Born in Flames: an Aesthetic Education

The grounding narrative of politicization for the people my teenage self wanted to become looked back to Paris, May 1968. Uncompromising refusal, collective action and the aesthetics of the street made the Situationist International a privileged model for political activity in experimental arts and punk rock circles. Zine culture brought the Situationists to the decidedly un-French environs of Newcastle, Australia, the steel and coal port where I was born, a city which also happens to be the birthplace of New York SI-scholar McKenzie Wark, who I later sought out for supervision of my masters degree. But rather than being a cosmopolitan capital of a European republic and progenitor of modern democracy like Paris, regional Australia was a barely-reformed penal colony whose potential liberation seemed somewhat less exciting or consequential. When Newcastle’s most famous riot at the Star Hotel made it to the French media in 1979, the reported headline captured it perfectly: “Australians riot when pub closes.” It’s true that the Star would have been a place I would have hung out if I were 18 rather than 8 years’ old at the time, but a historical clash between police and 4000 drunk youth in a working class city never gained artistic currency in my world, which did not hold Cold Chisel’s commemorative track dear, and it certainly held no promise of a political future.

Before the arrival of the web, my all-consuming activity was mail-ordering books, magazines, LPs and cassettes that could connect me to the artists and musicians I admired, most of whom were from New York or New Zealand. I remember the availability of NTSC VHS players in Australia finally making available videos of independent 80s bands and indie films, and among one of those packages a copy of Lizzie Bordern’s 1983 film Born in Flames made it to my collection. I’d been hanging out on the fringes of feminist politics on campus while dropping out of my sociology degree, attracted by the potential exit from the compulsory heterosexuality I’d grown up with, while intimidated by the intractability of what Gayatri Spivak describes as the “simple and forbidding” double-binds of gender. Born in Flames demonstrated a possibility of bonding in difference, not just in the theoretical manner I would come to understand later, but through aesthetic action that seemed to present itself immediately. The world that created the film seemed more inviting than the prospect of being excommunicated from the radical sects of manguardists who dominated the local political scene. I’d like to say I took the film to heart then, but lacking a community to process it with I only watched it once or twice before it sat in the archives, and it was only much later that I realized how deeply the film had perhaps touched my aspirations for the political.

For the uninitiated, Born in Flames is a neo-realist feminist “sci-fi” set in a future New York that looks a lot like 1983 but for one detail: it is a nominal ten years after a socialist revolution. In the film, mass media channels reframe the continuing oppression of women and black people as a lingering glitch in the system still promising “freedom for all.” Various groups of women, most prominently black and working-class lesbians, organize to demand economic, political and sexual justice through strikes and direct action. Male government figures graph the activity of the militant Women’s Army, but the intelligence-gathering is constantly rebuffed by the Army’s apparent lack of hierarchical leadership. The activist women, however, are not disaggregated merely as a strategy; they also negotiate very real fractures between their own groups along race and class lines. The white middle-class women who edit the Socialist Youth Review are initially disdainful of the black-led Army, which they perceive as a dangerous rupture of a united socialist front toward equality for women. Meanwhile, the white anarchist punk rockers represented by Isabel (played by Adele Bertei of The Contortions, possibly the connection that led me to first see the film) appear to be more simply not very good at fitting in with anyone else’s plans.

Things get serious when Women’s Army leader Adelaide Norris dies in custody after being abducted by government men upon her return from a training exercise with a revolutionary African women’s militia in the West Sahara. The resulting ferment produces an ethical irruption for the white newspaper editors, who finally loosen their attachment to institutional control and “class guilt” to join the black-led collective struggle. The white women realize that if they too refused to wait indefinitely for a future justice promised by the male leaders, they would also be on the receiving end of the same state violence. Their class position, theoretical orientation and professional location still determine their mode of political action: they do not adopt the black women’s praxis through the simplistic assumption of downward mobility. Exposed to critique, however, they learn to read Norris’ struggle as their own. Meanwhile, the white punks learn to understand the collective structure of their plight through more banal and proximate acts of violence: bombings of the rival pirate radio stations highlight the inadequacy of their aesthetic rebellion in the face of fascism.  These diverse women join to shakily bear arms and hi-jack a presidential television address, broadcasting a taped message from senior black leader Zella, condemning the oppression of women everywhere. They finally destroy the patriarchal media organ by bombing the television antenna atop the World Trade Centre in the film’s infamous and prescient ending.

The centrality of the film in my political imaginary became clearer while reading Spivak’s 2012 opus, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. While Spivak’s tone differs markedly from Bordern’s, she shares a goal to read the political through the ethical, to maintain the intuition of transcendental collectivity without suppressing the intractable boundaries of race, gender and class that govern our ability to join collective action. Spivak’s overarching concern in the book is with the possibility of the aesthetic to “short-circuit the task of shaking up our habit of not examining our habits, perhaps.” In this formulation we already have a classic Spivak speed-bump: it will not be as simple as learning to change our habits (through e.g. following new rules); the best we might politically achieve from the aesthetic is learning to stop forgetting we have habits.  “Theory brings practice to crisis [perhaps making practice more ready for the aesthetic ‘shake up’], and practice norms theory.” Following Gramsci, Spivak holds the institutional location of the specific intellectual as central to the political effects of their work: knowing the rules of the game is one thing, but being able to play all the roles in the game is another. Real collectivity is a patient process of learning to listen to those on the other side, but which other sides and where is each practitioner’s own political calculation.

Bordern has said that one of her motivations for making Born in Flames was to create “a process whereby I could release myself from my own bondage in terms of class and race”, exorcising “whatever discomfort I might have felt as a white filmmaker working with black women.” Bordern’s language of the “process” recognizes the double-bind of the political in the personal: in Spivak’s terms she must “learn how to learn” this release from race and class bondage. The impossible “release” Bordern sought could not be reached directly in the single-bind of expert attempts at “anti-racism” or class analysis. Instead, Bordern as artist-intellectual must discover the larger currents she can give herself over to that will carry her where she needs to go, a destination unknown at the outset. Bordern learns to form a cross-racial political alliance not through simply reading political currents, but reading them in preparation for doing them — a doing that is outside the script, in the broader institutional film-making milieu where Bordern locates herself in order to author her work. Similarly, within the narrative of the film, the process of political coming together for the white women is based not on logical or convergent arguments about political organization, but through an “othering of the self” that Spivak locates in the Romantic tradition, staged most strikingly by Isabel’s idiomatic experimentation with performing black music, wearing cornrows and wearing a kufyia. As always, appropriation is endemic to white “creativity”. But through this appropriation the white performer, by learning how to read and perform cultural differences in their idiomaticity, prepares herself in the film to understand how her own oppression connects to genres of life other than her default. The film seems to concur with Spivak that the impulse to “learn from below” across class and racial divides (or, in my case of writing on the film, gender divides) does not allow the certainty of political correctness. As with all aesthetic endeavours, the use-value of this engagement will only be evaluated after the fact, by the critical reader, rather than the producer, in the reader’s own scene of action.

The supplementation of political ends with ethical means that Bordern and Spivak explore is an endless and gendered task, and the film’s narrative reflects a utopian feminist narrative of interpersonal alliances that remain radically open to differently constituted subjects. Theresa de Lauretis diagnosed the audience of Born in Flames as womanhood multiplied and diffracted, where women are “addressed intermittently and only insofar as we are able to occupy the position of addressee.” In a key scene in the film, Phoenix Radio DJ Honey makes a stirring on-air call: “Black women, be ready. White women, get ready. Red women, stay ready, for this is our time and all must realize it.”  As de Lauretis asks, “which individual member of the audience, male or female, can feel singly interpellated as spectator-subject or, in other words, unequivocally addressed?” Bordern’s film asks the viewer to reflexively consider what de Lauretis describes as “the contradiction of my own history and the personal/political difference within myself.” This double-bind can only be escaped through the setting to work of the contradictions through collective action with others yet to come.

De Lauretis located a certain negativity at the heart of the enterprise of women’s cinema, working toward a “deaestheticization of the female body, the desexualization of violence, the deoedipalization of narrative, and so forth.” To mistake this as a simple gesture of refusal would be to forget the double-bind: it is more a specifically shaped negative space than an open horizon of nothingness. In Spivak’s book, mindfulness of the double-bind protects the ethical reflex from co-option as a universal program, reminding us that all moves to freedom have a place of departure. She captures this in her ingenious figuring of the “originary” move in identity claims as being “like the clutch disengaging to get a stick-shift car moving.” The adoption of a collective historical identity – essentialism strategic or otherwise – is here an attempt to to drop out of a specific contemporary gear (neoliberalism, patriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality, etc). This perhaps relates to Derrida’s suggestion that democracy opens public space by “granting the right to a change in tone.” In Born in Flames certain identifiable political “positions” are represented, but through the film they are escaped, folded onto themselves, interrupted and pulled apart so that genres yet to come reveal themselves in between the stances taken by the diverse cast. Bordern: “Everyone knows nothing will work. But even if the questions are old, they must be renewed to mean something different today.”

“Everyone knows nothing will work” – Guy Debord would have heard that as defeatist, these politics of subjective difference lacking the unitary theory that gave his narrative of May 1968 its broad appeal. But in contemporary intellectual and artistic communities, navigating the diversity of both means and ends is the norm, which vanguardists forget at their peril. As performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña put it in his reflections on collective action with Border Arts Workshop, “we were not able to erase the borders among ourselves, the very same borders we were attempting to erase in the larger society, so we succumbed to our own racism, our own sexism, our own cultural prejudice, our own fears and desires. […] We were devoured by our own chimeras and grandiose ideas. And as you know, this has happened to so many collectives…” Perhaps this is why thirty years ago Spivak considered Berkeley 1967 to “make more sense” than May 1968 as a grounding scene of action in the “more racially ethnically, historically, more heterogeneous” United States. Born in Flames adopts this fractured ground to think its utopia, showing that neither papering over the fissures nor postponing their repair until after the revolution will work. The film stands as an inspirational example of how the assumptions of white patriarchy in its capitalist and socialist forms must be escaped in preparation for subjugated practices to emerge, with no guarantees that they will. Craig Willse and Dean Spade, editors of a recent special issue of Women & Performance on the film’s 30th anniversary, capture it perfectly: “instead of providing a pat narrative of a unified movement advocating for a single clear demand, Born in Flames leaves us with the unexploded bomb.”

Thanks to participants in the 24-day reading group on An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization that was part of the exhibition Local Time: Horotiu at St Paul Street Gallery, Auckland in April-May 2013.


Transfield, Biennale of Sydney, and artistic complicity

Over the past week there has been intense discussion of the major sponsorship of the 19th Biennale of Sydney (BOS19) by the Transfield Foundation, a joint partnership between investment company Transfield Holdings and Transfield Services, with Transfield Holdings also holding approximately 11% of the shareholding in Transfield Services. Transfield Services are an infrastructure provider recently awarded a contract to provide ‘social welfare’ services alongside its existing contracts with Australian Government immigration detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island, to bring a total of over $1 billion in earnings over the next 20 months. The Biennale was established by Transfield Holdings in 1973, and executive director of Transfield Holdings Luca Belgiorno-Netti is also Chairman of the Biennale’s Board of Directors.  Following a call for a boycott (aimed at no particular group) first raised by design educator Matthew Kiem, refugee & asylum seeker organisation RISE called specifically on participating artists to boycott the Biennale, which begins next month. The fullest documentation of the call and responses is available on the website Crossborder Operational Matters, although this website has a clear agenda to push the boycott and their posts should be read with that in mind.

Last Monday 17th February, a number of artists participating in the Biennale published an open letter to the board of the Biennale of Sydney, asking for the board to “withdraw from the current sponsorship arrangements with Transfield and seek to develop new ones.” Rather than a simple call to cut ties as the letter has been reported in the mainstream media, the letter extends past the question of financial sponsorship, asking the Board to join with the artists in “an opportunity to become aware of, and to acknowledge, responsibility for our own participation in a chain of connections that links to human suffering.” It was always unlikely that Biennale Chair Belgiorno-Netti would rescind sponsorship from a company in which he has an executive role. However, the artists’ invitation to consider the injustices at Nauru and Manus Island has also been ignored by the Biennale’s Board of Directors, who responded that withdrawing from the sponsorship agreement was impossible,  and that “the only certainty is that without our Founding Partner, the Biennale will no longer exist.” The board’s immunity to ethical responsibility is reflected in their language where they position the artists and themselves as “‘collateral damage’ in a complex argument”, though describing themselves as damaged in relation to the horrific plight of those detained by the Australian Government is quite obnoxious to say the least. This non-response leaves the artists with the decision of how to respond and whether or not to withdraw their work from the exhibition.

I do not write as someone with any expertise in the politics of asylum seekers and mandatory detention, but I have participated in large-scale exhibitions, and as an art school teacher of over 15 years have worked with a number of artists who have also participated in these exhibitions and been subject to their politics. What I think should be emphasised in this conjuncture is that the problematic for artists and artworkers extends past the particular issue of refugees and asylum seekers, as urgent and present as this issue is. It implicates the entire funding structure of large-scale exhibitions, which rely on corporate money of ethically and politically dubious provenance. In 2012, artist Van Thanh Rudd protested the 18th Biennale of Sydney against Transfield’s activities on Nauru. Also in 2012, activists protested the sponsorship of the Asia Pacific Triennial by coal seam gas and mining company Santos. The recent exhibition Melbourne Now’s principal partner is Mercedes-Benz, a part of the Daimler Group who are involved in missile production among other military activities. The overwhelming majority of the budgets for these large exhibitions are for services such as catering, insurance, promotion, and other logistics – a comparatively smaller amount makes it to actual artists and their projects (in some cases, artists participate without funding at all). To participate in these exhibitions is to be in an industrial-cultural machine that is largely immune to the specificity of artistic inputs, a machine that fulfils a diverse range of goals for capital and the state regardless of the quality of the work. It is also an issue that extends to universities and art schools, whose financialisation; growing investment from private capital and involvement in military technologies means those of us drawing salaries in that sector are in no privileged position to criticise the support artists receive. As Brynn O’Brien wrote in response to Kiem’s original call, “the value chains of detention… permeate our lives in unexpected ways – through our bank accounts, superannuation funds, investments, and workplaces and… their sponsorships of organisations and events we hold dear.”

Some commentators have questioned the boycott as a strategy, with Helen Razer characterising it as a tactic that “absolves the art world from responsibility”, allowing artists “to feel as though they have done something by doing nothing.”  Razer’s article headline suggested that artists were divided on the issue, however I’ve yet to find an artist who does not want the Transfield funding to be removed. How to respond to the fact that this funding exists brings a dilemma for the artists. In my view, RISE’s letter requesting a boycott is an accurate reading of the political situation from an outside observer: although the artists receive a tiny proportion of the Biennale’s total funds, they have the strongest position from which to effect change in the event, as their position in the Biennale is based on their ability to make a statement with their work. A withdrawal of these works would limit or hopefully have a negative impact on the reputation laundering that Transfield Services are looking for from the Transfield Foundation, and in turn from the Biennale. In general terms RISE’s call for a boycott must be affirmed. It is unfortunate that those commentating the potential of artistic contributions outside the boycott have sought to judge whether a boycott “would have any affect [sic] whatsoever”, as Helen Hughes does for Frieze in an otherwise helpful account. There is no neutral position from which a boycott’s outcome can be judged in advance, and to do so participates in the same kind of self-justifying calculation that allows the Biennale to take Transfield’s money, or for all of us to ignore our participation in an international culture of inhumane detention. The options as I see them for both artists and audiences are to 1) join the boycott and publicise one’s participation (i.e. make one’s withdrawal a contribution to the Biennale); 2) do something else to respond to the issue; or 3) take a position more like the Board’s own and wring one’s hands and hope that the problem goes away.

However, even affirming the boycott, joining it is not necessarily a straightforward decision for participating artists, because the political force of contemporary art production only takes shape within its institutional context of critical legitimation and audience engagement – coverage of a work’s ‘message’ through mass media channels, for example, usually does not amplify the force of art. The arrival of the Biennale’s economic involvement in a national news story has shifted dialogue around the exhibition into formats that involve many people with limited connection to the contemporary art world, and the polarised discussions are more like the marshaling of facts and opinion in the mass media and the house of elected representatives, rather than the art world’s more comfortable terrain of proliferating individualized experiments with form and tone. This may be appropriate, but it also seems to give the artists little room to articulate the politics of our complicity, which is ironic given the focus from all sides on the artists’ actions. Even for those few artists deeply interested in institutional and economic machinations as an object of study, one would not expect them to find their most effective contribution to democratic debate inside this version of parliament’s Question Time – they are more likely to seek to escape those constraints to propose other modes of engagement. It is notable that the most prominent artist to make an individual statement on the Biennale so far has been Richard Bell, the self-described ‘propagandist’ who is experienced in the Aboriginal Legal Service, and knows the hardest edges of political force first-hand. Bell says that he would solve the Transfield dilemma directly by making work about the issue, if he were invited. But few artists are prepared for this kind of linguistic argy-bargy the way that Bell is, whether by temperament, training, or content of their work.

Even if Bell were involved, the political problem for the Biennale artists is that their works are not collectively that meaningful: each work uniquely holds the possibility of force that comes from the artist’s ability to resist the imposition of default forms and to give their own form to their work. The reason curatorial statements in (and reviews of) large-scale exhibitions like the Biennale are so routinely weak is because artists’ works are so diverse, and en masse stand for not very much at all, as opposed to coordinated political actions that become more effective as they scale. An artist participating in the boycott as called from outside calculates that they will make the biggest impact on the politics of mandatory detention by rescinding the Biennale’s opportunity to reach a large-scale audience through their usual means of statement-making, and to instead join with a collective withdrawal proposed by others. While this would certainly be a simple calculation for any artist who did not explicitly foreground political issues in their work (that is, their withdrawal would create more impact than their work), the irony is that the artists most likely to join the boycott are those who do foreground political issues, and they would give up the most impact in the short term by rescinding their participation. [Note I am talking about giving up their political position, rather than talking about professional careers, though no doubt some artists will also be conscious of this]. It may be that, following Bell, not participating in the boycott and making another intervention instead would be a political calculation made by the most highly-politicised artists, rather than the least politicised.

Of course, in the wake of the call for a boycott that possibility of “another intervention” has a somewhat higher threshold to be considered adequate or successful than we might have thought before the call, and before the last weeks’ horrific events on Manus Island. The self-congratulatory statements by the Biennale and curator Engberg that they magnanimously provide a platform for debate are hard to take seriously: the public programme for this Biennale notably downplays political concerns, and without the call for a boycott the funding issues that go to the very core of artistic production and distribution would not have been on the table, any more than APT7 would have hosted a ‘dialogue’ on fracking undertaken by their major sponsor Santos. That said, I do not think it helps to say in advance that the exhibition is fatally co-opted as a site for discussion, any more than we might say that other financial entities like Facebook, Twitter or universities are fatally co-opted a site to critique those organisations’ practices.

If the artists are truly the best-placed to affect the role artistic works and institutions play in the politics of detention in which we are complicit – and I believe they are – then our first response should be to support their responsibility to give their own form to any action, whether that involves joining a boycott or doing something else. That is the way artists contribute to the aesthetic field where the political can be thought and felt. While Kiem says that his call for a boycott’s main aim is to “pressure [the] Biennale to fund this without resorting to profits made from mandatory detention”, it is notable that the most extensive media coverage and responses from the Board have emerged from the actions of artists themselves in their open letter, precisely because they are already engaged in the exhibition’s institutional production. This is in keeping with the history of political controversy in the contemporary art field – where artists, rather than curators or institutions, have been at the forefront of questioning art’s complicity with capitalist and state oppression. In teaching and supervision, I have long had the experience that applying external pressure to artists to conform to a political activity is one of the ways that art’s affective capacities are diminished and the political potential of artistic activity is suppressed.  Particularly if that pressure comes from salaried academics, if not so much from independent activists, with whom artists are often more comfortable talking with ‘on the level’.

This is not to justify the autonomy of art in a naive way, or to insulate artists from critique. Actually the opposite is true, it is the relative autonomy of artistic production and its lack of conformity to established political-economic modes of understanding that enable more robust critique. This lack of conformity expands the possibility for critical analysis of both the completed works and the artists’ positions in their full political and economic context. But it is also because of the institutionalisation of this critique (whether it is made in work or the withdrawal of work) that it has operationality and valence, it is not a finger-pointing exercise from outside. As Andrea Fraser describes it, it is “this very institutionalisation that allows institutional critique to judge the institution of art against the critical claims of its legitimising discourses, against its self-representation as a site of resistance and contestation, and against its mythologies of radicality and symbolic revolution.” For some artists the morally corrupt platform that constitutes the 19th Biennale of Sydney will fail to hold their work, and they will withdraw. For others, the presence of death and injustice that Transfield brings is now part of the site where their work is presented, and that work will inevitably be joined to Transfield, a pairing that will supplement the works in question and the Biennale as a whole for good or for ill. As critical viewers and supporters of the arts, I believe our most useful role is to affirm the responsibility artists take with their work; to learn to perceive their interventions in their singularity; and to apply rigorous scrutiny to their interventions within the protocols they adopt. Whether Biennale of Sydney artists withdraw or do not, I am looking forward to learning from them in how to respond to this political conjuncture and the ethical and moral deficits that constitute our cultural institutions more broadly.

Thanks to Bianca Hester, Deborah Kelly, Ruth DeSouza and others who offered comments on an early draft of this piece, all errors are my own.