so you’re woke. now what?

on november 9, millions of americans woke up and for the first time realized this country is racist, and sexist, and classist, and many other -ists. maybe you’re one of them. maybe you started wearing a safety pin (0.5 woke points), or maybe you called your senator about #noDAPL (3 woke points), or maybe you took a class on intersectionality in college (5 woke points).

i’m just kidding. there is no such thing as woke points, because wokeness is not a competition (use of ‘woke’ while non-black: minus 50 woke points). in all seriousness, i’m noticing an epidemic of people who are beginning to have a social justice political analysis, or who have had a political analysis for a while, but who do not have a method to act on that analysis. 

it’s great that many more people are beginning to develop their political consciousnesses. please continue! read here and here and here and here. but while i do believe social media is an important aspect of 21st century discourse production, sitting around saying what’s wrong with the world is not going to change it. and i say this as someone who sits around quite a bit saying what’s wrong with the world. 

one issue with the sole focus on social criticism is that it tears things down, but it does not build. and creating is harder than destroying. as an educator, i am always thinking about how to create entry points for people just discovering the work. what enables me to have empathy for people wearing safety pins is reflecting upon when i was, quite frankly, a privileged little shit, and what it took to get me to this point, and where i still need to go. how do we move people from wearing safety pins to being on the front lines of resistance?

working in community-based art for the past few years, this is where i think socially engaged art is helpful in providing an entry point to praxis. perhaps people don’t know how to organize a campaign. but they can make a visualization on paper. and i’ve seen that one material realization of an idea be the starting point for many, many more forms of material realization. i’ve heard many participants in community arts project say, “i never thought i could be an artist”. maybe it’s time we find a way to change that phrase to “i never thought i could be an activist”. 

having a political analysis is meaningless if you cannot practice your words: if you constantly flake out on others, if you speak but never listen, if you perpetuate toxic masculinity or colorblindness while criticizing patriarchy or structural racism. but praxis also looks different for every individual. for some it’s getting involved in organizing efforts. for others it just looks like staying alive. however, it is up to you to be self conscious of your praxis, able to articulate it in relationship to your political analysis, and willing to self reflect and self challenge. 

as a political educator, i commit to the task of sharing tools, building bridges between analysis and action, and constantly learning and holding myself accountable. here are some places where you can start, and i’m more than happy to share resources offline or directly. 

in these times more than ever, we must hold each other close and love each other, and in the words of dr. cornel west—“never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

(so stop with all that ‘all we need is love’ crap—seriously!)

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the strange orientalism of ai wei wei

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Photo: Tania Bruguera and Ai Weiwei, at Brooklyn Museum, ELLEN QBERTPLAYA

my parents think ai wei wei’s father, ai qing, writes bad poetry. my parents also think donald trump will save the u.s. economy, so their opinions are to be taken with a grain of salt.

still, there’s something refreshing about hearing a chinese person’s opinion on chinese art. i don’t hear that often living in the united states. instead i hear opinions from people who have never set foot in asia, not only about ai wei wei, but about the legacy of communism and about tibet’s right to be free.

i want to clarify that i’m not denying the trauma of Maoism which i still feel in my body to this day, and i’m not denying that china has committed severe human rights abuses in tibet. there’s this metaphor that i use to explain gayatri spivak’s argument in “can the subaltern speak?”, which is that when your mother tells you to finish your food because there’s a starving child in africa, your mother doesn’t actually care about the child in africa in this situation, even though their starvation is real. the african child is the subaltern through which another power justifies its regime of domination. so is the tibetan monk. and perhaps, so is ai wei wei.

when ai wei wei was imprisoned by the chinese government in 2011, i remember many US-based artists showing up in protest for ai wei wei’s freedom. but how many of those artists in that same breath wore clothes that were made in china? documented their protest on iphones made in chinese factories with abysmal working conditions? and how many of those artists are conscious of the hong kong umbrella revolution*, and the jailing of chinese feminists?

in a recent exchange with tania bruguera at the brooklyn museum, ai wei wei was invited to discourse on his work regarding freedom and dissidence. but freedom for whom? dissidence against whom? i often wonder if ai wei wei would be considered such a champion of freedom if legacies of orientalism and fear mongering against communism did not paint china as one of the ultimate representations of unfreedom. i also wonder if dissidence is acceptable and glamorized only when it is a dissidence towards a “foreign” government and not a current global superpower whose quest for empire has decimated the lives of millions. certainly i don’t claim that the chinese government is blameless, just as i don’t claim that there are no starving children in africa. but in the context of ai wei wei and western art, the china being evoked for brooklyn audiences is a western imaginary rather than my diasporic reality.

i used to joke that the US-based ‘free tibet’ movement was analogous to a minority group of chinese citizens raising awareness in asia about freeing native americans from US occupation. but it seems like the chickens have come home to roost as the UN sends an investigation into human rights abuses against indigenous water protectors at standing rock. in a country where 1 million black people are incarcerated, water protectors are brutalized and held in dog kennels, and the current presidential election makes me seriously consider what life would be like if i repatriated to the homeland, i’m not comfortable with saying that we are freer here, then we are anywhere else.

*though hong kong’s colonized road to democracy is another complicated subject.

on teaching social practice, Fall 2016

Learning is odd. Some lessons you learn only after years of obstinacy, denial, and making mistakes. In the case of socially-engaged cultural practice, I am still learning, and a lot of that learning is about how to be a good person in relationship to others. You don’t learn that kind of thing overnight, or even in a semester.

How then do you teach social practice? And how do you teach it in a semester? This is my task for Fall 2016 when I am still very much, a learner. Moreover, how do you teach a field that is living, breathing, and changing before one’s very eyes? In reading through Nato Thompson’s Living as Form, published in 2012, for syllabus material, I am struck by how much the landscape of socially-engaged art has changed in just 4 short years. And of course, this choice to construct a particular narrative history of socially-engaged art is a political choice, one fraught with the hierarchies of the formal art world that often exclude “community arts” and activist practices.

I don’t always refer to formal art history—my practice is much more shaped by the intellectual legacies of post-colonialism and black feminism—and my choices in crafting this course reflect that tension between an aestheticized practice and a more straightforward social justice approach. When it comes to the broad range of socially-engaged practice and topics, the course that has taken shape is not by any means comprehensive. It is a specific response to the knowledge and context needed to develop a site-based artist proposal for Trans.lation Vickery Meadow, an arts and cultural platform focused on issues of neighborhood identity and equity.

In a larger schema, this course is a political intervention within the Texas pedagogical landscape. Texas ranks 49th in the United States in per pupil spending, and its public education textbooks are riddled with inaccuracies. No wonder then, that students are systemically disenfranchised from developing the knowledge, analysis, and voice needed to address the structural inequalities manifest in their daily reality.

Teaching is how we can interrogate the status quo and create space for possibility, and because of that, in Texas, our most important task is to teach. One such space of possibility that I’d like to open up is that learning is always amplified when it is shared. And moreover, that learning is produced through dialogue and critique. So please take, read, add, suggest, critique:

Link to Syllabus, Readings, and Presentations (Presentations will be uploaded the week of the course)

Sexual Harassment in Social Practice is a Real Thing Y’All

I think it’s widely known that I was sexually assaulted by one of my peers in my graduate program chaired by a prominent feminist artist, and when I reported it, my academic institution did very little, probably because men shedding tears over being friend zoned is a socially accepted thing, and they did not want to lose a Fulbright Scholar. Case in point: they welcomed another Fulbright Scholar the next year.

The thing with sexual harassment and assault as a femme bodied artist is that this is not my first rodeo, guys. I’ve been followed on the train. I’ve had strangers attempt to kiss me and look up my skirt. I’ve had a board member of a very prominent arts funding organization try to sleep with me. I’ve had a community member try to touch me with his erect penis and call me multiple times in the middle of the night asking to come to my house. And I’ve had an artist download my phone number without my permission and then manically text me about my whereabouts. Sexual harassment: the phenomenon that transcends age, race, and class boundaries.

People always ask, “Why don’t you report that shit?” (cue all the victim blaming during my graduate school incident), but if the case with my graduate program is any indication, I could have cured some disease with the time and energy spent (fruitlessly) dealing with sexual harassment. So for the most part I take a deep breath, spend some time with an imaginary punching bag, and move on. However, I think it’s worthwhile to take this moment and impart some feminist analysis to social practice discourse when it comes to sexual harassment, in the hopes that we can shift the ways in which we understand gendered labor in the field.

It’s pretty obvious from my scenarios that sexual harassment is a real thing in #life, but when it comes to social practice and community engaged art, I think there is a causal relationship to be unpacked between the inherent emotional and public labor expected from a social practice artist, and sexual harassment.

Social practice is a form of emotional and public labor. When you are working interpersonally and collaboratively, you are probably making an effort to not be a bitch to the other person. When you’re working on issues of neighborhood and community, you are probably making an effort to get to know your neighbors, stakeholders, and potential collaborators. Once again, probably requires not being a bitch. Kindness, care, listening, and consideration are part of the social practice toolkit, and in general, just part of the toolkit of being a good person.

However, we live in a society where cishet men are socialized to think that any small sliver of interest is enough to be considered as consent. We also live in a society where men are socialized to equate kindness, care, listening, and consideration with sexual interest, not with the mere practice of being a good person. Often I find myself at the following crossroads as an emotional and public laborer: I can either choose to work with men, and brace myself for the eventual harassment; or I can not work with men at all.

(For those of you who are like, “Why don’t you just set some boundaries up front?”, I can send you some very ineffective screencaps of me saying “stay out of my DMs”.)

(For the older women who have told me, “You’re lucky you’re still young and attractive enough to be harassed.”, please stop using ageism to justify violence against other femme bodies.)

For me it’s not a constructive solution to never work with men. Especially on the neighborhood or community level, men make up one half of that community and should be engaged in issues of justice and neighborhood health as well. When you are confronting and navigating male-dominated power structures, it is impossible to not encounter men, usually of the sleazebag variety. But it is a disheartening solution to need to put my body in the line of fire to do my work. And then I think about how this phenomenon trickles upwards in terms of the way that we build a field through practice and discourse.

For example, if social practice is premised on emotional and public labor, why are some of the most prominent and lauded social practitioners men? Why are some of the most referred to texts also written by men? Why are there conveniently no chapters on sexual harassment in those texts? I love Rick Lowe to death, but maybe his success is partially due to his ability to rally entire communities without having to endure sexualized touching.

I’m sure this doesn’t only apply to femme bodies, but queer bodies, disabled bodies, racialized bodies, and trans bodies as well in terms of our struggles to balance our personal safety with community organizing and community health. I want this acknowledged and I want our discursive support structures – the people who we uplift in the social practice field, the metrics that we use to evaluate success, the methodologies that we promote – to support the real live breathing bodies of those of us doing this work. Maybe it’s time to abandon narratives of communities – whether they be neighborhoods, cities, or theoretical/academic communities – as bound together through camaraderie, and instead look at the very real violences that run through and demarcate communities, and how these violences are structurally distributed. Only then does the dismantling begin.