“Speaking from a Wound”: Jesse Darling on Faith, Crisis, and Refusal

Jesse Darling, "Gun1," (detail) 2014/2016. Image courtesy of the artist.
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Over the past year, I’ve had considerable difficulty maintaining my faith in art. In the short version of this introduction to an interview, I would follow that sentence with “… so I talked to Jesse Darling.” Though I’ve been interested in their practice for years, I have never actually seen any of Darling’s work in person – I’m familiar with the London- and Berlin-based artist mainly through their various writings, install and studio images online, and from their social media. This is fairly appropriate for an artist who achieved recognition as a (dissenting) participant in what most of us now rather sheepishly recall as the “post-internet” moment. It’s worth remembering, though, that six or seven years ago, a lot of people sincerely believed (mea culpa) in the internet and social media as a democratizing, hierarchy-busting force for good in the world. Now that the algorithmically-driven, socially-networked attention economy has facilitated the rise of the Alt-Right and catapulted the living embodiment of plutocratic, white-supremacist patriarchy to the U.S. presidency, things look rather different.

While it would be too much of a stretch to say that Darling predicted any of this, they were a prescient critic of the toxic masculinity and neo-colonial impulses that accompanied so much of the traffic in net-native culture from browser to gallery. If Darling avoided the speculative rush to capitalize and co-opt that swept up many of their peers, they’ve also dodged the swift neutralization and obsolescence that’s followed. In their fiercely intelligent commentary as much as their poignantly precarious sculptures, Darling has been enduringly concerned with the vulnerability of the body in space as much as the dispersal of the nerve system across digital networks. In this time of ascendant reaction and difficult reckoning, we are constantly reminded of the artworld’s complicity with dirty money, predatory sexism, and entrenched racism. But this is also to assume that there is any such monolithic thing as “the artworld.” Talking with Jesse Darling, I was also reminded that art is so much bigger than “contemporary art,” and that you don’t have to believe in one to believe in the other.

First, I want to ask about what you’ve been working on lately – or, maybe, not working on. What have you been planning, or occupying your time with?

Having latterly lost the full use of some of my limbs, I’m confronted with the ableist machismo of the values that used to animate my sculpture practice: ideas of “hard work” and “DIY” and “the gesture,” all of which are just variations on problematic inherited ideologies, unquestioned until now, that generationally provided the worker/settlers of my family with a sense of their own worth in the world. I felt I had a lot to prove, tied into insecurities about my own gender and class identity. But if I had a point to make, I guess I made it. Though this isn’t my first time around with chronic pain and malfunction, signifiers of the disabled, damaged, or prosthetic body kept showing up in my work somehow despite me. Now I am trying to think and work towards a non-macho sculpture practice by gathering and assembling small objects in narrative formulations, and learning to draw with my left hand. I’ve been thinking about modernity and prosthetics, and the idea of learned versus “automatic” behaviors – both of which are almost always the product of structures and mechanisms outside of the self.

Jesse Darling, “Domestic Terror,” 2016.

Do you feel like this last year or so has been fundamentally different for you, as an artist? In North America, Trump’s election feels like a momentous calamity that changed everything, though I imagine that in the UK and Europe, it probably feels more like one link in a longer chain of dismaying events. Has the recent political climate shifted the way you think about your art, or impacted the way you work at all? Or would you say that events in your personal life have cast a longer shadow?

The year before Trump and Brexit was a dark night of the soul for me in which I was struggling to find any value in the rigged game of the artworld and began thinking that art is a sort of compulsion or neurosis – at least as it functions encoded by capitalism – an activity with no productive value yet something one can’t stop doing. I wondered aloud, alone and in collaboration with others, how these compulsions could be reified or legitimized as rituals in the sense of a religious observance: ecstatic witnessing, as it were. At this time, I was doing a lot of teaching, trying to help students locate their wound and speak from it, and trying to show up for people with the idea of one’s work as the alibi but also as the common factor through which we try to speak to one another or the world. In this way, I truly believe in art: its objects and engagements. But I worried about that, too; was I part of a fucked and privileged system invested in producing elitist discourse?

When Trump was elected I thought I should do something. I felt as an artist I wasn’t doing enough. All the arts-against-Trump stuff felt so feathered and impotent. I thought about what I’m trying to do when I’m teaching and considered retraining as a multi-faith minister: not to preach a gospel but to gain access (to hospitals, schools, refugee centers, prisons, hospices), and to just show up for people, not as a representative of any organization or faith but as a representative of … I want to say humanity but this word is tainted by the modern colonial project, as with most words and concepts I necessarily use, having no other. I wanted a way to circumvent the protocol, and to address people’s needs at the level of the encounter. But I want to acknowledge here that the idea of a multi-faith priest is one of those homeless notions that makes no sense to those who already practice a faith in their communities. And I didn’t do it, in the end; the training is long and expensive, and life got in the way.

In terms of the work itself, I continued thinking hard about how to talk about The Problem without trying to exonerate or align oneself: without positing the Other as the object, which is a frequent strategy in leftist art practice. It always bums me out for its coolly violent, anthropological distance to the figure of the refugee or the subaltern: paternalistic orientalism at its most well-intentioned. For sure it’s easier for white Anglo-American artists to talk about the fascist or the Klansmen as a different kind of Other; but I’m more interested in complexity and complicity, the libidinality of the investment through which we allow violence to continue. Whiteness as automated, as traumatic reenactment. A wound indeed. Trying to face up to death somehow: the end of a rotten epoch whose whole project was to banish death.

Becoming a parent brought me in touch with the continuum more than anything else; carrying a fetus, the body contains life and death in equal measure. I had already started crossing over, using testosterone, etc. when Lux came along and I had let some of my feminisms lapse as though they were someone else’s problem. Only through the experience of pregnancy and childbirth did I fully understand how deep and total is my culture’s own hatred and fear of women (usual caveats apply for use of this term: I mean people with and without a uterus, who may or may not necessarily identify as women). This was some kind of awakening also.

I think part of the ambient fear and anxiety of the past year – aside from simple worry about what will happen next – is the impossibility of formulating a coherent idea of how to move forward when the forces of reaction have usurped so much power. The response from the art establishment (ie. big curators and major art events) has been distressingly similar to the centrist pundit class: pure hysteria and denial, ineffectual fantasizing about how to reinstate the previous status quo rather than facing up to the essential rottenness of things.

Yes. Most of the establishment art class doesn’t really care about art, I think; in some ways you’d think there’s no skin in the game for them. But I guess the very existence of the artworld as we know it is hoisted and buttressed by a suspended set of values that must also collapse with the fiction of liberal democracy. And it’s complicated because without the whole circus, none of our work means a thing. The objects become totemic, faith trophies or whatever – at best, that is. At worst, it’s all just a bunch of worthless junk full of stolen tropes and cynical jokes. Most of the problems we spend our time discussing in the artworld are not real problems; they’re philosophical or theological conceits, really, and nothing will change through the value-production-industrial complex of endless panel discussions. The world as we know it may very well be ending, not in the Alt-Right, accelerationist sense but in the Wildersonian afropessimist sense; this would mean the end of the artworld too, of course. We would all have to find some other way to make a living if making a living was still something one did. And/or we would give ourselves wholly to the business of life. There are artistries in everything. But I think again of faith, somehow necessary where art is not. In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower the main character Lauren Olamina is what I would call an artist, and this helps her survive apocalyptic conditions where others cannot.

Well, on that note, how are you surviving? What is it like to make art in these conditions? On a personal, practical level, how do you cope with life?

I cope through evoking an imagined community, burning with probably quite risible faith in what I do, not spending much money, trying to be grateful, and practising pleasure where possible.

Jesse Darling, “Collapsed Cane,” 2018.

It seems to me that people who have real insight into how to deal with this anxiety and combat its root causes are people for whom this vulnerability is not new – for example, queer and POC advocacy groups, labor organizers, as well as people with disabilities or chronic health problems (especially when they’re organized to advocate for themselves). On the other hand, people with these kinds of vulnerability are also doubly victimized by not having the time or resources to deal with their primary level of violence/pain/repression. Artists, meanwhile, (despite being accustomed to precariousness) are mostly unfamiliar with this kind of collective organizing. Artists are trained to be hyper-individualistic, high-functioning neurotics – ie. to be really good at exploiting themselves. And I think this hyper-functioning also encourages the denial I was talking about before. For artists who are really facing up to the reality of things, what options are there other than withdrawing from a corrupt system? Where is the place for a non-compromised art and what does it look like?

Before I was an artist I lived for many years in squat scenes, running kitchens and making community zines and parties. We didn’t call the cops, didn’t see doctors, didn’t work with external contractors: every need could be met from within the community, from plumbing to translation, and many people lived there who could not or would not survive “topside” in civic life. I learned a lot about social organizing: mainly how not to do it, but there were some takeaways too. I came back to London and started setting up these big share houses as “living projects,” mostly, I think, to convince people without the same political/ideological background to join my project of sharing resources as a household, which was my only model for living. I’ve since regretted subsuming these living strategies into what I once called an art practice, and would not do it now. If I were to organize, I would not do it as an artist but as a body alongside other bodies.

Making public my own vulnerabilities and inconsistencies was a decision: something, at least, that I felt I could defend politically in opposition to the “hermetic masculine” of “phallic modernity” – and this acknowledgement of the ongoing crisis of life under capitalism was part of what I called my practice. But at some point, I attempted to remove my own story from the work and also from the discourse around the work (an ongoing project). My gender, my disability, my lover/s, and my kid are not for curation (but here I am listing these things in correspondence with a journalist!). In this sense, I have already partially withdrawn, or at least have attempted a refusal. And there may be no such thing as non-compromised art but it’s what I call the work I came here to do. If there were no sense left in referring to that work as art I would think about it differently, but in some way I would continue. And the artworld is only an extension of the real world. I do feel like a missile when feeding my baby under the green sign of Starbucks with mobility cane and all the androgynous sports gear I’m probably too old to carry off: the very repudiation of what liquid-modern neoliberalism demands of its laborers, to remain young, lean, legible, capable, flexible. Wearing my wounds on the outside and flanked by what slows me down. “We are undone by one another,” wrote Judith Butler, and I keep that tucked into my heart. I mean that, as a parent and caregiver, I became fungible; as a failing body I joined the collective failure of all bodies, and from this position full of holes I stream out towards the holes in others and in this way, we might breathe one another, feed one another, flow through one another and sometimes fill up.

Jesse Darling’s solo exhibition, Support Level, opens January 21 at Chapter NY.

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