For Ethical Anarchy in Art and Research! [1]

2017

In the autumn of 1971, Norbert Kröcher, aka Knofo, and Gabriele Tiedemann get married in West-Berlin. In his memoires, Knofo describes how their marriage was motivated by pragmatic concerns [2]. Although they rejected the institution of marriage as part of the imperialist Federal Republic of Germany, they welcomed the 3000 Deutschmarks that were awarded by the government to stimulate newly-wed couples to start families.

The money was used to buy a small arsenal of handguns, automatic assault rifles and explosives, which formed the essential toolkit to conduct a series of bank robberies. Thus, they instrumentalized a government subsidy intended to secure the socio-political status quo, to provide the starting capital for the revolutionary Organization of the 2nd of June, as well as fund an anti-aircraft gun for the Vietcong in response to reports of American napalm attacks, among others.

I’d like to take this anecdote as a starting point to consider publicly funded and institutional art and research. A commonplace position is that research and art that take place in institutional structures or are supported by public funding are necessarily part of this very system and can thus not provide a fundamental systemic critique, let alone challenge the superstructure within which they exist. As a result, a vision of gradations of complicity has emerged, where those who choose to fully operate within state ideology argue that this is simply a precondition for their work within an institutional framework. In other words, the best we can do, is contribute to improving the system within which we operate.

Knofo and Gaby’s marriage shows that this is not true. There is an essential difference between using institutionalized structures and resources with the intention to develop or improve the system in which they are embedded, or appropriating them to subvert the system and promote its eventual collapse.

 

Over the past decades there has been an increasing interest in regulating ethical conduct in research and artistic practice. Intertwined with ‘health and safety’ regulations, ever more detailed ‘ethical approval procedures’ accompanied by regulatory bodies are implemented at universities, art organizations and other public and private institutions.

It is hard to imagine how a so-called ‘good person’ could be against ethical behaviour or the promotion of all people’s health and well-being, so in the first instance it might seem obvious that the development of organizational structures for ethical research and artistic practice is something we should all welcome.

But health and safety procedures are not only about health and safety. And ethics committees are not only about the promotion of ethical conduct. They are also instruments of power that regulate people’s behaviour and direct their perception of the world around them.

In addition to protecting workers’ well-being, health and safety regulations are frequently instrumentalized to prevent forms of artistic expression that are deemed inappropriate or undesirable. For example, in 2012 the performance event Tempting Failure at a venue in Bristol was cancelled on the basis of supposed health and safety concerns around ‘bodily fluids’ under the 2003 Licencing Act, after the organizers had challenged the venue managers’ rejection of some of the work as ‘inappropriate’ for their audiences [3]. In a similar vein, ethical approval bureaucracy reduces the chances to ‘operate under the radar’ for individual or small scale research initiatives that go against commonplace assumptions on the interest of institutions. If you look for an ethical objection, you will often find one, or at least you will manage to make the procedure lengthy and cumbersome enough to jeopardize most efforts. Once all research is subject to detailed ‘ethical approval’ procedures, researchers are forced to disclose and file far-going details of their intended work in advance, thus promoting self-censorship and increased institutional surveillance.

Another aspect of the foregrounding of health and safety regulations and ethical approval procedures in art and research practice is its effect on the way the subjects and themes of the work are perceived. Foregrounding health and safety and ethical approval procedures on the one hand promotes the belief that ethically sound behaviour is primarily a matter of an administrative process (often accompanied by quantifiable data), while, on the other hand, the research process becomes dominated by the perception of ever more potential risks and threats in line with the scenario Paul Virilio describes in The Administration of Fear [4]. Virilio points out that in a culture where there is a continuous focus on threats, broad and thorough critical reflection is gradually overtaken by a state of permanent fear. Similarly, an art and research culture where ethics and health and safety administration dominates practically every move one makes results in an extreme fear of causing damage or offense, at the expense of bold, radical and wild ideas.

To avoid misunderstandings, health & safety regulations and ethics procedures have done us a lot of good: fewer builders break their backs at work, some journalists escape from getting shot on the frontline, human research subjects are now unlikely to suffer permanent mental or physical damage, and the chances for arbitrarily modified species to be let loose outside laboratories are very small.

 

However, my concern is the elevation of these mechanisms to the status of a universal, technocratic solution that guarantees an ethical culture. What we should also ask ourselves is: Is the broader systemic framework within which the ‘ethical approval procedure’ exists ethical? The systemic exploitation of those who are excluded from ownership of the means of production are rarely addressed by ethical approval committees, and I have thus far not encountered an ethics committee that identified the dogma of infinite growth of production and consumption – which now underpins almost every major research and art funding call, and hence research proposal – as unsustainable and therefore unethical.

If the answer is that the broader frame is unethical, should its internal ethical regulations be followed in endeavours to challenge its superstructure, especially when we consider that these regulations play a double role as both an instrument of ethics and an instrument of regulatory power? Although they may provide some short-term, small-scale improvements, a so-called green economy or an all-encompassing web of ethical approval procedures will not facilitate the establishment of a truly fair, sustainable planet. For this, the status-quo would have to collapse, the institutions turned to ruins.

Or, as Norbert Kröcher’s gravestone reads: ¡ ANARQUÍA SÍ !

 

 

[1] Transcript of part of a lecture given at the ArtScience interForum, Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, December 2017

[2] Norbert “Knofo” Kröcher, 2017. K. und der Verkehr. Erinnerungen an bewegte Zeiten. Erster Teil: 1950 – 1989. Berlin: BasisDruck

[3] Manick Govinda, 2012. Licensed to censor performance art. Spiked Online, 16/1/2012. Online: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/11978#.WrtkwMi-mRs [accessed 28/3/2018]

[4] Paul Virilio and Bertrand Richard, 2012. The administration of fear. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e)