Brigitta Iványi-Bitter: In your Budapest seminar two years ago, you created a very special atmosphere by asking the group to participate with photos they chose in relation to your topic. You used these as starting points for presenting issues on the nature of communities shaped on a non-institutional basis. What are the roots of your fascination with analyzing the structure of communities?
Jan Verwoert: I am trying to find another approach to a critique of ideology and a critique of dominant social orders. One can use sociology to portray what is there. But focusing on description often lacks a close look at how these formations are created, how a social formation comes into being. Part of my methodology comes from trying to shift from a mere description towards something that implies a different kind of prospect of these energies and activities. This is mainly an artistic and intellectual approach.
So I want to bring it back to the question, what can we do? To what degree are those energies playing in artistic and intellectual activity? I feel that just by focusing on description you exclude yourself from possibilities that would otherwise exist for your practice. It is important to understand how artistic and intellectual activities are deeply connected to what is happening. It is important to acknowledge how involved we really are. What I don’t believe and I find problematic is this kind of heroic paradigm of artistic and intellectual political action: we first construct a symbolic threshold, so over there is where the political begins and now we have to find the way to get across this threshold to get in there. And then all those dramatic actions follow that are designed to symbolize that we now finally crossed the threshold. I don’t find that very credible. Maybe a much easier and workable approach has to do with acknowledging that we are right in the middle of it. We are producers of images and we inhabit that imaginary ideology. Through talking and through the exchange that we have, we constantly experiment with community formations. The ways in which we talk to each other is a performance that has to do with the formation of a particular community. The question for me would be, how could we play this game differently? It is difficult to step out of the context and describe it from a safe distance. That’s what Irit Rogoff calls criticality as opposed to critique. Criticality acknowledges that moment of implication. And another notion which Irit suggests, which I like a lot, is the idea of contemporaneity, the idea that would bring you together as a critical community. The thing around which you form a community is a shared concern. I guess that the task for an intellectual and artistic production would be to determine what these concerns would be. What constitutes contemporaneity today? How can we find that out? In the seminar I thought that just by throwing in images we can arrive at a certain sensitivity and understanding of what might concern us today and create a temporary discursive community around that. Then it turned out to be the notion of nostalgia. And a difficulty to face with certain feelings of nostalgia. I found it very exciting.
BIB: Talking about communities, who do you really mean by “we intellectuals”?
JV: For instance in Rotterdam where I teach, there is hardly anyone from Rotterdam, they are pretty much from all over the world. So you end up being a foreigner among foreigners. You have to kind of performatively negotiate the definition of “we.” Which is one way to approach the “we.” The “we” of contemporaneity are we who happen to be stuck in a particular situation together, facing the similar problem, namely how can we talk to each other. The “we” is a subject of negotiation in a twofold sense, we have to negotiate over what “we” is, and as we negotiate that “we” constitutes itself.
BIB: Can one make a difference between the “we” in Western and in Eastern Europe? Do you sense a different mentality towards the autonomy of one producing images independent from any threshold between the political and the non-political?
JV: I don’t wish to deny these differences, they exist and that’s why things are exciting and problematic and difficult. The question is how you deal with this. How do you constitute a “we” in the face of those differences? How do you constitute a “we” that fully acknowledges these differences. One way to do this is the pragmatic process of negotiation, when you realize that this difference is one of the problems that you face. In the process of talking about these differences you find a way of a temporary provisional “we,” like a mini parliament, where these differences could be negotiated. To come back to your previous question about the “we” of intellectuals and artists. How do we understand the possibility of such a “we,” which is a modernist we. Like the artists are international, which is bullshit.
BIB: Do you connect internationalism and autonomy?
JV: No, I would never connect the two. Because I think if you investigate modernism you can’t dramatize it that much. It was just a couple of very strange people that met to talk about art. Bunch of freaks taking it upon themselves to think about the future. These people might have been a lot like us today. But we still claim the possibility that there would be something that you could say as an artist or intellectual about society. Still, we don’t have that mandate to step out and speak about the future. That is why pragmatic utopianism is maybe a way to go, and maybe modernism was always pragmatic. I still assume that there is something about the work that we do propaganda—I think as a provocative claim I would still like to make. And that “we” should have a definition in terms of content. We are makers of images, thoughts, works, we make too many words, we make too many images.
BIB: Do you consider this as knowledge production?
JV: I am very suspicious when it comes to knowledge. I don’t really trust knowledge. Knowledge is capital, something that you own, like a property. The knowledge that is produced in universities is very deeply connected to certain mechanisms of legitimation, where knowledge becomes capital, because it passed through a machine. And then at some point you skim off the profit saying that this is the knowledge I have accumulated, this is my capital, this is true value.
BIB: So you are saying that the images, words, etc., made in the art world should be opposed to knowledge as capital?
JV: I would make a distinction between knowledge as capital and knowledge as byproduct. There is an excess of knowledge as supplement or byproduct. That we produce as we think and imagine. Thinking and imagining is a work, and knowledge is a byproduct. We generate it anyway. We use a lot of knowledge because we think and we imagine. This knowledge makes us rich in a certain way. Speaking positions are generally constructed around the capital of knowledge, and that’s where it all goes wrong. Than you end up being a capitalist in the worse sense: an academic. And I am not trying to reject academics as such, because I think academics understand that there is more to it than becoming a capitalist of knowledge. It is necessary and better to understand a seminar as a condition for production. We produced a PowerPoint presentation, which is a possible outcome of thinking and imagining, but certainly no one would understand it as a capital.
BIB: So when you are teaching in Budapest or any other part of the world about knowledge production in the sense of denying its nature as capital, what is your main goal? To achieve an independent attitude against any sense of power? Is it a tribute to the intellectuals of the 1960s who were criticizing the capitalist as well as the socialist regime from the Left?
JV: When it comes to those legacies, I say absolutely, yes. Because I think there are so many possibilities opened up in the 1960s that we remain indebted to, and that we haven’t fully realized. If I look at the art of that time, there is so much potentiality that is yet to be actualized in a particular way. Deleuze was talking about being faithful to rapture, he always has something stubborn about it.
I believe in simple things, that is my definition of pragmatic. I see it in the university when there is a big project, usually the first excuse they create for themselves for not doing anything. If you raise the threshold to a level, of course you can not pass it anymore. “I would really like to change the world, but unfortunately it is not possible.” And the same time it is easy to indulge in a certain kind of cultural pessimism, and that is what I find problematic. You have to adjust your criteria to what we can really do. Because it is sometimes even scarier to understand possibilities. And the scary thing is—by the teachings of Deleuze and Nietzsche—to face your own desires. And there are no excuses.
BIB: The intellectuals you mentioned of the 1960s were living in a bipolar system, where one side of the Cold War was responsible to realize the communist utopia. Now we live in a world where this is over, how do you relate to the above mentioned ideas of the ’60s under the altered circumstances?
JV: I believe that a certain artistic ethical question basically is, what shall we do? And existentially you face that same question. In the Western context there are certain ideological and material constraints and in the Soviet situation there were other ideological constraints. There is a huge variation of what is possible and what is impossible. The act of facing that question of what can we do, and what our possibilities and impossibilities are is quintessentially the same question. Work is not just completely limited by those contexts. Like Jiří Kovanda’s work from the ’70s made in a particular situation in Prague still speaks to me. He wanted to not be contained by the reality of that context, he wanted to talk about basic human concerns, like what it means to step in contact. Now if you are an ideological hardliner you might call this escapist humanism, because while there is a very specific political problem he talks about communication. But this is bullshit. When you create a situation where you on your own terms, ask the question what is community, it is a deeply political act, an existentially social act. When you reclaim the right for yourself to ask the question of the social according to your own terms, it is an act of resistance that while you act within a context you refuse to be determined by the context. Of course these artworks resonate within their context. But I am not sure that the meaning is entirely dependent on the context. Part of what makes these works strong is the insistance to not have your life, emotions, entirely determined by the powers that define that context. In a definition of internationalism that I find exciting—again it is Deleuze—you move to those margins by finding overlapping contexts. So you touch on the margins when you ask the question what can we do, what is the social, what will make us happy. We reclaim the right to do that. In the way I talk about it, I might sound terribly humanist. Though humanism is another ideology, it states that art is a vehicle to make us better human beings.
BIB: That is very modernist.
JV: Yes, and we are modern enough to know that it is not true. I’d rather believe in some form of phenomenology or existentialism, where there are certain questions that bring us together. Not just between humans, but between humans and animals, plants, because it has to do with being in this world together. This is what Jean-Luc Nancy calls “being in common.” Art and everything is related to that moment when you face the reality of your desires and concerns. Jean-Luc Nancy says that being in common implies understanding what it means to be singular. And I see it as a reason why works that emerged from very different contexts, be it Soviet or capitalist, still talk to me and these works talk to each other. The question of existence, the question of the social is being raised. And then there is a possibility to understand the context through the work and not the work through the context.
The problem starts when you construct the act of looking as momentary. For me looking can take years. Maybe after six, seven years of looking you see something in that. You might start to see very different things in that same image. When you intuitively—in a moment of empathy—feel a shared concern than it is really good.
BIB: During the seminar you have introduced many kinds of “glues” for creating a community. Which is the key act?
JV: For me the performative is key to a lot of things. The same way I try to expand the act of looking by turning it into a performance. To turn from a momentary act into a kind of temporal performance. The relationship we build towards the past is performative in a similar way. We are trying to understand our desires, which basically connect us with the others. It is an early Heideggerian illusion, that you can withdraw into solitude and work it all out for yourself. I think there is a different form of existentialism in Nancy where there is an understanding that desire connects you to people, so you have to think through it together. Imagining and making words and images could be a way to work through it together to find different modulations to the desires.
BIB: So you are optimistic.
JV: Yes, but when it comes to optimism I believe in the Nietzchean notion of a pessimistic optimism. It moves beyond expectation. But still you do something and by this you constitute a possibility. This is a pragmatism which starts off from the pessimistic optimism.
BIB: That brings us back to the conclusion of the Budapest seminar, which was on inter-deconnectivity.
JV: It is one of the key ideas that emerged from political philosophy of recent years. We ask this question, are we not making a mistake if the premise for communitarian life is always construed in terms of unification, of the sharing of one thing. The community comes into being when everybody gathers around this warm fuzzy thing, around the moment of communion. This is the source of a lot of problems. It leaves us with the false alternative that we can either have this warm fuzzy community built on communion and unity or we have nothing, just disintegration. And I think that the suggestion is to reject that false alternative, when we are speaking about interdeconnectivity. Being together in being different. Being together while being apart. Community can be organized around differences. And then the next crucial point is the question of injustice. How does the community not imply of certain differences that are unjust?
BIB: How much do you see this standpoint being visible in the art world? How much does it work for the audiences?
JV: I think it works pretty well. That is the pragmatic pessimistic optimist situation. I think the situation is much better than it was before.
BIB: What do you mean by “before”?
JV: Let’s say 1989. We are talking; we are learning from each other. There is a new pragmatic internationalism. There is a language in art where people try to express their feelings and they become gradually more relaxed by the fact that someone else might be listening.
BIB: What is your opinion on the Free School format?
JV: I enjoyed it. I think that the school has a very good structure. I cannot separate the things we have just talked from all the discussions that happened there. And the discourse ended up in a certain mode of production, a PowerPoint of words and images produced together.
The interview was conducted in April 2009.
Brigitta Iványi-Bitter is a Budapest-based art historian and curator. She is a PhD candidate at the ELTE Doctoral School of Film, Media, and Cultural Studies. Her research project focuses on experimental animation art during the Soviet Era. Her book, György Kovásznai – Beyond the Meat-grinder, about the Hungarian experimental animation artist was published in 2007.