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Art as Social Practice







Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor at New York University, writes in the afterword of the book How to See the World (2015), Visual Activism: “For many artists, academics and others who see themselves as visual activists, visual culture is a way to create forms of change. If we review the interpretations of visual culture outlined in this book, we can see how this concept has emerged.” Mirzoeff attempts to link a disparate range of visual expressions under the notion that visual cues are replacing the written/printed words in informing debate, creating and sustaining movements and identities. To achieve this, he seeks to demonstrate the power of these forces as manifested by individual artists expressing their sexual, racial and ethnolinguistic minority identities through these means.

South African Zanele Muholi is the most prominent individual in the examples he cites. He disassembles the ensemble of clothing and accoutrements worn by Muholi in a photographic self-portrait as apparent props and devices, the means with which to express her identity as a Black Lesbian woman. Her leopard-print blouse is taken to generically represent Africa; the “heavy frames” of her glasses “suggest she is an intellectual” and Muholi’s hat supposedly “places her in modern, urban South Africa.”

In the Republic of Ireland – where Mirzoeff has lectured – he identifies artists Megs Morley and Tom Flanagan as individuals seeking to find some means of expressing the turmoil and looking for solutions to the painful after-effects of the 2007-2008 banking crisis that halted the economic growth of the “Celtic Tiger”. Mirzoeff observes that Morley and Flanagan found inspiration in an extract of an 1867 speech by Karl Marx on Ireland; The situation of the mass of the people has deteriorated, and their state is verging to a crisis.

The creation of Morley and Flanagan was to assemble three writers and several actors to write and perform their own speeches on the state of affairs, packaged into a three-hour film entitled the Question of Ireland, filmed at the Taibhdhearc, an Irish/Gaelic theatre. Mirzoeff explains that the ambitions of this film – shown in galleries across the Republic of Ireland and later also in Northern Ireland – was to inspire a revolution in perception with purpose and hope.

Detroit, Michigan, USA is the next stop, where Mirzoeff concentrates on of the work of the recently deceased (December 2015) legendary activist philosopher centenarian Grace Lee Boggs. Grace, born to parents from southern China in 1915 and a brilliant philosopher, was heavily involved in African-American activist groups and included Angela Davis among her close allies. Grace, at the age of 98/99, directed a documentary film entitled American Revolutionary. Both a celebration of her Detroit roots – where she has lived since 1955 – a confident vision for Detroit's capacity to adapt and renew, and a cautionary tale. In her own words on the dereliction of Detroit, once one of the world's great industrial powerhouses: “… this is a symbol of how giants fall”.

Dr Anna Feigenbaum speaks of a similar visual symbolism to that espoused by Mirzoeff in the 2014 essay The Disobedient Objects of Protest Camps that accompanied a special exhibition at the V&A Gallery. Perhaps the flagship protest for her illustrative purposes is the Book Bloc protests in Rome in 2010, during which protesting students crafted improvised padded shields named for individual books – from the works of Machiavelli to the Kama Sutra. The Guerilla Girls are perhaps also notable for juxtaposing mock heads of guerrillas and even wearing and using “Gorilla masks in a Guerilla fashion” to express their political agenda - Peter Weibel, a Professor at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, describes this activism and phenomena as “performative democracy”.



Comparison Notes

  • Nicholas Mirzoeff's work forms the intellectual template for the use and meaning of visuals in contemporary culture. Anna Feigenbaum provides it in action through the performance art of nonviolent protest.


  • Both Mirzoeff and Feigenbaum have cited several disparate examples of performative arts and visuals, or philosophical works, that derive from the impact of visual statements.


  • Mirzoeff has argued that visual statements are overpowering the printed word, and Feigenbaum's examples may give strength to that perspective.

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