by Nato Thompson
It is apparent that the current art historical language is collapsing rather quickly. In the wake of this collapse, I am hoping thatThe Journal of Aesthetics and Protestcan be a vehicle for developing a more resistant, useful set of terms. Not simply because creating something new is always fun, but to be frank, given the current political climate, it is important that we get our shit together.
At the suggestion of the wonderful editors, I would like to say a few things about why on earth a glossary of resistant visual culture should matter. Initially I figured such a thing was obvious, but come to think of it, it isn’t obvious at all. Resistant visual culture is not about art or traditional activism. It is a method for building a real, living culture. As opposed to a vocation or sentimental pursuit, I think of this field as a way to productively communicate amongst those who are dedicated to social change. It is not about further investigating art history nor about tactics for getting into galleries. If this sounds naively vague that is on purpose. I don’t think we need to be specific and I believe that even a simple analysis of capital and control should be enough to bind a lot of disparate people together. These terms are methods for finding more effective ways to do this.
What follows are a series of terms that I have found many“rads”using.
I introduce them in the hopes they lead to more productive discussions.
A. Visual Culture
B. Criticality (Ambiguity)
D. Infrastructures of Resonance
E. Material Consequences
Visual Culture is the study of the hypervisuality of contemporary everyday life and its genealogies. Given the‘weaponizing’of the visual during the recent Iraq War and the ongoing—and televised—iconoclasm of certain terrorist groups, I don’t think there’s any danger of it becoming a complacent field in the near future!
Increasingly I hear the term visual culture used to describe the visual
landscape. As opposed to the term“art”(which has connotations
of a static field of study), the term visual culture implicitly suggests
that vision is a socially constructed
phenomenon. This small shift is an important semiotic maneuver because it allows us to consider the broad and increasing spectrum of visuality including television, film, advertising, fashion, urbanity, various cultural affinities, etc. as source material for visual strategies. In this regard, aesthetics must be positioned within a field of gender, race, class, and sexuality. Instead of discussing whether aesthetics are“good”or“bad”, we can critique projects based on their position and reception. What type of transformative effect do these projects have? The question is not“is it art”, but more importantly,“what does it do?”
What does it mean to ask,“What does a project do?”That is to say, what effects are we interested in producing? There are plenty of answers to this, but I suspect from the position of protest or politics, we would ask that it reposition the viewer’s relationship to power. It should produce“criticality”. To use the language of Bertolt Brecht,“We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself.”Of course, the methods to achieve this vary greatly and their effectiveness are not at all agreed on. I do not want to give the misleading impression that the question of what a project does is an easy one to answer. In fact, it is the total lack of classically defined utility that tends to be the signpost for most things arty. We must be careful about the methods we use to answer this question. Ambiguity can still retain utility, but it must enlist the support of imagination, pedagogy, and desire. However, asking what a project does is a good place to begin a discussion of aesthetics and a debate on these grounds can be illuminating.
What inevitably accompanies this shift in emphasis toward the transformation of the viewer is the shift toward radical education. That is to say, once we begin to discuss the role of aesthetics as it applies to a relationship of pedagogy, then it makes sense to look into the theoretical foundations of schools of thought that have been researching this for a long time. Radical education has antecedents in the writings of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire and the more recent writings of Henry Giroux. I do not actually know that much about this material, but I suspect that in considering whether a project produces criticality, this line of flight could prove instructive.
strategies/strátijeez/ n. pl. 1. the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships that become possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated.
tactics/táktiks/ n. pl. 1. operates in isolated
actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of“opportunities and depends
on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its
winnings build up its own position, and plan raids.”“In short, the tactic is the art of the weak.”
The borrowed terms above are from the writings of Michelle De Certeau and they tend to come up quite frequently. With a whole genre now calling itself“tactical media”and many radicals using this language, it is instructive to look at them a little more carefully. Tactics, as the definition states above, are a sort of trespassing, and in the theory of De Certeau they are ways for people to develop meaning in the face of an overwhelmingly pre-determined situation. Strategies are the work of those in power. For radicals it should be of no surprise that they are constantly considering their work in the light of tactics. They are forever trespassing, and using the dominant landscape as a necessary dancing partner. However, for those like De Certeau and many Gilles Deleuze-inspired anarchists, tactics seem to suffice. The problem with accepting this sensibility is that it can lead to fairly privileged forms of resistance, like slacking at work or taking a meandering walk home. I am a fan of these more benign tactics, but not convinced they lead to anything but personal therapy.
Strategies are of course, rarely discussed and if they are, you can guarantee that someone will accuse the person of both hubris and attempting to produce dangerous ideologies. The idea of a revolutionary agenda or an attempt to gain a chunk of the dominant landscape never appears viable or promising. And so, tactics remain the de facto game in town. However, to use an example of someone operating in the field of strategies, the filmmaker Michael Moore has most assuredly broken out of the tactics category. His films win academy awards; his books are on the New York Times best seller’s list. The same goes for Noam Chomsky. I mention them because I think their desire and ability to operate in the field of strategies has been effective and instructive.
Of course, not everyone can operate in the realm of strategies. The point of this section on tactics and strategies is to demonstrate that the dependence on these two terms seems to create a barren but much needed middle ground. Instead of a polarizing dichotomy, maybe it would be more useful to consider these terms as the two poles of resistant aesthetics. That is to say that a project vacillates in its relationship to power from tactics to strategies. While owning the dominant system may feel impossible, it feels more than a little slackerish to depend on defeat.
Infrastructures of Resonance/infrestrukcherz•ov•rézenens
infrastructure/infrestrukcher/ n. 1. the basic, underlying framework or features of a system of organization. 2. the fundamental facilities serving a country, city or area, as transportation and communication systems, power plants, and roads. 3. the military installations of a country.
In framing questions of aesthetics and politics, it is important that we consider the networked web in which they are operating. That is to say, we cannot detach the position within power that a particular project possesses. No project, in and of itself, will possess all the attributes necessary to make an all-encompassing political statement and/or action. Effectiveness requires a sort of content triage which, when viewed alone, can be complicit with some sort of ineptitude.
Take for example Mathew Barney, whose work I actually enjoy. It’s bizarre, sensual, imaginative, and surreal. However, the fact that the Guggenheim places Barney’sCremasterseries on a pedestal as their magnum opus and that reviewers at theNew York Timespraise Barney as the greatest artist of his generation, strikes me as all too convenient. It is at this point that I smell a rat. For, of course, content-less slippery open-ended material can too easily be consumed by those in power. The work’s inability to resist and its complicity with the conservative tendencies that support the work, make it unpalatable.
While the convenience that comes to artists who want to avoid direct content must be considered, this should not mean dismissal. For we then fall into that old political trap of demanding purely utilitarian forms of visual representation. We should have the right to a qualified beauty without necessarily falling prey to the vultures in power that make money, and prestige off it.
This conundrum rears its head continually. It is particularly acute for a generation growing up during the rise of the culture industry where seductive images abound and we do not possess adequate tools for weeding through them. This crisis in seduction is acute in other media as well: film, television, and music. As a paranoiac generation we are continually asking: who is benefiting from my pleasure?
For the readers ofthe JAP, this conspiracy theory of pleasure will find its most painful and damaging problems in the questions of Radial Chic. We are all too aware that there is a potential war of convenience, jealousy, ego, and efficacy raging for those who utilize the aesthetics of radicality to gain for themselves. As an example, I would like to bring up the work of artist Gregory Green. Green produces bombs, and pirate radio stations. A self-avowed anarchist, he rose to fame throughout the 90s as a radical gadget maker. Of course, no one believes his politics goes any further than his production of objects for his gallery and museum exhibitions. To quote a friend, Josh MacPhee, at length:
I am getting really sick and tired of seeing"radical"artists repackage old-school tactical materials, gut them of any utility, then hold them up as god's gift to activists. A good example of this is the continual reformulation of the pirate radio as a radical art object. Gag me. I'm sick and tired of seeing valuable transmitting equipment sit in a nice shiny new box or backpack in a gallery, when folks like the Campesino Radio Project in Chicago have spent the last 3 or 4 years smuggling transmitters into a good half dozen contested areas in Latin America (Chiapas, Peru, indiginous communities in Ecuador, etc) and setting up radio stations that people actually use in struggles to carve out autonomy and justice in their daily lives.
These suspicions of intent can find their ultimate source of antagonism with those closest to us when we see their social capital increase with their use of our most treasured, radical, forms of resistance. Such antagonisms have destroyed many collectives (like Group Material) and have severed ties within networks. This, in fact, is worthy of a separate essay of its own, but for the purposes of this essay, I would like to bring it full circle and suggest that we consider these problems in light of an infrastructure of resonance.
Infrastructures of resonance are about audience. It is, if one could attempt to measure such a thing, the network of resonance and affiliations a project has. It is something we naturally do, although many times we are more paranoid than analytical. We naturally include a project’s relationship to power when we look at it. For example, when we see a project at the Guggenheim Museum, many of us are immediately suspicious of the projects allegiances and affiliations. Or when we see a television show, we are quite suspicious of the corporate powers and advertising dollars that rake in the cash off our momentary pleasure. We sense an infrastructure in place that further legitimates and perpetuates power. However, if we were to see a project at a community anarchist space, we position that project within a very different infrastructure of resonance. We may excuse its content-less-ness because, of course, we are assured that there is a commitment to radical change elsewhere in that infrastructure. Meaning becomes compensated through its connection to an infrastructure. The infrastructure provides a chorus of intentions that facilitate a more robust interpretative model. To take cue from the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, we must understand the various discursive regimes that set up a particular project.
Perceiving an infrastructure of resonance depends on what position one holds. To go back to the example of Gregory Green and his radical chic bombs, to the average art viewer, this radicalness reads on the same infrastructure of resonance that a project by Indymedia does. The average art viewer at a museum does not differentiate the outside radical commitments of a project’s producers because, of course, how are they supposed to know this type of insider gossip. When radical artists complain to me that so-and-so artist isn’t really down and is only making money off of their radical chic (like Gregory Green), I wonder what the tactics of this complaint are. On a pedagogical level, the effectiveness of Green’s projects are about as effective as most other radical art projects in a museum. On another level, there are those that lambaste any project that comes into a museum because, of course, they suspect it is in cahoots with power. I suspect this is why people prefer“content”in art, because then these networks are disclosed in the work itself. But of course, in the age of Sheppard Fairy and his“Obey”campaign, we are even suspicious of this.
It appears that the problem is more with display models that do not reveal these infrastructures. It is a model of trying to close off projects from their relationships to meaning networks. And it is an important one to consider. I put the notion of infrastructures of resonance out there as a lens to think about display strategies and critical readings. How to interpret work should include its relationship to power.
As a last note on this topic, I would like to propose that the art rads out there (if you are reading this, then this probably means you) develop a more cohesive radical infrastructure.The JAPis a good addition to this emerging network. What a real infrastructure could do is provide a cohesive, real world system to assist radical projects. It could allow some autonomy from the ever so common problem of interpreting work in the mixed field of power. This could be as simple as venues circulating exhibitions, writers providing critical analysis of contemporary radical aesthetics and communities participating in radical politics for social justice. It is something that is desperately needed and would have real material consequences.
It is a word I use in a specific context. I use this term when I am thinking in more overtly agit-prop projects. The question is,“How do I situate this project in a productive situation, a political situation, and a discursive situation. Or, more tactically, how can I position this project as closely to a site of instability in power as possible such that the project has real effects.
We are trying to find our footing after reeling from the tools of post-modernism. While deconstructing most monster narratives has been critical, long-term strategies are showing themselves as necessary (to rehash the discussion in tactics and strategies). In trying to ascertain the difference between post-modern relativism and intransigent modernism, we are developing language to call people’s bluffs. One of these bluff-calling terms is“material consequences.”What are the material consequences of a project? How does it translate into radical action? How does it assist in the broadening of social justice?
These are difficult questions and ones that will never find easy answers. For example, any radical visual project will still have a difficult time winding its way back to material consequences. If we don’t understand how power works, then how are we to gauge whether a project has material consequences?
I don’t know. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider a project’s relationship to its material consequences as best we can. It is a sort of foil that allows us to weed out certain, frivolous cultural studies practices that somehow legitimate projects like deconstructing sitcoms as somehow resistant.
I work at a museum called MASS MoCA. It’s a complicated position for me as I struggle with many political needs and pragmatic constraints. However, I do see the role museums play in the infrastructure of visual culture. They act as a legitimating entity. If we think of knowledge as an infrastructure, with different material agents affecting the way in which knowledge is produced and interpreted, then we can begin to understand the de-facto roles that institutions play within that. In an infrastructure of resonance, a legitimizing agent adds significant weight to the information being interpreted. In a world bombarded with information, we give significant weight to certain filters that we believe have somehow properly sifted through this material and given us the stuff we want. Of course, what is legitimating for one group of people may not be for another. This is obviously the case with the previous example of the Guggenheim and MASS MoCA itself for that matter.
Legitimation is not simply reserved for museums of course. It can come from famous individuals:“Noam Chomsky says,“check out this book!”It can come from friends,“Hey, check out this band.”It can come from magazines,“The JAPgave a favorable review of this conference.”It can come from CNN. And on and on. You get the point. As you might have guessed, some institutions have a larger radius of resonance for their legitimating function than others. And some, outside of those networks, still depend on that dominant system for their own legitimation.”
It would be all too easy to dismiss legitimation as some sort of name-dropping conspiracy, but it has material consequences. I hope it is clear that I am not advocating legitimation from the outside so much as simply saying,“This is how things tend to work. What are we going to do with it?”We can create our own sources of legitimation, we can utilize the ones that exist, or we can attack from both ends of the spectrum. In the end, legitimation can act as a hall pass to larger arrays of social power. The more legitimate, among whatever constituency, the more one increases their radius of resonance. Once again, I like to think of Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky as effectively manipulating their legitimation. (You may not agree with my choice of fabulous legitimators and that is fine. I am simply attempting to find contemporary examples to demonstrate a point.)
Centers for legitimation already exist within the disparate radical infrastructure. Academics like Gayatri Spivak, the recently deceased Edward Said, Saskia Sassen, Angela Davis, Judith Butler are all living vectors of legitimation. In the field of aesthetics and protest, of course, the legitimation begins to shrink quickly. Leftist magazines likeThe Nationcontinue to hold up entirely conservative art as a testament to the cultural status of their readership. On the arty side, one can either choose from the spotty coverage of magazines like Art Papers or be buried in masturbatory academia likeCritical InquiryorOctober. Of course, there are more scrappy spaces and journals that are in cahoots with these projects and going through them is an essay in itself. While micro-cinemas and punk bands appear to have more concrete infrastructures, radical visual culture appears to depend too often on either the dominant system or is isolated in separated pockets across the globe. Tightening these networks and providing our own self-legitimating sectors is critical in providing a radical culture.
I hope these terms might prove to be constructive. I notice that many of the words are developed in order to manage the tensions between an overtly dominant modernism and an all too relativist post-modernism. They also are attempts to position visual resistance within a framework conducive to the rise of the information economy. Using a more specific vocabulary allows us to avoid the boring pitfalls of“is it art?”or“is it political?”. By avoiding these traps to some degree, hopefully we can move towards developing a radical culture that can actually bust apart the dominance of capital and control.