Art, Politics, and the Intimate

The first in an ongoing series of reflections, written by an anthropologist at Eyebeam.

   I began my research initiative at Eyebeam Atelier a little over a year now, interning with the residency and fellows program. Preparing to conduct a dissertation project on hackerspaces as urban political spaces, I have come to Eyebeam to learn about hackerspaces’ nearest kinfolk: the media lab. In this bustling workshop on the edge of Chelsea, every day is filled with energy and excitement. Each week, artists create works and projects that astound, baffle, challenge, divert, and excite. Yet, no matter how playful or formalistic these works have been, I cannot help but see fragments of political urgency woven throughout each of them.

   Whether reverse engineering common household products with natural ingredients in the Counter Kitchen (combating the illegibility of modern product labels) or challenging the normative bounds of sociality through physically interactive games like Hit Me!, micro-political interventions seem to abound. Given my preexisting interest in political aesthetics, I have to wonder though: Am I only seeing what I want to see?

   Today, concepts like “interaction,” “collaboration,” and “network” are culturally coded as revolutionary political concepts. We seem them heralded boldly in startups, art galleries, social movements and maybe we think progress is at hand. As another player in this economy of technologists, artists, and activists, Eyebeam certainly trucks, barters, and trades these concepts as much as anyone else. Maybe it is inevitable, then, that the interactive work produced here would be intuitively read as overt political interventions. But, I have to wonder: does interactivity and collaboration always necessarily imply political engagement?

   With these questions in mind, I invited Beatriz da Costa to share with me some of her reflections on the political aspects of her work. Beatriz is a contemporary artist—and former member of Critical Art Ensemble—producing critical art within what has come to be known as “art-science.” In her work, she frequently engages citizens with scientific issues of public concern. Her project Pigeonblog, for example, sought to bring “homing pigeons, artists, engineers, and pigeon fanciers” together to enact a “grassroots scientific data gathering initiative designed to collect and distribute information about air quality conditions to the general public.” Her current work explores the shared suffering of humans and laboratory mice as they become intertwined in the science of breast cancer research. 

   Through our conversation, I wanted to understand how Beatriz makes sense of the political impetus that saturates her work. As an artist, what does one try to accomplish with one’s work and how does one measure its success? After some initial formulations, Beatriz approaches the question obliquely, musing playfully, “It’s much easier to almost declare my entire life as part of my art project because then I have justification to do it all, right?” We laugh together, momentarily caught in thought. There is something liberating about declaring one’s art the foundation for everyday life. What certainty, decisiveness, and confidence that must instill! This proposition that the separation between art and everyday life is dissolving, also bespeaks one of the fundamental mantras of contemporary art practice.

   If the everyday and the aesthetic have been blurring, where do we locate the political today? Beatriz pauses, then reformulates her answer by way of a story. Several weekends ago, she tells me, while making a trip to the Occupy Wall Street encampment, she ran into a friend who has been deeply entrenched in the local occupation movement. This friend, Beatriz explains, had a recent run-in with the NYPD that led to a sixteen-hour detention. Hearing her story unfold, I try to imagine her friend’s experience. I remember recent accounts of the NYPD’s excessive hostility towards occupiers. Amidst these memories, the story shifts key.

   Quite unexpectedly, Beatriz continues, her friend spends much of those sixteen hours exchanging relationship advice with the officer. They talk about the discord the officer has been experiencing with her girlfriend. Two strangers who had crossed paths unexpectedly, Beatriz explains, are now sharing an intimacy that will forever change their perception of the other. It is this exchange that will be remembered most vividly of those hours. When her friend is 50, the memory of this intimate and unexpected encounter will be what remains most significant. It will forever shape the way she remembers her experiences with the occupation.

   Realizing the degree to which she has just appropriated her friend’s experiences to elaborate her own reflections on art and politics, Beatriz laughs, asking, “Who am I to say any of that?” Nevertheless, the story raises several observations. Art does seem to have the power to create this kind of “fused experience.” It is an experience that can be perplexing and quite personal. By resisting immediate rationalization and by seducing its way into your inner being, art has the capability of haunting your thoughts and provoking uneasy reflection. A poignant intimacy can destabilize the barrier between art and life; a poignant intimacy can be a political act.

   After our chat, my thoughts return to where they began. Eyebeam is home to a diversity of projects that look like many different things. Part food activism, part cooking program; part game designer, part life hacker; part environmental surveillance, part nature appreciation: the works at Eyebeam find their political import not because they happen to be interactive, collaborative, or networked. They find their political voice when they disrupt the everyday, when they destabilize expectations, when they draw attention to the ways that social norms are just as constructed as the aesthetic parameters of the performance or installation that first sparked a disruption. 

-- Jason Euren