“Art can’t change the world on its own”

A conversation with Chantal Mouffe about the Silent University
by Florian Malzacher & Pelin Tan

In: The Silent University: Towards a Transversal Pedagogy. Eds. Florian Malzacher, Pelin Tan, Ahmet Öğüt. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016. 12-23.

You mentioned once in an interview that you do not believe there is a distinction between political and non-political art and that, for you, “from the point of view of the theory of hegemony, artistic practices play a role in the constitution and maintenance of a given symbolic order or in its challenging and this is why they necessarily have a political dimension.” How do you see such art practices as the Silent University, which tries to empower refugees/asylum seekers who are silenced by the complex structure of hegemony?

I have a problem with seeing the Silent University as an art project. I am very positive about it, but is it an art project? I don’t think so. Of course you can say that it is an initiative in which artists are implied. It is a project that was designed by an artist, yes, but that does not make it an art project.

That will probably remain an open question. Everyone involved in the Silent University describes it differently. One reason why we see it as an artistic project is because it plays with institutional representation. By calling itself a “university,” it references an institutional model. But in reality, on the level of governance, it is not a real university. It is a fictive structure. While it might institute something, it is not a real institution. It plays with the symbolic order and with representation. It is an artistic project, not only in its form but also by being an intervention in society using representative models. The Silent University can be seen as an NGO but it could also be seen as a municipal or government project. It is hard to describe what its institutional body is and what kind of political language it uses to speak to whom. It is important not to be able to describe what the Silent University really is. Another reason to link it to art is, of course, because it is usually hosted by an art institution.

But that is because there are artists involved, and those are the contacts they have. What would be the difference if it was hosted by a school or a political association with no links to the art world?

But it is also about going beyond the policies—educational policy, institutional policy, governmental policy etc. Establishing the Silent University in a government institution won’t be easy because it has to be run in a self-organized, autonomous, collective way. There is a coordinator but there are many people who provide initiatives. Some of these people might not have papers. Most institutions, including big museums, don’t really want to host refugees and asylum seekers permanently in their spaces. In this regard, smaller art institutions are easier to access.

I find it a bit exaggerated when people say: I am an artist, so what I do is automatically an art project. But if you insist on relating it to art, I would rather put it in the category of “artistic activism” or “artivism.” For me, this is a form of a political practice. The Silent University is definitively a political project, and artistic activism is a political project that uses artistic strategies, for instance regarding the questions about representation. So it is a political project with an important aesthetic, artistic dimension—but it is not primarily a artistic project.

At one end of the spectrum there are artists who want to make a political intervention—at the other there are activists who use artistic strategies. It is mainly a difference of emphasis, but this is an important distinction, a methodological question. I am in favor of both. Both are important but there are also important differences: many artivists are very critical toward artists working in the art world—they believe that if you want to make critical art you can’t work in museums, galleries or take part in biennials.

So is it possible to make a meaningful political intervention within the field of art or, more generally, from inside an institution? Or is one required to do so from the outside—if one can make meaningful political interventions at all?

Many people believe that you can’t make any kind of critique in the art world because you are automatically involved. I don’t agree with that. I’m always defending a pluralistic position: one should try to occupy all the places where one can make an intervention. If you have the chance to do so in a museum, in a gallery, do it! But don’t believe that this is the only way. One needs to recognize the multiplicity of spaces. That is what I am really interested in when I am thinking of those interventions in the form of artistic practices: How they can contribute to the counter-hegemonic struggle? That’s what is important for me.

And I think one can contribute to that struggle in many different ways and in many different places. In this regard the Silent University is an important form of practice—whether you call it “artistic” or “artivist.” It is important for the counter-hegemonic struggle because it is trying to facilitate the voices of people who are silenced. That’s very, very important.