Classroom on “Spectatorship, race and citizenship”
I spent a lot of time over the last year reading, and making notes, and generally spending time alone with my thoughts. I think that is what research fellowships and post-docs are for, but for an extrovert double Leo, it was sometimes hard to remember why I was doing this work, and who it was for. It also happened to be a year where many of the public-facing projects I committed to either suffered from delays in production, or were temporarily put on hold, which meant even the writing that I did that was intended for an immediate audience hasn’t yet seen the light of day.
Fortunately, one of those projects was the very public, and very satisfying, task of being asked to organize a Classroom (formerly Video School) themed around a subject of my choice for Art & Education. The program of videos on “Spectatorship, Race and Citizenship” is now live, and includes a contextual introduction to the entire program, as well as brief introductions or summaries of each video.
I decided to use the opportunity to begin work on the literature review I’m undertaking for my current project on race, citizenship and photography in mid-century Canada. But I also set myself the challenge of creating the inverse of my experience studying for comprehensive exams: an interactive, changeable program of thinkers from a range of disciplinary and practice-based backgrounds who use these lectures and conversations to think out loud about the potentials of visual citizenship. Importantly for me, these scholars’ works complicate any easy connection we might hope to find between ethics, citizenship, and the experience of the viewer. They each allude to, or directly address, the role of colonialism and imperialism in differentially situating subjects and viewers. And they ask, I think vital, questions about some of our foundational assumptions and hopes for film and photography. As I wrote in the introduction to the program,
what does it mean to claim photographic practices as practices of citizenship in a postcolonial moment? How do we reconcile the powerful role that photography has played in the consolidation and visualization of race with its civic potential? This program aims to elaborate the complex histories of subjectification and desubjectification that photography and filmmaking have participated in, engaging recent debates about spectatorship, race, and citizenship but grounding these terms in their historical conjunction with colonialism. Echoing Lisa Lowe’s call to examine the “intimacies of four continents” produced by modern colonialism, the speakers in this program trace the circulation of images, texts, and bodies across national borders that has (sometimes forcibly) shaped diasporic communities, but also consider how the witnessing of these movements has made possible contemporary ideas of humanism, transnational citizenship, and freedom. In doing so, they also attend to those moments when spectators and bystanders have deployed the languages of photography and citizenship to perform alliances with state power and whiteness, in ways that underscore the tenuous and double-edged promises of these modes of belonging. My aim in bringing these discussions together is not to disqualify or dismantle the liberatory promises of visual citizenship, but to point to the ways that specific images—and bodies—enter and destabilize the social scene of citizenship: an effect, the poet Claudia Rankine notes, that the black body in particular enacts.