Essays Will Not Save Us // Amar Kanwar at MIT

Posted by Silver on November 22, 2011
Nov 222011

There are many interesting aspects of Amar Kanwar’s work that can be discussed in the context of Zones of Emergency, but I’d like to focus on just one: his use of highly spatialized, multichannel presentation of video and audio. As I’ve only viewed documentation of these works I’ve written a framework below as a speculative look into this aspect of his practice from the perspective of someone who has been using similar methods in sound.

If an artist tackles a subject with practical urgency, such as the humanitarian situation in Burma as Kanwar has, the formalizing impulse can often become fixated on communicating within a conventional, extremely direct syntax. This  syntax can widely be reduced to essay-like documentary formats in any media, following requisite dramatic thesis, argumentation, and conclusion. An “essay” in this sense is a language-based informational display which we’ve come to understand as having intrinsic and generalized communicative value and authority. The impulse to use such forms is a generous one – often it’s in the interest of communicating clearly in the hope of maximizing the possibility for reception.

But for all the essays written in text, and essay-like videos and films, music, etc.  humanity is still in a desperate situation. Seemingly, the kind of awareness and actionable information absorption that can be engendered through this medium has not saved us from violence, starvation, and resource wars. What is the mode of reception for such forms? How does it effect us? In what dimensions of our lives can we take that information? What is the artist’s responsibility when exposing an audience to extremely strong materials when action on the part of the audience can have questionable impact on the problem displayed yet the emotional response of the audience is lasting disturbance?

I would never contend that any communication method be expected to accomplish these feats of humanist transformation – but I make this statement as a reality-check for “raising awareness” or “inspiring” as the justifying outcome of an artistic response to crisis and the modes of communication it can privilege. Raising awareness iss a logic underpinning much of activist practice on both small and large scales and has had tremendous results (the HIV/AIDS awareness movement in the 1990s is a good example).  But the 21st Century has redefined the informational landscape to such an extent that we need to consider whether 20th Century strategies apply in the same forms for most actors reachable via art.

And to take this preamble one step further, essay-like manners of informational presentation are quite unlike the experience of time or the human experience of place. Imagine how one would walk through a forest in order to follow such a structure of argumentation – how could you listen to or perform this structure? Where it does occur in our daily experience is in the description of machine-like processes such as making a cup of coffee. But why would we communicate deeply with each other in terms of machine-logics? Kanwar said something similar in his talk regarding the use of “mainstream” communication strategies being a modality where the original information “loses its meaning”.

Events in our lives do unfold, and most human beings can generally agree that we experience time as passing, but we have no shared measure or language to describe speed, density, intensity, or multiplicity within this flow. Yet, the experience of ornately structured passages of time is perhaps the most basic format of experience (if we can even really speak of format for something as difficult to observe).

We should probe the hegemony of popular formal logic and time-based information structures (such a text) as a major limiting factor in communication. We should be open to the possibility that different formats are capable of engaging and activating new modes of awareness and for the information presented the modality offers entirely different “take-aways” and possible actionable informations for the visitor.

Kanwar comes from a more or less traditional social justice-oriented documentary film background but in recent years has left this form of display for much more layered approach that privileges alternative forms of experience and learning. In recent works he has shown eight to nineteen screens of video simultaneously, creating a constellation model of meaning making and an alternate view of what one documents and thereby shares with a public. In his talk he described his intention with his more recent formats as a way of representing “. . .the multiple senses of time that I observed were happening simultaneously”.

The visitor is invited to engage with a space that is filled with information and the possibility to navigate through it, engaging with both the material and the formal logic of the work. This type of approach is very compositional – in the sense that the materials become voices in a complex counterpoint of information that places the viewer in the position of reconciling. This is a position of empowerment that the artist takes – not to drag the viewer through their work as if reading an essay, but leaving space for breath, for considering, and for a melding between the inner forms of cognition that the viewer brings.

Kanwar takes this notion further by asserting the value of “poetry” as a means of asserting an opportunity for people to learn how to “see”. In his talk, he discussed his newest strategy as a exhibitions that aim to present evidence rather than tell a story or establish a position on a particular topic from the artist’s perspective. In this way he is linking the idea of poetic experience with a notion that truth can be conveyed – it’s hard to use the word “evidence” without implying the truth of what is presented in that context.

For artists concerned with social practice the examination of the form of reception as its own social model,  is often overlooked. Kanwar’s talk brought this to the surface in a very concrete way – it will be interesting to see where his ethical intentions and creative sensitivities take him in the coming years.