Political Art(?)

The Rights Room

The Rights Room was a collaboration with visual/performance artist Layla Tully and Brighton Youth Centre, centred around the recently publicised abolishment of the Human Rights Act. Incorporating workshops, open debates, text, performances and sound-making, the installation sought to provide multiple access points to its political theme, while its facilitators remained politically neutral. 

Upon entering the shop, visitors were faced with a board detailing the 15 articles of the current Bill of Rights, beneath which lay 15 objects, each representing one of the articles. To their right sat a large empty blackboard, some chalk, and a microphone. Visitors were able to re-write the Bill of Rights, make additions, and to record sounds or statements with the microphone. As they explored the space, they were encouraged to bang, rub, snap and otherwise sonify the objects, the hope being that by treating such materials abstractly - exploring how they might sound rather than what they ‘do’ - it would become easier to engage with the Rights themselves in a more open, abstract fashion. The sounds produced were added to an ongoing, evolving loop that played back from speakers hidden around the shop.

Despite presenting ourselves as being political neutral, it was interesting to observe that the vast majority of participants automatically assumed the work to be a critique of the government's ambitions to abolish the Human Rights Act. This, in tandem with the fact that those involved had chosen to enter a designated art space - as opposed to stumbling upon a street performance - led to a somewhat constrained dialogue, since those present already felt themselves to be part of the same homogenous community. It was a community that, certainly at first, lacked any form of crisis - its members were in broad agreement, and their initial involvement in the work did little to change that. The work was seen as somehow benevolent by its participants - visitors often felt the need to thank us, or highlight what a ‘good’ thing we were doing, something that rarely occurred in any of my other interventions. The over-riding assumption was that the work demonstrated our own opinion on the subject, even though we did not actively contribute to the opinions on display. Surprisingly, it was this assumption that created what crisis the work offered. As the amended Bill of Rights grew - and developed an increasing diversity in doing so - its participants would directly challenge us as to the content. Two camps soon emerged - those who welcomed the diversity of responses, and those who were loudly critical of any ambiguities, simplifications, jokes, the macabre, or spelling mistakes. Crisis came about due to the nature of the work’s temporal disjunction. Its participants, though initially acting as members of the same homogeneous community, lacked the immediate social feedback that would normally validate and curtail their actions. 

Though the work evolved in a linear, temporal fashion, its participants were able to move back and forth along its timeline, not only recalling earlier versions, but restoring elements that had been erased, adapting their earlier additions in response to changes in tone and new ideas, and adapting/erasing the additions of others. As participants returned to see the evolution of the work, the initially homogenous community experienced crisis as its membership’s opinions were challenged by an Other with whom they had no direct contact. By allowing people to participate in the construction of the same object, but days apart from one another, its members were unable to know one another directly and reliant instead on the third term – Jacque Rancière’s mediatory concept/object that occupies the distance between parties - that was the short additions to the Bill of Rights/soundscape each had provided. In this way, the work critiqued the very freedom its participants wished to protect – any individual's right to expression could be overwritten by the community at any time.

Let Them Eat Cake

"Let Them Eat Cake" took place outside Brighton’s Job centre – a site that also houses the law courts, the police station, and the city's largest private-sector employer. Due to the rise in food bank usage and food waste initiatives that occurred in tangent with this project, I was drawn to the idea of distributing food as an artistic act, considering the social complexity of charity as a pertinent analogy for the issues of autonomy, community, and the hierarchical actor/spectator divide that this research had been exploring.

 

Playing upon Marie Antoinette’s infamous declaration, “Let them eat cake!” (itself a popular example of the potential naivety/duplicity of the philanthropic position), the work involved handing out slices of ‘budget’ supermarket cake to the visitors of the site’s various conveniences, on the morning of the first Conservative budget in 19 years. Although both the social conditions (the looming budget, food bank usage) and historical reference (the title of the piece being written on a large chalkboard) were referenced within the piece, I avoided directly stating its context, justifying my actions by simply telling people I had some cake, and wanted to share it with the community. In this way, the work could be considered as a simple act of kindness, a critique of charity, or a patronising affront.

 

The defining characteristics of the site’s users – unemployment, criminality and substance abuse – bring with them a wealth of connotations concerning everything from class to cultural intelligence. The popular image is that of a community that is habitually poor, lacking education and ambition - a fact that probably seeped into my own expectancy that the site’s inhabitants would either not recognise the work as art or would be incensed by any confusion it raised.  Rather than causing tension or confusion, however, my presence was nearly universally welcomed, even by those who found the venture strange, or acknowledged its political undercurrent with a wry smile. Indeed, even those who might otherwise have been hostile – such as the young man I met about to be sent to prison at the law court – engaged with my sharing as if the eccentricity of the gesture was nothing but an expected part of the already apparent eccentricities of the site itself: merely another story, one more thread in the many concurrent narratives that define its location. 

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