Week 33: 29th April – 5th May
After last weeks discussion about the how ideas of affect and semiotics within artwork create reactions in the viewer, it seems fitting this week to write about my visit to Ante Art in Shipley. Organised to coincide with the annual May Day celebrations (otherwise known as the International Day of Workers), Ante Art expresses a DIY aesthetic coupled with a strong political agenda. As a completely self-organised and unfunded event produced through collective effort, it showed what can be achieved through the use of our own talents and in cooperation with others. The exhibits ranged from union banners and archives of posters from the 80s, through to contemporary art practices using crowdsourced methods of production, such as Twitter.
Art practices which incorporate elements of protest (or vice versa), typically wear their heart on their sleeve, but they can also run the risk of being equally as polemical as the capitalist model. In other words, visual art practice as a tool for critical thinking is often at odds with agitprop style work, which is intended to convey one specific message to the audience. This work, often described as Culture Jamming, tends to appropriate and subvert the language and aesthetics of advertising in order to question these messages, and is popular among street artists such as Banksy and publications, such as Adbusters.
However, my assessment is not intended to deride these practices, but as a further exploration of what constitutes ‘art’ as opposed to protest. In considering the relative merits of these actions, it may then be possible not only to define the boundaries of each term, but also how each may contribute to the effectiveness of the other. In fact, throughout history, artists have used their work in order to question and expose ‘truths’ in a manner akin to protest.
Ai Wei Wei
The contemporary Chinese artist, Ai Wei Wei, now famed for his illegal detainment due to speaking out against the actions of the Chinese authorities, is one such artist. His work, like many artists, is produced by a team of skilled crafts people under his direction. However, rather than the traditional capitalist factory, the political messages within his work seem to almost incorporate this process as a collective effort.
His work is imbued with social activism, but through a process of embodying these experiences, it becomes less polemical and more autobiographical. Equally, the installations, despite drawing on his experiences of protest, are not obviously propagandist, and require additional context in order for all the meanings to be fully understood. This context is provided in the form of online videos, tweets, interviews and films.
So what could art as protest be? Perhaps the most interesting way of thinking about it is to return to ideas of how art is exhibited and received and the role of the artist within these structures. As a maker of cultural products, one of the ways to make your voice heard is through non-participation. Lauren van Haaften-Schick writes in ArtLeaks Gazette about instances where artists have refused to participate in exhibitions and opportunities, sometimes even removing their work from display in museums as a protest about freedom of speech or the political motivations of institutions. Again, although these actions can appear self-defeating, it does suggest other ways of engaging in creative practice as a political act.
The exploration of protest is continued through the work of London-based artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. As a multi-layered installation consisting of film, sound, text, and performed actions, The Museum of Non-Participation creates a format with which to explore the ways in which people can participate in or withdraw from political realities. Working within the gallery system, yet critiquing the idea of collections and institutions begins to question the underlying structures that produce the art system, thereby creating new possibilities and ontologies of interaction.