It’s obviously a discussion on the agenda and Portugal isn’t an exception. Some recent events moved me to write this post. So, first, a personal note about the image presented above: I’ve been preparing a workshop that addresses the political clima. You can say it’s an artivism workshop, but I prefer to see it as a cathartic opportunity to express ourselves and, using different techniques, make some statements. The image above is a cyanotype patch from an old photograph of mine, taken during a demonstration in Lisbon. It reads: “April 25th. Kill Salazar. Fascists.” As you’d be right to presume, I’m not against the message, so why was I hesitant to share the image? Oh, well, you know, it’s now unacceptable to say that I’m intolerant to fascism, but I am. I’m also not a pacifist, won’t abide by laws that I find authoritarian and desproportionate and think the idea of pacifism often serves dictatorships. I understand and accept, of course, that people have different views and positions. It’s all good, given that we respect those who respect every human life. The question is: why was I fearing a potential backlash about this? Why did I hesitate when I was about to sew the patch on a pair of jeans? Is my inner punk in a coma or what?
Sounds to me like representation is the key word in this debate about self-censorship, cancel culture, critique, free speech and political correctness. When I reflected upon the reasons that made me hesitate to wear the patch, I concluded I was letting myself be constrained by the idea that I might represent something beyond my individuality, mostly because being a teacher and sharing my practices in the university and in an association, I was potentiality representing collective entities, which might be offended by my position.
The confusion about art’s autonomy has always been there. Artists, more often that not, play the political game and attach different discursive strategies to their artworks, in order to have their artworks be seen, bought and promoted. Artists, more often than not, pretend to represent something other than their art and some are aware that such a positioning opens up the sort of critique that has little to nothing to do with the artwork, but the thing here is that art is about the artwork and its specificities regarding ethics/aesthetics, not the nominal value. So let’s try and not loose sight of what matters: the artistic value.
The events and situations I’ll refer to below involve, from my point of view, very complex circumstances. Although social media plays a part in our world, what I think comes forward as a predominant change is how people’s relationship with screens affects their being: in essence our time, how we breath, contemplate, procrastinate, think, reflect and form opinions about different matters in life. It’s like the city rush and competitive style have finally merged with the technological rush that now spreads the capitalist/consumerism behavior everywhere. It’s not a lost battle, from my point of view, but this Covid mayhem is not making human connection and emphatic behaviors any easier.
João Pedro Vale and Nuno Alexandre Ferreira are two portuguese artists whose work has always been engagé. This might be a heavy choice of words, but the fact they’ve chosen to address the historical context of homosexuality makes it very clear to me that they work upon issues that are driven by the view of the other, although it’s not clear to me who that other is. They are committed to ideas and symbolic values. Their work often references art itself, also addressing cultural views, movements and changes and how paradigms, stereotypes, stigmas transform in those contexts. Their aesthetics don’t really affect me (call it a matter of taste if you like), but I recognize some artistic value here and there. Pop art and kitsch are not languages I’m passionate about. The hiperbolization of design, theatricality and artificiality alienate me, so the way I connect to their work is thru their representation of certain political messages and I’m very fond of a certain subversive attitude I recognize in their work.
Recently, they were invited to a round table about graphic activism, programmed as part of a graphic art’s fair (Feira Gráfica). By the end of that event, which happened online, via zoom, one of the participants in the panel – Rodrigo Saturnino – took the opportunity to confront the artists with certain choices regarding an artwork that is now on display in Lisbon, at Stolen Boooks (the photograph bellow). Things escalated a bit for two sets of reasons: 1) the confrontation itself between Rodrigo and the artists; 2) the fact that the artists opposed the open sharing of the event on youtube, stating that they weren’t informed about the event being anything but ephemeral.
1) Regarding the first issue: Rodrigo was questioning the ethics of the representation of the male homosexual within the photograph, wanting to address the fact that all men represented in it were white and thin, as Rodrigo chose to name it. That João Pedro Vale and Nuno Alexandre Ferreira chose to answer his question, explaining their choices and the making of the photograph is, as I see it, their first mistake and they’re entitled to it. The circumstances were complicated and their approach was… let’s call it polite. But the thing is they need not defend themselves, unless they feel they represent something else, unless they want to assume the role of icons, which I don’t think they do. So why justify the non inclusion of a certain “ethical diversity”? Why justify the stereotyped bodies? Isn’t their work grounded on a certain simulacrum of desire? Aren’t they free to address their circumstances? If the representation in the photograph is passe (which I definetly think it is, even though its reference is dated; and now I’m thinking of a certain song that is a thesis on pop art, clichés and dandies in the artworld), what does such an aesthetic judgement have to do with practical ethics? Art has no mandatory political positioning. I’d dare say it should even refuse to embrace the political rethorics and concentrate on expressing its own singularities, but that’s also another story.
2) The second part of the problem is really where things get out of hand and open the door for censorship: when contacted by the organization of the event about the sharing of the zoom meeting on youtube, the artists and another artist friend, also present in the panel, denied consent. André Teodósio, the third artist here in question, presented his own set of reasons (which I don’t think need to be brought to this mess), but JPV and NAF argued that their choice was a result of not having been previously informed about such intentions to make the event available after the happening. This could have ended here. The organization could have simply comply and not make the video public, but they made the weirdest decision to publicize the event, muting the voices of the three artists and replacing their zoom thumbnails with a black canvas. What we ended up with was, for instances, Rodrigo talking to himself. Because this brought upon a different discussion about racism and censorship, JPV and NAF ended up apologizing and agreeing with the publishing of the original video. They were pretty much fucked in all this story, that’s how I see it. They made some bad calls and answer things that might have been better addressed with another set of questions, but in the moment that’s what went on and it’s not that serious or problematic. On the other hand, the eagerness of the organization to publish the video, cutting the people who opposed that publishing and leaving Rodrigo talking to a black canvas is inexcusable. As I see it, a better choice would have been not to publish it and no harm would have come to the world if the event wasn’t transformed into a podcast.
The complexity of the next set of circumstances is of a different order. In the beginning of September, Erik Kessels‘ work presented in the context of Breda Photo 2020 (Netherlands) sparked some heated reactions and ended up being cancelled. People are calling it an effect of the cancel culture, and I’m inclined to agree, but that’s not to say I don’t question the choice to exhibit such an artwork. Kessels has already issued an apology. It’s just the new face of hypocritical behavior. Apparently, it’s no longer noble to own up to it. What’s cool now is to dismiss the controversy am move on. As part of Breda Photo, Kessels put up an installation called Destroy My Face, in collaboration with a Skatepark (Pier 15). The installation consisted in covering up the entire floor of the skatepark with large size pictures of women (?) who had undergone plastic surgeries. A description of the installation, @BredaPhoto’s website, reads as such:
With “Destroy My Face” Kessels wants to stimulate the discussion about the limits of the malleability of the human face and body. He poses questions about the fact that more and more people – young and also the elderly – are changing their external identity. This often happens under disguised social pressure, which is also spread via social media.
The work ‘Destroy My Face’ consists of a compilation of 60 images. The images are sized 4m x 4m and were pasted on the floor of Skatepark PIER15. The images shown are constructions made up of a collection of over 800 images found on the internet of women and men who have in one way or another transformed their face through cosmetic surgery or filters. The images are a reference to reality, but the 60 images presented are not portraits of existing people. They are transformations.
The interactive part of the installation, promoted as such, would consist in the fact that skaters would then use the park and shred the images, destroying the female-like pictures. Imagine the amount of people involved in this: artists, designers, directors, programmers, curators, and technical workers from all the entities collaborating in the project. All of them obviously aware of the controversy it would spark and happy to ride the wave (please don’t tell me otherwise, no one is that stupid in this equation). Controversy is good for publicity and so and and so forth. Are people really surprised that Kessels put up such a work?
After the opening of the installation, pressure started to arise and a petition, signed by many of Kessel’s fellow artists and art workers started to circulate, asking for the closure of the installation, which happened shortly after (not because of Breda’s withdrawal, but because Pier 15 declined to continue hosting the installation). The following is stated in such open letter/petition:
A widely made argument and well-meaning response towards this work are that it sparks ‘useful discussion’. This argument does not hold up in today’s polarised climate: a climate where violent tendencies against women don’t just stop at being “problematic” or somebody being “cancelled” – but have very real and harmful effects on half of the population of this planet. It is no longer up to others to decide what female-presenting faces and bodies should look like or are used for, especially not men. […] Art and cultural spaces should not be used as an easy excuse to display the inconsiderate works of artists, as there are more than enough ways to create meaningful and empathic discourse around controversial topics that don’t include the continued marginalising and discriminating of other human beings. As an art institution and your specific recurring role within Breda’s cultural field, we find that you need to take responsibility rather than see yourselves as something that is “outside of society”.
Do I agree with the cancelling of the installation? No, by any means. Cancel Culture has a very dangerous premisse: it states that the part of the public that doesn’t like or is offended by a certain artwork has legitimacy to install a new taste policy, because that’s what this is about, isn’t it? This is a work of terrible bad taste. All of those involved in the creation and promotion of the work can be judged on that. It’s called critique. What those offended are stating is something entirely different: they’re saying that there’s no difference between artistic expression and any other form of language, so they receive the artworks literally, as if Destroy my face was a message to go out and destroy the faces of women who do plastic surgery. So, once again in history, these people promoting cancel culture are saying the public is stupid and unable to make their own judgment and decisions, as if we don’t have the right to free will and critique. I think Kessels’s work and Breda Photo and Pier 15’s decision to exhibit this is of incredible bad taste, but they are entitled to it. Just don’t go and see, don’t go and skate the park while it’s there. Choose not to participate and legitimate, don’t value it for something it is not. It lacks ethics and that’s very well translated into the aesthetics of an ugly and misogynist work.
Last, but not least (for now), events resulting in Martins Parr’s resignation from the direction of Bristol Photo Festival and the cancelling of a re-edition of a 1969 book by italian photographer Gian Butturini, called London, pulished by Damiani and promoted by Parr. The circumstances are as simple as they are complex: Mercedes Baptiste Halliday, from Clapham, London, who is currently studying anthropology at University College London, has driven an 18-month protest against a photography book credited as being by Parr and which he promoted for a sustained length of time. The book, Baptiste Halliday says, is “appallingly racist”. Mercedes adds, in the same article, “He [Parr] represents a generation of white, middle-aged men who do what they want without any consequences,” she says. “He is the institution, and we are only beginning to dismantle it.” I couldn’t be any more sympathetic to this statement by Mercedes, but can’t really go any further than that and will have to assume that she knows the book and the phothographer, for I don’t. The only thing I know is that it includes the spread below, which is problematic of course, but is likely to have an historical context that would be worth revisiting. If we start taking things out of context, where will we end up? Parr, as promoter of the book (and given that the author is no longer living), apologized for the spread, saying he regretted the oversight. This is serious shit. What oversight? What are we really talking about? If Parr thinks, considering the whole book, that this is intentionaly racist, maybe we could have an interesting conversation about photographs as documents with historical context, no? If he doesn’t think so, why not open up a conversation about simplicist views, taking things out of context, etc.?
Parr later asked for the destruction of the book and responded to Mercedes, stating that: “This is no excuse, but I’m nearly 70-years-old and a white man and regretfully I’m coming to realise that sometimes I have failed to see things from another perspective.” So is this accountability, instead of cancel culture? If it is accountability, how would it play out: are we saying that Buturrini was a racist man and the book reflects that? Are we saying his work has lost artistic value because of a cultural transformation? I’m extremely confused. When Mercedes asks for the cancelling of the book, is she also implying that we’re all stupid and cannot read beyond the archetype? Does she think the majority of people looking through the book will read black women are like gorillas? And, more so, if reading like that, wiould we then promote that sort of behaviour? On a facebook discussion about these events, Brad Feuerhelm tries to clarify the photogrpaher’s point of view (and I’ll take his word for it):
Butturini has actually alliterated his point on the photographs themselves before his death saying (in paraphrase) that the spread is meant to indicate how the marginalized are treated by being placed in cages. I Think its in the preface where he discusses it. So, if he is pointing our societal racism in his awkward spread, who in effect is promoting racism in their mis-reading that spread? My feelings are that it should not have been a spread in the book. If he was conscious of its potential misreadings, he only added to a poor discourse. None the less, it appears his intent is no longer something we shoudl factor into the new conversation? That doesn’t seem like conversation.
Although intention is an important issue, I believe the authors’ intentions are only of any interest if they participate in the artwork, aesthetically. Given that our business here is photographic expression, what I mean is that the photographer’s intentions matter only in photographic terms and, to be fair, what I see looking at these images is his intention to say that this black woman is being threated like a caged animal. Having said that, that sort of association is questionable and, in my view, of bad taste and it doesn’t hold thru time.
Martin Parr and many of his pears have promotted a certain hierarchical structure that has been structurally damaging to our perpection of one another. As Barthes put it once, photography installed a shift in anthroplogy by changing the way we see ourselves and one another. Both our notions about individual and social identity have been transformed by photography, so it matters a great deal that we promote changes in the way we deal with present and future archetypes. However, the past archetypes are still present and avoiding them won’t make them disappear.
Arround the same time, July 2020, an article published on the Guardian by Billy Bragg about cancel culture, stated the following: “The ability of middle-aged gatekeepers to control the agenda has been usurped by a new generation of activists who can spread information through their own networks, allowing them to challenge narratives promoted by the status quo. The great progressive movements of the 21st century have sprung from these networks: Black Lives Matter; #MeToo; Extinction Rebellion. While they may seem disparate in their aims, what they have in common is a demand for accountability.”, to which he added that “Although free speech remains the fundamental bedrock of a free society, for everyone to enjoy the benefits of freedom, liberty needs to be tempered by two further dimensions: equality and accountability. Without equality, those in power will use their freedom of expression to abuse and marginalise others. Without accountability, liberty can mutate into the most dangerous of all freedoms – impunity.”
But some people are having a hard time distinguishing between these notions. Folowing the events between Mercedes and Parr, Tracey Marshall, director of Bristol Photo Festival, commited to replacing the photographer’s role as director and stated that the festival would “replace the artistic director role previously held by Martin Parr”, and will seek to form a creative committee of diverse voices to run the administration of the festival over its inaugural edition“. And the question remains: is this accountability or cancel culture? And, if it is accountability, who’s being accounted for? Parr? Marshall? Both? The insitution? Photography?