Is the Personal Political?

By Zoe Ligon
Cover of GAAG: The Guerilla Art Action Group, second edition by Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche

From the Printed Matter 1986/87 Catalog

“Yes, if it is understood to be so, and if one brings the consciousness of a larger collective struggle to bear on questions of personal life…No, if attention narrows to the privatized tinkering with or attention to one’‘s solely private sphere if one regards this triumph of personal politics as a publicly emancipatory act… Yes, if one is sensitive to the different situations of people with respect to taking control of their personal lives.”

– Martha Rosler quoted in Get the Message? A Decade of Art For Social Change by Lucy Lippard (New York: Dutton, 1984).

The representation of the collisions between individual lives and the world is one of the functions of politically engaged artwork. Such work functions at the intersection of the personal realm and the implicitly political surrounding world. In this spirit, each book in this series recognizes a political relation - a hierarchical distribution of power - and each speaks from the margins to the center of that power. Through the recognition and depiction of these relations, mechanisms of hegemony are made available for examination.

Didactic in intent, these works tell stories culled from the daily news, from history books, or from personal experience. Their struggle to inform - to render the covert or forgotten visible - is a struggle to wrest these stories from the neutralizing mass media or from the obscurity of a biography that would otherwise go unrecounted. For example, Difficulty Swallowing: A Medical Chronicle by Matthew Geller compiles hospital records, author’‘s notes, and snapshots to document treatment of his girlfriend’‘s leukemia. Via access to the doctors’ and nurses’ notes, the hospital as institution is demystified as the individual’‘s struggle for control is illuminated.

Artists’ books such as these accomplish their task of conveying information by employing narrative and formal strategies that hook the viewer into turning the page, even when the content is disturbing or disparaging. They are effective because we are able to respond empathically - because they are poignant, frightening, ironically humorous, or because they outrage us. The book’s narrative or sequential structure allows information to accumulate in one’‘s hands, over time. Within the inherently intimate process of reading a book, the viewer is given a chance to warm up to the cold hard facts.

Those facts - the experiences outside of one’s own life that the evening news and, moreover, a reactionary government would have us believe, occur far away and outside of our control (apartheid in South Africa, forced sterilization in the Third World, rape around the corner) - are brought home and made real. The artist recontextualizes events both in terms of the power relations which determine them and the personal lives which they effect; the dialectic of the personal and political is complete.

The individual books in this series use a range of representational means from aggressive polemics to diaristic documentation to cartoons. How To Commit Suicide in South Africa is virtually an illustrated textbook. Holly Metz’s textual history of apartheid is illustrated with graphic depictions of nightmarish scenes of violence by Sue Coe. Its success lies, in part, in its specificity. Statistics, newspaper quotes, and a bibliography for future reference accompany the text. For instance, details of the arrest and murder of Steve Biko, complete with portraits of his interrogators, extract these figures from the foreign drama in which they are vaguely recognized players and concretize them in the real world, as men and women participating in an identifiable power struggle. “This publication is meant to spark further interest and action.”

Barbara Kruger, whose works are published in the exhibition catalogue We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture (out of print), is a “guerrilla semiologist,” and expert polemicist. Her photograph-and-text montages challenge the arrangements of power the viewer holds to be self-evident. The voice in the pictures repeatedly refuses “her” status as an object of exchange; she defies “him” to objectify her as a vehicle of desire. Like cue cards, the voice prompts the viewer to engage in a reconsideration of patriarchal culture’s dependence on the silence of women. “I will not become what I mean to you.”

In contrast to Kruger’s work, Rudolf Baranik’s painting, documented and discussed in Napalm Elegies and Other Works, is dark and elusive. It hovers between a sort of minimalist abstraction and an eloquent depiction of the horrors of war, inviting on the one hand a formal reading with subliminal undercurrents and on the other a literal reading of overt content associated with the American use of napalm against civilians during the Vietnam War. “I am an artist committed to social change. I am in fact a socialist. I would want people to be moved towards change in society, to more humane relationships and so on. But I also know that art acts upon people in ways that are slow, indirect, circuitous, illusive, unmeasurable. It is because of that that I feel when I do precisely what I want it is really the best that I can do for others.”

The Guerrilla Art Action Group 1969-1976: A Selection documents the works of Jon Hendricks, Jean Toche, and others who founded GAAG as an outgrowth of their activities with Judson Publications and the Artworkers Coalition. Practitioners of what might unapologetically be called protest art, Hendricks and Toche used manifestoes, letters, and performance to address political issues both local to the art world and of more general relevance, ranging from racism in the arts and the courts, to corporate support of the arts and the Vietnam War, from censorship in exhibitions to parallel violations of freedom of the press. A consideration of their own roles as artists whose careers depend on their participation in the system they critique, is central to each action. “We believe the function of the artist is to subvert culture, since our culture is trivial. We are intent on giving a voice to the artist who shouts fire when there is a fire; robbery when there is a robbery; murder when there is a murder; rape when there is a rape. Judson publications will attempt to serve the public for as long as the trivial culture of the establishment distracts us from the screams of crises.”

1984: A View From Three Mile Island is a calendar in which each month is accompanied by a photograph taken from inside a house near the Three Mile Island plant, so that the reactors can be seen looming beyond the windows. In addition to traditional holidays, dates in the history of the development of nuclear energy and weaponry are noted, as daily reminders of the proximity of its frequently suppressed dangers. “This calendar is an attempt to chronicle a variety of nuclear-related events and to focus thought on the options for our future. It is neither antinuclear nor pronuclear. Nuclear power impels us all to weigh its dangers against the hazards of other power sources, and to take the time to consider our destiny. This is a time to define all uses of power.”

Political Books: A Selection

Rudolph Baranik - Napalm Elegy
Nan Becker - Sterilization/Elimination
Hans Breder - Portrait of Rosa
Coe and Metz - How to Commit Suicide in South America
Dorfman and Mattelart - How to Read Donald Duck
Guerrilla Art Action Group - GAAG
Matthew Geller - Difficulty Swallowing
Hans Haacke - Mobile Observations
Grant Kester - 1959 - 1985
Suzanne Lacey - Rape Is
Louise Neaderland - The Nuclear Fan
Lisa Lewenz - 1984: A View From Three Mile Island
Phyllis Shapiro - Time Piece
Mimi Smith - This is a Test

 mg 4168
Spread from GAAG : The Guerrilla Art Action Group, second edition by Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche