This walk: Windward Ave. (Venice Beach, Ca) to Pacific Coast Highway and Sunset (Malibu, CA), Loop; Total Miles: 14
along the foothill.
Slow, the bones
in our feet touching
the ground. The
under the weight
of our thinking.
we go inside. filled
And there were so many things I wanted to take with me and couldn’t carry!
the crow, his black feather
brass rivet in the sand that caught the sunlight
the bee that landed in my palm and did not sting me
little girl on roller skates that wanted to go home; she cried: but mom, what is the point in all of this?
And I made endless lists in my head, trying desperately to remember, everything, regretting deeply that I hadn’t brought with me a notebook, a pen, a camera. Surely, everyone will want to see even the tiniest details of my observations! This is all so sublime and meaningful! Somehow each of these small things is important!
If strung together in a story, every interference from the world outside of myself into the world inside of myself marks a potential to describe what it is I am doing here, as I subject my body voluntarily to the labor of walking a very long distance.
But none of these things could be represented. For inside the space of a photo, never would there be contained what it was in that moment to encounter their happening. Why it among so many others stood out to me. And as I walk I notice, I am made aware of each of these occurrences. I move through the physical sensation of excitement, energetic movement, into the process of total exhaustion. I observe the progression of my awareness, the way my sensitivities are heightened as the walk persists, how the depletion of my body’s resources impacts the level at which I am able to see and perceive, sometimes expanding, sometimes contracting. How by the end of the walk, the body has been so pushed against by sun and gravity that I am made to choose how I will see the world around me, to be enveloped in it, to unearth its beauty or ugliness through my gaze or to sink into that tiredness, to decline, to say in so many ways: I am too tired to look. My feet hurt.
So without a way to document these progressions, to articulate them accurately, what are we left with? If at the end of it I have nothing to show for my work, why did I do it? Here I am having a direct experience with the world, experiences that reveal themselves as metaphoric, analogous with what we describe as life or living (the human condition!), They are all so special! And I am charged with responsibility of articulating that experience thoughtfully toward the goal of communicating with others, in order to reveal previously invisible or obscured information, to generate new knowledge, to remember old knowledge. To make connections.
And I fail. Repeatedly.
So, why go on the walk at all? Why choose to look? If it will always fail, just as I am failing right now to explain these limitations, why do we do it? Why do we try? To quote the roller skating child again: but mom, what is the point in all of this?
We continue despite this question and possibly because of this question and because I tend to identify as an artist or maker, I think of this activity: this activity of trying (to roller skate, to describe, to communicate, to walk…) like we might think of the artist’s studio: the site inside of which someone elects to make things. It is the place for making.
A long time ago, I decided that for me the studio was always changing and it meant many things but at its core was a certain order of events that conjured its existence. In typical terms, the studio is distinguished by place. Very simply, we find four walls that are of a suitable dimension to make the things, which we have decided to make. We enter that place. It is utilitarian. It has enough space, amenities, a wide enough door, ample storage, etc. This kind of space is perfect for many things. And of course I have and will use space in this way in order to fulfill certain creative desires but what likely supersedes this kind of site is what I have come to know as the self as studio. And included in that self is the mind, the body, the intellect, spirit, the will or agency, among many other millions of things we have yet to be made aware of.
Yes. The self is a site. However, unlike the material space we often picture when we think of the artist’s studio, the self has no edges. It bleeds. It leaks. It dies. Information moves in and out of it constantly and often the pace and content of this movement of information is beyond the control of the person (or the self). You cannot help but hear, see, sense as much as you may want to. And still you can elect to see, hear, sense specific things through your own agency or decisions. You can choose to pay attention. In turn, you can elect to express, share, pass along certain aspects of what occurs in your interior. You can make things.
The definitive quality of studio is actually the desire to move information from the interior (the self, the body, the mind) into the exterior so that it enters the interior of the other, of another, winding us together in an unending cycle. How exciting!
And so, to be made aware of something and then to amend that awareness with a desire to pass along the information signifies for me the process of making. Anywhere I find myself, regardless of the material location, if in that time and space there occurs an observation followed by a desire to communicate that observation, I have engaged in the most basic act of making: to try. And wherever that has occurred, that is the studio, whether it is within four walls, while sitting in the bath, fixing my tea, or trekking along the edge of the Pacific Ocean for fourteen miles, none of which may produce any actual evidence or documentation of their happening however cannot be denied of their existence. This great invisible ideal!
And we return again to the point. We rely here, at this end of this brief writing, on a question about why: what is the point in all of this? And humbly I admit, I do not really know but I am going to keep trying.
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