Article about Jonas Staal in Syria

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Closing ceremony of the New World Summit in Derik, Syria

I published this article in the December 2015 edition of The Art Newspaper – with first a ‘news’ story on page 3, and then a feature on pages 58-59. 

I’ve copy-pasted the text of the feature article below, as it will be hard to read the broadsheet-format in pdf online; the latter is added at the bottom of this article to give an impression.

In October 2015 I found myself on the banks of the river Tigris, ready to cross from Iraq into Syria. I was part of an international delegation including writers, artists, activists, European parliamentarians and a few journalists. We had been invited by the artist Jonas Staal to participate in a summit to be held in a parliament he is building in Rojava. This is how Kurds call the autonomous region they have established in north-eastern Syria.

The delegation’s leaders had haggled all day with the Iraqi Kurdish border guards, so it was night by the time we stepped onto the boat with our suitcases, and made our way towards the searchlight under which the Dutch artist, his team, and our Kurdish hosts were waiting for us on the opposite bank.

This was the 5th edition of the New World Summit, a transnational organization for stateless people, which builds parliaments “that are not limited to the rules of states, but that are shaped by the rights of peoples”, as Staal puts it.

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After the massive foundations have been laid, the first arches of the parliamentary structure arise

The first edition of the New World Summit took place during the 2012 Berlin Biennale, hosting representatives of organizations designated as ‘terrorist’. The second summit took place in Leiden, the Netherlands, re-enacting the legal and political positions taken in the international trial of Jose Maria Sisón, founder of the Filipino Communist Party and its armed resistance.

The third summit was intended to take place in Kochi, Kerala, during the city’s first biennale, but the Indian authorities intervened before the banned political outfits could convene. The fourth summit was a grand affair hosted by the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels, discussing the ‘Stateless State’, with participants from all over the world.

The theme of this New World Summit in Syria was ‘Democratic Confederalism’, or Stateless Democracy, such as it is practiced in Rojava.

The Syrian State withdrew its troops from this area to engage in civil warfare elsewhere in the country in 2012. Instead of joining the war, the citizens of Rojava declared their autonomy and set about constructing a socio-political system based on communal self-organization, participatory democracy and a radical feminist rejection of patriarchal systems such as the state.

This system remarkably ensures the peaceful coexistence in Rojava between the majority Kurds and the Arab, Assyrian-Christian, Yezidi and other minorities. It has also produced the only armed forces – the YPG – that have managed to push back the militants of the Islamic State. The YPG and the women-only YPJ are people’s protection units based on the same principles of communal self-rule.

These ideas and underlying political philosophy originate from the prison writings of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and figurehead of the Kurdish struggle over the past decades. At the request of the Turkish government, the PKK is banned as a terrorist organization in Europe, the USA and other countries. As a result, Rojava is not recognized by any international organization. Its revolution is quarantined to such a degree that even I, a specialist on the Middle East, hadn’t heard of it before Staal brought it to my attention.

Jonas Staal, born in Zwolle, the Netherlands, in 1981, first came to Rojava in 2014. He temporarily resides there, until the construction of the parliament is completed. This will be bequeathed to the region, unlike the elaborate but temporary parliamentary structures that hosted the previous New World Summits.

These spatial configurations of democratic experiments are the main physical artistic output of the project: the scale models of the parliaments are exhibited together with photographs and documentary video recordings of the summits.

The arches remind me of Louise Bourgeois' spiders until I notice the slogans written on the sides

The arches remind me of Louise Bourgeois’ spiders until I notice the slogans written on the sides

Art, Power and Propaganda

The summit took place on 16 and 17 October. The three days previous to that were spent visiting community organizations – media, cultural centres, self-defence units, academic institutes, refugee camps and city councils – that run Rojava since its autonomy.

It was confrontational. I was stunned by the vitality, the innovations and the apparent success of these communities practicing self-rule; but should I give in to the pull to join the revolution, to subscribe to its tenets, to commit myself ideologically? Should I relinquish my cherished position as a neutral observer and join the fray?

This is what Staal seems to have done. The décor he constructed for the summit was replete with flags, banners and slogans. For two days we absorbed long speeches extolling counter-hegemonic ideologies or constructing counter-narratives, painstakingly translated from Kurdish and Arabic into English.

The New World Summit profiles itself as an “artistic and political organization”, but one may wonder what, exactly, is the artistic content. Staal does not seek to transform the event into an artwork by, for example, controlling its performativity. In truth, the summit and the days preceding it seemed like an exercise in propaganda.

The artist does not refute this accusation. The point of departure of his artistic practice is the relation between art and power; in his pamphlet Post-Propaganda he claims that art has always been used for propaganda purposes by the powers supporting it. The democratic state’s support of the arts can be placed in the continuity of the support previously offered by the bourgeoisie, the monarchy or the church, and similar to the support given to the arts by the totalitarian regimes of our age.

The freedom enjoyed by modern and contemporary Western artists should epitomize the open, tolerant and free nature of our democracies. This was the objective of CIA support to American expressionist painters and the ‘Congress for Cultural Freedom’ in Europe in the Cold War.

A vivid expression of this conundrum was in Jonas’ public art work for the Dutch Liberation Day, in which a plane trailing the message ‘Be Free’ was followed by another with the warning ‘… Or Else…’

Rather than trying to escape this relationship with power, Staal’s approach as an artist is to tackle it head-on. If all art is propaganda, he reasons, I should decide on the message myself. He embarked on a PhD Arts program at Leiden University to elucidate the relations between propaganda and art.

Western propaganda as exercised by ‘power monopolies’, he notes, shapes a normative sense of reality. In popular terms, this amounts to the ‘There Is No Alternative’ belief, or however bad the current system, anything else would be much worse. To this, Staal juxtaposes a form of progressive or emancipatory propaganda (There Is An Alternative). This can only work, he argues, if the public is not the object of propaganda, but itself defines, refines and propagates this message.

This indicates what the role of the artist can be (a vexed question in our day). Instead of being the decorator or jester of the powers that be, she/he can build coalitions with progressive forces in society, and engage in awareness-raising and educational activities to spread an alternative message.

For many years, Staal engaged the Dutch government and public authorities. He made them feature as protagonists in his work. Take for example his project ‘Art, Property of Politics’, which included: curating exhibitions with the art collected by Dutch political parties; developing the prison model advocated by far-right parliamentarian Fleur Agema in her social sciences MA dissertation; and closed-door marathon sessions with artists and politicians about their mutual relationship.

The Dutch government, apparently wishing to project an image of being progressive, pluralist and open in times of populist cuts to cultural budgets, supports most of these projects. The parliament built in Rojava is also co-funded by the Mondriaan Fonds, the main public institution funding arts in the Netherlands.

 

The Artist and Democracy

Staal eventually turned his attention beyond the Dutch political landscape, and towards the notion of democracy. He started by opposing ‘democratism’, an ideology propagated by power monopolies to ensure their continued rule, to ‘democracy’ as an ideal, as yet hardly realized in the world.

Next, he identified the shadow side of democratism: groups labelled as ‘terrorist’, stateless individuals and, at the international level, unrecognized peoples. All these are denied participation in the public sphere, so Staal resolved to provide them with a platform: the New World Summit.

“You may ask yourselves: what does art have to do with these stateless political struggles?” Staal questioned during the opening of the New World Summit in Rojava, addressing a room packed with representatives of the local community.  “We believe that if we want to create a different world, we will need a different imagination of what that world should look like. As such, every political imaginary needs an artistic imaginary as well”.

One of the characteristics of the history of Western art is a continuous struggle by artists for more freedom. In liberal democracies, where such freedom became a foundational concept, this led to a paradox. The field of art is constructed as a glass house within which the artist can do anything he or she wants, in full view of the public, but whatever happens in this glass house is safely separated from the real world by the tag of ‘art’.

Jonas Staal reacts to this depressing situation not by breaking down the walls – as artists, from the ‘institutional critique’ movement to ‘relational aesthetics’, have tried with varying success – but by leaving the comfort zone of the Western art world, identifying causes he desires to support, and putting his artistic imagination to their service. As he puts it, he’s creating a new arts infrastructure.

In the Netherlands he has worked closely with the Pirate Party, the stateless group of refugees ‘We Are Here’ and with recent student protests. He travelled to the Philippines to visit the grassroots organizations of the (banned) National Democratic Movement, and his team filmed their way through the desert of Mali, hosted by the rebel Tuaregs or Amazigh. Representatives of the World Amazigh Conference and of the National Democratic Movement were invited to speak in Rojava too.

From a political viewpoint, one might wonder about some of Staal’s choices. Old Marxist guerrilla movements and a splinter faction of the Tuaregs fighting for independence of their homeland may not easily attract audiences in the search for new political alternatives. In the eyes of most observers they may at best seem mired in 20th Century politics, and at worst tainted by the crimes they have committed in their armed struggles.

But in Rojava, Staal has found a perfect partner. The appeal of its revolution is being compared with that of Republican Spain at the onset of the Spanish civil war, 80 years ago. Few progressive organizations could object to the enlightened political philosophy which inspires the democratic experiment, even though it’s written by a moustachioed ex-Marxist guerrilla serving a life sentence. It seems the transnational movement of stateless people has finally found a home, at least as far as the New World Summit is concerned.

NWS Rojava (2)

The parliament that Jonas Staal’s team is building epitomizes the democratic ideals that inspire both the Rojava revolution and the New World Summit project. The structure is round, symbolizing unity, and open on all sides, thus fully transparent. It is surrounded by a public park that is part of the overall design, embedding it firmly in the community of Derik, who can use it for any public function.

The floor consists of progressively descending concentric circles, as an ancient forum, allowing ample seating space. The central circle is raised, so that speakers can use it as a lectern. In that way, also, no single person can occupy the centre.

Three sets of six iron arches support three partial domes, which overlap to protect the audience from the elements. The arches are inscribed in three languages (Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac) with the six principles of the Rojava Revolution: Democratic Confederalism, Gender Equality, Secularism, Self-Defence, Communalism and Social Ecology. The roof panels will be decorated with the insignia of the grassroots organizations driving the social and civic transformation of Rojava.

From his small office in Derik, Jonas Staal is now peparing the last phases of the project, a summit in Utrecht, the Netherlands, involving all social movements that have accompanied the New World Summit throughout its four years, and then a grand finale in his completed parliament building in Rojava.

Artist's impression of the final result, once the park has also been completed

Artist’s impression of the final result, once the park has also been completed

Access the pdfs of the news feature and this article as it appeared in the newspaper here:

003 News Syria /// 058 Features Syria ///  059 Features Syria

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