‘Art as Critique’ conference debates resistance from the margins

A sign reads "ARC Arts Research Center Berkeley"
Arts Research Center /Courtesy

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If art is to operate politically, then it must be on its own terms. The Arts Research Center’s, or ARC, ‘Art as Critique’ conference on March 1 involved a debate over the political and artistic limits of the term “Global South.” Beyond simply addressing the need for critique that comes primarily from the margins, the conference attempted to portray just what a new conversation around the term should look like.

Organized as part of the ARC’s global approach to the arts this year, four panels were held at the daylong conference, followed by three live art performances. Seven speakers presented their work before receiving questions from selected UC Berkeley faculty and the small assembled audience. With panels ranging from technological futures to conceptions of water, the conference coalesced in passionate debate around the notion of the “Global South.”

Kriss Ravetto and Tarek Elhaik opened the first panel, presenting their visual project titled “Future Remake.” The spoken essay and visual presentation of repeated and juxtaposed film clips sought to challenge the nostalgic aestheticization of the historical Non-Aligned Movement. Debate began on the possibility of the rearrangement of film and images to tell a new political message and mobilize action. Placing different clips together in a new order could completely recast the political message of those same bits of film in their original format and order. But, this focus on political art curation soon turned to the political art curator. In the beginning of a discussion that would ultimately consume the conference, things became more heated in the panelists’ demand for a greater scholarly role in curation of the arts.

The “Surrogate Humanity” presentation, given by UC professors Kalindi Vora and Neda Atanasoski, compounded upon the possibility of new political imaginings. Just as the first panel emphasized reinvention through film, the second highlighted the role of art and criticism in new technological futures. Contrasting the commercial domestic robot “Jibo” with artist Kelly Dobson’s “Omo” care bot, they showed how these new technologies, in seeking to support family life, could potentially reproduce racial and gendered power dynamics.

Highlighting the role women of color have typically played in service of the American family, the emotional effect of the robot appears to re-embody and normalize this power relationship. Compared to Dobson’s robot that does not seek to replicate a human, but supplement humanity, the panel’s presentation chillingly framed the apparent lack of authorship, and thus intention, in these new technologies.

After lunch, the conference resumed for Adrianna Johnson’s comparative analysis of the role and interpretation of water in several Bolivian short films. Focusing more on semantics than political authorship and curation of the arts, the ongoing project was the least engaged of the day’s conversations.

Proceedings reached a head, however, in the two-hour final panel presented by Koyo Kouoh of “RAW Material” and Victor Albarracin of “Lugar a dudas.” Both presenters work as curators, in Senegal and Colombia respectively, with art academies that seek to offer radical political perspectives on art, art criticism and curation. Kouoh had already challenged the opening panel’s call for a more scholarly approach to curation, critiquing academic approaches for not being attentive to African continental curating practice. Albarracin’s stunning three-part essay compared his wall-eyed condition to the philosophical perspective of curators from the so-called “Global South.” Together, this panel culminated the conference’s ultimate focus beyond the need for artistic critique from the margins, to encompassing what art as critique in the “Global South” should be.

These final panelists rejected the term “Global South” altogether, calling for a critical perspective that was less centered on resistance, but attack. Instead of claiming identity based in relation to the West, they sought to curate and create on their own terms. In this way, ARC’s “Art as Critique” conference questioned just what critique from the margins should look like.

Contact Nash Croker at [email protected].