Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century
(Melville House, 2015)
Nato Thompson’s Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century is, though acutely titled, a confusing piece of writing. Initially I was intrigued: boldly colored sleeve, large title in capitals, and rave endorsements on the back cover: “Nato Thompson is a genius” (Trevor Paglen); “Like an updated version of John Berger’s groundbreaking Ways of Seeing” (Gregory Sholette). I only crossed Berger’s beautiful book off my list of must-reads for the first time last October. I say beautiful due to the fact that it is a supremely written piece of literature. A bit like Kahlil Gibran with The Prophet, Berger delivers truths that are so essential you feel as though you have known them all along although they may not have taken a conscious form. Ways of Seeing was first published over forty years ago (1972), but Berger’s observations still bring something new to the table, in stunning prose. Seeing Power also delivers some elemental truths, but not so eloquently. I will stop my cross-assessment of both books, as they are simply not on the same plane, but bear with me as I reiterate: please, never judge a book by its cover; endorsements should not be trusted—especially when the reviewers (Paglen) are featured in the last chapter of the book.
In his introduction, Thompson explains what he sets out to do in Seeing Power, clarifying that it “isn’t a typical book about art [but] a somewhat unusual combination of philosophy and practice.” I see this as a sort of disclaimer for what follows: a confusion of genre. Seeing Power mainly reads as a series of essays forced together without an overarching structure, but it is also part nostalgic autobiography, curriculum vitae, survey of art and activism, related works, and interventions. Thompson’s main conclusions center around discussions of political or activist art categorized within a conflicting dichotomy of ambiguity and didacticism, subverting existing institutions or infrastructures, “seeing power” (or an awareness of power dynamics within a specific system) and the creation of alternative spaces. Although presented in seven chapters, Thompson’s claims are introduced with far too many disconnected subheadings—“So, really, who means what they say?” is followed by “Money and professionalism”—which rather than clarify his research, practice, or philosophy, impose superfluous labels, confusing readers in an alreadydisjunctive read.
Thompson’s book is both easy to digest and difficult to read. On the one hand, Seeing Power can be read voraciously, because it presents few illuminating statements apart from several examples and some terminology. It merely restates exhausted discussions (the concealed fallacy of large art institutions, the process of gentrification). On the other hand, it proves a taxing read, since Thompson fails to take you anywhere and his findings are relatively uncontroversial among his presumed audience, (here’s hoping we all share a level of disillusionment over the behavior of large corporations). Furthermore, the writing is often subpar: “The absence of clear meaning opens up a world without clear meaning.” A few hidden gems glimmer—like his classification of the Spanish anarchist group Yomango: “Robin Hood as illegal artist.”
Seeing Power needs editing and restructuring. It reads as a combination of musings, but the passages would be better suited to a collection of essays or something slightly more casual, like a book of thoughts or a diary record. As it is, it leans towards a personal account, not written as such: Seeing Power claims objective authority, but relies heavily on Thompson’s individual projects, exhibitions, and realizations.
The list of artists and works to look into is Seeing Power’s saving glory, but the book remains Western-centric even though most of the works included reference issues pertaining to the rest of the world, particularly developing countries and warzones. Thompson briefly mentions the Arab Spring, but Lebanese Walid Raad and the DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency) Palestine are the only artists, studios or residencies mentioned (among fifty-five American and European artists surveyed) that are actually based in the Middle East. (Contemporary political Arab artists and interventions are not in shortage—Mona Hatoum and the Lahza project (2006 – 15), for which 500 disposable cameras were given to 500 children living in Lebanon’s twelve official Palestinian refugee camps come to mind.)
Thompson calls for us, readers and artists, to “see power” and become conscious of the large institutions dominating our realities, but he presents a list of examples already subsumed and previously selected by the institution. There is a lot of material to address, but Thompson hasn’t delivered on scope. His first and fifth chapters are chiefly dedicated to Jeremy Deller’s It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq (2009) and Paul Chan’s 2007 production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in post-Katrina New Orleans, respectively—both projects Thompson was involved in. Furthermore, several examples referenced precede the 21st century. It is not to say that Thompson must strictly adhere to his title, but it reveals the futility of attempting to separate avant-garde movements away from their predecessors—activist interventions not only have echoes of happenings and the development of performance art, but also the rise of public protest in the 1960s and ’70s and the reclamation of public space in sit-ins and camp-outs (which Thompson mentions).
Although referencing the past, Thompson aims to demystify our present in order to change our future. He urges his audience to subvert infrastructures from within and work together to create new social spaces to facilitate engagement, thought, discussion, creation, and intervention. Although his requests are valid, Seeing Power is not a manifesto offering an alternative path the author himself takes that leads to a new avant-garde. Instead, it is a rather lackluster, cursory presentation of a reality we know we ought to change, but lack the vigor, passion, and drive to. Thompson explains these spaces of engagement as physical places providing “entirely unique and powerful [sets] of potentialities.”
Perhaps “potentialities” is the problem. Sadly I feel part of a generation (the notorious “millennials”) that can only be satisfied with direct results and tried-and-tested methods. Art schools are ideal places for discussions of our surroundings, our political and social realities, and our existence to propagate, but a greater concern for a romantic isolation of the arts triumphs. Most students do not seem to be concerned with realities beyond their own; they look inwards toward the personal, and to a bubble of art protected by faculty. It is a beautiful privilege to be a part of a place where things are scaled down to the process of creating, but it is also disconcerting. We need to be galvanized, and regretfully Seeing Power, a book of potentialities that just misses the mark, is not the source of inspiration we need and have yet to actively seek.