Support, participation, and relationships to equity.
Conversation between Celine Condorelli (Support Structure) and Eyal Weizman, August 2007
Eyal Weizman: I am very interested in your work on the notion of 'support', using it as a way to reread architectural/political relations. Perhaps, for the sake of clarity, you could briefly describe the way you articulate “support” as a critical category?
Celine Condorelli: Support is based on generosity. It is critical but not a category. Support is a type of relationship between people, objects, social forms and political structures, in the same way that participation, or conflict, are other forms of relations; each proposes a specific mode of operation, language and further relations. Support allows a particular investigation in how we might work together towards change, and becomes critical in allowing a form of political imagination to take place, both as a position and a practice; it invites readings and inhabitations of relationships between power structures, social realities and institutional forms.
There are many forms of support, but nothing is inherently supportive as much as nothing is inherently conflictual. Support can occur in the interstices of cultural structures or society, in its ad-hoc formations and encounters. It is sometimes hard to recognize as it takes up a position of interfacing and organization, which inevitably recedes in the background; it is a practice of weakness and negotiation.
Support allows us to think towards an equalizing movement. It is a carrier for inter-dependency as a form of re-equalization. The proposition of support is an experiment to revisit modes of production and therefore transform what we produce, by rethinking the very processes through which we operate, through the practice of supporting. Defining a relationship such as support aims at a different category towards action- it is concerned with how the political is staged and performed, the inherent ideology of frames and display, organizational forms, appropriation, dependency and temporariness.
“The idea of generosity – and friendship – is central to this thought. To be a friend, in Derrida’s terms one must know what it means to depend on a friend. This is, at least metaphorically, the capacity of scaffolding that (Support Structure) references, as a proto-architectural supposition. Again, and not without logic in Derrida’s terms, this is incidentally a very redemptive idea.” (this is from a text by Andrea Philips, ‘doing democracy’)
Supporting contains an offer, an invitation- but of course first of all it establishes a relationship of inter-dependency, the entry into which is the opening up of potential communities, associations, active relationships, a taking up of both political and hierarchical responsibility.
But here is where I was hoping that you might be able to expand on these notions in the field of politics?
EW: Well, the notion of support you talk about is similar to ideas connected to the rise and fall of the welfare state. With the reconstruction and growth of the post-WW2 period, a massive industrial-military complex turned into a set of services and supports. This was the time when the beginning of the British decolonization process lead to extensive labor-migration. So that the colonial geographies and economies of decommissioning European empires thereafter folded into the ethnic and spatial differences of inner cities. The welfare state seemed grounded in the fantasy of social fusion and unity; it also went hand in hand with a humanist approach that saw the political subject as an empty slate, with unified standard needs. The fantasy of the new social-democrat political subject to emerge from the ruins of war and those of ideology wanted to undo difference. The differences of multicultural, multiracial metropolis were flattened into categories of need – and hence the State was in a position of and to support. New forms of difference that were manifest in ethnic and racial conflict emerged however in the new interstitial spaces of the welfare state – the housing estates, schools, workplace and hospitals – creating in effect a parallel and sometimes invisible urbanism of social exclusion, that was overlaid on the homogenous environment of post war modernism.
Top-down support thus both flattened differences and at times was abused, making things worse. So this is how I see the potential to use your understanding of the term of “support” --itself as a critical category in reading the politics of the welfare state.
I guess things are different now, what is interesting is the way both culturally and economically the notion of support changes after the oil crisis of the 1970s – people like to connect that to Tacherite politics and exaggerate her role in the destruction of the welfare state -- but I sometimes think that she has become more of a symbol to these political transformations than their real essence.
In fact, it was the 1973 oil-crisis that kick-started a process giving birth to a multiplicity of what James Rosenau called “sovereignty-free actors”. These were independent organizations as varied as protest and revolutionary movements, religious groups, humanitarian organizations, new-businesses and guerrilla groups who positioned themselves on the national and international stage, conducting “private sphere diplomacy” and engaging in actions previously reserved for states only.
So the collapse of the fantasy of the homogenous welfare state was replaced with a multiplicity of NGOs creating a more fragmented form of support. NGOs moved into areas previously reserved for municipalities (on the neighborhood scale) governments (on the urban scale) and international institutions of the global one. Support became particularized and customized as well as based upon a multiplicity of conflicting ideologies and interests.
But I think here you could start helping me out -- how can forms of support be articulated on smaller levels of particular organizations, and how do they propose an alternative form of governance?
CC: I think that here one has to start from an assumption, and that is that we want or need to activate civil society as multiple political agencies; if this is a starting point, then one of the things we need to work on, is the place of democracy, through the reinvention, the rethinking and expanding of its spatial context, this being the public sphere.
We cannot think anymore with the idea of a unified public sphere addressing a single self-governing community, yet the formations of public space that surround us largely seem to impose a particular type of behaviour that has only the semblance of an engagement in the public realm, the appearance of an active participation in the political and in society. Participative modes are used as confirmations rather than expansions of the decision-making process and underline the urgency of re-democratizing the inhabiting the public sphere.
What kinds of structures can allow us to imagine different types of engagements- where is the space of appearance? Can we invent alternative institutions through the practice of supporting- in support of a form of political imagination?
I of course cannot pretend to provide an answer, but can only test this hypothesis by practicing it and raising new sets of questions. The first question is about the forms of top down support that you talked about in relationship to the welfare state and its demise, and a re-democratization through the bottom up support which I am proposing. Enacting this type of generosity can only be done through particular strategies and methodologies of action. This is the moment when a paradox appears between the pure potential of a support structure, and the bureaucratization and institutionalization of the very structures one needs to work with. This is not as innocent or “good” as it looks, as exactly through this process the opening up of potential can also mean the destruction, or at least profound questioning, of what is being supported. What I mean is that once possibilities for revision are open, the consequences are open as well- and can result in necessary closings and disappearances. One example I would like to mention is the project Support Structure did for the “Portsmouth multicultural group”, a perfect example of a small council organization embodying the problematics, conflicting interests and ideologies of a supporting government. The process of the project led the group to question its identity and what it was or not standing for in relationship to the city and its inhabitants so deeply, that several key members, realizing that their ambitions and desires could never be fulfilled through the organizational structure in their hands, left the organization and in this way declared the dismantling of some of the assumptions it was built on. This can be understood as the destructive side of support, which does however offers something beyond its seemingly redemptive aspect, as the possibility for questioning and therefore, closure.
Superficially support can be understood as aimed towards the fulfillment of a need or a lack- this relates very clearly to the notion you mentioned, which I am very interested in, of a flattening of individuals into the generic concept of a subject in need. This is the imagination of the citizen as a receptacle, someone that governmental structures and democratic processes are applied to, rather than an active force in him/herself, partaking in the governing of the nation state. But of course we know that there is no relationship which is one sided, and that power, like any political relation, needs to be exercised and not only by those in situations of apparent advantage- which means that structures, any structures, only exist through their process of activity. Smaller levels of particular organizations, and the practice of supporting might allow us to think towards a mutually equalizing process, away from an abstract notion of autonomy and independence towards the political subject as one engaged in the politics of its being subject. I think this is the moment when one can reasonably introduce, from the welfare state, the condition of another type of political, but non governmental support, that of international and humanitarian aid, and specifically the spatial typology of the camp which is a condition you have looked at extensively through your practice. Can you offer a reading of what is being produced through this form of support?
EW: yes this may be connected to the development of intervention in zones of crisis. And interventions by the international non-governmental, community – a sphere that has in recent years expanded into a multi-billion dollar “aid industry”. Until the 1970s most aid was actually delivered by the Red Cross or the UN agencies. Since the Biafra crisis there has developed an incredible revolution exemplified by highly particular, privately funded and non-governmental aid that has been starting to intervene in zones of crisis. MSF is definitively one of the most powerful and successful of these new groups. However intervention was often little reflected.
Unreflected direct intervention, however well intentioned, has quickly become complicit with the very aims of power itself. Interventions of this kind often undertake tasks that are the legal – though neglected – responsibility of the military in control, thus relieving it of its responsibilities, and allowing it to divert resources elsewhere. Furthermore, by moderating the actions of perpetrating governments they may make their action appear more tolerable and efficient, and thus may even help, by some accounts, extend their regime. In the worst case – refugee camps – immediate urbanism that could sometime host up to few hundred thousand people could create population transfer and cleansing of areas. This problem is at the heart of what came to be known as the “humanitarian paradox.”
One of the most important innovations in this field – conceived to minimize such problems and complicities -- has been conceived by members of Doctors Without Frontiers (MSF) and was best articulated by one of its founder members, Rony Brauman. MSF’s code of practice insists that humanitarian organizations who sometimes gain access to environments and information to which others, including journalists, have no access, must be prepared not only to perform their professional tasks but also “to bear witness to the truth of injustice, and to insist on political responsibility.” According to Brauman, medical experts go into the field with a medical kit and return in order to bare witness. Acts of witnessing can be undertaken as unmediated visual testimony – registering what members see as taking place – or as medical testimony from the specialized perspective of professional expertise and medical knowledge. MSF’s method is simple but innovative: in doubling the role of the medical-expert with that of the witness, their members can work with the paradoxes presented in conflict zones rather than surrender to them.
Testimonies, baring witness, like the very act of support in these situations has obviously thus both an epistemological value – i.e a report on what is taking place and an ethical value – of being besides victims. Some of these organizations are actually funded and driven by religious communities but most are by dedicated young people. They have been getting a lot of criticism in recent years, some justifiable and some exaggerated. But I still think that we can appreciate and respect their positions.
But now that we talk of witnessing and ethics – I’d actually like to talk to you about art – which in itself can become a form of critical and political intervention, especially in your hands. So how has the context of contemporary art become for you a specific territory of practices in calling for the production of the public sphere?
CC: The question still is, for me, of what is being supported and through which means. Support structures offer possibilities beyond and sometimes against their initial invitation. What kind of a position does this represent? I am not a political theorist but I am interested in the type of practice that this proposes. Working in the cultural realm is an ongoing process of political positioning which engages, through its own mediums, language and discursive site, in the larger forces at work.
Negotiation is understood as the opposite of principle. It is the most repressed element of the idea of democracy, as it inevitably contains some compromise, and compromise is usually seen as a declaration of weakness. Negotiation offers a process of articulation, and the acknowledgement of often antagonistic positions in order to come out with productive modes of commonality- a being-in-common towards further dialogues and complexifications. A support structure is in a certain sense a questioning structure, a supplement, a somehow external organization, at least with a certain autonomy from the situation it addresses; this allows it to pose, expose and revise questions in relationship to its context and how to operate within it. Support is negotiation, not the application of principle but a conversation towards something that it does not define. The architectural construction of power is never in itself impermeable but is rendered so by the institutions that install it and most of all maintain it, supporting its condition or its coming into being. The question next is then, how do we negotiate with these objects, and through those with the institutions behind them?
It is in fact culture that allows the individual to position him/herself in the public realm, within and amongst permanently shifting and conflicting inputs, the conciliation of which is the making of public space. This means that a European (or non) political project must be formulated around a cultural structure as well as an economical one.
The environments we inhabit are therefore imbedded in this constant process of formulation, being negotiated by politics between the paradigms of culture and economics. This tractable dimension of the public realm is where we can measure our rights as citizens. By entering the public realm one therefore becomes part of the process of negotiation- this relies on multiple possibilities to be encouraged within the environment, rather than fixed or hard positions.
This might be one of the essential elements for a minimal framework for European civil rights.
Culture, politics and economy can be both tool and content, object and site of artistic practice. They are creative and interpretive practices; a production which takes the form, among others, of negotiated relations between discourses and practices, between politics and culture.
Interrogating a discipline’s relations to power structures, and to social and territorial organizations, is a necessary endeavour which anchors a work interested in accessing and making available shared notions of space and negotiation (social, aesthetic, political) to which it gave rise. A contextual practice – and this may be art or architecture- needs not only to construct and present a context, but also has to acknowledge itself as actively producing or fabricating the environment with which it engages. This transformation of the understanding of context, and therefore of the context itself, from a set of conditions to a political production, is to inscribe it with a new set of possibilities. What it being identified is not simply formal or architectural interventions, but implicit connections, visible or invisible, to the potential organization and operation of structures of power and control.
The landscape of cultural production is the site of such a practice, and temporariness, dependency and invisibility the tools suggested by support. Its work is organised around the creation of alternative loci for speech and action.
There is a particular side of your work in the West Bank that not only seems to take issue with architecture and politics at large, but specifically with the construction of politics through architecture. How can you define its role on a geopolitical level and your position in relationship to it?
EW: Focusing on the Israeli occupation, allowed me to see Israel’s spatial strategies as within a “laboratory of the extreme”. The technologies of control that enable Israel’s continued colonization of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are located at the end of an evolutionary chain of techniques of colonization, occupation and governance developed throughout the history of colonialism. Every change in the geography of the occupation has been furthermore undertaken with the techniques and technologies of the time and in exchange with other developments worldwide. The extended significance of this “laboratory” is in the fact that the techniques of domination, as well as the techniques of resistance to them have expanded and multiplied across what critical geographer Derek Gregory called the “colonial present,” and beyond – into the metropolitan centers of global cities. When the wall around the American Green Zone in Baghdad looks if it has been built from leftover components of the West Bank Wall; when “temporary closures” are imposed on entire Iraqi towns and villages and reinforced with earth dykes and barbed wire; when larger regions are carved up by road blocks and checkpoints; when the homes of suspected terrorists are destroyed, and “targeted assassinations” are introduced into a new global militarized geography – it is because the separate conflicts now generally collected under the heading of the “war on terror” – are the backdrop to the formation of complex “institutional ecologies” that allow the exchange of technologies, mechanisms, doctrines, and spatial strategies between various militaries and the organizations that they confront, as well as between the civilian and the military domains. The main surge of the colonization of the West Bank in the 1980s coincided with the Regan-era flight of the American middle classes and their forting up behind protective walls – both formations setting themselves against the poverty and violence they have themselves produced. Perfecting the politics of fear, separation, seclusion and visual control, the settlements, checkpoints, walls and other security measures, are also the last gesture in the hardening of enclaves, and the physical and virtual extension of borders in the context of the more recent global “war on terror.” The architecture of Israeli occupation could thus be seen as an accelerator and an acceleration of other global political processes, a worst-case scenario of capitalist globalization and its spatial fall out.
CC: It was of course Foucault who said in his famous interview with Paul Rabinow, that the forces of global political processes remain invested in architecture. Why this may be important here, even if predictable, is not only because it articulates the active relationship between architecture and power, but for the fact that it opens the possibility for it to be thought and exercized anew, differently, again and again. Foucault in a sense liberated spatial form, and with it the practice of architecture, from conceiving it as belonging to inescapable orders of liberation or oppression. An architecture of oppression might be one of the elements which makes resistance and opposition possible, but it is not in the architecture itself that liberation from oppression is contained nor embodied; “Liberty, is a practice... liberty is what must be exercised.”
Architecture might be able to support a form of political institution and vice versa, but it cannot control it or determine it. It can, however, cause material and formal differentiations; but it is all the other institutions that support that physical condition, that actually establish the political space. The political space depends not only on physical or conceptual form, but on the context, spatial, political, temporal. Architecture at best is in control of some aspects of material form, a minor relationship to events through programme, and a very indeterminate relationship to context through some relationship to site. It participates in producing political space but is unable to determine it.... What we constantly need is other institutions to prop up the architectural affect; and the notion of propping up is where a certain mythology about architecture and its making is in contraction to the notion of autonomy. It could install a democracy, or any other forms of organisation, depending on the kinds of institutions, military, economic, or social patterns which supports it in the first place. The architecture in turn supports the institution, and produces it; it stages the political and with it the inherent ideology of frames.
Architecture and any spatial form therefore, comes into being through the institutions that support it, rather than embody what they are or can imagine- this exposes all the problems of thinking of art or architecture as applied practices in relationship to a need or lack. The ideal of autonomy is pulling away from the inherent messiness of intervening in the social realm -working away from independence towards notions of equity and inter-dependency– and is profoundly concerned with a certain type of invisibility. This is the invisibility of permanence and image, an actively promoted incapacity to articulate any kind of final product. There is in the practice of supporting, a movement towards the erasure of the visible, encouraging a non-articulated visuality in order to precisely never arrive at any possible conclusion or solution by even attempting to provide an image of it. This is replaced by the process of constructing, producing, and imagining, through uncertainty, generosity and negotiation. This, is the process of which I was speaking earlier, that of the formation of the public realm, and through it the taking place of democracy. By being invisible and always in the making, it becomes essential to physicalise the processes of its rehearsal, through asking questions, giving voice, constructing frameworks and platforms, making invitations, by offering support.