Frieze London Art Fair 2013
Frieze Talks: Sexuality, Politics and Protest
Friday 18 October 2013, 13:30
Political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) drew a
strict distinction between 'labour' ('animal laborans') - the
biological processes of the human body: spontaneous growth,
metabolism, and eventual decay; 'work' ('homo faber') - once you
start employing implements and separating yourself from nature,
creating an artificial world of things; and 'action' ('vita
activa') - political acts, such as speech acts, which separate and
distinguish one man from another, but which take place directly
between men without the intermediary of things or matter. As such,
she placed art firmly within the realm of work, not action, since,
generally speaking, it creates a tangible product.
Obviously, however, things are not quite this clear
cut. For starters, art, if you allow for performance art in
particular, does not always leave behind a tangible trace.
Moreover, however, art is very commonly employed for political
purposes: to express a particular viewpoint, or to protest against
the status quo.
25 years ago in 1988, for example, an 11 person
activist/artist collective came together in the U.S. under the name
of Gran Fury and, working alongside ACT UP (Aids Coalition To
Unleash Power), and meeting once or twice a week, it strategically
employed art as a means of political propaganda to reach the wider
public and spread the word about queer activism.
Art historian Robert Atkins explains that whereas the
media's presentation of the Aids crisis had, up to that point,
presented only images of emaciated 'victims' and 'disease
carriers', Gran Fury's artistic activism, which, for example, shone
a spotlight on public figures' anti-Aids rhetoric and presented
actual statistical facts on billboards and in LED lights, came from
the inside and was, for this reason as well as due to the coupling
of image and word, far more hard hitting and effective.
This year, at Frieze London Art Fair (16-19 October
2013), one of the panel discussion sessions, chaired by New York
based writer Jennifer Kabat and featuring Brighton based theatre
director, author and performer Neil Bartlett; New York based artist
Marlene McCarty (who recently had her work included in the ICA's
group exhibition Keep Your Timber Limber, 19 June - 8 September
2013); and South African photographer Zanele Muholi, was given over
to discussing whether, in 2013, art can, is, and indeed ought still
to be used to this end, and, furthermore, whether art, as a form of
action, can ever be enough.
Muholi, for example, rather than an 'artist' or a
'photographer', calls herself a 'visual activist'. With 'curative'
rape and brutal murder of black lesbians in South Africa still a
horrifying reality, there is a huge gap between the promoted façade
of acceptance (the South African constitution legalised same-sex
marriage in 2006) and the day-to-day reality. Additionally, with
most queer theory texts in the country having been written by white
gay men, Muholi feels it is essential to make the black lesbian
visible, and this is what her photographs set out to do. She
self-confessedly seeks to 'agitate'.
McCarty, who was herself a member of Gran Fury,
suggests that activism is very goal-oriented and very informed by
the social context it's situated in. Bartlett continues that, in
fact, like so many other things in life, the difference between art
and activism, as he sees it, depends on 'where you're doing it and
who you're doing it with' - so, for example, while a piece
performed live in Trafalgar Square might be considered activism,
the selfsame piece re-performed in a theatre or gallery setting
might instead be considered art.
In the Q&A session afterwards, one audience
member suggested that to be an artist and an activist requires you
also to be an optimist. But surely, to be an activist of any kind,
you need to believe in the possibility of change, through whichever
means you choose for your protest? If art can successfully raise
questions and public awareness, isn't this as valid a method of
protest as any other? Particularly in the light of Russia's new
anti-gay legislation and the divided opinions within the art world
as to whether to boycott Manifesta 10, the European Biennial of
Contemporary Art, scheduled to open in St. Petersburg next summer,
this is as pertinent a question now as ever. If art is a language,
a tool, a means of being active or bringing about activism, ought
it not be employed wherever possible? Shouldn't Manifesta therefore
go ahead, filled with works which make a statement? Or are there
times when art - no matter how strong its message - is simply
not enough, and silence, or alternative action, is preferable? What
has history taught us? And how should the future proceed?
To download the panel discussion as an MP3
Image © Anna McNay