Biopolitical art and community (Denisa Tomkova)

 

Citizen K by the Czech artist collective “Ztohoven” challenges the role of identity cards.

Part of a larger research project on Biopolitical art in Eastern Europe since the 1990s

 

Denisa Tomkova, PhD Candidate, University of Aberdeen

 

The concept of community can be approached from many different angles. I will look particularly at the community that is represented by the nation-state and formally confirmed by identity cards. The nation-state as a form of a community is especially interesting in relation to a globalised world which is declared to be a ‘borderless’. Already in the 1980s theorists argued for the persisting existence of the nation-state. Stanley Hoffmann claimed that the nation-state has survived as the centre of political power and that nationality remains the main countervailing force that resists all the dissolvents of community. Benedict Anderson proposed that the nation is an imagined political community. In a 2011 interview Anderson claimed that ‘Despite all talk of transnationalism and fluid identity, nationalism is in the best of health.’ Similarly in relation to the global process and new politics, in 2001 Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt published a book, Empire, where they demonstrate a process as the transition from the Nation-State to global Empire. However, in the same year Slavoj Žižek points out the boundaries of their analysis. They propose to focus our political struggle on three global rights, one of which is, according to them, the right to global citizenship. However, as Žižek explains, if this demand is meant to be taken more seriously, then it would mean the abolition of state borders. The theoretical conceptualization of the nation-state and the global community has had an impact on many contemporary artists. In my article I investigate this phenomenon in the context of Eastern Europe, looking at the art project Citizen K produced after the fall of communism, challenging state-issued concepts of identity.

In this short blog article I will concentrate on one art example, the artist guerrilla group from Czech Republic, called Ztohoven. The community challenged and discussed by these artists is understood as created by the State and forcibly attributed to its citizens by the identity cards, also comprised of bureaucratic rules and regulations. Like Zygmunt Bauman convincingly argues: ‘National identity is painstakingly constructed by the state and its agencies … aimed at the monopolistic right to draw the boundary between “us” and “them”… Being the subject of a state was the sole feature authoritatively confirmed in identity cards’[1].

By communicating their own personal struggle, or pointing to the issues of each individual, Ztohoven aims to create politically engaged art. I label this work Biopolitical art. Many have used this term, but I will adopt the connotation used by two art theorists: Angela Dimitrakaki, to describe the work of a Serbian female artist, Tanja Ostojić, and Boris Groys in his text on Biopolitics and art documentation[2]. At the most basic level I adopt Groys argument that ‘art becomes biopolitical, because it begins to use artistic means to produce and document life as a pure activity’[3]. Based on these two art theorists understandings to the artists analysed, I propose that the Biopolitical art is art created with the three following components – life/experience, documentation and the intention to provoke discourse. I propose that Biopolitical art aims to generate social change or at least encourage discourse. Personal struggles of the artists or art participants reach through these projects to the level of public politically engaged art. These artworks stand on the fine line between art and life. However, they become art through the precise documentation of the art projects, their public visibility and discourse they create.

The Czech Artistic group Ztohoven, in their project Citizen K, intended to expose the control and surveillance components of ID Cards that exist in contemporary Europe. The art project, which took place between 2009 and 2010, consisted of twelve members of the group applying for, and living with, officially issued ID Cards that had digitally morphed photographs. By doing this they exposed the limitations and the real meaning of ID Cards in the Czech Republic, and the EU. To start the project they first had to acquire state issued ID Cards, for new ‘crossed’ identities. The members were first photographed, and then used special software to morph the images. They then used these images to order ID Cards at the police station.

A picture from the official artists’ website httpwww.ztohoven.com

A picture from the official artists’ website: http://www.ztohoven.com

They split into pairs, and in each pair one person filled the application to obtain the ID, and the other person picked it up. Every individual then had an ID with a morphed picture and someone else’s personal information on it. The diagram illustrates exactly how it worked, how each person participating in the project was also part of a chain

A diagram made by an author of the article.

A diagram made by an author of the article.

Having made this switch, each of them then spent several months using the other person’s ID Card. Ztohoven wanted to verify how the changed identities would work within various systems. Using the new ID Cards members of the group got married, applied for weapons permits, travelled within the EU, got a pilot license, withdrew money from a bank, registered as a patient at a dentist, went to the Shanghai expo, and at the end all of them voted in the Czech elections.

A picture from the Czech television website httpwww.ceskatelevize.czporady10419749344-obcan-k21256226971

A picture from the Czech television website: http://www.ceskatelevize.cz/porady/10419749344-obcan-k/21256226971/

 

The art project’s climax was its final exhibition where they presented the material visually: they created a steel capsule which represented a safe or sarcophagus of information, decorated with twelve stars, symbolizing the EU, in which they displayed the devalued ID Cards.

A diagram made by an author of the article.2

A diagram made by an author of the article.

They also created a film to document Citizen K. The narrator in the film is a person with a mask on his face: this Citizen K. In his anonymity, this faceless man is a representation of the group and the citizen. This project clearly comments on the relationship between state and citizen, and surveillance associated with the ID Cards. It also shows that although the Czech Republic has been democratized since the end of the Cold War, and been a part of the EU for many years, its citizens still have a difficult relationship with ID Cards. This is captured by a statement made by Citizen K in the film: ‘I never saw IDs as a form of protection. I’ve always seen them as a whip, used against the individual. Whenever a police officer asks me to show my ID, I feel subordinated a sense that this card is keeping me in line’[4]. By successfully using their morphed ID Cards the group undermined the power of ID Cards and the system that relies on them. They explain that their motivation is not to engage in criminal acts, but rather to enter into something that the system considers absolutely clear and beyond doubt. To wrap up the initiative, as a last action, they all went to vote in the elections, which connects them all to one single project. The group Ztohoven tested the limits of the State’s legislation and they questioned the role of the State issued ID cards. On the group’s website this statement for the project goes even further in explaining their motivation and their challenge to ID Cards:

We are all a society, we all create the system and we watch one another. We are all involved in the fear that keeps us at a standstill. For all of us I entered the places that others fear to enter and perceived the vanity, the absurdity of obedience. How frail and how easily abused is that which should serve us. We are not numbers, we are not biometric data, so let us not be mere pawns in the hands of the big players on the game board of these times. If we do not wish to fear our own face, we must save it![5]

In this statement, the artists display their fear of the forms of community created by the state and forcibly imposed on its citizens. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt explain that the modern conception of the people is in fact a product of the nation-state. They stress the difference between the people and multitude: people, in their conception, tends toward unity, identity, and homogeneity, and excludes the outside while multitude connotes multiplicity and an open set of relations. ‘Every nation must make the multitude into a people,’[6] they write. Ztohoven emphasizes these issues, by stressing the importance of a heterogeneous community, which is not based on traditional nation-state concepts and is open to the multitude. In my view, they envision a distinctly contemporary model of community. Artists may not have the capacity to change the world, but as we see with this project, they raise important issues, and contribute in meaningful ways to political discourse.

 

[1] Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004, Identity: Conversations With Benedetto Vecchi, 22

[2] Ibid, 76

[3] Groys, Boris. 2008, Art Power, 54

[4] Dvořák. 2012, Citizen K, A Documentary film

[5] ‘Citizen K’, the official Ztohoven website

[6] Hardt, Negri. 2000. Empire, 103

Publicités