Glukya icw Taak, Canival of Oppressed Feelings, 18.10.2017, photo Victoria Ushkanova

In conversation with Grant Kester

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021

Talking to Grant H. Kester, Professor of Art History in San Diego and founding editor of FIELD: A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism. On the relation between art and social change. 'For me the aesthetic is, in a way, the missing piece of modern political theory.'

—Erik Hagoort In your book The One and the Many the writings of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick appear to be a source of inspiration for your thinking about socially engaged art practices. She writes in 'Touching Feeling' that only the middle ranges of agency can offer space for effectual creativity and change. What do you think she has in mind?

—Grant Kester In her work Sedgwick describes what she terms the "paranoid consensus" of contemporary critical theory. She’s referring here to a particular rhetoric of exposure and revelation, what Paul Ricoeur referred to as a hermeneutics of suspicion, which is informed by structuralism, psychoanalysis and Marxism. In these traditions critical thinking is identified specifically with the revelation of various forms of systemic domination, about which the general public remains ignorant. As I write in The One and the Many, in this approach the ability to reveal or disclose these forms is reserved for the theorist or the artist, while the public is defined by its ignorance and lack of cognitive and theoretical acuity. Of course it’s extremely important to analyze the ways in which power operates under the surface of appearance. However, when this capacity is framed as the exclusive province of a small cadre of advanced thinkers, and when it is presented as the only possible form that critical or emancipatory thought can take, it can have the effect of marginalizing other forms of knowledge that are equally essential in creating a more just society. Sedgwick encourages us to consider modes of knowledge that are driven by a desire to ameliorate suffering and transform the world in a generative manner, and in a way that we can experience as both pleasurable and empowering.

—Erik Hagoort What about amelioration and pleasure and socially engaged art practices?

—Grant Kester The practices that interest me almost always emerge in response to some form of social disequilibrium or injustice. So the conditions that they address certainly can’t be understood as “pleasurable”. This doesn’t mean, however, that the act of creative resistance or practice itself isn’t potentially pleasurable, if we understand that term in a specific context.

—Erik Hagoort Which practice or project comes into mind?

—Grant Kester In Argentina, in the late 1990s, a number of activists and artists' groups organized performances, which they termed escraches, in front of the homes of individuals who were associated with the “disappearance” and murder of leftists by the military junta that took control of the country in 1976. In these performances the crimes of those people are acted out in a kind of dadaistic or absurdist manner, before crowds of hundreds and even thousands of people. When you look at the video documentation of these events there is a remarkable spirit of joyfulness, there is pleasure, a reparative form of pleasure, in openly challenging, even ridiculing, these individuals who exercised a life-and-death power over tens of thousands of Argentines. I find that really important. If you read the accounts of the participants of the groups involved in the escraches, like Grupo Etcetera or Grupo de Arte Callejero, they describe the incredible pressure within Argentine society, after the fall of the junta, to forget and move on from the violence of the past. Laws were passed that released many of the perpetrators from prosecution and curtailed any further efforts by the Argentine government to investigate what had happened. The effect on the social fabric in Argentina was a sense of disempowerment, an imposed amnesia. Through the escraches, in front of the homes of these people who could continue to live and work with absolute impunity, the participants, who included many of the children of the disappeared generation, could re-claim a voice, a sense of agency, that had been denied. That gives pleasure, you can see that in the documentation. There is a palpable sense of jubilation in being able to act back, collectively.

—Erik Hagoort The excitement of confrontation maybe?

—Grant Kester This is an interesting point. There is usually no actual confrontation with the individual living in a particular home. The perpetrators are almost never there since they know about the escrache before it happens. As a result, the performance often takes place in front of an empty house. So it is not just about confronting this individual, it’s about something else. Long before the actual performance there is a period of several weeks or even months during which the organizers of the escrache meet with the neighborhood residents, one on one or in small groups. People assemble together to develop a more complete picture of the history of the person being targeted by the escrache. In each case these are individuals who the government, at some point, was willing to identify as a perpetrators, but the legal proceedings were kept private. The “pre-escrache” entails the creation of a kind of cognitive mosaic from the particular experiences of both the organizers and the residents regarding the history of the junta in general, and the particular junta member living among them. The result of this process is to re-establish social bonds, forms of solidarity, that had been eroded by both the junta, and the enforced amnesia that followed its demise. Agency or critical insight is not delegated or outsourced to the artist, but rather, generated through a collective, even visionary, process. This, I believe, is where the joyfulness of the escrache comes from. And this experience has a real political significance.

—Erik Hagoort How to relate this process of generating agency and the kind of pleasure that it can give, to aesthetics, which is your field of interest as an art historian.

—Grant Kester The aesthetic is, above all else, about the relationship between self and other, and between interior subjective experience and self-reflection and the social. Equally importantly, the aesthetic grounds this relationship in the specific experience of the body, and in the unique forms of insight produced through our bodily encounters with the world and with others. These are crucial political questions. They emerged some two hundred years ago in the tradition of early modern aesthetic philosophy, but this tradition has almost always been held apart from the broader, normative stream of modern political theory. For me the aesthetic is, in a way, the missing piece of modern political theory, as it raises essential questions about how we come to think differently about our condition from the perspective of immediate, somatic experience, how we form a sense of social solidarity or antagonism, and how we come to both envision and feel new political and social forms. At the core of the modern concept of the aesthetic is the principle of autonomy, which marks out the space within which new forms of agency and new forms of creative or emancipatory thought might be cultivated. It’s important to recall here that “autonomy” doesn’t begin as an aesthetic concept; it emerges in early modern political philosophy in response to the experience of de-sacralization. In the absence of some coercive force, of god or king, how will we generate our own normative values? Autonomy means, literally, to give oneself norms; you yourself determine which laws or norms you’re going to obey, rather than having them externally imposed. But there is also a great deal of fear at this time that humanity, freed from external domination, will descend into intersubjective violence. This is certainly Friedrich von Schiller’s fear in his On the Aesthetic Education of Man, evidenced by the Terror of the French Revolution. The aesthetic emerges in response to this fear, by reassuring us that we possess an immanent capacity for generosity and care for the other, expressed prefiguratively through our experience of beauty. That’s why Immanuel Kant argues that aesthetic experience evokes for us a “sensus communis” or common sense. The aesthetic effectively appropriates the discourse of autonomy to argue that the only way for art to preserve this prefigurative power is by acting out or modeling its own exemplary freedom from all external constraint, either via the artwork which stands apart from the social and political lifeworld, or via the personality of the artist. But the concept of autonomy comes with its own internal contradiction; norms or laws are social, not individual, constructs, so how can one give “oneself” socially constructed norms, without at some point engaging in direct, self-transforming, encounters with others to determine the nature of those shared norms? However, this form of direct, practical contact is precluded by the conventions of aesthetic autonomy, which requires that artistic production remain entirely separate from the experiential work of political praxis, and which typically juxtapose the artist, as the embodiment of freedom and critical insight, to the audience or reader, who is seen as incapable of this level of insight, and subject to external ideological domination. This is the moment of concrete social engagement which the aesthetic always defers; the form of self-hood that challenges defensive autonomy, rather than exemplifying it, that opens the self to otherness rather than barricading it through conventional notions of authorial sovereignty. This schema is reproduced in the discourse of the avant-garde, which simply replaces the ameliorative experience of aesthetic transcendence with a form of cognitive dislocation, intended to awaken the benumbed viewer to critical consciousness. This is epitomized in Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory, which sees the work of art, and the artist, as possessing a unique critical capacity. In fact, Adorno describes the artist as “deputy” who serves to sustain or preserve a form of revolutionary consciousness that the working class has failed to exhibit. We are always, then, displaced from the crucial process of consensual interaction which the moment of desacralization first called into being. In the schema of aesthetic autonomy this “practical” process can only ever be viewed as utilitarian and routinized; it’s incapable of transforming consciousness in an emancipatory way. That kind of work can only be done in isolation from the social, in the privatized encounter between the viewer and the work of art.

—Erik Hagoort Which comes to an end with the advent of socially engaged art practices?

—Grant Kester To some extent I think that’s true. These practices interest me because they attempt to re-frame the aesthetic outside of these constraints. I think what’s occurred across a broad range of artistic practices, over the past two to three decades, is a re-negotiation of the conventions of aesthetic autonomy itself. And that makes your question about pleasure all the more interesting. Why does pleasure matter? What do we take pleasure in? Adorno wants to replace the pleasure of beauty with the “tincture of poison” that comes along with avant-garde disruption, because the viewer must be made painfully conscious of their culpability in domination. But can we think of aesthetic pleasure as something other than a form of unearned transcendence? What’s at stake politically? You’re probably familiar with the project Intervention to Aid Drug-Addicted Women, initiated in 1994 by the Austrian collective Wochenklausur in Zürich? They invited politicians, policy makers, activists, journalists and sex workers to participate in small-scale gatherings, to have a dialogue about the difficult situation of homeless drug-addicted women sex workers in the city. The conversations took place on a pleasure boat that floated around on Lake Zurich for several hours at a time. Aside from the participants, nobody knows what happened on these boat trips, there is no documentation that I’m aware of regarding the actual conversations. The whole point was that the encounters on the boat could take place outside the pressures exerted by media coverage, where these issues were highly contentious. The result of these autonomous exchanges was a greater willingness, among a range of actors, to search for ways to improve the situation of sex workers in Zurich which led, eventually, to a practical solution. The dialogical exchanges that occurred on this boat, the face to face interactions, literally altered people's consciousness of the reality of sex workers in the city, and this experience was driven forward by the reciprocally reinforcing rewards of intersubjective exchange itself, around a common issue, in a manner that was both practical and prefigurative.

—Erik Hagoort In an interview choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui says to feel affiliated to artists who work with notions of reconciliation and diplomacy, rather than agonism and confrontation, not only as values to address but also as ways of working and ways of making work.

—Grant Kester In most of the projects that I have researched moments of agonism, dissensus or confrontation co-exist with moments of provisional consensus or empathy. These are better understood as phases within an unfolding process, than as singular experiences. What I think is important, across a broad range of practices, is the way in which the self works through the tension between the demands of resistance, the necessary hardening of subjectivity and positionality, and the forms of subjective permeability necessary to form solidarity and generate new insight about self and other. In the case of the escraches there were moments of uncertainty, dialogical negotiation and doubt, especially during the “pre-escrache,” as well as moments that were defined by a more static choreography or assigning of roles. Rather than abstract one or the other as constituting the essence of the work we need to understand them as existing along a continuum.

—Erik Hagoort What about relational art practices that focus more on inward ways of figuring out self-other relationships or other ways of experiencing self and other, through forms of speech, conversation, touch, movement, without political engagement?

—Grant Kester One of the core lessons of the aesthetic is that all change begins with the transformation of consciousness, the ability to fully comprehend both the constraints of current reality, and the potential of it’s collective transformation. The ur-form of the political unfolds in the exchanges that occur between two subjects, in the reciprocal transformation of both self and other, rather than in a manner by which one self unilaterally imposes its consciousness on another. This is the underlying intuition of a whole range of contemporary artistic practices. And this intuition is evident in everything from performances involving a handful of individuals to projects that ramify out into dozens, hundreds or thousands of participants in more overtly political frames, as was the case with the escraches. The example of the water pump sites created by Dialogue in a village in central India, which I discuss in The One and the Many, is instructive here. The water pumps were created with a pragmatic purpose, to facilitate the collection of water. But the surrounding enclosures also had the effect of allowing the young women who did the water collection to communicate with each other in a space that was, to some degree, protected from the scrutiny of the men in the village. This produced a significant effect, this face-to-face interaction, and reframed gender relations in the village in a subtle, but effective, manner. This is why many of the men objected to the enclosures. It’s important to me to hold on to the generative potential of these face-to-face encounters, as they unfold against a field of social control or domination. That is, for me, where meaningful political change comes from.

—Erik Hagoort How does this affect your own way of doing research?

—Grant KesterIn approaching a new project, especially if I’m able to do some direct research at the site of production, I try to enter the field of practice with as much open-ness and receptivity as possible. The things that matter, in terms of the operations of a given work, are often not the things that are immediately visible or noticeable. Of course you always carry along your own conceptual baggage, so this is an imperfect process, but it’s important for me to be as open as possible to the unique insights that are opened up by a specific place, a specific constellation of social actors, forces, and counter-forces. Change occurs in so many complex ways, and its equally important to avoid jumping immediately to a specific theoretical reference to account for what you’re observing. This linkage will occur over time, but I think its important to not short-circuit the relationship between intuition, observable practice and theoretical abstraction. I’m often not aware myself of the significance of things I observe in real time while conducting research, and its only in retrospect that I'm able to connect the dots between disparate aspects of a project in order to understand it in a more comprehensive manner. For this reason I don't want to exclude any element of it that seems to strike me, intuitively, as important, even if it doesn’t conform to a particular set of a priori theoretical frames. I always encourage my students, when they are doing field research, to listen to what their bodies tell them as well as their conceptual reasoning. You will often have feelings or intuitive responses to a given project that are extremely generative. I advise them to hold on to those feelings and intuitions and then to try to understand their interrelationship while writing about the work.

—Erik Hagoort What about your face to face encounters with the people involved?

—Grant Kester I’m always conscious of my own position as being outside a project that I’m researching. There is necessarily some distance—affective, conceptual, spatial—which stands between me and the work. As much as I try to immerse myself in the lifeworld of a given project that can only be a relatively brief process, and only second-hand in many ways. This mediation is built in to the kind of writing I do. In the case of the research I did on the work of Dialogue my conversations with some of the participants required a complex translation process, across three different languages. This is a process of mediation that was also central to the production of the work itself, as the artists themselves spoke different languages and had to spend time creating a kind of informal lexicon to develop new, shared definitions of certain important concepts and terms that they relied on in their work together.

—Erik Hagoort Do you ever feel part of a practice that you research?

—Grant Kester This could be the case, to the extent that my own writing can sometimes contribute to the conceptual elaboration of the work in a manner that the practitioners find useful. In this sense there is a kind of temporally delayed reciprocal exchange between myself and specific artists as we remain in touch over the years. I don’t think I’m “part” of the practice in a more direct manner, though. Some of the members of the FIELD editorial collective were at a conference on socially engaged art a few years ago, largely attended by practicing artists. During a panel discussion they were asked why, as critics or historians, they didn’t seek to participate directly in artistic projects, serving as a kind of dramaturg, providing critical feedback in real time as the project evolved, and so on. There is a tradition of militant research along these lines, as well as a tradition of activist collaborative ethnography in Latin America. That might be an interesting direction for art criticism to pursue, but it hasn’t been something that I’ve considered myself. It’s also the case, for me, that the most pertinent insights into a project often take some time and reflection to germinate and aren’t usually clear to me when I’m in the middle of actual field research.

—Erik Hagoort Isn't that somehow the case with FIELD journal?

—Grant Kester The idea behind FIELD is to create a conversational platform for exploring new approaches to researching and writing about socially engaged art practice. FIELD is still in its early stages, and we are really just beginning to sketch out some coordinates for this process. These practices require a cross-disciplinary approach. Art theory can help, art history can help, but it cannot fully account for what’s occurring in this work precisely because the practices themselves are often generated across disciplinary and institutional boundaries; between art, activism, ethnography, urbanism, pedagogy, theater or performance and so on. There is a lot to learn from other disciplines, from anthropology, ethnographic research techniques, psychology, performance studies and so on. To cite just one example of a productive area of overlap, I think there’s a great deal to be learned from Silvan Tomkins's work on affect and the traditions of Attachment theory in psychology that grew out of John Bowlby’s work in understanding the micro-politics of intersubjective experience and social change.

—Erik Hagoort Do people involved in socially engaged practices like to become visible? Do they welcome researchers like you and your students? Participants might scratch their heads and think: where does this interest of these researchers in what we are doing come from?

—Grant Kester For some groups there’s no particular value in having an art historian discuss their work. If it doesn’t benefit the artist or the collective then they’re unlikely to give me access to their practice, assuming my goal is to write about it in some depth. It’s also clear that what I do, in writing about this kind of work, can be seen as part of the cooption or assimilation of this work into the disciplinary prison of art history, however much I try to expand my own frames of reference theoretically and analytically. I’m also, to some extent, enhancing my own symbolic capital in writing about this work. There are always trade-offs in any form of cultural production, and I have to hope that I’m mindful enough of the problematics involved to at least reduce these dangers. I also have to hope that the insights my research generates, such as they are, constitute a sufficient benefit to the field, and to the artists involved, that the trade-offs seem worthwhile. I also tend to write about work, about artists and groups, with whom I feel some sense of shared interest or investment, and there is a reciprocal desire to learn from each other. This implies a rapport or a relationship based on a degree of mutual trust and generosity. Thus, in learning about a given project the artist or collective will potentially reveal aspects of their work that might be considered imperfect or contradictory. I believe that this work is sufficiently complex to sustain an equally complex form of analysis; one that can account for these moments of imperfection and contradiction, as well as the moments of transformative potential that flow out of them.

Glukya icw Taak, Canival of Oppressed Feelings, 18.10.2017, photo Victoria Ushkanova


This article was made possible with the support of ARIA (Antwerp Research Institute for the Arts) in Antwerp, Belgium, CARADT (Centre of Applied Research for Art, Design and Technology) in Breda, the Netherlands, and the Academy of Art and Design St. Joost in 's Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021