1942 Born Aldeburgh, Suffolk, UK
1965 BSc (Hons) Zoology, University of Durham
1976 PhD Faculty of Medicine, University of Newcastle upon Tyne
1977 BA (Hons) Fine Art, University of Newcastle upon Tyne
1989 – 1999 Assistant Editor/ Editor of Third Text
1977 – 2011 at various times and for various durations, taught Fine Art and/or Art Theory and Post/colonial Studies at: Reading University; Goldsmiths College; Byam Shaw School of Art; School of Visual Arts, NYC; SUNY Old Westbury, LI; Whitney Students’ Independent Study Program, NYC; Slade School of Art; Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht; Winchester College of Art; Middlesex University; Royal College of Art.
2011– : Professor Emeritus at Middlesex University
A concern with the world as an inter-related and interconnected ecosystem stems from my early zoological training, but it was later reinforced through my engagement with American Indian contemporary art and philosophical perspectives. The little set of stories, In the Domain of Crossed Destinies, derives from a couple of trips across the United States, which rekindled a distress about the wanton destruction of the natural world and the cultures that had been its guardians until recent times by a capitalistic system predicated on self-interest and greed. By this time I was a graduate of Fine Art and still regarded myself as a practising artist; but, becoming increasingly disaffected with the art world, I shifted gradually towards writing about certain strands of contemporary art, particularly from a transcultural perspective. Some of my thoughts on writing about art form part of the Introduction to my book of early essays, Vampire in the Text, 2003.
The visual art to which I have mostly gravitated is that which understands art as a social practice both terms of content and in its relation to the spectator-participant. That is, that the aesthetic sense of the work draws the viewer into an engagement with its contents, which open up a perspective to the ‘ethico-political’. This is in contrast to visual arts that privilege the transmission of a socio-political ‘message’ at the expense of aesthetic affectivity – they have a place, but are rather more dependent on prescriptive verbal language, which tends towards ‘information’ and even ‘propaganda’.
Amongst my first influences in considering this subtler aesthetico-political model of practice was the work of James Coleman. It was also in researching background to writing about Coleman’s work that I came in contact with Anglo-Irish colonial history and its legacies, which subsequently was extended to contemporary politics in Northern Ireland through the work of Willie Doherty in Derry. In the meantime, during my ten years sojourn in New York, the issue of on-going disenfranchisement of American Indians became a parallel concern. As Jimmie Durham, with whom I co-curated exhibitions of American Indian contemporary art, once commented, the Cherokee were likened to the ‘wild Irish’. It was apparent that despite differences in context, aggressive settler colonisation follows a certain pattern: the violent theft of land and property; corralling indigenous peoples into ‘reservations’ or ‘bantustans’ controlled by brutal settler militarised policing and repressive laws; cultural genocide whilst also appropriating native culture; the demonization of indigenous people as violent and backward; associated propaganda that represents the aggressors as the victims when the indigenous resist; persistent harassment of the survivors; and the cynical violation of all treaties and international declarations on human rights. I am by no means the first commentator to recognise the relationship between the USA’s treatment of American Indians and its condoning of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as if they too were American Indians. It is no surprise therefore that in recent years I have been drawn to the tragedy of Palestine, initially through the artist and writer Kamal Boullata, who first approached me in my capacity as then editor of the international journal Third Text.
Whatever ‘position’ I may have on visual art, it has rarely been polemical, but has developed firstly from encounters with artistic practices. It is impossible to say with any clarity why I am drawn to certain work, but it has to do with an aesthetic approach that is grounded in the perception of an organic sense of place, inhabitable and produced from lived experience, rather than an abstract, generic conception of space ‘waiting to be filled’. Here, the linguistic is closely articulated with the visual without taking precedence. Although art history was included in my studies as a fine art student, I avoided ‘contextualising’ artists in terms of an art historical genealogy of ‘influence’, which I regarded as an instrumental and quantitative way of thinking. To my mind, art was a form of knowledge production capable of incorporating elements of science, philosophy, the political and the social demonstrated through aesthetic parameters. For this reason my writings on artists’ work preferred to draw parallels with science, philosophy or literature rather than conventional art history. Admittedly, this has made much of my writing difficult to ‘categorise’.
Those writers that tend to recur across my essays on artists’ work, subject to specific context, are those that in some way speak of agency, and include Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel de Certeau, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Paul Ricoeur, Edward W Said, Michel Serres, and latterly the more recent work of Judith Butler and Jacques Rancière. A consistent inspiration has been the eminent sociologist Stuart Hall, whose moral support and contribution to the thinking of the British Black and Asian visual arts community could only be touched on in my brief obituary Stuart Hall, artist black intellectuals (Radical Philosophy, no.185, 2014, modified for the Guardian, May 20, 2014).
A persistent question has been, how art may work as a form of resistance and a means of reclaiming individual and collective agency? To this end, during the 1980s I became curious about the resurgence of the trickster figure, particularly in American Indian contemporary art and literature – not in anthropological or ethnographic terms, but as an actional trope within the structure and reception of art, which I have connected with Karl Kerényi’s notion of the Hermetic (after Hermes’ trickery), and which has parallels with other tropic figures, such as the Mexican female trickster tlacuache (opossum), the West African and Afro-Cuban versions of Eshu-Eleggua and the Arab-European troubadour. The effect of these figures, real and fictional, is to create unexpected openings onto new ways of perceiving and acting in the world. I have been trying to assemble a book of writings on this topic for more than ten years, but other commitments have persistently intervened!