[-empyre-] empyre post

McIntosh, David (Academic) dmcintosh at faculty.ocadu.ca
Thu Nov 21 01:58:30 EST 2013

Hi all, I’ve been following the posts for a few weeks now, and have found the range of perspectives intriguing. I hope my contribution extends the context for considering the terms under debate. As has been pointed out in other posts, working across the various visual, political, economic, academic, gender, race, representational regimes that underpin each of the terms – documentary, activism, art, digital technology – is complex and fraught. I’m not the least bit surprised to learn that Selmin and others have encountered hostility when attempting to merge these seemingly separate regimes that have a range of self-interests attached. I recently attended an “artivism” conference in Buenos Aires, where I have lived and worked part-time for almost 15 years. I use quotes around “artivism” as I haven’t and am not likely to accept it as part of my vocabulary. First of all, it has limited meaning, especially in the context of this debate where we are attempting to read across a wider set of terms than just the binary of art and activism; it doesn’t encompass documentary or digital technology in any substantive way. Secondly, it is linguistically clunky, not unlike “glocal,” a truly painful effort at attempting to think global and local simultaneously; mercifully this latter word has disappeared. I am not suggesting that terms must remain separate, nor that terminology must remain static and tied inevitably to its etymology and usage. Quite the contrary, I consider terms like “artivism” as foreclosing more extended network thinking that could produce more extensive change in all the terms/nodes comprising the network. Paraphrasing Latour, networks are simultaneously real like nature, narrated like discourse and collective like the society. It is this extended chain of simultaneities that proliferates hybrid boundary objects that challenge existing regimes. It is the modernist process of purification that shuts down network thinking and defines once simultaneously conjured network elements as incommensurate.

Back to the “artivism” conference in Buenos Aires. Most of the six presentations were relevant enough, with one in particular provoking an extended chain of thought. GRaFiTi  http://www.escritosenlacalle.com   is a geo-located graffiti website, where users load photographic and other content, but it has limited memory; it only goes back to 2009, when the website started. As the creators of the site were presenting their work, I slid back in time to my memories of 2001 in Buenos Aires, when the ultra-neo-liberal economy had completely collapsed and demonetarized, the state collapsed and began murdering protesters, and finally the people won, organizing themselves into a range of local popular assemblies, completely autonomous self-determining bodies, that unleashed individual and collective agency to rapidly and effectively build and manage local networks of the real, the narrated and the collective. The popular assembly movement also underpinned a wide range of art movements integral to the functioning of the network, notably graffiti and stencil art works that denounced, commemorated, documented, communicated, instructed, provoked, imagined. (As much as I would like to offer a link to a website where the 2001 stencil art could is archived, not possible, doesn’t exist.) The difference between the Buenos Aires graffiti of 2001 and of 2013 was startling and almost absolute. Has the post-2001 return of the Argentinean state and a neo-liberal economy, albeit in modified form, completely elided 2001 radical embodied popular action and art in favour of an ever-expanding digital archive of graffiti “selfies”? Actually, the two periods are linked; the latter wouldn’t exist without the former. The issue raised here for me is the matter of network thinking over time, sequenciation if you will; networks are not static constructions but rapidly changing, constant producers of hybrids. The diachronic dimension is crucial here, as is immediate local context, a concept articulated by other posters. “What is at stake?” is a question that must always be posed when considering the network structures over time.

In terms of the relationship between art and activism/politics, I get a “Groundhog Day” feeling reading some recent posts here, posts that tend more toward purification than proliferation. As a counterpoint, some relevant examples of historical practices that have successfully integrated art and activism have been provided in other posts, which have mitigated my déjà vu all over again moments with the discussion. I offer another example, a lived experience in my case, of the shifting relationship between art and activism that may also help to move this element of the discussion forward. In 1987, after several years of media constructions of “gay plague” and vicious homophobia, complete government and medical establishment inaction, and thousands upon thousands of deaths of gay men, a horizontal network of self-organizing, self-determining forces coalesced to fight for education and treatment for people with HIV/AIDS. I chose 1987 as the date to locate this example of a sutured art/activism network for a number of reasons, notably it marks the publication of the special October issue edited by Douglas Crimp titled “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism.” Here is a link to Crimp’s opening chapter: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic868218.files/Crimp_1987.pdf
What was at stake in this instance is made patently clear by Crimp. The massive mobilization, lead by primarily by artists, demonstrated that art can and does save lives. And it was in the midst of this massive mobilization, perhaps an early instantiation of Negri’s “multitude,” that many artists produced their work, artists who died of AIDS yet still remain part of contemporary art discourse, including David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring and 2 of the 3 members of General Idea, to name just a few. Admittedly, this historical example addresses concerns with documentary only obliquely, and doesn’t address digital technology as it didn’t exist in any substantive way at the time. But my intent in offering this experience is to lay a clear groundwork for the relationship between art and activism. Considering this crucial network moment in diachronic terms, clearly the HIV/AIDS crisis is not over, but what is now history conditions how many contemporary artists and queer folk perceive their collective past, their inheritance as it were. One notable and recent instance of a very meaningful diachronic consideration of this history is the exhibition “Coming After” curated by Jon Davies for the Power Plant in Toronto. The exhibition “does not focus on those artists who were, as artist Christian Holstad succinctly put it, “burying their dead” at that time, but instead those who grew up in the shadow of the crisis, whether by fate or by choice. Their work evidences a sense of having come after or missed out on something. The potential represented by both very recent and more faraway radical (queer) historical moments is both an open wound and a fount of inspiration. What was lost along the way from then to now?” http://www.thepowerplant.org/Shop/Publications/Publications-by-The-Power-Plant/Coming-After.aspx

There are many relevant and instructive historical moments of art, activism, digital technology and documentary intersecting in proliferating networks, from the 1994 EZLN revolution in Chiapas to magazines such as Mondo 2000 (1989-1998) and Neural (still publishing http://neural.it ).  I’ll try to address these concerns in my creative practice in coming posts.

David McIntosh PhD
Associate Professor
OCAD University
Toronto Canada
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