The Imaginary Institutions of Society: Lyn Löwenstein and the Facelifters
Activist art makes people conscious of culture and identity as a complex set of relations, which we have the capacity to change, and sometimes a duty to change.
As Foucault has demonstrated, institutional thought is an iceberg, ensconced in the structures of everyday life. Imaginary institutions shape and enforce "norms" such as heterosexuality, the nuclear family, and conformity in the workplace. Foucault called these invisible processes "discourses"; they are by definition instruments of repression, and much post-war thinking has been devoted to figuring out what cultural mechanisms keep them in place and why.
Lowenstein sees art practice as a research tool for mapping and revealing Foucault-ian dimensions of imaginary institutions. Her work on homophobia and corporate identity shows us how we become what we read and what is said of us.
The Homophobic Alphabet takes the form of a spurious educational kit - a booklet and wall-chart designed to be used in primary schools to teach children about prejudice. Adopting the "authorless" medium of a public information communication, the booklet conjures up for its reader a whole cast of normally invisible social groups involved in education - civil servants, policy-makers, text-book publishers, teachers - and invites us to imagine them implementing such a pilot scheme. The accompanying "visual aid" is a child's ABC, where metaphorical slang terms for gay people and sexual acts are depicted literally: thus "C is for Carpet-muncher" shows a person munching a carpet. The resulting piece is both disturbing and very funny. It is first of all an elegantly situationist work: sent out to actual schools in the Edinburgh district, it involves any spectator in a thought-experiment that questions the status quo. Its two parts work together on a number of levels to expose a "gap-between-discourses" as a source of humour and enlightenment.
Initially, we laugh, in semi-appalled recognition, at the difference between the worlds of street slang and modern pedagogical language - a gulf which, of course, every child must learn how to perceive, and function within. On another level, a semiotic gap appears which is about the basic difficulties of representing the real scope of "unauthorised" human sexuality. The residual Victorianism of our mentality is exposed in the pictures, which again work on several levels. As illustrations, their forms recall the disturbing nursery world of Shock-Headed Peter. As sign systems, they resemble the “found surrealism” of Pieter Bruegel’s visualised proverbs, wherein a literal rendition is used to subvert and reverse the meaning of a colourful folk metaphor (as in the figure of a man taking the moon inside in a bucket). Here, the ABC images focus our attention on the double-edged semiotics of sexual vocabulary: you read the innuendo, see a deliberately innocuous visual rendering of the metaphor, and the "real" referent appears unmistakeably as located where it really must be, if we are to follow Foucault's analysis, in the space of of the imagination.
Our necessary complicity in language and culture is thus revealed to us, and we experience the normal reaction to such an unusual and masterly piece of semiotic leger-de-main: we laugh with enhanced awareness. The joke is also a familiar type of children's mistake - an over-literal rendering. This adds to the pleasure, while relating the material back into the context of schools, and the reasons why these metaphors - and their referents – are excluded from formal education. As the booklet makes clear, the bad consequences of suppressing information on homosexuality can be seen in the morass of misunderstanding and prejudice which currently makes puberty an unnecessarily miserable experience for many people. Lowenstein’s point about the culture-specific basis of all this is shown in her interventionist News of the World piece; wherein sheets of news items from anthropology and medical practice which challenge our assumptions about “norms” of gender were distributed on Princes Street, producing another double shock of surprise and information in the minds of the recipients.
In the Department offers a similarly brilliant co-opting of a form invented by contemporary corporate practice, the “team photograph”. Like the mission statement, the corporate group photograph has a curious potential for ambivalence. Everyone knows that it is a fiction, a piece of advertising purporting to represent an openness of identity which its obvious condition as a manufactured image must undercut. As Lowenstein realised, even the slickest efforts in this genre inspire instant disbelief, and the more amateurish the excecution, the greater the scope for unintentional humour. This insight lies behind her spoof company, Facelifters, specialising in “complex identity management”. Each piece uses the form as the starting point for exploring types of repressive compartmentalisation.
As in the practice of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, who turned the mechanism of the advertising slogan into a critique of itself, Lowenstein produces a “key”to the photo, which eliminates the real people entirely; they become a set of faceless numbered silhouettes. Referring to the key, we find the same list of rich and rude slang words for gay. Thus several kinds of group classification work to disrupt each other, because it is made clear in this arrangement that they are all patently insufficient as descriptions of the people concerned.
The piece is similar to Gillian Wearing’s recent videos, wherein footage of an adult talking is matched with a child’s voice. As an exploration of issues of identity, it makes us awareness of the permanent lack of fit between corporate and individual definitions of self and other: I am a member of ….; I am one of us; I am more (or less) than one of us; he/she is one of us/them. Capitalist and consumerist discourse relies on such compartmentalisation, defining a person as a unit which produces labour and consumes things. In this context, the vocabulary of The Homophobic Alphabet is seen as equally reductive. We are forced to imagine it too as a kind of corporate docketing, used in the workplace to blur individual differences. The proliferation of vocabulary for the gay “other” is disturbingly juxtaposed against the blankness of the “straight” corporate identity.
Everybody knows that, in the real world, selfhood cannot be summed up in any conceivable set of images of happy consumers, and that sexual identity cannot be satisfactorily represented in a consumerist model. Here we begin to understand why Lowenstein’s forms are particularly successful in representing the complexity of this situation. Unlike Gillian Wearing’s videos, Lowenstein’s works compel us to acknowledge that this lack of fit characterises all our available discourses. Wearing’s pieces are vulnerable to various strategies of recuperation: it is possible, for example, to “read” the child as more authentic than the adult; and, notoriously, her imagery as a whole can be appropriated by consumerist agencies such as by car manufacturers.
Lowenstein, on the other hand, mobilises several discourses at once, making them reveal the insufficiencies of each other: “complex identity management” exactly describes this process. Her wit cannot be recuperated to serve consumerist ends, because it depends on exposing the distances inherent in any set of Spectacular codes. Like a semiotic house of cards, The Homophobic Alphabet and In the Department set licit (written, official) discourse against illicit (oral, colloquial). The result is that we are able to see more clearly how each is written in terms of the other.