It has turned cold. Recent mornings here have felt more like February than November. The nights grow ever longer. As we prepare to turn inward, to tuck ourselves away during the coming winter months, I typically want to rest my oversaturated mind, find peace from the overwhelming and inescapable cavalcade of cultural production and consumption. I have instead found myself invigorated by and seeing anew through an analogy from Jean Cocteau.
In a translation by Richard Howard, Cocteau writes:
The mechanism which imposes upon us the beauty of a picture, or, more correctly, the combination of lines and volumes capable of moving us, results from a phenomenon analogous to what triumphs over our intelligence when sexuality speaks. A kind of psychic sexuality provokes a moral erection comparable to the sexual one in that it functions without our control and gives immediate proof of the effectiveness of the forms and colors likely to convince a secret part of our organism.
I gravitate toward artwork that can only be consumed through time, that makes me think, that forces my mind in new directions and challenges my notions of what the world is. I know how to live with that work outside its context. I know how to carry it around with me as it informs the rest of my life because it has already existed in my mind through successive moments. I have a harder time knowing how to live with artworks that are immediate, nebeneinander. It might thrill me to my core, but where does it live in my brain when I leave? Why does it still influence me as I continue through my days? Its momentary nature belies its potential impact. The moral erection, the immediate, nonrational responses I have to those works shifts that impact away from my rational mind to a place I cannot see, a place all the more profound because it is unplumbable.
I can tell myself I love this video because I love doughnuts and state capitols, but my reaction lies beyond any simple intellectual explanation. I can tell myself that I love this recently completed mural for how it erases the Machado poem or that I can balance my sincere and ironic appreciation of the eagle, but, again, those explanations fall short of what happens when I see it.
I am, of course, reminded of other times I leave my rational mind behind. Cocteau sprang to mind as I was overwhelmed by the moonlight when I took the trash out last night, the light far more sublime and mortality-inducing than beautiful. He was with me as I woke from a dream that has haunted my days, my unconscious mind imprinting my waking life. He is with me as I sift through the numbing plenitude of the internet, finding flashes of light in the darkness that tug at something.
Humans have evolved to block out sensory inputs; unlike dogs we are no longer so overwhelmed by the smell on a tree that we drop everything to investigate it. We can use that saved brain power and energy to explore the mysteries of the universe, but, increasingly, we must develop ways of ignoring the hundreds of words, the thousand of sounds, the millions of things trying to grab our attention in order to know that mysteries still exist.
I hear Cocteau calling us back to a moment when we felt the psychic sexual thrill of seeing the first painting that called to us, the moral erection of that song that still stirs our heart. He reminds me to pay attention when I feel stirrings that work beyond my rational brain, past the barriers that I put in place to manage the onslaught. More than a silly or dismissive way to explain away what we like, he reminds us that the experiences that move us precisely because we cannot explain why they do are necessary and important to our complete health as mental, physical, emotional, and aesthetic beings, all the more so as the culture that confronts us screams that it is as profound and fundamental to our well being as that kind of experience.
At the very least, he sheds light on why I continually respond to and deeply love the mural I pass every day that for one reason or another hits me like a…
I’ve been part of an EU endeavor called City (Re)Searches. It started in Kaunas Lithuania, went on to Cork, and last month was for four days in Belfast; in June it will return to Kaunas and conclude in Rotterdam two years from its start. Yet the initiation of this program was years before in the planning and it will continue, no doubt, in independent and intersecting ways for years to come. This is because City (Re)Searches is an undertaking that, as researchers, we fold into the stream of our already conscious and highly developed practices, and will incorporate into the evolving discourses in which we participate.
Each meeting is framed and informed by being in the place it occurs.
The exchange in Belfast was dedicated to the topic of cultural agency at this time of social and economic change in Ireland (and we can say worldwide) that is also creating new contexts for culture and creativity. As a team of 15—artists, curators, arts administrators, social service organizers—we each come at culture in a different way.
So it was not surprising that co-researcher Ciaran Smyth, whose training is in philosophy, drew from Greg Sholette’s Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (NY: Pluto Press, 2011) in one of the presentations. We, as this author evokes, represent a mixture inside and outside the art world, working in the dark and in the light, each holding varying definitions of art and having aesthetic persuasions that can even be uncomfortable for each other. Still, as a group, we share the sense that culture and creativity have the potential to challenge and influence the outcome of our times—and that’s the beauty of the “curating” job done by organizer Ed Carroll in assembling this working/thinking group.
Sholette’s dark matter, he says, is “the bulk of the artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society,” and “is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture-the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators, and arts administrators.” It “includes makeshift, amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, self-organized practices….” Still it seems to me that this author is defining another, alternative art world. What about the world? What did Bucky tell us? “Start with the universe.” That would be apt beginning for his astrophysical allusion.
In focusing on cultural labor, Sholette pulls in the concept of “the good life.” He offers the example of the Berlin-based art and media collective Kleines Postfordistisches Drama (KPD), who created a fictional “sociological” documentary about creative industry workers just like themselves. Their conclusion: “Based on actual responses, the project reveals Berlin’s creative workers trapped in their own feeble expectations about a “good life.”
But what about the good life? In Belfast we were sharing time with a range of people who trusted us enough to articulate actual responses out loud, telling us and each other what was good and what was not in their life, and speculating on how culture might make it better. No one thought what they had to say would be feeble.
The Belfast conversation was not just about supporting enrichments or extending access to entertainment, though these ways of experiencing culture were there, too: from classes to community care programs to opera to technology. But it was also about imagining a wider narrative that can enable a realization of the part we each play—not divided into dark and light matter—and one where the possibility of everyone’s own agency can come into the foreground. This is maybe not always result in changing the world, but it can lead to life well lived.
Cultural agency is not dependant on artists, though their way of seeing and practicing can offer moments of insight and real vision. One thing we know well in Chicago is that by working in collaboration, participating in making culture, we have agency in the world. This cultural agency is about self and collective determination.
But in Belfast it seemed important to bear in mind that we all have agency when we are conscious of being in the dynamic process that is life. It’s human pursuit we share, not just an art pursuit that artists undertake or invite us to participate in. While artists can make this process their art, this way of being is available to any of us. We all share with artists this way of being, if we care and are invested in the making and living of life. By living what we believe, through our work and life, be it art or something else, we give form to our beliefs and communicate them to others. That’s agency.
The theme of cultural agency for Belfast was proposed by team member Niall Crowley, former chief executive of the Irish Equality Authority because this concept is at the heart of the City (Re)Searches initiative. As the active element of culture, agency focuses “our attention on issues of power and status as well as on issues of practice and action,” noted Crowley. But as researchers, we are not, as Sholette outs it, “cultural producers, as role models for society, [who] join with other social movements to work towards new forms of globalization?” Rather we are listeners with the belief that, by working from a position that everyone has cultural agency, we can change the inequality that exists today in regard to whose cultural agency is exercised and valued.
We are familiar with social art practice’s ability to provoke reconsideration of the way things are and seek change. Ireland has its exemplars, too. We see this spirit, for instance, in the five-year effort of artist Seamus McGuinness who, with psychiatrist Kevin Malone, has worked with 102 families throughout Ireland who have lost family members to suicide. Their “Lived Lives” project was so much about the future that they are continuing this work and in some ways, I am sure, they will do so all their lives.
We see it in the life’s work of Marie Barrett who continually turns the earth that is Donegal. She understands the depth of this place, land and sea. She listens to the citizens who co-inhabit her birthplace and home, and she enables them to share their stories both beautifully and resonantly, to understand and make known what it is be of and in this place now and into the future.
To enact such a short-term, yet alive moment of critical and incisive dimension in Belfast, Jeanne van Heeswijk, artist and team member, proposed an emergency pop-up structure for the public discussions; this structure will follow us around to next sites.
It became the setting for researchers and community participants to engage a debate on who are the cultural agents in our society, what is the purpose of this agency, and what future developments are required for equality in cultural agency.
As the sole researcher from outside the EU, it strikes me that City (Re)Searchers is a rare privilege, all the more remarkable because the outcomes are open-ended and not pre-determined. In projects like this (and there aren’t many), there is a sense of trust on the part of funders and participants that something of value will be learned, even if the lines of process are nearly always blurred and become convoluted, take dead-end tangents. But then this is a path of true discovery.
It is also an act of trust among the researchers. Curiously, this is something we find we have to continually reaffirm to ourselves; even if trust is our oft-recited mantra to the communities we work with in our individual ways. We who are often the organizers of others are finding that we are in need of arriving at a way of working with each other, bringing our strategies together and yet setting them aside, balancing pragmatics and poetics. It’s a matter of trust in the making and in the waiting.