Revolution is Sublime

Or, what are we going to do with the rich?

Space Station 65 commissioned the Freee art collective to produce a new work, ‘Revolution is Sublime’ for Camberwell Space’s exhibition ‘The Peckham Experiment’.

In response to the original ‘Peckham Experiment’, a social programme in health and wellbeing for Peckham residents in the 1930s by George Scott Williamson and Innes Hope Pearse, Freee produced a sculptural object, a billboard poster and a manifesto (the latter published as a pamphlet and read aloud collectively in a ‘spoken choir’ event in the gallery).

Critical of the centre’s original creed (‘a very strict “anarchy” … will permit the emergence of order through spontaneous action’) which led to a laissez-faire non-interventionism (a visitor, who learned from Williamson that a man had ‘a most dreadful hernia’, asked why it had not been treated and was told: ‘It’s his hernia. It’s up to him when he wants to get it fixed’), Freee turned to an earlier model of working-class self-organization in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.

The manifesto ‘Revolution is Sublime: or, what are we going to do with the rich?’ is a rewriting and updating of an article by Lenin published in Pravda at the end of 1917 on the problems and opportunities for self-organization. Unlike the soft libertarian faith in spontaneous autonomy nurtured by the original ‘Peckham Experiment’, Lenin pointed out that workers’ self-organization would be vigorously opposed by the capitalists and their supporters, and therefore that the task of organization “cannot take place without friction, difficulties, conflicts and violence against the inveterate parasites and their hangers-on”.

The slogan  ‘Revolution is Sublime’, which is cut into a large circular mirror on the gallery wall, and is present in the billboard poster of the artists carrying the mirror through a forest glade, insists on the friction, difficulties, conflicts and violence of any serious political transformation. A reminder, in fact, of the best thinking on politics today by the likes of Etienne Balibar, Alain Badiou and Jacques Ranciere. Politics “is never something that can be bestowed or distributed; it has to be won,” says Balibar, knowing that the winning of political struggles is never spontaneous and unopposed.


For Alain Badiou a politics cannot be derived from good intentions. “Who can fail to see that in our humanitarian expeditions, interventions, embarkations of charitable legionnaires, the Subject presumed to by universal is split? On the one side of the victims, the haggard animal exposed on television screens. On the side of the benefactors, conscience and the imperative to intervene. And why does this splitting always assign the same roles to the same sides? Who cannot see that this ethics which rests on the misery of the worlds hides, behind its victim-Man, the good-Man, the white-Man?” He goes on, ‘it is perceived, from the heights of our apparent civil peace, as the uncivilized that demands of the civilized a civilizing intervention … And this is why the reign of ‘ethics’ coincides, after decades of courageous critiques of colonialism and imperialism, with today’s sordid self-satisfaction in the ‘West’, with the insistent argument according to which the misery of the Third World is the result of its own incompetence, its own inanity – in short, of its subhumanity.”

Jacques Ranciere gives this politics a dissensual and split ontology, arguing that politics can not consist of a consensus within the demos but only in the forceful emergence of the ‘part of no part’ (the politically excluded): “Spectacular or otherwise, political activity is always a mode of expression that undoes the perceptible divisions of the police order by implementing a basically heterogenous assumption, that of a part of those who have no part, an assumption that, at the end of the day, itself demonstrates the sheer contingency of the order, the equality of any speaking being with any other speaking being. Politics occurs when there is a place and a way for two heterogenous processes to meet”.

And this is why Balibar is right to say that ‘no one may be liberated or elevated to a position of equality – let us say, be emancipated – by an external, unilateral decision, or by a higher grace.” And this is also why it is wrongheaded to think, as Christian Aid does today, that the key social problem in the world today is poverty or the existence of the poor. The problem, on the contrary, is wealth and the rich. Which means the question for radical social transformation is not ‘what are we going to do with the poor?’ or even ‘what are the poor going to do for themselves?’ but only ‘what are we going to do with the rich?’ In other words, revolution is never pretty, and never unopposed, which is why it is always and necessarily sublime.

The Peckham Experiment.

28 September to 7 November 2009

With Jonathan Bishop, Nicholas Cobb, Freee, Ellie Harrison, Dean Kenning, Gayle Chong Kwan, Freddie Robins, Mark Wayman and Annie Whiles

Curated by Jo David and Rachael House

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