“Working collaboratively is the essential practice of social change and justice”

An Interview with artist Emma Hedditch by Rosa Reitsamer and Elke Zobl

How does your feminist and anti-racist engagement come into your artistic work, specifically?

I think of these as intersecting terms that have several functions; we use such terms to show our intentions and to make more explicit what we are trying to engage with and are aligned with. It is a way of acknowledging and calling up this force and influence, to name these positions and to practice through this positioning.

When I was at art school in Sheffield, UK, in the early 1990s I became increasingly aware and involved in socialist feminist politics and communities that were organizing around their work, which in my direct community was, for the most part, music and film work. I became aware of the critique and methods made explicit in this work. For example, people organized spaces to show films and perform music; they shared knowledge and equipment, and wrote about experiences trying to show their work in other contexts. The critique exposed the multi-faceted and complex construction of gender within cultural forms, and aimed at writing a new history that acknowledges how gender is managed and maintained to oppress and define female bodies disproportionately to male bodies.

Another method, which we call “militant care”, made explicit the labor and conditions of work at different levels of experience based on gendered assumptions about who gets to do what kind of work. The discussion group is a very important site for practice and thinking, and I would say feminist politics really addressed this space through careful consideration of who can speak and how we listen, and how articulations and speech are gendered differently. Feminist informed politics and self-organizing changed my thinking about what my art practice could be and gave me tools to make more explicit what I want to align with, and what we are trying to shed as rigid and violent modes of subjugation. Working collaboratively is the essential practice of social change and justice, and is essential in the fight against the fear of scarcity and punishment. I think just acknowledging each other, as totally dependent on each other is a radical tool.

In 2001 I began working with Danish artists Henriette Heise and Jakob Jakobson at the Copenhagen Free University . The Copenhagen Free University opened in May 2001 in a flat. The Free University was an artist-run institution dedicated to the production of critical consciousness and poetic language. We did not accept the so-called new knowledge economy as the framework for understanding knowledge. Education in that context was increasingly focusing on producing knowledge, ideas, and information related to capital (through student fees and training people for the marketplace) rather than forms of knowledge that are fleeting, fluid, schizophrenic, uncompromising, subjective, uneconomic, non-capitalist, produced in the kitchen, produced when asleep or arising while on a social excursion—collectively.

I also use the term feminism directly in relation to lived experience, which comes from Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born French psychoanalyst and writer. Fanon’s work, especially Black Skins, White Masks, his first book published in 1952, analyzes the role of class, gender, race, national culture, and violence in struggles for national liberation and the decolonization of being. Lived experience operates as the unshakeable attachment, appearance, and movement of what it means to be in the world, how to live, and how that is controlled, managed, and maintained structurally through specific institutions depending, for example, on who you are and how you look or behave. At the Copenhagen Free University that was made explicit in relation to education and knowledge production by the space in which we met and worked together, which combined a place to sleep and eat, with an archive of historical and contemporary materials.

In that sense there is an unavoidableness to lived experience, and this is where I would place both art and activism. It is not to say that one is making art and activism all the time, but that one can decide to make art and activism explicit as part of one’s lived experience, to live a certain way.

I was becoming more involved in anti-racist activism in Germany and Denmark in 2011 and in 2013, for example, many of the students at the Art Academy in Munich and the University in Berlin that I worked with were very involved in the non-citizen movements as supporters, listening and supporting the needs of persons threatened with deportation and without resources whilst living in Germany. So my work as I see it is to support the students also in their movement from the space of, let’s say a direct conflict with their lives at the Academy and the work they are doing as activists.

In New York the work I am doing is connected/embedded in an art historical context, and the racial segregation or separation of a specific period and geography of New York’s art history, around the 1960s and 1970s in the downtown Manhattan, loft apartment and performance scene, and how this is constructed as such. Fred Moten’s book In The Break (2003), was crucial for me in this process as Fred attempts to write the aesthetics of the black radical tradition, and develops a language for expressing more possibilities of being in that time and space, which have been made impossible or illegible or misrecognized in different ways. I have been working with a group of five young artists in New York at Artists Space, which has existed since 1972, and I consider part of this constructed history. We work directly with Fred’s book, to navigate the space of history and a specific racialization of history that we want to critique and construct differently ourselves, because we have to build it, and this is perhaps another way of thinking of art and activism, as a kind of building that is very intentional.

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Fanon, Frantz (1952): Black Skins, White Masks.

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Moten, Fred (2003): In The Break. The Aesthetics Of The Black Radical Tradition. Univ. of Minnesota Press

Emma Hedditch, Elke Zobl, Rosa Reitsamer (2014): “Working collaboratively is the essential practice of social change and justice”. An Interview with artist Emma Hedditch by Rosa Reitsamer and Elke Zobl. In: p/art/icipate – Kultur aktiv gestalten #04 , https://www.p-art-icipate.net/working-collaboratively-is-the-essential-practice-of-social-change-and-justice/