Of making many books there is no end

You don’t own me

Filed under: you have renounced

Announcement

THINGS THAT HAVE CHANGED SINCE I LAST HAD A REGULAR, ONGOING ARTISTIC PRACTICE THAT WAS SILLY AND PLAYFUL AND EVER-PRESENT

-got out of a relationship that had become increasingly abusive (destabilized sense of subjective truth)
-finished art school (no more community of other creative peers to discuss and share work)
-started actively using the internet a lot (this can be TROUBLE!!. this is an ECHO CHAMBER.)
-had to make a living as a young humanities graduate in a recession (i.e. minimum wage –> soul drain/hate to complain)
-worked on making a marriage work instead of making my work and making my work work (the history of women?)

i take responsibility for this shit and don’t blame anybody for my own choices. but i am getting sick of not being grounded, and none of this happens in vacuum!

Fuck the kyriarchy!
Fuck the culture of academic legitimacy!
Fuck the internet echo chamber!
Fuck late-late capitalism!
Fuck being a wife!

I renounce these things!!!

and then this was the moment when Jaymee Martin surrendered to her own instability and lost control over her public presentation, and in so doing reclaimed her own voice. Because if she didn’t say anything, nobody would know the difference (or how she was dying inside), and because if she tried to make what she said palatable for the system that shuffled her into this position in the first place, they would say the same shit anyway because that is how they are designed to work.  “biotch”

Filed under: The Contradiction, you have renounced

a plea for tenderness

Filed under: dude get over it Martin,

“keep the briars out,” they say.

You cannot live and keep free of briars.

Filed under: reconciliation as a work of art?, The Contradiction

a vision of clarity in the gmail sidebar

Filed under: reconciliation as a work of art?

never sent

Filed under: dude get over it Martin, you are part of the problem

Filed under: Ray Johnson didn't have a blog

What can be said about Safia Ishag?

Before these last few weeks of my life careened into unfamiliar extremes, I wanted to write about Safia Ishag, whose video I posted right around when shit really started hitting the fan (if I make it through this essay, it will be a sign that everything is fine). If you watch the video, which you absolutely should do, you will likely understand why it is not the easiest subject to address. I don’t know anything about the democracy movement in Sudan; I don’t think I even know very much about the Sudan really at all. To write about it, I felt that I’d need to do some real research, and then shit hit the fan, and school started up again. Yet I want to come back to her because it needs to be talked about and time is passing. So even though I may not have the informational background to discuss the context in which the video arose, I can talk about what I do know, which is how powerfully the video and this gorgeous human being struck me and (I may fail at this part) where we might be able to go from there.

But first you must take a walk with me down memory lane:

“The Politics of” Language

1.         I’m an art student at UCLA in Fall 2007. I go to the Francis Alÿs exhibit “Politics of Rehearsal” at the Hammer Museum. Here at this show you see a video of Francis Alÿs pushing a block of melting ice across the streets of Mexico City. You see a video of a stripper taking her clothes off and putting them back on again, over and over. You see a video of villagers in South America shoveling dirt from a mountain onto a new, ever-increasing metaphorical mound of earth. You see a few other sparse, non-verbal sorts of documentary artworks whose specifics I don’t remember. Put together, this constituted a big deal; the chair of the department curated the show and wrote the catalog essay, sending an implicit message that these types of formal gestures touching on the imagery of “politics” abstractly, coolly, cerebrally, were acceptable, were sanctioned, were fashionable.

2.         I am in South Korea in Summer 2008. I have been accepted into a program called the “Global Institute: Experiments in Transnational Education” at the Gwangju Biennale, organized by the head (famous!) curator Okwui Enwezor. There are forty of us at the Global Institute, 22 Korean art students, 18 international young artists and curators. For two weeks, we will attend full days of talks by the Biennale’s participants and organizers. Okwui opens with a lecture called “The Politics of Spectacle,” about mega-exhibitions, globalism, the 1980 democratic uprising in Gwangju, the anniversary of May ’68, and Edward Saïd’s subjective political gesture of throwing a rock across the Lebanese-Israeli border.

A few days later we have a lecture by two LA-based collaborators; I’m looking forward to seeing some Californians. Unfortunately their talk is completely impenetrable and I can see the rest of the students’ eyes harden as the slides impassively click by. This is the implicit, unquestioned dance of the visiting artist’s lecture: PowerPoint, big words, then open for questions, oh there’s no questions. They are showing us their installation piece for the Biennale, inspired by Edward Saïd’s rock-throw into Israel that Okwui talked about.  They’ve built a small room in which the viewer stands, the outside walls show a pixilated image of Saïd throwing the rock. Inside there is a projection of different texts about Edward Saïd; meanwhile an automatic baseball pitching machine hurls softballs at the projection over and over from the outside, re-staging a symbol of the political act, thumping against the projected words. Thump, thump, over and over, meaning something, something “about” something, something Interesting, something Political, Post-colonial, Critical.

Now it is Saturday, we are halfway through and we are having a group discussion with Okwui and the rest of the curators, again about Biennial Culture and Cold War geopolitics, this is what they are choosing to talk about, choosing to include us in. They use phrases like “developing interlocutors across boundaries of difference.” I assume that is what they hope is happening in this program, but I’m not sure whose interests it’s supposed to serve, if it is happening at all. If we are crossing any boundaries of difference, they are horizontal, not vertical. I am beginning to wonder why we are even here. There has been talk of social change, but only insofar as it can be put back into the exhibition hall, between the four white walls of the gallery, and settled upon and moderated by curators. Thump, thump. The softball hits the wall again, social change becomes ornamental, words become agenda. A Korean student raises his hand. Through the interpreter, he attempts to explain his confusion over his specific role at the Global Institute, or even the Global Institute’s role in the Biennale (no mention in the exhibition). “Am I here as an extra actor?” he asks.

_____________________________________________________

Safia Ishag Mohamed

Saw her image almost a month ago on a flyer as I walked out the front door of my school, registering the words “activist” “Sudan” “art student” and “speaks out.” I am embarrassed to say that the first thing to hit me was surprise at realizing there are art students in Sudan. I’ve wasted time in the past self-flagellating over how bourgeois and pointless it seems to dwell on Art Student Problems, how separated from “the real world” it seems. But…there are art students in the Sudan. “Art students are everywhere,” I thought. Art students are a fact of reality, are a part of the social world.*

Had a chat with Howard while in Charlottesville, and she came up again. The flyer. Art students are everywhere. Went back to Nicolas’s sublet and had a few hours before he came home. Googled “activist” “Sudan” “art student” and, after no luck, tried my best to remember her name: Safia. There she was on Youtube, looking downcast, “rape” in the title of the video. I could feel my breath being sucked out of my body as she spoke.

After watching her a few times, transfixed by her unbelievable resilience, her fearlessness, her eloquence, thinking “she is amazing” over and over and crying, I realized that the juxtaposition of  “Safia Ishag’s Rape” above her despondent facial expression misrepresents the video entirely. (To be honest, I thought “a dude probably did that.”) Certainly the brutal experience of her rape instigated and catalyzed the video’s making, but the video itself speaks to something far beyond that. It is not only an account of Safia’s rape. It is a documentation of her, as an artist, harnessing the tremendous amount of courage it takes to have a voice, when every goddamn thing surrounding you is conspiring against you speaking out at all. Because maybe speaking out will change a system that is hurting people. Because not speaking out means letting them rob you of your humanity, when they have already taken so much.

And not only is gathering that strength and flexing that voice an incredible act of political agency, but that is also an unequivocally artistic act. Not an artistic act “about” politics—it does not distance itself from a subject and then reflect on it abstractly through layers of metaphor or subject matter that has “the look” of politics. Here art and politics have a completely inseparable function. It’s not a photograph of a fire hanging idly on a wall for us to admire and mull over. She’s lighting a match that can burn the whole place down, because that’s what it takes to survive.

___________________________________________________

The Song-and-Dance Routine of the Perpetual “About”

As my thoughts about Safia lingered and took different shapes, I began to wonder, if this Youtube video is an artistic act, then can it be Art as we conventionally define and understand it? And if it is Art, will anyone in the art world ever say anything about it?**

At face value, Safia Ishag’s Youtube video is in many ways the exact opposite of Art. For example, if you take the videos by Francis Alÿs as a prototype for Art (nobody these days could persuasively argue that they are Not Art), you would have a difficult case to make if you compared the two:

Francis Alÿs:

  • Videos are in a museum exhibit in a major American city.
  • They are supported with the theoretical backing of a curator who is also chair of a prestigious art school. They are imbued with currency and can be bought and sold.
  • Francis is a white male from a European country. He is “widely considered to be among the most important artists working today.”
  • He has elected out of his own choosing to live in a non-European country that experiences poverty and violence, and inflects his work with the imagery of this environment. This makes it even more political-looking.
  • It is also political because “Politics” is in the title of the show.

Safia Ishag:

  • Video is on Youtube, an outlet accessible to almost anyone in the world.
  • It is pretty much completely off the radar of the Western media, let alone the art world. It has no currency and no one has heard of her. It can never be bought or sold.
  • Safia is a young Muslim woman of color in an African nation. She is not even called an artist— still just an art student.
  • She was born into one of the most notoriously violent and unstable countries in the world. But it is not fetishized here. It is not even pictured here.
  • People tend to avoid things with “rape” in the title and think the Sudan is a far-off place where there aren’t even any art students.

The problem here, though, is not that Safia Ishag’s video is not Art as we conventionally define it. The problem is that our conventional definitions of Art actively bar things like Safia’s video from ever entering into the discussion. When it comes to works like this, who don’t have the “look” of Political Art yet whose aesthetics are fundamentally inseparable from their enactment of political agency, we have no language to discuss them; we are literally at a loss. We have no framework of understanding works that actually have the potential to change anything or, to use Safia’s words, to “send a message.” We can only talk about things that treat suffering or political struggle at a distance and can enter comfortably back into our discourse, formalizing it and making it palatable for the system we participate in. We take the “look” of Politics, or the “Politics of [some vague buzzword]” as sufficient enough for us to feel like we’ve done our job as reasonably concerned liberal-ish Global citizens.

Or, to use this 1945 Ad Reinhardt cartoon as an illustration, we are continually stuck in the top position, the “ha ha.” We theorize and jargonize and back-pat around artworks that are “about” issues, issues that are indeed often rooted in politics (globalization, feminism, post-colonialism, etc.; because of genuine concern or because it’s fashionable, who can say). But we keep those issues in a space where art is “about” them. Sure, postmodernism has made it understood that there is no singular “about,” and admittedly has at least brought these issues to the table. Yet the predominance of the perpetual “about” is firmly, stubbornly rooted, and we seem pretty content with complying with and participating in the discursive mechanisms that keep it that way. We dance around our artworks, pointing and positing towards their issues and concerns, discussing their “abouts” (in magazines, in art schools, in artists’ statements, in catalog essays, in lectures), so that afterwards we can go home safe from them ever pointing back at us. Art can never implicate us, or “do” anything. It can only ever “be about” anything.

My arguments may sound like the radical positions of Chris Gilbert or this open letter to the curators of the Istanbul Biennial, and parts of me do admire their stances (especially the first paragraph of that open letter!). But before anyone*** starts chiming in with the inevitable “There is no outside”-s, I want to emphasize that I am not proposing an all-or-nothing.  In fact, I would argue that this sort of “there is no outside” all-or-nothing logic that these types of arguments precipitate on both sides is part of the current architecture of the discourse itself. Radical attempts like Chris Gilbert’s to “get outside” are seen as overly idealistic or just kind of awkward, mostly because extreme politics is unfashionable compared with the vogue of abstract, art-jargon-y politics. Yet sometimes these posturings are viewed skeptically for good reason, as in Pauline’s comment:

“Even if I share his impatience with the fuzzier end of such fashions, doesn’t presenting the case like this just foster the same argumentative techniques that produce rhetorical blackmail like the warmongerer’s ‘If you’re not with us you’re against us?’”

And so we reach an impasse, a theoretical deadlock, a feedback loop. There is no outside. The rock hits the wall again, thump thump. The song-and-dance routine continues. In Ian Burn’s words, “the principles of modern art [have] trapped in a panoptical prison of our own making.” How can anything ever change?

_____________________________________________________________

Readymade Discourse, Readymade Language

My thinking on institutions, the language of art discourse, and contemporary art-historical deadlock really started in art school when I read Howard’s book Art Subjects: Making Art in the American University. In it he makes a mind-bogglingly-crucial-yet-frustratingly-underdiscussed link between the role of language, the university training of artists, and the rise of postmodernism. In the contemporary models of art school (as opposed to the classic Academy model), he writes, “consciousness of the field is what is now taught as art.” Rather than cultivate skills or a practice, we learn how to position ourselves as Artists in a discourse.

Howard links this shift to Duchamp’s readymades— objects that, for the first time basically since the beginning of “Art” in the Western world, were considered Art not because of any inherent visual characteristics, but because the institutions and discourse that surrounded them declared that they were Art. Any paradigm shifts that had occurred before this were still confined to the visual realms of painting and sculpture, or what Duchamp called retinal art. For the first time and in a big way, readymades undermined and uprooted this precondition: A urinal is just a urinal, unless it is on a pedestal in a gallery and signed and dated and called Art by someone who is an Artist. Without having to take the retinal as a given, art could be anything at all— and with the requirement of a completely new and different set of criteria to ground our definition of art, it became the structures of our discourse that govern our understanding of what counts. Or to quote Howard quoting Benjamin Buchloh about conceptual art, “the definition of the aesthetic becomes on the one hand a matter of linguistic convention and on the other the function of both a legal contract and an institutional discourse (a discourse of power rather than taste).” It becomes a matter of language and discourse, of institutions and power. (This is called postmodernism, by the way.)

Starting with the post-war explosion of the MFA, guess where is now the primary site where that discourse is learned and internalized and inscribed and invested in and entered into? Art school!

Students must produce themselves as part of, and as an already narrativized position on, art history as a professional discourse. … The task of art schools across the country is to provide a language that we can speak together as professionals, and to ensure that its concerns will be the students’ concerns. The student’s task, like that of his works, is to take—and to mark—his or her place. (italics mine)

In order to gain a place and an identity as an Artist in a professional discourse, we must invest belief in and replicate this shared language. This language marks the discourse’s boundaries of power, who it includes and excludes, what counts as legitimate and acceptable and discussable, and what forms are permitted.

The art department provides its students with a disciplinary knowledge, with “issues,” as well as tacit knowledge of the rules and orders of practice. It is part of a network of institutions—galleries, museums, granting agencies, journals, and the like—that define the boundaries of the field, construct the concerns or shared values of the community, and circulate its discourse—the language that marks its speakers as members of a community.

If one refuses to speak the language for whatever reason, or if one never learns it to begin with, one jeopardizes his or her place in the discourse. It is impossible to operate outside of the discourse as long as one continues to participate in its structures. The structure of our discourse creates a situation in which “there is no outside.”

The space of the aesthetic can no longer be a critical space; the work of art cannot escape to be somewhere or something else. Marcuse’s thesis that art’s radical possibilities—‘its indictment of the established reality and its invocation of the beautiful image of liberation’—lie ‘precisely in the dimensions where art transcends its social determination and emancipates itself from the given universe of discourse and behavior’ becomes not just unbelievable but also, and more damningly in the modern university, terribly naïve. That version of transcendence has been replaced by another one. The works of postmodernism in the university thematize their positions and reflect their knowing better, letting those of us who know, know that they too are vigilant. They will not be the unknowing victims of history or theory, just necessarily, historically, victims. This thinking, or outthinking, the end of each attempt now operates as transcendence.

As fluffily romantic as transcendence sounds, and as cool as it makes you to outthink it or say that it’s impossible, the part of me that is an artist believes that it is actually the entire point. As long as we take the current Discourse as an established fact, as long as we comply with its structures in order to have a place or a voice, the status quo will never change, and this is a big fucking problem. Art will continue as a politically impotent song-and-dance routine of issues and “about”s. We as Artists will continue to hinge our identities on the basis of existing criteria rather than changing and challenging and creating those criteria ourselves.

Duchamp’s introduction of Discourse into art continues to reign supreme, and we have found ourselves trapped in its logic [logos] as a result, like Wittgenstein’s fly in the fly bottle. Rather than the retinal, it is now Discourse that we take as an unquestioned given—or, if you like, an étant donné. Our language itself has become a Readymade. If Duchamp can overturn the entire basis of Art up to the 20th century with a urinal, why must it be naïve to think that there can be something beyond our Discourse as we know it?

______________________________________________________

“BUT THROUGH REALIZING OUR SOCIALIZATION / MIGHT WE BE ABLE TO TRANSFORM OUR REALITY?”

In September 2008, only a couple of weeks after I got back from Korea, I abandoned my place in the Discourse. I fled Los Angeles, moved to Charlottesville, got a minimum wage job and got married. I now attend school to become an ESL teacher, and have been pleasantly surprised to encounter work in sociolinguistics that resonates strikingly with my experiences in art school/the art world. In particular, James Paul Gee’s writing about language and literacy gives an extremely readable yet freakishly applicable description of what he calls “Discourse with a capital ‘D’”:

Being in a Discourse is being able to engage in a particular sort of “dance” with words, deeds, values, feelings, other people, objects, tools, technologies, places and times so as to get recognized as a distinctive sort of who doing a distinctive sort of what. Being able to understand a Discourse is being able to recognize such “dances.”

… There are a number of points that one can make about Discourses:

  • Discourses … crucially involve a set of values and viewpoints … about who is an outsider and who isn’t, often who is “normal” and who isn’t.
  • Discourses are resistant to internal criticism and self-scrutiny, since uttering viewpoints that seriously undermine them defines one as being outside them. The Discourse itself defines what counts as acceptable criticism.
  • Discourses are intimately related to the distribution of social power and hierarchical structure in society, which is why they are always and everywhere ideological. Control over certain Discourses can lead to the acquisition of social goods (money, power, status) in a society.

Gee situates his discussion of Discourses within a larger argument about the concept of literacy. To Gee, literacy simply means “Mastery of a Secondary Discourse” (Secondary as opposed to our Primary Discourses, which we all acquire in the home and culture and context of our upbringing). In contrast to widely held, overwhelmingly positive views of literacy, here it is presented dualistically as a double-edged sword, both as a liberator and a weapon. Literacies can both oppress (i.e. Spanish monks teaching scripture to Indian slaves at the California missions) and empower (i.e. Frederick Douglass secretly teaching himself how to read)—it depends on what you do, or are able to do, with them.

Paulo Freire, perhaps the most important literacy worker in the 20th century, earlier wrote that the emancipatory potential of literacy manifests through gaining the educational tools to recognize the nature of one’s oppression. This process of recognition is what he terms conscientiziçao, an activation of consciousness. (Think consciousness-raising groups of the Feminist movement, where, by gathering and sharing stories of similar injustices they faced, women realized that “the personal is political.”) As Freire states, “In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform.” Contrasting with the “there is no outside” mentality, this notion of consciousness and transformation calls to mind the different headings within Ian Burn’s “panoptical prison” essay, that, when read consecutively, form a statement: “WHILE WE HAVE BEEN ADMIRING OUR NAVELS /  WE HAVE BEEN CAPITALIZED AND MARKETED / BUT THROUGH REALIZING OUR SOCIALIZATION / MIGHT WE BE ABLE TO TRANSFORM OUR REALITY?”

Realizing our socialization is more than anything a process of literacy—of understanding how Discourse in Art can function as a weapon, closing off any potential for radical self-questioning or the challenging of the status quo, barring voices outside its structures from being heard. To Ian Burn, “transforming our reality is no longer a question of just making more art, it’s a matter of realizing the enormous social vectoring of the problem, and opportunistically taking advantage of what social tools we have.” What more potent social tool do we have than our own language, the basis of all human interaction and communication?

Language does not only have to function as a marker of inclusion and power—it also doubles as the primary vehicle through which people exercise agency. Safia Ishag speaks because in doing so, she articulates her humanity, because it might inspire other women to do the same, because to speak is to access power. With that in mind, I am not arguing for something beyond language itself, but rather for our language to open up to change and to being changed. More than anything I am arguing that there is a difference between Discourse and dialogue.

The current architecture of Art Discourse is structured as monolithic, given, and “just the way it is”: “there is no outside.” Dialogue, on the other hand, is what Freire characterizes as praxis, both reflection and action, not one without the other; it is the enactment of agency, both through saying and doing, like Safia’s video. “There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world.”

Freire then provides what could be a perfect description of “political” art:

An unauthentic word, one which is unable to transform reality, results when dichotomy is imposed upon its constitutive elements. When a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection automatically suffers as well; and the word is changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating “blah.” It becomes an empty word, one which cannot denounce the world, for denunciation is impossible without a commitment to transform, and there is no transformation without action.

His juxtaposition against this sounds more like Chris Gilbert’s and Resistanbul’s reverse-attempts to decry the system:

On the other hand, if action is emphasized exclusively, to the detriment of reflection, the word is converted into activism. The latter—action for action’s sake—negates the true praxis and makes dialogue impossible. Either dichotomy, by creating unauthentic forms of existence, creates also unauthentic forms of thought, which reinforce the original dichotomy.

Instead, dialogue uses language not as a form of posturing for power over others, but rather as

the encounter between people, mediated by the world, in order to name the world. … If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings. Dialogue is thus an existential necessity. … It is an act of creation; it must not serve as a crafty instrument for the domination of one person by another.

… Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and re-creation, is not possible if it is not infused with love. Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself. … Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is commitment to others.

Safia’s video is an act of courage, of love, and of praxis. It is not “about”–it says AND does; it is an existential necessity. In our current Discourse it will go unseen, as we continue to dance around artworks, speaking our shared professional language, congratulating ourselves for being “political” even though we enact nothing. The rock will keep hitting the wall.

I don’t know if my call for dialogue for is possible in our current cultural milieu. I just hope that in the meantime Safia will continue to speak. And I hope that more people struggling to enter the Discourse begin to think critically about its structures, will begin to wonder if anything will ever change, will begin to ask who is serving who. Will begin to think that changing our language not only possible, but necessary. Will recognize that calling for a critical, dialogical art is not naïve. Will, after realizing their socialization, have the courage to raise their hands and ask the question, “Am I here as an extra actor?”

______________________________________________

_____________________________________________________

Stuff I read and/or excessively block-quoted:

Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University

Ian Burn, The Art Market: Affluence and Degradation

James Paul Gee, Social Languages and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Also, this Martha Rosler essay and this thread at Mute.

____________________________________________________

*Get over yourself, Martin.

**If you Google “Safia Ishag,” the only people who seem to be talking about it are Arabic-speaking and African bloggers and journalists. I feel extremely lucky to have caught a glimpse of the flyer, since it doesn’t really seem to be surfacing in our media.

***This is assuming anyone will read this

Filed under: "Officialdom", a world where not everyone looks just like you, dude get over it Martin, The Contradiction, tough and unmoveable as the soviet bloc, you are part of the problem

i am exhausted

Filed under: dude get over it Martin

the first letter, second page

Filed under: at arm's length, ,