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Shifting The Real - Three Case Studies from the Nordic Art Scene
Sinziana Ravini, Code Magazine

According to Alain Badiou, the 20th century was marked by a “passion for the Real,” not by utopian promises of a better world to come, but by a profound interest in the immediately practicable, the here and now. I would claim that this is no longer entirely true, since the utopian has become a tool for political action. Yet, the Real is this dimension that constantly escapes our conceptual grills. How is the utopian will to change the world relating to the slippery realm of the Real? According to its biggest explorer, Jacques Lacan, the Real can only be understood in connection with the categories of the symbolic and the imaginary. The Real escapes the symbolic and can neither be spoken nor written, thus relating to the impossible, being not far from how utopias are envisioned—as places where the impossible becomes possible.
The Real is never ceasing to rewrite itself. Engendered by trauma, the Real  “always returns to the same place." Slavoj Zizek came to the conclusion that the Real is our global capitalism, covered up by the good intentions of American war politics, and Jean Baudrillard went as far as identifying the Real with terrorism, claiming that simulations of reality like television, film, etc., have become more real than our actual life and that we are lost in an infinite chain of signs and representations. It’s difficult to say whether these theories have influenced art or vice versa, but one thing is sure: the 1990’s were obsessed by depictions of traumatic realism, dystopias and everything else that we are unable to integrate in our reality, and thereby also experience as a nightmarish apparition.

Thomas Hirschhorn, the Picasso of our times (and by Picasso, I’m thinking of Guernica, and not of the petit-bourgeois deconstructions of women and interior designs), has for a long time now assembled the horrors of our world in totalizing cabinets of curiosities. In his latest installation The Crystal of Resistance in Venice (2011), one could look at mutilated war victims and pornographic encounters through the frame of our most technological advanced device—the I-phone. But this time the images were taken care of, through the sensual touch of caressing and wound opening fingers. Thomas Hirschhorn was like Thomas the Doubter inserting his finger in the wounds of our repeatedly resurrecting society, turning it around and around, asking himself: is this for real or am I just imagining?
Yes, terror is out there, but as long as we look at it like a paralyzed deer in front of a rushing car, nothing can be done. We have become mentally trained to deal with disaster. Still we are doing nothing about it. We are looking and touching, but these ecumenical gestures are not enough.

From traumatic realism to optimistic utopianism

If we zoom onto the Nordic art scene, there seems to be another approach to the Real among the youngest generations. They propose a shift from contemplation to action, from mimetic representation to the production of new realities, although our relation to the Real is always mediated. One can also see another shift, which is far more important. I would say that these younger artists have ceased to see the encounter with the Real as a traumatic experience. They are more interested in grasping the Real by its balls and rearrange the fields of representation and reality production, in favour of an optimistic engagement with the possibilities of art—if not to change the world, then at least to improve it a little bit.

Kultivator, a group of Swedish artists operating in the twilight zone of art and activism, settled on the island Öland, trying to live and work as ecologically as possible, producing their own “cross cultural nomadic cheese” and taking care of an abandoned farm by enriching it with playful innovations like mobile chicken houses. This is by no means a romantic return to nature à la Candide, but a serious engagement with the geopolitical aspects of how Sweden is producing and distributing aliments today. On their website you can get both historical backgrounds of how some products have emerged, but also how to produce them here and now, through short scientific descriptions and recipes. The goal is to become as autonomous as possible, but also to create a space of interdependencies with the art world as well as the local communities—an equation that has become more and more difficult to resolve, with the arrival of “contemporary art haters” amongst Swedish citizens the last years.
In 2010, Kultivator arranged The Wedding Between Art and Agriculture, a three-day wedding and cross-fertilization between two seemingly opposed worlds. The first two days involved a group of twenty people engaged in preparations and seminars. The third day, the public was invited to celebrate with the participants in a festivity that promoted the simplicity of a life at the country side and the more pagan traditions that have for a long time been forgotten, like the dressing up in hay clothes and hats, and the ritualistic engagement in dancing and drumbeating. The cows played an important role, but also the soil, the ultimate face of the Real that we all have to encounter sooner or later. The soil was excavated out of the ground and worshiped as if it was the God of all things.
What is the outcome of all this? Is the marriage between art and agriculture a sustainable encounter or a passionate spectacle of special effects? Is it an effective change of the Real or a temporary utopia that risks crumbling as soon as everyone has packed their bags and left? It’s hard to say, but for the present moment Kultivator is the perfect dreamfactory. Dreams are made of matter, and that matter has to be cultivated. Baudrillard imagined a utopian realm where we would all engage in a “symbolic exchange,” where the gifts we give to each other cease to be consumer objects, becoming instead symbols of friendship, love or community. Kultivator is definitely succeeding in producing such a symbolic exchange and everyone is welcome to participate. One can start by bringing inspiration from their manual of 10 “post-revolutionary” exercises: 1) Disregard borders, 2) Locate the wild editable plants in your neighbourhood, 3) Help a farmer, 4) Buy nothing, 5) Learn from old people, 6) Milk a cow, 7) Forget money, 8) Reclaim technology, 9) Arrange a party to get to know your neighbours, 10) Spread the word. If the Real is the object of anxiety, and psychoanalysis teaches the patient "to bring desire into existence,” Kultivator’s actions are both tranquillizing and desire stimulating.

From nostalgic retro-futurism to progressive futurism

The fictional aspects of quantum physics, and the hypothetical possibility of time travelling have always interested the Swedish artist Lina Persson. If Tacita Dean is constantly rewriting the past, she is trying to rewrite the future. As Winston Churchill claimed: “If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future”. If the Future is the Real, the object of anxiety par excellence, then it has to be colonised. Apart from playful enactments of new scientific discoveries and “docu-fictional” navigations through parallel worlds, Lina Persson also conducts interviews and discussions with “real scientists,” that approach subjects like how you can twist time into a loop by twisting space, and how can you create new modes of existence by controlling light. In one of her recent films, at a certain moment Lina Persson asks the scientist: “If it’s possible to travel in the future, why don’t we see time travellers from the future in our time?” The scientist claims that one can only return as far back as to the point from where one originated. In other words, the future can never return to us, but we can travel into the future. The questions that seem to hunt Persson the most is “Where are we going and how is this going to end?” Can we send particles back in time? A change of the past could also change the course of things and thereby annihilate our own existence. The biggest change that Lina Persson is trying to achieve is how we conceive science.
 Art and scientific research have much in common, although art seeks the particular and science the general. The problem, according to Lina Persson, is that science is often coded as white and male, that it pretends to represent reality, despite the fact that scientific models have repeatedly shown to be incorrect and are constantly rewritten. Artists have always been very sensitive to this cracks that have lead to scientific paradigm shifts, and Persson is through her playful, progressive futurism identifying those scientific cracks, never the least in relation to socio-economical models.
 In Colonizing Futures (2010), Lina Persson is exploring the relation between satellites, our present socio-political times and the way it is constructing the future. The satellite was the metaphor for Swedish “Million-Program Suburbs”, an economical utopian model inspired by the French late modernism, that eventually lead to segregation and alienation. In photographs taken with a Hasselblad camera, the same camera that was used to take the first pictures on the moon, one can see an unidentifiable visitor exploring the wastelands between the city of Gothenburg and the suburb Bergsjön, in a mystical remapping of the future.

From re-enactments to re-writings

There are also other ways of working the Real, especially if we take it to the level of the subconscious. If our subconscious is constructed like a language, and going through psychoanalysis is finding or rewriting your life’s story, the biggest task of our times is to find the stories that colonise us the most, and try to re-write them, not re-enact them as artists have done in the past years, grasped by the traumatic return of the same.
 In She's Blonde Like Me (2011), the Swedish artist Fia-Stina Sandlund began a long film project whose goal is to save Strindberg's Miss Julie from committing suicide. There is nothing that can influence our minds as much as a well-written tragedy. She's Blonde Like Me is based on a soft sado-masochistic relationship between a director (Fia-Stina Sandlund) and a test actor (Alexandra Dahlström) who travel [ce sont les deux personnages qui sont à Venise? Oui, tout à fait] to Venice to rehearse before a performance at Iaspis, the Swedish Artist-in-Residency institute, which is soon to be interrupted by a rain. Is the rain a coincidence or is Strindberg's unquiet spirit persecuting the film-set? The film ends with a séance in which a medium induces Strindberg's spirit for Fia-Stina Sandlund, and some of Sweden's most powerful female playwrights, actors, artists and writers. During the séance two important things occur: Strindberg admits he regrets that he let Miss Julie die at the end of the play. Secondly: the women attending the séance go against him, arguing that he should not repent, that the play had to be written, since it highlights a key dilemma: the power relationship between the sexes. The big question that arises from this story-rewriting experience is: Can we forgive Strindberg and all the authors who have killed freedom hungering women? I’m thinking of Flaubert's murdering of Madame Bovary, Zola's Nana, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and Schnitzler’s Miss Else? Not to mention Sophocle’s Antigone? What can we do with all these symbolic “feminicides”? With these story ruins that still write our time? Fictions can only be tackled with other fictions. Only in this way can we attack the Real, through a passionate rewriting of its representations and influences on our lives.

Alain Badiou, Le Siècle, Le Seuil, Paris 2005.

Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire 11, 1973.

Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, SAGE Publications, London 1993.