Issue #42, 2012

Jones’ Own Words
An Interview with Lee H. Jones by Marcel Janco

Lee H. Jones is a highly acclaimed organic intellectual, an activist thinker and a celebrated public speaker. Jones is also a well-known figure in the activist community in particular within the Movement.

Marcel JancoπI would like to start our interview with the way you define yourself: “organic intellectual“ and “activist thinker“. Could you please tell me more? Especially about “organic intellectual“.

Lee H. Jones∫For a few years we worked under the pseudonym “Antonio Gramsci“. The work we developed from that position is rather well known and one of the concepts we articulated was the “organic intellectual“. In short it demands that the intellectual has
to have a social function, be practically minded, be able to organize. It was also important for us to distinguish this new intellectual, the organic intellectual, as something else than the traditional intelligentsia, which sees itself (wrongly) as a class apart from society.
We think it is important to insist on this position still today.

The notion of the “activist thinker“ is in ways similar. It is developed through my lifelong friendship and discussions with Hannah Arendt. It puts emphasis on the fact that it is never enough just to think;
to be merely a thinker is too passive, instead an activation of that thinking is crucial. For us there is no doubt that the ability to act
is the most dangerous of our abilities and possibilities. The political realm rises directly out of acting together, the “sharing of words
and deeds“. Thus action does not only have the most intimate relationship to the public world common to us all, but is the one activity, which constitutes it.

πYour famous – or infamous – public speech at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm addressed important political issues, among which the homogenous state of the art institution and its current predomination. The situation is quite extreme in Sweden especially if you consider that the Moderna Museet became the subject of a scandal this year when minister of culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth was pictured enacting female genital mutilation on a cake depicting a naked black woman made by Makode Aj Linde. Someone very wisely observed that the real scandal was not the cake or the minister
of culture doing the cut but rather the fact the entire audience attending the art event was in fact white and blonde. Would you
like to comment on that?

∫When I was invited to come and speak at the Moderna Museet
in Stockholm in the fall of 2010, the general election had just taken place and for the first time an anti-immigrant party with a neo-Nazi past got mandates in the parliament, and the center-right coalition stayed in power. I decided I had to begin my lecture at the so-called “One-Day Seminar on Feminist Strategies and Methods“ by stating SWEDEN IS A RACIST COUNTRY, and so I did.

In general, I think the big scandal is that the majority of the people in Sweden still neglect the nation’s racist past, and seem irresolute to grasp the situation of today and to acknowledge the racism within us all. No one can stand outside this neo-liberal, racist, sexist, homophobic world in which we are living together.

There is a lot to say about the “cake scandal“. I see it as a process based work: the cake itself, Makode Aj Linde’s performance within it, the smiling minister of culture cutting it, then feeding it to the artist (who made up the “head“ of the cake) the media’s presence, the audience’s reaction, the African Swedish National Association condemning the cake and the ministers cutting as being racist, the “scandal“ that followed, the tone that changed slightly when it turned out that the cake was made by an Afro-Swedish artist who has problematized racism in Sweden through working with the black face figure in different contexts for years. This ongoing performance pointed out a number of things about a number of conditions.
End point: There is a huge underrepresentation of Afro-Swedes in Swedish public life, within culture, as well as in other spheres, which is totally unacceptable. Furthermore, there is a lot of blatant racism and a tremendous naiveté about racism in Sweden.

But, when answering your specific question, yes, there was devastating majority of white people in the audience. But on the same day, within the same context “World Art Day“ there was a panel discussion with artists Tania Bruguera, Cuba, Marina Naprushkina, Belarus, and art critic and curator Niilofur Farrukh, Pakistan. They were present, but rendered totally invisible since the prevailing idea about this event is that “the entire audience was Swedish, white and blonde“. So here is yet another example of how racism operates within this story.
What they had to say nobody thought worth repeating or highlighting.

It makes me think of my lecture at Moderna Museet. I had in mind exactly an audience that would be “Swedish, white and blonde“, and composed my talk in relation to that. Of course the majority in the audience fitted this description, but what about the other few that didn’t? The ones I wanted to encourage but instead disappointed and hurt? The ones who first identified with me but then comprehended me and my lecture as merely an act, a performance, a lie,
a scam, when the words I shared were spoken directly from my heart, not originating from there, they were other’s words repeated, I insisted on repeating these crucial words. It was real and I didn’t speak “my own words“. Who does ever speak their own words?
Why is the demand for authenticity so much stronger on people with certain bodies, certain skin color, when that demand doesn’t apply to everybody? These are questions that linger.

All that said, in Sweden there is finally a lively, public discussion around racism spurred by the “cake scandal“ and some other recent works within film and animation/illustration. Often it goes as follows: The works are pointed out as “racist“ based on a number of often well-grounded arguments. The authors of these works indignantly defy this accusation, and build their defense on another set of arguments, try to convince, be smarter, point to “real“ racism elsewhere, plead for mercy. As if it would be possible to reach consensus or an end point, find an objective answer to what racism is, with one winner and one loser in the debate. If somebody considers a work racist, whatever the intention of the artist may be, the work is racist for that person (and probably for many others), end of story. You simply have to deal with it and it hurts. Listen, learn, be humble and try again.

Right now there are some very smart and courageous people in
Sweden who are doing a fantastic job educating the public, something the regular pedagogical institutions seemingly have failed with; Ylva Habel, Josette Bushell-Mingo, Lawen Mohtadi, Victoria Kawesa, Athena Farrokhzad and Oivvio Polite to name just a few.

πMy next question is about the telephone lecture you gave at Iaspis in Stockholm as part of the series of talks and exhibitions called Body of Work. From what I know one of the texts you read was authored in fact by somebody else; it was a declaration of how
this person felt oppressed by the rules of the institution this person was currently working for. Are you always giving up authorship
or this was exceptional? And if so, do you see this as a new kind
of authorship?

∫In fact two of the texts I presented were authored by other people who choose to remain anonymous. So one might say that the two anonymous writers gave up authorship, but on the other hand,
we don’t know if the stories originate from them. The two stories are not unusual or sensational in any way, rather very common. However,
I didn’t claim authorship for the texts, nor did I give up authorship.
I don’t believe that there is such a thing as “ones’ own words“. Their stories were delivered by my voice, were pronounced, articulated, traveled through the phone line to the other side of the world and resonated in that room at Iaspis. The words claimed their meaning when being received by the listening group present in that room. I don’t think this is a new kind of authorship; on the contrary, it is ancient.

πYou often work in cooperation with the YES! Association/Föreningen JA!, a separatist association for art workers whose practises
and activities are informed by feminism with an intersectional perspective. Could you please define your relationship to its members?

∫Yes, I have been working with and through YES! Association/ Föreningen JA!. I prefer not to go into my relationship with its members (enough gossip already on that topic), but I can tell you that
we are all working hard to defy definition. There is so much pressure from society today to define and hierarchically order our relationships: legally, economically and reproductively. We try to stand up against that and deal with existing in between being co-workers, friends, collaborators, lovers, our darkest fear, comrades, adversaries, heartbreakers, imaginary friends, projections, our hope for the future. Sometimes leaning more to one or the other.

πSven Lütticken recently wrote: “The term ‘performance’ is slippery even within relatively well-defined contexts. In today’s economy, it not only refers to the productivity of one’s labor but also to one’s actual, quasi-theatrical self-presentation, one’s self-performance in an economy where work has become more dependent on immaterial factors. As an artist or writer or curator, you perform when you do your job, but your job also includes giving talks, going to openings, being in the right place at the right time. Transcending the limits of the specific domain of performance art, then, is what
I would call general performance as the basis of the new labor“.
Do you see any link to what you do?

∫I don’t see any link personally. I am lucky, most of the time
I don’t exist at all. But I understand that for most people this is the predicament most of the time. When I do exist however, I always perform or act just like everybody else who exists on a more regular basis, with a beginning usually called birth and an end called death. For me existing is acting, acting is existing. This condition does not mean that we don’t have to take responsibility for our performances/ acts/actions. On the contrary, we have to act ethically. We prefer using “act“ rather than “perform“. Lets not forget that the term “performance“ is slippery also in the sense that it is often mixed up with “performativity“.

πI forgot to tell that this quote comes from e-țux journala supposed-to-be post-leftist art magazine published with by e-țux, which exist thanks to the money of museums and institutions. It reveals many contradictions within the so-called art system. How do feel about these contradictions? Is it possible to do institutional critique nowadays? Or is the real institutional critique anything that doesn’t even touch the institution and stays far from that?

∫I’m not so invested in the art system, per se, but through my work with YES! Association/Föreningen JA!, I’ve been able to put
forward some thinking in relation to this specific context. There are contradictions everywhere in life, not only within the so-called art system. What we feel about these contradictions is not important; the important thing is how we act through them, within them and sometimes beyond them. Institutions are never monolithic and people within institutions can engage in institutional critique, just as well as the “critical artist“ from an outside position. It is certainly possible to do institutional critique and sometimes things do change, (things have changed!) but often there is a backlash.

More and more, it seems that critique formulated against and within the larger high status institutions doesn’t manage to dismantle the power structures within that particular institution, and even less manages to change the value hierarchies within the overall system. Often, institutional critique ends up as an aestheticized gesture
of political resistance on the art market, and not as a driving force for the change it in some way speaks up for. Unfortunately, often,
art makes sad.

πTomorrow you will give your last lecture – if you allow me to use the word lecture – what would be its topic?

∫Equality, friendship and love, diversity, fear, ownership, authorship, “the proper subject“, capitalism, guilt, war: tomorrow, today, yesterday, always, again and again.

πWho or what inspires you?

∫Warm bodies within the mass of critical minds.

πThis is my last question: Do you believe in the difference between fiction and reality?

∫No and yes. Not different as in standing in binary opposition to each other. Rather different in degrees of the same. Fiction is always ideological, political in a way that reality certainly can be, but is not necessarily. For example, the fact that we all grow older and eventually have to die is reality beyond politics and ideology, but how we deal with this fact is political. “Reality“ is a fictitious invention. Fiction is always a possible reality. Fiction is what validates us.