Saturday, June 28, 2014

Urban Fixation and the Paradoxes of Affective Citizenship- A Tentative Travelogue Part 1

I am spending (spending an interesting term because if implies monetary expenditure, true, in this case, but also the unfolding of time) the next four weeks traveling around Western Europe, visiting major cities and visiting graffiti and street art sites. These two limit points for my itinerary, to which I can add Berlin and London to the list, offer an interesting panorama of the ways in which public art/street art/"creative" communities, create different entry points into city life.

My first observation is that such travel involves different levels of comfort and discomfort. The comfort of my social standing, a middle class bourgeois intellectual who has the freedom to travel, economic and social capital that enables me to be a mobile transcontinental subject. Pale skin that enables me to pass as white so that when I am in contact with police forces (border checkpoints, transit ticket check points, etc.) I am not a de-facto source of suspicion. 
Researcher/tourist body. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
A sense of belonging to art-intellectual circles that allow me to find conferences and salons, to recognize interview interlocutors in exhibitions oceans apart.
Paulo Nazarth. Cadernas de Africa. 2013. ICA London, 2014. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

 Comfort imparted by my upbringing and situatedness in a Western and anglophone culture such that, when navigating the (new to me) networks of streets and transit points in a city like London, I still find maps relatively legible. Discomfort in being on the move, without a resting place, at the mercy of public restrooms, the weather, and parks to find recuperation, and relief. Coffee shop culture in Berlin and London that enables me to find small spaces to unwind and journal. Discomfort in aloneness (disrupted by the occasional coincidental run in with acquaintances and colleagues), being a single woman walking around at night, intensely aware of my bodily vulnerability that is magnified to different degrees in different spaces. Discomfort because, between jobs, meals must be brought with and consumed at fixed points, and walking is cheaper than the train, so a kind of endemic sweatiness. Discomfort that is far outweighed by social privilege.

Second, what makes cities seem welcoming, to me, is in fact their levels of visible creativity. Staying in Berlin, near Mauer Park, and visiting Kreuzberg Park, I put myself in regular contact with reputed bohemian locales. Instead of the smoothness of the central cities, I selected the textured spaces of South Berlin, spaces that are mashups of different times, spaces and inscriptions. In London, near Brick Lane, the scene is as important as the city itself as different artist types and intellectuals intensely work on the self-fashioning that enables them to present a certain "authentic" and DYI sensibility to the public. In this sense I am following an itinerary that exhibits an intense fidelity to Richard Florida's creative cities thesis, even as I wonder how, given its increasing scope and hold of cities, it may be resisted, not resisting creativity, per se, but a framework for creativity that divorces it from structures of support, reproduction, and maintenance that require state institutions, not a creativity that is seem to burst onto the scene, ex nihilo, and fully compatible with avaricious neoliberal regimes.

It is with these prominent reflections in the back of my mind that I attended two intellectual events, both reflecting on art's (or the aesthetic's) relationship to "community," or publics, or communities of practice. The first took place on Friday at London's Institute for Contemporary Art, one of their "Salon," sessions where artists, curators, and intellectuals gather for discussions. This particular session, titled "Gallery as Community," revisited a 2003 collected volume on the above theme. The four panelists offered reflections on two different projects. The first, a three-year long (so far, it continues) project where a peer group meets every six weeks for a full day to "make" together. The second, a ten-week project using art as a therapeutic vehicle for mothers in acute depression. The first, taking place at Gasworks, was described as facilitator Katie Orr and lead artist Albert Potrony as an experience of cultivating a "special language," intelligible to the group but not to outsiders, and cultivating a sense of attachment to the group that is based on the process of "thinking and making," a collective identity that is based on practice, not ascriptive identity. Some of the projects, artist and organizer suggested, involve acts of "bravery," doing things that are "silly" for the purpose of creating art. This tactical discomfort is a vehicle for building connections within the group, and making their works connect to outside spaces. The second project, articulated by Frances Williams and led by Lawrence Bradby, dealing with populations that are acutely suffering, taking place in very documented and institutional settings, seemed more about creating some space for expression, a kind of comfort or suspended space. Both projects, it seemed to me, were more about creating intimacy, the first, intimacy between strangers, the second, recuperating intimacy within families, than a more abstract commitment to the "public" as such. Lauren Berlant analyzes what she calls the Intimate Public Sphere(s) as spaces of affective attachment and investment that may not make direct claims on an institutional political, but also that the public sphere is a space of intimacy. 

The dialectic between comfort and discomfort and intimacy also emerged in a panel discussion at the London Critical Theory Conference at Goldsmith's College on Saturday. The panelists; Michael Lithgow, Helen Palmer, and Lucia Vodanovic, explored different ways that the aesthetic worked to defamiliarise (but also, in Michael's case study, create temporary spaces of comfort and familiarity. He spoke about a homeless festival in Montreal, État d’urgence, which ran from 1998 to 2010. At the festival binaries of inclusion/exclusion and comfort/discomfort are flipped (he draws on Rancière to make this argument, insofar as the homeless, provided with entertainment, food, warmth, are treated as spectators and audience members rather than victims, and the non homeless visitor is made to feel out of place, a condition that the homeless experience 365 days a year. Vodanovic discussed a 1960s-80s theatre in Kentish Town, called “Interaction,” which provided a “framework,” for interaction even as it was based on flexibility and ephemerality (Price, the architect, argued that buildings should not exceed 10 years, and argued for the theaters destruction). He also designed an unrealized project, Fun House, which worked as a kind of aspirational architecture. Dr. Palmer gave a brilliant talk about reading queer theory into Russian Futurism and Formalism, thinking "dynamic shiftology," through "queer defamiliarisation. I asked a question about the axis of comfort/discomfort and rhetorics of flexibility producing the kind of precarity that enables endemic homelessness. It made me think about how the pretty prevalent post-structural/contemporary imperatives in critical theory to make strange or uncomfortable dominant meanings can marginalize further those already on the margins. 

This is a roundabout way of raising two questions I am working out in the book manuscript version of the diss. First, in privileging engaging the discomfort that encounters with difference can incite as part of an ethic and politics of Affective Citizenship (a term I draw from Monica Mookherjee and expand in the second chapter of the dissertation on Mujeres en el Arte), it further magnifies how the language of flexibility, adaptability, and discomfort used to discuss a politics of difference in some way mirrors the imperatives used to justify precarious social and economic arrangements. Second, in the context of marginalized identities, discomfort is not novel but rather an endemic condition. Lithgow illustrated this nicely in suggesting that the homeless festival, in creating an exceptional space of comfort for the endemically uncomfortable, also does powerful work in undoing the presumptive comfort of non homeless populations. It raises, however, the need to distinguish, and say discomfort for whom, and to what degree? I think that Luce Irigaray's work on wonder, an ethic of the making strange, and "seeing as always for the first time," anticipates this objection by tying wonder to the production of the interval, a kind of spatial but also perhaps subjective buffer zone that projects the subject (particularly the marginalized subject) from constant incursion. Strange, but in a suspended sense, not a violent sense. Moreover, Palmer's invocation of a queer defamiliarization, and the late Jose Munoz's work on queer futurity (Emily Cram's thought provoking piece here reminded me of this connection) also can work to resist the reappropriation of defamiliarization for precarious/neoliberal ends by emphasizing the need for imaginaries of horizons to come. The temporariness of the defamiliarizing aesthetic event contains within it the aspiration for a kind of recreation (although with a difference), an anticipation or expectation that does not cut all ties to the known, creation of kind of comfort or belonging that may defamiliarize or challenge the comfort of dominant publics. Anna Hickey Moody suggested in response to my query that the existence of ephemeral models of aesthetic practice such as Price's Interaction building that existed alongside guarantees for sustenance (actor stipends, shared meals, etc.), is a historically specific mode of ephemeral or defamiliarizing politics, one that has lost, or is losing its bearings.

To evoke an affect citizenship that affirms the ephemeral, the wondrous, and the strange, then is not a de facto call for discomfort, but rather, a call to engage in practices of intimate publicity that challenge given distributions of comfort and belonging that push already marginalized populations to the margins. It also raises a call to be skeptical (and this is symptomatic in my own work) of romanticizing the city as the ideal site of politics, a claim that elides the fact that processes of urbanization continually erase and do violence to non-urban lanscapes, violence that continues to wreak havoc on rural and indigenous populations, dramatically performed in the current show "Red Forest" by the Belarus Free Theatre at the Young Vic (which is complicated, aesthetically and politically, and subject for a much longer essay). So it is with these thoughts in mind that I continue thinking about affective citizenship, comfort, discomfort, and precarity. It is also a reminder that narratives of density and emptiness, urban and rural, can bleed into one another: in the same way that a freight train graffitied in central Berlin makes its way to rural Germany, and vice versa, narratives of quiet, non-anonymity, and the agrarian can take place in intensely urban settings (notably, interviewing Balu, a co-organizer for MOS Germany, he discussed at length the beauty of the Walle(spelling unsure) region of Germany, where he lives in a village of 78; knows the cows that make his milk; appreciates the total darkness of the night; and receives intense feedback and cake from elderly neighbors about the little wall he paints in the public square).

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