At the tail end of the 90’s, I witnessed the build up of the US initiated wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This very palpable progression toward war framed the context of my first opportunities to receive a critical political education in the classes I was taking as a young student at Glendale Community College. The combination of a real time manifestation of aggressive colonial power and my interest in Latin American political history as well as race/class/gender studies incited a deep reflection on the legacies of systemic oppression and more importantly, implicated my role as an individual in relationship with these systems.
Undoubtedly, the proximity between my academic studies, my observation of catastrophic current events, and a direct address of my own social agency led to my enthusiastic participation in political activism. Through this entry point, I began what has remained a persistent involvement in dialogue and activity toward the goal of systemic social change and a (sometimes painful) uprooting of my personal social identities: white, woman, sexual violence survivor, working class, drop out, first world citizen, able bodied, and queer (among many other fluctuating conditions). All of these social positions came under scrutiny and prompted serious consideration of the ways that power and privilege impacted my life and the lives of the other beings I share the planet with, sentient or otherwise.
After immersing myself in anti war efforts, I soon learned to identify as an activist and community organizer and focused my efforts on racial justice, particularly aimed at undermining white privilege and white supremacy through direct consciousness raising work with white people. Parallel to this, I worked toward becoming an ally to youth and spent many years developing community-based arts and political education programs with high school age folks, most of whom struggled with multiple forms of oppression and in many cases, recovery from institutionalization. Woven throughout all of this work, has been a constant development of a pro feminist identity, seen specifically through the lens of an intersectional understanding of the relationship between identity, privilege, and power. I found a vital (and long absent) sense of belonging within the activist community and through it, a tangible way in which I could contribute to the ideals and desires that were most important to me. I was a high school drop out and a terrible college student with very limited resources however, through my access to activist spaces I developed a capacity to think critically and articulate my ideas through dialogue and direct engagement with community. This informal and highly experiential education space consoled my impatience with the classroom and the direct relationship between thinking and action helped to empower my interests in using my energy to transform the culture(s) of which I am both coauthor and product.
I mention all of this in order to highlight the fact that throughout this ten or twelve year period, my identity as an artist remained fixed in the background and I really only understood the function of art as a utility strictly in service of larger (and perhaps then, more highly prioritized) goal of systemic social justice. I made drawings, sometimes painted. However, my identity as an organizer or activist came first, positioned as the primary way in which I interacted with my immediate world and more often than not, my artistic skills were exclusively invested in political consciousness raising efforts. I could not perceive of art making to be nearly as urgent or necessary an activity as community organizing. What more did art deserve to be aside from an accessory to community organizing in the form of a poster, banner, puppet, or prop that communicated our political desires?
In the last three years, my identity has shifted dramatically as I receded from my role as community organizer/activist, taking steps to intentionally develop my identity as an artist and eventually, it’s more politicized alias: a cultural worker. At twenty-nine, I relocated my artistic practice from predominantly activist spaces into a formal (private, Western) art institution from which I earned a scholarship to attend. There I was exposed to an expansive landscape of art histories I hadn’t ever had the opportunity to consider. Despite their being almost exclusively located in a Western canon, these art historical narratives provided complex examples of the inquisitive reach and creative possibility that art making possessed. And though it may seem naïve to admit, it was during this time that I first realized that the practice of making art was in and of itself a critical territory of investigation. I understood art to be in an implicit relationship with the social-political world however remaining autonomous in that the process of art making answers to a distinct body of concerns and historical precedents, providing articulations of critical thought in languages only possible through artistic inquiry.
From this, I understood that art satisfies or stimulates a desire to know and make meaning that other socially reflective disciplines cannot provide by using distinctly evasive modes of communication: the corporeal, somatic, audible, silent, visible, invisible, liminal, and profoundly inexplicable. Through this realization I began to discover that certain creative desires I possessed could not be satisfied via my activity or identity as a activist or community organizer. The parameters of what is traditionally understood as political activism did not leave enough room for speculation, abstraction, and the attempted articulation of questions that defy the boundaries of language. And further, the goals of community organizing are restricted by definition to measurable outcomes that can be quantified in some way. (eg: How many people attended the event? Was the policy changed? Do more people have jobs or housing? Etc.) Ultimately, the determination of the success or failure of many activist projects are reliant on this statistical evidence. And while this is inherently necessary for this form of cultural activity, when it comes to the success or failure of an artwork, rarely (if ever) can this be quantified in certain terms. Going against the nagging voice that prioritized community organizing over everything, I had to admit: Nope. Art does something different. And eventually, an ironic inversion of my previous question emerged: What more could art be, beyond acting as a tool to represent or express our tangible, material political desires?
It is at this juncture that I began to seriously question the relationship between art and political activism in this contemporary moment. When I relocated my art practice, moving it from a position of service to a political goal and into a speculative space to which it maintained no specific material (or explicitly political) allegiances, I found that the activity of cultural production took on a powerful personality. And through the emancipation of my artistic production from the constraints of the expressly political message, I was perhaps drawing nearer to some of the intrinsic goals or motivations embedded in what we term “systemic social change,” that is, cultural production as a liberatory activity. For me, this proposition began to narrow the distance between the representation of political liberation and the direct experience of an often temporary but nonetheless actual political liberation. The site and process of artistic production could embody the very thing it sought to achieve. And for me, it was only through the expansive reach into this speculative landscape, the abandonment of didactic parameters, and the enacted freedom of the maker that would render this possible.
This emancipatory shift certainly does not come without a unique set of problems and questions. And the redirection of my artistic practice from an exclusively “activist” position should not be mistaken for a retreat into the vacuum of “art for arts sake,” devoid of self reflexivity or ethical and/or socio-political considerations but rather— this is meant to suggest that in this moment the urgent task is to develop a new way of being an “engaged” artist: one that holds the tension between the concrete need to dismantle an abusive colonial project through actual material change and protects, activates, and reimagines the liberatory capacities of artistic production in this historical moment.
For me, this yet to be determined role for the artist leans heavily on a brave (or sometimes reckless) willingness to occupy a liminal territory in which the fibers of the colonial imagination can be unraveled, our intersubjectivity renegotiated, and a collective liberation reframed and reclaimed.
“What is an artist? A provincial who finds himself somewhere between a physical reality and a metaphysical one…. It’s this in-between that I’m calling a province, this frontier country between the tangible world and the intangible one—which is really the realm of the artist.” Federico Fellini
Stay Tuned for next week’s post: Art, Social Engagement, and the Colonial Imagination