Two Academic Writers Learn to Unlearn and Build on Their Own

In May, we spoke to a few arts bloggers who had won Arts Writers grants to maintain their blogs. One blog, contemptorary by writers Gelare Khoshgozaran and Eunsong Kim, was just beginning at the time. As of August, 2016, however, their project is well underway with articles on artists and arts exhibitions, like MOCA Los Angeles’s “What is Contemporary?” Their stated focus this year on women of color and indigenous on and overall hope to reframe marginalized voices in art history and criticism struck us as particularly important, so we reached out to the writers for further comment.

Alex Teplitzky: Your blog will profile women of color and indigenous women queering the art world. Can you go more into specifics about who you hope to profile or hear from? What convinced you to start this blog?

Gelare Khoshgozaran & Eunsong Kim: We introduce contemptorary as a “cyberspace project covering: women of color and indigenous women queering the art world; queers disrupting white hegemony: immigrants and those displaced due to war, occupation and colonialism who breach all terrains.”

We wanted to create a unique space dedicated to those who have been historically marginalized (or inevitably auto-marginalized), tokenized and alienated. We wanted to assert our taste and bring into light the works of those whom we deeply value and have been inspired by, (re)introduce their works in a new context and see how their different voices resonate together cacophonously.

We started contemptorary because we didn’t see anything that was like it. We also made this decision because we have been students and practitioners of the arts and our previous education, our assigned reading guidelines have not been enough. They were curricula that consistently left us needing to: unlearn and to research and build on our own. So we’re carving out a cyberspace that holds what we want to learn about, what we want to read about, what we want to see and share.

We will be writing about: artists, ideas, projects that we believe are rupturing what art and representation can be. The artists that we wish to profile this year and write for us will be: women of color and indigenous women. And we looked to Angela Davis to think about how to situate women of color. In a vital interview with pivotal scholar Lisa Lowe, Angela Davis states that,

“A woman of color formation might decide to work around immigrant issues. This political commitment is not based on the specific histories of racialized communities or its constituent members, but rather constructs an agenda agreed upon by all who are a part of it. In my opinion, the most exciting potential of women of color formations resides in the possibility of politicizing this identity—basing identity on politics rather than politics on identity.”

We want to say this upfront because too many art historians and art critics throw the term “identity politics” without understanding at all, the genealogy or the usage of the term. When we say woman of color, it is basing identity on politics—both of which comes out of lived experience.

Alex: Can you speak more to your individual lived experiences that culminated into starting this blog? You say that this year you’ll focus on the women of color and indigenous artists, and recently you wrote about an artist’s response to war. What is your personal experience with these issues?

Gelare & Eunsong: Both of us came to art from fairly traditional educational routes, and our critiques erupted from these traditional spaces. Both of us have MFAs (in different fields) and have worked with and for academia, museums, arts publications and post-production houses. We both might advocate for other artists to take nontraditional pathways if they wanted, or traditional pathways if they’re funded and it seems doable. Both of us speak another language other than English, and have worked (for payment and out of love) as translators and interpreters. This is to state that both of us learned how to navigate traditional routes (the MFA, the job before, the job after, money) against the stated guidelines of the institutions, and our position in the various institutions we have worked for and have been “part of” have always been fraught. We looked forward to being off course. contemporary has been the first point in our off course retreat.

In our grant proposal we stated that we wished to cover: women of color, queers of color, indigenous and political refugee artists. This was a framework for us to begin our conversation. This isn’t because we believe the position of the woc artist, an indigenous artist, the political refugee artist is a happenchance checkbox that we like more than the other checkboxes. Our lived experience is not a checkbox—it’s the ways in which our positionalities are shaped. We understand that the gut reaction of some politically misinformed and insecure artists and critics might be: this is identity politics, this is censorship, this is “essentialism”, et al. but we disagree, as we unpack these terms and discuss them in and through writing.

In the formative essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Audre Lorde discusses interdependence, which we’ve been utilizing as a framework for contemptorary’s curation and approach. She writes, “Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being. Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.”

Civil Society, Still from Installation, 2008. Image by Michelle Dizon, from "Vision in Ruins: Michelle Dizon's Civil Society"

Civil Society, Still from Installation, 2008. Image by Michelle Dizon, from “Vision in Ruins: Michelle Dizon’s Civil Society”

In thinking about Damir Avdagic’s work, and work that artists make about war in spite of and during war, we wanted to continue the conversation. These conversations are linked via their differences for us: Rijin Sahakian discussing the closing of Sada for Iraqi Art, the issues of funding and the militarization of art sectors, Rose Salseda’s analysis of Michelle Dizon’s examination of visual evidence in the criminal justice system, Micha Cárdenas’s invention of objects against terror, for life. Through these different pieces of writing, and by looking at the works examined, we think about and through arts as the symbolic processes of colonialism, the police state, perpetual war, and this anti-black world: they are linked, they cannot be separated.

Art (from the individual pieces to the field of contemporary art) is shaped, produced, sold, exhibited, and written about against this backdrop we may loosely refer to as the “reality” of our time. In the same ways the conversations about these issues are interdependent. contemptorary wants to explore their linkage—and to pronounce and support their dependencies.

Alex: In light of the past few years with the rise of the Movement for Black Lives, more attention is being paid to artists who have been using art-activism to confront social issues, injustice and police brutality. Recently, for instance, your blog featured a post “What If We Got Free” by artist Micha Cárdenas about work she and others are doing to combat these problems. As writers, can you speak to the power of artists to precipitate change? Or, rather, can you help make a case for us supporting artists now more than ever before as we look for solutions?

Gelare & Eunsong: The term “art-activism,” while somewhat provocative, is questionable to us in that it presumes that contemporary art does not have a responsibility to engage in critical conversation around the politics of its time. And that political engagement is an option, a “choice” or a selection. “Art-activism” is a term that seems to denote a deviation from the standard “Art”—which can and does apparently, exist without political engagement. Contemporary art, as many thinkers have written extensively about, often falls short of addressing the politics of its time, and in that way suffers from both irrelevancy and is an active tool for the maintenance of the status quo.

But it is important to notice that this is true for contemporary art as we have been taught to know it, a field that has been historically white-euro-male dominated. We don’t know what a women of color history of art would look like, or what the art landscape looked like if a different, non-eurocentric, non-male-dominated written history of it existed, for example. If we are genuinely looking for solutions against the violence that shapes this world and to become more than cycles complicit in its perpetuation, we need to take bolder steps towards a paradigm shift that may not take place overnight but is set as the horizon.

Instead of asking if artists or art can create change, we’d like to change the set of questions asked, angles of approach, and when looking for answers, shift the center of the conversation to where we believe true innovation and radical practice have already been thriving and to support their approaches. contemptorary is a project beyond the administrations of inclusion. It is for woc, qpoc and indigenous practices to be the center of the conversation. Such practices are where we seek answers to the most difficult and pressing questions of our time regarding police brutality, war, social injustice, colonialism: everything.

We believe there are no better times than always to ask these questions. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter create crucial momentum for these conversations, situating how state violence against Black Lives is a historical, global issue that requires a lot of ongoing work: as artists and writers, how can we imagine and enact the elimination of the systems that might support current, and the rise of other social and radical movements? The contempt in the title of our project is a way to be constantly reminded of the fact that we live in the crisis of contemporary times, and there is no better way than constantly to address this fact as cultural producers.

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