Questions such as what does it mean to be political were at the heart of the one-day symposium Reality Check at the CSCA on 19 March 2016. Organised by lecturer Larne Abse Gogarty and PhD candidate Giulia Smith, the afternoon interrogated the possibilities and limits that Marxism encounters when allied with Psychoanalysis in art historical discourse.
The debate amongst the eight female speakers focused on the ultra-thin line that lies between, what Abse Gogarty named in the event’s introduction as the self-defined and the political world.
First, the two organisers of the conference laid down a theoretical ground for their own thinking and research about psycho-politics. Abse Gogarty asked: What is aesthetics? What is ethics? What is politics?
Indeed, such questions would be elaborated upon in her following paper focused on a ranges of materials including, photographs of Yvonne Rainer’s political activism and Sharon Hayes’ Ricerche three (2013). The latter video work documents the artist’s visit to an all-women’s college in the USA, where she interviewed lesbian and straight students – asking them questions about their sexuality, their family, and about the social structures at the college. Referring to the life of this community to a bubble, Abse Gogarty pointed out that there was in fact little distinction between problems experienced by the young women inside and outside the walls of campus.
The fragile border between the private and public was likewise fleshed out in Smiths’s paper on the work of the architects Peter and Alison Smithson after WWII, related to the dismantling of the welfare state under Margret Thatcher’s dictum “there is no such thing as society”. Smith considered the ways political policy for social housing in East London directly affected the lives of the community. In this way, her presentation related to Abse Gogarty’s observation that collective empirical reality of physical surrounding are formed by individual experiences.
Rose-Anne Gush’s paper (Leeds University) underlined the female body in regard to the Wiener Aktionismus with German philosophy by Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, taking on a more playful literary and theoretical approach towards the theme of the symposium. But like the two UCL scholars before her, the presentation also blurred the border between a body of art and its national politics.
Lucy Goodison, a member of the group Red Therapy (1973-1978) that consisted of young people critical of mainstream psychotherapy, was in conversation with the group Under the Moon. Leaderless by choice, the working-class people of Red Therapy had focused on rethinking the politics of the everyday – such as food and energy prices, housing and rents, childcare, personal relationships, sexuality, ways of living together, health, the family, and the lack of sufficiently paid work. At first the members of the group had helped only each other; later, when they had considered themselves able to also help people outside of the group, their activities took on a more public role. Goodison’s frank parlance about Red Therapy’s self-aware development in combination with their re-interpretation of political theories (Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, Wilhelm Reich, etc.) echoed the event’s focus on how individual performances are collectively linked to politics. But naturally, as personal differences within any group – such as sex, class, race, and age – regenerate questions about each member’s identity, the members parted ways after five years of actively supporting each other.
Decades later, some of the members wanted to meet again to work through the past. They set up a website where they made their programme and pamphlet (1978) openly accessible. Now, as previously, Red Therapy’s activism continues to grapple and experiment with the difficulties in addressing common objectives.
The PhD candidate Hannah Proctor, working on Soviet psychoanalysis at Birkbeck University and a member of Under the Moon, performed the difficulties in bringing personal experiences into academic discourse. Instead of one aligned text she initially aimed to present, she read five insightful fragments that dealt with academic theory and were illustrated by some personal anecdotes. In this way, her presentation joined the micro/macro, private/the public, and the political/the psychic. Concerned with the politics of collaboration, Proctor’s talk showed one fruitful way to discuss and re-engage with Psychoanalysis and Marxism in relation to one another, thus addressing themes of the afternoon directly.
Given the positive resonance of Proctor’s theoretical tapestry, the symposium left the impression that the challenge of consciously uniting these two strands of theory to one working approach goes hand-in-hand, still contributing to contemporary discourse on art, which not only calls for rethinking of the psycho-political constellation within, but even more urgently, outside of academic discourse. As the small scale discussion forum of the CSCA Reality Check has demonstrated, it is indeed productive to think of backing both analytical theories with each other: shoulder-on-shoulder, face-to-face.
- This video work was also included in the Institute of Sexology exhibition at the Wellcome Collection last year. For more information see the artist’s gallery website Tanya Leighton, available at http://www.tanyaleighton.com/index.php?pageId=547&l=en; for an interview with Sharon Hayes in the occasion of the Venice Biennale 2013 see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPQa9B8P89g.
- Visit the groups website to see what projects they worked on. 1970s Activism & Autonomy: stories from East London Big Flame, available at http://www.eastlondonbigflame.org.uk
- 1970s Activism & Autonomy: stories from East London Big Flame: About, available at
- To read her first fragment go to her personal online presence http://hhnnccnnll.tumblr.com/post/141777707698/falling-apart-together