Getting to the Heart of Resistance in “Imagining Beyond Authoritarianism”

Getting to the Heart of Resistance in “Imagining Beyond Authoritarianism”

Dear Gram, Luanne Redeye, 2018, Oil and Acrylic on Panel, 40" x 30"

Of all things, images of couches flash behind poet, playwright, and New York University Professor Claudia Rankine as she opens the morning program of “Imagining Beyond Authoritarianism: Race and Gender in Our Times” with a reading from a recent poem. The couches are unusual, almost uncanny — some cave inward; others are overly slouchy and doughy, or split in half with a thick seam of concrete. Rankine’s voice ripples over the heads of the audience members sitting in BAMPFA’s Osher Theater as she reads aloud a poem about exhaustion. Her words fall away — one by one — shedding and collapsing into one another, creating what feels like a site for the loss and regeneration of language. It is impossible not to become caught in the steady pulse of her verse, to feel our minds descend with her words.

Rankine’s February 10, 2024 reading was the inaugural event of a program put on by the UC Berkeley Center for Interdisciplinary Critical Inquiry, the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs, and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. When asked about the couches, Rankine offered an explanation that positioned the couches as a metaphor for the current state of exhaustion many are experiencing. Images of “ordinary” couches evoke feelings of comfort and bliss — a place for recuperation — but their forms become increasingly warped as they are forced to hold the weight of our grief. As Rankine put it, the couch becomes a site that can no longer offer comfort because it is being asked to “hold the thing which [we] cannot hold.”

This exhaustion is of course felt in response to the central theme of the day-long program, which examined the rise in contemporary authoritarian power in the United States. The US has seen a recent upsurge in anti-transgender legislation, attacks on critical race theory, book bans, and restrictions to abortion access, which have made the United States an ever more hostile place to live. Additionally, the past four months have seen a widening gap between public opinion and state action, with numerous protests organized by groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace — on whose advisory board Judith Butler is a member — demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and a halt to the US supply of weapons to the Israeli military.

This program brought together Judith Butler, Claudia Rankine, Amir Aziz, Lisa Armstrong, Ronal Rael, and Luanne Redeye to discuss the role that the arts and humanities can play in imagining a counter-narrative to increasing authoritarianism. At the heart of their conversation lies a question posed by Rankine herself: “How do you come to a point where being human is conditional?” This question is central to the very existence of the United States, given that the country prospered on the genocide of Indigenous peoples and brutalization of African Americans. But it is also a way of asking how people are meant to live when their fundamental human rights are being stripped away at alarming rates. Relatedly, philosopher and Distinguished Professor in the UC Berkeley Graduate School Judith Butler questioned what it does to the body on a “cellular level” to endure and normalize violent realities.

In her poem, Claudia Rankine recounted her reaction to last year’s court hearings for the nomination of Associate Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. She laid down a paradox: on one hand, this hearing was monumental given that Judge Jackson would be the first Black woman to serve on the US Supreme Court. On the other hand, the relentless, hostile bullying of Judge Jackson by Republican senators during the four-day hearing was a stark reminder that this was just another moment in the United States’ long history of racist tyranny and subjugation. Rankine asked what it meant for this hearing to be both an unprecedented moment in history, and a reminder that so little has changed and so much must still be endured. She described watching the hearing live from her living room, and despite sitting on her couch, all her body could feel in the moment was a sense of falling — a complete and utter collapse.

The question, then, is: what does collapse create? And how does one “get up” from the metaphorical couch? As the speakers noted, the word “collapse” comes from the Latin word collapsus, which means “to fall together.” The site of collapse is not one of singularity; rather, as Butler noted, things collapse into each other. Collapse “halts the machine,” according to Butler and Rankine, who approach collapse as a form of refusal: a refusal to continue on as is, and a form of resistance which requires one to first fall, and cease to act, as a way of creating disruption. It is precisely in the act of collapsing — of refusing to conform and endure — where we might find resistance. However, this is only the first step. One must eventually “get up” from the metaphorical couch and move towards a larger purpose. When asked how one finds the motivation to get up again, Rankine noted that we fall together in order to get up as one.

The speakers from this program all agreed that individuals can find strength, endurance, and purpose in being part of and working for the betterment of a community. Oakland-based photojournalist Amir Aziz shared a similar mindset: to him, grief is the act of “not settling” — of “moving, acting, and creating something that lives beyond oneself.” Aziz’s journey began thirteen years ago, at nineteen years old, with a photo of Occupy Wall Street protestors standing on top of trucks, silhouetted against the backdrop of a sunset. Two months later he purchased his first camera. When asked by journalist Lisa Armstrong why he chose (and continues to choose) the path of photography, he replied that it is his community’s trust in him that gives him his path. Oakland residents reach out to Aziz specifically to cover stories from their communities because they know and trust that he will, in Armstrong’s words, “capture people in their totality.” They instill in him a reason to keep going. In March, Aziz will complete a residency in Saint-Denis, France, capturing the spirit of resistance and joy that connects the French suburbs and the city of Oakland.

The afternoon program featured a conversation between artist Luanne Redeye, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley, and Ronald Rael, the Eva Li Memorial Chair in Architecture in the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley. They discussed the role that art, as well as land and place-based practices, can play in imagining counter-narratives; creating sites of resistance, preservation, and storytelling; and serving one’s own community.  Entrenched in familial history and saturated with memory, Redeye’s oeuvre contains mainly portraits of family members and friends. Much of her work features material and visual references to her family and culture. In one of my favorite pieces — “My Grandmother Lived Here and I Cried/‘My College Girl’” — Redeye incorporates fabric from her Grandmother's nightgown into the frame of the piece, adding a layer of material sentimentality to the dedicatory work. When envisioning art-creation as a method of countering authoritarianism, Luanne Redeye described her work as paintings that reclaim portraiture for Indigenous communities. Her work counters dominant narratives by exhibiting the lived realities of her family and friends in all of their authenticity, joy, and complexity. Furthermore, portraiture for Redeye is also a way of reclaiming space. She explained that she focuses on portraiture because she wants to see her community in spaces, such as museums, in which their presence has historically been denied.

For architect, designer, and installation artist Ronald Rael, the act of occupying space is also a form of resistance. He spoke about a piece, “Teeter-Totter Wall,'' that he made in collaboration with the artist Virginia San Fratello. The piece involved the installation of three bright pink seesaws along the US-Mexico Border. The seesaws’ pivot points were the 18-foot-tall border wall itself, allowing children from both sides to play together. On one hand, the piece invites the creation of community and shared joy; on the other, it amplifies the dividing nature and violence of the border wall. Furthermore, it is a method of counter-imagination. As Rael explained, this piece is one which succeeds in reimagining space by “telling a narrative of joy at a sight of violence.”

At the center of each speaker’s work — whether it be poetry, portraiture, photography or installation art — is the act of resistance. Spurred by exhaustion and located at the site of post-collapse, the various works channel grief into a productive form of counter-imagination which resists authoritarian power. Further, their work highlights the interconnectedness of the arts and humanities, and community advocacy. In the closing statements of the afternoon program of “Imagining Beyond Authoritarianism,” Ronald Rael offered an axiom for the future. In his words, the act of resistance lies in pushing against “coercive norms.” In other words, the true difficulty is not resisting the “object” but resisting the “urge of conformity.” When looking towards the future, I envision a site where the arts and humanities can be used to actively oppose and resist conformity to authoritarian power by calling out and disrupting oppressive forces. The work exhibited by these speakers shows that this is, and always has been, the motivating force for many. In the words of Ronald Rael, it is that internal struggle — and ultimate refusal of complacency — that is the heart of resistance.


Artwork: Dear Gram (Detail), by Luanne Redeye, Oil and Acrylic on Panel, 2018, 40" x 30", with permission from the artist.