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Art as activism: artists debate at Frieze

South African photographer Zanele Muholi joins panel discussion at Frieze London Art Fair

Anna McNay

Mon, 21 Oct 2013 17:49:26 GMT | Updated 3 years today

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 click here.


Image © Anna McNay


Anna McNay 

twitter: @annamcnay

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