Defining Ambiguity, Ambiguously: A Panel Convenes to Consider the Artist as Activist-Critic

Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000-2015, edited by Jennifer Liese (Paper Monument, 2016)

Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000-2015, edited by Jennifer Liese (Paper Monument, 2016)


After the release this fall of its newest book, Social medium: artists writing, 2000-2015, Paper Monument began to organize a panel discussion among a few of the artist-writers in the anthology’s pages. Originally, the panel was meant to focus on art criticism, but, as months went by—and then November 8 went by—the scope of the discussion began to shift. Instead of artist-as-art-critic, the panel in New York would consider the role of the artist as a critic in a larger sense: a social critic, a political critic, and an activist working in a critical mode.

The resulting panel, hosted at e-flux in lower Manhattan last week, was titled “What Now: The Artist-Writer as Activist-Critic.” The lineup included Pablo Helguera, Mariam Ghani, Gregory Sholette, and, as moderator, Social medium’s editor, Jennifer Liese. The room was filled with mostly 20-somethings, peering through clear-rimmed glasses, pens out and ready to jot down an answer to that question that keeps floating around: “What now?”

Helguera began with a story from a letter he wrote, by hand, in 2014. He described a fictional country called Cyrus under the rule of a strict dictatorship, which was overthrown and replaced with a democratic system. During a subsequent golden age, artists who had remained underground during the dictatorship emerged as heroes. Young art students, however, found they could not surpass the success of these heroes, so they turned to other pursuits, wondering when fine art would regain its cultural relevance and influence. “We should consider,” Helguera concluded in his letter, “another dictatorship.”

Ghani followed Helguera’s parable by discussing her own maneuvers within the narrow structures of the art world. In art school, when her work was not being understood, she realized that critical writing would be absolutely necessary to her process. “You have to create the discourse when it doesn’t exist,” she said. Helguera added that it is an artist’s responsibility to anticipate interpretations of their work in order to facilitate debate and conversation, rather than leaving it up to the spectator to assume and assert meaning.

For Ghani, this sometimes involves using “the systems and structures of the art world as a medium,” presenting what is included and accepted in order to expose what is missing. The notion made for a good segue into her essay “The Islands of Evasion: Notes on International Art English” (2003), included in Social medium as a response to arguments—from Hito Steyerl, Martha Rosler, and others—regarding the obfuscating language used in e-flux press releases and other explanatory art texts. International Art English (IAE), Ghani’s essay explains, can be a safe, neutral language for artists and institutions. It strings buzzwords together and creates the illusion of conceptual depth through contradictory or shifting stances. IAE evades politics, and, in Ghani’s words, “evading politics is political.”

IAE is often a means of disengagement and complicity, but, if used strategically, it can also function as a political tool. As an example, Ghani read the section of her essay that discusses the inclusion of William Kentridge’s Shadow Procession at Documenta Kabul-Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2012. In Ghani’s frank political language, Shadow Procession is a work “about South African history with a clear analogue in the Afghan civil war.” But would the Afghan Ministry have approved the work had it been described that way? Probably not. Instead, the wall text described it as “a dreamlike procession of black puppets, made from cardboard paper cutouts…a ghostly reminder of the violence of a land plagued by oppositions.” It was just vague enough to work.

The last half of the discussion latched on to this idea of ambiguity. Certain artists might embrace ambiguity to avoid being pigeonholed into one style, movement, or brand, the speakers suggested, but perhaps now is not the time for that. The audience grew restless. Is art revolutionary? Are artists making work in an echo chamber? Sholette, in his discussion of Occupy Wall Street, summoned Jacques Derrida, reminding everyone that “the archive only has meaning in the future” and that artists must not forget that their work is evidence of their lived experiences, adding to a fragmented archive that we might only be able to decipher in hindsight.

After some “what is ambiguity?” questions from the audience, the speakers made a few closing remarks. Like politics and poetics, they agreed, art and activism are not mutually exclusive. However, as Ghani pointed out, the movement isn’t won by the artist on her own. So, “What now?” The panelists of course had no formulaic solution. But their paths of art and inquiry did converge at one imperative point: while there is no need to leave the studio behind, there is no reason that the studio should exclude the streets.

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