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20 february 2006

 

Sun, 19 Feb 2006 21:01:15 -0600 (CST)  
From: "Jeannine Diego Medina"  

My name is Jeannine Diego, I am a writer and translator based in Mexico City. Given that, currently and quite inopportunely, I haven't constant access to Internet, I apologize in advance for the possibility that my comments may overlap what has already been said and are somewhat ‘behind' in terms of newer comments. Having said that, I will immediately address the topic proposed, regarding ‘socially-engaged art', and somewhat in response to the essay by Gerald Raunig, as well as to the comments issued specifically by Achille Mbembe, and up to those issued by Jill Magid and Shep Steiner (I have yet to read others' comments on the subject).

 

With regard to the essay by Gerald Raunig, I can only second the questions posed by both Achille Mbembe and by Shep Steiner, and rather than furthering these eloquently expressed concerns (except to simply quote Shep Steiner: “…championing the contingencies of the momentary or the specificities of a place (here, I would add ‘and/or personal circumstance') are not enough to secure this double prerogative”), I would like to echo some of what has been said by Achille Mbembe, given the fact that the concerns offered very much reflect not only my own, but also a position which, in my opinion, is the result of a circumstance very closely linked to that of Latin America, in terms of speaking from the so-called ‘periphery'.

 

Firstly, then, for the sake of brevity, I will list the concerns expressed by Mbembe and that I wish to echo, in the form of quotes, then attempting a further exploration of these concerns as a whole, from what I perceive to be the Latin American circumstance (if I may dare to group the diversity of circumstances of our countries, in the knowledge, nonetheless, that this type of generalization can very well entail a risk of oversimplification or of overlooking particularities):

 

1.       “…the past doesn't seem to be providing any stable referent for identity or for action.”

2.       “…what is our present… that we are living in and experiencing in such a way that we can say we are our own contemporaries?”.

3.       “…the present is a matter of accountability and there is no way in which […] we can escape that duty of accountability.”

4.       “…it is the question of human proximity that is indeed at the center of love, sex, rituals of self-preservation, which are themselves unthinkable without the rituals of preservation of the other.”

5.       “It is the question of the encounter with the other. […] radical art, radical thought, radical politics, are losing that edge because the question of the encounter with the other has been somewhat displaced. […] Meaning the act of making the other's death my business.”

6.       “How do we reactivate all of those things in such a way as to indeed counter those other politics in which the enemy becomes indeed dear?”

7.       “The third haunting figure in this trilogy is the figure of the stranger.”

8.       “…there is a new question of being human which […] [for] those of us who live far away from the old civilizations who think they have resolved it long ago. We have an opportunity to produce around those issues a proposition that is new and radical…”

 

 

Firstly, I wish to stress the importance of situating ourselves within our present (in direct relation to how this affects our production of “socially-engaged art”), of reaching the point whereupon we can state that we are, in fact “our own contemporaries”, of what Mbembe mentions as “accountability”. Something which I think is directly linked to the figure contained within the same discourse, in terms of “the stranger”, “the enemy”, and which is as well directly proportionate not only to the production of socially-engaged art, but to the formation of a consensus around abstract objectives that, more often than not, target abstract aims (aims and targets that shift according to the market of which they are endemic: one needs nothing more than to review recent history in order to confirm the ever-shifting nature of said targets and/or aims).

 

How to become accountable for our present, accountable to ourselves?

 

I think that this question can be answered with another: How did we get here ?

 

And, simply as a matter of playful image or reference in terms of this same question: Hansel and Gretel (bread crumbs, etc.).

 

How are we supposed to know where we are, when, as indeed was stated by Mbembe, “…the past doesn't seem to be providing any stable referent for identity or for action.”, when, in art as in life (perhaps the distinction itself is absurd), what is being experienced and enabled primarity by "markets" is, yes, immanence (using, now, the concept proposed by Raunig), but a rather gratuitous immanence. Immanence toward a center, a center which is by no means situated, geographically, culturally or socially speaking, in the “souths”, a center that represents interests (political, economic, social, etc.) not merely outside of our own, but, I would dare say, actually in opposition to our own. An immanence that overlooks, that excludes, and that, ultimately, will run you/me (too) over. An immanence that generates what looks, tastes, and even feels, like “socially-engaged art”, simply because it fits into the scheme dictated by.. well, by the markets (… and, hey! It even looks cool!… and, better yet, I didn't even get dirty!… I'm sorry… I had to throw in a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor… I'll try to keep it serious).

 

I think it is precisely an issue of the past , of our past, of rethinking and re-signifying the past, of creating those referents for identity and for action (identity being, in my opinion, the key concept). We can become accountable through 3 processes which I believe are interrelated and interdependent:

1. “historical anamnesis”,

2. via, precisely, an “encounter with the other”, and further,

3. via strategies of intimacy that enable “the act of making the other's death my business” (I couldn't have said it better myself).

 

A central element to the issue of socially-engaged art, of the identitary issues that socially-engaged art entails, is a phenomenon that I feel to be quite strong at least in Latin America, and I can only term it as “historical amnesia”. A forgetting that results from the imperative need (speaking of immanence) and vertiginous race to secure a place, a position (as nation, as artist, as social actor), to be accepted, within these centers of economic, cultural, and political power. Visibility, yes, but at what cost?

 

It is not, and I stress, it is not, about nostalgia. It is about our recognizing ourselves in ou¡r diversity, about rescuing our living history, about engaging in a retro/prospective exploration of our own history, about acknowledging the crumbs that were dropped by others or even by our very own selves, before now, before we got here. Where they were dropped and why. Who's shoulders are we standing on? Where do we want to go from here (how can we know where to go, when we don't know where we've come from?)? According to who's set of values are we determining what is valid or not in terms of social enagement, in terms of socially-engaged art practices?

 

“The UNESCO report titled Our Creative Diversity , (known as the Pérez Cuellar report), insists on the danger implicit in the possibility that the internationalization of cultural processes might ‘inundate other tastes and interests', and more so, taking into account that ‘for the poorest, their own values are often the only thing they can affirm'. In another passage, the report expresses that ‘insofar as the cultural industries acquire great economic importance, an inevitable tension is generated between the objectives which are essentially cultural, and the logic of the market; between commercial interests and the desire for a content that reflects diversity'.”

 

Echoing a comment issued to this respect by Silvia Aguilera, of LOM Editors in Chile, “We believe, thus, in the power of writing as an act that liberates, and in this context, we understand that role as an exercise intended to awaken, call attention to, provoke, produce tension, the rupture or the connection that signifies a glimmer, a contribution to the medium in which we are inserted, a contribution to reflection and critique. Our role should contribute in such a way that our people appropriate themselves of their past in order to see themselves and find themselves within it, to think it and build a future, contributing, in turn, to avoiding the imposition of a logic that violates the human species. The intervention […] is to remind ourselves each day that we are alive and that we have the capacity to think and propose, that there are other worlds to be known, that we can think ourselves from the place where we are, that the act of creating is an act of building, a propositive act, that we can still be the subjects of our history.”

 

In general terms, I believe that every form of artistic _expression is, by default, a response to and a reflection of (whether conscious or subconscious, whether direct or indirect) of a reality lived and experienced. The danger that I can see, rather, lies, perhaps, in engaging in these practices via the utilization of the social as stage, as scenario, as landscape, in falling prey to an exploitative use of the ‘marginal', taking it to the plane of the aesthetic, yet disengaged, in actual fact, from the ‘problem' itself, from the whole of society itself, or from the social issue it proposes to highlight. As long as “socially-engaged art” reiterates and reaffirms distance (not only between me and the other, but between me, the artist, opposite That reality, for example), as long as otherness remains nothing more than an aesthetic element, we will continue to argue along the lines of the dichotomies proposed by Graunig, and, more importantly, we continue to run the risk of either being “othered” ourselves at some point in time (politically, economically, socially), or, worse still, of “othering” ourselves.

 

To me, it is not an issue of whether art should or not be socially engaged (to quote Mbembe: “…there is a new question of being human which […] [for] those of us who live far away from the old civilizations who think they have resolved it long ago”), but rather, of HOW we, as thinkers, as communicators, relate to the social. How we position ourselves within it, how we recognize ourselves within it, how open we are to reciprocal processes of engagement.

 

To quote Jorge Luis Borges, in a comment regarding his native Argentina (Evaristo Carriego, Alianza Editorial, Madrid, 1998. pp 19-20): “…only new countries have a past; which is to say, an autobiographical memory of it, which is to say, they have a living history. If time is succession, we must acknowledge that where there is a greater density of events, more time flows and that the deepest river is that of this inconsequential part of the world. […] The young, despite themselves, feel it. Here, we are of the same time as time, we are the brothers of time.”

 

I firmly believe that one of the most effective ways in which we can achieve a different type of approach, and hence, result, is via an immersion in our respective and diverse realities, circumstance, etc. The encounter with the other proposed by Mbembe. Intimacy. I would like to address the issue of intimacy, of the stranger/enemy, with one last quote, this time, from a friend and collaborator, Gabriel Restrepo, Colombian sociologist. His exploration of the notion of “hospitality” is worth taking note of (the ethymology of the term is rather telling):

 

“The concept of hospitality is much more broad than the derivative use of words such as “hospital” or “hospice”, or other similar terms such as “hotel”, “hostel”, these places – non-places- that take in the ill or travelers. An examination of the etymology of the noun “guest” helps to understand the richness of this term. The voice comes from the Latin root “hospes”, although a conjunction of two more ancient voices is made, stemming from the Indo-European root “hospis-pet-s”, a term which, according to the now-classic Emilio Benveniste, means “the master of the guest”.


To summarize, this means that the “hosti” – from which the English word “ghost” stems, as well as the German word “Gast” which designates the invitee – signifies the stranger or foreigner, one who may be hostile or foe (and hence must be defeated until the death or subjugated as slave), but also one who may be a friend or friendly. Therefore, the face of the guest remains ambiguous until it is deciphered.


As can be inferred, from this simple womb of Indo-European nomenclature, stem infinite understandings: those related to war, for example, whereupon fearsome strangers are, if not murdered, domesticated as slaves; also those related to economy, since the stranger can become benevolent via the rituals of exchange of offerings and counter-offerings; those related to psychology, because in psychoanalysis, the crucial notion, of the “ghost”, finds its enclave in the subtle margin between the familiar and the unfamiliar; those related to religion because it is an understanding that attempts to reconcile the distant and the near, the ordinary and the extraordinary.”

 

It is about narrowing distances and not reaffirming them (or simply making aesthetic use of them), about hospitality, about feeling the hurt of the other, about making this hurt my own, and not about exploiting it for my own personal gain, as artist, as thinker, as communicator. Recognizing myself in the other, allowing the other into my house.

 

However, lofty ideals are nothing more than lofty ideals, when these are not grounded in actual, real examples and actions. Far be it from me to make use of this space as one of self-promotion, I would nonetheless like to briefly describe a project which I am currently coordinating and set to begin toward to end of March, as one example of how this can be put into practice, given the fact that the questions around socially-engaged art practices are very close to my personal/professional heart. The project is a literary one and involves the collaboration between six writers from different regions of Latin America. The general objective of the project is to explore and stimulate self-knowledge among Latin American countries, via the rescue of our living history, as well as it is to explore and stimulate “south-south” dialog in the building of a Latin American community, through the written word and those that engage in writing. Throughout the course of three months, six exchanges will take place, whereupon a given writer will travel to the region inhabited by another writer. The host writer will do just that: host the guest writer, in a mutual exploration of a senex (senior member of the host writer's immediate community). The three will coexist in an intimate and intensive manner throughout the course of the visit, and the guest writer will draft a text of fiction based on the experience. A sociologist will also accompany the group, drafting his own analytical text with regard to the experience. Each guest writer will also function, in turn, as host, at some point along the development of the project. The texts will be gathered into an anthology, and the distribution strategies themselves are especially designed to further these relationships and permanent channels of alternative distribution.

 

I would like to conclude this comment (which is much longer than I intended, and I apologize for that) by stating that it is only by an immersion in realities that are not as far as we tend to believe from our own, that we can achieve a true foundation whereupon the “other's” hurt is our own, whereupon social engagement is a reality and not a lofty (and, hence, questionable) concept. Only then, I believe, can I produce art that may or not be evidently or palpably “socially engaged”, but that will nonetheless enable and reflect the fact that I am “my own contemporary”.

 

Only then, the question as to whether or not “the special character of art” stands “in contrast to…political propaganda”, will become as irrelevant as null.

 

 

Mon, 20 Feb 2006 02:13:22 -0800 (PST)  
From: "gregg smith" <gregghello@yahoo.com>  
Subject: so far  

I'm grateful for the weekend lull in this discussion group as its allowed me to tidy the apartment, do the laundry and reflect on the different points of view put forward. I've been rereading Gerald Raunig's and Shep Steiner's messages and I feel that they offer inspiring suggestions both for art making and also ‘meaningful communication'. I would also like to pick up on Jeanine's message in which in which she makes reference to Dr Achille Mbembe's, “…the past doesn't seem to be providing any stable referent for identity or for action.” (Mbembe's text by the way, for those who have not seen it, is a transcription from his introductory presentation to the Very Real Time event in Jo'burg two weeks ago. It's available on the website as additional reading under this topic http://veryrealtime.co.za/achille_text.htm ).

 

To begin with ‘ meaningful communication', and to mention a bit about South Africa, there seems to be something peculiar in the culture, a remnant from the past which makes discussions often lead into a confrontational dialectic, deadlocked around sentiments of control and domination. This is something which exists across racial lines but I have also noticed it equally painfully in conversations with one's father or lover. There is what I have come to think of as a ‘sawn-off' logic, where one's desire to allow a conversation to follow its natural progression is overridden by an emotional need to police and stop the logic of a train of thought at a certain point where one becomes vulnerable. These are generalisations, behaviours which I have recognised in myself and other close one's from time to time and thought they must have some origin in a time when it was dangerous to think thoughts through.

 

In this context I am reading Gerald's proposition about ‘letting the world happen' as ‘a fluid form in which difference floats,' and the implications these notions has for an exchange of opposing sides. Shep Steiner's expansions on Gerald's initial proposition in his response on Thursday, in which he makes mention of narrative and the possibilities in contemporary art for opening other ways of perceiving reality also touches on something which I would like to continue. The narrative is a medium of particular potency in recent South African history, particularly around the issues of truth and reconciliation it became the a means for two opposite sides of a violent history to realise some kind of bed-rock in a field of emotions and trauma which had remained dorment for many decades.

 

For some time now I have been working with narrative in the context of public space and thinking about ways in which both the artist and spectator might become disarmed or somehow more implicated in their own narrative. Reading Jeanine's message in which she says ‘h ow are we supposed to know where we are, when, as indeed was stated by Mbembe, “…the past doesn't seem to be providing any stable referent for identity or for action.”' I am prompted to put forward a strategy in which I have been experimenting with in various forms of performative work in public space. I think the past is useful if it is taking as a starting point, a limited preconception of what is the present, but a conception which needs to be tested as an initial gesture in moving closer to one's present. As a result I have become interested in attempting to set up a play between an organised or scripted mechanism, and what becomes of this mechanism when it is set afloat in the uncontrolled ebb and flow of daily life. As the mechanism strives to maintain its direction, it must negotiate the chaotic hazards of its location in an improvised manner, and there is an energy released in this process which is beneficial both for the artist and the viewer. It tests the secure position of being able to predict exactly what will happen next and in this way we become implicated in the moment, through a narrative which is in the process of creating itself.

 

I see similar strategies at work in Ed Young's performative projects, in which the viewer/audience is seduced by the complete banality of a situation (with the help sometimes of alcohol) into unabashed engagement. And what more literal way to place an individual at the centre of his personal narrative than to have him donated as an artwork to the local National Gallery.

 

In Jill Magid's work, it's interesting when she talks about seduction as an engagement with a larger system in which she uses her personal charms in order to subvert the purpose of an impersonal system and enable it to ‘transcend its assigned function'. In successfully finding an access point to engage with the system, she sets in motion an unpredictably human chain of events in which both her and the human entities of the system become vulnerable and accountable to their own desires.

 

I have sketched very briefly my understanding of Jill's and Ed's processes, and so there are undoubtedly annacuracies which they may want to correct.

 

I'll be off now,

Gregg