# 63 | Strategy of Conversation | Estelle Zhong

Estelle Zhong studies here a very interesting case of artistic commitment undertaken in a new mode imposed by the contemporary international political context as it relates to war.  Establishing “conversation” as a new political strategy does not necessarily culminate in an object that can be likened to a “work.”  And yet, there really is art here, and the author proves it.

Zhong is also preparing her dissertation at Sciences Po on “The Community of Singularities: Figures of the Individual and of the Collective in Participatory Art in Great Britain from 1997 to the Present.”  Her unpublished research should allow us to reexamine our approach to the new artistic rules for politics.


Laurence Bertrand Dorléac

Bringing the Enemy Home
The New Paradigm for Engaged Art:
The Strategy of Conversation in the Work of Jeremy Deller and Michael Rakowitz

Estelle Zhong

Both It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq (2009) by Jeremy Deller and Enemy Kitchen (2004- ) by Michael Rakowitz deal with the Iraq War (2003-2011).  These two works are neither images nor visual-arts objects.  No trace of a representation of war is to be found in them.  Instead, these two works offer a new way of approaching the theme of war through art: here, it is a matter of creating conversations among participants wherein people’s opinions and their representations of a war still in progress may confront one another.

A strange motor home wends its way along the roads of the Southern United States: it is towing behind itself the carcass of an automobile that had been blown up in a Baghdad market in 2007.  On board is just as unexpected a team: the British artist Jeremy Deller—the person in charge of the UK Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale—accompanied by the Iraqi artist Esam Pasha and Jonathan Harvey, a sergeant in the American army.  Sixteen stopovers are planned.  Set up in an impromptu stall placed in front of the trailer, Pasha and Harvey talk with anyone who wants to stop by and ask a few questions.  For his part, the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, a documenta 13 invitee, spends his days in kitchens teaching his mother’s Iraqi recipes to American schoolchildren.  On their aprons can be read the words “Enemy Kitchen,” set against a background of the Iraqi flag.  They learn to make shish kabob meatballs and invent the recipe for “Southern Fried Iraqi Chicken.”

These two projects belong to a new contemporary-art practice that has been identified under the name of participatory art since the early 1990s.  Other terms have been associated with it: socially-engaged art, social practice, contextual art, and so on.  Although it is difficult to formulate an overall definition for this practice, since it is not highly unified, one can propose a provisional one so that one might get one’s bearings: participatory art may be said to be an artistic practice that rests on various degrees of collaborative work between participants and an artist, this practice taking place over a long period of time.  Its objectives are situated in part outside the artistic field, and the collaborative process itself constitutes a key aim of the project.  This practice can lead to the production of objects, but such production is not a necessary condition—so much so that the category project tends to substitute itself for that of work.

These two projects, by Rakowitz and Deller, stand out for the ways in which they treat the traditional subject of war.  Formally speaking, they do not represent war; they speak of it (war is not a subject of representation but a topic of discussion).  Discursively speaking, their projects do not constitute any kind of denunciation; they claim to be absolutely nonpartisan.

Our investigative hypothesis is as follows: these projects allow one to think anew the relations between art and politics today and to consider what a contemporary form of engaged art might mean.  They mark a paradigm shift for political engagement in art.

Thus, we shall attempt, first of all, to test out the traditional paradigm of artistic engagement in light of the analyses of Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator (2008)[1], in order to gauge the specificity of the kind of engagement at work in Rakowitz’s and Deller’s projects, which set up conversation as a new form of political strategy.

The Traditional Paradigm of Artistic Engagement

In The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière names the traditional paradigm of artistic engagement the mimetic critical model.  The latter operates upon a belief in the possibility of a raising of political awareness in the viewer [le spectateur], this raised political awareness itself being brought about by the work as it was intended by the artist.  The paradigmatic example given by Rancière is the work by Martha Rosler entitled Bringing the War Home (1969-1972), a photomontage that juxtaposes images of well-appointed American interiors with images of the Vietnam War.  Montage constitutes a privileged form for this type of artistic engagement: the juxtaposition, on one and the same surface, of heterogeneous, or even antagonistic, elements brings about raised awareness.  In Balloons, for example, “The critical procedure thus aimed to have a dual effect: an awareness of the hidden reality and a feeling of guilt about the denied reality.” [2]

According to Rancière, the limits of this model are to be found in the absence of “calculable transmission between artistic shock, intellectual awareness and political mobilization. . . .  There is no straight path from the viewing of a spectacle to an understanding of the state of the world, and none from intellectual awareness to . . . a decision to change it.” [3]

In contrast to this shock strategy, what Rancière examines is a model that is at work in participatory-art projects. [4] In a search for greater effectiveness, what is challenged is the alleged linchpin of the prior model, namely, “viewer awareness.” [5] The latter, conceived as “mediation between an art that is productive of visual devices and a transformation of social relations,” is eliminated; in this new paradigm, “the devices of art are presented directly as proposals for social relations.”[6] It no longer is a matter of creating works that aim at producing social relations but of works that are social relations.

This is indeed the model of engagement we observe in Deller’s and Rakowitz’s projects.

Conversation: New Artistic Form, New Political Strategy, New Engagement

Indeed, It Is What It Is and Enemy Kitchen pertain to a specific form of social relations—conversation—and not to a traditional artistic form.  The choice of this social form reorganizes around it the preestablished categories of artist, viewer, and engagement.

First of all, the choice of conversation leads to a new relation with the viewer: the viewer is no longer he whom one attempts to strike, shock, or mark—the shock strategy—but he with whom one engages in an exchange—through the participatory strategy of conversation.  The participant is considered, a priori, to be someone who is worth being heard.  This leads to a different positioning of the artist in relation to his addressee.  The model of mimetic critical engagement presupposes an asymmetrical relation between artist and viewer: the artist knows, is familiar with such and such a reality, this or that truth, and wishes to bring about a raising of awareness in the viewer who, himself, is someone who does not know.  In conversation, a more horizontal relation between artist and participant is established.[7] Conversation, as Michel de Certeau defines it in The Practice of Everyday Life,[8] is the collective production of meaning.  The artist is no longer an author, the sole and unique creator of significations; he functions more as a “facilitator,” an anonymous vehicle for encounters.  The Enemy Kitchen videos show this clearly.  Rakowitz never gives advice; he just feeds the conversation—he poses questions and offers his opinions.  Deller pushes a bit further this decentering of the focal point from the artist toward the participants, delegating speech to two persons who have experienced the war in Iraq and are familiar with the country in general.[9]

In altering the relation between artist and viewer, the choice of conversation also implies a new relation to the political, a new way of thinking about artistic engagement.  Indeed, the conversational mode entails here the project’s political neutrality.  Deller thus declares, apropos of It Is What It Is: “It was presented in as neutral a way as possible, which puzzled a lot of people.  But it meant that the public were more likely to talk to us, because they weren’t scared to be dragged into some sort of political arena.”[10] Rakowitz responds to this need for neutrality by setting the political within the biographical,[11] since in appearance he is merely handing down recipes from his mother’s kitchen.  These projects broach a political subject while remaining depoliticized, in the sense of being nonpartisan.  There is no denunciation of war.  This position would have been untenable within the framework of the mimetic critical-artistic engagement model.

Such depoliticization is not, for all that, to be interpreted as a rejection of engagement.  It constitutes, rather, a sort of initial tacit contract with the participant.  For, the conversational mode does not imply a withdrawal from political questions, but a delay.  Indeed, the traditional work brought about a raising of awareness, in the shock mode, which led to indignation.  Conversation responds to another temporal scheme and is tinged with another affective tone.  As exchanges occur, conversation leads not to indignation but to a kind of understanding that allows for a deconstruction of the very possibility of war: assigning an identity to a people, or a country, as the Enemy.

In his work On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,[12] Dave Grossman, a lieutenant colonel in the American army, draws up a typology of the distances required to kill an enemy in combat.  The greater the physical, cultural, and emotional distance between a soldier and the enemy, the easier it is for him to kill a man from the opposing camp.

On the available videos of Deller’s and Rakowitz’s projects,[13] the majority of the conversations bear not on the war as a geopolitical fact but on daily life in Iraq (lifestyle, clothing, cooking, readings, etc.).  Esam Pasha, Jonathan Harvey (who worked in a PSYOP unit),[14] and Rakowitz are specialists in Iraqi culture and not in military or political reality.  In delivering to participants firsthand information about the way Iraqis live, they reduce the cultural and emotional distances between Americans and Iraqis and thus undermine the possibility that the other will be considered the Enemy.  Rakowitz offers the following explanation: “The word ‘Iraq’ could be discussed—in this case, attached to food, as a representative of culture and not as a stream of green-tinted images shown on CNN of a war-torn place.”[15] Thus, the choice of conversation—which, taken at first glance, is a paragon of neutrality—constitutes a specific political strategy that aims at questioning and undermining one of the very conditions for war.

Deller and Rakowitz have introduced the Enemy into one’s own territory.


[1] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2009).

[2] Ibid., p. 27.

[3] Jacques Rancière, “The Paradoxes of Political Art,” Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. and trans. Steven Corcoran (New York and London: Continuum, 2010), p. 143. [The chapter “Les paradoxes de l’art politique” from Le spectateur émancipé (Paris: La Fabrique, 2008) did not appear in the translation The Emancipated Spectator, and the version appearing in English in Dissensus differs somewhat from the version in Le spectateur engagé (p. 74). —Trans.]

[4] Rancière criticizes this model of engagement, pointing to two formal characteristics that render it ineffective—choice of a mode of exhibiting art that is suitable for traditional works, when these projects take place in a museum; choice of a spectacular mode, when these projects take place in a public space.  For these two reasons, the works pertaining to this model of engagement operate only as metaphors for the social bonds they wish to establish, without really implementing them.  These two modes of visibility—museum-based exhibition or spectaclarization—do not concern the two projects we are studying.

[5] Le spectateur émancipé, p. 77 [this expression, la conscience spectatrice, could not found in the translated version, “The Paradoxes of Political Art” (see note 3) —Trans.].

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art (San Diego: University of California Press, 2004).  Kester proposes the conversational form as an answer to the problems of symbolic forms of domination occasioned by cooperation between the artist and nonartists, within the framework of participatory art.

[8] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984; paperback edition, 1988), p. xxii.

[9] See the concept of “delegated performance” proposed by Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art & the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012), chapter 8: “Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity,” pp. 219-39.

[10] Jeremy Deller, Joy In People (London: Hayward Gallery, 2011), p. 152.

[11] This biographical insertion, which tempers the political dimension, is even more striking in RETURN (2006), a project of Rakowitz’s that is presented as a business enterprise importing Iraqi dates into the United States.

[12] Dave Grossman, On Killing. The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2009).

[13] See http://www.conversationsaboutiraq.org and http://michaelrakowitz.com/projects/enemy-kitchen/

[14] PSYOP is the abbreviation for Psychological Operations, a unit that is in constant contact with the autochthonous population: the goal is to be sure of obtaining, if not a favorable response, at least a minimum of cooperation regarding American military actions.

[15] See http://www.michaelrakowitz.com/enemy-kitchen/


BISHOP, Claire. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art & the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso, 2012.

DE CERTEAU, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

DELLER, Jeremy. It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq. New York: Creative Time, 2011.

DELLER, Jeremy. Joy in People. London: Hayward Publishing, 2011.

GIELEN, Pascal, and Pascal DE BRUYNE. Eds. Community Art: The Politics of Trespassing. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2011.

GROSSMAN, Dave. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2009.

KESTER, Grant. Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art. San Diego: University of California Press, 2004.

RANCIÈRE, Jacques. Le spectateur émancipé. Paris: La Fabrique, 2008.

RANCIÈRE, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Trans. Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 2009.

RANCIÈRE, Jacques. “The Paradoxes of Political Art.” Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Ed. and trans. Steven Corcoran. New York and London: Continuum, 2010.

A former student at the École Normale Supérieure of Lyon, Estelle Zhong is currently writing a dissertation in Art History at Sciences-Po Paris under the supervision of Laurence Bertrand Dorléac.  She is interested in how participatory art fits into the current democratic and neoliberal context, particularly in Great Britain.  She thus is working on the way in which participatory art is revelatory of the development of individualism and how it allows one to conceive of new ways of being together—in other words: communities of singularities.









Comments are closed.