Essays From Afterimage
In Art Activism and Oppositionality, Grant H. Kester presents an anthology
of texts from the American magazine AfterImage roughly spanning the years
between 1980 and 1994. AfterImage is a product of the Visual Studies Workshop
Rochester, set up in the late '60s by Nathan and Joan Lyons as an
"open-ended" space, a challenge to existing centres of practice
and education. Since its inaugural issue in the early '70s, AfterImage
has aimed to pose the same challenge to institutional hierarchies, widening
the remit of art criticism and theoretical debate and engaging directly
with context, community and issues of accountability. Not much criticism
or theory can (or is even willing to) account for its stance or reveal
its ideological bias, preferring to cloak itself with a detached, moralistic
rhetoric. The "bias" that emerges in the pages of AfterImage
is one that works against the grain of convention, focusing on structures
and discourses of power and control embedded in the realms of culture
A key aim of the magazine was to present "informed criticism"
on the media of photography and independent film and video. Providing
coverage of these media in the '70s was one means of supporting the
work of artists excluded from the apparatus of the mainstream art world.
As these media expanded, so too did the cultural diversity of artists
and groups who employed them and the interests of the magazine's
diverse pool of writers converged around these new forms of practice.
The essays are sectioned under two headings, The Politics of Patronage
and Activism and Oppositionality. This thematic division serves no more
than a formal purpose since there are very distinct crossovers and references
between the sections. Indeed, Kester concedes in his introduction, that
having set up this division it was necessary to challenge it. It would
have been more helpful if the essays were tagged with dates and issue
numbers in which they first appeared.
In the opening essay Enlightened Self-Interest: The Avant-Garde in the
80s, Richard Bolton embarks on a critique of conservatism and the effect
the economic and political environment of the time had on art practice.
"Inevitably, those with power in a society will strive to create
a culture that reflects their interests and aims." Power often goes
hand in hand with wealth and Bolton alarmingly demonstrates how art and
the fluctuations of the market confirm this equation. He makes apparent
the stark contrasts in sales value between works produced by artists at
different stages of their career. What emerges is a disturbing system
of control where collectors can effect and change the status of the work
(the value invested by audience and critic) by deliberately manipulating
the market; and artists posing against dominant culture as the new Post-Modernist
Avant-Garde come under attack. Bolton reveals how some artists, motivated
by self-interest, collude with advertising corporations in a process which
impedes the development of alternative readings and new audiences for
art. Art is detached from daily life and its transgressive power is harnessed
in the play between commodity culture and the leisure and lifestyle industries.
He warns that "artists interested in social critique and change must
consider and respond to the entire system that produces them and their
A number of texts in this anthology tackle the discourse of multiculturalism
and the conflicting effects it had on cultural/political theory and practice.
Arising in the early '80s in a climate of reactionary conservatism
and fragmentation of the Left, "multiculturalism" became an
adopted buzzword of artists, cultural institutions and arts organisations.
Cross-referencing different perspectives and criticisms, the reader can
easily deduce how this discourse functioned to camouflage both Left and
Right wing reactionary agendas.
In White Men Can't Programme: The Contradictions of Multiculturalism,
Darrell Moore asks "who benefits from multiculturalism?" and
while asserting some of the positive results, concludes that it is all
too easy for arts funders and government organisations to obscure their
control over minority interests by adopting the liberal ethic of multiculturalism.
Coco Fusco, in her review of two conferences, Celebration of Black Cinema
(Boston '88) and Sexism, Colonialism, Misrepresentation: A Corrective
Film Series (New York '88), takes a highly critical stance against
the avant-garde's fascination and misconception of the Other. From
her own perspective, she attacks the hierarchy of Eurocentric thought:
psychoanalysis, feminism, post-colonial doctrine and western aesthetics
in an attempt to expose the over-simplified terms of multiculturalism.
"Western cultural institutions, such as the avant-garde have a history
of rejuvenating themselves through the exploitation of disempowered peoples
Identity politics has become another marker of '80s cultural practice
and political activism. A simplistic bracketing of identities and subjectivities
is disputed by Lorraine O'Grady in Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming
Black Female Subjectivity. As an artist, she remains "wary of theory".
"Nature: culture, body: mind, sexuality: intellect, these binaries
don't begin to cover what we sense about ourselves".
Some artists and media activists joined forces around these issues of
identity, collaborating with community groups and educationalists. They
produced works which challenged repressive legislation (e.g. Proposition
6 in US, Section 28 in UK) and stereotyping of gays, non-white peoples
and the working class. Charles A. Wright's review of the 1993 Whitney
Biennial looks at the controversy caused by the inclusion of new "issue-based"
work. He is critical of the museum's curatorial strategy and claims
that the exhibition "projects a mercenary gloss on issues of difference
as its thematic impetus, incorporating 'others' in an effort
to idealize an alleged egalitarianism".
The need to celebrate cultural diversity and to bond as minorities was
diffused by specific demands from individual groupings to maintain autonomy,
self-determination and political cogency. The dangers of overlooking the
historic specificities of oppressions are starkly laid out in Ioannis
Mookas' review of the video Gay Rights, Special Rights. Produced
by a christian fundamentalist company principally for use by the Traditional
Values Coalition, Gay Rights, Special Rights exploits the African-American
fundamentalist voice in its attack on the gay and lesbian movement as
a "fraudulent trespasser upon the hallowed ground of civil rights
struggle." In this case, Mookas illustrates how effectively video
operates as a propagandist tool for anyone in a position to access it.
In the mid '80s the proliferation of camcorder technologies multiplied
the sites of cultural struggle and gave rise to a new video activism.
Brian Goldfarb discusses the censorship of curricular video produced by
artists and progressive educationalists dealing with AIDS and safe-sex
issues. Patricia Zimmerman explores reproductive rights, focusing both
on alternative and mainstream media; commercials, news stories, pro-choice
activist video, right-to-life and experimental video. She praises groups
like Paper Tiger TV and Deep Dish Satellite for their use of low-tech
technologies in their struggle to de-centralize broadcast media: "The
amateur camcorder could be retrieved from the private confines of the
bourgeois nuclear family - the gulag where all amateur media technologies
have been deposited to stunt their democratic potential." With her
assertions concerning the representation of the female body and the imaging
of the foetus, she raises important questions, echoed elsewhere in this
anthology, about the formal qualities of an activist art. In this case,
she criticizes political documentary theory and practice for its redemptive
pose against the spectator, characterized as ignorant and passive.
In his introduction, Grant H. Kester elaborates a sound argument for the
re-evaluation of the aesthetic in the context of an activist art practice.
Moving away from the rigidity of aesthetic liberalism which confines the
authenticity of art within the parameters of social disengagement, he
re-instates the viewing subject, "not as an anonymously transcendent
subject, but as the product of particular social, economic and geographic
conditions", with the power to generate new meanings and definitions
for art. Ann Cvetkovich's Video, AIDS, and Activism highlights the
difficulties audiences confront in deciphering codes of aesthetic "quality"
and related meaning in works which fuse different modes of cultural practice
with political activism. She reviews Video Data Bank's compilation
package Video Against AIDS, Act Up's Diva-TV and a number of other
works produced in the late '80s/ early '90s, considering the
impact on a diverse range of viewers. What transpires is how information
is mediated by form. In general, audiences viewed the experimental works
as appealing to a more personal, non-activist sensibility. Recognizing
the conventional, representational codes of documentary, viewers conflated
these works with the "real" politics of direct action.
These dilemmas of spectatorship and representation are historically sited
in Michael Renov's study of Newsreel and its involvement in the construction
of a political imaginary for the Left. Newsreel, born in the '60s,
was a production and distribution collective whose mostly "un-authored"
output included weekly news shorts, longer political documentary works
and informational reels. Any re-conceptualization of standard film and
TV practices was sacrificed to serve radical aims. A blurring "romanticism
of the Barricades" prevailed across the spectrum of '60s cultural
struggle. It fuelled audience solidarity and the revolutionary imagination
in the spirit of the times but, in the long run, hindered the progression
towards a broader understanding of the varied languages of oppression
and how they interweave to form what we often blindly accept as "truth".
Audiences unaccustomed to film/ video works intent on exposing the stylistic
conventions of Hollywood and the mainstream media have little chance of
fully digesting that which appears, on first viewing, obscure, self-indulgent
or superficial. As Patricia Thomson points out in Video and Electoral
Appeal, artists too, in their choice of subject matter, succumb to the
lure of mass media iconography. Hardly surprising, she concedes, given
the ever-increasing sophistication of the tools and techniques of new
politics. "In the process of critiquing the media campaign ...(video
artists) watch politics on television like the rest of us". She laments
the demise of the artist to "artist-as-spectator" as opposed
to "producer-as-participant". This demise can perhaps be linked
to the general erosion of the counterculture by the machinery of the Right
throughout this period.
One manifestation of the Right's reactionary powers was the assault
on the National Endowment for the Arts. The origins of the NEA are laid
out in Kester's Rhetorical Questions: The Alternative Arts Sector
and the Imaginary Public.
"At it's inception, arguments in support of the Endowment, particularly
those designed to persuade and cajole skeptical congresspeople, were founded
not on a definition of art as a public good in and of itself, but on it's
potential usefulness within the matrix of state policy and ideology."
Focusing on the creative and political stagnation of the alternative/
artist-run space, he points to the striking similarities between what
came to be known as the Professional Managerial Class and the artist/
administrator of this alternative sector. A strategic alignment with the
disenfranchised (which saw artists posing as victims of the system) led
this new hybrid being to adopt the mantle of the "cultural worker"
and the moral rhetoric of the artist as transcendent subject.
"The experience of an artist whose work is rejected by the gallery
system is simply not interchangeable with that of the poor or working
class, whose relationship with the market economy has far more profound
At this point, the reader may shudder with recognition. The closed cycle
of artist arts administrator/ organiser arts funder, clouded
with indistinct and ever-changing definitions of 'professionalism'
is all too familiar. With this new discourse fully embedded in the fabric
of cultural exchange, Kester shows how alternative spaces sited more often
in poorly developed areas, flourished with the onslaught of gentrification
and posed a very real threat to the survival of communities falsely constructed
as their 'public'. The needs of this "imaginary public"
are renounced while the identity of the alternative artist remains cushioned
by privilege and material wealth.
Echoing these sentiments, David Trend in Cultural Struggle and Educational
Activism calls for a popularizing of the forms of cultural practice and
the need for artists to "engage the institutions that utilize and
reproduce state power". This essay and that by Mable Haddock and
Chiquita Mullins, examining the Public Broadcasting System in the States
are good examples of the 'rallying call' feature of much AfterImage
writing. Not merely bemoaning systems of oppression, they advance concrete
strategies for change.
Almost twenty years on, the ideas and contentions manifest in this book
are still lingering beneath the surface of the latest 'post-isms'.
Problems of race, class and sexuality are not resolved because politicians
purport to be addressing them, if anything, they fester under this deception
and erupt to no ones surprise but those duped by the language of the state
reproduced in the media. (Witness the recent report on the murder of Stephen
Lawrence and the attacks on the multicultural communities of Brixton and
Brick Lane and the gay and lesbian community in Soho.) Neither are issues
of context, audience or accountability resolved because artist-run-spaces
or the 'alternative sector' have bigger international profiles
or bigger budgets to develop programmes. Adrian Piper, interviewed in
this anthology bluntly states: "If art isn't allowed to address
and transform the conditions of real life, I don't see the point
The discussion Alternative, Mainstream, Mainstream Alternatives in Variant
7 (Vol 2) touches on many points covered in this anthology and concern
is expressed over the spectre of "historical amnesia" and the
danger of repeating outdated arguments. To read Art, Activism and Oppositionality
as both a historical document and a contemporary analysis may help redress
these "crises" in understanding, forging a model for the development
of art practice and critical thought that acknowledges the past as it
looks forward to new challenges in the future.
Art Activism and Oppositionality: Essays From Afterimage
Edited by Grant H. Kester
Duke University Press 1998
ISBN 0-8223-2095-9 (paperback)