This essay looks into critical mimesis as an artistic strategy. It discusses how artists imitate or copy non-theatre systems while subtly subverting them. Thus critiquing these existing systems and ideologies ‘from within’.
Keywords: subversive affirmation, over-identification, imitation as critical practice, mimesis, performance and politics, camouflage acts
In the years 2018 and 2019, you might have had the chance to run into an elegant concept store selling soap—soap made of human fat. Sitting amid actual shops in the middle of a shopping centre, this store disguised itself as a real store; in fact, it was a performance installation, created by Julian Hetzel, that was designed to critique overconsumption, development aid, and greenwashing strategies. The installation was called Schuldfabrik1 and the audience was gradually introduced to the company’s ‘upcycling’ ideology while traversing the various interrelated rooms of this ‘soap factory.’
This concept involved the upcycling of human waste (human fat, achieved through liposuction) by turning it into soap, which was then sold to finance the boring of wells in Malawi. Had it been real, it would have been a rather outrageous business ideology since it challenged ethical boundaries and reaffirmed the precise power structures that post-colonialist thinkers seek to question. Hetzel, however, exactly copied existing greenwashing practices in an exaggerated manner—with the goal of rendering them visible and making them a topic for public discussion.
Hetzel is not the only one who uses the strategy of mimesis to criticise societal systems and power relations. Over the last decade or so, artists have increasingly opted for new forms of imitation or simulation that rely on the appropriation of non-theatre systems or formats. These works and installations act as if they are, for instance, a monument, a court of justice, a historical museum, or, as in the case of Schuldfabrik, a shop. Theatre is, of course, closely connected to the convention of the as-if, yet these mimetic practices do not create illusionary worlds on a stage nor work with actors playing characters. Instead, they infiltrate reality itself: the shop is literally inserted into a shopping mall, the court revisits a real lawsuit, the pop-up museum is situated in a public place.
In an insightful (Dutch) essay, the Flemish dramaturg Sébastian Hendrickx describes the emergence of this as-if strategy in Belgium and other European countries, where art pretends to be something other than art by imitating existing social practices.2 Art that disguises itself as something else but never ceases to be art. According to Hendrickx, this creates a double movement, where artists playfully imitate the roles, procedures or spaces proper to social systems on the one hand; on the other, the domain of art temporarily releases these systems of their conventions so that they can be manipulated and questioned. Sometimes, the imitation is so convincing that it is hard to establish whether it is a copy or not, while there is also a delicate disruption of the imitation. That specific version of the as-if strategy can be analysed with help of the concept of subversive affirmation.
Subversive affirmation is a tactic of resistance in which one ostensibly affirms but ultimately subverts the strategies of one’s ‘opponent.’ Artists mimic ideologies, practices and policies, often in a drastically literal way, and they critically assess those systems by subtly interrupting and undermining them. Subversive affirmation is not only a strategy we may recognise in artistic work but also a concept through which we can discuss and analyse this strategy. To this end, we can start by identifying and examining the various components or ‘building blocks’ of subversive affirmation.
These components were first described by the scholars Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse in their essay ‘Subversive Affirmation: On Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance.’3 The resistance in the essay’s title targets ideological beliefs, systems of power, political regimes, and more. The authors define subversive affirmation as a two-fold movement. There is an affirmation of a system, a copying of the codes and formats of the system one seeks to critique. At the same time, this affirmation is corrupted or subverted by introducing elements in the system that are disruptive or alienating. Very often, this subversion is achieved by the overdrive, an exaggeration or a ‘too much’ of systemic elements. In Arns and Sasse’s terms, this surplus can be regarded as a third component of the concept, next to affirmation and subversion. Lastly, as a fourth building block, this act of subversion also generates a critical distance from the system one seeks to critique, which allows us to see the system in all its complexity.
It is important, however, to acknowledge that artists nowadays can no longer be ‘at a distance,’ as if they were providing critiques from the side-line, looking at the world from a separate, exclusive position. This notion of critical distance has been prevalent throughout the twentieth century, yet taking contemporary societal debates and ecological crises into account, and the subsequent awareness of the complex entanglement of relations, this idea can no longer be maintained. The impossibility of being an outsider has precisely inspired the practice of subversive affirmation. Artists perform their critique not ‘from the outside’; instead, they are fully engaged ‘within.’ Bringing all these elements together, Arns and Sasse define subversive affirmation as:
[…] an artistic/political tactic that allows artists/activists to take part in certain social, political, or economic discourses and to affirm, appropriate, or consume them while simultaneously undermining them. It is characterised precisely by the fact that with affirmation there is simultaneously taking place a distancing from, or revelation of what is being affirmed. In subversive affirmation there is always a surplus which destabilises affirmation and turns it into its opposite.4
Arns and Sasse observe how since the late 1990s, subversive affirmation has been increasingly employed in the context of media art and activism—for example, by The Yes Men, a group of media activists who gained world-wide notoriety for successfully posing as World Trade Organization representatives on television and at conferences around the world, speaking on behalf of the organisation they politically oppose. The authors trace the historical lineage of the concept, mostly discussing examples from twentieth-century Eastern Europe, where subversive affirmation was often used to escape censorship by repressive and totalitarian (communist) regimes.
Remarkably, the strategy of subversive affirmation re-appears again in the early twenty-first century, in the (former) West, in the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany, among others. Of course, this raises the interesting question of why this strategy (re)appears now, in this very moment? What are today’s ‘totalitarian’ or all-consuming systems that one seeks to escape? As suggested above, we believe this re-appearance thoroughly intertwines with the current human condition, in which no one can escape one’s habitual networks: we are all swallowed by neoliberalism; we all work and live within the ubiquity of a media society; we are all responsible, each in our own way, for ecological trouble.
For subversive affirmation to be effective, it is important that the subversive actions, at least at first, go unnoticed by the system or discourse the artist wishes to contaminate. For this, both the artist and the act need to disappear into the background and blend into the system. This is achieved by employing methods well-known from the theatre, such as imitation, simulation and camouflage, which are based on a detailed and meticulous copying and repetition of existing codes, formats, roles, vocabularies, regulations, and procedures related to a certain system. This imitation is non-cynical, non-ironic and requires the artist to act deadly serious or, as the philosopher Slavoj Žižek has put it in an essay on the Slovenian avant-garde band Laibach, almost naïvely.5
Secondly, there should be a ‘difference’ within the perfect imitation that can produce a form of distance and, therefore, alienation and destabilisation. Arns and Sasse refer to this as the surplus but do not really unpack this notion. What they seem to suggest is that there is an excess of affirmation, which turns affirmation into its opposite. We can think of practices of imitation that are carried out so overenthusiastically that they do ‘more’ than what is needed to pass as real. In Julian Hetzel’s Schuldfabrik, for instance, the ideology of upcycling is presented in such a compelling and convincing way that one is inclined to go along with it at first, yet the idea of using human waste for paying debts and washing away Western guilt is so ‘over the top’—let alone morally corrupt—that it cannot be true.6 And indeed, it is not.
Performing the system ‘too well’ undermines and destabilises the system and reveals its mechanisms. When taken to the extreme, this is called over-identification. The concept is mentioned by Arns and Sasse, Žižek, and by the artistic research collective BAVO, who do not believe that small or modest creative acts have critical potential. For critique to be effective, one should radically ‘opt for the worst’ version of a system, so that the dominant order becomes embarrassed and cannot help but ‘tone down’ its message.7 An explicit example discussed both by BAVO and Arns and Sasse is Christoph Schlingensief’s Ausländer Raus. Bitte liebt Österreich (2000). The work was a Big Brother-like installation in the centre of Vienna, consisting of three containers that housed twelve asylum seekers who could be voted out of the containers by callers daily to be deported out of the country the same night.
Appropriating the logo and flag of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), Schlingensief presented the event as an action of the right-wing party, led by Jürgen Haider. The FPÖ was in power at the time and known for strong anti-immigrant sentiments. With this project, Schlingensief wanted to ‘play the impossible so hard that it would become the possible,’ adding that ‘it is impossible to contradict Haider. What is possible is playing the Haider card to its most extreme.’8 The project generated much debate, both on the square and in the media, which significantly raised political awareness.
Critics and audiences responding to the work of Yes Men or Schlingensief are often not really sure what to think of the artwork, and especially what to make of the ideological beliefs professed in these works: are these the beliefs of the artist, or not? Do the artists really mean what they are saying? Is this really real? Such ambiguity is key to subversive affirmation and over-identification, and, of course, the confusion comes from the fact that these are practices of mimicry. Artists who employ these tactics tend to deliberately feed the ethical dilemmas caused by the work and are reluctant to reveal their intentions or (moral) position.
Performance and Politics: Theatre NO99’s Unified Estonia
On March 24, 2010—roughly a year before the next parliamentary elections in Estonia were due to take place—the company Theatre NO99 announced a new political movement, named Unified Estonia. The theatre-makers not only presented a political manifesto, largely inspired by a populist rhetoric of freedom and power to the people, but also instigated an elaborate press campaign and constantly sought the attention of the press. Through radio and television appearances, (staged) rumours and poster campaigns, the movement succeeded in staying front-page news for over two months.
Their success, with polls estimating 20% of the votes, culminated in a large party convention, a.k.a. super performance, for more than 7,000 attendees, which made real politicians rather nervous. With this project, Theatre NO99 aimed to explore and criticise large-scale manipulation and the elitist power of political decision-makers, who often claim that politics is too complex for common citizens, thus excluding them from the democratic process. What does it actually take to raise a political party, the artists wondered, and if politicians do bad theatre, why can’t we do good politics?
Let us take a closer look at their strategies of subversive affirmation. Firstly, Theatre NO99’s political technologies are precise and intelligent copies (affirmations) of existing party strategies and ways of manipulating the media. They used ‘every trick of the populist handbook,’ as the company put it in the film Ash and Money, which documents the entire creation process. Subsequently, the Estonian flag features regularly in visual campaign materials, next to other nationalist symbols. Tiit Ojasoo, one of Theatre NO99’s artistic directors who plays the party leader, is styled as a younger Putin lookalike to confirm the patriarchist idea of the strong male leader. Online clips and large banners in the street address the through line in the campaign, a call upon bankers to take responsibility for inequitable loans and financial crises, thus repeating the populist trope of equality, power to the people and call for accountability of those in power.
This rhetoric taps into a deeply felt sense of powerlessness and citizens’ desire to take back control, a sentiment that fuels populism worldwide (we might think here of Brexit in the UK, or the MAGA movement in the US9). The attention to detail in clothing and setting reveals the company’s extensive experience in theatre, scenography and filmmaking. This is also reflected in a brilliantly staged riot, in which the actors go out in the street at night and deface their own supersized posters with black paint and graffiti, resulting in extensive press coverage and launching conspiracy theories that the actors might have done this themselves.
These rumours also reflect the ambiguity that surrounded the entire project: are these performers serious, or are they actors—and do these options exclude one another? The company returns these inquiries by asking why they are getting these questions, as performers, and not the politicians from the Centre Party who use(d) the same means—and who equally could be regarded as performers, of course. The entire campaign is, by the way, also an excellent example of transmedia storytelling as the company used a wide variety of (media) platforms to put their message across.
Politicians regularly promise transparency in political decision-making processes but often do the opposite. Theatre NO99, in response, takes transparency utmost seriously. They take it, in fact, so serious that they are ‘overdoing it,’ thus creating a surplus which subverts the (political) system. Presented as part of their ‘power to the people’ ideology, they set up an Election School, a series of online tutorials with a strong DIY character, on how to build your own political party. The lessons teach how to win elections (‘choose simple promises such as “you will get money,” avoid complex ones’), how political communication works (‘never use sentences longer than seven words’) or how to finance your movement (‘set up a responsibility structure that stops at sub-top level, so the leader can avoid accountability in case of dubious donors’).
The tutorials were based on intensive research and analysis of political campaigns. Nothing was made up; they just presented their findings—yet deadly serious, thus revealing the troubling perversity of this reality. Interestingly, these staged acts of over-identification led to a ‘toning down’ by actual politicians, and launched investigations of corrupt financial structures within existing parties, which functioned exactly as had been described.
Unified Estonia was an extremely successful political action. This success is partly due to the brilliant concept and the transmedia approach, and partly caused by the populist agenda: the company sought to reach all, and many responded. This latter aspect also raised ethical dilemmas. The thing the performers wanted to criticise—political manipulation, populism—precisely caused their success. Ash and Money documents some heated discussions within the company: are we actually reaching our goal, or are we only confirming the thing we wish to attack? Yet, the artists also find the populist approach legitimate, as it enables them to show the tragedy of how easy it is, actually, to manipulate people’s behaviour, and to do so by quite simple and vulgar means.
Their discussion exposes the inherent paradox and risk of subversive affirmation: affirmation needs to be convincing to be successful, and subversiveness needs to be subtle to be subversive—with the possibility that audiences only see and recognise the affirmative aspects, and, at times, judge accordingly. Theatre NO99’s internal debate ultimately led to a re-affirmation of what the party convention—the final act of the project—should be about, namely, an active disclosing of how exactly manipulation works. Subsequently, transparency is key.
We refer to Ash and Money for the full and fun details of this huge event and restrict ourselves here to the opening of the spectacle. Continuing the Election School style, ahead of Ojasoo’s entrance the master of ceremony announces not so much the leader but also provides an analysis of the scene the public is about to watch: ‘What is the climax of any party conference? Of course, it is the arrival of the leader of the party. The arrival of the leader and his speech.’ Then the drums start to roll, tensions are rising, and deeds are added to the words: ‘When the leader arrives, flags wave, fire blaze, lights flash, and the people applaud. He shakes hands with commoners. He looks them in the eyes. This is the birth of God.’ Meanwhile Ojasoo enters, with his (artistic) partner Ene-Liis Semper by his side and delegates on their trail, Putinesque and in control, all elements playing the patriarchist card we have seen before.
The convention closes with the leader’s speech, ending with the words ‘You are free.’ Ambiguity is still a key player here: freedom is a populist trope, yet this is also Ojasoo the theatre-maker speaking, marking the end of the performance but also asking the audience to make up their own mind, inviting them to think, believe and vote in freedom, autonomously.
Why Choose Subversive Affirmation?
The projects mentioned thus far are quite large and ambitious, both in terms of length and volume. Subversive affirmation, however, can also be small and relatively private, like in the one-woman show Cock, Cock … Who’s There? (2018) by Samira Elagoz. In this lecture-performance, Elagoz presents some of her ‘social experiments,’ as she calls them, in which she films men and explores how they desire and look at her. She contacts these men via online platforms such as Chatroulette, Craigslist and Tinder, and by behaving attractively (in the eyes of men), she consciously affirms the codes and conventions of these platforms, offering herself as an object of sexual desire.
However, she also subverts the sexually coded interaction patterns and the male gaze by filming these men (turning them into objects of the gaze as well), in a scientific-objectifying manner, thus neutralising all ‘transactions’—which creates, in some instances, a space for exploring non-sexual intimacy. Cock, Cock … Who’s There? received both praise and criticism. Critics typically accuse Elagoz of reproducing sexist ideas, whereas others are thoroughly intrigued by the way she deliberately exploits and ultimately subverts the male gaze. These responses confirm the complexity and ambiguity of the work.
Elagoz’s project started from very personal and traumatic sexual experiences, and her experiments were a way of reclaiming agency. Theatre NO99’s event was fuelled by anger about political manipulation. Julian Hetzel’s Schuldfabrik fits in line with his long-term interest in large-scale socio-economic and political systems.
To work with subversive affirmation, therefore, you could ask yourself what are the patterns, formats and systems that define your everyday-life and that you would like to change or understand better? What are systems or mechanisms you feel are too big to ‘defy’ with small creative or critical acts that are so invasive that ‘critical distance’ is not an option? ‘Opting for the worst’ could then be your best choice. In order to infiltrate a system, however, you would need time. Time to do extensive research, time to learn and adopt the formats and systems you wish to subvert, time to practise. In short: time to design your perfect camouflage act.
- Arns, Inke, and Sylvia Sasse, ‘Subversive Affirmation: On Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance.’ In East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe. Edited by IRWIN. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.
- BAVO, Cultural Activism Today. The Art of Over-Identification. 2007.
- BAVO, ‘Always Choose the Worst Option. Artistic Resistance and the Strategy of Over-Identification.’ Valiz, 2008. https://www.bavo.biz/always-choose-the-worst-option-artistic-resistance-and-the-strategy-of-over-identification.
- CityMag, ‘Cock Cock… Who’s There? Q&A with creator Samira Elagoz.’ CityMag. February 18, 2020. https://citymag.indaily.com.au/culture/cock-cock-whos-there-qa-with-creator-samira-elagoz/.
- Sébastien Hendrickx, ‘Kunst die zich voordoet alsof ze iets anders is dan kunst.’ Rekto Verso, September 25, 2013. https://www.rektoverso.be/artikel/kunst-die-zich-voordoet-alsof-ze-iets-anders-dan-kunst.
- Žižek, Slavoj, The Universal Exception. Edited by Rex Butler and Scott Stephens. London: Bloomsbury Publishers, 2014.
- Ash and Money documentary: NO55 Ash and Money. 2013. https://player.vimeo.com/video/130752912.
- Paul Poet, Ausländer Raus! Schlingensiefs Container, 2005. German documentary with English subtitles. More information at https://www.schlingensief.com/start.php.
- Julian Hetzel’s website: http://julian-hetzel.com/.
- Samira Elagoz’s website: http://www.samiraelagoz.com/.
- Theatre NO99’s website on the project NO75 Unified Estonia Assembly: https://no99.ee/productions/no75-unified-estonia-assembly.
The 2018 edition was actually called SELF, which was also the brand name of the soap. SELF focussed on the store rather than the factory and was presented during the 2019 Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space. See Julian Hetzel’s website for details.
Sébastien Hendrickx, ‘Kunst die zich voordoet alsof ze iets anders is dan kunst,’ Rekto Verso, 25 September, 2013, https://www.rektoverso.be/artikel/kunst-die-zich-voordoet-alsof-ze-iets-anders-dan-kunst.
Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse, ‘Subversive Affirmation: On Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance,’ in East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, edited by IRWIN, pp. 444-455 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).
Arns and Sasse 2006, p. 445.
Slavoj Žižek, The Universal Exception, edited by Rex Butler and Scott Stephens (London: Bloomsbury Publishers, 2014), p. 17.
Hetzel deliberately uses the two meanings of the German ‘Schuld,’ referring both to guilt as well as debt.
BAVO, ‘Always Choose the Worst Option. Artistic Resistance and the Strategy of Over-Identification,’ Valiz, 2008, https://www.bavo.biz/always-choose-the-worst-option-artistic-resistance-and-the-strategy-of-over-identification.
Schlingensief quoted in Arns and Sasse 2006, p. 453.
MAGA, or Make America Great Again, was the official motto of the 2016 Trump campaign in the US and featured prominently in his 2020 campaign. Brexit took place in 2016, when UK citizens voted to leave the EU, influenced by the ‘take back control’ slogan of the leave camp, which alludes to the bygone days of the British commonwealth, a former imperium turned into a ‘past perfect’ of autonomy and world leadership.