Cacophonies of Confrontation in Artur Żmijewski’s Democracies (2009)

‘Well, you can measure results, but you can’t measure what is causing them. You can do statistics, but how can you measure what is individual?’ asks Max in Nicholas Mosely’s Hopeful Monsters.

Artur Żmijewski (b. 1966 in Warsaw) has since 2009 been assembling video footage of people in giving their opinions in public spaces around the world for his Democracies. It was last shown earlier this year in its most substantial form yet at the Hartware MedienKunstVerein in Dortmund, Germany, consisting of 25 short video films documenting various manifestations of public opinion, shown simultaneously in the gallery space. Here is Dr Inke Arns, curator at Hartware MedienKunstVerein describing the installation:

And here is a sample of the work from when it was shown at the Cornerhouse in Manchester in 2009:

It is surely a more ‘realistic version of politics’, that Bruno Latour might approve of, but the installation is not exactly enjoyable; it is noisy, disorientating and even distressing at times to watch. It puts eloquent political rally speeches indiscriminately alongside acts of violence or expressions of uncomfortable opinions. It is both a representation and an enactment of struggle: the struggle to hear and to be heard, the struggle to see and to ignore what we don’t want to see. That would be democracies then: having once been a theoretical system of reasoned education, democracy is now an incoherent cacophony of chaos.

And what of the role of the camera in all of this? In Democracies the camera appears at once to be a helpful facilitator and an agent provocateur in political struggles. Determining which one it is would depend upon, among a number of things,the presence or absence of what Ariella Azoulay calls, a ‘discerning spectator’. In The Civil Contract of Photography, she surveys various photographs of Palestinians in Israel, reconsidering the political and ethical status of photography, asking, ‘what do these pictures want from me?’

All the video clips in Democracies are each of individual interest. Headphones are provided, inviting a discerning spectator to focus on each clip at their own discretion to see what’s going on more closely; to visit and revisit places; to compare without conflating the individual events in the exhibition. In addressing the expressions of others through these images, Azoulay argues that a spectator can become a citizen in a citizenry of photography. This requires the kind of time and patience that, even if the gallery allows for, everyday life perhaps doesn’t.

The hope that conflict and differences could be flattened out under modernization, or controlled by the power of civilizing projects, or wiped out by technological advancement has long been dashed. The problem that poses as the solution, proposed by Żmijewski ‘s Democracies, is to somehow create new institutions for nurturing new pluralisms, alternative citizenships, in an environment that might cope with the growth of the paradoxes that globalization confronts us with, and that we are increasingly forced to confront whether we would like to or not.