One of the greatest challenges for art in the modern world is how to function within an increasingly homogenous education system that is trapped in its own bureaucracy. In the current political climate, our challenge is to create cultural institutions outside of traditional art schools that can remain fully engaged with a disruptive, radical core. Perhaps this is why the artist-led group Alt MFA, a free alternative to studying a university-based masters, has materialised outside of established art institutions, with the nomadic freedom to influence a new art practice; a productive force that can necessitate other productive relations.
Alt MFA began their curatorial residency at Guest Projects in May with a talk and Screening of Westmonster by Mark McGowan, the Artist Taxi Driver. McGowan interviews artists, comedians, politicians and activists campaigning for change in his taxi, posting short videos to his YouTube Channel. As if free-associating, the conversation starts with pre-election debate, moving to the underpublicised Rumaila oil field in Southern Iraq controlled by BP as he provides explicit reasons for our continued presence in the region. Someone asks a follow up question about transparency within the media. He talks briefly about performance art as protest, illustrating each of his points with relevant interviews and the event concludes with a promise. We want the power not only to think of new, radical ways of organising, but also to put these ideas into action.
There are three main social and economical conditions that prevent us from engaging in truly radical acts, defined here as any direct and uncompromising action taken in a public space with the explicit intention of jarring consciousness to effect change.
We Are Kept Atomised Online
Senior figures, political leaders and people in power use, or at least in some way are ‘on’ social media. The reason is due to the fact that they do not fear it’s implications because in the minds of the powerful, the more people who are online, the less people who are potentially gathering together in the physical world to reach a consensus of opinion.
We Remain Passively Disengaged
This is down to us having no time to think with complexity about the issues we face as a society and as a species. We all have important decisions to make as individuals, but the real reason why we have become passive and disengaged, why our culture is silent on certain topics, is down to the suppression of accurate information, relevant context and a loss of critical focus on issues that we should care about. If we don’t have to engage too much with the world as an interconnected place, then we can treat people and the planet however we want to and most importantly, justify it. To be truly radical is to be aware of this deception and seek out new ways to become more fully engaged.
We Are Stimulated by Negative Desires
Materialism and consumerism have reached a tipping point where we feel entitled to stuff we can’t afford because that need has been created for us. In addition, there are not enough jobs for us to pay for them in the first place and the cycle often creates eruptions of social unrest, leading to riots. Then we riot not because we are inherently destructive, but because we have been marketed products we can’t afford. We have to remember that we are all fundamentally part of a society. We are not individuals first. We are who we are by virtue of the relationships we create with those who support us through our lives. We are essentially free. The possibilities for change have always existed and continue to exist. At any point, we can choose to live beyond it.
We now exist in a time where the prevailing cultural forms of artistic production are focused around standardisation. Arguably, we are at a point of so much cross-cultural pollination that we are essentially permuting combinations of every genre in each art form. Can there still be an avant-garde space, whilst our ideas themselves spread ever faster, and even the most radical ideas quickly become commonplace. The avant-garde used to be, and in some way still is, built upon scarcity, on restricted availability, distributed via small magazines and small press books. This type of artistic production will still continue, however, the avant-garde may have lost its intrinsic value as a disruptive medium within the digital space.
Anything we do as organised groups is a radical act in today’s world. Through physically engaging with the world and those within it, we can create knowledge and mutually enabling relationships and begin to understand the nature at work within us, through us and around us.
Alistair Stewart (b. Birmingham 1991) is an interdisciplinary artist, performer, and musician based in London and Amsterdam. Graduate of the BA Fine Arts programme at Middlesex University, he is involved in direct action and nomadic curatorial practice, currently researching contemporary audiovisual culture and technology, writing about emerging cultures and hybrid artistic practice through expanded listening, scattered academic reflections and philosophical enquiry.
Featured image: She Was Drowning (Film Still, 2015), Courtesy of the author.