- What Is To Be (Un)Done: Notes on Teaching Art and Terrorism
In thinking about this piece on art, activism, and pedagogy, I was drawn not so much to that part of my own art-making and teaching practice consisting of community murals, radical activist printmaking, and street art interventions, but to a series of projects that were catapulted by the long, hard, continuing regime of “endless war.” This may seem counterintuitive. The former, whose legible precedents and recognizable vernaculars are part of a long tradition of uplift, solidarity, and community, speak to many of the themes of this issue of Radical Teacher. And unless one feels gleefully nihilistic or in the mood for provocation, the pairing of “art” and “terror” is bound to elicit feelings of dread. But my aim here is to work through this difficulty, primarily through the lens of Terrorism: A Media History, a class I developed in 2002. Together with my students, I have found that the visual and linguistic rhetorics of “terror” have the potential to both dull and enhance our capacities for political acuity, empathy, and optimism—crucial elements of a politically-conscious creative process that can sustain our ability to imagine and fight for a just, even joyful world.
My pedagogy has built upon many years of projects and collaborations that, while not discounting any tool or approach, have attempted a more complicated political response than outrage, unmasking, or critique. I have been drawn to the necessities of embracing “the possibility of doubt,” in the words of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, and a process of radically slowing down.
“Americans have to watch what they say,” said Ari Fleischer, former White House Press Secretary, at a White House press briefing on September 26, 2001. Like many other artists, writers, educators, and organizers, I was determined to create a space against the prevailing tide of silencing of dissent so sharply manifest in this White House “warning” [End Page 9] of September 2001. All around us, there were quiet sightings of mobilization other than rage and jingoism: a small jeweled peace-sign intertwined with an American flag pin on a nurse’s uniform, a plastic U.S. flag draped over the entry-way at my neighborhood service station, run by an Iraqi family, where the flag served as protection. Many people, it seemed, felt this moment as one of empathy that briefly promised to extend beyond our presumably-shared identity as “Americans.”
We held our breath.
At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I teach, a group of students, faculty, and others seized the moment of “Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South,” a major show at the museum in the fall of 2001, to launch “Post-Impressionists for Peace,” an ad hoc group that quickly organized on the cusp of the bombing campaign in Afghanistan. Students researched Van Gogh’s antiwar sentiments in his letters, and printed excerpts on the back of postcards emblazoned with the exhibition’s logo. These were passed out to museum-goers, who were also greeted by people wearing Vincent masks holding a banner painted with the words: “Van Gogh: ‘War? NO!’” An exhortation by Slavoj Zizek to resist “double blackmail” (the argument that mourning those killed in the September 2001 attacks must necessarily translate to patriotic support of the bombing of Afghanistan) appeared at the same time as a student sticker: “terrorist? patriot? choose neither!”
Soon after, I initiated a project with a group of artists, activists, students, and colleagues that several months later manifested itself as Project Enduring Look. The name we gave to this multidisciplinary effort was taken directly from the Pentagon’s aerial surveillance operation in Afghanistan after the bombing campaign. The U.S. military’s caption made a semantic link with “Enduring Freedom,” the official name used by the U.S. government for the war in Afghanistan. But we wanted to give a different twist to the phrase, emphasizing another kind of temporality—not permanence or the hardness of steel, but a long, troubled look, an extended pause. This slowing down, we felt, could create a different space to think deeply, to resist the need to...