Alex Mitcalfe-Wilson on Para- for Artspace’s Critical Texts Series

Crossposted from artspace.org.nz (read my interview with Alex here, and the full text at artspace’s website – or here’s a direct link to the pdf)

“…Opposite the vacant DJ station and its silent speakers, Jennifer Katherine Shields’ sculpture Para dominates the bare white wall to the left of the main gallery entrance. It is a two metre long, makeshift public bar, built from basic timber framing and irregular scraps of plywood that allow glimpses of its interior. The bar’s outer surfaces are painted with a thin brown stain, the front edge capped with a single sheet of raw copper, nailed in place and oxidised by the hands of gallery-goers.

It is a humble and familiar object, one which suggests many ways it might be of use. People lean on the outside and survey the main gallery, or they sneak behind to look for beers and use it to hide their bags. The bar is open at both sides, where little flaps of plywood allow people to slip inside and imagine themselves for a moment in the role of a bar worker, on show to a gallery full of customers. By creating this performative space, dense with social codes familiar in other settings, Para makes it possible for people to play new roles in the gallery, to interact in ways that momentarily reproduce the separations and power relations that bars create in the hospitality industry.

Shields’ accompanying essay, Para-: A Working of Contemporary Parasexuality is presented in a small, stapled booklet, sometimes found on the bar and sometimes on the floor beside it. In it, Shields describes the historical position of the Victorian barmaid, a person whose unprecedented visibility and social position behind the bar granted her the freedom to be crude or flirtatious without social sanction, insofar as her behaviour did not challenge her status as an object for male amusement and sexual titillation. The Victorian bar-maid’s historical situation has been described as one of parasexuality, a condition in which sexual energy is expressed “in a channelled and safe manner, in contexts where the usual social rules [do] not apply”.5 The temporary suspension of such rules does not erase them, however, and parasexual interactions can easily be constituted in ways which do not challenge the oppressive paradigms that continue to police sexual expression in other contexts.

Shields has identified the inclusion of minority-identifying artists within galleries as another situation in which people might be offered a kind of conditional visibility on terms which do not challenge their wider oppression.6 By recognising inclusion as a process which might be problematic, as well as productive, her argument points toward conditions which ought to be considered in thinking about the relationship between an arts institution and those it sees as outsiders.

The very idea of seeking to include a person is, in itself, a recognition that they are currently excluded, a fact which calls the status quo into question. But an institution’s response to that fact may be to offer acts of inclusion that “[paper] over the cracks” rather than addressing the root causes of exclusion.7 In general terms, offering inclusion also presupposes that being absorbed into an institution is a desirable thing, that people ‘outside’ always want to come in.7 It is worth considering how inclusion might work when this is not the case, when artists and members of the public have chosen to be outside an institution because its current way of doing things is harmful or threatening. Inclusion in this context cannot only be about broadening the range of experiences or attractions on offer; it must recognise that the structures and practices of any institution reflect particular ways of understanding the world, and shape the experiences of all people who choose to interact with them.

Chantal Mouffe speaks of galleries like Artspace as institutions where “common sense” is constructed, places in which artists and audiences can work together to expand human possibilities by challenging dominant consensuses and making new modes of interaction possible.8 If an institution wishes to work alongside a widening group of people, both artists and non-artists, in constructing a better common sense, then it must recognise that such transformative practice requires transformative change; that the way it operates and understands itself must be thought of as carefully and creatively as the variety of experiences that it offers. In doing so, a gallery might come to look at those outside its walls not only as potential audiences to be catered for, but also as agents of change, people with the capacity to lead it towards a future beyond its current imagination.”

5 Shields, J. K. (2014) Para-: A Working of Contemporary Parasexuality. Retrieved from https://jenniferkateshields.wordpress.com/2014/08/30/para/. Accessed 24 November 2014.

6 Shields, J. K. (2014) Interview with Alex Mitcalfe Wilson on Para- Retrieved from https://jenniferkateshields.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/89/. Accessed 24 November 2014.

7 Beech, D. (2008) Include Me Out! Art Monthly 4(8)/315, 1-4.8 Mouffe, C. (2013) Artistic Strategies in Politics and Political Strategies in Art. E-Misferica 10(2). Retrieved From http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/emisferica-102/mouffe. Accessed 24 November 2014.

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