Agonism and Antagonism in LA’s Cultural Sphere

20 08 2012

 An abandoned shoe, a rotten tooth, a snub nose, the cook spitting in the soup of his masters are to love what a battle flag is to nationality.

An umbrella, a sexagenarian, a seminarian, the smell of rotten eggs, the hollow eyes of judges are the roots that nourish love.

A dog devouring the stomach of a goose, a drunken vomiting woman, a slobbering accountant, a jar of mustard represent the confusion that serves as the vehicle of love.

A man who finds himself among others is irritated because he does not know why he is not one of the others.

Georges Bataille, excerpts from The Solar Anus[1]


This guide frames for users sites worthy of creative exploration in Los Angeles. We hope your practice benefits from it. The guide was sketched out asking L.A. citizens where jerks and assholes dwell. The responses locate banks and businesses, politicians and polluters, war contractors and museums. Here also is a neighborhood troll and a crappy teacher. The hobo folk singer Utah Phillips said “The earth is not dying it is being killed, and the people who are killing it have names and addresses”. If Phillips is correct we aim to locate these spaces as sights for arts in the expansive field.

About the four months pushing hard against New Years 2012, Los Angeles experienced the occupation of its City Hall and the premature death of artist Mike Kelley. The two events are unrelated except for their proximity so they are connected in our minds. We are unaware if Kelley completed any works about L.A.’s City Hall — however it is not difficult to imagine the City Hall as a model in his 1995 sculpture, Educational Complex[2]. In that artwork Kelley constructed, from memory, replicas of institutions (mostly schools) he participated in. Full of detail the buildings contain noticeably incomplete voids. To Kelley, these gaps are spaces of forgetting, of repressed memory, where institutionalized abuse occurred. But these holes can equally seen as apertures and stages. They allow you to peer in, to study the guts of the spoiled institutions. The voids then form arenas where anything might happen— an ameliorative act like a band-aid placed on the civic skin. Or perhaps a shitty return for the repressed, emanating outwards, polluting the idea of a city hall itself.

Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995.

Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995.

Mike Kelley’s death returns us all to his, and these, theaters of abjection — where the literary victim/victimizer play out their eternal anguishes and affectations. Or perhaps his passing frees us from this circus of language all-together? Occupy Wall Street, camping out at such public and institutional spaces, spawned a movement that for many is a re-birth for a cycle that could lead a way out of this abject state for the poor and the planet. Others see Occupy as just another window into Samsara, which we like Kelley all participate in. While epistemologically the options appear as hope or abjection, either action appear as a form of affective performance.

There are two terms we wish people to know; agonism and antagonism. Agonism is a concept of philosophy and governance that sounds like antagonism, but it isn’t. To agonize someone means to engage in intense partisan battle. Though this battle is in the spirit of indefinite highly competitive sport, not annihilation. To antagonize some one means to bother them as in a state of agitation.  Agonism is a post-structuralist idea , perhaps made for very critical art, and how it could function in relationship to the state and other oppostions; somewhat of a delicate dance involving freedom of speech within and against suspicious reactive structures. Antagonism is a practice for those seeking something much less delicate- a small rise or a complete downfall. The manner of performance in either case is not defined- the address can be abjection (as in the case of Kelley), didactic (as in the case of critical art), or something else.

Art Historians Claire Bishop’s 2004 article in the journal October . “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, and subsequent writing, have for many in the social art community polarized the terms “antagonism” and “agonism”.  It is the feeling of the author of this forward, that the debates between Bishop and her primary respondent, Grant Kester, have unfortunately become dualistic in nature. Kester rejects Bishops criticism of positivist artwork as an act of art historical retrenchment by an academic who, in his mind, reveals a bias towards maintaining hegemony for elite critical aesthetics over creative grass—roots problem solving. He charges that Bishop’s embrace of Mouffe and Laclau’s (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 1985) philosophy of agonism is nothing more than philosophical trend-chasing. For her case, Bishop finds positivism in art toothless, and locates her discourse within vanguardist history rather than council communism (as Kester appears to). In the space between the intensity of the debates between the two partisans lay equal truths: positivist social artwork can be anything from good to bad art, to a distraction, to a band—aid, to something amazing. Art history can function as a hegemonic tool for re-prescribing cannons, philosophical trendiness frequently defines art press, and by definition vangaurdism is not interested in horizontalism. None of these critiques negates the other. The binary nature of the attacks the two historians have mounted are unfortunate. An interesting corollary to Bishop and Kester’s debates are the antagonistic tactics used during the 2010 UC Strikes and in Oakland during the 2011 Occupy actions. Supporters of these strikes and occupations have both rejected agonism and council communism. The criticism here is that the political concept of agonism is a utopian joke within a capitalist state— where capital always triumph— and what is needed is aggressive antagonism by a political vanguard to bring about a confrontation with capital.

Putting aside these terms, what is the history of antagonism or agonism within Los Angeles? Popular allegories portray the tale of our city similar to that of other North American towns, with our own regional flair. A story of the democratic melting pot. A tale of continual triumph of capital over all other concepts of social organization. A fable of a majority ruling a minority who seek redress through periodic social unrest.

What would it be like for artists to engage in serious playful competition with these seemingly fixed mediatic-narrative? Or perhaps stage serial critical interventions to destabilize them?

In either case, the demand on the performer is terrifying- including not only the fear of artistic failure but also the repercussions of free speech. Not discounting the multiple-counter-traditions (some explored in this guide), Los Angeles is still a city where artists are most comfortable cloistered indoors. However it is edifying to recognize that the story of contemporary art in Los Angeles is mostly one of artists taking daring, frequently groundbreaking, risks in those sheltered spaces.

Leaflet advertising Ron Athey's Solar Anus, 1999.

Leaflet advertising Ron Athey’s Solar Anus, 1999.

The Solar Anus was a performance of artist Ron Athey held in Los Angeles, and elsewhere, in 1999. For the performance Athey appeared in nothing more then high heals, garters, and stockings.  The show began with Athey pulling a long string of iridescent pearls from his asshole. Two subsequent acts followed. The first had the artist attach a sharply radiating steel crown to his head using metal hooks that were pierced to his head. After performing “difficult poses” involving the metal crown he blew gold glitter at the audience.

The second act involved a back-story — for the performance Ron got a tattoo. The tattoo formed a corona around his asshole’s sun. A video of its application there was projected during the performance. With that as a backdrop, onstage Ron methodically fucked himself in his tattooed ass with a large dark dildo attached to one of his spiked heels.

Pat Califia, writing in Out Magazine in May of 1999[3], reported the crowds reaction to the performance ranged from blasé (seen it), to clinical (“Girl Miss Ron Athey needs an intervention”), to deeply moved. Califia reflects upon a sequence in the tattoo video where a bright light begins to emanate from Athey’s asshole — marking a sort of transcendence. Literally when Ron’s solar anus begins to shine. Transcendence over the swelling miasma of pain (the violation of the tattoo gun, the piercing, the penetration of the dildo, living with the HIV[4] virus) and pleasure (the sexuality, the darkly erotic performance). And this is of course Bataille’s surrealist story of The Solar Anus– a metaphor for a cosmic ouroboros – the permanent interdependence of the relationship between horizontal and vertical motions in rhythmically creating and destroying, maintaining, the wholeness of the universe. The sweep of history that came upon Athey as an artist effected by the aids crisis, then with the weight of the US Congress and US media sitting upon him as an artist associated with the NEA’s funding controversies [5]— all sublimated in a miasma of cosmically publicly (becoming a politicized figure) recognizable and irreducible (dealing with an illness) human experiences, finding meaning all in one. The performance of pain and pleasure — crapping out from the inside — the contradictory dignified and blasphemous God from within a mortal.

This guide to the assholes of Los Angeles, as we imagine what could be produced in ongoing flowing fecund relationship to the nature of society — we hope the performances grow to be as affectively syncopated as Athey’s. Moaning, complaining, sighing, chanting, laughing, whispering, yelling, breathing, crying, farting, cumming, bitching, playing, didactic, aesthetic, inside, outside.

-Llano Del Rio Collective, Winter 2013

[1] The Solar Anus, 1931.

[2] Mike Kelley, Educational Complex, 1995. Synthetic polymer, latex, foam core, fiberglass, and wood, 57 3/4 × 192 3/16 × 96 1/8 in. (146.7 × 488.2 × 244.2 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee.

[3] Pat Califia,” In Praise Of Assholes”, Out Magazine May 1999: 42— 46.

[4] Ron Athey is a survivor who has been living public with the virus for almost thirty years. If his work can be considered infamous this is owed in part to the fact that its viscerality can be coupled to his medical status.

[5] Athey’s work was a target for criticism by the US Congress for receiving federal funds through the National Endowment for the arts, for a work which members of the congress considered offensive. The controversy (involving such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, Andes Serrano, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes) ultimately resulted in the US government, through the NEA, ultimately ending the funding of individual artists.




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