Notes on Visual Activism


Notes on Visual Activism

By Danielle Jackson, Natalie Catasús, Colin Partch, Omar Mismar April 7, 2014

The Visual Activism conference, hosted by SFMOMA at the Brava Theater, March 14-15, 2014, brought together a global assembly of artists, curators and scholars whose work reverberates well beyond the institutional domains of universities and museums. Four visual critics, situated at points radiating out from the auditorium of the Brava Theater, respond to key events and issues. They appear in the following order: Danielle Jackson, Natalie Catasús, Colin Partch and Omar Mismar.

What role does visual activism play in confronting such deep-seated social hegemonies as racism and heteronormativity? What strategies can be deployed to encourage silenced voices to emerge and become catalysts for change and transformation? These questions, two of many addressed through the Visual Activism conference, had particular resonance for me. As artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi put it in her keynote address, "Visual activism is about being and identities. It is an alternative way of agitating using visuals and digital media to convey messages."1

Muholi’s photographic portraits of black lesbian women portray her subjects as beautiful and intimate beings, rather than broken victims of the corrective rape that these individuals face far too often as a consequence of being out in these societies.” By depicting them as community leaders and advocates for social change, Muholi’s portraits empower who they represent while undermining dominant stereotypes.

During the talk, the artist offered glimpses of her ongoing series Faces and Phases, a project that portrays the history and struggles of members in the LGBTI community in South Africa and around the world.  She views the women in her photographs as collaborators who embark on the journey of visual activism alongside her, providing a space for black queer visibility and articulation through text, photography, and video documentation. Muholi showed a documentary that highlighted the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) and detailed the emergence of the black queer activist movement, allowing the audience to hear the voice of women in the community.

In particular, I was struck by Muholi’s affectionate description of Busi Sigasa, the gifted South African poet who inspired Faces and Phases and who died from HIV complications in 2007 at the age of 25. Sigasa’s loss underscores the urgency that animates Faces and Phases and Muholi’s other projects: of the need to create awareness around the experiences, struggles, and brutality faced by their participants on a daily basis. Muholi’s work, along with the still emerging South African queer activist movement it has developed alongside, offers a way for this marginalized community to register its existence, in historical terms, but also to encourage empathy and compassion. The preservation and presentation of an archive is a way to expose these individuals’ stories of existence and opposition while giving the movement they are a part of further context and strength.

Once displaced, exiles can never successfully re-place themselves at the site from which they were separated. As artist Michelle Dizon noted during the "Displacement" panel, “displacement is not only a spatial violence, but also a temporal violence.” Because of the temporal lapse that stretches from the moment of departure, the idea of home no longer occupies the physical space where it originated. The exile can, in effect, never return.

This does not necessarily render exiles powerless, as Trinh T. Minh-ha pointed out in her keynote address. Laying the groundwork for the discussion about the politics of displacement that was to follow, she suggested that power relations equate the visible and the present with power, and the invisible and the absent with subjugation: “The question is not so much to render visible the invisible, an agenda previously dear to the struggle of women and of marginalized people. Rather, the question is how to work with the invisible within the visible.”

This struck a note that resonated with my own diasporic origins, and was a point to which the three other artist–panelists (including Dizon) would return. Rather than address displacement by calling for a return to place, they discussed how their projects created—through various combinations of image and narrative—new spaces that either articulate a different kind of presence or recognize the power of an absence.

Terry Kurgan’s Hotel Yeoville: Public Art/Private Lives (2010) is a participatory public-art project that populates physical and virtual space with personal narratives that offer an alternative to the prevailing public discourse surrounding the immigrants and refugees that have landed in the suburb of Yeoville in Johannesburg, South Africa. The project began with an installation at a library in Yeoville that invited the public into private booths where they could document themselves using an online interface. Natalie Bookchin also shared her efforts to collaborate with a community to start new conversations through multiple narratives. Long Story Short, a work in progress that Bookchin began in 2012, is a web documentary and online story archive that showcases a composite group interview about poverty in California. The interviewees’ voices modulate in volume, allowing for each of their different stories to emerge even as, on occasion, the voices are tracked to speak in unison. Unplanned and inexact, these moments of overlap illustrate how many attributes of these narratives are collectively shared.

Dizon’s Perpetual Peace (2012), an installation work that visits sites in the Philippines that bear marks of the legacies of colonialism, struck me most profoundly. She noted that the work emerged from her birth in diaspora, and the piece conveyed the physical and temporal displacement that arises from this condition. Though the piece has been exhibited in galleries as a video installation, she prefers to perform the narration live in order to evoke the deeply embodied experience it conveys. As she noted, “Place is not something that exists simply outside of our bodies, in the physical landscape that surrounds us, but also, places exist inside of us.”

Dizon’s presentation demonstrated the nuances of displacement: how it can occur with the first and literal sense of forced relocation, but also how it happens across generations in spaces less visibly rooted in a physical location. The loss of the places that exist inside of us, the loss of an idea on which one’s identity hinges, I think, is the mark of displacement’s most harrowing effects. With their emphasis on individual stories, both Kurgan and Bookchin’s projects are very much in conversation with Dizon’s work. Each of the artist–panelists illustrated how the ephemeral internal narratives that emerge from displacement not only shape the perceptions of those displaced, but have the capacity to spark broader social change.

I saw more with my eyes closed. Walking in a line, each person’s arm placed on the body in front, circuiting 24th Street, taking part in Carmen Papalia’s Blind Field Shuttle on Saturday, March 15, we sojourned into the unsighted world. Here was an opportunity to see how perceptive organs are profoundly entwined, such that the visual ceases to exist solely as an array of images and projections, manifesting as a rush of events unique and unstable.

Allow me to step forward. The tour was an invitation; we were not blindfolded. We each took on the responsibility of perceiving the body in front of us without relying on sight. This required intimacy and patience. Being in a chain of connected bodies, the participants become hyper-aware of how their own gait and habits differ from others. One is physically implicated within the nuances of space—how it is plastic, never static, and how perception has no steady ground.

What is a field? If I read visually, in every “sense” of the word—judge, categorize, demarcate, desire—then I read at a magnitude of distance from my surroundings. This is what I have been trained to do. Which is why I found myself at the Visual Activism conference, to learn from thinkers, activists, critics, and academics about how to challenge the primacy of the visual without resorting to didactic tactics. The unsighted experience enabled me to witness the Mission performing its reading of space to me rather than from me.

Following Papalia, I was placing my trust in someone with a different awareness of space. At moments I felt that my body might be ruptured by unsympathetic objects, as if by closing my eyes I opened myself to a world without safety or certainty—or what the world already was. I felt I was following someone who was attuned to a choreography of movement much more accessible and intuitive than I was accustomed to. I was implicated in space.

I tried concentrating on one sense at a time in order to stay the urge to visualize what I thought was around me. Recalling Emily Dickinson: “I could not see to see,” perception being itself and its aftereffects—the perception of perception being that which marks my state of consciousness. I found time to be very difficult to locate, dilated in the absence of the visual cues that I use to perceive duration.

Papalia has described his project as an attempt to “create opportunities to expand and develop perceptual mobility to enrich the experience of place,” disorienting in order to reorient the participant. This experience was a dialogue, with space and with each other as we silently stepped across the dappled sidewalks, the sun mostly a source of warmth. We arrived much sooner and later than I had anticipated, disappointed with the return to vision, opening my eyes away from the world apprehended by the other senses.

Sound travels. In the service of activism, sound often travels as an expression laden with sociopolitical aspirations. Most frequently this takes the form of speech. Combining speech with music has also resulted in the hundreds of protest and resistance songs that have “moved” millions throughout varied histories. For a conference grappling with the visual in activism, Ranu Mukherjee and I decided to focus on the auditory, specifically the piano in the Brava Theater’s lobby.

Our collaboration, Strange Fruit, was part of a series of interventions that the MFA Social Practice Workshop at California College of the Arts was invited to do. We curated a playlist of resistance songs including Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” the Beatles’ “Revolution,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Pianist Grant Levin accompanied vocalist Marissa Katarina Bergmann, who sang the songs in a lounge-style manner during conference lunch breaks and intermissions. This “loungey” approach was a self-reflexive act of détourning songs that have a great weight of history and activism. At the same time, that history was ever present during the conception and performance of the installation.

For example, during the process, Marissa raised a concern about performing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” She had been reading about the song and came across a Wikipedia text that discussed Holiday’s fear of retaliation in performing it at Café Society. Holiday continued to sing it in memory of her father, but under certain self-imposed conditions. These included closing her sets with it, stopping all service at the café, turning off all other lights except for the spot on her face, and not doing an encore. Marissa wanted to respect the song’s rules so as not to dishonor it. Having that song along with the Beatles’s “Revolution” felt “funny,” and the project’s vocalist wondered if she should only sing “Strange Fruit” out of the whole list.

I would argue that acknowledging the song’s history and performing it in relation to that history, even when this relation is antagonistic or divergent, is in fact honoring the song. These concerns were extremely pertinent and they made the project all the more compelling. They underscored a certain “performativity” of resistance, bringing songs of various weights into one set, all to be played as ambient music that was—as I was later told—largely unnoticed by many conference attendees. “Strange Fruit” becomes akin to a number, a routine, where resistance is performed in a rehearsed and tamed manner. It is true that we perform all the time and in all facets of our life, but the nuances of performativity, in relation to its context, are the measure of efficacy. Closer to the time of their release, the songs held the momentum for political expression and mobilization. They were performed back then as well, but in a specific context that nourished and was in turn nourished by them. Decades later, this momentum appears to be mitigated because the context, that spatio-temporal reality, has changed.

The question of the role that such songs play today becomes paramount. Retreating into background music, as a performance hollowed out from resistance and historical charge, is one facet. Another is the rise of the songs to the realm of the “classics,” which despite the implied inertia can be used to provide the necessary repertoire and link in formulating contemporary modes of expression. It is in this tension—of jazzy ambience and valuable precedent—that Strange Fruit resides.

Visual Activism is on view at Brava Theater Center, in

San Francisco

, through March 15, 2014.


  1. All citations are taken from their respective keynote addresses and presentations given at the Visual Activism conference, held March 14-5, 2014 at the Brava Theater in San Francisco.

Comments ShowHide