Work on/in the Public
In our work as artists in recent years Klub Zwei has become increasingly involved with the themes of migration and racism. In association with others, we have worked on a number of projects that addressed specific aspects of these problems. These included the video programme Architecture of the State, first shown at Steirischer Herbst 1997 as part of the exhibition Zones of Destruction, as well as the book (also entitled Architecture of the State), which appeared as issue 7/8 of the periodical <Vor der Information>. The book brings together contributions, both visual and textual, from Migrant organizations and left-wing groups as well as artists, filmmakers and scholars from Germany, Austria, Great Britain, France and Switzerland.
The common aim of these projects was to draw up strategies for an anti-racist and anti-sexist politics. As work progressed, it became increasingly clear that the significance which societies attach to visual production was a factor of crucial importance.
Many forms of racism and sexism are institutionalized in western Europe and particularly entrenched in Austria. Exposure to the public eye and public debate are essential to any committed attempt to combat these attitudes. Any public discussion of racist and sexist violence will however raise numerous questions and problems:
• Who does the exposing?
• What is exposed?
• What base in the social fabric does this initiative have, and in what particular public sphere does it take place?
• Does the process of making racism and sexism visible lead to discussion and hence the social change?
• Or does it, on the contrary, lead to the voyeuristic exposure of individuals who experience racism and sexism, so that the structures and power relations which make these possible remain unchanged?
Analysis and criticism rarely focus on the causes of racism and sexism. There is barely any discussion, even, of the fact that the majority of people in a society profit from the exploitation and lack of rights of people whom it has systematically denied citizenship, the right to work and the right to residence. What happens instead, all too often, is that a person who is has to face racism every single day is suddenly dragged into the spotlight of a report in the media, made into an “isolated instance,” taken care of in a paternalistic way, and subjected to the will of others. And this applies whether the case is taken up by the daily press or by a project run by “committed” artists. The point of departure for the project Work on/in the Public is therefore the setting up of an organization structure for collaborative working. The women migrants / migrant groups taking part must be involved in developing the idea of the project and in running it, for unless the power to take decisions and set agendas is subject to analysis and liable to redistribution, and unless the structural provisions for collaboration are jointly thrashed out and where necessary redrawn, then “commitment” and support will be nothing more than a continuation of racist discrimination.
In working and arguing with women migrants we have learnt that we as women citizens are stakeholders in racist structures. Our privileged position in society is of critical relevance to the discussion. For it is precisely that position which enables white women citizens to follow professions as artists or scientists whereas the employment opportunities for migrant women with similar training and qualifications are limited to jobs in advice centers. Given these facts it is misleading to speak of “collaboration based on equal rights.” Even in small structures, such as our project, equal rights remain an unattained ideal. For equal rights do not merely depend on the intentions and actions of individuals, but on the whole social context, including the rights and ranks which the context grants or refuses, and on the influences which it exerts in small structures. Equal rights will remain a utopian dream so long as certain people enjoy social and political rights which are denied to others.
The positon of Klub Zwei, the concerns we have and the questions we want to discuss must therefore be explicitly formulated. The more explicitly they are stated, the more readily they can be challenged and modified. In so far as we proceed in this way we consider our deliberations to be a step in the direction of an ideal state of affairs, where collaborative work is based on equal participation.
We have called our present project Work on/in the Public. The title is deliberately ambiguous. On the one hand it is meant to imply that the racist and sexist structures on which our society is based must be made visible and that they cannot be changed without exposure to public debate.
But it also indicates that structural change will need to be accompanied by other forms of reporting and discussion. The images and language used in publishing, in making things public, rendering them visible, must be questioned over and over again to open their political meanings and consequences. They must be revised, amended and reconceptualized.
And finally the concept of a single, monolithic “public sphere” must be questioned. There isn’t just a single public sphere: there are various spheres which are public. Work on/in the Public thus means critiquing the dominant public sphere. It means the work to change it, and involves supporting, strengthening and creating a network of all those different public spheres to which the dominant one refuses to grant social significance and the right to be heard.
Translated by Ted Gang, newly edited by Erika Doucette.
First published in: Werner Fenz, Ruth Maurer (ed.), Public@Domain. 3. Österreichische Triennale zur Fotografie, Wien / Vienna, 2000, S. / pp. 198-201.