Media, Performance, & Activism

 

When choosing an artist for my thesis, I found myself drawn to conceptual artist Adrian Piper.

Piper’s performance art confronts notions of race and gender. her androgynous name in conversation with her black identity, renders her both hyper-visible and invisible in American society. in her work “the mythic being,” she wore drag and recorded the ways that white reactions to her changed once she presented as a black man rather than a black woman.

despite her appointment as the first tenured black woman philosophy professor in the united states, piper fled to Berlin in 2005. in response to her own expatriation, she cited exhaustion from the racial discrimination and bias that she suffered in both academia and the art world.

she said “I retired from being black.” in this statement, piper consecrates the degree to which blackness is a form of dedicated and strenuous labor, and that as long as she lives in the united states, her blackness will remain as such.

I’m referencing piper (not only because I’m familiar with her work), but because her oeuvre is a helpful site of departure for an inquiry into the relationship between media, performance, and activism.

* * *

MEDIA my english coursework has focused on the way that media functions as a tool of dominance and supremacy in American society.

media studies scholar Shilpa davé locates the definition of media within its original meaning. she points out that the greek word media historically relates to performance, where it literally means “voiced stop.” now, the purpose of media is to disseminate information to a mass audience.

in today’s age, social media reigns supreme as a tool for connection and communication. through social media, we are able to know about the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

in his foundational 1936 essay “the work of art in the age of mechanical production,” Walter Benjamin was one of the first to note the power of media in society. in my art theory course, we specifically discussed benjamin’s consideration of film (as it was a new technology at the time of publication) as revealing of the true tendencies of the human condition.

he writes that the camera “introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.” in a world wherein almost everyone has access to a smartphone camera, each person has the power to capture truth and contribute towards change.

benjamin’s work also asserts the terrifying nature of the automation of media & how it affects politics and culture.

The propagandist importance of which can hardly be overestimated. mass reproduction is aided by the reproduction of masses. in big parades and monster rallies, in sports events, and in war, all of which nowadays are captured by camera and sound recording, the masses are brought face to face with themselves” — Walter benjamin

think about what media you’re sharing or not sharing. think about what you want to reproduce in our world.

the argument “it doesn’t matter if i post” doesn’t fly. benjamin makes clear that media is one of the most powerful (and revealing) tools deployed by both governments and citizens to share and control information in mass culture.

post-colonial theorists would go further to say that unequal access to the tools of media production results in exclusion of specific populations from the discourse of the entire nation.

to a certain extent, social media democratizes the role of media in society (“anyone can post, anyone can go viral”). yet, we know that these media companies create insidious algorithms that limit the exposure of black activist movements. it was recently revealed that TikTok was censoring the hashtags #blacklivesmatter and #georgefloyd, in addition to limiting promotion of black people on the platform.

who knows what the Instagram algorithm does to silence black voices.

IF YOU ARE WHITE, THESE PLATFORMS WILL PROMOTE YOUR POSTS MORE THAN MINE BECAUSE MY FACE IS BLACK.

speak up.

especially as the idea of contemporary media has bolstered itself behind the constant reproduction of black aesthetics, bodies, and culture, it is time to make “media reparations” for your complicity in appropriation and mimesis.

* * *

PERFORMANCE

Performance becomes relevant when individuals are using media in the wrong way.

on one hand, I’m judging individuals who don’t post anything. it hurts me when I see people (who I believed to be my friends) carrying on like nothing is wrong.

at the same time, I’m frustrated with the excessive posting. too many white people have posted a Martin Luther King quote without knowing what speech it came from. I may be channeling my own frustration with white supremacy into this discourse, but I think more needs to be shared in order to facilitate real change. as I said above, white people need to wield their privilege to save black lives. what I’m seeing now (from most people) seems to be performative.

the verb perform implies embodiment of identity. from the broadway musical to puppetry to minstrelsy to stand-up, this remains consistent. when someone is performing activism, it means that they are trying to present (in a costume almost, if Instagram is a stage — it might as well be) as an activist, but do not participate in any of the real labor that activism entails. performers of activism may even dramatize or improvise their “sadness” and “remorse,” as there is no real evidence that they are trying to make things better.

Performance also implies audience and gaze. if you find yourself falling into the trope of performing activism, ask yourself who is your audience?

performance theory scholar Diana Taylor notes that performance helps “cement membership in a group, or further reinforce social subcategorization, exclusions, and stereotypes. doing becomes a form of belonging.”

don’t post just because you don’t want to “seem racist,” or because you want to establish yourself as “a liberal.” have something to say. post resources, post-reading suggestions, commit to doing better.

my other question is: who are you posting for?

in her landmark essay “visual pleasure and narrative cinema,” feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey outlines the relationship between media and its audience. referring to film, she calls this phenomenon “the gaze,” which renders people as ‘objects’ for the pleasure and consumption of other people.

Mulvey describes the white male gaze as specifically “controlling.”

notice it.

in your activism on social media, be conscious and wary of the white male gaze. media provides a platform for white patriarchal consumption, don’t play a role in the objectification of black lives.

* * *

ACTIVISM

individuals co-opt this term because it’s somewhat ambiguous in definition. The Oxford English dictionary defines activism as “participation or engagement in a particular sphere of activity.” that alone isn’t activism. true activism requires radical thought and action.

unlike protest, activism also requires sustained engagement.

just because you post one Instagram story, doesn’t mean that you are an activist for the cause. activism means changing the status quo, engaging in revolutionary discourse, and learning over time.

notice the ways in which black people put their bodies on the line in the name of activism. in one of my art history courses this semester, we specifically studied the artist william pope. l.

when done well, performance can effect change. pope l. participates in performance activism which draws on primarily black capabilities of creation. the premise relies on the idea that people can forge new ways of engaging with the same social problems, using media and art as way to disseminate images and purpose.

in a number of performances, pope. l crawls his way through the streets of new york.

a piece in The New Yorker describes pope. l’s commitment to crawling:

“For Pope.L, crawling on the street is a way to direct our attention to a world out of view, specifically, to the world of anyone who has lost “verticality” — a term that he uses to describe the function of being wealthy enough, or healthy enough, to remain upright and in motion.”

pope. l channels the corporeal significance of his own body (being a black body), and demonstrates the extent to which black people have been shoved into the margins, the sewers, and fringes of American society.

during coronavirus, it’s tough to figure out how to be active in the current resistance. I wish to be like pope. l or the brave protestors that I see on twitter. since I’m quarantined with my family (both parents are old enough to be considered at-risk), i cannot protest then come home. I’m left with boundless physical energy in reaction to everything — desiring a way to mobilize in the midst of being stuck in semi-permanent isolation.

if you feel like you are in a similar situation, I think the most powerful thing we can do right now is read and write. this situation isn’t new, so read the work of powerful black scholars, thinkers, and writers, and consider the pathways that they have laid out for liberation.

in search of my own form of activism, I’ve returned to sister outsider by Audre Lorde. I find that her words guide, when I seem to lose mine.

in her essay “the transformation of silence into language and action,” Lorde writes:

“for those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it.

for others, it is to share and spread also those that are meaningful to us. but primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding.

because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.

* * *

A FEW THINGS YOU CAN DO RIGHT NOW:

reach out to your black friends. this situation resurfaces emotional and racial trauma, they could use your support right now. be an ally.

thank you to those who have reached out to me.

for others:

my friend Bella posted this on Instagram — “if you haven’t checked in on your black friends, ask yourself why that is. and if you don’t have any black friends to check in on, ask yourself why that is too.”

when you post on Instagram, make it productive.

share resources, give reading or watching suggestions, CALL PEOPLE OUT. black people are often doing the labor — think about what you can do and what you can contribute.

media is powerful. I don’t have time for racist people in my life and i hope you don’t either.

if you are able, protest.

if you are white it is critical that you physically place your body between the police and black people. YOU ARE NOT AT RISK.

if you are able, donate, but do your research.

after reading Deray McKesson’s take down of Shaun King, I’ve become extremely critical of organizations that claim to help black people or that are forged in the name of black lives matter (McKesson claims that many of king’s charities were defunct and created under fraudulent terms). so if you are going to donate, please please do your research. if you are black, don’t let the system steal your coin.

channel bell hooks’ oppositional & critical gaze

as hooks writes, “the ability to manipulate one’s gaze in the face of structures of domination that would contain it, opens up the possibility of agency.” look at everything critically.

people, places, institutions we know (and sometimes love) are shaped by the hands of white supremacy. make a commitment to do better. wake up.

* * *

REQUIRED READING

A few of my own recommendations — if you’re interested in the role of race in media, culture, and the arts:

1.The New York Times anti-racist reading list:
2.“the oppositional gaze: black female spectators” by bell hooks
3.“cultural identity and diaspora” by Stuart Hall
4.“reading racial fetishism: the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe” by Kobena mercer (relevant for the way that black nude bodies have been dispersed across media)
5.“the sonic color line: race and cultural politics of listening” by Jennifer Lynn Stoever (talks about the ways in which sound itself has been racialized)
6.“keeping them in their place: coercive mimeticism and cross-ethnic representation” by Rey Chow (cultural appropriation)

my professor’s recommendations

I reached out to one of my professors yesterday with my thoughts on everything and she shared a few suggestions with me:
1.anything from Roxane gay
2.“the right to maim: debility, capacity, disability” by Jasbir Puar
3.“against purity: living ethically in compromised times” by Alexis Shotwell

* * *

END

I’ll leave you with a quote that I’ve been thinking about these past few days:

“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” — Audre Lorde

#blacklivesmatter

Previously published on “Equality Includes You”, a Medium publication.

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Photo credit: Artforum

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