Our forthcoming issue, Subjektiv part II, invites different artists, curators and thinkers to give us their recent critical perspectives on the issues at stake and on the status of the subjective as an artistic strategy in the current political climate. As a warm up, we'll share some statements here. Cora Fisher, curator: Too much space is wasted on the-man-I-refuse-to-name. With the current hijacking of news by an attention-monger turned US President, it is far too easy to nurse a state of constant hyper-vigilance toward the next fresh disaster. In August, wehad a brief, two-day respite from coverage of him with news of epic floods in Texas and Louisiana due to Hurricane Harvey. So much for climate change being fake news. By launching such propagandist claims about reality, a simple lie within a large-scale regime of distraction, we are maddeningly baited to argue with insanity, even when irrefutable evidence is before us. But such a monopoly of psychic, political, and media space against global citizenry has only clarified the longstanding murkiness faced by democracy in the US. The situation is, more optimistically, the impetus for us to clarify what we desire of democracy and to organize our lives in that direction.
Last year, on the cusp of the 2016 US Presidential election, I mounted an exhibition called Dispatches at the Southeastern Centre for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I asked artists and collectives to respond to some of the pressing issues ricocheting off news media interfaces: the drama of the US Presidential campaign and election, ecological racism, post-9/11 realities of surveillance and technology, mass migrations and border struggles, new mobilizations of activism for social equity. Amid the din of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the exhibition generated its own piercing responses to the news and social media, with artists doing what they do best: advancing counter-narratives to hegemonic ones and reflecting on current realities while imagining other futures. With Dispatches I wanted to generate the “counter-news” of ethical witnessing and subjective reverie at a slow trickle. By organizing responses to these issues—given our attention-diluted condition and within the thoroughly saturated social media space—I hoped the participants would summon our capacities for skepticism, reflection, humor, and empathy. In my opinion, the artists, photojournalists, documentarians, and new-media activists involved did just that.
Artist Mel Chin’s film Arctic Is brought Inuit ambassadors from Greenland and a surreal vision of a sled drawn by poodles to the 2015 Paris Climate Summit. His project was derailed when terror attacks at the Bataclan took place, but the filming ultimately spawned a new investigation of the intersection of climate change and terrorism. Photographer Tomas van Houtryve debuted an augmented-reality video, called Traces of Exile (2016–17), that follows Europe’s migrant trail through the social media feeds of refugees, simultaneously tracing mass movement and individual experiences. Some of his subjects posted relatable updates to Facebook and Instagram, countering expectations by de-emphasizing suffering.
The President was elected while the exhibition was on view. We engaged this unfolding situation by inviting comments via social media and through participatory artworks, such as a piece by For Freedoms, the first artist-run Super PAC. New artworks were added, artists and thinkers gave talks, and the forum continued to take shape. Whatever the outcome, the project showed me that, despite the current political and ecological climate, the value and the stakes of subjectivity, as wielded by artists and documentarians, are higher than ever. Personal voices can be a call to sanity and can help cultivate a conscientious, active citizenry.
Has the populace migrated its voice to social media, where from moment to moment we can muse about what meal we ate or what shared posts we’ve been consuming? Have we raised our voices in an echo chamber? Is the attention economy finally tuning us out?
The problem is not that we are overwhelmed by too many subjectivities on these platforms, for we all want to be heard. The problem of democracy is that economic elites have more impact on public policy than citizens do, raising the question of how we will organize our voices into effectual and inclusive forms of mutual regard and interest.
So many are doing real, valuable work. Its visibility is tangential to mainstream media, quieter, differently locatable. When you can’t shout louder than the reality-TV drama playing out in the White House, talking more softly and soberly might have the most impact. Artists do their own thing. In doing so, unapologetically, they show us that subjectivity can be a visionary organizing principle. Their idiosyncratic projects, meandering research, and unabashedly personal representations of life signal the importance of seeing what you didn’t see before—and being empowered by these visions of alterity. Curators in turn can help editorialize and re-orient conversations to the important perspectives of artists, thinkers, and activists. In the exchange, if we can absorb so many subjective realities, they will point us back again towards that ethical, inclusive space—what we too wistfully call a public.