So much of my life, like so many artists in the early 21st century, circles around projects. When asked what I’m working on, invariably I’m always working on something I am only able to refer to as a ‘project.’ I have always known one of the things I like about projects is that they end. If you are in a band, and you don’t want to be in the band anymore, the band has to break up, but a project simply runs its course. A project is agreeing to work on a certain set of questions for a certain period of time. I have often wondered if a project is the opposite of activism. With activism you need to keep fighting forever, since injustice is never solved, it must be fought against endlessly. A project ends, while activism must keep going. Of course, each project is followed by another project, the next one. In this sense a project is mainly a way of compartmentalizing time. (Perhaps compartmentalizing it in a way that changes it from political or historical time, into a more apolitical, ahistorical time.) A project will usually take a couple of months, a longer project might take a few years, but activism is measured in generations. For activism to truly shift society, each generation needs to pick up the struggle and then keep pushing. This is clearly impossible without some larger, active sense of cultural memory.
I wish I were a better activist. I’m too defeatist. Whatever I undertake, I always have the overwhelming feeling it will fail. The one exception to this defeatism is art. In art, paradoxically, I can often trick myself into thinking that failure is a kind of success. A ‘perfect’ work of art feels dead and sterile to me. Also works that strive towards perfection. For me, in art, it is only failure, imperfection, vulnerability that opens things up, makes them human, leaves room for the viewer or reader to enter the machine. I try to remind myself that activism too is about failure, is always incomplete. Sometimes I wonder if the only problem is that I like art, at times it still gives me energy, but I’m not particularly sure if I like the world. So much activism has a better world as its goal, so if you don’t like the world activism might reflect this desire to see it fundamentally change. What else do you have to believe, before you can believe that something is worth saving?
But perhaps I have an overly romantic idea of what activism is and means. In interviews, the artist Paul Chan often states that he tries to keep his art practice and his activism separate. The main reason he gives is that he wants his art to remain complex, controversial, full of ambiguity; and for activism to succeed you need to simplify the goal, so that everyone can agree, or at least agree enough to more fully work together, push towards the same objective in unison. The ambiguity of art rejects easy consensus, divides viewers, undermines clear solidarity. (Though solidarity is rarely simple or clear.) Activism requires the largest possible coalition to succeed, while art needs only one sufficiently passionate viewer.
Yet what I like best about art is how communities form around artists, or works of art, they believe in. How you meet someone who loves the same book as you, and already you have so much to talk about.
So many of my ideas about activism come from a single book I read maybe fifteen years ago. (I am ordering it from the internet right now, to take another look, see if my memory is in any way correct.) The book was Soul of a Citizen by Paul Loeb, and what I remember most about it is the quote: ‘If everyone in your coalition agrees about everything, than you your coalition is too small.’ In this sense, Paul Chan is wrong when he suggests we need to simplify the goal beyond recognition. Or is it only that the more people you have on your team, the harder it will be to reach consensus about anything, simplified or otherwise.
Then there are questions of strategy. Questions of strategy must be the moment where consensus most frequently, most easily, breaks down. I promise that I’m not going to spent the next ten years writing about the fact that I plan to spend ten years working on this book, but it occurs to me now that ‘ten years’ is also a kind of strategy, a strategy to break down my defenses, to wear myself down so I suddenly, eventually, find myself writing things I would never otherwise write; like how in a documentary, if you film all the time, the subjects eventually forget they are being filmed, start to behave more naturally in front of the cameras. I read my own books and think: I put so much of myself into them, but there is also so much I leave out. (Yet maybe they are more ‘me’ because of what I leave out.) But this ten year strategy will not suffice, I need more strategies, so many more strategies, if the reader is to survive.
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