III Prefigurative practices

Anticipatory representation: Thinking art and museums as platforms of resourceful statecraft

Chiara De Cesari

This chapter illuminates the ways in which artists and cultural producers can participate in forging, quite literally, the nation-state by performing its institutions, and by mocking its operations. Can nation-state building and avant-garde, activist art be brought together? Most scholars of nationalism would agree that the nation is a socio-cultural construct. It is the product of multifarious practices of social imagination that allow a group of people to think of themselves as belonging to the same ‘imagined community’ (Anderson, 1983), despite not really knowing one another. Representations of the nation, from flags to national anthems, are activated through particular rituals (ceremonies, commemorations and so on), and then reproduced and circulated through a variety of media and everyday practices. Less widespread but growing in influence, particularly among anthropologists, is the idea that also the state must be discursively constructed as a bounded singularity in order to produce a ‘state effect’ (Mitchell, 1991).

This chapter explores how a particular nation-state - one that does not yet (fully) exist - is prefigured through a set of artistic and cultural practices, and reflects on their institutional effects. I examine three different projects that blur the boundaries between reality and fiction: two stage a Palestinian national museum, and the third a Palestinian biennial. These projects also represent the first national cultural institutions of this kind in Palestine, and, particularly in the third case, promote the establishment of a comprehensive national cultural management infrastructure. I examine these projects not only as sites for the (re)production of the imagined community of the nation, but also as platforms to imagine - and to instantiate in embryonic form - a set of institutions that contribute to the making of the future


Portions of this chapter are drawn, with permission, from Chiara De Cesari, 'Anticipatory Representation: Building the Palestinian Nation(-State) through Artistic Performance’ (2012) Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 12(1), pp. 82—100.

Palestinian state, as a form of Blochian concrete utopia. I focus on the museum as an important ‘ideological state apparatus’ (Althusser, 1971), investigating how Palestinian artists and cultural producers have played with the format of the national museum in order to realise it despite the absence of a sovereign Palestinian state and Palestine’s diasporic condition. The paradox is that with the continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories and many Palestinians living in the diaspora, a national museum can only exist within a transnational setting.

Is the state and its institutions also the product of imaginative practices? This question has become the object of much anthropological enquiry, at a time when nation-states worldwide have entered a phase of wide-ranging transformations. While it is questionable whether the Weberian model of the state as a centralised, coherent and rational entity detached from society ever represented a historical reality, globalised late capitalism has brought with it the gradual erosion of some of the key features and powers of the modern nation-state, in particular traditional forms of sovereignty. In anthropology, the project of rethinking the state has been deeply influenced by Michel Foucault (1991) and his notion of governmentality (see also Rose et al., 2006), which has highlighted the role of knowledge and the imagination in government, as well as the plurality of agencies involved therein.

Inspired by Foucault, recent anthropological theorising has questioned the unity of the state, and emphasised the great deal of cultural, imaginative work that goes into making the state into a unitary entity, that is, into making an autonomous and coherent institution out of a congeries of sites and agencies, often located across national borders, which carry out (what we have historically come to understand as) ‘state’ functions (see e.g. Gupta and Sharma, 2006; Thelen et al., 2014; Krupa and Nugent, 2015). Also in political theory, in the context of a shift towards participatory modes of governance, there have been several calls to ‘decentre’ the nation-state by examining how plural governance formations participate in it, and by uncovering progressive potential and forms of‘activist statehood’ in the cracks and gaps between these formations, particularly those embedded in grassroots organising (Cooper, this volume; see also Painter, 2006; McConnell et al., 2012; Iveson, 2016).

Yet, what does contemporary art have to do with the socio-cultural production of the state, and with tactics of'activist statehood’? While museums have long been seen, at least by critical scholars, as key ideological apparatuses of the state, crucial for the production of proper citizens and the forging of consent through representations of the nation as a longstanding and civilised community (see e.g. Bennett, 1995), avant-garde art has rarely been viewed as a site for the reproduction of the power of the nation-state. But recently, the relationship between aesthetics and politics has resurfaced as a prominent area of interdisciplinary study. While a number of philosophers have claimed that a process of growing aestheticisa-tion of knowledge, reality and politics has taken place from the latter part of the twentieth century onwards (e.g. Debord, 1983 |1967]; Welsch, 1997), one can observe a parallel politicisation of artistic practices and the proliferation of so-called ‘political art’ and ‘artivism’ (e.g. Groys, 2014; Thompson, 2015; Weibel, 2015) and practices that cross the boundaries between representation, invention and intervention. Intersubjectivity and the blurring of boundaries between representation and intervention is indeed a mark of much contemporary art. Curator and art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud (2002) has defined a set of prominent art practices since the 1990s as ‘relational art’: that is, art as an endeavour fundamentally concerned with producing social relationships, with ‘modelling possible universes’ and microtopian communities.

Along with this social turn, a number of shifts have taken place in how contemporary avant-garde art functions, including a movement away from the traditional relationship between the artwork and the audience, previously grounded in the latter’s contemplation of the former, and towards interactivity and participation. Also, the artwork no longer fonctions as a ‘discrete, portable, autonomous work of art that transcends its context’ (Bishop, 2004: 54) and communicates a set of universal meanings, but rather as a constructed situation à la Debord, as a stage for possible future scenarios, and as a space for ‘imagining things otherwise’ (Esche, 2004). To sum up, moving from mimesis to poiesis, from representing to remaking and changing the world - in other words, abolishing art’s autonomy - seems to be a core objective of contemporary avant-garde art. Responding to these shifts, critical theorists like Jacques Rancière have argued that‘the materiality of art has been able to make of itself the anticipated materiality of a different configuration of the community’ (2006: 32). Such anticipated materiality is also what contemporary Palestinian art tries to accomplish.

I explore two experiments in setting up a Palestinian national museum, which are also art projects in themselves. Moreover, I pay heed to the first Palestinian art biennials, organised by a Palestinian non-governmental organisation (NGO) in 2007 and 2009 in various locations across the Mediterranean. The biennials, too, were simultaneously an artwork and a real event, as well as an institutional beginning. Indeed, the blurring of the boundary between artistic representation and reality was a defining feature of each of these projects. All three stage a particular institution of power, the museum, which has been fundamentally concerned with national representation since its foil development as part of the infrastructure of the nation-state in the nineteenth century. Yet, they are all cosmopolitan, travelling projects. While their representations of the nation(-state) are staged largely in exile, these projects are animated by the promise of return, acquiring their full meaning as a préfiguration of institutions soon to come to Palestine. Moreover, there is a further friction. Art biennials constitute the latest transmutation of the museum form, and as such have inherited much of the latter’s logic and organisational infrastructure. Although they occur in a transnational context, and are currently proliferating across the world, biennials are fundamentally concerned with national representation, as well as nation and city branding (see Filipovich et al., 2010). More importantly, they are usually organised by state cultural institutions: organising a biennial reflects a city’s or state’s desire to be included on the global map of cultural and tourism flows (as well as its desire to attract capital investments for local development). Yet, the organisers of the Palestinian biennials, as well as the main actors behind both national museum projects, all belong to the transnational Palestinian civil society. These are all ‘state-like’ initiatives instituted by non-state actors who playfully engage with these ambiguities.

It is my argument that the biennials and the experiments in establishing a Palestinian national museum constitute a kind of artistic practice that does not just imitate or represent the social world, however critically; rather, they are artistic practices that purport to produce new social arrangements, in particular a set of new ‘state’ (art and cultural) institutions. They participate in the making of the Palestinian state-to-come through a tactic of anticipatory representation. By exploring these very peculiar cases of a national museum and an art biennial, my broader aim is to examine contemporary artistic practices as sites for the performance and creative reforging of state institutions.

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