How can artists create a sense of community outside the usual liberal formations—national identity, corporate "creative" urbanism, the bourgeois public sphere? Art after Liberalism addresses this question through readings of works by Manaf Halbouni, Tania Bruguera, Paul Chan, Wolfgang Tillmans, Laura Poitras, and Forensic Architecture, theorizing the role of aesthetics in driving decisive action and building new political worlds. The book concludes with a conversation with Amin Husain and Nitasha Dhillon of MTL+/Decolonize this Place. Read a review in Third Text.
Communing with an artwork is like yielding to a stranger on the dance floor. You succumb to a sense of intrigue and mutuality—perhaps belonging. Then again, perceptions of what is funny, entertaining, or sexy are always weighted with bias, and prejudice has a way of festering in informal and creative spaces. How best to express this contradiction?
In July 2017, on a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I became transfixed by two works, exhibited in counterpoint. The first was Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Blue, which shows a brilliant cobalt field for 79 minutes, accompanied by Jarman’s voice. He would die within a year of its release. The second was Mark Bradford’s 2015 video installation Spiderman.
“Death and Life in Kara Walker’s Public Art Interventions,” Arcade (2021).
Walker’s A Subtlety implied that “participation” and “collaboration” are euphemisms for the forces of collective labor already at work within a capitalist economy—from industrial manufacturing to the kinds of gendered social reproduction that sustain workers’ lives . . . The Katastwóf Karavan, installed in New Orleans in 2018 , divines a related kind of vitality—collective and residual—from the grounds of the city itself.
“Forensic Architecture at the Whitney,” World Records (2020).
How to recognize truth in an era of mass deception? How to even imagine truth as torrents of corrupt data, bogus narrative, and media junk matter crash around us? Forensic Architecture’s Triple-Chaser is an instructive case.
Introduction, World Records, vol. 4 (with Jason Fox) (2020).
Reality is what we make of it—at least in principle. So argued Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher whose brilliant and sometimes troubling ideas frame the essays gathered in World Records, vol. 4. Arendt returned again and again to her core philosophical concern: a common world experienced in the presence of others.
“Toward a Sensory Politics of Place,” ASAP/Journal (2019).
Sensory Ethnography is a new documentary movement that connects the workings of cinema to the dynamic ontologies of space, labor, and environment. Its films are minimally structured, utilizing a raw formalism to immerse audiences in a flux of sound and vision . . . Foreign Parts (2010), directed by Véréna Paravel and J. P. Sniadecki, is an instance of sensory ethnography that embraces language and performance.
“Kara Walker Answers the Urban Question,” Social Text (2018).
This article examines the recruitment of artists as collaborators in corporate gentrification. Minority artists, especially, are called upon to create scenes of humanizing transracial encounter. But some, as Walker has in A Subtlety (2014) and the Ruffneck Constructivists exhibition (2014), choose instead to aggravate differences and summon ugly histories.
“Infrastructure Aesthetics and the Crisis of Migrancy,” Afterimage (2017).
For many people in the metropolitan North, watching television and reading the news naturalizes suppositions about aliens, outsiders, threats, risks. Whether these are panicked, quickly drawn assessments or stylistic representations, they affirm the attitudes and prejudices of American and European audiences against the specter of encroaching difference. How to challenge these representations?
features & commentaries
Tillmans describes the profound sense of freedom he experienced in the early 90s (making £40 per page working for i-D). He was free to realize his agency as an artist—a queer artist—to experiment and to participate, to become a political subject alive in the world. (PDF)
“Visualizing Extraction” (with Rocco Rorandelli), Places Journal (2022).
Photographing a coal-fired power plant can convey its environmental impact—brownfields and runoff, black soot belching into the sky. But what about the people who work in the mine? Or their families?
“Ulrike Ottinger’s Exile Shanghai,” Millennium Film Journal (2022).
While the Shanghai Jews did not pursue political power, as in Israel, they did consort in exclusive spaces governed by European consulates, taking part in an apparatus of colonial settlement that profoundly afflicted their Chinese neighbors. And when the political situation changed, their proximity to European identity meant they could get out. (PDF)
“Pose, Position, Positionality,” Texte zur Kunst (2020).
Craig Owens, the art historian and queer theorist, died of complications from AIDS thirty years ago. He is remembered as a romantic figure of the 1980s theory world, but ultimately came to view his own work as a “continuous self-questioning”: the point was not an “existentialist ‘who am I,’ but an inquiry into the self as constructed and positioned.”
“The Profane Illumination of Adidas,” X-TRA (2020).
As photographs by Micaiah Carter and Wolfgang Tillmans approach a level of abstraction, they transpose everyday commodities into an aesthetic realm of form and light, exceeding simple exposition. But advertising has always relied on the image’s evocation of something (or someone) more, beyond what appears in the frame.
“Ren Hang in the Global City,” Ideas: Journal of the Asia Art Archive (2019).
Ren’s visual signature—flash, high contrast—is continuous with the style of commercial fashion photography and marketing. His photographs seem to invite fetishistic ways of seeing, which structure western engagements with Chinese cultural production even in the contemporary. But the images are not all sheen. Ren’s work discloses the themes of bodily subjection, mental illness, and queer intimacy.
“Decolonizing Design,” Cartha (2018).
In Fall of 2017, New York City witnessed simultaneous protests over space, identity, and knowledge. One concerned the preservation of a Manhattan skyscraper, the other a museum campus and its controversial centerpiece. The protests underscored a link between preservation and expropriation—a connection vital to the legitimacy of design discourse but suppressed in the critical literature.
Banksy has taken the boy and dog out of their johnnypump, recontextualizing them among the artifacts of exploitive urbanism. Basquiat’s own paintings worked through an opposite logic, taking the volatility of the street and displaying it on a gallery wall.
The flattening of queer politics into a field of appropriable referents and their usurpation by the new powers of the Right is of course a concern. So is a related problem—supremacism born of cultural alienation.
Artistic inquiries into the banality of the global need not themselves be banal. They can identify areas of friction to the otherwise seamless and mobile art and design economies, while also illustrating how these creative activities produce the global scale as an intelligible form.
film & exhibition reviews
While Homma’s adoption of the pinhole technique – the earliest form of photography – hints at a certain nostalgia, his work also confronts contemporary image culture, urging us to consider how manipulation and falsehood train our reception of the visible world. Homma shares with all great artists a commitment to the outside as a dimension of human experience.
Pope.L has described a strain of negativity in his work, what he calls “have-not-ness” and “lack worth having”—corollaries, perhaps, to the gaps and excisions in Matta-Clark’s building cuts. His ironic description reminds us that violent practices can also be generative: glimmers of an emergence, or complexity, on the other side of destruction. 52 Walker's press release refers to a “consideration for hope” in the obtuse assortment of works, but what I saw was startlingly pessimistic. (PDF)
Clark has expressed interest in phenomenology and object-encounter. Her film is also an intensely intellectual project, entertaining digressions, developing themes. It includes meditations on Ilya Repin’s They Did Not Expect Him (1884-1888) and on the marvelous, unbounded surface of the Klein Bottle. An accompanying text, read in voiceover by Audrey Wollen, comprises fragments from Sigmund Freud, Jack Spicer, and Agnes Martin (“I am a doorknob”). (PDF)
A series of murals by textile artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, shown in the Polish Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, depicts the lives of the Roma people, the largest ethnic group in Europe. The artist's hope, following the philosopher Silvia Federici, is to "re-enchant the world."
“Ruslan Fedotow's Where Are We Headed?,” Screen Slate (2022).
Perhaps there is an allusion to Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (1993), which depicts the “humble and artless dignity of waiting” (Jonathan Crary’s description) after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But here there is no hope for deliverance. Under capitalism, Moscow has become a center of finance and industry with millions of commuters pouring into the city each morning. They are simply waiting for the next train to work.
Theater, in Brecht’s view, should not be an escape from the hazards of worldly life, but should call attention to them. Zhao is also interested in alienation, but her approach is more intently focused on disrupting cinematic conventions, toying with the semantic structures we have come to expect even from documentaries.
Lacy mounted the Oakland Projects based on a conviction to (in her own words) “leave art,” by asking “whether it was possible for artists to exert a substantive impact on communities.” Ironically, the work showed that such an impact was more than possible, but would not occur in ways the artist intended.