Commentary

These essays introduce the different strands of concern informing the Calling project. They are a way in to thinking about the many different issues thrown up by a project which aims to facilitate the work of Black artists in primarily a digital space.

Part of the power of documentary filmmaker Sorious Samura’s re-presentation of observable, real-world events comes about because he disrupts the privileged point of view that makes detachment from, unconcern with, these events possible. He disrupts the ubiquitous conceptual infrastructure of ‘Us/Them’ that underpins most news reporting in Western media, liberal or not, about the rest of the world. By placing himself within the context of the story on a footing that struggles to achieve some form of equality with - or at least transparency towards - those people whose story is being told, he undercuts the illusion of objectivity that makes distancing easier for the viewer; he confronts the viewer of his documentaries with the knowledge that, given a change in circumstances, they could find themselves in the same position as the people being represented, and would likely react in the same way, feel the same things, suffer the same pain.

The point of view, of belonging and not belonging, of being inside and outside at once, that enables Samura to so effectively translate to the West that part of itself that is not-the-West, is typically shared by artists of non-western heritage, who find themselves simultaneously located within western culture. Journalism has immediate, real-world consequences. What art does is less easy to track. But both contribute to the imaginative network of stories about the world through which we locate ourselves in relation to other people. Those stories determine how we see ourselves, they inform our attitudes and thus our actions. Whoever it is that has power to affect the ways in which things are represented in the communal imaginative spaces of society, “access to the power to signify” (Donna Haraway) exerts huge influence. Representation matters.

The web can function simply as a space for documenting. The work of Tam Joseph is presented here as a reminder that without the work that artists make, there is no superstructure of curators, galleries, or critical analysis. Yet curatorial practice plays a huge role in the development of artist’s work - not to mention the development of their capacity to earn a living - and Eddie Chambers has been and still is a pioneering example of this.

There is an extraordinary tension in what he has written here, between an appreciation of Tam Joseph’s aesthetic and technical skills, and an appreciation of his political engagement. Admiration for the integrity of the artist in making politically and socially relevant statements in his work evokes a corresponding approval of the the fact that Tam Joseph has in fact claimed the space, the freedom, within his practice NOT to do this, not to take on ‘the burden of representation’. This would seem to be a paradox. In fact, for an identifiable group of artists and curators, (including those involved in the Calling project) this tension is a simple fact of life.

Normal process, normal programming, should ensure diversity of making and participation. Self-evidently it does not. Special pleading is hardly the answer. The third essay addresses some of the principles that have informed the Calling project as a whole: that art renews/ remakes the world, and multiplicity is part of that experience ("cultural diversity" describing a commonplace of human relations); and that equality as an ethical aspiration gains plausibility in so far as it's applied, well, equally. Osunwunmi functions in some ways as a personification of the mind behind the residencies - and that she is described almost entirely in terms of the body is not an accident. In the fourth essay, Raimi Gbadamosi considers the strange (or specious) "racelessness" of cyberspace, drawing parallels with a real-life situation in which facelessness, lack of difference, is seen as the price of integration. Which is a price Osunwunmi...really cannot be bothered to pay.

The artists who take part in Calling have not taken up an easy challenge. Their work will take place in the middle of a storm of conflicting and contradictory expectations: individuality v. a representation of commonality, professionalism v. inclusive practice, training v. insight, technological expertise v. the value of a fresh point of view; and formal innovation as an end in itself versus the democratisation of the means of expression. They, the artists, also have to contend with about fifteen years worth of accumulated cyber-mythology, in which race has been an invisible, if pervasive, constituent.

To what extent does the use of digital space or digital technology force a new set of curatorial concerns? Arts practice is intrinsically bound up with imagining alternate possibilities, and with the relationship between imaginative space, and real-world space. This echoes ideas about the juxtaposition of digital, virtual, space to ‘real-world’ space; particularly in examining the virtual world’s relationship to bodily realities, to the body. Another of the valuable insights delivered by Raimi Gbadamosi’s text is that utopian notions of disembodiment associated with the digital context may by default reinforce racist ways of thinking, evoking assumptions embedded in the classical notion of a mind/body split.

Finally, Keith Piper provides here a sly corrective to certain received opinions about digital culture. With deceptive simplicity, he inscribes a new set of metaphors, relationships and stories within digital space; claiming it as a site with great potential, worth contesting. The energising value of what he has done here should not be underestimated: a slight shift of point of view, and suddenly everything's up for reinterpretation.

In setting up the residencies, Watershed has tried to provide a supportive context for the selected artists. These essays are a part of this, an attempt to make certain areas of concern explicit, easier to grasp. As the process works itself out, as the work is made, displayed and (hopefully) discussed, we will know if we have succeeded, and what we could have done better. (The main purpose of the residencies being that new art gets made.) But the essays exemplify the best that can be hoped for in any attempt to open up dialogue: that "a slight shift in point of view" can equal "revelation".

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