Citizenship

empathetic perspectives

Via podcasts, I heard pertinent reminders about how our lives are subtly and not-so-subtlely shaped by bias. The speakers work within the entertainment industry, but seem to operate as formidable intellects and commentators on their own.

Field Negro Guide to Arts & Culture
Hosted by W. Kamau Bell and Vernon Reid, with producer Alex Thornton
Segment on Jeremy Lin/Linsanity and Asian American race and representation.
Episode 32, “Too Many Turnovers,” 2/20/12, 1:00:13-1:17:47

It should be obvious that the casual, semi-oblivious racism surrounding Linsanity, such as ESPN’s “Chink in the Armor” headline, is unacceptable. But Linsanity might be remembered more for people going temporarily insane—not for a point guard—but with race itself. In the recent hubbub, I encountered classic examples of blaming the victim, in which Asian Americans who objected to racist speech were called “sensitive” “pansies.” Bell and Reid help set the record straight.

W. Kamau Bell: It’s a referendum on how racist is our society, because there’s been all these stories of racism around Jeremy Lin, even people supporting him… The Knicks threw up some thing in Madison Square Garden the other night, where it was Lin’s head coming out of a fortune cookie.

Vernon Reid: Oh, no, they didn’t! … Why would— Who would— That’s just— That’s, like, the worst shit ever. What!?

VR [Commenting on a Black sports commentator’s racist tweet]: Anytime you have a group who dominates in a particular thing, if that dominance is threatened, the ugly comes out…. We [Black people] dominate in the NFL… and the NBA. But … now, a Jeremy Lin shows up, and all of the really, really unfortunate, baiting, racist, outsider stuff starts to come out…

WKB: …It’s people who don’t know. That’s how screwed up we are in America. People who are trying to celebrate him end up being racist.

WKB: …the headline was “Chink in the Armor.”

VR: You’re fucking kidding me!

WKB: …The thing is, they don’t think they’re being— …It’s like they just don’t even see it.

VR: …That’s just— That’s just— …for real? … It’s just appalling. Appalling, appalling, appalling.

Considering Reid’s typically judicious and erudite commentary on all matters political and social, his disbelief says it all for me.

Meryl Streep: The Fresh Air  Interview 
2/6/12

This is a great interview, with many poignant moments. Streep is such a composed, accomplished actor, it was shocking to hear her reveal that she made herself more appealing to dates as a teen by withholding opinions. She also described finding her personality by attending a women’s college in the 1970s (I think we are all better for it). Echoing Bell’s comments above, there’s a litmus quality to Streep’s reflections—that it reveals something about progress—and the unreached potentials that remain.

Terry Gross quoted Streep’s commencement speech at Barnard in 2010:

The hardest thing in the world is to persuade a straight male audience to identify with a woman character. It’s easier for women, because we were brought up identifying with male characters in literature. It’s hard for straight boys to identify with Juliet or Wendy in Peter Pan. Whereas girls identify with Romeo or Peter Pan.

Meryl Streep: It became obvious to me that men don’t live through female characters.

Terry Gross: Do you think that women have that double consciousness?

MS: I think it has to do with very deep things. It might be that imagining yourself as a girl is a diminishment.

Heartbreaking. Streep goes on and says that she made movies for 30 years before ever hearing a man say, “I know how you felt.” More often, men’s favorite characters of Streep’s ouvre were of

a particular kind of very feminine, recessive kind of personality…. So they fell in love with her, but they didn’t feel the story through her body. It took, until The Devil Wears Prada, to play someone tough, who had to make hard decisions, who was running an organization,… for a certain kind of man to— empathize. That’s the word. Empathize.

This made me lament first, for my female actor friends, and second, for the diminished stories available to us all.

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Activist Imagination, Research

Artist’s Talks: Rave. Rave. Rant.

Just heard two fantastic artist’s talks tonight!

I love artist’s talks that create narratives and contextualize work with key biographical facts, relevant personality traits and intellectual and artistic interests. It’s a superior means of learning about art and artists than reading C.V.s and looking at still images. I’m much more compelled to hear what the artist has to say and why he/she makes art. I’m looking for evidence that the artist is deeply engaged in an ongoing inquiry.

THE VIEWER AND SCOT KAPLAN

That’s why I loved hearing the talk by Scot Kaplan, a visual artist from Ohio with a conceptual- and performance-based practice engaged with the psychology of contemporary life. He also teaches theory in a university art department, which I believe accounts for his articulate, well-oiled presentation, insightful self-examination, and that driving, insistent willingness to challenge dominant paradigms (a characteristic of all the theory professors I’ve met).

Kaplan’s presentation was great because he was ready to establish the context at the start, posing the questions that drive his inquiry (about examining power relationships) and citing influences, like a Harper’s Index item on the average time spent looking at a work of art in a museum (0.6 seconds). Contending with the typical viewer’s superficial engagement with works of art, Kaplan admitted to feeling belligerence towards the viewer; that as an artist, he would require some investment from the viewer to experience his work. I wholeheartedly agree: I’m not interested in making work for others’ visual pleasure, available at their leisure. The world is full of beautiful, attractive, cute or endearing images, and the avalanche of imagery shows no signs of slowing. So as my work becomes less visual and more experiential, I’m fine with leaving those 0.6 seconds of the typical viewers’ gaze behind, if it means more selective but more meaningful engagement.

Kaplan presented early work clearly influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s L’Etant Donnes. He made a series of provocative portal-like structures, such as altered viewfinders, wall-mounted boxes into which viewers insert their heads to hear audio tracks, and even a fridge-disguised portal leading to a hidden listening chamber.

Viewer interaction was required to experience those objects and installations, but Kaplan also presented work where the viewer became agent and subject. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about since my work for Activist Imagination. Kaplan’s work, though, directly addressed power relationships. For example, he created a small room that locked viewers inside for 90 seconds at a time, as well as a tightly-controlled project where individual viewers gave commands to the artist, who inhabited an adjacent room behind a security mirror. It was a performative social experiment that tested the lengths to which the artist and viewers would go, and it brought to mind the work of Marina Abramovich (two wrongs don’t make a right, but I still felt somewhat relieved to see someone other than a woman subjected to the disturbing, violent whims of others) and Philip Zimbardo, the author of the Stanford jail experiment that revealed how quickly ‘normal’ people abuse power. Kaplan executed this project in two locations in South Africa: a privileged university campus, and a Black township. While the performance is an important component, perhaps more so, the work is about the findings of the experiment: college students more often gave Kaplan abusive commands, while the township’s residents allowed the artist more dignity.

Kaplan’s work is provocative, but he seems thoughtful and not the least bit driven by shock value or ostentatious moralizing. His projects may be subversive, but are purpose-driven. The works create a condition where the artist’s vulnerability incites the viewers; they become culpable for completing the work of art, and in the process, making or breaking a social bond.

IVY MA: THE ADAPTOR

Ivy Ma, an artist from Hong Kong, makes poetic, phenomenological installations and photographs, and quiet but impressive drawings and paintings. I was really impressed with the diversity of her media, her capacity to create site-specific projects on residencies around the world, and how true she is to her investigation. Site-specific work can be challenging in your home town, much less thousands of miles away from your studio, tools and materials.

Like Kaplan, Ma makes some performative works involving her body, but Ma is interested in outdoor environments, like the Finnish lakes or her rapidly redeveloping Hong Kong.

She presented her work in a way that was modest and endearing — this style seems characteristic of non-native speakers from East Asia — yet she’s a fierce intellect, methodical in her presentation style, undaunted by tedious projects (like drawing a nearly life-sized tree with a fine-tipped pen, or sorting beach pebbles by color) and citing references ranging from noted Bay Area authors, Rebecca Solnit and Anne Lamott.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ma’s work and presentation. It wasn’t until later that I thought about Ma’s work in relation to identity politics—something that seems to hound A.P.A. arts presenters and the artists working with them. In fact, Ma doesn’t seem interested in identity politics at all. She’s focused on her relationship to nature, solitude, and her physical environment. She may be a contemporary artist from China, but her work isn’t about the hangover from the Cultural Revolution. She may be an Asian artist making art in North America and Europe, but she’s not hung up on re-hashing cross-cultural issues. Maybe we could lighten up about it too.

COLLATERAL DAMAGE IN SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER.

Unfortunately, not all artist’s talks are so inspiring.

Twice, I’ve had the odd experience of feeling invisible as artists of color talked about their work in terms of representing a community of identity. What happened was this: male artists of color used their talks to “speak truth to power” — to call out a predominantly white, privileged, liberal audience on their convenient progressivism and color blindness. To me, their radical or identity-based work became less effective, because the talk essentialized their art. Instead of being artists, they became cultural-political ambassadors.

Of course, I have more to learn about other racial perspectives and identities. Of course, the rarefied art world ought to be reminded of its privileged status. Of course, liberalism can stand to be nudged along by radical insights.

But if the goal is to challenge racism, gross generalizations about the whiteness of an audience — which includes people of color with radical politics like me! — is just a poor tactic. One artist seemed intent on assaulting the audience with his didactic videos played at extremely high volume. [I’ll pass. An aspiring drummer in my teens, I’m entering my thirties a tinnitus sufferer. My ears are ringing like I just left a concert–every day.] Another artist made the statement, “We tend to be color blind” or “We don’t talk about race” (“we” meaning, presumably, white liberals). Actually, I talk about race all freakin’ the time. You talking about race and saying that I never talk about it makes me feel invisible. That is color blind.

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