PRINT April 2006


the World Social Forum

“ANOTHER WORLD is possible”: Since 2001, the World Social Forum, an international summit of social movements, NGOs, and activists, has rallied behind this slogan in its efforts to combat the advance of neoliberalism and its welter of geopolitical ills. Envisioned as a grassroots/populist counterpoint to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the WSF describes itself as an “open meeting place” and a “permanent world process,” an antidote to “dominion of the world by capital and any form of imperialism.” Such unbridled utopianism is paradoxically bolstered by hard-nosed tactics. This is no mere gathering of the tribes: During the WSF’s meetings, which have taken place in Hyderabad, Buenos Aires, Florence, and Ramallah, among other locales, hundreds of workshops, lectures, and gatherings serve as occasions for networking, debating, and the hiving of diverse groups and individuals. Keynote issues have run the gamut from contemporary pedagogy to media strategizing to revolutionary queer politics to the environmental consequences of globalization.

Arguably, the relative merit of the WSF’s activities is measured less by the concrete implementation of policy than by the kinds of relationships the gatherings produce—a proposition that would seem to raise the question, How might this other world look? What role, in other words, would the visual in general (and art more conditionally) play in the WSF’s production and facilitation of a “world process”? Admittedly, if one were to look only at the surface of things, a case might be made for a rather conventional scenario. At the recent WSF in Caracas, Venezuela, in January, the opening rally and parade at the Plaza de Las Tres Gracias, with its swirling masses of people, banners, and placards, seemed rather old-school Comintern. Not only was the tried-and-true Marxist iconography still very much in place, with waves of signs emblazoned with the stern profiles of its global pantheon (Marx and Lenin, of course, but also Mao, Che, and even Hugo Chávez); the formal conventions and graphics historically linked to that tradition were everywhere present as well. But perhaps such familiar imagery is a red herring of sorts, not quite capturing the true nature of the event nor its organizing principles.

Indeed, with tens of thousands of attendees at each of its meetings around the globe (eighty thousand registered for Caracas), the “Forum,” as its participants call it, is insistent on its polycentric status—its charter loudly proclaims that the WSF is not a “locus of power” but a “plural, diversified . . . non-party context.” That it has now begun to meet in multiple locations each year supports this claim while guaranteeing the diversity demanded of a “permanent world process.” But the “headlessness” of its wide-ranging activities effectively presents a certain challenge to the forum’s broader representation and—by extension—its presence within the media at large. The forum’s plural sensibilities do not coalesce into any one monolithic image, arguably a liability from the standpoint of global media. Compared, for instance, with the imagery streaming from Davos, with its CNN-friendly look of luxe, calme et célébrité, you could hardly corral the workings of the WSF into a singular, branded aesthetic. As I learned on my trip to Caracas, this is perhaps to the point, and all to the good.

I attended the meeting for various intermingled reasons: political sympathies; a desire to witness the leftist turn in South American politics (the rise of Chávez’s Venezuela, the election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia); and a critical engagement with the visual dimension of the event’s worldly imaginings. Of late I’ve been preoccupied with the question of collectivism in recent art or, rather, the performance of collectivity, or even pseudocollectivism. As such, the WSF, with its avowed polycentrism, has for some time been a crucial destination on my itinerary. Prompted by the age-old question of the relationship between aesthetics and politics, one needs to ask of events such as this: What particular set of visual operations, arguably different in degree and kind from any earlier moment, is best suited to these movements?

Notably, the WSF has already been the locus of extended interaction with recent art, in the form of the ever-mobile “Utopia Station,” a project that, like the WSF, thematizes its liminal status through the language of movement, passage, and process. The brainchild of Molly Nesbit, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “Utopia Station” is less a group exhibition than a set of varied practices loosely framed by the question, How to think utopia? Its best-known stop was 2003’s Venice Biennale, where it occupied a sizable portion of the Arsenale and trafficked seamlessly between individual and collaborative efforts. Far lower profile was the “Utopia Station” appearance at the 2005 meeting of the WSF in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This was the first time that a deliberate stress was placed on the cultural in the WSF’s agenda. And in leaving its usual stomping grounds—the art world and the university—“Utopia Station” found an especially suitable climate for its experiments. Its appropriately ambitious Porto Alegre program involved a series of videos (including, among many others, works by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Alexander Kluge, Jonas Mekas, and Lygia Pape) broadcast late on local Brazilian television; a bilingual radio show hosted by Arto Lindsay; a poster project; and a bus used to “improvise mobile programming, projections, screenings, performances, and presence on the grounds of the forum and around the city,” as an announcement put it. If the latter activity proved the most difficult to realize, it was not because more conventional art took center stage. In a formulation that proved helpful in parsing much of what took place culture-wise in Caracas, Nesbit recently observed to me, “I was always struck by how marginal, actually, traditional art practices were at the WSF. In spite of themselves, they became folkloric or just plain stiff. For the first few meetings . . . there was nothing cultural to speak of. Or better, what was cultural was not isolated.”

Even so, the Porto Alegre “Utopia Station” showing dramatized something of the forum’s own acephalic utopianism and radical multiplicity. While I can’t say I was anticipating the appearance of any art-world contenders in Venezuela, perhaps I was looking for a similar intervention. And on arriving, I found that the preliminary schedule auspiciously listed dozens of panels and workshops devoted specifically to art, media, and visual culture. As promising as this seemed (particularly with the precedent of “Utopia Station” in mind) the reality of the WSF’s cultural interventions was another matter altogether. To be blunt, this was an organizationally challenged affair. A debate on art and politics conducted by a collective of young Salvadorean artists, for instance, had yet to start an hour after its appointed time. Likewise, a much-anticipated panel called “Zines: The Power of Self-Publishing” failed to materialize, as did a session on the prospects of global television that was supposed to feature Gore Vidal. One quickly learned not to rely on the schedule; as the WSF has repeatedly been called “a movement of movements,” it was perhaps in the spirit of things to go with the flow. And as it turned out, the most powerful sessions, art-related or not, were those upon which one accidentally stumbled, such as a fiery colloquy on demilitarizing the US presence in South America. It was in meetings such as these—and in the extramural events surrounding the forum—that a paradoxical visual “gestalt” began to emerge—paradoxical because it lacked any ostensible form.

Indeed, what drew the greatest share of attention at the opening rally and elsewhere were not so much the classic signifiers of revolutionary politics, which fell just this side of perfunctory or routinized, but the circulation of media itself. In countless occasions that mimed something of the feedback-loop logic of the old Sony Porta-Pak, one saw participants videotaping, filming, or photographing other participants who, in turn, were doing exactly the same thing. This was a kind of global mirroring process in which capturing the act of mediation—whether the ad hoc TV stations scattered around the forum’s dispersed sites or the live projections in the more heavily subscribed sessions—seemed the most vital form of representation of all. What was at stake seemed not so much a clearly consolidated image of this media (that would be CNN territory, after all), but rather a sense of its potential mobility.

For this reason, it’s not incidental that some of the most viable forms of “art” at the Caracas forum were performative or performance-driven. The consciousness of the WSF participants relative to media suggested a profound canniness about self-presentation that owes something to the radical street theater of the 1960s and ’70s. The presence of CODEPINK, the American grassroots antiwar group founded by Medea Benjamin, Starhawk, Jodie Evans, Diane Wilson, and some hundred other women, recalled second-wave feminist performances in particular. In its collective efforts to facilitate “creative protest against militarism and injustice,” CODEPINK cut a notably roseate figure at the WSF, its at times exaggerated femininity (pink parasols, frilly dresses, and the like) contrasting starkly with the drab “revolutionary” garb of camouflage, khaki, and Soviet red. This makes for a striking activist profile, or, at the very least, suggests an effective televisual presence.

Televisions were, in fact, everywhere at the WSF, their sheer ubiquity challenging the oft-repeated claim of TV’s steady demise in media circles in the United States. Though considerable attention was paid to radio, the Internet, and the free software movement, TV emerged as an especially critical subject (the absence of Gore Vidal notwithstanding). One speaker described plans for a media outlet called the Waves—the first satellite television channel for progressive secular women in Iraq. Among other things, what this underscored was a highly tactical understanding of television and media in general, its use appropriated at the very moment when others are lamenting (or celebrating) its seeming outmodedness.

Fittingly enough, the one piece of art that could make even a tentative claim on the term “installation” tapped into this theme, for good or (I suspect) ill. In a booth stationed not far from the Caracas Hilton, a garish figure of Jesus nailed to the cross hoisted a video camera, which trained its sights on a misshapen globe placed in the foreground of this media Golgotha. The authors of the piece, which attracted a curious crowd, didn’t offer any explanation, but one hardly seemed necessary. The title of the work, inconspicuously scrawled on the tent, said it all: El Museo de la Verdad (The Museum of Truth).

Perhaps this is an adequate, because ugly, picture of our current situation, with “truth” relegated to the status of a museum relic, and “museums” themselves organized around a panoply of media technics. But as many such media gestures at the WSF made clear, the forum itself could not be reduced to such an image, let alone englobed by a crude work of art. Only a figure of circulation, at once endless and endlessly mobile, would seem up to that task of summation. If another world is possible, to follow the WSF’s foundational logic, then the very impossibility of this figure needs to be embraced by its visual culture.

Pamela M. Lee is associate professor of art history at Stanford University.