Readers
Masks
8 essays
Compiled by Kiki de Mouilpied Sancto

The mask has become an increasingly ubiquitous feature of the Covid-19 world‘s stripped-down public spheres, as well as a (perhaps the) defining emblem of life under lockdown. As the infrastructures of protection become politicized anew, we might attend to the recent and ancient pasts of masks as a means of forecasting the terms of political engagement for the (post-)Coronavirus age. In figuring slippages between recognition and anonymity, performance and diffidence, and dissimulation and defense, how might masks proffer tactics for protection against our current environment‘s multiple and intersecting hostilities—biological and otherwise?

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Oxana Timofeeva
What Lenin Teaches Us About Witchcraft
Originally published in May 2019

In this impersonal multiplicity, there is no one. What does this “no one” mean? It means a structural impossibility for “one” to be. A comrade is never alone—not in the trivial sense that there is always someone else around, but in the more radical sense that you are always many. You are Legion. This is how you succeed in “the fine art of not getting arrested,” persecuted, or burned alive by the inquisitors of your age. When you are many, you turn your back to the police officer and disappear. Comradeship creates a shield against the witch hunters who will try to catch us one by one, but who will never destroy the whole set of alliances that make up the Great Sorcery International. You know what I mean.

Natasha Ginwala
Untaming Restraint and the Deferred Apology
Originally published in October 2018

Laughter is a sense-making device in the darkest phases of restraint, and also a means of self-extension. Bodies in pain and souls in fury are fundamentally transformed in sonorous gradations of mirth. “Isn’t laughter the first form of liberation from a secular oppression?” asked Luce Irigaray. Rational terror is pulverized by the Medusa’s laugh—to draw from Cixous’s formulation—an entrapped body given release in her reverberation.

Antke Engel and Renate Lorenz
Toxic Assemblages, Queer Socialities: A Dialogue of Mutual Poisoning
Originally published in April 2013

An imposing drag queen in a leopard-print top flaunts her décolleté after the show. She totters through the glitter, tinsel, and pills scattered on the floor and walks over to a massive tropical plant, from which she fishes out a lighter, lights a cigarette, and breaks out in a terrible cough, exhaling glitter from deep in her throat. In the background, a slideshow displays oversized portrait figures wearing fanciful masks made of various trashy but glamorous materials, partly referencing protest cultures and queer subcultures since the 1970s.

Simon Sheikh
Positively Trojan Horses Revisited
Originally published in October 2009

Lucy Lippard’s famous essay on activist art should need no introduction or art historical contextualization; what’s more, “Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power,” published in the seminal 1984 anthology Art After Modernism, represents but one entry point into a truly impressive body of work dedicated to the politics of art and representation from the 1960s up to today. As such, the essay can be situated both in an ongoing debate—making it ripe for revisitation—and in the trajectory of Lippard’s oeuvre as a whole. Indeed, the author of “Trojan Horses” has long grappled with the relationship between art and activism, both in terms of activist art and with regard to how the two categories inform each other as general forms of power and empowerment. Such efforts clearly animate the collection Get the Message?: A Decade of Art for Social Change, as well as her later, retrospective essay “Too Political? Forget It.”

Serubiri Moses
Violent Dreaming
Originally published in March 2020

Unlike Isaac Julien’s 1995 documentary feature film Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask, which depicted Fanon as a psychiatrist, Olsson’s film remains didactic in its approach to Fanon’s text. However, the film reflects another pragmatic philosophy. When we see women fighters in Mozambique at a typing and copying station they have set up for printing and publishing at a forest camp, it becomes evident that for Olsson, knowledge production is key. One of the characters in this scene conveys to the camera something that had previously been unspoken—that a strategy of colonialism was to disempower the native by denying them education. But, if the right to education is a right to freedom, this line of thinking would diverge from Fanon’s thesis on the freedom and liberation of oppressed Algerians: “What is the true nature of violence? We have seen that it is the true intuition of the colonized masses that their liberation must, and can only, be achieved by force.”

Ana Hoffner ex-Prvulovic
Non-Aligned Extinctions: Slavery, Neo-Orientalism, and Queerness
Originally published in February 2019

Recently I found myself at the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, standing in front of an orientalist image. Together with a colleague I was looking at The Slave Market by Jean-Léon Gérôme, painted in 1866, only one year after the official abolition of slavery in the US. The caption of the painting said the following:

Boris Groys
Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility
Originally published in June 2009

These days, almost everyone seems to agree that the times in which art tried to establish its autonomy—successfully or unsuccessfully—are over. And yet this diagnosis is made with mixed feelings. One tends to celebrate the readiness of contemporary art to transcend the traditional confines of the art system, if such a move is dictated by a will to change the dominant social and political conditions, to make the world a better place—if the move, in other words, is ethically motivated. One tends to deplore, on the other hand, that attempts to transcend the art system never seem to lead beyond the aesthetic sphere: instead of changing the world, art only makes it look better. This causes a great deal of frustration within the art system, in which the predominant mood appears to almost perpetually shift back and forth between hopes to intervene in the world beyond art and disappointment (even despair) due to the impossibility of achieving such a goal. While this failure is often interpreted as proof of art’s incapacity to penetrate the political sphere as such, I would argue instead that if the politicization of art is seriously intended and practiced, it mostly succeeds. Art can in fact enter the political sphere and, indeed, art already has entered it many times in the twentieth century. The problem is not art’s incapacity to become truly political. The problem is that today’s political sphere has already become aestheticized. When art becomes political, it is forced to make the unpleasant discovery that politics has already become art—that politics has already situated itself in the aesthetic field.

Elvia Wilk
Ask Before You Bite
Originally published in October 2019

Mutual love is often thought of as mutual recognition: I see you for who you are and you see me back. But recognition is inevitably also a naming, a fixing, a pinning down. In order to recognize, you have to categorize, and categories are notoriously inflexible. Recognition, if understood as a projection that disallows the evolution of self and identity, becomes restrictive rather than liberating. However inadvertently, the recognition required for mutual love can easily slip into a form of control.

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