Interview with August Davis, Curator of Laboratory of Dissent 2015

18 August 2019

What is Dissent?

Dissent at its barest minimum is objection. It’s also about difference. So it isn’t just about negation or rejection, it’s also about having an alternative.
It’s very much engaged with questions of orthodoxy and having an alternative doxa. So you are not just a naysayer, you are not just someone who is a contrarian, but you have a different point of view and you have an alternative reading or an alternative perspective that you want to proceed with.

Why is Dissent a good focus? 

I think it’s because we live in a world that is constantly trying to push for artificial consensus. That can actually, rather than being a unifying point, be a divisive point in society. Dissent is is a word that accommodates difference, and respecting the right for there to be different points of view.

If you look at geopolitical crisis right now, having the right to dissent is crucial. It shouldn’t just be a case of claiming to embrace dissenters, it needs to fundamentally and structurally be there to allow people to put forward their dissent.

Where did the Laboratory of Dissent idea come from? 

Okay, so here’s my canned overview of why I have been working with Chapel Arts Studios: In 2015, I approached new WSA graduate Tom Mortimer and he did something that you wouldn’t expect. He said: Instead of me having a solo show why don’t you come meet the Associate Artists at Chapel Arts Studios? I would rather open this opportunity to be a CAS project exhibition. 

Peter Driver drove me from the Winchester campus out to CAS in Andover which, for those of you who don’t know, is based in a cemetery in a deconsecrated chapel. At the time it was an artist studio and set of offices. It was very warm and friendly, no agenda. We wanted to know what everyone was working on and how we could work together. CAS Artists started talking about their interest in dissent and the fact the chapel was originally a Dissenters Chapel and what that might mean for an arts organisation, and how artists might link to that heritage. 

I was already interested from an art historian perspective, and for philosophical research reasons, at looking at political and aesthetic propositions, engaged with what dissent might mean as a productive way of voicing and embracing difference and diversity.

It was very early 2015 and a somewhat different political landscape than what we have right now. We hadn’t anticipated yet what was down the road. It just was not imaginable. 

When dissent came up, I got really excited because I’d been reading Jacque Ranciere’s Dissensus and Chantal Mouffe’s Agonistics. What I was very interested in was this premise that, rather than forcing a consensus onto a society, what if you embraced the idea of the dissentual instead of the consentual? Which isn’t about forcing, but embracing conflicting points of view. And rather than seeing that heading toward an antagonistic social situation, might it not lead toward agonism? Toward something where you have the tension of differing points of view, but it doesn’t lead you toward a violent clash, instead it forces you into a dialectical push and pull; this give and take. Theoretically, I was already really interested in this, and here seemed to be a group of people wanting to make some kind of practical testing ground for very similar ideas. Eventually the conversation came to this notion of dissent as a working methodology.

What would it mean to explore dissent as a working methodology? 

It’s a nice fit for an artist’s collective where people are coming together under an umbrella organisation but with very different points of view, backgrounds, artistic practices, mediums and ideas about what art can and should be. So I think that was a very wise decision for CAS to think about how dissent might be an interesting umbrella methodology that would acknowledge and embrace, and make a positive out of all those differences. Focusing on diversity is really useful when you have a situation (in a logistical and practical point of view) where people may unexpectedly be bringing different points of view. 

So we decided we would work together on a project. We still didn’t know what it was going to be, we knew it would take place in the late summer of 2015. We had several generative group meetings and conversations, and to my recollection the really important and exciting meeting was in June 2015 here at the WSA campus because that’s we started to get into the nitty-gritty of what we were going to do. 

What are we going to call this? 
How can you test this notion that we have about dissent? And
What’s this actually going to mean on a practical level? 

LOD 1.0

Through conversation, what was decided together was it would take the format of a gallery takeover. A series of mini-residencies that would culminate in a group ‘something’ so what we ended up structuring was across five weeks, the members who wanted to participate would be divided into four equal groups or ‘cells’ and each one would receive a one week residency in the gallery. And then the fifth week would see all the four cell groups bring elements from their weeks work together into an accumulated exhibition and a two day symposium. And the public were invited to that symposium as well. The public were also invited to engage in a variety of ways with those mini-residencies across the four weeks but really the big public interaction would occur at the end of the fifth week. 

The rules

The notion was that there would be some set rules about how the weeks needed to have a structure and what each of the groups were going to do in terms of taking over the space and handing over the space to the next group. 

The notion behind having the rules was you have to have something against which one might dissent. So we always knew there was potential for interesting and unplanned deviations from the rules, because we expected and certainly received plenty of provocations from japes to genuine clashes of interactions. 

The context

It’s important to note what happened in the run up: CAS artists had begun reading texts by Chantal Mouffe in particular and unpacking some of the questions around dissent and how one might move toward an agonistic rather than antagonistic situation. In one essay in particular there were creatively productive subheadings and each of the weeks groups ended up taking a sentence from the essay as its thematic. Each week was then given a sub-theme (title) which took place under The Laboratory of Dissent 2015. We decided we would adopt the trope of the experiment and some artists even adopted white lab coats.

The tension

What was really apparent to me at the very start of our planning meetings was already I was going to be forced into a weird position because I was excited about this project, I’d commissioned it, and yet institutionally I was going to have to wear hats that maybe I didn’t want to wear. I was going to have to make sure the Laboratory didn’t create dissent that was somehow detrimental to the infrastructure or reputation of the university and the gallery. 

I then had to on health and safety grounds or reputational grounds wear a quasi authoritarian hat and say no. I had to wear a curatorial hat about how might an innocent audience get involved. 

Let me give you an example: 

One proposition was to look at institutional critique around galleries but specifically this gallery. There were some clever and funny pop-art situationist type strategies proposed about how this might proceed as a performance but I needed to think about how we have a really high pedestrian footfall going past the gallery because we are on Park Avenue which leads to the leisure centre and a primary school, and we have a lot of people in the community who kind of take us for granted as a wallpaper. And one of the things we have been trying to do is increase awareness that we are here not just for staff and students but also as a community resource. 

I had to think carefully about how an audience might be hailed during this Laboratory of Dissent and make sure that the messages weren’t counter productive to the wider community aims by being easily misinterpreted. 

The residencies led to four very distinct and different projects with a highly individual identity.

Reflecting on The Laboratory of Dissent 2015

It took ages to digest properly what we had experienced during Laboratory of Dissent 2015. It was, in a really healthy way, indigestible. There was an element within the project that seemed to have vibrant currency; that didn’t diminish; that didn’t just cycle through you.

There was a residue that I think has become actually stronger and intensified because we had stumbled across something that was crucial for our contemporary moment. 

‘In Or Out’, Issac Whitcombe, LOD 2015

When we hit 2016 and we are in the US presidential election cycle a friend was saying to me. “Oh good grief, what do you think about this idea that trump has thrown his hat in the ring?” (This is a British friend at WSA). And I scoffed and I said “Don’t be ridiculous, you needn’t worry at all. Don’t even pay any attention to this vanity project of running for president. It’s a stunt, it’s never going to go anywhere, he won’t even make it to be a serious contender in the G.O.P primaries.”

We wagered a pint of beer on this. 

So when we get to early November 2016 the unthinkable happens. We wake up on the morning of 9 November and this man has been elected the president, and I just couldn’t believe it. But equally, in the summer of 2016 – in June – I just didn’t think there was anything to be worried about with this Brexit thing. I really, genuinely, thought: it will give people the opportunity to air their eurosceptic points of view and I can imagine the leave campaign getting a healthy turn out at the polls, but I really expected it would be something like 2/3 remain of the vote and it will be a non starter. Just a blip. So again, we wake up and find out that, yes, it was really-really close, but the vote had been for Brexit. It was, again, such an unexpected result. We couldn’t quite digest that either. In both of these cases … if you look at the US election, Hilary Clinton won the popular vote but Donald Trump won the electoral college votes so therefore he won the election, and you look at Brexit and this incredibly close result of this vs this …

What do you do when you have incredibly divisive referenda and you have to go and stake you claim, and nail your colours to the mast… and if it becomes that polarised, what do you do next?

You are still living together in the same country but where you are directing that country to go is seemingly advantageous to one group and highly upsetting and contentious for the other. What do you do with those very polarised points of view? What do you do with the group that is dissenting from the direction the nation is being steered into? And how do you continue to live together? How do you recognise that we are all still neighbours, colleagues, citizens, family members? 

These are incredibly explosive and divisive moments because it cuts to the core of our sense of identity, our sense of ethics, our ideas about how we should direct resources in our life and society and our tribe, and how we identify, how we affiliate as collectives and as groups. Will this be something that will fundamentally splinter us? Will it cause us to have even more factionalism? 

These are hugely important real world questions that we had almost flippantly stumbled upon when we started down this road of exploring dissent, and I think it will continue to become an incredibly important question that cuts across the really mundane interactions that we have, and the incredibly important rarified issues that we care about. 

This is why there seems to be this indigestible currency within the project because it continues to have an incredibly vital connection and resonance with the micro and the macro, across the board, in our daily lives.

I think what was so important about dissent as we learned about it in 2015 is the direct resonance that it has when you are living in a world that is constantly telling you that you have to cut loose your personal commitments in order to reach a compromise that’s being forced upon us.

For me, if you look at what’s going on in The States right now, you have a very polarised nation with someone who is incredibly divisive at the top who is trying to force very restrictive, top-down structures onto every element of society – that really impact your daily life. It isn’t just a policy platform, it’s really going to impact what is and isn’t possible for you in your daily life. 

What I think is so important about exploring, and as you say inviting dissent, is literally that. Rather than trying to constantly force people down this one avenue, we are inviting people to dissent. What this means is that sometimes it’s going to be a bit chaotic! If you’re someone who has an executive mindset and envisaged a very top-down structure, you are not  going to invite dissent. However, if you are interested in diversity flourishing; creativity flourishing, then you are going to invite dissent. 

Week 2, Domesticating Conflicts, LOD 2015

If you continue to have and invite a wide range of opinions, yeah, it’s going to be chaotic and sometimes it’s going to be super unsafe, sometimes you’re going to have to rethink certain things, but it means you’re all in it together and it means that you have to become more self aware and self critical about: are you someone who is privileged by the status quo? Have you become comfortable in your assumptions? Do you not have introspection because you don’t need it, you are actually doing fine by the current situation? Or are you somebody who has been devalued or disadvantaged by the situation? This may be your chance to rectify things. 

You have got to invite everyone to the table and that’s what encouraging dissent does. It opens the door to the messy and difficult, but to what’s possibly going to save us.

You do have to have some kind of agreement about how you are going to work together.

When you are exploring dissent as a working methodology you still have to be working. So we are not doing this as a talking shop. We are trying to achieve something. We are exploring the question around flattened hierarchies, but it’s not. There’s still the director of the gallery that has commissioned the project with institutional roles that have to be fulfilled, you have aims and goals individually, collectively within your working groups, and also together as Associates. 

It is about trying to make something. You are genuinely trying to do something and you find it is hard, you need to negotiate. How do you reach points where everyone can buy into, effectively, a consensus (through dissensus)… but without it being artifictal? And you’re never going to please everybody. You may reach a majority opinion but it may not be a unanimous opinion. But a judgement is made, and you are able to move on.

What are the challenges of this working model?

This working model means you have to be constantly responsive to on the spot changes. It’s something you can set in motion in a general way, but you won’t necessarily know how it will come together in the practical reactions, and what that’s going to necessitate as secondary steps.

So for me, I think that’s why ‘Laboratory’ is a good indication of what it is because it is experimental, it is genuinely experimental.

We will often have planned aims and objectives and certain ways of engagement, and some certain baseline rules for how we are going to set about that, but there will be so many unknown quantities. So just on a practical project management point of view it’s challenging to work that way. You can’t relax into the project because you have to always be on your toes.

There will always be something you didn’t foresee, even if you have looked at all the details what happens is always going to be surprising. We are inviting the unknown into the process, so you can try to foresee and plan for as many of the practical elements as you can, but you’re still never fully going to know what will come out of it.

That wonderful unknown is probably the most challenging but also the most rewarding.

I continue to return to my experience of Laboratory of Dissent 2015 when I’m dealing with little things and big things in my life, because we are changing and evolving all the time as people. What’s so interesting is the way in which being in that moment when things are genuinely at stake, you don’t necessarily know how you are going to react. You may have an intimation of direction, but until it’s really in front of you and you’re feeling it – because you’re actually embodying that moment – you don’t know how you are going to respond, and whether there will be consent or dissent. And if you do dissent, in what way and to what end? We are going through the maze. 

What’s so exciting about CAS is that you are all are bringing very different points of view to the table, which is why this is a very natural seeming project for the organisation to be engaged with. I would say, continue to embrace that diversity of points of view, of practices, of personalities, because it’s what is bringing that richness to your culture and community.

I know sometimes it’s hard… to find out how you’re going to do it together. Even if you’re not object orientated, even if you’re process focused, you still have a thing you want at the end of an effort. So how do you bring everyone together in a way that respects that diversity and can still create a collective result?

It’s hard but it’s worthwhile. 

Continue being you, all of you, in your unique ways.

August Jordan Davis

Published by Maija Liepins

Australian born, mixed-media artist, Maija Liepins focuses on the sensory and emotional experience in her visual dreamscapes. Repetitive actions such as dream journals or collecting visual impressions with her mobile phone generates material with which to reveal the subtle, ‘underneath’. Maija’s drawings and films allude to a symbolic mythology as if the intangible substance of dream is a material as real as ink and clay. Her practice is driven by a pursuit of freedom - to express, to create, and to collaborate without inculturated inhibition.

One comment on “Interview with August Davis, Curator of Laboratory of Dissent 2015”

  1. This makes me so excited to be involved. I’m pretty gutted that August won’t be physically present for LOD2 but I am totally ready and unprepared for the unknown – in the best possible way! 🙂 xx

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