On the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Gao Shiming

I
Today, the post-Cold War ideological narrative that has buried the issues and historical roots of that period has become a comedy, and the movement of glocalism—as global capitalism’s latest ruse—is little more than a soap opera. In the shadow of war between empires fifty years ago, the Ho Chi Minh Trail represented a particular historical imagination and set of ideals. In the present postcolonial and postrevolutionary age, the Trail survives as a dusty relic of the Cold War era. When we revisit the network of roads in an attempt to awaken its dormant powers to surpass boundaries, we find that this once vital conduit of the Cold War system has been fragmented, procured, and monopolized by the spectacle of global capitalism.

Today the Ho Chi Minh Trail is a trail of confusion, misunderstanding, and speechlessness between China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The Trail is not only historical; it continues to have meaning today. One also finds “public secrets” (the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnam War, racial conflicts, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square); internal borders (between India and Pakistan, North and South Vietnam, Taiwan and the Chinese mainland); the procurement activities of multinational corporations and the ideology of non-profit organizations; corrupt governments and poverty; shattered sovereignty and societies fully devoted to the pursuit of wealth.

On the Ho Chi Minh Trail, one traverses through nations that declare themselves as unitary sovereign nations. By maintaining superficial government control (bureaucratic political oppression and a feeble form of censorship), these nations veil their actual political position as limited sovereign nations within the global capitalist empire.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail today carries a typical story of contemporary art: in the face of autocratic governments and ideologies opposed to individual, aesthetic, and free expression, contemporary artists/freedom fighters struggle for liberation by engaging in underground/grassroots artistic/ political movements. This narrative of the free individual as creator of a new world fails to explain why it is that contemporary art, imported from the West, is being used in the fight for freedom. Why are we “independent” but still not “free”? Why does it seem that the rise of contemporary art—anywhere in the world—is always explained with reference to some set of “exceptional circumstances”? Is there some hidden discourse? Could it be that just as the independence movements of the mid-twentieth century were epiphenomena created by imperialism and the Cold War, so the rise of contemporary art is a spectacle installed by global capitalism? Is contemporary art simply a result of international politics?
II
For me, the Ho Chi Minh Trail project is a rehearsal, a kind of exercise in the historical present. With the industry of capitalist culture reaching every corner of the globe, we must consider the idea of a rehearsal rather than continual production. During a rehearsal, one faces continuous interruption, missed cues, and self-observation. A rehearsal is a process of simultaneous assembly, performance, observation, and dissemination. It is the marshalling and mobilization of thought and expression, an action born out of form, a departure and arrival at something beyond expression, and a suspension and dissection of social roles and criticism and self-criticism amongst leftist intellectuals, artists, and curators.

A rehearsal is a countermovement to current artistic production. It is a preparation for participation in some kind of “event”—we begin with the space of artistic production and then walk backwards into the theatre of mass media/society/art. The theatre of art operates in an economy of symbols, power, meaning, and value that lies within a larger context of social circulation, and to enter the “event,” one must first pass through this huge vortex that surrounds and engulfs the theatre. Then, by piercing through the seamless surface of illusory meanings in the global art system, one is able to return to the silent middle, where one engages in criticism and emerges triumphant once again in which the audience/stage relationship, as defined by the Greeks, is publicly and actively engaged.

In this manner, we are forced to turn our attention from artwork to art practice, or rather, to art “activity.” An art activity is a temporary theatre, the eye of one of the storms that sweeps up artists, artwork, and everything else in its path. It is a product not of the self, but of action. Art “events” break down the dichotomy between art and interpretation, between creation and dissemination. They do not need special interpretation because once they become part of society they create a “social reading” that is inextricably linked to mass media. Put simply, art “events,” social creation, and social readings begin and end in society. Each art event remolds society, pluralizing it and setting it in motion.

Thus artists are constantly caught between entering and leaving the world, between birth and death. In one sense they are infected by the world, terminally implicated with institutions, capital, ideology, and the mass media, with culture and history; yet in art activities they struggle.
III
The Ho Chi Minh Trail Project is not a direct social action: nor is it a utopian vision. Rather, it attempts to call forth a continuous, reflexive revolution within the self. It aims both to clear away the ethnic/national monopolization of identity and politics, history and tradition, and to wash away the capitalism—the device of a media-culture spectacle created by the globalization of management, consumption, and planning—that has permeated the depths of our being.

What does capitalism mean to the artist? It is not only institutional productive forces infinitely greater than those of the individual, not just markets, auctions, and galleries . . . but an infatuation with aesthetics and taste, an illusion of individual and artistic autonomy (a belief in the individual has always been a fundamental principle of capitalist markets, but in the age of mass media, the individual should not be thought of as a starting point or stronghold—one must become an artist before one can be an individual), a way to cash in on the meaning, form, and exchange value of artistic relationships. More importantly, in today’s art world, capitalism is the open market manifestation of the relations of production that run through the international contemporary art community and the “global art spectacle” that it produces.

In the current political climate, in current notions of art history and aesthetic systems, how does art begin? I hope that our work can inspire a reevaluation of artistic politics and political art since the era of modernism. It is precisely this false sense of artistic autonomy that creates the intricate entanglements between art and politics. We are not looking for new political themes or political space; rather, we are trying to update our political methods. We are wary of any prepackaged political activism in the name of community (What we need to ask is: Does community facilitate communication or obstruct it?); we are wary of identity politics and discourse politics, wary of any sort of politics as therapy or reparation. Politics was originally an Aufstellen, a model of the world; it has since been formalized into a device for management, and, finally, an authoritarian regime. To be political or to be economical? That is the question. We watch as capitalism transforms politics into economics before our eyes and watch as “economics” replaces value with exchange value, replaces propaganda with marketing, replaces means with ends, replaces faith with calculation, tacks copyright onto creation, and creates brands for labour. Even national politics has been quietly replaced with management, a kind of banal “economics” (the first “economic man” was Jesus, and Christian blood courses through the veins of the capitalist body, which cannot be liberated due to its fixed conception of history.)

I am opposed to prepackaged politics and to all ready-made political products. We need to call forth a new kind of politics, and I am confident that the content and mission of this new politics will be to continually create political subjects. What we are talking about is not the politics of art or political art. We are not trying to use art to do politics or use politics to create art. In this way, art is politics. Art/politics requires that we use our bodies and our memories to gauge our historical and political situations; to constantly seek to position our own reality within a historical context; to constantly ask, “Who am I? What kind of reality do we live in? What am I living for?” In short, it demands that we reestablish faith, that we throw ourselves into an artistic life charged with passion, that we use artistic activity to constantly challenge knowledge and perception, that we refine the relationship between operation and production, between social discourse and perception, and that we strive for what is original in art and radical in politics. In this sense, none of us are artists yet; we are only preparing to become artists. We are marching forward toward our future as artists.