Outline of talk 'To intimate; Awkwardness & Camp delivered at Tate Modern 2015, also at Havering College of Further Education, Essex, 2016.
I approached this discussion principally about how identity politics are re-shaped and re-evaluated as cultural markers of the last quarter of a century. Starting with Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp, ‘Camp’, as a term, one that has increasingly dwindled from academic usage and was more commonly being used as a tool to cover a wider, even generic, spectrum of art practice - notably in exhibitions such as Notes on Neo-Camp at Office Baroque, Studio Voltaire, 2013. I led the group to consider how sexuality is often informed by politics of the time, and how that has been reflected in exhibitions that have adopted and developed camp, to demonstrate the evolving shapes that define the term and how it has rubbed up against visual and linguistic shifts and styles. I also wanted to play with the dialectic of how the contemporary appropriation of even recent historical terminology, such as Sontag’s camp, can adapt or belie original arguments in favour of another one, but also how this can be grappled with, be it the interface of academia, art institution, archivist or the role of an artist.
A key point to the talk was the position of how to construct or create a framework about awkwardness (the group were given selected texts before the discussion), one of the texts that I thought expanded this idea included Lauren Berlant’s essay, Intimacy, an essay that discusses the force of normativity onto the private sphere. Calibrating the efforts made often painful, contorted, by those outside a patriarchal, non-reproductive structure; search for and invariably have to adapt; models of intimacy from the dominant codes that circulate out of a familial, patriarchal society. Berlant argues, that this bears a direct assault onto relationships misaligned from this value, often painfully situated across unstructured social and political levels.
This awkwardness between the self and the social, I wanted to provoke as an argument between where the choice of that expression can be afforded or made. In thinking especially of the historical shifts of that expression and how that later is archived or repeated as an artistic code. How can we think about the ways attachments make people public, producing trans-personal identities and subjectivities, when those attachments come from within spaces as varied as those of domestic intimacy, state policy, and mass mediated experiences of intensely disruptive crises? And what have these formative encounters to do with the effects of other, less institutionalised events, which might take place on the street, on the phone, in the fantasy, at work, but rarely register as anything but residue?
In considering the intimate as containing a force of optimism formed principally from threats outside of this bond. Where and how this trauma is occasioned and how can it be expressed is of interest in the formation of the coding and social efforts of camp within the gay community at the time of Sontag’s writing. The discussion ran chronologically seeking to contextualise the history around Susan Sontag’s 1964 book Notes on “Camp”, and how it continues to be of relevance to visual thinking. Starting with how Roland Barthes’ Mythologies from 1957 had influenced Sontag’s approach to the essay form, I wanted to consider the essay’s background – one that is specifically pre-internet. I also pursued the lineage of how gender and sexuality has become a central pivot to reading Notes on “Camp”, a position that differentiates itself from Barthes essay in both its openness (and also blase) to gay cultural codes and sexual vernaculars, and perhaps more broadly, identity as a vehicle for ways of interpretation. The essay became synonymous with the emergent seam of Pop Art that predominated practices in the US and to some extent the UK. Pop Art exemplified how everyday materials provided a rich surface to be redeployed with ambiguity and affect, often signalling the hegemonic and patriarchal values embedded in design and form. I am strongly drawn to camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can. For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyse it; he can only; whatever his intention, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.
The pop that is considered in Douglas Crimp’s essay ‘Boring Warhol’ takes in the double aspect of both Sontag’s subsequent boredom in the endless discussion of camp – she its figurehead – and Warhol’s use of time, duration and of principally boredom in his work. How the elevation of the banal and the everyday, provoked a lethargy rather than outrage as in previous modern movements is of interest to Warhol’s use of filmic time as much as his recasting of material directly. The position of the urban and indifferent, blase and jaded became pivots central to the urban and the sophisticated though ultimately predicated in how enjoyment, interest, liking could be made or found. Indeed, how these allies of disinterest mark the surface of camp’s interpretation, one that potentially belie the serious intent, create a shadow onto which Terry Castle and Crimp both turn camp into an elusive term, often reductively situated as a social ‘pop’ commentary of an era. [Warhol].. sought expansion - liking things; - not by constructing fantasy worlds but through a single-minded attentiveness to the world as he found it.
Picking up on the social role of camp, the discussion covered Sasha Torres’s essay ‘Caped Crusader of Camp’ and how popular culture at large was almost inured to the flagrant send up of masculinity, as made example in the 1960s US TV series, Batman, as one that was more ‘swish’, than ‘thwack’. Camp also became a term became associated to adolescence and fantasy constructs, as revealed in Sigmund Freud’s ‘Family Romances’. Considering the popularisation of camp and how camp became denigrated and possibly feared by association became a key part of the discussion. Especially in the rise of civil rights of race and sexuality through the 1970s and the Stonewall riots as a cultural flashpoint moment, pointed to ‘camp’ as a reduced, homophobic term, this was discussed in relation to Lauren Berlant’s essay ‘Intimacy’. The discussion considered the later ramifications of the AIDS crisis and how artists particularly those involved with Group Material, often redeployed iconic dangerously ‘status quo’ and nostalgic images of American culture to usurp its power and to reveal the ignorance of an epidemic fuelled by prejudice. How these altered and transgressed the formative language of camp as a political identity was discussed. How these politics of that time compare directly to a now coined post-AIDS western landscape is one that I wanted to consider in relation to the exhibition devised by Chris Sharp.
This is why Notes on Neo-Camp becomes such a compelling alternative and serviceable post-homosexual mode and metaphor for art, in the sense that Victorianism can now be seen as a metaphor for art -- it moors camp from its provenance in homosexual culture, while nonetheless exploiting its bond to artifice and artificiality. Indeed that is why this work seems so ambiguously ironic; not due to ambivalence, but due to a certain tendency towards creating deliberate compounds of sublimation and de-sublimation.. Both pre and post structuralist, these works seek to affirm a fully self-aware erotics of interpretation.
‘Notes on Neo-Camp’, an exhibition curated by Chris Sharp, looked at the latest developments of the term ‘camp’. Sharp extended the use of Sontag’s deliberate stress on style over content. Sharp thereby arguing a new self-conscience play, predicated around the urbanite or dandy as construct. The play between effete and sexual politics thereafter became a central discussion to the group. How these constructs of neo-camp refer to the widening historical value of the term and its place in an economic downturn. The discussion looked at the reviews and feedbacks from the show, also the works individually, to reconsider the term and any historical lessons available in these contemporary practitioners’ methodologies. The talk also looked at the sophistication of identity politics as a format to play out the amalgamation of history in the present, looking at artists such as Henrik Olesen and Ryan Trecartin as those whose practices further the complex relationship of identity politics and sensibility across widening medias. How these refer back to Sontag and her revision of Mythologies and playing with structure and the imposition of self onto mass media was how the discussion ended. Though how this looping in effect often veers into established and hegemonic codes was crucial to the students and how the modes of interpretation are set aside in intimacy.
1. Lauren Berlant, Intimacy, Critical Inquiry, Vol 24, No 2, (Winter 1998) University of Chicago Press
2. Susan Sontag, (Notes on Camp), Against Interpretation & Other Essays, (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux) 1961
3. Douglas Crimp, (Boring Warhol), Our Kind of Movie, The Films of Andy Warhol, MIT Press, 2012
4. Chris Sharp, Notes on Neo-Camp, Kaleidoscope 14, Spring/Summer 2012.
1. Lauren Berlant, Intimacy, Critical Inquiry, Vol 24, No 2, (Winter 1998) University of Chicago Press 2. Susan Sontag, (Notes on Camp), Against Interpretation & Other Essays, (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux) 1961 3. Douglas Crimp, (Boring Warhol), Our Kind of Movie, The Films of Andy Warhol, MIT Press, 2012 4. Chris Sharp, Notes on Neo-Camp, Kaleidoscope 14, Spring/Summer 2012.