Ethical Contentions

“It is immoral to feel at home in one’s own home.”
Theodor Adorno

“What constitutes a prostitute is the pursuit of profit.”
Lupe Fiasco

 

The epidemic of poverty industries around the globe reflect a grotesque dysfunction of the political economic experiments of neo-liberalism. According to Dr. Cornell West the neo-liberal impulse, when confronted with a social problem, tends to financialize, privatize and militarize1. Corporate globalization profits from poverty, as a condition, from DR Congo to Syria to Bangladesh to the United States. By the 1970s technological advancements had made it such that corporations based in Japan, North America and Western Europe could offshore production to parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. This was a clear indication that capital is free to inhabit any part of the planet in which it could thrive but labor (and of course, the precariat2) is not. Capital moved because cheap labor could be exploited in these foreign zones: workers could be paid horrifyingly low wages over there than back home. Back home in the United States, post-Fordism was taking its toll. As corporations relocated their production units, workers stayed but the jobs had disappeared. This meant fervent competition for the fewer jobs which remained. Consequently, employers further exploited worker insecurity at home by paying less wages to their employees whose livelihoods remained precarious — simply put, productivity increased but wages did not match up. Couple this phenomenon with the legacy of racist federal policies prior to 1968 such as “redlining” — a pattern of lending practices related to housing and banking which discriminates against non-white populations of the United States and acts as an impediment to home ownership — and Philadelphia’s poverty industry in the twenty-first century loses some strands of its mysteriousness. Emily Badger puts it this way: “If your family was denied a mortgage in the 1930s, or the 1950s, or the 1970s, then you may not have the family wealth or down payment help to become a homeowner today. In that way, the consequences of past redlining transcend time, even as new forms of it continue.”

Lest we think of this system of injustice as unprecedented, Ayi Kwei Armah jolts us to a historical antecedent that all of this is happening in a “state which came to life as a slaveholding economy, practiced institutionalized apartheid throughout the greater part of its history, fought relentlessly against progressive change in the world practically from the moment of its birth, and still considers it a worthwhile national ideal to monopolize a disproportionate share of the world’s resources.”4 He traces its beginnings to the fifteenth century.It goes without saying that the scenario I have oversimplified above is not exclusive to the United States but endemic to the neo-liberal capitalist status quo. The French Revolution — based on its tripartite principles liberté, egalité and fraternité — in the late eighteenth century subverted and transitioned feudal Europe into a new socio-political and economic system: the era of the bourgeois versus proletariat or employer versus employee (which later came to be known as capitalism) was born. Who would have thought that the gaping class divide intrinsic to capitalism could have been gotten out of supreme ideals of equality and brotherhood?

As I have said elsewhere6 the politically engaged artist is one attuned to a certain geopolitical, socio-economic and techno-scientific consciousness — this disposition conditions the practitioner not to be over-reliant on the symbolic solutions the cultural offers to questions of politics. I also mentioned in part one of this essay that The Village [of Arts and Humanities] cites being “bordered by an ever-growing higher education institution, corporate conglomerates and the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods in lower North Philadelphia” as a major problem to contend with. To further illustrate this point, the education institution in question is Temple University. At the time I was doing the residency there was a resistance movement called Stadium Stompers who describe their mission as “a movement of community members and students coming together to stop Temple’s [football] stadium and build power in North Philly.” According to Al Jazeera, “Temple University wants a [35,000-seat, $126 million] football stadium in North Philadelphia. But some see the project as gentrification that will push long-term residents out.”7 These long-term residents are African Americans who are politically powerless in the face of Big Business interests.

I will now discuss some of the problematic assumptions made by both The Village (referred to from here onwards as “the organization”) and myself that affected the project. I had been invited to submit a proposal for a community-based project in a neighborhood I had never stepped foot in: to submit a proposal for a project which would be collaborative before meeting my collaborators. This meant that from the outset I had to imagine and determine the parameters as well as conditions permitting for the project a priori. There had been plans for me to visit the neighborhood for at least a week to be able to acquire a better sense of the space and plan for it before the project would officially begin but this could not happen.

When I arrived at the Fairhill Hartranft community in North Philadelphia, where the organization is based, it became apparent that some specifics of the proposed project needed to be thought through much more critically on my part. I was inspired to begin to explore procedures which could doubly engage my audience as collaborators or as active producers in the development of the work. I resorted to hosting dinners and informal meetings at the house in which I was living with neighbors and staff of the organization as well as monthly open mic events, artist talks and film screenings which were open to the public. To mitigate the potentially alienating effect of my newness to the neighborhood and foreignness to the culture, I thought to adopt these relational procedures as experimental methods of introducing myself to members of the community, creating avenues for interaction and exchange so we could then move on to begin to develop some kind of project through the relation[ship]s we were forming.8

To the extent that I had developed the project before arriving in the neighborhood (based on prior interaction and assurances given by the organization), there were two things I had taken for granted: A) a sited community to engage with and B) a team of local artists (referred to as “neighborhood artists”) ready to work with me to develop the project. Although A is true on the one hand, it is an ambiguous concept on the other. B quite simply failed to happen as had been assumed. More often than not, a paternalistic relationship existing between [art] institution, community and, by extension, visiting artist tends to fail in this way. It took me up to four months to fully form a collective with four young artists from the neighborhood.

In a conversation I had with another artistabout the project I expressed how trust and integrity are necessary values which need to develop over time in any meaningful relationship — with the artist’s collaborative efforts as no exception. Apart from these values a successful collaborative endeavor would entail rationing power and vulnerability between its members. I explained to her that my understanding of the collaborative relationship meant that this group would itself not be immune to conflict. To paraphrase Claire Bishop, I was interested in a kind of “democratic community” which sustained, rather than erased, tensions because the engagement would be premised on the will of its participants10. The so-called democratic community I had sought to instigate involved not just me finding and negotiating my position in relation to the community and vice versa: it also implicated the organization with whom we were working. Let me now analyze the triangular relationship which exists between artist, organization and community as I see it. The elements in this triad are contingent, with the community supposedly positioned at the apex — both the artist and the organization claim to be working on its behalf. The assumption is made by an [art] organization that a particular community marginalized by the dominant culture needs intervention in the social and economic lives of its residents. However undemocratically the organization proceeds to insert itself in the said community, it burdens itself with the task of representation on the community’s behalf. A problem arises when this intrinsically inter-dependent relationship is ruptured.

In my case, I had been invited by a non-profit arts organization to realize a community-based project in a community blighted by unemployment, poverty and mass incarceration.11 The term “community”, when used by the organization, refers to a sited locality with target groups of people who have shared meanings and whom the institution is committed to serving. When I used it, I thought about it in terms of the new connections formed between the temporary groups of people who were convening at the events I was organizing who were often times meeting familiar as well as new people and bonding in such ways for the first time. These two conceptions are not necessarily in opposition. However, the paternalism, in my particular scenario, ferociously corrodes the political claims of both the artist and the organization and leads to the emasculation of the community in the dynamic (even though it is the central element which legitimizes the organization, project and visiting artist). The artist and the organization, unlike the community, are privileged entities. Specifically in the economic sense since they both receive funding from donor institutions often set up by agents of this same dominant culture they claim to be contesting. The vector of paternalism, as a result, points downward from the organization toward the visiting artist who, based on inherited assumptions from the former, extends it to the community. In sum, a relationship meant to be equilateral is turned bolt upright.

This leads to a further complication confounding the already convoluted scenario — in that, the organization obscures its real intention for working with the visiting artist (me) until the artist arrives only to realize that he had always been expected to come into the engagement merely as a temporary employee who, in principle, should be at the service of the community and its artistic desires. But because the community has, in this sense, been emasculated, the artist (as well as his project) is set up, disingenuously, to be used for the organization’s public relations needs. In effect, the organization had intended to perform a ventriloquist act with the artist as its instrument. This fundamental lack of respect forms the crux of the problematic engagement between artist and organization. If we zoom out of this triangular dynamic to examine the architecture of power more broadly, the organization could, perhaps, be perceived to have been adhering to the terms and conditions which came with the grant it has received from the funding institution. If so, a culture of conformance is effectively normalized making “salaried activists” out of us all who are in close proximity to excess capital.

This convolution breeds distrust and suspicion between the artist and the organization and embroils the two in a conflict which, at its core, has nothing to do with the community. The organization, accumulating more power in the triad than it should, proceeds to exert its will (or in some cases withholding from action) in ways which frustrate the artist’s efforts if he does not conform. My resistance to this kind of institutional ventriloquism resulted in the organization resorting to various forms of censorship: deft tactics in order to impede, micromanage and control the methods I had been exploring with the project were deployed. One of such ways was to compel me to work with a Community Organizing Mentor whose role is to “(a) support the teams in creating and practicing healthy group agreements and practices, and (b) provide the teams with education in community organizing frameworks and tactics, and (c) help the teams apply these frameworks within the context of the projects to focus and amplify their success.” I made it clear that the nature of the project did not need such a practitioner because apart from the fact that I would necessarily have to fulfill extra-artistic roles (under which the job description of the COM is subsumed) I also felt that the COM could deepen the chasm between visiting artist, “neighborhood artists” and the organization as well as reinforce the paternalistic attitude plaguing this whole engagement. In the end, I had to sideline the COM from the project.

Another tactic used was through passive denial of resources. For example, I had been denied the needed resources to build a site-specific structure on one of the vacant lots the organization manages in the neighborhood even though I had actively thought this component through with members of the same community it claims to be beholden to.12 To be clear, we simply needed the organization to fulfill one of its roles in the dynamic so we could surmount tedious bureaucratic impediments. When it came time for it to support us by negotiating with city authorities to request the necessary permits, it became passive. Simply put, there was a lack of institutional will. Why? Because it was always intended for the artist to work for the organization: to do its bidding and never the other way around.

My insistence on taking time to intentionally build relationships seemed unpopular: I came under pressure to offer an immediate title or phrase by which the project could be ‘pitched’ but I found myself unable to muster anything except for the fact that the project was relational, experimental and process-oriented. What I meant by this was that the project was iterative; that it was counter-deterministic in approach; that it aspired to a democratic method of production; that based on the logic of this synchronic direction every event in the series of happenings is taken just as seriously in the beginning as at the end of the time-bound project. In another of my conversations, my interlocutor asked how I had been planning to “make the most out of” the success of the open mic and its potential to mobilize people. In her opinion, there was more that could be done to optimize the gatherings at the event so that people did not just come out and exhaust themselves in a singular moment. I disagreed with her. She suggested to put a call out with specific activities such as photography workshops which I would facilitate for random people to come to the studio so we could make something.

I had understood the import of her proposition but was unwilling to test it out in its arbitrariness. Except we are discussing empowerment as a patronizing gesture of goading people to engage, this felt, to me, a contrivance. In my opinion, to mobilize and to organize are in themselves power. As long as people are encountering other people and presently forming relation[ships] anything could happen: in the sense that once meaningful relationships are formed, common interests may be established and if the conversations go on long enough common goals may be defined and, in time, a common cause identified. But no outcome is certainly guaranteed. This is what I meant by relying on the process to birth its own outcomes. This process, seemingly unguided, could prove to be a potent response to disempowerment as it checks atomization and breeds collectivity. Poet, novelist and scholar Ayi Kwei Armah puts it this way: “All beauty is in the creative purpose of our relationships”.13 He is of the conviction that there is no beauty if not in relationships as far as organizing against systemic exploitation is concerned. Lori Waselchuk, photographer and collaborator on the project, described the spirit of the open mic events to me once by expressing that “I don’t know where these kids are coming from, but it seems like friendships are forming within this group. There is great excitement, freedom and inspiration among those that participate. It is incredible […] I see creative relationships form in the performances. I see the energy, support and recognition that they give each other.” The project, insofar as is geared towards realizing democratic processes or procedures, generates outcomes that challenge the fetish for totalization, objectification and commodification in a market-driven art system. Rather than make objects, we [the collective] were successful in inventing simple, effective and sustainable procedures for mobilization and collaboration within the community which could outlive the period of my residency.

Let me make it clear that my discussion focuses on the assumptions implicit in the organization’s debut SPACES International Artist-in-Residence program. Amidst all the obfuscation, there are positives to take away from the engagement with one being the potential of keeping the collective active even after my residency to continue exploring the relational procedures. The organization sincerely recognizes the significance of sustaining the open mic events in particular and is willing to provide the institutional support to make this happen in one form or another — even if it may mean merging it into its existing youth program on campus. More importantly, we were able to demonstrate a process of making art that is essentially de-skilled which was, for me at least, emancipatory. I would describe my experience with this project as coming into a neighborhood from an entirely different cultural background, learning from my new local context, and making a contribution to its creative culture.

I have discussed two fallacious assumptions and the entailments when taken for granted. I now conclude on the thesis that there is always the real and perilous tendency of ideological patronage ominous to each and every one of us as far as political engagement in this socio-economic context is concerned. If communities of disinvestment are not accidentally produced, what then are the pertinent questions the politically engaged artist must, to begin with, pose? I suggest that we can begin by positing fortified responses to the problem of disempowerment (of which poverty is only one manifestation) by inter-relating the [geo]political economic angles with the cultural and personal dimensions of this problem. By so doing, we are able to formulate a deeper understanding which is neither numb nor oblivious to the complexities and potential exacerbations that our decisions, convictions and interventions as artists or cultural institutions may contribute to the matrix. It is just as important if we wish to mount any kind of potent criticism regarding exploitation or systemic marginalization, to cultivate a self-critical disposition as it is to contest external systems of power.

2016.

Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist who lives and works in Kumasi, Ghana.

Notes:

*This essay is the second part of a two-piece essay written by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh for the project he developed while in residency at The Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia, USA. Learn more about the project here: https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/iub-projects-2/2016-2/the-village/

Read part one of The Politics of Relationality here.

More about the project here.

Epigraph 1: Theodor Adorno as quoted by Irit Rogoff in Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture, 2000, Routledge, London & New York, pp.6

Epigraph 2: Song by Lupe Fiasco, Hurt Me Soul, from the album Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, 2006, track 11, Atlantic Records

  1. Dr. Cornell West in an interview with Nermeen Shaikh and Amy Goodman: https://www.democracynow.org/2016/12/1/cornel_west_on_donald_trump_this
  2. Noam Chomsky explains “precariat” as a modern description for today’s precarious proletariat — the working people of the world who live increasingly precarious lives. See documentary Requiem for the American Dream on Netflix.
  3. Emily Badger’s article published on The Washington Post, May 28, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/05/28/evidence-that-banks-still-deny-black-borrowers-just-as-they-did-50-years-ago/?utm_term=.f2232d32ee2d
  4. Ayi Kwei Armah, Remembering The Dismembered Continent: Essays, Per Ankh, Popenguine, Senegal, 2010, pp. 238. In a chapter titled Obama: A Life Inside the American Dream, Armah discusses President Barack Obama’s autobiographical book Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father.
  5. Ibid, pp. 249.
  6. https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/texts/paragraphs-on-the-contemporary/
  7. See https://www.facebook.com/ajplusenglish/videos/806721406136035/?hc_ref=PAGES_TIMELINE. Further reading here: http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/inga_saffron/Temple-football-stadium-would-disrupt-more-than-the-neighborhood.html
  8. Although I borrow this relational form from historical ‘Relational Aesthetics’ practices (as theorized by Nicolas Bourriaud), my preoccupation with the form goes beyond creating spaces of conviviality for my audiences and participants. My process acknowledges and, to an extent, relies on tension and antagonism.
  9. See Unlearning Lessons: A conversation between Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh and Toril Johannessen, published in the catalogue for the exhibition “Unlearning – Interpretations” at Gallery Rod Bianco, Oslo, 2016. I have republished a version of the conversation here: https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/conversations/toril/
  10. See Claire Bishop, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004, pp. 65. 2004 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  11. According to the Black Work Matters report, “Philadelphia has the second highest rate of working age adults who have dropped out of the work force. In some neighborhoods [such as Fairhill Hartranft where I did my project], 70% of adults [male or female] are not working.” Black Work Matters: Race, Poverty and the Future of Work in Philadelphia, http://powerinterfaith.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Black-Work-Matters-Report.pdf, pp6.
  12. See concept designs I and II of this component of the project here: https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/iub-projects-2/2016-2/the-village/
  13. Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons: A Novel, Per Ankh, Popenguine, Senegal, 1973, pp. 316-7.
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