As I write from Chicago in December 2010, many of my fellow
North Americans are busy debating the recent censorship of David
Wojnarowicz's video A Fire in My Belly (1986-87). A few
weeks ago, a religious group and conservative politicians roiled
the waters by claiming that a few brief seconds of Wojnarowicz's
dark montage - depicting ants crawling across a crucifix -
constitute anti-Christian hate speech. The work was pulled from the
National Portrait Gallery's exhibition 'Hide /Seek', a
comprehensive and well-received exploration of queer portraiture.
This has in turn generated intense debate about an interlocked set
of topics, including the social roles of art, artists and cultural
institutions; the health of US constitutional protections on free
speech and separation of church and state; and the degree to which
queer identity has been embraced as a fact of North American
experience. And it has prompted art spaces and museums across the
country to quickly organise screenings and discussions based on the
belief that this work of art deserves to be experienced in full and
discussed in depth, rather than sound-bit into a tool for
Now, this debate may remain a localised one that won't deeply touch the consciousness of those Afterall readers not living in the United States. Even for readers currently enmeshed in the conversation, it seems likely that this set of events will have faded from collective consciousness by the time this issue of the journal is printed - as distant a memory as the snow that now falls outside my window. But the urgency generated around these questions seems useful to hold in mind as a potential frame for this issue of Afterall, resonating with several of the specific essays that follow, while also offering a broader reminder of Afterall's aims as a journal.
Afterall is never organised around one specific topic;
rather, each issue of the journal offers a compendium of essays
that examine carefully selected clusters of artists, exhibitions
and ideas that seem especially relevant at the time of discussion.
These essays are (almost always) grounded by a primary
consideration of the works of art themselves and strive (without
fail) to situate art within the world, history and social contexts.
And they (often) foster text-to-text interplay, with broad themes
recurring and amplifying across one issue of the journal.
Several of the essays in this issue of Afterall address the range of both repressive and emancipatory possibilities that might be articulated within pedagogically oriented formulations of artistic and institutional practice. This is particularly true of Carmen Mörsch's interrogation of the challenges and potential at stake in crafting a critically engaged role for museum/gallery education and Roger M. Buergel's reassessment of Lina Bo Bardi's radically democratic approach to museum and exhibition design, while Andrew Stefan Weiner explores political rhetoric in his meditation on recent performance and video works that problematise considerations of 'evidence and event'. Herman Asselberghs considers Jean-Luc Godard's changing relationship to didacticism, as illustrated by his new work, Film Socialisme (2010).
These loose thematic concerns apply to varied degrees to the three artists featured in this issue. Group Material's generous, activist and deeply pedagogical work is especially relevant to this line of thought. Catherine Sullivan's filmic and performative projects are produced through collaborative processes and engage with issues of labour and economics; in these works the socially engaged strata of content emerges more through peripheral vision than direct speech. And Isidoro Valcárcel Medina, the third artist addressed in this
issue, likewise touches on political processes and pedagogical strategies within his subtle materialist work. By sketching out some of these connections - and lacks of connection - I don't want to overdetermine any readings of these artists' works but simply to draw out a few threads that were on the minds of the editorial team as we assembled this issue.
Issue 26 of Afterall is the first that I had a hand in creating, having joined the publication in Spring 2010 as a contributing editor. My participation grew out of Afterall's evolving relationship with the University of Chicago. This relationship is currently in the pragmatic form of distribution via the University of Chicago Press, but we hope that it will continue to grow into a full research partnership. Such a partnership has the potential to become one of the pillars of the university's growing strengths in contemporary art, from its faculty of extraordinary art historians and artists to the Renaissance Society's long history of sharp-eyed excellence and the past decade of experimental projects at the Smart Museum. Afterall's mission resonates especially strongly with the work of the Open Practice Committee - an intimate, loosely structured group of scholars, artists and curators who are invested in creating and linking rich opportunities to experience and discuss contemporary art. OPC is growing into a robust platform for critical debate, experimental programming and the production of knowledge around and through contemporary art. It could become a strongly collaborative partner for Afterall, completing a dynamic framework for the creation, study, display and discussion of contemporary art at Chicago.
And so to begin to link back to the beginning: I am now one of two North Americans in the active editorial group (along with London-based Managing Editor Melissa Gronlund). While I would never attempt to play The Voice of America within editorial conversations, I do seek out connections between my experience on the ground here and issues we seek to address in the journal. And right now I'm depressed by the return of the repressed in the form of the inflammatory commentary that has circled around the Wojnarowicz issue. The rhetoric on both sides recalls the polarising, chilling impact of the 'culture wars' that plagued our country and decimated public spending for the visual arts twenty years ago.
But I've also found it inspiring to follow the current debates while working on this foreword. In part that's because the Wojnarowicz debate reminds me of the larger context of Group Material's participation in the vibrantly oppositional art worlds of New York in the 1980s - scenes worth careful re-examination now for the impact and salience of the issues artists tackled, the aesthetic strategies they deployed and the reception they received then and over time. As one point of entry, my old copy of Democracy: A Project by Group Material (1990) includes several brief but terrific texts by William Olander, the late curator who commissioned a pivotal project by the AIDS activist group ACT UP for the New Museum's front window. Setting the project within a larger context of historical works of art created in part to serve political aims, Olander wrote:
The point is a simple one: not all works of art are as 'disinterested' as others, and some of the greatest have been created in the midst, or as a result of a crisis. Many of us believe we are in the midst of a crisis today. Let the record show that there are many in the community of art and artists who chose not to be silent in the 1980s.2
Both the reality and the perception of crisis are, of course,
quite different here and now, but it's been heartening to witness
and participate in the strong counter-show of support from press
and institutions and individuals who are speaking out in response
to the cynical (mis)use of art in ways that mobilise fear and
And beyond the exigencies of the moment, it is useful to be reminded to step back, breathe and seek a wider perspective. That's exactly what Afterall can offer - as here in an unexpectedly timely consideration of Group Material's work. In those and the other texts included in this issue, we hope you will find nuanced, rigorous thinking about the many ways that art matters, and useful assessments of the tangles that bind aesthetic
creation, dissemination and reception within specific social contexts and political realities.