Caitlin Magda Shepherd

"Art belongs not to the active life but to the contemplative life—not to the vita activa but to the vita contemplativa." Nicholas Wolterstorff

Month: November, 2015

In your face the longest light


Photo by Paul Blakemore

In Your Face the Longest Light was a work in progress exhibited at the Sanctum experience, conceptualised by Theastre Gates and produced by Situations. 16 minutes long, and requiring all participants to immerse themselves in listening, the piece invited the audience to wear blindfolds. The sound piece was a musical and poetic investigation into the themes of love and fear, explored through interviews with four participants.

The interest in designing listening spaces where sight is removed is not specifically relevant to this work, but rather a concept and a mechanism that I am examining through my PhD. By incorporating this aspect into the work, I was responding to two key questions I have been asking myself. 1) How to make the invitation to become blindfolded in a group context 2) What qualities of experience for audiences listening to sound documentary are evoked by inviting sight deprivation? 3) What is the effect on embodied experience of listening if sight is removed?

I was able to collect some feedback from the experience, and comments were very insightful. Powerful, amazing, transporting, captivating were words used. Every night was very different, as part of the experience is to do with maintaining a flow of continuous sound. This meant that In Your Face the Longest Light responded in a live setting to performers who went before and after the experience. On the last night, myself and a female folk singer decided to blur the boundaries of authorship, and not introduce her, but instead have her starting to sing as soon as the last note played from In Your Face the Longest Light. Feedback from this particular live process was mixed, and some people commented on feeling confused as they didn’t know when both pieces has started and ended. This was particularly interesting, as I have been toying with the idea of authorship and boundaries of authorship in terms of how work is presented. Most of the audience remained blindfolded into the other work, suggesting a comfort associated with the blindfold. Some people expressed feeling frsutrated at not being given closure of experience, which demarcates a cultural expectation to consume a cultural whole instead of fragments, or more fluid transformative pieces.

In terms of participating in Sanctum as an artist, I thought the space was incredibly sensual and soft, encouraging a quietness, and an invitation to listen ; sound was the main creative medium conveyed within the space. Inviting random audience groups to have a collective and spontaneous listening experience, is particularly interesting, and reminds me of the importance of listening. Something discussed in this Ted talk, The Act of Listening. 



Critical Theory


Critical Theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in philosophy and in the history of the social sciences. “Critical Theory” designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School.

According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human “emancipation from slavery”, acts as a “liberating … influence”, and works “to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers” of human beings (Horkheimer 1972, 246). Critical Theory is concerned with the identification of power structures within specific social contexts, and the provision of ideas and practices that influence the dismantling of oppressive power structures. Because of this active interest in practical and ideological emancipation, Critical Theory is closely related to social movements and activism.

Critical Theory in the narrow sense has had many different facets and distinct historical phases that cross several generations, from the effective start of the Institute of the Institute for Social Research in the years 1929–1930, which saw the arrival of the Frankfurt School philosophers and an inaugural lecture by Horkheimer, to the present. Its distinctiveness as a philosophical approach that reaches to ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of history is most apparent when considered in relation to the history of the philosophy of the social sciences.

Critical Theorists have long sought to distinguish their aims, methods, theories, and forms of explanation from standard understandings in both the natural and the social sciences. Instead, they have claimed that social inquiry ought to combine rather than separate the poles of philosophy and the social sciences: explanation and understanding, structure and agency, regularity and normativity. Such an approach, Critical Theorists argue, permits their enterprise to be practical in a distinctively moral (rather than instrumental) sense. They do not merely seek to provide the means to achieve some independent goal, but rather (as in Horkheimer’s famous definition mentioned above) seek “human emancipation” in circumstances of domination and oppression.

In terms of Critical Theory within the arts, the approach is to look beyond dominant modes of operation, and the dominant voices that reinforce a mainstream approach and set of values. Critical art theory cannot limit itself to the reception and interpretation of art, as that now exists under capitalism. Which means looking beyod the recognition of the value of art through the act of procurement, investment and the associated price tag attached to the work. Critical art theory is an approach that understands and details that art as it is currently institutionalized and practiced – business as usual in the current “art world” – is in the deepest and most unavoidable sense “art under capitalism”. Identifying that dominant international art markets, practices and cultures is under the thumb  of capitalism, critical art theory is focussed on initiating a clear break or rupture with the art that capitalism has brought to dominance. Specifically, break the system that dictates that art that is to be created and valued through a commodity market lens. What happens when artists position their work within frameworks that sell art to elite collectors and audiences for extortionate prices; the artist is complicit in reinforcing art as a commodity and a signal of wealth and power within a society interested in expression power and influence through means of the assimilation of capital.

A key question for anyone interested in challenging dominant capitalist power structures and ideology is to ask, what is the social and economic function of art beyond creating new commodities that signify the financial and cultural wealth of already powerful individuals. Where else is the social function of art, and how can art contribute to the emancipation of individuals and communities, and how can art be part of the process of critical enquiry into who is setting the ideological agenda and why.

Softer Targets

Digital dreams, text, shooting words on a noose, on a thread. Haunted heads and tormented bodies. Bones laid out to dry and tagged with rings of metal fear. Immaculate carvings into ready to use headstones, marble benches for two, and sad still mausoleums. A sense of unshakable pain, fear and sexual gratuity and a whole host of questions.

Jenny Holzer is an artist who has shaped my work since I first found her book in the A level art room. I think it was Truth before Power, but can’t be sure. Originally a painter, she moved to New York in the 1970’s to take part in the Whitney’s Independent Study Program. From here on in her work featured text; maxims, truisms and aphorisms. She wants her work to be less like artwork and more like popular culture, more like commonly seen advertising slogans; reappropriating the language of the oppressor to reveal who is being oppressed. Holzer is well know for her short provocative statements, which often resemble existing truisms, maxims and cliche’s. These truisms work with familiar language to invite viewers ro question the mass information we encounter day to day in Western society, particularly via politics and journalism. Written word is not only delivered by Holzer in single sentences, but in longer pieces known as inflammatory essays. The content of these pieces is often longer and address issues in more detail.

Key themes run through Holzers work. These include the role of individual in shaping society, the role of the public and the private, the impact of war, power politics and patriarchy. She also examines the outcomes of an authority driven society. Holzer uses objects, assemblage and most frequently Image as text as her main medium. She believes that by using words people have more immediate access to the ideas running through her work.  By using minimal statements and comments, Holzer manages to take the personal out of her work. The statements are divorced from her; the artist. They are not her words, but the words of many voices or a shared voice. This approach separates the artist from the content, and enables the text to represent a collective voice, something greater than the authorship of the artist herself. Holzer says

“I want the meaning to be available but I also want it sometimes to disappear into fractured reflections or into the sky. Because one’s focus comes and goes, one’s ability to understand what’s happening ebbs and flows. I like the representation of language to be the same. This tends to not only give the content to people, but it will also pull them to attend.”

The exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, Softer Targets left a bitter and indelible taste. A major solo show by Holzer, the exhibition focussed on the explorations of American documents, noting the persecution and incarceration of suspected terrorists. More broadly, the exhibition suggested, prompted and examined an ambiguous abuse of power, and left me feeling angry with an oppressive society, uncertain of the presence of any sort of humanity and wider notion of justice, and worried about the vicious treatment of suspected targets.

Reflecting on my own practice, Holzer’s use of succinct text, and indeed the use of image as text resounds with my own practice. A love of linguistic structures and tools such as idioms, proverbs, truisms, sayings and maxims is reignited and validated by Holzer’s considered use of language. The spoken and the read, the most immediate format, used to ground the specific and often obscure semantics of contemporary art practice, add a sense of familiarity and everyday to an otherwise elite world of curators, collectors and critics. Her work is grounded in the day to day, for wide audiences and interaction and conversation beyond the constraints of the usual gallery suspects.