oobROY: The Smashed Glass Manifestos – Avant KinemaJanuary 10, 2021
The Spiritual Battleground of Musical Practice: Manifesto of the Guard Dog Records CollectiveJanuary 10, 2021
Polita Mijao is a multimedia artist and poet working with paint, printmaking, video and installation. Her work is infused with radical politics and a manifesto-like sensibility. For this reason her work seems highly pertinent to this volume of The Exploding Appendix Dossier. We are very grateful for the interview that follows and accompanying artworks and hope it with help give a snapshot of her work.
Exploding Appendix: What does it mean to be a multimedia artist and poet working today?
Pollita Mijao: All mediums for creating art are valid vehicles for expression. In some sense, the medium used is whichever tool is readily available at the time – a crowbar for cracking open a subject, or a needle for threading it all together. Poetry has always been there – when the limitations of space or lack of materials makes all other forms of creation impossible. Poetry provides a release valve for those rendered otherwise voiceless through lack of means. I feel very strongly that these tools are our birth right; they are our armoury against a culture that seeks to enforce from above. I spent many years working shitty agency jobs as a lorry driver, and the rage that motivates my artwork is the same rage I felt then. So, to an extent what it means to be an artist is inextricable from what it means to be hauling curtain-siders and writing pissed-off prose in laybys… It is whatever voice you can find to keep from being silenced by a culture that does not represent you.
Learning to make is also an act of defiance in a world that primes us to consume. Being self-sufficient is part of a working-class heritage that is being redacted from history. So, if I approach making a piece of art, I want to learn all the processes involved. I do not wish to be tied down to any one medium. Obviously, lockdowns create new barriers to making art. The disparity of access to space and equipment means we must fight to carve out spaces in which we can have a voice. This struggle predates COVID-19, but now we must navigate new terms of engagement in the battle.
There is also the danger that in the context of global crisis, we create works that allow our rage and unrest to become cultural products; that can be assimilated and co-opted into a pre-formatted motif of resistance. In that, we may inadvertently prop up a notion of ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ dissent as belonging to the arts and forget that the real action is on the streets. Poet Fran Lock articulates this better than I ever could when she writes “I don’t want poems that hoover up our daily pain as imaginative fodder in reactive or exploitative ways. I want stress and rupture on the level of language. I want damage done to theme and form. I want difficulty and discomfort”.
Exploding Appendix: Your manifesto could be seen as an anti-art manifesto, on the one hand it is about rejecting an art that titillates “at polite tables,” or sings “sweet songs/from inside cages”). On the other hand, maybe precisely because of this, it could be seen as an attempt to reclaim and radicalise art. How do you see your work straddling both art and anti-art?
Pollita Mijao: Ah well, yes, the contradiction of an anti-art art! I feel art belonged to us long before it was extracted from daily life and re-branded as art. Again, the act of making was belonging to craftspeople, and not the custodians of culture. We must hang on tooth and nail to all the forms of expression we can, even those that have become synonymous with art as an institution. The problem with art as institution, is that it can only offer assimilation into its cannon as consolation for its lack of scope. Whereas an anti-art practice seeks to keep the acts of creation but has no need to be deemed as worthy by the gatekeepers of culture.
We are constantly bombarded with a visual culture that claims to represent us. By retreating from the battlefield, we are submitting to a narrative which was written for us. One can wholeheartedly find those that hold the tools to be undesirable, without deeming the tool itself to be without purpose.
Exploding Appendix: One of the things I really like about your work is the way it brings together really powerful aesthetics with radical activism. The aesthetics is not a side note, the two are deeply interwoven into each other in a way that I think is really successful. What is the relationship between art and activism and how do you manage to bring these two elements together so seamlessly?
Pollita Mijao: Firstly, thank you! This is a complicated area, and one I have given much thought to recently. I should start by saying that I don’t think any art practice can be considered a whole and complete form of activism. It can be wielded as a tool for resistance, as long as it acknowledges its debt is owed to direct action. If radical art sees itself as an elevated form of activism, rather than entangled in a wider context of refusal and resistance, it has already lost its relevance in any revolutionary movement. But making work with this knowledge is a freeing force for the work itself. There is no need to adhere to an aesthetic of worthiness, or to try and convert an audience. There is joy in the riotous refusal to accept situations that you find reprehensible, and art can revel in that joy! Yes, there is serious work to be done – but that is not for me to preach in a video or painting. Art can be a call to arms, and a space to share rage and express solidarity, so I think the aesthetic can be free from the confines of moral grandstanding or pleading to be taken seriously. Anyway, I have seen many pieces of artwork which have engaged far more thoroughly and coherently with their cause than I have ever attempted, being viewed, consumed, and rather than being received as a call to arms, being ingested as a complete cultural product. A ‘value’ flavoured Pop-Tart. They provide an audience with a temporary engagement with a cause, and it is deemed worthy and good and then the audience moves on to the next cultural broker of causes. So, I suppose I attempt to enjoy the process of exploring issues that matter to me, rather than hope for them to be any sort of fix on their own.
I hope for ‘us’ to be always winning in my art. In whatever form ‘us’ takes – human, non-human, all those who play their part in the garish carnival of resistance!
Exploding Appendix: In certain contexts yoga and meditation can become ways to avoid facing the world. In contrast, I really loved your Zen for the Apocalypse and lines like “We don’t recognise your rules, we don’t recognise your nations, we’re pulling down your empires with this guided meditation.” To me it suggested ways these practices can be reclaimed and re-radicalised. How do you see the relationship between Zen and radical politics?
Pollita Mijao: You know, I wrote the manifesto after an early morning yoga class. I was walking through Holloway as London was still barely awake, the homeless people camped in the doorway of Argos were starting to pack up before the streets would once again belong to the commuters. It seems absurd to even wish for inner peace in a world that deserves so much rage. As you say, there is an element of avoidance that can come with a practice that aims to teach acceptance. But there is also the aspect of zen, as in a nothingness of being, that spits right in the face of those Enlightenment ideals we still seem to be suffering a cultural hangover from. There is a power to be reclaimed in that, to rethink how we see humans – and often specifically man – as elevated and separate from nature.
Yoga and meditation can teach that we are all universally connected, but that does not mean our experience is universal. The kids working in sweatshops making yoga leggings, are not benefiting from our inner peace through some sort of spiritual osmosis. So a practice which seeks to ground oneself in the present, but fails to see how the present is built on a history we did not write, will struggle to reach any sort of radical reimagining of the possible futures.
So, I always cast a suspicious side-eye on any practice, be that creative or spiritual, that offers any form of moral offsetting. But just because these pitfalls exist, it does not mean there are no parts of value to be reclaimed. I think you put it perfectly when you said “No tradition is sacred. All traditions will be ours.”
Exploding Appendix: In your film Synaethesia you say,
New growth spun from rotting flesh,
The Weeds that devour the concrete,
And all man’s egos laid to rest
Without ceremony beneath its headstone
To what extent can this be seen as decentering what you have elsewhere called the anthropocentrism of visual culture?
Pollita Mijao: We are constantly sold this narrative (I’m looking at you Enlightenment!) that the human spirit is a force above and beyond all else. Really, we are an assemblage of matter, a symbiosis of bacteria and other lifeforms, just as interwoven in the base and grubby orchestra of existence as any other creature crawling the planet. But this realisation does not have to be a depressing one! Quite the opposite; it opens new doors for exploration, understanding and solidarity. It is comforting to think that all the chaos capitalism has unleashed, will one day be devoured by weeds and mushrooms. The human spirit is not eternal, we are just as temporal and transient as all other life. That in itself is a motivator for engaging in the world around us, rather than withdrawing to a notion of destiny or fate.
In the arts, I often see work pitched in context to its human narrative. Whilst I understand that there are a range of human experiences and many of those do not get heard, I also find the need to add a human-interest element to work to be curious. If this focus on the human experience served to make us more aware of our intertwined relationship with each other, I would probably take less issue with it. Somehow, the narrative seems to gravitate into the minutia of human experience; an introspection that serves to define rather than explore. So, I like to imagine a world without us. Just to keep me grounded in an objective context – one not too warped by any anthropocentric conditioning I have been exposed to! This has been the thinking behind the idea of an ‘Anti-Sublime’; a game of subverting the hierarchies, and letting the mushrooms take over!
Exploding Appendix: What projects are you currently working upon?
Pollita Mijao: The main project I am working on is a video piece called ‘Protection from Humans’, which is going to be a sort of incantation for surviving the Anthropocene. Or not as the case may be! I am trying to bring quite a few elements of my practice together in this. There are a lot of challenges – with space and equipment, so I am looking into some new uses of media, such as projection mapping and playing with machine learning and neural networks.
I am also working on an installation piece called ‘Locating the Soul’ which is a little poke at our ideas of self and the human monopoly on the soul.
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