- Ways of See(th)ing: A Record of Visual Punk Practice
No art activity is to be understood apart from the codes and practices of the society which contains it; art in use is bracketed ineluctably within ideology.––Victor Burgin, 1972
One of my earliest memories of punk takes me back to the age of thirteen. Unfolding the cover of anarcho-punk band Crass' album Yes Sir, I Will, I am confronted with the image of horrifically burned Falklands War veteran Simon Weston in conversation with Prince Charles. The caption of their exchange reads: "'Get well soon,' the Prince said. And the heroic soldier replied 'Yes sir, I will.'" Over twenty years have passed since its release, but one can still cite Crass' recontextualization of Weston's face, forever marked by Thatcherism, as a prime example of punk visual practice. While many people of a certain age can readily identify Jamie Reid's various remappings of Queen Elizabeth's portrait in 1977 (one of the many examples of British artists jamming her Silver Jubilee), Crass' livid invective is equally confrontational, equally punk: punk and post-punk culture is a "symbol of and an adequate response to the ravaged times" (Sladen 10). As Rosetta Brooks writes, Georges Didi-Huberman argues that "the image as image can be revealed only by a violation of the image. . . . in fact, one is only aware of the image as image by its being violated or cut" (45). Crass' DIY "violation" displays the uncomfortable slippage between multiple meanings, and the need to affix intent. Are we to read the image to show suffering projected onto the nationalistic project, or should we be taken aback because the Prince's well-wishes (as symbolic of Empire and stifling class relations) are greeted with a polite, duty-bound reply?
The act of disassembling and rearranging the false sanctity of the image, gesture, or utterance demonstrates how ideology "brackets," as Victor Burgin says. In the Barbicon's attendant publication to their 2007 show Panic Attack! Art in the Punk Years, this process is reevaluated through a multidisciplinary survey of the field. The text features works by iconic and lesser-known artists from New York, London, and Los Angeles, and is supplemented with lively essays by Mark Sladen, Rosetta Brooks, David Bussel, Carlo McCormick, Tracey Warr, Andrew Wilson, Ariella Yedgar, and Stephen Willats. The essays, which often read as a conversation between curator, critic of popular culture, and disillusioned kid who rethinks the utility of both box cutter and safety pin, are organized around four central themes (which function with considerable overlap):
art with overt political intent that uses the inner city as a symbol of social breakdown; the body as a site to explore transgressive ideas of sexuality, violence and abjection; do-it-yourself aesthetics, collage and appropriation as alternative means of visual communication; and the underground scene as a radical social space and ground for artistic cross-fertilization.(7)
Panic Attack! is a highly suggestive title, speaking simultaneously to an agitated individual state and to the clashing forces of chaos and order (categories that, as the essays demonstrate, require each other in order to be meaningful). Panic implies small and large-scale intrusions into the manufactured sense of wholeness that capitalist ideology requires: in its refusals and refutations, punk's pathogenic threat is fully displayed as an abject mass of disruptive bodies, words and visuals. This is beautifully illustrated in Mark Sladen's introduction, which reproduces a Throbbing Gristle press flyer as representative of society's resultant "moral panic" in the face of subcultures (9). The flyer appropriates a quote from Conservative MPP Nicholas Fairbairn who, appalled after seeing COUM Transmissions' 1976 exhibit Prostitution, states, "These people are the wreckers of civilisation" (qtd. in Sladen 9).
The delicious irony of Fairbairn's statement notwithstanding, it goes without saying that "these people" does not refer solely to Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti, but rather to the whole of a group who strove to expose the naturalization of the civilized/barbaric binary on the canvas, image, and body...