The exercise of ‘power’, whether enacted by us or upon us, pervades most aspects of life, and the word has such diverse meanings that we arguably need new ones for its specific applications. Its etymology derives originally from the Sanskrit páti, meaning lord or master. In modern French the noun is also a verb: pouvoir (to be able to). Potent and potential are English derivatives. Oui, nous pouvons: Yes, we can. Across the terrain of socio-politics, economics and history, the word most often serves as shorthand for government, oligarchic or economic structures, even bricks-and-mortar ones: Parliament, The White House, The Kremlin. Whether growing out of the barrel of a gun (Mao Zedong), manifesting as the apparatus of the security state, global capital (Goldman Sachs) or dynastic succession (The Houses of Windsor or Saud), power in this context is usually understood as bending towards the hegemonic – self-serving and self-perpetuating. And of course it has its counter-concepts: People Power; Soft Power; Speaking truth to power; Empowerment. This collision of impulses – individual or collective agency versus impersonal authority – implies a struggle within the body politic which will never be decisively won, a daily skirmish in which we all participate. And why should art be any different?
Doris Salcedo, Acción de Duelo, July 3, 2007, candles, site-specific work, Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá, 2007. Approx 267 Å~ 350 ft. (81.4 × 106.7 m). Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photo: Sergio Clavijo.
There are persuasive arguments that art is different, that creative labour occupies its own autonomous zone of production and reception. And there is the seemingly paradoxical view that by virtue of its status outside the cut and thrust of daily life, all art is intrinsically political, irrespective of its form or meaning. I try to keep an open mind, however it seems undeniable that some art, along with spoken word and music, has the ability to not just move human beings emotionally, but to radicalise them politically – to inspire a sense of personal agency and engagement with social issues outside the museum’s perimeter. For some this will conjure up specious categories such as ‘issue art’, ‘social-change art’, ‘trauma art’ and that hoary old favourite ‘identity art’. These are some of the ways that critics slice and dice what artists make into bite-sized morsels, however the aim of this essay is to explore the realm beyond such essentialist thinking – a meditation, if you like, on how artworks themselves might contest the ‘powers-that-be’ with their own power dynamics.
Shay Mazloom, In-Between 3, 2012, 70×90 cm, fine art print on archival paper. Courtesy the artist.
In writing and speech it’s not unusual to encounter allusions to the ‘power’ or ‘potency’ of certain works of art, which we understand to mean ‘affective power’ – an ability to profoundly affect the viewer’s emotional and psychic state. It’s a term I use myself, essentially as a value judgement, where ‘power’ is a quality which distinguishes profound or important art – that which continues to resonate across ages and cultures, let’s say – from that which is merely pleasing, displeasing, derivative, banal or otherwise moderately affecting. Walter Benjamin wrote of the ‘aura’ (which he equates with authenticity) of unique works of art,[i] and terms such as ‘presence’, ‘materiality’ and ‘resonance’ are sometimes heard, the implication being that these are identifiable affective triggers. Such terms applied to art are not so much objective observations as evocations of a personal experience – something we ourselves bring to the encounter, yet intertwined with things beyond the self. While Affect Theory (as espoused by Silvan Tomkins and his followers)[ii] analyses subjective responses to sensory information, the discussion of external stimuli belongs to the realms of optics and physics, and in between lies the uncertain terrain of Aesthetics, a term which goes in and out of intellectual fashion like a pendulum. Kant, Lyotard, Sontag and Sedgwick have grappled gamely with the problem, but I have yet to encounter thinking that effectively theorises the confluence of external factors which manifests as profoundly affecting art, although Australian art theorist Susan Best gets closer than most.[iii] I have no problem accepting that these processes are essentially mysterious, and most would agree that they manifest at a phenomenological, or perhaps metaphysical level, immune to empirical analysis. In ancient Mycenaean and Greek thought, the Mysteries were associated with secret knowledge and importantly, with ritual. While Benjamin’s thesis that “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of a work of art” is still much debated, his insistence on art’s ritual origins rings true:
We know that the earliest works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of a work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.[iv]
If this is manifestly true of the contemporary work of many Aboriginal and other First Nations artists, it is also evident in the work of Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois and countless others, and is by no means culture- or medium-specific.
There is a rich nexus between these agonistic conceptions of power, and one of their many intersections is the contested zone of art and politics. The museum itself is increasingly a site of critique, dissent, activism and other artistic responses to social injustice. Beyond the visible hierarchies of state, corporate and institutional structures, artists and exhibition-makers must also engage with the entrenched cultures of the exhibitionary complex[v], seemingly-benign, but historically inscribed by an alliance of government, academia and commercial art world players. Whatever our geographical positioning, participation in the networked edifice of the ‘Global Contemporary’ enmeshes us in a pervasive value-system heavily weighted towards Euro-American taxonomies, and a master narrative of North Atlantic Modernism which doggedly persists as a template for exhibition-making. The same can be said of other creative fields, and the net effect is that difference is too often subsumed into the culturally dominant worldview. Coloniality is as much an occupation of mind as of bodies and territory, and the cultural corollary of genocide is epistemicide – the annihilation of other knowledge systems, and the re-writing of history by its victors.
This is the socio-geo-political context in which a curatorial research project, titled The Museum of Dissensus,[vi] has emerged, manifesting as an itinerant exhibition and publishing platform. It derives its working title, somewhat ironically, from the writings of French philosopher Jacques Rancière, whose edited anthology Dissensus – On Politics and Aesthetics,[vii] is an occasional textual touchstone. This may appear to contradict a view that the French postmodern theorists themselves are a form of epistemic hegemony – certainly disproportionately cited when viewed from the global South. However Rancière’s notion of both art and politics as forms of dissensus (antonym: consensus) resonates with a ‘post-theory’ trajectory. It should be noted that Rancière does not ascribe this dissensual potentiality to art in general, but to art as an ‘aesthetic regime’ (as distinct from its ethical or representative regimes), and among his dense and tangled arguments I find no contradictions with phenomenological and metaphysical approaches alluded to earlier.
The first manifestation of The Museum of Dissensus was an exhibition at the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library in 2016, accompanied by a 76-page, limited-edition book (see link to online version). This publication includes images and notes on the work of around fifty artists, as well as stand-alone essays by a number of thinkers. The explicit aim of this platform is to explore works which reveal and memorialise silenced histories and cultural erasures which might otherwise be forgotten – including those of First People, feminist, queer and self-taught artists worldwide. Their practice takes many forms, from work which loudly contests the taxonomies of the museum, to work which sits reticently within the citadels of culture; from work which explodes colourfully into the streets, to documents and archives; from actions and skirmishes in the real world, to intellectual provocations and contaminations of the canon. It includes works which dare to speak of terrible things, not from a wish to dwell on violence and brutality, but rather the opposite – many of these works have a redemptive, even transcendent quality – there is beauty and joy to be found here, as well as pain. It can be argued that the embodiment of these contradictions is what enables these diverse works to communicate in affective registers which transcend their formal or aesthetic attributes.
Aslı Çavuşoğlu Red / Red, 2015, Armenian Cochineal ink and Turkish Red pigment on worn-out papers and wornout handmade notebooks. Dimensions variable. Produced with the support of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and SAHA. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren.
An example is revered Colombian artist Doris Salcedo’s Acción de Duelo of 2007. In this ‘action of mourning’ 24,000 candles were lit in the Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá, in response to the death of Colombia’s Valle del Cauca Deputies who had been taken hostage in 2002. In the simple act of laying out the candles in geometric rows, a relatively commonplace vigil was elevated to the status of public art, with consequent media reach and prominence. Similar considerations of simplicity, iteration and scale informed Australian (Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi) artist Jonathan Jones’ 2016 installation, barrangal dyara (skin and bones), in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden, the 32nd Kaldor Public Art Project, and the first by an Aboriginal artist. Across 20,000 square metres, 15,000 white gypsum shields accumulated into a ghostly footprint of an almost-forgotten building – the 19th century Garden Palace – which burned to the ground in 1882, along with countless Aboriginal objects on loan from the nascent Australian Museum. Somewhat like Salcedo’s work, the ornate floorplan of the building could only be appreciated from the air, however the on-the-ground experience included ambient audio works in eight different Aboriginal languages of the region, all endangered. Working with sound and video, Mexico-based Belgian artist Francis Alÿs reveals lyrical complexity in simple children’s games. In 2015, the centenary of the 1915 Armenian Massacre, he created a remarkable screen-based work, The Silence of Ani.[viii] Ani is a ruined Armenian city on Turkey’s far eastern border, and Alÿs’s monochromatic film depicts a game of hide-and-seek among a group of teenagers, who flit among the ruins, sounding soft bird calls from traditional ceramic and carved whistles. The bird calls build to a crescendo, then fall silent, as the children fall asleep, the wind whistling through the otherwise deserted landscape. Palestinian artist Jumana Emil Abboud paints delicate evocations of almost-forgotten legends and fairy-tales, a gentle insistence that the memories of her people remain alive, threatened as they are with cultural annihilation and territorial dispossession. Australian (Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku-Yalanji) artist Tony Albert’s adjacent installations (Hidden History/Blood Water, 2016), shown in the exhibition With Secrecy and Dispatch at Campbelltown Arts Centre near Sydney, allude to the little-known Appin Massacre of 1816. Iranian Shay Mazloom’s photomedia works explore the status of women in a patriarchal culture through documented personal performance. Canadian (Cree) painter Kent Monkman re-narrates and ‘queers’ the colonial frontier, challenging colonial notions of Manifest Destiny. Turkish artist Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s Red (2016) illuminates handmade notebooks with a pigment made from the Ararat insect (Armenian Cochineal or Porphyrophora Hamelii], a metaphor for the silenced histories of her homeland.
Tony Albert Hidden History (left); Blood water (right), both 2016.: Hidden History: vintage children’s school desk, black paper, white pastel crayons, dimensions variable. Blood Water: Vintage woollen tapestries, cord, 23 x 28cm, cords variable. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre.
The artists discussed above are just seven among fifty, hopefully enough to indicate the diversity of cultural contexts, media and subject matter encompassed by the project. In thematic terms these works all in some way interrogate aspects of erasure and memory, and all could be described as political. But more importantly, it can be argued that their aesthetic and polemical armature intersects as dissensual power – a disruptive ability to ‘effect a redistribution of the sensible’, in Rancière’s parlance. In decolonial terms, (as suggested by Australian/Mexican curator Ivan Muñiz Reed in one of the volume’s essays) such works present an ‘epistemic disobedience, replacing or complementing Eurocentric discourses and categories with alternative perspectives’, inviting us to consider new and pluriversalist world-picturings: ‘the world otherwise’.[ix]
Jonathan Jones, barrangal dyara (skin and bones), 2016, aerial view, Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. Courtesy the artist and Kaldor Public Art Projects.
It remains to ask: does any of this matter? The creative arts cannot be a substitute for mass political action and progressive international leadership, but does that mean they are forever condemned to a support role of aesthetic consolation and intellectual refuge in the face of injustice and horror? Perhaps all art can ever do is help to soothe humanity’s distress, but the stakes are high now, possibly higher than at any other time of great political and societal upheaval. Artists are a sentinel species, and in their work worldwide there is a sense of immanence, a feeling that a great cataclysm may soon unfold, blowing away Enlightenment verities in the perilous dawn of the Anthropocene epoch. Japanese German artist Hito Steyerl, whose installation Hell Yeah Fuck We Die (2016) features in the publication, expresses it thus:
Contemporary art is a kind of layer or proxy which pretends that everything is still ok, while people are reeling from the effects of shock policies, shock and awe campaigns, reality TV, power cuts, any other form of cuts, cat GIFs, tear gas—all of which are all completely dismantling and rewiring the sensory apparatus and potentially also human faculties of reasoning and understanding by causing a state of shock and confusion, of permanent hyperactive depression.[x]
Hito Steyerl, Hell Yeah Fuck We Die, 2016, mixed media installation view, 32 Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil. Courtesy the artist and Bienal de São Paulo.
Kent Monkman, Expelling the Vices, 2014, 60” x 84”, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the artist.
I will conclude this meditation on power and dissensus by suggesting that art’s relationship with society is undergoing a seismic shift. There is a new hunger within the exhibitionary complex to engage with social change, witness the growing number of exhibitions themed around protest, social movements, situated histories, big data, ecology, interspecies interactions and post-internet futures. As a recent example the Focus section of New York’s 2017 Armory Show (curated by Jarrett Gregory) was titled What Is to Be Done?, from an 1863 novel by Russian author Nikolai Chernyshevsky, written while the author was in a St Petersburg prison for his socialist beliefs. For such a title – not exactly a call to action, but an activist question – to be invoked by the world’s richest commercial art fair is telling, arguably signalling a profound existential unease. Quite suddenly the complacencies of American democracy (fictional or real) are themselves under siege, its liberal intelligentsia aghast at the daily media horror-show of their political institutions. Interesting times indeed, and Australia is not immune.
As a curatorial project The Museum of Dissensus explores art’s ability to speak truth to power – to communicate across the particularities of time, place and language, charged with the potentiality to generate social change, by altering the way we think about the world. An iteration of the project has been selected for inclusion in the inaugural Bienalsur (Buenos Aires, 2018, and touring), and there a number of Australian artists will realise new work alongside artists from Latin America and elsewhere across the global South. Some will view it as another instance of the converted speaking to the converted, but we must at least have hope that such an event can add powerful new voices to the global conversation, and be heard outside the hushed halls of the museum.
For access to the full pdf of The Museum of Dissensus book (with images from around 50 artists) visit: https://www.academia.edu/31113575/The_Museum_of_Dissensus
Bienalsur (Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo de America del Sur): http://bienalsur.org/en/
[i] Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, Illuminations (London: Cape, 1970).
[ii] Silvan S. Tomkins and E. Virginia Demos, Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins, Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction (Cambridge England ; New York; Paris: Cambridge University Press; Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 1995).
[iii] See Susan Best, Reparative Aesthetics: Witnessing in Contemporary Art Photography (London: Bloomsbury, 2016). The author’s introduction to her book is reproduced in David Corbet et al., The Museum of Dissensus, ed. David Corbet (Sydney: Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, 2016).
[iv] Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, Illuminations (London: Cape, 1970). p226.
[v] I am using this term to indicate the totality of institutional, academic and market infrastructure, a concept first introduced in Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” New Formations (0950-2378) 4, no. Spring 1998 (1988).
[vi] David Corbet et al., The Museum of Dissensus, ed. David Corbet (Sydney: Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, 2016).
[vii] Jacques Rancière and Steve Corcoran, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London; New York: Continuum, 2010).
[viii] To view the full video work online visit: https://vimeo.com/141804238
[ix] Ivan Muñiz Reed, “Thoughts on Curatorial Practices in the Decolonial Turn,” Broadsheet Journal 45.2 (2016).
[x] Hito Steyerl, “Duty Free Art,” e-flux journal , New York #63, no. 03/2015 (2015).
David Corbet is a freelance writer, curator and designer/artist, based in Sydney, working and travelling widely in Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America. He...