2007

Barricades

 

Starkwhite, Auckland, New Zealand

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Barricades, 2007
Starkwhite
Auckland, New Zealand

I first started collecting images of civilian-built street barricades a few of years ago during research towards a proposed project at Galeria do Centro Cultural Maria Antonia – part of Sao Paulo University. This never led to an exhibition, yet during this research I came across an image that held my attention long after the completion of the proposal.

 

It was an image of a civilian-built street barricade erected during the uprising against the military dictatorship in Brazil of the late 1960’s. This particular barricade buttressed up against a nearly leafless tree to the right of the image and involved an assortment of precariously positioned objects: a four metre high oversized trestle-like construction, on which a length of timber balanced, leading down to a heavy rectangular form, on which at one end a length of doweling was balanced, stretching above a concrete culvert held in place by two loose bricks. This collection of irregular objects traversed the road and pavement to idly lean against the columns of the neoclassical building in which the art gallery is now housed – at the time home of the Philosophy Department. Somewhat flimsy in construction, the barricade was undoubtedly raised as a blockade – a collection of objects assembled to mark a border, a line, a territory – yet what appeared clear in this particular image was the symbolic function of the barricade. Although it had a solid physical presence, the barricade seemed to function more as an idea than an object. That such a construction would operate in this way is self-evident, yet this particular barricade, built in Sao Paulo in 1968, had forced this fact specifically to the fore.

 

Barricades materialise in provisional and adaptive forms that seek to force an encounter in the moment – as opposed to the fortress in the truest sense of the word, which offers a permanent/prolonged siege. That civilian-built barricades function as symbol may be an obvious statement, yet there is something interesting in their continuity as both symbol – emblems of social and ideological solidarity – and as physical, practical and adaptable socio-spatial strategies. They function as active instruments, intermediaries in real space, billboards, flagpoles and as ideas simultaneously. The urgency and resolve with which they are amassed lend them energy as objects, sites and emblems. They function as a kind of theatre, prepared in advance of confrontation – an artificial environmental condition that forms a stage. Barricades are a temporal nuclei around which people, actions, values and ideologies have, at various moments across the globe, come to be and rotate: physical manifestation of collectivity and solidarity.

 

Engel’s noted as early as 1848 that barricade fighting had more moral than material significance. This thought is reiterated by Walter Benjamin, through Susan Buck-Morss in her book Dialectics of Seeing, in which it is suggested that barricade fighting had become obsolete as revolutionary praxis; to believe that such street confrontations could overturn a state armed with modern weaponry was to succumb to a revolutionary romanticism and nostalgia. This may perhaps be so, yet continually barricades, and the objects associated with such adaptive forms, are employed in urban spaces as ruptures and direct agents, for many various causes, in many differing places, now and throughout urban history.

 

Asphalt may no longer be the political territory it once was for broad political dispute, yet time and time again we see the street employed as a key site of solidarity and dissent. Constantly re-actualised, the repetitive re-enactment of revolutionary modes clearly demonstrates that such forms of dissent are not completely insignificant. Think here of recent claims by the New Zealand Police of unearthing Molotov cocktails amongst other weaponry in questionable raids in the Ureweras on various “weapons training camps” under the Terrorism Suppression Act. Clearly this excessive reaction by the New Zealand Police indicates that such grassroots forms of dissent still have agency enough to rouse state force. Use of adaptive forms for confrontation may have limited direct effect, yet despite this they are no less, and perhaps much more than collective nuclei. Although it may be romantic to consider that such revolutionary forms offer any forceful resistance today beyond bravado – both here in the reworked/ adapted forms they take in this exhibition, or by dissenting groups that employ them, both now and historically – is it not possible that we are perhaps too prone to discard these strategies into the dustbin of history: eager, perhaps, to underline our ambivalence towards contemporary revolutionary praxis? And although in this exhibition there is a risk of the spectacularisation of revolutionary forms, it is possible that looking back on these forms in such a way is a potentially radicalizing act – stirring meaning from their sleep. It is also possible that despite an underlying suspicion about these forms’ latent potentiality and their possible use-value here and now, they are more than obsolete and anachronistic.

 

Romanticism of and nostalgia for past modes of resistance, as pointed to by Jacques Ranciere, is more than a looking back on obsolete political (or popular) forms. Ranciere affirms that the re-examination of the past is part of the construction of the present – we have to go beyond too simple a connection between past and present – the present being garnered from more than just an historical lesson; the past offers us an open schema, “A topography of the configuration of possibilities…that make up forms of political subjectivisation and artistic invention.” Perhaps through the reconsideration of these forms, through representing, repositioning and also renouncing their specificity, they may be reconfigured not just as anachronistic characterizations, but something to be honed and sharpened: configurations of possibility.

 

In addition to the high rate with which barricades appear in historical painting, there is something undeniably sculptural about these constructions. Although assembled with speed and expediency where it is assumed formal concerns are overlooked, the somewhat arbitrary construction process links them to a particular thread of contemporary sculptural practice prevalent today: in which, to generalize, objects are “never fully resolved as aesthetic objects” and/or sit “between the formal, the relational and the environmental”. Unlike these somewhat affected counterparts, the barricade’s expediency lends it force as a formal object. Moreover, has there ever been a more social sculpture? They additionally share with much contemporary sculptural practice the usurping of technology to create the not-yet-known, through the transgression of the normative function of objects. This transgression assigns barricades an added political weight; doors, pipes, vehicles, fire, tires, bodies, cobblestones/roads are transformed. Toppling the productive logic of this stuff, the act of building a barricade converts these objects from material used in the circulation of capital into popular defenses. They are urban glaciers, operating at a rapid speed – the speed of the city – sweeping up all that lies in their path. They are assaults on architecture; delineating its history and purpose – not architecture entered, but architecture as obstacle. Interestingly, barricades are often similar in construction and material regardless of the time, era, locality and the purpose for which they were constructed.

 

The Barricades project offers a visual, not a linear logic. All the various forms the work takes in the exhibition aim to remove the original context from which these objects come – rendering, remaking and reforming them in a detached manner – so that the cold harsh light of the gallery might work towards removing the exactness and authority of their specific history, and allow some breathing room – a respite. The project is unconcerned with dating, naming or contextualizing the barricades or the specific locale from which the related works find their origins, so that they might possibly be blasted out of a historical continuum, to operate as images and objects without specific narratives. Perhaps through this they may, to quote Adorno, awaken congealed life in petrified objects.

 

 

 

Dane Mitchell ©  2020