Admittedly, this is actually a position statement I have just written as I (John Ledger) wrap up my MA Fine Art at the University of Leeds. But at a time when other members of the collective are either also finishing big academic commitments, or just beginning them, I realised that the position statement I have written for the course is totally applicable to how I see my position, and my use, within the collective.
Wall, i – An autoethnography on the ‘cult of self-belief’, and the desire for an exit.
The greatest revelatory outcome from the undertaking of this Masters course has been, to paraphrase Spinoza, an awareness that it isn’t so much a case of what it is possible for my mind to achieve, but a case of what my body can do.
What has a recognition of my past of obsessive eating and exercise disorders, an inability to emotionally connect with others, and a trail of alcohol-enabled regrets got to do with an art practice? Well, kind of everything…
I’ve never known what the hell to do with my body. The fact that I have limbs, a stomach that inflates when I eat or drink, and a face with a mouth that can speak, has been both a cause of embarrassment because others can see them, and anxiety in that I’m expected to do something with them, supposed to employ this body in a social field of forces which are far more powerful than myself. Nonetheless, it would be expected for me to be a recognisable self-actualised adult by the time of reaching 30.
But I fell into being an artist – a side-step from the confrontation in self-actualising. Art became a vessel loaded with a catatonic euphoria in speaking ‘fuck you’s’ to the anxiety-generating command to be such a validated body.
Nonetheless, once art became my ‘skill’, I’d have to self-actualise through it. Yet this didn’t quite happen. I always avoided this confrontation and harboured a sense of doubt over not being a ‘proper’ artist. This is because in art’s professional guise of networking, teaching, business-approaches, I just found the same thing I was trying to escape – the same anxiety. In hindsight I recognise that my ‘intricate dystopian landscape murals’ were not the left wing statements even I came to think they were, but a catatonic euphoria in the freedom to momentarily nihilate the ‘magical voluntarism’ imprinted onto the body in a ‘cult of self-belief’ capitalism.
Yet I wouldn’t be writing this if I thought that this was a satisfactory message to not only others, but to myself.
‘Millennials’ are routinely labelled self-centred; yet in a post-industrial setting, where a sense of duty to the production line is no longer directly impressed on the body, a culture based around individual fulfilment didn’t just raise us, I’d argue it suffocated us. I use the ‘cult of self-belief’ to describe this era as one where at least on the level of cultural stories, the social, extra-personal has given way to a command to constantly believe in our own abilities. Yet what has at one level been a promise of enabling self-care and self-interest, is also experienced as a message that our right to ‘self love’ is conditional upon becoming recognised as a success. self-centeredness becomes suffocating because of the limited space to be anything else.
Yet, conversely, what I’ve now come to realise, within our incredibly socially and politically divided moment, is that I’ve had to retreat from the idea that I should make bold political statements, to look back at myself, my experiences, my mistakes, not only for personal development, but because I believed this story would be a more genuine response to our current crises.
Professor in contemporary performance Dierdre Heddon opposes what she sees as a conventional idea that works that ‘perform the self’ are ‘”merely” narcissistic, solipsistic, egotistical’, suggesting, rather, that ‘the majority of performers who play themselves display an astute self-consciousness’. Adding that ‘the self in performance is no easy subject’, Heddon gives a highly adequate reason as to why my year-long film project ‘Wall, i’ wasn’t merely some self-indulgent endeavour, but the most mature response I could find to negotiate such a partisan techno-framework through which we currently mostly communicate.
Equally ‘Wall, i’ is inspired by the Youtube phenomenon ‘Contrapoints’. Self-identifying transsexual Natalie Wynn, almost performs philosophy by playing herself, her many selves, which, unsurprisingly seems to be a major reason she is attacked by both left and right, accused of self-indulgence. Yet through performing herself she reaches out to many who others can only see as enemies.
Through performing me (in this case the actor Ben Crawford plays a version of a self, collated from my personal and pier experiences, to expand into a hypothetical self) I have tried facing up to things, no longer avoiding the icy validations I long feared. It’s not the only reason I employed what I’d call a ‘pop-form’ to this project, but it is a way of seeking an answer to the dilemma of who the imaginary audience is in my mind whenever I conceive of an idea; am I wanting recognition from the curator, a political ‘side’ or the community of accumulated pub-conversations that still continue in my thoughts? With a pop song structure, ‘Wall, i’ tentatively tries to prompt such validation.
I admit to a weakness as a practising artist: I don’t play with form, learn haptically; a life-methodology I have observed as connecting to a more loving engagement with life. My highly conceptual all-consuming projects never behold their promised magic key to open up my fully self-actualised life. I recognise the difficulty in knowing how to act in the way I make – it often pains me for I can see a great handicap towards meaningful being.
Yet, as much as I recognise my rigid methodology as contributing to the feeling of life passing me by, we must admit the arts themselves are at the whim of a neoliberal superego injunction to be constantly ready to respond to new challenges: artists are also part of the ‘‘precariat’’. The dominant story of the past 30 years to ‘live your life’, is often indistinguishable from contemporary capitalism’s command to never miss a chance the market throws our way, making it easy to mistake what is good for capitalism for what is good for us (which also applies to many artist opportunities).
Undertaking this course has brought me many realisations for which the term ‘practice’ remains inefficient – creating an idea that the artist can separate themselves from the how they make their work. I hope it’s clear that whether by my own doing, or due to cultural conditions, I am dealing with both the art of life as much as the life of art in for which there is no easy answers, and no obvious successful outcome. Yet, in times where the near future promises little good fortune, ‘onwards and upwards’ remains the only reasonable practical philosophy.