14 April 2011
Cheap Flicks Chat #2
In their second online conversation, Gavin Butt and Ben Walters consider the usefulness of public sphere theory for considering issues raised by moving-image work by performance artists. Texts consulted are Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 2002, and Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory, 1989.
GB: I was thinking since I chose the texts, they reflect some of my thinking around our subject and not necessarily yours. I could begin with saying why I chose these, but I'd prefer to hear whether the texts have been useful for you in thinking through the things we're interested in…
BW: From my point of view, there was a lot in the Michael Warner article that seemed to have more or less direct bearing on the things we've been talking about and prompted me to consider some further questions. The Nancy Fraser was interesting but seemed less directly relevant – though I did find noteworthy the idea of “the removal of system-integration mechanisms from symbolic reproduction spheres” and would like to unpack that a bit. But tell me more about your choice of these articles.
GB: Well, we are on the same page, then. I too found the Warner more directly relevant to our discussions. This may, in part, have something to do with the fact that Warner's is much more recent (2002) and the Nancy Fraser essay comprises a much earlier intervention into public sphere theory from the mid-1980s. So I think it's important to historicise their arguments a bit. But, as to why I chose them, that gets to why I think public sphere theory in general might be relevant to what we're doing. I'm interested in Jürgen Habermas' notion of a bourgeois public sphere of civil society which he places as emerging in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, a sphere in which private individuals come together in rational-critical debate to contest and hold to account the bourgeois state; a space of exchange in which the people represent their own interests; a sphere in which ‘the public’ works towards self-determination. I picked up on Warner's re-reading of Habermas because of the way he talks about publics as being constituted “by virtue of being addressed”. As a literary scholar, he puts great store by the idea of the traditional bourgeois public as a kind of reading public, one that is imagined – nay, brought into being – through being addressed by textual and other forms including newspapers and novels, and discourses in salons and coffeehouses. Furthermore, Warner talks about how these modes of addressing, and making, a public depend upon certain styles of address. This is where the debate becomes relevant to our project I think because we are interested in work which partakes of a particular style of address, idiom, manner or mode. So, I was wondering: are we interested in tracing the ways in which such work might be productive of what we might call a 'trash' public? And, if so, could this be considered in terms of what Warner calls a ‘counter-public’?
BW: I think there are some interesting tensions at work in this area: if on the one hand a counterpublic exists only in opposition to a normative or dominant public and on the other hand is self-selecting in its membership, can it ever be truly subversive or disruptive? Can a counter-public be conceived of as a truly alternative public since it is so dependent on normative culture? If a 'trash' public does exist, can it do more than just thumb its nose? And what, exactly, is/are the style/s of address of the work we're considering; and can it/they resonate beyond a self-selecting public?
I think one way of answering some of these questions might be to do with 'flaunting’. I want to come back to what Fraser describes as “the removal of system-integration mechanisms from symbolic reproduction spheres” – a complex idea that I don't want to misrepresent, but I think it hints at the value of disrupting the normative reception of ideas and, for our purposes, could be locally applied to ideas of dominant cinematic culture as a way of communicating normative values - what happens if you stick a spoke in that machinery? Then I was very struck by Warner's description of Casa Susanna, the suburban drag photo parties that he uses to connect glamour, public-ness, intimacy and gender in the form of these “monsters of impudence”, as he suggests the mass public might view them, “engaged in nothing more than flaunting”. Flaunting seems to be here a version of defiance or pride, asserting a retooling of normative notions of glamour and thereby demonstrating their contingency and vulnerability. I think many of the artists we're looking at do versions of this, either in terms of form or content. In this way, flaunting can be tied to both satire and drag.
GB: Interesting, because to flaunt is: 1. to display (possessions, oneself, etc.) ostentatiously; show off or 2. to wave or cause to wave freely; flutter. So flaunting might be understood as a form of self-showing, a style of revealing or of self-presentation, which clearly has attached to it a history of moral disapproval. It's too wide of respectable middle-class etiquette, for example, to show off your wealth (the vulgarity of bling), or to make a sexual display in public. This perhaps goes someway towards answering how we might characterise the style of address or bearing of much of the work we're considering. I would venture that it might be found within modes of address and forms of self-presentation which are 'all a-flutter'. They are sometimes perhaps a little too free and easy, in relation to more upstanding, civic forms of public exchange and behaviour, and partake of a certain playfulness, an irreverent refusal of 'serious' and 'earnest' publics. The works are also sometimes judged to be a little too ‘lite’ by more serious souls in the more localised circuits of the artworld too.
BW: Yes, I think playfulness can be radical if the subtext is 'I don't take seriously what you take seriously'. Flaunting is tied up with defiance and shamelessness (which isn't far from pride and self-assertion). Indecorous exuberance is certainly in there as well; the fault line around what Warner thinks is often perceived as “debased narcissism”. I think his idea that “publicness itself has a visceral resonance” could be very useful: What is decent to describe or show in public? How closely can we compare Divine eating dog-shit in Pink Flamingos to how Warner describes the philosopher Diogenes masturbating in the central market space of ancient Athens?
GB: I think we could connect Diogenes and Divine … But we’d have to be extremely careful about the great historical leap here. As we would in making even a comparatively smaller leap from Pink Flamingos, and the public sphere of the 1970s, say, to work being produced today. It strikes me that some of the suspiciously easy formulations of a ‘trashy’ counter-public, which might run from e.g. Waters to the contemporary work of David Hoyle, run the risk of forgetting the real transformations in the public sphere since then. No longer is trash performance simply sub-cultural. For example, Hoyle’s quasi bear-baiting exchanges with Lauren Harries at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London arguably have as much in common with similar exchanges in contemporary neoliberal media publics (Jeremy Kyle) as they are uniquely ‘underground’. And John Waters himself seems to be less keen on trash these days, at least as a word to describe his own ethos, and favours what he argues is the “punk edge” of ‘filth’. Implying, perhaps, that trash taste is no longer as edgy as it once was. So, I think it's wrong to say that what we’re interested in is just a question of style, of e.g. a low, vulgar or 'visceral' style of public exchange. Instead what I think is interesting is how the style of a counter-public may bleed into that of a normative public, making it more difficult to distinguish between them, and making it very problematic indeed to characterise the political value of performance in terms of clear-cut alternatives to the mainstream.
BW: Absolutely, an oppositional, confrontational or adversarial mode plainly isn't sufficient to qualify something as counter-normative – just as an oppositional sensibility could be expressed through, say, a reflective lyric mode.
GB: Absolutely. Which makes me think that the way to go might be think more about the technologies of address, via the moving image, which might tell us more about how this work is producing its public(s). This brings me back to your second very important question about 'self-selecting membership' of counter-publics, which we already picked up on in our first exchange. I think, actually, that in making work in film and video, and in exploring various forums in which that moving-image work is shown and distributed, some contemporary performers are interested in opening up their work to a broader 'community of strangers' than the actual punters who show up to, say, Bird Club or Club Wotever.
BW: Yes, it's a somewhat bittersweet aspect of film/video (or, I guess, any plastic art) that it can get to places its maker can't. I think you're moving towards a key area if we are to look at this in terms of publics – the mechanisms of exchange, communication and public-building have radically changed even since Warner's article (which, incidentally, I read in the 2005 edition). The world of the candid but presumably clandestine cameras of Casa Susanna is utterly different to the myriad modes of targeted engagement, discussion and distribution now available, notably through social networking. In terms of the work being produced today, we have to deal with the new, suddenly ubiquitous realm of what we might call micro-publics that we are all in the business of creating daily through Facebook, twitter et al. Warner asserts that “people do not commonly recognise themselves as virtual projections” but, in some senses (if not exactly the one he means here), these days they do. This also opens up to investigation exactly what a 'stranger' is today – or indeed a ‘friend’. When trying to reach the new people essential to building a public, it is now far easier to make contact with large groups of strangers (or, as we now know many of them, friends of friends)… but are the connections weaker? And does that matter?
GB: Very interesting indeed. Not sure I have the answers to that. Perhaps you're touching upon something crucial here about the contemporary production of mediatised publics that sociologists and media theorists may well have already thought about (makes mental note about further reading!). But try this: I wonder if this is where the mediatised production of publics, and the 'trashy' ethos of performers who use that media, come together in forming our subject. It seems to me that the work that you programme in BURN has a quasi-avant-gardist, or bohemian, taste for the popular: it reaches out to a broader public by utilising popular languages and pleasures (e.g. the perfume ad by AManToPet). By circulating on the web it can pick up multiple publics - insiders from the performance world, outsiders who comes across it through idle browsing. That way, the performance comes to circulate across relatively closed publics, constituting as it does so a more heterogenous public, one which I think I’d like to call 'common'.
I'd like us to think about the history that has brought us to this point - not least because Michael Warner usefully adopts the historical approach as well to his study of publics. I'd like to approach this in two ways: firstly by talking a little bit about how artists have dealt with, or negotiated, publics since the late ‘60s - what we might call the late-Warholian moment. And then talk very much about now, about the contemporary technological conditions of public address, and how performance artists plug in to that. Thinking like this will help us fashion our questions to our interviewees, and help us select artists whose oral histories may reveal interesting aspects of this story performance and its mediatised publics. What do you think?
BW: That makes sense, certainly. In Fraser’s account of Habermas, the technology of transmission and publication has always been absolutely crucial to the understanding of publics, so it makes sense to look at it through that lens given that our subject is moving-image work (always technology-intensive) and our period is one of enormous technological change.
GB: I've been thinking that it might be interesting to explore two differing, and sometimes interlocking, ways in which artists have been involved with moving image culture. Firstly there is what I'm calling the late-Warholian way, late because it derives very much from the explorations in the 1970s by Vincent Fremont and others at the Factory, utilising the early video technologies of Portapak. This is evident in the early ’70s attempts to shoot make-shift soap operas, very much in keeping with the improvisatory ethos of Warhol and Morrisey's films, but also opens out to Andy Warhol's TV in the 1980s. This work forms part of a more thoroughgoing exploration by artists, especially on the downtown Manhattan scene in the 1980s, of the forms, technologies and pleasures of mass media publics. We might think of Laurie Anderson's video for O Superman in '81. Or think of the slightly later, more punk inspired video explorations of Ann Magnuson
as well as work coming more out of conceptualism like that of Dara Birnbaum, very much exploring and working within TV culture, as a form of artistic intervention. This is one strand, as it were, of how artists, and performance artists in particular, have seen it as their business to transform the conditions of addressing and constituting publics, as it were from the bohemian side of the media industry - a kind of bottom up exploration of capitalist film and TV forms.
Then, at the same time, we have another move in a slightly different direction, as TV and film corporations, and their presumptively normative publics, move towards performance artists - perhaps dragging them out of circulation in more narrow artworld publics and making them the object of a broader forms of attention and discourse by featuring them on telly. A good example of this is Tim Miller appearing on the Larry Sanders Show in 1993:
BW: Yes, or Leigh Bowery appearing on The Clothes Show
GB: Yes. Such examples demonstrate how performance artists have either been dragged into a broader public or have actively worked to infiltrate or garner a broader 'general' public by appearing on more popular platforms. This is still going on today with e.g. Kalup Linzy appearing on General Hospital in the US. See Jennifer Doyle's excellent essay on this http://www.frieze.com/comment/article/guest_stars_pt._2/
I got to thinking about this because we should not lose sight of how, for example, in the US Culture Wars in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, performance artists such as Miller – along with Ron Athey, Holly Hughes, Karen Finley and others – became the demonised objects of a ‘general public’ discourse in the debates about the funding of the National Endowment for the Arts. This also has been echoed in the recent high profile public spat over the removal of a work by David Wojnarowicz from an exhibition in Washington, DC.
BW: Is that what you mean by 'dragged into a broader public'? I was going to say I don't think that can apply to guest spots on mainstream television, where no claw-marks are visible on the carpet. But certainly in a case like the NEA controversy or Wojnarowicz that makes sense.
GB: Yes, that's were I was thinking there were claw marks.
BW: There’s also a question of how far the work in question is engaging with dominant modes of expression. The Wojnarowicz, for instance, is explicitly dealing in Christian iconography, so it's reasonable that those who take such iconography seriously on conventional terms should engage with it. But there's a further question of course about whether they're genuinely engaging with the work or using it to score populist political points...
GB: Yes, which was exactly what was happening in the '90s with the rightwing, and public, denunciations of e.g. the work of Ron Athey, which were based upon fantasmatic mis-construals of what the work actually consisted of.
BW: Yes, of course - and it becomes self-fuelling because the misconstrued version of the work supported by the dominant culture by definition gets broadcast more loudly, widely and frequently than the artist's own account of the work. But, again, this comes back to the question of whether a counterpublic can exist outside the context of the dominant mass public. Both the routes you propose - the outside aping the forms of the mainstream and the mainstream co-opting elements of the outside - seem predicated on this symbiotic relationship. I'm also curious about whether there can be a counterpublic that exists apart from, rather than in tension with, the mainstream.
GB: Hmm. As a kind of absolute outside? Then that wouldn’t be a counter-public would it? As, by definition, it has to be involved in a contestatory relation to the dominant. But maybe the question here is how artists themselves imagine the publics they are in the business of both shaping and addressing. To what degree are performance artists driven by self-conscious imaginings of their publics – as alternative, counter- or other kind of public? What is the role of the moving image in securing performance publics beyond the live event? And how do artists think about the mainstream – if at all? Can the mainstream be described any longer as simply 'normative', or the site of a straightforward symbolic reproduction of 'dominant' social and cultural forms...
BW: ...but if it isn't that, what is it?! Perhaps we can say now that there is no mainstream - at least for younger people. The idea of getting all your media from a handful of outlets on their own terms is a thing of the past; though whether the dominant sensibility behind them is as well is another question. But we could be getting into very deep water here. We could spend the whole project trying to define mainstream-ness.
GB: We could, yes! But, better we think not about what the mainstream is, but rather what takes place there, what artists do with mainstream forms. I saw an item on Newsnight recently talking about Facebook, twitter and other social media and about how much they are currently valued at. Facebook, they reckon, is worth anywhere between $50bn and $100bn despite not actually making any profit. But the reason it’s so valuable (to capitalist enterprise) is that it has a massive membership and is in the business of forging a global public of exponential proportions (currently 600 million members). I found it interesting that Facebook was being talked of as a platform i.e. because it could provide the basis for business to build something else on, a profit-making enterprise with a ready market of consumers. But this ‘mainstream’ technology has also recently been an important platform for revolution across North Africa and the Middle East. This means it is a technology of public communication that doesn’t have to result in the reproduction of the dominant order.
BW: Yes, the key thing is that the content is user-generated. I don't think you can have a mainstream technology per se, but mainstream application of technology. So television is mostly dominant-order stuff but can also be used for, say, Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party too. The internet in general, or Facebook in particular, are communication technologies in which public-access content is the norm rather than the exception.
GB: Yes absolutely, which makes social media content potentially more open politically … Not forgetting, of course, the frequent instances of Facebook censorship in the West and the general clamp down on the internet in places like China.
BW: Yes, it is still a regulated space.
GB: I wonder if 'mainstream' is actually better understood as a category of taste, one which I find increasingly difficult to pin down in the context of contemporary culture. A better term to work with might be ‘popular’. Stuart Hall, in a fantastic interview with Les Back from Goldsmiths, talks about why the popular is so important for cultural studies. He argues that the political drive in making scholarly analyses of e.g. Neighbours resides in its attempt to understand the expression of the popular imagination in mass culture, even as it is inevitably sullied and distorted by the interests of capitalist advertisers and TV companies etc. See http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2010/11/28/stuart-hall-in-conversation-with-les-back-audio/
BW: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. ‘Popular’ has the benefit of clarity - anything that attracts a large audience is popular by definition.
GB: Perhaps, then, it is the performance artist’s interest in ‘the popular’ as a way of reaching his/her public that we might persue in our interviews – and how this relates, or not, to the desire to actually be popular. Also we might be mindful of the snobbery directed toward the popular both from elite high culture, and from more bohemian, sub-cultural enclaves. As Quentin Crisp once put it, "popularity breeds contempt".
BW: Popularity is a peculiar thing. How can something be both popular and radical? If it achieves popularity then it must be acceptable to most/many. We shouldn't equate dominant culture with simply reactionary or repressive culture – sexism and racism are now outsider viewpoints, homophobia is headed that way – but there’s also the question of the cost of popularity. Can a radical viewpoint be accepted in the popular realm, or is it rather softened or debased into something acceptable? Or something in between…? Compare, for example, what Warner says about Casa Susanna in the 1950s and 1960s – the abjection of drag, the disgust of the moral majority – with the massive popular success of, say, the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert musical.
GB: Yes, absolutely. And that comparison sketches quite nicely the broad historical sweep of our project. Our project might usefully explore artists’ changing role in this arc by asking them about how their independent moving image work propels their performance into the public sphere – and how it engages / repels / creates a popular public. Really, our project is about the politics of making publics, no? The meat, let’s hope, will get put on the bones of these questions through individual accounts of negotiating publics – testimonies to an important part of being a performance artist in mediatised capitalist society.
Warner, M. Publics and Counterpublics, 2002.
Fraser, N. Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory, 1989.