Well, hoping for enlightenment and answers after 24 hours of sleep and reflection doesn’t always work. Yesterday evening’s discussion at Pavilion with Dairmuid Costelloe and T J Demos on the art/politics nexus provided some really interesting reflections and more food for thought on the works discussed in yesterday’s post, but ultimately no definitive answers in response to Renzo Martens’ film.
The complex issues surrounding the film are obvious for all to see. The complicity of the contemporary art world and international media in decontextualised dissemination and exhibition of what may be unpleasantly yet accurately termed as ‘poverty porn’; the more obvious traditional exploitative commercial and economic structures; and the globalised paradox of the international ‘aid industry’ feeding off poverty in order to raise funds to alleviate poverty. But how as viewers – and artists – we respond and move forward is not at all clear.
Martens exposes himself in a slightly masochistic way; he is open to criticism for his action art methods which exploit images of poverty in order to criticise poverty porn, and which intervene to raise hope amongst the Congolese with no expectation of success. Yet the uncomfortable power of the film’s message is predicated on his failure.
Faced with somewhat depressing feelings of inadequacy and impotency in the wake of Martens’ film, I at least find some cause for optimism in the contrasting approach of Adrian Piper‘s ‘Methodological Individualism‘. Piper’s view is that racism is something which happens at a one-to-one level in the here and now, rather than something which is institutionalised or a result of societal structures. Both Costelloe and Demos agreed this theory was open to challenge. They may well be right on this. But even if they are right and Piper is wrong, focussing responsibility on individual action at least encourages an individual feeling of possibility and empowerment in dealing with racism and prejudice of all kinds. Even if ‘society’ at large is to blame for general cultural responses and prejudices, individual action starting within the family, the neighbourhood, the city is surely the most effective way forward in dealing with intolerance. Stereotypes can really only be effectively challenged through individual experience.
And effective challenging of stereotypes and labels lies at the heart of challenging all forms of unthinking racism. 25 years on, Piper’s work remains important and relevant and politically significant.