The fighting stance is the most fundamental body posture in any type of Martial Art. To have a good stance allows you to move effortless and quickly. It also allows you to transfer force from your body to your arms and legs. You block and you attack out of the fighting stance and after each move you return to it. To have a good stance means that you are always alert and ready.
* * *
Almost exactly 100 years ago, Arthur Cravan, born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd, staged a boxing match between himself and Jack Johnson, the heavyweight world champion at the time, in order to avoid British military service.
It was a means to escape. 1
Arthur Cravan was Oscar Wilde’s nephew and like his uncle he was a poet. In order to draw enough attention to the fight, he pretended to be a European champion. It was right in middle of World War One. Both Cravan and Johnson were almost broke and urgently needed money. Johnson had just escaped federal charges and a prison sentence in the United States, while Cravan needed to pay for his passage to the United States.
The match happened in Barcelona on the 23rd of April 1916. Film rights were sold, which was much more profitable than the amount of issued tickets. Yet for the film to be feasible, the match had to last for at least six good rounds. The show turned out to be a disaster. Cravan froze as soon as he entered the ring. He did not dare to fight back. Johnson played with Cravan for six rounds, then he knocked him out with a single punch. The public felt cheated and suspected that the outcome was fixed right from the start. The next day local newspapers headlined the fight as ‘The Great Swindle’ 2
Nevertheless Cravan made enough money to leave Europe.
He got away.
* * *
Already in the 1920-ties, Walther Benjamin described withdrawal as a an act of resistance 3
. Several decades later in the early 2000s, ClaireFontaine formulated her idea of the ‘human strike’. She describes it as the most general strike of all, a strike that is neither limited by, nor restricted to exploitation in the domain of professional work and labour - but rather involves life in its entirety 4
. ‘Human strike’ means to become stranger, even to abandon one’s own sense of self in order to interrupt and to transform the instituted order of things as well as our belonging to it: withdrawal as a ‘means of halting’ 5
* * *
When I decided to come to London to do a Masters degree at Goldsmiths University, I realized that it was almost impossible for me to afford the average rent, the tuition fees, the high living expenses, and to focus on my studies at the same time without making debts. I had to find an alternative, an affordable way to enter the city.
I did not stage a boxing match. Instead I decided to buy a cheap old van (Mercedes Benz 310 KA / built in 1992) in Germany. Friends who work as mechanics showed me how to restore it 6
: cut out the rusty bits and I learned how to weld the broken parts. I repaired the underfloor and I lacked the car body. Later I insulated the van. Then I constructed a bed and a simple kitchen.
In August 2014 I drove it to London to live in it. With the help of other friends I gained access to the networks of their friends, which is how I managed to find an affordable place to park my van. Cody Dock can be found in the London Borough of Newham, right in the centre of the so-called ‘Arc of Opportunity’. My rent is one hundred pounds. Internet, electricity, and basic facilities are included in the price. Officially I am Cody Dock’s first artist in residence. At the same time I applied for a DAAD scholarship 7
to cover the tuition fees and to have a monthly income.
I got in.
* * *
a SUPERNOVA happens with enormous speed.
It is is the opposite of halting.
In 2010, the authorities of London and the London Borough of Newham co-produced a silent promotional video of three minutes length for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo 8
: ‘London’s Regeneration Supernova’. It advertises large areas of Newham as an ‘Arc of Opportunity’ for foreign investors.
TThe catchy title of the video refers to the brightest light in the universe: It is emitted by exploding stars for just a few milliseconds. However, it seems to me that the makers of the video did not take into consideration that a Supernova also is an extinction event. On a cosmic scale it describes a dying star. It either leaves a void, or it collapses into a black hole.
What follows is emptiness.
But isn’t there also the saying that war is the father of all things? After the old is destroyed, the new can be built (once again). In the end the comparison to the cosmic death of a star may therefore be not very far away from the truth: an urban Supernova in the guise of regeneration is indeed desirable for investors.
* * *
If the system is too rigid to be broken, the only viable option is to find gaps that can be exploited. For example I had to ensure that my van was affordable, but still met London’s Low Emission Standards to avoid excessive fines. One needs to know the rules first in order to navigate them. Yet perhaps even more important than knowing those rules is a network of allies and friends.
* * *
From my van I have a good view on ‘Sensation’ 9
, a work by Damien Hirst. It is part of a public sculpture trail. Next to Damien Hirst’s sculpture, you can find works by many other artists, including Martin Creed, Anthony Gormley, Mark Wallenger and Bill Viola. The Line 10
cuts right across the ‘Arc of Opportunity’, from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic park in the North, all the way to the O2 Arena in the South.
‘Sensation’ is constantly monitored by live CCTV to keep the public at a convenient distance. For example, whenever children play soccer around that sculpture an alarm goes off. A disembodied voice out of a speaker commands: back off!
* * *
The idea for ‘London’s Regeneration Supernova’ can be traced back to one single person: Clive Dutton (born 6 May 1953; died 6 June 2015) 11
. In 2009, Newham Council employed him to redevelop the Royal Docks. At this point several attempts to regenerate the area had failed already. Prior to the 2012 Olympics, Clive Dutton designed the masterplan for the area. His agenda, but also the legacy of the Olympics, resulted in the biggest shopping mall of Europe in Stratford (Westfield), an urban research centre at Royal Victoria Dock (Siemens Crystal) and a cable car (Emirates Air Line), which now connects the Royal Docks with North Greenwich (O2 Arena). In May 2013 the Royal Albert Dock was sold to a Chinese property developer. 12
Clive Dutton knew that art can be used to brand and to promote a new positive image. Hence,The Line
was opened in 2015 to connect these landmarks: Westfield, Siemens, Emirates Air Line, O2.
This is not a new situation. Already after the decline of London’s former docklands in the 1980-ties, Canary Wharf was privatized. It soon became the centre of the UK’s banking and finance sector. In consequence property prizes started to increase in the area, a development that is expected to continue for many years to come. 13
From an investment point of view, the increase of property prizes in recent years, in some areas by almost 40%, is positive, even though it inevitably results in the segregation of London’s diverse working class.
* * *
Nearly half the population in Newham lives below the poverty line. Most immigrants, but also many locals, cannot afford the high cost of new expensive houses. There is just not enough affordable housing left 14
. In consequence they are either displaced further and further out, often beyond the outskirts of town, or forced to live in precarious conditions.
The conversion of public property into private property, owned and secured by international corporations, undermines our relationships to our surroundings, as well as to one another. In overregulated areas people first become unaccustomed to strangers, and eventually afraid of difference in general 15
. Thus Anna Minton argues, that this new culture of authoritarianism and control has led to intensified social class divisions and a climate of fear.
* * *
It is a well known fact that not only public art, but also the very presence of artists in an area, is used by developers to increase its value.16
In an urban Supernova, property, capital and art are linked in a complex dynamic.
* * *
A fair balance does not exist. We are surrounded by an unprecedented amount of accumulated wealth. Yet it is inaccessible for most of us. The gap between rich and poor grows bigger. Indignation. We feel anger, sadness, fear and helplessness. We are faced with constant conflict and crisis, yet we seem to be unable to imagine a different future. One could argue that we have lost control.
Resistance against what?
If we are to some degree aware of global politics and the power mechanisms that are responsible for violence and inequalities in the world, and if we are conscious of the permanent ‘state of exception’ 17
we live in, we know that change has to start within ourselves, because to some degree we constitute the system that encapsulates and absorbs our lives. 18
* * *
Withdrawal or open rebellion? Personally, I feel discouraged by the outcome of past revolutions. But isn’t there also the constant risk that withdrawal becomes an act of compliance 19
, rather than an act of resistance? And doesn’t getting away inevitably mean to get into something else?
* * *
Sometimes I still feel like the distant traveller in ‘Sans Soleil’ by Chris Marker, who comes from a future that has lost its ability to forget 20
. He wants to understand. Yet it is as impossible for him to grasp the idea that unhappiness once existed in the history of his planet, as it is for me in the present to imagine the existence of poverty in a poor country.
Even if I choose to leave everything behind, to leave Europe and to live in a different world instead, in some ways I will never be more than just a distant traveller. Even if I give up all my privileges, there still is the dilemma that I cannot do anything about the privilege that has allowed me to choose in the first place.
* * *
It was September 2014. I had just arrived in Newham, when I saw the memorial for Bradley Stone in front of Peacock Gym for the first time. There was boxing gear displayed in the glass window next to it. A young man in front of the gym was smoking a cigarette. In as strange way his body posture almost resembled the posture of the monument.
Bradley Stone was a young working class hero who died after his boxing match with Richie Wenton in April 1994. 21
I remember that I was drawn to the pathos of it, curious about the pride and the violence. I wanted to know more about the status of THE GYM in the social fabric of London’s East End.
So I decided to leave my own comfort zone and to get involved. I first started boxing at Peacock Gym 22
, later I changed to train Muay Thai at Fightzone Gym 23
in Bethnal Green. Muay Thai is a combat sport that originally comes from Thailand. During the last century it was heavily influenced by British boxing. Yet unlike boxers, Muay Thai fighters can make full use of punches, elbows, kicks, knees and clinch work. In Thailand Muay Thai is as popular as soccer in Europe. By now I am training three to six times a week.
* * *
When you train, even more so when you spar with someone or when you have a fight, you have to be in the present moment. You are focused on your opponent to such an extend that the past ceases to exist and there is no thought about the future - an experience of yourself as ‘being as such’.
Since I train I feel much more relaxed about life. I am more confident, decisive and alert. If I feel low I go to the gym too. It takes the edge off the pain. When I train there is no competition. I just let myself fall and everything flows.
* * *
Prize fighting emerged in London during a time in which linear perspective, and with it a calculable future, still remained unquestioned. Throughout the Industrial Revolution, until after the Great Depression of the 1930s, life in the docks was precarious. The work was hard and not well payed. Besides, it often was very difficult to find a job. A worker who could not find work had two choices: either become a thief, or fight for money as a professional boxer. 25
As a working class phenomenon, boxing can be seen as a response to capitalist exploitation in an industrialized society. Yet unlike a factory worker, the boxer was his own master. He relied only on himself and his abilities in the ring.
* * *
Ritualized violence 26
: a boxing ring has four corners. One opponent fights out of the red corner, the other out of the blue corner. The white corners are not assigned to any of the fighters. In case of a knock-down the referee sends the fighter who is superior at that moment into one of the white corners. The other fighter gets a chance to get back on his feet. The crowd cheers.
* * *
What has changed since 1916, when Arthur Cravan managed to escape Europe after he was knocked out by Jack Johnson?
In a thought experiment on vertical perspective, Hito Steyerl uses groundlessness, the experience of society in free fall, as a metaphor to pull class differences into sharp focus. 27
She claims that the very experience of free fall, exemplified by the historic loss of linear perspective in favour of the aerial view of drones, satellites and Google Maps, means to struggle with visions of the future that constantly fall apart because there is no real ground to build on in the present: a social and political dreamscape of radicalized class war dictated from above. 28
But if embraced and accepted as a given fact, she also sees a chance in free fall. To fall means both, to be on the outside and to be exposed. To understand ourselves as ‘being out in the open’ can lead to the realization of a new freedom: to accept groundlessness means to give up the promise of community in favour of a ‘shifting formation’ 29
* * *
At the 26. of March 2016 I filmed a Muay Thai match between Daniel Terry and Paul Barber. It was the evening of the third Muay Thay Grand Prix in the O2 Arena, North Greenwich, London. The fight was broadcasted life on television. Toward the end of the first round, Paul Barber got hit with an elbow against his forehead. He immediately started to bleed heavily. The crowd cheered. By the end of the fight both fighters, the ring and the commentators were covered in Paul Barbers blood 30
: ritualized violence staged by society.
* * *
I often listen to the stories of those who train with me. Some of us are convinced that without the gym, they would either be in prison now, or shoplift and sell drugs on the street. Not unlike the boxers of the past, we chose to do Martial Arts as an alternative. In many ways it is a means to resist.
Yet we do not fight for money. Instead we learn through our practice what we are capable of, that we got to step back sometimes and relax. 31
The gym became a social focal point in our lives. It often feels like we are some kind of big family. When we train, we look out for each other. It is quite simple but utopian too: Our individual position within a certain group outside the gym, our roots in a local community, our birth place in a specific country, and our ethnic background do not matter here. Everybody who trains here is treated the same way.
* * *
At first training is hard. And yes, you do get injuries! But after a while you become fit and healthy - which feels good. Whenever you train, you transform your frustration with the world into energy. And even though anger never disappears, you will be able to control it. 32
* * *
I learned, that training can give you discipline, a new perspective on life, a way out. I see it as a chance to take a stance against the pressures of our world, to cope with the vertical perspective of our time, to get involved on a personal level and to fight back. Despite the violent image of Martial Arts, every individual achievement in the gym is in its essence a teamwork achievement, because when you train, you cannot train by yourself: you always need somebody to help you out, to correct you when you are wrong, to push you when you start to break, when you want to give up. 33
* * *
History moves on, but we still struggle. We throw punches and we get knocked out, and there still is no promise for a better future. I do believe that everything is linked on a fundamental level in our free fall through a groundless world. This is another reason why we have to assume that we always juggle with multiple viewpoints and different visions of the future. With every new angle, other variations of struggle become evident. So, if you ask me wether it is still possible to anticipate a stable future, I have to wonder: Why should we?
* * *
VISION I: In their analysis of contemporary consumer society, the Invisible Committee comes to the conclusion that an insurrection on a global scale will be inevitable if we want to interrupt and change the current state of things. 34
The world burns anyway, they say. The sooner we redistribute global wealth, the better. Real violence is seen as the only response to structural violence: if want to take back what we need to live, we cannot avoid it. The increase of disconnected revolts and riots during recent years, for example civil unrest in Greece as part of the anti-austerity movement in 2010, the simultaneous outbreak of the Arab Spring in the Middle East, or the London riots in 2011, are understood as symptoms of this inevitability.
* * *
Tabula rasa: a clean slate. I agree that chaos might balance power for a limited period of time. But if we cannot change the very basic principle of how we share
with each other, we soon will find ourselves in a similar situation as the present, just as unequal and unjust. 35
* * *
VISION II: At the same time critics of the radical left dismiss these events as futile, because in their eyes the radical left today lacks unity, organisation and a clear agenda. 36
They ask rational: which are the goals that we need to put forward and how can we achieve them? They don’t want the collapse of Western Capitalism. They want to accelerate it. For example they argue that we already have the means to feed everybody on this planet. If we pay everybody a universal basic income, poverty will cease to exist. Besides they believe, that new technologies, the worldwide employment of robots will sooner or later replace the need for human labour. 37
* * *
Full automation toward a pacified future: to create a world of distant travellers who will have lost the ability to forget, and who nevertheless won’t be able to grasp the idea that unhappiness once existed in the painful history of their planet. 38
So I still wonder: isn’t a radical break with today’s world nevertheless necessary?
* * *
Even though it is an image of power, capital wants to show us a clean image of itself in order to maintain an illusion of freedom 39
: the freedom to participate - to work, to make money and to invest. On the surface its centres are represented by slick facades of skyscrapers, expensive suits, well protected by surveillance cameras and security guards.
Yet if one looks below its surface, one could argue that the very image of capital is rooted in a violent underlaying structure. The unquestioned belief in progress, growth and expansion of Western Capitalism, in its very nature already accelerated by the continuous increase of productivity through automation, is in fact largely responsible for today’s inequalities in the first place. 40
So why daydream about full automation?
Shouldn’t we rather try to imagine new genuine forms of social organisation that allow us to share
what is already there?
* * *
Potisí in Bolivia is considered to be one of the birthplaces of Western Capitalism. At the 19th of February 2016 I went to a talk by Kodwo Eshun and Juan Grigera at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. The discussion revolved around a short video work, made by Harun Farocki in 2010: ‘The Silver and the Cross’. 41
In general one could say, the work of Harun Farocki wants to break the illusion of freedom in order to dismantle the violent structure of capital and to open our eyes to the violence inscribed in the images of the world. 42
In his films he uses different techniques of montage, and of visual permutation. He often works with archival material, less often he shoots his own footage. But Farocki does not only analyze and (de-)construct images, he also encourages our eyes to take part in this process of (de-)construction, in order to (in-)form our own image of the world. He does not want to limit our ability to think. We are encouraged to participate, in order to come to our own conclusions.
* * *
‘The Silver and the Cross’ juxtaposes two videos. One video scans in slow motion over a painting by Gaspar Miguel des Berrío: ‘Depiction of the Cerro Rico and the Imperial City of Potosí’ 43
. It portrays the city of Potosí under Spanish colonial rule. The other video shows Potisí today: it is a poor town in the middle of nowhere.
Yet the mountain next to Potisí used to be rich in silver. It was first mined by the native population, then by the Spanish. The silver extracted by the Spanish rulers made Potisí and its colonial masters very powerful: when the Industrial Revolution started in Europe, Potosí was already wealthier than Paris.
A female voice analyzes the filmed painting. She describes the mines, the industry, the cathedral, and the markets while the camera zooms into the details. Her neutral voice compares the historic quarters of the merchants to the quarters of the workers and she analyzes structures of commerce and trade. We can also hear the sound of the street scenes shot in the Potosí of today.Yet there is an uncanny silence built into the perspective of Berrío’s painting: it is constituted by the complete absence of the native population, which mined the mountain long before the Spanish arrived. Their absence points toward a genocide, committed by the Spanish, but silenced in the painting. The work dismantles the violent structure of capital, which still bears the traces of this crime today. 44
The silence becomes haunting.
* * *
PARALLEL I / RESIST: Anger and frustration with the inequalities and the violence of the world can be strong motivators. Indignation pushes us to respond to an alienated, groundless world. Accepted as such indignation can be a wake up call that shakes you up. But it can also make you blind. During training in the gym, we transform these feelings into energy. It allows us to take a step back and to look at the the world from a removed position, so that we can live life in a more self-empowered and passionate way.
As such it is a way to resist.
In a similar way, but on a more intellectual level, Harun Farocki shifted in his practice from a ‘guerrilla’ style of working, fuelled by political anger, toward a much more removed, calm and analytic approach. However, I would argue that his anger never disappeared. On the contrary:for me anger still is very much present in his work, but instead of feeling preached at, I want to react and get involved on a personal level when I see his work. In other words: Political work can become more successful, when the maker decides to take a step back in order to lift his level of thought to the level of his anger / in order to direct both, thought and anger, toward a task: to denounce the violence of this world with as much calm and intelligence as possible. 45
Indignation pushes us to take a stance.
* * *
PARALLEL II / RESET: Every punch stands for itself. There is no hidden symbolic meaning. Anna Zett compares the punch to a caress, just at the other end of language. She sees the fight as a radical form of dialog. 46
The fight is not necessarily won by the stronger fighter, but by the fighter with better reflexes, faster muscle memory and the ability to improvise spontaneously without thinking. 47
Another essential quality of a good fighter is to have heart. To have heart in a fight means to have a clear sense of purpose, to be persistent and resilient. To have heart means to be prepared to get hurt - and still fight back.
Perhaps the most important aspect of any struggle, be it in the ring or on the street, is to have heart and a clear sense of purpose. It is the ability to endure setbacks, to act and to respond spontaneously to the present moment: to be unpredictable. In this sense also the struggle on the street is not necessarily won by the stronger group.
* * *
I don’t want to dismiss the critique on the radical left for having no clear agenda, because I do think it is important to re-evaluate the current situation and to come to a new kind of awareness, not necessarily an agenda for a distant future, but a new form of social organisation in the present.
No matter what the goals are, spontaneity still is a break with the everyday and thus necessarily disruptive. Insurrection can only be spontaneous because it is disorganized. Spontaneity breaks down the barriers between people 48
, which is one of the key-conditions for transformative change. To overcome the barriers between people could be a first step from a fragmented majority to a united us. Without this union, I would argue, there can be no clear sense of purpose and thus no shared agenda.
To take a stance means to get involved.
* * *
PARALLEL III / RESTART: At first glance the idea of an insurrection on a global scale to liberate us from our helplessness seems to be quite straightforward. But it also is a utopian idea. In order to follow it, we have to assume that there is an us and that we are the majority. We have to accept that there is no other way out, that we live in limbo, in a world without refuge, a groundless world that is irreparable. 49
Only if we understand the world in such a way, might we have a chance to become the formation in which change may happen.
* * *
In the social environment of the gym everybody is subject to the same rules. As I pointed out earlier: it is a social focal point in our lives.
If we now understand the space of struggle in a similar way, as a social focal point in a groundless world, then we might be able to become ‘beings as such’ 50
, that co-belong and support each other, regardless of their personal environment, their individual position within a certain group, their roots in a local community, their birth place in a specific country, or their ethnic background.
To embrace the experience of free fall means to become a flexible network of ‘beings as such’, that understand their co-belonging in terms of a shared (non-)position of not-belonging to the dominant system.
* * *
Can such an understanding of negated belonging become a first step toward a life in a more immediate present?
And what are its implications for the future?
Even though we are the majority, we are nevertheless fragmented, isolated and in disagreement with each other. There is no us. In such a state we have no power. If we want to become a united majority, each one of us: together / what Agamben calls the ‘whatever singularity’ 51
, we have step back from our individual quarrels in an attempt to overcome this fragmentation.
* * *
I believe that insurrection is not enough, neither is withdrawal. Without a clear stance both approaches are worthless.
* * *
what is needed to become change:
resist, reset, restart
* * * * * * * * *
To take a stance in a society of free fall means to be in the present moment, calm and confident. It means to be willing to fall 52
: with passion and love. It means to embrace an irreparable, groundless world. To accept that there is no refuge means to embody the struggle that has the potential to become the social focal point where we will find each other.
* * * * * * *
To take a stance on a personal level means to intervene and to get involved: to lift one’s thought to one’s level of helplessness and frustration, and one’s anger to the level of a task, with as much calm and intelligence as possible.
* * * * *
To take a stance could be seen as a negotiation perhaps, or a spark that interferes with the structure of the world, and in turn allows others to interfere with its complexities and its contradictions: an interplay of action, reaction and reflection.
* * *
To take a stance in order to become a majority means to look for new encounters, complicities and alliances in an attempt to connect. We have to get organized, each one of us, starting within
ourselves, every day, through all our actions, with every gesture and every exchange until we fall into a new situation.
From a fragmented majority to a united us
fiction entering reality. 53
to be longing