Why Read: The Body of the Web?

Proxy Politics and the End of Democracy

All the reasons you should read this engaging book.

ICA Student Forum members Christian Lübbert and Jenn Pavlick explore why we should read Boaz Levin and Vera Tollmann’s new text The Body of the Web. The text formed the basis for the second TEXT2SPEECH meeting of 2016, a free reading group which provides a platform for the discussion of texts selected by practitioners, academics and student forum members. The meeting was co-hosted by the artist collective HARD-CORE, as well as Maximilian Schmoetzer, an artist and member of the Research Centre of Proxy Politics.

In Madrid 2015, there was a virtual march against a new law establishing fines for protests that interfere with public infrastructure. Demonstrating their opposition to the law, protestors replaced themselves with holograms that were projected outside of the Spanish Parliament. The public thus became a parade of blue, glowing spectres. Opening their text The Body of the Web [PDF] with a focus on the protest, Levin and Tollmann classify this event as a “proxy protest fit for the age of proxy politics." They argue:

"The concept of the proxy is emblematic of our post-representational, post-democratic political age – one increasingly populated by bot militias, puppet states, ghostwriters and communication relays. Disembodiment, invisible politics and the increasing subordination of politics to economic interests have become the norm. Still, proxy politics can be understood as both a symptom of crisis in representational politics as well as a counter- strategy aiming to critically engage the existing mechanisms of security and control."

The concept of the proxy is fundamental to this text, which references the work of many authors including Colin Crouch, Jacques Ranciére, Michael J. Glennon, Hannah Arendt, Édouard Glissant and Judith Butler. Incorporating a variety of contemporary political issues and global current events, it opens up a broad understanding of contemporary culture and politics, introducing the ‘proxy’ as a counter-strategy within the current zeitgeist. This is informed by discourses around post-democracy and post-representation; surveillance and censorship; cyberspace and an emerging data society.

"The multi-faceted term 'proxy' is symptomatic of a crisis in representation."

Coined by filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl, the term proxy politics generally refers to a "politics of the stand-in and decoy." Steyerl, and the Research Center for Proxy Politics (RCPP) pursued the notion of ‘proxy politics’ in a three-year research project at the University of Arts, Berlin, organising events and workshops on this theme. The Body of the Web (2016) was published as a part of a serial publication Out of Body, anticipating Skulptur Projekte Muenster 2017, and reflects upon their current research.

One of their readings of the multi-faceted term 'proxy' indicates that it is symptomatic of a crisis in representation. This echoes Jacques Ranciére’s notion of ‘post-democracy,’ where the very form of contemporary democracy is, paradoxically, intended to suppress the democratic rights of the people, thus replacing their agency with the “sole interplay of state mechanisms and combinations of social energies and interests."

Today, this deviated form of democracy functions within common political tactics of evasion and subterfuge. Levin and Tollmann link this to the phenomenon of double governance introduced by Michael J. Glennon, where two governing regimes exist: firstly, an elected government, and secondly, a network of institutions operating undercover, such as the Central Intelligence Agency. The age of proxy politics has shifted control from the government in power to now also include institutions which are only obliquely connected to the democratic process.

"Contemporary democracy is, paradoxically, intended to suppress the democratic rights of the people."

The text moves towards a discussion of the idea of ‘opacity,’ originating in the work of Édouard Glissant. Levin and Tolmann argue that opacity offers an opposition to the traditional demand for transparency, positioning invisibility and withdrawal as strategies of resistance. In a socio-political climate where the real and virtual are no longer separate, but are sites for control, the proxy becomes a method for withdrawal. Proxies are useful as a tool to reduce visibility, as in the hologram protest. But, we must ask, what other applications of the proxy are there?

An evocative and thorough text, The Body of the Web engenders further questioning and indicates routes for future research. How could we actually use the notion of proxy politics as a counter strategy apart from protests? How can we exceed the circumvention of restrictions such as blocked YouTube videos? How can we use it to withdraw from hegemonic social, political and neoliberal structures, which art institutions constantly reproduce? How can we develop a more extensive language around the notion of proxy politics in order to think about stand-ins as a way to counter other bodies of power? How can a current movement of artists working with proxy politics contribute to these questions?

TEXT2SPEECH is a series of reading groups organised by the ICA Student Forum to provide a space for debate around an eclectic range of texts, with each meeting topically responding to a part of the ICA’s current programme. The group is free to join and open to all, encouraging anyone with an interest in contemporary art and theory to join either regularly or for one of the meetings.

Join us for the next Student Forum event on 21 October.