Beyond Identity Constructs

This feature exploring the reductive nature of identity constructs was published in Art Monthly issue 370, 2013

Dean BluntInstallation view of Dean Blunt’s Brixton 28s at Space gallery, London

‘Ladies and Gentleman, I’m absolutely delighted to raise a figurative glass of orange juice (perhaps in these austere days this isn’t the hour or time for champagne) to celebrate the birth of the … erm … of InIVA’, so began Lord Gowrie’s decorous opening address to delegates and speakers at the 1994 conference ‘A New Internationalism’. As chairman of the Arts Council of England it fell to the aristocratic and schoolmasterly Gowrie to launch this inaugural event, hosted by the Tate and organised by the new, ACE funded, Institute of International Visual Art. Two days of impassioned speech followed, punctuated by the kind of sprawling, essayistic questions that high-stakes debates prompt largely academic audiences to pose. The core issues at play were: western cultural hegemony, its dissolution or retrenchment in light of globalisation, and the leading role that InIVA should take in crafting a more inclusive institutional remit in the UK. But bubbling under the surface of papers delivered by Rasheed Araeen, Hou Hanru, Hal Foster, Geeta Kapur and Jimmie Durham were the corrosive subjects of race and racism. They sat between words and sentences like exposed nerves, charging the atmosphere with a sense of barely concealed anxiety, anger and resentment; emotions that periodically surfaced to shatter the donnish air of propriety left by Gowrie’s introduction.

The birth of InIVA, though tied to the above international impetus and the more fraught, and sometimes transgressive territory of identity politics – embodied a year earlier in the 1993 Whitney Biennial – was also the culmination of a more national struggle for representation amongst a cadre of pioneering non-white British artists, writers and intellectuals. In the 1980s this included individuals like Isaac Julien, Sonia Boyce, Mark Sealy, Lubaina Himid, Keith Piper and John Akomfrah, who were variously affiliated with the Black Audio Film Collective, the BLK Art Group, and Sankofa Film and Video Collective. Their goal was to kick against the rigid monocultural conservatism of the British art world, to push for culturally and ethnically diverse artists to receive equal representation in galleries and museums, and to abolish the annexation of ‘other’ – that is non-white and non-western – art histories from the official stories of modern and contemporary art.

The hope was that InIVA, as a modern and truly international British institution, would redress the west-over-the-rest, centre-margin bias that excluded so many, and that it would become a space for the dissemination and construction of new knowledge and art. It was a significant achievement, albeit one that was met warily by some. As the first conference speaker, Araeen drew attention to his ‘apprehension and anxieties concerning the InIVA project’ stating that, although ‘there has recently been a substantial critique of Eurocentricity … it is often part of a search for alternative centricities’. Araeen’s fears have partially come true. Now, almost 20 years on, the categorisation, specification and defence of marginalised group identities (ie black, Asian, queer) has both incorporated and supplanted the centre-margin, Euro-American critique as a new kind of centricity within the discourse of internationalism, diversity and identity politics. Furthermore, this process has, in some cases, birthed a new essentialism. A framework where, for example, to be a ‘black artist’ is to be automatically aligned with issues, concerns and a system of representation that may be ontologically at odds with those artists which the category supposedly represents (the framing of Turner nominee Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work over the coming months will be of interest here).

While agitators for diversity in the 1980s and 1990s focused their assaults on institutions that were remiss, the construction and unquestioning observance of culturally specific identities, along with their attendant discourses, histories, canonical texts and social concerns, led to a situation in which self-defined ‘other’ identities, that is to say black and minority ethnic identities as defined by black and minority ethnic peoples, were tacitly seen as inhabiting the real and not the ideological, and were therefore inoculated against critique from both inside and out. The question is why has identity become a sacred cow in the wider discourse of internationalism, diversity and identity politics, particularly in the theory and practice of so-called Black British and African American art? In addition, what socio-cultural phenomena have slipped unanalysed through the channels of critique in the process?

A lot has happened since 1994. Some of the most vocal agitators of the 1980s, who tore back institutional curtains to reveal the simpering ideology of empire, have, to a degree, been embraced by those institutions, wreathed in royal honors and have subsequently become less vocal. Multiculturalism, an idea that for many at the conference already seemed an outmoded modality to be displaced by the much more serious proposition of new internationalism, came back with a vengeance in 1997 as a core New Labour policy and a key element of ACE funding criteria. A cynical view might see such developments as producing a glut of community arts projects featuring saris, steel pans and samosas, but as Paul Gilroy remarked during a recent keynote speech, ‘the process of assimilation and integration has been largely successful’.  Whatever your take on multiculturalism, it is clear that the struggle for diversity and internationalism in the arts, and the attendant discourse of identity politics, has shifted the centre-margin bias, and the marginalisation of non-white, female, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender artists towards a far greater level of inclusivity than ever before. But something else altered during this period. It was a development that the critical tools of internationalism and diversity were both ill equipped to tackle.

The language of racism and prejudice shifted from an easy to oppose, if institutionally surreptitious, credo of subhuman degeneracy, inequality and exclusion (Xs are biologically, intellectually and psychologically superior to Ys), to an altogether foggier proposition, an agenda of pseudo inclusivity that used the rationale of cultural difference and aesthetic preference (Xs are equal to, but do not identify with the now clearly defined cultural identities and practices of Ys) to preserve the other as other and, in some cases, to keep them at arms’ length. As the 1990s progressed, the shaky allegiance between disparate groups of disenfranchised others, thrown together by a common cause, dissipated and again left factionalism in its place. In a recent interview the radical feminist musician JD Samson reflected ‘now I feel like everyone hates gay pride, because it doesn’t give to every group within the gay community equally. […] All of those groups separated to create their own prides, which is awesome, but it’s also so sad to me because I loved looking out and seeing thousands and thousands of people who were so different but together’. The knock-on effect of this splintering was that each group, in order to be recognised as such, emerged with a set of behavioural norms, histories, cultural practices and temporary or permanent signifiers (clothes, sex or race): all modular units of identity. The observance and understanding of these codes and the possession of the right material traits marked one out as an authentic group member, someone able to interact with other members, and authorised to comment on and contribute to insular debates and outward looking critiques – curiously Suzanne Lacy’s Silver Action, 2013, an installation in Tate Modern’s Tanks involving elderly British women who were active second-wave feminists from the 1950s-80s, restaged this rationale of exclusion by only allowing the women to share stories with each other, while spectators, as group outsiders, shuffled around in silence and watched. Recent blogosphere furore around the term ‘check your privilege’ is also testament to the endurance of this impulse to guard by exclusion. It is a phrase described by Guardian writer Hadley Freeman as polemical shorthand, a linguistic foul-flag, used to remind ‘a person who is making a political point that they should remember they are speaking from a privileged position, because they are, for example, white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied or wealthy’. In this milieu it became impossible to see identity as an ideological construct because it formed the foundation upon which ramparts of kinship, communality and selfhood were built by the previously disenfranchised. As a result the development of group specific critical discourse, unable to advance to a level of abstraction where the nature of identity itself is questioned, froze around a set of debates focused on the inclusion-exclusion problem.

Over the past few years a sense of déjà vu has hung over symposia and conferences convened by those directly involved or operating within the legacy of ‘A New Internationalism’ and the birth of InIVA. In 2011 ‘The Creative Case For Diversity’, convened by City University, ACE and Third Text, contained a set of dated propositions (the global versus the local, diasporic anxieties in relation to national identity, heritage and ethnicity etc.) that were only lent pertinence due to the presence of pantomime villain of multiculturalism: London’s smugly clueless Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture, Munira Mirza. More recently, in June this year, Autograph ABP (the association of black photographers), in collaboration with the Royal College of Art and John Moores University in Liverpool, organised ‘New Ways of Seeing’, a conference with a stated aim to ‘chart a new trajectory for debates concerning diversity politics, civil rights, economics and humanitarian concerns within cultural production’. Events over the two-day conference fell short of that trailblaising bombast. Again old positions on the inclusion-exclusion debate were rehashed, and past victories (which institutions opened their doors) and nostalgic jeremiads (which institutions did not) were recounted. There was, throughout proceedings, the anachronistic air of participating in a reenactment, a historically accurate and yet unreal play in which speakers – including Gilroy and eminent post-colonial theorist Jean Fisher – wearily reprised their roles.

The problem on both occasions, which is also indicative of the field, was the absence of significant contributions by individuals of any ethnicity from third and fourth post-colonial generations (if, as Edward Said once proposed, the first post-colonial generation was ‘the generation from roughly World War II through the early 1970s’, then the second generation would be late 1970s to 1980s, with the third and fourth being those from the 1990s and 2000s respectively). Speculatively speaking, third and fourth British post-colonial generations may have been able to move the discourse of diversity beyond the dead end of a centre-margin, self-other – whatever dichotomy you might like – paradigm. This is because they would be in a position – as outside observers and not personally committed actants who were ‘there at the time’ – to see the paradigm and the thinking it supports as the constituent parts of a constructed theoretical system; a system of thinking ripe for deconstruction and revision or at least, in today’s parlance, a basic upgrade. For example, drawing attention to the constructed and therefore ideological nature of ‘black identity’ as a collection of adopted cultural essentialisms along a UK-US axis would allow a number of interesting questions to be asked: if identity is constructed, who is it constructed by? Whom does it serve, and according to what ideological commitments? Seeking answers to these questions would at least open the way for analyses of black identity missing from the work of artists and curators like Thelma Golden, Glenn Ligon, Julien and Chris Ofili who have, in different and crucial ways, been exploring and interogating the history and evolution of black culture and representation for the past 20 years.

One such issue yet to be addressed is the depoliticisation of certain aspects of African American popular culture – music, cinema, fashion, comedy and entertainment prefixed with the generalised qualifier ‘black’ – and its subsequent use as a global conduit for the exportation, through mainstream media, of neoliberal values, individualism and capitalism. To simplify, for brevity, a complex state of affairs, it began with a shift from the raised fist of US athlete Tommie Smith in the 1968 Olympics to the misogynistic characters of Blaxploitation cinema; from the political agitation and rugged cynicism of the Last Poets to the cool commodity fetishism and love of capital typified by figures like Jay Z and Kanye West. The struggle for civil rights and the attendant mechanisms of empowerment it encouraged (community work, the importance of education, cross-cultural activism) was, once supposedly attained, displaced in mainstream media as the perpetual hustle for the accumulation of capital and material assets. It is suspected that this was not a natural development and that the roots of this transformation came from a concerted effort on behalf of the US government, specifically the FBI, to sabotage the growing Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s – both Noam Chomsky and Mike Davis, US author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, have explored this issue.

The effects of this depoliticisation and the inability of self-other critiques to tackle its ontological ramifications within cultures adopting its neoliberal philosophy, and those who would use it to qualify otherness in the ‘black’ community, could be seen in the summer 2011 riots that ran through London, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere, the paucity of artistic responses that followed and the frantic racism those events dredged up – recall the porcine historian David Starky’s assertion on BBC2’s Newsnight that ‘the whites have gone black’. These riots revealed the psychological damage that has been done to a generation whose language and intellectual life has been narrowed dramatically by the techniques of late capitalism: specifically the use of a depoliticised African American popular culture to inculcate the accumulation of capital and material assets as a kind of categorical imperative. Voices from the left rightly decried stop-and-search tactics, institutional racism and joblessness as contributing factors, but reasons for why the resulting riots became an infantile mass display of political inarticulacy, why those involved were unable to protest in a meaningful way, were largely unexplored. This was, I suspect, due to the analytical difficulty inherent in disentangling a site of contestation that has moved from boundaries of concrete inclusions and exclusions to the more opaque psychological terrain of rewired consciousnesses and their corresponding cognitive schemas and scripts. In other words, addressing institutional strategies of marginalisation is a lot easier than looking at features of fractured psyches. An exceptional recent exhibition by London-based artist and musician Dean Blunt illustrated something of this strange and disorientating interior condition.

Titled Brixton 28s (Reviews AM366) Blunt’s display at London’s Space gallery was an enigmatic installation comprising sculptural elements, photographs and wall text. In the centre of the gallery space, face down, arms outstretched, was a black mannequin clothed in the iconic garb of late 1990s, early 2000s London rude boys. By the mannequin’s left hand lay remnants of a smashed Moët & Chandon champagne bottle, at its right fingertips lay Everything But the Burden: what white people are taking from black culture – a terrible book, which its unhinged African American author, Greg Tate, claims is a rage against the ‘unarrested theft of African American cultural properties by thieving, flavorless [sic] whitefolk’. This symbolically complex arrangement formalised the psychological condition of an identity crisis, a kind of mythical primal scene or explosive moment of cognitive dissonance that could have ultimately contributed to the political inarticulacy at the heart of the riots.

Following the US example, the 1990s to the early 2000s saw the formation and institutional entrenchment of a constructed British ‘urban’ identity (for which read predominantly black, but also white and Asian, inner-city and council estate-bound working-class youth and young adults). A model based on a set of apolitical, reductive and consumer-driven lifestyle norms and aspirations embodied in totemic commodities like Moët & Chandon, Nike sportswear, Armani Jeans and mobile phones. These were materials that simultaneously conferred elevated status, actualised and legitimated selfhood, and contained the promise of liberation and advancement. The reality is that these products did nothing of the sort and their use as signifiers of an essential ‘urban’ identity was a lie. Tate’s book believes the myth. It launches its attacks against the co-option of blackness by ‘white America’ from the basis of a first principle that there is an incontrovertible ‘black’ identity and that it is embodied in hip hop – of all things. He writes that rapper Eminem is ‘the latest pure product of white and crazy America, here to claim his fifteen minutes of MTV-generated fame as a Black male impersonator’. In Brixton 28s the psychic shock caused by a collision between the reality of commodity fetishism’s empty promise and the American defence of a cultural construct that peddles it, was deftly imagined by Blunt as the scattered remnants of a shattered urban selfhood.

Critical work from the position of a self-other axis continues to pass over the state of affairs dealt with in Blunt’s work, and the modes of being it has engendered, in silence because the limited sights of its critique remain locked on issues of equal representation, of identifying systems in which there is a perceived lack and agitating for the right to appear. This is one aspect of a twofold assault that also, in the spirit of Said’s groundbreaking work Orientalism, simultaneously called for a community’s right to self-determine, to control and author the nature of its own representations while critiquing those foisted upon it. According to Said, ‘what we must eliminate are systems of representation that carry with them the kind of authority which, to my mind, has been repressive because it doesn’t permit or make room for interventions on the part of those represented’. The shortsightedness of the second post-colonial generation here in Britain has been its inability to see how the representations it authored and supported, to challenge repressive institutions responsible for perpetuating states of otherness, may themselves become repressive for the later generations they presume to speak for and be co-opted by the very forces they were meant to combat. Which brings us back to the question of whose ideology a constructed black identity, once co-opted, might serve; who might benefit from its depoliticisation? Previously the answer, on these shores, would have been the ideology of British imperialism, while in the US, as argued by Chomsky and Davis, it was a question of government policy. Today, as long as there is a whiff of profitability involved, it is undoubtedly the ideology of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call empire and what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call the new spirit of capitalism; it is that global, centreless, amorphous push for the regulation of human bodies towards a perpetual cycle of productivity and consumption for capitals sake. According to Boltanski and Chiapello it has, as the dominant ideology, ‘the ability to permeate the whole set of mental representations specific to a given era’, and the identity constructs of marginalised others are not exempt.

While attention here has been focused on interrogating an aspect of so-called black identity, the same analysis – that is, the questioning of features of identity that have hardened into retrograde essentialisms – could be brought to bear on any of the marginalised sub groups within the discourse of internationalism, diversity and identity politics. The impetus is to advance beyond a cautious intersectionalism, to move towards a destination where the hypothetical liquidation of identity might be considered as a liberatory possibility, which at the very least might open up and lend pertinence to a seemingly anachronistic field. This is absolutely not a call to invalidate older representations, to do away with all the important work that has already been done. It is rather, in the spirit of Said’s observation, a call to restore penetrability, build upon and reinvigorate a closed system of representation: a system variously labelled as internationalism, multiculturalism and identity politics that has stalled, 20 years on, at the point of deconstructing the very identities it sought to define.

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