MUST WE SPANK COSTES ?
BY BLAKE FERRIS


The charges brought against Costes are among other things an object lesson in the confusion that the Internet can create in transforming traditional channels of information. Before Costes created his website, his exposure was limited to the underground circles through which he sold or exchanged his music and videos, and the underground performance and music circuit. The spirit of his work, his extreme individualism, transgressive humor and the intent behind his provocations were largely understood by the audiences of this forum, regardless of what they thought of the quality of his work. Some may have found it boring or silly; it is very unlikely that anyone there took his parodies of racist attitudes at face value.

In any case, this was my experience. Long before the website was up, I had seen several of Costes' performances and heard his music. Being familiar with the underground milieu he came from, it would never have occurred to me to view him as a racist or see in his artistic productions any kind of argument for or incitation to the attitudes parodied therein.

With his arrival on the World Wide Web, however, the contours of the cultural space he operates in changed, and he has been put in potential contact with an audience who do not share the sensibility of his habitual audience, and who would have probably never discovered Costes without this new technology. Lacking any familiarity whatsoever with the milieu Costes comes from -- and probably lacking the will to acquire it, which is certainly their right -- such visitors quite understandably misread Costes' "message" and are shocked and outraged by what seems to them to be the rantings of a racist fanatic.

In spite of this, anyone familiar with some of the more marginal figures in modern performance art will recognize that Costes has peers in the "legitimate" art scene. The mixture of dramatized violence, nudity, self-degradation, loud music, ritualized transgression of sexual and social taboos and copious use of materials such as raw meat and real or simulated excrement that characterises a Costes show will remind many people of the more provocative "happenings" in the sixties, and especially of the work of artists like Hermannn Nitsch or Otto Mhl. Something like this tradition continues in America in the work of internationally-recognized artists like Paul McCarthy, Johanna Went, Chris Burden and Karen Finley, whose performance work routinely involves faked or actual violence and dramatizations of sexual humiliation, exploitation or infantilism involving foodstuffs, sex toys and other ideologically charged props. In the U.S.A. the regining taboos remain predominantly sexual and religious, and accordingly, American artistic provocation tends to focus on these issues.

In Europe, however, the Slovenian art collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), through its sub-groups IRWIN, the theater group Red Pilot and the pop musical group Laibach, has made the parody of the totalitarian rhetoric and imagery native to their part of the world part of their confrontational stance since the early 1980s, a posture for which they have repeatedly (and falsely) been denounced as fascists. Like many artists, NSK, recently the subject of a feature documentary by Michael Benson, "Predictions of Fire", has done nothing more than appropriate the most highly-charged ideological symbols present in their environment and exploit them for their psychological power. "Fascist art" occurs when a political movement exploits images or symbols for political and ideological purposes. NSK's techique has been the opposite: they are an artistic group that exploits political and ideological symbols for artistic purposes. In spite of the group's prominent use of Nazi and Stalinist material and their deliberately cultivated political "ambiguity" almost no one in the art community has misread their intentions.

But one of the reasons for this is that NSK, like the other individuals mentioned above are sophisticated international artists with university training, relatively wide exposure and in most cases have supported or justified their work with interviews, statements and documentation in the dialect of the critical community, a necessity in the modern art world for endearing oneself to critics or qualifying for grants. While their work can and often does shock those unfamiliar with the forms they use or the issues they are interested in, all of them have to a certain degree adopted the "packaging" and the of aesthetic or philosophical discourse that makes them legible to the art world and identifiable as "artists".

At the same time, even if some of these artists began in an underground milieu similar to the one Costes still inhabits, most of them work with professional gallerists, are supported by "serious" critics and perform or exhibit in high-profile spaces which themselves add a certain legitimacy to their work. For many reasons, an artist like Costes does not have access to this legitimacy, nor is it clear that he particularly cares about it. Whether he is unwilling or unable, Costes has never learned the idiom of the art world nor showed much concern for positioning himself in respect to other artists. Only recently has he made any attempt to clarify his intentions in commentary on his own work. All of this means that to the unprepared observer, Costes looks like a dangerous freak.

Certainly, these people have good reason to be shocked. These songs undeniably seem to make racist attacks, and they do it in a direct and crude manner. Moreover, anyone taking the time to look will find that this apparently rascist message is not limited to a few songs or discs, but is a theme that Costes returns to at regular interviews. The material in question includes not only racial slurs and foul-mouthed insults, but also articulates certain familiar morsels of racist ideology, such as the notion that immigrants are parasites consuming social services paid for by working people, the idea that Jews are overly attached to money, that they form a conspiracy against mainstream society, etc.

But do these texts, taken within the context of the entire site, have the force of something like the articulation of values, as Franck Levy suggests in his electronic mail message of 16 March? That is, do they constitute a statement of opinion or a defense of this opinion? Do they appear in a context of straightforward, non-artistic defenses or statements of racist views or political opinions?

First of all, it must be noted that Costes' song lyrics do not appear in a political context. None of the texts are explicitly used to enlist sympathy for a political group or to otherwise justify a political program. There are no links to right-wing political groups associated with them, nor are any present on the site, and Costes himself has never had any affiliation with such a group. Also missing from Costes' site are archives or links to the ideological materials commonly associated with these views and used in attempts to substantiate racist opinions, e.g. negationist documents, writings on eugenics, classic racist propaganda like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Anyone familiar with genuine extreme-right websites knows that the purpose of these sites is to attract people to a cause and to translate nascent opinions into political action. These sites, like the "Stormfront" white power site, thus make available a welter of ideological materials of a political or pseudo-scientific cast, not only in an attempt to justify their opinions, but also to frame the original material presented on the sites and ensure that it is understood. Costes' site includes uniquely the fruits of his artistic production, and its evident purpose is to announce, display, sell, and invite comment on that production. One should note that Costes does not trade in racist tracts, nor does he make speeches or express personal opinions on his products. The controversial material that has drawn the fire of the UEJF occurs only within an aesthetic envelope. The few moments where Costes speaks in his own person on his site contain no racist remarks, but rather denials of any racist intent and attempt to clarify his position.

Still, one can ask whether the songs themselves are attempts to convince or persuade people as to the validity of these opinions -- or, more directly, whether they are even expression of personally-held opinions.

Regarding the websites launched by extreme-right or neo-nazi groups on the Internet, Lawrence Magid writes that the "reasonable faade" of hate groups is "partly what makes them so dangerous. If the message was blatantly repulsive, then all but a few damaged souls would leave it in the trash barrel where it belongs."

Costes' work is nothing if not "blatantly repulsive", and hardly resembles the web presences of actual racist groups. The "racist" lyrics presented on his site are a far cry from the coded language and rationalization that representatives of the Front National use in the public forum to cultivate an image of common sense and moral uprightness. No attempt is made to make the utterer of these lyrics seem sympathetic or in possession of anything like 'common sense'. On the contrary, the speaker on "Livrez les blanches..." is announced to be a "rascist homosexual". These texts are not exactly delivered from a position of authority. In the song lyrics themselves, the language is crude, often obscene, and links racial hatred to sadomasochistic sexuality. The character speaking these texts resembles the Nazis and German businessmen painted by Georg Grosz or Otto Dix, a sick, inhuman individual who is eaten by disease. Not anything that is going to encourage identification. It is true that a "few damaged souls" might find something to identify with in the "racisime ordurier a relents scatologiques" (toilet-mouthed racism with a scatological odor) apparent in these lyrics; it is hardly the kind of speech that any genuine racist would want to own up to in public, and certainly not the kind that risks convincing anyone but the already converted.

But those for whom the ranting, obscene tone of "Livrez les blanches..." is not enough to dismiss its diatribes as parody need only examine the rest of Costes' site. This is a man who publishes photos of himself penis in hand on top of a New York City skyscraper, who performs naked covered in pseudo-shit and with blunt objects protruding from his rear. The online biography does not express a youth blackened by the imagined crimes of jews or arabs, but treats his own (white) origins with sarcastic contempt. Is this the kind of spokeman whose charisma and reasoned argument could possible provoke or seduce anyone into racist views?

The answer is obviously no. Anyone who is capable of keeping themselves from a knee-jerk reaction to a few dirty words will see that throughout his website, Costes takes pains to characterize himself as a kind of scatological buffoon, not a racist pundit. Finally, anyone who looks through the full range of Costes' work will see that his racist parodies are not ends in themselves, but are parts of a GENERAL attack upon the ENSEMBLE of his society's major taboos, whether they be social or sexual. There are several other themes besides race in Costes' systematic ridicule and reenactment of what he feels to be society's idocy. His fiercely satirical treatments of sex, love, hygeine, the family, religion, etc, drag through the mud precisely those traditional values so often claimed by the racist right as its moral capital. If there is any "message" to be gleaned froms Costes' work, it is the proclamation of a sort of extreme individualism, and the dramatization of a sarcastic contempt for all those social values that divide people on the basis of morality, race, cleanliness, wealth or belief. Such a message might be simplistic; it is not racist.

Racist epithets and slogans inevitably retain some of their aggressive, wounding force regardless of the context in which they occur. This is true when a Black singer intones "nigger" in a rap song, it is true when racist injuries are cited in courtroom testimony, and it is true when newspapers or history books document eruptions of actual racism. It is also true in Costes' work.

I don't want to pretend that the simple presentation of this material in an artistic context renders it harmless. Artists, and especially artists who assume a provocational or confrontational stance use this material precisely because it does have an effect. There is some justification for this in itself: if society only let artists work with sanitised, harmless symbols art would be an inconsequential activity. Art should be provocative and controversial. Not just in the 20th century, but throughout history, many have thought that it is a vital part of the artist's vocation to work with sensitive, dangerous symbols, and to manipulate and comment upon them in ways that the ordinary citizen would not be permitted to do.

But aside from this, if these materials retain some of their original forcein an artwork, the switch to an artistic context changes the overall significance of this material, just as its citation in a courtroom or a history book would do. An aesthetic reenactment of an injurious word or an aesthetic representation of racist attitude may both USE and MENTION the material in question, that is it may use it to produce an effect, but at the same time it may also REFER to that very use, making it into a text and an event to be reflected upon, pointing it out as a highly-charged verbal object and recontextualing it. Costes' work does this in a number of ways. While he undoubtedly uses this material for its effect, in the way that he milks a number of other social taboos, the racist messages in his songs are also placed on exhibit, as if he is determined to present an inventory of the arsenal of one type of human evil. They are not only used to provoke, but their provocative potential and their taboo character itself is forgrounded and commented upon. By placing this vocabulary in a context where it is frequently assimilated to sexual or scatological imagery, his performances also suggest how hate speech is linked to sado-masochistic and infantile sexual drives. His performances beg the question of why certain words and phrases resemble acts more that simple speech, why they possess a special physicality with both strong roots in the user's drives and an almost physical impact on their targets.

Another issue that seems to interest Costes is how hate speech serves in organizing both the hate groups that employ them directly and their targets who recirculate their terms or reactively create their own hate-discourse. This was recently done in a more conscious way on the album NTMFN, where he satirized what he felt was that groups' own appropriation of hate-messages and race identification in a way similar to white hate groups.

Whether or not one agrees with such ideas, it is clear that the racist attitudes represented in Costes' works take on quite different connotations than they would in the street, even if they remain offensive. It is this possibility to multiply the connotations of these messages, to displace them from their conventional, hateful uses, and to make them transparent to the psychology and social relations that they conceal that make's art's license to deal with sensitive and taboo material worth preserving. Aesthetic use of this material is also a means to overcome the forces which produce it, in so far as it is capable of changing its meaning. As Judith Butler writes, "The possibility of decontextualizing and recontextualizing such terms through radical acts of public misappropriation constitutes the basis of an ironic hopefulness that the conventional relation between word and wound might become tenuous and even broken over time."

One might argue that whatever new meanings arise from the aesthetic reenactment of racist material, such use is bad because it recirculates language and messages which always retain something of their original force. It is true that the CD title "Livrez les blanches aux bicots" recirculates a racist term, and thus contributes to the verbal institutionalization of the subordination of which the word "bicot" is the verbal form. But so will the citation of these words in the courtroom, for ultimately it is the court that decides what speech is legally injurious and thus actionable. The court can recontextualize hate speech as well -- a racial slur cited in a legal brief or before a jury certainly has another force than its use in the street, but the only thing the state can resignify is its own law. The only new meaning the state can give these messages is that of something forbidden, at the same it that it reserves the right to reiterate and restage them in the courtroom as state-sanctioned speech. In as much as it defines and codifies what messages constitute legally actionable hate speech, it also participates in preserving the value of those messages as hate speech. By doing this it extends its jurisdiction and its ability to impose silence at the same time that it exempts itself from that silence. What I mean is not that judges are allowed to use racial epithets, but that their use as testimony in a case remains protected while all other uses outside of the court are subject to law.

If this freedom to use certain symbols is denied to artists and others working in the medium of protected public discourse, and the only public space where they can appear is the courtroom, the risks involved do not only touch art. For beyond the fact that the state is incapable of neutralizing or changing the meaning of these messages beyond rendering them illegal and confirming and their status as hate speech, the silence it imposes drives genuine racists to adopt other more "polite" formulations of their ideas, and thus encourages the extension of the hate lexicon while at the same time encouraging the racists to appear more reasonable, and hence more attractive to an audience. New, "sanitised" racist messages which speak perfectly clear to the people that they are addressed to are coined, and more types of language become invested with hatred while at the same time these groups benefit from a momentary camoflage. This is exactly what has happened with the Front National, which continues to deliver its old messages in coded rhetoric. Once the code becomes too obvious to bear, the state will intervene again, extending its jurisdiction over the new language, and the FN will come up with new rhetoric. Thus the state accumulates an ever-growing index of dirty words, the moralists or those who justly feel attacked are temporarily and purely symbolically soothed, while the political group who once used them simply adapts and persists.

What's the use of this? And how can an insiginificant performance artist like Costes come under attack in a country where an openly racist political party with relatively obvious sympathies with German fascism is a legitimate enterprise with 15% of the popular vote?!?

The emotions of the plaintiff may be understandable, but this trial is ridiculous. It is as if, at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts in the United States, the government had forbade artists to use more than a certain quantity of the color red in their work without attaching a disclaimer explaining that they were not communists. What artistic liberty means in a free society is the freedom to use all the materials available to make art, and to use them in any way, as long as it doesn't directly interfere with the rights of others. And without being required to clarify their position beyond the statement made by the artwork itself. Unfortunately, when artists are given license to manipulate certain symbols by the authorities that control censorship, it usually means that those symbols are simply no longer as important as they once were. But art has often been the site of controversy and many artists feel that creating controversy, disturbing conventional opinions or using highly-charged symbols in ways bound to meet with public disapproval is part of their role in society. Western society generally accepts this view, and unanimously condemns acts like Khomeni's fatwa against the writer Salman Rushdie as a barbaric, incomprehensible act. But when its own sacred symbols are played with, or those touched by an equally sacred interdiction become the subject of an artwork, the reaction is not so coherent.

Perhaps only because I come from the U.S. and do not fully appreciate what the French historical and geographical proximity to the Shoah means, I tend to think that everybody, including the FN, should have the right to free speech. I think that where it is a case of real racism, words should still be fought with words, and not with enforced silence. Not only because free speech is a fundamental democratic right, but because enforcing silence works poorly for ideological expressions, even where it works for types of restricted speech like libel or fraudulent advertising. On the other hand, even where hate speech is unprotected, I believe that a very wide margin should be given to artists, not only because their work is often ambiguous and not subject to interpretation in the same way as a political tract, but also because their role in society is intimately linked with revealing things in their work that are less visible in daily life, and threatening that opportunity for vision, even for good reasons, seems to me to promise dire consequences.
bferris@worldnet.net