Transcript of Magdalena J. Härtelova's part of the Navajo Mountain School Project presentation at the annual social practice conference, Open Engagement, in Chicago, spring 2017.
On becoming with the community, rendering capable, empathy, and what is "success" in a social practice art project
I would like to take the last three minutes to talk a bit about two of the words that we use while thinking about working with, becoming with and thinking with the community at Navajo Mountain.
Because I believe that it matters what thoughts think thoughts, what stories constitute stories. That in order to think right, in order to be able to act consciously, we have to have the right words.
I think that one of the logics of agency that can surpass the dominant, colonialist, capitalist, heteronormative system, is the logic of rendering capable. Rendering capable rather than rendering visible.
In rendering visible somebody decided who or what is worth being seen.. It keeps the power and hierarchy strictly in line. Even if we are very open and liberal about rendering visible, because the power hierarchy is set, it will always offer only limited options. The spotlight only reaches certain space where the subject can move and be visible. If they make a gesture that reaches past the spotlight, that is not included in the vision of them that the person operating the light has, they become invisible again. Most definitely, what is lost with only rendering visible is the potential for surprise. On the other hand, when practicing rendering capable, I constantly distribute the power and offer tools. Rendering capable is teaching the partner how to operate the spotlight system, so they themselves can decide what is seen.
The other word that becomes key to me when doing a social practice project it empathy. And I would like to make us think here a bit what this often used word actually means. Because -think we must! So I'd like to make an important distinction between empathy and sympathy.
In sympathy, I project myself on the surface of the other. In empathy, I try to visit the specific intersection where the other is standing. When we perform sympathy, we hold our knowledge firmly and without change. For example, “it is important to document history in a linear narrative.” “It is important that two stories don't contradict each other.” “It is important to save all the buildings…” When we want to empathize, when we want to understand and come close to somebody/something, we can't stand where we are, we have to move from our position and make present for ourselves as best as we can the reality of the other. Especially as I'm not part of the community, mostly for the simple reason that I don't live there. As a visitor, I want to approach the subject with knowledge that they are not who/what one expected, and at the same time that I am not who/what was expected. Therefore, I have to open my heart to be tender. Even when it hurts. Even when the change initiated by such encounter alters my identity. But one of the tasks of a social practice artist, for me, is making oneself big enough so all I encountered can live within me.
This, to me, leads to radical re-evaluation of what is success and what is a failure in such project.
In many ways we failed number and number of times already during the course of the project. And we probably will -fail to find money, fail to save everything that “should be saved.” But that is failure viewed through the logic of efficiency. Rather than telling the community on the Mountain what is worth seeing, we want to offer them tools, if they decide for something to be seen, to, first and foremost, make it seen in whatever light they want to. And only secondly, give them access to the normative ways of visibility, in case they are necessary. Such as for instance is the secondary opportunity of the archive to gain future government funding.
A success doesn't also mean what we planned will happen.
I want to think about the role of a mother, that offers without asking for compensation.
How better could we fight the hegemonic system than by caring -which means giving a surplus, being in nature anti-Capitalistic.