[-empyre-] failure, collaboration, masks

Zach Blas zachblas at gmail.com
Fri May 31 08:15:06 EST 2013

hi again!

i'm glad that renate picked up on failure and its relations to
collaboration. i'm quite interested in failure right now, especially
how it's recently been taken up in queer theoretical works like jack
halberstam's "the queer art of failure." halberstam argues that
failure is a crucial component of queer aesthetics, since queers
having been failing to conform / adhere to various normalizing
impulses for quite some time. halberstam describes failure as a style,
a way of life, for queers. here, queer failure is about realizing the
potential and other possibilities that open when one doesn't attempt
to align with standardized / mainstream notions of success.

being attuned to this kind of failure seems rather crucial when
collaborating because failure is always occurring. the collaborative
process takes its twists, turns, bumps, diversions, and embracing
those moments of failure during the collaborative process is what
pushes the work further (for me, at least). in the mask-making
workshops i've led, the moments of failure have been powerful learning
experiences that help me continue to develop these workshops, almost
more so than when the workshop goes perfectly (but perfectly has never
really happened, of course). i guess what i'm getting at here is that
it's really worth embracing those moments of collaborative failure,
even if they're painful and difficult.

as for the issues of aloneness vs collaboration that ana and renate
have brought up, it seems like these two are never really completely
detached. the longer i am a practicing artist, the more and more i
fully realize just how collaborative art-making is, even if the
project isn't explicitly collaborative--from receiving critique and
feedback, material help / support, finding exhibition sites...the list
can go on and on. even during a collaborative workshop, for example,
the creative constraints mentioned previously could be thought of as
individualized parts that an artist has pre-determined before the
collaborative process begins, so you have both aspects at work here.
i'm not that interested in debating whether collaboration or working
alone is "natural" or not; we all come to that through our specific
social and cultural situatedness. i see no problem with an artist
withdrawing to work alone; i enjoy thinking of that gesture as a
collaboratively antagonistic relation to sociality.

johannes, thanks for your message and questions! i'm really drawn to
the mask as an artist because it resides on a blurry boundary between
practical use and a more utopic/transformative demand: the mask can
aid in practically cloaking oneself from a variety of surveillance
devices, but the mask in protest today--from anonymous and black blocs
to pussy riot solidarity protests and the zapatistas--is also about
positive collective transformation. on this front, the mask is a
utopic refusal to be normatively legible, to be represented by the
state...there is a commonizing impulse at work with the mask. i see it
as a kind of aesthetic, creative, performative exodus that attempts to
imagine an exit out of the current socio-political situation. in this
sense, i find theoretical work on opacity by philsophers like edouard
glissant and nicholas de villier incredibly compelling and useful.
their writing insists on a kind of
ontological/ethical/politica/creative opacity at the individual and
relational levels...and in the midst of global, obsessive drives to
standardize how human presence is calculated, parsed, and interpreted
by technologies like biometrics and gps, theories of opacity seem so
incredibly important and highly needed. also, i'm deeply influenced
and moved by much transgender scholarship on the admission and
regulation of gender by biometrics and surveillance technologies. work
by dean spade and toby beauchamp really expose the violence
transgender people encounter with reductive approaches to identity,
like biometrics. dean spade has a powerful conception of critical
trans resistance that focuses on the idea of transformative justice
that is, again, more utopic and impractical, such as prison abolition.
but taking such a stance is critical, and i hope the masks i am
collectively developing in these workshops are gesturing toward such
transformative visions.

but you are right, johannes, you can't wear this mask when you're at a
border checkpoint--a location where you would absolutely want to. so
as an artwork, it's important for the mask workshops to help everyone
involved envision and construct a utopic proposition that blurs the
relations of practicalities and utopic--perhaps "impossible"--demands.
you might think of something like theatre of the oppressed workshops
here as a correlation. the interventions we perform are more
speculative and creative--but they are certainly real, public, and
create tangible disturbances.

there are several groups of people / organizations that i want to do
these workshops with, and undocumented persons are important to
include. but such things take time, as i begin by developing
relationships with people instead of just cold-calling them about a

one element of this workshop that has actually been a struggle is
color! the masks are always 1 solid color (those creative constraints,
again!). but if the masks are about getting out of the normative traps
of identity by collectivizing, using colors like black, yellow, and
white become troublesome because the masks can be reduced to
blackface, yellowface, whiteface. this is an on-going issue that is
always addressed in the workshops, and we try to decide on color
collectively. but i am still searching for a creative constraint that
can offer a way to work with color sustainably, throughout many

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