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– Summer 2013

The book accompanying me on bus and train journeys around Chicago lately has been a slim, potent text by the political theorist Danielle Allen. Although it considers events that unfolded half a century ago, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education (2006) feels relevant right here and right now (and yes, if you’ll bear with me, also to this issue of Afterall journal).1 The book does not merely analyse the impact of the pivotal 1954 ruling by the US Supreme Court that declared racial segregation to be unconstitutional. Rather, Allen tackles a more subtle and urgent task: she uses that moment and its aftermath to make a case that citizenship is enacted not only through policy and law but also through habits of ‘political friendship’. She urges us to take up the difficult work of being open to others across disagreement and difference (real or perceived). Most importantly, she argues that active citizenship requires us to ‘talk to strangers’ — both literally and metaphorically — as a daily practice and especially during times of crisis. 

I mention that book here for a few reasons. For one, Allen begins a story about politics by looking closely at an image: a now-famous photograph that depicts a young black woman walking past a white crowd 2. Behind her, an equally young white woman — mouth open and face contorted with what seems to be hatred — yells at her back. This picture gave visceral form to the impact of Brown v. Board of Education by depicting Elizabeth Eckford calmly enduring the crowd’s rage on that day in September 1957, shortly after she was barred from what should have been her first day of high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, with Hazel Bryan standing in for all those who sought to keep black US citizens from claiming their rights.

Allen argues that this widely circulated picture made a moment of national fracture visible, and thus opened the possibility that we might imagine the public sphere in new ways:

Once the citizenship of dominance and acquiescence was made public, citizens in the rest of the country had no choice but to reject or affirm it. The photograph forced a choice on its US viewers, and its power to engage the imagination lay in this … Even today, the photograph provokes anxiety in its audience not merely about laws and institutions but more about how ordinary habits relate to citizenship. Like the German poet Rilke’s archaic torso of Apollo, the image of Hazel cursing Elizabeth raises the challenge of transformation not of laws but of ourselves: Du musst dein Leben ändern, wrote Rilke. Or, you must alter your way of life.3

Of course, one could argue with the reading and also with the specifics of Allen’s polemics. In relation to the concerns of Afterall, the image in question may also seem outside our usual purview, for it was not conceived by its maker or received by its public as a work of art. But regardless of its potential status (as art or not), Allen’s reading of this photograph strongly resonates with our work, for we also believe that pictures matter and that they have important things to say.

And what are those things, this time around? A few threads run through this issue of Afterall. One has to do with the institutionalisation of performance — a topic that has recently come to the fore in part through high-profile museum projects that raise questions about the historicisation of performative works and their re-contextualisation, particularly within the physical and social site of the museum. The journal assembles texts that touch upon this issue from several direct and oblique angles: within the work of choreographer Xavier Le Roy and its investigation of the conceptual and interpretative shifts that take place when dance crosses over into visual art display and discourse; through an examination of the format of the lecture-performance and its capacity to interrogate the processes and conditions under which knowledge is constructed and shared; and through a conversation among young artists who are engaging with feminist performance of the 1970s in part by re-creating key works from that period.

Questions of re-performance — or perhaps, rather, of contextual translation — might also apply to Mark Leckey’s work, both in his performative lectures and the ways that he asks objects repurposed from other artists to perform within his own projects. His interest in screen culture and its attendant reduction of three-dimensionality into flatness also resonates with Maeve Connolly’s consideration of objecthood in recent installations that address television — and related broadcast platforms such as YouTube — as a mediator of material and social relationships, with screens virtually becoming prosthetic extensions of the human body. Josef Dabernig’s pointedly absurd films and conceptual sculptures and Simryn Gill’s tautly poetic photographs and textual works move us into different territories. Although their practices are quite distinct, if pressed we might identify a shared interest in activating decayed architectural spaces as backdrops for other kinds of concerns, or more broadly, as Daniel Fairfax notes about Dabernig, a pleasure in finding ‘poetry in the mundane’. In another direction entirely, Valentín Roma’s essay on the project ‘Desacuerdos: Sobre arte, política y esfera pùblica en el Estado español’ (‘Disagreements: On Art, Politics and the Public Sphere in Spain’, 2003—05) traces the history and impact of a programmatic research initiative that sought to assess the core issues at stake in three decades of engaged cultural work in Spain through seminars, exhibitions and an ongoing serial publication — an important history that is still sparsely known outside that country.

Via ‘Desacuerdos’ we get closer to one of the other reasons I have been thinking of Allen’s book while working on this foreword. The editors of Afterall come from varied backgrounds: we draw our experience from a range of actual and conceptual territories, and are based at different kinds of institutions in Antwerp, Chicago, London and Seville. We disagree sometimes, not only on superficial matters of taste but also in our responses to essential questions about what one can and should desire from art. This is, I would argue, one of the strengths of Afterall — one of the real benefits derived from the partnerships that support the journal. And despite our distinct perspectives I think it’s fair to say that we all hold in common the belief that paying close attention to art can crack open one’s understanding of the world — whether directly, as with the photograph of Hazel Bryan and Elizabeth Eckford, or through more ambiguous mechanisms. We similarly believe that both individuals and societies benefit when they open themselves up to ambitious, challenging art and ideas. Afterall is committed to providing a platform for serious debate.

At its best, the journal offers a space where meaningful arguments about both works of art and the work of culture can be articulated across difference and disagreement (real or perceived). Perhaps we might think of that work as cultivating habits of aesthetic friendship, as a corollary to Allen’s notion of political friendship. And perhaps those two things go together, providing useful challenges and mutual supports. We currently occupy another moment of crisis, manifested differently across Afterall’s nodal territories. The so-called ‘European project’ continues to be challenged by intense economic strains and cultural debates, while as the US economy slowly recovers we seem headed toward resigned stasis rather than an embrace of the galvanising possibility of deep change. Perhaps we need to encounter another picture — or many diverse pictures — that, like the Little Rock photograph or Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ (1908), demand that we live differently. I hope that Afterall can be a space in which we cultivate habits of political and aesthetic friendship, and where we debate what living differently might entail. How do we want to live, and what forms of art, community and citizenship do we want to cultivate? These are big questions. Perhaps they ask more than we should really ask of art or of a journal; perhaps they ask more than my colleagues would embrace as part of our brief. But since we believe in constructive polemics and in the strength that arises from disagreement, I’ll offer it up for you. Afterall should be one of the places where we talk to strangers.

Footnotes
  1. See Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

  2. This untitled photograph was taken by Will Counts, and was later named by The Associated Press as ‘one of the top 100 photographs of the twentieth century’. See his obituary in The New York Times (‘Will Counts, 70, noted for Little Rock Photo’, 10 October 2011), available at http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/10/us/will-counts-70-noted-for-little-rock-photo.html (last accessed on 22 April 2013).

  3. D. Allen, Talking to Strangers, op. cit., p.5.