Selfish Chair is a writer, untrained and disorganized, deeply concerned with people, their lives, their relationships, though utterly incapable of engaging with them himself. She is a chair, after all, living quietly in a small room where she works, sleeps, eats. A seven by seven by eight foot space in Hollywood. She can see everything from here and this room applies a great pressure to her thinking. She cannot escape the heavy-handed influence of the popular culture she was raised on: television, going to the movies, music, plastic objects. She has many facebook friends. She hates parties but wishes to be invited to them. She is funny.
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Follow the Selfish Chair
the door, ajar: transmissions from the in between
(4:02), Performance by Clare Fox, Photography/Audio/Editing by Kristy Lovich
in the center it is a small roundness
a roundness held in front of the breast
just above the belly
your two hands cupped, one on top, palm facing the feet
one below, palm facing the jaw
they, the opening, the space, together, the two
make the invisible boy.
and the shape of the empty space casts a shadow.
a small roundness near your belly.
in the center of this
the imprisonment and freedom.
the laughter and weeping.
While my broad curiosities finger the connective tissue that forms a persons perception of their relationship to the world, how they simultaneously shape it and are shaped by it, I consider heavily those experiences we each have moved through that contain the potential to shift our consciousness, fundamentally, to redefine our concepts of power and identity. And I zero in on those moments we act upon and are acted upon by an immersive constellation of happenings. The moments when (even if briefly) the veil is lifted between the Self and The Other, the disintegration of that protective layer designed to obscure the inner workings of the mechanisms between you as a self contained being and the exterior world you are a part of. That moment that you see.
And I speculate that Deleuze described something like this when he talked about singularities, that is “turning points and points of inflection; bottlenecks, knots, foyers, and centers; points of fusion and condensation, and boiling; points of tears and joy, sickness and health, hope and anxiety, ‘sensitive’ points.” (Logic of Sense, Deleuze, p. 63) And of course, we can bear witness to these kinds of moments clearly when we see them in films: the inciting incident, the moment when the protagonist is confronted with a decision that will change the course of the story, the instant that the conflict seems as though it will boil over and we are held there, suspended in our empathy, changing with the hero. This center of intersubjectivity, with the projected character on the screen allows us to be submerged in that decisive instant, both as an objective witness and as the subjective agent. Through this arrangement of image, sound, and time, we can become present, embodied in the blurring of the distance between inside and outside.
What if I began to watch my life like a movie?
When I was little, I wrote a lot of stories. And like any good writer, I was always deeply concerned with making better stories. My mother, also a writer, would read my drafts and I would ask her for advice. And she always said: write about what you know. As a kid, this was very helpful, practical wisdom. When searching for subjects to write bout, I could use this cue to mine my own life for anecdotes: school, friends, my backyard, my dog. And I would weave these kinds of subjects in with fantasy, stolen from the pages of my favorite novels. Many years later, as an adult, a fully-fledged grown writer (and artist) I still return to this advice. When I began this project, charging myself with the task of integrating writing with sculpture and film, taking a speculative reach toward the ways that power and agency function in our personal and political lives, I struggled momentarily with where to begin. And thankfully, the simple phrase grounded me in a starting place: Write about what you know.
I first needed to begin with why. Why this subject? Why this concern with the ways that power and agency function? Why right now? I am always watching, in a nearly obsessive way, listening for patterns, looking for the ruptures in sequence that collectively, ironically become a pattern too when they accumulate. And what has become increasingly clear over the last several years are the effects of living in a post 9/11 world, our lives fully immersed in information delivery systems and the rupturing of a perceived cultural stability. That prior to our ability to know what’s going on, anywhere in the world, at any given moment, many of us were able to exist in a relatively copasetic state, kept safe from an awareness of social conflict and inequity (unless of course you were victim of such). And I began to think that perhaps this naiveté was fertile ground to cultivate the misguided belief that we had some time ago arrived to a post racial, post sexist, postcolonial world in which our collective consciousness not only realized but mended the catastrophic wounds of systemic oppression. What we have seen most recently, through our relationships with social media and open source information platforms is that many of the social ills previously believed to be resolved still maintain an incredible hold over our lives together. And further, that when this information is shared, it has had the power to incite serious renegotiations of power and space, personhood and identity. The result of this has birthed a number of domestic and international instances of social unrest, constructing moments of solidarity between groups of people who at one time did not perceive of themselves as allies, and driving apart even further those whom historically have always been divided. The simulacra we gaze upon and interact with, that digital theater we build, writes in real time the representation of our world via seemingly innocuous facebook or blog post, through the look upon the television, phone, computer, movie screen. This context sets the parameters for new inquiries into the nature of intersubjectivity, the scope of social narrative, and invites exciting questions about how social structures can change from the inside out. This moment pushes on the need to understand how consciousness shifts, right now.
I positioned that loving piece of advice from my mother on writing within this frame and thought that to better understand how change happens, how people realize themselves to be active agents in their world, I would need to begin with myself and write about what I know. So, I began to watch my life like a movie. I recounted the moments that for me, as the protagonist of my film, presented themselves as those singularities, those distinct experiences that redirected my sense of agency, that revealed the behavior of power, ultimately restructuring my subjective identity, changing my relationship with the world.
What emerged after a thorough reconstruction, a remembering of my most formative experiences were four distinct scenarios: (1) surviving rape, (2) a suicide attempt and subsequent institutionalization, (3) dropping out of high school, and (4) my participation in a peaceful political demonstration that was attacked by the Los Angeles Police Department. And like any good film, there were sub plots set in place to shape and form the story and places that provided context for the logic of this filmic universe. Some of these places existed in real space like the Hollywood Wax Museum and my studio and some in the frames of other films like The Wizard of Oz and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and some presented themselves as these obscure sites, barely discernable except through mediated memory and aging VHS home video recordings.
As I watched this film, I felt like these experiences rendered me acutely aware of the ways that violence, both physical and psychological, impacted ones belief in their own empowered existence. That the proximity I maintained to the memories of these experiences was food for a deep sensitivity to the suffering of others. This sensitivity translated into a comprehension of how trauma changes our relationships, to ourselves, to each other, to the world that we live in. And then, when this logic is magnified, applied to the political, it was very easy to draw the lineages between systemic, generational trauma and the current condition of our social lives. The constellatory mindscape that began to form revealed a complex of experience, complete with a fractal logic that can served to provide openings into how and why I have come to understand myself as a participant in the world, as a cultural worker, and perhaps in a humble way, speculates on how the personal and political become informants to one another.
“And now she was able to shower. She had tried once before, the first night, to wash off the hours she spent being ferried from office to office, building to building, answering questions from strangers that carved away at her most precious secrets. Her elbow cradled by the hand of a nurse while they walked, the deceiving kindness of his touch always prepared to revert to force, should she make a run for it. The shower she used had no curtain or door. Just a smooth white tub, surrounded by white tile walls, framed by the concrete floor. A white plastic chair, the guard tower in the corner, where the nurse kept watch. The girl undressed, her movements slow like a sick cat. Her eyes silent. The resonance of the water hitting the porcelain floor of the tub filled the room, temporarily drowning her. The song of the water louder than the noise of being stared at. After seventy-two hours, her body again, belonged a little to herself, the fingertips of gazing eyes suspended, at least while she was naked, either without clothes or dreaming.”
(Excerpt from the text, Enough, part two of a collection of short fiction by Kristy Lovich titled So You’re the Leader, to be published in the Fall of 2013, alongside the exhibition of the same title.)
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