Disobedience and Complex Systems, a Symposium

DSC04454The symposium, Disobedience and Complex Systems: Art, Design and Media and the Political, exploring the value and the limitations of Hannah Arendt’s work for understanding the relationship between contemporary art, design and media practices and the political, will take place on 29 September 2017 at the Iklectik Arts Lab.

To reserve your place, please go to the booking form at Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/disobedience-and-complex-systems-art-design-and-media-and-the-political-tickets-36222238691

Below is an outline of the structure of the day and the abstracts of the presentations.

During the symposium, Secondeditions will present a visual publication of antithetical posters.

The programme

9.30-10.00 Registration

10.00-10.15 Welcome and Overview. Andrew Chesher and Allan Parsons

10.15-11.00 Keynote Paper. Marieke Borren: Political phenomenology and embodied freedom of movement

11.00-11.20 Responses and discussion

11.20-11.35 Break

11.35-11.55 Panel 1. Setting the scene. Maria Tamboukou: On the ethics and aesthetics of action: the artpolitics assemblage

11.55-12.10 Panel 1, Paper 1. David Hodge: Conditions of Appearance: Reading ‘The Project’ with Arendt, Butler and Atashi

12.10-12.25 Panel 1, Paper 2. Virna Koutla: Arendt and Beckett in dialogue: language, systems and action upon the performative

12.25-1.00 Responses and panel discussion

1.00-2.00 Lunch

2.00-2.20 Panel 2, Setting the scene. Neil Cummings: On Sovereignty: Internet Surveillance and Struggles for Privacy

2.20-2.35 Panel 2, Paper 1. Paul O’Kane: ‘Bad Meaning Good’ – 1980s Hip Hop as ‘dissensus’

2.35-2.50 Panel 2, Paper 2. Gilad Reich: Usership as a Mode of Action: Arendt, Wright and Contemporary Documentation Practices

2.50-3.05 Panel 2, Paper 3. Bill Balaskas: Reimagining the State: Web-based Art and the Subversion of Sovereignty

3.05-3.30 Responses and panel discussion

3.30-3.45 Break

3.45-4.30 Assembled panel discussion; summation

4.30 End


Political phenomenology and embodied freedom of movement

Dr Marieke Borren, Open University Netherlands and Utrecht University

Despite her increasing canonization, little attention has been paid to Hannah Arendt’s unique approach within political theory and science, her hermeneutic phenomenology of the political.

First, I will reconstruct this approach, highlighting its contribution to research in the humanities and the social sciences. The phenomenological impulse of Arendt’s work is visible in her approach to political events through the lived, that is, shared, intersubjective, perspectivist and worldly, experience of these phenomena. Arendt’s method is a hermeneutic phenomenology, because of her orientation to understanding the meaning of phenomena and events in their very uniqueness and contingency. Finally, it is a hermeneutic phenomenology of the political, since she is mainly interested in understanding political phenomena, events and experiences, or, more concretely, in that which happens in public space and in facts.

Second, by way of an elaborate example of such a phenomenological approach to the political, I will discuss the meaning of a phenomenon that is rapidly spreading throughout the world today: the neoliberal privatization of formerly public spaces. By analysing citizens’ daily experience of inhibited freedom of movement in public space under conditions of neoliberalism, I aim to demonstrate that elementary bodily freedom of movement is key to the constitution of public spaces and, consequentially, a condition of political freedom. In order to elucidate daily, ordinary and allegedly ‘normal’ experience, like other post-Husserlian phenomenologists, such as Merleau-Ponty, Arendt attends to limit cases, pathologies, revolutions or more mundane instances in which our ordinary routines break down.

On the ethics and aesthetics of action: the artpolitics assemblage

Professor Maria Tamboukou, University of East London

In this paper, I consider Arendt’s theory of action while making connections between it and Rancière’s politics of aesthetics, Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the assemblage and Barad’s notions of diffractions and intra-actions. In exploring conjunctions and disjunctions among these diverse theoretical approaches, I draw on the work of May Stevens, an American working-class artist, feminist and committed political activist. What I argue is that Arendt’s take on politics is a strong and unique point of departure, but it is limited in terms of thinking materiality, spatiality and grounded politics. What I offer as an alternative is the artpolitics assemblage: a plane of consistency wherein ‘words and deeds’, entangled with material artistic practices, radically intervene in the rhythms of ‘the distribution of the sensible’.

Conditions of Appearance: Reading ‘The Project’ with Arendt, Butler and Atashi

David Hodge, The Art Academy, London

In The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt argued that human beings are partly defined by their conditionality, while further arguing that worldly conditions play an active role in enabling subjective agency. Thus, she claimed that political engagement requires a shared “space of appearance”, without which no public sphere can exist. In Towards a Theory of Performative Assembly (2015), Judith Butler expands these ideas, constructing a notion of freedom as radically conditioned, since dependent upon particular infrastructures and collectivities.

This paper draws on Arendt and Butler to explore the aesthetics and politics of an artistic format that I term ‘the project’. In project-based works, a determinate human activity is undertaken in specific and often politically charged settings. As it proceeds this activity encounters environmental conditions, which enter into the work, transforming it in the process. Through its aesthetic of conditionality, ‘the project’ enables artistic explorations of conditioned subjectivity, the worldliness of human agency and the material substrate of power.

To demonstrate these issues, the paper focusses on Mehraneh Atashi’s Bodiless (2004). Her photographs, taken inside an all-male Iranian wrestling gym, depict her alongside her subjects. By raising the question of how she managed to enter into this space, in spite of her gender, Bodiless problematises the relations among commercial galleries, private property, public space and the politics of the police in Iran in the mid-2000s, transcending the neat distinctions that Arendt set up between ‘public’ and ‘private’ and among ‘labour’ and ‘life’, ‘action’.

Arendt and Beckett in dialogue: language, systems and action upon the performative

Virna Koutla, Royal College of Art

The paper explores the resonances between Arendt’s theory of action and Beckett’s performative spaces. Drawing from Arendt’s understanding of speech as a central feature of action, the paper explores the way language constructs narratives and enacts spaces. Beckett’s Quad serves here as the example to test the spatial and temporal construction of narratives within a delimited square space as well as to redefine the boundaries of what appears to be “enclosed”. The paper is concerned with Beckett’s use of language- a language which is no longer attached to objects and meanings- in order to reveal the invisible structures that are being constructed and which change the nature of the designated square space. The paper advocates for an understanding of the Beckettian language of Quad as the Deleuzian “image-refrain”, a structural element that allows for the composition, decomposition and recomposition of the quadrilateral space. This action of beginning, of starting anew corresponds, then, to what Arendt calls a space of appearance, a potential space continually recreated by action. The Greek polis, the metaphor Arendt uses to explore the dynamics of such space, creates here the framework to investigate Quad’s political nature as a place of togetherness. If the public space of polis is understood as the arena in which people realize their individual potential, what are the characteristics that enable the Beckettian space of Quad to be enacted as a theatrical polis itself?

‘Bad Meaning Good’ – 1980s Hip Hop as ‘dissensus’

Paul O’Kane, Central Saint Martins

Like the ‘sans papiers’ or ‘workers without residency papers’ movement in France in the 1990s, the 1980s New York-based Hip Hop and Rap movement is taken as an example of a group most disenfranchised from effective political representation. Both movements demonstrate a situation in which a community enacts into existence “… the rights they have not”.

‘Underground’ 1980s hip-hoppers lived necessarily, beyond, ‘before’ or outside the law. Figures such as the graffiti artist who steals paint cans and then illegally accesses railway sidings to spend the night ‘bombing’ a train that, come the morning, will take his artwork into the more affluent heart of the city to be seen by a large, mixed audience of commuters, do not wait for law, democracy, society or economy to be perfected by institutional and bureaucratic means.

In this situation, speech, as street language and in rap form, is recoded as a necessary act of defiance and survival, such as when, in one of 1980s rap’s biggest hits, ‘Peter Piper’ by Run-D.M.C, included the line: “Not Bad Meaning Bad, But Bad Meaning Good”, a phrase that became emblematic at the very moment when Rap and Hip Hop were becoming internationally recognised. This emphatic inversion stretches the Arendtian definition of speech and action as simple disclosure of true character and illustrates a more thoroughgoing and persistent subcultural refusal of established order, law, language, and grammar, creating a ‘loophole’ to maintain potentiality, progress, dignity, justice and freedom, in the absence of any or all of these.

On Sovereignty: Internet Surveillance and Struggles for Privacy

Professor Neil Cummings, Chelsea College of Arts

The problems that the complexity of contemporary social, cyber and organisational systems raise for the exercise of political agency opens the question of whether disobedient acts are the only responsible acts in these contexts. The paper explores the necessity, in an environment of state and commercial surveillance, of struggles for privacy, thinking about encryption, openness and misuse. 

Usership as a Mode of Action: Arendt, Wright and Contemporary Documentation Practices

Gilad Reich, Tel Aviv University

Drawing on Stephan Wright’s concept of Usership, this talk invites us to rethink Arendt’s category of Action. It shows how Usership is deeply rooted in Arendt’s notions of Freedom, Plurality, and Community. Moreover, it explores the political potential of Usership as a mode of Action in today’s network culture. Operating through modest forms of disobedience, Usership shifts Arendt’s notion of the revolutionary event into every day acts of noncompliance, where political subjectivity can emerge.

Usership as a mode of Action challenges the apparent dichotomy in the arts between representation and action. Applying the web platform At Work as a case study, I demonstrate how the self-declared residencies initiated by the platform transform the status of the photographic document. Instead of thinking of photographs only through their indexical function, Usership encourages us to think of photographs in relation to questions of production and circulation of knowledge. Under Wright’s formulation of the Usological shift in the arts, this expression of user-generated content becomes a realm where individuals exercise their political agency. This process results in a growing archive of global practices of disobedience and community of dissidents who question the separation between work, image, and action.

I conclude my talk by proposing that understanding Usership as a contemporary mode of Action within network culture may allow us to overcome the prevalent dichotomy between the categories of Labor, Work, and Action.

Reimagining the State: Web-based Art and the Subversion of Sovereignty

Dr Bill Balaskas, Nottingham Trent University

Since its advent in the mid 1990s, Web-based art has been a prominent tool for the promotion of subversive political narratives and the creation of communities that may foster them. The most radical, perhaps, approach expressed in this context has been the attempt to redefine the state, and – in some cases – the aspiration to abolish it altogether as an organisational structure. Following the global financial crisis of 2008, this tendency only intensified, with many artists employing networked technologies to propose new socioeconomic systems. This distinct aspect of Web-based art is investigated by this paper, which identifies the main interpretations of the project to reimagine the state. By examining the post-crisis practices of artists such as Paolo Cirio, Natalie Bookchin, Eugenio Tisselli and Christian Nold, this paper will connect the Internet with two of Arendt’s key areas of interest: violence and the council system. More specifically, the paper will theorise economic violence as one of the primary tools of control adopted by the neoliberal state. Reacting to this reality, many artists have employed the Internet in order to catalyse communities that share several of the principles that Arendt attributes to the council system. Through privileging a process of “constant reconstitution”, their works appear capable of producing new online and offline “spaces of freedom”, whilst overcoming the limitations of councils that Arendt recognises. As a result, such projects also generate potential responses to the critique of Arendt’s conception of human rights and her interpretation of political praxis.



The political philosophy of Hannah Arendt is marked by the persistent re-evaluation of the quality of the underlying question.

Secondeditions will be presenting antithetical posters that offer the opportunity to consider dialectic contradictions and the subjective impulse to obtain determinacy through conscientious value judgements and their repeated review.

The texts and questions focus on the possibility of free will, the Aristotelian concept of proairesis, referenced by Arendt as the “choice in the sense of preference between alternatives – one rather than the other”. Under the conditions of networked aesthetic praxis, the emergence of a collective consciousness may become tangible. The oscillating copy encourages a second reading, a reconsidering of primary interpretations, trusted assumptions and affirmation bias; and, expectantly, should lead to a comparing of notes.

We would hope to sustain a critique of ‘the pleasure in pure function’ and the resulting dissonant cognition that is imposed upon the political process, the intelligibility of power and governance, the administrative structures and institutions that show an innate reluctance or inability to refer to a reflexive, symmetrical value base, with the invariably catastrophic and dehumanising effect exerted on the social form.

Our interest in presenting a dialectic escalation originates in the intuitive distrust of the contemporary predilection, not least in recent ‘social practice’, for indeterminacy, interpassivity and aesthetic/political conformism.

The impending, far-reaching transformations projected for this “Age of Impotence” would appear to beg the question of scope and modus for a collective proairesis, for effective dissidence, resistance, acts of civil disobedience and of solidarity.


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