“Art can’t change the world on its own”
Chantal Mouffe in conversation with
Pelin Tan and Florian Malzacher
You mentioned once in an interview that you do not believe there is a distinction between political and non-political art and that, for you, “from the point of view of the theory of hegemony, artistic practices play a role in the constitution and maintenance of a given symbolic order or in its challenging and this is why they necessarily have a political dimension.” How do you see such art practices as the Silent University, which tries to empower refugees/asylum seekers who are silenced by the complex structure of hegemony?
CHANTAL MOUFFE— I have a problem with seeing the Silent University as an art project. I am very positive about it, but is it an art project? I don’t think so. Of course you can say that it is an initiative in which artists are implied. It is a project that was designed by an artist, yes, but that does not make it an art project.
That will probably remain an open question. Everyone involved in the Silent University describes it diferently. One reason why we see it as an artistic project is because it plays with institutional representation. By calling itself a “university,” it references an institutional model. But in reality, on the level of governance, it is not a real university. It is a fictive structure. While it might institute something, it is not a real institution. It plays with the symbolic order and with representation. It is an artistic project, not only in its form but also by being an intervention in society using representative models. The Silent University can be seen as an NGO but it could also be seen as a municipal or government project. It is hard to describe what its institutional body is and what kind of political language it uses to speak to whom. It is important not to be able to describe what the Silent University really is. Another reason to link it to art is, of course, because it is usually hosted by an art Institution.
But that is because there are artists involved, and those are the contacts they have. What would be the diference if it was hosted by a school or a political association with no links to the art world?
But it is also about going beyond the policies—educational policy, institutional policy, governmental policy etc. Establishing the Silent University in a government institution won’t be easy because it has to be run in a self-organized, autonomous, collective way. There is a coordinator but there are many people who provide initiatives. Some of these people might not have papers. Most institutions, including big museums, don’t really want to host refugees and asylum seekers permanently in their spaces. In this regard, smaller art institutions are easier
I find it a bit exaggerated when people say: I am an artist, so what I do is automatically an art project. But if you insist on relating it to art, I would rather put it in the category of “artistic activism” or “artivism.” For me, this is a form of a political practice. The Silent University is definitively a political project, and artistic activism is a political project that uses artistic strategies, for instance regarding the questions about representation. So it is a political project with an important aesthetic, artistic dimension—but it is not primarily an artistic project.
At one end of the spectrum there are artists who want to make a political intervention—at the
other there are activists who use artistic strategies. It is mainly a diference of emphasis, but this is an important distinction, a methodological question. I am in favor of both. Both are important but there are also important diferences: many artivists are very critical toward artists working in the art world—they believe that if you want to make critical art you can’t work in museums, galleries or take part in biennials.
So is it possible to make a meaningful political intervention within the field of art or, more generally, from inside an institution? Or is one required to do so from the outside—if one can make meaningful political interventions at all? Many people believe that you can’t make any kind of critique in the art world because you are automatically involved. I don’t agree with that. I’m always defending a pluralistic position: one should try to occupy all the places where one can make an inter vention. If you have the chance to do so in a museum, in a gallery, do it! But don’t believe that this is the only way. One needs to recognize the multiplicity of spaces. That is what I am really interested in when I am thinking of those interventions in the form of artistic practices: How they can contribute to the counter-hegemonic struggle? That’s what is
important for me. And I think one can contribute to that struggle in many diferent ways and in many diferent places. In this regard the Silent University is an important form of practice—whether you call it “artistic” or “artivist.” It is important for the counter-hegemonic struggle because it is trying to facilitate the voices of people who are silenced. That’s very, very important.
Does it make sense to create new educational institutions or should one rather try to work within the existing structures in the government, within a representational part of politics? Do initiatives like the Silent University have the potential to contribute to the political struggles of our times or are they mere placebos, to salve a guilty conscience? As I said, it is important to work within existing structures if one has the possibility of achieving something there. I developed this argument in my book Agonistics, where I criticize the “strategy of exodus” put forward by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, and by people like Paolo Virno. They argue that one should desert the state and existing institutions and construct a completely diferent society outside them. I oppose this strategy of withdrawal. I think we need to engage with those institutions and develop a complex strategy, a strategy of war, a strategy of engagement with them. For me, such a strategy of exodus, of refusing to transform the state and its existing institutions, leads to impotence. In that sense, I believe that strategies like those of Occupy or of the Indignados are important for subverting the common view and designing new forms of living. But they are not enough to create a profound transformation of society because of their refusal to engage with representative politics. This is why I am very involved with Podemos in Spain. For me, it is an
excellent example of the importance of establishing a synergy between social movements and parliamentary politics. They have been able to channel all the energy created by the Indignados. The Indignato movement was very important in raising new forms of consciousness but because they did not want to engage in electoral politics, when the elections took place in Spain it was the right, the Partido Popular, which won with an absolute majority. Artistic activism is important, but it is not enough. It can play a role in creating new forms of subjectivity and designing new forms of social relations but those practices cannot be a substitute for more traditional forms of political involvement, trying to gain power, occupy the state and attempt to transform society from there.
The political strategy that I advocate is one that I call “left wing populism.” Of course traditional representative politics is not enough but, on the other hand, pure social movements will also not be able to establish a new hegemony on their own. So we need a synergy between these forms. That is what I call left wing populism: an articulation between the horizontal dimension and the vertical dimension, between social movements and a new form of party politics: a party/movement. My answer to the question “Can art change the world?” is: art can’t change the world on its own, but art can contribute to changing the world. It can contribute because it creates a new shared view, new agendas. But you also need the institutional form, what I call the vertical dimension. In this sense, I definitely think the Silent University is very important in order to empower refugees—but it is only one step.
The nature of the Silent University makes it a difficult project, because the refugees or asylum seekers or sans papiers are in a very precarious position. Not just in the sense of belonging to the economic precariat but also in terms of their lack of nationality.
It is difcult to keep people together. It is difcult to sustain the project and to proceed because people will be there and then after a few months they might leave or have to do something else or have to earn money or have more urgent issues. Furthermore there are the specific problems of each branch, each city. At the moment there is an attempt to establish a Silent University in Athens. Refugees, anarchist refugee squats, and artists are all involved. And these diferent groups and diferent people disagree on many things—so it is difcult to find common ground. The refugee problem is particularly acute in Athens, which is where refugees arrive from the islands, wanting to continue to other European countries. So Athens is a space of transition and the Silent University would ofer a kind of temporary space within that. At the same time SU does not need to look to an institution for support, there are squats and anarchist organizations which can run it.
In Amman, the situation is different again. There are artists there who want to set up a Silent University, however, in Amman basically everybody is a refugee. Ninety percent of the citizens are Palestinian and Syrian refugees and there are a lot of Pakistani and Indian workers. So to be a refugee is to be a normal person. However, there are no alternative movements, no activist movements, and no institutions able to host the Silent University. So in all the cities there are diferent political, social, economic, and legal conditions.
What is the main aim of the people in Amman who want to organize a Silent University? Since they are more or less all refugees it is not really a question of refugees anymore ...
Yes, it becomes a question of citizenship. But there is a lot of interest. They say it needs to reach a more institutional, more sustainable level. We asked why they want to do it, without money, without a space, without an institution to connect it to. But they seem to see it as an institution which is not an institution, but a platform where people from diferent NGOs, normal citizens, people from the refugee camps can find a neutral space, or, maybe better, some kind of third space where people can come and feel they are on the same level as people from different classes in Jordan because they share similar concerns. Maybe that’s why this pedagogic model is of interest to them, because people can come and speak about whatever they want. They don’t need to propose a professional, educational topic. In Athens it is the same. People are working a lot, both refugees and non-refugees. They come from Lesbos or elsewhere and stay in Athens till they move on. So, how can they sustain the Silent University? Now they are discussing the possibility of setting up SU as a mobile academy: in a camp outside Athens one day, in Athens at a refugee squat the next, and at the university the day after that: a travelling academy, a mobile academy.
Yes, in a way it is searching for a new form of citizenship, a form of citizenship which is de-territorialized, conceived from acting in common. I recently was invited to Rosario, the third largest city in Argentina, by La Facultad Libre, an educational initiative organized by a group of young people. It was originated by people involved in the university so they don’t consider it an art thing. But if it had been initiated by an artist they could also call it Silent University. However, it is a place for encounters and discussions—and what is important is that it is open to many diferent kinds of people, it is not elitist. They run free philosophy courses all year round and they say what is remarkable is the kind of people who take those courses: workers who are not planning any kind of academic career but who are interested in ideas and who feel enriched by this experience. And I think people really need that, even more so when you are dealing with refugees or people outside of society.
There are many other practices like those of the Silent University. For example in Linz, Austria where there is a University of the Ignorant. It has a similar pedagogic structure, very inspiring and powerful. They all relate to the idea of micro-autonomy. How do you think about the concept of autonomy in this context?
I am critical if they think that any form of involvement with more traditional politics is wrong. I am not saying that they have to engage in this way themselves. But if the strategy is to transform society only by doing that kind of thing, then I am very skeptical. But if they see their engagement as one element within a wider frame, if they say “we personally think that it is better for us to be autonomous,” that is fine. But it should not become an all-exclusive strategy. I’ll give you an example: Italy has always had a rich tradition of autonomous activities. But because of their refusal to engage with more concrete politics, this led to Berlusconi being in power for many years. I had some friends who were not really institutionalized, they were a feminist group which wanted to work with political parties to change the law. They tried to create a movement of all the diferent feminist groups, but there were many autonomous groups which would not take part because they said “We don’t want to ask for anything from the state.” For them to ask the state for something, even a law favorable to women, like the right to abortion, would mean recognizing the state, so they refused to do it.
We need to fight within the institutions. From the counter-hegemonic perspective you have to try to transform the existing institutions, because they won’t simply go away. It might be okay to privilege autonomy during some stages but you cannot refuse to engage with existing institutions because there are moments when it is important for diferent autonomous groups to get together and act at the more traditional political level. The struggles of social movements are very important but it is a mistake to believe they are going to profoundly transform society and establish a new hegemony on their own.