Arts and Communities syllabus

Below the reading list for the two “Arts and Communities” theory classes I taught for the Master of Arts and Community Practice at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships (CCP), Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne in 2016. These are not the final version presented to students, which were supplemented by a number of texts from the various participants in the courses. Histories and Sites was also taught before Values and Methods, though pedagogically it should have probably been the other way around. The topics were developed by CCP staff in a collaborative workshop session I facilitated in 2015, though the descriptions represent more my own interests. The bibliography largely represents my own best attempt at an archive, though input also came from CCP staff Lachlan MacDowall, Marnie Badham, James Oliver, Dean Merlino, Jen Rae, Margie Mackay, Amy Spiers, and also Tania Cañas and Léuli Eshraghi who co-taught the Values and Methods class. There are a few missing readings from the PDFs but hopefully both the list and readings are useful. If you have content in the PDFs which you would like not to be online please let me know danny at Please also let me know if this turns out to be useful for you in some way – hoping to continue to build on this archive in a more collaborative fashion. xx

Arts and Communities: Values and Methods Reader – PDF (93MB)

Arts and Communities: Histories and Sites Reader – PDF (58MB) –

CCDP90009 – 2016 Arts and Communities: Values and Methods

Week 1: Liberalism and its Discontents: Structural Inequality and Democracy

The democratic state that dominates Western political thought emerges from the liberal tradition, where each person is assumed to be freely in charge of their own actions, even though the distribution of such freedom is clearly unequal. A number of oppositional traditions have asked, what forces are required to construct an individual? These questions – emerging from marxist, feminist, indigenous and other positions – destabilise our idea of the citizen and open our sense of collectivity to new genres of action.

Required Reading:

Hannah Arendt, “The Perplexities of the Rights of Man,” in The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harvest, 1966), 290-302.

Land, Clare. 2015. Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles. London: Zed Books. Chapter 2: “A political genealogy for contemporary non-Indigenous activism in Australia”

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 2014.  Chapter 3

Recommended Reading:

Lauren Berlant, “Claudia Rankine” (Interview). BOMB 129. 2014.

Reckitt, Helena. “Forgotten Relations: Feminist Artists and Relational Aesthetics.” In Politics in a Glass: Case Feminism, Exhibition Cultures and Curatorial Transgressions. Edited by Angela Dimitrakaki and Lara Perry. Value: Art: Politics. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, July, 2013.

Kester, Grant H. Conversation Pieces : Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Chapter Three “Dialogical Aesthetics”

Week 2: Human Rights and Human Development

The Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789, marks a transition from natural law being managed through the church to a Christian nation-state, whose form became globalised through the processes of European colonisation. The concept of “human rights” remains one of the strongest discourses to be mobilised against oppression, yet this discourse has also been critiqued for its universalism. Similarly, the concept of human development flourished during the peak era of intergovernmentalism in the United Nations (1945- ~1990) but the mechanisms of development have more recently come in for critique as they are circumvented and infiltrated by private capital. How are these discourses still relevant and what work can they do in contemporary communities? As well as thinking of “human rights”, could we also think about “human wrongs”? Can the idea of developing communities co-exist with a self-determination framework?

Required Reading

Amartya Sen. 2005. “Human Rights and Capabilities.” Journal of Human Development 6 (2): 151–66.

Escobar, Arturo. 1992. “Imagining a Post-Development Era? Critical Thought, Development and Social Movements.” Social Text, no. 31/32. 20–56.

Kester, Grant. 2011. The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. Art Theory and Criticism. Duke University Press. Chapter Two (excerpt) 116-153

Recommended Reading

Cohen, Jean L. 2008. “Rethinking Human Rights, Democracy, and Sovereignty in the Age of Globalization.” Political Theory, 36(4): 578-606.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2004. “Righting Wrongs.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 103 (2-3): 523–81.

Week 3: Modernity / Postmodernity

Modernism was a consensus of Western-educated people about the structure of history, identity and core cultural values. In the logic of modernism, history has passed and contemporary activity will depart from that past into a progressive future. Postmodernity  is described from the 1970s as a collapse in that consensus – modernist ideals have not go away, but they can no longer claim to be the only true path – narratives and meta-narratives of history become conflicted.

Required Reading:

Benjamin, Walter. 1968. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, 217–51. New York: Random House.

Haraway, Donna J. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–81. New York: Routledge

Kapur, Geeta. 1990. “Contemporary Cultural Practice: Some Polemical Categories.” Third Text 4 (11): 109–18.


Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Chapter 1, “The Precession of Simulation.”

Week 4: Critical Approaches to Community

The double bind of community: communities are naturally occurring groups, that evolve with no set plan. Yet communities are identified by those wishing to change those plans, by definition departing from an organic approach to community and toward an intentional one. On what grounds can intentional communities be diagnosed or constructed?

Rimi Khan: “From Consensual to Open-Ended Communities”, in Art in Community: The Provisional Citizen (Palgrave 2015) pp. 14-36

Jackson, Shannon. “Quality Time: Social Practice Debates in Contemporary Art.” Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. London: Routledge, 2011. 54-86.

Joseph, Miranda. “Introduction: Persistent Critique, Relentless Return.” Against the Romance of Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Vii-xxxvi.


Nancy, Jean-Luc. 1991. The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press. Chapter One.

Week 5: Qualitative Research, the Ethnographic Eye, and the Politics of Knowledge

The community artist is often sponsored by a state or corporation that has sought knowledge about a community for its own ends. What does it mean to understand a community ethnographically, to visit for a time and inductively form a structure? What is the relationship between those who visit and those who always remain? How do knowledge-making practices travel across such differences?

Required Reading

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research.” Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities. Ed. Django Paris and Maisha T. Winn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2013. 223-248.

Rangan, Pooja. 2011. “Immaterial Child Labor: Media Advocacy, Autoethnography, and the Case of Born into Brothels.” Camera Obscura 25 (3 75): 143–77.

Janke, Terri. 2015. “Chapter 7: Avatar Dreaming: Indigenous Cultural Protocols and Making Films Using Indigenous Content.” In Indigenous Intellectual Property: A Handbook of Contemporary Research, edited by Matthew Rimmer, 177–99. Research Handbooks in Intellectual Property Series. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Recommended Reading

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique 20 (1991): 5-3

Week 6: Mythology, Story and Narrative

For the Native American writer Thomas King, “the truth about stories is that is all we are”. Some stories may be legitimated (governmental stories, scientific stories) and some not, but story is the process by which we give meaning to phenomena. Story and myth are often ritualised, told and received as much because of the conditions of their telling (such and such a person was here; at this time of the day we tell stories; we need a story to sell this product; I need to find a way to convey this information) as any actual content. How do we engage different genres of narrative and story, across different institutions?

Required Reading:

King, Thomas. 2003. The truth about stories: A Native narrative. Toronto, ON: Anansi Press.  Chapter 1. [CBC lectures: ].

Cybermohalla Ensemble. “On Writing.” Cybermohalla Hub. Ed. Nikolaus Hirsch and Shveta Sarda. Delhi/ Berlin: Sarai-CSDS/Sternberg Press, 2012. 14-20

Recommended Reading:

Richardson, Laurel, and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre. “Writing: A Method of Inquiry.” The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research. Ed. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln. Thousand Oaks; London; New Delhi: Sage, 2007. 959-978.

Week 7: Art and Health – Readings and materials TBC

Week 8: Nation, Culture and Citizenship

For much of the 20th century, official discourses of culture related to the nation state, and thus to citizenship. However, in greater number since the 1980s, the state is seen as being able to embrace many cultures. What does this mean for citizenship as a mechanism of belonging? What is the relationship between multiculturalism and indigenous culture in settler societies? How does this state conjuncture relate to “private” “cultural” practices such as food, religion, etc?

Required Reading:

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Culture Alive.” Theory, Culture & Society 23. 2-3 (May, 2006): 359-360.

Rickard, Jolene. 2011. “Visualizing Sovereignty in the Time of Biometric Sensors.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 110 (2): 465–86.

Langton, Marcia. 1993. “ Well, I Heard It on the Radio and I Saw It on the Television”: An Essay for the Australian Film Commission on the Politics and Aesthetics of Filmmaking by and about Aboriginal People and Things. Australian Film Commission Sydney.

Recommended Reading:

Appadurai, Arjun. 1990. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Public Culture 2: 1–24.

Week 9: Ethics

The movement of artistic practices into the academy, and the emergence of claims to self-determination has brought with it an increased focus on ethics in community-engaged practices. Far from artistic interventions being seen as only positive, the ethical paradigm requires artists to consider more dialogical engagements with communities, and to critically assess their own power. Are these dynamics predictable in advance? Do they impose constraints on the value of artistic actions, which usually present their own autonomy? .

Required Reading:

Bolt, Barbara. “Beneficence and contemporary art: when aesthetic judgment meets ethical judgment.” Visual Methodologies,  v. 3, n. 2, p. 53-66, dec. 2015. ISSN 2040-5456. Available at: <>.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. “Ethical Research Protocols” in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Dunedin: University of Otago Press. 118-122.

Thornley, Jeni. “Island Home Country: Working with Aboriginal Protocols in a Documentary Film About Colonisation and Growing Up White in Tasmania.” in Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory and Indigenous Australia. Ed. Frances Peters-Little, Ann Curthoys, and John Docker. Acton, A.C.T.: ANU E Press, 2010. 247-280.

Recommended Reading:

Danny Butt and Local Time, 2016. “Colonial hospitality: rethinking curatorial and artistic responsibility”, Journal for Artistic Research 10 (2016)

Treloyn, S. & Charles, R. G. (2014). How do you feel about squeezing oranges?: Reflections and lessons on collaboration in ethnomusicological research in an Aboriginal Australian community. In K. Barney, (Ed.), Collaborative ethnomusicology: New approaches to music research between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians. Melbourne, VIC: Lyrebird Press. 169-186.


Week 10: Affect, Aesthetics, Creativity

The term “aesthetic” is commonly used to discuss the “artistic” aspects of form, as opposed to the content. However, for Kant and other philosophers who have influenced our use of the term, the aesthetic is a much deeper force that describes a space where the human senses the free play of concepts in a form not dictated by the tight confines of reason, enabling the possibility of new modes of thinking and social ordering to emerge. In the late 20th century, influenced by psychological researchers such as Tomkins and philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, the concept of “affect” gains traction as a mode of analysis that operates outside the residual logics of philosophical aesthetics and their propositional subject.

Required Reading:

Bourriaud, Nicolas. 1998. Relational Aesthetics. Les Presse Du Reel, France. Chapter Three & 4: “Art of the 1990s” and “Space time exchange factors.” 24-48.

Ahmed, Sara. 2014. “Introduction: Feel Your Way”, from The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge. 1-19.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, and Adam Frank. 1995. “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins.” Critical Inquiry 21 (2). 496–522.

Recommended Reading:

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “1990: L.A., “The Gold Field”,” in Roni Horn. Earths Grow Thick (Columbus: Wexner Center for the Arts Publication, 1996), 68.

Najafi, Sina, David Serlin, and Lauren Berlant. 2014. “The Broken Circuit: An Interview with Lauren Berlant.” Cabinet 31.

Ball, Karyn. 2008. “Primal Revenge and Other Anthropomorphic Projections for Literary History.” New Literary History 39 (3). 533–63.

Week 11: Capital, Economy and the Market – social economies

According to the curator Charles Esche, all cultural funding in the former west can be linked to the Cold War and the desire for governments to demonstrate the cultural superiority of individualist freedom over socialist collectivity, and since 1989 this mandate for cultural support has declined. In the context of neoliberalism, the ability of nations to maintain their cultural and economic sovereignty has become ruptured, as global finance capital permeates territorial borders, while reinforcing different kinds of divides between firms, individuals and nation states. How are arts practitioners responding to these new flows of capital? What role to divestment and boycott campaigns have in contemporary cultural politics? How does the artist survive in a financialised community while avoiding exploitation and being exploited?

Required Reading:

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1986) The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York, Greenwood), 241-258.

Hopkins, Candice. “The Golden Potlatch
: Study in Mimesis and Capitalist Desire.” Fillip 13

Purves, Ted., and S. A. Selzer. 2014. What We Want Is Free, Second Edition: Critical Exchanges in Recent Art. State University of New York Press. (Chs 1 & 2)

Recommended Reading:

Colapinto, John. “The Real-Estate Artist.” [Theaster Gates] The New Yorker  January 29, 2015. <>

Week 12: Governance, Bureaucracy, Evaluation

Required Reading:

Gressel, Katherine. “Public Art and the Challenge of Evaluation.” Createquity. January 7, 2012. Web. <>.

Belfiore, Eleonora, and Oliver Bennett. “Beyond the “Toolkit Approach”: Arts Impact Evaluation Research and the Realities of Cultural Policy‐Making.” Journal for Cultural Research 14.2 (March 24, 2010): 121-142.

Hope, Sophie. “Cultural measurement on whose terms? Critical friends as an experiment in participant-led evaluation.” In Making Culture Count, pp. 282-297. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015.

Norris, Niles. “The Politics of Evaluation and the Methodological Imagination.” American Journal of Evaluation 26.4 (December 1, 2005): 584-586.


CCDP90007 – 2016 Arts and Communities: Histories and Sites

Week 1: Arrival and welcome

Recommended Reading:

Birch, Tony “Nothing has changed: The Making and Unmaking of Koori Culture”,  in Grossman, Michèle. Blacklines : Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2003), 97-103.

Edmonds, Fran, Lee Darroch, Maree Clarke, and Vicki Couzens. “Ancestral Memory Out of the Shadows.” Artlink 32.2 (2012): 56-61.

Anonymous. “The Art of the Question: Thinking Like a Public Artist.” The Practice of Public Art, eds. Cameron Cartiere and Shelly Willis. (New York: Routledge, 2008), 219-230.

Week 2: Community art and social practice: navigating sites of power and representation

In recent years, the liveliness of debate over socially-engaged art has less to do with the aesthetics and ethics of practice itself and more to do with the terms of criticism and policy to define it. Employing a range of social strategies to amplify broader political concerns, the field is distinguished by its artistic sensibility while encompassing a range of creative collaborations between artists and communities of both place and interest. Histories stem from a number of competing artistic and institutional motivations rooted in the geopolitical. For instance, American narratives stem from identity politics of the Harlem Renaissance, Second Wave Feminism, postwar New Deal with a focus on regionalism and the artistic practices of the Situationists, Fluxus and social sculpture.  Australian histories, meanwhile, are usually associated with the community arts movement that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s of workers theatre and children’s festivals, indigenous self determination, disability arts, the multicultural agenda alongside cultural development in local neighbourhoods.

Required Reading:

Danielle Wyatt, Marnie Badham, and Lachlan MacDowall (2015) “Vexing History: The Problem of Telling the Story of Community Arts in Australia” draft discussion paper

Gay Hawkins, From Nimbin to Mardi Gras: Constructing Community Arts (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1993). Chapters 1 & 2, Chapter 6.

Lind, Maria. “Complications; On Collaboration, Agency and Contemporary Art.” Public: New Communities 39 (2009): 53-73.

Recommended Reading:

Lacy, Suzanne. “Debated Territory: Toward a Critical Language for Public Art.” Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Ed. Suzanne Lacy. (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1995), 171-185.

Jackson, Shannon. “Quality Time: Social Practice Debates in Contemporary Art.” Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. (London: Routledge. 2011), 54-86.

Week 3 – Histories of Help: Charity, settlement and missionary aesthetics

The 19th century settlement movement was an important precursor to the idea of community development in the British Empire. Shifting the model of charity from a distance, organisations like Toynbee Hall in the UK and Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago advocated for middle-class reformers to actually participate in the lives of migrants and the poor. Influenced by the ideas of culture as a civilising force espoused by Matthew Arnold, these activists played important roles in welfare reform and working class participation in democratic culture in the late 19th century, while sometimes maintaining paternalistic attitudes, dynamics of power that still circulate in art and community today.

Required Reading:

Jane Addams. “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements” (1892)

Diana Maltz, “Missionary Aestheticism as Emancipatory Aesthetics?” in British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes, 1870–1900.  (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006),  206-217

Tania Cañas, “10 Things You Need To Consider If You Are An Artist – Not Of The Refugee And Asylum Seeker Community – Looking To Work With Our Community.”

Recommended Reading:

Grant Kester, “Aesthetic Evangelists: Conversion and Empowerment in Contemporary Art,” Afterimage 22:6 (January 1995), 5–11

Heather E. McLean,  “Cracks in the Creative City: The Contradictions of Community Arts Practice.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38.6 (October 16, 2014): 2156-2173.

Week 4: Community as event: performance, action, happening

The technological developments of the industrial revolution reconfigured European communities through the abstraction of labour-power, loosening traditional values and establishing new systems of domination and affiliation, including the circulation of cultural goods. Some artists came to question the social values associated with art, seeing potential liberation to emerge from aesthetic experiences that focussed on the social effect of art rather than the object. Meanwhile, theatre developed a concern with the formal mechanics of the stage and the alienating effects of representation, to be either broken (Artaud) or ironically heightened (Brecht). These critical gestures open the dialectic of transgression characteristic of contemporary art, where non-art gestures in a community come to be understood within artistic frameworks, and art’s rituals bring affective significance to a secular society.

Required Reading:

Boal, Augusto. “A Theoretical Foundation.” The Aesthetics of the Oppressed. Trans. Adrian Jackson. (London; New York: Routledge, 2006). 11-43.

Recommended Reading:

Sell, Mike (1998) “The Avant-Garde of Absorption: Happenings, Fluxus, and the Performance Economies of the American Sixties”, Rethinking Marxism, 10.2 (1998): 1-26

Bishop, Claire. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso 2012. Chapter Two: “The Historic Avant Garde”

Week 5: The Art of Politics

Unions played a key role in the development of infrastructure for health, education and culture outside of the upper classes. In the 20th century, through strike and petition, social reformers called upon the social democratic nation-state to adopt responsibility for this infrastructure, including the management of culture and cultural development. During the neoliberal era, corporatisation has produced new, internationalised flows of power and resistance, with renewed attention to the political force of the artistic activity.

Required Reading:

Ellen Feiss, “What is Useful? The paradox of rights in Tania Bruguera’s ‘Useful Art’”

Kelly, Owen. (1984). Community, Art, and the State: storming the citadels. London; New York, Comedia Publishing Group in association with Marion Boyars. Excerpts TBC.

Recommended Reading:

Gregory Sholette, excerpt from Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, London: Pluto Press, 2011.

Mouffe, Chantal. “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces.” Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods 1 .2 (2007)

Patricia C. Phillips,  “Creating Democracy: A Dialogue with Krzysztof Wodiczko.” Art Journal 62.4 (Winter 2003): 32-47.

Wallis, Brian, ed. Democracy: A Project by Group Material. Bay Press/Dia Art Foundation, 1990.

Week 6: Globality and Locality

The double bind of non-indigenous community is that the term “community” is by definition is imposed from elsewhere, bringing with it assumptions about the need for local change. Therefore, changes in the local cultural environment imply changes in the world, and vice-versa. In the West, the era of cultural nationalism has viewed internationalism through the labour movement and intergovernmental agencies such as UNESCO. Moving into the neoliberal era, new configurations of global movements are becoming palpable, enabled by new globe-girding technologies and discourses of decolonisation.

Required Reading:

Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Contemp(t)orary: Eleven Theses”, e-flux journal #12.

Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: The New Press, 1997). excerpts.

Recommended Reading:

Butt, Danny. “Local Knowledge: Place and New Media Practice.” Leonardo, 39.4 (August 2006): 323-326.

Week 7: Racism, rights, and community (19th April)

Through the 20th century the Western concept of culture came to be seen as no longer a tool of benevolence, but a powerful disciplining force that relied on the exclusion of non-white practitioners. Influenced by broader dialogues of decolonisation and resistance, the Black Arts and Multicultural arts movements posited cultural autonomy as something belonging to communities against the colonial state rather than being developed by the state.

Required Reading:

Paul Gilroy “Art of darkness: Black art and the problem of belonging to England”, Third Text, 4.10 (1990): 45-52.

Audre Lorde – “Poetry is not a luxury” (1977) In Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Shaw, Susan M. and Janet Lee eds. 371-373.

Interview with Robin DiAngelo, “Why White People Freak Out When They’re Called Out About Race” <>

Recommended Reading:

Walter Mignolo et. al, Decolonial Aesthetics <>

Week 8: Biopower: Art and institutional bodies

Michel Foucault saw an emergent politics in institutionalised technologies of human management: prison and clinic. These sites have also been sites of intervention by artists. How are bodies regulated, how does art ameliorate, support or challenge such regulation?

Required Reading:

Cheliotis, Leonidas “Decorative justice: deconstructing the relationship between the arts and imprisonment.” International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 3.1: (2014): 16-34.

Week 9: Engendering community: feminist histories

Feminist movements attempted to displace the patriarchal ordering of society as public-political-male vs the private-ethical-female; and many saw in art a powerful vehicle to transform the personal into the political. This also made these movements a vibrant ground for debates on the limits of subjective affinity and white dominance. The uneasy conjuncture between intimate practices and political goals structures community-based movements toward inclusive gender and sexuality today.

Required Reading:

Martha Rosler, “Feminist Art in California,” Artforum, September 1977.

Vivien Green Fryd, “Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in May: Feminist Activist Performance Art as ‘Expanded Public Pedagogy’” NWSA Journal 19.1, Spring (2007) 23-38

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969 – Proposal for an exhibition “CARE”

Recommended Reading:

Sykes, Roberta. “Bobbi Sykes,” in Women who do and women who don’t join the women’s movement, ed. Robyn Rowland, (Melbourne: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 63-9. (Also, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, same volume)

Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman, “Queer Nationality”  boundary 2, 19.1, (Spring, 1992), pp. 149-180

Week 10: The right to the city

Urbanisation is one of the dominant forces in society. In the west, artistic practices are almost always seen as emerging in an urban metropolis, given the task of humanising the abstract forces of capital-intensive infrastructure, and through gentrification contributing to its reformatting of human life. How has the city changed, what kinds of community have changed with it, and what is the role of the artist in reimagining the city?

Required Reading:

Tom Finklepearl. “Introduction: The City as Site.” Dialogues in Public Art. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.

Josephine Berry, “Everyone is Not an Artist: Autonomous Art meets the Neoliberal City”

Recommended Reading:

Ivan Chtcheglov “Formulary for a New Urbanism” (1953)

Week 11: Environment and ecology

On the flipside of the conflation of the creative and the urban, a Romantic tradition has seen in nature the essence of beauty that could inform the production of art. Community arts has often worked to evade this dynamic, by seeking artistic outcomes in regional and rural environments that do not necessarily point back to the urban centre, or that engage environments for their intrinsic processes rather than simply as picturesque locations to be documented for an urban viewer. How have community-engaged arts tracked the discourses of the environmental movements?

Week 12: The Community and The Gallery: Critical Social Practices

In the 19th century it was assumed that art galleries could improve communities’ taste, and there were advocacy movements to make them open on Sundays when working class people could visit. Policies in the 1980s focused on a democratisation of the arts and to provide access to those experienced social or financial barriers to participating in the cultural life of their community; however, many of these policies overlooked how institutions maintain these cultural hierarchies. Today, the gallery is understood as both an economic sector and site of politics, and artistic attempts to bring other communities into the gallery are more likely to be understood as a critique.

Required Reading:

There is No Now Now reader. 2014. [Letters from Biennale of Sydney 19 Artists Working Group] January 29, 2014. <>. Chapter One.

Fraser, Andrea. “A Museum Is Not a Business. It Is Run in a Businesslike Fashion”.” Art and Its Institutions: Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations, ed. Nina Möntmann. (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006), 86-98

Recommended Reading:

Marina Vishmidt – “Mimesis of the Hardened and Alienated”: Social Practice as Business Model – e-flux 43 (2013)

Stimson, B. “What Was Institutional Critique?” In Institutional Critique: An anthology of artists’ writings. A. Alberro & B. Stimson. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 20-42

Platforms and Public Participation

Platforms and public participation
Danny Butt, Scott McQuire and Nikos Papastergiadis
The concept of the ‘platform’ has recently received extensive analysis in media studies and urban planning. This paper explores the platform’s contemporary emergence as an expression of a new archival logic that questions the possibility of a democratic politics of participation. ‘Public participation’ in the platform invokes the individual in the form of a consumer with a profile rather than as a citizen of a state. This paper returns to Claudio Ciborra’s 1996 work on the ‘platform organization’ to diagnose a ‘re-architecting’
capability which we argue is integral to platform politics. Since this capacity for re-architecting is generally reserved from participants, we highlight the potential of ‘de-participation’ toward the emergence of counter-platforms.

Colonial Hospitality: Rethinking Curatorial and Artistic Responsibility

This piece co-authored with Local Time: “Colonial Hospitality: Rethinking Curatorial and Artistic Responsibility”, published in the Journal for Artistic Research 10 2016. Read on the JAR Website here.

Abstract: The recent enthusiasm for gestures of hospitality in contemporary art promises relief from the individualising forces of neoliberal capitalism and the professionalised hierarchies of the art world. Yet, Jacques Derrida describes the gesture of hospitality as paradoxically asserting a kind of sovereignty that underwrites the ‘right to host’, returning hospitality to the conditionality of the authorising institution. In settler-colonial territories, these institutionally underwritten gestures always sit uneasily atop indigenous sovereignties that have not been ceded, requiring the positive gestures of hospitality to remain open to their structuring fissures. This paper considers figurations of hospitality and responsibility in works by Derrida, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Raqs Media Collective in reading the art collective Local Time’s research-driven practice that seeks to reconcile indigenous self-determination and settler gestures of hospitality.

New International Information Order (NIIO) Revisited: Global Algorithmic Governance and Neocolonialism

Published in Fibreculture Journal Issue 27 –  Read on the Fibreculture website here.

Abstract: The field of Internet governance has been dominated by Euro-American actors and has largely resisted consideration of a holistic and integrative rights-based agenda, confining itself to narrow discussions on the technical stability of Internet Protocol resources and debates about nation-state involvement in multistakeholder governance of those resources. In light of the work of Edward Snowden documenting the close relationship between government security agencies and dominant social media platforms, this paper revisits the relevance of the New International Information Order (NIIO), a conceptualisation of the global politics of information described at the 1973 Fourth Summit Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement of nations in Algiers. This paper argues that critical analysis of the oligopolistic structure of “platforms” and their algorithmic forms of governance can build a more inclusive movement toward social justice by extending the NIIO framework’s emphasis on decolonisation, collective ownership of strategic information resources, and documentation of powerful transnational entities.

Double-bound: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization.

Review essay to appear in RUPC Working Papers series, 2015.

Danny Butt, Research Fellow, Research Unit in Public Cultures, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne. 1st June 2014. Revised 9th July 2014.

[PDF version available on the RUPC website here]


Published in 2011, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization compiles and reconsiders two decades of her arguments about the political constitution of the aesthetic subject. This review essay traces arguments running through the book that reconcile the deconstructive politics of the subject with the resurgent interest in universalist theories that position themselves in relation to global technocapitalism. These arguments provide us with methodological tools for interrogating the “globalisability” of our academic work: the co-option of social movements and the need for epistemological care; Romantic techniques of self-othering toward new collectivities; Marx’s legacy of value as form; the powerful role of affect and habit in training the intellect; an expanded theory of reading; the limits of “culture” as a diagnostic; reproductive heteronormativity as a grounding principle; attention to intergenerational gendered structures of responsibility; and finally, a fully secularised understanding of radical alterity.



The university has always claimed to hold universal knowledge, but in the wake of postcolonial critique it is clearer to those who belong to university cultures that this knowledge been spatialised from Northwestern Europe onto the rest of the world. The rapid growth of the university in both scale and spread in the last half-century, its financialisation and reconfiguration as an education industry, and the networked information technologies that transport its knowledge have combined to provide new conditions for education’s “globalisability”, its potential synchronisation and distribution over the globe. How could we understand the situation of the “student” as a subject and object of this global circuit, in light of decreased public funding, massively increased participation, and chronic unemployment and underemployment among graduates? How is this linked to the aestheticisation of the economy, the growth of the art market and the art education market, and the valorisation of “creativity” by speculative capital? These questions formed part of a site-specific enquiry the artistic collective Local Time explored at St Paul Street, a university gallery in Auckland, New Zealand, through a 24-day reading group on Spivak’s imposing and exciting An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2011), which reconsiders two decades of Spivak’s arguments about the political constitution of the aesthetic subject.

Even after receiving the 2012 Kyoto prize for her decades of commitment to activism and teaching, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s name is still inevitably associated with her critique of Western theory’s effacement of its gendered others in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988). The most visible cultural intermediaries today view these politics of subjective difference as historically noteworthy but ultimately stultifying and immobilising. The debates have been branded “identity politics” and archived into the 1980s, while “feminism” has been reconfigured as “gender”, the calculus of a new “global” politics of inclusion and democratisation, aligned with a missionary-style civil-society discourse that Spivak has termed “moral entrepreneurship.” Since then, Spivak has continued to interrogate the critical methods of the humanities to renovate their role in the emergent dynamic of the “contemporary”.

Spivak’s essays collected in the book diagnose two important challenges to those of us trying to think the broad conditions of aesthetic “globalisability”. Firstly, there is a class-division in who appropriates globality and who is subject to globalisation. In the visual arts, to take an example from my own field, biennialism has emerged as a globalised international circuit of cultural display, incorporating the former non-West as a site to stage its canon, reterritorialising local production with more or less criticality (but rarely engaging curatorial or theoretical agendas from the periphery), while largely disclaiming any responsibility to the broader political economy of these massive circuits of exchange. These colliding scales of politics are visible in various protests against the sponsorship of large scale international exhibitions, such as refugee detention centre operator Transfield Services’ sponsorship of the Biennale of Sydney in 2014. Secondly, global dynamics are not only experienced differently by women, but to consider that difference changes our perspective on the whole terrain of the global. In Spivak’s work, gender is important not simply as a political concern of inclusion, but as “our first instrument of abstraction” (Spivak 2011, p.30 – all future references are to this volume unless otherwise specified), our original way of understanding differentiation in the human, and she demonstrates how feminist analysis provides a continuing ground for the re-evaluation of our critical practices.

Spivak’s overarching themes in this volume revisit her 1999 Critique of Postcolonial Reason, which as the title suggests diagnosed in Immanuel Kant the philosophical rationale for the Enlightenment ideals of universal reason as the highest goal of education, and the accompanying moral valorisation of the aesthetic as a kind of “tuning” or programming of the human. In this analysis Kant is not a guarantor of any kind of truth in the university or in art, but hovers as an unavoidable “discursive precursor” for these questions, for our understanding of critique is “too thoroughly determined by [him] to be able to reject [him]” and thus the need to seek “a constructive rather than disabling complicity between our position and [his]” (Spivak 1999, p. 5-6). Contrary to the default political economy of contemporary Western globalisation as technological destiny, Spivak traced the uneven development of what Echeverría called the telepolis through the colonial imagination, and showed that Kant’s aesthetic theory was our best guide to the persistence of uneven “globalisability”, even more than his political writings. Kant carefully described a generic public version of the innocent Enlightenment subject who could make sense of the entire globe in their imagination: a default, immunised male citizen whose aesthetic sensibility would come to be seen as objective. We can think of this as a secularised Christian culture of modernist rational subjectivity. The supposed objectivity of this culture has not only been subjected to rigorous critique for its exclusions, but the very “force” of its objectivity seems to lack the aesthetic power to reshape the imagination as its classical university form attempted to. The challenge of reinvigorating or renovating this power in today’s corporate university system — without simply retrieving cultural institutions’ historical role as the producer of great men in the Western tradition — is an intractable question whose dimensions Spivak’s critique illuminates.

The “aesthetic” in Kant’s account is not a simple thing, but “a sort of ambivalent refuge” between the creative flourishing of nature and the stern logic of philosophical reason that constitutes humanity (p.24). Spivak adopts Bateson’s description of the “double-bind” as a generalisable description of the type of tension between the vital and the institutional (or body and mind) that Kant tries to make sense of. Spivak’s title makes explicit reference to the work of one of Kant’s contemporaries, Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man, which attempted to “revalorise” the aesthetic, proposing the drive for play as not so much a solution to Kant’s difficulties but as a force of power that should “naturally” overcome them. And who would not side with the positivity of creativity as a human capacity, after all, over the interminable and somewhat turgid prose of the philosopher? However, if we turn our attention to the use-value of creativity today, the operation of terms such as “creative city” or the “creative industries” demonstrates that even if one promotes “creativity for all”, not everyone’s creativity is equally valorised. Creativity and innovation become rationales for large-scale downsizing of firms, privatisation of public assets and the evacuation of the poor from gentrifying neighbourhoods.

Schiller had the right idea — an aesthetic education to educate the intuition of the public sphere — but he thought that to do this he must forget Kant’s injunction that the imagination cannot be accessed directly. In this suppressing the conceptual in favour of the pragmatic, Schiller falls prey to another kind of idealism. The Kantian figuring of the aesthetic as a double-bind between a creative natural force and a structuring social order could productively be read as a crisis in that logic. It allows the critical to jam the cogs of productivity that we internalise through neoliberal subjectivity, which lead to the habit of seeing other people as mere resources for our own creative expression. In an “ironic affirmation” of Schiller’s impulse [“Schiller was indeed wrong […] but who is exactly right?” (p.28)], Spivak’s goal here is to both theorise and demonstrate the possibility that an aesthetic education as the “training of the imagination for epistemological performance” allows us to think the double bind of the political and the ethical.

Without attempting the impossible task of addressing all that the book has to offer, I want to track a few issues running through it that reconcile the deconstructive politics of the subject with the resurgent interest in universalist theories that position themselves in relation to global techno-capital. I inhabit the exegetical mode in this paper altogether more than I would like, but few authors compress more into a sentence than Spivak. The intention, however, is less to explain than to sift out methodological tools for interrogating the “globalisability” of our own work: the co-option of social movements and the need for epistemological care; Romantic techniques of self-othering toward new collectivities; Marx’s legacy of value as form; the powerful role of affect and habit in training the intellect; an expanded theory of reading; the limits of “culture” as a diagnostic; reproductive heteronormativity as a grounding social principle; attention to intergenerational gendered structures of responsibility; and finally, a fully secularised understanding of radical alterity. I also hope, most of all, to encourage the new reader to take their own journey through the twenty five chapters themselves.

Spivak opens by stating that “Globalisation takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control” (p.1). Not only are we not ourselves global, the study of global movements cannot meet its object on the same scale, as we are always located in a perspective. In the broad terrain of the humanities, arts and social sciences, we must be able to think the double-bind that programs our access to the global in its specificity. No universality for the university, then, but this does not mean that the university is useless. Our ability to influence global forces relies upon our skill in reading the specificity of our situation and through writing and teaching in the academy and outside we present that possibility for others to share. But one does not play the political game by writing about it, claims Spivak, and she stages this distinction relentlessly, reminding us that the classroom is the truest test for theory’s “application”: theory is applied in the remaking of a self. Her well-known formula for the practice of humanities teaching is “the uncoercive rearrangement of desire”, and her commitment to this principle is evident in her invitation for us to follow her through her material, without seeking the shortest distance between two politically correct points. Spivak argues that it is by learning to learn how to read the specific idiom of another’s practice that one learns the possibility of un-coerced change, and therefore Spivak will not let us position her as the source of a critical method, but presents herself as an example. We should learn our methods from the world with no guarantees, learning to learn from the “singular and unverifiable” (p. 2). Spivak revisits Romanticism as the European tradition that opens this possibility.


Romanticism revisited

Spivak’s opening concern is the relation between education and habit. Bateson describes habit as the interconnection of feedback loops for solving classes of problems in the “hard programming” of the unconscious (p.5). Under capitalism, our desire to accrue profitable information habituates us into immunity to the desires of others, an ethical deficit that leads to the destruction of social infrastructure. To escape or transform these habits in either the other or the self is no easy task, as shifting the habit of thinking still does not reach the imagination’s will to shift habit directly. The aesthetic is a powerful tool here, as it “short-circuits the task of shaking up this habit of not examining [the premises of habit], perhaps” (p.6). Spivak looks to the literary canon to show that we too can still learn by the terms of the “noble failed experiment” of Romanticism, which was attempting to respond to a political-economic conjuncture somewhat like our own (p.112). She understands the texts of Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge as wanting a society where “the imagination, which is our inbuilt capacity to other ourselves, can lead perhaps to understanding other people from the inside, so that the project [of the Industrial Revolution] would not be a complete devastation of the polity and of society through a mania for self-enrichment” (p.111).” Interestingly, Spivak believes that this type of aesthetic pedagogy toward an ethical relationship to others is still being thought through the visual arts, whereas poetry itself has become a “sort of narcissism”:

I am constantly asked to help curators launch shows in museums where they invite the street in and make the barrio (or Brick Lane) into a show. It is exactly like the earlier attempt—except somewhat less well-theorized than Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s belief that you could with poetry exercise the imagination, train in ethics (“public taste”)—in the othering of the self and coming as close as possible to accessing the other as the self. (p. 113)

The Romantic project, in today’s gallery, remains accessible only to a certain class which habitually fails to judge the felicity of its own political-economic inheritance as the subject of history. This has always been the case in Romanticism: “William Wordsworth’s project is deeply class-marked, […] he does not judge habit. He is clear about being superior to others in being a poet, unusually gifted with a too-strong imagination, capable of organizing other people’s habits.” (p. 6) We know that the simple figuring of the democratic in the gallery might be an initial provocation to think of a future world, but will not bring that world about. To shift habit requires the institutionalisation and instrumentalisation of the artist/intellectual, or more accurately an ability to recognise how the intellectual is already institutionalised in our own political-economic conjuncture, as Gramsci has it. The importance of an aesthetic education lies in training of the imagination of the progressive bourgeoisie to understand this gap between formal figure and political structure, “to realize that ‘social movements’ are co-opted by state and elite, with different agendas, ceaselessly” (p. 519). Merely enacting the appearance of democracy or depicting its emergence or decline at a sociological level, in the manner of much “relational” art, not only fails to achieve its aims, but may even insulate artist and audience from engaging with the “real involvement in infrastructure” (p. 112-113) that would bring state democratisation about, particularly in the parts of the world which supply the cultural elite with labour and resources that underpin “creative practices”. Spivak here turns to Marx as a writer who has allowed us to think labour and infrastructure as a system.


Marx’s value as form

The blueprint for Spivak’s aspirations of an aesthetic education are found in Marx’s Capital, where he seeks to recode the factory worker from victim of capitalism to the “agent of production”; that is, to encourage the worker to see that their own labour can be conceived in the form capitalism calls “value”. Spivak is insistent that for Marx the value-form is a formal concept, something “contentless and simple” that cannot be arrived at through tallying such and such amount of exchange-value. As form, value asks for figuration and disfiguration rather than empirical documentation. It is an aesthetic question. For Marx the value-form of labour is a specific form of validation of labour by capital that could be levered by workers to organise production for social ends rather than toward capitalist accumulation.

In “Supplementing Marxism”, Spivak notes that there are two ideas of the social in Marx: firstly, the appropriation of capital for “social” productivity; and secondly, the public use of reason toward “social” good. Marx did not theorise the post-revolutionary subject who could enact this second kind of social, and for Spivak this is why transformation of economic management toward socialism has not inevitably resulted in freedom for the unprepared working class subject. Marx’s oversight also limits the kinds of revolutionary subjects that can be thought, as Marx and Engels’ empirical assumptions about the subject were based on the default of colonial Europe, resulting in frames such as the Asiatic Mode of Production as an inevitably Eurocentric account of pre-industrialism that has limited leverage in the very social formations it sought to describe. Social movements, following Marx and Engels in failing to theorise the possibility of subjective development through difference (i.e. lacking of a theory of learning), have thus at various points fallen into totalitarianism in the name of freedom.

Spivak reworks Marx’s “moral and psychological” efforts to think social freedom as “epistemological,” drawing on Gramsci’s detailed analysis of the relationship between class formation and subjectivation to show how these two forms of the social allow an aesthetic education to be thought in Marx’s framework. For Gramsci, intellectual production is situated not only within a political superstructure atop an economic base, but also within epistemological (meta-psychological) constraints on engaging across differences within society. Education toward freedom can only emerge when one can abstract one’s own experience in order to connect it with others, and thus to work together on a shared political struggle. For Gramsci, intellectuals are always “organic”, affectively connected to the part of the social body they seek to change. The “organic intellectual” has been valorised by cultural studies as a figure of moral approval, but for Gramsci and Spivak this organic connection was not something one could want, it simply is. What Spivak sees as necessary is not simply consciousness-raising, today led by the “corporate-funded feudality of the digitally confident alterglobalists” (p. 26), but “patient epistemological care” (p. 519 n57) that can train the imagination to reimagine a specific situation.


Reading in the expanded field

Spivak’s interest is in the textual nature of this “organic” connection, which can be figured in the literary terms metonymy and synecdoche (p. 436). Her basic principle for social action is the ability to see another’s position as potentially substitutable for one’s own in the script of life: metonymy. Then, through synecdoche, a part of oneself that can identify as a member of a collective supports collective action as if their full interests were represented by this collective (of citizens, workers, or women, or any group organising for political ends). Meanwhile, the subjective part of oneself which does not fit the category is privatised or de-prioritised in the interests of collective action. Political action thus involves a necessary fiction. An aesthetic education expands both the range of scripts one’s self can be metonymically inserted into, as well as multiplying the concepts one can use to self-synechdocise. However, the success of this alignment of self and collective context relies on skill in tracing the weave of forces that shape the public and private parts of political change. This skill is not generic information processing in any “natural” psuedo-biological cognitive sense, but a subtly textured cluster of aesthetic identifications and analysis practiced at the limits of one’s default subjective formation. It is a skill we can call “reading”, practised with the imagination.

Central to Spivak’s argument throughout the book is a theory of reading in the broad sense, literary reading in particular. In alignment with Derrida, Spivak views reading and writing as terms that can be used for the operation of sign and trace across all media, oral, alphabetic, audio-visual, biological: production and reproduction. For Spivak, the term ‘writing’ describes “a place where the absence of the weaver from the web is structurally necessary” (p. 58). Writing is a trace that is heterogeneous to the authorial self. Reading is the mode where we take up the anonymous written inscriptions left by others in that web and make them our own. Reading is where we make ourselves. In the aesthetic lineage from Kant that splits the writing and reading functions inside the individual, writers are also paradoxically their own first readers. Again, the argument holds across all forms of signification – including the visual, even though here, “in the visual, the lesson of reading is the toughest. There are no guarantees at all” (p.507). The artist does not simply “express” a vitalist force of creativity, but develops a never-achieved reflexive capacity to read one’s own traces as others see them, and to adjust their modes of trace-making in turn. It is a profoundly ethical relationship grounded in the social world.

Moving culture

The multicultural agenda in criticism is popularly understood as integrating and including people of colour in the canon. Spivak does not disavow the value of diversity but does not think that this is a sufficient goal. She teaches a precisely British heritage of criticism to channel her North American students into “thinking the other through idiomaticity”, because English is the only language in which they are “responsible”. Within this language they “cannot help believing that history happened in order to produce them”(p. 116). Their mindset of dominance will not be shaken simply by the benevolent appropriation of translated multicultural literatures into the canon, because the “legitimising codes” of nationalism, internationalism, secularism, and culturalism that underpin the literatures of decolonisation in English are class-divided (p. 57). That class division is inaccessible to the native English reader.

In the chapter “How to Read a ‘Culturally Different’ Book” Spivak is anxious to demonstrate that nothing in her argument prevents the metropolitan teacher from teaching a book across gender, ethnic, and class divisions. In the era of “globalisability”, this teaching across such intractable lines is even more imperative. An ability to read across these divides and thus to teach and learn is the best outcome of an aesthetic education. Under globalisation, a neoliberal political rationality tracks the flows of finance capital, graphing local genres of political agency into data, repackaging social action as tightly policed modes of productivity. This graphing must be undone to engage ethically with other humans, but, as Spivak cautions, one cannot undo the divisions by immediately reaching for the other side of cultural divides in the ethnographic mode, for “in order to do distant reading one must be an excellent close reader” (p. 443). One must enter the text of another’s world, and Spivak suggests that the intellectual can only provide tactical, rather than strategic support to subaltern movements without flattening the unseen differences that are the engine of these movements.

Differential subjectivity must then be attended to as an impossible task. The ethical relation of deconstruction is not a solution to the political-economic problem of subalternity, but a motor that can drive our imagination ever closer to the asymptotic figure of the other, as part of our preparation for political action. Through this training of the imagination, we can learn to perform within the episteme of another person. This is not just an anthropological exercise of language learning for data extraction to publish “back home” in the academy. Spivak cautions us that that one never reaches the subaltern other until one has an intimate understanding of the mother tongue of the subject/object of study, at which point they can no longer be treated as an object in quite the same way. One’s own ability to be transformed to accept and affect the structure of responsibility inhabited by the other remains the critical question: how can one approach responsibility to the other so that rather than pretending to be an innocent observer in the “research” mode, one’s productive capability can be made available to operate in a radically different context, where our own makeup must be provisionally set aside even as it is never rescinded? This is Marx’s question of social productivity through the imagination of the value-form thought in the ethical. Yet this otherness never resolves into “culture.” Spivak suggests we need to explore the cultural difference closer to home:

“We must investigate and imaginatively constitute our “own” unclaimed history with the same teleopoietic delicacy that we strive for in the case of the apparently distant. The most proximate is the most distant, as you will see if you try to grab it exactly, in words, or, better yet, to make someone else grab it.” (p. 406)

In the chapter “Culture: Situating Feminism”, Spivak gives a brilliant potted definition of the term culture, noting that this anthropological description for the collective human Other has become shorthand for the distinction between the sacred and the profane and the relationship between the sexes. But no equivalent term exists in non-European languages. Ironically, then, the European term culture allows us to remain aloof from the intra-cultural distinctions of sacredness and profanity, or relations between the sexes in different times and places, yet it is the ability to read these intra-cultural distinctions that is required to escape Eurocentrism in humanist thought in non-European settings. The problem with “culture” as explanation is not that it is too abstract a term, but that it emerges from a Eurocentric “culture of no culture”, which is unable to theorise its own distinctions as particular rather than universal. As Spivak has noted previously, this is “not so much a universalisation as seeing one history as the inevitable telos as well as the inevitable origin and past of all men and women everywhere” (Spivak and Sharpe 2002, p. 617). Therefore, for Spivak, it is imperative that the institutions of culture “precomprehend their instituting culture” (p.161) before producing cultural explanations that marginalise others. “Culture” for Spivak appears as a middle-class term, doing explanatory work only at a safe distance from the ethical relation of genuine engagement across difference, and the economic torque exerted by capital. Other people’s “cultural” defaults are viewed as external to one’s own tolerance, and the researcher of culture’s assumptions are unmodifiable by the answers.

For the benevolent Romantic seeking to save the world, the figure of the gendered subaltern (in, for example, the “global South”) remains inaccessible to political thought and action unless the heterogeneity of the subaltern’s context can be imagined across the gap separating the intellectual and the subaltern. Culture does not help us here. It is at the very basis of the human as a developmental social being that the structure of this imagination can be thought.


Reproductive heteronormativity and subjective development

Spivak’s most arresting move in the book is to situate Marx’s untheorised process of subjective social development in a default category of reproductive heteronormativity (RHN). Spivak believes this must be thought in order to convincingly theorise human action, and psychoanalysis and feminist work are the main fields that have undertaken that labour. Expressing suspicion of European psychoanalytic theory for its universalism, Spivak nevertheless sees in feminist psychoanalysis a technical process of subject formation that allows the development of responsibility to others to be understood.

Drawing on Melanie Klein, Spivak describes how the human is born into a structure of timing and spacing “written” by the mother. (Again, we must hold onto the broad sense of “writing” that exceeds the alphabetic). The development of subjective interiority proceeds through a grabbing “of an outside indistinguishable from an inside [which then] constitutes an inside, fit to negotiate with an outside, going back and forth and coding everything into a sign-system by the thing(s) grasped” (p. 241). This relation between interior and exterior worlds invented and expressed by the creative infant emerges through idiomatic forms of para-linguistic timing and spacing. Spivak suggests that this development of formal exteriority is then translated into the structural (patriarchal) language of the mother tongue by the parent (and media-substitutes), training the infant in appropriate speech, even as the child consistently exceeds identifiable structures of language or “culture.” “It is in this sense that the human infant, on the cusp of the natural and the cultural, is in translation, except the word “translation” loses its dictionary sense right there” (p. 243). The human is born into a para-psychological “structure of responsibility” which trains the imagination for epistemological performance (aesthetic education), yet also establishes both paternal and maternal “writing” of the child in distinction to each other, bringing the constant presence of otherness.

Spivak’s account of the grabbing impulse is particularly distinctive when compared to neo-vitalist philosophies of emergence. For Spivak, the grabbing impulse emerges from the fundamental gap between what we need and what we can make, a lack that we actively seek to close through the “creative”. This gap for Spivak is a byproduct of reproductive heteronormativity, which mandates that reproduction of oneself is impossible, and so “to be born human is to be born angled toward an other and others” (p.99) — she notes here that the antonym of hetero– is not homo– but auto-. The gap between what one needs (in a form handed down from the past) and what one can make is “filled by neither reason nor unreason yet seems irreducible” (p. 457). Because capital is a form of writing, it can fill the gap with its formulaic programming of commodities. However, literary training can diversify what occupies this gap, to escape the default scripts of capital that aim to make us want the information-rich commodity as the gap-filler nearest to hand.


Experiencing radical alterity

The poetic function, in principle, exceeds the individual, therefore it can contribute to the task of reminding us that our desires are not naturally beneficient. In Spivak’s view we must be able to imagine a singular other metonymically, with oneself in that particular place, in order to orientate oneself toward “others” in a larger public. This is where the ethical potential of Romanticism lies: in order to think the other one must be able to imagine oneself as other. The kind of alterity Spivak is thinking is not located in the individual or their culture, but is the opening to the ethical as such, and in the Romantic tradition the development of the capability to genuinely engage the other will start “at home” in the othering of the self. Once again the visual mode seems important to this opening: “radical alterity must be thought and must be thought through imaging” (p.97). In the chapter “Imperative to Re-Imagine the Planet” radical alterity takes on many names: “Mother, Nation, God, Nature” (p. 178) — Spivak notes that some of these names are more radical than others. There is nothing particularly mystical about Spivak’s version of radical alterity, except that one’s own versions of it are not easily thinkable, as they are a name for the ground of thinking as such: “mysterious and discontinuous — an experience of the impossible” (p. 341). However difficult to mobilise, alterity functions as a check on captial’s reproduction of the same. Without the aesthetic education that allows one to metonymise and synecdochise oneself, conflicting versions of radical alterity, such as religious conflicts, appear as irreconciliable differences between clans. By default, the different versions of alterity held by a person belonging to another clan are removed from one’s structure of responsibility, and inhuman acts are thus justified by the Other’s predetermined difference. Enlightened Western secularism is far from immune from this problematic, as it still figures this responsibility through a named Christian-heritage grounding, most commonly “science”, while Spivak is adamant that all such grounds must be dislodged in order to think other forms. Seeing other versions of radical alterity as potentially substitutable for one’s own through the shared logic of reproductive heteronormativity becomes a critical safeguard against both benevolent neocolonialism and culturalism.

Spivak seeks not to merely describe this possibility but to demonstrate it. She finds her most useful way to think radical alterity in the Muslim concept-metaphor of the haq, “the birthright of being able to take care of other people” (p. 294). Without the grounding of haq-like responsibility, and thus to the precomprehension of an instituting culture to the political, the subaltern other remains buried under the “repetitive negotiations” of neocolonial benevolence. “The subjunctive can move to an imperative only in terms of that responsibility-as-right fixed by a truth-in-alterity collective structure that happened to have been conceptualized as haq” (p. 345). Related structures of responsibility to the planet and people operate in many pre-capitalist high cultures, but Spivak appears to find the haq most useful precisely because it is not “native” to her subject position, yet is connected to the monotheistic tradition that came to structure many political forms of the contemporary world we in the West inherit.

Consistent with her earlier-described decision to teach British Romanticism rather than multicultural literatures in English-language translation, Spivak here seems to be trying to escape the benevolent leftist’s “decolonising” agenda of appropriating indigenous cultural forms as political models, when clearly the literary critic is not themselves subject to the responsibility to the “eco-biomes” or ecological worlds that maintain those models. Characteristically, it is in her discussion of responsibility that Spivak’s own critical responsibility is most performatively evident. For many years Spivak refused to discuss her teacher-training efforts in Bengal – in 2002 she noted that “if I talk about these places, first of all, I think I would get the kind of approval from your readership which I would much rather earn because of my theoretical work. You know, there is a certain kind of benevolent approval which I really resist” (Spivak and Sharpe 2002 p. 623). It is interesting that her recent willingness to talk through this work coincides with her adoption of the non-indigenous concept-metaphor of the haq to think radical alterity. Spivak has also commented that she started to talk about her Bengal schools once they were doing things by themselves, a conjuncture that links institutional and theoretical autonomy in realpolitik. The negotiation with one’s own ethics of representation will be poignant to anyone attempting to “learn from below” from subaltern worlds, where the gap between playing the game and writing about it is always vividly on display.


An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization is a big, unruly book — at a recent conference Spivak joked that as a classroom teacher, she has trouble saying anything in less than fourteen weeks. Although many pieces here are previously published, Spivak the responsible pedagogue repeatedly chastises her prior naiveté or notes a change in the structure of her thinking in acerbic annotations throughout. Spivak is “famously difficult”, not simply due to an attraction to the counter-intuitive, but because her work is constantly surfacing the supports of her theoretical platform. The key to reading Spivak in the face of this “over-readability”, as Bal (2000) explained, is tuning in to her teacherly voice. The theoretical moves in her books come directly from the experience of the classroom, the site where any academic project must find its ultimate effect. Like any class that transforms one’s thinking, it resists attempts to grasp it in advance, but asks us to submit to the text over time rather than to attempt to master it through pop summary. Such responsibility to the site of teaching is inconvenient for the writer rushing toward the more properly ‘urgent’ political manifestations of the global, but for Spivak all theoretical labor is “destined for errancy” (p.28) in the political realm.

Reading An Aesthetic Education for a month inside a gallery with a reading group of artists and critics, many were struck by Spivak’s feral indifference to professionalised forms of theoretical discourse. The questions of form in Spivak’s writing also came to the fore – her dazzling, compressed figures (key example: her discussion of “originary” identity claims in the negative, as “like the clutch disengaging to get a stick- shift car moving” (p. 426)) and her striking manipulation of the temporality of reading. Spivak’s resolute literality in the reading of texts brings to mind a characteristic mode of contemporary time-based art, that of diegesis, the experience of being held through narration of a particular time and place, suspending philosophical detachment while nevertheless remaining aware of the lineaments left by historical genres. “What if there is only a vulgar concept of time?” asks Derrida in a formulation Spivak has pointed to more than once. Forging a practice in the thickness of vulgar time would not come from a mastery of global time but through experience gained in a variety of local times. Spivak’s inspirational commitment to gaining fluency in these temporalities, documenting their resistance to synchronisation at the hands of capital and data, is perhaps an aesthetic education that any artist could endorse.


Acknowledgements: For their contribution to this article I’d like to acknowledge the participants in Local Time’s reading group on An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. For comments on earlier drafts I thank Alex Monteith, Natalie Robertson, Jon Bywater, Ruth DeSouza and Nikos Papastergiadis – all errors are of course my own.



Bal, M. (2000). Three-Way Misreading. Diacritics, 30 (1), 2-24.

Spivak, G. C. (1999). A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward A History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Spivak, G. C. (2011). An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Spivak, G. C., & Sharpe, J. (2002). A conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Politics and the Imagination. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(2), 609-625.


Danny Butt <> is Research Fellow in the Research Unit in Public Cultures at the University of Melbourne. He is the editor of PLACE: Local Knowledge and New Media Practice (with Jon Bywater and Nova Paul) (Cambridge Scholars Press 2008) and Internet Governance: Asia Pacific Perspectives (Elsevier 2006).  He works with the art collective Local Time <>, most recently in the exhibitions Spectres of Evaluation (Footscray, 2014), If you were to live here… The 5th Auckland Triennial (Auckland, 2013) and Sarai Reader 09 (Delhi, 2013)


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.


Theses on art and knowledge

Published in un Magazine 7.1 29th July 2013.

“Knowledge”, as described by educational institutions, is disciplinary knowledge. There is no way to know how much knowledge is held in an object of knowledge, (a report, for example) until one has done the work to understand how a field of knowledge is constructed. No report is self-authoring, containing all the knowledge needed to understand what is within. This knowledge-containing work needs other works. The visual arts are no different — and it may be a field where this idea is most evident. Scientific knowledge, including the more scientific classifying tendencies of modern art history, do not help us much when it comes to analysing of works of contemporary art. The stable conceptual frames that scientific innovation seeks to propose, stabilise, renovate, extend and consensually advance are largely absent. Even historical taxonomies of the avant-garde seem only made by the art historian to be broken by the artist. Works of contemporary art can only be engaged in the moment, where one gives oneself over to the work or moves with the work to some other place. To borrow a formulation from Irit Rogoff, the goal of the critical viewer is to singularise the work through the experience of the work. The scientific model of knowledge, by contrast, rests on an author who is ideally fully in control of their own work and its reception, adopting the immunity of objectivity. Dissemination will be a largely technical matter of reputation management, but the work itself is done and its purpose is never in doubt. In the creative arts such authors are boring, and therefore useless, except for academic justification. Art in the legacy of the avant-garde seeks instead invention, a Romantic desire to escape the pre-programming of the artist and artistic outputs. Lorraine Daston described the moral economy of modern scientific objectivity as emerging in late Protestant culture from a fear of idolatory, seduction, and projection by the gentlemanly researcher. These are exactly the scandalous means by which the creative artist makes their mark, and therefore their own contribution to knowledge that is shared with others. For this reason, importation of scientific or social scientific methods (shared and agreed propositional questions, consensually defined methods, falsifiable results) offers little to the artistic knowledge-creator except so far as it generates interest as opposed to disinterest. But any interest can only be invited, not compelled.

Works of art escape their constraints — whether set by curators, dealers, historians or, most critically, the artist themselves — in a future encounter with an audience. Art works have a certain ‘operationality.’ They work in the domain of Austin’s ‘performative acts’ — they make something happen directly in the meeting between work and viewer, in an unpredictable way. It is true that in light of institutional critique the audience is not some fully permeable and neutral entity, ready to respond to whatever the work creates. There are banal sociological and political-economic parameters that construct an audience for which the work can work. However, the work itself is never quite readable from these constraints. As deconstruction teaches us, knowing the rules of the game is not the same as knowing how to play. There is something child-like or childish about the relation of contemporary artists to the rules, but this is not a lack of seriousness – adults learn to forget that for the child play is completely serious, a way of crossing lines between the known and the unknown. The materiality of the aesthetic work can invite our interest precisely because it is a ‘boundary object’, combining sensations, concepts and affects that are both generically familiar and singularly unknowable. In a form of hybridisation, the art object draws us outside ourselves and into it, while we in turn ingest the aesthetic experience of the work. The ‘secret’ in the work is that which cannot be fully incorporated into ourselves or transmitted to another: the work is an index to the ‘multiplicity of realities’ that become a motor for further discovery: more looking, more listening, more learning, more work.

Since Alberti in the 15th century, this unique instability in visual arts production has been erratically theorised as a form of world-making that can be classed as writing in the broad sense. After Derrida, we can understand reading and writing as terms that can be used for the operation of sign and trace across all media: oral, alphabetic, audio-visual, biological,production and reproduction. Spivak defines writing as precisely “a place where the absence of the weaver from the web is structurally necessary.” It is a thing (whether alphabetic or audiovisual text) created for a reader who will take up that work at make it their own, perhaps even remaking themselves with the work. Therefore, despite the efforts of the protestant sciences to make an individual responsible for their own knowledge, a writer is inevitably dependent on a suitably prepared reader, and it is this other reader, not the writer, who can account for the knowledge-effects generated. Respect for the reader or viewer’s role in creating the scene of knowledge requires that the work be available for independent critical interpretation— a freedom and independence that since Kant has been essential to the operation of the aesthetic. It is here that we can understand a shared interest between viewers in the visual arts and readers in a humanities tradition. Exegetical writings that seek to explain or account for the artist’s activity in the scientific paradigm thus run counter to knowledge-production in the work except as far as they enhance or constitute the freedom and independence of the work. Explanatory writing by the artist may be useful in resisting the synchronisation of the art work to the art sales market, but at the expense of synchronising the artistic practice to the university market. The radical growth and rationalisation of university teaching of the creative disciplines may now make the art school market a larger and more important mechanism than the art sales market for capital to exert its torque on artists.

Keeping analysis close to home, the most important knowledge-making in the visual arts is precisely — ironically — a critique of these emerging constraints of artistic production: the research university’s knowledge-making practices. The archive of university knowledge is figured in the technoscientific paradigm as a smooth globe of knowledge to be “contributed to” by an appropriately defined research enquiry. An open-access database in the cloud. We know, however, that the idea of “knowledge in the world” through an expanded European university system is a contradictory historical tangle, resting on the material and political assumptions of colonial capitalism. This system was designed to bring a missionary “light” to the dark corners of the earth to make them safe for occupation and exploitation — these institutions of secular enlightenment have a Christian heritage not too far in their past, even as the sponsoring institution has changed from the state to the market. It is a culturally specific mode of knowledge which is being sustained even as the canon of university knowledge is globalised. There are many ways of knowing that exceed the narrow parameters of techno-scientific knowledge in a globally validated form that allow agency under capitalism. The visual arts perhaps collectively senses these constraints in the university, because the most influential criteria that delineate its own disciplinary boundaries have until very recently been held outside the university, in a quite different (though no less constraining) version of official culture expanded into a neoliberal market.

A lineage of conceptual artistic practice could take these questions of endemic forms of knowing to be the very basis of their contribution to knowledge. This may be an area where art can identify what epistemological presuppositions are at work within the kinds of knowledge validated in the scientific research paradigm more effectively than science can itself. At the birth of the modern scientific university in the early 19th century, the goal of knowledge was to expand to encompass the world, a powerful transformation of the theological call to forget our material limits in favour of universal principles. However, Heidegger recovered from Greek philosophy the idea that the ‘work of art’ initiated a world by creating a presence working in an oppositional direction to positivist knowledge. The experience of encountering work was not to take us into the future, but to prompt an experience of unconcealement or emplacement – to become more where one already was. Art can then help us remember a world outside ourselves, which capitalism would much rather have us forget in our chase to more efficiently improve what we already know. As artistic production is incorporated uneasily into the constraints of university knowledge, perhaps it becomes capable of pushing the future university to understand more deeply how to live on the planet we already inhabit, rather than one we produce in our own image.

Danny Butt <> is Research Fellow at the Research Unit in Public Cultures, University of Melbourne. He is a member of the collective Local Time <>

Luke Willis Thompson – 5th Auckland Triennial

While sometimes situations organize into world-shifting events or threaten the present with their devastating latency, mostly they do not. — Lauren Berlant [1]

Luke Willis Thompson’s sites of enquiry fit Lauren Berlant’s description of the ‘situation tragedy’: scenes where fragile subjectivities seek ‘the becoming historical of the affective event and the improvisation of genre amid pervasive uncertainty’[2].  However, the forces of capital push the world’s attention safely into tomorrow’s next tragic episode, preventing us from lingering on our own specific attachments to any particular tragedy too long or too publicly. Respite from the brute grind of duration is only possible if our own best world is found to be potentially inhabitable by others. But the over-determination of history – specifically a European history that cleaved races from one another in advance – leaves residual impasses between us that cannot be overcome solely through our own willed activity. So we await a new conjuncture, where we are slowed up or slowed down enough by specific events to escape capital’s rations of time and open out to the otherness of being.

The epic-yet-generic ‘failure’ of Thompson’s artistic gestures to restitute a whole world for us feels somehow inevitable, as his readymades are objects that shatter any achievable fantasy of community: generic art prints from the funeral home that held the artist’s father lying in state; the family residence that lags uncomfortably in the gentrification of inner-east Auckland; the strange French copy of a blackface sculpture temporarily relieved from its fate of haunting an Epsom antique store; the photograph of a Fijian indentured labourer taken in uncomfortably recent history; or here, the garage doors tagged by a Māori youth stabbed to death by a middle-aged white vigilante. The artist seems to suggest that these impossible objects – literally ‘non-sensical’ – must be made sense of and reflected upon, but the situations these traces belong to appear to us all at once, overwhelming our attempts to sort them out.

Thompson rides a form of aesthetic truth that cannot be grasped as an instructive model, as it simply punctures idealist narrative. His works trace the great apparatuses of institutional power/knowledge that constitute our ways of doing or not doing [3], grasping at the clarity recognition of larger situations brings to our more mundane activities of life. But to know the rules of the world’s game only gives a possibility of playing, not a guarantee of winning, as Pihema Cameron’s fate coldly illustrates [4]. Thompson surfaces but then leaves undone the question of how to practice survival in the wake of the incalculable histories to which we differentially belong.



[1] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, Durham, 2011, p 6.
[2] ibid.
[3] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘More on Power/Knowledge’, in Outside in the Teaching Machine, Routledge: New York, 1993, p 41.
[4] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and Certain Scenes of Teaching’, Diacritics 32, no 3, 2002, pp 17–31.

[This appears as the artist page text for Luke Willis Thompson in the 5th Auckland Triennial catalogue, If you were to live here….. Luke also wrote the Local Time artist page text.]

Techniques of the Participant-Observer: Alex Monteith’s Visual Fieldwork

[To appear in the book Alex Monteith: Accelerated Geographies, edited by Rhana Devenport. New Plymouth: Govett Brewster Art Gallery, 2012. Preprint, please do not quote or cite this version.]

Alex Monteith’s practice is best captured by the Antipodean colloquialism “getting amongst it,” or in more technical terms, “fieldwork.” There are the death-defying pieces that involve hanging out of helicopters, chasing wild boar or splitting lanes on her motorbike; and more reflective studies, tracking farming or surfing bodies in motion. The forces that Monteith seeks to make visible in her “participant-observation” are not only visual but cultural—an ongoing series relating to Māori protest and ritual, a sibling of her film study Chapter and Verse on The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Monteith’s video works are not simply art about the gallery experience, as she takes up Bourdieu’s early comments on photographic documentation: “The most banal tasks always include actions which owe nothing to the pure and simple quest for efficiency, and the actions most directly geared towards practical ends may elicit aesthetic judgements”[1]. Art is everywhere, even outside the institutions of art, as the ethnographer Geertz pointed out: “certain activities everywhere seem specifically designed to demonstrate that ideas are visible, audible, and one needs to make a word up here—tactible, that they can be cast in forms where the sense, and through the senses the emotions, can reflectively address them”[2]. These non-verbal practices seem to show culture on the move, they become indices to the emergence or decline of verbal language. From the ethnographic perspective, as Boas explained,“all cultural forms… appear in a constant state of flux and subject to fundamental modifications”[3].

Art and anthropology have much in common—like art, anthropology was for much of its life an “avocation of amateurs” undertaken by “gentlemen of independent means” rather than a formal academic discipline [4]. It was a discipline founded during the beginnings of modern art, and has similarly moved from the appropriation of colonised peoples termed ‘primitive’, to a zone of contact where some of the most significant questions are asked about cultural power. Both disciplines are holistic and reliant on tacit knowledge and interpretation. E. R. Wolf summarises the attitudes of key anthropological figures: Malinowski saw the discipline as less about theory than about attitude: “think of culture as having functions; look at institutions as driven by impulses towards life and not as heaps of custom left over from some conjectural past” [5]. Levi-Strauss saw the social whole as not directly observable, but “a manifold in which structures of signs held together ‘a network of functional interrelations’ among many ‘distinct and joined planes’” [6].

The model of ethnographic fieldwork has now become broadly adopted across the social sciences: Donna Haraway described ethnography as “not so much a specific procedure in anthropology as it is a method of being at risk in the face of the practices and discourses into which one inquires… an ethnographic attitude is a mode of practical and theoretical attention, a way of remaining mindful and accountable” [7]. Few would be prepared to take on performances with the armed forces or indigenous cultural expressions that don’t set out to make a ‘statement’ about those groups’ ‘representational meaning’, yet Monteith suspends advance judgement in order to work out what is going on in a specific situation, asking us to suspend judgement as well. She brings to mind how Marcel Mauss famously described ethnographic truths through a visual metaphor: lunes mortes, pale moons in the “firmament of reason” [8]. Framed in this way Monteith is an ethnographer par excellence, finding disruptive truth and beauty in the movements and currents underneath surface images and overdetermined signification.

However, to merely read Monteith as a classical anthropologist is to neglect her visual training, which is not only the essence of her artistic practice, but perhaps also grounds for a critique of the standard anthropological enterprise. For all anthropology’s discussion of “participant- observation”, the technical visual detail of ethnographic observational methods have until recently been treated quite instrumentally, as if observed phenomena pass through the eyes and into the interpreting brain in a straightforward manner. However, the artist knows that observation, rather than being the origin of our explanation, must itself be explained [9]. As Mieke Bal puts it, looking is “inherently framed, framing, interpreting, affect-laden, cognitive and intellectual” [10]. Discussing the illusion of historical realism, DeCerteau noted that credibility of the observer is taken in the name of the reality they represent, “but this authorised appearance of the ‘real’ serves precisely to camouflage the practice which in fact determines it. Representation thus disguises the praxis that organises it”[11]. To attempt to discover the structuring forces of behaviour, ideological perspectives that present themselves as “natural” must be overturned. And it is Monteith’s technical eye that is the apparatus that points to the fissures in our ways of seeing.

The formal multiplication of points of view is central to the surrealist sensibility underlying what appear to be quasi-realist documentary strategies in Monteith’s work [12]. As Rosalind Krauss explained, the mechanism via which the surrealists created the experience of fission within the moment was doubling and spacing, where a copy is added to an original [13]. Jean Goudal recognised the relation between Surrealism and cinematic scale in 1925, noting that in the cinema “our body itself undergoes a sort of temporary depersonalization which robs it of the sense of its own existence. We are nothing more than two eyes riveted to ten meters of white screen” [14]. In Monteith’s massive works, our documentary imagination seems returned to this displacement of the natural experience.

Yet the question of perspective is not merely spatial. As the philosopher Schelling noted in 1815, rather than any direct capture of an event, the eye is returned to time in front of the image:

We do not live in vision; our knowledge is piecework, that is, it must be produced piece by piece in a fragmentary way, with divisions and gradations… In the external world everyone sees more or less the same thing, and yet not everyone can express it.

In order to complete itself, each thing runs through certain moments—a series of processes following one another, in which the later always involves the earlier, brings each thing to maturity [15].

For the video artist, it is these temporal-spatial dynamics of observation that are the material that undergoes formal transformation. Monteith’s handling of temporality often disrupts our conscious anticipation of an event. Through her use of long, uncut shots with diegetic sound, we are held in the duration of particular formal aspects of the activity itself, which only heighten the reflective tension between performance activity and the representation in the gallery. While the viewer of the commercial surf video expects highly edited, fast-paced action, Red Sessions’ single-take panorama reveals the peaceful waiting that actually comprises most of the average surfing session. The works seem to hold not an individual actor or participant’s sense-making perspective, but a slower, more diffuse vision that could be a composite of visuals from multiple viewers. Similarly, Composition for farmer, three dogs and 120 sheep for four-channel video installation steps back from the intensity of the muster, revealing a bucolic landscape structured by the technical activities of human and animal.

At some level, Monteith’s discerning of the technical structure (‘form’) in an activity seems to point toward the way technology dissipates subjective experience. Her works highlight the irreality of visual perception and presentation, leaving us to reflect on the torque exerted by practices upon bodies. Monteith pays homage to the intensity of regulation and attention to detail in the manoeuvres of her collaborators through her own highly structured framing, grading and synchronisation of channels, as if rebuilding the exercises in video form. Her formal eye performs the scientific function of the laboratory “assay”: an analysis of the composition of elements in her sites of investigation. In one of his first texts on photography, Pierre Bourdieu said that what he called a “total anthropology” would have to “culminate in an analysis of the process by which objectivity becomes rooted in subjective experience: it must overcome it by encompassing the moment of objectivism and base it in a theory of the externalization of interiority and the internalization of exteriority”[16]. This process could perhaps take the name “machine,” in Deleuzian language. To investigate these machines is to understand that the technological changes affecting our visual experience are radical. As Walter Benjamin described the impact of the war in Europe on the cultural imagination: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body”[17]. Monteith’s work seems to argue that contemporary subjective viewpoints are dwarfed by the forces of automobility and the technical conditions of video spectatorship.

In that respect, Monteith’s work evokes the Futurist legacy that preceded the development of Surrealism, reflecting a more skeptical approach to our ability to transcend the disciplining of the machine—this discipline is recoded as something exacting and exciting. Passing Manoeuvre with two motorcycles and 584 vehicles for two-channel video installation perhaps best exemplifies the undecidable forces of automobilic discipline, evoking how members of the motorcycle subculture are prepared to risk both the law and their own personal safety as they perform subtle bodily adjustments to split the lanes. The bike similarly takes on the role of the free agent in Ascents and Descents in Realtime, as Monteith’s perspective sets the sand dunes as a canvas for the motorcross rider’s action painting. The social formations of this discipline and control are more in focus in the works with the formation aircraft Red Checkers and the Air Force’s Iroquois helicopters—the technical investigation of driver-discipline is expanded to the forms of discipline that constitute military culture, and here the early anthropological echoes return as we are confronted by the incongruity of the artist at work in a command and control setting.

From the discussion above, we could see Monteith as giving the two dominant uses of the term “structuralism”, firstly as used in the social sciences and secondly in avant- garde film, into each other [18]. Peter Gidal famously describes the “Structural/Materialist” film genre as attempting “a non- hierarchical, cool, separate unfolding of a perceptual activity”, a quasi-scientific activity designed to break illusionistic conventions in the spheres of “ideology, the image, plastic representation, narrative mimesis”[19]. The material structure of the film apparatus itself that must be presented to the viewer, who should create their own theory in the moment, from a clean slate.

However, the inability to fully escape the cultural nature of visual representations is by now well established [20], and all that may be left under the condition of postmodernity is to attempt to find and produce a genuine relation of symbolic indetermination or escape. The escape springs from a desire whose cultural grammar remains inaccessible, except through practices of writing or inscription that can be found in the field: Monteith’s recording practices seem to reflect Derrida’s arche-writing, a generalised structure of significance. The overcoded “meanings” associated with Monteith’s various contexts—military, motorcycling, surfing, farming, Māori protest—perhaps become what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls “epistemological constraints” that are seductive as much as they must be escaped. For Spivak, this dialectic has the structure of the sexual encounter— being drawn toward a constraint at the same time as one seeks to escape it is the “secret” of hybridisation [21]. Therefore, the compulsive researcher’s curiosity is also part of the field being explored here—any simple signification in Monteith’s subjects is rendered complex through her own investigation. As Clifford’s writing has made clear, ethnography is not engaged in the “reduction of incongruities” but actually produces them in order to do its job of re-describing a reality:

“Ethnography, the science of cultural jeopardy, presupposes a constant willingness to be surprised, to unmake interpretive syntheses, and to value—when it comes—the unclassified, unsought Other.” [22]

In 2009, Monteith and I were fortunate to be at Parihaka Pā for a discussion between the late Taranaki leader Te Miringa Hohaia and artist Natalie Robertson on the role of photography in Te Ao Māori. Hohaia noted the karakia which would be recited before a photograph is moved into or from the wharenui, describing it as having the form of a spiritual practice but with a fundamentally technical effect: reciting the karakia made the speaker mindful of what they were about to do. Ironically, it is the appeal to higher forces, an appeal to the “surreal” that returns one who recites a prayer to a more fully present sensory relationship with their body and their surroundings. Monteith’s works seem to have a similar function, despite their different conceptual and cultural basis. The paradoxical truth of fieldwork remains:
it is by going somewhere different that one is returned most completely to oneself.


1. Bourdieu, Pierre. “Towards a Sociology of Photography.” Visual Anthropology Review 7, No 1 (1991 [1965]): 132

2. Geertz, Clifford. “Art as a Cultural System.” MLN 91, No 6 (1976): 1499. 3. Boas, Franz. “The methods of ethnology.” American Anthropologist 22, no. 4 (1920): 315.

4. Wolf, Eric R. “Anthropology among the powers.” Social Anthropology 7, no. 2 (1999): 122

5. Ibid., p126

6. Ibid., p128

7. Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_ OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997), 190-191.

8. Clifford, James. “On Ethnographic Surrealism.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23, no. 4 (1981): 548.

9. For an extensive discussion on this point see Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (1991): 779.

10. Mieke Bal. “Visual essentialism and the object of visual culture.” Journal of Visual Culture 2, no. 1 (2003): 9

11. quoted in Scott, “The Evidence of Experience”, 777.

12. Some of Monteith’s early short films prior to Chapter and Verse inhabit a more self-consciously surrealist mode. See for example Pause the Rising Tide (2001) prizewinner of the 2004 International Surrealist Film Festival.

13. Rosalind Krauss. “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism.” October 19 (1981): 25. For a detailed discussion of this point in relation to binocular disparity, see Crary, Jonathan. “Techniques of the Observer.” October 45 (1988): 3-35.

14. quoted in Martin Jay. “The disenchantment of the eye: Surrealism and the crisis of ocularcentrism.” Visual Anthropology Review 7, no. 1 (1991): 28

15. quoted in Crary, “Techniques of the Observer”, 99

16. Bourdieu, “Towards a Sociology of Photography”, 131

17. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Rooks, 1969), 84. 18. I am grateful to Jon Bywater for the conversation that suggested this link.

See, for example, his interview with the artist in this publication.

19. Peter Gidal. “Theory And Definition Of Structural/ Materialist Film.” Luxonline (originally published by the BFi), 1976. 20. Even central structuralist figures such as Malcom Le Grice have more recently begun discussing the symbolic devices that generate affect in structuralist works – see for example his notes on a group of works 2004-6 titled “Portraits and Particulars” < personalparticular/index.html> , where the “sentimental attachment” of the material in “Little Dog for Roger” is acceded to. Of course, feminist psychoanalytically-inclined film scholars had already made this extremely clear on empirical and theoretical grounds – see, for example, Constance Penley, “The Avant-Garde and Its Imaginary.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 1, no. 2 (1977): 2-33. Gidal and others vociferously resisted these readings at the time. In the above article Penley makes a point about the cinematic imaginary that is pertinent to Monteith’s work: the cinematic signifier is “more ‘there’ than almost any other medium (because of its density of perceptual registers) and less ‘there’ at the same time (because it is always only a replica of what is no longer there)”. Monteith’s “filling” of the entire Govett Brewster also has a material lightness—when the projectors go off, there is nothing to be found.

21. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Geert Lovink. “Interview with Gayatri Spivak.” nettime-l, 1997. nettime-l-9707/msg00093.html. Accessed 2 September 2010.

22. Clifford, “On Ethnographic Surrealism”, 564

The Art of the Exegesis

At the end of the 18th century, Nazarene painter Eberhard Wachter rejected a position on the staff of the Stuttgart academy, noting that ‘there is too much misery in art already; I do not want to increase it.’ Wachter uttered his sullen epigram on art education well before the development of postgraduate programmes in studio art, but the weariness of his tone would have only increased if he had read the raft of ‘written components’ – usually in the form of an exegesis – that are now mandatory in art school submissions. Examiners do their best to maintain fresh eyes in front of works that groan under pointless descriptions of dull making processes, overblown and unconvincing attempts by artists to write their own work in an art historical tradition, or perhaps worst of all, interesting practices (de)formed into ‘research questions’ that the works are then supposed to answer. Duchamp did his best to dissuade such thinking, believing that ‘there is no solution, because there is no problem.’ Now the need to find problems to satisfy a demand for academic rigour seems to be the problem.

These crimes of writing committed in art schools are not the fault of artists, who know all too well that a written exegesis usually hinders great work. Students often evade supervision of these research reports – perhaps hoping that the requirement might slip away unnoticed. Not because they can’t write: visual artists can be formally gifted and inventive writers. But contemporary artists are reflexive critics of form in the most expanded sense, often unhappy with any institutional dictation of form or genre from above. As Dieter Lesage has argued, to require an artist to adopt a particular form of writing is precisely to fail to recognise their status as an artist….

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