“The videos trace a movement from anger to non-violence, from the unfolding of an unjust death to a politicised social mourning. I “translate” three of the original texts into a code I devised – mixing dropped vowels, simple abbreviations and symbols.”
– Tony Cokes
In February 2021, American visual artist Tony Cokes broadcast four powerful new films confronting police violence and the questions we faced in the post-pandemic era, using the Piccadilly Lights screen to put on the largest public display of Cokes’ distinctive colour and text compositions.
4 Voices / 4 Weeks presented Cokes’ translation of words by John Lydon, Judith Butler, US civil rights hero John Lewis and Elijah McClain, a 23-year old African American man who died after being put in a chokehold by police in 2019. The works move from punk provocation to peaceful self-sacrifice, recalling McClain’s final words and expounding our deep responsibilities in the wake of violence against the vulnerable. Across four parts, Cokes’ 4 Voices emerge from contraposed positions but describe an arc and array of crucial realities we face today: mourning mass death, reclaiming the power of public gathering, and continuing the struggle for racial and social equality.
Cokes is the author of politically resonant works that appropriate and reframe diverse texts to challenge narratives in media produced under late capitalism. He is acclaimed for urgent and piercing critical works that bring together colour theory, his signature systems of coded text, and audio, which includes music in his new works for CIRCA from Manic Street Preachers, The Notwist, Joy Division and Deadbeat (Canadian musician Scott Monteith/BLKRTZ).
For CIRCA, Cokes translated texts into a code he devised and which often featured in his work, filtering direct statements through a coding process made up of simple abbreviations and symbols. This approach produced striking and unsettling graphics for the Piccadilly Lights Screen and pushed against the expected hyper-legibility of such a large public display. Cokes debuted a new film each week throughout the month of February:
Part I (1-7 February 2021): John Lydon “Anger Is An Energy” (NGR IZ N NRG). Music: Casino by The Notwist.
Part II (8-14 February 2021): John Lewis “Testament B” (“2GTHR U CN RDM TH SL OF TH NATN”). Music: Huey Lewis Dub by Deadbeat (Blikartz).
Part III (15-21 February 2021): Elijah McClain “His Last Words” (HS LST WRDZ”). Music: Between The Clock and The Bed by Manic Street Preachers.
Part IV (22-28 February 2021): Judith Butler “Mourning Is A Political Act Amid The Pandemic & Its Disparities”. Music: Exercise One by Joy Division.
ABOUT TONY COKES
Since the 1980s, Tony Cokes has developed a precise visual style marked by animated text, found images, and solid-color slides. His works combine cultural fragments, reframing the images and ideas that are designed to construct our habits and identities. By extracting source texts from their original contexts and layering elements that often clash, Cokes examines media’s operations and the ways in which it manifests power. Recent exhibitions include the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Barcelona; ARGOS centre for audiovisual arts, Brussels; Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, London. Tony Cokes lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island, where he serves as Professor in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University.
– Contemporary Art Daily, Tony Cokes, 4 Voices/4 Weeks
– Mouthing Off Magazine, “Choices Can Be Productive”: Autonomy Is Key In Tony Cokes’ Circa Screening
– Art In America, Imaginative Resources
– Art Monthly 445: Shooting Time
CLICK AND DISCOVER MORE ON THE CIRCA CALENDAR👇
Lynton Talbot in conversation with Tony Cokes
1st February, 2021
by Lynton Talbot
Prior to this meeting I spent time with the 4 works for the Piccadilly site and built some reflections around each one individually. Each one leads to a set of questions that I offered Tony Cokes in advance of our conversation. I wanted to be responsive to the work itself, watching, listening, reading and writing at once, processing things and articulating my thoughts immediately and instinctively. These notes and questions, that I sent to Tony Cokes, became a point of departure for the conversation transcribed below. We spoke for almost 2 hours using Zoom on the 18th of January, 2021.
Lynton Talbot Hi, Tony. How are you? How’s things where you are?
Tony Cokes All right. How are you? It’s probably not the worst, but probably not the best either. I mean, the situation with Covid is just a disaster of non-planning. It’s not even really considered. The government think it’s going to go away on its own. No real strategies in place. Its’s just chaotic. You would want to impute a kind of will to this disaster in a certain sense, but even in terms of the discourse, there doesn’t seem to be that kind of desire. There’s no thinking about what the actual ramifications are, the government are not prepared for the obvious problems that existed before, that are now thrown into hyperbole. Nobody seems to have an address to them. So, it’s really, really frustrating.
LT It’s exactly the same here in the UK. It’s infuriating watching the incompetence. Well not even the incompetence but the total disdain for human life, actually. Your work for the Circa commission made me think of this. As you just said, the inequity or inequality that was already there, but hiding in plain sight for a long time has suddenly been brought into the spotlight by this situation. That the poorest and most vulnerable, the elderly, the criminalized, and particularly people of colour are at the sharp end of this distain and mismanagement is a tragic consequence of the US and UK’s approach. Your works for this project clearly speak to this.
TC Yeah, right.
LT I think one of the problems has been that in order to engage in this discourse properly and meet the crisis meaningfully, our governments have had to face up to the fatal pitfalls of their own ideology. It’s clear, the only policies and actions that can actually protect people come from the left. It seems socialism, in a time of real health, environmental and economic crisis is the only game in town. Neoliberalism and market capitalism just don’t offer anything that’s useful or necessary and they don’t like that at all. This is something they’ve struggled to confront and we’re paying the price.
TC The market cannot solve this. You know, there’s a whole pretence that market solutions work for everyone. But many people know that that’s not true. Now it seems that more people can see that that’s not true. It seems as though there are trends towards people thinking about more socialist and socially oriented solutions. But we’ll see. You know, there’s this fantasy space where people wish to believe things that just aren’t true, like about housing or about health care or about education. There are all these fictions about how to ameliorate these differences and changes, and it seems as though the systemics are always pointed towards disaster. And yet, at least here, if you mention the word socialism it’s like… you know, it’s a scary word. People feel they’ll lose out or their freedoms will be compromised and their notions of themselves and the society in which they live in will become debased, destroyed and eroded. But what is this going on right now? Are you saying that this is the solution? So this is a problem. Yeah.
LT I think this is what’s been so amazing about looking at this current body of work ahead of it appearing on the advertising screens in Piccadilly Circus. Imagining these films in this great gathering place in London seems to be about capturing or recapturing the public imagination. The right wing have had a monopoly on the imagination for so long. That they can so successfully convince people that socialism is a dirty word and eviscerate it of its progressive purpose, powerfully demonstrates how deeply embedded and invested the right are in the public psyche. Part of the battle against this has to be about effectively recapturing the imagination. Here in a moment of deep collective suffering and crisis is our opportunity to do that. I feel your project, in this specific context in Piccadilly, at this scale and with this broad general public is doing this work.
Politics and its relationship to press seems to be about manufacturing a simple position and then giving it to people to use. Tackling a problem and its real complexity is a very difficult thing to ask people to do but in the pursuit of simple binary ‘facts’ have we lost a critical edge perhaps? Ideas of justice, exploitation, the environment and moral issues are inherently complex and so opinion capitulates to the simplicity of the right and the idea of the scapegoat. I feel like this is where your work takes a departure and challenges this. To paraphrase Donna Haraway, you seem to want to ‘stay with the trouble’. Your work actively highlights the complexity of messaging and asks us to go there. It makes a specific demand of us to confront complexity. This seems important. It uses the language of media messaging but it’s not didactic. It’s not straightforward.
TC It’s not polemical in that way. And as you say, it seems the right has a kind of franchise on that type of succinct messaging. I’m hoping, to some extent, from my work to engage the imagination and produce questions rather than, quote unquote, tell people what they should believe or what they need to know. Obviously, I choose certain things for a particular reason, but I think the address is a little more complicated and a little more diffuse than direct statements or explanations, because it’s difficult at even a surface level to do that.
LT I thought we could talk about each of your works for Circa in order of appearance and start with
ANGR IZ N NRG.
Much has been talked about with regard to the affective charge your works acquire from their juxtapositions of sound and text. A musical key change or chorus arriving just as a salient point is made. An iconic riff lifting off at the moment a political speech reaches its climax or an anticipated ‘drop’ at the exact moment a poetic turn of phrase shines. These orchestrated interactions of sound and text certainly deliver in that respect and emotionally take us with you, but there is a less manipulative, more troubling set of collisions that frequently occur in your work, too. In your first work for Circa, ANGR IZ N NRG (Anger Is An Energy), a quote by John Lydon regarding this refrain, from the P.I.L song titled Rise, is stamped across the screen. Simultaneously we hear The Notwist’s 2014 track Casino. The timing and choreography of this information is powerful. As we read Lydon’s words to not treat anger negatively, we hear the subdued, melancholic, former Hardcore punk band strum their reverb washed guitars along to double-tracked ethereal vocals. Lydon’s P.I.L song, Rise, takes South Africa under apartheid as its inspiration, suggesting that only anger at such injustice could bring about change. Casino, by The Notwist wrestles with ideas self-worth, failure and succumbing to ones vices or demons. While this juxtaposition of two divergent sentiments is emotionally rousing, they also speak to each other in more complex and politically charged ways. Both from a punk tradition and background, The Notwist emerging from a post-hardcore scene in Germany and P.I.L from the tail end of the British punk scene, the anarchist, individualist credentials of each are perhaps always informing the work. John Lydon’s own anger rallies Brexiteers and Trump supporters in equal measure at the moment, as he himself continues to publicly support these divisive causes. This song of self-doubt, regret and gambling ones choices together with Lydon’s plea to individualism suggests that if there is a politics within your work, it is not a partisan activism, but an attempt to hold up complexity, and create discourse out of (dis)harmony somehow. Do you see your works as a way of confronting the trouble, the paradox? Is it a way to highlight the increasingly problematic aspects of image and media production that can streamline messages so effectively and narrow peoples own spheres of influence to dangerous degrees? While your work galvanises people emotionally, delivered in slick, codified bursts of information that we have become accustomed to receiving, they also seem to insist on complexity and a complicating of that information. They’re not rhetorical or polemical, there is no predetermined agenda as it were. The juxtapositions enmesh and complicate their source material, opening up a field of possible understanding and discourse. Is this an important aspect of the politics they purport would you say? A politics that actively challenges its own delivery mechanisms?
TC I love your introduction and your reading of the piece. Initially I was thinking about an idea throughout the series, actually, of first words and last words and the first words, of course, being those opening words of John Lydon’s book and those of its title, which I found really interesting. And it’s connected to a question that I have been asked by someone before. I gave a talk at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester early last year and someone asked about the place of anger in my work. I guess she had detected, either in the topics or from the actual, let’s say, text and/or music material that I recruited, that there was a kind of underlying deployment, or a thinking about what anger could do in a practice, maybe as a trigger. That actually led me to think, specifically in the first part of the series, about the ways in which punk has been recuperated and may I say, misused by so-called disrupting figures on the right, whether they be Brexiteers or those Trumpians like Steve Bannon, who redeploy extreme, punkish attitudes and poses in public. But they do so in the name of a hyper capitalist, hyper macho, hyper conservatism. And it’s in some of the later works, I contrast that with, you could say, powerful last words, both the Elijah McClain and the John Lewis. But there’s a way in which the so called last words you could argue, are far from last in a sense, because those words, I hope, can trigger readers and viewers to consider the afterlives of these events and the struggles that they’re trying to represent in different ways. And again, I thought that the echoes and deep mournings these traumas must precipitate were central to the works unfolding. In that sense, those incidents that they’re narrating are related to the subjects of Butler’s text in the series, which is the last word.
LT Bursts of cultural brilliance through history seem to be recognised as a possible technique and cherry picked for their emotive or affective charge to achieve the wrong thing. But rather than take punk back, you seem to want to highlight the possible moves, the manipulations and the problem of this technique itself.
TC Yeah, this idea that all positions have been captured. The other thing that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time in my work is this idea of the right wing capturing populism as a discursive. How did that happen and what allows it to continue? And you could maybe see threads of that also in the recoding, if you will, of punk’s ethos in that, yes, we’re angry, yes, we are aware of a class difference, but it’s focused on, say, white males, as opposed to a diversity of people who may be in difficult circumstances. And that’s very strange. For example, Trump is always at great pains to present himself as a victim; of the media, or of the establishment, say, when he’s actually one of the most privileged characters I can think of. This idea that he is somehow the victim of the system is a reversal and a perversion of what may actually be the case. He gets to adopt those populist forms and positions himself in that way and you have to ask, how does that work? He’s not alone, of course. I think historically about Reagan and how he was also able to capture and galvanise anger, displacements, disappointments, especially among white working class people and position America as the bulwark of freedom and all these other things, while basically doing a great job for the upper classes. The rhetoric has all these appeals now, if you will, so that working class people can feel, quote unquote, marginalised in their own country, and it’s way more complicated than that. This is interesting because it’s a very thin fiction, but reinforced through repetition. In fact, I remember an article in the New York Times Magazine. I can’t remember who the journalist was. Basically, one of George W. Bush’s minions is quoted as saying something to the effect of ‘when we speak, we define reality’. You can examine that, question that, and contextualise that and then we’ll speak again and create another new reality. Through rhetoric, we’ll define the world. You can study it, you can question it, but you can’t stop us from making reality when we speak. And that’s an interesting belief but it has consequences.
LT These are political performatives, I guess. The constitutive effects of language on a listener. True rhetoric. But that’s what’s so interesting to me about the techniques you deploy in the construction of your work. You are not building a counter position for us to take or an opposite, redressed world view. It looks like rhetoric but you are in fact blowing open possibility and free association in a way politicians and those in power will never do. Your works place such a demand on their viewers. And I mean that in a complimentary way. The audience is required to listen to multiple speakers, grasp multiple contexts, draw on their own understanding of those contexts or not, and essentially build something of their own out of the situation that’s emerging from the work. So this is the opposite of rhetoric. It’s the opposite of polemic. It’s the opposite of a performative. You’re not building a world for us to understand, you’re creating a landscape for us to inhabit and build something within for ourselves. This is the way you hold up complexity as a subject position of your work. Yeah, I think the idea of rhetoric is very interesting, actually.
TC It is something that I’m interested in, too, but I want to put it under pressure by recontextualising that material. If this is a construct and it had a specific moment, a specific history, it could also have different relationships and different modes of address, ways of reading and to some extent by destabilising common, alleged knowledges you can get to an effect that opens up the text. Often I feel that I massively quote someone or something, but without certain of the contextualising anchors just so that we can look at and read the language. Sometimes people say they can hear the voice of the speaker. But other times there is an uncertainty as to who’s speaking. This can produce a provocative, differential relationship with that material that I’m interested in. I would then ask, is this something that is generalisable, or performable in a certain way? And if it is, then maybe you can ask some questions about how it’s constituted, how it’s composed and its effects. I hope that that is true in a certain way. I would say that’s my wager. But of course, I’m suspicious, especially in these dark times. And, yet, there’s a part of me that probably believes that hopelessness is as futile as false hope. And so I hope that by presenting a different context for these, what at first may seem to be closed cases or closed utterances, that it might be possible to both address and contest the sort of habitual forms that we encounter, whether it be advertising or political rhetoric. It’s in this set of pieces, I’m trying to do something a little different. In the context of this commission, my immediate gesture was to code much of the material. And I thought about that a little bit in some ways, I think in response to your responses.
LT In your second work for the Circa project, hope is configured very differently, though. Less of an individualised call to embrace anger, and more of an evocation of true solidarity and non-violent protest/progress. Here, in 2GTHR U CN RDM TH SL OF TH NATN (Together You Can Redeem The Soul Of The Nation), the pathos of reading John Lewis’s last essay before his death is clocked alongside the steady symmetrical thud of Deadbeat’s Huey Lewis Dub. In this track, we hear a doubling of the voice of John Lewis, extolling the virtues of non-violence as a democratic power that was hard won, highlighting our collective responsibility to use it to fight oppression. What strikes me so hard, again, is the combination of sources. Seemingly simple, they belie a set of deeply complex interrelations, that combined, give terrifying insight into structurally embedded racisms and white supremacy. In the written text, Lewis says that Emmett Till was his George Floyd, his Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. In Whitewalling; Art Race & Protest in 3 acts, (2018), Aruna D’Souza cites Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye who say: “Emmett Till died because a white woman lied about their brief interaction. He died because his side of the story did not mean anything to the two white men who killed him, just as it meant nothing to the jury that acquitted them”. That in 2020 this still rings true for John Lewis is deeply upsetting and underscores the fact that the ongoing struggle against this kind of white supremacy must be done en masse and in public unceasingly until it is gone. The Huey helicopter (of Huey Lewis Dub) is an auspicious inclusion. Famed for its 2 rotor blades that make a distinctive rhythmic thud (like in the track itself), the helicopter has been the most essential tool of counterinsurgency warfare since the Korean War. Used against civilian populations of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala as well as its ubiquity in Vietnam, it too is a symbol of white imperial violence. And yet, as Douglas Crimp points out in his 1984 essay, The Art of Exhibition, when MoMA New York acquired one for their collection, they waxed lyrical about its design ingenuity, its utilitarian credentials, how perfect an example of a mass produced ‘design’ object it was and spoke of its ‘bug eyed beauty’. An audacious and blatant white washing of history and an a-politicisation in favour of a disingenuously neutral reading which is of course itself violent. In this complex conflation of the Civil Rights era, the Vietnam war (so entwined in the Black Power Movement), the continued deaths of black people at the hands of violent white supremacists and the blatant way in which the discourse and pain has too frequently been white-peopled and silenced in the spaces of our public institutions, I imagine this work in Piccadilly Circus accosting our consciousness differently to how it might in a museum or gallery. By spilling so directly into the streets, is this a redressing of the commons to some extent? Using conventions of advertising and the very space it is usually delivered from as the mode of address, I can see it galvanising a solidarity among people rather than entertaining audiences that are too frequently understood as consumers of culture in our museums? Would this be a stretch or is this a deliberate use of the context and infrastructure to deliver on this task would you say?
TC This work, in my view, remarks upon that eerie, haunted discontinuity that inexorably becomes repeated in the daily lives of Black people. So much so that as I believe James Baldwin once said the words “daily” and “historically” become synonyms. “Progress” is a myth that is constantly recycled, but remains a myth. Yet, I cling to the possibility that these complexities will not be so quickly, easily, cynically, consumed, then dismissed. In the street one can address the commons and contest habitual forms as a larger potential collectivity / community, not as mere atomised consumers. Perhaps the coded language is a nod to presenting subcultural positions in a highly mediated public sphere. I wanted to engage with long histories of coding as a way to assert subcultures or non-hegemonic identities in public spaces. In some ways not unlike the way an artist like Felix Gonzales-Torres displaced “private” or subcultural content into public contexts via his billboard works, for example.
It’s interesting to me that this might collapse or complicate the reading in a certain way, in a different way than it would if it were in a more closed environment where you were looking specifically at one thing or addressing a quote unquote, known audience.
The possibility that it would be something interpretable, but not interpretable in the same way as my previous work might be, appealed to me. It was like I’ve been using these coding systems for titles of things but not so much in the pieces themselves. I thought, what if I reverse that relationship? What does one do in a public context like this? And where there were certain expectations and desires of what people would expect with regard to the use of language and messaging, there would be simple ways to complicate that and to cause a certain kind of thinking again about what it is that we are seeing and what it is that we expect to see. I was also drawn to the idea you touched on just now that to appear in public, you would assume that one would take a certain positionality or a certain phraseology and address in language to be clear, et cetera.
But what if you took that as an opportunity to send something more complicated or to indicate your complicated status with regard to plain speaking?
These kinds of presentations of self constantly go on in public, and I think you noted also, that that there is always a kind of coding and a kind of production going on, even when one says, I’m going to do this in the clearest and most expedient way possible. That is only part of someone’s subjectivity and knowledges. And it seemed interesting to me to take the scale of Piccadilly Circus as a test of legibility. But thinking what if it presented or comported itself somewhat differently?
LT In the space of a public square, where everybody’s used to seeing advertising, this feels to me, a really powerful way to constitute a public around this artwork. I’ve often thought about art, at least historically within the Western canon as being tasked with critiquing certain forms of hegemony. And while our institutions for art are our best places to voice our dissent they are also contradictory in many respects in quite problematic ways. By voicing dissent there, the work is simultaneously reifying and upholding the problems the art itself intends to critique. The museum is a space too frequently supported by unpaid labour, inequality at curatorial and managerial levels that amount to structural racisms, perhaps unethical corporate relationships or at least problematic partnerships and as a result, the realisation of critical discourse could be said to be undermined in these very spaces. Your work for Piccadilly feels like it is reversing that scenario in some ways. By commandeering the space usually given over to advertising and appropriating that very infrastructure to capture the attention of the public is an acknowledgement of the contested nature of the site and a critical intervention into its function. That it is delivered in a mode that the public are accustomed to, serves to amplify the subversion and the important voices they are not accustomed to seeing and hearing in that space.
TC Thank you, because that’s obviously what I’m going for. I think in many ways, you have hit the nail on the head with regard to the kinds of things I’m trying to work through and think through around those problems. You know, there’s even leakage on the other side. While this is not directly related to my work, it’s something that I do think about; the question of whether there is some cultural information that you could argue has a radically different reading because there is a certain claim or expectation around its status.
And therefore, by showing it in a museum, you get to see it in a radically different way than you would normally see it. I remember at one point in the early 90s having a running argument with some friends and colleagues about what it meant to present the Rodney King beating tape in a Whitney Biennial. There were some people who thought that this is an insult to people who were doing socially engaged practice because this is a quote unquote artefact or something accidental. My argument was always that maybe you should depressurise it, then. Maybe it should be something you were able to look at in a museum and think about how you look differently and what your desires and expectations are of that artefact in this particular context. And that’s not to obviate any of the things you say about the inequalities that are manifest within the institution because they are there. But it’s interesting that it provides a kind of differential opportunity to look at something and to listen to something.
The first thing I realised was that I had never seen the entire thing. I didn’t know it had a soundtrack. So this thing, which is constantly being referred to as evidence of an argument that’s being made verbally by newscaster, it’s almost like the realisation that I’d only seen bits and pieces of it as a positioning illustration in a particular form of packaging. And the idea that it actually has other potential existences, uses and meanings was a revelation for me. Whether it’s art or not, I don’t care. I don’t feel compromised by its presentation. Quite the opposite in a certain way, because I’ve actually seen something here that I have not seen elsewhere.
It didn’t matter if it was art or not, it’s about the conditions for looking at and hearing something. Where the curator might thumb their nose, wondering at the intention of the artist and equally, how some of my friends and colleagues considered this thing as being presented as a model for art, I’m working very hard to maybe intervene in similar social situations and discourses without that concern.
For me it’s a context for viewing and I’m interested in how I might learn some things about our so-called knowledges of this artefact from seeing it in a different space. You know? No claims need to be made. Perhaps it’s an exercise in getting people to pay attention and to realise the limitations of their knowledge and encounter with this information. It’s useful and interesting to think about the context in which the envelope or the container in which something is presented and what the effects of that might be.
LT I watched your third work 4 times prior to writing this question and each time I was unable to stop the tears from welling up in my eyes. Each of your video works for Circa are 2 minutes 30 seconds in length. The text that appears in pink and yellow slides, falling to the bottom of the frame for HS LST WRDZ (His Last Words) are clearly the last 2 minutes 30 seconds of speech that left Elijah McClain’s mouth before he became unconscious from a police chokehold that lead to his cardiac arrest and subsequent death. At this point, anger, deep upset and rage at the injustice are feelings that are hard to reconcile watching this. I want anger to be a creative energy as Lydon suggests in the first work but I fear it is insufficient to achieve what is needed. I want to believe that non-violence and a faith in democracy, as Lewis insists in the second work, is the only good course of action but I worry power acts in ways that compromises these processes. But I would like to ask you about your choice of music in this third work. The Manic Street Preachers’ Between The Clock and The Bed is a track I was unfamiliar with before watching the video. The breathy, pop drums run for half a bar over a black screen before we are confronted with the all too familiar words I can’t breathe (written I CN’T BRTH). As the melancholic guitar begins we are already deep into the tragedy and confronted with the brutality of the unfolding situation. I realised at this point I was subconsciously searching for possible collisions of meaning between the audio and the visual, the music and the text. There is pathos in the Manic’s lyrics that resonate with the calm, dignified way in which Elijah McClain is reasoning with his killer (itself a harrowingly absurd portrayal of how structural injustice is meted out). The lyrics ring out as we read Elijah’s final address to the 3 police officers that ruthlessly presided over his death. He tells them they are all phenomenal, that they are beautiful, and that he loves them. An unbelievable display of forgiveness and compassion for these law enforcement officers when such sentiment seems impossible. Historic and contemporary discourse on race has shown that too frequently white artists, and the institutions that support them, use black suffering as raw material to proclaim their empathetic, abolitionist credentials. Here, the Manic Street Preachers, however, confront their own complicity as white, western males perhaps. Is this your reading of their song? Have I identified an intention of the work or is this a construction of my own, based on an instinctive interpretation of the lyrics? This also leads me to wonder how important our own knowledge of the source material becomes in understanding your work. The myriad readings that are possible are contingent to a certain extent on the viewers own familiarity with the source work but at the same time the affective tug can produce entirely new readings altogether. The Manic’s lyrics on complicity are now expressly concerned with white supremacy in my mind for example. How happy are you to relinquish this sense of intention or authorship over the work and its response? I suppose I’m asking about authority in some respects too and the agency you offer viewers to construct meaning. How do you understand authorship and authority in your work?
TC I’d say my thought is something very close to your reading. This juxtaposition of McClain’s words and the Manic’s track is ultimately meant to illuminate the complicity of the police and function doubly. The fragmented text itself is a document of horror that perhaps evokes empathy, but the song suggests white male complicity with that horror. I’m quite happy to relinquish authorship to the reader.
Overall you bring up a really useful set of questions. It’s almost impossible (even for me) to know all the source material. You are pretty close to my ideal reader, but I strongly believe that less than optimal readings may be productive also, in ways that I can’t fully determine. I love the idea that meanings can’t be totalised or fully controlled.
LT I remember an Art Now exhibition in 2008 by Ryan Gander. Art Now is Tate Britain’s showcase platform for young, emerging British artists and is I guess seen as a milestone at the early stages of a career and quite a big deal for a young artist showing their work. Instead of showing his own objects or artworks, Ryan Gander showed a randomly generated selection of Tate’s holdings, dated between 1540 and 2008 on one wall and then a group of works by recent graduates and peers even younger than himself opposite the hang of paintings. The show was called The Way In Which It Landed. I still wonder if this is genius, irresponsible, fascinating, clever, ridiculous? I don’t know. But the proposition lingers because the ‘work’ if there was any, was in the very act of absolving himself of the responsibility of the author, leaving the viewer, amidst the context and framing of the institution to piece together meaning from the implied connections and infrastructures of power that were in play. Gander himself said something along the lines of “I’m just the pyrotechnics guy, I light the fuse, run away and then watch the fireworks with all of you”. It’s a gesture that says to a public, the content is there, the infrastructure is there, power and the machinations of the institution is there. I’m not going to show you more and more rarefied things that I’ve toiled over, I’m going to show you what’s already there and you can assemble the meaning yourself as you wish. This is an interesting way to claim a type of authorship and one that exposes that which is in plain sight so to speak. I guess this sits in a tradition of relational aesthetics which is itself problematic as people like Clare Bishop have brilliantly exposed. But returning to the Rodney King beating video, a work like that brings in a crucial problematisation of the social relations and leaves us to confront something very serious in a new way. And it’s because of this contested site of the museum that it works I suspect. In a similar way you hold up harrowing artefacts and charged material and take command of the circumstances of their coming together, their relations. The sources are clear, cited and traceable. Nothing is concealed in that respect and in doing so you expose your own processes. This is an interesting way to figure authorship, to have an authority over a set of materials that produces new possible readings.
TC Yeah. I think that it’s riding the line between traditional notions of authorship and questions of authority. Even as a young artist, there were things that I was questioning, at least for myself about artist intention. Maybe because there is a tradition of artists attending screenings it was important to contextualise and describe what was going on in the work. But then as the work began to get distributed at festivals and curated into contexts that I could not physically be there for, and because I come to my media practice through a detour into performance, I questioned whether it was necessary or even helpful to have me there to contextualise and to authorise certain readings at all. Maybe it’s because of my own relationship to art, both contemporary and historical that when confronted with the intentions, I see something else or I desire something else, and that was a powerful motivating force. So maybe the work will be more productive without me, or without me there to, quote unquote, answer questions. People will hopefully figure out their answers or follow their own desires, knowledges (or lack of knowledge) into something that may be productive for them, that may or may not have very much to do with my desires and intentions. I came to that not only as a personal realisation, but as a part of my methodology. I leave it to the viewer as much as possible. I try to be explicit in certain ways because my tendency has been to say of course I’m interested this and its relationship to that, despite not really being part of the original context, meaning or intention of the originals. And so, yes, my tendency has been to find ways to make connections between things. But then also walk away from the scene. That process is interesting for me. I sometimes say I’m weaving something out of disparate parts, but other people will probably read it radically differently. I’ve come to accept that in a certain way.
To go back to your query, though, I don’t know whether that’s irresponsible or whether it gives a certain amount of agency and responsibility to the viewer. There are certain positions that I can’t be in and knowledges I don’t have. As much as I can imagine them and project them, people will just find their own way through the work. Sometimes, associations that are actually there I just didn’t see when I was making it, because I was preoccupied by other things. That seems to me to be part of culture anyway. So if there’s an idea that I need to be there or that I can control meaning, I think it may be better that people do take some agency and if it’s not what I intended or they’re bringing acknowledges that I don’t have to the work in a strange way, then that seems totally appropriate. To think otherwise would be to indulge in some sort of fiction about the certainties of knowledge. Especially from my positionalities it doesn’t quite make sense. It’s almost like it’s fine if someone else wants to believe that but it’s not what I believe.
LT This is what I like about your work so much. It really speaks to the highest hopes we might have for art. Your works are open and encourage our own questioning. The critical impulse is not only to the material, the institution or to the experience but to the self as well. These encounters aren’t shut down and closed, they’re complicated gifts to engage with and an invitation to bring what you have to them, too. I think this is interesting when considering my earlier criticisms of museums in some ways. Visitors to museums are so frequently imagined in a consumer paradigm, with engagement dependent funding exacerbating an anxiety museums perhaps have around visitor experience and numbers and whether they’re ‘giving’ enough to the consumer within a consumer / service provider dynamic. In this mode, I worry that it diminishes the audiences possibility of understanding their problems, misunderstandings, apprehensions or dislikes of the work as essential to the transformative experience. In the neo-liberal museum paradigm, the problem is to be ironed out, dissatisfaction is to be measured and addressed and rectified, meaning must be explicit, experiences must be positive. Feedback is harvested and used by committees to improve delivery. Knowledge is exchanged in clear and measurable terms. Everyone is happy but not necessarily changed. I think the space that is created around your work allows for us to bring complexity, difference and troubling relations in a way that opens things up beyond the scope of what’s measurable by you or anyone else. This feels incredibly important. It offers the potential, because of the agency we are given, for truly transformative experiences.
TC I think it is a kind of breathing space and I’m interested in that space much more so than ‘here’s what I meant to say and here’s how to say it’. That’s too closed. It’s certain. In making them, I try to take that exploratory relation to the materials that I’m working with and I also expect viewers to, I suppose. I hope viewers can do the same as opposed to feeling like they have something to figure out. I don’t know whether you can figure it out, whether it would be particularly useful or relevant to you, even if you did. I know it’s hard for some people to take on board and I understand authorship and responsibility and those things you outline in a historical and cultural sense. I do. But, it’s just not what I want to do. It’s not why I would get up in the morning to do the work. I have different drives, on a certain level with regard to that.
You had a series of questions about the delivery mechanism, though. I just found that a really useful set of questions in relation to this. I know that meanings are produced, but this idea that I, as an author, am present forever to those meanings and that they’re located in me is ridiculous. You know? It’s like they’re as much affects my encounter with different kinds of materials and histories and my own desires and expectations for what the work should be. Someone else must necessarily approach those things differently and I’d like to activate those possibilities as opposed to close them down and say that they’re inherent in me.
That’s part of the reason why I work so heavily with quotation, because I know that it’s a kind of co-production, a co-making. It’s not like I know what you’re going to think or what your experience is going to be. All I can do is say that in a traditional exhibition context, for example, I might insist upon seating. I want to encourage people to spend the quality and quantity of time that they can. And if they feel a slippage or a loss because they were not able to attend to all of the material or attend equally well, to all of the material, that may be true, but, this idea that I need to deliver, in a certain time frame or that people need to move through the space in a quantifiable way, I’m actually actively resistant to that. You can’t quantify it and if people have feelings of loss in relationship to the work, I think on a certain level, I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it.
Similarly, in terms of contextual information, I’m happy to supply it. But again, I wonder if it’s necessary. People will make of and use the material in ways that probably for good or ill I can’t imagine. And I like it that way because maybe that’s the address that I take to the materials that I use. I’m applying frameworks and knowledges that may not be intended or authoritative, but, yeah, I know people have very strong feelings about these matters.
LT On the subject of contextual information, I didn’t read anything about the films prior to viewing them, nor anything about the Circa project at all. I was given the films ahead of this interview and I just wanted to watch them unburdened by context as much as is possible. And that’s how I did it. In many cases I immediately recognised the various source material as things I’d heard, read or seen before. But the one that really stumped me was the Elijah McCain and Manic Street preachers work as I mentioned. And it’s because of my lack of knowledge of one of the source material more than my knowledge of it that I read white guilt and complicity into the scenario at an emotional level.
TC Yeah, because you don’t know. That’s the thing I tell people. It’s good if you know the references, but in some ways they may constitute a problem, too. Because it’s speculative in a certain way. That’s how it worked for me. I was thinking this is a very, very powerful text and I could add nothing to it and it would still maybe function that way. But I wondered if there was something I could do to intensify it. The voice of the song is not the same as the voice of the text. I wanted to build a relationship between the observation and the point of view in the song lyric and what was being said. As a result, even if you don’t know what the source is of either piece, putting them together produces a third or fourth possibility.
LT For me, it was the one that tugged the hardest of all. You know it really did me in.
TC When I first encountered that text, I had the same. It was sort of like, what can I even do with this? I can’t even process it. There’s something about the fragmentation, the relationships that one wants to make between the individual’s statement. It’s almost like this is something really, really bad. Even though it’s not super descriptive or explicit, it’s something situational. Like the first line being, “I can’t breathe”. You know people will recognise this, but will they then follow what the rest of the material is? I wanted to give a set of perspectives on it. And I think the lyric does this. Yeah, some people have described it as a weird kind of middle class feeling of impotence or complicity. They don’t really even say exactly what this is in the song. But the feeling combined is that something really, really ugly is unfolding. And you still can’t wake yourself up enough to intervene.
LT This is one of the most disturbing things about a lot of these narratives. That it’s not just one person acting. There are people standing around. That their employment, their racism their wage is more important to them than this other person’s life.
TC This is something I’ve been thinking about through a theoretical angle and asking; why is it that explicit forms of violence can now be recorded but can continue to occur?
Old definitions of evidence are gone. Now it seems like peoples attitude is ‘no, I’m going to do this, and when this is over, you can circulate the video as much as you want. This thing is kind of done’. It’s a different level. You think that the body cams are going to curb something. But no. It’s not. It’s too crazy.
LT I watched a 2016 film called Ares, directed by Jean-Patrick Benes recently. It is set in a near future dystopia Paris that is governed by corporations and so huge inequality plagues society. The film ends with revolution because it was leaked that the governing corporations presided over the deaths of 2000 people. I would have laughed if it weren’t so sad. Nearly 2000 people are currently dying a day in the UK and far from an uprising, our national newspapers still support and congratulate our Government. It really is fiction that a government, concerned with profit over human life could be held accountable by the people because of 2000 unnecessary deaths. We’re approaching 100,000 here in the UK and the Tories hold their approval ratings.
But, thinking about this further, in your final work for the Piccadilly site, titled Mourning Is A Political Act Amid The Pandemic & It’s Disparities, Judith Butler’s text offers a frank assessment of how badly equipped market-oriented economies are for dealing with the current Corona Virus health crisis. In its stark portrayal of failure, structural inequalities and inequities that usually hide in plain sight, are brought vividly into view. The screeching, dystopic, industrial forward motion of Joy Division’s Exercise 1 accompanies Butler’s indictment and reinforces the sense that this is a government choice. A choice to pursue an ideology of neo-liberalism at any cost, whose governing principle is to place faith in ‘the market’ even when lives are at stake. As a result, it is the most vulnerable that pay the highest price. Butler asks why black people, incarcerated people and migrants are most at risk of death and we know the answer. Considering the provocations of the preceding works, here Butler’s prognosis seems overwhelming; anger, protest, democracy and forgiveness can’t measure up to or defeat the hegemony of our financialised capitalism and it is killing people. That this final video differs in its delivery is of interest to me, though and I think it is significant. In your 3 previous works, the language has been abstracted by the removal of vowels, concise abbreviation and the occasional use of numbers instead of letters, offering phonetic spellings of certain words (2 DMND / 4 HMN DGNTY). As your works are appearing on the very spaces usually reserved for advertising, where clear messaging and direct delivery of meaning is essential to capture and profit from our desire, is this an act of subversion? An anti-capitalist gesture that holds this ideology accountable for so much of the suffering we have seen in the other works?
Many theorists from Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi to Maurizio Lazzarato, Marnie Holborow to Fred Moten and so many others, have explicitly described how language itself has become a commodity ripe for extraction. But it is in the work of Cathy Park Hong that I find the most compelling case for what she calls ‘bad English’. In Minor Feelings (2020) she says she makes the “unmastering of English my rallying cry – I queer it, twerk it, hack it, cannibalise it, other it by hijacking English and warping it into a fugitive tongue. To other English is to make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so it’s dark histories slide out”. She qualifies her use of ‘othering’ by citing Nathaniel Mackey who in Other; From Noun to Verb draws a distinction between the noun other which is social, and the verb other, which is artistic. Where artistic othering is concerned with change and innovation upon which diversity rely and thrive, social othering has to do with power, exclusion and privilege and the centralising of a noun against which otherness is measured and marginalised. For Mackey and Park Hong, bad English is “the practice of the former by the people subjected to the later”. Does this resonate with you? And if so can I ask why in your final work, you return to direct quotation of Judith Butler with no ‘othering’ or translation into difficult code?
TC The last “Butler” piece is the most straightforward because the coded version was the hardest to decode and I felt that making the text more abstract, less presently readable undermined its legibility more than I desired. The abstraction seemed to blunt any potential criticality.
The phrase “language commodified” reminds me of ideas derived from the Situationists, their critiques of ideological rhetoric and advertising, and their strategies of ‘detournement’ that influenced me as I began my practice with a goal to confuse, displace, or delay meaning. This also resonates and I often view my methods as seeking to question normative legibility and visibility. I often redeploy the techniques of advertising, but there is “nothing to buy,” rather my desire is to question the seductions of ubiquitous commodity strategies and rhetoric. They literally dominate most urban Western streetscapes.
But I’m using journalism, theory and political rhetoric as an imaginative and as a differential, maybe historical and vocational relationship, and attempting to suspend it in a different sort of space and place. I began to think that this should change the way the text is presented.
In the case of these coded words, I think those imaginative readings or misreadings, desiring readings, minor readings, stabilising and destabilising readings are very productive. I noticed the quote that you used in talking about that idea and I was really struck by the ways in which you suggest they can queer, tweak and hack the so-called authority of a given text. This certainly comports with my belief, for instance, even about blackness, that it, too, could be a hack, a mocking, ghostly technology or other othering of meaning and the generating of difference and potentials as opposed to being something that is closed in essence. Do you see what I mean? You see it in those kinds of tropes, which, of course, are precisely the kinds of things that are at stake; the anti-immigrant, racist speech and actions that we see so much today.
LT Yes, I do. Completely. It was fortuitous, really, that I just finished Cathy Park Hong’s, Minor Feelings, published just last year. I’ve never considered this characterisation before. The idea that someone who’s grown up to feel ashamed of not being able to speak good enough English, can later in life understand this as a badge of pride and a rallying cry; that this migrant voice is something to hold onto. She characterises the language itself as the battleground of these kinds of oppressions in a really interesting way, a counter-hegemonic space. A place where your refusal can meaningfully take place and where we might be able to deliberately undermine, hack, queer and mock forms of speech that usually expedite commodification. So, of course, when I saw your work, delivered in a mode of slick information, but with this further abstraction, I realised I had to do some work of my own to meet it. It wasn’t just giving. But with the Butler text the opposite is true, you made it very clear.
TC In the case of Judith Butler’s text, firstly, I found that a coded version was more unintelligible in many passages and would have required the audience to attempt multiple scans of the text to even come up with, say, half the meaning.
LT So it’s actually a formal thing in that respect? About legibility?
TC Yes. Obviously for some people, I think it would be appealing because it would be even more fragmented, more suggestive, and would demand more investment of time in order to decode it. But I thought maybe that’s too much of a requirement? And because it’s a very short part of a longer interview, I felt like it’s a moment to think about more complex ideas in more complex languages requiring a different mode of address. In the limited time of the piece it seemed better to do that in a more exact translation. In the other works, there’s been some kind of intervention applied to the texts where those questions of identity and being understood and being located by one’s language has been highlighted. As a gesture, it’s strategic. I don’t think I would do this if I thought that the work would circulate by usual means. It’s the scale of it and the fact that this would come before and after other things on those screens in Piccadilly Circus. And so, I ask what differences might be constitutive in some way as opposed to just allowing the work to enter the flow.
But maybe it is possible to read it as a formless gesture? Form is interesting to me.
LT So if the three prior works are gestures addressing libertarian impulse, solidarity, and white complicity, antagonistic to the easy flow of language and extractive predation, the final work, with Butlers clear, legible text feels like something else entirely. Maybe I can take a detour into an analogy for a moment? If the three preceding works are questions presented to a courtroom to contemplate, this final work feels like Judith Butler and Joy Division are delivering a verdict. We are the jury in Piccadilly Circus maybe? And here’s the ruling; this is no longer an individual struggle, this is not only about democratic process, this is not only about pain and complicity, this is about your government working against you. They preside over the deaths of so many in the pursuit of profits instead of provision, because they treat the body as a logistical problem and not a life to care for. And actually, this has to be clear, this has to be didactic. It has to be spelled out because it must be read as truth at this point. So there’s a certain kind of informational quality about Judith Butler’s text, which perhaps doesn’t need to be codified or made poetic or obscure.
TC I actually did a coded version of it that I showed to a few other people. I got the same reaction. It was felt there was something lost by not being able to even determine what the words were. It was just too fragmented to be useful. In the end I thought it would be better as a sequence, as you describe it, to say these are things that are happening, which in the first three you need to decode. But here’s something that we need to consider just because it is describing a complex and current situation very clearly.
I was really struck by a lot of the things you had to say about the work in general. It was really productive for me in terms of my own thinking because sometimes I set things up and then I’m just trying to execute them. Sometimes I’ll have conversations with people about whether this is effective or how this is read, but I haven’t had anyone actually go through the entire set and think through, or get me to think through, what it is that I was trying to activate and why I made certain decisions and not others. But I would agree with you that it was necessary to now take a look at this set of systemic interrelations and admit the possibility that while it may be productive in terms of readerlyness and an opening to the imagination, we might also want to look at this particular source in a more didactic register and try to understand it and its effects, because they are quite complex already. Part of what we were discussing when we started this conversation, was that people seem to be very confused about what’s going on here today and I think Butler’s text is so clear that even if you deny or disagree with its content it is readable. I think that’s a little bit of an issue. I think some people were drawn towards the coding because it allowed them to suspend.
LT You make two points that are really interesting that I hadn’t considered before. One is that Judith Butler’s articulation of the current situation, which is intensely complex, is also absolutely current. So rather than it being an artefact, it’s an immediate and ongoing discourse on the situation. So to have it further complicated would be reductive in a way. But also, I really like your point that by codifying the prior pieces, viewers are afforded space to negotiate their own proximity to the ideas. Whereas this final one suggests that while you may disagree with what it says, it is 100 percent legible and so your closeness to the argument is non-negotiable. I think this is what’s important about citing Judith Butler verbatim. You can’t avoid her argument. You can refute it but not on the grounds of legibility. You have to confront her analysis and take a position in relation to it and this places another very important demand on the viewer. Something art should always be prepared to do in my view.
TC Thank you, Lynton. More than that, I felt it was important to turn to the specificities of the language she uses and the issues she wishes to underline. I think it would have been a disservice to the text and its potential for meaning and resonance to say it’s poetry or it’s some work on language, that it’s formal in that way.
Lynton Talbot is a curator, writer and educator based in London. His curatorial platform, parrhesiades, works with artist for whom language — either written, spoken or otherwise performed — is an essential part of their practice. Parrhesiades has worked with Anaïs Duplan, Johanna Hedva, Cally Spooner, Sung Tieu, Jesper List Thomsen and Quinn Latimer and has forthcoming projects with Patrick Staff, Isabel Waidner and Olamiju Fajemisin among others. Parrhesiades Volume 1 was published in 2020 with Volume 2 scheduled for late 2021 and has presented projects at South London Gallery, Camden Arts Centre, Flat Time House and Goldsmiths CCW.
Lynton is a sometime participant in OFFSHORE, an itinerant performance company and pedagogical structure initiated by Cally Spooner in 2017. OFFSHORE has gathered at NTU CCA Singapore, Stanley Picker Gallery, Kingston, M-Museum, Leuven, La Fundición, Bilbao, Serpentine Gallery, London, Whitechapel Gallery, London, Centre for National Dance, Paris and The Swiss Institute, New York.
For over a decade Lynton has also worked collaboratively Hana Noorali. Recent exhibitions and projects include Language and Temporary Utopias WHW Akademija, Zagreb (2020), The Season of Cartesian Weeping, DRAF London, Curators Series 12 (2019), The Boys, the girls and the political, Lisson Gallery London (2015). In 2021 they will release Intertitles: An Anthology at The Intersection of Writing and Art with Prototype Press.