As an introduction to the project of “The Laboratory of Dissent “, Dr. August Davis, Senior Research Fellow and Artistic Director and curator, of The Winchester Gallery, encouraged the associate members of Chapel Arts Studio, to consider the writings of political theorist Chantal Mouffe; Agnostics. Thinking the world politically, [Verso books 2013.] And Art Historian, Claire Bishop [Artificial Hells. Verso 2012.]
Claire Bishop’s book offers a historical overview of how artists, throughout the twentieth century have explored opportunities for acting beyond the limits of the contemporary gallery and by involving audiences into and AS their work. Bishop examines dialogues concerning the radical potential of Art by exploring the relationships between artist, critic and audience.
The Mouffe text seeks to further develop a political theory that is consistent with current debates about the nature of democracy, while also allowing for coherent and effective forms of resistance.
While the Bishop text felt very accessible and enjoyable, I was overwhelmed by the Mouffe text. Her writing felt overtly academic, unnecesarily jargonized, and made use of a narrative that was unfamiliar to me. In short, the language of Mouffe’s political interrogation far exceeded my understanding.
Nevertheless I was engaged by the idea of practicing dissent through my art and alongside other artists. I wanted to join the “Laboratory of dissent project”.
Through researching the subject I persevered, hoping to find, bite- sized and palatable pieces of Mouffe theory that would attract my interest and which might eventually lead to a group project that embraced the idea of “agonistic practices.”
I discovered I might not be alone in my struggle for understanding; the following excerpt is a reply to a group Face book post , in response to a fellow associate, who was concerned to begin a debate about the Mouffe text.
I empathize completely with the points you raise. I felt quite overwhelmed by the thrust and language of the Mouffe text yet much more engaged by the Bishop text. Bishops work feels more practical and explanatory …dare I say REAL.
Mouffe chooses to use “hegemonic structures” as the focus to flex her arguments of agonism. She is a political theorist and its not unreasonable that she would place the dominant power structures in her sights to argue a new way of approaching the process of consensus and dissensus. For Mouffe, “Art” has lost its autonomy, its critical power, as a result of its being subsumed by advertising, and by the dominant Capitalist structures. Having stabbed at unpicking the Mouffe text, there were a few statements that offered a “hook” for me. In explaining what an “agonistic” art practice is
[p93 Agonistics. Chantal Mouffe] “Making visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate.”
I believe that it is what drives most artists. Regardless of what medium they choose to articulate it from: visual imagery, music, poetry, dance, moving image, performance etc. For most of us, our art practice is not a reflection of what lies on the surface but of the layers and layers buried underneath the surface, exposing the nuances and traces of hidden energies, opening up potentials for different points of view. As artists we know that not everyone will concur with our imaginings, in this sense we are all working examples of Mouffe’s argument towards agonistics.
Mouffe and I may speak different languages, but I understand the need to strive to make visible what tends to be obscured and obliterated, through a thousand small acts of dissent, through my own art practice, by asking questions and seeking alternative solutions to those that are fed to me. On this point we concur.
How then do we, as a collective, work to overtly and plainly bring to focus and expose those areas that are commonly hidden in plain sight, or deliberately obliterated. How do we encourage our viewers to ask questions, where they might otherwise not have see a question, or in seeing it, turn away?
Through collaboration. We share each others practice, combine the strengths and weaknesses of our individual practices, we collectively seek to expose the underworking’s of a particular subject matter, through our collective and naturally dissenting energy. [In so doing, we have become a working experiment of consensus and dissensus.]
The particular subject matter or drive of our projects should not need to be Politically overt, purely to comply or pay homage to the Mouffe text. The texts should be working as a spark to ignite our enquiry, and where this will take us is, at the moment unknown.”
Some weeks later, as our group, Lydia Heath, Amy Wyatt and myself, embark upon our residency week in the Winchester Gallery, for the Laboratory of Dissent project, it seems to me that, along with our fellow associates, and August Davis, the artistic director of Winchester Gallery, we have each taken a collective leap of faith.
We are excited by the potential of our own project ‘If Not This Then What?’ and that of the following three groups of CAS associate artists, in spite of having no fixed notion of what will develop as a result of our experimentation.
We do know that we are working in collective form, supporting each other and seeking to engage a wider audience to consider how creative dissent can be used to explore arts unique capacity to challenge, question and offer alternative ways of seeing.
‘If Not This Then What?’ uses the format of a Public Consultation project to ‘unveil all that is repressed by the dominant consensus’ and make ‘visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate.’ (Chantal Mouffe). The artists in residence will be conducting an investigation into the political structures and power relationship between institutions and stakeholders inherent in contemporary galleries, and inviting the public to join them in a re-imagining of what the contemporary gallery space could become.
Dawn Evans is collaborating with Lydia Heath and Amy Wyatt during Week 1 of the Laboratory of Dissent project, a new CAS exhibition at The Winchester Gallery. Week 1 ‘If Not This Then What?’ takes place from Monday 24th – Friday 28th August 2015.