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Private Life

‘What does it mean that private life accompanies us as a secret or a stowaway? First of all, that it is separated from us as clandestine and … it furtively shares existence with us. … And the weight of this faceless companion is so strong that each seeks to share it with someone else – and nevertheless, alienation and secrecy never completely disappear …. Here, life is truly like the stolen fox that the boy hid under his clothes and that he cannot confess to even though it is savagely tearing at his flesh.’ (Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, 2016)


In the 1950s, theorists including Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno described the ‘end’ of private life: its destruction through the intensification of capitalism and the rise of ‘mass society’. In the 1970s, feminist artists, theorists and activists mounted an incisive challenge to the separation of the ‘public’ realm of work from the ‘private’ realm of the home and the labour of social reproduction, with the demand for ‘wages for housework’, and polemical challenges to the ideology of ‘love’ and the forms of exploitation it sustains. More recently, theorists including Eva Chiapello, Luc Boltanski and Fred Turner have pointed to the ways in which earlier avant-garde, utopian aspirations for the overcoming of the distinction between private and public associated with the rise of bourgeois society might seem to have been realised in nightmarish form through the latest economic developments, including the phenomena of pro-sumption and the gig economy, which entail the idea that we are at work when at home or at leisure. Constantly mediating images and information about ourselves, Airbnb landlords of our own homes, what meaning does ‘private life’ have in an era of mass surveillance and data harvesting? Seeking to defend against some of these threats, the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, has returned to the problematic of private life, seeking to articulate a zone he terms the ‘clandestine’, characterised by an ‘opacity’ that holds out a ‘genuinely political element’. ‘Only if thought is able to find the political element that has been hidden in the secrecy of singular existence …. will politics be able to escape from its muteness’, he asserts. But how useful or plausible is this proposal?


Artists throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries contribute to this thematic in a variety of ways, and for this conference, we invite submissions which examine particular artistic explorations of the questions raised by the idea of ‘private life’. Under what circumstances does the ‘private sphere’ become an important political space, and indeed, perhaps the only space where radical political action is possible? Conversely, how does the fantasy of ‘private life’, as a space that provides a retreat from the political, function to enable political domination? Where does the division between ‘private’ and ‘public’ originate, and how does that division function today? How do feminist theorisations of the home, domestic labour and social reproduction, alter our understanding of the ways in which politics is interwoven with the private sphere? How do new technologies and the forms of contemporary labour, including sex work and the gig economy, put pressure on the idea of private life? How have artists tested the boundaries between ‘private’ and ‘public’, exploring tentative constructions of categories, such as the ‘commons’, for example? How do contemporary technologies and social media reframe our sense of the private, and does any sense of privacy evade or perhaps emerge from these framings?






Josephine Berry (Goldsmiths, University of London), ‘Between kitchen semiotics and the privatised public: how is the personal political in art today?’


There is a compelling tension at the heart of the term ‘private life’. The adjective ‘private’ denotes something belonging or pertaining to oneself, set apart, not public. However, the OED’s initial definition of ‘life’ specifies an entire class of beings: ‘The condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.’ While lives can be counted individually, as in ‘X number of lives were lost’, life’s defining characteristics are nevertheless common, relational, biological and existential. The term ‘private life’ is therefore a political and philosophical fault line that treacherously divides and connects what is necessarily shared from what is contingently separated.


But when we then ask how this fault line maps to the divisions that have historically determined what could or could not be counted as art, it becomes apparent that the two don’t directly align. The private life of others, especially women engaged in intimate activities, has long provided the subject matter through which male artists have worked out their preoccupations in public. Conversely, public enunciations or situations were often used as a means through which to express internal, often isolated or inchoate states and experiences. Contemporary art, however, has become increasingly taken up with a contestation over who gets to decide which dimensions of life should be considered private and which should be opened up to the eyes of others, for what reasons, on whose terms and with what means.


In contesting the fault line running between ‘private’ and ‘life’ as an effect of parallel struggles over visibility, recognition and participation, art finds itself sharing territory with contemporary politics. It shadows the inversion of our biopolitical age in which politics is increasingly concerned with the ‘private’ and bodily lives of individuals, and the public sphere is shattered into a myriad privatised spaces, services and conditions. This talk will explore how contemporary art’s engagement of life’s divisions relates to this biopolitical tendency, paying close consideration to how artists surf the line between their own aesthetic agendas and the identity politics which surround all public treatments of life today. What does it mean for art to be personal these days when the private seems to have been irrevocably politicised? How should we reconsider expression as a consequence? And if the private always was (obscurely) political due to its separation from the common, then how does the increased consciousness of its political nature alter the terms of its appearance and how, in turn, does this change art and life?




Maria Gil Ulldemolins (Hasselt University, Belgium), ‘The mouse behind the radiator: the private autotheory of artists’


Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, and Tracey Emin are three of the most prominent artists of the last fifty years. Despite their works being formally and thematically different, especially Martin’s, they all share a writing practice that has found its way to the public (for instance, Louise Bourgeois’ unseen diary entries are published little by little, some as recently as 2018; Martin’s book, Writings, as mystical as her paintings, fetches high prices in second-hand sites; and Emin is known for exhibiting poetry, autobiographical writings, or unsent letters in her art exhibitions, as well as penning several publications). Their writings offer insight into both their private lives and their artistic processes, and the blurry place where both meet. At the same time, especially in the last decade, the literary phenomenon of ‘autotheory’ has raised issues about how the personal relates to critical knowledge, most notably within feminist and queer circles involved in art writing and cultural criticism (Maggie Nelson, Maria Fusco, Olivia Laing, Kate Zambreno). Can the emergence of autotheory, with its validation of a hybrid form between memoir and art criticism, shed new light into our understanding of artists’ writings? This paper wants to examine the different layers of intimacy between images, objects, and words. Where does private life become public work? What makes a private text different from a public text once published? Can these texts demonstrate ‘a life that can never be separated from its form’ (Agamben, 2010)?


Emma Balkind (ECA, University of Edinburgh), ‘Alone together? Condividuality and the commons’


This discursive response will investigate the interrelation between the dividual subject and the commons. The concept of the commons comes from the root ‘munus’ which Roberto Esposito considers to be a combination of both gift and duty. The commons is therefore in service to an individual in need. However, Esposito also describes the community as not ‘only to be identified with the res publica, with the common ‘thing’, but rather is the hole into which the common thing continually risks falling, a sort of landslide produced laterally and from within.’ (2009). For Gerald Raunig, in the concept of community ‘everything revolves around a logic of obligation and duty, of giving over and sometimes even of giving oneself up. The munus is a minus. Community implies becoming less, in order to become more’ (2013). Lauren Berlant, meanwhile, considers that ‘the separateness between, the singular aloneness that is not necessarily loneliness, has to exist for the common sense even to be conceived of’ (2016). More recently Esposito has even conceived of this relation as a kind of melancholy (2013). In this paper I will evidence that, for all three of these writers, the commons is something which is inextricable from the individual and yet is somehow broken in the interrelation between public and ‘private life’.


Clara Zarza (IE University, Spain), ‘A peek into their lives: intimacy and secrecy in installation art’


At the turn of the 21st century when Hannah Arendt’s and Theodor Adorno’s predictions of the ‘end’ of privacy resonated loudly, the Euro-American art world developed a fascination with installations that seemed to provide a peek into the artist’s private sphere. The polemic around pieces such as Tracey Emin’s My Bed, shortlisted for the 1999 Turner Prize, and the proliferation of exhibitions such as ‘La Sphere de L’intime’ (Primtemps du Cahors, 1998), ‘Intimacy’ (Australian Center for Contemporary Art, 2008), ‘Ego Documents: The autobiographical in contemporary art’ (Kunstmuseum Bern, 2009) and ‘Privat/Privacy’ (Schirn Kunsthalle, 2012-2013), were seen by the art world and media as proof of the obsolescence of privacy in our contemporary world; and as a testimony to the last ‘truly authentic and secret place’(Herausgeber 2009), to be found in the deeper layers of the self. In this paper, I will argue that whilst on the one hand, the making-visible of that which is deemed private was a fertile soil for radical political agendas aligned with feminist, postcolonial and outsider discourses, on the other hand, their reception and dissemination in terms of testimony, confession and autobiography, rooted in a traditional understanding of the self as a multi-layered organism whose inaccessible interior is much more authentic and enlightening than its surface, worked as a depoliticizing counterforce. In turn, based on George Simmel’s, Michel Foucault’s and Jose Luis Pardo’s reflections on secrecy and intimacy, I will propose the concept of intimacy as an interpretative tool that, while acknowledging artistic intervention, manipulation and editing, allows installation art to confront us with the conflicts, tensions and paradoxes of private life.




Imogen Hart (University of California, Berkeley, USA), ‘Exhibiting the art of domestic life in the private/public Arts and Crafts house/museum’


The first serious attempt to articulate the radical potential of an art centred on private life was the Arts and Crafts movement, which promoted the belief that art and the home were interdependent. House museums shape the legacy of those ideas in the present. Focusing on Emery Walker’s House and Kelmscott Manor, both of which were preserved by female descendants in the twentieth century, this paper explores the paradoxes involved in the house museum’s exhibition of private life as art. House museums are simultaneously time capsules and stage sets; the glimpse of the past and the private that they offer is curated in the present for the public. I argue that house museums represent a fantasy of access to an authentic private life that is nevertheless controlled and preserved from the contamination of the abject. Thus, a lock of William Morris’s hair lies in an open drawer, exposed yet contained and labelled, signaling in its attempted transformation from bodily waste to sterile relic the house museum’s simultaneous reliance on, and denial of, the spectre of private life. House museums have been described by Hannah Lewi as transformed ‘found objects’. I argue that, like found objects, and also like souvenirs (Susan Stewart), house museums conjure absent bodies and raise questions about authorship and appropriation. As collections presented within spaces that retain the aura of domesticity, house museums call to mind both Jean Baudrillard’s description of the collector as ‘sultan of a secret seraglio’ and Anthony Vidler’s account of the ‘architectural uncanny’, urging us to ask how power and desire animate the innocuous rooms of the house museum.


Kelly Lloyd (Royal Academy Schools, London), ‘The private working lives of artists’


Since the Fall of 2017, I have interviewed over 50 visual and performing artists, writers, economists, professors and art administrators based in Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Turkey, The Philippines, Hungary, the Ukraine and the U.K. This project was born from private conversations I have been privileged to have with friends, colleagues, mentors, and students, such as with Danish artist Lise Skou who noted during our interview that,


Recently I have had to find myself a cleaning job to make money to pay my rent … Trying to do these socially engaged critical projects and trying to build up new structures, doesn’t make me survive. So, I have a bit of an identity crisis at the moment because this job is twenty hours a week (which is quite a lot when you also have two kids). So all of my time right now goes into cleaning and driving my kids back and forth from school. So being an artist … I’m like, OK, but what does that mean? Where am I? Who am I in all this?


My paper will connect several interviews together by exploring what artists speak about in private, how artists speak about their lives in private, who we keep these matters from, and why we feel we must speak about our living and working conditions and their consequences only in private.


Ian Rothwell (ECA, University of Edinburgh), ‘Private life and some recent paintings’


In the 2010s painting was revived again as a presence in the contemporary art world. This type of painting had a kind of abstract, a sort of expressionist, and a slightly formalist style. For many critics, this wasn’t a good return of painting. It seemed to revive the debates around neo-expressionism in the 1980s, when the popularity of expressionist-style painting was felt to signal a regressive and conservative trend in the art world. However, this newer painting had none of the heroism and braggadocio of the 1980s artists. Strangely, it seemed to signal its own lameness. As a result, art critics dubbed this trend with a range of pejorative labels: ‘slacker abstraction’; ‘provisional painting’; ‘casualism’; ‘crapstraction’; ‘DIY abstraction’; ‘modest abstraction’; ‘zombie formalism’.


These paintings are often small, dashed-off, tentative and have an unfinished appearance. It’s as if they weren’t made for public viewing. They seem to retreat from any sort of definite presence. They look like accidents. In their lack of polish, they seem to disclose a private rather than public life. In exhibition they seem humble and ashamed of themselves. This paper will consider why artists returned to painting in this very specific and ordinary style. Why painting and why this type of painting? Can the same critique of painting in the 1980s be applied here? Or is this something new? Do these aimless and disjointed-looking works have any social and historical meaning in a smooth and slick digital world?




Jakub Jan Ceglarz (Birmingham City University), ‘Queer nooks’


‘In any case: let us dream it as a kind of sumptuous, generous portable fire! This home, this banquet! And when necessary, let it leap from our brains, and desires, and pleasures and wants so as to become some kind of permanent structure, some kind of perimeter, ready and able to hide, contain, reframe that fire, that ice, that wind, that drought, that crazy kind of nourishment! (Perhaps this is what Lyotard meant when he so quietly wrote: “Who knows not how to hide, knows not how to love.”) Housing-as-hiding-as-home: mutant knowledge, shape shifting to fit the needs of its inhabitants.’ (Johnny Golding, INTERVENTIONs (it’s a wonderful life), 2003)


In this presentation, I will discuss and screen parts of my series of art films called HETEROTOPIAS (2014-2016). Throughout those films I document, perform and embody the space in which domesticity, homemaking and sex practices entangle. Making them allowed me to develop an argument around the questions of how we can understand the relationship between queer sexual practices and domestic environment and how we can use that relationship to produce a different sense and a different experience of the space of home.


This research emerged from reading Gayle R. Rubin’s text, The Catacombs: A Temple of the Butthole (1991) and Don Anderson’s The Force that Through the Wall Drives the Penis: The Becoming and Desiring-Machine of Glory Hole Sex (2016). In both texts, we can observe how the private/public dichotomy is disrupted by queer sex practices and how it leads to creation of a certain type of spatiotemporality, which challenges hierarchies and produces a wet, greasy and sensual matter of knowledge.


For this presentation, I will look at the ways of thinking and practicing this type of spatiotemporality by referencing the artistic practices of Gustave Caillebotte (1884) and of artistic duo Lovett/Codagnone (2004) and how their artworks produce a similar sense of queer disorientation in the relationship of private/public spaces.


Sheilah and Dani ReStack (Columbus, USA), ‘Feral domesticity’


We would like to propose a screening and discussion of the potential for destabilized occupation and imagining of queer domestic space. In our collaborative video work, we pull from our life and home as material for inclusion, and transformation, through the camera and experimental narrative structure. The work often mines the spaces that exist, and are created, between documentary footage of our lives, choreographed locations and performance, and unpredicted events that occur when we place parameters around location, idea or movement.


In the videos, sense is generated in a visceral fashion through the following of color, sound, shape or rhythm. There is a place of dislocation when the viewer goes from being able to grasp a narrative cognitively, to holding onto it through felt response.  Although all the elements of the videos are known and recognizable (the kitchen, the back yard, the daughter, the bedroom, etc.) the plot itself resists easy interpretation.  We are committed to this vocabulary of the known, in order to see if it can yield the unknowns.  Can domestic space be transformed to allow a productive instability?

Private Life

Private Life is a one-day symposium examining artistic explorations of the questions raised by the idea of ‘private life' with a keynote by Dr Josephine Berry.

G.159 MacLaren Stuart Room, Old College, South Bridge