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LIFE:ART - Experiences Of Being

Ed Carroll

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I often wonder what happens while trying to (re)visit and (re)present

cultural practice and production embedded in society. Time moves on
and the significance or value of an event, happening or manifestation
shifts. I have worked primarily as a co-producer in such practices and I
know how difficult it is to put language and expression to these
experiences. This difficulty and its accompanying attempt to generate
meaning partly explains why I developed the ‘Life:Art’ project (www. which was launched during Kaunas Biennial TEXTILE 09

In this article I will deal solely with three separate Irish projects that were
initiated by artists Seamus McGuinness, Ailbhe Murphy and Glenn
Loughran and involved working with many others, myself included, in
distinctive contexts. The first section of this article will document each of
the selected art practices, which have a civil orientation. The second
section will introduce an idea of civil society as a space to experience
being public with its potential for participation and reasonable discourse.
This section will also draw upon the writing of Emmanuel Lévinas whose
work questions the priority given to ‘thought’ and ‘thinking’ over and
above our dealings with our fellow human beings, in order to open-up
ideas about how to ‘value’ and ‘read’ cultural practices that produce an
experience of being public.

Production is a verb usefully employed to describe these cultural practices

below, though it is a term that contains an interesting paradox. It can
value the mechanics of the production process (e.g. a mural or
performance is produced). Simultaneously, it can value the aesthetic of
the process of cultural production, which is highly valued by the artist
initiators of these projects. This refers to the process of bringing to fruition
a final event, happening or manifestation through dialogue, negotiation
and collaboration. The paradox is how to value simultaneously the
‘content’ and the ‘context’ because making art is not simply about the
work produced and its preservation but about developing the capacity in
the society for cultural production. In this regard, Carmen Mörsch, who
guided the research programme carried out by educators at documenta
12, proffered some constructive advice from the Kassel experience:
‘Speaking about art is conceived as the inevitable, productive and forcible
inconclusive handling of a lack, a desire’ (Mörsch, 2009: v2:19). This idea
is particularly significant when it comes cultural practice as a platform to
mourn (Lived Lives, 2003-2009), to engage in discourse about
regeneration (Tower Songs: Fatima Mansions, 2005-2009), or to contest
the idea of who belongs in society (Literacy House, 2008-2009).

Viewing Culture Practice

# 1. Lived Lives Project

2003 in Ireland, 444 deaths were registered as suicide: 358 male and 86
female (Central Statistics Office, 2003). In the 15-24 year old age group,
108 people took their own lives: 92 male and 16 female. Suicide
surpasses road accidents as the principal cause of death for young males
in this age group.

McGuinness is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Medicine and

Medical Science, University College, Dublin and works under the
supervision of Prof. Kevin Malone at St. Vincent’s University Hospital and
Prof. Janis Jefferies of Goldsmiths, London.

This study examined Irish-lived lives, both male and female aged between
fourteen and forty-four years olds, lost to suicide between the years 2004-
2008. The process involved in-depth conversations with bereaved family
members and friends of over 104 suicide deceased over cups of tea in
their own homes.

During four days in June 2009, a private viewing of the art work (under
development) took place. The Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology Art
and Design was the site for the production, and about 20 staff and student
volunteers assisted the research team. The building was formerly a
seminary and its interior, a collection of small former cell-like structures
combined with large open spaces, was suitable in both scale and
atmosphere for the work. Over 100 people – families that engaged with
the project - made the journey by car, bus or train to Galway. For some it
was more than three years ago that they had picked up a phone and
agreed to participate in the research.

For the artist, bringing people together to view the works - or more
precisely the works in progress - helped to double-check his reading of
interview narratives, to observe and listen to family member responses
and to receive their permission to bring this work into the public sphere.
Each family had the chance to engage twice with the work, firstly
individually and collectively later in the week. It is the individual viewing
that will be my concern below.

In the first visit to the work the artist and the research team helped
mediate the encounter. Each family arrived at an agreed time and stayed
for over an hour. The artist introduced each work in what was an intensely
private individual experience, with the families only engaging with their
own donated materials. At the end of the visit bereavement counsellors
were on hand to meet with the families. What follows recalls each element
as it was encountered:

Signed Informed Consent Forms. This work consisted of 107 A4-sized

documents which covered the wall in the reception room. There was one
document, with the original signature, for each individual participant who
contributed to the research. This document is the contract between the
artist and the family/ friends, which outlined the responsibilities for both
the participating families and the artist. This protocol was agreed in
advance by the St. Vincent’s University Hospital Ethics Committee.
Because the art practice developed sideby-side with a scientific inquiry, all
the research participants gave permission, or informed consent, to use
images, names and other personal items of their deceased. In effect they
were prepared to waive their right to confidentiality and anonymity.
McGuinness explained, ‘By publicly stating, “Yes, my son, my daughter,
my brother died by suicide”, the stigma of silence is challenged. They
create the “Warp” for the story to be woven’ (Personal interview, 8th June
2009). Weaving process video installation. Next, the group walked a slow
journey down a long dark corridor before being introduced to the next
work. They entered a large room to watch a film. The film showed the
production process of 39 jacquard portraits of each of the deceased
members - each about 3 minutes in duration. The families donated the
images. The sound of the jacquard loom in production dominated the
room. The moving image began, the jacquard loom in production, the
reeds on the digital looms shuttling back and forth in real time. The image
froze, the mechanical shuttle suspended for a moment and then
resuming, the first name and age of the deceased spindling back and
forth bringing the face of the person into existence. One mother reacted,
‘The loom clattered into life. The shuttle raced over and back and John
was there just for a while for me to say goodbye properly at
moment with my son something so special (Artist correspondence from
mother). Another mother wrote afterwards, ‘For me it was like looking at
my child alive and then watching her die’ (Artist correspondence from

Lost Portraits Gallery. The families were directed into the Lost Portraits
gallery situated near the projection. It was a small white circular room in
which were installed 39 jacquard portraits of happy and beautiful young
people. McGuinness wanted to create ‘a portrait gallery, looking out to
the viewer, yet in absence - individually apart, yet collectively together’
(Artist Interview, 8th June 2009). The portraits were installed beginning
with the youngest - Rebecca, 14 years old – and ending with the oldest –
Hughie, 44 years old. Each portrait was installed at the actual height of
the individual. McGuinness (Interview, 8th June 2009) noted, ‘The
audience has to adjust so as to view the works(…) There were no corners
in this space for hiding or avoiding the gaze of the deceased(…)no corner
to hid, one simply had to engage’ (Personal interview, June 8th 2009).

Tapestries have always fulfilled the function of telling stories and are
‘suitable to witness to the sadness and sorrow of death by suicide’. A
mother succinctly recalled her experience: ‘I felt Fiona calling me over. I
stood in front of her and I put my hands at each side of her face. There
was nobody in the world but us’ (Artist correspondence with mother of
Fiona). Various family members caressed and kissed the tapestry with an
image of their dead child. Just like the human body, ‘it can be cut,
damaged and repaired, and ultimately both will disintegrate’. archive
print. Along the walls of one corridor was a long digital print banner (133
ft x 3ft). The image was a complete record of all donated items to the
archive, with the exception of photographic images. Seeing the line of
donated materials represented (books, toys, jewellery, etc.) a participant
remarked, ‘I didn’t understand it until I saw it in the context of all of the
photos. It made a touching catalogue of lives, of things, of the leftovers
when someone dies’ (Artist correspondence from families). archive films.
The family then walked into a small video-viewing booth. One of the short
films projected a favourite designer waistcoat once worn by the deceased.
A narrative of the interview with a family member speaking about the
deceased’s love for the suit accompanies the short archive film. With the
exception of the waist coat, all other short projections showed images of
the deceased.

Data boxes. Data boxes represented an interface between science and

art, an intervention by the art practice into the formal identification and
gathering of scientific data as part of the research study. Interspersed
were small video screens set into the filing boxes playing selected images
and voice recordings taken from the ‘interview’ process. The boxes
provided the first opportunity for the families and friends to listen to
narratives about the deceased through the eyes of the researchers.

Worn Worlds. This series of projections focused on the materiality of cloth.

The images were produced by using a micro lens on cloth donations to
uncover signs of the lived experience left on the cloth. The camera sought
out stains, torn frayed edges, unravelled stitches, etc. These markings
were projected at a large scale without narrative or sound. McGuinness
suggested, ‘By removing the functionality from the garment, the aesthetic
become fore-grounded and our attention is directed at the wearer.’
archive rooms. Then the group walked back along a corridor. They
climbed two flights of stairs, which lead into 39 individual archive rooms.
Each family visited their own dedicated archive room in which donations
were carefully exhibited. Many rooms had snapshots of the person and
friends and also other personal items. In some rooms the artist tested
curatorial devices while in others the donated items were simply re-
presented, with minimum artistic intervention.

One of the rooms had a waistcoat suspended on a coat hanger in mid-air

as well as some other items of significance, i.e. a medicine prescription
and anot-to-be-met medical appointment. In John’s room the artist
presented the donated items as a temporary memorial. The setting was
domestic, wall-papered just like his bedroom had been. He had retreated
there for the last few months of his life. According to his family, ‘The world
came to him to his bedroom.’ He rarely left what was for him a ‘safe
place’. The clothes of the deceased were installed suspended along with a
work uniform and a line of snapshots on the opposite wall. Playing quietly
on a portable TV set was a series of clips of John when he was alive, filmed
by his friend Bob, presenting images and sounds of John singing and
messing with friends - the normal activity of people his age.

It was in the archive rooms that the families had a great sense of
ownership. The families were not audience. They had become co-
producers of the work. Afterwards one family member remarked, ‘I loved
that each person had their own room … I guess I didn’t expect it to be as
much about us as about the people we had lost’ (Artist correspondence
from friend of Michael).

The idea that the work is as much about the people who are left behind by
the deceased as the deceased themselves captures an essential element
of the work. Finding a voice and confidence with which to use that voice
is no easy thing in a society where suicide is still stigmatised and
institutional failure goes unrecognised. An important aspect of the
aesthetic is to create the capacity for cultural action by families acting
collectively and politically.

# 2. Urban Regeneration: Fatima Mansions and Tower Songs


In this representation I draw upon a Zsuzsanna Szálka, thesis, A Case

Study of a Participatory Arts Project - Tower Songs Fatima Mansions
(Szálka, 2007: 18-38) in order to give the context of the work. Fatima
Mansions is located by the Grand Canal in Rialto, an area in the south
west inner city of Dublin. The estate was built in 1949 as part of a housing
solution for inner-city tenants. Beginning in the 1970s, unemployment,
low educational achievement and poor housing policies took root. By the
mid 1980s, the estate became known for its decaying living environment,
the easy availability of heroin and cocaine and mass unemployment
(Drudy and Punch in Szálka, 2007: 19). Despite these problems, Fatima
Mansions was always a coherent community. A landmark decision came in
2000 when the community organisation Fatima Groups United proposed a
community plan for social and physical regeneration. Dublin City Council
agreed with this proposal, albeit unwittingly. In 2003 Dublin’s first public
(Dublin City Council) private (Maplewood Elliot JV) partnership agreement
was signed for the regeneration of Fatima Mansions. Five blocks were
demolished in 2004, and in October 2005 the first residents moved into
their new homes. In 2005, a Social Regeneration Plan was implemented
covering eight themes worth €6.2m with the task of ensuring the
successful social regeneration of the community.

This is the context and the people about which Tower Songs started its
recording and documenting work in 2005. Tower Songs was an art project
initiated by artist Ailbhe Murphy in 2003. From 2006 until 2007, while
working as an arts programmer with CityArts, Dublin, I was responsible for
the Tower Songs Project. During that time I had a unique opportunity to
learn many things about artistic collaboration in context with others,
especially from the artist, the artist team and colleagues from Fatima
Mansions. It remains a long-term city-wide project which seeks to
celebrate through voice, sound and song the memory and experience of a
number of tower block communities across Dublin as they make their
transition from tower block living to major urban regeneration initiatives.
One night, on June 27th 2006, the residents of Fatima Mansions
(supported by Fatima Groups United) and the Tower Songs artist team
created an event to mark the final demolition of the flats in Fatima
Mansions. As residents of Fatima were settling into their new homes, the
flats were being demolished. The H & J blocks remained standing until the
end of June, and then the time came to say goodbye. The flats, once full of
life and sound, had fallen silent. The balconies where everyone stepped
out to chat, to hear, to watch, to call and to participate in life unfolding in
Fatima were empty and quiet. Neighbours, who are only next door in their
houses, nearby on the new streets standing at their gates, for a time felt
faraway. To mark this moment in Fatima, Tower Songs recreated an event
to bear witness to what balcony life did mean to the people who lived
there. On that night the balconies became a performance space, a
disused flat became a sitting room and the washing lines and bins became
filled with sounds.

In workshops prior to the event, residents made it clear that most of the
Fatima drama was carried out on and from the balconies. The event
involved the community on the night both as audience and participants
whereby residents helped to guide members of the public through what
was once Fatima Mansions.

The area was cordoned off and people gathered outside to gain entry.
Groups of thirty people were brought into the space and welcomed by
their community guide. While people waited, they heard a recording
facilitated by artist John Mahon involving children in the creche creating a
soundscape of local environmental sounds.

As soon as everyone was welcomed and divided into small groups by local
youth workers, they set off with their guides. The Tower Songs artist
team, Sean Millar, George Higgs and Brian Fleming, organised three sound
communities for the “Tower Songs: Fatima” event. Each sound
community was arranged in the H & J blocks, which were demolished
following the event.

The intention was for the audience to move amongst these communities,
for their attention to be drawn to the sounds. The space became a
tapestry of sound as the audience moved in and out of three sound
communities in sequence.

Upon entry the group stopped to look at an instrument called The

Fatimaphone, a hammer dulcimer created and played by George Higgs.
This instrument was con structed as a model of Fatima Mansions to which
the pre-recorded sounds (human and environemetal) gathered over the
last year around Fatima were added. Speakers for the sound installation
were placed apart from each other for spatial effect.

Then the groups were guided to a flat in which a group of young people
who had been facilitated by songwriter Sean Millar performed a song
called Faces are Still the Same. Using a Karaoke format the singing group
comprised of youth workers and teenagers who sang live while sitting on
a couch to the audience huddled together in the darkened flat. Finally,
each group moved across the yard and up to the first balcony to join in
the performance of the ‘Goodbye Song’. Thirteen women who were former
residents of the Blocks composed the song in collaboration with the artist
Sean Millar. Millar explained, ‘If the song had not functioned like a ritual
then it would have been useless’ (in Szálka 2007: 25 f33). People stood in
a line on the balcony and were asked to place their hands on the
shoulders in front of them. Accompanied by three string musicians the
song was performed up to twenty times during the night.

Speaking after the event, Jim Lawlor, the team leader of the youth project
in the area, noted, ‘The Tower Songs project has drawn in and lifted up
the voice of large numbers of residents. It has also helped craft and give
full expression to the distilled experiences of mothers, sons, fathers and
daughters in ways that have created pride, defiance and optimism’
(Conference Presentation, 30th November 2006).

# 3. Halting Sites for Travellers in Priorswood: The Literacy House


The idea of this project was to locate a temporary pedagogical site called
Literacy House. The idea formed slowly through conversations among key
participants in 2008. Located in Priorswood on the northern inner suburb
of Dublin city, the project was developed by artist Glenn Loughran and
women from the Priorswood Travellers Support Group. Priorswood
Community Development Project is part of the Irish Government
Community Development Programme, which was launched in 1990 by the
Irish Government with the specific aim of supporting local groups to
overcome problems of poverty and disadvantage. Aside from its role in
the local community as a resource centre, the centre also develops
programmes, using arts and culture, in response to local problems like
drug misuse and joyriding. TravAct, which is part of the Priorswood
Travellers Support Group, participated in the Literacy House Project which
was run largely by members of the Travelling Community.

Glenn Loughran’s work is part of a series of ‘hedgeschool’ projects, which

gives a historical reference to the education process beyond the
“legitimate” structure. In many countries this phenomena of illegal
education has related to keeping alive language, ethnic or religious
practices that were often outlawed by the ruling powers. It forms part of
his practice-based Ph.D. through the Graduate School of Creative Arts and
Media (

The work involved the placing an old mobile home, often referred to as a
‘trailer’ by Travellers, in different locations throughout the area and its
gradual renovation into a temporary space for education and art. For
those who are not familiar with Traveller culture, a description by an
American visitor to the project is helpful. Con Christenson (Email
communication dated 17th August 2009) noted:

The Travellers are what many call Irish gypsies, but I learned they are not
descended from the Roma people of Eastern Europe(…) Traveller
culture is rooted in Catholicism, preserves its history through
storytelling, deals with debilitating prejudice and other social issues
and is now looking at how to maintain of a traditional lifestyle
challenged by everything modern.
The complex negotiation of site permission to place the trailer in different
locations and subsequent renovation of the trailer became a point of
departure for a pedagogical process with Traveller women. Each
participating group discussed the difference between inclusion and
belonging and these conversations became the driving force behind the
project. It led to a series of reflections and home-grown publications about
its meaning with reference to family, halting sites, education,
employment, the state and citizenship. For Loughran,

The focus is placed on the will of the individual to find out something for
oneself and to teach it to their neighbour without aid of a master.
Emphasis is on ‘the group, not a teacher, researching and taking
ownership’. The process started with each member researching ‘how to
make a book’. Once the book was made it was used to collect the
resulting research material. From this point on the group considered how
the space might look like and function as an adult literacy space. To do
this each member researched how to change or reconstruct a part of the
space. The content of the books explored what it meant to ‘belong’ and its
polar opposite ‘not belonging’. Specifically barriers such as inadequate
housing and literacy became important subject matter in the books.

At the end of each discussion, the group was then asked a series of
questions relating to the group process and the work produced. These
interviews are edited together and provide the basis for explaining the
project and process to the next group in the next site. As each group also
produced a series of art books, the formal process realised the production
of over twelve books that collect the research process, which have been
used to develop literacy skills and give expression to the stories and
debates emerging from the process.

Loughran took his cue from Jacques Ranciére’s study The Ignorant
Schoolmaster (1991: 39). Here Ranciére’s idea of emancipatory learning is
to engage the totality of human intelligence in each intellectual
manifestation. He argues that much of the benevolence of education
towards ideas of citizenship and equality actually has done 66little to alter
the problems associated with educational disadvantage (1991: 101).

One can teach what one doesn’t know. A poor and ignorant father can
thus begin educating his children: something must be learned and
all the rest related to it. On this principle: everyone is of equal
Ranciére’s main objective is to develop a political theory that could be
used to reevaluate the concept of equality and build a theory of radical
equality. He argues that the state cannot allow or produce this
progressive kind of pedagogy because education is controlled by the
system (Ranciére, 2004: 223).

Loughran (Email communication, 10th August 2009) communicates the

work as a process evolved by negotiation, conflict and discussion, but
above all, marked by a sense of necessity.

There is something quite subtle here. This process takes the risk of
allowing the politics come from an otherwise mundane process. And
it does. Because to discuss equality in education you do not need to
add politics, because its politics is ‘who teaches who and why’.

To Value Cultural Practice

These cultural practices described above are distinctively home-grown

Irish experiences developed in the context of an experience of personal or
social fracture. By (re)presenting these practices I rely on the reader to
make one’s own sense of the work based on one’s experience elsewhere.
At best I have tried to communicate the lived experience so as to open up
for consideration how to ‘value’ the work. In order to develop vantage
points I want to suggest that these practices have an inherently civil
orientation where civil can be taken to mean the creation of a space to be
human and in relationship with each other.

While I worked with City Arts Centre during its Civil Arts Inquiry
(www.cityarts. ie), the idea of civil society came to be understood through
dialogue, cultural production and publication. The Inquiry involved an
eighteen-month period (20022004) of art programming and reflection
about the role of art and society. During the Inquiry, the English
philosopher Anthony Grayling (Civil Arts Inquiry 2003: 30) proffered a
perspective on the role of originating experiences in civil society. He
identified a qualitative shift away from a savage existence to one which
can be termed ‘civilised’. The crucial moment takes place as the focus of
celebration and honouring shifts from that of ‘the warrior to the civic
virtues’. In Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Orestes, son of Agaenon who was
pursued by the Furies because he had murdered his mother
Clytemnaestra in revenge for the murder of his father, appeals for mercy
and Athene summons a thousand citizens to sit in judgement on his case.
Thus, a new process is introduced which is about being human with each
other rather than the power of force or privilege.

Society, which gathers human multiplicity, grows quantitatively from the

family to one in which the good social order finds a basis through civil and
political representatives. Order, as an experience lived and meaningful
and as a basis for being with others, necessitates participation and the
means for reasonable discourse.

But how is participation and discourse in public possible when people

retreat from the social because of fear and anxiety about security,
financial crisis, institutional corruption and abuse? Anger is directed at
institutions such as the state, church and judiciary and at individuals
including foreigners, migrant workers and refugees. Throughout European
democracies, there is growing fear and cynicism towards participation in
civil society. This leads to a question: how can we (re)introduce civility
into societies especially when the experience of being-in-public and the
faculty of being civil is in need of shoring up after a long period of
dormancy? 70

In order to elaborate further on how civil society can be created out of

experiences of fracture, I want to begin with two illustrations, one from
the past (c.2000BC) and one a contemporary (2009) context. The first
extract comes from an Egyptian coffin text entitled Dispute of a Man with
His Soul (Voegelin, 2004: 194-196). Here are two tristichs:

To whom can I speak today?

One’s fellows are evil;
The friends of today do not love.

To whom can I speak today?

Faces have disappeared:
Every man has a downcast face towards his fellow.
Here is a commoner, not a Pharaoh, who doesn’t want to live in the
present empire. In Egyptian society, the concrete representative of order
(the sun god Re) is found in the Pharaoh. At the time of this poem there
was a period of political and social breakdown due to the ineffective rule
of the Pharaoh. The texts illustrates that the experience of anxiety
manifested in public is always a concrete experience of existence in time
and place, and in some cases the breakdown may produce new attempts
to find a new basis for being in society.

The second European illustration is from a text spoken by a protagonist in

Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Guests, a commission for the Polish Pavilion at the
53rd Venice Biennale. Projections were framed behind a set of large
windows and roof lights located in the pavilion. Wodiczko incorporated a
series of monologues into the projections, which were heard by using
headphones. Shukri Sahil, speaking in Arabic, described his experience
seeking political asylum in Poland after fleeing Libya.

Hello. Yes. I’m from Poland now, in Warsaw. I stayed in prison a month, in
Brussels. They put me on a plane accompanied by two big men and
sent me to Warsaw… In Warsaw I applied for asylum as soon as I
learned about it… They kept throwing me from one country to
another. Like a ball; using the ‘Dublin criteria’ (Dublin Convention)
as an excuse. Come here, go there. They don’t care what you feel;
they just make you feel unwanted.
The strain of coping with the order of life is common to both texts.
Something is not quite right. Both illustrations assume the breakdown of a
sense of community in a society. Absence is predicated by
precariousness, a desire for freedom from alienation and isolation yet also
an imprisonment. Suspicion and mean-spiritedness abound. Both
protagonists, due to the injustice of the context, are unable to awaken or
experience an individual or collective faculty of being in society. At its
most basic level, this faculty encompasses how to be human and in
relationship with others. One thing is certain - without this intuitive
faculty, located in the common sense of the individual in society, it is not
possible to speak about ‘civil society’.

The cultural practices described above echo Joseph Beuys’s famous

statement, ‘Everyone is an artist,’ by the way they reworked the common
perception about the relationship between art, artists and society. Declan
McGonagle, who directed the Civil Arts Inquiry, argues (McGonagle 2008)
that making art is not simply about production of work and the
preservation of products in museums and galleries. Making art is not a
private but rather a public venture, which is concerned with developing
the capacity for cultural production in society. In other words it is also an
act of agency for others where the artist uses his/her artistry to create a
civil space, a platform to witness, protest, contest and participate. The
establishment of a platform to mourn or to construct a new cultural
discourse about ‘regeneration’ or ‘belonging’ highlights the need and
value of unmooring from a static notion of cultural practice. The valuing of
truth about form, technique or artistry, which is the overriding concern of
some art criticism, is deficient when it comes to reading the cultural
practices described above. These practices are almost invisible to this
type of truth. At question here is not which theory to apply but how to
ventilate and value all that the experience of the cultural practice
manifests. Here I want to draw upon a philosophical insight from
Emmanuel Lévinas, the French philosopher who was born in Kaunas,
Lithuania in 1906 and died in 1995, just a few weeks short of his ninetieth
birthday. Of course, his work has no direct recourse to the cultural
practices herein, nor do I engage with it as a dogmatic formula, which can
have universal application. Human experience does not work in that way.
Rather, my intent is to develop some supportive armature in order to have
a discourse that values these cultural practices.

Towards An Experience Of Being Public

The connection I wish to draw between the discussion so far and the
Lévinas’s philosophical insight concerns his orientation towards being for
others and his perspective on the neighbour and the stranger in society.
He never used the phrase ‘civil society’, but the experience of proximity
to the other is closely bound to the idea I propose for civil society. Also,
his writing and ideas have particular resonance with the cultural practice
outlined above as Lévinas resisted a solely egobased understanding of the
reality of knowledge. For him, knowledge is devalued when driven solely
by a desire ‘to be: already an insistence on [my] being as if a “survival
instinct”(…) were its meaning’ (Lévinas, 1997: 132).

Rather, Lévinas offers an alternative paradigm, which it seems to have

significance in the contemporary art practices of Krzysztof Wodiczko from
New York or Jeanne van Heeswijk from the Netherlands and for the
practices described above. Referring to Lévinas, Rosalyn Deutsche (2002:
34) suggests we cannot connect to the social world from ‘a position of full
understanding. To take such a position is to disavow reality, for the world
is not an object for the self.’ According to Deutsche, Lévinas, is ‘calling
into question my joyous possession of the world.’”(Deutsche, 2002: 36).

For him Lévinas the human person is launched, like Moses in the basket,
‘when human existence interrupts and goes beyond its efforts to be ……
the human being’s existential adventure matters to the I more than its
own’(1998: xii). He suggests that aesthetic experience must be released
from its the historical association with logical reasoning(1995: 53).

The movement of art consists in leaving the level of perception

[physicality/ materiality] so as to reinstate sensation
[affectivity/intuition]… Instead of arriving at the object, the intention
gets lost in the sensation itself. [brackets my own]
There are quite specific historical reasons why aesthetics was has been
locked into a logical formulation with its epicentre in a retina seeing an
object from the vantage point of an ego - me, myself and I. At issue is the
consequence of locating aesthetics as a function of the ego.

Alternatively, and a case worth making, is to locate knowledge and

aesthetics as an operation of the life of reason which is open to all that
experience can show. It is universally accessible to people and involves a
grasp of cultural practice in context and with others and one that creates
and nourishes our interdependence as human persons. The San Diego
based art critic Grant Kester (2004), whose work has focused primarily on
dialogical and socially engaged art practice, suggests that autonomous
aesthetics is a self-interested, acquisitive and possessive model of
knowing. He argues that the pathos of the early aesthetic has precisely to
do with how the individual and the social relate to each other, the one and
the many.

Descartes, in his Meditations, provides an important historical example in

which an attempt is made to recapture human experience, established by
‘ens cogitans’ (I think; therefore, I am). Herein, the application of one’s
intellect can be applied to become the total explanation of the human
sum. Lévinas attempts to right this wrong and recover a more open
paradigm. In his writing he proffers a mode of thought that cannot be
reduced to such an act of knowing (Peperzak, 1993).

Of course, we have to be careful here not to replace one fixed position

with another. The private egoism needs the social as its counterpart as
an act of solidarity as well as to engender responsibility (van Heeswijk,
2009). At issue is not a rejection of static definitions, categories or
dogmas. Rather, Lévinas suggests, ‘Our most intimate and valued
traditions [including art and culture] have cared more about “beings” and
how to define them than about our ethical dealings with fellow humans’
(1994: 3) [brackets my own]. Cultural practice can be valued and posited
other than by thinking, and the position of Lévinas (1994: 3) is crystal
clear in this regard: ‘The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know…
We are human before being learned and remain so after having forgotten
much.’ For him, art is an ‘epiphany’ that creates and nourishes ‘proximity
with the other’ or as Deutsche suggested in her Tate lecture, ‘the
experience of being public’ (Deutsche podcast, accessed 15th January
2009). ‘Art is the magic and the miracle that dazzles the Cartesian ego
and interrupts its isolation through the production of the inexhaustible
newness of life’s instants’ (Lévinas, 1994: 54).

In other words I am attempting to value the moment in cultural practice

when ‘the needle touches and pierces life’ (Lévinas, 1994: 55). A common
thread runs through the practices described earlier among people who
have first-hand experience of suicide, regeneration, of not belonging. The
moment in which these projects created and nourished an experience of
being public – a civil space - is concretely experienced as a total presence
of people with each other. It is in one’s manner of being present to a
distinctive cultural practice, and through the collective experience, that
the practice can first be valued. It is not given as a transferable guideline,
protocol or principle. It seems to me there is a need to be sensitive to the
fact that the moment it is captured by reason its order and fecundity
changes. In this sense, the value of these cultural practices is not
discernible through “watches or clepsydras” (water clocks), which is the
domain of science. These cultural actions, which empirically may last only
a short time and are not repeatable, transcend the ego, its time and logic.
Lévinas notes the debt owed to Henri Bergson’s whose work on
recapturing the nature of human experience identified the reality of inner
life or duration (durée) of bodily moments which transcend time. Bergson
wrote, ‘It is the clarity of the radically new and absolutely simple idea,
which catches as it were an intuition’ (1987: 129). This is the time of the
cultural act, which is revealed as unceasing creation, ‘the uninterrupted
upsurge of novelty’ (ibid.:131) and ‘the inexhaustible newness of life’s
instants’ (Lévinas, 1994:54).

A short aside to problems in the area of visual perception may crystallise

Bergson’s idea. Because light is integral to all visual experience, we
should resist the inclination to clothe it with visible properties. (Grandy,
2001). In this sense, light admits no spectators. If we experience light, it is
because we participate in the space-time drama it offers us. ‘In a literal
sense, light is always in-your-face, striking the retinas and ceding its own
local presence to distant bodies’ (ibid: 16). This double movement – the
absenting of immediate light and the making present of other things
across space and time intervals – turns light into an opening without
recovery or bounds. For Bergson, durée is that eruptive immediacy or
here-ness. I am reminded of a comment made by Krzysztof Wodiczko
(2007) in response to a question about copyrighting his work. He said,
‘How can you copyright any of this? Making life. Making love. People will
be making love.’ Something occurs to reverse the geometry of the world
that affords us survey of distant objects; intervals fall away and otherness
punctures an invisible merging of perceiver and perceived. In this respect,
the other bears a light-like relation to our experience of being public. It
erupts into our experience, but we cannot recover that eruption as
understanding. Sometimes only cultural production can adequately create
and nourish the experience of being in public, especially in a time of
fracture. It seems to me it is precisely here that art can (re)claim and
(re)fresh its position in society by mobilising its power to act as an agent
with others to speak and to be heard in the world. Cultural practice is then
not a blissful wandering of an artist who sets out to make something
beautiful. Rather, it is a spindling act of communication, an act of agency
to make an experience of being public, even though the problems
associated with that experience may be indissoluble and may not
disappear soon. Cultural practice can create the reality of being public,
not simply reflect it.

The implication for the human person was succinctly recalled by Lévinas
by drawing upon a comparison between two versions of a sentence from
the Talmud. ‘Every man is obligated to think that the entire universe has
been created because of him.’ This article attempts to suggest a way of
being open to cultural practices that can awaken a dormant civil society.
Referring to that sentence in the Talmud, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, an
eighteenth-century Lithuanian rabbi understood it in this way: ‘Every man
is obligated to think that the subsistence of the entire universe depends
exclusively on him, that he is responsible for it.’

This article was published in conjunction with the launch of Life:Art during
Kaunas Biennial TEXTILE 09 (

It will also be distributed as part of the Blue Drum’s Blueprint series


The Irish Youth Foundation and Dublin City University Publication

Assistance Fund 2009 supported the publication.
Editor (English): Matt Wallen

Editor (Lithuanian): Agne Narausyte

Designer: Giedre Karsokiene

Published by the Irish Youth Work Press,20 Lower Dominick Street, Dublin
1. Tel: +353 (01)8729933 ISBN: 978 1 900416 77 1

© Ed Carroll. Ed is a board member of Blue Drum and Chair of Kaunas

Biennial, Lithuania (

The text is published under the Creative Commons License: Attribution-

Non Commercial-Share Alike 2.5,