Artists Sarah Kanouse, John Engelbrecht and Josh MacPhee discuss their collaboration, Exuberant Politics

Josh Macphee
“There are two axes that I think about in terms of both politics and cultural production,” artist Josh MacPhee says. — photo via Interference Archive

During Josh MacPhee’s visit to Iowa City last month as part of Exuberant Politics, a year-long celebration of political art and action sponsored by a long list of departments and organizations within the University of Iowa and community organizations including ps·z and Legion Arts in Cedar Rapids, I sat down with MacPhee and two of Exuberant Politics’ organizers, Sarah Kanouse and John Engelbrecht, to talk about art, politics and what could be exuberant about them.

Little Village: I’d like to start with the two main ideas bouncing around in the program, Exuberant Politics: What is politics, and why exuberance?

Sarah Kanouse: I think that for all of us, politics isn’t about elections, and in Iowa, that’s what politics is about. I prefer to take a much more expansive view of it that has to do with the capacity of people to imagine things to be other than what they are: to see themselves as actors in actually producing a vision of another, more livable reality. For some people that is satisfied through party political action, but for a lot of people it isn’t. So we’ve organized this in a really broad way intentionally to touch on things that might allow people to re-imagine the nature of the political as a necessary first step in a politics.

John Engelbrecht: Exuberant politics is tricky because in some ways so much of politics is about this crushing overwhelming-ness about everything once you start digging into any of these topics we touch on. In some way I feel like I’m trying to come from the more exuberant perspective because that’s just the way I have to come at it in order not to feel overwhelmed.

Josh MacPhee: For me, politics is about the relationships between people. That is the terrain and field of politics. That is how we negotiate our world everyday. We’re social beings and our relationships build other things. They build the places that we work, the ways we feed ourselves and the roofs we put over our heads. I think it is useful to have [the electoral system] out there and say that, “You know, this is actually a perversion of what politics is.” It’s taken that terrain and colonized it and it tells us everyday that this is what it means to be political: to go and vote. But the reality is that every conversation that we have with our co-worker or neighbor is a political act. Once you can break open that field, then you can start to understand and engage in your relationships in more conscious ways. You can start to build them and engender the world that you want to live in and realize that that work doesn’t happen in a ballot box—it happens with your neighbors and your co-workers and your fellow students in that realm …

SK: One of the things that has emerged is ideas of intensity through exuberance—the intensification of all kinds of emotions, both ones that are ecstatic and celebratory and ones that are intensely painful. It became a way of thinking about creative intensity, creative responses to politics that exist in a realm of intense emotion and feeling. In the Migration Now portfolio [on view at ps·z], there’s a lot of things that are sharply critical and angry, but there are also a number of prints that are about love and about the things that motivate people to move from one country to another and to reunite themselves with their family—about how the border is an anti-love device, as a thing that hurts people’s lives and prevents them from being able to care for their loved ones and flourish in those relationships. So, I think if we re-frame the border, and think about that and how it impacts the ability for people to love, it somehow changes the discussion about migration in a way that’s important and powerful.

LV: That definition of exuberance helps me place the role of art within politics—that there’s a way of using a work of art to focus or intensify emotions associated with political issues. Is this related to how you think about your various art practices?

JM: There are two axes that I think about in terms of both politics and cultural production. One is this axis of scarcity vs. surplus and this is one of the ways that I have been thinking about this idea of exuberance. We live in a society that is deeply scarcity-driven. My most recent experience with large-scale movement was with the Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccotti Park. In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, one of the things that was so striking was this conversion … of that way of understanding the world from scarcity to surplus. So, we exist in a park in which there is more of everything than you could want: There’s more food than people can eat, there’s more books than people can read, there’s more drumming than anyone ever wants to hear … For some people, that 24-hour rhythm was exuberant in this extremely positive way and then for other people, that excess was brutally crushing … How do you navigate different people’s relationship to these questions of surplus and exuberance?

Connected to that is this quality vs. quantity question. And this gets into this relationship to art. More and more our society and our worldview is structured around the question of quantity—how much of anything do we have. And what gets lost in that is the question of the quality of whatever that is … That’s one of the realms I think that art can really speak to is the question of quality …

JE: I’ve been thinking about this and the Strawman performances as very much a political thing. When I was most fulfilled in making art was when I would cover myself in straw and walk out in public. And there’s no monetary reward for that, there’s no context for that, it’s just pure celebration of the moment. The first time I did it a little girl just came up and hugged me—a four-year-old girl at the playground came up and hugged me, and to me that was about the surplus of what we have when we just do it, when we just forget about how we’re supposed to do everything within the system.

SK: There is one thing that I wanted to circle back to about the idea of exuberance. I think one of the dominant affects of visual art, especially contemporary art, is cool detachment. For political content to enter into the blue chip space it has to be flattened of an intensity of emotion either positively or negatively, and it becomes a very cerebral and heady thing. There’s a way that universities and galleries and museums discipline people out of an ecstatic or deeply felt emotion. A new academic field called “Affect Studies” is trying to reintroduce questions like: What does it mean to feel and think? How do the spaces where we work as academics and culture producers feel? How does that influence the work that’s produced? How is art experienced as a felt thing by its audience? Next semester there’s going to be an Obermann Symposium called On Affect and Inquiry. While it has a more literary bent, there’s some way in which we’re operating in the same corner of the galaxy, in thinking about the role of emotion in our lives and in our politics.

Brian Prugh holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Chicago and is currently an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at the University of Iowa. In addition to his art criticism for Little Village, he is editor and co-founder of the Iowa City Arts Review and has recently finished Housing Project, a booklet documenting the author’s opposition to the redevelopment of University Apartments at UI.

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