Le Merle

vol.4 no.1, Fall 2017
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vol.4 no.1, Fall 2017
Institutions & unexpected voices
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Institutions & unexpected voices
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This issue of Le Merle, clad in the colour of alarm and menstruation, reflects on the struggles affecting the arts, education, and the everyday. On the rhetorics that confine them and what that they, in turn, undermine: the curtailing of public space, the curtailing of the “professional” arts, the unpaid work that supports this art, the acts of care invariably seen as a disadvantage—always dis-advantaged. Edited by Edith Brunette & François Lemieux.

Lines of Fight Toward a Social History of Noplatforming

David Thomas

My goal in this piece is to offer a quick historical take on the new wave of struggles that have recently erupted around the foundational liberal democratic institution of free speech. The events that occasioned this intervention will no doubt be familiar to most readers, but a brief recap of the current terrain can’t hurt. As a newly militant faction of the student body has organized itself to resist the rise of an internet-savvy and increasingly mainstream fascist political movement – the self-styled alt-right – the practice of noplatforming has emerged as a vital facet of the radical left’s tactical response. Described by its proponents as a form of cordon sanitaire, and vilified by its opponents as the work of coddled ideologues, noplatforming entails the struggle to prevent political opponents from accessing the institutional means of amplifying their views. The tactic has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum. Indeed, mainstream liberal sensibilities have been so disturbed by the phenomenon that former US President Barack Obama was prompted to remark on it in the closing days of his tenure:

I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. (…) I gotta tell you I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view (…) Sometimes I realized maybe I’ve been too narrow-minded, maybe I didn’t take this into account, maybe I should see this person’s perspective. (…) That’s what college, in part, is all about…You shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say” (…) That’s not the way we learn either.1

Obama’s remarks nicely crystalize the liberal tradition’s core understanding of the social utility of free speech. Free speech is positioned as the cornerstone of a proceduralist and utilitarian account of political and technological development, one that views the combat of intellectually dexterous elites as the crucible of social progress. The free expression of elite opinion is imagined as the indispensable catalyst to modernity’s ever-accelerating development of new knowledge, as the clash of unfettered intellects drives forward the engine of history.

John Stuart Mill was one of the first liberal political theorists to formulate this by now hegemonic understanding of the social virtues of “free expression.” Summarizing Mill’s original account, while offering some crucial correctives and qualifications, political scientist Michael Donnelly remarks:

This notion of freedom of speech, which has been broadly understood as the sine qua non of “democracy,” is typically rooted in the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, who argued that because opinions – including (even especially) one’s own – were fallible, “the collision of different opinions” was necessary “to establish truth.” The apparently self-justifying notion of a marketplace of ideas therefore resonated with an emerging bourgeois class, reflecting Mill’s own belief that “free trade and free expression were two sides of the same coin.” Even so, Mill himself did not advocate widely inclusive public debate. In fact, Mill worried that the masses of people then organizing and agitating were (or would be) easily and uncritically swayed by a handful of charismatic and eloquent leaders. He therefore described an ideal kind of public discussion that generally excluded the majority of the population, though he had some hope of properly educating the working classes: “The prospect of the future depends on the degree in which they can be made rational beings.” Thus, as John Michael Roberts concludes, “Mill constructs not so much a rationale for free speech as a defence [sic] of the liberal form of the bourgeois public sphere” and “legitimates an ideological form of the capitalist state.”2

Let’s dwell for a moment on the connection that Mill himself asks us to make between the “free market of ideas” and Adam Smith’s understanding of how markets work. In both cases, moderns are counselled to entrust themselves to the discretion of a judicious social megastructure, one that is said to emerge – contingently and spontaneously – as modernity’s hive of rational individuals exert their teeming bids for self-expression and self-actualization. Produced out of this mass of individual motives will be an optimal ordering of ends and means, one that would have been impossible to orchestrate from the vantage point of any one individual or group. In both cases – free speech and free markets – we are asked to believe that if we commit to the lawful exercise of individual freedoms we can be sure that the invisible hand will take care of the rest, sorting the wheat from the chaff, sifting and organizing initiatives according to the outcomes that best befit the social whole, securing our steady collective progress toward the best of all possible worlds. No surprise, then, that liberal commentary on the rise of the alt-right has cautioned us to abide by the established rules, insisting that exposure to the free speech collider chamber will wear the “rough edges” off ethnonationalist ideas, allowing their latent kernels of rational truth to be developed and revealed, whilst permitting what is noxious and unsupportable to be displayed and refuted.

Needless to say, the practice of noplatforming rejects this vision of history and the theory of knowledge on which it is founded, just as it resists the conceptualization of state power and political agency that it implicitly encodes. For in contrast to proponents of Mill’s mechanistic epistemology – a theory of knowledge that after all leaves open the prospect of revisiting the merits of slavery with a more open mind – practitioners of noplatforming appropriate to themselves the power to directly intervene in the knowledge factories where they live and work, “affirmatively sabotaging”3 the alt-right’s strategic attempts to buildout its political legitimacy. And it is this use of direct action, and the site-specific rejection of judicial and administrative authority that it sometimes entails, that brings student activists to the attention of state leaders and other watchdogs of the corporate administrative complex.

We should not mistake the fact that these students have been made the object of liberal ire precisely because of their performative unruliness, because of their unwillingness to defer to the state’s claims to absolute administrative authority. For one thing often left unnoticed in celebrations of the freedoms afforded by liberal democracies is the role that the state plays in conditioning and trammeling the specific kinds of autonomy that individuals are permitted to exercise. Indeed, the autonomy of the liberal subject is much more intensely and extensively circumscribed than its proponents generally care to admit. The issue here is the centralized administration of social conduct, and the role that legitimate (i.e. police or security-state) violence plays in enforcing the rulings and dictates of courts, governments, and administrators.

The familiar set of representational tropes that have coalesced in recent media debates around noplatforming bring us to the heart of the matter here. For, over and over again, in critical commentary on the practice, the figure of the wild mob resurfaces, often counter-posed to the disciplined, individuated dignity of the accomplished orator:

[Person X] believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings. Notice that the student position allows no room for civil disagreement. Given this set of assumptions, perhaps it is no surprise that the students behave like bullies even as they see themselves as victims.4

These remarks are exemplary of liberalism’s elective affinity for a particular model citizen – a purportedly non-bullying parliamentarian agent or eloquent spokesperson who is able to establish an argument’s legitimacy with calm rationality. These lofty incarnations of “rational discourse” are positioned as the royal road to legitimate political influence. To be sure, some concessions are made, now and again, to the idea of “peaceful protest”; yet in the present climate even minimal appeals to the politics of collective resistance find themselves under administrative review5. At one and the same time, champions of free speech constantly endorse specific kinds of expression. Some tones of voice, some placard messages, some placements of words and bodies are celebrated; others are reviled. In practice, the promotion of ostensibly “free” speech often just serves to idealize and define the parameters of public conduct. The elitist class politics of the public sphere become all too evident in the event that a speaker or writer makes a grammatical error or detours into an unintentionally idiomatic turn of phrase. The knives come out, and the speaker’s character and intellect – and with them their “fitness” to speak and appear in “public” – are immediately called into question.

With this broader framework in mind – one that is attentive to the coercive and elitist norms that shape and define the freedoms of the public sphere – I propose a simple thought experiment. In place of viral images of black bloc skirmishes with neo-Nazis, imagine that the alt-right’s post-election push for legitimacy had been resisted solely by the kind of scornful head-shaking and ruminative lip-biting that the broadsheet press seems intent on mandating. Imagine that instead of watching Richard Spencer’s explanation of a Pepe pin curtailed mid-sentence by a timely sucker punch, you were instead passively looking on as the alt-right’s eloquent spokes-persons addressed swelling public crowds, pausing once in a while to join Jimmy Fallon on the couch for a bout of disarming banter. Imagine that audience responses to televised debates failed to trend along the lines the technocrats forecasted, with crowds delighting not to the sound of “reasoned debate” but to the rasping timbre of fascist sloganeering. Granted you may as yet live to witness such events. But when and if you do, how will you respond? Will you stay at home, shuffling between fridge and flatscreen with worry beads in hand? Will you tacitly reaffirm your faith in the “guardians” of the liberal proceduralism that is currently presiding over the global destruction of the earth’s habitats and ecosystems?6 Or will you take action, posting grammatically-flawless position statements to your timeline, and emailing formal refutations of fascist policies to your local representatives and newspapers?

Should you discover that you have exhausted the limited range of responses that liberal parliamentarianism opens up before you – and should you find that your pro-tests have still fallen on deaf ears – keep in mind that you have as yet other options available to you. Noplatforming is one such option. For in keeping with longstanding tactics of subaltern struggle, it rejects liberalism’s coercive channeling of social conduct. It maintains that political struggle can be waged through a diversity of means, insisting that alongside the individual and discursive propagation of one’s political views, communities can also act as collective agents, deploying their bodies, their capacity for self-organization, and their lived experiences of their working environments, to thwart the rise of political entities that threaten their wellbeing and survival.

To anyone conversant with the history of workers’ movements, recognizing the salience of such tactics is all but second nature. These forms of collective resistance lie at the heart of emancipatory class politics, in the core realization that in standing together in defiance of state violence and centralized authority, disenfranchised communities can find ways to intervene in the unfolding of their fates, as they draw together in the unsanctioned shaping and shielding of their worlds.

It is a telling commentary on the reach of liberal hegemony that so much media reportage seems unable to identify the history of these tactics, instead greeting the renewed rise of collective resistance with a combination of bafflement and recoil. We should note that the undercurrent of pearl-clutching disquiet that runs through such commentary also performs a subtle kind of rhetorical work, preemptively priming readers to anticipate and accept the moment when police violence will be deployed to restore “order,” to break up the “mob,” and force individuals back onto the tracks that the state has ordained.

There is, however, something new about the wave of struggles that have erupted around free speech. They supply further evidence that longstanding strategies of collective resistance are being displaced out of the hidden abodes of production – out of the factory systems where we still tend to look from them – and into what Joshua Clover refers to, following Marx, as the sphere of circulation, into the marketplaces and the public squares where commodities and opinions circulate in search of valorization and validation. Clover argues that it is in such spaces that the struggle for emancipation has now begun to unfold7. Disenfranchised communities are adjusting to the debilitating political legacies of deindustrialization. As wave after wave of automation has rendered workers unable to express their resistance through the slowdown or sabotage of the means of production, the obstinacy of the strike has been stripped down to its core. And as collective resistance to the centralized administration of social conduct begins to play out beyond the factory’s walls, it increasingly takes on the character of public confrontations with the security sate. Workers, students and racialized minorities have begun to stand their ground in naked defiance of the corporate administrative complex. Iterations of the same phenomenon play out in flashpoints as remote and diverse as Berkeley, Ferguson, and Standing Rock. And as new confrontations fall harder on the heels of the old, they make an episodic spectacle of the deteriorating condition of the liberal social contract.

If it seems odd to compare the actions of students at elite US universities and workers in the industrial factory systems of old, consider the extent to which students have themselves become increasingly subject to proletarianization and precarity – to indebtedness, to credit wages, and to job prospects that are at best uncertain.

This transformation of the university system – from bastion of civil society and inculcator of elite modes of conduct, to frenetic producer of indebted precarious workers – helps to account for the apparent inversion of campus radicalism’s orientation to the institution of free speech. For as longtime observers of the radical left will recall, the same West Coast campuses that have been key flashpoints in the last wave of free speech controversies were once among the most ardent champions of the institution. The alt-right has taken no little delight in trolling student radicals over this apparent break with tradition:

Milo Inc.’s first event will be a return to the town that erupted in riots when he was invited to speak earlier this year. In fact, Yiannopoulos said that he is planning a “week-long celebration of free speech” near U.C. Berkeley, where a speech by his fellow campus agitator, Ann Coulter, was recently canceled after threats of violence. It will culminate in his bestowing something called the Mario Savio Award for Free Speech. (The son of Savio, one of the leaders of Berkeley’s Free Speech movement during the mid-1960s, called the award “some kind of sick joke”.)8

Yet in grasping the causes of this shift we have to take account of the extent to which the universal summons to upward mobility, and the global promise of endless material and technological enfranchisement that defined the social experience of postwar modernization, have lately begun to ring rather hollow. The technocrats’ promises and assurances are losing credibility; there seems to be no end to the world system’s economic woes in sight, and no beginning to its substantive reckoning with problem of anthropogenic climate change.

In response, people are changing the way they orient themselves toward the centrist state. Indeed, in another instance of his welcome and ongoing leftward drift, Bruno Latour has indicated that moderns now find themselves confronted with the blowback of a catastrophically failed modernization project:

The thing we share with these migrating peoples is that we are all deprived of land. We, the old Europeans, are deprived because there is no planet for globalization and we must now change the entire way we live; they, the future Europeans, are deprived because they have had to leave their old, devastated lands and will need to learn to change the entire way they live. This is the new universe. The only alternative is to pretend that nothing has changed, to withdraw behind a wall, and to continue to promote, with eyes wide open, the dream of the “American way of life,” all the while knowing that billions of human beings will never benefit from it.9

Apprehending the full ramifications of the failure of modernization will require us to undertake what the Club of Rome once referred to as a “Copernican revolution of the mind”.10

And in many respects the alt-right has been quicker to begin this revolution than the technocratic guardians of the globalist order. In fact, it is evident that the ethno-nationalists look onto the same prospects as Latour, while prescribing precisely the opposite remedies. Meantime, the guardians of the “center” remain content to repeat platitudinous echoes of Mills’ proceduralism, assuring us all that – evidence to the contrary – the market has the situation in invisible hand.

This larger historical frame is key to understanding campus radicalism’s turn to noplatforming, which seems to register – on the level of praxis – that the far right has capitalized far more rapidly on emergent conditions that the center or the left. The current tactics of student radicals are coordinated in relation to the specific historical parameters of our own moment. And in understanding them it is useful to contrast them to the kind of tactics that student activists employed when the modernization project was at yet in full swing. It is no accident that it was in these days – the late-1960s and early-1970s – that campus radicalism’s devotion to free speech reached its zenith. Indeed, student activism’s commitment to the institution typified the kind of statist radicalism that prevailed in the age of decolonization, a historical period when the postcolonial state seemed poised to socialize wealth, and when the prospect of postcolonial self-determination was apt to be all but synonymous with national modernization programs.

In such a context, the institution of free speech afforded radicals both a platform from to which protest US imperialism with relative impunity, and an institutional lodestar by which to steer a course that veered away from the purges and paranoia of the Stalinist culture of command. The institution of free speech thus served as a harbinger of a radicalized and “socialized” state, one that was capable of executing modernization initiatives that would benefit everyone.

Almost half a century later, only the most reactionary political movements seem able to harbor this kind of faith in the self-determinative potential of the nation state. The center has long since sought to subordinate national sovereignty to the dictates of global financial markets, and the left’s experiments with national self-determination have been faltering at best. Yet the far right’s particular vision of national self-determination has been telling and chilling in equal measure. In contrast to the expansive and incorporative logic that prevailed in the heyday of postwar modernization – when Mills’ program of universal bourgeoification seemed apt to roll out over the entire planet, transforming the earth’s surface into a patchwork of independent modern nation states all locked into the same experience of ongoing social and technological enfranchisement – the enthnonationalist savior state is constituted around avowedly expulsive and exclusionary initiatives.

Theirs is the state reimagined as a gated community writ large, one braced – with its walls, borders camps, and guards – to resist the incursion of “alien” others, all fleeing the catastrophic effects of a failed postwar modernization project that has served to siphon off natural wealth to the benefit of the enwalled few, while unleashing the ravages of climate change and the impassive violence of the border on the exposed many. Their vision proves surprisingly consonant with the Pentagon’s current assessment of the situation, wherein the US military is positioned (marketed) as a SWAT team serving at the dispensation of an urban super elite:

Consequently, given the lines along which military and official state policy now trends, it would be a mistake to characterize ethnonationalist policy proposals as a whole-scale departure from prevailing norms. Indeed, it seems quite evident that – as Latour remarks – the “enlightened elite” have known for some time that the advent of climate change has given the lie to the longstanding promises of the postwar reconstruction:

The enlightened elites soon started to pile up evidence suggesting that this state of affairs wasn’t going to last. But even once elites understood that the warning was accurate, they did not deduce from this undeniable truth that they would have to pay dearly. Instead they drew two conclusions, both of which have now led to the election of a lord of misrule to the White House: Yes, this catastrophe needs to be paid for at a high price, but it’s the others who will pay, not us; we will continue to deny this undeniable truth.11

In view of the prevailing trends, it is less surprising that factions of the radical left are returning full circle to the foundationally anti-statist modes of collective resistance that defined radical politics at its inception. Indeed, from a certain vantage it is hard to determine to what extent centrist policies actually diverge from those of the ethnonationalists. For while it doggedly polices the exercise of free expression, the globalist administrative complex demonstrates markedly less concern with securing vulnerable peoples against exposure to the worst effects of climate change and de-development. Indeed, it seems evident that the centrist state will more readily defend people’s right to describe the catastrophe in language of their own choosing, than work to provide them with viable escape routes and life lines.

And it is these foundational historical, ecological, and governmental issues that are at stake in contemporary free speech struggles. We should not mistake the fact that these are – ultimately – conflicts over policy rather than playful contests over theories of truth. For it is under the guise of free speech that the alt-right has made the bulk of its initial gains, promoting its genocidal xenophobic state through the disguise of ironic positional play, a “do it for the lolz” mode of summons that marshals the troops with a nod and wink. Indeed, it seems that the alt-right has managed to “hack” the institution of free speech, navigating it with such a deft touch that defenses of the institution are becoming increasingly synonymous with the mainstream legitimation of the alt-right’s political project.

In appraising the underlying logic of student radicals use of noplatforming, Walter Benjamin’s concept of “the emergency brake” suggests itself, though we can adjust the metaphor a little to better grasp current conditions.12 For it is almost as if the student left has responded to a sense that the wheel of history had taken a sickening lurch rightward, by shaking free of paralysis, by grabbing hold of the spokes and pushing back, greeting the overawing complexities of our geopolitical moment with local acts of defiance. And it is in this defiant spirit that we might approach the free speech debates, arguing not for the implementation of draconian censorship mechanisms – if there must be a state, better that it is at least nominally committed to freedom of expression than not – but against docile submission to a violent administrative complex, one in which the institution of free speech is seamlessly and complicitly incorporated. For in the decades since the hopes of 1970s campus radicals made their way to the angel of history’s socioecological dumpster fire, free speech discourse and neoliberal global economic policy have worked hand in glove to present our disastrous civilization as a pristine and apotheotic realization of human potential.

In the context of these terminal trajectories, we have every reason to support efforts to break free of the increasingly draconian strictures imposed by our administrative overseers. The time for compliant faith in the wisdom of our “guardians” is behind us13. We need modes of collective conduct that are capable of departing from the disastrous ends to which we are coercively channeled, and we cannot hope to develop such things if we are unwilling to seize the moments when defiance of the state’s individuating norms proves timely. We, modernization’s disillusioned and disenchanted, can begin deciding for ourselves, and amidst ourselves, how our responses to our geo-historical situation will unfold. One of the strongest political contributions that noplatforming has made at this time, and in this hour of need, is to show us that there are lines of flight and fight available to us.

The postwar modernization program is failing. The fights taking place on university campuses are indicative of the fact that the rot has reached the foundations. The question that should occupy us now is not how to resurrect the fallen totems; but rather how to salvage from the driftwood of the old order structures equipped to serve the interests of the many.

 

  1. Kingkade,Tyler. “ObamaThinks Students Should Stop Stifling Debate On Campus.” Huffington Post. 09 September 2015.
  2. Donnelly, Michael. “Freedom of Speech and the Function of Public Discourse.” Present Tense A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, Vol 4, 1, 2014.
  3. Spivak, Gayatri. “Herald Exclusive: In conversation with Gayatri Spivak,” by Nazish Brohiup. Dawn. 23 Dec 2014
  4. Friedersdorf, Conor. “The New Intolerance of Student Activism.” Atlantic. 09 Nov 2015
  5. “Right to Protest?: GOP State Lawmakers Push Back Against Public Dissent” RT. 04 Feb 2017
  6. Stengers, Isabelle. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Open Humanities Press, 2015.
  7. Clover, Joshua. Riot. Strike. Riot. London : Verso, 2016.
  8. Nguyen,Tina. “MiloYiannopoulos Is Starting a New, Ugly, For-Profit Troll Circus.” Vanity Fair. 28 April 2017.
  9. Latour, Bruno. “The New Climate.” Harpers. May 2017.
  10. Meadows, Donella, et al. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. NewYork: Universe Books, 1972
  11. Latour, Bruno. “The New Climate.” Harpers. May 2017.
  12. Benjamin,Walter. Selected Writings Volume 4: 1938 – 1940. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. p.401
  13. Stengers, Isabelle. In CatastrophicTimes: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Open Humanities Press, 2015 p.30

Allocution

Princesse Lamarche

I have an art practice in painting and especially poetry, which I believe to be legitimate — well, that’ll be for you to judge later on. But still, when I was asked to say something about the current situation of cultural politics, I drew a blank. I make art, I know art history, the sociology of art and aesthetics. I have thoughts and opinions on the best way to cook potatoes, on the postmodern transformations of late capitalism, on the inclusion of marginalized women within feminism, on everything and anything, really. But cultural politics … nothing at all. It’s pretty disheartening!

I am supported by marginalized communities — small, penniless, invisible communities where, together, we try to make life less miserable for everyone. We organize events, and that’s where I exist, artistically speaking. Cultural politics do sometimes bring about good things, but sometimes they lead to total shit as well. But it must be said: without exception, I experience cultural politics as variations on a world that excludes me.

***

We like being touched by the life of a trans woman as presented by the media, a trans woman who has been carefully selected, who is friendly and conforms to a specific pre-existing discourse. But how many trans women are truly represented, how many trans women are truly able to create representations of their own lives and aspirations — because we have so much more to impart than just accounts of our lives as trans women. I talk about trans women because that’s who I am — replace “trans woman” with any marginalized person, and the same is true. Letting the diversity of life nourish art means more than just exhibiting a few marginalized individuals. It means letting us make art, letting us disseminate the art we’ve made, art that doesn’t fit neatly into a preconception of who we are and what we do. But more than anything, it means just letting us exist.

When we’re aren’t healthy, in the broadest sense, not socially healthy, we can’t make art, or not much art. It’s impossible to create without certain basic material conditions. When the government makes cuts to social services and social assistance (no, I’m not going to call it “last resort assistance”), when housing rights organizations are forced to close, when the police harass minorities, when doctors refuse to adapt services designed for the hetero-white middle class — and when these decisions end up killing us —, it’s once again the artmaking of marginalized groups that suffers. Suppressing social diversity suppresses artistic diversity.

***

In closing, and to follow up on yesterday’s shitty, misogynistic and racist joke by Éric Salvail1, and given the class action suit of 41 cops against CBC/Radio-Canada for speaking out about police abuse of Indigenous women2, it seems to me now more than ever necessary to point out that we live on unceded Indigenous lands.

When the dominant culture breeds colonialism and sexism, when the Rozon empire is built on “humour” that is misogynous, racist, homophobic and so much more, when the culture is one of rape and domination, well, I don’t want to be cultured either.

  1. Tv host Éric Salvail had compared menopause to the absence of «rules» in a native’ reservation [«rules» in french: «règles» meaning «periods», ndt].
  2. 41 police officers sued Radio-Canada following a reportage by the «Enquête» tv show revealing the abuse of native women by police. Following the show, inquieries have been initiated against eight police officers.

The Let Down Reflex

Amber Berson Juliana Driever

The Let Down Reflex1, une exposition présentée du 30 janvier au 12 mars 20162 au EFA Project Space à New York, est un projet né de frustrations personnelles. Lorsque nous avons entrepris de créer une exposition au sujet de la parentalité, nous étions toutes deux lasses de dissimuler la nôtre dans l’espoir de ne pas nuire à notre carrière.
Nous voulions une tribune dans laquelle il serait possible de discuter librement de ces sentiments. À mesure que nous avancions dans nos recherches, nous avons découvert une communauté tout aussi avide d’une telle discussion. Au gré de nos conversations – avec des personnes exprimant haut et fort la validité de l’expérience maternelle, mais également avec des parents moins enclins à partager publiquement leur expérience –, il est vite apparu que ces problèmes demandaient à être corrigés sans attendre. Alors que les théories féministes évoluent dans leur poursuite d’une société plus juste pour tout le monde et que la question de l’intersectionalité s’impose (des orientations enthousiasmantes qui nous motivent dans notre travail), nous nous demandions pourquoi le milieu des arts peinait à s’y ajuster et pourquoi certaines mesures pouvant créer des environnements plus inclusifs étaient délaissées. Nous avons rapidement réalisé que le problème ne résidait pas dans les qualités particulières de l’art et du travail produit par les artistes-parents, mais dans les espaces et institutions destinés à soutenir les artistes et les travailleurs œuvrant en leur sein.

Notre réponse fut d’inviter un groupe d’artistes parents à imaginer un monde de l’art où le mot «Maman» ne serait pas péjoratif, où le soin des enfants ferait partie de l’accueil des artistes invités par les centres d’art et où les artistes n’auraient pas à choisir entre la maison et le travail par manque de congés parentaux. L’expression «let down reflex», qui fait référence au réflexe de montée de lait des mères après l’accouchement [«réflexe d’écoulement» en français, ndlt], prend dans l’exposition un double sens; elle évoque ici une tendance à laisser tomber [«to let down» en anglais, ndlt] les parents – et plus particulièrement les mères – au sein des structures d’emploi notoirement déficientes du milieu de l’art. The Let Down Reflex imposait une présence radicale des familles dans des espaces d’où elles sont traditionnellement absentes : programmes de résidences, opportunités d’exposition exigeantes mais peu payantes, débats publics3, etc.

L’exposition mettait en lumière la nécessité d’un système plus flexible dans lequel les intérêts des artistes parents seraient défendus et qui ferait la promotion de pratiques viables pour les personnes ayant à leur charge de jeunes enfants. Elle demandait :

 

  • Quelles tactiques féministes ont été déployées par le passé, que nous tiendrions aujourd’hui pour acquise? Sont-elles toujours prises en considération dans les infrastructures actuelles du monde de l’art?
  • Quelles stratégies pourraient être développées afin d’améliorer la situation? Comment pourrions-nous modifier le système actuel pour construire un futur mieux ajusté à nos valeurs en tant que corps désirant à l’œuvre dans le monde (de l’art)?
  •  

    Ces questions agissaient comme moteurs de l’exposition, demandant aux artistes (parents ou non) de s’intéresser à des œuvres critiquant une perception de la parentalité – et plus particulièrement de la maternité – comme un handicap et d’évoluer vers la construction d’un espace féministe où faire advenir des pratiques artistiques comprises comme un travail, compatibles avec la réalité des familles. Un tel changement exige de confronter le sentiment de vulnérabilité universellement présent dans le jeu d’équilibre entre vie de famille et pratique artistique, tout en invitant les non-parents à interroger le statu quo actuel et à renforcer nos structures de soutien et de communauté.

    Or, interroger ne suffisait pas. Ce que nous voulions, c’était de provoquer des changements réels et durables dans le monde de l’art et d’engager une discussion sur de possibles accommodements pour les familles dans des lieux où cette conversation n’existait pas. Nos avancées furent considérables. L’administration du EFA Project Space sait désormais à qui s’adresser pour offrir des services de garde d’enfant. Elle comprend la manière dont leur assurance responsabilité influence l’endroit et le moment auxquels elle peut offrir ces services. Ses membres ont mis en place une stratégie pour l’entreposage des poussettes, et comprennent désormais l’importance de créer une aire de repos
    pour des enfants sur-stimulés, de même qu’un espace d’allaitement sécuritaire. Elles et ils ont organisé une programmation publique, un vernissage, un montage et un démontage en ajustant leurs horaires et leurs logements aux besoins des enfants et de leurs gardien.ne.s. Bref, l’équipe d’EFA a modifié son approche de ces enjeux pour s’orienter vers une discussion sur l’accessibilité et l’hospitalité.

    Les œuvres présentées dans The Let Down Reflex reflétaient les différents besoins et désirs des parents, leurs défis individuels, leurs succès et leurs appels à l’action. Les approches adoptées par les artistes variaient. Certain.e.s sont intervenu.e.s en tant que parent : Lise Haller Baggeson présentait ainsi Mothernism (2013-2016), une installation proposant «un espace à l’échelle d’une mère dans la galerie» comprenant un espace pour enfants, une chambre d’allaitement et de la musique disco. D’autres, comme LoVid avec leur projet Kids at the Noise Show (2015-2016), ont travaillé à partir de leurs archives pour retracer les ingrédients secrets des centres d’artistes et institutions qui les avaient jadis accueillis en tant qu’artistes parents. Pour leur projet And Everything Else (2015), le collectif Home Affairs (Arzu Ozkal, Claudia Pederson et NanetteYannuzzi) a envoyé des lettres de remerciements à des institutions soutenant les familles, exposant ainsi le manque de tels espaces dans notre milieu. De leur côté, les artistes Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn, avec le projet The Wages Due Song (2015), et Leisure’s (Meredith Carruthers et Susannah Wesley), avec l’installation Conversation with Magic Forms (2015-2016), se sont penchées sur les précédents historiques d’appels féministes à l’action, tout en tentant de voir où pourraient advenir de nouveaux changements. Enfin, l’œuvre vidéo Horizonline: Gowanus (2013-2016) de Shane Aslan Selzer et l’installation performative By My Own Admission (2015-2016) de Dillon de Give rendaient visible la tension provoquée par le fait d’être en permanence à la fois parents et artistes. Pour plusieurs participant.e.s, cette expérience représentait une première inclusion de leur maternité dans leur pratique artistique. En tant que commissaires, nous leur sommes reconnaissantes d’avoir pris le risque de porter le personnel dans l’espace du politique4.

    Dans un article pour la revue Canadian Art, Maigritt Borgen écrit : «Comment pouvons-nous trouver une solution au problème de l’exclusion? Les commissaires de l’exposition, Amber Berson de Montréal et Juliana Driever de NewYork, sont catégoriques. Elles réclament que nous modifiions l’emphase mise sur l’artiste comme individu pour porter notre attention vers un “déclin” ressenti dans “les institutions destinées à supporter les artistes et les travailleurs œuvrant en leur sein” – ainsi qu’elles l’écrivent dans leur texte de présentation. Ce déclin se traduit par une absence complète de structures de soutien financier pour les familles, mais aussi – ce dont je peux témoigner personnellement – par le sentiment, comme parent, que votre enfant n’est généralement pas le bienvenu5». Il existe une pléthore de moyens que le milieu des arts pourrait adopter afin de mieux refléter le monde tel que nous voudrions qu’il soit. C’est à nous, artistes, travailleuses et travailleurs culturel.le.s d’exercer les pressions nécessaires afin de rendre concrètes les utopies collectives et sans cesse à redéfinir qui nous habitent. Sur un plan pratique, nous pouvons exhorter les organisations dans lesquelles nous travaillons à offrir des soins de garde d’enfants, à la fois aux artistes avec lesquel.le.s elles travaillent et au public qu’elles accueillent. Lorsque les conditions budgétaires ne permettent pas à l’organisation d’offrir de tels soins dans l’immédiat, il reste possible d’entreprendre sans attendre des démarches pour le futur – par exemple, en proposant un guide pour de meilleures pratiques ou en inscrivant ces soins aux budgets à venir6. Si les institutions qui nous subventionnent ne savent pas que ces services de garde sont pour nous une priorité, c’est à nous de les en informer dans nos demandes de bourses et par nos commentaires.

    Prendre de front ce problème d’accessibilité ne peut que bénéficier à tout le monde : lorsqu’un plus grand nombre de personnes peuvent assister à un évènement parce que certaines barrières ont été levées, les statistiques de fréquentation augmentent et se diversifient. Si les familles se voient mieux intégrées au sein des activités des organisations culturelles, il est possible d’imaginer que leur présence puisse avoir un effet d’entrainement (vers le haut). Une plus grande visibilité et une meilleure acceptation des mères dans ces espaces ouvriraient la voie vers de nouvelles idées et inspirations, aptes à aider les femmes à produire davantage d’art de grande qualité, à être plus souvent représentées par des galeries, à accroitre leur présence dans les collections et expositions des musées et à trouver leur place dans les annales de l’histoire de l’art7.

    Bien que The Let Down Reflex vise l’obtention de changements au niveau institutionnel, invitant les individus à faire pression pour les obtenir, un travail tout aussi nécessaire devra être fait du côté des politiques gouvernementales. Par exemple, le fait que certains programmes de résidences soutenus par les fonds publics excluent de facto les parents devrait être considéré comme un cas de discrimination au travail et de non-respect des droits de l’homme8. Dit simplement, il nous faut concevoir la production de l’art et sa diffusion comme un travail. Nous devons par ailleurs exiger des gouvernements qu’ils rendent des comptes à tous les parents – pas seulement ceux occupant de lucratifs emplois de 9 à 5, assortis de congés parentaux. Les artistes et autres travailleuses ou travailleurs culturel.le.s − qui sont souvent travailleuses ou travailleurs autonomes, à contrat, en situation de sous-emploi ou étudiant.e.s − tendent à tomber entre les craques de la législation sur les congés parentaux, même dans les pays où celle-ci est musclée. Le fait qu’il soit considéré normal que les artistes, des professionnel.le.s souvent très diplômé.e.s, produisent leur travail sans être dûment rétribué.e.s en retour, fait du milieu des arts un terrain particulièrement difficile à naviguer pour les parents – et rend incontournable la question du travail parental dans cette industrie. Bien que la discrimination et la nécessité de lutter pour obtenir un revenu décent soit une réalité dans presque tous les secteurs d’emploi, les artistes et les travailleuses ou travailleurs culturel.le.s doivent par ailleurs mener cette lutte pour leur sécurité financière au cœur d’un système économique qui tend à faire du prestige et de l’opportunité une monnaie d’échange. Or, les honneurs ne nourrissent pas une famille9.

    L’ennui avec de nombreux projets utopiques, c’est qu’ils ne demandent pas plus que ce qui est immédiatement accessible. Il n’est pas suffisant, pour nous, d’exiger des congés parentaux (aux États-Unis) ou une bonification de ceux-ci (au Canada). Nous pouvons simplement prendre la Suède comme exemple de ce qui pourrait être fait et progresser dans cette direction10.

    Ce genre d’activisme demeure élémentaire; nos rêves peuvent et devraient aller au-delà. Ils devraient démanteler le système duquel ils ont émergé et aspirer à construire quelque chose de nouveau, un système meilleur, plus diversifié, inclusif et sécuritaire. Notre exposition, The Let Down Reflex, n’était pas utopique, mais nos désirs, tels que nous les avons articulés ici et dans la discussion publique, le sont. Si l’art ne peut en lui-même régler les enjeux sociaux, il devrait néanmoins être un espace où imaginer un meilleur futur. Pour
    nous, ce futur en est un où chacun.e puisse se sentir accueilli.e, y compris les familles. À une époque où plusieurs personnes réclament l’ouverture du féminisme à une multiplicité de perspectives, nous souhaitons nous affirmer en tant que féministes et créer du soutien pour les mères et les parents de toutes allégeances.

     

    1. Traduction de l’anglais par Edith Brunette.
    2. Depuis, l’exposition The Let Down Reflex a été présentée au Agnes Etherington Art Centre de la Queen’s University (2017), ainsi qu’à la galerie Blackwood, de l’Université de Toronto à Mississauga (2017).
    3. Les parents ne sont bien sûr pas les seules personnes à se voir exclues du monde de l’art. La réalité actuelle fait de l’artiste jeune, blanc (ou juste assez exotique), mâle de préférence, non-handicapé et bien nanti celui qui bénéficiera des meilleures opportunités.
    4. Pour accéder directement aux opinions des artistes sur l’intégration de la parentalité dans la pratique artistique, veuillez visiter les pages que nous avons publiées pendant trois mois sur la plateforme M/OtherVoices
    5. “On the Parent-Shaped Hole in the Art World,” Canadian Art, consulté le 21 mars 2016
    6. “Cultural Reproducers Event Guidelines” Christa Donner – Cultural Reproducers, consulté le 1er mars 2016 — actuellement non disponible
    7. Bien que nous reconnaissions que la parentalité dans le monde de l’art et dans tous les milieux affecte à la fois les mères et les pères, les mères sont affectées de façon disproportionnée.
    8. “Mother’s Rights,” Wikipedia, consulté le 21 mars 2016.
    9. Sur ce point et sur le fait que la parentalité affecte d’abord les femmes, il importe de se rappeler que le travail, payé ou non, se répartit sur une période de temps plus courte aujourd’hui que jamais auparavant. Nous travaillons aujourd’hui pendant l’équivalent de 10% de notre vie, comparativement à 40% en 1900 (pour plus d’information, voir “DoWhatThouWilt”, Evelyne Reeves, Nienke Terpsma et Robert Hamelijnck, dans It’s Play Time, Fucking Good Art #31, Pays- Bas, 2014, p.103). Significativement, cette période se concentre entre l’âge de 25 et de 49 ans, soit la période durant laquelle les femmes sont les plus à même de devenir enceinte et d’élever des enfants.
    10. “10 Things that make Sweden Family Friendly,” Sweden.se, consulté le 16 mai 2016.

    Walking Hours the Space Between Things and the Passing in Time II

    Edd Schouten

    I chose the day of an eclipse to commence my project “Waking Hours.” This celestial choreography of planetary scope was to herald in my far more humble choreography representing a man walking the Earth. I thought it poetic and hoped it would be auspicious as I embarked on an artistic exploration of movement through time and space.

    I announced the inception of “Walking Hours” in the Spring 2015 issue of Le Merle. I proposed to do nothing more than walk a specific space — along the coast from the Dutch town of Scheveningen to Katwijk and back — at a time of day corresponding to conventional working hours. I wanted the parameters to be simple, an aspect frequently applied to my work as a practical and conceptual fundament. As an artist I seek to better understand my place in society within the framework of humanity’s place in the world, in this time. Both directly and indirectly, walking is a suitable conduit for this investigation.

    The choice of the space was personal and practical as I have history in both towns and live in one of them, giving me easy access. In walking I hope to find something universal.To some degree we all walk and if we don’t, it can be argued that we long for it — the crawling baby, the wheelchair bound paraplegic, the elderly. This creates the potential for conversation or exchange with anybody I might encounter during the process of the work.

    In walking, attentively, with engagement, I feel I come closer to how I literally want to walk the Earth. Embracing that I am a small factor, a mere cog in a great big wheel and that my best contribution is to be engaged in a conscious, positive manner. In my walking I know humility and embrace the small and the large. My intention is to approach any situation with openness and look people in the eye, prepared for conversation or a simple nod in acknowledgement of their presence. I feel it is the purest contribution I can make in an increasingly complex world where my powerlessness — a sensation shared with many — is paramount.

    I believe in the artist as a renegade of society. Part of a small class of subversives who challenge the status quo — maintained by the established elites — in order to question the direction we collectively take. I therefore find it difficult to participate in the more conventional economy of art that expects the artist to become an entrepreneur and find value in the work based on its financial worth. It is for this reason that I like to take alternative choices in my artistic endeavors. I prefer the aesthetic gesture, the object of thought or the ephemeral expression to a process that leads to a tangible product.

    It is not that I am against a physical result, I just prefer anything physical to flow naturally from a process rather than have it be the goal from the outset. I see it as a statement against the consumerism and obsessive need in our societies to saturate our lives with stuff, perpetuating a system of people working low-end jobs in order to earn the money they need to purchase what they make. It is a system that leaves a majority teetering on the brink of survival and a planet that is on the brink of being inhospitable to our species. So my walking is political. It is in that sense an act of resistance.

    When the work is not necessarily about creating a tangible result it becomes challenging to consider how to communicate the work. Although initially happy to simply announce it and bookmark the project in Le Merle, I was pleased when the process uncovered different opportunities for communication.
    I approach walking in a performative sense and prepare as a dancer might for a show subsequently entering within the physical boundaries of the walk much as if I step onto a stage. The walking itself is not particularly animated or acted, but rather resonates with its intention to be open and prepared to embrace what is experienced.This allows for interactions during the walk and, when not within the frame of “Walking Hours,” conversations with people who might be interested.

     

    For Myung, The eclipse reveals itself briefly through gray cloud cover, a silver smile in the sky on a sea that is a brown hushed whisper instead of its roaring self.

     

    Some outcomes were more tangible. I created some sketch-like sculptural works with encountered objects that intrigued me and which I would take home. A little like an abstract memory, a collection infused with the intention of the journey. I also found pleasure in creating what I called “choreographic maps for the mental space between Scheveningen and Katwijk.” these were essentially drawings based on a specific day of walking accompanied by a poetic textual impression. I though a mental map was apt as the physical route was so obviously straightforward yet allowed for more intangible wanderings of the mind. The maps were sent from Katwijk to individuals who lived in The Hague and with whom I had had a conversation about “Walking Hours.” It was a post- card reminder of our conversation and perhaps a catalyst for further exploration of the elements of the work. But like with the sculptures, it also gave me an opportunity to create a more tangible representation of the walking which by its nature is so ephemeral. It allowed me to develop a collection of drawings and at the same time scatter the collection in subversion to the conventional attitude of treating the art object with a near sacred reverence. I folded the drawing and it was imprinted with a postal stamp that penetrated the paper before being sent negligently by mail. One drawing never arrived.

    I like to think the postman thought the drawing so nice he kept it for himself and now spends his weekends mentally wandering the contours of the map wishing for more walking hours rather than working hours.

      Managing Expectation — Joshua Schwebel on Subsidy

      Joshua Schwebel le merle

      In 2015 Joshua Schwebel was awarded an artist-residency at Quebec’s Künstlerhaus Bethanien Studio in Berlin where he developed Subsidy, an artwork that would make visible unpaid labour.

      Le Merle

      Could you tell us about the circumstances around the making of Subsidy?

      Joshua Schwebel

      In 2015 I was awarded a residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien ( KB ) in Berlin through a grant from the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec ( CALQ ), which provided me with a full year in residence, from January – December 2015, inclusive of a solo exhibition, and a catalogue publication. The KB is an artist’s residency that has been hosting international artists since the early 1980’s, and is quite well-reputed, due to the duration of an artist’s stay, the facilities, the number of international artists it hosts, and the location in Berlin, a global art capital.

      The project I developed and enacted during the residency was not what I had proposed, nor what I had anticipated. On my first day in the residency I was introduced to the staff in the administrative office, which included the intern at the reception desk.When there was a moment apart, I asked her if her internship was paid. Somewhat surprised at my question, she confessed that the position was unpaid. I had never before worked in an organization that had unpaid interns. In my previous professional experience, which was predominantly with artist-run centres in Canada and Québec, the staff was paid, albeit quite poorly, and while I had been aware of the proliferation of this practice of engaging unpaid interns, this was the first time I encountered it in an organization in which I was expected to produce my own work. The contrast in priorities demonstrated by this institution, between its outward representation and its internal labour politics, and the contrast in funds and facilities available to me personally, yet withheld from others working within the same institution, really weighed on me.

      For some time leading up to this residency I had been becoming more and more anxious about my own precarious status as an artist. The necessity to support myself financially does not intersect coherently with the ethical and conceptual constraints I demand of my artwork, and I found myself compromising either my own artistic standards or my income in attempting to force these conditions together. Achieving the Berlin studio was a huge accomplishment, but also felt somewhat hollow in the recognition that the institutional structure included such exploitative practices as unpaid internships. At the beginning of the residency I struggled with how to feel self-respect and to maintain an honest and critical practice in this (to me) dishonest and uncritical institutional context.

      After about a month of intense frustration and unsatisfactory returns to my initial proposal, I arrived at what now seems an inevitable and obvious work: I would use my exhibition and its budget to pay the unpaid interns for the complete year, and simultaneously make this payment visible. The mandatory exhibition would make the process of payment and its exposure more relevant, more necessary, and act as a sort of public guarantee for the transaction. Redirecting my funds in this way would allow me to extract myself from this web of self-advancement on the backs of other peoples’ exploitation (at least, and if only for the duration of my interaction with this particular organization). The final work was to transfer the budget allocated for my exhibition into honorary fees for the interns who worked in the offices during my year of residence. Seven interns each received €428, for which they invoiced me for the “performance of internship duties in the offices of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien.” During the three-week duration of the exhibition (October 8 – October 31, 2015), the interns currently working in the office of the KB (Livia Tarsia in Curia and Catarina Pires), performed their assigned office duties within the exhibition space, which for the purposes of the exhibition I had transformed into a semi-private office space. Livia and Catarina worked in the gallery during the overlap between office and gallery hours (between 14h and 18h Tuesday – Thursday, and 14h and 16h30 on Fridays), speaking with visitors should they have questions, but for the most part, performing the duties they normally would undertake in the KB’s administrative offices. All furniture in the exhibition was provided from the KB’s own storage, and office supplies were taken from the administrative offices. Funds to divide the exhibition space into an office were redirected from allocations for my (unused) publicity budget.

      I felt at the time that this might be the last art work I would do, because I was probably blowing up one of the best ‘career’ opportunities that I would ever have, and alienating this major form of institutional support, but I just couldn’t see any other option given the context.

      lm

      How did you introduce this idea to the curators / directors of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien?

      js

      I decided that the best way to communicate the work was by email. In retrospect I think that this form of disclosure caused more difficulty than I anticipated, but at the time I had thought that by communicating the project in writing, I would be most able to collect my ideas and to clearly articulate my intentions. It would also ensure a form to trace the negotiation process, should I want this to become part of the exhibited work. I sent the depicted letter by email, which ultimately did end up being exhibited in the gallery.

      I received a phone call from the artistic director ten minutes after my email was sent. In this phone call I was told that he was very disappointed in the proposal I had outlined, and that what I suggested in my letter was not going to be possible at the KB. Above all, the director insisted that my intention to redirect funds was too political to be art, which when I replied that I didn’t think he could tell me what was and wasn’t art, he stated that this proposal categorically was not art. He continued that the administration could not apply the budget I had been granted to this purpose, it could only be accessed for artistic materials towards the exhibition. He recommended that I should join a political campaign if I wanted to deal with these issues. He refused to pursue the work any further, so when I replied that I was still going to find a way to continue the work, he stated that I would have to ask my funders’ permission. He also refused to make any response in writing.

      It is rare that someone in a central position of power within the art field has told me outright that my work is not art. This very statement angered me, since it took the power to determine my work away from me. Its hostility and defensiveness also revealed the conservative, unreflexive, and apolitical core of this particular contemporary art institution, a secret which is normally kept deeply hidden and concealed beneath rhetoric proclaiming the liberal and avant-garde values of contemporary art.

      I did contact the CALQ, but from a different angle – to alert them to the unprofessional and potentially explosive situation that was taking place. I hoped that they would reinforce my work, and remind the director that he could not tell an artist what was and wasn’t art. To my dismay, the officer wrote back to say that the CALQ would not interfere, and that she hoped I could work it out with the institution.

      After a week of deadlock, the director and I had a face-to-face meeting. We discussed the directors’ feelings that my work made himself and his institution look bad, which I reminded him was not my responsibility, alongside the fact that the work pointed to a global issue in cultural work under a political system that prioritizes profit. I suggested that if he felt bad about the conditions within his institution, rather than forbid them from being made public by attacking his critics, he himself should campaign the Berlin Cultural Administration and other funding bodies to provide adequate support to properly staff his institution, or simply redraft the priorities within his operating budget to make it possible to compensate all of the people working there. I refused to negotiate the direction or content of my work.

      lm

      This exchange reveals a significant disjunct in expectations. What strikes us about your gesture is that it slows things down so dramatically that the smooth flow of institutional automatisms was suspended and suddenly charged with questions. Could you tell us more about how the institution’s perception of itself was fundamentally challenged?

      js

      The exchange around the letter revealed an extreme disconnection in expectations, both in the disappointment of my own expectations of the artistic and curatorial authority overseeing institution, and the institutional representatives’ expectations of my production as an artist, which they clearly articulated after my project failed to achieve these expectation. The director’s anxiety was strongly triggered by my project’s relation to the exhibition space, and what would be shown to the public, his clear priority being that there would be “art” in the gallery (equivalent to material objects on the walls or floor, as he stated in our telephone conversation and repeated in our face-to-face meeting, “this isn’t the 60’s anymore, you can’t pin a letter on the wall and call it art”). This anxiety was accompanied by his feelings of betrayal, which he expressed in perceiving the project as a personal attack: he identified with the institution so closely that not only could he not dissociate a critique of the institutional structure – of the broader art world practice – from a critique of himself, but he also expected loyalty from my artistic production in how it represented the institution.

      I do think that the institution’s perception of itself was fundamentally challenged. I can say this in part because there was a temporary, deeply un- comfortable breach created by the project, or more precisely by the email announcing the work and the director’s emotionally-charged reaction. However, after our meeting things became much easier, to the extent that further requests were unchallenged, foremost among these my request to displace their interns into the gallery space, which was a separate building in the complex, from where they performed their everyday tasks such as buzzing in visitors at the front door, answering phones, receiving visitors, organizing papers, and answering emails. For an organization that had previously communicated concern about their public representation, being temporarily without their (unpaid) receptionists significantly compromised the administrative offices’ efficiency, and their interface with the public. In this regard, I can say that they did find a less-defensive, more flexible attitude to my work following the initial conflict.

      I doubt, however, that my intervention will have a long-term impact within the organization. Now that I am no longer there, they have resumed business as usual, continuing to augment paid staff with unpaid, eager, young (entirely female, incidentally but not coincidentally) Masters’ students. Since this organization has a high turnover – international artists pass through for durations between four months and one year, and then return to their home countries, the interns only last for three months before new interns replace them – the institutional memory is quite short. Having pushed up against the organizational structure and having witnessed both how anxious it is about its funding, and its adversity to working through the consequences
      of conflict, I also doubt that the organization’s leadership will reflect further on the fact that it is operating in a way that perpetuates an exploitative inequality against emerging practitioners in the art field. This is most unfortunate. As I explained in my meeting with the director, when arts organizations accept unpaid interns, they are reducing the value of the labour of each paid member of staff. They are tacitly condoning government budgets that force arts organizations to operate without adequate funding.

      I don’t think that the disjunct in expectations revealed by my project will enact change directly within the organization, however. I think the work has a slower effect, such as to impact the interns’ awareness of their rights and the direction they take in their future work. It may help spread awareness through the broader public, augmenting the growing dissatisfaction amongst artists and cultural workers with the inequality and lack of sustainability in our field. However, this is ultimately a symbolic gesture which can only make symbolic change.

      lm

      Were there concerns with where the money was coming from and how it could be used? And were there provisions built-in the contract that dealt with usage that the Bethanien did invoke?

      js

      The work did provoke concerns about the provenance and movement of the money. The contract itself made no stipulations as to the way that I could spend the allotted money. However, since it was held in trust by the KB administration, I needed to provide receipts or invoices before I could be reimbursed for any expenditures. This was an issue not only for myself, but for many of the other artists in residence. The administration did little in advance to notify us of which invoices could and couldn’t be reimbursed. Books, for example, were not within the category of acceptable expenses for reimbursement. It was rumoured that money that artists didn’t reimburse went back into the operational budget of the institution, and they were less-than helpful in advising us how to get the full use of our budget, and more active in refusing reimbursements. When the director refused my work one of his arguments was on the administrative front, that the organization could not be seen to receive charity, moreover, the potential for the appearance of financial mismanagement was quite high in the occasion that they would simply transfer an artist’s funds directly to their own operational budget. I think the coincidence of the practice of doing just this, and the alarm at being asked to do it openly, provoked the extremity of his refusal.

      It is fairly standard practice for artists to hire specialists when the delegation of labour is necessary to complete a work. This was the precedent and model that I proposed, in place of the work being identified as a donation.While my first intention was for the money to travel directly back into the administration, I realized that this was unlikely. Asking the interns to invoice me, along with the specific wording that implied a performance, had the added symbolic advantage of transforming their actual work into a performance within the realm of my project. These invoices then became both documentation of my project, and functional financial documents, just as the interns were both compensated actors in my work, and unpaid workers in the administrative work of the KB.

      lm

      Thank you, Joshua, for this sharing more detail about this project.

        Fingerbanging in Praxis

        Xander Matthew
        “All efforts to restore art by giving it a social function – of which art is itself uncertain and by which it expresses its own uncertainty – are doomed.” — Adorno

         

        1

        What better time than now, just as something like impunity settles into the as-of-yet non-posture of public cell-phone scrolling to find it, as with any lumpen teenager, a lawn to mow. For we who cherish the first page – if not just the first few lines! (the icing, the snake skin!) – lets us sing and with certain style lovingly rub our little magic wand things that now everyone, like food allergies and unfree time has, and extol the virtues of the pessimistic and peremptory (à la Adorno!), in whose spirit of condemnation we might with unabashed superficiality scan our artistic world of techno-bodies, and accord their digital entrainment the very “social function” by which we might doom the offending apparatus that we daily, nay minutely! wield and restore the gorgeous corpse that wields it, if not by decree, then by the triangulations hemimetric praxis, by which an erotics of the banal can pass the public hermeticism of small-screen searching through the transformative employment of the spasmodic anus of the contemporary (i.e. “social function”) and into the kitty litter of yesterday’s fashions. And thus it goes gleefully into the vocabulary of the passé, from which it might be freed to reform and practice yet smaller and smaller triangles of the retrograde.

        2

        In the unmitigated purview of others, contemporary people spend a lot of time looking at their phones, held with one hand about a foot and half from the face (though it is of course amusing to see the myopic, elderly and infantile inspect the screen from up close like old-style monocled jewelers), heads inclined between 30 and 60 degrees, just enough to droop the bottom lip and see that the masseuse gets paid for the head’s swooning servility at the expense of the neck, as echoed in the wrist’s tilt of the apparati, forming a misshapen oval that a Rodin might collapse the pensive cranium into the fist, outstretched and appareled with a rectilinear device, here expanded into a slim black book, elsewhere expended back into a shiny deck of cards. Bent and indexes outstretched they sift through their devices while walking, waiting, talking, eating, shitting, driving, and, many decidedly unsexy reports like to remind us, before, after and often when fucking. The camera function, frantic and strangely existential in its reproductions of lunch or our funny faces, is by and large giving way to brow furrowing and yet rhythmically idle perusing with an indecorous but lithe index. Having applauded our simian cousins for their agility in implementizing sticks, we genealogically preempt by regressing to the finger-as-stick, breathing rhythmically, in the entrained silence of others, less like the monkeys we are than pointillist monks, dotting our tiny canvi.

        3

        Having already cast into sepia the maligned figure of the loud talker, who in cleaving conversations in half enraged all in earshot by allowing them to assume themselves as possible unscripted and yet cued interlocutors, the solitary figure of the digital searcher appears with the ubiquity of defeated pylons on distracted corners, seeded among the laptopia of monastic cafes, or, and perhaps confusing for extraterrestrial sociologists, in drooling groups of like-inclined disenthusiasts. It is not only that in this dun pastoral that users create a seam- less and banal continuity between the public and private – so much so that I am surprised to see no-one lazily masturbating at their phones on park benches – but more so that the quietude of the posture’s reflective immersion is as infra-digital as the divining gesture is superficial. While a moralist might decry the shallow immersion of small-screen search, a sensationalist (that is, a semanticist) might decry the apparent inversion of social production toward the lonely onanism of the un-reproductive digital disentanglement (a sort of geometric mauvaise foi with fingers too straight and minds too twisted?), whereas your stooped writer, orthopedic in culture, horny in redundancy, thinks swansongly about posture and the steady banalization of optical and by extension, physical being, in the teleological sense that praxis makes perfect, and posture makes praxis, and fickle perfection obviates one posture in praxis for the next. For the way we do seems to evolve only by declaring the do a do not. In other words, we can’t shit out the mundane coagulate load of the contemporary unless we give it the intense fibre of posture.

        4

        Several thousand years of generative rendering leads us to the tertiary point at which we do not generate images (the do a do not!), and rather, in a series of minor and un-alert postures, we source them digitally (in at least two senses of the word). For steadfast Marxists and drunken evolutionary biologists alike, that the means of production are severed from the body and returned in a roundabout way to the a posteriori-like bond between the hand and eye that finds its apogee on a four inch screen, itches up the difficulty I have in believing, as an increasingly unfettered, and again, very tertiary consumer, that, for example, the flesh of farmed fish is not that much stupider but for its fattened redundancy in a super-abundant world of corn pellets and lazy backstroking (in a pond without what my baby brother always called Sarks, even as we traversed the smallest of creeks). Which is to ask: and of our idiot flesh? [ha!] Alas as the digitally scrolling fingerling, in all of its ostensible labor, no longer scans the shadows of our clement reef for Sarks, let alone fish of a fellow fin, and can exist unfettered and socially undeterred in the slightly bowing transfixion between eye and grazing finger, will this digital nimbleness take on a slightly more invigorating social function as a fair intimation of a posture that is posed, socially generative, figurative and yet physical, but most importantly, within the tropological handbag of evolving, and thus self-obsolescing praxis? If that is so, must this digital posture be clothed or stripped, ringed, toned, tamed and aestheticized into the image of culture?

        5

        A child of the 90s, I remember the social function of fingers. Back when the pubescent noblesse oblige of my mostly white mountain town wanted to bang more than ski, they flocked to join hastily named Asian gangs (who in our Beckettian blacklessness we rounded up to Californian Bloods and Crips), a friend – eminently a believer! – to whom we’d passed off to great effect laxatives as hallucinogens happily joined a group of preliminarily mustached ruffians whose initiation, at least in part etymological, required the ceremonial fingerbanging of the new recruits’ buttocks, a sort of erastes and eremenos for a burgeoning digital era, wherein the fingers became the proboscis, the ear, the mouth, and, in close-ups, the reality conferring and pleasure generating eye-genital. In much the same way the portmanteau-to-be-mashed took on ontological grandeur in a decade where we truly feared genital upon genital sex (as much as we now fear mouth to mouth speaking), we, taking leave of the alert body in favor of a shiftier, more downcast and digital one, we came to admire the fingerwork of videogame players, and then finger-flexing DJs, spray-painters (wherein the artist became an inky spiderfingers, ejaculating paint from his index), and, as the decade dwindled, the hunched figure of the boy-hacker, fingerbanging his way into the governments we already knew not to oppose by thumb, but by pointing and releasing a finger, to say nothing of climaxing nails which raked blood across male backs as mirrored on ceilings, or, and I think this most important, Michael Jackson’s galactic index, shot upwards and released to blackest space by the pull of his crotch.

        6

        That these fingers – pointing, pressing, scratching and pulling – have largely ceded their artistic-erotic dynamism and not insubstantial iconography to the more contemporary, and as of yet postureless (in so far as posture is when praxis becomes icon) touch, tap and swipe, without forsaking (save for the spaceward glance of an interstellar Michael) the downward tilt of the studious head, allows for a simultaneously less frenetic and yet more obsessive form of fingering, at once more engaged (for, quite literally, a finger need not be lifted) and yet also, by the whispering grace of their grazing more superficial, ephemeral, bored and also banal, not to mention, in all excess of digital vanity, rather out of shape. The contemporary finger, unlike its sinewy predecessors, bears no bicep in its slight bend, and wears its obsolescent arms like a netted and desultory farmed fish, suddenly tasked with catching and gutting itself. For unlike every action-posture – from the writer to the murderer – that has heretofore wielded its principal implement, the genetically-inverted iconography of the idle scroller’s largely limp arms allows neither for the engagement of
        a living body, nor a facial expression in concert with the verbiage of the arms in action. Along with the inconographic avatars of every ideology – picture the communist flag sans sickle, but with a hammer-finger rapping on a tiny screen – we need the tropological-iconographic image of the arms to tell us if the body is necessary and if the face is justified. Think perhaps of Sid Vicious with his low slung bass, his simian and intravenous arms pale and explicitly pockmarked, as if the fingers are the body’s pens, then the arms in their bookish halves are the unfurled and character stained scroll which contain the cryptic code by which we defeatedly endorse the mystery of being. Place an iphone in those veiny hands and not only do we obviate the arms, but we efface the tension in his visage. We kill punk before punk has time – and, importantly – the muscular tension to kill Nancy Spungen and himself.

        7

        But I digress toward the image of tepid absorption that pictures the user, ostensibly urban invariably but whatever, head bent at a bookreading angle, but in being bookless, still, as with laptopists and their seriously studious ilk, in some postured imitation of concerted search and grimacings of a lonesome luminary’s minor discovery. How do these stars of he self sit, stand or walk along staring, mirror turned in like selfieing Bath-shebas standing in the shallow end of a bumper-car-kid-die-pool for clones? What do they wear to this occasion of themselves, and, a question for future romantic comedies as well as for proponents of real life sex: how do two (or more) people entranced by two little screen physically flirt hand and eyelessly, let alone meet and later fuck by the touchboard glow of their infra-digital devices? Whither sex in the city, or need we merely touch hot phones to expedite the inconvenient growth of the tumid body from its primordial and blemishless screen?

        8

        Everyone wants to live near water, and in a city of screens we can uber-Atlantis right on it. Topographically speaking from the dial-up 90s into the flotsam of now, the seer and Saint Vilem Flusser likened interactive city life to the “wave trough in an image flood”; an “intersubjective field of relations” “spun” into “oscillating” troughs. I can only imagine, unlike the semi-constant standing waves that sometimes occur in rapids, that Flusser’s city-trough would continue to “knot” and intensify, to thicken, quicken and deepen. Only Flusser couldn’t predict how dull life in the net would be, and how much the Hubris enthusiasts (sadistic moralists?) among us might imagine the wave collapsing into a scuzz of floating plastic and broken internet dreams, drowning the drones and extinguishing the bloodied lampposts that needlessly lit the “connected” city, which however mean it sounds, was only, without looking up (up!), only a city in name.

        9

        And yet it is only by insisting that device users physically arrange themselves into yet more complicated postures of urbanity that we might dignify their unseen setting. We must, in order to banalize banality to death, insist for a time that the banal conscripts of the contemporary practice the insanely banal postures of the iphonic. For even the rosier-glassed proponents of the cyber city as we vaunt it would probably admit the rather sudden hyper ubiquity of screeny digitalia, as it has evolved from decades of steady fingering, bangs very little, and turns our ocular towns, turreted with screens, into the infinite interface for a monastic and onanistic individuals, grazing with a finger that obviates the hands, the arms, the body and the face as they sink beneath the surface of the frantic short waves in the trough of tall glass towers – the electric basin of the contemporary – through whose leagues we sink, feeling we see further, until, as with Eliot’s Prufrock, we are detritus languishing with dead sirens, who fatally think to open our unused mouths (and ask for a social function? A posture? A first page? Paragraph?).

        10

        All of which, from the view from the bottom, leads me to selectively unspool my three muddled points: the art of being (in public) loses its social function unless it enters, however superficially, into the vocabulary of the aesthetic, and that, secondly, in a gestural sense, contemporary postures are entrained to devices operated by a smoothing, grazing finger as opposed to a muscular organism (made of interrelated parts), and that, finally, this rampant refraction, which in all of its obliqueness forsakes both the “social function” (again, even in the most superficial of senses) and the body from which the distended fingers are severed, and additionally severs from the hand-finger-device from the correlate image of the city.Which, though it might suggest it doesn’t matter where we live, may also threaten, in senses ontological and Star Trekian, not mattering if we live. Having crassly recited so many clichés, I feel little discomfort in re-appending yet another: whatever we agree to not let go, however dispiriting its apparent permanence in the standing “wave trough” of the contemporary, this putrid back up, this reject from rejection, can be postured, should be postured and will be postured, and in so being postured, eventually obviated (or graduated as passed fashion), for how else could this grizzled luddite hope to “doom” that which offends by universal acclamation and practice, if not by social purpose, posture and selfsame praxis? And thus it goes gleefully into the vocabulary of the passé from which it might be freed to reform and practice yet smaller and smaller triangles of the retrograde until it is but a cheesy little tattoo above either elbow.