When uncertainty and anxiety are the driving forces of my art practice, it is exciting to see entire exhibitions devoted to the subject, such as “Uncertain Spectator” at EMPAC and “Publics and Counterpublics” at Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo. What follows is a brief excerpt from an essay on the conceptual tactics of anxiety that drive my art practice.
Anxiety is a noncathartic feeling that has had no legacy of inspiring Greek tragedies, operas or epic novels. It is among literary theorist Sianne Ngai’s taxonomy of “ugly feelings” that “could be said to give rise to a noncathartic aesthetic: art that produces and foregrounds a failure of emotional release (another form of suspended ‘action’) and does so as a kind of politics” (2005: 9). Ngai traces the spatialization of anxiety not as a matter of interiority, but as a vertiginous in-between of unarticulated insides and outsides. The self-reflective agitation of anxiety, she argues with some contempt, has become the “distinctive ‘feeling-tone’ of intellectual inquiry itself” in the modern era (Ngai 2005: 215). Anxious intellectual inquiry turns rationality into an inconclusive oscillation. It is the antecedent to absurdity, which is similarly noncathartic in its complete suspension of reason and failure to cohere.
I am more interested in disruption as an artistic strategy rather than in the catharsis of shock, which often narrows the nuance of response. The intention to shock is a form of manipulation, funneling the audience to one margin or another and narrowing the nuance of response. More often than not, the most interesting issues raised by shocking artworks are silenced because the audience is preoccupied with the emotional tumult of offense, the smugness of identifying with the naughty perpetrator, or disinterest because the artwork is not extreme enough. Polarization fails to recognize the tendency of individuals to waver, to be hypocritical and uncertain, to fail even amidst our best intentions, to be stumped. Certainly, épater la bourgeoisie is at times the necessary and effective approach, and shock is measured with an entirely subjective Geiger counter. But for the insidiousness of the biopolitics I address in my practice, discomfort and ambiguity are richer political territory. The self-reflective agitation of anxiety provides no emotional release. Instead, rational intellectual inquiry oscillates without conclusion.
Art that reveals the boundaries of our anxiety without pushing us to one edge or another instead invites confusion, and perhaps opens into transformation through contact, contagion and encounter. In my art practice, I endeavor to develop sites of potential with concern and responsibility, yet the resolution of intellectual inquiry becomes the task of the audience. It offers discursive conflict without final reconciliation. The artwork may not occasion satisfaction or offer the absolution of guilt through participation. But in revealing layers of ambiguous emotions, it opens a space to confront uncertainty and form responsibilities in an embroiled world of permeable, distributed biota. Anxiety is illuminating.
Excerpted from Life Cycle of a Common Weed: Reciprocity, Anxiety and the Aesthetics of Noncatharsis, Caitlin Berrigan, 2009.
Ngai, Sianne. 2005. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Caitlin Berrigan