Politics of the Self in the Negotiation of Solidarities
This paper was a presentation given by jay koh in Critiquing Critical Art, Lopez Museum, Manila 2002
Published in Locus: Interventions in Art Practice by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Manila 2005 under the co-authorship of Jay Koh and Chu ChuYuan
This presentation will reflect on certain issues around the identification and politics of the
self with others and the body of ethics that needs to govern interactions between self and
others in the process of forming solidarities.
Self and Identity Politics
In the art practice of the past two decades, artists have been much involved in the process
of continuous and conscious construction, negation, and re-construction of identities, in
response to the conditions which gave rise to the surge of identity politics around the
globe. This may be carried out as an individual or as a group.
For Sigmund Freud, identification is a psychological process in which the subject assimilates an
aspect of the other and is transformed, wholly or partially, according to the model that the other provides.
The personality or the self is constituted by a series of identifications.
Through these identifications the projected images chosen by the self become the politics
of the self. Artists whose work are heavily involved in producing images should be aware
of the set of politics that they are projecting and are also a part of. So I have heard Filipino
artists say that they are the voice of the people. In my presentation, I would like to open
questions on underlying assumptions, positions taken, and dynamics of artists working as
voices of society.
Self and Environment
To go back to the understanding of the self -- if we do subscribe to the notion that the self
is shaped by others and by one’s environment -- we should remember that each environment has
different layers and complexities and is shaped by different forms and types of knowledge (social myths and histories, global and local).
The self has to negotiate the structures and spaces within a complex environment and
has to define and redefine its position and differences with other interests/positions. The
concept of self should be expanded to include social structures that act upon the self, that
are responsible for the creation and understanding of the “self.”
Need for Solidarities
Solidarities are formed in a space of interaction with others and in the forging of identifications with others.
Here I would differentiate between public and private solidarities.
Forming public solidarities depends on the identification of who are common adversaries.
It is easy if the adversary is easily identifiable, e.g. a dictator. In public evocation of solidarity,
the form is open for anyone to easily participate in the activities; also, the targets
are clear and can be understood on a national or global platform.
In the case of private solidarities, I would quote, as an example, the model of working
within family structures, as I have encountered in Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam -- people
are used to working in this way and it is a way of minimizing external threat. Groups
of artists working together under a common belief/ideology may also be a private solidarity,
depending on how open their structures are to “outsiders.” The common objectives and ideology
of such groups are formed early, and it is difficult for new members to be accepted.
They can only become part of the group through a long-term process of collaboration.
The art network formed by the event NIPAF (Nippon International Performance
Art Festival), along with the other festivals that it has engendered, for example,
the Philippine International Performance Art Festival (PIPAF) and Jakarta International Performance Art Festival (JIPAF),
may be other examples of artists’ working together for common objectives.
However, I have heard that artists in Malaysia had refused to name their event
MIPAF, when they were asked to organize such an event in Kuala Lumpur.
The Asiatopia event in Bangkok was also formed as part of this network.
Limitations on the Self in Solidarities
Yet this shared space with others within solidarities does indeed place certain constraints
on the freedom of the self. How then does the self negotiate with the other’s interests?
When solidarities are formed, how do we build a body of ethics around this interaction?
What responsibility does the “self” have toward the “other”?
What I call for are not rules or guidelines but a body of questions to analyze the involvement of the
self for those who are interested in having meaningful solidarity. These are questions about the
privilege to act, positions taken by the artist, the interests of the other and issues of appropriation,
and responsibility toward the other.
Politics of Self within Solidarities
In projects where artists claim solidarity with a community, it is important to examine the
politics of the self within solidarities. Here we should examine how different positions
of privilege of the self determine our interactions, and also determine our definitions of
a whole range of concepts. These definitions in turn shape our experiences of self and
others. Privilege needs to be examined independent of “class” and categories. Even
within a determined “class,” there are uneven experiences of privilege. We also need to
differentiate, for example, that art structures occupy certain positions of privilege in society,
and making art on the whole may be a more privileged activity than say activism, or
advertising, but again there are different experiences of marginalization
within privileged structures.
In contemporary practice, many artists are touching on experiences of oppression and marginalization,
and many artists work from their own positions of being marginalized. Yet, especially
when the artist as self agitates in some form of solidarity with others,
I think it is necessary to examine the positions of privilege and the power relations at work,
starting from the self to all the structures that act upon the self in carrying out our work and art processes,
so that we can check against being exploited/appropriated or in turn exploiting/appropriating others.
No matter what the intention of the self is in carrying out an action, it is confronted with readings and
inter-actions of others, and the meaning of the action is produced through a complex interaction of interpretations,
readings, reactions, and appropriation. Meanings are produced by readings of the action and
are mostly independent of the intention of the artist.
A project by a New Orleans-based artist Dawn Dedeaux titled Soul Shadows: Urban
Warrior Myths1 which toured many cities in the USA may highlight some of these issues.
Dedeaux had worked with young African-American prisoners in an “art in the prisons”
project, with juvenile offenders as young as 14 years of age, over a period of several
months, on a variety of art projects including video production, mask-making workshops,
and the creation of artist’s books. From the material she had collected, she developed
an ambitious idea for a vast multi-media installation. Among other things, the installation
featured interviews with the inmates and African-American gang members.
Dedeaux’s intentions were
for the piece to address the crisis of crime and poverty that she had discovered in prison
society and to help white viewers ‘empathize’ with the conditions faced by young black men,
at the same time act as a kind of moral prophylactic for young black men who came to see
it, who would presumably mend their ways after witnessing the contrition expressed by a
number of imprisoned figures. At the same time, Dedeaux, who is from a white, upper-class
New Orleans family, spoke of the project as a way to overcome her fear of young black men
after being mugged in the French quarter. The young black men she worked with thus served
as vehicles for a kind of immersion therapy that allowed her to transcend her own painfully
self-conscious whiteness. (Cohen and Johnson 1993, )
Soul Shadows was shown in many cities in the USA. The project attracted the support
of public and private foundations, funding agencies, banks, and other institutions. It was
widely touted as a model for progressive community art, and was used as part of an antidrug
program for area high schools. The publicity of the project fell upon the artist as the heroic figure
who crossed boundaries of racial and cultural difference into the dangerous zone of the prison,
and as an exemplary healer, with the ability to bring transformative power of the aesthetic
into a community of perceived lack and disadvantage.
The video in Soul Shadows showed grieving black inmates offering confessional accounts
of their involvement with crime. In spite of the artist’s good intentions, the project
eventually worked against the community that she intended to help, as the work reinforced discrimination
and the existing conservative arguments in the United States about moral depravity among poor and
working-class people of color. I was told that information given during one of the taped interviews
was later used against one of the prisoners in police investigations.
In the narratives, the prisoners construct their criminality almost entirely in terms of their
own guilt and responsibility. The inclusion by Dedeaux of this kind of material, with no real
attempt to articulate its relationship to broader social conditions and forces, led Grant
Kester to make the following criticism of Dedeaux’s work:
Under the auspices of this point of view, Dedeaux’s installation provides the very spectacle
that conservatives wish to see promulgated -- criminality is the result of an individual lack of
moral character; prison produces repentant subjects who accept sole personal responsibility
for their wrong-doing. Images of young black men in prison circulate widely in U.S. culture
and their interpretation is heavily influenced by a broad network of presuppositions largely
dominated by conservative policy statements, books, op-ed pieces, and so on. These images
cannot simply be re-circulated in an art context without taking that a priori discursive network
into consideration, and without taking the artist’s own position vis-a-vis these images into
account. I certainly don’t hold Dedeaux accountable for conservative policies on race and
crime, but they constituted one of the most significant discursive interfaces for this project
and, assuming that she didn’t find herself in agreement with them, she should have devised
some representational strategy to resist the potential assimilation of her project to these
views (this is the basis of many of the objections raised about the work by African American
viewers, particularly while it was in Los Angeles). (Kester 2004, 140-147).
By the Dawn Dedeaux example, I had hoped to show what can go wrong when an artist
works with pre- and self-determined intentions, and self-projected imagined qualities of a
certain community in a collaborative relationship with others.
It is not just the intention and convictions of the artist that should dictate the form and
methodology of production of an artwork; the artist needs to examine his/her position and
how the participants will benefit from the action, and acknowledge differences between
self and the other. The artist also needs to understand and respond to the set of conditions
that the artist is working under and with, and the outside structures that will have a
bearing on the reception, circulation, and appropriation of the work.
From the start of a project, the artist has to develop certain relationships with and responses
to this complex set of conditions, agencies, institutions, and communities, to understand that
the artist’s domain is not just the immediate artwork but has to take on a larger network of
structures and policies, and, when working with the so-called “disadvantaged” communities,
to work in a manner which empowers others to make decisions and to forge dialogues with
various parties that are affected by the issues. In such a way, I feel that the artist can have
a certain degree of control over the modes of reception of the work and also exercise
responsibility over ethical issues surrounding the work. The artist may think that these are
outside the purview of artists, and prefer to leave such in the hands of other experts, and
that the boundaries of art should be kept well-defined, but we have to bear in mind that
throughout the history of art, artists and artworks have been employed and appropriated
for commercial, political, and diplomatic purposes (e.g. during the cold wars in the 1950s
or in recent large-scale events such as “Images of the World” in Copenhagen, note 2), regardless
of the willingness of the artists.
Transience of Solidarities
This becomes more crucial when we think of the temporal nature of solidarities. Solidarities
can be and are often transient -- tentative just till divisions come in, as I was reminded
recently when I was in the city of Gdansk (Danzig) in Poland working on the project City
Transformers (CT). CT aimed to broaden the discussions around architectural and town
planning issues in the public sphere, and to reposition the role of artists in the city and
their inclusion into the process of transformation as equal partners. To give you some
background information -- Gdansk has played an important role in the history of Poland and Europe.
The Second World War started there in September 1939 with the Germans entering Gdansk to reclaim
its territories lost in the First World War. After the war, the Russians took power in Poland
and elected a puppet government. In 1970, frustrated citizens burnt the communist headquarters in Gdansk;
1979 marked the beginning of the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) movement, a movement initiated by the city’s workers
and later became a movement all across Poland. It began with a strike in the Gdansk shipyard, led by Lech Walesa.
The people’s resistance later led to the civil war that ended in 1983, and Lech Walesa was made the first president
of democratic Poland. However, most of Gdansk’s citizens today are disillusioned with the Solidarity movement;
many do not want to remember it or be associated with it. It has benefited a few, and left the majority on the lurch.
The citizens recently elected the modified communist party back into power.
Crowd supporting the strike at the fence and at the entrance of the Gdansk Shipyard
But even if solidarity is temporary, how can we organize it, so that it can produce further
structures for growth and development? How can we build a discourse within solidarities
that checks against abuses of solidarity?
As I have said earlier, it is crucial that we acknowledge and examine differences between
individuals within a solidarity. Often there are assumptions at work in the group dynamics
of solidarities. Solidarities are usually formed in times of need, and there is not enough
examination of differences at work, as well as intentions, motivations, responsibility, and
limitation of self in relation to others, the process of active trust, difference of privilege
and power. All these are swept aside for the achievement of common goals.
Within (and without) Solidarities, there is the need to focus on the empowerment of individuals
and on working toward an eventual “autonomy” of the self. Here, I need to differentiate the idea
of the “autonomy of the self” from the neo-liberalist idea of individualism, which leaves the individual
to take care of himself/herself in pursuit of self-interest; and also to differentiate from the socialist welfare
concept of providing for the individual. For me, “autonomy” also implies interdependence, to possess
the ability to exercise personal and collective responsibility. It requires a long-term process of working
at creating conditions that make this exercise of self-autonomy possible, and includes intervening into
the structures that organize our lives. I would like to end by saying that solidarity is a struggle to
maintain the dynamic interaction that is an important component of democracy.
Cohen, Susan and William Johnson. September 1993. “Conversation with Dawn Dedeaux” In
The Consort: A Calendar of Photography, Film and Video Events in and Around Rochester.
Kester, Grant. 2004. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art.
California: University of California Press.
1 Dedeaux’s project is discussed at length by Grant Kester in his book, Conversation Pieces:
Community and Communication in Modern Art, from which this essay quotes.
2 See www.images.org; see also Jay Koh’s article, “58 Dead,” for Images of the World: Station
to Station, Copenhagen, 2000 (Exhibition catalogue and website archive).
. . 58 dead on the road to the "civilised world" (Jay Koh)