LIFE:ART - Experiences Of Being Public

Literacy House photo, G. Loughran.

LIFE:ART – Experiences Of Being Public

Ed Carroll


I often wonder what happens while trying to (re)visit and (re)present cultural practice and production embedded in society.  Time moves on and the significance or value of an event, happening or manifestation shifts.  I have worked primarily as a co-producer in such practices and I know how difficult it is to put language and expression to these experiences.   This difficulty and its accompanying attempt to generate meaning partly explains why I developed the ‘Life:Art’ project (www. which was launched during Kaunas Biennial TEXTILE 09 (

In this article I will deal solely with three separate Irish projects that were initiated by artists Seamus McGuinness, Ailbhe Murphy and Glenn Loughran and involved working with many others, myself included, in distinctive contexts.  The first section of this article will document each of the selected art practices, which have a civil orientation.  The second section will introduce an idea of civil society as a space to experience being public with its potential for participation and reasonable discourse.  This section will also draw upon the writing of Emmanuel Lévinas whose work questions the priority given to ‘thought’ and ‘thinking’ over and above our dealings with our fellow human beings, in order to open-up ideas about how to ‘value’ and ‘read’ cultural practices that produce an experience of being public.

Production is a verb usefully employed to describe these cultural practices below, though it is a term that contains an interesting paradox. It can value the mechanics of the production process (e.g. a mural or performance is produced). Simultaneously, it can value the aesthetic of the process of cultural production, which is highly valued by the artist initiators of these projects. This refers to the process of bringing to fruition a final event, happening or manifestation through dialogue, negotiation and collaboration.  The paradox is how to value simultaneously the ‘content’ and the ‘context’ because making art is not simply about the work produced and its preservation but about developing the capacity in the society for cultural production.  In this regard, Carmen Mörsch, who guided the research programme carried out by educators at documenta 12, proffered some constructive advice from the Kassel experience: ‘Speaking about art is conceived as the inevitable, productive and forcible inconclusive handling of a lack, a desire’ (Mörsch, 2009: v2:19). This idea is particularly significant when it comes cultural practice as a platform to mourn (Lived Lives, 2003-2009), to engage in discourse about regeneration (Tower Songs: Fatima Mansions, 2005-2009), or to contest the idea of who belongs in society (Literacy House, 2008-2009). 


Viewing Culture Practice

# 1. Lived Lives Project

2003 in Ireland, 444 deaths were registered as suicide: 358 male and 86 female (Central Statistics Office, 2003). In the 15-24 year old age group, 108 people took their own lives: 92 male and 16 female. Suicide surpasses road accidents as the principal cause of death for young males in this age group.

McGuinness is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Medicine and Medical Science, University College, Dublin and works under the supervision of Prof. Kevin Malone at St. Vincent’s University Hospital and Prof. Janis Jefferies of Goldsmiths, London.

This study examined Irish-lived lives, both male and female aged between fourteen and forty-four years olds, lost to suicide between the years 2004-2008. The process involved in-depth conversations with bereaved family members and friends of over 104 suicide deceased over cups of tea in their own homes.

During four days in June 2009, a private viewing of the art work (under development) took place. The Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology Art and Design was the site for the production, and about 20 staff and student volunteers assisted the research team. The building was formerly a seminary and its interior, a collection of small former cell-like structures combined with large open spaces, was suitable in both scale and atmosphere for the work. Over 100 people – families that engaged with the project – made the journey by car, bus or train to Galway. For some it was more than three years ago that they had picked up a phone and agreed to participate in the research. 

For the artist, bringing people together to view the works – or more precisely the works in progress – helped to double-check his reading of interview narratives, to observe and listen to family member responses and to receive their permission to bring this work into the public sphere.  Each family had the chance to engage twice with the work, firstly individually and collectively later in the week. It is the individual viewing that will be my concern below.

In the first visit to the work the artist and the research team helped mediate the encounter. Each family arrived at an agreed time and stayed for over an hour. The artist introduced each work in what was an intensely private individual experience, with the families only engaging with their own donated materials.  At the end of the visit bereavement counsellors were on hand to meet with the families. What follows recalls each element as it was encountered:

Signed Informed Consent Forms. This work consisted of 107 A4-sized documents which covered the wall in the reception room. There was one document, with the original signature, for each individual participant who contributed to the research. This document is the contract between the artist and the family/ friends, which outlined the responsibilities for both the participating families and the artist.  This protocol was agreed in advance by the St. Vincent’s University Hospital Ethics Committee. Because the art practice developed sideby-side with a scientific inquiry, all the research participants gave permission, or informed consent, to use images, names and other personal items of their deceased. In effect they were prepared to waive their right to confidentiality and anonymity. McGuinness explained, ‘By publicly stating, “Yes, my son, my daughter, my brother died by suicide”, the stigma of silence is challenged. They create the “Warp” for the story to be woven’ (Personal interview, 8th June 2009). Weaving process video installation. Next, the group walked a slow journey down a long dark corridor before being introduced to the next work. They entered a large room to watch a film. The film showed the production process of 39 jacquard portraits of each of the deceased members – each about 3 minutes in duration. The families donated the images. The sound of the jacquard loom in production dominated the room. The moving image began, the jacquard loom in production, the reeds on the digital looms shuttling back and forth in real time. The image froze, the mechanical shuttle suspended for a moment and then resuming, the first name and age of the deceased spindling back and forth bringing the face of the person into existence. One mother reacted, ‘The loom clattered into life. The shuttle raced over and back and John was there just for a while for me to say goodbye properly at last…my moment with my son something so special (Artist correspondence from mother).  Another mother wrote afterwards, ‘For me it was like looking at my child alive and then watching her die’ (Artist correspondence from mother).

Lost Portraits Gallery. The families were directed into the Lost Portraits gallery situated near the projection. It was a small white circular room in which were installed 39 jacquard portraits of happy and beautiful young people.  McGuinness wanted to create ‘a portrait gallery, looking out to the viewer, yet in absence – individually apart, yet collectively together’ (Artist Interview, 8th June 2009).  The portraits were installed beginning with the youngest – Rebecca, 14 years old – and ending with the oldest – Hughie, 44 years old. Each portrait was installed at the actual height of the individual. McGuinness (Interview, 8th June 2009) noted, ‘The audience has to adjust so as to view the works(…) There were no corners in this space for hiding or avoiding the gaze of the deceased(…)no corner to hid, one simply had to engage’ (Personal interview, June 8th 2009).

Tapestries have always fulfilled the function of telling stories and are ‘suitable to witness to the sadness and sorrow of death by suicide’. A mother succinctly recalled her experience: ‘I felt Fiona calling me over. I stood in front of her and I put my hands at each side of her face. There was nobody in the world but us’ (Artist correspondence with mother of Fiona). Various family members caressed and kissed the tapestry with an image of their dead child. Just like the human body, ‘it can be cut, damaged and repaired, and ultimately both will disintegrate’. archive print. Along the walls of one corridor was a long digital print banner (133 ft x 3ft). The image was a complete record of all donated items to the archive, with the exception of photographic images. Seeing the line of donated materials represented (books, toys, jewellery, etc.) a participant remarked, ‘I didn’t understand it until I saw it in the context of all of the photos. It made a touching catalogue of lives, of things, of the leftovers when someone dies’ (Artist correspondence from families). archive films. The family then walked into a small video-viewing booth. One of the short films projected a favourite designer waistcoat once worn by the deceased. A narrative of the interview with a family member speaking about the deceased’s love for the suit accompanies the short archive film.  With the exception of the waist coat, all other short projections showed images of the deceased.

Data boxes. Data boxes represented an interface between science and art, an intervention by the art practice into the formal identification and gathering of scientific data as part of the research study.  Interspersed were small video screens set into the filing boxes playing selected images and voice recordings taken from the ‘interview’ process. The boxes provided the first opportunity for the families and friends to listen to narratives about the deceased through the eyes of the researchers.

Worn Worlds. This series of projections focused on the materiality of cloth. The images were produced by using a micro lens on cloth donations to uncover signs of the lived experience left on the cloth. The camera sought out stains, torn frayed edges, unravelled stitches, etc. These markings were projected at a large scale without narrative or sound. McGuinness suggested, ‘By removing the functionality from the garment, the aesthetic become fore-grounded and our attention is directed at the wearer.’ archive rooms. Then the group walked back along a corridor. They climbed two flights of stairs, which lead into 39 individual archive rooms. Each family visited their own dedicated archive room in which donations were carefully exhibited. Many rooms had snapshots of the person and friends and also other personal items. In some rooms the artist tested curatorial devices while in others the donated items were simply re-presented, with minimum artistic intervention. 

One of the rooms had a waistcoat suspended on a coat hanger in mid-air as well as some other items of significance, i.e. a medicine prescription and anot-to-be-met medical appointment. In John’s room the artist presented the donated items as a temporary memorial.  The setting was domestic, wall-papered just like his bedroom had been. He had retreated there for the last few months of his life. According to his family, ‘The world came to him to his bedroom.’ He rarely left what was for him a ‘safe place’. The clothes of the deceased were installed suspended along with a work uniform and a line of snapshots on the opposite wall. Playing quietly on a portable TV set was a series of clips of John when he was alive, filmed by his friend Bob, presenting images and sounds of John singing and messing with friends – the normal activity of people his age.

It was in the archive rooms that the families had a great sense of ownership. The families were not audience. They had become co-producers of the work. Afterwards one family member remarked, ‘I loved that each person had their own room … I guess I didn’t expect it to be as much about us as about the people we had lost’ (Artist correspondence from friend of Michael).

The idea that the work is as much about the people who are left behind by the deceased as the deceased themselves captures an essential element of the work.  Finding a voice and confidence with which to use that voice is no easy thing in a society where suicide is still stigmatised and institutional failure goes unrecognised.   An important aspect of the aesthetic is to create the capacity for cultural action by families acting collectively and politically. 


# 2. Urban Regeneration: Fatima Mansions and Tower Songs Project

In this representation I draw upon a Zsuzsanna Szálka, thesis, A Case Study of a Participatory Arts Project – Tower Songs Fatima Mansions (Szálka, 2007: 18-38) in order to give the context of the work.  Fatima Mansions is located by the Grand Canal in Rialto, an area in the south west inner city of Dublin. The estate was built in 1949 as part of a housing solution for inner-city tenants. Beginning in the 1970s, unemployment, low educational achievement and poor housing policies took root. By the mid 1980s, the estate became known for its decaying living environment, the easy availability of heroin and cocaine and mass unemployment (Drudy and Punch in Szálka, 2007: 19).  Despite these problems, Fatima Mansions was always a coherent community. A landmark decision came in 2000 when the community organisation Fatima Groups United proposed a community plan for social and physical regeneration. Dublin City Council agreed with this proposal, albeit unwittingly. In 2003 Dublin’s first public (Dublin City Council) private (Maplewood Elliot JV) partnership agreement was signed for the regeneration of Fatima Mansions. Five blocks were demolished in 2004, and in October 2005 the first residents moved into their new homes.  In 2005, a Social Regeneration Plan was implemented covering eight themes worth €6.2m with the task of ensuring the successful social regeneration of the community.

This is the context and the people about which Tower Songs started its recording and documenting work in 2005. Tower Songs was an art project initiated by artist Ailbhe Murphy in 2003. From 2006 until 2007, while working as an arts programmer with CityArts, Dublin, I was responsible for the Tower Songs Project. During that time I had a unique opportunity to learn many things about artistic collaboration in context with others, especially from the artist, the artist team and colleagues from Fatima Mansions. It remains a long-term city-wide project which seeks to celebrate through voice, sound and song the memory and experience of a number of tower block communities across Dublin as they make their transition from tower block living to major urban regeneration initiatives. One night, on June 27th 2006, the residents of Fatima Mansions (supported by Fatima Groups United) and the Tower Songs artist team created an event to mark the final demolition of the flats in Fatima Mansions. As residents of Fatima were settling into their new homes, the flats were being demolished. The H & J blocks remained standing until the end of June, and then the time came to say goodbye. The flats, once full of life and sound, had fallen silent. The balconies where everyone stepped out to chat, to hear, to watch, to call and to participate in life unfolding in Fatima were empty and quiet. Neighbours, who are only next door in their houses, nearby on the new streets standing at their gates, for a time felt faraway. To mark this moment in Fatima, Tower Songs recreated an event to bear witness to what balcony life did mean to the people who lived there. On that night the balconies became a performance space, a disused flat became a sitting room and the washing lines and bins became filled with sounds.  

In workshops prior to the event, residents made it clear that most of the Fatima drama was carried out on and from the balconies. The event involved the community on the night both as audience and participants whereby residents helped to guide members of the public through what was once Fatima Mansions.

The area was cordoned off and people gathered outside to gain entry. Groups of thirty people were brought into the space and welcomed by their community guide. While people waited, they heard a recording facilitated by artist John Mahon involving children in the creche creating a soundscape of local environmental sounds.

As soon as everyone was welcomed and divided into small groups by local youth workers, they set off with their guides. The Tower Songs artist team, Sean Millar, George Higgs and Brian Fleming, organised three sound communities for the “Tower Songs: Fatima” event.  Each sound community was arranged in the H & J blocks, which were demolished following the event. 

The intention was for the audience to move amongst these communities, for their attention to be drawn to the sounds. The space became a tapestry of sound as the audience moved in and out of three sound communities in sequence.

Upon entry the group stopped to look at an instrument called The Fatimaphone, a hammer dulcimer created and played by George Higgs. This instrument was con structed as a model of Fatima Mansions to which the pre-recorded sounds (human and environemetal) gathered over the last year around Fatima were added. Speakers for the sound installation were placed apart from each other for spatial effect.

Then the groups were guided to a flat in which a group of young people who had been facilitated by songwriter Sean Millar performed a song called Faces are Still the Same. Using a Karaoke format the singing group comprised of youth workers and teenagers who sang live while sitting on a couch to the audience huddled together in the darkened flat.  Finally, each group moved across the yard and up to the first balcony to join in the performance of the ‘Goodbye Song’. Thirteen women who were former residents of the Blocks composed the song in collaboration with the artist Sean Millar. Millar explained, ‘If the song had not functioned like a ritual then it would have been useless’ (in Szálka 2007: 25 f33). People stood in a line on the balcony and were asked to place their hands on the shoulders in front of them. Accompanied by three string musicians the song was performed up to twenty times during the night.

Speaking after the event, Jim Lawlor, the team leader of the youth project in the area, noted, ‘The Tower Songs project has drawn in and lifted up the voice of large numbers of residents. It has also helped craft and give full expression to the distilled experiences of mothers, sons, fathers and daughters in ways that have created pride, defiance and optimism’ (Conference Presentation, 30th November 2006).


# 3. Halting Sites for Travellers in Priorswood: The Literacy House Project

The idea of this project was to locate a temporary pedagogical site called Literacy House. The idea formed slowly through conversations among key participants in 2008.  Located in Priorswood on the northern inner suburb of Dublin city, the project was developed by artist Glenn Loughran and women from the Priorswood Travellers Support Group.  Priorswood Community Development Project is part of the Irish Government Community Development Programme, which was launched in 1990 by the Irish Government with the specific aim of supporting local groups to overcome problems of poverty and disadvantage.  Aside from its role in the local community as a resource centre, the centre also develops programmes, using arts and culture, in response to local problems like drug misuse and joyriding. TravAct, which is part of the Priorswood Travellers Support Group, participated in the Literacy House Project which was run largely by members of the Travelling Community.

Glenn Loughran’s work is part of a series of ‘hedgeschool’ projects, which gives a historical reference to the education process beyond the “legitimate” structure.  In many countries this phenomena of illegal education has related to keeping alive language, ethnic or religious practices that were often outlawed by the ruling powers.  It forms part of his practice-based Ph.D. through the Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media (

The work involved the placing an old mobile home, often referred to as a ‘trailer’ by Travellers, in different locations throughout the area and its gradual renovation into a temporary space for education and art. For those who are not familiar with Traveller culture, a description by an American visitor to the project is helpful. Con Christenson (Email communication dated 17th August 2009) noted:

    The Travellers are what many call Irish gypsies, but I learned they are not descended from the Roma people of Eastern Europe(…) Traveller culture is rooted in Catholicism, preserves its history through storytelling, deals with debilitating prejudice and other social issues and is now looking at how to maintain of a traditional lifestyle challenged by everything modern.

The complex negotiation of site permission to place the trailer in different locations and subsequent renovation of the trailer became a point of departure for a pedagogical process with Traveller women. Each participating group discussed the difference between inclusion and belonging and these conversations became the driving force behind the project. It led to a series of reflections and home-grown publications about its meaning with reference to family, halting sites, education, employment, the state and citizenship. For Loughran,

    The focus is placed on the will of the individual to find out something for oneself and to teach it to their neighbour without aid of a master.

Emphasis is on ‘the group, not a teacher, researching and taking ownership’. The process started with each member researching ‘how to make a book’.  Once the book was made it was used to collect the resulting research material. From this point on the group considered how the space might look like and function as an adult literacy space. To do this each member researched how to change or reconstruct a part of the space. The content of the books explored what it meant to ‘belong’ and its polar opposite ‘not belonging’. Specifically barriers such as inadequate housing and literacy became important subject matter in the books.

At the end of each discussion, the group was then asked a series of questions relating to the group process and the work produced. These interviews are edited together and provide the basis for explaining the project and process to the next group in the next site. As each group also produced a series of art books, the formal process realised the production of over twelve books that collect the research process, which have been used to develop literacy skills and give expression to the stories and debates emerging from the process.

Loughran took his cue from Jacques Ranciére’s study The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991: 39). Here Ranciére’s idea of emancipatory learning is to engage the totality of human intelligence in each intellectual manifestation. He argues that much of the benevolence of education towards ideas of citizenship and equality actually has done 66little to alter the problems associated with educational disadvantage (1991: 101).

    One can teach what one doesn’t know. A poor and ignorant father can thus begin educating his children: something must be learned and all the rest related to it. On this principle: everyone is of equal intelligence.

Ranciére’s main objective is to develop a political theory that could be used to reevaluate the concept of equality and build a theory of radical equality.  He argues that the state cannot allow or produce this progressive kind of pedagogy because education is controlled by the system (Ranciére, 2004: 223).

Loughran (Email communication, 10th August 2009) communicates the work as a process evolved by negotiation, conflict and discussion, but above all, marked by a sense of necessity.

    There is something quite subtle here. This process takes the risk of allowing the politics come from an otherwise mundane process. And it does. Because to discuss equality in education you do not need to add politics, because its politics is ‘who teaches who and why’.  


To Value Cultural Practice

These cultural practices described above are distinctively home-grown Irish experiences developed in the context of an experience of personal or social fracture. By (re)presenting these practices I rely on the reader to make one’s own sense of the work based on one’s experience elsewhere.  At best I have tried to communicate the lived experience so as to open up for consideration how to ‘value’ the work. In order to develop vantage points I want to suggest that these practices have an inherently civil orientation where civil can be taken to mean the creation of a space to be human and in relationship with each other.

While I worked with City Arts Centre during its Civil Arts Inquiry (www.cityarts. ie), the idea of civil society came to be understood through dialogue, cultural production and publication. The Inquiry involved an eighteen-month period (20022004) of art programming and reflection about the role of art and society. During the Inquiry, the English philosopher Anthony Grayling (Civil Arts Inquiry 2003: 30) proffered a perspective on the role of originating experiences in civil society.  He identified a qualitative shift away from a savage existence to one which can be termed ‘civilised’. The crucial moment takes place as the focus of celebration and honouring shifts from that of ‘the warrior to the civic virtues’. In Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Orestes, son of Agaenon who was pursued by the Furies because he had murdered his mother Clytemnaestra in revenge for the murder of his father, appeals for mercy and Athene summons a thousand citizens to sit in judgement on his case.  Thus, a new process is introduced which is about being human with each other rather than the power of force or privilege.

Society, which gathers human multiplicity, grows quantitatively from the family to one in which the good social order finds a basis through civil and political representatives. Order, as an experience lived and meaningful and as a basis for being with others, necessitates participation and the means for reasonable discourse.

But how is participation and discourse in public possible when people retreat from the social because of fear and anxiety about security, financial crisis, institutional corruption and abuse?  Anger is directed at institutions such as the state, church and judiciary and at individuals including foreigners, migrant workers and refugees. Throughout European democracies, there is growing fear and cynicism towards participation in civil society.  This leads to a question: how can we (re)introduce civility into societies especially when the experience of being-in-public and the faculty of being civil is in need of shoring up after a long period of dormancy? 70

In order to elaborate further on how civil society can be created out of experiences of fracture, I want to begin with two illustrations, one from the past (c.2000BC) and one a contemporary (2009) context.  The first extract comes from an Egyptian coffin text entitled Dispute of a Man with His Soul (Voegelin, 2004: 194-196). Here are two tristichs:

    To whom can I speak today?

    One’s fellows are evil;

    The friends of today do not love.

    To whom can I speak today?

    Faces have disappeared:

    Every man has a downcast face towards his fellow.

Here is a commoner, not a Pharaoh, who doesn’t want to live in the present empire. In Egyptian society, the concrete representative of order (the sun god Re) is found in the Pharaoh. At the time of this poem there was a period of political and social breakdown due to the ineffective rule of the Pharaoh. The texts illustrates that the experience of anxiety manifested in public is always a concrete experience of existence in time and place, and in some cases the breakdown may produce new attempts to find a new basis for being in society.

The second European illustration is from a text spoken by a protagonist in Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Guests, a commission for the Polish Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale. Projections were framed behind a set of large windows and roof lights located in the pavilion. Wodiczko incorporated a series of monologues into the projections, which were heard by using headphones. Shukri Sahil, speaking in Arabic, described his experience seeking political asylum in Poland after fleeing Libya.

    Hello. Yes. I’m from Poland now, in Warsaw. I stayed in prison a month, in Brussels. They put me on a plane accompanied by two big men and sent me to Warsaw… In Warsaw I applied for asylum as soon as I learned about it… They kept throwing me from one country to another. Like a ball; using the ‘Dublin criteria’ (Dublin Convention) as an excuse. Come here, go there. They don’t care what you feel; they just make you feel unwanted.

The strain of coping with the order of life is common to both texts.  Something is not quite right. Both illustrations assume the breakdown of a sense of community in a society. Absence is predicated by precariousness, a desire for freedom from alienation and isolation yet also an imprisonment. Suspicion and mean-spiritedness abound. Both protagonists, due to the injustice of the context, are unable to awaken or experience an individual or collective faculty of being in society. At its most basic level, this faculty encompasses how to be human and in relationship with others. One thing is certain – without this intuitive faculty, located in the common sense of the individual in society, it is not possible to speak about ‘civil society’.

The cultural practices described above echo Joseph Beuys’s famous statement, ‘Everyone is an artist,’ by the way they reworked the common perception about the relationship between art, artists and society.  Declan McGonagle, who directed the Civil Arts Inquiry, argues (McGonagle 2008) that making art is not simply about production of work and the preservation of products in museums and galleries. Making art is not a private but rather a public venture, which is concerned with developing the capacity for cultural production in society. In other words it is also an act of agency for others where the artist uses his/her artistry to create a civil space, a platform to witness, protest, contest and participate. The establishment of a platform to mourn or to construct a new cultural discourse about ‘regeneration’ or ‘belonging’ highlights the need and value of unmooring from a static notion of cultural practice. The valuing of truth about form, technique or artistry, which is the overriding concern of some art criticism, is deficient when it comes to reading the cultural practices described above. These practices are almost invisible to this type of truth. At question here is not which theory to apply but how to ventilate and value all that the experience of the cultural practice manifests. Here I want to draw upon a philosophical insight from Emmanuel Lévinas, the French philosopher who was born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1906 and died in 1995, just a few weeks short of his ninetieth birthday. Of course, his work has no direct recourse to the cultural practices herein, nor do I engage with it as a dogmatic formula, which can have universal application. Human experience does not work in that way. Rather, my intent is to develop some supportive armature in order to have a discourse that values these cultural practices.


Towards An Experience Of Being Public

The connection I wish to draw between the discussion so far and the Lévinas’s philosophical insight concerns his orientation towards being for others and his perspective on the neighbour and the stranger in society. He never used the phrase ‘civil society’, but the experience of proximity to the other is closely bound to the idea I propose for civil society.  Also, his writing and ideas have particular resonance with the cultural practice outlined above as Lévinas resisted a solely egobased understanding of the reality of knowledge.  For him, knowledge is devalued when driven solely by a desire ‘to be: already an insistence on [my] being as if a “survival instinct”(…) were its meaning’ (Lévinas, 1997: 132).

Rather, Lévinas offers an alternative paradigm, which it seems to have significance in the contemporary art practices of Krzysztof Wodiczko from New York or Jeanne van Heeswijk from the Netherlands and for the practices described above. Referring to Lévinas, Rosalyn Deutsche (2002: 34) suggests we cannot connect to the social world from ‘a position of full understanding. To take such a position is to disavow reality, for the world is not an object for the self.’ According to Deutsche, Lévinas, is ‘calling into question my joyous possession of the world.’”(Deutsche, 2002: 36). 

For him Lévinas the human person is launched, like Moses in the basket, ‘when human existence interrupts and goes beyond its efforts to be …… the human being’s existential adventure matters to the I more than its own’(1998: xii). He suggests that aesthetic experience must be released from its the historical association with logical reasoning(1995: 53).

    The movement of art consists in leaving the level of perception [physicality/ materiality] so as to reinstate sensation [affectivity/intuition]… Instead of arriving at the object, the intention gets lost in the sensation itself. [brackets my own]

There are quite specific historical reasons why aesthetics was has been locked into a logical formulation with its epicentre in a retina seeing an object from the vantage point of an ego – me, myself and I. At issue is the consequence of locating aesthetics as a function of the ego. 

Alternatively, and a case worth making, is to locate knowledge and aesthetics as an operation of the life of reason which is open to all that experience can show. It is universally accessible to people and involves a grasp of cultural practice in context and with others and one that creates and nourishes our interdependence as human persons. The San Diego based art critic Grant Kester (2004), whose work has focused primarily on dialogical and socially engaged art practice, suggests that autonomous aesthetics is a self-interested, acquisitive and possessive model of knowing. He argues that the pathos of the early aesthetic has precisely to do with how the individual and the social relate to each other, the one and the many.

Descartes, in his Meditations, provides an important historical example in which an attempt is made to recapture human experience, established by ‘ens cogitans’ (I think; therefore, I am).  Herein, the application of one’s intellect can be applied to become the total explanation of the human sum. Lévinas attempts to right this wrong and recover a more open paradigm. In his writing he proffers a mode of thought that cannot be reduced to such an act of knowing (Peperzak, 1993).

Of course, we have to be careful here not to replace one fixed position with another.  The private egoism needs the social as its counterpart as an act of solidarity as well as to engender responsibility (van Heeswijk, 2009).  At issue is not a rejection of static definitions, categories or dogmas. Rather, Lévinas suggests, ‘Our most intimate and valued traditions [including art and culture] have cared more about “beings” and how to define them than about our ethical dealings with fellow humans’ (1994: 3) [brackets my own]. Cultural practice can be valued and posited other than by thinking, and the position of Lévinas (1994: 3) is crystal clear in this regard: ‘The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know… We are human before being learned and remain so after having forgotten much.’ For him, art is an ‘epiphany’ that creates and nourishes ‘proximity with the other’ or as Deutsche suggested in her Tate lecture, ‘the experience of being public’ (Deutsche podcast, accessed 15th January 2009).  ‘Art is the magic and the miracle that dazzles the Cartesian ego and interrupts its isolation through the production of the inexhaustible newness of life’s instants’ (Lévinas, 1994: 54).

In other words I am attempting to value the moment in cultural practice when ‘the needle touches and pierces life’ (Lévinas, 1994: 55). A common thread runs through the practices described earlier among people who have first-hand experience of suicide, regeneration, of not belonging.  The moment in which these projects created and nourished an experience of being public – a civil space – is concretely experienced as a total presence of people with each other.  It is in one’s manner of being present to a distinctive cultural practice, and through the collective experience, that the practice can first be valued. It is not given as a transferable guideline, protocol or principle. It seems to me there is a need to be sensitive to the fact that the moment it is captured by reason its order and fecundity changes.  In this sense, the value of these cultural practices is not discernible through “watches or clepsydras” (water clocks), which is the domain of science.  These cultural actions, which empirically may last only a short time and are not repeatable, transcend the ego, its time and logic. Lévinas notes the debt owed to Henri Bergson’s whose work on recapturing the nature of human experience identified the reality of inner life or duration (durée) of bodily moments which transcend time. Bergson wrote, ‘It is the clarity of the radically new and absolutely simple idea, which catches as it were an intuition’ (1987: 129). This is the time of the cultural act, which is revealed as unceasing creation, ‘the uninterrupted upsurge of novelty’ (ibid.:131) and ‘the inexhaustible newness of life’s instants’ (Lévinas, 1994:54). 

A short aside to problems in the area of visual perception may crystallise Bergson’s idea. Because light is integral to all visual experience, we should resist the inclination to clothe it with visible properties. (Grandy, 2001). In this sense, light admits no spectators. If we experience light, it is because we participate in the space-time drama it offers us. ‘In a literal sense, light is always in-your-face, striking the retinas and ceding its own local presence to distant bodies’ (ibid: 16).  This double movement – the absenting of immediate light and the making present of other things across space and time intervals – turns light into an opening without recovery or bounds. For Bergson, durée is that eruptive immediacy or here-ness.  I am reminded of a comment made by Krzysztof Wodiczko (2007) in response to a question about copyrighting his work. He said, ‘How can you copyright any of this? Making life. Making love. People will be making love.’ Something occurs to reverse the geometry of the world that affords us survey of distant objects; intervals fall away and otherness punctures an invisible merging of perceiver and perceived. In this respect, the other bears a light-like relation to our experience of being public. It erupts into our experience, but we cannot recover that eruption as understanding. Sometimes only cultural production can adequately create and nourish the experience of being in public, especially in a time of fracture. It seems to me it is precisely here that art can (re)claim and (re)fresh its position in society by mobilising its power to act as an agent with others to speak and to be heard in the world. Cultural practice is then not a blissful wandering of an artist who sets out to make something beautiful. Rather, it is a spindling act of communication, an act of agency to make an experience of being public, even though the problems associated with that experience may be indissoluble and may not disappear soon.  Cultural practice can create the reality of being public, not simply reflect it.        

The implication for the human person was succinctly recalled by Lévinas by drawing upon a comparison between two versions of a sentence from the Talmud.  ‘Every man is obligated to think that the entire universe has been created because of him.’ This article attempts to suggest a way of being open to cultural practices that can awaken a dormant civil society. Referring to that sentence in the Talmud, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, an eighteenth-century Lithuanian rabbi understood it in this way: ‘Every man is obligated to think that the subsistence of the entire universe depends exclusively on him, that he is responsible for it.’



This article was published in conjunction with the launch of Life:Art during Kaunas Biennial TEXTILE 09 (

It will also be distributed as part of the Blue Drum’s Blueprint series (

The Irish Youth Foundation and Dublin City University Publication Assistance Fund 2009 supported the publication.

Editor (English): Matt Wallen

Editor (Lithuanian): Agne Narausyte

Designer: Giedre Karsokiene

Published by the Irish Youth Work Press,
20 Lower Dominick Street, Dublin 1.
Tel: +353 (01)8729933
ISBN: 978 1 900416 77 1

© Ed Carroll. Ed is a board member of Blue Drum and Chair of Kaunas Biennial,
Lithuania (

The text is published under the Creative Commons License:
Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 2.5,

Ed Carroll‘s interest is in artists and non artists working in context. For over two decades he has co-produced projects interfacing culture, society and education. From 2004-2007 he worked as a programmer during City Arts Centre‘s Civil Arts Inquiry ( In 2008 he was elected Chair of the 7th edition of Kaunas Biennial ( which involved live examination of twenty-eight artist projects being realised in-situ Kaunas, Lithuania. He lives in Lithuania.

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