Teaching and Talking about Art and Performance in Unpresidented Times

8.3 / Art can’t do anything if we don’t.

Teaching and Talking about Art and Performance in Unpresidented Times

By Thea Quiray Tagle March 23, 2017

(some thoughts for other instructors and artists)

my sister
when will it come finally clear
in the rockets’ red glare
my sister
after the ceremonial guns salute the ceremonial rifles
saluting the ceremonial cannons that burst forth a choking
smoke to celebrate murder
will it be clear
in that red that bloody red glare
my sister
that glare of murder and atrocity/atrocities
of power
strangling every program
to protect and feed and educate and heal and house
the people

(talking about us/you and me talking
about us)

—June Jordan, “Poem to My Sister, Ethel Ennis, Who Sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the Second Inauguration of Richard Milhous Nixon, January 20, 1973”

Listen to Black women. Listen to women of color. Listen to indigenous communities. Listen to queer and trans people, especially QTPOC.  These are the things, above all else, that I want my students to learn, in the art schools where I’ve been one of the few instructors of color, in “diversity” classes at the public university I teach at now. Listen. Look. Learn.

This is a seemingly unprecedented time of crisis in the United States—unprecedented, that is, if you have not been listening to or looking at the lives, art, and political actions waged by Black women, women of color, indigenous people, queer and trans folks. June Jordan wrote the above poem in 1973. Sojourner asked “Ain’t I A Woman?” in 1851. We have not been listening, we have not been looking, if we are only now feeling under siege. The youth may be forgiven their ignorance, but if you are an artist or instructor who has been around the block, what is your excuse?

Less blame. Let’s look and listen, together, for a moment.

My formal education in art history in the early 2000s did not include Black women, women of color, indigenous people, or queer people of color (and this hasn’t changed as much since then as we like to believe that it has). I remember the first time I saw Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) in a dusty textbook (this was not a class assignment). In this image was a world—a portal to a Black and Southern genealogy of assemblage, a genre of making art from scrap and consumer detritus that was not routed through Duchamp, Rauschenberg, and those wacky (and White) guys. I remember walking past Gran Fury and Keith Haring billboards on the streets of 1980s New York. I was too young to understand AIDS, but the colors made me smile. In college, I found Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s curtains, and clocks, and piles of candy. “Social practice” was not yet a buzzword. But there was a flicker of loss that I could not name but I could feel, and again, the colors made me smile.

These artists shaped my desire to look, to learn, about the histories of American violence and the collective modes of survival that oppressed people have taken. In this task I was self-taught, until I was not. I came, alone, to Black nationalism through Tarika Lewis’s and Emory Douglas’s illustrations for The Black Panther. I connected to the Philippines’ People Power Revolution and its women’s movement in the pages of Ninotchka Rosca and in organizing with GABRIELA Network. I heard revolution in Fela Kuti’s voice, within A Grain of Sand, on weird 45s of punk and reggae bands I will never remember the names of. These moments, I know, are quite mundane. But I also know that not everyone has the same access to looking, to listening, to learning in these ways; these origin stories of finding queer art, Brown art, Black art, Native art may not be unique, but they are far from universal.

Lola Remedios Felias. Lola’s Quilt, 2016 (detail); inkjet prints. Photo: Johanna Poethig.

I am not old, but my students are younger, and further estranged from other times and places of radical, feminist, queer, and decolonial struggle. They may not even know where to begin to look, to read, to listen. If we, as their teachers, didn’t get this education in classrooms ourselves, how do we learn how to pass it on? What genealogies and trajectories of artmaking do we tell in our roles as art historians, cultural critics, and teaching artists?1

I do not offer answers to these questions here. Only some examples, some knowledge, some insights gained from my life inhabiting this body and my work done inside and outside the classroom walls. You may leave with more questions. Good. May we work as educators and artists to finding out, together.

I. We Are Not Missing From Your (Art) History. You Are Just Telling The Story Badly.

 I am invited to speak, but only when I speak my pain. Instead, I speak of desire. Desire is a refusal to trade in damage; desire is an antidote, a medicine to damage narratives… Desire, in its making and remaking, bounds into the past as it stretches into the future. It is productive, it makes itself, and in making itself, it makes reality.

—Eve Tuck and C. Ree, “A Glossary of Haunting” (2013)

In our rush to find new “political art” for these times, why don’t we also look to those who have been resisting this whole time? My desire in the classroom is not to say that women, people of color, or queer people have been ignored in the art world or in genealogies of politics or art; I am not interested in only narrating us as damaged, as invisible or as lacking. My desire, instead, is to elevate and make central the communities and the artists who have already been doing the work. It looks a little something like this.

Women have long been weaving their stories onto their bodies, in their clothes and throughout their homes, as hidden transcripts of resistance.2 Back to Betye Saar—I had not much thought of my grandmother’s crafts as art until Saar’s work opened me to Black Southern folk art and, later, to the women of Gee’s Bend. Just as those crafted items have dual functional and artistic value, so too have recent works by Bay Area women artists woven together the practical with the beautiful.

Indira Allegra combines textiles, text, and video in her Blackout series. In these mosaics are redacted and rescripted statements of grieving families, their loved ones lost to police violence. Skeins of serge twill threaten to bar their words from visibility (again); this material is not from the comforting grandma’s quilt, but from the uniforms of the police forces that have taken breath from young Black men, young transwomen of color, throughout the United States.

Johanna Poethig. Songs for Women Living With War, 2016. Courtesy of the Artist.

Johanna Poethig, multidisciplinary artist and curator of the recent Songs for Woman Living With War at Oakland’s ProArts Gallery, elevated the woman’s hand throughout this show. Lola’s Quilt (2016) was precisely that—details of a quilt stitched by Remedios Felias, with harrowing depictions of her capture at the age of 14 by the Japanese military occupying the Philippines during WWII. Her experience as a “comfort woman” is rendered expertly, the aged hand steady as a material evidence of surviving sexual violence.3

Poethig’s own Bahay Ni Lola (2016), a large installation/prototype memorial and anti-war monument, filled the center of the space—a collaborative, multimedia endeavor in the shape of a three-walled domestic structure. One wall, woven as a banig (Filipino grass mat), was draped with incomplete stories from multiple women, sourced from writer M. Evelina Galang’s interviews with the surviving Lolas. Recordings by composer Anne Perez wove together voices to create a “living sonic space,” and at the closing event, musician/composer Theresa Wong led a “sounding,” an indescribable collective wail that blended together human voice, nature sounds, and sounds of war.4 Recovering this strategy—of (re)constructing from scrap, creating practical items that also unveil sublimated knowledge—is not only a way of living sustainably, but an insurgent act of survivance.

II. Sublimated Knowledges Need to Be Surfaced

We, the women here, take a trip back into the self, travel to the deep core of our roots to discover and reclaim our colored souls, our rituals, our religion…The vision of our spirituality provides us with no trap door solution, no escape hatch tempting us to ‘transcend’ our struggle. We must act in the everyday world. Words are not enough. We must perform visible and public acts that may make us more vulnerable to the very oppressions we are fighting against.

But, our vulnerability can be the source of our power—if we use it…

Hand in Hand, we brew and forge a revolution.

—Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981)

How powerful is a public ceremony of forgiveness, led by Lakota elders at Standing Rock over the military veterans who have fought wars against indigenous people in the U.S. and in other global wars on terror stretching centuries? How is this not performance art?

Beyoncé wears the yellow of Oshun in Lemonade and on the Grammys and the world takes notice (even my students who know nothing of syncretic religions). She is not the only one bringing subterranean knowledges to the surface but is perhaps the most visible. Sublimated knowledge is feminized knowledge; these are ways of being in the world that have been deemed by psychoanalysts as “hysterical,” by missionaries as heretical, by Drumpists as legislatable into non-existence. There are witches calling for a global, collective hexing of DT on February 24, and while the spell may have some holes, the impetus behind it is no joke. Living outside of Christian time and order brings violence upon your body, if you are colonized, if you are enslaved, if you are a body that has a womb. Witches of all kinds resist this erasure.

The best art I have seen since J20 came through a Facebook post. I download the file my friend has attached to her Facebook status and hope I’m not about to unleash a virus: YOUWILLNOTWIN.PDF. In these pages, all caps and unfurling, are the words of an anonymous group calling themselves the Yerbamala Collective. They exhort us to DESTROY YOUR OWN CHAINS//WRITE WITH ONE GOAL: DESTROY FASCISM WITH POETIC WITCHCRAFT. In their one page missives are calls to solidarity, overthrowing capitalism, and a politics of refusal—a refusal to submit, to normalize this presidency. They incessantly remind the reader of indigenous genocide and of corporate greed that has fueled the destruction of this land. They also, like all good witches, refuse to die: “FASCIST / AMERICA IS/ THE TERROR / THAT ALWAYS/ WAS AND THE / TERROR THAT / HAS NEVER / BEEN.” This knowledge, zipped through Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, takes advantage of social media to do what all kinds of sublimated and syncretic, feminized and buried knowledges have done—persist and reproduce through word of mouth, through orality and virality. Recovering these buried knowledges and giving them space and light to proliferate—as instructors of art and social change, what better can we do but this?

III. Re-taking Space Is/As Performance Art

WE WON’T MOVE.

—Slogan for the movement to save the International Hotel, 1968-1977

Image from the International Hotel anti-eviction movement. Nikki Arai, "Title unknown," in UC Santa Barbara Library Digital Collections, Item #4830, accessed February 24, 2017, http://digital.library.ucsb.edu/items/show/4830.

Occupying space was done long before Occupy. Taking up and remaking space into one that can be hospitable to Black life, queer life, indigenous life is a gesture of decolonization—a performative act of reclamation for the displaced. The Bay Area has perfected this gesture: The International Hotel—a ten-year long battle for a single-occupancy residential hotel for elderly Filipino and Chinese laborers to spend their final days and the forebear to San Francisco’s ongoing anti-eviction battles.5 The reoccupation of Alcatraz Island. The BART blockades, highway takeovers, port stoppages by Black Lives Matter, pro-Palestine, and anti-capitalist organizers. Clarion Alley and Rigo 23’s walls. More recently—the thousands flooding into SFO, stopping business as usual.  

Performance Studies scholars like Diana Taylor write of the power of repetition in gesture, the embodied archive holding memories that colonial regimes and other despots try to erase from the written archive.6 If the aforementioned actions stop becoming spectacular, one-off eruptions and become part of our daily repertoires of resistance, how might this create real change? We only have to look at the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo to see the power of this as both endurance art and material action.

IV. New Media Literacy Education Trumps All Else*

Projection on exterior of Oakland Police Department headquarters, fall 2016. Courtesy of DISCLOSE.

Dispensing with the poetics for a moment, I am deadly serious when I say that if nothing else, all educators should be leading media literacy workshops in every single class that we teach. This predates the crisis over “fake news” drummed up by this current administration. College-age and younger students have grown up in a wired world, immersed in an internet saturated with images, advertisements, and misinformation. Yet even the savviest may not know that the The Onion is a satire site. Teaching The Society of the Spectacle and Stuart Hall’s lectures on representation are not enough. If new media, mass media, and social media are not in your instructional wheelhouse or part of your artistic practice, find a librarian, journalist, or video producer who can lead a media literacy workshop. Never assume that your students—or you, for that matter—know how to decode what passes for information exchange on the internet.

Beyond gaining skills in reading the news, students of all backgrounds and creative proclivities (or, without such desires) should be given opportunities to manipulate and repurpose mass media. Subvertisements (subversive advertisements) are a production-based assignment given by Azin Seraj, new media artist, to her students at UC Berkeley. With such video skills, students can move onto guerilla projections, or to video-based arts and activism campaigns, such as those of DISCLOSE, a Bay Area collective of queer artists committed to addressing sexual violence and of which Seraj participates as a core collaborator.

*Forgive the terrible pun. I am sorry.

V. You Are Not Alone. We Cannot Do This Alone.

For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call America, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson—that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings. And neither were most of you here today, Black or not. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.

—Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” (1977)

The art world (as in academia, as under capitalism) thrives on egotism and the myth of individual “expertise.” To work in collective, to proclaim a political stance; this is conflated with being didactic, with not making pure art. These conversations pitting art against politics get boring after a while, don’t they? What would happen if we bracketed these conversations, and committed to making new work collaboratively with those less “expert” in knowledge or less “trained” in a craft than ourselves?

Last fall, performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali taught a course at our home institution, the University of Washington Bothell, titled “Arts in Context: Contemporary ‘Muslim’ Artists.” One third of the 43 students were Muslim. Over the course of three class sessions, the students developed a final project they called “Shoulder to Shoulder,” a mannequin challenge against the rising Islamophobia they have witnessed and some have personally experienced since the election. UWB students, by and large, do not identify themselves as artists or as aspiring artists; with the art history and bodily exercises facilitated by Ali, they inhabited, however ephemerally, that vaunted persona of socially engaged artist. More importantly, they made a piece that challenged their own notions of what they were capable of accomplishing, as individuals and as a collective. This is the point of all political organizing: getting the people together!

For those teaching art and social change in the ongoing aftermath of this election—thank you. For those joining political actions and using arts as a platform for the first time— fantastic. In all of these endeavors, consider your politics of citation: who you turn to and give credit for as sources of artistic and intellectual expertise.7 If you leave this space with something, may it be this: Listen to women of color. Indigenous people. Black women. Queer and trans people of color. We have been here the whole time. We have resisted previously unprecedented times of crisis. Many of us, though not all of us, have survived. Listen. Look. Learn. Then, teach.

Notes

  1. Note that women of color (myself included) are overrepresented in adjunct and non-tenure track faculty positions in higher education, even as we hold the same or greater qualifications as our tenure-track colleagues. Art schools and art programs are some of the worst offenders in deepening the adjunct crisis. It is difficult to truly diversify histories and practices of art-making and forms of knowledge-making without continuity of instruction or job security with benefits.
  2. For more on “hidden transcripts,” see James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).
  3. “Lolas” is the Filipino word for “grandmother” and is also the euphemism for the surviving Filipina comfort women from World War II.
  4. From conversation with Johanna Poethig, February 20, 2017.
  5. James Sobredo, “From Manila Bay to Daly City: Filipinos in San Francisco” in Reclaiming San Francisco: History Politics, and Culture (San Francisco: City Lights, 1998).
  6. Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2003).
  7. This essay is nothing if not a political/poetical act of citation. 

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