– Spring 2008
This spring marks forty years since the events of May '68. On the occasion of this anniversary, during the upcoming months there will likely be numerous articles published in magazines and papers, as well as symposia and discussions assessing - once more - the legacy of a time that saw diverse social movements take to the streets in France, but also in Eastern and Western Europe, the United States and South America. Perhaps this time the conventional image of May '68 as a youth revolt will be accompanied by a wider reflection on the socio-political implications of a movement that was not exclusively a students' initiative, but, importantly, a coming together of students and workers as part of an egalitarian move that questioned the existing social order and proposed an alternative way of understanding what it means to live together.
What seems for us important about May '68 are both its responsive character to concrete situations - to what was going on, for example, in Vietnam or, in the French context, to the recent history of the Algerian war - and its belief that another model was possible, one that blurred the distinctions between different social strata and questioned entitlements and assumed capacities. The students and intellectuals who took up jobs in assembly lines in factories - a process known as établissementsoixantehuitard as a libertarian hedonist, by claiming that exchange between different groups and the conflictive sharing of interests between them constituted the way to effect social change.
When this issue of Afterall was planned, May '68 was not part of the editorial discussion, but it is perhaps not surprising that a number of the artists and topics featured in the following pages engage with the events and their legacy. Perhaps not surprising because the history of the liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s and the theoretical discourses that converge around May '68 are often the default framework in which politics is understood within art today. Nostalgia for a more optimistic time and regrets for missed opportunities provide a possible prism through which to look at both that moment in time and the work featured in this issue - although a more nuanced picture is offered by Marta Kuzma's discussion of sexual liberation movements and Annie Fletcher's of feminist art practice, as well as in the reconsiderations of Michael Asher's Skulptur Projekte Münster caravan piece or Öyvind Fahlström's parading of Bob Hope and Mao Tse-Tung along the streets of New York.
A nostalgic attitude assumes that the object of nostalgia is fixed in the past and is no longer able to activate itself. Today, the political within art practice is less a working method than a historical period to be referred back to, suggesting that even artists who use formerly activist strategies - such as audience alienation, collage or the questioning of authorship - do so in the service of recoding archival material as aesthetic objects or creating fictional narratives for a gallery space. This opens a rich field for history as subject. Gerard Byrne looks at the periodised world of the 1960s in order to represent past utopian visions. Hans-Peter Feldmann's and Lutz Bacher's appropriation of extant imagery could be seen as providing humanist (the former) or ironic (the latter)perspectives of that time, through an aesthetics of translation, reactivation or degradation.
In contrast to the late 1960s, what seems most striking today is perhaps not the lack of connection between grassroots political action and the art context, but the feeling that much of the art made now that address political issues does not take the relationship with its audience as a primary concern. If in May'68 the key issues discussed in relation to film were who spoke and for whom, by contrast contemporary artistic production is dominated by the individual expression of interests and concerns in specific modes of articulation.
We would like to ask about the implications of this recent focus on more aesthetic concerns and the simultaneous absence of social and political goals. At the time of May '68, films such as Jacques Villemont's La Reprise du travail aux usines Wonder (1968) or Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool showed equally effective ways of reflecting on the political ideas of the time through different articulations of both documentary and openly constructive approaches.1 The political was present in the those films' content, language and audience, and they were traversed by an urgency resulting from the political activitism that they reflected. Today, when that activism seems to have vanished almost completely, how do current artistic positions help pursuing the ideal of May'68 and its aspiration to radical equality? How can we translate nostalgia into propositions?
(1969) showed equally effective ways of reflecting on the political ideas of the time through different articulations of both documentary and openly constructive approaches.
We would like to thank Kristin Ross for pointing us to the former film, and Hito Steyerl to the latter.↑