Guest Blog 4. Fearghus Ó Conchúir responds to The Geographical Turn event

Because of my travel plans, I didn’t get to contribute as planned to the final panel at the end of the symposium today, so I’m using the plane journey back to London to share a few un-annotated thoughts that I might have aired in the darkening fug and foisty intimacy of intellectual enlightenment at the top of The Gallery of Photography.

Derrida’s work on hospitality was a productive reference point for me. Of Hospitality builds on, but also challenges Lévinas’ vision of an absolute ethical hospitality that requires:

[T]hat I open up my home and that I give not only to the foreigner (provided with a family name, with the social status of being a foreigner, etc.), but to the absolute, unknown, anonymous other, and that I give place to them, that I let them come, that I let them arrive, and take place in the place I offer them, without asking of them either reciprocity (entering into a pact) or even their name.

However, for Derrida, hospitality is only effective if it is offered to particular people and not to a generic idea of the other. This is not an interrogation of the visiting stranger that requests proper documents and authorised leave to stay that one finds in Kant’s version of hospitality.   Instead it is a request that names in a spirit of love that acknowledges the individuality of the visitor:

Does hospitality consist in interrogating the new arrival? Does it begin with the question addressed to the newcomer (which seems very human and sometimes loving, assuming that hospitality should be linked to love—an enigma that we will leave in reserve for the moment): what is your name? tell me your name, what should I call you, I who am calling on you, I who want to call you by your name? -What am I going to call you? It is also what we sometimes tenderly ask children and those we love.

The reference to Derrida came up in relation to Zoe O’Reilly and Anthony Haughey’s work with people in direct provision centres. While a viewer of their work might encounter generalised or, in the case of Zoe’s photography, necessarily anonymised ‘others’, it was clear that both of them had long-term relationships with the particular, named individuals who collaborated in the making of that work. The relationships of hospitality in the work were to specific people. I noted also that Anú’s performers often learn the names of the audience so that they can be addressed and implicated individually. And when Marisa Denker and Naomi Murphy of Join the Dots recounted the successes of their project, (based on the hospitality of discussions over shared food), it was the first names of people who’d connected that they listed.

However Derrida’s deconstruction of the concept of hospitality also offered me a way to think about some of the discomfort I was feeling about a potentially predominant characterisation of the socially-engaged artist as facilitator. For Derrida, the notion of hospitality already implies that the host has power over a territory or home into which to welcome the other. There is a territorial border that is already implied in and necessary to hospitality. The border separates self and other, and, as Étienne Balibar points out, the border is instituted by the arrival of the stranger whose crossing makes the border apparent. The paradoxical but inevitable hostility of hospitality is also apparent in the common etymological source of both words (hostes, hostage, host, hostile, hospitality).

Anthony Haughey mentioned his own dissatisfaction with the placating relational aesthetics of Bourriaud, claiming instead a need for the artist as source of (Rancierian?) dissensus. However I think people are more comfortable when they imagine the dissensus is against a perceived hegemonic power and less comfortable, perhaps, with the notion that an artist might introduce or make visible the dissensus within prevailing discourses of non-hegemonic communities. I think we had a brush with that slippery dissensus in Neil Watkins’ moving and, I imagine (with no evidence except a familiarity with Neil’s previous work) deliberately abrasive and challenging monologue about his life. The difficulty that some of yesterday’s panelists had in articulating how the monologue related to The Geographical Turn is a compliment to the event that Neil staged in the middle of the symposium, and it is also an indication that it was somehow disruptive. I know I enjoyed its ability to confound quick recuperation to theoretical discourse, even if Cormac O’Brien went some way to providing a sympathetic intellectual context for Neil’s performance. It was composed of words, but it was really a marshaling of affect that made language redundant, much as Neil jettisoned each page with an expletive once he’d read it. This was a performance, by a skilled, trained performer (as he repeatedly reminded us), who invested personal energy with relish and anxiety to manifest the event. His big bear, Norwegian-playing, queer, desiring, HIV-viral-load-undetectable body played its part, heating as he spoke and necessitating the gradual de-layering of his outer clothes. As Cormac O’Brien pointed out, in an age where the dominant mode of self-presentation is confessional, with its emphasis on authenticity as the paradoxically homogenising goal, Neil’s monologue offered a simulacrum of confession that is all the more authentic for its artifice. But it’s a performance, and as Debbie Allen’s character in Fame reminds us, it costs.

The artistic host’s resources are not infinite and while it may seem somehow regressive to assert the border of hospitality when considered in the context of the socially-engaged artistic practice that was a dominant paradigm in the symposium, when considered in the context of a form of neoliberal capitalism that exploits the affective energy of creatives whose labour is characterised as immaterial and consequently boundless and somehow inexhaustible, this assertion of the limit becomes an ethical stand. The cost is affective and it is bodily. ‘Right here is where you start paying: in sweat.’