On 9 April 2003 the systematic destruction of effigies of Saddam Hussein by Anglo-American troops culminated in the pulling down of a 20 ft bronze statue in Firdus Square, Baghdad. This event, widely covered by the press, was presented as the final collapse of Hussein's regime and was supposed to mark the end of the war in Iraq. Almost two months later, on 29 May 2003, a new statue was unveiled in Firdus (= Paradise) Square, by that time a military zone renamed Freedom Square. The statue of Saddam Hussein had been replaced by a 23 ft semi-abstract sculpture which, according to the press, represented 'a mother, father and child holding a crescent moon, symbol of Islam, around a sun, symbol of the Sumerian civilization'. The artists' collective Najeen (= survivor) named the statue 'Najeen' and dedicated it to 'every person in Iraq and to freedom-loving people everywhere'. After the unveiling of the plaster statue (varnished to give it a bronze appearance) the artists' collective decorated the pedestal with ribbons, exchanged flowers, hugged and kissed one another, and sang a traditional Iraqi lullaby. This media-staged celebration of freedom in a military zone, the stage-property nature of the sculpture, the excessive military security measures taken to protect it, and the vandalisation of the sculpture with pictures of the radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr on 9 April 2004 despite those measures, have inspired us, The Buggers, to take a closer look at vandalism.
The use of vandalism to undermine the ideology behind official art or the media has been an effective strategy of revolutionary art in Western societies since the early 20th century. In fact, the vandalistic techniques developed by Duchamp, Picabia, Heartfield, Burroughs & Gysin, Guy Debord, the Dutch Provo movement, Destroy All Monsters, and many others, have proved to be vital impulses to Western art, literature, music and thought.
In its purest form vandalism is no more than the destruction of capital or property. But even this seemingly uncomplicated form of vandalism has led to vital and complex art, music and thought. We already mentioned Gustav Metzger's auto-destructive art in our position #1, but now also think of people as various as John Cage, Dick Raaijmakers, Iggy & The Stooges, and The MC5. The controlled but real destruction of goods during performances refuses to represent anything else. It blows up all representation, and radically forces the spectators to face the void. Dangerous buggers!
Seemingly more complex techniques of vandalism - adding something to objects, taking something from them, damaging them in various degrees, etc. - can be summarised as 'hostile modifications of objects', and range from the simplest drawings in school diaries to the attack on national monuments. Duchamp demonstrated in his modification of a reproduction of the Mona Lisa (using the schoolboy's technique of adding a moustache and an obscene subscript) that vandalism can give access to the unconscious, much like the Freudian joke or lapsus. Burroughs & Gysin's cut-up technique shows that hostile modification can induce paranoid lucidity and disclose covert ideologies and connections. But the sheer impact of ridiculising, sexualising, desexualising, cursing, damaging, etc. can be effective too. As long as its powerful and loud enough. Vandalism has the power to change the perception of reality, to expose the ideologies and mental constructions that define objects in public space (space in its broadest sense, also including television, the internet, language and history).
Anti-vandalism regulations and measures determine to a considerable extent the design, construction and choice of materials in public space. This, together with the increasing surveillance and control of public space, makes it fair to say that we live in an environment of suppressed vandalism. The suppression of vandalism is not synonymous with public order but is an important part of it. In Western capitalist societies public order mainly serves the protection of property, investments and the conservation of ideologically valuable goods. For that reason The Buggers believe that vandalism directly undermines the grip of Western capitalist industries on citizens, and that strategic use of vandalistic techniques is a powerful weapon in reclaiming public space. At present the Robert Johnson collective in Paris demonstrate that deconstructing advertisements and reclaiming public space through vandalism forces the capitalist industries to expose their repressive nature. Bugger on!