Feminist Emergency

Insigation text read in a discussion at Feminist Emergency - International Conference, The Art Field, Birkbeck University, London (Angela Dimitrakaki, Kirsten Lloyd, Helena Reckitt, Hilary Robinson, Lara Perry), June 2017

Some notes on resources and collective capacity.


To make art people need finite resources. We also need resources to build alliances, advocate, counter and organise. Building a collective future requires a huge amount of energy, care, unlearning and questioning. This work is often invisible, overwhelming and tiring as most of us here know. But it is vital work.


And it is important that this work takes many guises from education, to art, to writing, to talking, to conscious acts, to protest on the streets. Micro and Macro gestures. We know we are not alone but the current conditions often send us into perpetual individual focus, micro managing our lives - strategically performing and curating our self’s and as a result, for many -  into real and necessary survival modes. But if feminism has taught us anything it is to move from the self, not exacerbating this focus on the individual but rather to shift to structural and systemic thinking.


The state and imposed structures of austerity under neoliberalism work hard to remove support by any means necessary. Safety nets, space to meet and time outside our waged lives. Funding, education, care, culture, anything that may signal a sense of community, value outside of capitalist modes of production or contribute to a greater sense of social security, freedoms, wellbeing or emancipation. This is all under attack.


This situation, this is an emergency, on so many fronts. And it is stopping and slowing down immense progress. Many women becoming happy to lean into the established norms, comfortable in the idea that ‘it’ (i.e. structural and everyday racism, threats to reproductive rights, sexual and gender based violence, benefit sanctions and cuts to personal independence payments, the tripling of fees, the housing crisis, migrant rights – the list goes on) doesn’t or won’t affect 'them.’


This is coupled with the fact that through this process so many voices are continually filtered out. And - more dangerous voices platformed and celebrated, normalising a political move backwards and inwards where a poisonous disregard for human life and a return to nationalism prevails.


This is an emergency. So, how can we build momentum and harness, what Taylor le Melle calls the “restless and relentless contingency necessary to build futures?”* And despite all this, there is energy. What kind of strategies, tactics and alternative formations will do the necessary work needed to extend beyond our immediate networks and shift focus from the centre to the margins and from complacency to outrage?


In this crisis we need many things, but one that is fundamental is collectivity. Ways to think through generous voluntary associations grounded in ideological purpose which do not homogenise difference. There is much we can learn from the past but it will need adaptation. I am very aware that the conditions for both organising and (art)(cultural)production have changed significantly and to this we must also respond.


In this crisis we need to ask difficult questions. What does it mean to be citizen and an artist? What values and ethics could we say are characteristic or what would we like to be characteristic of this? What about a feminist citizen and artist? What values, ethics, methodologies do we assert, defend or practice? When do we compromise? Is there a 'we'? Is it always possible to say no? How do feminists-artists-citizens embody and practice our politics at home, in the street, in our beds?


Angela and Hilary put this discussion together in response to debates around feminism and art being absent from this incredible, international gathering. But do we want art, or the choice to dance, (Emma Goldman**) absent from our collective future? Or is this just art how it appears to us now? The elite art world and its neoliberal mechanisms. Its displacement, its gentrification? 


As the international collective Ultra-red recently said "When it comes to art, there’s a certain cultural capital gained by criticizing capitalism, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are putting anything on the line to dismantle it. In many cases the status quo is upheld in self-assured condescension by artists with careers to protect when those who seek to rattle the cage more vigorously violate liberal taboos.”***


So how do we want it? Our collective future? What does this look like? Are we practicing this in our exchanges, curating, writing, programming - our work? And why not? Are we reaching out, offering solidarity and leaving the ladder down? And why not? Are we passing the mic, sharing our resources, our privileges and advocating for others? And why not? Are we listening as much as talking? And why not? Are we questioning the structures through which we reproduce power relations and testing new ones? And why not? Are we asking ourselves not who isn’t in the room, but what are the consequences of these omissions and exclusions? And why not? Are we asking ourselves what we are perpetuating? And why not? If feminised labour is in a majority in spaces cultural production, are we asserting this power? And why not?


Binary offerings around the value of art v activism are stopping a transdisciplinary approach and denying our collective power. What is at risk if we continue to work in these silos or for ‘single issue lives’?  Without attempting to understand the differing approaches, struggles and aims, we lose the opportunity to learn from each other and work from various focal point, together. And this is possible. 


I have to admit that, I haven’t worked all this out and I don’t believe art should be completely instrumentalised but we need to start asking big questions about what we do and where we do it, the world is not a playground. And, start thinking about and through how we can work across disciplinary divides and with other groups, movements and organisations to better share in our struggles, knowledge and skills. And, with a potential five more years of white supremacist, tory austerity rule, we have only just begun the fight. So we need to start planning.


This is an emergency and urgent choices about how and where to place our energy are real. As Rosalie Schweiker recently put it so well – “we need to stop faking orgasms for the artworld”**** and start placing demands. We need to keep imagining and start practicing.


But let’s be clear. Complicity is knotty. Some have more options that others. It’s how we use the agency we have, together.

*Taylor le Melle, Technology Now: Blackness on the Internet, ICA, Dec 2016

**Emma Goldman, “If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part of Your Revolution.” 

***Ultrared, An Artists’ Guide to Not Being Complicit with Gentrification, Hyperallergic, 19 June 2017

****Rosalie Schweiker, No more fake orgasms: stop boosting the art world’s self-esteem, written ages ago, published in A-N, 01 March 17