Art, Activism, Vulnerability and Noble Calls
Liz Burns | Liz Burns is Arts Programme Manager, Fire Station Artists’ Studios, Dublin. www.firestation.ie
Recently I had the opportunity to meet with students and faculty of the MFA Programme in Public Practice, headed by Suzanne Lacy at Otis College of Art and Design, while on a research trip to Los Angeles. While sitting in on the class, a heated and uncomfortable debate erupted amongst a few of the students that encapsulated for me the uneasy and at times fraught relationship between art and activism and the questions that we as practitioners often ask ourselves today.
A mature student on the programme, who clearly identified as an activist first and foremost, having worked in the field for many years, was expressing her anger and dismay at the recent court announcement in the US, where a white police officer was not indicted for the killing of a young black man called Eric Garner. Protests were happening all over the United States including LA and she wanted to rally her fellow students from the MFA programme to organise a protest march immediately. When her fellow students didn’t respond the way she expected them to, she questioned the point of being on an MFA programme which purported to be about connecting with the real world, when all they did was read and talk and make art but not actually ‘do’ anything.
Naturally her fellow students were upset and challenged this woman’s perceived judgement about them and their so called ‘lack of activism’. These students all came from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, with different life experiences and set of expectations, all of which influenced how each positioned themselves along this complex continuum of art and activism. Naturally no agreement was reached in class that day, but I sensed an important topic had been broached, that touched a nerve, that all of us who work in this field can identify with.
That same nerve was touched when I first invited curator Galit Eilat to write an essay exploring the theme of art and activism for inclusion in a Fire Station Artists’ Studios publication I was working on in 2014. (Firestation Artists’ Studios, 2014). I had been an admirer of Galit’s activist curatorial practice over the years as Director of the Centre for Digital Art in Holon, Israel as well as her work with the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands and on the 31st São Paulo Biennial, 2014. During our initial skype conversation she explained that she didn’t like the term Art and Activism and preferred to talk about the idea of Art and Responsibility. She explained how when she worked with artists in Israel and in Brazil, they often said ‘you know when I work with the activists, they think that I’m too artistic and when I work with other artists they think that I’m too activist.’(Firestation, 2014, p.37). Finding theses terms too binary and reductive, she preferred to ask questions about art and responsibility which implicates us all. She explained that in Hebrew, the word responsibility relates to ‘the other’ or the idea of ‘otherness’. So the idea of response – ability has already accumulated the responsibility of the other and who is able to respond. The philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas wrote a lot about the idea of the responsibility of the respondent, where ethically people are responsible for one another in the face-to face encounter. Responsibility literally means carrying the other on your face, as your face, as a mask on your face.
This idea of responsibility links to Judith Butler’s idea of interdependence and vulnerability; what she spoke about recently in a public lecture she gave in Trinity College Dublin titled ‘Vulnerability and Resistance Revisited’ (Butler, 2015). In her lecture she argues that we all exist within a state of precarity and vulnerability: some more precarious than others i.e. those who lack basic food, shelter, state protection or recognition. However she argues that we are all affected and constituted by social powers beyond our control, society enacts itself upon us since birth, through discourse, and language. For example gender and heteronormativity is enacted upon us through language and behaviour, before we can even speak or understand what gender is. In our vulnerability we are all interdependent. Butler however sees vulnerability as having agency, and as being a precondition to resistance. When people who feel vulnerable or disenfranchised come together in collective actions, public protests, or marches, they create agency through these collective acts. Butler argues that vulnerability can be seen as a form of power and have a role to play in the formation of power. It is less a subjective disposition, related to how an individual feels at a particular moment, but rather Butler sees vulnerability as a relationship to a field of objects, forces, and institutions that impinge upon us all in some way.
This idea of responsibility and vulnerability as a precondition to resistance, for me is starkly exemplified in a piece of public theatre, performance art , activism, speech act – call it what you will – that took place on the stage of Ireland’s national theatre, The Abbey, in Dublin over a year ago. Dubbed ‘Panti’s Noble Call’ 1 , it was performed by a well-known Dublin drag queen and performer Miss Panti Bliss – aka Rory O’Neill. Self-described as an ‘accidental and occasional gay rights activist’, Panti took to the stage of the Abbey last February following a performance of James Plunkett’s play ‘The Risen People’. Her passionate and personal ten minute performance on being gay, and the homophobia and oppression that gay people often deal with on a daily basis, was recorded and posted on YouTube, where it immediately went viral. To date it has had 710,219 hits. This sparked a national and international debate on gay rights, homophobia, censorship and the role of public service broadcasting, with celebrities like Madonna, Stephen Fry, and Lady Gaga all participating via social media. This was given all the more agency in light of the Irish government’s announcement of the referendum on same-sex marriage to take place on 22nd May 2015.
To give a bit of background into how and why Panti’s Noble Call came about in the first place, related to a TV interview by Rory O’Neill on a Saturday night chat show in Ireland three weeks previously, where homophobia in Ireland and the media’s role in its perpetration was discussed. This interview resulted in Rory O’Neill and our national broadcaster RTE, being accused of defamation, and RTE very swiftly agreed a settlement of €85,000 in compensation to two Irish Times journalists and the right- wing Catholic think tank ‘The Iona Institute’. During this time Rory O’ Neill became a persona non grata, threatened with legal action and denounced from the floor of the Oireachtas, and Irish newspaper columns for using ‘hate speech’ by daring to use the word ‘homophobia’ in the first place. As Panti ironically declared during her Noble Call, ‘apparently the word homophobia is no longer available to gay people.’2 Clearly language matters.
In a striking example of vulnerability which feeds into agency and resistance, Panti took to the stage of the Abbey to take back and reclaim language, in particular the word ‘homophobia’, and talked about the nature of oppression and the internalised homophobia in us all. Observing that we have all grown up in a society that is stiflingly and overwhelmingly homophobic, she argued that to escape unscathed would be miraculous. Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole went on to describe Panti’s Noble Call as the most eloquent Irish speech since Daniel O’Connell was in his prime. While acknowledging the speech as a powerful piece of oratory, I would argue that Panti’s Noble Call was far more than a speech, combining elements of performance, activism, queer art, theatre and an enactment of gender.
The fact that Panti’s performance came directly after James Plunkett’s ‘The Risen People’, a well-known Irish play about the 1913 workers strike and lockout in Dublin, added further agency to this Noble Call. At the start Panti declared that in contrast to the plight of the impoverished strikers in 1913 Dublin depicted in ‘The Risen People’, she is from a middle class family in rural Ireland who grew up in relative comfort and affluence. While acknowledging this essential difference, she observed that the overarching theme of ‘The Risen People’ is about oppression, and oppression is something that she could relate to as a gay person.
As Ireland enters the third year of the Irish government’s declared ‘Decade of Commemorations’,3 the role of the artist in these commemoration is being hotly debated and contested. Artists working in this field must constantly tread a fine line as they juggle competing narratives of past, present and future, in the research and making of their work, all the while mindful of appropriation or instrumentalisation. Commenting on her 1913/2013 ‘Labour and Lockout’ exhibition,4 curator Helen Carey observed how commemorative activity has now evolved into contested subjects of past and future. For her, ‘commemoration becomes ‘Janus -like’, looking back and forward, the latter being the concern of contemporary art.’5
Taking this ‘Janus-like’ approach, to mark the centenary of the 1913 lockout, the Abbey Theatre used the device of the Noble Call, an old Irish tradition whereby after a performance, usually of music, the audience are invited to respond through word, song or poetry. Over the two month run of ‘The Risen People’, the Abbey Theatre invited over 60 people from all walks of contemporary Irish life, including poets, musicians, activists, journalists, historians and community workers, to give their responses each evening to the play.
Panti’s Noble Call, performed on the final night, was a very personal and impassioned meditation on the nature of oppression in contemporary Ireland. Had this performance been restricted to the audience at the Abbey Theatre that night in February 2014, I would not be writing this essay today. The fact that this performance was filmed, posted onto YouTube, and subsequently went viral nationally and internationally, created a public as well as a political space, much akin to what political theorist Hannah Arendt described as ‘the space of appearance’. In her seminal book ‘The Human Condition’ first published in 1958, Arendt argues that the public space is the setting for action, which itself appears and then fades within that space. This ‘space of appearance’ comes into being wherever people come together through speech and action.
In 2015 how people congregate, protest, and the definition of the public sphere is rapidly changing and expanding in the age of the internet, social media and mass media. Collective activity, mass street protest and marches today, rely as much (if not more), upon the mass media and social media’s reporting of the event, as on the event itself. However with this expansion in the public sphere, we are also witnessing the increased privatisation of public and civic space, and monopolisation of mass media via media conglomerates and transnational corporations. As practitioners who work within this expanding field of socially engaged art, it is imperative we consider these questions and how we choose to work within this changing landscape.
1 To view Panti’s Nobel Call: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WXayhUzWnl0
3 This refers to the period from 1912 to 1922,which was one of the most eventful in Ireland’s history. From the campaign for Home Rule, the Dublin Lockout, through World War One, the Easter Rising of 1916 to the foundation of the Irish Free State, this was a decade of great change. The Decade of Centenaries Programme aims to commemorate this 10 year period. http:// www.decadeofcentenaries.com/
Art & Activism. (2014) Fire Station Artists’ Studios.
Arendt. H (1956). The Human Condition. The University of Chicago Press; 2nd edition. (1998)
• Language: English
Vulnerability and Resistance Revisited’ Public Lecture by Professor Judith Butler in Trinity College Dublin, Thurs 5th February 2015 https://www.tcd.ie/cgws/assets/pdf/ Butler.pdf