Syd Shelton, Specials Fans, RAR Carnival Against the Nazis, Leeds, 1981, gelatin silver fiber print, 16 x 20".
Syd Shelton is a photographer who first started working with the Rock Against Racism activist group in 1977, when racial tensions were at a peak in the UK. At a time when right-wing media attacks on the black community in southeast London were common and discriminatory policing was taking a toll on that community, Rock Against Racism brought together antiracist activists from across the country to attend concerts, exhibitions, and protests. Now, as racial tension and a refugee crisis grow again in both the US and the UK, Shelton’s photographs from his time with the group are on display at Rivington Place in London, from October 2 through December 5, 2015.
I BECAME INVOLVED with Rock Against Racism after the Battle of Lewisham in southeast London in 1977. This was when a racist march by about one hundred National Front supporters was met with five thousand antiracist activists who had traveled down from all over the country. The Metropolitan Police were determined that the National Front be able to march, so they deployed a quarter of their force, suited with riot gear. This was the first time the police in Britain were militarized, and the officers’ use of riot shields really shifted the goalposts for activists—we were up against something different now. At the same time, Eric Clapton had just delivered a horribly racist tirade onstage, in support of Conservative politician Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.
We realized we needed to grab the headlines to counter the right-wing media’s high profile, and our first major event was a carnival in April 1978—a huge concert in the Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets. We didn’t want it to just be a free rock concert, though; we wanted it to be a demonstration. So we organized a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, which is about six or seven miles. It took us around six hours. It wasn’t just a straightforward march, though; every few hundred yards we’d have bands. The Ruts and Misty in Roots played on the backs of trucks in the march, and the Clash and X-Ray Spex played from the stage in the park. It was the largest antiracist demonstration since the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 between the fascist Blackshirts and antifascists.
What we did in Rock Against Racism was use art—music, photography, graphic design, fashion, style—to make our arguments. We used culture as a weapon. We wanted the music itself, and practices such as having black bands and white bands performing together, to express antiracist ideas and give them real weight and meaning, rather than using the crude slogans that so often caricature mass movements. That’s also why we didn’t look for a different title for this exhibition—we just named it after the group.
One of my favorite images from the exhibition is of three young black kids at a Specials gig in 1981. They’re wearing Ben Sherman button-down shirts, Harrington jackets—total skinhead gear originally. The whole thing had gone full circle, because skinheads appropriated their style from the rude boys in Jamaica, so it was like a new generation of rude boys had reclaimed the style back from the skinheads. This picture is a really good example of “style-activism,” to use a phrase from one of the show’s cocurators, Carol Tulloch. Another important image that’s included is of Jimmy Pursey at our second carnival in Brixton, also in 1978. He had had to pull out of performing after a gang of racists threatened to kill him. But in the middle of the show, I was backstage reloading my cameras with film and suddenly Jimmy charged onto the stage, grabbed the microphone, and made the most fantastically brave and passionate antiracist speech. Then he turned around, literally shaking with emotion. He looked at me for a second, and I got the shot. I still feel that I’m putting the antiracist argument forward using art. But this exhibition is not about me as a photographer; it’s about making a statement in the streets of Shoreditch.
View of “Hannah Black,” 2015, Arcadia Missa, London. From left: Black Quadrilateral 4, 2015; Black Quadrilateral 2, 2015; Black Quadrilateral 1, 2015; Black Quadrilateral 3, 2015.
Hannah Black’s writings and artwork address race, gender, class, pop culture, and geopolitics, among other things. Her first solo show at Arcadia Missa in London, which she discusses here, opened on October 2 and runs through October 31, 2015. Black is also currently participating in two group shows: “Workland: the fence is a narrow place” at Chateau Shatto in Los Angeles, on view through October 31, and “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” at the Yarat Contemporary Art Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, which runs through January 7, 2016.
THERE ARE SEVERAL DIFFERENT types of objects in this exhibition—airline blankets, a video, and big paintings that operate as space dividers, like you might find in an office. But the show was conceived as a single installation about a dialectic between block and flow, which I think is fundamental to how capitalism works. Capitalism imposes extraordinarily stable racial and gender identities in a market-forged world that values transformational processes such as exchange, progress, and growth. Goods and money move more freely than people. But some people can also move very freely: rich people with certain passports, for instance.
I was interested in relating these ideas to a contemporary discourse around the relationship between blackness and abstract principles of capitalist accumulation and social control. What happens when these principles of accumulation are given flesh and walk around? The gallery space is related to the same entanglements all my work addresses: the white art world and contemporary art as a social form that pantomimes ideologies of global flow and global subjectivity. For a lot of leftists there’s this outraged cry: “What do you mean that there are limits on my knowledge?” But maybe knowledge gets more interesting, not less, when we recognize its limits across subject positions, when we don’t make it subordinate to a blanketing, universal subjectivity.
The video, which shows images of trade, flight, and circulations of all kinds, addresses this most explicitly, and the airline blankets evoke individual discomfort, the care of people’s bodies, and mass circulation at the same time. I read that metabolism comes from the Greek metabolē, or “change,” but that the word could also mean exchange or trade. Between the body and the ordering of the world there are all these ideological conflations—if someone says “blood circulates” or “commodities circulate,” in a way the relation is totally metaphorical but it’s also made real through different forms of control: threats of violence or exclusion or poverty. In every case, living is at stake.
Frank B. Wilderson III’s ideas have been helpful to me in thinking about this show. He comes out of a Marxist tradition, but his political desire is bound up with black liberation. He talks about how blackness, understood as a kind of permanent negation of subjectivity, is the disavowed heart at the concept of “subject” or “citizen.” Since I first read Wilderson, I’ve also become interested in theorists like Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, and Fred Moten, but I really value Wilderson’s punk negativity because it contrasts with the positivity of activism. It refuses to respond to the demand that we have to be able to describe alternative worlds before we have the right to desire them. Part of me is just in a long tantrum about having to live with all these crazy traps of race and gender, and Wilderson speaks to that. Also, in Jared Sexton's 2008 book Amalgamation Schemes, he talks about race as a scratch, a line going astray, so in the show I scratched these crude smiley faces into brown paint on the dividers, because I wanted to ruin the surfaces and make the objects abject with these grotesque, ingratiating smiles.
I think this show is a little despairing, but despair about politics isn’t despair about the world. I’ve carried around race and gender like a stone in my throat for a long time and now I am giving more credence to this stuck stone—in fact it’s the only thing I’m giving credence to. I like Wilderson’s stance on art as a place where you’re allowed to want the world to end, and I want to distinguish it from a bratty insurrectionist stance. I think the desire for this end is about mourning, just as the 2011 London riots could be understood as mourning, and so could everything that happened in Ferguson and after. I’ve been thinking about how mixed up the desire to live and the willingness to die are, and how they don’t need to name themselves as political.
Gabriel Sierra, Untitled (o(op(ope(open)pen)en)n), 2015, MDF and burlap, dimensions variable. Installation view, SculptureCenter, New York. Photo: Kyle Knodell.
Gabriel Sierra is a Colombian-born artist whose site-specific installations and performances aim to create environmental “intrusions” within space. “Numbers in a Room,” a solo exhibition of his work, is on view at SculptureCenter in New York from September 20, 2015, through January 4, 2016. He will also have a solo show at the Kunsthalle Zurich from November 21, 2015, through February 7, 2016.
I’VE BECOME OBSESSED with how we experience the present. For example, I can’t help but think of how this interview is happening in real time, for something that will be transcribed and read at a later date on the Internet, which will ultimately describe an exhibition opening on the twentieth of September, and which someone might not read until years after the show has passed. We live in a complicated era in which time has become almost irrelevant. This is why my recent work experiments with the exact moment when a visitor enters the gallery. I’m interested in how a body moves through the space, and the idea that the work can become the space itself. So when I change the title of my exhibition every hour, as with my recent exhibition at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, I aim to focus on the moment in which the visitor steps into the show. Depending on the title at the time of your visit, you’ll have a different experience. I’d even go so far as to say that the title of the exhibition is more important than the show itself.
In “Numbers in a Room,” my exhibition in SculptureCenter’s lower-level galleries, I’m drawing attention to the particularities and physicality of the building’s architecture. While most galleries aim to be as neutral as possible, this space is unusual: It’s a catacomb-like warren of small rooms, dark narrow corridors, with no natural light. I’ve installed pieces that will act as intrusions, and which ask visitors to modify the way that they would normally navigate the space. Other works in the show are signs and numbers from the New York City subway, shown for varying times throughout the exhibition. These allude to the architecture of SculptureCenter, which was once a trolley repair shop. My work is very quiet. It’s not spectacular. What I’m thinking is that people will walk through the show and notice only a few changes.
For the project in Zurich, which opens in November, I’m re-creating a déjà vu experience, and I will materialize this phenomenon of how we perceive space, time, and memory. In the show, there will be three identical rooms with the same objects in the same places, repeated three times. The idea is to re-create a fake déjà vu; it could be completely boring, but just because a phenomenon is mundane does not mean it doesn't exist.
While in school I studied architecture and design, and my work reflects this training. However, I find that the responsibilities of an architect or designer are far more complex than those of the artist. There are, of course, many security reasons for this. There are safety concerns and restrictions in the more practical realms, while an artist is allowed the freedom to play and perhaps have a more imaginative approach. As an artist who trained in these fields, what I’m most interested in is how the environment affects you—how architecture controls your behavior, for instance, even if you are unaware of its effects.
The limestone cave in Guayanilla–Peñuelas, Puerto Rico, which houses Allora & Calzadilla's Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos), 2015.
Artist duo Allora & Calzadilla’s latest project, Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos), 2015, is the Dia Art Foundation’s first commission outside the continental United States since 1982. Here, the artists speak about the work, which incorporates one of Dan Flavin’s multicolored light sculptures and sets it in a prehistoric limestone cave located between the municipalities of Guayanilla and Peñuelas in Puerto Rico. The piece will be on view starting September 23, 2015.
THIS PROJECT BEGAN years ago when we first encountered Dan Flavin’s Puerto Rican Light (to Jeanie Blake) from 1965 in an art history book. We became interested in the conditions and possibilities of Flavin’s work; how the light fixtures need to be plugged into the wall of the space where they are on display, and how by doing so, they involve a larger network of power and electricity—an infrastructural grid that supports the place where the work is shown. For us, these conditions immediately opened up questions about the autonomy of the work versus its dependency on other material factors.
In order to get to Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos), one has to drive along the southwest coast of the island and pass a large petrochemical complex that has been abandoned since the 1970s. It now stands as a modern ruin—polluting and haunting the landscape. Cueva Vientos, a few miles down the road, is part of a natural protected area conserving multiple species of endemic flora and fauna. The mouth of the cave where we installed Flavin’s work is nearly two hundred feet tall, and the domed vault where the work is installed is about 250 feet at its highest point. The eight-foot-tall vertical shafts of fluorescent light, however, are not diminished by the grandeur of the space; rather, they charge the immense volume with their magnificent glow. At the top of the dome are two openings. At noon, the sunlight comes through them and hits the ground close to the Flavin sculpture, slowly moving like a sundial around the floor and the walls in a play of light. Sunlight—the primary material of our work, which we collect through solar panels outside the cave and use to power the Flavin sculpture—dances around the glowing fluorescent lamps. Then, around 3:00 PM, the sun seeps in from the entrance of the cave. Shadows come in long over the floor. Variations of natural light, in contrast with the fluorescent lamps, alternately reveal different aspects of the cave’s stalactites, the walls, and its bats—making the space and its inhabitants comprehensible.
We’re using the original work by Flavin and showing it in a new context, as opposed to making a copy or replica of it. This is a historic object that we’re consciously presenting and protecting in a new context. We’re not appropriating it. Rather, in effect, we’re aligning the histories of the work and the site. During the period when the Flavin piece was made, Puerto Rico was being heavily industrialized as a result of a US government economic development initiative called Operation Bootstrap. Apart from bringing US corporations to Puerto Rico to enjoy lucrative tax benefits, the program also promoted the emigration of island residents stateside. By the mid-1960s, nearly a million people had left the island, and a great majority of them settled in New York City. The title of Flavin’s work, Puerto Rican Light (to Jeanie Blake), was actually inspired by a comment from Blake, who worked as an assistant at Flavin’s New York gallery at the time, after she’d attended a Puerto Rican Day parade—which was a fairly new expression of island cultural identity in the city. This colorful event seems to have left an impression and somehow Flavin’s three colored fluorescent lights triggered Blake’s chain of associations. For us, a larger set of relationships—related to the social, cultural, and political transformations that were happening in that period and are ongoing today—can enter that train of thought.
Our work ultimately is about trying to render physical the words Puerto Rican Light. For instance, the current Puerto Rican debt crisis mainly stems from the country’s largest electric company. There are energy transfers that occur within the photovoltaic cells of the solar panels and within the fluorescent lamps as well as within the ecosystem of the cave itself. Flavin’s piece is traditionally perceived as dependent on the institutional setting or white cube. Here, we are opening that gap between object and setting, examining their reciprocal influence, and exploring the overlapping of the prehistoric and the contemporary.
Jumana Manna, A magical substance flows into me, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 1 hour 10 minutes.
Jumana Manna is a Berlin- and Jerusalem-based artist whose work revolves around the body, national identity, and historical narratives. Her latest film, A magical substance flows into me, will be on view at Chisenhale Gallery in London as part of her first UK solo exhibition, which opens on September 18, 2015. Here, the artist speaks about her research into the career of Robert Lachmann, whose work as a musicologist served as an inspiration for her film and an impetus for her to delve into the musical traditions of the different ethnic groups of Palestine.
ROBERT LACHMANN was a German-Jewish ethnomusicologist. He moved from Berlin to Jerusalem in 1935 to establish a department of Oriental music at the Hebrew University. Judah Magnes, the first president of the university, invited Lachmann after he was dismissed from his position as a music librarian at the Berlin National Library following the Nazis’ rise to power. I first came across his story in the memoirs of Palestinian oud player Wasif Jawhariyyeh while doing research on the urban social life in Jerusalem before the Nakba—the exodus of Palestinians from their homes during the war of 1948. Jawhariyyeh wrote about his encounter with a certain Dr. Lachmann, whom he would meet to record and discuss Oriental music. He recounts an argument they had on one occasion about the future of Arabic music and the question of notation; Lachmann was against Arabic music’s adopting Western systems of notation. He thought Arabic music was too “emotional” and also that it would be difficult to notate because of the quarter-tone system. Lachmann wanted Arabic music to remain pure and free from Western influence. Jawhariyyeh was of the opposite opinion: He thought that the only way to preserve tradition was to write it down and that notation could be a tool for progress. For me, this disagreement encapsulated the dilemmas of modernity, and the bifurcated relationship of Palestine to the West.
Lachmann realized that from a scholarly perspective, the distinction between Arab and Jew, which was already ubiquitous in Jerusalem at that time, was false and detrimental to the study of Oriental music. His refusal to recognize this divide made it difficult for him to raise funds for his research. He proposed a radio program to the Palestine Broadcasting Service called “Oriental Music,” hoping to challenge this divide and to educate listeners, especially European listeners, about the diversity within Palestine and the importance of cross-cultural study. My film is based on this program, which was a failure in certain ways. I aim to question why it failed, and I ask what the stakes of such a project might be in the present. I made a conscious decision not to invite all the groups of people to one studio, as Lachmann did, but instead to visit them in their respective towns, villages, and cities. Although there is a kind of potentiality within the film, I’m also addressing the segregation of Israel and Palestine and the impossibility of reconstituting the space of Mandate Palestine in the present day. It does not idealize this time and the Mandate, but rather helps provide a space from which another Palestine can be imagined.
Since the home is the heart of any colonial struggle, I decided to shoot the film in people’s homes. It’s partly coincidental that a lot of conversations take place in the kitchen, but I also see an echo between the craft of music and the making of food, a kind of corporeal memory. The film is very much about proximity, the limitations of language, the limitations of these encounters, and a certain violence. But it is also about desiring, and seeking to constitute something anew.
Jibz Cameron is a Los Angeles–based artist who has been performing as her alter ego Dynasty Handbag for over a decade. In conjunction with a staging of her 2015 piece Good Morning Evening Feelings at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA:15 festival on September 17, Cameron’s exhibition “Simply the Worst” is on view through October 18, 2015, at the Portland Museum of Modern Art in Portland, Oregon. Here Cameron discusses these shows in addition to the TV pilot she is developing.
GOOD MORNING EVENING FEELINGS is a one-woman show. It’s like a daytime, nighttime, children’s, and adults’ talk show. It stars me as the host, Dynasty Handbag, and then all the guest stars that come on the show are me too, or just different versions of Dynasty Handbag in other costumes. There’s a lesbian chef who creates a morning smoothie out of terrible childhood memories, a useless exercise routine by a very angry Broadway starlet, some headlines are read that are not very contemporary and basically just end up shaming me for all the things I don’t really know about. There’s also a musical guest, which is a version of Madonna doing not vogue, but vague, where the voguing is really imprecise, the opposite of voguing—vaguing. Which is what I feel like my life is—I’m not exactly sure a lot of the time. It’s based around the idea of helping you get through the day facing Fear, Anger, Guilt, and Shame—FAGS. You can make a lot of good jokes that way, like: “Beware of FAGS that pop out throughout the day” and “FAGS will follow you no matter where you go,” which is true. It’s kind of a play on “We are everywhere, us fags,” and also this idea that you can’t really escape yourself, your actual FAGS.
After my last show, Soggy Glasses, a one-woman show about Homer’s Odyssey that was really difficult to make, I wanted to do something fun with more room for improvisation. I was thinking about talk shows and how the morning ones are designed to help you have a good day, give you some of what’s going on in current events, maybe show you some helpful hints about how to live better. But that’s not the kind of morning show I need. I need one that will help me combat the terror of being alive more than giving me a new recipe for a buttermilk pancake. I was also thinking a lot about why women get to do the morning and men get to do the evening shows. There are a lot of reasons for this, I’m sure, and none of them really that good.
In “Simply the Worst,” the retrospective of Dynasty Handbag costumes at the PMOMA, they all have drawings that abstractly explain the origin story of the outfit. For example, I have one outfit that’s a disgusting collage of just animal prints. I like thinking about the significations of animal print culturally; images of tourism and the invention of the long airplane ride to another country, colonialism, the jungle, sexualizing so-called savages—deep, weird racism. When a woman is wearing animal print, like a ’50s pinup model, there are so many things that go into what we register when we see it. And there isn’t just any old version of animal print; there are all kinds of subdivisions of the patterns as well. The outfit drawings are a little bit like trying to figure out the terrorist complex in Homeland, lots of string and Post-it notes on the wall.
I’ve always wanted to perform at TBA, and it’ll be a break from working on the TV pilot that I’m developing with Amanda Verwey, my writing partner for Good Morning Evening Feelings. The pilot is about a performance artist who goes to Los Angeles to try to make a TV show and high jinks ensue. The character has a really crazy mother who lives in LA, so she’s sort of forced to deal with all of these outer and inner demons as well as a sister. There are also flashbacks to how she grew up in a really dysfunctional hippie commune. Not that dissimilar to my life.