virtually one, actually the other

People who make art - and think about it and comment on it - for a living, frequently engage in a continuous, elaborate, life-long performance, signifying the value of their product.

In order to assess artwork, public and establishment also rely on external indicators of value: critical writing, media coverage in general, other demonstrations of commercial and professional acuity. Very few people are willing to make a value judgement without relying on a clue or two from external indicators. Hence the power of advertising, and perhaps also the difficulty of talent from an unexpected source to break into an established system.

Given that you've written, as I understand it, in part about the performative aspect of maintaining an online presence, can you think of ways in which the performic element of presentation on the web might work against the Calling artists? Against the project as a whole? Or how it might work to their advantage?


I remember the first time I read I Write What I Like by Steve Biko, Apartheid was still in place, quarters were clearly set. Everything, with good reason, was livid to me. I was dismayed, stunned, and inspired by his testament. It was a moment when the realisation dawned that there can truly be more to life or death, that the determining principle of activity reaches beyond individual desires when it is politicised. By the time I got to 'On Death', the final essay of the book, I was aware there had to be a change in priorities if one wants to achieve anything beyond the much vaunted goals of self interest and compulsive acquisition.

You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you don't care anyway. And your method of death can itself be a politicising thing. So you die in the riots. For a hell of a lot of them, in fact, there's really nothing to lose - almost literally, given the kind of situation that they come from. So if you can overcome the personal fear of death, which is a highly irrational thing, you know, then you're on the way.
Biko, Steve. I Write What I Like

Biko stolidly addressed what to do when confronted with aggressive violence, it is incumbent on the individual to actively respond, to resist. The demand is that the aggressor has to either back down or increase their onslaught which will be equally met. If the restrictive opposition seeks acquiescence, they have to openly and actively restrain all possible responsive retaliation.

"Listen if you guys want to do this your way, you have got to handcuff me and bind my feet together, so that I cannot respond. If you allow me to respond, I'm certainly going to respond. And I'm afraid you may have to kill me in the process even if it's not your intention".
Biko, Steve. Op. Cit.

The power relationships for a reactionary art world are not remotely as oppressive as to set about exterminating 'undesirable' makers, but little is done to encourage aspirations and production beyond publicity. The eventual absorption and co-option of the occasional outsider does not make up for the soul-destroying experiences of the majority either. The often made claim that restrictions/limitations are imagined have a remote chance of being true, yet even imagined boundaries have a profound impact on the goals individual artists make. The 'choice' to remain outside the 'mainstream' may not be a choice in the final analysis, but personal limits set as not to confront the embarrassments of rejection.

However the power to control, marginalise, or determine aesthetic production is not constant, and shifts periodically according to artists' ability to resist the demands and strategies of those that seek to exercise their domination over their social and corporeal body. It is however not enough to posit that power shifts and demand that the subject of power merely devise means to effectively resist the evident dominating desires. It is necessary to address the stable conditions which act to give the 'incorporating' impression that resistance is futile - especially in this liberal cultural space that openly discusses power relationships, structural invisibility, and social inequalities.

All this talk of power assumes the possibility of individual freedom, to act in a variety of alternative ways, exists. And that this freedom is being curtailed by the dominating strategies of another (who has the means to enforce their position). Consequently the  heralded ability of resistance is tempered by the knowledge that there is a price for all acts of opposition. It is this fear of swift, if cloaked, reprisals that diminish the ability of the subject to act in their own 'non-disruptive' self interest. The threat of cultural oblivion, like death, is enough to stifle even ardent critics. The counteracting strategy of accepting 'death' as an fundamental option may be the only way forward for artists that are not exhibited, recognised, or written about. Attempt to toe the cultural line by plundering their heritage as a sacrifice to a discourse that has already placed them outside the core of influence is ultimately futile. It is self-marginalisation feigning the price of admission.

The value of alienated artistic production is so intrinsically linked to 'identity' that the artist becomes trapped within systems that appear to support the activation of that identity. Artists eventually become irrevocably bound by what ever that acquired identity is, and once the identity is recognised and commodified, it becomes almost impossible for the artist to exist, other than in their 'accepted' guise. 

The marketable identity of the artist is therefore encouraged. Ease of commodification is now very important in a crowded cultural market, and for the Black artist, race and continental identity which is easiest to sell.  However there are even limits set on the performance of this 'identity': It must not antagonise the economic system that underpins the art market, and in particular duplicitous buying customers. Transgressions will be allowed (even encouraged) apart from questioning the market and attempts to undermine wealth creation. This abeyance will continue until the transgressive activity can itself be made into a marketable product, after all shock and infringement sell.  So representations of sex and sexuality, crime, deviation, or gender are very welcome.  Even abjection and poverty is permissible, but attempts at addressing non-aligned issues of race, alternative politics, and power relationships are still problematic. The prevalent tendency is to 'deliberately' read the 'unapproachable' or 'unrepresentable' in works that are already accepted. This acts to neutralise any attempts to directly confront uncomfortable issues, the implication being that these issues have been dealt with sufficiently within existing work.  An attempt at a direct challenge is seen as bad taste. More significantly, it is seen as work made in bad faith, production to be ignored, as if its goal was to simply antagonise a benevolent system.

Everything starts with a question. Every change follows a question. Questions allow a reconsideration of the familiar, they orientate the mind to new directions, forcing the established nodes of discourse into fruitful disarray. Not knowing the answer is not always the problem, it is that the 'intention' has been misquoted in the question. Questions becomes suspect when one realises that often the purpose of the answer is to normalise the uncomfortable quandary of a self-serving system. Perhaps the ultimate question defies an answer, either because the answer is hidden within the query or that the frame within which the question exists lacks the resources to fashion an answer.

To end as I began:

Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one's master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.

There is a saying of the elders' that goes, "Step from under the eaves and you're a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting." This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.
Tsunetomo, Yamamoto. Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

Biko, Steve
. I Write what I Like The Bowerdean Press, London, 1996 pp152, 153.

Tsunetomo, Yamamoto. Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai Kodansha International, London, 2001 p 164.

back to top