Battling Powerlessness originally appeared in the catalogue Ricochet # 4 - Ahmet Ögüt, published by Museum Villa Stuck and Kerber, Munich, DE

Battling Powerlessness

By Andreas Spiegl

Against the backdrop of everyday news coverage, even our daily routine appears as a comprehensive threat. The many political, social, cultural, religious or personal events draw a picture that on the surface seems cluttered to the point of defying perception, aesthetically suggesting the baroque version of a horror vacui of daily politics, while also evoking an underlying sense of impotence and powerlessness. The abundance of events in the foreground seems to underline the empty space, or rather historical gaps, at the back. This correlation of a boundless event culture with an individual sense of being unable to adequately confront it embodies an image of politics that is essentially based on a dichotomy of power and powerlessness, of perpetrators and victims. While the pertinent theoretical reflections on these oppositional figures (without a chance of opposition) may be motivated differently, they are related in their diagnosis. Brian Massumi defines this anxiety as the product of “politics of everyday fear”; Giorgio Agamben refers to a “state of exception” which has become the norm, and Jacques Rancière speaks about a “disagreement” and an underlying “distribution of the sensible”. (1) In this context, the question is how this excessive disparity of power and powerlessness should be addressed, in order to at least create a sense of critical ability. And critical ability here is understood in terms of an awareness that the criticism propounded will not immediately effect any change in the status quo. In fact, it may even desist from intervening directly, so as not to add to the abundance of events, even if its means and circumstances differ. Accordingly, critical ability should be considered in terms of confronting the state of inequality rather than of giving instructions on how to act. What this critical ability achieves – without actually taking action – is to open up a seemingly external perspective on the excessive state of things, without this meaning one is obliged to take an “unaffected” standpoint. In this sense, critical ability just creates the idea of an outside despite being really located in the midst of the situation in question.

The works of Ahmet Ögüt use this critical ability to form a critique that is aware of the disparity of political, cultural and social conditions, and thus of the relatively limited possibilities of change. Rather than directly intervening in these conditions, Ögüt focuses on letting the disparity articulate itself “self-eloquently”. Thus in Things We Count (2008), a plain tracking shot along the military aircraft at an airplane graveyard in Arizona suffices to simply enumerate – literally in three different languages (Kurdish, Turkish and English) – the excesses of war and demonstrate the geographical ubiquity of this excessiveness. Eloquent in themselves, one can relate to the numbers of the dead, the injured and the destruction without there being the necessity for a single personal story. What is criticised is not one war or another, but rather the readiness for war and the corresponding threat itself. In Exploded City (2009), the recreated models of houses, cars and buses which, in political everyday life, have been the target of terrorist attacks add up to a fictional city that, also eloquent in itself and transcending the particulars of each individual event, represents the omnipresence of terror. Instead of highlighting individual cases and raising the question of a particular group’s legitimacy or illegitimacy, the work showcases terror as part of everyday urban and political life. The disparity of excessive conditions is a pertinent issue here, too, as is the state of exception that has become the norm. Something similar can be said about Ögüt’s work Today in History (2007), which starts out with a variety of everyday news reports and anecdotes, some tragicomic, some seemingly surreal, that are simply inscribed into a chronology of events.

In these compilations of individual and specific events that create a new “order of things” a catalogue of criteria emerges, which make it possible to confront the disparity of conditions with a new proportionality and scale. This new scale is based on a shift of relations which, in the endless and everyday appeal to the exceptional and the special, points out only the masquerade of a set of rules. And this set of rules applies even in those cases in which the powerlessness and impotence vis-à-vis the disparate conditions manifest themselves as an empty space. What Ögüt accomplishes is to locate these historical gaps amidst the events, within a horizon that knows no exception.

In order to make the consistency of this argument tangible spatially and physically as well, Ögüt occasionally arranges the exhibition space in such a way that the same conditions apply to everybody, without exception. For his aptly titled 2005 work Ground Control at the Berlin Kunst-Werke he had the gallery floor tarmacked like a street, thereby transforming it, for everybody equally, into an outdoor space within the indoor space. At the Museum Villa Stuck, he conceived a change in the ceiling height for his exhibition, requiring everyone to bow to circumstances – a rather surreal sight – thus bringing the general experience of disparate conditions emphatically home to the visitor. In short, the spatial exception that applies to everyone, in transcending the exception, becomes the rule for everyone. The empty space no longer belongs to the individual who feels powerless vis-à-vis the powerful, but rather moves structurally into the centre of events and emerges as order amidst the disparate conditions. Even if this order may suggest the experience of tragicomic circumstances, it is merely constitutive of the political and cultural state of things, as excessive as these may be. In this sense, the experience of critical ability precedes criticism.

(1) Brian Massumi: The Politics of Everyday Fear, Minneapolis/London, 1993;
Giorgio Agamben: State of Exception, Chicago, 2005;
Jacques Rancière: Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy,Minneapolis/London, 1998;
Jacques Rancière: The Politics of Aesthetics:The Distribution of the Sensible, London, 2004