Syllabus sharing! Affect, Art, and Politics – a dialogical class at UWM

Welcome back to another episode of syllabus sharing here at Implicit Art!

City Walks logo by Doung Anwar Jahangeer

This course provides an overview of affect theory and its articulation, activation, mediation, and utilities of manipulation in the realms of art and politics on an international scale. Beginning with a basic understanding of sensation and potential, and how they might be used to shape, for example, national sentiment and thus policy, the course will continue by exploring how our unintentional, affective responses to the outside can and do influence our identity, habits, thoughts, everyday activities, memories, and more. Artists, theorists and historical figures discussed include but are not limited to Brian Massumi, Jill Bennett, Dennis Del Favero, Doris Salcedo, Mary Sibande, Sean Slemon, William Kentridge, Gregory Bateson, Michel De Certeau, Doung Anwar Jahangeer, Richard Grusin, Ai Weiwei, Jane Bennett, Claire Bishop, and Santiago Sierra.

I define affect as, most simply, unqualified emotion. My palms are sweaty; my heart is racing; I have butterflies in my stomach. Is this fear? Anger? Lust? All and none? The body knows, is, and does things, without “my” knowledge, desire, or comprehension. Affect is an embodied sensation and response that does not have a name (… yet). And here affection is a moving-thinking-feeling both before, during, and after conscious reflection, each influencing the other.

Non-human affect is, similarly, matter’s embodied sensation and response – its knowing, being, and doing. Like a human body – its liquids, solids, and gases, its chemicals, cells, and other forms – matter’s various bodies also sense and make sense in and with the world.

And this class fosters dialog and debate around what affect opens, where it guides us, how it works, transforms, acts, and does, and what the stakes are in that for us, and the world around us.

I have offered versions of this class for MFA Graduate Students, where they produced art in response to the discussions, and as a Senior Seminar with dialogical processes in International Studies, where those enrolled wrote responses to the readings and screenings, as well as gave a final presentation and paper – the latter the version I am including.

Affect, Art, and Politics

Every semester I teach this, I switch up the screenings, the artists I invite to talk about their work, a local exhibition we visit. I also always have a reading or two in line with a local conference, and offer extra credit for students who attend any local talk or conference, and write a response to it – so they both experience affect – a lived abstraction – in person, and reflect on it. You’ll also see some of my own writing in this version of the syllabus, which I might update from year to year. But the general readings and overall arc seem to work very well – so I hope you get some use out of them!

Most importantly, every student writes a response to every reading, and then we “conceptually speed date” around it. The former means that there is never any question around whether or not anyone “did” the reading; instead, they help each other understand its import, in relation to their own work and research. And the latter is a practice I learned from the SenseLab in Montreal. It goes something like this:

  1. Choose a generative text.
  2. Choose a minor concept weaving through the generative text.
  3. Ask each person in the group to count off as a 1 or a 2.
  4. Instruct the 1s that they are “posts.”
  5. Instruct the 2s that they are “flows.”
  6. Ask the posts to find a post: a spot in the room where they would like to have a conservation.
  7. Ask the flows to pair up with a post.
  8. Direct everyone to a page in the text where the minor concept occurs.
  9. Ask the participants to discuss the function of the minor concept, staying as close as possible to the text, with detailed attention to how it is constructed.
  10. Notify participants that when exactly five minutes are up they will hear a signal, and that when they hear the signal they must end their conversation immediately, even if they are in the middle of a word.
  11. When the five-minute signal sounds, ask all flows to move to the next post in a clockwise direction.
  12. Repeat 8-10 times.
  13. Bring the group back together and discuss in plenary session what was discovered about the minor concept and the text.

In other words, speed date important ideas from the text, for only 2-3 minutes at a time (I find that time more efficient than 5 minutes), then switch partners. It’s honestly amazing. Not only do the students always show me, and themselves and each other, just how much they know and understand – despite a given text’s difficulty on first reading – but they always teach me something new as well. Andrew Murphie has more on this, and gives a few more pointers on speed dating, too – the latter of which I now use even in my second year classes!

Download the full syllabus and schedule in Word form. Feedback welcome!

Briefiew of General Ecology: The New Ecological Paradigm

I define an ecological approach as one that takes account of agents, processes, thoughts, and relations. Humans and non-humans, matter and concepts, things and not-yet things, politics, economics, and industry, for example, are all actively shaped in, and as, their interrelation. And there is, according to Erich Hörl in his great collection edited along with James Burton, General Ecology: The New Ecological Paradigm (2017), “hardly any area that cannot be considered the object of an ecology and thus open to ecological reformulation.” These range in the thousands, he asserts, including “ecologies of sensation, perception, cognition, desire, attention, power, values, information, participation, media, the mind, relations, practices, behavior, belonging, the social, [and] the political” to name a fraction of those already called into action (1).

The book brings together some of the most important thinkers of our time, across media and philosophy, feminism and communication, geology and literature, to have us reevaluate, in the words of Brian Massumi in his chapter on “Virtual ecology and the question of value,” our “orientational qualities of existence.” What do we value, and why? Can we shift our appetites and propensities, our stylistic approaches, so as to aim, together, with our environments, towards better futures?

Like most collections, this book is best digested slowly, rather than read all at once. I started with the introduction, jumped to Massumi’s chapter (among the authors, I am most familiar with his work), then back around to Stiegler, Parikka, Fuller and Goriunova, and more, and I’m still middling through several others. I’ll admit it is also surprising, and reassuring, to see so many media theorists and digital culture scholars asking us to think-with our everyday materials, what they do and are, and might become – and what we should do as part of our engagements, and life.

Simply, I love the framing of this book as a whole. It gives these wonderful thinkers the opportunity take different and new directions with their research, to push the boundaries of their own specificities, in order to show us how to approach ecology more generally. And, it’s under $30 (yes, I paid for mine; this is not a freeview). Recommended.

how to write an artist statement, part 2

I wrote this post on how to write an artist statement back in June 2009, and it is still, to this day, in the top five of visited pages on my site every month. In short, I recommended any given statement for a work of art include three things: what the piece is, what we see or experience, and what is at stake in that experience, for us to practice beyond our initial artistic encounter. I expounded on this a bit more, then went on to offer seven additional guidelines for your text, which should, I recommended, be 300-500 words.

But that’s for individual works of art. What about your overarching artist statement, for a series, body of work, or, yet more difficult, your practice overall?

The answer is simpler than you think. Do a statement like this/the above for three or four pieces, individually, then look for overlaps in the stakes between them, in order to write around them. And edit this all down to fit it into one page, maybe 700 words or so.

Too often, artists begin writing an overall statement about their work in a vacuum, or rather, regarding their personal relationship to their art, instead of their viewers’. But “I’m interested in,” or “my work explores,” and “I research and relate….” are about your practice or what you want your work to do. Very often, such statements only describe the last piece you made, the work you wish you were making, or the processes you used to produce them. The experience of viewership of extant art is a very different thing. And writing a material and/or relational experience for us is precisely how you invite audiences in to material and/or relational art.

Your statement should rather start with something similar to the above. “I make x, which do y, and z is why that is important.”

Then… wait for it… …

For example, in [title of piece] … [summarize one artist statement you already wrote. What it is, what we experience, why that’s important. Refer back to this post when writing!].
Or with [do that again, for another piece].
And in [one more time, another piece].
Overall, the work… TA DA!!!

And so, write the immediately above first. Take your individual works for what they are, and do – even ask others what they are and do for them – before you write around them. And be as concise as you can in this.

But Nathaniel, you may say, your artist statement is SUPER long! That’s true. Yet it follows that same format; it just does so three times in a row, for lots of work, with transitions, so that those web surfers looking for specific pieces I am known for will be able to search for them and know they’ve come to the right place. Remember: I have a 20 year artistic research practice, across printmaking, writing, installation, interaction, networked art, sculpture, performance, and more – and some folks only know one or another of the media I work with, depending on their field. Most people who come to my site already know something about me, and are looking for a specific piece, and I make sure they can find it. I wouldn’t put that entire long statement on an exhibition, or send it to a residency. I would choose three pieces, and perhaps write around those, again. And I recommend said same for all my students and peers, in a given space.

Remember: writing, theory, philosophy and storytelling tell us the stakes of what we do and are, what we might be in the future. Art brings those stakes into the room, as material form, or experience. And so you must always include what your art is, and how we engage, so as to have us regard its import. And then write-with that story, think and share, again and again.