Letter from the Editor

The What If

By Naomi Riddle

31 May, 2019

‘The value of an individual life, a credo they taught us
to instil fear, and inaction, ‘you only live once’
a fog in our eyes, we are
endless as the sea, not separate, we die
a million times a day, we are born
a million times, each breath life and death:
get up, put on your shoes, get
started, someone will finish’
Diane di Prima, ‘Revolutionary Letter, no. 2’ (1968)


The election of a Morrison government means there will be little to no action taken in response to the climate emergency. Four days before the election, the level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere reached a record 415ppm—meaning the earth is now the hottest it has ever been for 800,000 years, or, to put it another way, it is the hottest it has ever been throughout the entirety of human existence. If emissions continue at this rate, the earth will be uninhabitable in a matter of decades, not centuries, and our actions will have caused the extinction of one million other species.

The election of a Morrison government means the Adani mine, with the support of a Queensland Labor government, will likely go ahead, as will other investments in fracking, coal seam gas and offshore drilling. A refugee policy amounting to state-sanctioned torture will continue, just as the Medevac care bill will be repealed. The Uluru Statement from the Heart will be avoided rather than enacted, and a political party claiming it accidentally voted for a bill titled ‘It’s OK to be White’ now has a majority of seventy-seven seats in the House of Representatives.

Running Dog is a political project. It seeks to try and find a way outside of capital, even as it operates within it; it strives to remain unbeholden to those in power; to know when to delay or avoid action, and it wishes to build collectivity and community. This project was founded at a time when democratic institutions were floundering (they still are), fascist and nationalist sentiment was growing (it still is), and social media was rebranding itself as an unregulated weaponised tool for hate. Running Dog continues its work in the shadow of the Morrison government and the unfolding ecological crisis. Whether explicitly or not, this project is positioning itself against all of these things.

But if the ethics of a publication are built into all aspects of the work, then I also find myself considering Running Dog’s own relationship with the federal government. The only reason Running Dog was able to avoid shuttering at the start of this year is because it received funding support. I admit I gain pleasure in using government money to redistribute wealth, a practice the Morrison government so despises. But it also means Running Dog has its insignia on its website, and in doing so, aligns itself with the actions of the state. I am not naïve enough to ignore how precarious the arts community is, and I know that without the support of multiple funding bodies, invaluable work would cease to exist. But I also think it is worthwhile taking the time to consider the implications of this tangle, rather than accepting it as an inevitability.

If, as Diane di Prima says, ‘you can have what you ask for, ask for/ everything’, then what if we were to imagine and build something new, instead of relying on the models already presented to us?

And what if, in doing this, we chose not to rely on a system of grants or corporate sponsorship to sustain us; and what if we chose to refuse to see success as bound up in capital or in the moment we gain entry to/ or are granted visibility by/ state institutions? What if we turned our backs during the fanfare of ministerial speeches at art openings rather than facing the speaker and thus implying tacit agreement? What if we stopped trying to depose gatekeepers and instead refused the entire edifice, gates, podium, sandstone and all? (Wendy Trevino: ‘you don’t need or want/ the people who you know/ aren’t ‘with you’ to be/ with you. really you don’t’.) 

But for all I find comfort in writing this, because writing it makes it feels like a possibility, I have spent the last few weeks considering something else entirely: the limits of artistic practice, instead of its potential. The nature of the multiple and overlapping crises the world faces demands a response from a vast social movement. As Jeff Sparrow writes, action will depend ‘on civil disobedience, on mass marches, on occupations, on ordinary people putting their bodies on the line to stop something we all know to be terribly wrong.’ Combatting the ecological catastrophe alone requires a mammoth and complex reconstruction of global economic systems (Jasper Bernes: ‘We can’t remain in this world…we will have to completely reorganize society, changing where and how and most importantly why we live.’). When positioned next to this, contemporary art practice seems elegiac or cathartic or impotent or acquiescent. Solace cannot be found in art’s capacity to change the world, because believing art alone can produce change allows the artist to stay inside the studio instead of finding themselves on the streets.

And yet I am in two minds, because as soon as I say this then, immediately, I believe the opposite to be true—saying what art can and can’t achieve feels self-limiting and reductive. Writing about art and politics is like that, as soon as you start chastising art and telling it how to behave, it replies with a defiant shrug: why should I?

Our craving for simplicity over complexity—good/ bad/ productive/ unproductive/ allowed/ cancelled—is a trap, and maybe all I’m really doing is trying to find a hook on which I can hang my rage. And railing against art in this way comes dangerously close to what the poet Lotte L.S. describes as ‘the shrill question of use-value’—demanding art have a clearer purpose, when, of course, its strength lies in its capacity to be superfluous and open-ended. 

If art can offer anything it is a space for refusals and emancipatory thinking. It is a shelter, inside of which we can grapple with confusion, anger, hope and possibility. And it seems to me the most valuable art in this moment will be of the kind that is not didactic or exclusionary or certain or walled off inside a gallery. It will seek to broaden the conversation, or at the very least, offer some malleability. Because, as Lotte L.S. suggests, ‘movements, and moments, are not invented’—they do not arrive, suddenly, fully formed, presenting us with all the solutions—they ‘develop out of discourse, out of relations, out of real or imagined proximity.’

What is it I’m trying to say? This thing which is words for me/ but might be paint for you/ needs to be put to work/ but this, on its own, is not nearly enough/ just as sorrow as only sorrow cannot be enough.

A better way of putting it: find the edge of where the art meets the world, or a moment of conversation rather than mere consumption, and reside there.