of demonstrating the existence of a collective presence that, by avoiding being targeted as an organic “political” counterpart, also eluded politics as a matter of professionalism and seriousness. In such a situation you are not there “as” an artist or “as” a worker, you are not representing yourself if not in the part of yourself which, in that particular moment, is claiming a particular collective right, temporarily occupying and transforming a public space.
This is why I can only believe in necessarily temporary and provisional places, places that would be made “other”, places of exchange, encounter and exposition. Places that would be designated as such and that are by definition open, but not outside the relation. I was once in a squat in Rome when somebody who wasn’t known to us arrived, asking for hospitality: “All right, but let us know each other”, he was told.
Was that a new form of public space? I think it was, precisely because of its being a temporary place. In fact those occupied houses were somebody’s property, and sooner or later the police would come to evacuate them (like it happens today to the Centri sociali in Italy). A space that would be both public and alternative can only be temporary. It is in its being “possible” and “passed” at the same time that it finds its meaning: container of an imaginary community and receptacle of a community that would have been possible; of a community that exists only in the tension toward it, only in the longing for what it could have been but has not and cannot be.
Reinventing places; re-naming them, catching sight of other, hypothetical uses of a space; practising a diverting of signs; confounding one’s artistic gesture with the scattered gestures of urban communication; diluting, dissipating, spreading the gesture; leaving signs that may or may not be seen, that may or may not be “artistic”9; eluding but not refusing the official sites of communication and exposition: maybe, they are possible models of resistance. I will linger on that further on.
Another way of resisting could be to renounce a constant artist’s attitude, a wishful being always and everywhere an artist. I think of a paradigmatic situation: two painters who were living in the same city occupied by the enemy in wartime; one, Picasso, doesn’t stop painting and receiving visitors in his studio; the other, van Velde, who survives thanks to the charity canteen, doesn’t touch the paintbrush for five years. When asked about the reason of his inactivity he can only answer that one cannot work when such things happen around him 10. This seems to me an implicit criticism of “engaged” art: when such things happen you might rather stop underlining them with your artistic signature, wishing to be “helpful”, and simply take a practical form of commitment to the state of emergency you are living in. You will maybe help to create a time, later on, for the “peinture d’histoire”, or art of history, which politicises art.11

Let us go back to the resistance. I think after this digression that it could be defined as a movement of reaction, response and retaliation that shares the physical and linguistic space of its adversary; meanwhile it creates, in this same space, its own places and idioms. It creates a space of the rear, a maquis which has a scale and forms of diffusion different from the dominant ones. I think of all the graphic media, more or less skilful, more or less improvised but always necessarily autonomous, invented by the Resistance: fake documents, leaflets, newsletters, hand-printed newspapers, graffiti12; they can be compared, in another context, to the fanzines, the privately printed poems, and the photocopied magazines of the pre-internet era (it would be interesting to compile a collection of such means of communication, from Mexican Calaveras to Russian “Music on bones”13).
In retrospect it is evident that the “privately printed” was anything but a mere expression of a private sphere; since it was dependent on manual technique and materials, it implied a sequence of personal interconnections that the internet eludes, and was grounded in a “hand to hand” distribution; there was though, in this limitation of scale, the idea of a circulation both hazardous and personal, but always locally, topographically rooted. The one who today has a website speaks to everybody and to nobody; he stays finally in the representation of himself. This form of communication is often without any object other than the communication itself; in that sense it creates an illusory community. Distances are not abolished by the internet because nothing can replace physical presence, contact and touch (saying that, I do not fail to recognise the role the internet and mobile phones have played in organising resistance to Haider’s party in Austria).
If the internet seems to be above all an open and common space, this is because resisters, dominators and collaborators all navigate it and this is where the roles are most easily and rapidly interchangeable. This is the syntopia we live in. In such a context we can say that every resister is part collaborator and every collaborator part resister. In that sense our turn of the century cannot be compared to World War II. But I cannot resist trying a last allegory.
If an “above” and an “under” on the power ladder still exist, the variations and intersections of it are infinite, even in the most oppressive situations.
In reading Robert Antelme’s work on deportation14, we follow the multiple variations of signs that progressively differentiate the prisoners’ body, differentiating them from top to bottom in relationship to those who exercise over them the power of life and death. This articulation is both an instrument of domination and an affirmation of singularities that escape this domination.15
In such a differentiation new dominators and new resisters were created; in the multiplication of levels of power originated a chaos that was above all a further form of oppression to which the resisters opposed a struggle for legality.
Force is something that has variable and diverse intensities; the colour of force is also subject to variability; the mastering of language for example is a force whose colour varies. Several times in the only book he wrote, Antelme analyses the crucial role of translation16. The translator’s power can in such extreme situations either contribute to growing chaos or to affirming legality. Legality seen in such situation, is situated in the diversion of law17; the one who defends it doesn’t hear, hears badly, “turns a deaf ear”, cultivates the misunderstanding in the vertical transmission of control. In translating in “his own way” the translator has the power to enlarge or to narrow the spaces for communication and survival. His work of resistance is, therefore, an “art’s work”.
In an infinitely less oppressive reality like our western societies, the power of translation is that of a re-appropriation of official language, and of its misappropriation which consists in differently pointing out the places of social exchange. Resistance could be simply in a different name: an unused building becomes a “Squat”; a photocopied paper is a “Journal”; a private collection is made a “Museum”.
Resistance for an artist might be in dis-identifying with prevailing notions of artistic identity; in refusing for example to be “professional”. I am aware that such a position can be considered a residual “avant-gardism” or a form of voluntarism; but I doubt that models of resistance can be indicated without such voluntarism.

Before World War II, when it wasn’t taken as a physical quality of matters, by resistance one understood only “resistance to authority”, punished by article 337 of the Italian penal code and equivalent to the crime of “public violence” (art. 336). According to the law, only a private person could be guilty of such a crime: in opposing representatives of the State he would place himself outside the law and the public sphere.
With the war and the consequent opposition to German occupation in Europe (and Nazi domination in Germany) there was both an enlargement and a diversion of this notion. Those who “resisted” opposed a different concept of legality and a different idea of public representation. This is why fascists had to find another signifier that would symbolically exclude them: partisans could be named, on the radio and in the newspapers, only as “bandits” (etymologically: banished, exiled, outlaws).
These fluctuations in the meaning of words are paradigmatic: in the second half of the XIX century a resister was somebody who, by definition, was against progress; in the second half of the XX century a State like the Italian republic finds its legitimacy in the Resistance as a constitutive value.18
This is why today nobody would refuse to call himself a “resister”. Maybe the most difficult thing remains to indicate what, in every different situation, we intend to resist.

Spring 2000

Thanks to Robert Garnett and Vania Del Borgo