PRINT March 2007


LET’S SET THE SCENE. It’s 1968 in Czechoslovakia. Activists in the Communist Party take over and begin to enact a series of economic and cultural reforms to try to revive this stagnant Soviet satellite state. Freedom of speech and of the press are granted. Plans are made for open elections. The movement becomes known as Prague Spring.

Fall arrives. Moscow cannot tolerate the reform movement any longer and decides to invade the country. By early September, half a million troops from the Soviet Union and four Warsaw Pact countries have marched into Prague. The Czechs, with neither arms nor funds, nevertheless mount a civilian resistance campaign against the invading army for eight months. They have nothing. And perhaps because of this, they fight the army in ways no one could imagine. There are, of course, the Molotov cocktails and human roadblocks. But what about the pornography (thrown at young and frightened soldiers patrolling the streets, to distract them from shooting at pedestrians) and the graffiti (like the one that reads, “Why bother to occupy our State bank? You know there’s nothing in it”)? My favorite: Within a few hours of the invasion, all the street signs in Prague are painted over. The tanks wander directionless through the streets for hours, then days, and then for the rest of the occupation, because all the maps in the city are destroyed as well.

Liberty is not given; it is taken. This is one of the many lessons of Jacques Rancière. In the hands of those who have no part to play in the order of things (like the Czechs under Soviet occupation), freedom is achieved by dismantling the partitions that power the order that divides the people from themselves and from the potential they did not know they had. This is why I think of Rancière when I think of those painted-over street signs. Tanks roll into Prague to divide the city from its people, and the people take freedom into their own hands and use it to “undivide” the city beyond the control of the invading order. The victory was short-lived. People were still shot, and the city was eventually occupied. And if I had been a Soviet military officer, I would have ordered the immediate removal of all those useless signs. They might function as a kind of public remembrance of the resistance. “To remember is to beat war,” Kathy Acker wrote. If the resistance did not take, neither did it perish, because if it happened once, it can happen again. Better to secure the new order by tearing down those useless signs, defaced and transformed into talismans that potentiate the work of freedom by embodying the moment when the logic of emancipation confronted the force of law.

Talismans abound in Rancière’s work: the police order, explication, distribution of the sensible. The one I treasure most is equality. Here is what he writes: “There is order in society because some people command and others obey, but in order to obey an order at least two things are required: you must understand the order and you must understand that you must obey it. And to do that, you must already be the equal of the person who is ordering you. It is this equality that gnaws away at any natural order. [In] the final analysis, inequality is only possible through equality” (Disagreement, 1995). Liberty is taken, Rancière posits, when equality is practiced and verified. And how does one practice and verify equality? One must recognize that the first tool used to subjugate another is also the first great equalizer: language. The common share of language sets the stage for the roles of master and slave while at the same time putting them on equal footing. The practice of equality is, in the first instance, the act of enunciating this equality that is the basis of any inequality. This enunciation can take many forms. For instance, painting over street signs to confuse and disable a regiment of tanks that has invaded your city is not only a novel act of nonviolent intervention, but also becomes, in its very novelty, an elegant and potent articulation of the secret equality shared by the invader and the invaded—namely that in the midst of war, we are all lost.

There are no tanks rolling down my city’s streets yet. Besides a few arrests and some legal threats, everything is relatively quiet. In any case, there are other stages on which to practice and verify equality. Art, for instance. This is not to suggest that all art is equally good, or bad, or meaningful, or political. Rather that, in practice (in my practice, anyway), both the visible and invisible materials used to make work are all equidistant from becoming either form or content in the process of making. The wordless shivers I feel from a sentence by Pauline Réage rub against a ripped piece of black pastel paper and the metallic blue light of a video projector without a hierarchy having determined in advance which elements entering the compositional space ought to bear the heavy burden of meaning. The work works when all the constituent elements are equally tense and it becomes an apparition that hovers between our space and the space of its own making, enunciating without speaking the unsolved antagonisms of reality in the only language it knows: the syntax arising from immanent problems of form.

That is practice. But how do we verify, following Rancière, the efficacy of our practice? How do we test the work so that we know it is something made that has become more than something simply made? If we use Rancière as a departure point, perhaps a confrontation is in order. That is to say, the place to verify the practice of equality in the pursuit of a form of freedom (which seems to me like a pleasing if wonky definition of art) might well be a confrontation with a force of order that divides and partitions the ghostly whole back into measured forms of understanding and consumption. If the work is indeed a work, it will resist this partitioning at every turn and claim for itself the autonomy that can come only from the practice of imagining the presence of this now not-so-secret equality in every line, shape, color, and sound. Confronted with such a presence, the police order that longs to divide in order to own can only blush: out of frustration, out of confusion, perhaps even out of fear. But tell me—honestly—when was the last time you blushed looking at art?

Paul Chan is a New York–based artist.