“Ethnocide: from educational institutions’ ethics to the origins of the artist’s role as socio-polit
‘While entire cultures and livelihoods are wiped off the Earth, the knowledge within them is being spilled out of the global cultural landscape and heritage. As much as the actual local landscape is being destroyed, the men behind corporate oil companies hide in the shadows, oppressing the indigenous peoples into oblivion, leaving spills, obliteration and darkness behind as the trace of the reasons behind murderous displacement.’
Introduction to my research
One of the clarifying points to me occurring post-exhibition of the above film piece, was that the central part of my work is actually oil. Oil is the origin of the problems I am talking about. Oil is the reason behind environmental disasters, economic dictatorship via a disguised democratic oligarchy, war, displacement, ethnocide, ecocide…in sum, the rotten power dynamics I want to denounce. Interestingly enough, I started off my research talking about Geology and ended up using it as a framework, but looking at its natural beauty, not realising its dark side was right in front of me: resources exploration, mining and oil: the very central piece of everything I stand against… I need to turn this framework inside out. I need to use the irony in it, that I was studying the colliding forces of the earth to talk about the collision of knowledge (being the emotional and the scientific realms the colliding forces) to create a new knowledge which would serve humankind (the readers of my bookwork) for the better. Now, I find myself realising that the geological beauty’s counterpart has much to speak for itself when it comes to the reasons why I need to talk about a better world free from this evil product of Geology.
Thus, my new research development is that I am to address the détournement of Geology.
The other issue that is at the core of my work is freedom of speech. Not only the making of my artwork is the ultimate exercise in which I am stating that I have the right to speak out for whatever I feel is right or wrong, but I am also raising awareness about activists, countries and situations in which freedom of speech is not exercised as a consequence of oppressing governments who are intimately linked to war and oil monging. How much can the displaced say? Recently we have had refugees in Calais sewing up their mouths exactly because they felt none of their voices were being heard humanely. And that is only near us, what about Myanmar or Angola? How much are embedded journalists (so called professionals) saying and can we really call it journalism? And how much are they contributing for the amalgamation of the masses in uneducated groups with ultimate manipulation in mind, being themselves manipulated within the manipulative machine?
2. The role of the ethical educator
From ‘Cine-Ethics’ Routledge, 2014
Chapter 4 - Fault lines: Deleuze, Cinema and the ethical landscape – Alasdair King
‘The link between man and the world has been broken. Henceforth, this link must become an object of belief: it is the impossible which can only be restored within a faith. Belief is no longer addressed to a different or transformed world [. . . .] Only belief in the world can reconnect man to what he sees and hears. The cinema must ﬁlm, not the world, but belief in this world, our only link.’ (Giles Deleuze, in Cinema 2: The time image, continuum, 2005, pg 166)
It’s really hard to make people talk about politics. I feel like Visual Arts might not be the right field for me, as I feel alone in the field of believing and standing up for something. And when you a have tutor saying out loud that the movie you made, made them soil, made them feel guilty but that he didn’t care, and rhetorically posing the question: ‘Do we care about the first nations?’ with a clear expectation that that answer would be no, and no one dared to say anything in support of any of the causes I was addressing, it makes me feel that indeed being middle-class and educated as he self-proclaimed, has nothing to do with knowing how to deliver or use the knowledge he acquired. What are our educational institutions educating for? If a semi-anti-ethical discourse is being articulated to an uneducated and unmotivated audience in such fields, this audience is going to lack sufficient knowledge which is key to our generation. Scientists are educating for ethics, why shouldn’t the Arts be? David B. Resnik (‘The Ethics of Science, Routledge, 1998) poses the consequences of not educating ethically in science: ‘If students do not learn how to be ethical scientists, then it should come as no surprise that many of them behave unethically when they pursue careers in science’. ‘There are several reasons why science students need some kind of formal instruction in ethics. First, although a great deal of ethical learning takes place in childhood, evidence from developmental psychology indicates that people continue to learn about ethics and moral reasoning throughout life (Rest 1986). College-age students and other adults can learn to recognise ethical issues, make moral choices in novel situations, and reason about ethics and morality. They can also learn to recognize ethical concepts, theories and principles, they can appreciate different points of view and they can even develop moral virtues. Moreover, some ethical concepts and principles can only be learned by understanding and practising an occupation or profession’.
I say, that it is the duty of the educator not to veer from ethical conversations, let alone, punish art that talks about such issues! I was told then that he was stirring my ideas and provoking me. I would have agreed if my piece hadn’t been successful, but the tutor self-confessed it was, by saying that it did soil him. Which is, and was, the intention of my artwork and this particular piece. I want people to remember the artwork’s visual poetry and feel moved by the reasons I exposed them to these visual heartstring tugs.
Questions like: ‘does the political side of the piece belittle the initial elusiveness?’ are derogatory to the artist’s intention. This question, in order to be of constructive criticism, should have been articulated in another way, with the aim of not reiterating that art shouldn’t be political. The mood was set, the class nodded to the conformism offered. Conversely, John Latham and the APG were mentioned: APG was one of the catalysts to set in motion (arguably) many residencies which contextualised into practice the social aspect of the artist as a profession. However, it was with further structuralism of society in mind, targeting governments and addressing questions of real political dimension, that the group was set up. It was successful until the extent that it was exemplifying new approaches to Art in the UK, which did not involve solely the institution and the government, by turning and making the social principal. This had already been procured by the Situationists in France, and whereas there is no Situationist art per se, there is no denying that the détournement – relevance of the artwork in its time and the wear off in its afterwards, turning of social conditions against themselves to reveal their true character – is an important and still current approach to contemporary art making. Works by Paul McCarthy illustrate this point. The political prank, which is a direct product of the Situationist attitude, has given way to multiple sub genres and it was widely used during the Punk movement of the late 70’s. This is another example of political art. Therefore, denying, to a classroom the political value in detriment of the aesthetic, is of mere personal pettiness and unfortunate ethical value, which poses questions on how qualified of an educator this person is, given the pressing undeniable needs of our current day and social climate.
He was being utterly contradictive though, because one of the best iterations of the day was when he said: ‘nowadays we look at an artist’s product and we don’t think if they’re going to be the next genius or not, we think that it is a product of their social conditions’. This is to admit that the involvement of socialness is paramount to art making. What is more, social conditions are a product of political structures and decision-making. Blind obedience to uncontested decision-making has been proved to be harmful (Milgram’s studies in the 60s et all up until 2009) in cases where the authority at hand is a fallacy. The snow ball effect caused by obeying without thinking, obeying without proactively question, reduces creativity to a sterile, dangerously passive and meaningless activity: where does change come from? From questioning, from being a non-conformist. The whole of the art educational system is based on ‘the role of the artist is to provide questions, not provide answers’ (Lawrence Weiner). When I was interviewed for this Masters, when I was asked to write a proposal, I was asked to pose questions that I need to research to be able to drive my research. How can I not question the people and the system that are making decisions on my behalf everyday, including those who defy all notions of constructive argument?
3. What is proactive questioning as opposed to passive questioning?
When I use such terms, is to differentiate the content dimension of the work. A proactive content, is one that seeks action, change, creation. A passive content is one that allows and accepts what is there already. Transferring these concepts into questioning as an action with intent (within the educational context) we end up with two very distinct results: if we are to question proactively, one is aiming that a student progresses in acquiring solutions for their own causes/research. If we are to question passively, one is promoting discussion. One is assertive and promotes transmission of content, because it takes responsibility for what it says. The other is placid and gives you options without any judgement value; it lets you decide. What if, you are not equipped to decide and you make a fatal decision? The thing is, no one wants to take responsibility and this is the ultimate denial of the capability of human intellect, and we are letting this conscious perish by being dazzled by the contours of a group dynamics which is based on institutional blame shifting: the current hierarchy of the oligarchs are to blame as it made its way in the educational system already. Who is this person in the end? They never have a face. Had they asked a proactive question then they would have a face, but the veil of passiveness complies with this fallacy they argue is freedom of choice.
These discussions have been really helpful though, because it is due to people not being politically minded that I am finding more and more strength to make political statements. I am still an artist however, and I am insistent that my work does not overpass an estimation of 45% politics. It must remain 55% Art. It’s a challenge to be able to quantify something so subjective and uncountable, but that is a criteria of integrity I commit to.
This was verified by much of the audience, I was incredibly happy to bear witness to discussions about how the abstraction lead the path to forgetting the work was of an ethical/political nature and that the visuals were elusive and suggestive. On the other hand, it was mentioned that the music at the end was too dramatic: I was certainly aiming for that, thus I took that ‘too much’ as a positive. Had it not been too much, it wouldn’t have been memorable to the unpolitical mind.
And they will say… what would be of light without darkness? What would be of life without death? To me, the dichotomy of life’s beauty is to me incarnated in the act of becoming, (Giles Deleuze) and for the sake of social pertinence I quote Lavoisier: ‘In nature nothing is created [life], nothing is lost [death], everything changes.’ And I’m sorry folks, but I am a human/natural being, so I too will aim for change. And I live in the here and now, hence my artwork is bond to topical subjects.
4. Art talk and other bookwork
Some other discussions were related to authorship and agency; it was argued that because there was no human interaction the process was mechanical. It was argued that you could see the shadow and the rhythm was not mechanical, so human presence was denoted, as much as through the shaking of the camera. Even if present, the human was invisible. This is another strong allegory to the meaning of this work. The men responsible for destroying the livelihoods of these cultures, thus ethnicities, are invisible to us and are shadows of destruction. The life expectancy of these cultures and peoples are shaky to say the least, and are shaking as I speak. The authorship of this work is alive through the performance of pressing, the opinion stated at the end of the film and the style/aesthetics of cinematography/photography. It was also referred that the film develops a progressive documental aesthetic and this is something I not only agree but also feel that by being recognised was successful, as it was intentional. The presence of the third person was carefully placed via a certain stillness, as if you had a non-participant viewer. The recording eye, watching, passively, gives that dimension, along with the in and out of focus, increasing instability of an increasingly darkening landscape. There is a progression of darkness by the end, and it is when this is realised that the idea of exposure/activism/documentation is attained.
This performative aspect has been manifested in ‘Homage to Tank Man’ as well (http://inesartistaif.wix.com/inesartista#!poetic-activism/ciu0). During this critique, it was posed the question whether this piece was a film or a print piece. Reasons why ‘Homage to Tank Man’ was a print piece are inherent to the military nature of the subject and sculptural adjacent work on freedom of speech. The newspaper is the ultimate symbol of media and anti-media, and in the context of military purposes, the role of propaganda had to be evident in the medium/outcome: a poster, part of a newspaper. On the other hand, the performance was to be documented, but it didn’t need the durational aspect, as it was more of a matter of achieving a striking image.
From books that are interactive and manipulated by the reader, I have moved on to books that are to be handled by the reader but cannot be fully opened. From this, I then moved on to books on screen, taking full command of the control of the interaction of the reader with the book. From nearly a full performance by the reader, I now switched roles and I am being the performer myself. From fully handleable books, which I control only content and not form, I moved on to fully controllable form and elusive content. What I need to play with now, to allow for more freedom to the viewer, is the elusive vs documental balance. Like in ‘Homage to Tank Man’, how much do I need to write about it in the piece to relate it to the factuality of the topics? How much is enough information to successfully cause the audience to come to fruition with the ideas I want to discuss and release the emotions I want them to feel? Ultimately, the answer is in who is my audience.
5. Current apathy of the Artworld and Art in the 60’s and 70’s
Yes, I want the audience to feel. It’s not like in ‘Neo-liberal Lulz’ at Carroll/Fletcher Gallery (on until the 2nd April 2016), in which the artists are appropriating an ideology to create examples of the same ideology, exposing a process which we have to deal with everyday, corroborating a futile exercise in excess. It seems satirical at start, but the more you dig deep into the exhibition it becomes clearer and clearer that even if the artists had a critical or political stance, the gallerists may have distorted it as ‘a new manual [that] educates readers on how they might embrace Extreme Capitalism and become(s) incorporated too’ (in Press Release from Carrol/Fletcher), is presented as an invitation to do it yourself. Certainly there were many instances in the exhibition, especially with JLM Inc., in which the exacerbation of the capitalist mannerisms seemed to persuade the reader into thinking how ridiculous some of the capitalistic agents look and sound, as well as how easy it is to launch a ‘fake’ brand and make believe their credibility via marketing.
Other pieces used documentation, and Emilie Brout and Maxime Marion’s ‘untitled SDS’ is a representation of an invisible piece. Back in the 60s and 70s, conceptual artists were working on the idea that the main part of art making is in the imagination and not the materials and skills involved in the making. ‘The architecture of the invisible’ by Klein is one of the first examples of an immaterial piece. Other works of this time were taken to the performative level: after it was purchased the art work was sent to the buyer’s address. This implied that a delivery company and/or men had to drive it, unload it, carry it into the owner’s house, unpack it, install it, all with great care. In this piece of work, ‘untitled SDS’, the performance is carried out automatically, which reflects the absurdity of the role of technology in the making of a piece of art, and more importantly in detriment of merit (another key value in which supposedly the neo-liberal art market ideology was founded upon). The invisible artwork here is the inertia of the artists, as it became an automated process, free from human input. Cunningly, it also works as a social experiment: these artists are waiting for their shares in the stock market to grow, which is the mechanism that creates the value, thus the merit. All they have done was to set up a company, embodying the capitalistic mentality, not challenging it, and bring to light the fragility of the artist’s reputation both as a creator and as a rebel.
I suppose what these artists’ achieved was the real interpretation of ‘lulz’ being that they are indeed ironically taking advantage of the context they have been put in.
Drawing from my conceptual art comparison, in Alana Jelinek’s in ‘This is not Art – Activism and other ‘Not-Art’’, I quote her:
‘Many [artists] are the inheritors of a 1960s and 70s Conceptual Art perspective and its direct challenge to commodification the market and capitalism. The more overtly political also cite the Situationist International as artistic predecessors. With this legacy comes the unexamined assumption that ‘dematerialised’ arts is inherently uncommodifiable.’
This does not verify in ‘Neo-liberal Lulz’, but on the other hand, not ‘dematerialised’, but certainly true to the transgressor ethos of proactive questioning, Hans Haacke embraces this, by being one of the conceptual artists still alive and contesting power-dynamics in mainstream Tate and furthermore publicly with ‘Gift Horse’ placed in Trafalgar Square in 2015.
Taking from ‘Neo-liberal Lulz’ as an example, my question is: what is this current art doing? What are these current artists addressing? What is their opinion? What are they challenging? It doesn’t feel to me like they are challenging anything at all! Otherwise it wouldn’t be a valid argument due to the fact that they are benefiting from the very same thing they would’ve been criticising. So in a very clever double bluff Caroll/ Fletcher is trivialising an important and pertinent conversation of our day, by advocating what is disguised as satire but in fact is supporting a corrupting system, that needs to be taken seriously because of the perils it presents to our society.
6. Inertia of thought, and in Art as active thought
Quoting from ‘Art on Terror: the incendiary device of philosophy’ Artwordspress 2005
(Simon Bayly and Hester Reeve included afterwards)
‘The problem is that artists and what they make have become commodities’
The exception has been normalized and the paradox is that the artist seen as a transgressor is now a myth, and this myth is at the heart of the sales pitch, however, the artist became politically correct through the process of ‘commodification of art and the [consequent] normalisation of the artist as a disciplined figure’.
Well, isn’t a disciplined figure the opposite of a rebel? The capitalistic liberal republic is only asking for a product, it’s no longer attached to a conceptualism which enlivens and peruses the maxim ‘the role of the artist is to provide questions, and not provide answers’. Even so, knowing that artists are still driven by questioning, my issue is the superficial way and reasons associated with form in which they question. As a language teacher, I use questioning to elicit answers that will make students work out for themselves what the right answer is. In Art school, I am told nowadays, there is no right or wrong. So, what matters in the end?
The problem in arts education to me, in line with Simon Bayly, is that ‘there’s a sense that asking questions is a form of openness or invitation but in itself can be a rhetorical strategy that – coming back to this idea of transmissibility – is saying there is nothing to be transmitted here, here is just a highly asymmetrical challenge to respond’. I guess what I am trying to illustrate with this quote is, what is the point of endless questioning, if the product of this exercise is going to be exempt of values, of which you have been dwelling into and provide a visual commodity as opposed to a stimulus of intent?
As a student you are asked to pose a question for your research, and you are constantly asked to review and feedback on the relationship between the artist’s intention and the outcomes’ achievements. Therefore, the emphasis is placed on both equally. What I come to see is that this rhetorical futility Simon Bayly is talking about is more important than the content transmitted. Instead of constantly asking ‘What is this piece talking about?’ I think a question that opens a more intricate and valuable dialogue that assures quality and challenge is ‘What is important in this piece?’. A qualitative approach is long forgotten in detriment to a meaningless satisfactory one: the idea is that there will be people interested in whatever, because nowadays – in the era of plenty – there are people interested in all sorts of things (the winning reality of capitalism), hence the Arts (or the current Neo-liberal Arts system) are here performing not its own death, but the ‘ ‘living dead’, surviving its groundless foundations’ (Hester Reeve). The complacency of knowing that if you say something simple will be able to sell, allows artists to be tamed by their own selfish needs and no longer be part of that rebellious crew that once was the trademark of being an artist and made all the difference to the world.
The disappointment of the innovation seeker student going to a traditionalist art school, in much opposition to what Alana Jelinek (2013) says herself and is a reality in our educational system is that: ‘artlike art is more rarely produced, but it is evident that the assumptions within the lifelike tradition continue, particularly around money and the purpose of art, and the correct media for its ambitions. (…) This overtly political or socially engaged part of the art world is to be found in the UK in universities, art colleges and the education departments of museums and, when externally supported and not self-funded it is in the form of public subsidy via various smaller arts organisations, agencies and higher education funding bodies. Here, we find those artists who wish to operate in a way that resists the market for ethical or political reasons.’ I couldn’t disagree more.
On the other hand, she endorses my fear of the traditional or contained approach, as a valid artistic product in the context of the lifeart, saying that ‘by conforming to orthodoxies about appropriate media or process or display, we not only limit our own choices about how to make art but we also limit our potential to comprehend a world full of active resistance misreading those actions and artworks through our own artworld clichés and norms’.
It’s in this context that I challenge why do tutors advise us to do what has been done, and furthermore, warn us ‘oh, that hasn’t been done historically, we mustn’t consent’.
7. Acknowledging complexity and innovation
Another issue is the fact that I keep being told that I have to section the complexity of my pieces and I can’t talk about many topics at the same time….? And I mean topics that are intimately, intrinsically and inherently webbed together. Why is that? If I send the right signals, the reader surely isn’t going to be confused (and if the reader is confused, that could be ok if the intention is to be elusive and not deterministic). Is it because we are to consider the reader as incapable of reading complexity? If so, we’ll end up patronizing the reader? Is it because it’s the ‘canon’? In the age of plenty should we be restricting our processes? Life in itself is more complex that one sole element, and things are interconnected, things are linked through seen and unseen webs. Why should I ignore that in the outcome and making of the resolved artwork/piece? Why do I need to restrain that at research level? William Kentridge, Andrei Tarkovsky, Guy Madder and Derek Jarman, all of whom I highly regard, certainly don’t do that. There might be one central, stronger motif or subject that binds everything together, but that everything is a complexity of things. Why is the art institution nowadays trying to simplify life, when life is not simple?
Again, within the art institution, this is contradicted when we are supposed to find interdisciplinary channels to develop work, as students are encouraged to do so. Interdisciplinary cannot be made simple, there are too many factors involved. As a result of an interdisciplinary discussion, it was concluded in ‘Art on terror’ that ‘It is quite logical to say that the artist’s responsibilities are not just aesthetic, they are social and ethical too, and political’ (BD and TT).
Some of the new takes on art have been the Bio and Scientific interdisciplinary. A great part of these works are political in the sense that they present solutions, which implies that assertive opinions to current problems were taking into account when arguing the relevant social problems – a proactive approach to change. Works by artists like Patricia Piccinini, ‘Doubting Thomas’ (2008) and ‘Eulogy’(2011), present environmental concerns and a contextualisation of human interaction, firmly accusing the causes for extinction and elucidating how should we feel. Other artists, like Carol Collet, are in the midst of a bio-facturing venture, concept which has opened many doors to artists to be able to fabricate natural products by design. Maarten Vanden Eynde is voicing environmental issues, the origin of sciences and how is the future concerned about this. All of these artists’ works make me think of a zillion things at the same time. And they challenge our reality.
8. Conscientious questioning, a new form of survival
These are mere examples of artists that are indeed chasing a strain of innovation. But what about the generation coming out of university now? It is urgent that students ascertain an opinion, it is urgent that we look out for new ways of being and creating. Being inspired by some of the Modernist movements of the 60s and 70s that the western learning system finds so hard to leave behind, we can still think about a total expansion of the human as a being. This means ‘to go back to the drawing board’ and the invisible realm. It means using the reductive approach of Modernism to the extreme where we are only left with the natural self.
How can the modern man and by extension and relevance the modern artist deny the use of consciousness as a means to provide for knowledge to thrive? Continuing to abide by the dominating rule, by commodifying to questions posed on form and not on content, instead of rebelling against a static tradition of Modernism, which is no longer appropriate, and is old-fashioned and obsolete, is to carry on allowing for a segmentation of concepts and ultimately the isolation of the components of dialogue. This is what Neo-Fascism wants: everyone in voluntary isolation for ultimate control. This will position the artist in a monologue scenario, which will eliminate any possibility for questions to be answered. Content is relevant. Concepts have many neurological functions, and ‘they would not exist if not for their role in decision-making’ (H.Clark Barret, The Evolution of Conceptual Design, MIT Press, 2015). For this reason, I urge the educational system to make use of this human-only faculty and educate artists as decision-makers, but conscientious and assertive ones. We don’t need more mind-numbing art; we don’t need more Joseph Beuys morale; we don’t need more mundane. We need a belief that is grounded on ethical behavior, and aims at an innovation capable of restoring the link between man and the world, like in a good-old Deleuzian utopia. Works like Marina Abramovic’s Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze (2014), speak to the modern conscientious consciousness because they verify both through metaphysical and scientific interplay the transformative possibilities for humans grounded in connection and arise ethical values as its prominent application: the validation of all human life as of equal value by experiencing. Experiencing has social repercussions, it allows people to relate to each other. Consequently, art shouldn’t be tamed from political contexts and should act as an agent of change, as valid and weighty within our society as any other form of transformation.
In 2014, Boris Groys, global art-critic and essayist proffered: ‘Indeed, a genuine political transformation cannot be achieved according to the same logic of talent, effort, and competition on which the current market economy is based, but only by metanoia and kenosis—by a U-turn against the movement of progress, a U-turn against the pressure of upward mobility.’
There are many student initiatives that are looking at climate change as the catalyst for their activism, and in this way starting to expand their political outlook. What I personally suggest, is that this needs to be taken seriously by all educators, galleries and art patrons and institutions. Moreover, that all players reckon with human conscientious consciousness as the engine of the necessary upheaval for our survival. Now.
After Weiner’s maxim, I leave you with and updated version of the utterance, one I see more fit for our contemporary art scene in context with the world we live in: ‘the role of the artist is to provide proactive questions, and not provide unanswers’.
Ines M. Ferreira
28th March 2016
KING, Alasdair, Fault lines: Deleuze, Cinema and the ethical landscape, in ‘Cine-Ethics - Ethical Dimensions of Film Theory, Practice, and Spectatorship’, edited by Jinhee Choi, Mattias Frey, Routledge, 2014
REEVE, Hester; BAYLY, Simon; DIKEN, Bülent; TREHY, Tony, Art on Terror: the incendiary device of philosophy, Artwordspress, 2005
JELINEK, Alana, This is not Art – Activism and Other ‘Not-Art’, I.B.Tauris, 2013
RESNIK, David, The ethics of Science - an introduction, Routledge, 1998
BARRETT, H. Clark, The Evolution of Conceptual Design, in ‘The Conceptual Mind – new directions in the study of concepts’, edited by Eric Margolis and Stephen Laurence, MIT Press, 2015
ARCHER, Michael, Art Since 1960, Thames and Hudson, 2002