Honk! If Your Body’s Not Yours!: The Question of the ‘General Public’

As a response to the 2013 exhibition Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper)

As a response to the 2013 exhibition Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper), and in an attempt to open up the discussion around this exhibition’s thematic approach, ICA student forum members Victor Wang and Anna Kontopoulou, curated Honk! If Your Body’s Not Yours!, a sound-based research project that ran throughout the summer and culminated in a public listening event. Anna Kontopoulou reports below on the first results of this on-going research.

As part of the ICA’s Student Forum, we were called upon to curate a project that would respond to the ICA’s existing programme, in this case its summer exhibition Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper). The original idea behind Honk! If Your Body’s Not Yours, was to offer an alternative reading to the exhibition, and open up the debate around its curatorial/thematic arrangements, like: ‘the politics of gender and sexuality’, ‘feminist issues, war, censorship and race’. To quote Sarah McCrory, the curator of Keep Your Timber Limber: ‘stretching from fashion to erotica, the works can all be viewed as being in some way transgressive, employing traditional and commercial drawing techniques to challenge specific social, political or stylistic conventions’[1].

But what are these underlying social and political ‘conventions’, and by extension, what is the relationship between these graphic representations of the body and the politics they represent?

We started by looking in more depth, at the exhibiting artist’s backgrounds, and in particular on Marlene McCarty’s relationship with Gran Fury. Gran Fury was an activist/artist collective that came together in 1988 in New York. They took the name Gran Fury as it was the specific Plymouth model used by the New York Police Department, for unmarked police cars[2]. The name was also meant to reference their anger about the AIDS pandemic. Marlene McCarty was a key member to the group, and in fact one of the group’s only females. This group of artists and activists emerged out of ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) in order to create propaganda material, and basically use advertising techniques as a strategy to reach a wider audience.

ACT UP, was formed in March 1987, initially in New York, with the aim of bringing attention to the AIDS crisis and the federal government’s ignorance about the disease through direct political action. That same month, New Museum curator William Olander, himself a participant in ACT UP, invited members of the group to create an installation in the window of the New Museum’s downtown location at 583 Broadway. The result was the exhibition “Let the Record Show…” for which the SILENCE=DEATH sign was produced. Gran Fury formed as an affinity group within ACT UP to create this New Museum installation. The installation included a neon version of the Silence=Death Project's already existing symbol, SILENCE=DEATH. Underneath the pink triangle there were silhouettes of what Douglas Crimp refers to as "AIDS criminals" - people who were perpetuating silence surrounding or misrepresentations of AIDS[3]

Gran Fury also became notorious for their contribution to the 1990 Venice Biennale, a.k.a. the “Pope Piece”: “The artwork paired two billboard-sized panels: one coupled the image of the Pope with a text about the church’s anti-safe-sex rhetoric; the other a two-foot-high erect penis with texts about women and condom use.”[4] An interview with artist Marlene McCarty commenting on this particular event, as found in ACT UP’s Oral History project  can be found on Honk! If Your Body’s Not Yours! playlist, titled ‘blasphemy at the Venice Biennale’.

When asked about their approach to their work, Gran Fury said: “We want the art world to recognise that collective direct action will bring an end to the AIDS crisis. . . . Whenever we can, we steer the art world projects into public spaces so that we can address audiences other than museum-going audiences or the readership of art magazines.”[5] When recently communicating with one of ACT UP LA’s members, however, it soon became clear that the movement rejected the notion of a ‘general public’ as their audience, altogether. The ‘general public’ was their enemy, ‘complicit, morally failed, murderous and compliant’. For many of the people we approached during this research, in fact, art itself has no ‘general public’. It has a specific public. An art public. ‘Is there still an AIDS crisis today?’ fellow student members asked me. And why does it concern you? By implication, what does it mean to feel oneself part of a ‘general public’, to be outside the AIDS crisis, or the crisis of capitalism or the climate crisis? And what does it mean to use the art world as a means to address such issues to a ‘general public’ to begin with?

With these questions in mind, and due to the practical fact that we couldn’t really use a physical space within the gallery, we soon made a decision to occupy the ‘imaginary’, and work with sound. Sound would actually turn out to be a very useful tool in this project, as it allowed for a more experimental approach to the way we ‘do’ history altogether, performing and re-activating these memories in the ‘here and now’ context of each listening. Within a couple of weeks, we compiled an audio-guide, utilising archival sound material from the ACT UP Oral History Project, interviews, audio clips, as well as more ‘composed’ sound pieces, with contributions from Marlene McCarty, Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, James Baldwin, but also Gran Fury, and ACT UP. The playlist also included compositions from contemporary sound artist/activist collective Ultra-red, as well as a piece from the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), a sex workers collective based here in London, that provides information, help and support to women and others who are concerned with sex workers’s human, civil, legal and economic rights.

This playlist was then made available at the ICA’s desk, in the form of an audio-guide, serving more like a pool of lurking signifiers waiting to be activated by the visitor’s own connections, investing these sounds with their own meaning, as they moved throughout the exhibition space. The playlist was also available online, for those who never visited the gallery. The compilation, in fact, purposefully hinted towards issues that would not necessarily fit ‘gallery talk’, and the art institutional discourse on AIDS cultural analysis, like issues of class, gender and race, and the relationship of these within the contemporary system of political economy. The aim was to look backwards at the legacy of these historical movements today, in order to situate our investigation within a wider context that shifted attention from the particularities of each activist struggle and their local particularities, as such, not in order to undermine them, but instead in order to shift attention towards their resonances. All bound with an attempt to re-orientate the debate around the body and its representation within a larger analysis of the political crisis that has its basis in the material and structural conditions of our society today. Moving away from the virus itself and looking at the political conditions that make the crisis.

In keeping with this, last year we organised a public event in the ICA’s Studio, in order to further analyse these thematics in a public investigation. The event was basically a sound-based workshop that involved different stages. A curated listening, a collective analysis and an intersubjective investigation of themes that came out of the listening, like the notion of ‘general public’ vs art public, the use of media within the context of art and activism, as well as issues of identification. The outcomes of the investigation, were then collectively analysed by a small but very diverse group of participants, who eventually managed to activate their own voice, and stay in that space between voice and understanding, as they were involved themselves in the process of deciphering the sounds, listening to oneself listening, but also making meaning as this bounced back by listening to the others. This process was repeated in a cyclical way around the group, a few times after each listening, so that people would eventually be given the chance to reflect upon their individual and collective thought processes, and their relationship to the structures behind words and language - the way we make and un-make meaning as a whole.

Interestingly enough, the most fruitful moments of this exercise were those awkward pauses in between voices, where the ‘self’ struggled to come to terms with things that remain in excess of meaning. Am I who you say I am? Or am I the product of somebody’s else’s desire for knowledge? Eventually, and after attending to the final sound piece – brought to us last minute, on the day of the event, by a member of ECP – (on the story of a sex worker and her own battle with criminalisation laws), people started talking about the: ‘personal’, ‘experience’, and ‘honesty’. Together with previous recorded utterings like ‘spectacle’, ‘use of media’, ‘voice’, ‘provoke’, ‘shout’, ‘challenge’, ‘state power’, in the end, we tried to assemble our thoughts, and look at our collective map of meanings, in a way interrogating the very claims to signification.

Presented with this list of free associations, then, what could one make of our collective unconscious? Was there ever a sense of affinity within this group, or did we remain fragmented throughout? And most importantly, was the group’s individual/collective ‘crisis’ ever resolved (or ‘curatorially administered by way of knowledge/information control’), or did people come out feeling happily frustrated-with a will to interrogate all manners of imaginary identifications altogether?

In a way, and when looking back at this workshop, from a point of view of practising out theory, it ended up becoming a collective investigation of the very terms of our togetherness. Participants seemed to eventually perform a transition from a doubtful presence (‘what are you trying to do?) and forced participation– driven by social obligation– to an active investigation –driven by genuine curiosity. Breaking down the politics behind curatorial presentations of these political representations, and somehow practising out the contradictory effects they produced. But also, this workshop was like an exercise in an alternative kind of practice that de-links ‘value’ from the symbolic part of participation (as this is often used in the discourse of community development to signify the co-optation of base communities) and basically imagines alternative ways of individual/collective ‘curating’ of the ‘contemporary’, as we are making meaning of it together[6] .

[1] Sarah McCrory, Keep Your Timber Limber (Works On Paper) Press release as found here: http://www.ica.org.uk/download.php?id=1113.

[6] It is important to acknowledge, here, that the idea of using sound as a tool to enunciate social relations, and of a practice that activates pedagogic spaces that imagine a dialogue between organising and art, as informed by grass roots and community organising strategies, in fact, comes from my past collaborations with sound artist activist collective, Ultra-red, and their political-aesthetic project, that sees organising processes as a priori aesthetic. Ultra-red were founded by two AIDS activists, but over the years have expanded to involve numerous collaborators around the world.  They take up acoustic mapping of contested spaces and histories utilising ‘militant sound investigations’ that directly engage the organising and analyses of political struggles, like needle exchange, public housing, sex work, resistance to global capital, education, labour, racism and migration struggles. It is also noteworthy perhaps here, that during this ICA workshop, as a facilitator, I felt challenged by the idiosyncrasies of participants, and the resistance of some to this ‘formula’ for a sound based collective analysis and investigation. This insistence however, came as a commitment to accommodate for a more individual/collectivist and dialogic approach to reflection, not always allowing for individual participants to venture off into their own symbolic pool of signifiers but instead allowing for one’s imaginary ‘acoustic’ gaze to linger, in the space between conscious articulations of needs but also unconscious registers of desire.


This article is posted in: Articles, Student Forum

Tagged with: Marlene McCarty, Keep Your Timber Limber