Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Symposium-palooza, SFMoMa: Pt. 1

For a museum that's closed for construction, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has been very active. Their tagline says it all: "We've temporarily moved...everywhere." Last weekend SFMoMA hosted a whopping two symposia-- one on visual activism, the other on photography as a changing field. Many of the discussions overlapped, whether it involved the use of digital technology for activist purposes or the representation of a silenced group.

The event kicked off Friday morning. After walking five blocks down 24th Street through the Mission District (a flavorful Latino neighborhood on the road to gentrification), I entered Brava Theater, the venue for Visual Activism. A lime-green typewriter labeled "The Manifestation Machine" beckoned me into the lobby. Part of a social art performance, artist Aimee Santos had left a note encouraging attendees to "manifest a new world": type a message onto a piece of card stock, adhere it to the neighboring pillar, and you've done your part. Already I was pushed to be an active participant.

The goal of Visual Activism was to address the visual forms that inspire activism, and, inversely, the way activists use visual mechanisms; the day-long symposium that followed, Bearing Witness, considered the field of photography today: how phenomena such as social media, digital cameras and amateur photojournalism define everyday events.

Among the presenters were artists, activists, and scholars--many a combination of these--that, together, cast a wide net of issues and approaches. Themes ranged from AIDS awareness to poverty, LGBTI issues to immigration reform, environmental justice to conflict zones. Some presentations were less relevant than others: one scholar's interpretation of Tracey Moffat's photography from a queer perspective was an overreach, not to mention erudite and hard to follow. (It could find a better home at an art history conference.) Some artists should have had more time on stage, like Teddy Cruz and Favianna Rodriguez. The two artists-in-conversation not only gelled beautifully but their activities involve a potent blend of visual culture and activism.

As a symposium on activism is wont to do, I left longing to hand down the gems that were shared. Since there's about a metric ton's worth, I decided a Contrapposto Puppetry mini-series would suit the scope.

For starters, here's an introduction to one artist (a remote presenter at the conference) who elegantly tackles the dark history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Beirut-based artist Emily Jacir honored the 1948 Palestinian book looting by Israelis in her project ex libris (2010-2012). Today 6,000 of these stolen books are housed in the Jewish National Library as "abandoned property," their catalogue numbers beginning with "AP." These books, relics of a horrific event, have been left to float in a sort of purgatory-- not part of the library proper but in its possession, unable to be claimed by anyone else. Jacir's project ignites memories of the injustices committed during the systematic expulsion of Palestinians beginning in 1947; it is a project in social memory.

Stay tuned for more reports from the symposia, plus a list of annotated links to various projects.

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