on immigrants and animals, Part 2: Last Yearz Interesting Negro & School of the Damned

Capitalist industry sustains itself by maintaining a surplus labour force (i.e., the unemployed); as Gregory Sholette puts it in ‘Dark Matter’, the art world sustains itself through an overabundance of persistently struggling/failing artists who remain continually available. They buy tickets; they attend class; they pay for materials and studio fees; they undertake low (/un)paid support roles within institutions; they write reviews and attend conferences and update blogs; they gossip about peers experiencing temporary success, channeling energy and attention toward the industry; they share videos on Facebook about how creativity and art are important. But more simply, they continue to make artworks and performances, maintaining a supply from which the institution can selectively draw from. Despite being made with minimal resources, these artists competitively produce fresh and acute work; but while they are driven by their own interest and desires, the artworks are always influenced by aspirations to be noticed, accepted, and welcomed in. The institution declares that it can only support a small number of artists (and so makes certain demands over form and content), but must always keep open the promise that you might be one of the lucky ones. I recently contacted a theatre to ask them what kind of work they were interested in supporting within their development program; they replied:

“We are interested in supporting and developing artists that are creating performance work, in any form, that excites us and tells stories or explores themes that are relevant to our audience and will enable us to reach new audiences in a meaningful way. We do not specifically define the kind of work that we support as we are open to lots of different art forms.”

Convenient.

The last thing I wrote about the choreographic duo immigrants and animals ended by suggesting their practice is maintained outside of, and opposed to, institutions. I’m not quite satisfied with this; it oversimplifies the relationships between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the institution, and in doing so fails to account for the nuances of their work. While Jamila and Mira present their collaborative practice as resistant to institutional complicity, I want to account for how this might relate to, and impacts on, their other practices – most notably, Jamila’s recent solo presented at Dance Umbrella. I wanted to talk a bit about ‘coolness’ too, and how it might play a role in these dynamics. I repeatedly claimed that it infuses their work, but I never really consider what it is.

Extra-institutional practice seems to both produce and make use of coolness, in an indifference towards or rejection of the mainstream. It establishes a certain magnetism that doesn’t rely on significant resources; coolness asserts itself as desirable and forces you to acknowledge it as a threat. But rather than merely a PR function around the work, I think it charges the space and effects the work itself, in a more direct way. Immigrants and animals run an infrequent night of triple-bills, The Lone Wolf, The Dark Horse and The Underdog; although I haven’t loved everything I’ve seen there, there’s always been a particular intensity, and authority, and electricity, to do with their coolness, which has somehow made possible the works that have most struck me; works that I find impossible to imagine seeing anywhere else, namely, Anna Torkkel’s Heart Piece, and Paul Maheke’s A Gesture Towards Transformation. Both these oblique solos were delivered with an intimacy, a fragmentedness, a quietness, that seemed to surf the energies and attentions in the room: they both risked a kind of narcissism, but the intensity of the space kept them open and diffused their focus to engender a kind of hypnotic state in the audience. As I tried to describe in the previous text, this is not about establishing an empathetic relation between the performer and the audience, but rather it makes this distance itself stark and luminescent. The coolness of these nights establishes a powerful platform, which lets the artists operate with a lightness and simplicity; both works felt breathtaking, electric, endless and over-in-an-instant; impossible to break down or otherwise account for.

But coolness can be used to benefits the institution itself, as suggested by Jamila in her use of the name Last Yearz Interesting Negro. ‘Interesting’ and ‘cool’ have a similar sort of logic: an affective pull, a line of desire, which is totally vague; you can’t pin down why, or even deny, something’s cool. This non-specificity makes possible a dangerous unaccountability of how an institution can make its choices: they can announce their support of an ‘interesting’ artist, and then lose this interest once they’ve fulfilled their function (or begun to feel more trouble than they’re worth). There will be always be more willing and useful artists to be deemed cool or interesting next year. As much as something’s ‘coolness’ can be of strategic use to artists themselves, this coolness can be harvested by institution: drawing from the energy and authority of an independent scene. Coolness might be a precursor to an institution’s attempts to make use of an artists, perhaps for some quality they bear – as Jamila’s suggests with the her blackness. In her interview with the Evening Standard running up to her presenting her work at the festival Dance Umbrella, she is described as:

“uncomfortable getting into bed with institutions that might reinforce the social structures she’s railing against, or tie her to people whose work or opinions she doesn’t agree with. And she doesn’t want to be used for anyone’s “diversity” agenda. “i’m aware that my body and me, they’re a currency, and it’s a currency that i can’t cash in on,” she says. “but other people can. They get to tick lots of boxes by having me there.”

(‘Jamila Johnson-Small talks to Lyndsey Winship’, The Evening Standard: http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/arts/jamila-johnsonsmall-i-don-t-want-to-do-any-more-explaining-to-any-white-people-about-the-horrors-a3361546.html)

Tensions between the independent artist and the institution is nothing new, and modern art has long established its narrative of successive aesthetic revolutions triggered by artists breaking away from institutionally-backed values; “classic alienated artists, like an Egon Schiele, would have learned by 1910, if not long before, that alienation sells, that to be alienated was as much as role, a way of establishing a professional identity, as occupying a position in the academy” (Robert Jensen, ‘Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-siècle Europe’, Princeton University Press, 1994). But rather than these long-term developments, I’m more interested in a more direct intervention by institutions on radical practices in order to diffuse their threat: I’m thinking of the PAD/D (Political Art Documentation and Distribution) archive held now within MOMA, which contains work which directly protested the museum’s complicity in gentrification. Or the history of the punk movement, where some artists were offered access to mainstream and commercial success, siphoning off energy from the more explicitly political voices in the scene (the different fates of Sex Pistols and The Clash, versus the aggressively anti-racist, anti-war and class-conscious Crass – Penny Rimbaud’s introduction to the 2008 reprint of ‘The Last of the Hippies’ is good on this).

The difference here is that Jamila and Mira don’t restrict themselves to a singularly independent position of their work as immigrants and animals, but maintain different practices which hold different relations to the institution. I don’t know much about Mira’s other work (she’s partly based in Helsinki, i think), but Jamila (alongside her previously mentioned solo work) also collaborates with Alexandrina Helmsley as Project O; they seem to successfully and regularly tour their work across the contemporary performance scene. This isn’t just a way to experiment with different positions/strategies; we have to think about the dynamics of how cultural capital acquired from these different projects is transferred across them. Perhaps Dance Umbrella genuinely admire Jamila’s work – perhaps her presence is very useful to ward off questions over race and representation – perhaps they feel the need to insist on their cultural authority over a scene of dance artists establishing their own platforms, or are cashing in on a certain aura around their work; it’s probably not just any one of these things.

It’s a bit dodgy to make quick comparisons across disciplines, but: the situation here of artists maintaining a split or multiple position seems very different to older groups like Crass, who were part of a movement which was working towards a full emancipation & autonomy from art institutions. To speak broadly, it seems like artists working today who are critical of institutions are adopting strategies like temporary occupation, agitation, & negotiation, rather than full independence. Extra-institutional projects are formed as spaces for experimentation, mutual support and exchange – but they also develop a certain cultural currency, which is then used to gain partial institution access (which can then indirectly or directly feed back to & continue to support these alternative spaces). It’s worth asking though, how many artists can be said to be operating purely ‘inside’ the institution – who aren’t forced to at least partially depend on independent contexts? Maybe there’s a naivety in insisting on any clear distinctions of being ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ of institutions any more; or whether there was ever an historical moment in which this was clear.

So when Jamila’s invited to present a work at Dance Umbrella, all of this makes up the background of how I’m watching I ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere. Formally, the work isn’t dissimilar to the stuff she does with immigrants and animals – it’s a sort of anxious and fragmented choreography. She spends much of the work turned in on herself, either in her dancing, or in watching videos of her fractured self crawling around the back wall. She’s hunched on the floor, or dancing at the head of a line of solo female dancers who have joined her on the stage. There’s a stack of speakers delivering mostly uninterrupted music, with occasional layers of recorded speech too; Jamila herself, and others; a kind of repetitive questioning and muttering as they pace and dance through urban environments. On the other side of the stage, a large and dark monolith looms over the work – it looks oily, glistening purplish green. It’s both a figure and a force of anxiety – non-specific, never directly engaged with, seemingly both ancient stone and organic growth – invoking a nonspecific fear or unnameable dread. It reminded me my mobile phone, softly glowing at night; a source of intimacy and pleasure, and guilt and stress. The work felt moody, full of an internal questioning and hesitancy, and noise, refusing to arrive anywhere or resolve itself.

In thinking about the piece, I end up remembering an exhibition at Lewisham Art House by The School of the Damned, an independent, unfunded and free one year MFA; organised by the students themselves, it appropriates the conventional MFA model e.g. group crits, a couple of shows during the year, with mentoring from invited artists, researchers and teachers. During the year, the students undertook different collaborative and collective projects, but then had to decide how to approach their end of year show: traditionally a way of presenting each individual artist to curators and collectors. How could they reconcile their independence, critique and dissent with this form of institutional complicity? Should the coolness of their aggressive and critical position be used within this work? Was this independent project just an exercise to give themselves a dynamic edge when entering the same market as everyone else? Lots of the work dealt with these questions, and negotiated the seductive charm of their dissent; Jake Kent cited imagery of old punks like Crass, but acknowledged the inextricable commodity status of these gestures – he lists his own website across them as a watermark to make explicit his inescapable authorial identity; Matt Welch presented small sculptures with a romantic and aggressive sense of urban space, but they end up equally suggestive of future developments of luxury flats, deeply aware of the possible gentrifying force of independent art projects; and perhaps more abstractly, Vicki Fournieles confronts her medium as she physically intervenes in the development of photographic film by crushing, biting, tearing, squeezing: her shockingly poetic pinky-orangey semi-crumpled prints mounted directly on the wall reveal the intimate proximity in any gesture of rejection.

Jake, Matt and Vicki all play the institutional game in presenting their work; yet they retain powerfully articulate and critical even in the moment of their (self-perceived) complicity. In contrast, I ride in colour… remains in a murky and moody space. While it’s clear frustrated with its institutional context, it remains trapped in narcissistic and introspective self-doubt. Which is tricky – elsewhere I’ve praised these qualities (introspection, narcissism, etc.) when discussing immigrants & animal’s work, or in Maheke or Torrkel’s pieces. But Jamila’s introspection was no longer framed in her extra-institutional project, and I felt like all it offered me was the figure of the artist wrapped up in the guilt, frustration and inarticulacy of complicity; remaining at a level of psychological space, without articulating the institutional pressures they’re encountering. Maybe the coolness wasn’t there, in Dance Umbrella, to support this kind of choreography; or maybe there was something else in the room, about its framing and context, that felt more overt and swamped it.

I dunno about this – there’s a perversity to me spending this much time writing something that ends up being quite down on someone else’s work, for pretty much no reason whatsoever. But – I respect these artists, and if I’m going to speak critically of their work then it’s worth laying out exactly how I getting there, even if that results in something clunky & overwrought. I’m not 100% sure of how the above fits together, but its been useful for me to think through this stuff, & hopefully you can tell me what I’m missing out or what needs to be reconsidered. These artists are working with a diligence and complexity that deserves significant thought from others in the scene.

NB: There were a couple of errors in my text which I’ve now corrected – that the interview with Jamila was with the Evening Standard (not the Evening Herald); and more significantly, that while her solo I ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere was presented at Dance Umbrella, it was not commissioned by the festival.

21.02.2017

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