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Now, Jonas Staal will face him in the arena that he knows best: the cultural institution. ‘Yes. Cultural institutes are facing the choice: do we just present art, or do we present art that aims to reshape our world? I think it is important for us to understand how 21st-century ultranationalism and the international alt-right operate and what visual language and infrastructures they use to construct their alternate reality. And not just to understand, but also to counter it. Here, it is Marina and I who are narrating, trying to tell a story through Bannon about the importance of propaganda and propaganda art today. Analyzing Bannon’s dominant narratives and their impact on our world today, is also a way to understand how to counter them and develop alternative narratives in our turn.’

Staal has countered, appropriated and subverted the work of ultranationalist propaganda artists before. The Geert Wilders Works, Freethinkers’ Space and Closed Architecture come to mind: based on the work of Dutch right-wing politicians. At the time, he met fierce criticism from within the art world. In the introduction to his thesis, he looks back:

‘The idea that art needs to be outside politics to be art is exactly what has led not only to its powerlessness, but also to its cynicism and devastating neoliberal nihilism. Even though ultranationalism strongly relies on cultural mythology and visual representation to propagate its core narratives, somehow we as artists were supposed to stay at a distance in order for our work to remain art, while our artistic competences were appropriated right before our eyes. This was the fundamental contradiction faced by engaged artists in the early 21st century in the Netherlands. Our politicians were turning increasingly into dubious artists and obscure actors – even filmmakers – but we, as artists, were not supposed to intervene for the sake of art’s perceived purity.

It increasingly became clear to me that exactly this narrative was the real propaganda at stake. Propaganda art was not the problem; it was the propaganda against propaganda art. The construction of reality was to be left to the adults in the room. Artists were supposed to be beautiful and shut up, summarized in the famous dictum Sois belle et tais-toi’.

The killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh triggered an attitude and a methodology that Staal has been developing ever since: ‘Is the imagination of art, our capacity to think, stage, compose, choreograph, and construct the world differently not of crucial importance for the opposition to the construction of ultranationalist social reality? And should our task as artists, as those who have trained and specialized in representation, not be to join forces with those who demand a different conception of society: a society not divided by ethnic or class warfare, but assembled through a common imagination of equity? To contribute to a defiant imagination of a different world, a world as real as we are able to imagine it to be – this is what began to crystallize for me as the clear artistic task ahead. It took the body of a murdered artist for me to realize that these words had to be uttered: I am a propaganda artist.’

A defiant imagination of a different world. The people’s parliament in Rojava is a proud example. ‘Its circular form emphasizes a communal politics, the surrounding pillars mention key terms from the Social Contract and the rooftop consists of fragments of flags of local political and social organizations. As such, the parliament is both a spatial manifesto of the Rojava Revolution, as well as a concrete space where its ideals are practiced on a day to day basis.’

And in the cultural institutions of this country, he not only deconstructs paranoid and destructive propaganda art such as Steve Bannon’s, as he does here at Het Nieuwe Instituut. Elsewhere, he also creates its radical opposite. Recently, the Van Abbe Museum opened the Museum as Parliament: a translation of the Rojava people’s parliament to the Studio in Eindhoven: ‘The parliament combines art and politics to transform the Studio of the museum into a new democratic space. Considering the crises that our existing Western democracies are facing, this provides a chance to imagine and practice new models of democracy through art.’

All too often, history leads us to believe that propaganda stems exclusively from dictatorships, says Staal. He is trying to open up this narrative. ‘Every system of power produces its own propaganda. Whether this is good or bad depends on what kind of power we’re dealing with. I have become interested in the question: does something like emancipatory propaganda exist – the language for an imagination of a society that is emerging, that is still in the making? That is what I aim to contribute to: movements working towards a new commonality across and beyond established boundaries. I believe in the potential of not just one, but many propagandas.’