Aesthetics and Politics at Pavilion


Enjoy Poverty: a still from the film

Enjoy Poverty: a still from the film

This evening I’m off to listen to talks at Pavilion in Leeds by Diarmuid Costello and TJ Demos, two prominent and distinctive thinkers in the field of aesthetics and politics who will each talk on their current research. As a precursor to the evening,  there was a screening last night of two artists’ films. Both raised a range of issues and questions stemming not only from the subjects under scrutiny, but also from the inherent nature of the art action/art performances involved. It was late (for me) when I got home, and too late to think too deeply about what it all meant, so it’s fair to say I am seeking enlightenment this evening and some clarification of my own thoughts and responses. So today’s post is no more than a scene-setting. Make of it all what you will.


Renzo Martens’ film Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2009) at first sight explores war-torn regions of the Congo, the exploitation of the local population by large corporate plantations and global interests in production of commodities and aid relief. In a disturbing twist, the artist then confronts the locals with the question: who owns poverty? They are initially bemused by this, and sit in open-mouthed silence as he then proceeds to take them along a line of reasoning which asserts that poverty is a commodity owned by them which they can exploit. He suggests that the local photographers (hitherto making a meagre income from local weddings, births and birthdays) can make a relative fortune by instead photographing victims of war and rape. The budding photographic entrepreneurs are trained in the art of reportage and shock value, and finally taken to meet the director of the local Médécins sans Frontières hospital, who gives them a hearing in leisurely complacency. He refuses to allow the local photographers to exploit poverty in “his” hospital, but is unable to explain satisfactorily why foreign journalists with press accreditation may do so.

The artist and the local photographers are forced to give up their plans to profit from and exploit their poverty, and instead are advised by the artist to embrace and enjoy what they have; or rather, have not.

The artist creates a neon sign with the injunction “Enjoy please Poverty”. Its garish brightness and ostentatious size exacerbates the dissonance and disjunctive nature of the artist’s intervention within the community. Each passing scene makes for increasingly uncomfortable viewing.

Adrian Piper‘s film My Calling [Card] No.1 (1987-8), documents her meta-performance regarding social convention, racist comments in social situations, and audience response to an audience responding to her performance. If you see what I mean. Piper is a black woman who does not look black. She thus from time to time encounters racist comments made in ignorance of this. It prompts her to create and hand out a card at such moments to the guilty party informing them she is black; she feels uncomfortable with their remark; and this card is the means through which she has decided to deal with the problem in social situations. The film proceeds to document the ensuing audience discussion on her tactics. Does the ‘white’ response differ from that of the blacks? What constitutes a racist comment anyway? The discussion is challenging and thought-provoking.

It should be a good evening tonight. I look forward to continuing the discussions tomorrow.


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