A prize of €250 was awarded to Marjanne van Helvert - in 2010 student at the Rietveld's Foundation Course, currently studying at the Design Lab of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie.

This is her contribution:


Taking Action

The week long, deeply theoretical conference Becoming Minority at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie had a surprisingly activist ring to its program. With titles such as Black Power, Becoming Bitch and Becoming Native, the conference program was divided into "separate but equal" parts devoted to the social opposites of the superior, white, western, heterosexual masculinity that Gilles Deleuze's term "becoming", and in particular his favorite example "becoming woman", presupposes. In this way the intended subversiveness of the ambitious subject matter was compromised in favor of a neatly organized schedule in which all of society's "others" could be dealt with accordingly. Some of the many interesting speakers addressed this impasse, most notably Terre Thaemlitz who refused Deleuze's philosophy altogether in his lecture/performance in November.
As, among many others, feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray has noted, the term "becoming woman" actually undermines its own purpose by evoking once more the traditional boundaries it ostensibly wants to transgress. The necessity of the presupposition that follows when the term "becoming" is paired with such conventional social classifications as woman, black, native, is, in its paradigmatic binary symbolism, a complete negation of the revolutionary and controversial potential that the term has. In its original meaning, when coined by Henri Bergson in his "process philosophy" of motion, change and evolution as opposed to static concepts, it is precisely a method to think beyond conventions, and more importantly beyond our common sense that always retains us to simplification and sedimentation of ideas into static, reactionary views on an infinitely more complex reality.
To think beyond convention requires creativity, a characteristic that Bergson and in turn Deleuze valued highly in (human) life, which is the main reason of Deleuze's popularity among artists today. Another is his preference for the "affect" of an artwork, the direct experience of the senses rather than the interpretation of the intellect, again originally a Bergsonian idea. These concepts could have been another inspiring starting point for dealing with Deleuze. Of course, all of these multifaceted philosophical ideas need some basic introduction to ensure that they can be constructively used by everyone, something that unfortunately was missing during the Studium Generale this year. For many it made the experience of the conference more abstract and intimidatingly theoretical than necessary.
The Rietveld Academie decided to focus on taking an activist position and using "becoming minority" as the kickoff for an array of socially engaged presentations by a mixture of artists and researchers. Becoming Minority - The Conference turned out to be a fascinating exploration of the state and status of social engagement in art, science and culture in general today. The term "becoming" then moves from its Bergsonian, evolutionary meaning to a more activist, revolutionary connotation. It implies that we need to become something that we are not (yet), that social change is required to become the better version of ourselves. Is this how we as artists and art students think of the social reality that we are part of? Do we think our role as (future) artists and designers requires us to be socially engaged in our work?
In our (post-)post-modern time, or whatever term is preferred for our part of time since modernism, we seem to be in a constant state of flux. Even aside from apocalyptic predictions of information accumulation and technological progress speeding up to the point of "singularity", an intelligence explosion with unpredictable consequences, the ongoing modernist thinking tradition that our culture is still embedded in always gives us the impression that we are at a moment of change. Modernity implies novelty and progress, in both a social and an economical sense. The term "modern" itself cannot exist without the idea of constant improvement and continuous change.
Yet activism as such has a historical connotation as well. When we think of activism, inevitably the Civil Rights movements of the 20th century come to mind, when equal rights for everyone were finally secured, at least in law and then only still in certain parts of the world. This branch of activism was powerfully represented by the keynote speaker of the Black Power program, former leader of the Black Panthers Elaine Brown. Her lecture had precisely that twofold effect of being the impressive account of a giant in radical activism, and the account of a past of engagement that seems no longer the present, to her apparent frustration.
If activism on the scale of the nineteen fifties and sixties has ceased to attract people in our current satisfied consumer existence, then what possibilities lie open for the socially engaged of today? Is it the complete dismissal of social reality that curator Sands Murray-Wassink attempted in his presentation of the Cross-identifying program? Perhaps only possible in the privileged context that a Western European art school provides, he stated that we can all simply be whatever we want to be, and proceeded to show us exactly what he wanted to be. I caught myself thinking his method to be elitist and even escapist at the time, and annoyedly addressed his refusal to deal with the reality of social categories that we are always confronted with by the "outside world", whether brought on by deliberate and orthodox ideology or by a mere simplistic common sense in the more Bergsonian meaning. Yet there is something to say for a tactics of performative escapism, if I may call it that. As queer theorist Judith Butler described when analyzing the normative effects of dominant understandings of sex and gender, it is the "performativity" embedded in social categories, the repetitive acts and rituals that are connected to, in this case, gender, that produce the norms and conventions over and over again, and provide them with a sense of truth. Why not create performative deviations that go against conventions, that reach beyond common sense?
As the conference went on, I was continuously reminded of the opposition these two tactics formed: the radical social activism of Elaine Brown and the performative escapism of Sands Murray-Wassink. I was much more attracted to the powerful engagement of the former Black Panther leader than to the somewhat narcissistic self-expression of Murray-Wassink. Perhaps they are simply the outcome of the different demands of the respective contexts they grew out of. Yet one could not exist without the precedence of the other. In a society that is hostile to unconventional lifestyles, social change is bound to be more urgent than uncompromising individualism.
Taking action in 2010 means taking into account, however consciously or unconsciously, what action has been taken in the past, and what that means for our position and context today. Social classifications of the past have become contested, reinforced, discarded with and proudly reiterated at different times and places and for different reasons. Becoming Minority is inevitably a reinstatement of the solid ground the majority stands on, but we should not forget Deleuze's more inspiring adaptation of Bergson: the eternal promise of unpredictable human creativity.

Marjanne van Helvert


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