Solidarity Without Lessons
Of Homelands & Revolution (2/4)

Solidarity Without Lessons

Considering what it means to live within the political bounds of nation states, this essay looks at the urgency of global migration crises, mass surveillance, and nationalist state sentiment.

During the opening address to the 2017 Creative Time Summit: Of Homelands & Revolution, artistic director Nato Thompson posed the question: “What does solidarity mean today?” This provocation was situated in themes that provided contradictory points of departure. Today, the theme of homelands cannot but resonate with the ongoing global refugee crisis, the urgency of coordinated and concrete acts of anti-colonization, the rising salience of nationalist state sentiment, and the spectre of ubiquitous surveillance and global policing under the auspices of security. At the Summit, land had a stronger resonance than homeland. Participants stressed that land is animated and intertwined with its inhabitants: land as a teacher of being and caring, for Wanda Nanibush; and land as a living history book, for Cannupa Hanska Luger.

…the concept of revolution requires rethinking, as it is premised on “the autonomy of the political” and sovereign power.

Likewise, the theme of revolution is heterogeneous in its perhaps troubled signification. Citing the Summit’s coincidence with the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution, Thompson characterized the latter’s legacy as contested, noting that, while it stands as a historical event brought into being through collective struggle, its historical unfolding has been understood as a disruption to the practice and promise of Marxism. Indeed, this legacy is wound up in a prevailing mood and narrative of failure, or “political impasse” as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe it in their recent book. In Assembly Hardt and Negri, who draw upon while reworking Marx, argue that the concept of revolution requires rethinking, as it is premised on “the autonomy of the political” and sovereign power.[1]

Revolutionary theory not only imagined its target as sovereign, it often relied upon the presumed sovereignty of a vanguard poised to edify the ignorant masses assumed to be under the sway of ruling ideology. Hence, they insist that a reconceptualization of revolution must be situated in the context of contemporary subjectivities and social production through the dynamic assembly of non-sovereign counterpowers. At the Summit, Lenin and Marx were not the sources to which presenters made primary appeal. Forms of Indigenous resurgence, not accounted for in the inheritance of revolutionary theory, offered powerful responses to the provocation “What does solidarity mean today?” By reconfiguring both thematic terms, presenters considered ways of provisionally learning and redrafting situational tactics and relational vocabularies. Most notably, the senses of solidarity that were activated were decisively anti-didactic. Three striking instances of such anti-didactic aesthetic intervention can be found in Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice exhibition, Victor “Crack” Rodriguez’s performance art, and Postcommodity’s “Repellent Fence,” which all effectively forge breaks with the distributions of sense that govern hegemonic consensus.

Engaging the relationship between art and politics, Jacques Rancière felt it crucial to confront consensus as the defining logic of contemporary governance in the context of economic globalization.[2] A key aspect of his offering is the challenge that it presents to critical art, which Rancière argues has historically oscillated “between two types of pedagogy: one that could be called representational mediation, and another that we might refer to as ethical immediacy.”[3] These aim to transform perception and assume a calculable cause-effect relationship between new perceptions of reality and transformative mobilization. Rancière insists that these effects cannot be calculated in advance. Further, he critically observes the institutionalized neoliberal imperative that art engage in a common world outside itself to fulfill objectives that waning social institutions are abandoning to other spheres.

His concerns perhaps resonate more sharply amidst the rise of post-truth, alt-facts. Against his objections, perhaps the pedagogical emphasis of critical art is needed more than ever. But, does it offer a way out of the narrow polemics that dominate public discourse? Rancière suggests that this tethers art to the very coordinates of arbitration and agreement associated with consensus.[4] At a time when critique itself does not threaten any measurable disruption to the arrangement of hegemonic significations, and instead seems to authorize it by demonstrating its institutionalized invitation to opposing viewpoints or critical thinking, pedagogically-oriented critique is limited in its potential. As the quotation, “Revolution is not a safe space,” that appeared on site of Chto Delat’s Monument to a Century of Revolutions at Nuit Blanche suggests, revolution, however it might be re-imagined today, will not emerge from consensus.

In different ways, each of these artworks refuse to be bound to a calculable social function, which would require a coherence faithful to consensus.

According to Rancière, while consensus entails the application of expert knowledges and formal procedures of arbitration, its reach is more thorough, stretching beyond the concept’s benign quotidian usage that stresses the accomplishment of agreement. Consensus, Rancière contends, is intertwined with the police, and posits what appears to be a self-evident reality. The concept of the police in his usage does not refer to the concrete function of regulation and control but concerns the organization of perception by connoting a “distribution of the sensible”[5] that compartmentalizes places, people, objects, and modes of possible action, while defining the relations between the parts it produces to constitute the appearance of a common world and a “common-sense” that maps what can be said and done within the set parameters of social recognizable communication. The police, defined in this way, produce agreement through the binding of two types of sense: the sensory, to the extent that it presents what can be seen and felt; and, the symbolic, to the extent that it prescribes agreement on what things mean.[6] This thorough consensus is supported by the unqualified sensibility it makes in the ‘real’ world it presumes. In contrast, politics, on this account, involves positing a new space in “the manifestation of dissensus as the presence of two worlds in one,”[7] to impose an inhabitable break in the smooth univocality of the everyday reality that consensus presents.

Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience produces dissensus rather than pedagogy in an exhibition of works that utilize the styles and motifs of classical painting in ways that irrevocably interrupt Canada’s official history celebrated in Canada’s 150 events in 2017. With a delicate formula, Monkman achieves and sustains a ludic gravity as he re-paints history from pre-contact to Confederation, and through to the present. Fittingly, the exhibition takes the form of chapters in its conceptual organization. One of the most striking aspects of this powerful intervention is manifested in Monkman’s use of a dynamic protagonist-narrator Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, whom Monkman describes not only as his alter-ego but as a “gender-bending time-traveller,”[8] a “trickster,” whose cunning appearances position her to “[tease] out the truths behind false histories and cruel experiences.”[9] In this sense, Miss Chief occupies a queer temporality[10] that enables her to traverse and challenge the hegemonic time of a linearity bookended by supposed origins and ends that suggest their own necessity. Thus, he positions her to witness events and to provide counter-narrative testimony that breaks with the hegemonic nation-building story.

Monkman’s works not only disrupt the familiar national narrative, they intervene in the history of art by remixing both its content and form. Recognizable figures from other bodies of art historical work (e.g. Picasso and Bacon) make appearances in his paintings and amplify the intertextual significations. For instance, in Le petit déjeuner sur l’herbe (2014), the viewer finds the appearance of forms from Picasso’s cubist depictions of women in a contemporary Winnipeg streetscape outside a downtown hotel. One of the twisted figures subtly reminds the viewer of the mother and child in Picasso’s Guernica (1937), a painting that brought international attention to the horrors of aerial bombing attacks on civilians and neighbourhoods during the Spanish Civil War and is often referenced in histories of revolutionary art. In this, the ongoing historical violence towards Indigenous women and girls as they move through public spaces is presented as social and historical, rather than individualized.

Indigenous subjects that have been left out and rendered invisible occupy Monkman’s recontextualizations of social and art historical official touchpoints. Monkman describes his motivation for this project as one that aims “to authorize Indigenous experience in the canon of art history that erased us from view.”[11] For instance, by intruding upon the construction of events such as Canada’s Confederation in The Daddies (2016), Monkman’s recontextualized painting of The Fathers of Confederation portrait, Miss Chief effectively mocks the presentation of the foundation of Canada, as well as the procedures and players to which the national history grants reverence. Indeed, The Fathers of Confederation portrait has played a part in authorizing that national history, but its own history records instability in its selective visual narrative construction.

The original image, initially sketched by Robert Harris under commission from the Canadian government in 1883, itself underwent two revisions to add figures as shifting narratives of history deemed them relevant. The government made revision requests in the same year of the original commission by asking for a change in setting and for the addition of ten individuals. Harris’ completed painting enjoyed much ceremony and travel but was destroyed by fire in 1916. In the 1960s, Confederation Life, an insurance company, commissioned Rex Woods to produce its recreation as a gift for Canada’s Centennial. The Woods painting adds three more individuals and an homage to Harris depicted in the portrait hanging on the wall to the left.[12] Presumably, this addition aids in establishing a symbolic continuity with the Harris painting, while dramatically modifying the history for which it serves as an alibi, as it imports a portrait of the artist at his easel into the Confederation scene. Despite the several officially approved modifications, the depiction is perceived to be a stable reflection and documentation of the event as a truth that authorizes the nation. In this, we see what can be added with neither disruption nor offence to official history.

Yet, the unstable representation of Confederation recorded in the official versions of The Fathers of Confederation portrait amplifies the force of Monkman’s The Daddies, which recreates the Woods version but adds a nude Miss Chief presumably posing for the depiction of Harris in front of a canvas (as it appears in the Woods portrait). Miss Chief poses while seated upon a crate draped with a Hudson’s Bay Company blanket. Monkman’s iteration adds a festive element that resonates with the Canada 150 celebrations, as a champagne bottle rests upon the table to the right, and a few glasses now appear in the hands of some of the ‘fathers.’

Kent Monkman, The Daddies (2016), 60” x 112.5” Acrylic on Canvas.

Not only does Miss Chief’s surprise appearance unseat the portrait’s (as well as Canada’s) false claim to terra nullius via the absence of Indigenous presence in the previous compositions, her positioning as a nude subject for the artist is ambivalent in its signifying force. Miss Chief is perhaps subjugated to the painterly syntax of the western gaze but her very appearance here, potentially as the portrait’s central figure, is subversive. Furthermore, this recontextualization serves not only to unsettle the historical narrative of Confederation proceedings, it deeply upsets the conventions of its representation by re-painting the scene of its own depiction. By posing for Harris as a nude, perhaps in the only mode of presentation that would have permitted her inclusion, Miss Chief brings attention to the hegemonic convention of presenting Indigenous subjects primarily in exoticized and non-agential arrangements, if at all. This latter interpretation, however, is dependent upon the recognition of the central exchange of gazes between Miss Chief and Harris in Monkman’s critical reaccentuation of the Woods portrait. Regardless of the subtle, and easily missed, legibility of the latter implications, heretofore, The Fathers of Confederation portrait can neither maintain its veneers of truth and completion nor stand alone and unchallenged by the spectre of Miss Chief.

In The Subjugation of Truth (2016), Monkman places Chief Pîhtokahanapiwiyin and Chief Mistahi-maskwa (Chiefs Poundmaker and Big Bear) at the foreground of a document signing scene that presumably references the signing of Treaty Six, but they are seated opposite from the white man settlers assembled around documents resting on an ornate wooden desk. Among the men is John A. MacDonald, who cradles a cocktail in his hand. A Mountie, who has attracted MacDonald’s gaze, occupies a curious hinge-positioning to the side of the desk, as his glance rests on the desktop. The Mountie’s hand grips the right shoulder of Chief Pîhtokahanapiwiyin. At the centre of the composition, the pen is poised above paper and framed behind the mutually held glances of the two Chiefs. Shackles and chains on the Chiefs’ ankles carry multiple significations, from the more direct reference to their later arrests to the ambiguous linguistic context of the Treaty’s negotiations, which were carried out during urgent conditions of famine on the prairies.[13] The resonances are not only historical, however, as contemporary government strategies continue to aim for the extinguishment of Aboriginal Title.[14] From a framed portrait on the back wall, where the viewer might expect the requisite depiction of Queen Victoria, Miss Chief, robed in the Queen’s regalia, looks onto the scene as witness. After Monkman’s Shame and Prejudiceexhibition, it is the canon’s paintings and the histories they construct and support that appear jarring and strange.

Kent Monkman, The Subjugation of Truth (2016), 72” x 51” Acrylic on Canvas.

Performance artist Victor “Crack” Rodriguez from El Salvador gave an explicitly dissensual and anti-didactic message when he addressed the Summit through live translation, engaging the audience to be open to ignorance and “distance yourself from knowledge.” Rodriguez described his practice as emerging from his search for new languages: “Languages in the streets, languages that can be in a horizontal space.” He concluded his address with a demonstration: How to fall out of a desk to “make a ritual.” This demonstration arises from his 2013 performance “Lines,” during which Rodriguez falls from a classroom desk one hundred times to enact “the denial of a committed habit” through repetition.[15] The title of the performance generates more than one possibility. While it references the simultaneous rehearsal of information and gesture in the corrective lines that students are often compelled to produce, it also marks the activation of an alternative form of lines in the making of new rituals that Rodriguez proposes. After instructing the Summit’s audience to fall backwards from an old wooden school desk, he offered, “So, we try to liberate ourselves, to throw ourselves into the abyss, because this is what teaches us to be successful because we also have to learn to fail” and then fell from the desk.

In his street performance art, “At the End of the Rainbow” (2013), Rodriguez plays with razor wire as bypassers look on, on a bustling pedestrian street in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.[16] The colourful razor wire coil is “hybridized” as the children’s toy rainbow Slinky to re-accentuate the razor wire, a material commonly deployed in security and policing techniques. In “At the End of the Rainbow,” this material associated with the protection of privatized properties and spaces, as well as the making and regulation of borders as unpassable, is rendered as a more flexible instrument for play. As pedestrians approach Rodriguez engaged in playful manipulation of the rainbow razor wire Slinky, their movements are re-routed, but not essentially halted. Rodriguez places and displaces the razor wire coil as a flexible boundary in repetition. In this way, it mimics popular spatial games, such as hopscotch, but with extended distributions of movement. Some passersby linger to observe; others pause and momentarily participate by assisting in the delicate negotiation of the sharp material when it becomes tangled and momentarily impedes Rodriguez’s actions. Others pretend not to see anything out of the ordinary and pass with muted reactions.

Repetition in Rodriquez’s work doesn’t merely mimic that which produces habitual sense. Further, the distance of the works from any obvious routes of recuperation from initial confusion to finalized meaning suggests that he does not necessarily intend to reveal the force of repetition in the production of subjectivity—this is not its lesson. Rather, Rodriquez’s performances offer no hermeneutic supplement to negotiate the scenes that envelop bystanders’ actions. To the extent that he leaves himself open to interpretation, even risks the appearance of madness through his departures from sense, he abandons any strategy of didacticism that would merely call for spectators’ consciousness of the ritualization of habit and sense. Rather, repetition here serves to stage—or more—to make alternative habits through their very enactment.

Postcommodity, Repellent Fence (2015).

The collective Postcommodity challenged the permanence of borders in a different sense with their four-day ceremony and ephemeral land art “Repellent Fence.” “Repellent Fence” traversed the U.S.-Mexican border with twenty-six balloons floating above the land stretching one mile on either side of the border fence and crossing through the cities of Aqua Prieta, Sonora and Douglas, Arizona in October of 2015. The 10 ft diameter balloons were sent up first on either side of the fence and then outward in a choreographed durée, and they floated 100 feet above the ground for the remaining four days of the ceremony. The project had its impetus at least eight years prior, when members of the collective were perplexed by the commercial appropriation of Indigenous iconography for a visual bird repellent product that dons a “scare eye” in medicine colours. They began by imagining reclamation of the iconography in a monument that “mocks the concept of borders.”[17] The project’s concept changed considerably, however, as Postcommodity participated in eight years of diplomatic engagement and worked “co-intentionally” with participants from the two borderland communities of Aqua Prieta and Douglas, communities which stand to be severed by the realization of Trump’s proposed border wall.

As artists, their task is to “mediate complexities,” if not to amplify complex entanglements, where public discourse has been simplified, polarizing, and decisively partisan.

While “Repellent Fence” is political in its interventions that target the illegalization of Indigenous movement through the imposition of borders and the “genesis amnesia” that authorizes this delegitimation of movement, the collective aimed for an approach that avoided the conventional tactics of political protest. Member Cristóbal Martínez was unequivocal in asserting that Postcommodity is a collective of artists—not protestors or revolutionaries. As artists, their task is to “mediate complexities,” if not to amplify complex entanglements, where public discourse has been simplified, polarizing, and decisively partisan. But, equally, the bi-national diplomacy inherent to this project is not to be taken as an expression of the ethical immediacy associated with participatory art forms that have often been referred to as social practice. Member Kade Twist has explicitly distanced this work from the concept of social practice, observing that, with their connective approach, they were “just being Indian.”[18]

The ambiguity of the title “Repellent Fence” heightens its force as a provocation for communications that elude both the polarization and didacticism of conventional protest actions. Members of Postcommodity provide only possible interpretations rather than one final and preferred meaning. While “Repellent Fence” as a ceremony “sutures” a community divided by the border, what might it repel? They leave the answer to this question open-ended: perhaps, migrants or the border itself, or perhaps the militia groups in the area. Postcommodity suggests that “Repellent Fence” produces noise and trickery[19] where discourse on the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall seems to be flattened and simplified. The significations of its form are similarly contradictory and unfinalized. They also acknowledge that the scare eyes on the balloons perhaps connote surveillance in the region, but refuse to anchor the possible implications into singular relationships by specifying who or what is watching, and what or whom is being watched.

In different ways, each of these artworks refuse to be bound to a calculable social function, which would require a coherence faithful to consensus. Instead, these works produce dissensus by displacing the registers of meaning, feeling, and relations that support the selectively negotiated common-sense that establishes a given reality, its salient values, and habitualized conduct. Miss Chief’s testimony to Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice, Rodriguez’s incitement to the making of new rituals, and Postcommodity’s ceremonial fence produce dissensual common-sense as they reframe “the given by inventing new ways of making sense of the sensible”[20] and “precisely because they neither give lessons nor have any destination.”[21] Rancière stresses the latter when he considers whether there is a connection between art and politics. The potential in the relationship between art and politics, or whatever way in which revolution might be reimagined or animated today, perhaps resides in such aesthetic re-arrangements of sense, not in lessons.

[1] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Assembly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, 64.

[2] Jacques Rancière. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Translated by Steven Corcoran. London and New York: Continuum, 2010, 144.

[3] Ibid., 137.

[4] Ibid., 144.

[5] Ibid., 36.

[6] Ibid., 144.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Kent Monkman. Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. Exhibition Guide. Toronto: University of Toronto Art Centre, 2017, 3.

[9] Monkman, Shame and Prejudice, 4.

[10] Mel Y. Chen. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012, 218-21.

[11] Monkman, Shame and Prejudice, 4.

[12] “The Fathers of Confederation.” History, Arts and Architecture. House of Commons, Parliament of Canada. Accessed November 19, 2017.

[13] John Leonard Taylor. “Treaty Research Report: Treaty Six (1876).” Treaties and Historical Research Centre, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 1985, 6-7 & 16-17 (food); 31-34 (language and Treaty Six land surrender clause). Accessed November 19, 2017.

[14] Arthur Manuel and Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson. The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land Rebuilding the Economy. Toronto: Lorimer, 2017.

[15] Crack Rodriguez. “Lines.” The Fire Theory. Accessed November 16, 2017.

[16] Crack Rodriguez. “At the end of the rainbow.” The Fire Theory. Accessed November 16, 2017.

[17] “Artist Talk + Op-Ed Launch: Postcommodity.” Walker Art Center, March 20, 2017. Accessed November 19, 2017.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rancière, Dissensus, 139.

[21] Ibid., 140.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


Kimberly Mair is Associate Professor of Sociology and teaches in Cultural, Social, and Political Thought at the University of Lethbridge. Her research is primarily concerned with the aesthetics of communication and posthumanist critiques of biopolitics.
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