Incoming: Photography, Contemporary Art, Whiteness

By Daniel C. Blight on March 23, 2017

“Is Mosse really showing us the plight of migrant subjects, or indirectly something of his work’s own quandary, and by extension, white photography’s lack of critical engagement with race?”

“Whiteness and white society can constitute themselves only by racializing.”
—Steve Martinot

“Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”
—Noel Ignatiev

Richard Mosse’s 2017 multi-channel film work Incoming draws attention to some complex issues in considering the relationship between aesthetics, technology and race, doing so in the guise of what the artist calls his ‘conceptual documentary’ practice. As this is Mosse’s description of the type of work he develops, I want to get as close as possible to what the artist is doing on these terms — an artistic framework that should place concepts (and politics) over aesthetics — and take a look at some of the issues with the form of “art as the social logic of salvation” I will argue he aggrandises. It may be the case that, despite his upright intentions, Mosse inadvertently works through a form of photoconceptual conservativism due to the manner in which he positions his work with regards to race, and crucially, whiteness.

I’ll begin with a framework of commendation for Mosse’s project currently on view at Barbican Curve, before I turn to address what I see as a lack of critical ethics which seams its way through the logic of Incoming as a conceptual artwork. Following that, I want to produce a rough sketch for thinking about what might be considered going forward: a number of theoretical concepts, such as the white unconscious, and a notion of speaking for, with or to Others, that are useful for a discussion that critically engages the photographic representation of black and brown bodies. Many supposedly politicised photographic practices too often conveniently ignore the fact that racism is structural; it is sown into the fabric of white society and reflected in white cultural hegemony. I want to start a specific critical conversation in the photography community that is not had often enough; one that has been present in academic scholarship at least since the 1990s and is referred to as critical whiteness studies — a consideration of the invisible structures that reproduce white privilege. There are several precedents for this in conversations already started within mainstream photography criticism, not least Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s important essay The Lives of Others, published by Aperture in 2015.

Incoming and the work derivative of it, Heat Maps, is comprised of a central film work, an accompanying multi-screen slideshow and a number of photographs, and is installed in the Barbican’s Curve gallery in London at a huge scale. Shot using a weapons-grade thermal camera designed for the military, the tonally inverted monochromatic images render things in patches of heat at such detail that figuration and abstraction, bodies and their backgrounds, buildings and their locations paradoxically lend each other their own related qualities — at times blending into one another, coalescent yet strangely vivid. Mosse suggests this is camera vision showing us something distinctly unfamiliar (a new type of camera doing a new type of thing), but we’ve seen this all before, in citizen journalism, on TV and YouTube. It takes some time to adjust, escape the effects of Incoming’s thermographic technology, but once accustomed to its reconnaissance imagery, the question emerges: is Mosse really showing us the plight of migrant subjects, or indirectly something of his work’s own quandary, and by extension, white photography’s lack of critical engagement with race? I’m not convinced this technology — Mosse’s camera — does as much work as he thinks it does, and I want to explore why that might be, and how.

6. Richard Mosse Incoming, The Curve, Barbican Centre, Tristan Fewings (5)

The footage was shot in locations key to the way migrants are forced to move, or are temporarily camped, by European governments: the Hellinikon Olympic Complex outside Athens, Idomeni further down the Greek coast, the “Jungle” camp in Calais and Berlin’s Templehof airport are some of the locations featured. Incoming is filmed in various ways. Static shots that picture light industrial spaces, cantonments, or a harbour environment from a distance; wobbly zooms that evoke the amateurish feel of citizen journalism and close concentrations on detail and texture made to draw associations with both guerrilla documentary and artist’s film and video. We see high grain, high contrast, high resolution depictions of migrants being brought ashore on over-laden dinghies, or helped down the precarious steps on the side of huge military boats; uniformed officials looking out through binoculars or guiding fighter jets through take-off; an entire sports stadium filled with canvas tents set up as temporary housing; families waiting around, hoping to move freely into Europe; people playing football, listening to music, sharing conversations. Underpinning the waiting and the frustration that these people endure is the political context that paved the way for it. Imperialism, capitalism, the military-industrial complex.

The argument in favour of Incoming might be divided into three types of position: that the work provides the viewer with a rich and dramatic visual and aural experience that is emotionally transformative; that the unique visuality of the work — its aesthetic parameters stemming from the novel use of the camera technology — its grand scale in the site of cultural achievement that is the Barbican — is stunning, awesome, impressive; and that Incoming is a thing of conceptual brilliance due to the way it sympathises with the struggles of the migrants it documents, rather than preaches about them, and does so in a way that is quietly contemplative, meditative, and indirect, allowing space for the viewer to fill in the missing details (because an affirmative position on the work acknowledges that visual art can’t offer all the details).

I would hazard a guess that these three types of position constitute, and encapsulate, the majority of positive responses to Incoming. I think that largely these are indeed positive things, but only conjecturally. In their actualities, their political meanings, I’m not content with the way they form the above experiential framework, in part because of two words that describe the specificities of Incoming, and are used by the artist and the gallery to refer directly to it. These words are “conceptual” and “political”, and when brought together, they make certain demands of art practice. I want to suggest that if one holds any or all of the above positions on Incoming, one may have unwittingly committed a categorical error — a semantic mistake, if you will — and as a result set quite a low bar for a definition of successful conceptual-political documentary practice. We must demand more from this type of artistic work. It is my general position that this form of art practice should actively try to avoid offering any of the above experiences when presenting itself as such; that the baseline theoretical strategy of any conceptual artist making political work should be one of complete and utter rejection of the following things: emotional transformation, unique visuality, the novel use of technology, dramatic strategies of display and installation, and awe-inspiring visual or aural effects. These things are, in short, a description of “fireworks” art: the aesthetic concerns of art under late capitalism and its speculative and egregious practices within the art market; the commercial art fair and gallery; and unfortunately and often enough, the neoliberal arts institution, which is forced to align itself with the commodification of all culture at any cost. Outside of an arts context, all of the above affirmative experiences may be had at the cinema, and Incoming is not a narrative film on at Vue Leicester Square. Back in the art world, they might also be had in front of the bombast of Jeff Koons’ work, but Richard Mosse did not make a big red stainless steel cartoon dog, for his show in the Curve (at least not formally).

In an interview with Channel 4 News, Mosse states: ‘It’s not just the refugees that are dehumanised, it’s you or I… we’re trying to make a humanising… a humanist piece of art, which sets the viewer into a space of compassion, complicated by a sense of their own complicity.’ He immodestly compares his work to Picasso’s Guernica (1937), suggesting that Incoming is not ‘a non-didactic artwork, it speaks from the soul, it’s not too much from the mind. And I think this is the power of art.’ A strange claim for a conceptual documentary artist to make. Here, Mosse makes an asservation for contemporary art as universal humanist discourse; a stance of uncritical assumptions that don’t take into account any of the critiques of humanism as a form of over-trustful thinking: its holding of a special place for man as a rational being above other animals; its abundant received criticism in the post-war period by anti-racist thinkers including Franz Fanon, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. ‘Humanism’, as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1967), ‘is nothing but an ideology of lies, a perfect justification for pillage; its honeyed words, its affectations’.

13. Richard Mosse Incoming, The Curve, Barbican Centre, Tristan Fewings (16)

To start developing a serious argument against Incoming, let’s begin with a familiar and ubiquitous criticism of the subjugating practices of documentary photography: Mosse may share more in common with the nineteenth century gentleman photographer who lugs around his heavy box camera to foreign lands — reporting home with photographic representations of the cultural Other that foreground his knowing apologetic complicity and fetish for technology over his critical ethics — than the nimble conceptualist he sees himself as. The former caricature is unfortunately familiar to the history of photography, the latter a distinctly white male heroic art world fantasy that so many naively aspire to, yet never seem to fully manifest.

In his The Migrant Image (2013) and a discussion of the American art critic David Joselit’s views of the relation between art and politics, T.J. Demos writes, ‘fighting global inequality from within the site of economic, political and cultural privilege… allows an institution to hide its practices that support political and economic disparity behind an image of cultural charity and concern.’ A criticism of Barbican Art Gallery on these terms is not extraneous, nor is the simultaneous display of Mosse’s work at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, a commercial space, which begs questions of the ethics that underpins Mosse’s practice, and indeed the more general notion of making political work for an art world saturated with the pallid tones of neoliberalism, and therefore white cultural hegemony. The simple riposte to Mosse simultaneously showing Heat Maps in a commercial space is: ‘but artists should be able to earn money from their work!’. The response to which is, yes, of course, but under what auspices and in relation to what contradictory conceptual goal? If an artwork specifically sets out to document and critique, for example, the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis — which as we know stems largely from Western intervention in the Middle East and therefore the continuation of Western imperialism —what ethical justification does a Western artist have to profit materially? If one volunteers their labour to a charity, one doesn’t then change their mind and ask for payment at the end of the day. What particular form of privilege allows a Western artist to sidestep this concern? Might it be linked to a form of unwitting cultural superiority; a form of artistic false consciousness?

Mosse suggests the infrared camera technology is ‘blind to skin colour’, but of course it’s not (an overly literal point for any photoconceptualist to make, surely?). We know the vast majority of the bodies depicted here are black and brown; we know the men in military uniform are European citizens and the migrants aren’t, because we know, despite the film’s tactics of technological obfuscation, what we are watching. As Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks writes in Desiring Whiteness (2000) ‘we must hunt down the signifier behind the image if we wish to discern the subject of race, or to put it even more precisely, we must grasp the contours of the lack that the signifier stands for’. Mosse’s attempt to flatten skin colour technologically — to dissolve racial difference into racial similarity on visual terms alone — further draws attention to the problems of the work inasmuch as it conveys a misunderstanding of histories of technology in relation to, or importantly as race. Incoming depicts no body as a white body, the irony being the absence of whiteness, as opposed to, as Noel Ignatiev states, its complete ‘abolition’, becomes the root of the work’s conceptual problem. The signifier behind the image. The category error. The semantic mistake. To use technology to background racial difference takes representation into ambiguous territory. As Linda Martín Alcoff states in What Should White People Do? (1998), ‘The weight of too much history is sedimented in these marked bodies with inscriptions that are very deep. Rather than attempting to erase these inscriptions as a first step, we need a period of reinscription to redescribe and reunderstand what we see when we see race.’ And later, in The Future of Whiteness (2015), she writes ‘it is a danger to believe that whiteness can be left behind.’ Mosse nonetheless chooses to do so.

The connections between technology and race are manifold. ‘Rather than the abatement of racism and raced images post WWII, we have witnessed their proliferation’ states Wendy Chun of images in the media in her essay Race and/as Technology or How to Do Things to Race (2012). New forms of digital camera technology, especially in their military inventions, require detailed analysis as to their use and meaning. Rayvon Fouché articulates four periods in which to map race and American culture with specific regard to technology, the final period aptly describing the situation we face today globally. This period heralds ‘new forms of segregation, a newly defined scientific foundation for the rebirth of race, and digital age technological aid for the developing world.’ Considering this background narrative of technology and race in the twenty-first century, one would imagine Mosse’s brand of conceptual documentary practice should deal with it head on, rejecting the four categories of affirmation I detailed above, in order to take a critical-ethical position. I want to suggest, despite attempts to do this, Mosse mobilises a really quite flawed articulation of the camera as military weaponry that rhetorically turns in on itself in a single, conceptual gesture. I also want to suggest that this attitude is reflective of a number of other white artists who make conceptual-political work “about” the plight of people of colour, and that the mistake often made is that such artists choose to speak for the Other, rather than with or to them.

“The work, its maker, undergoes a process of psychological projection in which the problem of whiteness can be repudiated, disconnected, transferred to the safe space of invisibility (the safe space of the artwork; the safe space of the white art world).”

As Victor Burgin writes on the subject of political art: ‘There is no need for the western political artist, too often a disaster tourist, to sail the seven seas looking for injustices to denounce.’ Mosse colludes with, rather than critically distances himself from, the power dynamics at play in the military use of this infrared surveillance technology. As the press release for the Barbican exhibition states, Mosse’s work is made with ‘a camera that sees as a missile sees’. The suggestion here is that like a missile, this camera is indiscriminate. It sees every warm body as thermal material, from distances of 30 kilometres. This indiscriminateness extends from the camera to the work itself, and is the transition at which Incoming falters, despite Mosse’s intentions to place it front and centre with regard to the meaning of the artwork. A problematic indiscriminateness is the contemporary camera’s way of seeing, Incoming’s way of seeing, and simultaneously the military’s, and the EU’s, and neoliberalism’s, and capitalism’s, and imperialism’s way of seeing. In its effects, Incoming creates an indirect and questionable representation of migrant people of colour, playing into and promulgating racist social relations dominant in the world today. How?

Within one Western history of photography there is a precedent with which to begin answering this question. In 1977 Jean-Luc Godard was sent to Mozambique on a commission to photograph, but refused as he discovered Kodak’s particular film stock was ‘inherently racist’ — designed to expose white skin accurately, but not black skin. If one tried to photograph a black body next to a white body, the black body would almost disappear in the resulting picture. In short, Kodak had “accidently” designed racist film stock. Of course, an accident in this context is not an excuse. Racism is racism, however subtle, made even worse if one is not aware one is doing it. In response Kodak designed the ID-2 camera with a boost button that “properly exposed” bodies of colour, which they offered up as only due to complaints from dark chocolate and dark furniture manufacturers who couldn’t photograph their commodities, rather than Godard’s or anyone else’s criticism of structural racism in the design of camera technology. Looking back, taking into account much scholarship on the subject of technology and race, Kodak’s response seems analogical to the way in which white society deals with its own “accidental” racism through a process of circumvention and invalidation, followed by ineffectual remedy. Kodak responded through a process of denial, distancing themselves from responsibility.

There is little difference in this process, and the methodology of “conceptual inversion” undertaken by some white artists making work about people of colour. It’s just harder to see. They address the issue (racism), locate its most obvious opposition in adjectival form (an attempt to make an artwork that merely draws attention to racial inequality), and then in order to avoid doing the obvious thing (a direct, anti-racist critique of white hegemony) — because conceptualists never do the most obvious thing — they instead invert and simultaneously posture a kind of distance from their own work which results in them not addressing what is of the upmost necessity: anti-racist action; anti-racist pedagogy; their own practice in the form of a verb, that is to say, the part of speech, in this case the artwork, that affirms being and action. This inversion is the collapsing of all bodies into black bodies in Mosse’s work, and the act of distancing is a failure to address a properly critical notion of whiteness in the making of the artwork itself. Similar and necessary criticism is made of Cristina de Middel, Jan Hoek and Viviane Sassen in Wolukau-Wanambwa’s aforementioned essay The Lives of Others.

1. Richard Mosse Incoming, The Curve, Barbican Centre, Tristan Fewings (6)

In Dislocating the Colour Line (1997), Samira Kawash writes, ‘the modern conception of racial identity maintains an uneasy relation to the visual; the visible marks of the racialized body are only signs of a deeper, interior difference, and yet those visible marks are the only differences that can be observed.’ The point Mosse misses is that the removal of those differences on visual terms alone does not remove them symbolically. Race is still present. The Barbican Curve is still filled with white people observing, from the safe space of bourgeois culture, bodies of colour in need of understanding, of a home free of conflict and trauma. Mosse is showing his audience things they have already seen in the form of citizen journalism, but asking us to pay particular attention to the way he is showing them; his artistic genius, his tactics of conceptual inversion, the resulting peppercorn political commitments of his work.

Hiding racial difference away in technology — a history of technology that, as the publication Race After the Internet (2012) shows us, is itself racist — does not camouflage the, as George Yancy writes, ‘entire play of white racist signifiers that ontologically truncate the black body.’ In his attempt to criticise his own white subject formation — a process which he himself has undergone as a white man and a white, relatively privileged artist — Mosse attempts to shut off his viewers’ experience of racialisation by removing the distinction between black, brown and white bodies. In a conceptually clumsy gesture of racial solidarity Mosse removes white bodies from the film avoiding what whiteness must do: confront itself. Therefore, writes Yancy, ‘returning to white people the problem of whiteness’. Tokenistically employing blackness as a visual device narcissistically elides whiteness’s ‘dialectical relationship with people of colour – that is, those who continue to suffer under the regime of white power and privilege.’ (Yancy)

“Mosse’s disappearing of whiteness in Incoming, his “championing from afar”, is a way of developing too simple a form of “speaking for others”, by focussing only on the technological depiction of Others, and not looking carefully at the role of whiteness in the ritual of speaking, the discourse or conversation between the powerful and the oppressed.”

With Incoming, Mosse undertakes a removing of whiteness from representation, but not from reality. The work, its maker, undergoes a process of psychological projection in which the problem of whiteness can be repudiated, disconnected, transferred to the safe space of invisibility (the safe space of the artwork; the safe space of the white art world). We have to credit Mosse with principled intentions, but therein lies the quandary, the “Kodak conceptualism”. There remains a hidden ideology, a fantasy of avoidance. A notion that Mosse can, and importantly should, bury the meaning of the artwork in a problematic homogeneity on the level of skin colour. As Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks writes, ‘Visible difference in race has a contradictory function. If it protects against a lethal sameness, it also facilitates the possibility of that sameness through the fantasy of wholeness.’ Incoming proffers the inversion of this problematic sameness and thusly draws further attention to it; a collapsing of racial difference on unsteady ground that presents the artwork as something complete, whole, conceptually coherent, inasmuch as it represents the struggle of blackness only on the level of the visual. ‘Look at the struggle of black and brown bodies’, the artwork says. ‘Look at how the camera renders everything corporeal, as hot flesh. Look at how the technology removes whiteness from visual representation and therefore solves a problem’. Mosse has been duped by the camera: photography — and by extension technology and techniques of capitalist production — have since their inception, been looking for a way to normalise whiteness; to render it invisible so as to become wonted, habitual, normative beyond doubt.

Allow me a short aside: as corporate-state power itself disappears into simulation — a thing with no connection to reality — camera technology reclines whiteness into the safety of the background. If the direct presentation of facts is considered useless by the neoliberal state in its quest to reaffirm its own power (our so-called post-fact era), so too is the direct visual representation of people of colour considered an unnecessary “truth” by the neoliberal camera technologies of the 21st century. The camera of the mainstream media largely presents us either with the narratives of people of colour who are successful in their integration into white society (the tacit acceptance of white cultural hegemony), or those who have failed to do so (a rejection of white cultural hegemony), but rarely people of colour on their own social or cultural terms (which they should be freely allowed to enact at the expense of white culture). Neoliberalism no longer argues with the weapon of truth, of facts (for it is beyond them); the neoliberal camera no longer argues with direct representations of the cultural Other as separate from white lives (because it sees white lives as superior to coloured ones; because when coloured lives integrate into white society its sees them through a process of “becoming white”). ‘Racism’, neoliberalism says, ‘is over. Finished. And we don’t need the concept of whiteness anymore.’ This logic thus extends to the camera. As Steve Martinot writes in The Machinery of Whiteness (2010), ‘whiteness and white society can constitute themselves only by racializing.’ And so, like Kodak’s aforementioned racism, which eventuates through a process of circumvention, invalidation, and ineffectual remedy (which is a form of conceptual subversion), the story continues. This is the ultimate problem with Incoming: it reveals that the state itself is a more effective racist conceptual artwork. Thusly there is little practical use for this type of art practice within spaces of white cultural production today. It serves little purpose, and offers next to no direct anti-racist pedagogy or action as a result.

10. Richard Mosse Incoming, The Curve, Barbican Centre, Tristan Fewings (9)

How can we name this process of unconscious racism? We might call it the white unconscious. Lacan’s theory of the unconscious articulates a split within a subject through two concepts: the “mirror” stage and oedipalisation. In Écrits (1966), Jacques Lacan’s collected writings, he names the Unconscious ‘the discourse of the Other’. As Richard Seymour writes in his essay The white unconscious (2015), ‘The small “other” is an other like me, another ego with desires and gratifications like mine, or an object from which I can derive satisfaction, something which I encounter in the domain of the imaginary and which I can easily assimilate. The big “Other” is something more radically alien, which is encountered in the realm of the symbolic — indeed, it precisely is the symbolic order as it affects each particular subject, and as it mediates relations with other subjects.’

It is in language that we see these ideas come to life. Speech and language are the big Other, because they are not living things. Simply: the small other is another ego (another person like you); and the big Other is the unconscious, in as much as it is a question of language and parole. Why is speech said not to be living? Because it escapes control. Language is slippery; it’s meaning is different from context to context. It is not a concern of the ‘thinking cogito’, as Seymour puts it, ‘but some other locus beyond consciousness’.

With specific regard to race, Seymour calls this the white unconscious. ‘The point about “Whiteness” therefore seems to be this: inasmuch as it is strangely absent from discourse yet still determining, inasmuch as these absences have a structural effect within the discourse, it makes sense to speak of a white unconscious. “Whiteness” in this sense is, in Seshadri-Crooks’s terms, “an unconscious signifier, one that generates a combinatory with its own set of inclusions and exclusions that determine the subject. To be raced is to be subject to the signifier Whiteness.”’ This is useful for a discussion of the problems of Mosse’s artwork inasmuch as it fails to confront — to produce a critical ethics — of its own relationship to whiteness. It is strangely absent from his discourse of Othering, yet determines our reading of the work. With Incoming, Mosse’s representation of the big cultural Other is no doubt a question of language, and therefore representation.
Within the context of theories of the photographic image — which of course borrow from psychoanalysis and semiotics — this speaks to the difference between reality and representation. A photograph is not itself reality, but a representation of it. Roland Barthes called the slipperiness of language a thing composed of obtuse meanings in relation to the photographic image. Photographic images are obtunding, dull. They have blunt (malleable) meaning. This bluntness is wedged between the world and the photograph. This is photography as a semiotic discourse opposed to realism. If realism says that a photograph is the same thing as reality, a semiotic reading of photography says that reality is distinct from representation; that in between reality and representation is this obtunding thing. What seems to be important here is the way in which the slipperiness of the meaning of photographic images seeks to misrepresent the cultural Other in Incoming. How might a theory of the white unconscious be more specifically applied to a world of photographic images?

For Incoming, then, the site of its conceptual problem is a question of the way in which the small other — the imaginary — and the big Other — its symbolism through the photographic image as a form of language, comes to interact. As I mentioned above, Incoming’s removal of racial difference on visual terms alone, does not remove racial difference symbolically. Scopophilia describes the pleasure of looking, a translation of Freud’s Schaulust, a curiosity to see what is happening. In his essay Techno-Scopophilia (2009), Charles Soukup compares the scopic drive to look and find pleasure, with an obsession with new technology in film. He writes: ‘in an era of agonizing and ubiquitous militaristic violence, techno-scopophilia portrays military technology as erotic, glamorous, and desirable.’ It is through this process of techno-scopophilia as it relates to the white unconscious that Incoming can be understood.

The essential political question at stake here is the extent to which white privilege “speaks for” the cultural Other. Mosse engages this idea of speaking for (as opposed to with or to), seeing his practice largely as an act of social salvation, of humanism. By creating this work and installing it in the Curve for an audience of largely white gallery-goers, these individuals can be “saved”, and thusly through this act of drawing attention to the migrant subjects the film pictures, they — the artwork says — can be “represented”. Alcoff warns us of this approach in The Problem of Speaking for Others (1991), and it seems we might read it as a good description of Mosse’s approach to Incoming: ‘in a situation where a well-meaning First World person is speaking for a person or group in the Third World, the very discursive arrangement may reinscribe the “hierarchy of civilizations” view… This effect occurs because the speaker is positioned as authoritative and empowered, as the knowledgeable subject, while the group in the Third World is reduced, merely because of the structure of the speaking practice, to an object and victim that must be championed from afar, thus disempowered.’

7. Richard Mosse Incoming, The Curve, Barbican Centre, Tristan Fewings (4)

Mosse’s disappearing of whiteness in Incoming, his “championing from afar”, is a way of developing too simple a form of “speaking for others”, by focussing only on the technological depiction of Others, and not looking carefully at the role of whiteness in the ritual of speaking, the discourse or conversation between the powerful and the oppressed. Mosse speaks for Others, rather than to or with them. His voyeuristic and distanced “capturing” of the migrant subjects is not Incoming’s success but its failure. Alcoff continues: ‘We should strive to create wherever possible the conditions for dialogue and the practice of speaking with and to rather than speaking for others. If the dangers of speaking for others result from the possibility of misrepresentation, expanding one’s own authority and privilege, and a generally imperialist speaking ritual, then speaking with and to can lessen these dangers. Often the possibility of dialogue is left unexplored or inadequately pursued by more privileged persons.’

What is to be done? Should white photographers or artists not engage? They can, and they should, but on specific terms relating to a sense of white awareness — a phrase engaged in Judith Katz’s notable study White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training (1978). Rather than focus on the pronoun “they”, I want to consider this with the plural nominative pronoun “we”, as it is the subject of action we should consider. It is for white people to look inside themselves and confront their own whiteness, as Cornel West writes in I’m Ofay, You’re Ofay (1997): ‘Who do you see in the
mirror in the morning? What do you see in your face? What’s in your soul? Ask yourself, “What makes me a moral person and a politically committed person?” And if you’re serious about combating evil and suffering, then the vicious legacy of white supremacy is something you take a stand against.’ However subtle our racism, however much we think it should be given another name, it is in the hands of white people, at both local and global levels, to consider a critical approach to whiteness. One might write critically; others might make photographs or film. Either way, this does not mean we control representation: words and images are slippery, but we can do more; think about their meanings; extend our work into a form of anti-racist pedagogy. Is this enough? No. But we can start by activating it within our communities. As Alcoff writes of these ideas in the conclusion to The Future of Whiteness, ‘We have to engage with them, openly, directly, and straightforwardly.’

Incoming’s issues are political ones, and they are ones that effect all relatively privileged white people making artistic work about the migrant crisis, or indeed race. My point is in a sense simple: if, as a white artist, one cares about the welfare of people of colour trapped in one of the many aftermaths of Western imperialism, there are more important, and less important, forms of artistic work that need be done. It’s a question of resources: if one has them, use them to help as directly as possible — engage in a direct form of anti-racist pedagogy (as I hope I have done here), rather than abstract from it. Stipulate rather than create grand narratives, because that is infinitely more important in the present time than the legacy of one’s artistic career and the spaces of bourgeois culture in which one exhibits one’s work. We must question our biased frameworks of commendation. The new documentary canon is riddled with this form of postured superficiality, and identifying with its conceptual turn does not justify — nor hide from those that might be critical of it — an artist’s attempt to perform a certain type of cursory political work with regards to race.

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. @DanielCBlight


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