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In Search of Liberation

Published in Maska,Performing Arts Journal  vol. XXIV, no. 120-121, Spring 2009

In Search of Liberation

Rozalinda Borcila

From the perspective of capital, some parts of the world are backwards and must be taught the lessons of market democracy. But this narrative of “lagging behind” can also be reinforced from the perspective of a counter-capitalism that privileges specific histories and discourses: if you want to recognize yourself as producing critique, you need to “catch up” on the bibliography and lingo.  I think this asynchronicity is internalized in the Romanian geographic imaginary. It works to capture and evacuate what arises in moments of becoming – the energy produced when we experience our shared capacity to transform our world.

Government through community

In 1969, Shell Oil began elaborating what it called “Global Scenarios for the Future”, a method of storytelling intended “to rediscover the original entrepreneurial power of foresight in contexts of change, complexity, and uncertainty”[1]. Shell’s method, developed by scenario guru Pierre Wack, is largely credited for the success of Shell Oil in the 1990s, and has become the basis of corporate futurology today. Wack insists his method is not about forecasting, but rather about visualization: about allowing decision-makers to “re-perceive reality”, “discovering strategic options of which you were previously unaware”[2] in times of change or instability, which are also times for entrepreneurial initiative and profit maximization.

I became interested in corporate futurology when I stumbled upon Shell’s scenario written in 1991 and made public in 1992. This was the first set of narratives composed after the fall of the Berlin wall, which visualized the world of 2020. Having declared the final planetary victory of “free market” capitalism, Shell futurologists imagined that market liberalization (conflated with political liberalization) was an unstoppable driving force, what Wack termed tendance lourde. The question asked of the future was: what other forces would develop in conjunction with, and in response to, market liberalization? How would the instabilities and changes produced by these forces create opportunities for profit maximization – or, how can one develop strategies for action today in order to anticipate and redirect such forces towards profit maximization??

In all subsequent scenarios we find the trio of tendances lourdes “globalization”, “technology”, and “liberalization”, around which all uncertainties would become structured: the inevitable against which the unknowable could be played out. This becomes a feminized meta-narrative image called TINA (there is no alternative). I began to trace the ways in which a certain category of forces are understood and “put to use” in these stories: what Shell calls alternately the “human factor”, “social forces” or “the force of community”[3]. The narratives seem to ask: what forms of social relation and exchange, forms of being, of identification and of participation, will be profitable assets? The strategic aim is not always “stability” or energy security – there is a relationship between (social and price) volatility and speculative activity on the oil futures market[4].

A careful reading of the scenarios of the subsequent sixteen years affords a different understanding of by-now familiar practices of neoliberal planetary governance. In some cases they require the use of direct coercive force: identifying or creating a vacuum, a space in which some kind of governing structure has faltered (crisis/catastrophe, economic implosion, political instability) and various forms of “demographic manipulation” (relocations, displacements, regime changes, etc). Although the ability to deploy coercive violence underscores the narratives, scenarios focus more extensively on the arrangement of social conditions to incentivize and mobilize entrepreneurial “self-interest”. This includes social development programs, the rapid, large-scale disbursement of funds and massive resource allocation as ways to reform populations, constructing societies free of “delinquent elements”, changing worldviews, experience management.

TINA scenarios continue to be successful at helping their clients “to imagine a future that is worth creating – and reap the competitive advantages of preparing for it and making it happen”[5]. They influence energy markets and policymaking, futures markets and Pentagon war strategies. This success, we are told, is a demonstration of TINA’s inevitability. But I came to understand TINA as something else – as part of a mythmaking project, which puts itself into circulation in order to make itself come true. TINA is a process: it is how the fantasy of the global elites becomes reality. It is how the world is collapsed into a single historical queue: how the simultaneous coexistence of different ways of life, political visions and economic/social processes is reorganized as the conditions of profit maximization for those who are farther ahead in the queue.

Opening: The rush           

I was eighteen during the Romanian revolution, and I remember the feeling – joyous and terrifying – that anything was possible and nothing was scripted. In December 1989, popular revolts spread throughout the country in a matter of days – occupying police headquarters, main administrative buildings, media outlets and the streets. Our escape was swift – but it was also in advance of any meaningful political process, any real critique, any form of collectively imagining or experimenting with alternative visions.

On 22 December, as Ceausescu fled Bucharest, different groups were forming within the occupied government headquarters. They met on different floors of a building under siege, each rushing to lay out the management of the power vacuum and the political platform of the new regime. As they self-inaugurated, proclamations succeeded each other throughout the evening; decrees, political platforms, governing structures. By morning one such group had become dominant. Resulting from the organizational and networking savvy of a small group of former political aparatciks-turned-rebels, military commanders, media managers and intellectuals – the FSN (National Salvation Front) proclaimed itself the provisional, “apolitical” governing structure whose role would be to manage the power vacuum and organize the first free elections.

Within 24 hours the FSN began operating at the national level, often using the organizational networks of former institutions. The country’s best known political dissidents, whose presence in front of the television cameras had proclaimed the victory of the revolution, were at first the image but not the decision-makers of this formation. As they gradually distanced themselves over the next weeks, uneasiness grew about the totalizing rhetoric of the FSN. Small, local protests turned to more directed outrage in February 1990, when the Front announced its participation in the upcoming April elections. In the run up to the elections, the “opposition” was formed by a growing number of “historical” parties, whose commitments to privatization, liberalization, and “Westernization” made them largely ideologically indistinguishable from the FSN or from each other[6].

By early 1990, the December Revolution became referred to as “the events” and later as “whatever happened, happened”. Public discourse quickly adopted the logic of transition, according to which there were only two horizons: communism/the past (meaning totalitarian dictatorship as represented by the previous Romanian regime and the Soviet Union) or democracy/the future (meaning whatever type of market capitalism had made Americans so wealthy and happy and functional). From here on, any familiar or emerging social problems – from new forms of dispossession and exclusion, to escalating ethnic violence, to epidemic suicide rates – were paradoxically cast as symptoms of being insufficiently capitalist, being still too far behind in the transition. Any form of critique or resistance to the new regime reproduced, and to a large extent continues to reproduce, the same narrative. And because we were to see ourselves as being in someone else’s past, it remained difficult to recognize the power differentials being produced in the present.

 Opening, again: Occupation

The period between January and June 1990 is not as well known as the hyper visible televised revolution of the previous December and – although coverage has been extensive in the Romanian media – I fear it has not been sufficiently critically processed.

The most debated phenomenon of the period began in February 1990, as a convergence of hundreds of protests against the FSN and its leader in the University Square in Bucharest. After two months of off-and-on actions, the square was the site of a massive, continuous 40 day occupation ending in a two-day bloody repression. Criminalized before 1994-1996, and heroicized since, the occupation is always understood as “anti-communist” and “pro-Westernization”. It began, so the story goes, in April: tens of thousands cheered as a giant banner was hung in the University Square, declaring it a “space liberated of neo-communism”. Protesters accused the leader of the FSN of being too entrenched in soviet-style politics to successfully lead the country towards American-style democracy. It’s catchy, and it rhymes: “Cine-a stat cinci ani la rusi//Nu poate gîndi ca Bush”. (“One who spent 5 years in Russia, cannot think like Bush.”) Ten or twenty banners and slogans created during this time came to represent the entire process of the occupation in the media and – to my surprise – even in the subsequent testimonials of certain participants. This reduction produced a totalizing and overly simplistic understanding of the occupation within the narrative of capitalism as the only alternative, and it reinforced a continuing identification of the previous totalitarian regime as “communism”.[7]

I think there is another way to look at the production of public speech through hundreds of image/texts (inscriptions, markings, drawings, banners, signs, graffiti, songs, slogans) during the 40-day occupation and to challenge this understanding in two important ways.  Firstly, this production was continuous and at all different scales: on buildings, people, balconies, papers. There was constant writing, rewriting, overwriting.  As a material process, it had to do with reclaiming and recombining architectural surfaces, found materials and debris, domestic objects, food and bodies – and with producing different constellations of writers, sign-makers and bearers, new collectivities of speakers constituted across violently inscribed ethnic and class lines. During the occupation, space was experienced as open, as a process that was never finished. Secondly, image/texts did not emerge from an agreed-upon political position or shared history of critique, but rather were the medium through which different, often contradictory interpretations and positions confronted each other. They reflected hundreds of speeches, meetings and debates, resolutions, declarations and proclamations, and as many experiments in collective decision-making and debate. In this sense, the occupation claimed space as radically heterogeneous, as the dimension of the simultaneous coexistence of difference.

I want to suggest that the occupation can be seen the process of producing the future as open, as under construction[8]. In this way, the occupation as a political process was a way of thinking beyond the narrative of capitalism as the only alternative. In the absence of an established critical tradition, protest became the way to attend to the spatial and social expressions of power, and to open up a search for critical counter-narratives. It would entail the sustained collective attempt to learn about social reality by radically reconfiguring it. Instead of reducing the entire phenomenon to a handful of slogans, we can look to their production and transformation as evidence of a continuously shifting conception and experience of power.

For instance, many other banners naming the occupied space appeared alongside the dominant “space liberated of neo-communism”. “In search of liberation” suggests an understanding of the occupation as a political experiment in opposition to the logic of transition and normalization: a self-critical suspension of previously held assumptions about what liberation means, from what and towards what, an interruption of the logic of transition. The Square also became labeled as  “kilometer zero”, suggesting a kind of recalibration, a rebooting. This had been the site of some of the most intense street protests the previous winter, so in a sense the occupation was a return to “moment zero”, the moment when opening, a way out, was forcefully produced, and pushing back against closure. But there was also a reconsideration or rereading of the revolutionary moment, and the possibility of a reorientation: from the simple “down with communism” which formed the platform of December 1989, towards a collectively formulated alternative. After several failed and highly mediated attempts to instrumentalize the occupation by the newly-formed opposition parties, the occupants declare “We are not political parties, we are outlaws”. This points to the emergence of a more extensive critique of power as it is produced and expressed through the forms of electoral politics. “Nothing is lost, everything mutates”, a reconstitution of the former elite via the new (or rebranded) institutions of the state, operating under a new set of signs: privatization, democratization, Westernization[9]. A refusal to recognize the FSN drafted electoral law, and later the results of the election, further suggests a reading of the occupation as a kind of desertion that is not necessarily territory-bound, but a “‘founding leave-taking’ that inaugurates a realm of common affairs at the same moment it breaks from an established realm”[10].

The practice of art

I have found that working with the history of corporate scenarios – especially with past futures from the early 1990s – has been a way for me to make some sense of my experiences of revolution, to look for what has not been exhausted or vacuated by its failure. This remains to my mind an urgent task, and an increasingly tricky one given the ways in which capitalism makes use of culture; specifically, in the last ten or so years, the marketability of “social” and “participatory” art practices (and of artists such as myself who are increasingly mobilized in the circuits of capital).

A critical position would have to consider not only how tropes of collaboration and participation function to turn collectively generated value into privately appropriated (cultural/institutional/social) capital, but also how art operates to structure social relations into specific forms of “community” – to “practice” or rehearse a specific set of “social abilities”, which can be incentivized as a strategic asset for profit maximization.

To a certain extent my work as an artist begins from the premise that our available functional repertoire is expandable – that there is a certain plasticity to our social functionality, that we can learn to develop new “social abilities” conducive to a radical politics. In my work with the artist collective BLW[11] (with Sarah Lewison and Julie Wyman), for instance, we envisioned the collective as a body in need of “practice”, whose abilities were impaired by our limited experience within neoliberal capitalism (and we took this to be quite literally abilities to visualize, to see, to speak, or to otherwise act, to form relationships or affiliations that were not determined and limited by our relation to capital). I think we understood this as a spatial process, so our work developed as workshops or public meetings. We would look for how (art) “practice” could extend our collective capacities for a kind of escape, or at the very least for resisting capture.

At times we worked explicitly with the question of the future. In 2006 we produced a social performance (of sorts) at the invitation of the exhibition Locally Localized Gravity organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. We collaborated with the Think Tank that has yet to be named, a local artist/activist collective excluded from the exhibition, to initiate the Coalition of Inquiry into the State of the Future. Beginning from our shared critique of the ways in which this specific curatorial project framed “social, participatory, communal” art as a quasi-entrepreneurial practice (linked, for instance, with real estate speculation), we imagined a coalition as a social learning and practicing of something like “communal justice”. The coalition self-inaugurated via activist and indymedia networks as a possibly quasi-juridical body for investigating “the future” as a mythmaking project – the global future but also, specifically, the future as produced through various public/private initiatives in the city of Philadelphia. These included campaigns that legitimized themselves through “community involvement”, including the Microsoft School of the Future, the Next Great City initiative, The Great Expectations Program and the exhibition into which we were trying to insert the public meeting as a spatial interruption[12].

The investigative process involved submitting documents into evidence, soliciting “expert testimony” from residents, labor and community organizers, journalists, and artists, meeting with self-appointed investigators-at-large and witnesses. The future was summoned to a public hearing, where we deliberated whether there was evidence of harm, as well as the nature and extent of the harm it might have administered.  (We wondered what kind of collective body could indict the future and seek restorative measures).

Our deliberations suggested a number of possible understandings of such harm. We accused that the future was being produced through language that misrepresented  “the transparent and participatory nature of certain institutions and current and future initiatives associated with the city of Philadelphia” as well as, “the nature of democracy and of the democratic process” itself. The future demanded a specific kind of civic engagement, which “works to disable participatory democracy, or to work against civic education, or to actively create stupidity”. The most damaging accusation was that of “pre-empting the possibility of alternative futures”.

Our stay in Philadelphia ended before we could take on the question of “restoration” and find ways to sustain the process beyond the duration of the exhibit. This limitation is structural in the trope of the “art project”, but my sense is that it did not fully capture and spend the energies produced. Some of the media activists involved in the deliberations recently made use of the experiment to re-imagine and reframe their work; BLW continued to instigate public meetings in the most policed open-air space in Chicago. A full understanding of what we might have learned, what shared capacities we may have produced or uncovered, remains elusive because it is not measurable in results. But something remains open, remains in motion, and it pushes to dissolve art practice into a more generalized social process of oppositional learning.


[1] Wack, Pierre. Scenarios: Shooting the Rapids. Harvard Business Review, November-December 1985. p. 14


[2] Ibid., p. 9

[4] In times of uncertainty, the value of a future barrel of oil can surpass its current pricing, which means there are greater opportunities for profit in oil futures – thus (social and market) volatility is often a product of speculative activity on oil futures. Anna Zalik has published several in-depth studies on Shell scenarios, oil futures and the commodification of violence in the Niger Delta.

[5] Wylie, Ian. There is No Alternative To... Fast Company, No ,60, June 2002. Accessed online at

[6] These are the conditions for the emergence and continued popularity of the ultra-nationalist party PRM, whose rallying cry “Our country is not for sale” is a reactive reassertion of local identity on the basis of longstanding ethnic and racial violence. 

[7] “Post-communism” as a critical discourse produced largely within the former “West” only goes to reinforce this problematic identification. I think we often underestimate the extent to which specific language remains affectively associated with totalitarian violence (communism, comrade, activist, collectivize, cooperate). Its coercive repetition functions to foreclose the possibilities for critique or dissent in the present.

[8] I am relying heavily on Doreen Massey’s relational conceptualization of space as “the sphere of coexisting heterogeneity”. Her work calls for a politics that does not evade or tame the challenge of spatiality, does not translate coexisting difference into different positions in a historical sequence.  Furthermore, attending to space as “under construction” and “never finished” allows us to be sensitive to the genuine openness of the future. For Space. London: Sage 2005.

[10] Zach Bratich on Virno’s notion of exit. His provocative essay rethinks the possibilities of secession as an exit that is not land-oriented – and re-imagines secession away from the breaking of a solid and towards the dynamics of fluids. “Swarmcession!” Lumpen Magazine #96 (July 2005) pp. 20-25.

[11] BLW produce situations for engaged speaking and exchange; these include workshops and meetings in public spaces, as well as re-speakings of video recordings from the histories of radical social movements in the US. BLW is Rozalinda Borcila, Sarah Lewison and Julie Wyman.

[12] More information on the investigation can be found at

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