Despite my disdain for predictability and repetitiveness, I have found myself starting all correspondences with friends and loved ones with the same greeting:
I hope you are surrounded with lots of love and support amidst fascism!
Although I am aware that no amount of love or support may protect one from fascism, I find that starting in this way sets the tone for an acknowledgement of the climate where, as a friend once said, “how are you?” is no longer pertinent.
I wish you the same here as well, although I don’t believe some of you, some of us, are exempt from having contributed to the creation of either this regime or the desire for it. I have previously spent long periods of time in limbos of visa and immigration processes, waiting for decisions to be made for me. This one, though doesn’t feel any more comfortable than the many I experienced to gain the “alien” status I was granted in this country.
Everything is too familiar in purgatory:
the urge to write, the urge to read,
the fatigue of writing, the fatigue of reading,
the oscillation between everything I have to say
to sound as urgent
as it may sound absurd,
every five minutes the cycle repeats itself.
On November 10th, 2016, one day after the election, Artnet published a statement that, “There were no signs of a post-Brexit or Donald Trump election victory backlash in the art market tonight…” The art world often prides itself as being an insulated, removed sphere. Official spaces of The Arts—Museums, publishing houses, academic positions—were not inherently anti-racist, feminist, queer zones. In fact, many operated and thrived under the tutelage of racism, sexism, and homophobia, as art.
On November 9th we woke up to a 43.13% increase in stocks for the Corrections Corporation of America.
Monday, November 14th, another 10% hike.
it continues to grow.
In thinking about this letter and our many complicities, in my complete despair in finding words to articulate what is it that I am eager to understand, in order to change, I turned to Sylvia Wynter’s “No Humans Involved: an Open Letter to My Colleagues.” In the letter from 1994 Wynter addresses her academic colleagues in humanities and social sciences, specifically Black Studies after the officers in the Rodney King case who were captured on videotape were released—not indicted in court. Quoting Elie Wiesel, Wynter asks, “The designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust were the heirs of Kant and Goethe. Although “in most respects the Germans were the best educated people on earth, their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity.” What was wrong with their education?”
Here I am in no way trying to underestimate the complexities of Wynter’s pivotal letter by drawing any naive or quick parallels between what we are spectators to, and participants in, today and the acquittal she refers to in the letter in 1994. I do, however believe the questions Wynter is asking are to be asked on a daily basis by every teacher who enters a classroom, any artist who walks into the studio, any writer who opens the computer or a notebook to write, as what we are witnessing today is the continuous normalization of the contradiction between being “caught” on camera as criminal—the officers—and “released” in life as such, not despite that. This is of utmost importance for especially those of us, that as Sara Ahmed puts it “come to embody diversity for organizations [and] are assumed to bring whiteness to an end by virtue of our arrival.” “This” states Katherine McKittrick, “is the Fanonian predicament that underwrites the academy: the subhuman is invited to become human on terms that require anti-black sentiment.”
“Ralph Ellison alerts us in his The Invisible Man, that we see each other only through the “inner eye” with which we look with our physical eyes upon reality… the question in the wake of the Rodney King Event becomes: what is our responsibility for the making of those “inner eyes?… objective understanding or “inner eye” constituted by the “prescriptive categories” of the “native cultural model” (legess 1973) which is itself rigorously elaborated by the present disciplinary paradigms of the Humanities and Social Sciences.”
A few questions to mull:
As artworkers and teachers, what is our role in the creation of “the inner eye” through aesthetic production and consumption?
How does what we offer our physical eye as “art” shape our “inner eye” with which we look at each other?
WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH OUR (ART) EDUCATION?
My politicization started at my parents’ thought of inception during the war with Iraq. I remember the taped windows of the hospital where I was born upon returning to it as I grew up, “protecting” the glass from shattering at the possibility of overflying jets breaking the sound wall. I remember sirens, the hide and seek in the darkness: the arbitrary and mandatory hours of “family play.” In those moments of hiding under the staircase or in the bathroom with my family, darkness literally taught me how to see: to see through it. Politics was the aesthetics: the feelings of fear and excitement that I felt in the eyes of night, the smell of four bodies inside a small bathroom, the quiet of four humans, the touch of my parents’ embrace around me. Those were my perceptions of the most violent manifestations of politics—war—through the senses.
Ten years later I was re-politicized in a “global” sense. Bush was the connection between what was unfolding “over there” to how we would live “at home.” My brother’s immigration to the U.S. post 9-11 was when I felt the full effects of what that connection of politics and global economy meant for us at the individual level. The background checks, the waiting, the different numbers, codes and registrations tied to our bodies, the biometric procedures we had to pay for, to be registered and monitored. Seven years after that, it was my turn. Going through the exact same procedures, I joined the one registry that wanted to include us without our protest. “The ocular, affective and informational are not separate power grids or spheres of control; rather, they work in concert—not synthetically, but as interfacing matrices,” writers Jasbir Puar in Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times.
Years after that I swore and signed I needed protection from this state. The worst thing about being a refugee or asylum seeker is that you have run away from one state to seek refuge from another. Was I naive to believe that any state is a refuge and may offer a shelter from the other? Was I naive to think that leaving, I was leaving tyranny behind? As skeptical as I was, was there a part of me that relied on that narrative through the gesture of protection that was extended to me?
How do we use this crisis of humanity as a defining moment for art education to work beyond the damages of the eight or four year cycles in repetition? How do we use this year as a sabbatical for deep reading and re-reading of texts that inspired us, in a way that puts our past and present in perspective? Benjamin taught us “The place of the intellectual in the class struggle can only be determined, or better, chosen, on the basis of his position in the process of production.” He also reminded us of Aragon’s statement “It is not enough to weaken the bourgeoisie from the inside, one must fight along with the proletariat.” (emphasis mine)
What goes into our syllabi is as political a decision as what doesn’t go there. By none of this am I inclining toward “inclusion” but a radical purging of our pedagogy from “whiteness as the producer of knowledge.”
Here at home, those who say galleries in Boyle Heights and other working class neighborhoods are not located in residential areas but in “desolate” warehouse districts in order to to justify gentrification, mistake their inability to see life in those areas—the internalized colonial gaze—for “absence.” How do we fix our gaze onto the site where we are incapable of seeing human life, and keep staring as an exercise? What do we learn from this banal looking at the site of our inability to see?
In the wake of the Rodney King case, where the jobless Black and Brown population of South Central Los Angeles were continuously referred to as non-human in NHI cases, Wynter draws our attention to the fact that under late capitalism where accumulation of capital was no longer through production but consumption, “the vast majority of peoples who inhabit the “favela/shanty town” of the globe and their jobless archipelagoes, as well at the national level, of Baldwin’s “captive population” in the urban inner cities, (and on the Indian Reservations of the United States), have not been hitherto easily perceivable within the classificatory logic of our “inner eyes”.
Since the NYTimes article on the importance of the Picture Generation was published on February 13, I have stared in the eyes of those 17 artists in the picture for minutes that would add up to an hour. While in these instances we are quick to put the blame of color blindness on the editor or the photographer, what did the “most important” 80’s artists and curators of the Picture Generation see in the formation of that photograph? Deferring the racist blame onto the institution, the editorship, and/or abstract entities is a trite strategy we are well familiar with. But what happens in the intimate moments of whiteness when it simply fails to face itself?
While many of us, if not all are disturbed by this photograph
not everyone feels completely shaken up and disturbed by the overwhelming amount of whiteness in this one and the types of (art) historical erasure that it epitomizes.
“What we are facing is the following conundrum: through the efforts of decolonial, feminist, and queer theory and practice, more and more people consider, say, racism, to be unjust and simply wrong, but are nonetheless still racist!” writes Simon Sheikh.
Some artists took Barthes’ famous line “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author,” and ran away with it; it’s time we slow down, rewind and ask the death of which author for the birth of which reader?”
“We cannot conflate the history of ideas with white men, though if doing one, leads to the other then we are being taught where ideas are assumed to originate. Seminal: how ideas are assumed to originate from male bodies.”—Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life
“The activists and the representatives of the new objectivity can wave their arms as much as they please: they cannot do away with the fact that even the proletarianization of an intellectual almost never makes a proletarian. Why? because, in the form of his culture, the bourgeois class gave him a means of production which, on the basis of the privilege of culture, makes him solidary with it, and even moreso it with him. It is thus completely correct when Aragon, in another connection declares: ‘The revolutionary intellectual appears, first and foremost as a traitor to his class of origin.’ This betrayal consists, in the case of the writer in behaviour which changes him from a reproducer of the apparatus of production into an engineer who sees his task as the effort of adapting that apparatus to the aims of the proletarian revolution. That is an indirect, mediated effectiveness, but it does free the intellectual from that merely destructive task to which Maublanc and many comrades believe they must limit themselves. Does he succeed in furthering the socialization of the intellectual means of production? Does he see a way for the intellectual worker to organize the process of production.”
Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”
Many of you have been kind to consider contemptorary as a “visionary” project, congratulating us for addressing the “most urgent” issues of our time. But times have been consistently troubled, friends, just like AMERICA HAS NEVER BEEN GREAT SINCE 1492! The urgency is for the true understanding of the need to hear the voices that we try to listen to in contemptorary art as well as other parts of humanities, beyond the neoliberal, institutional notions of “inclusion,” “inclusivity,” “diversity” and so forth.
We need to gut this shit out and rebuild its foundations in ways that addresses the everyday colonialist practices that we close our eyes to, that we approve of under labels such as conceptualism: the racist appropriation that is given a platform, the all white crews (AWC) we shrug our shoulders to, the land artist that’s commissioned to not acknowledge stealth as the basis of his project, the European white man who camps for two weeks with the Peshmerga in Mosul and writes diary entries that sound like they’re out of a J.M. Coetzee novel, to then represent the war-torn country in its pavilion at the biennale; the war-tourism, the refugee exhibition without refugees, the Muslim-ban panel without Muslims. “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard,” Arundhati Roy reminds us.
At contemptorary we aspire towards Ahmed’s concept of sweating, “by trying to describe something that is difficult, that resists being fully comprehended in the present… to build theory from description of where I was in the world, to build theory from description of not being accommodated by a world.”
“…sweaty concepts that come out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world. By this I mean description as angle or point of view: a description of how it feels not to be at home in the world, or a description of the world from the point of view of not being at home in it.”
This is the too well familiar crisis of our time, of all times, and until we address the foundations of how our knowledge is formed and disseminated, we are not going to be equipped with the skills and techniques necessary to criticize our education, art, cultural production and its reception:
the physical eye,
“the inner eye”
and the “looked at,” yet
*This piece was originally presented as part of contemptorary lecture, “When Tragedies and Farce Reappears: Letters to our Ancestors” in February 2017. Thanks to Lisa Vinebaum for organizing “UNSETTLING THE CANON: Decentering Dominant Paradigms / Decolonizing Art Education” and inviting us to be a part of it at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.