In the framework of his artistic endeavors, MARTIN KRENN realizes projects, which focus on strategies and methods of resistance against dominant power relations. In a discussion carried out with RUBIA SALGADO, an activist and co-worker of MAIZ (1), Krenn positions himself on the theme of art as a socio-critical work and discusses the conditions and challenges – especially in terms of artistic practices – in the area of anti-racism.
SALGADO: What does anti-racist work mean to you?
KRENN: I see racism as a problem of capitalism and as part of a state ideology (something, which is evident for example in the Austrian Foreigners‘ Laws. Of course, there are also psychological racisms, such as the ‚fear of the other‘, prejudices and xenophobia in daily life, but they are always interdependent on institutional racism.
I think that an anti-racist struggle takes place on different levels, meaning that internal power structures should also be challenged while at the same time keeping in mind one’s own privileges as a member of dominant society. Really for me, the anti-racist struggle is also a struggle against dominant power as well as power relations within the society in general.
SALGADO: In the framework of cultural work, what are the conditions necessary to avoid a reproduction of hegemonic power relationships, and how can we implement them?
KRENN: In any kind of socio-critical work it is definitely important to aspire to not reproduce the same relationships of power, which one is actually criticising. According to the context of the exhibition or presentation, artistic work and ‚works of art‘ are filled with a variety of meanings. Conditions for anti-racists projects have to first be established, especially in the arts. Because they deal with the problematic behind power relations and mechanisms of reproduction within the framework of cultural activities, I think it can be very helpful to seriously analyze the artistic practices, which are critical of institutions. I think that a procedure has to be developed according to intentions and the specific situation of each artistic project. Nevertheless, it should be clear that there is only a small number of artists who critically deal with anti-racism either in their work or structurally. Such an approach implies that there is a coordinated meeting between politically engaged activists, artists and migrants whereby strategies are developed and discussed. I also find it very important to develop projects which are non-hierarchical and at the same time part of a process.
Nevertheless, it requires a lot of time and energy, generally unpaid for all those involved. The majority of those people who are active in this field do not have a very solid financial basis, which only complicates time-intensive collective work. It’s also important to point out that people who are involved in activism or art – be it migrants or people who belong to dominant society – and who are especially idealistic, are increasingly confronted with serious financial problems, even though they work seven days a week. As a result of these difficult work conditions, unproductive conflicts and tensions can arise. Therefore, in order to make such networks able to function in the long-term, I think it is necessary to create a structural, ideational, and, unfortunately, financial basis.
SALGADO: The migrant women from MAIZ demand participation as equal partners on all levels (from concept-design to realization and mediation) of any artistic project carried out in cooperation with members of dominant society. In your opinion, is it possible that artistic productions, which do not meet this demand, can be seen as anti-racist?
KRENN: What criteria do you use in order to define whether or not someone belongs to the dominant society or to a group of migrants?
SALGADO: In MAIZ, we prefer to use the denomination ‚migrants‘ in allusion to the definition employed by FeMi¬gras as a counter-concept, a sort of oppositional location to strategically constructed political identity. The description ‚member of dominant society‘ is also in allusion to a definition used by FeMigra: „Here we refer to the concept proposed by Gotlinde Magiriba Lwanga (1993) in order to avoid descriptions such as ‚white, German, Christian, secular, etc.‘, which once again only suggest a coexistence while continuing to place the emphasis more on one’s social position, be it as a member of dominant society or as a minority.“3
KRENN: I find the demand for ‚co-determination on ALL levels‘ as the ONLY form of anti-racist struggle to be too little. For example, for years now the action platform known as KEIN MENSCH IST ILLEGAL has been confronted with the fact that too few migrants have participated in the network. Of course, this is problematic, since the network has been attributed the role of ‚mediator‘, which many migrants have rejected. On the other hand, KEIN MENSCH IST ILLEGAL is definitely one of the most successful anti-racist campaigns in the German-speaking region. I think to now say they are not anti-racist would be a strategic mistake, which would only support right-wing and capitalist policies. Conversely, there are also multi-cultural events where migrants participate on all levels but which have absolutely no anti-racist potential. They can even promote the stigmatization of “foreigners‘.
In a speech, you once said that — for strategic reasons — you seek out members of the dominant society according to their political intentions. Can you say something more about this? And what does participation on all levels mean practically?
SALGADO: In MAIZ, in order to function as subjects in artistic projects and in dialogues with artists, we have chosen a participatory approach. On the one hand, because we are convinced that within this type of processes, we can also carry out work of political education. On the other hand, we want to position ourselves as creative subjects in the field of symbolism. Among other things, this means that we attempt to contribute to the production and distribution of anti-racist and anti-sexist images and narratives. As you rightly argued, the fulfilment of the demand of participation cannot guarantee that there are indeed ‚anti-racist effects‘. Apart from the condition which you have already mentioned (a non-hierarchal and process-orientated implementation of the projects, collective development of strategies, an examination of institutionalized artistic practices, and the creation of a structural, idealistic, and financial basis), I would also like to mention the more project internal reflections and discussions on power relations, the respective societal positions, and the different perspectives which these positions produce. I would describe the reflection on egalitarian forms of co-operation, the goal of equality, and the struggle against dominant relations power and authority as a constitutive part of the process, which in the end is a contribution to better coherence. In this ‚context‘, fractures can only imply contradictions which could have counterproductive effects on the reaching of our goals.
In a similar perspective, in the framework of cooperation projects, you speak about the necessity to question internal power structures and to become conscious of one’s own privileges and the fact that one is a member of dominant society. The question which remains open for me has to do with what comes next once this condition is met? Where is the beginning? What about ethics? And where are the ethics when we are dealing with — conscious or unconsciously — protecting one’s own position of power? What consequences could ethical actions have which are directed toward questioning the privileged situation of a majority in terms of the possibility of the financial and symbolic utilization of production? Why should the minorities trust the actions of members of dominant society?
KRENN: By all means, I see power to be productive; it flows through everything. Whether it is language, knowledge, action, or many other things, the different capabilities and skills which lead to empowerment can be found both in members of dominant society as well as in minorities. Furthermore, someone who is part of dominant society does not automatically possess power. And when he or she attempts to maintain his or her respective positions of power, I don’t necessarily see in this an ethical problem. In my opinion, the problem lies in the fact that dominant society strives to disempower the minorities, for example through the deprivation of conditions of production, through daily discrimination or racist and/or discriminatory laws. This is a political problem against which we should act collectively. For example, a journalist who may or may not be part of dominant society supports a disadvantaged group through his or her reporting. This is by all means positive, even if it means that she will later use it for career purposes; why should war, sports or society reporters be successful and others not? For me, the danger exists when the ‚political‘ aspect is forgotten or, even worse, put into parenthesis, whereby members of dominant society serve the problems of the minorities without even wanting to bring about a change in the relations and the associated consequences which these relationships have even for them. I see a similar phenomenon in the production of art.
SALGADO: When is art political? Where are the borders between art and propaganda?
KRENN: I think that representation is fundamental. The space from where I am speaking should also be taken into account. The structure and the approach as to how and why a work is developed has to be a part of the concept. Propaganda is not concerned with this, but instead in the diffusion of political ideas or ideologies. It is a question of efficiency and not one of inherent structures, the message is in the forefront and not the discourse itself. Politically motivated art differentiates itself in that sense, at least I hope so.
SALGADO: What do you think about the statement that reality has (re-)conquered art?
KRENN: In the first place, I cannot fully understand this statement. What do you mean? I’m very curious!
SALGADO: This sentence is derived from a text of a project*. With this question I am attempting to address the relationship between art and reality. In works of fiction, do you think that the relationship is designed any differently than in the framework of artistic work of a documentary nature? When yes, to what extent? Is it possible to argue that in the framework of documentary films – without according them attributes such as objectivity or neutrality – one can speak of the intentionality of portrayal, the observation of real-life-situations and interrelations as a fundamental characteristic of the production process? In other words, is it possible, such as in the case of works of fiction, to create a reality, which is based on experienced or possibly experienced occurrences, not in order to confirm their validity but so as to construct a different space?
KRENN: In general, I think that art strives to constitute another space or counter-space to societal norms. I also see in my work much more than just documentation. In the majority of my projects I try and mix documentary aspects with fictional ones. In doing so, I see wishes and desires as a central element. I’m convinced that it makes sense not only to struggle for a change in the world, but also to believe in it. In this sense, both fiction and the analysis of societal reality play a fundamental role in my documentary work. Currently, I have difficulties to imagine that there could be a complete separation between fiction and reality in my work, though I do find this approach you have mentioned to be very interesting.
SALGADO: What role are authenticity and objectivity given in your work?
KRENN: My approach is to examine socio-political fields. In order to do so, I work together with individuals and groups. This means that there is an exchange between my position and theirs. Authenticity and objectivity form part of my work. In the project Demonstrate! I put together a series of photos of the Thursday Demonstrations which began to be held weekly in Vienna in February, 2000 as a response against the then recently elected government of FPÖ and ÖVP. The starting point was the media-baiting which had created an image of a mass of violent demonstrators. I wanted to present subjective perceptions of individual demonstrators. What I did was to ask the participants of the demonstration if and how they would like to be represented in a photograph, and whether or not they were interested in making a statement about the political situation in Austria. The statements were sent in by e-mail or recorded on a minidisk on the spot and then completed per e-mail or telephone. The finished posters with the pictures and statements of the demonstrators about the new government then went on tour throughout Austria and Europe, thus offering an alternative vision of the demonstrations of resistance.
SALGADO: On which project are you working on at the moment?
KRENN: Currently, I am working on a project for the exhibition MOVING ON at NGBK, Berlin. The working title is Border Berlin.
The theme of the project is the shifting and expansion of border control, from the outer-borders of Germany to the city centres. During a two-week stay in Berlin, I plan to visualize and photograph – together with other activists – such a situation in the framework of a staged action in a public space. Contacts with activists have already been made, and a part of my budget will go toward paying our cooperation partners. The action is to be designed and realized together.
THANKS TO ANDREA HUMMER FOR HER EDITING OF THE INTERVIEW.
1 MAIZ. autonomes zentrum von und fuer migrantinnen.
2 FeMigra (Feministische Migrantinnen. Frankfurt): „Wir, die Seillanzerinnen. Polilische Strategien von Migrantinnen gegen Ethnisierung und Assimilation“, in: Cornelia Ekhhorn/ Sabine Grimm (Hg.): Gender Killer. Texte zu Feminismus und Politik. Berlin: Edition ID-Archiv. 1994, p. 49-63
3 ibid. p. 63
4 Real Fictions in the project: Entfernte Nähe – see http://www.culturebase.net/project_ detail. php?172
in: Catalogue of Moving On, NGBK, Berlin 2005