The Revolution May Be Televised: Pamela M. Lee on the World Social Forum

Article excerpt

"ANOTHER WORLD is possible": Since 2001, the World Social Forum, an international summit of social movements, NGOs, and activists, has rallied behind this slogan in its efforts to combat the advance of neoliberalism and its welter of geopolitical ills. Envisioned as a grassroots/populist counterpoint to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the WSF describes itself as an "open meeting place" and a "permanent world process," an antidote to "dominion of the world by capital and any form of imperialism." Such unbridled utopianism is paradoxically bolstered by hard-nosed tactics. This is no mere gathering of the tribes: During the WSF's meetings, which have taken place in Hyderabad, Buenos Aires, Florence, and Ramallah, among other locales, hundreds of workshops, lectures, and gatherings serve as occasions for networking, debating, and the hiving of diverse groups and individuals. Keynote issues have run the gamut from contemporary pedagogy to media strategizing to revolutionary queer politics to the environmental consequences of globalization.

Arguably, the relative merit of the WSF's activities is measured less by the concrete implementation of policy than by the kinds of relationships the gatherings produce--a proposition that would seem to raise the question, How might this other world look? What role, in other words, would the visual in general (and art more conditionally) play in the WSF's production and facilitation of a "world process"? Admittedly, if one were to look only at the surface of things, a case might be made for a rather conventional scenario. At the recent WSF in Caracas, Venezuela, in January, the opening rally and parade at the Plaza de Las Tres Gracias, with its swirling masses of people, banners, and placards, seemed rather old-school Comintern. Not only was the tried-and-true Marxist iconography still very much in place, with waves of signs emblazoned with the stern profiles of its global pantheon (Marx and Lenin, of course, but also Mao, Che, and even Hugo Chavez); the formal conventions and graphics historically linked to that tradition were everywhere present as well. But perhaps such familiar imagery is a red herring of sorts, not quite capturing the true nature of the event nor its organizing principles.

Indeed, with tens of thousands of attendees at each of its meetings around the globe (eighty thousand registered for Caracas), the "Forum," as its participants call it, is insistent on its polycentric status--its charter loudly proclaims that the WSF is not a "locus of power" but a "plural, diversified ... non-party context." That it has now begun to meet in multiple locations each year supports this claim while guaranteeing the diversity demanded of a "permanent world process." But the "headlessness" of its wide-ranging activities effectively presents a certain challenge to the forum's broader representation and--by extension--its presence within the media at large. The forum's plural sensibilities do not coalesce into any one monolithic image, arguably a liability from the standpoint of global media. Compared, for instance, with the imagery streaming from Davos, with its CNN-friendly look of luxe, calme et celebrite, you could hardly corral the workings of the WSF into a singular, branded aesthetic. As I learned on my trip to Caracas, this is perhaps to the point, and all to the good.

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I attended the meeting for various intermingled reasons: political sympathies; a desire to witness the leftist turn in South American politics (the rise of Chavez's Venezuela, the election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia); and a critical engagement with the visual dimension of the event's worldly imaginings. Of late I've been preoccupied with the question of collectivism in recent art or, rather, the performance of collectivity, or even pseudocollectivism. As such, the WSF, with its avowed polycentrism, has for some time been a crucial destination on my itinerary. …