Monday, April 16, 2012

LABOUR

LABOUR: A Live Exhibition of Performances by Northern & Southern Irish female artists February and March 2012
Michelle Browne, Chrissie Cadman, Amanda Coogan, Pauline Cummins, Ann Maria Healy, Frances Mezzetti, Aine O’Dwyer, Aine Phillips, Anne Quail, Elvira Santamaria Torres, Helena Walsh
The LAB, Dublin
10th March 2012

Review by Darren Caffrey

In the event that you missed the LAB’s hosting of LABOUR, wherein Irish based artists each engaged for eight hours in performed actions around notions of ‘body politics’, everyday activity and political redress, then you will have missed a veritable cacophony of sound and dare I say it spunk, albeit of the lady kind. Of course, it is not my wish to undermine, but rather to underline the massive overshadowing form that went unspoken. You see, amongst the activity and passivity of artist and viewer alike, an elephant stalked the room.

If the title of the exhibition is LABOUR and in fact this thing called labour is carried out by an all female cast, then you would be forgiven for thinking that some room for enquiry into choice as relative to all levels of participation would naturally present itself. However, it seems that this word is being used here in only one sense. We might ordinarily use the word ‘labour’ to define a specific type of action, one where the product is regarded primarily in terms of its social contribution. Crudely speaking, its value. So, for example, to use the word in respect to childbirth would effectively illustrate the social value of bringing new life into the world. As such, this natural recurrence can be seen as a starting point for all socialist ideology; the space wherein the activity of woman necessarily enhances the future of mankind, as such, the sole catalyst for all evolution thereon.

Frances Mezzetti

Similarly, the word ‘labour’ is corruptible, to such a point, it may be seen that sacrifice for the greater good is our duty, that we all must do our bit. The word, depending on its context, is loaded with meaning, but always it implies that what is being done is not strictly for oneself, that it is, for the individual, a task that need be met with action. Exploitation of this thinking might range anywhere from the Communist run state to the oppression of marginal groups within society. Contemporarily, Irish women who were sexually active and open, were at the time of workhouses, not the norm. Consequently, they were considered to be inconsistent with the dominant ideological and political force, much like any conceivable threat to the power of state. The fact that this particular state was under the control of men obviously left women extremely vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation.

Helena Walsh

Examples in Ireland are unnecessary, so common are they, and yet LABOUR left us without any sense of how the actions of artists might constitute a true reflection of our society’s active responsibility. Instead we were presented a series of performers, each wholly absorbed in their own state of active disconnection and completely severed from the reality which surrounded them. It was not so much the agenda of the performers to create a desire for the fragility of mental anguish and tolerance but rather the construct of the show itself. It might be broken down thus: performer stands tests of time, agility, patience, solitude, servitude, penance or perhaps simply extensively long periods of objectification; the viewer however, in constituting the sole reason that these live performances are taking place, responds accordingly, both solemn and guilty, knowing and unknowing, active by their very presence.

Ann Maria Healy

Whether the artists were scrubbing, sewing or grinding, the viewer, or maybe just the audience as a body, was shown to be as complicit as any onlooker in cases of exploitation or indeed forced labour. Standing, quietly watching the goings on and slow methodical workings of this often silent exhibition, each individual was permitted the time and space to contemplate their presence, to be with the work. All of this points to a particular mode of exposure which is concerned less with activity and more with the environmental conditions which result; creating in effect, a space of contact between object and subject. Also there was a sense that the point which the artists and perhaps more specifically the artist-curators sought to highlight in fact extended from the notion that female identity is a question with a respect to all women, and that action is a shared responsibility, arrived at as a matter of individual cause. In this case study, it might be put in terms of active and passive or indeed clearer yet as artist and viewer.

In one work, strong reference is made to the Magdalene Laundries and to the respective work that these women carried out. Of course, in the case of such women, the work was not a choice in the strictest sense, and whatever you might feel about the conscription of young and somewhat ‘impure’ women into a life of service for the wider community, it must not be forgotten that the performers of LABOUR were not in any way forced to either conform or perform. By extension we must not forget that the actions of those who possess a choice are essentially free, as is the standard of freedom. This itself may have gone unnoticed by viewers on the day, standing instead within the space and making spectacle of the self-defined position of each and every woman who performed her ‘work’. It might simply be irony, it might yet be irony as art, but LABOUR surely was not a straight forward tribute to the position of the ‘other’. Instead, it became a vehicle for the recognition of the social responsibility of the individual, enquiring of its viewer what exactly it was that they were appearing to encourage. This dynamic, constant beneath the hum of work, made real the involvement of the viewer, whether or not it was ever responded to as such.

Elvira Santamaria Torres

Advertised as a live durational exhibition, most viewers knew that the performers were each committing a ‘working day’ to this event, and so arriving meant for some an equal show of commitment to its somewhat vague and wholly circumstantial cause. Is this in itself not somehow the thing that kills reaction before it has even had the chance to effect and indeed to be effecting? It seems unlikely that this performance event, shown once in London and Derry before it reached Dublin, was intended as the thing which it appears. So what of the elephant, remaining largely unnoticed? It would perhaps have been seen as disrespectful to observe the human form as object when other such beautiful spinning and banging was happening in the realms of subject. Consequently, we all watched as women performed their actions according to the premise that we and time were their keepers, each of us fully aware that no performer was actually engaged in ‘work’ that was not in all respects their own doing.

Amanda Coogan

Amanda Coogan possessed, in the guise of an iceberg, the fullness of this longevity; as such, in spite of her sloth-like movements, she was perhaps the sharpest thing in the room, aware of and observant to the elephants and the sheep and the way that each like to avoid one another wherever possible. Was it a case of the public being assumed as one single entity and in turn behaving consistent with their role? There is plenty which can be said about each performer, especially when taken in a purely active sense, however it might be that to see is not to know, which leaves us only with whatever has remained unsaid. As such, perhaps it is here that the true experiential shift between object and subject is to be found.

Tellingly Amanda Coogan in her curatorial text refers to a moment where “performer and spectator call(s) for the active participation of the audience in the liminal space of the present.” It is this very space which on the day functioned as a result of their various actions, and as according to the time and space in which these actions were engaged. Each work was a performance requiring not least a real commitment, and the artists for their part combined successfully to create a space in which meaning could be found. And yet the power, throughout this series of concurrent performances, remained solely with the artists, creating in effect a space where the viewer was disempowered by their very servitude to the unwritten conditions of the event, even if somewhat ignorant of the fact. While contrastingly the artists retained, and in their continued actions, sought to further exploit emotional interest for their own artistic credibility. Given the obvious political implications with respect to status and interchange, this should not have been good enough for anyone concerned.

All images by Paddy Cahill, courtesy the artists

Monday, April 9, 2012

Delusion is a Refuge, A Refuge Under Siege

Delusion is a Refuge, A Refuge Under Siege
On March 11, 2012 an article written by Nicky Larkin, someone I’ve counted amongst my friends for the last few years, appeared in the Sunday Irish Independent. I was taken aback by the title: Israel is a Refuge, A Refuge Under Siege , and thought hopefully there must be more to it than that.

See, Nicky received a generous film project award from the Arts Council for €32,400 to create a documentary called Forty Shade of Grey. It’s described as “an experimental, non-narrative film piece, shot on location in Israel and the Palestinian territories. There seems to be some very black and white ideas when people think of these areas; however we wish to explore the forty shades of grey in between the black and the white.” I supported the idea of the film and even obtained a reliable, academic contact to aid Nicky in translating interviews of Palestinians from my uncle, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

A couple of months after Mr. Larkin’s return, he sent on some sample clips to me and, a bit concerned, I told him frankly:

“Because all the interviews are with Israelis who basically support Israel and because these are in English it comes off as very one sided. I think you would have to have just as many Palestinian voices to balance it. Also, I think you need to be careful in showing poverty and anger, as this comes off as other or 'alien' to Western audiences, while the advanced capitalist middle-class scenes of Tel Aviv read as normal and human.”
Having studied photography myself, I am aware of the power that artists behind the lens have in shaping perception. In striving for objectivity and fairness it is essential to maintain a consistent ‘way of looking’ and to present all subjects in the same dignified manner. This is very much the mechanics of lens-based work, but it is the basis for any legitimate documentarian strategy. This is what I hoped to convey to Nicky.

I haven’t had too much contact with him since. That is, until the March 11th article. You should have a read of it, it can be found here. The article is in the most basic sense an account of Larkin’s personal transformation from “Hating Israel” to complete sympathy with Israel, followed by a strange conspiratorial allegation that the Arts Council is corrupt and a brief plug for his film’s debut. Simply put, it is irresponsibly written and makes several factual and investigative errors.

Nicky’s starting point is “Hating Israel”. A shockingly narrow and simplistic sentiment that is the kind of nationalistic short-cut that replaces thought, full stop. This is indeed telling. He swiftly moves on to the Holy Land and describes the curious Palestinian onlookers as ‘martyrs’, a term usually reserved for those that have died for their beliefs. Dehumanising much? Nicky recounts an interview with the former Palestinian Ambassador to France and describes her as “all aggression”. I watched the same video and could hardly describe it as such. Larkin follows this up with a superficial analysis of Hebron based literally on the writing on the wall.

He writes of his time in Tel Aviv, recounting an unconfirmed story by a former Israeli Defense Forces soldier:

“He talked slowly about his time in Gaza. He spoke about 20 Arab teenagers filled with ecstasy tablets and sent running towards the base he'd patrolled. Each strapped with a bomb and carrying a hand-held detonator. The pills in their bloodstream meant they felt no pain. Only a headshot would take them down.”
Wait... what?! Gaza is under a strict embargo and is economically paralysed as a result, it experiences regular power and water outages, as well as bread shortages. And we are supposed to believe that there is MDMA in Gaza? Larkin continues: “Conversations like this are normal in Tel Aviv”. Certainly there must be a different set of conversations in Ramallah or Gaza City? Maybe even 40 shades of them. But not now, not in the national press. Larkin must talk only of the rockets raining down on Israel and not of checkpoints, settlers, displacement, human rights violations as decided by the United Nations, white phosphorous bombs, billions of US dollars in aid or the shooting of unarmed civilians, children even.

After a seemingly obligatory reference to the Holocaust, he again looks literally to the writing on the wall, this time at a misspelling in Cork, and then Larkin approaches his crescendo. Now that he has made up his mind as to what the correct shade of grey is, despite his film’s premise, he seems to expect Ireland to fall in line upon his return. The possibility that Irish people are invested and informed about, arguably, the largest ongoing human rights issue in the world doesn’t cross his mind. Larkin cites a lack of freedom of speech in Ireland, even an intolerance to different ideas. It comes across as some kind of psychological self-conditioning or self-fulfilling prophecy for taking a deeply unpopular political position based on tenuous thinking.

Larkin’s inflated sense of self importance didn’t stop there or even at the facts. He makes a broadsided attack on 216 artists who, heaven forbid, expressed their opinions about a recognised human rights issue by signing a petition (information about the petition is here). Yet, his claims that Israeli food has been pulled from grocers is false, his claim that Aosdana signed the petition is false, his understanding of what the petition sets out to achieve is false. Nicky then speculates that the only reason that artists might have signed this petition is for career gain due to the fact that Aosdana controls the Arts Council and gives favours to like-minded thinkers. Wow.

I contacted the Arts Council for comment and the Director of Public Affairs, Seán Mac Cárthaigh, conveyed that:
“The Arts Council has always adopted a strong position in favour of freedom of expression. I don't expect this to change -- in fact I'd be confident the Council would regard it as non-negotiable. We have a very rigorous, transparent peer review panel system for our grants to individual artists, and applications are scored solely on merit. This is really important to us. We also have an appeal procedure, and I can guarantee you that we would take very seriously any evidence we had fallen short of that standard.”

Larkin ends his piece by belittling the Irish for daring to hold a different opinion than what he, Israel, the US, and most other powerful Western nations, find acceptable. Insulting, condescending and inflammatory? Little bit.

Nicky’s piece utterly fails to present the issue in a balanced, nuanced manner or with any context. It is indeed ahistorical, it’s as though his analysis only considers his own subjective experiences during his 7 week Arts Council funded trip. I wonder what kind of homework he did before going off to Israel/Palestine? It is highly questionable, nay, unethical, to publish unsubstantiated stories, particulalry on a politically sensitive topic, as Larkin did. It is self righteous to dismiss critics as narrow-minded. That Irish people have the right to passionately disagree with him isn’t considered. It is certainly bad policy to ‘bite the hand that feeds you’. To go as far as making outrageous corruption claims against the very organisation that liberally funded your project in the first place is downright foolish. But, by far what is most irresponsible about Nicky’s writing is that it is utterly biased and dehumanising of Palestinians. They are presented flatly as martyrs, aggressive and suicide bombers. Isn’t this feeding Islamophobia? Much like the preliminary clips he sent on to me, where he failed to investigate and document anything close to 40 shades of gray, his ‘way of looking’ in the article is completely one-sided.

I am a little surprised the Independent gave Nicky space for this type of ‘surface’ analysis and even more surprised they didn’t check it for factual errors. Then again, the Independent does have a track record of publishing some very questionably researched articles (e.g. Welcome to the ‘good life’ on Welfare – How Polish Waitress Embraced La Dole-ce Vita by Norma Costello, which due to a massive mistranslation of the source text caused an international stir and has now been removed from the independent.ie website).

The aftermath to Larkin’s piece on a certain social network has also caused a stir. The vast majority of opposing comments I’ve seen questioned the accuracy of Larkin’s piece and raised a variety of informed arguments and historical facts against his position. Debate begins, so fair enough, right? Or maybe not. From what I’ve witnessed, his gang (comprised of his girlfriend Norma Costello (yes, the same), a member of his production team, and a few of his hometown friends) have been outspoken in rhetorically calling for discussion while simultaneously drowning out debate. Their general modus operandi is to deflect, derail, and outpost any real discussion. Consistently, they dismiss disagreement as intolerance. A funny sort of circular logic, that. By and large Nicky himself apparently didn’t deem these criticisms worthy of response.

With the aim of stirring Nicky from his silence, I posted several comments to him ranging from inquiries to jokes; from rebukes to the earnest statement that “I would be happy to explain why I signed the petition” (wondering indeed why Nicky would ask his artist friends rhetorically via a newspaper and not in person!). I have been met with his gang’s deflections and even a string of personal attacks that are a dangerous combination of arrogance and ignorance usually reserved for ‘trolls’. When I deleted one of my own posts that became filled with comments that were personalised accusations and speculations, I was labeled as anti-Free Speech. Sorry lads... lies, fabrications and character assassinations are an abuse of aforementioned Free Speech. I was harassed and labeled an anti-semite and “FASCIST”.

I was able to cajole Nicky into a few responses. Among other things, he claimed to be generally harassed and recalled how he has been called a c*nt for his article. Dude, this is Ireland... you’ll get called a c*nt for not using a beermat. He also asserted his correctness.

My advice to Nicky has always been to correct the errors in the article, move on, and let his film speak for itself. Unfortunately, he now risks dwarfing the artwork itself through his publicity side show. What more, Nicky does not believe there is anything erroneous or unethical about his article and has now vowed a follow up piece to further his claims of persecution. In the spirit of Free Speech, I challenged Nicky to a polemic, asking for equal column inches, side-by-side to voice a rebuttal to his opinions. He declined. Unsupportable for the most part, and straying far from his artistic premise of investigating diverse viewpoints, Larkin’s opinions might have been designed only for shock value. Is it possible this whole business is equal parts delusion, contrarianism and short sighted publicity stunt? How cynical would that be?

Nicky is crying 'intolerance' and 'Free Speech', but he has already abused a large, national platform with one dimensional rhetoric. What might be a different, more accurate viewpoint is that his only problem with the Irish is that they are disagreeing with him. How ironic.

By the way, it’s called a kufiya, not a PLO scarf. Kind of like it’s a tricolour, not an IRA flag.

Jim Ricks is a native Californian based in Ireland for the past 7 years. He is a visual artist and is signatory number 134 on the “Irish Artists’ Pledge to Boycott Israel”.

Editor's note: Nicky Larkin was given an advance copy of this article and invited to respond prior to publication. That offer still stands.