Autotheory: Hiba Ali, Madelyne Beckles, Thirza Cuthand, Deirdre Logue, Allyson Mitchell, Andrew James Paterson, Evan Tyler, Martha Wilson
by Chelsea Rozansky
That language is a structure of power is obvious to anyone who’s had an encounter with Foucauldian theory. That the previous sentence is a performance of said power locates a paradoxical problem at the centre of theory-based practices: by the same token that language provides a stage to give voice, it alienates, excludes or subjugates its practitioners. “That’s what I don’t like about art,” my roommate says when I tell him about the exhibition I’m writing about. “Like, only art people will get it. It’s just a circle jerk.” “No, but the show is commenting on that,” I say, kind of annoyed. “There’s, like, a lot of self-reflexivity.”
“I never wanted to be wrong about the artist’s intent and so I would read first and conquer later,” goes the voiceover in Evan Tyler’s fear, irony, and curating in the 90s (2011), the first of seven videos curated by Lauren Fournier in Autotheory. “I would take notes in my Moleskine black book. You know, big words and key phrases, things that I could incorporate in my own dialogue with contemporary culture.” This hits home—there are a lot of tabs open on my computer: [Krauss_VideoN][Full text of “Ti][Butler (200] [Autotheory-by-][Facebo][Preliminary Ma][Vttape | The].
“Autotheory” describes works that weave philosophy with autobiographical or otherwise first-person expressive modes. The term to represent such practices is relatively emergent, but as Fournier discusses in her essay accompanying the exhibition, the impulse to engage with, respond to or perform theoretical texts and concepts is not. Situating autotheory in post-’60s feminist practice, Fournier put together her program with works from the ’70s onwards.
A performance is almost always an interpretation of a text, art critic Rosalind Krauss points out. “Most immediately, this sense of something having come before refers to the specific text for the performance at hand,” Krauss writes in “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” “But in a larger way it evokes the more general historical relationship between a specific text and the history constructed by all texts of a given genre.” History contextualizes. New work inevitably functions inside that history, and if it critiques, it critiques from within.
Krauss goes on to suggest that video’s medium is psychological rather than technical, and that its particular psychological state is narcissism. The cam- era and monitor situate us inside a claustrophobic feedback loop of reflected images. Discourse can also be narcissistic. Madelyne Beckles’ Theory Of The Young-Girl (2017) suggests as much. In the video, whose title is derived from the French philosophical group Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl (2012), Beckles, playing dress-up like Mattel’s target consumer, recites excerpts from the text in front of varying pink backdrops. Hugging a binder with the word “Theory” written on it in foam letters, Beckles announces: “The young girl originates in the failure of feminism.” She paints her nails on the binder and applies hairspray and lip gloss. She holds a handheld mirror up to the camera, all the while staring deadpan. Beckles illustrates Tiqqun’s point about narcissism under capitalism. “This larger history [of prior texts in a genre] is the source of meaning for that gesture,” writes Krauss. But making kissy faces into the camera while riffing off Marxist texts—even as a critique—is preaching to the choir.
Beckles knows this, though. In the last shot, she walks in from off-camera to stand in front of a green screen, which we see for the first time instead of cutesy substitutions. Staring unflinchingly, pigtailed and donned in pink, Beckles pauses in the centre of the frame and says, “The young girl is not expected to understand you.” Here, again, she is quoting directly from Tiqqun—but this time there’s a change in tone from her otherwise clear monotonic utterances typical of sarcastic didacticism. There’s a slight emphasis on “understand” and a corresponding head tilt, subtle petulance in operation. It’s the kind of tone usually understood as talking back. Krauss identifies some tactics of offense against video’s narcissistic form: “tapes that exploit the medium in order to criticize it from within” and “tapes that represent a physical assault on the video mechanism in order to break out of its psychological hold.” The green screen is our pull-the-curtain reveal. But more than critiquing commodification and artifice, which the video, as the Tiqqun journal, does, this last scene critiques the theory (of the Young-Girl) itself. Beckles isn’t merely quoting from the text anymore. She’s talking back to it—to its potential for impenetrability, and therefore its irrelevance.
In Hiba Ali’s Postcolonial Language (2016), a rectangular frame hovers over a grid of faces, bouncing between each one. Every time it lands, the performer framed inside says the name and age of a child killed by drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Ali offers a performance of Judith Butler’s concept of grievability: we mourn what we know. Representations of certain lives, and the exclusion of others, dictate for whom it’s possible to grieve, rendering some lives meaningful and others invisible. The frame in the video lags sometimes. Names are mispronounced. Many are missing. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read Butler, you still get it. This is a testament to the strength of Postcolonial Language, and perhaps, without its activation, the weakness of theory.
Elsewhere in the video, talking heads mispronounce “colonialism” and its affiliate conjugations. Disembodied, warped and floating around inside goofy graphics like meme-y TV newscasters, they dictate: “Please comply with the standard security measures.” They inform us that “the experience of the immigrant is deemed either as ‘too personal’ or ‘too political,’” and recite facts about migration. They glance at each other, and down at their scripts, stuttering, voice cracking and uptalking. The sound is badly mastered and captions are out of synch. What are otherwise understood as products of amateurism and technical difficulty, in Hiba Ali’s Postcolonial Language (2016) they animate the gap between theoretical or political discourse and actual lives affected. The propagators of power, the voices of authority, are here only messengers. They’re subjugated too. Their tone is confused and apprehensive in a deliberate bastardization of tropes that make newscasters seem legitimate and trustworthy, but it doesn’t matter anyway. Their words still rule.
Ali’s video opens with a sequence of essay pages. framed as a companion to an academic paper. As an audience, we struggle to keep up. The shots cut too quickly for us to read. Subtitles overlap so we can’t take it all in. Text alienates. “But, what does the term of ‘post-colonial language’ even mean?,” asks one talking head (belonging to the body of a racialized woman). “This is where the value of self-worth and its tied authority enter. Because, do ‘i’ [sic] have the right to enunciate this term?”
The videos shown in Autotheory exalt the intersection of language and its performance. Performative language calls something into being by saying it; the pronouncement makes it real. (See Butler’s: “It’s a girl!” which a doctor proclaims at birth, simultaneously describing and constructing an identity.) It can be an act of violence when language overdetermines its subjects. Hence Beckles’ force-fed robotic utterances like “I’m so happy! I could give a shit about being free,” or Ali’s reckoning about claiming her own words. Autotheory, maybe, emerges from a desire to read yourself into a text. Say it really speaks to you. But the videos exhibited here suggest ambivalence: an acknowledgement of the alienating power of texts despite whatever intimacy or love we feel towards them. It isn’t narcissism, but a kind of badass move, to assert your presence in a discourse that marginalizes you: that talks about you, but only to itself. Here, we locate the autotheoretical impulse. A self emerges when you put something in your own words. Theory obscures people, but in the very act of speaking for yourself— either in cultural production, or in life—you claim your right to do so. You perform yourself into being.