No line for fear
It should not come as a surprise to encounter a sphynx when looking at the face of liberty.
Dear friend, I have just arrived from Paris. I must confess that watching Heiner Goebbels' Liberté d'action at the Théâtre du Châtelet was a rare experience.. The homage to Henri Michaux's autonomy — whose work has always confronted us with an impetuous poetics — mirrored the privilege of those who have always inhabited a higher realm. At the end, the artist's words in the voice of the remarkable performer David Bennent:
Une ligne rencontre une ligne. Une ligne évite une ligne. Aventures de lignes. Une ligne pour le plaisir d’être ligne, d’aller, ligne.
Une ligne rêve. On n’avait jusque-là jamais laissé rêver une ligne.
Two pianists, one performer, one stage director, and one painter-sculptor. Freedom on stage. An hour and fifteen minutes of corporealities open to a cadenced poetics that render this collective act a moment of radical commitment to artistic practice. Multiple lines. None for fear. The lesson.
In this country that is not yours, we have discovered that eleutheria does not lie in the nature of things; rather, it is crucified by the nature of things. Yes, it is also our duty to listen to different voices. Foreign voices. To run the risk of challenging the protagonists. Liberty is experienced, not avoided. Like a love story. I reread a text by Cornelius Castoriadis where he argues that no a priori, guaranteed position or status should ever exist anywhere, and that the objective of politics is liberty — liberté d'action, I would add, alongside Goebbels. Autonomy. Nothing more than a work in progress, always unfinished, not fixed to a definite point. For the past few days, I have been meaning to tell you about something I witnessed earlier this week. Five women stepped onto the bus. Listening to their conversation, I understood that they cleaned houses located in a part of town chiefly inhabited by wealthy people. Sitting down, one of the women directed her gaze at a man who had just got on the bus. In a loud, assertive tone, right from the back of the bus, she said, "The most beautiful smile of the day has just come in… the most beautiful smile of all days." The man looked at her and smiled. Slightly embarrassed by the number of eyes looking at him, he smiled time and again during the ride. However, it was the figure of Eurydice that lulled him to sleep. The other women were laughing. The passengers, suspended as spectators. More than twenty-eight of them, on a quick count. "Life oozes in from all sides," as states Ingmar Bergman in Persona. Liberty is an action. I find Goebbels in my daily life. There is no other way.
"Fatality" becomes an aged word. In this country that is not yours, dear friend, forms of policing and control, propaganda strategies, and consoling images increase in number. However, when one line makes another line dream, each gesture subverts and joins the multiple pathways of the diverted scratch. Around here, criticism of the art world regime is not welcome—internal criticism can only exist if it is directed at foreign geographies. Logical paradoxes. From an adequate distance, we remain strong in the heterodoxy to which Eduardo Lourenço assigned "the duty to support human liberty."Why should we not acknowledge that a significant part of the ideas circulating among us observes a disguised discourse, and that cowardice tends to be organised as a sort of death penalty? Brecht's lesson is surely not unfamiliar to you. He wrote:
that art aspires … to express itself freely.
Indeed, is this not what thought itself aspires to? To become an errant praxis that discerns the intensity of its transformation in the struggles and resistances to some universal a priori? A space of contingencies breaking free from one another to elicit and spur on the unknown?
In a famous text — one I remember has been the subject of our conversations —Michel Foucault argues that working with thought requires exposing its acquired ways and premises. It entails not continuing to think the same way as before; it entails constant training and exercise; most of all, it is a task undertaken upon itself. Current protests by women in Iran merit a treatise on courage, which is also one of the forms of dream. They know every kind of censorship is bound to powerlessness, and that liberty becomes daring when put into practice. Let me go back to Antigone’s dialogue with Ismene about Creon:
Further: he has the matter so at heart that anyone who dares attempt the act will die by public stoning in the town. So there you have it, and you soon show if you are noble, or worthless, despite your high birth.
Imagination is a muscle, said Peter Brook — and I believe such is the case of liberty and thought as well, dear friend. Ever since liberty became démodé, reconciled to a certain ideological epoché, the possibility to bring it under the sign of exile has grown—strategic erasure immobilises the will and allows the matter of the world to be defeated. As for national morality — the one I know best is that of the country where I live —remains deferential and servile, shaping the dominant way of life and the classic relationship of cause and effect. Within the territory of art criticism, liberty takes the form of a "gilded shelf," assuming a decorative function. Almost invariably ceremonious and seemingly discredited. Reckoning liberty in its theoretical-practical dimension and demanding its enactment has cynically become an eccentric, unnecessary act for some, an obsolete exotism from all those who preserve senseless illusions — liberty reduced to a false problem. The manufacture of consensus and normalised ideas by dint of the wear and tear of communication impose the great discipline of a resigned existence. Yet, dear friend, other voices will not quit murmuring. Obstinately:
… for I believe expensive materials are being imposed by the aesthetic thought of a top-to-bottom elite, I riposte with momentary situations based on perishable materials, in a bottom-to-top approach.
Jean-Luc Godard has passed away. Of his own volition, they say. The courage that never explodes. Never as often as the law conceals itself. Hidden in a room, we have long imagined films and lives of non-standard running time. Like in Film Socialisme—"Freedom is expensive." The filmmaker has taught us that manifestos can shift the universe and that the silent horror of power is destructive. Like in Liberté et Patrie, one must dare to "cross the big pond."
Post scriptum — Another friend and I have just signed off another project for 2023. We decided to write a book about postcards. Liberty will persist around here. A borderless realm is what allows us to escape the police.
Danh Vō, We the People [2011–2014]. Exhibition view, JULY, IV, MDCCLXXVI, Fridericianum, Kassel, 2011. Photograph: Nils Klinger.
Eduarda Neves. Professor, essayist and independent curator. Her research and curatorial activity articulates the fields of art, philosophy, and politics.
Translation: Diogo Montenegro.
Presented at the Festival d'Automne on 28 September 2022.
Eduardo Lourenço — Heterodoxia I. Lisbon: Editora Gradiva, 2005, 14.
Bertolt Brecht — Estudos sobre teatro. Para uma arte dramática não aristotélica. Lisbon: Portugália Editora, 1964, 164.
Michel Foucault — “Est-il donc importante de penser?”, in Dits et Écrits. Paris: Gallimard, 1994, vol. IV, 178–182.
Sophocles — "Antigone," trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff, in Greek Tragedies. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013, vol. 1, 236.
Artur Barrio — “Manifesto” (1969), in Glória Ferreira and Cecília Cotrim, org. — Escritos de artistas. Anos 60/70. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar Editores, 2006, 263.
We The People is a 1:1 replica of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty (New York), recreated by the artist Danh Vō (b. 1975) in about 250 individual pieces. Vō's segmented version is faithful to the original, using the same copper manufacture techniques. However, he does not intend to assemble all of the statue's pieces together. Instead, We The People invites us to experience this internationally famous icon on a human scale and to reflect on the meaning of liberty from multiple perspectives.