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#memu: 5.1 / “Is he using the revolution to sell his art, or using his art to sell the revolution?” The Artist as a Unit of Culture

The following is what feels like a timely excerpt from Memetic Murals, 2016. 

The internet phenomenonof spreading street art directs attention not only to the topic, or cause, but also towards the person responsible for expressing it. International attention recreates the creative actor in the form of a constructed symbolic gure, required to represent amajority they sometimes do not even agree with, or belong to. Many of the chosen representatives are masters in their respective arts and in expressing their personal observations on larger societal developments. No matter if their perspective conforms with the current opinions or not, artists are considered open minded observers, eloquent representatives of their societies. What is often underestimated is that artists mostly represent a cultured, liberal elite in their country, no matter how much they identify with the causes within.


This reterritorialization of the Israeli Separation Barrier as an internationalized space, one that is neither Israeli nor Palestinian but rather a global and increasingly recognisable and popular venue for solidarity with the Palestini- ans’ plight, is not without consequence. By effectively overpowering local Palestinian forums, messages and voices of resistance, international-produced graffiti on the barrier further deterritorializes the Palestinians by inadvertently popularizing the physical and symbolic place that has aided in their dispossession.
SAUDERS, ROBERT R Whose Place is This Anyways. March 2011. Anthropology News 03/2011

By choosing relatable protagonists to represent a social movement, the outward, non-local, image of the movement becomes skewed, even as points of identification are formed.A hybrid world made up of trans- posed cultural imports, points of semantic and linguistic agreement and a generally liberal mindset. By perceiving only a symbolic representation, a reality is formed out of a generalisable, superficial understanding of a complex situation. The artist, as a selected representative2, becomes the highlighted comment that illustrates and frames the debate around the issues artists previously brought up as points for debate through their artistic output.

A lot of attention was directed towards Egyptian and Middle Eastern artists during the three initial years of uprising. The relative novelty of the scene made it easy to expand on the emerging thought and culture in the so-called “Transformation States” by spreading the initial enthusiasm of the seemingly nascent democracies in European encounters with the “Other”, in exchanges, workshops, conferences and think tanks.

The “Other” no longer seemed so different. It was time to reexamine the orientalist perspective due to the amount of new insight given and gained in that time. An interest, supported by media attention and a positive discourse of change, in this close, yet distant culture emerged. Parallels in technologies aided these exchanges. McLuhans “Global Village”seemed to be emerging as global voices of discourse shaped by individual online nodes and independent representatives in addition to the narrative unfolding in more mainstream media. Participation, even if electric, in far-off events be- came possible and possibly the perceived duty of citizens around the globe. Real-time mediatised communication enabled not only the rapid spread of information, but also rapid action on it.

The artist “Others” are invited to frequent shows, projects and bien- nales- a testament to their talent, but also to the voice they found in representing their politics and the use and spread of their representa- tions in digital spaces. Detached from their local environment, their political message becomes diluted into conversations about art, abstract societal change and hope. Arguably, by being present at a large number of such events, the subjects are disconnected from the street, alienating them from those they seek to address and represent, even as they spread the message from the street. Just as the Palestinian wall’s meaning changes through the over- representation of the artwork on it, the focus on what is a slow social process becomes skewed by the spontaneous images and events that lead to artistic inspiration in a time of already high emotion.

A highly representational view of events can be extrapolated out of these already curated depictions- the context and discourse surrounding them putting the value of the represented over that which it repre- sents outside of the artwork. Artists, even if present, can only offer a fragment of the spectrum that surrounds their self-expression and artistic formation. As the work loses its context, it gains in artistic and symbolic value. A sequence of disassociated neon signs on a dark urban environment. Points of attraction, advertisements for a brand, they create importance through constant visibility- in memory or reality.

The artist is reduced to his function, rather than a participant in societal processes. The discourse is reduced to difference, more often than com- mon points. The art, originally a point of intersection between the two cultures, after initially abstracting the discussion to the level of a common understanding, becomes the vehicle for highlighting the “Other” in a shared language. And as the language of the conversation shifts from the artistic to the verbal, participants in the conversation are reduced to one of their lowest common denominators as they converse in a lingua franca that is often a foreign tongue to at least one of the interlocutors (and usually English).


The funding of cultural productions through foreign (European or American) cultural institutions in relation to the frame of buzzwords such as democracy, human rights, gender, and/or youth, makes foreign cultural politics appear as politics of development

Eickhof, Ilka My friend, the rebel (forthcoming), 2014.

The discussion can also be translated to a locally framed topicality, or seeking to compare historical trajectories. The individuals doing the footwork are diluted into a specialised heading, such as gender equality, entrepreneurship, media, urban, a dissection of the topic detail by detail, guiding a specific view towards general events that are, in action, more multilayered than the time reserved for an after-show panel. While an approach based in cultural anthropology is understandable, it rarely moves beyond a general primer on the current focus of media and publicattention.

Beyond the artist himself, one has to consider the role of institutions and organisations which facilitate the agency of the cultural actor, on the ground or outside. The historical role of foreign cultural institutions in Egypt has been to allow for local development and experimentation in a cultural scene not supported by the national mechanisms of power. One could call into question the intention behind aligning with cultural actors in a country and the representation of “Western” countries as a beneficial, civilising force. To do sothoroughly would be to open a debate that goes beyond the current scope of exploration, but cannot escape mention in the framework of this paper.



1— This section is based mainly on personal and participant observation. | 2— Eickhof, I., My friend, the rebel (forthcom- ing), 2014. link: http://fu-berlin.academia.edu/ IlkaEickhof ) | 3— In the “Medium is the Massage” and other books, McLuhan postulates a connected world in which “electric” devices become extensions of the human senses. While the writing predates the Internet, or DARPA efforts in the 70’s, both the Medium and its Massage seem to have become a reality shared (and occasionally liked) worldwide. McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. 1967. The medium is the massage. New York: Bantam Books. | 4— Caffoni, Paolo; Breaking from the Government of Publics; 2015; http://www. regardingspectatorship.net/23/

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