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Thoughts on Research and Social Action in QTPOC and WOC Art


After our readings in Holly Willis' iMAP class on research in the arts, I am just now beginning to understand the political stakes of this field I have been residing in for years. Based on my readings in the Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, in particular “University Politics and Practice Based Research” by Torsten Kalvemark, I see now how the drive to redefine art practice as research is informed by a corporatization of the university that be seen in the larger Bologna process that has been resisted with strikes and occupations all across Europe.

Can one use an academic research project as a subversion of the university owner’s demands for the creation of new knowledge and therefore new wealth and “cultural capital”? De Certeau and his description of la perruque, a tactic for the subversion of work time that puts it to uses that benefit the laborer rather than the boss, opens up interesting and valuable possibilities. Perhaps one can understand the work of socially engaged, queer people of color and women of color artists such as Tania Bruguera, Patrisse Cullors, CUDS and Regina Jose Gallindo as an example of la perruque, in that they use the space of art, which is in many ways a business, and use it towards social ends. This is what I have tried to do as well in my art practice with both the Transborder Immigrant Tool and Local Autonomy Networks.

Yet these artists and even these two projects of mine use different tactics to create social change. And perhaps la perruque in the mode that de Certeau describes it, as a response to labor, only makes sense to apply to artists who are working in an academic institution, where their art practice is part of academic labor, or for artists who are in some way getting pair for their art. Often in the case of performance and socially engaged art, there is no payment. Mostly, I am interested in de Certeau’s description of tactics as mobile methods of resistance by used “the weak” as it opens up a possibility for resistance in the face of an economic system and hegemonic discourse that often seems a totalizing form of control.

Tania Bruguera offers some prescriptive advice for artists seeking to engage in social change in their artwork in her performance Self-Sabotage at the 2009 Venice Beinniale: 

Artists should self-sabotage in our relationship with others in the world of art by not pleasing them, and especially not pleasing institutions.  

Artists should self-sabotage by quitting our work, by leaving our comfortable positions and looking for a difficult sites, one that we do not understand, leave doing design aside and live…

Works of social art should use social time and spectators should leave aside being spectators and become social beings to “see” (it could also be said “to be in”) the work. Curators should also transform, because political art should deal with ethics and to value this discourse, we should leave the representational world and enter the world of power relationships. Then, aesthetics would rather be the effectiveness of these relationships and beauty would be seen as the moments in which these utopias materialize.   

The idea, I might say the pressure, that as artists we have to do things that will make us survive is something we should reject, because it conditions the ideas of art as archive, as an index, and not art as a contextual answer, as an answer to the present moment. 

Political art should stop using references and start creating references.


Yet in Burugera’s urging to leave aside the work we do to stay alive, I hear the echoes of privilege. I know that I feel like I am constantly struggling to survive as an artist, even as an academic, as I haven’t inherited the privilege of wealth that many others have, even the kind of wealth that comes from simply owning property or having a supportive family. It is interesting in this context that Bruguera’s work has changed so drastically, from Self-Sabotage in which she may be engaging in the most self-indulgent act of artistic autonomy, an artist playing Russian Roulette, to her Immigrant Movement International in which she is living on minimum wage and sharing an apartment with other immigrants. I wonder, though, how much wealth she has accrued as an academic and an internationally exhibited artist to be able to take this year off living poorly. I do think it is fantastic that she is using her $85,000 grant from Creative Time and dedicating it to building political momentum for im/migrant people.

I am not trying to be prescriptive or judge Bruguera’s work here. I am deeply inspired by her work, in fact. I do want to, however, use this space to consider aspects of my own work. How can I ethically live as an artist and survive? Is the only ethical relationship possible today with academia a criminal relationship, as Moten and Harney state? The fact that I can’t link to this essay underscores part of the problem, that so much work in academia results in the production of knowledge that is only accessible to those who can afford it, further reproducing inequality. How can artists work to create knowledge, processes and ecologies that are able to challenge economic inequality and all of its violence? 



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