Metaphorical Zombies and Functional Activists. For Interpretative Sophistication at the Intersection between Social and Aesthetic Practices

The idea that we will be defending here is that certain contemporary artistic practices, indebted to the conceptual, post-conceptual and/or relational practices of recent times, are loaded with a series of tensions that point towards an interesting and fertile terrain of crossbreeding between what we could describe for now, in a generic and somewhat imprecise way, as “social”, on one side, and purely “aesthetic”, on the other.

Some of these practices, such as those we shall be commenting on in this text, work as a clear example of the potency and tensions arising from these types of performative operation when they are surrounded by an excess of intention. And, in this sense, they are a further example of a process that is becoming a symptom of contemporary art: the urgency of recovering the certainties of interpretation (of hermeneutics) in response to the unbearable ambivalence that is constitutive of every performance, with this recovery running the risk of neutralising what there is of discovery in performance.

In this respect, a need can frequently be observed to close the meaning of performances, a need so potent that it drags the artists into the pragmatic contradiction of trying to explain the inexplicable. It seems as if when facing the crypticism, lack of clarity and univocality of what is “acted”, one has to fall back onto the firm ground of commentary in order for things to acquire meaning. But does the lack of clarity of performative action not emanate from its very inscrutability, from that kind of irreducible ambivalence that characterises all performative action?

This tension between ambivalence and meaning in performance is one of the crossroads of contemporary art, above all in what concerns relational proposals,1 and is usually resolved by a type of “reverse movement”: the attempt to recover meaning by recourse to commentary or, which comes to the same thing, to reasons elaborated before or after the realisation of the performance. Because for every relational operation to be fully exploited –whether in the field of political activism or in the field of marketing and advertising, the difference is immaterial– fooling around (as occurs in those collective performances that have come to be called flash-mobs) must make sense. This is so to such an extent that in this desperate search for meaning the extreme is reached of maintaining that even fooling around must necessarily respond to a strategy or a political intention. The different Zombie marches that have proliferated in recent times are an extraordinarily revealing example of these productive tensions.

If it is a case of trying to find meaning in them, one of the leitmotivs of the Zombie Parades usually refers to what the figure of the zombie offers as a metaphor for contemporary society. There have been many texts, above all since the now classic Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978)2 that propose the zombie as a simile for the consumer and compare the zombie march with the consumerist scenes to which we are so accustomed in shopping centres. For example:

“The zombie shows us what we are and dare not see, that part of us we do not wish to recognise as our own. If we listen to its macabre message, perhaps we can honour that most significant distinction between reality and metaphor: whereas the zombie pandemic is always presented with natural fatalism in film, the dizzying spread of our consumerist way of life is a social phenomenon. And what distinguishes the social from the natural, let us not forget, is its artifice, engendered by human beings and thus open to change by them.”3

The zombie is to nature what the consumer is to society and culture. So why not use the zombie as a metaphor-denunciation to set in motion a pedagogy of consumerism with consciousness? Seen from this angle, the zombie would be the perfect empirical correlate of what Giorgio Agamben has called bare life4 that form of life that is left reduced to its vital, merely reproductive, functions of survival, emptied of any other “anthropological” dimension. The zombie would be an asocial (or post-social) figure, a mere function, a functional solipsism, closed in on itself, self-referential, incapable of establishing a communicative link (much less a sentiment of empathy) with what surrounds it.

There seems to be, in this order of things, a mutual need between the zombie and the shopping centre as its natural habitat (also the theme park or funfair, as can be seen in the recent film Zombieland by Ruben Fleische, 2009). A mutual need that responds to a certain isomorphism decreed by a sociology with an apocalyptic tone5: if the zombie is a unifunctional human, a non-human or a quasi-subject, the shopping centre is a unifunctional place, a non-place, a space lacking memory, history and identity, and as such only explicable from functionalist paradigms (in the case of the shopping centre, the function of consuming).

The shopping centre is thus “a kingdom of urban non-places which offer the naked functions of the city, while renouncing on the formal, social and vital –although not sufficiently disciplined– mixture that makes a city alive.”6 Like zombies, shopping centres are dead spaces and times, lacking in social meaning. Like zombies, which eat for no purpose (nothing that they eat nourishes them since they lack a digestive system), shopping centres function for nothing, since the dynamic they make possible does not serve to generate a meaningful social life. In this Manichean reading of the social, the zombie is, by default, to the shopping centre what the free citizen (should be), by virtue, to the public space. And this –the public space as a creative and virtuous space– is the exacting yardstick, or better, the unreachable level, to which the consumer is compared.

“The shopping mall is a caricature of the Greek agora, the classical space of democracy. It surrounds the citizens with an illusion of freedom of choice, while discouraging unpredictable behaviour, effectively turning them into passive consumers of their environment.”7

The way to overcome the nihilist entente formed by zombies and shopping centres is, therefore, by giving both a meaningful function. That is how postmodern thought, always ductile, comes to the aid of those in need of meaning: no matter how much they are spaces of and for alienation, if one recalls that they are the only busy and inhabited public spaces (traditional public spaces have become phantasmagorical spaces, empty meeting places), shopping centres, and non-places in general, are the only testing ground for elaborating and testing out alternative interpretations of the public; alternative, that is, to the more conventional and institutionalised forms of political participation.

The zombie is thus changed into a full political subject, a claim-staking, emancipated subject, with consciousness; and playing the zombie (and the fool) becomes a committed game of rebellion, going beyond an ironic or aesthetic attitude that does no more than fertilise conformism. Zombie politics is definitely a contentious politics.

That obscure object of desire called sociology

Art has been fooled too often by that obscure object of desire of sociology, both when it adopts a relational format –that highly topical form of art that politicises social relations and that takes as its horizon not the work of art as a private, autonomous and symbolic space, but the sphere of human interactions and their social context– and when it presents itself as social critique (political art). And it does so without realising that the logic of sociology, more than denunciation or social critique, is a deceptively functionalist and paranoid logic, because it is the product of a “law of consequences”: if things exist socially, it is as a consequence of their having a social function.

Now, if we grant the metaphor of the zombie a social and political (critical) function, we are probably sidestepping its most interesting aspects. Better put: if we make the zombie into a metaphor that closes a series of sociological arguments concerning the critique of consumer society and the need for a “sustainable”, self-aware consumerism, we are probably disabling it as a game generating other less predictable meanings.

Is the zombie a metaphor for contemporary society? And if it is, to what point does employing it as a metaphor impede its other potentials? Even if it is thought of as a metaphor, is one not thinking of it as a mere simile for an already existing reality, thus preventing other readings of reality from being provoked? Is the simile of the zombie a dead metaphor?

Sociological reason has always situated art on the terrain of order (as an instrument for consolidating the status quo) or of resistance. But both terrains, however opposed they might seem, have something in common: they pursue a finalistic logic of means/ends. Thus art with sociological pretensions has no value in itself except insofar as it is situated in the field of instrumental action, action for, that is, in a finalistic field, which is none other than the field of the political. Art is thus politics by other means.

Nonetheless, if there is something in art that makes it different from sociology or politics, it is precisely its character of expenditure, of surplus. Applying sociological functionalism or an emancipative impulse to art neutralises its specificity, which is none other than its character as something resistant to utilitarianism and the logic of means/ends. Art is expenditure, surplus of meaning. Fooling around by playing the zombie, as a semiotic excess, always involves an incomplete action, one that is lacking in something. If the body of the zombie is full of orifices, if it is an abject body, it cannot be asked to act according to determinate reasons or in pursuit of determinate aims. As an abject, incomplete body, its raison d’être cannot be of the Apollonian order. And politics is inscribed in this order. And contentiousness as well.

The figure of the zombie’s resistance to the idea of compromise

Thus the most relevant thing is to concentrate on what there might be of surplus meaning in the zombie march. Making the zombie into a metaphor, or speaking about the zombie (before or after acting the zombie, which is the same thing to all practical effects), disqualifies it as a game. And the game proposed by Iratxe Jaio and Klaas van Gorkum in their artistic proposal8 is an extraordinarily ambitious one, because it is not even played out with the distance of an ironic attitude (very characteristic of a certain dilettante and aestheticist postmodernity), but involves total involvement in the action.

“[..] the zombiewalks depend instead on a total collapse of ironic distance. That is to say, they depend on the wholehearted and uninhibited surrender of their participants to the pleasure of the role-play itself.”9

A game like this is loaded with ambivalence and unforeseen consequences. And, due to its highly demanding character, it is constantly subjected to the threat of failure, or, which comes down to the same thing, it runs the risk of incurring in pragmatic contradictions, since playing the zombie and knowing oneself to be playing the zombie are attitudes that neutralise each other. In other words, the extremely exacting character of the game lies in the fact that every intentional, reflexive or finalistic attitude (that is, any role distance, in this case the role of zombie) leads the performance into the most resounding failure. Whoever plays the zombie cannot be aware that they are playing the game, they must simply play it. With all its consequences.

José Luis Pardo in his book La regla del juego [The Rule of the Game]10 refers to  Wittgenstein’s “Story of the Explorer” in order to explain how the explorer (and to the explorer we could add: the anthropologist, the social theorist, the critic, anyone who interprets the “other”) registers, notes down, categorises and analyses the game he observes in the native, in such a way that he essentially ends up converting his own activity into something else, a type of Game 2. While Game 1 of the natives is played without the rules ever being made explicit (which would effectively bring the game to a stop), although these rules are internalised11, Game 2 on the contrary, imbued with that enlightened spirit that shapes it, shows the rules and insists on revealing the mechanisms, mercilessly throwing light on the scene.

“In this respect, another important observation by Wittgenstein calls attention to the fact that, although the explorer refers to what he is describing as a ‘game’ (Game 1), for the natives it isn’t a game at all. The fact that the rules of this game are implicit, and that they are learned in an exclusively practical way, contributes to this ‘not being a game at all’ (…) to such a point that, however much this game might be a technique (ars) for the explorer, it is lived by the natives as (their) nature, what they are (only when it is ruined does it become art and, at times, elevated to the museums).”12

This tension can be appreciated in the zombie march if we compare the initial aims with the interpretation made of the march in texts like Quédense dentro y cierren las ventanas [Stay Inside and Close the Windows]. Days after carrying out the march, Iratxe Jaio pointed out on the “Carne cruda [Raw meat]” program of Radio 3 that the zombie march that took place in Barakaldo had confirmed the plurality of motives leading people to take part in it. “Some,” she said, “were on the more activist side, others [took part] out of reflection and others did so out of playfulness." "One of the most interesting things,” she added, "was that we were our own spectators. We were playing the zombie for ourselves." This repertoire of motives is a clear indicator of the ambivalence that traverses this type of performance, an ambivalence that the artists themselves were able to confirm on the march and that gave it a new meaning.

It would be interesting to elucidate who amongst those who turned up for the march were playing the zombie’s Game 1 and who were playing the explorer’s Game 2. We could infer that those who played the zombie for themselves were playing Game 1, the game of the native (the zombie), while those who did so out of reflection, and above all the artists/organisers themselves, were playing Game 2, that of the explorer. But what was the game being played by those who did it out of activism, that is, those who strictly followed the script of the game, which, as it says in Quédense dentro y cierren las ventanas, was not so much a question of playing the zombie as of playing the zombie in order to denounce consumer society?

Politics beyond serious life. Emancipating oneself from emancipation. Resisting resistance

The answer to this intricate question can be found in an earlier work by Iratxe Jaio and Klaas van Gorkum. We are referring to Marea [Tide], a video production from 2004. Marea, which shows events in the Galician village of Muxía following the sinking of the petrol tanker Prestige off the Costa da Morte, is situated in a context of ecologist mobilisation. But what is revealing, and also moving, about this document is that it manages to reflect what goes on behind the scenes of the mobilisation, that dead time that does not follow the strictly finalistic logic of the mobilisation. In this document we can see, alongside episodes with a political character like the preparation of a manifesto by a group of activists and its subsequent reading before the mass media, other moments that are more disconcerting from the viewpoint of the militant imaginary. Such as when the volunteers who are cleaning the beaches behave in a completely uninhibited way, one could say almost to the point of childishness or foolishness (laughing while they escape from the waves on the seashore, singing O sole mio in the lorry that is taking them back to their lodgings after the day’s work, etc.) To the question about what they had got out of the experience, a volunteer replied that she would compare it to the pleasure she felt on completing St. James’ Way. Another pointed out, in a tone midway between ironic and reflexive –that tone that marks an analytical distance from what one is doing– that the volunteers weren’t really doing that much at an objective level, and that people were above all enjoying themselves: “it makes us feel better. It’s contributed more to the way I feel inside. Besides, the local people are pleased with us.”

What Marea makes plain is that the dead time of the mobilisation is of unusual interest for observing dimensions that tend to be eclipsed by the heroic figure of the militant or the activist. It is highly illustrative to contrast – like a sequence of shots/countershots – this video with that of the zombie march and observe not so much what makes the two documents different (the seriousness of the mobilisation of the volunteers versus the playfulness of the zombies in the shopping centre, the real of the Prestige versus the zombie consumerist simulacrum), as the common logic that informs both of them. If we make a transversal reading of these two documents, we can observe how limiting it is to hold to a series of dichotomies on which the idea of political commitment is based: the dichotomies of serious/playful, reality/simulacrum, emancipation/conformism, commitment/play, amongst others.

It is necessary to begin to decline these pairs in another way, not as oppositions or antagonisms, but as opportunities for generating another grammar of social and political life. The disinterested character of art, its resistance to finalism, provides us with scenarios in which these (socio)logical aberrations are at last conceivable. It is conceivable to defend the idea that –as can be appreciated in the zombie march, especially amongst those who play the zombie “for themselves”– there is a component of seriousness, even of severity, in playfulness: Nietzsche said that there is nothing more serious than watching a child at play. It is also conceivable to speak of commitment as being commitment to the game, and not to a supposed political mobilisation which, in the name of seriousness or of a supposed transcendence, empties it of every possibility of play. It is likewise conceivable to hold that all reality is in origin a simulacrum, a self-fulfilled prophecy: if we define something as real, it will be real in its consequences. It is conceivable, finally, to suspect that the worst type of conformity is that which we show when facing the obligation to emancipate ourselves.

This new social grammar is visible in the zombie march, in the disconcerting images captured by Jaio and van Gorkum. The different attitudes, the different forms of behaving, the different reasons and ambitions, are cut with the same yardstick: the seriousness of the children and their commitment to the zombie role; the overacting of those who take themselves too seriously and give a calamitous performance by trying to be so perfect that it backfires (how ridiculous intentional spontaneity is); the moments when the “organisers” of the performance stop being zombies in order to direct the group or to give some signal to the cameras (amongst zombies there are no known hierarchies, but a strictly egalitarian regime instead); the overacting of those who see the camera drawing near (the observer always modifies the phenomenon observed); the moments of loss of control, of forgetting what is being done, of relaxation in attitude, etc.

Playing the zombie from different places of enunciation

What we are obviously talking about, having reached this point, is the place of the enunciation of discourse, the place where the enunciating subject positions himself, or even more precisely, the place from which the narrative of the zombie is written in each case. Because it seems abundantly clear that it is not necessarily the same to look at this type of mobilisation (whether zombie marches, or ecological activism) from the place of those who convene it as from the place of those who take part.

For the subject position of the organiser it is obviously different to walk playing the zombie under the colours of  “Rebelact”, the Amsterdam battalion of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, than to do so under the colours of the LKM makeup company, or under those of the Sitges cinema festival, “which takes the name of its sponsor: Eastpak Zombiewalk”.13 However, from the attitudes that can be observed in these different walks, it is more than doubtful that there are great differences between them when perceived from the participatory subject position of many of the “living dead”, since, in the final instance, all equally involve fooling around. Moreover, we would venture to affirm here, in the light of the interviews cited above, that something very similar happens in the mobilisation to combat the pollution caused by the Prestige at Muxía: removing tar or walking St. James Way, either will serve for having “joyful experiences”.

The understanding that this type of specific event, midway between performance and mobilisation, offers the possibility of its being experienced from different positions, with different aims –even within the same subject, depending on the subject position occupied at each moment, as Jaio herself recognises above– makes us think that this occurs in other fields of our social life, where with excessive frequency sociology, political science or even journalism tend to simplify things, seeing univocal “demonstrations of desire” where, in reality, things are considerably more complex. In this respect, the overrated figure of the “multitude”, as a contemporary expression of shared emancipative desire14 is questionable, when to a large extent the sum of individual and contradictory wills and desires (at times, we insist, even within the same subject as if making a reality of what Walt Whitman said of himself: “I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”) shapes a much more polyhedral image of social reality, for whose analysis we doubtless need tools that are considerably more sophisticated, in both their epistemological and methodological approach. As well as the sensitivity to see what at first seems counterintuitive: the body of the zombie is more an enriched body than an Apollonian body weakened by scars and orifices. The zombie scours the smooth, clean surface of our political seriousness with its lacerating capacity to enjoy the symptom.


Iñaki Martínez de Albeniz (Oñati, 1967)
Iñaki Martínez de Albeniz is an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Sociology 2, University of the Basque Country, Spain. His research topics are Political Sociology, Social Movements, Social Studies of Science and Technology, and Sociology of Art and Culture. He is the author of La poética de la política. Usos de la política en el País Vasco (2003), La producción de la identidad en la sociedad de conocimiento (2006) and numerous articles published in scientific journals and anthologies. He has also edited the books Basque Society. Structures, Institutions and Contemporary Life (University of Nevada Press, USA, 2006), and Tecnología, cultura experta e identidad en la sociedad del conocimiento (2009). Since 2008 he has been writing in “Mugalari”, the art supplement of the newspaper GARA.

Gabriel Villota Toyos (Bilbao, 1964)
Gabriel Villota Toyos holds a degree in Fine Arts and a PhD in Audiovisual Communication, both awarded by the University of the Basque Country, where he works as a Lecturer in the Department of Audiovisual Communication and Advertising and as Director of Cultural Activities of the Vice-Rectorate of the Biscay campus. He has has been a visiting researcher at different universities in the United States. Since the 1990s, he has worked as an artist and organizer of activities related to the visual arts, and has published articles in journals, catalogues and other media. His most recent works are Destellos en el Agua (Melusina, Barcelona, 2010), En, desde, por, contra. Crónicas vascas del arte a comienzos de siglo (Arteleku, 2008), “Sujeto e imagen-cuerpo: entre la imagen del cuerpo y el cuerpo del espectador” (UPV/EHU, 2004), and the documentary video “Devenir vídeo (Adiós a todo eso)” (180’, 2005), in the framework of “Desacuerdos” (Arteleku / UNIA / MACBA).


1 Nicolas Bourriaud: Estética relacional. Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo Editora, 2006.

2 Dawn of the Dead (known in Spanish as El amanecer de los muertos or Zombi amongst other titles) is a horror film, the second in the series on the living dead by George Romero (after The Night of the Living Dead, 1968). Besides initiating the “splatter” genre in horror films, Dawn of the Dead received critical acclaim, amongst other reasons due to the subcontext that involved North American consumerism and materialism. (…) The shooting of the scenes in the mall in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, was only done at night when the mall was closed to shoppers, between 10.00 PM and 8.00 AM. Romero said about this: “Shooting in the mall was hell”. (From Wikipedia)

3 J. Cuenca: “Consumir sin conciencia: anatomía de la vida zombi” in Iratxe Jaio and Klaas van Gorkum (eds.): Quédense dentro y cierren las ventanas, Bilbao, Consonni. 2009, p. 52.

4 G. Agamben: Homo sacer. El poder soberano y la nuda vida. Valencia: Pre-Textos, 1998.

5 See in this respect all of the work by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.

6 M. Sorkin: Variaciones sobre un parque temático. Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 2004,  p. 10.

7 Jaio and van Gorkum, op. cit., p. 9.

8 We are referring here to the “Dead Time” exhibition, which could be seen at the Museo Artium in Vitoria-Gasteiz as part of the Gure Artea prizes, as well as to the publication of the book Quédense dentro y cierren las ventanas (Bilbao, Consonni, 2009), and, of course, to the organisation of the Zombie March held in Megapark at Barakaldo on June 14th 2008.

9 Jaio and van Gorkum, op. cit., p. 12.

10 José Luis Pardo: La regla del juego. Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 2004.

11 We too have already discussed this question, in “Juego y emancipación. Las utopías pedagógicas en la posmodernidad”, Textos y pretextos para repensar lo social. Libro homenaje a Jesús Arpal. Ignacio Mendiola ed., UPV/EHU, Bilbao, 2008. pp. 399-412.

12 Pardo, op. cit., p. 94.

13 María Mur Dean: “Redondee sus puntas, por favor”, in Iratxe Jaio and Klaas van Gorkum (eds.): Quédense dentro y cierren las ventanas. Bilbao: Consonni, 2009, p. 26.

14 Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri: Empire, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.