seeing red

by Daisy Lafarge

If the purpose of this text is to briefly introduce by way of touring – perhaps with pit stops – a diverse cluster of people, places and energies we might label artist-led or self-organised activity, efficiency tells me that the most direct means of getting us there is to choose an analogy or apt visual metaphor, and to choose it quickly. [1]

This metaphor will be an abstract vehicle, transporting us from A (what we aspire to achieve in artist-led activity) to B (the utopian realisation of these In Real Life). This way, generalisations can be smuggled under the auspices of analogy; the text will be able to point out lofty ideals from the window of its safe interior, without getting bogged down in the petty, daily frustrations that – a sea of nodding heads here – form the discordant background of many an artist-led endeavour.

The shape this metaphor might take is already fat with overripe possibilities. They strain against each other for attention, a market of prospective analogies that might be employed to capture the essence or behavioural benefits of artist-led activities, each more diaphanous and accommodating than the last. It is hard to choose. Somewhere near the front is what animal scientists refer to as emergence; the point at which an unorganised system of autonomous units begins to exhibit a complex, collective and mutually beneficial behaviour. Like ants constructing a colony or bees working as hive-mind, in self-organised activity our collective consciousnesses come together to create cultures that are mutually nourishing; hopefully resistant to the alienation, exploitation and exhaustion of everyday working life.

Another main contender is the commons – an amorphous space or resource to be pooled and shared for the collective good. It’s a particularly flexible framework: exactly what grounds or resources the commons might refer to could stretch to include our money, time or shared spaces, our attention spans or capacity for creative action. While the times and spaces generated by artist-led and self-organised activities might often feel like a cultural commons to be enjoyed by those attending, for the bodies performing creative labour behind the scenes to produce them, ‘the commons’ all too often feel like what little energy is left over after the daily struggle to keep on keeping on. [2]

But there is something a little too cute about the first metaphor. Bees don’t have to struggle with keeping the creative juices flowing either side of stagnant shifts on zero hour contracts, nor ants the prospect of constructing safe spaces while a government viciously hacks away at the provision of and access to care, education and basic equality. [3]

Maybe we should quit while we’re ahead and scrap the idea of metaphors altogether. Maybe we’re wary of them, as though their abstractions are a privilege we cannot access: they seem to mock the thousands of tiny, inane drudgeries that often comprise trying to scrape by in increasingly precarious conditions of work and life. By the time we have woken up at an inordinate hour, got to work (perhaps your third job in as many months), performed a sizeable opera of mind-numbing tasks, rented your day’s quota of smiles to thankless strangers, got home and finally crashed out – it is hard to have nothing left but scowls, cynicism and exhaustion for whatever unpaid, under-funded and seemingly under-appreciated event/exhibition planning meeting you may have willingly signed yourself up to. Fuck the collective, the spirit-rousing metaphor, you might say.

But then, it would be a dull text without metaphor. And maybe, having to face these small but innumerable daily struggles is precisely why we are so in need of them. But this text has almost scuppered it – by now there’s precious little space left for metaphor. Definitely not room for anything overarching or holistic. We’re going to have to go small, molecular. Scaling down to the humble dot. Yes, a small red dot will have to do:

In Twenty First Century Fox in the Snow, Chloe Cooper’s short film A white lion, a green lion, an ex-footballer and an ex-politician on not working stages a dialogue between two miniature white and green lions, both carved from jade or some other precious material, safely installed in the velvet-lined confines of a museumvitrine. [4] As the lions talk, the camera’s eye flicks lazily between them, before hovering drone-like in front of other collections and commenting disapprovingly on gaps in the display where items have been removed.

In these gaps, the truant objects are marked by a single red dot. The dots are accompanied by notes or plaques that read things like:

object removed from display for refurbishment


object on loan to another collection

What the film suggests – but doesn’t make explicit – is the autonomous movement of these items that have removed    themselves from the museum’s visual economy, predicated as it is on narratives of colonial appropriation and decontextualized, fetishistic display.

I loved the idea of these objects ‘dropping out’ or playing truant from the status quo. That in their wake, the museum is left to cover up their aberrations from prescribed order. The red sticker dots look hastily stuck in their place, and the explanatory notes are tinged with panic. Perhaps the museum is fearful about the AWOL objects influencing those that remain – about the entire collection unionising and staging a mass, museum-wide walkout. It’s a pleasing thought.

It’s also left ambiguous in the film as to where these objects might have gone – perhaps in search of a fabled point of origin, now changed beyond recognition. But more optimistic than this is another potentiality: that the items might instead be congregating elsewhere in auto-exilic solidarity, looking to the future rather than back; trying to disentangle their latent resources from the pseudo-safety of the museum’s sterile habitat. What worlds might be possible to share, assemble and create together.

Of course, on the face of it, the drop-out objects are still bound by the museum’s ownership – symbolically conferred by the proprietorial stickers that mark their absence. The dots confirm their ‘presence’ in the institution’s business as usual. Like artists, musicians and writers endlessly stretching milk for the City’s lifeblood of lattes, the objects are still technically ‘employed’ by their masters. But their vital energies, choices and consciousnesses are elsewhere – and that is where their power lies: the lonely, stand-by blink of a single red dot, merging into a sea of seething, raging red. [5]

[1] Before your attention is lost, unless that’s already happened…
[2] A note of warning: ‘While this culturally creative common cannot be destroyed through use, it can be degraded and banalised through excessive abuse.’ – David Harvey, The Future of the Commons in Radical History Review Issue 109 (Winter 2011) p104
[3] Or perhaps they do, but in a different way. Cameron definitely doesn’t give a fuck about bees, which is just another reason why we definitely should
[4] A recent exhibition at Embassy gallery that ran from 16th April – 1st May 2016
[5] For more on red dots, see McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red (2016)

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