This text was written in lock-down, as part of a research group on the artist’s studio with the Irish Museum of Modern Art
That line of Adorno’s, that to write poetry after Auschwitch is barbaric (1949), keeps drifting into my head. I think about it differently now than I did before.
A friend of mine, a curator, has asked me and a number of other artists to make a piece of work responding to our hands, as part of his ongoing project. He is posting the resulting images/videos on instagram, thinking about hands in terms of connection, intimacy, and contagion. I feel so overwhelmed by this simple request. Immobilised by the pressure to make a work about ‘hands’. All my ideas feel contrived, literal, desperate, ridiculous… Many of them halt due to my lack of materials and equipment, but in my belly I fear that I am failing the quarantine creativity test.
I confide in an old tutor, via email, that I miss my studio desperately, and am struggling to feel motivated to do serious notebook work at home. Instead, filling the time with other, simpler activities. She writes back that this is a truly traumatic situation, that in being artists everything we do, know and even our ways of thinking and seeing are called into question. She advises that I give myself time now, as we will need masses of energy for practice when we reach a sense of aftermath. As being observant and sentient is a big part of our normal jobs as artists, we may feel this time of change and trauma particularly deeply. She writes that the studio is always where you are, even if this is sitting on a park bench.
I gain such a sense of relief and space from this email. I think about what will happen, for us as artists, when we reach a sense of aftermath. Is this when the art-working begins? Perhaps as a tool to process the trauma, for ourselves and on behalf of the public. Or will art hold a dual position as a space both of escape, and of reflection and response. I have never made art in a crisis before. I also think about the studio always being where I am, and I wonder if this is true. She is speaking, of course, to the studio as concept, as a metaphorical structure. I am slowly beginning to identify the studio in me, but still I ache for the studio as physical space.
It is a white-ish room with four walls, a little under 4 square metres perhaps. It has a door with a lock, a large sash window with a small black leather armchair in front, a slab coming out from the wall to the right of the window which serves as writing desk, shelves above (piles of old notebooks, statements from exhibitions) – the research corner. It has an extendable table with piles of watercolour tubes, scraps of sandpaper and normal paper, a couple of notebooks, and research images pinned to the wall above (currently japanese scrolls and rain-sculpted limestone), then an easel, a storage trolley with three levels (brushes, paint-tubes, miscellaneous), a second trolley with a slab of perspex across the top (palatte), and bottles of mediums and white spirits on the level below. Then the largest wall hung with partially-finished paintings, stretched linen canvases leaning below. The wall paper, which I painted white, is patterned with bumps and ridges, which always show through when I make large drawings against the wall. There is a slab of metal in the floor against the opposite wall (under the extendable table), where there was once a fireplace. I can peer down between the large gaps in the old, uneven floorboards (painted grey), where I’ve lost many nails. My studio is up three flights of rickety stairs that gradually narrow as your ascend, a Victorian-era building I think. There is a comforting musty smell as soon as you enter downstairs, which is replaced by the sharp tang of white spirits, or the smoother aroma of linseed oil when you reach my studio, always slightly out of breath from the stairs. In the afternoon the sun circles around and shines through the sheer, gauzy hanging in my window, casting delicate gold patterns across my reference images and partial-paintings. This is when I sit the black armchair and do little more than watch the light, and take photos on my phone, sometimes post to my instagram story, always captured by the prettiness. This is the room where I slowly move towards making an artwork, where I read and make notes, where I drag pastels and ink across notebook pages, where I hammer together canvas bars, boil rabbit skin glue on my hot plate, where I cut linen to size and wrap it around the frames – squatting and stretching to staple. Layers of gesso followed by layers of marks, layers of paint. Moments of intense action, followed by periods of inaction – thought, research, doubt.
To have a practice is to repeat, to do it again and again.
Where is my practice now? Is it in the studio, frozen in time, waiting in the partial-paintings. Or is it wherever I am, on the park bench or in this cramped apartment.
When the Arts Council announced funding to support artists making new and original work for online dissemination with the aim of engaging and benefiting the public during the COVID-19 crisis, it seemed to reinforce a myth that artists cannot help but produce work constantly, regardless of the conditions we are in. That despite the fact we are in our homes, perhaps without our own space, materials or equipment, despite the trauma of the events unfolding around us, even with a two week deadline, even if our practices have never come from or occupied virtual spaces before – new and original work would somehow burst forth from us, because we are unstoppable creative forces. All of this artwork would emerge to fill the void this crisis has created, to decorate the silent space, to entertain the public.
But what if art practice is not a relentless waterfall of creativity and resourcefulness that will always find a way to flourish. What if it’s a little more delicate, and needs specific conditions in order to function, to reproduce itself. Essential conditions, specific to individual art practices.
Yesterday evening I joined an open Zoom call with a large group of peers (some known to me, some not), organised by an initiative to visit exhibitions in groups and discuss them afterwards, to listen to an audio performance by Isadora Epstein in response to Gabriel Kuri’s exhibition in the Douglas Hyde. It had been scheduled to happen in the gallery shortly after lock-down, and was adapted to online with images of the exhibition, graphics and audio. The hosts say that we now need to find new ways of engaging with art online.
My friend says she is happy to just wait until art can happen again in real life, and wonders if that’s bad of her.
Irit Rogoff states that “meaning is never produced in isolation or through isolating processes but rather through intricate webs of connectedness” (2002).
What does that mean for meaning now? What and where are the webs of connectedness? She is referring to the art space as a zone of potential collectivity, “collectivity is something that takes place as we arbitrarily gather to take part in different forms of cultural activity such as looking at art”. She insists that ‘we’ is central to the experience of art. Right now I don’t really know how to talk about art without the we, and without the art. But I have started drawing again.
Contemporary Painting, the Artist’s Studio and the Production of Knowledge.
This text responds to a six month collaborative research group on ‘the artists studio’ with the Irish Museum of Modern Art, facilitated by Nathan O’Donnell. February – August 2020.
Both the discipline of painting and the tradition of the artist’s studio may first appear more relevant to ancient history than to the production of new knowledge within contemporary art discourse. Both have frequently been dismissed as dead and irrelevant within an art world preoccupied with the digital, the immediate, the relational, the event. They sit comfortably side by side in what Deleuze would term the ‘major narrative’ (1985) of art history; the weighty history of the production of art, its display in institutions and its commodification. Their position in this history has most often been at the top of the hierarchy, as the privileged medium and location for artistic production.
We cannot undo or overturn this history, however, given the stubborn refusal of both painting and the studio to die, perhaps it is worth looking again at what it is that the artist in the studio does. Looking for the ‘minor’ within the major. The anxiety around the lack of affordable studio space in Dublin, as well as my own experience of being denied access to my studio during lockdown, reminds me that there is an enduring necessity for designated workspaces for artists. A necessity that we have not quite found the language for, a language to defend the studio within the contemporary moment.
Deleuze describes a minor narrative as not coming from a minor language, but as that which a minority constructs within a major language, which possesses the inherent qualities of deterritorialisation, political immediacy, and collective value (1985). Rather than focusing on that which exists outside dominant structures, and seeking to overturn, undo and replace these structures from the outside, Deleuze’s description of the minor allows us to notice the small disturbances that can be produced from within dominant structures, which may link together to shift or alter the narrative. I want to be attentive to the minor practices which emerge through the contemporary painter fully inhabiting their studio practice, and how this movement of the minor within the major may produce new ways of knowing. The ‘major’ cannot be ignored, rather artists must continually reckon with this history, a history which is particularly heavy for studio-based painting practices.
How do artists think? How does art ‘know’? How does artistic research create the studio as concept, and how does the physical studio support artistic research through practice?
To these big questions I offer only my own partial-perspective (Haraway, 1988), generated through fully inhabiting my painting practice in my studio. Any knowledge produced through studio practice is situated knowledge, as defined by Donna Haraway. Rather than make claim to an objective, universal knowledge, the situated knowledge produced through one’s own partial-perspective may join up to others’ partial-perspectives, forming a community of knowledge. As such it is my hope that through theorising my own emergent knowledge, generated through inhabiting practice, it may link to that of others.
“What artists do is interesting, because the only luxury we have is that we are given a space and time to think about what we do. The only power we have is to think about every gesture we make”
Mario Garcia Torres in conversation with Lucy Cotter, 2019
(Can you imagine how difficult it is to think about every gesture that you make?)
Artist’s work is different to that of the academic, the scholar, the curator, the critic. They think in a different way. Artists are burdened by constant big, existential questions what am I doing, what is this thing, where is it going?
Whilst we emit a constant quiet plea for more studios, better studios, cheaper studios, have we practitioners stopped and really thought about what we mean by the studio? What do we want the studio to be? Can we imagine an artist’s studio building as that which is produced through a linking (but not merging) of multiple partial-perspectives. The recent graduate next door to the established artist, next to the writer, to the craftsperson, designer, to the performance artist. A multiplicity of media and approach. Can we imagine the community of knowledge this could produce?
I tried to materialise this potentiality on Culture Night 2019, at Abbey Artist Studios, by facilitating an open, rolling discussion group on “the artist’s studio as a collective, diverse and sustainable research space”. The idea was to open a rolling conversation between a variety of practitioners and members of the public, where people were free to come and go and contribute to the conversation or not. It aimed to make public the usually private conversations artists have all the time about their work in informal contexts, in the studio corridor or in the pub. I imagined a space where diverse perspectives and opinions could meet, mingle and unfold side-by-side, without conflating or synthesising to a single idea, and with no expectation of an outcome or conclusion.
Similarly, but in a more formal way and over a longer period of time (and mostly over Zoom), the studio research group with IMMA which has motivated this writing has performed or mimicked artistic research in the way that we have pursued questions rather than seeking answers. We have allowed diverse ideas to sit alongside each other, generating new ideas through associative logic (Cotter notes that artistic thinking is more often circular and associative than linear, 2019, p.13). We embarked on collaborative research and discussion for its own sake, rather than for a specific outcome. We held open a space to think things differently. What does it mean to not know what you’re looking for?
Artists frequently embark on work without knowing how it’s going to end up. They inhabit the unknown. It is very difficult to make time for the unknown is a society that prioritises time management, returns, efficiency, production. How to say no to paid labour or domestic labour in order to spend time in the studio, knowing that perhaps nothing will happen today. Knowing that in the eyes of the outside society you appear inactive and unproductive. To repeat again and again (practice) this act of embarking into the unknown, trusting that something will come. The studio is a structure which may protect and support this fragile endeavour, offering a useful legitimacy to time spent there as well as a practical space.
Art working holds its own logic, its own laws. It has its own temporality, there are times of intense activity, and time of inactivity. Time is moderated by the needs of the materials, negotiated with by the artist. Materials come with their own ideas, which the artist must be partner too. Artworking looks different to capitalist working, to the patterns and behaviour people associate with valuable and worthwhile work. The medium is not used to illustrate a pre-existing idea, but the idea emerges between the medium and the artist. The work comes into being in the studio.
The painter becomes an expert in their medium. In the mixing of colour, the tension of the surface, the different kinds of marks different brushes make, the consistency of different mediums, drying times, dealing with the edges, the alchemy of paint. To manage the heaviness, the slipperiness of the medium. The painter knows, without being able to articulate this knowledge. So, there is this simultaneous deep knowing alongside the not-knowing – where is it going, what is it going to look like. The knowledge of the behaviour of paint is not synonymous with the control of paint, it is an uneasy, unpredictable partnership. It is a complicated, ambivalent way of thinking, holding many things in your head, suspending pre-existing knowledge, allowing for intuition.
To work with matter, with its own rules, logic, history, meanings, makes one vulnerable, awkward, doubt-filled. The studio is important because it is a space where the logic of art working is the dominant logic, distinct from the dominant logics at work in the rest of the world. It is a space where the unique rhythms and flows of a practice are what makes sense, are permitted, are protected. The studio protects inactivity, protects slow research, thought, conversation, protects the needs of the materials – their drying times, resting times.
The studio supports that struggle, but is also a part of that struggle.
The reality of the studio as a physical space is rarely ideal. Yes – the studio is not a static entity but that which is produced through a multiplicity of artistic practice. But just as artists struggle and negotiate with their medium, so too is there a struggle with the materiality of the studio itself. It is never quite right; it is too small, not bright enough, there is not enough wall space. It is too expensive, too isolated, not private enough. It is too far away, you have it for too brief a time, you never have enough time. There are too many stairs up to it, it is too cold, there is no wifi. Artist’s studios are often found in forgotten places, places which slip through the net of capitalist production, which exist in the margins of society. This struggle with the reality of the studio becomes part of the artist’s work too. How to stack without damaging, how to clean and clear, how to store, how to get there. When is it worth it to get there, to commute, to journey, when you don’t know what’s going to happen once you’re there?
Painting has historically been the privileged medium of artistic production, and therefore has the most ‘baggage’ and associated pre-existing knowledges (the major). Within this pile up of history and expectation, how can the contemporary painter produce new knowledge through inhabiting their studio practice? The painter must constantly reckon with this major narrative, the history of paint, the symbolism and meanings associated with each colour or particular technique. (Pour paint and you speak to Helen Frankenthaler, drag paint and Gerhard Richter is looking over your shoulder, colour fields bring Mark Rothko and a crowd of others into your studio). Philip Guston described how when you begin a painting everything and everyone is there in the studio (2011). Unlimited possibilities, the entire history of painting, the history of the studio, the meanings associated with colours, surfaces, symbols, the painting as a commodity within the contemporary art world. But as you paint they slowly start to leave, as you move from anything being possible to only certain things being possible. You have to find a way of suspending all that knowledge, of ignoring that history and symbolism, of looking away, in order to make anything new. The doubt-filled painter carries on, as doubt becomes form. A logic of paint is generated and begins to take over, in all its contradictions, tensions and paradoxes. The existence of this mark here, means that this mark, this colour, must now go here. Working, re-working, erasing, leaving, returning. In my experience the painter continues until the work stops asking for things, and starts offering something. A moment when the work surprises you, tells you something you didn’t already know. The shock of recognition. This is the moment of knowledge production, held within the drying paint.
I am speaking to a kind of knowledge that is closer to intuition, which emerges in the movement between the known and unknown. The constant turning towards and away from pre-existing knowledges generates new knowledge, or perhaps non-knowledge. The studio gives physical and intellectual space to pre-thinking, to the notebook phase, to that which cannot quite articulate itself within the speed and productivity of contemporary art discourse. It is a space for what Sarat Maharaj terms the ‘Pregross’ (Cotter, 2019). The unfinished, the incomplete, that which can never reach gross form, can never be fleshed out into the full thing . This is what art thinking does which academic thinking cannot; it stays with the question rather than seals with an answer, stays with the discomfort of ambiguity. It accesses and materialises spaces beyond language, it holds open space to think things differently. The radical potential of art “lies precisely in this destabilisation of reality, insisting on this essential incompleteness, a non-closure or non-totalising of form” (Cotter, 2019, p.12). It accesses registers of knowing that cannot be assimilated into formal knowledge.
The work exists in the studio in the liminal space between creation and recognition. But the artwork never becomes just one thing, never a discrete, isolated object – never closed-off, never finished. Instead it is a point of thought, part of an ongoing thinking practice. The artwork opens itself to its surroundings, the viewer, the art-space, other artworks, art history, the curatorial, the conditions of its making and exhibiting. It offers an invitation to enter an interconnected web of potential meaning and knowledge production. Art-thought moves in circles and back on itself, it follows its own associative logic. It moves beyond the available frameworks of thought. The studio is the first locus of this activity.
In searching for the language to defend the studio I have found that it is precisely that which language cannot articulate that the studio protects.
This blog post introduces my current research, focusing on my proposal to ‘look again’ at contemporary painting practices as a form of knowledge production, by shifting our attention to how the viewer encounters the work. Future posts will expand on, put into practice, and perform the methodology introduced here.
My proposal to ‘look again’, as an ethical, vulnerable, collective and participatory activity, responds to Irit Rogoff’s call to ‘look away’ from the artwork on display in an exhibition (2002, 2005). Like Rogoff, I wish to propose an alternative way of occupying and producing knowledge in the exhibition space, which disrupts the dominant understanding of the viewer-object dichotomy within the structure of the art institution. Like Rogoff, my intention is to shift attention towards the collectivity and participation of the audience within the exhibition. However, with the permission granted by Rogoff to look away from the artwork, I want to consider the potential for ethical, situated knowledge production by looking again at the work, looking differently. Specifically, I am focused on looking differently at contemporary painting practices.
This intervention takes place within what Gilles Deleuze has named ‘a major narrative’, the major here is the history of painting and its display in the art institution. My academic and artistic research shows that both artist and viewer continuously contend with that major language of paint. Deleuze describes a minor narrative as not coming from a minor language, but as that which a minority constructs within a major language, which possesses the inherent qualities of deterritorialisation, political immediacy, and collective value (1985). I ask, how can we encounter painting differently, so as to produce a minor practice within its major language? By looking away from the individual artwork, Rogoff offers the audience agency to occupy the space as a collective, generating meaning through participation, while resisting being placed in the traditional position of viewer. My concept of ‘looking again’ at the artwork as a minor practice, maintains this collectivity and participation, moving away from understanding painting in terms of individual reflection, and instead in terms of encounter. I am proposing the concept of ‘looking again’ as a minor practice which deterritorialises the major narrative of the exhibition, which has political implications and collective value.
I deal specifically with the medium of painting in the post-medium condition as defined by Isabelle Graw, as a ‘highly-personalised semiotic activity’, producing a ‘highly-valuable quasi-person’ (2012). I wish to consider how this potential position as quasi-artist, which Graw describes, makes it particularly sensitive to the kind of ethical, participatory viewing encounter I will describe in future blog posts. This is distinct from understanding painting as pure expression of subjectivity; Graw is clear to include methods of painting where the artist never touches the canvas within her post-medium definition. My understanding of the medium specificity of painting is in its position as medium between the artist and the audience. This will be unpacked under ‘Encountering Painting as Quasi- Person’ (p.14).
Whilst my concept of ‘looking again’ is hoped to be a productive approach to any form of artwork, I am focused on painting firstly because of its potential to become a kind of ‘quasi-artist’ in the absence of the work’s maker, as Isabelle Graw argues. Secondly, as painting has historically been the privileged medium of artistic expression it is more often viewed and critiqued as a major practice. Rather than looking to other art forms more generally understood as participatory or relational, I am particularly interested in looking again at painting, in paying attention to the minor within the major.
The way of approaching painting which I am considering, of looking again in a way which empathises with the artist’s encounter in the making of the work, has implications for how we critique painting. The original look is bound within the viewer-object dichotomy, the major, which Irit Rogoff encourages us to look away from. The second look is different; it is a conscious, attentive, ethical looking, within the multiplicity of the art space. It is empathetic to the artist through vulnerable participation with the artwork, thus producing new knowledges around how we think about, and critique, painting. This kind of knowledge production is not about visual literacy, applying meaning or assigning the work a place within our pre-existing knowledge, and as such it constitutes a minor practice within the major narrative at play within the exhibition. By the production of knowledge I refer to Donna Harraway’s understanding of situated knowledge production (1988). I pay attention to the different kinds of knowledge which emerge from fully inhabiting an advanced practice, as do the artists I deal with. The situated knowledge produced from a partial-perspective may join up to many other’s partial, embodied perspectives in order to form a community of knowledge within the pre-existing knowledge of the art institution. This research presents such a linking of multiple partial-perspectives.
Informed by Irit Rogoff, my research intention is to be attentive to minor practices so as to disrupt the major narrative of how we approach artworks in an exhibition, to consider the audience as a collective of difference and co-producers of knowledge, and to think differently about how we practice critique in response to contemporary painting.
The Minor Within The Major Narrative of Paint
In his study of Francis Bacon, Deleuze states that “it is a mistake to think that the painter works on a white surface” (1981, p.86). He is referring to everything that the painter is already holding in their head and projecting onto the surface of the canvas, everything that surrounds them in the studio, and everything that the canvas itself represents – the virtual presence of every painting that has been made before. This is what he refers to as ‘the painting before painting’, and it is what every painter has to contend with as they work. This research is not an attempt to recuperate or alter this major narrative of paint, but rather to pay attention to the minor practices which may emerge within and beneath painting, with the potential to disturb the major from within.
Simon O’ Sullivan, contemporary art theorist, has investigated what may be considered a minor art practice, under the Deluezian understanding of major and minor (2005). Deleuze describes a minor literature as that which a minority constructs within a major language. He examines Kafka’s use of German as a Czech Jew, as being “a sort of stranger within his own language” (1985, p.26). Simon O’Sullivan identifies painting as the major media of art, and therefore characterises practices which “abandon the canvas” as minor, offering Outsider Art as an example. This is in line with Deleuze’s statement that “there is nothing that is major or revolutionary except the minor. To hate all languages of masters” (1985, p.26). However, following from O’Sullivan’s assertion that “a minor literature does not occur ‘elsewhere’ or ‘apart from’ a major literature (this is not a dialectic) but on the contrary operates from within, using the same elements as it were, but in a different manner” (2005, p.2), I want to look again for the minor within the canvas, after looking away from the major (Rogoff). A practice becomes minor by producing movement from within the major. Inhabiting a minor practice therefore involves a complex relationship between dissent and affirmation of the major language. The minor cannot simply refuse the major, as to solely occupy a position of dissent is to “remain reactive rather than creative” (2005, p.7). It is in fully occupying the liminal position of movement between dissent and affirmation, rejection and recognition of the major, that one is engaged in a simultaneous process of “the production of new subjectivities as well as turning away from those already in place” (2005, p.7), and new knowledges may be produced. As painting has historically been ‘the major media of art’, painters producing a minor practice have the most baggage to negotiate. The major of painting cannot simply be ignored, it is in a kind of stammering of its major language that new ways of thinking and knowing may be produced.
Donna Harraway has described the importance of situated knowledge for the feminist project, stating that the claim of an objective perspective is more often the perspective of the white, straight, male. Rather, feminist objectivity may be produced through the linking of multiple embodied, situated knowledges and partial perspectives to form a community of rational knowledge (1988). “Situated knowledges are about communities, not about isolated individuals” (1988, p.590). It is with the intention of forming a collective subjectivity and community of knowledge across difference that I approach the practices of painters and researchers Amy Sillman and Bracha Ettinger, as minor practices which must constantly negotiate the major.
Amy Sillman contends with the major of paint every time she works, through fully inhabiting her advanced practice;
“Making a painting is so hard it makes you crazy. You have to negotiate surface, tone, silhouette, line, space, zone, layer, scale, and mass, while interacting with a meta-surface of meaning, text, sign, language, intention, concept, and history. You have to simultaneously diagnose the present, predict the future, and ignore the past – to both remember and forget…When people talk about colour as decorative I just don’t know what they’re talking about. Try mixing oil paint: it’s hideous 95 percent of the time” (2016, p.110)
Sillman is referencing the huge amount of particular knowledge and thought which is involved in her advanced practice. She is describing how she must negotiate the major of painting, while constructing a minor practice within that language. This is not information that the viewer possesses. Sillman has described her surprise, when talking to an art historian she realised that he had no knowledge of the different weights of paint, a logic that was second nature to her as a painter (2016). I want to pay close attention to this gap in understanding, the gap between the embodied experience the painter has making the work, and the way in which a viewer understands the result of that labour. How can one apply meaning to a painting, criticise it and fit it into pre-existing knowledges about what and where painting should be, without ever having held the weight of paint in their hands? This is not to say that one should hold paint in order to behold paint, however it does highlight an ethical question of how one can approach an other, non-I, when the other is difference.
The gap between viewer and artist is mediated by the art object, inseparable from the conditions of making, showing and viewing artwork. The painting as medium is what triangulates this relationship. In what way can looking again at the medium narrow the gap between holding and beholding paint?
When the audience look at the attractive colours in a painting and deem them ‘decorative’ they dismiss the specific embodied knowledge that went into the mixing and application of that colour. Through their lack of attentiveness to the medium they maintain the gap in knowledge between viewer and artist. At the same moment as Sillman recognises the major, the inherited meta-surface of paint, the ‘painting before painting’ (Deleuze), she must simultaneously ignore it. This is an important double-bind in painting, the painter must both deal with its history and meaning and suspend that knowledge in order to produce something new. It is part of the liminality of contemporary painting processes. Liminality, a concept first developed by Arnold Van Gennep (1909), describes the state of in-betweeness experienced by being at a threshold, for example in the midst of transition during a rite of passage. It is the space where things are neither what they were before or what they will become. I use this term to describe the flux in painting practice between knowing that you are going to make something, but not yet knowing how exactly it will happen, or what it will turn out like. Inhabiting a painting practice is a liminal state, of not being entirely in control of your medium, in the midst of things being neither as they were, nor what they will become. Painters immerse themselves in this uncertainty, this liminality, the process of working with matter, surface and meta-surface towards an unknown endpoint. The painter therefore has a specific body of knowledge, which emerges through simultaneously engaging with what is already known, and producing new situated knowledges through that active engagement.
It is a practice of constantly looking away from all of the knowledge and information they possess, in order to look again, differently.
The motivation behind Irit Rogoff’s 2005 paper ‘Looking Away: Participations in Visual Culture’, is to investigate what’s next for critical analysis in visual culture, beyond defining and judging the structures within which we do critique. She asks what criticality can do beyond pointing its finger at the “master narratives” (p.118), and finds a response in the “shift of the traditional relations between all that goes into making (practice) and all that goes into viewing (audience) the objects of visual culture attention” (2005, p.119). She defines the artwork in an exhibition as that which is meant to compel our attention, which we are essentially forced to look at in the allotted role of viewer, and instead proposes ‘looking away’ as an alternative form of participation. This is not looking away as resistance or rejection, but as taking part in a different way. By encouraging the viewer to look away from the work Rogoff interrupts the presumed role of the viewer, and therefore the presumed role of the artwork. It creates a space in which the viewer is an agent of participation on their own terms. The audience becomes a collective of difference – neither unified or singular. Looking away is a performative act, a staged disruption allowing the audience to occupy the space collectively, beyond the roles assigned to them (2005, p.130). Here there is potential for a linking of partialised subjectivities, and therefore the production of a community of situated knowledge (Harraway). For Rogoff community is formed not through identity, but through mutuality (2005, p.123). Rogoff hopes to simultaneously “unframe the realms of art from all those deeply isolating grand privileges, from all those impossible demands, while at the same time allowing it to be the space of collective engagements” (2005, p.124), an intention aligned to my own. She believes that “art does not have to be overtly political in its subject matter in order to produce a political effect” (p.122). I, similarly, will be locating the political efficacy of minor practices in the kind of audience they produce. Building on the permission granted by Rogoff to look away from the work, thus subverting the obligatory viewer-object dichotomy she speaks of, I wish to consider the value of looking again, re-searching, as a form of knowledge production in an ethical-aesthetic collaboration.
Rogoff grants us agency to look away from the works, breaking that allotted role and shifting the production of meaning away from individual reflection and towards collective engagement (the viewer does not ‘complete’ the artwork as in Barthes’s Death of the Author, 1980). In light of this, the decision to look again at the artwork is one taken freely and deliberately. The artwork does not represent an obligation, it does not solicit a specific response, it is not something we are “being forced to look at” (2002) within the major narrative of the exhibition. Instead it offers an invitation, which may or may not be taken up by the viewer. The decision to take up that invitation then becomes an ethical one. The viewer now turns towards the artwork differently. This shifts the subject position which the viewer occupies, and therefore their partial-perspective and the situation from which they engage with knowledge (Harraway). The viewer looks again at the work not as an isolated individual, but as a part of the collective of difference realised through the looking away. Rogoff remarks that “meaning is never produced in isolation or through isolating processes but rather through intricate webs of connectedness” (2002, p.1); by looking away from the artwork she provides a space for the audience to notice and participate in their shared webs of connectedness.
The ‘We’ formed through collectivity, mutuality and participation does not just include the ‘citizens of the art world’, art-lovers, critical theorists (Rogoff, 2002, p.1). I also want to pay attention to the ‘other viewer’, the unexpected drop in, the supportive granny, the stray viewer who does not fit into a pre-assigned category. Their encounter is a part of the situated production of knowledge which I am articulating here.
Looking again at the art object is an act which includes it as part of the multiplicity of this encounter, as part of the collective of difference and the community of knowledge produced in the art space. Further still, I propose that the audience’s (collective of difference) looking again includes the artist, through the medium of the painting, in the production of a community of knowledge within the art institution. I will expand on this below. As a minor practice I claim that ‘looking again’ is an activity which deterritorialises the major narrative of the exhibition, which has political implications and collective value.
Sillman describes her painting process as “a series of adjustments and overhauls with scraped-off colours, until a kind of weight or visual surprise tells me something I didn’t already know and I stop” (2016, p.115). It is this moment that I want to pay attention to with the painting process, the moment when the painting tells the artist something they did not already know (remembering the volume of pre-existing knowledge they are dealing with) and then they stop. This is a moment where new knowledge is produced, in the same moment as the painting separates from the body of the painter. This moment becomes sealed as the paint dries, and is the same moment which the viewer later encounters in an entirely different context. This situated production of knowledge, the surprise which Sillman describes, arises from within active engagement with what is already known; the major, the canon. It is through this active engagement with pre-existing knowledge than new knowledge may emerge, which changes or alters what it was that we thought we knew.
Encountering Painting as ‘Quasi-Person’
Isabelle Graw has noticed the traces of the artist’s labour inscribed in the surface of the painting (the preserved moment of knowledge production) and associated it with the enduring economic value of paintings. Her project is to propose a medium unspecific notion of painting, in order to allow engagement with contemporary painting in the ‘post-medium condition’ (Rosalind Krauss). Graw is trying to establish a language that can deal with painting in the expanded field, as it is no longer synonymous with the flat, square canvas on the wall (which defined the medium specificity of painting according to Clement Greenberg). To allow specificity when discussing contemporary painting she defines it not by its medium of paint, but as a “highly personalised semiotic activity” (2012, p.45). Painting produces specifically indexical signs, which point to the absent artist whose presence is still felt in the painting (2016, p.80). Graw understands painting in terms of semiotics in order to firstly account for painterly signs in non-painting, and secondly to explain the strong relationship between object and artist which painting suggests (2016, p.90).
According to Graw what is specific about painting is its ability to suggest a particularly strong bond with its maker, whilst being separate and distant from them (unlike performance art for example). It’s indexicality differs from that of other art forms insofar as it indexes its own author. She is interested in the economic value of paintings and their enduring dominance in the international art market from a Marxist perspective, and as such associates painting’s success as a commodity with its ability to imply this strong bond with the absent artist. This is within Karl Marx’s association of value production with lived labour, under which logic “buying artworks indeed comes close to buying people” (2012, p.47). Painting’s capacity to evoke a feeling of “subject-like force” (2012, p.54) and to seemingly store the lifetime and labour of the artist (2016, p.82) contributes to its enduring economic value.
Painting shows evidence of a physical connection to the person who made it in the very marks on its surface. It thus suggests the latent presence of the absent artist, becoming charged with subjectivity. This produces what Graw terms a ‘highly valuable quasi-person’. This is not to be mistaken with the understanding of painting as a pure expression of subjectivity. According to Graw the artist does not even need to touch the canvas for it to perform this indexical effect (2016, p.82). Rather, painting produces the sensation that it holds living labour, it seemingly stores the artist’s lifetime and labour, due to its indexicality.
I want to take up the non-medium specific definition of painting which Graw offers, through paying attention to the traces of the artist’s body and subjectivity left in the work. However, instead of approaching the work as potential purchase, I am seeking a mode of approach which is more empathetic to the struggle that Amy Sillman describes, and the particular forms of knowledge it requires and produces. Amy Sillman has expressed resistance to the commerciality of painting (another double-bind, resisting that part of painting which may also make it a sustainable profession). Viewers (artists, art-lovers, critical theorists, and the ‘other’ uncategorisable viewer) engage with painting all the time in a way that is totally separate to its role as commodity. It is the looking of these viewers that I want to pay attention to, and their potential for empathy. This empathy is an attempt to narrow the gap between the knowledges generated in the making of work, and the pre-existing knowledge applied to it when it is viewed, the gap between holding and beholding paint. What kind of thinking is present in the quasi-person/painting, and what does it help us to think about? The difference and otherness of an artwork does not negate the viewer’s ability to be attentive to it. Rather, there is a realm of potentiality for the production of collective, situated knowledge within this attentiveness. This is an ethical relationship to the other.
Graw states that “painting’s capacity to appear particularly saturated with the life and labour time of its author, while remaining distinct from it, makes it the ideal candidate for value production” (2016, p.101). Allow me to bracket the last two words of this quote, and instead make a claim that paintings capacity to appear particularly saturated with the life and labour time of its author, while remaining distinct from it, makes it the ideal candidate for an ethical-aesthetic encounter, for inclusion in the collective of difference which the art space calls into being, for participation in the production of a community of knowledge.
This inclusion of the painting as a partialised subject therefore also includes the absent artist, whose latent presence is felt through the painting (quasi-artist). Both painting and painter participate in the community of situated knowledge being produced by the collective of difference called into being by the artspace. Rogoff states that “theoretical analyses are also lived realities” (2005, p.129). I question how there can be a theoretical analysis of painting, when the lived realities of the painter and the viewer/ critic are so different? Through engaging with the practices of Amy Sillman and Bracha Ettinger in future blog posts, I hope to propose a way of encountering artwork which is more empathetic to the artists continuous process of looking away in order to look again. A model of encounter which maintains the liminality of contemporary painting. My use of the term ‘encounter’ is informed by Simon O’Sullivan’s definition (2006). Encounter moves us to thought; whereas representation reconfirms our way of being in the world, an object of encounter will disrupt our systems of knowledge. This encounter is a moment of rupture, “in our habitual modes of being and thus in our habitual subjectivities” (p.1), but also one of affirmation, that there is a way of thinking and seeing differently. I am interested in the productive potentiality within this simultaneous moment of rupture and affirmation, offered by an aesthetic encounter.
Through a particular kind of viewing encounter which runs parallel to the artist’s original encounter, I propose that the exhibition may call into being a collective of difference inclusive of the institution, audience, artworks and the absent artists, and therefore be a ground for the production of new forms of minor, ethical, situated knowledge.
Shortly after the opening of A Vague Anxiety (April-August 2019) at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), their first exhibition to specifically show a group of ‘emerging artists’, I arranged to meet Susanne Wawra in the gallery. We’re familiar with each other from college, she having graduated a year ahead of me from the paint department at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), and I had planned to discuss her work in three parts. Firstly, the painterly process itself – she makes collage-style paintings by layering transfer printed photographs and oil paint on canvas or domestic fabrics. Secondly, her subject matter – the intersection between personal memories and history, returning to her childhood in rural East Germany under the German Democratic Republic. Finally, I wanted to talk to her about the idea of the ‘emerging artist’, what does it mean to have that label in Ireland? I should have expected that these aspects would merge, muddle and become messy throughout our conversation.
Within A Vague Anxiety, Susanne Wawra’s paintings and sound installation are shown across a few rooms, sharing space with Marie Farrington’s abstract plaster sculptures, photographs by Helio León and interrupting objects by Saidhbhín Gibson. Although this is not a collaborative exhibition (the artists did not necessarily know each other and all decisions were made by curator Seán Kissane), the diverse works cannot be seen as independent of each other. They are arranged thematically by room, together insisting that the viewer confront the major anxieties and concerns facing contemporary society; climate change, hard borders and politics, homelessness, intimacy and sexuality, history and memory.
Susanne Wawra has a long and intense making process, evidenced by the surface of her paintings. The bedsheet support of Mama’s Schwarm (Mama’s Darling) is starting to buckle under the waxy weight of vigorously applied paint. Her canvas, or fabric, is stapled onto a wall before the transfer printing of photocopies of family photographs, advertisements or propaganda from GDR Berlin, the wall is a necessary support for the fabric as unwanted parts of the print are rubbed away. This labour-intensive process serves as both physical and mental preparation for the “main event” of painting; the most enjoyable, stimulating and intense part of the artworking for Wawra. It’s a ‘high’ she finds difficult to tear herself away from, and to set healthy boundaries around. She will work within the oil and fumes until she’s exhausted, a state which contemporary painter Amy Sillman understands; “after a while, your body is partner to the materials, you are the medium as well as the tool, the boundaries between you and object become unclear, mirroring or antagonising each other”. Through this process the labour of the painter inscribes itself into the surface of the work. Looking at the outcomes I imagine what it would be like to make these paintings, what would the paint feel, smell and sound like? What consistency would I mix it to? What would surround me in the studio? What tools would I use to make that mark, and what would it feel like to drag the paint across the canvas in that way? To encounter the work is to encounter the bodily experience of the artist in the making of it.
Three of Wawra’s largest paintings fill a wall opposite an architectural drawing by plattenbaustudio, showing a housing complex in former East Berlin (an example of the cross-disciplinary thematics of the exhibition). The paintings are marked by expressionistic brush strokes, patterns and films of colour over the black and white photocopied images. As they move between figuration and abstraction, collage and paint, they similarly move between political histories and personal memories, fact and fiction.
Muttersturm (Mother Storm) began with a transfer print of her mother as a young woman, an image that has nearly been obliterated by the storm of blues spilling from her and circulating across the canvas. Susanne shows her mother as “a force of nature, with all the good and the bad”. In the neighbouring piece, Mama’s Schwarm (Mother’s Darling), Wawra has chosen a photograph of her mother gazing wistfully at a young man at a social event, her coy expression and his unknowing laugh have been enlarged and repeated across the canvas. It is a celebration of her mother as a woman before motherhood, shown as a thinking, feeling, sexual being. This narrative is continued in another piece not shown in this exhibition, which imagines that her mother and the young man have married and are living together – an alternative past which would, of course, erase Wawra’s existence.
In these pieces Wawra accesses, explores and manifests the speculation that surrounds trying to truly know our mothers as individuals independent of us. It becomes evident that the process of painting into the printed archival photographs is one through which Wawra works with, through and against the people, times and places which formed her past, but which she cannot fully understand. Wawra’s work testifies that the personal is never independent of the political. Works which may appear entirely about family, pay attention to the complex web of social and political conditions within which those personal relationships and private moments are embedded.
In Wenn der weiße Flieder wieder blüht (When the white lilacs bloom again) glimpses of childhood memories on a farm emerge through a fog of yellow, red and blue paint. Although Wawra’s painting process is consciously intuitive, aesthetic decisions are clearly considered; the primary colours, the repeated circles of paint responding to the wheels of farm machinery. This is not a nostalgic reflection on childhood play, rather it tells the story of how her grandparents lost their own farm land under the GDR regime, forced to become workers for the state. These personal memories bear political truths and hidden traumas, and this barely-grasped information is suspended within a painted blur. Wawra has an encompassing relationship with her medium, tools, and surface. I begin to grasp this as a process of inserting herself into these ambiguous and ambivalent memories, making her mark on them with the brush and palette knife. Her mother and grandmother are figures frequently returned to, which fits with her work’s attempt to reconcile her own identity and place in the world with the histories that formed her.
In 2015 Shine Arts published a collection of collaborative poems by Susanne Wawra and her partner Kevin Nolan, “Schizo-Poetry: Fragments of Mind”, in which each individually wrote poems responding to specific colours, then placed them side-by-side. The poet and activist Audre Lorde (“black, lesbian, mother, warrior”) said that poetry is “the way we give name to the nameless so that it can be thought”. I understand Wawra’s artworking as a process by which she gives form to the unarticulated and uncognised, so that it can be observed as an object in the world. The paint becomes a fog of subjectivity, which surrounds how we come to terms with formative events and traumas. It’s a way of knowing the past, a process of reclaiming agency, of making sense, of reconciliation.
‘Kinderkurheim’ is an installation comprised of sound and twenty handwritten letters in a display case. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Wawra was an unwell nine-year-old. Her refusal to eat and periods of crying led to state intervention and she was institutionalised in a children’s cure home called ‘Happy Future’. Her strongest memory of this time is being forced to stay at the table until she had finished her meal, resulting in hours spent staring at a plate of cold food and waiting for another to take its place. These issues around food remain with her still, and her will to eat is the first thing that goes during periods of stress or depression. The letters were sent to her by classmates during her time in the institution. Each contains eerily consistent information; they are disappointed that she didn’t include more information in her letter, the price of ice cream has gone up in the local store, which now sells West German goods but only for West German money, when she comes back they will have a spelling test. It’s a powerful demonstration of the level of control exercised over communications and education under the GDR. Once again, an understanding of the political emerges within an examination of the personal. The narration of the letters, intermingled with haunting harmonies performed by Susanne, seep through the exhibition. Wawra travelled back to her home town, with her partner-collaborator Kevin Nolan, to record the letters read by school children with her local accent, as well as English and Irish speaking children in Ireland. Nolan, a musician, worked with Susanne to develop this complex sound piece.
I am struck by the different way she has handled this particular material, and by the authenticity and accuracy she pursued by seeking voices as close to the originals as possible. It’s a very different process than printing the letters on canvas and painting into them would be. Perhaps because of the lack of memories she has surrounding this time, and the lasting impact which continues to act directly on her body, she has been particularly careful in her aestheticising of this past. The work almost resists the subjectivity and muddling of fact and fiction which defines her paintings. Wawra explains that her motivation was to show the truth in the letters, and considered her artistic role in this case as simply to “breathe life into them”.
Susanne Wawra and I end our meeting with a frank discussion about the conditions of being an ‘emerging artist’ in Ireland today. It’s a first for IMMA to specifically show the work of ‘emerging artists’, and I wonder if at some point during this exhibition they become ‘emerged’, or graduate to just ‘artists’. I am fascinated that she is showing some pieces from her 2016 degree show here. There’s a sense that the paintings you make have one chance to shine and sell, and then become obsolete, put into storage. By refusing that there’s a feeling of resistance to the notion of artwork as commodity, the pressure to continuously produce new objects to be viewed and judged. No, says Susanne, look at this one again, it’s still worthy. Isabel Graw has connected the enduring economic value of painting to its capacity “to appear saturated with the lifetime of its author”. If, as Graw argues, “acquiring a work of art means getting a hold on the artist’s labour capacity and therefore owning a slice of her life”, Wawra’s paintings should prove desirable.
For the last year she has been making work in a friend’s warehouse, but that has recently been reclaimed. Now she, like many Dublin based artists, is studio-less. Rather than renting she is making do with a small attic space, hoping to get by with residencies and asking favours from friends with large studio walls. She tells me about the many studio visits she arranged with curators while at Talbot Studios (an awarded graduate residency), some of them “soul-destroying”, and of going to the Visual Artist’s Ireland speed-curating, shortly after graduating, and feeling like a fish out of water amongst the significantly more developed artists. Working through the times of discomfort, even embarrassment, has had its benefits. She says the opportunity to exhibit in A Vague Anxiety came about “from all the little seeds you plant, and you don’t know which is going to catch, or if they’ll just blow away”.
Amy Sillman, Shit Happens, Notes on Awkwardness, Frieze magazine, 2015
Audre Lorde, Your Silence Will Not Protect You. 1st ed. UK: Silver Press, 2017, p.8
Isabel Graw, The Value of Painting: Notes on Unspecificity, Indexicality, and Highly Valuable Quasi-Persons. In: Thinking Through Painting, Reflexivity and Agency Beyond the Canvas. Sternberg Press. 2012, p. 56
How can we theorise the societal and ethical implications of technology which does not yet, and may never, exist? Technological advances and a society increasingly governed by algorithms and big data introduce innumerable potential political and ethical issues for our future. It can be difficult to take many of these potentialities seriously as theoretical concerns, without either dismissing them as mere speculation, or failing to go beyond the anxiety they produce. Our current theoretical paradigms and modes of research fall short, suggesting a need for a new set of thinking apparatus appropriate to investigating these future potentialities. Rather than directly tackling the implications of algorithmic culture itself, I want to propose fiction and fantasy as a strategy for dealing critically with speculative theory.
I’ll begin with a contentious example; the possibility that future robots designed for sexual gratification may become sentient and have a claim to human rights. I question how can we seriously consider what right to autonomy a sentient sexbot should have, when all we have to go on is a couple of jerky, eyelid batting, hyper-sexualised dolls that cannot control their own limbs? We have to imagine first how a machine may come to have a valid form of consciousness, which deserves legal protection, and then imagine our way through the whole host of complex ethical issues this produces. Philosopher Steve Peterson attempts this in his 2016 paper ‘Is It Good For Them Too? Ethical Concerns for the Sexbots’, in which he unpicks how future sentient sexbots may be designed so that they themselves could be considered to be living fulfilling lives. However, I found his proposal falls a little short in way of making the reader care. Points like “sexbot’s pleasure need not be like ours; they might genuinely like experiences that few humans would. So we should not suppose that sex is a dreary task for them, just because it is their intended career” (p.4), simply feel too speculative to warrant serious academic consideration. He admits; “Part of the power of fictional sexbots like Pris from Blade Runner, Gigolo Joe from AI, or Kyoko from Ex Machina is exactly that we can’t help suspecting that these characters have their own, real lives – and that those lives are not going very well” (p.2). What is being acknowledged here is the power within storytelling to trigger empathy. Fictional worlds may create a more compelling space to approach as yet unrealised ethical dilemmas, and generate critical dialogue around these potentialities.
Fiction reveals repressed truths..
In his 2001 book The Fright of Real Tears, contemporary philosopher of psychoanalysis Slavoj Zizek considers how fantasy can allow us to get closer to the truth. He writes in response to film-maker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s move from making documentaries to making fiction, specifically because he felt it better allowed him to portray the truth. Kieslowski described feeling “out of bounds” when documenting real-life, stating that he’s “frightened of real tears” (Zizek, 2001, p.72), before he discovered a freedom to fully inhabit his subject within the genre of fiction.
“When we film ‘real-life’ scenes in a documentary way, we get people playing themselves… the only way to depict people beneath their protective mask of playing is, paradoxically, to make them directly play a role, i.e. to move into fiction. Fiction is more real that the social reality of playing roles” (Zizek, 2001, p.75). Zizek considers how fantasy, in films or through gaming, allows us to temporarily suspend the rules of our ‘real-life’ existence, revealing our true selves in the process. He uses the example of the stereotypical computer nerd who adopts the gaming identity of a sadistic murderer and seducer; “in the guise of a fiction, the truth about himself is articulated” (2001, p.75).
Whilst I would doubt that getting pleasure from playing unsavoury gaming characters necessarily confirms a desire to behave this way in real-life, Zizek is highlighting the ability of fantasy to reveal hidden or repressed truths that are somehow incompatible with society’s expectations. It further provides us with an apparatus to explore and probe the revealed information. How might we utilise this in considering potential truths that have yet to occur?
In considering the usefulness of fiction and fantasy in critically examining speculative questions, perhaps the most obvious example is the Netflix series Black Mirror. While there is a desire to go beyond the ‘Black Mirror effect’ when embarking on serious critical research on how algorithms are affecting contemporary culture, it is precisely fiction as a tool for speculative reasoning that I want to take seriously here. Consider how Black Mirror’s science fiction genre allows creator Charlie Brooker to explore and reflect dark futures, that if presented as documentary may be rejected as too extreme, too ‘out there’. Black Mirror episodes are typically just a heartbeat ahead of our reality, or set in an alternative present. It takes elements of our society that we are currently reasonably comfortable with, for example the increasing culture of rating services provided by apps – Uber, dating apps, JustEat etc – and shows us a potential next step.
In this way fantasy can slip beneath our defences, smuggling potential realities into society’s collective consciousness, and prompting us to contemplate our responses. Fiction has a freedom to speculate about a future based on current conditions, and present its findings to a receptive audience for consideration.
China has pledged to fully implement a Social Credit Score system by 2020, under which citizens will be given a score which goes up or down based on aspects of their behaviour. People will be rewarded for ‘good citizenship’, and penalised for infractions such as smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games and other frivolous purchases, bad driving, and sharing fake news online. Too low a score can prevent you from booking travel tickets, having access to fast internet, getting a good job, going to the best schools or staying at the best hotels. The system is already in practice in places, and as many as 17.5 million ticket purchases were blocked last year for ‘social credit offences’ such as unpaid taxes or fines.
However concerning this sounds, it’s likely not an entirely foreign concept. Black Mirror’s episode ‘Nosedive’ (October 2016) speculated about a similar society, in which citizens rate every interpersonal interaction on their phones and people’s resulting score controls how they move through society. It was presented as a ‘nightmarish satire’; however, in the context of China’s new social credit score system, it may be considered a powerful tool for analysing what such a society may start to look like.
Expanding the conditions of our reality..
Irit Rogoff, initiator of the field of Visual Culture and founder of the department at Goldsmiths, has stated that “the work of theory is to unravel the very ground on which it stands.” In her keynote address at the recent Bauhaus conference at the National Gallery of Ireland, she proposed that researchers must work from within the conditions of their existence to develop thinking tools appropriate to our contemporary conditions, rather than limiting themselves to inherited bodies of knowledge. Rogoff describes research as more than investigation, but as the constitution of new realities.
I am proposing fiction as something that can expand the conditions of our reality through our imaginations, enabling us to consider emergent possibilities in terms of their unlimited potentialities. When current issues are made malleable by fiction, realised knowledge can be expanded, manipulated and approached in new and unexpected ways, and then introduced back into the world in a different form. In this way we find a mode of research in which we tell the story anew, we re-narrate the knowledge that has been recognised in order to construct new realities and new ways of thinking. This kind of research recognises that knowledge is something beyond mere information, something that is in a constant state of becoming.
This mode of thinking can be incredibly productive in our grappling with the precarity of the future as our personal and professional lives become increasingly mediated and controlled by digital algorithms.
NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism – imagination as a means of survival
Hypen-Labs, ‘an international team of women of colour working at the intersection of technology, art, science and the future’, consider speculative design as more than a tool to free up our thought and propel it into the future, but as a means of survival.
NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism is a collaborative project by Hypen-Labs developed in response to the lack of representation of women of colour in the digital world. Carmen Aguilar, Ashley Baccus Clarke and Ece Tankal created NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism (NSAF) as a Virtual Reality installation, “to create scenarios so people can start understanding the values and ethics embedded in design of objects, products and systems and imagine new ways of existing” (Hypen-Labs, 2018).
NSAF have created a virtual reality beauty salon in which every participant inhabits the body of a black woman and can be fitted with a set of Octavia Electrodes, devices which look like braid extensions but allow access to a digital multiverse. The project began with the idea to create a sunscreen for darker skin which doesn’t leave a white residue, under the understanding that the depletion of the ozone layer will shortly mean that all skin tones require appropriate sun protection (video).
NSAF are claiming the belief that “self-care is more than just a luxury for a certain group of people but a means of survival for the underrepresented” (Hyphen-Labs, 2018). This is a project responding to the biases that run through the technologies we use, from algorithms with built in biases (such as Racial profiling in predictive policing and facial recognition technology failing to recognise darker skin tones), to facts such as 40% of young girls of colour choose white avatars when playing computer games; “we’re looking at conversations being had about the future – especially in the digital landscape – and wondering where the folks of colour are.”
NSAF is an active research project, exploring the potential of Virtual Reality to transform the viewer into an active participant, activating empathy and accountability. They have created a Micro-Aggression Visor, an imaginary device that reflects the micro-aggressions that marginalised people experience on a day to day basis. This is a response to the question of how women of colour can protect themselves in future virtual spaces, speculating that online troll problems will only escalate as our uses of technology increase. Similarly, they have developed a pair of earrings that can make and upload audio and video recordings of negative encounters; “it’s about security, protection and visibility of women of colour’s bodies”
“Imagination is our resistance”
NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism “use the lens of speculative design and futurism to tell this story through virtual reality because it defies the norm. Our imaginations are a form of resistance, giving us freedoms that allow us to control our image and how we are represented in new media” (Hypen-Labs, 2018). We can see here how speculation and imagination may allow people to shift the dominant narrative, to make space for their own perspective and stories, and to smuggle that resistance into mainstream society under the guise of fiction; “Our hypothesis is that we fear what we don’t know, so if we can expose people to a broader sense of identity through VR, in a sensitive way, can we decrease their bias?”.
Fiction and fantasy can lessen the threat of a message, disarming the consumers’ defences and allowing them to consider the potential societal and ethical implications without shutting it down out of anxiety or fear. Storytelling places us into the shoes of another, showing perspectives beyond our own, raising our awareness and activating our capacity for empathy.
These are just a few examples of how imagination can meet research to create new ways of thinking, appropriate to how our world is changing. I suggest that fictionalising knowledge may construct a new thinking apparatus better able to theorise what we are on the cusp of realising. Through fantasy we can shed the baggage of our presumed systems of value, our imposed limitations, our fear and anxiety of what may come to exist beyond our control, and in doing so enable ourselves to engage critically with the not-yet-known. In the personal, philosophical and academic struggle to theorise algorithmic culture and what it means for the future, this could be of significant use.
Hypen Labs (2018). Interview with Hypen Labs by Rachel O’Dywer for Neural Magazine Issue 61 Autumn 2018
Žižek, S. (2001). The fright of real tears. London: BFI (British Film Institute) Publishing.
A letter speaking to Chris Kraus about the writings of Audre Lorde, dealing with themes of gender, sexuality, competition and subjectivity
Dear Chris Kraus,
I am moved to write to you in my attempt to think through that which has fixed in my mind after re-reading Aliens and Anorexia, and returning to I Love Dick also, ideas that are difficult to fix into writing. Many of the recurrent compulsions in your writing; female sexuality, putting the repressed into language, theorising the personal, I have come to understand through the words of Audre Lorde (1934-1992) – “black, mother, lesbian, poet, warrior”. I want to speak to you about her writings (like yours, they have had lasting influence on me), and consider what is shared and disparate between you. I am not sure what it means to do this, only that it feels compelling in my own struggle to work through how I think – personally, theoretically, and creatively – about female subjectivity, embodiment and sexuality, and about transforming silence into language and action through creative practice.
Audre Lorde says that “the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority…women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence”. You, like Lorde, recognise that that which has been subjugated by patriarchal power structures must be a threat to their continued function and dominance, and as such may be reclaimed as a strategy of resistance. “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house”, but taking back the tools which the master has hidden has potential. In I Love Dick you do philosophy by theorising your feelings of infatuation, and interweaving this with close readings of theory and art. In writing from the position of arousal and rejection, you are consciously and subversively performing the obsessive, narcissistic female stereotype constructed by the patriarchal system. You recognise that there is knowledge in the abject and shameful. When we pay attention to it “not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society” (Lorde, p.30). This is an understanding of the erotic beyond sexuality, as an innate and creative form of female knowledge and power residing in the body, which emerges in the sharing deeply of any pursuit with another person. It has been deformed in its orientation around male desire, and must be reclaimed as a way of knowing – differently.
Lorde’s description of the Erotic is my answer to your question, Chris, “Is there a way to dignify sex, make it as complicated as we are, to make it not grotesque?” (I Love Dick, p.35).
The erotic is not confined to human intimacy, it may be accessed through shared creative labour. You felt this when you started writing to Dick collaboratively with your husband Sylvére Lotringer. Here pleasure was found in the practice of writing itself, in the sensuality between you and the page, in the shared exhilaration of putting these forbidden thoughts into words, a “masturbatory passion” (I Love Dick, p.18). In articulating these feelings, sensations, theorisations of personal experience, you are transforming silence into language and action (as Audre Lorde insists we must). I understand this not just as writing, but as performance. To performatively channel art criticism and philosophical theory through the prism of your own subjectivity, through the ‘I’. What performative writing is to you, poetry is to Audre Lorde; “the way we help give name to the nameless so that it can be thought” (p.8). Observation becomes language, becomes idea, becomes tangible action. In your study of Simone Weil you recognise that “the child Simone experienced the world as a rush of passionate sensations. The philosopher Simone, after studying epistemology, came to call these sensations knowledge” (Aliens and Anorexia, p.140).
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
(Audre Lorde, Litany for Survival extract)
You write about your inconsolable grief after the death of your dog, Lily, with the same care and attention as you would write about the philosophy of Simone Weil. “Grief is information” (Aliens and Anorexia, p.126). When you articulate your realisation that you must now stop crying and go back to work, “because crazy women hardly get to speak, let alone make movies” (p.126), you encapsulate so much feminist thought and shared pain amongst women. It is a relatable statement in the most profound sense.
“I’ve fused my silence and repression with the entire female gender’s silence and repression. I think the sheer fact of women talking, being paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive, but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world” (I Love Dick, p.194). These might have been the words of either you or Audre Lorde. However, in a talk in 2017 you said that this memorable quote couldn’t possibly be true any more, in the age when social media as a shared platform for personal expression has spiralled out of control, and “everyone should just shut up”. This to me highlights that what you and Lorde are both articulating and advocating for is not word vomit or a stream of confessional writing. It is far more crafted than that, even strategic. I think people miss that sometimes in your work, how consciously constructed it is. In successful creative practices critical rigour is essential. “A work of art is not ‘blabbing on’”, you say in that interview, there must be an agenda, a criteria. Artforum missed that when they described I Love Dick as a book “not so much written as secreted”.
You reveal your standards of judgement with your obvious scathing for your German host Gudrun Scheidecker’s shallow fondness for Sophie Calle, “‘She’s just like me!…sometimes I like to walk around the streets and look for good looking men. I test how long I can follow them without them seeing me’ I looked at her in horror” (Aliens and Anorexia, p.30). I like to imagine the hearts of many young women at art college sinking in self-recognition as they read this, realising that following men around might not make the cut for radical art in your eyes.
This agenda, the concept which motivates your writing, is more important than literal truth. You occupy the position of the unreliable narrator, change characters, muddle narratives, even put aside ethics. You have said that as soon as you write something down, it becomes fiction (would Audre Lorde agree, I wonder?). That the process of fictionalisation is one of selection, of what gets told and why. In creative practices there is a greater truth than fact at stake. (Yes, I think she would).
I want to think carefully about your urgency to consider female work as transcendent of gender, as apersonal. You return to this repeatedly, “why should women settle to think and talk about femaleness when men were constantly transcending gender?” (Aliens and Anorexia, p.103). I question whether this is in conflict with Audre Lorde’s description of power within the female body; “As women, there is a dark place within where hidden and growing our true spirit rises…within these deep places (we hold) an incredible reserve of creativity and power” (p.8). Her words suggest that treating the female body as a cage to escape would be extremely dangerous (and Simone Weil died trying to starve herself out of her body). However you continue to push against the body’s limitations through S&M, as Simone Weil did through celibacy, and condemn the pathologising of such behaviour, “it’s inconceivable that the female subject might ever simply try to step outside her body, because the only thing that’s irreducible, still, in female life is gender” (Aliens and Anorexia, p.162).
I must make clear that I am not trying to unify or synthesise yours and Lorde’s ideas, I want only to bring them into conversation with each other, while allowing space for the differences between them. What we are chewing on here cannot be reduced to a unified narrative. However, it does trouble me to think whether gender should be thought of as a boundary to overcome, or as a source of power and knowledge to be closely examined.
By ‘woman’, I am confident that Lorde means self-identified women, and does not intend to essentialise gender binaries. She speaks to all the marginalised, “there is no hierarchy of oppression.” Lorde makes clear that these are strategies for reducing the threat of the Other, for connection across difference, and that the information articulated through close attention to internal feelings and sensations is legitimate.
So perhaps, when you say “Why is female vulnerability still only acceptable when it is neuroticised and personal, when it feeds back on itself? Why do people still not get it when we handle vulnerability like philosophy, at some remove?” (I Love Dick, p.191), you are speaking more to the reception of womens’ ideas, rather than how they were realised.
This is not in conflict with Audre Lorde, who takes this articulation of experience as seriously as philosophy also.
Your protest is against women’s art always being reduced and confined to personal expression, dismissed as ever speaking to the universal. Simone Weil’s ideas as always being seen as those of an anorexic virgin, not simply as philosophy. She laments; “The body is a lever for salvation, but what is the right way to use it?” (Aliens and Anorexia, p.49). I think that Lorde is insisting that through the theorising of personal experience, a universal truth emerges which must be respected as such. Perhaps our bodies are the only spaceship, vehicle of transcendence, available to us.
I am conscious of the chasm between transforming silence, speaking from the conditions of your life, and actually being heard. “Who gets to speak, and why?”, is really, who gets listened to, and why?
I have so much work to do but I don’t want him to leave. We lie in bed and reads it to me out loud.
I don’t think the poignancy of this is diminished by its obviousness
Lorde describes rejection from her academic peers; “Tell me how you feel but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you” says the white woman at the conference (p.108). When she experiences racism in her profession her response is anger, which she recognises as an emotion which may be utilised, “anger is loaded with information and energy” (p.111). Were you angry at the failure of your film Gravity and Grace, at the constant rejection and dismissal? At having to pay extra for a better time at that film festival, then trudging through the snow hand delivering invitations, and still having few people attend? What about at being made to feel like an “academic groupie” for being married to Sylvére Lotringer? You speak of shame and frustration, but rarely explicitly of anger. So often your voice feels more uncertain, more ambivalent that Audre Lorde, who preaches her truth. So often you are left waiting, waiting for a reply to your letter to Dick, or your email to Gavin, waiting for a positive response to your work. You write from within the waiting.
I felt your confusion and hurt when your friend David Rattrey, with whom you had spent hours on the phone helping with his book, gives just a cursory glance to your script after weeks of having it, and then only corrects some spellings. When I told my friend, a peer and performance/conceptual artist, that I wanted to make a piece from the audio I had made of my boyfriend reading Aliens and Anorexia out loud to me in bed, fascinated by the little adlib comments he made, she responded ‘hahahaaahahahha’.
It’s a different phenomenon in the art world, to being rejected from opportunities, when your own peers stop to recognise and support your work. Competitive tension sets in post-college, friend-contemporaries gradually stop sharing upcoming opportunities with each other. There’s not enough to go round, so silence and secrecy settle.
The relationship with your contemporaries is something that affects the work you make, however an artist’s output is often considered as entirely individual, independent of the environment in which it was made. I saw an exhibition last year in Ireland’s National Gallery ‘Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry’, it brought the slightly alarming realisation that there were a whole group of 17th century Dutch artists painting people softly lit by window-light, in rooms with chequered floors. What conversations were these artists having? Why did the canon choose Vermeer?
You tell how Paul Thek’s controversial sculpture ‘Tomb’ was lost or destroyed because he never picked it up from the shipper. I love that he has either forgotten or chosen not to collect it, and that act has changed the course of art history. It’s the kind of thing that often remains unnamed, it’s more glamorous to say that the work was simply lost, or that the artist destroyed it in a fit of self-loathing, than that they were busy running errands that day and simply forgot. My point is that theory and art are considered as though made in a sanitised environment, as a pure distillation of the artist or writer’s thought. But making and writing never happen independent of the conditions in which they are submerged. Deleuze gets anorexia right, knows that it’s not anything to do with lack, because his wife had it (Aliens and Anorexia, p.182). Barthes theoretical writing on photography cannot evade his grief at the death of his mother, her ghost permeates everything (Camera Lucida, 1980).
The conditions of the artist/writer’s life affect the material reality of the work. Sometimes the painting is blue because the paint shop was closed and the painter ran out of yellow the day before. Mary Kelly made Postpartum Document by meticulously recording the first six years of her son’s life. This is both a considered examination of maternal intersubjectivity and ambivalence, and evidence that recording her maternal labour was the most practical art she could make, because it filled her days. I don’t think either is more important than the other.
For philosophers, philosophy happens in more than the pages of their most seminal text.
It happens in these moments of rupture, the pause of disappointment, of shame, uncertainty, insecurity. Is not all art observation and communication?