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by Vera Petukhova

No Tears for the Sovereign. An Interview with Jesse Darling

Vera Petukhova: If our departure point is the question of what can art do, we cannot help but see the obvious contradictions within how these issues are being taken up in the art world. In our conversations leading up to this interview, we established that political action and resistance in the sphere of the art world are highly problematic and laden with inequities. What do you think are the imperative inquiries in constructing a dialogue around spaces for art and political resistance, and structures that problematise this space, as well as the problematics of creating art for a political sphere?

Jesse Darling: So if we agree that within the limited and problematic space of art there is the potential for gestures of resistance or at least rehearsals of resistance, we have to acknowledge that these are contextualised, legitimised, and made possible by a modernist paradigm made possible in turn by patriarchal/individualistic ideal subjectivity, Eurocentric aesthetics, and speculative whiteness. All of which means that the space of art (within a given Euro-American context to which both of us belong) can never be neutral ground. I guess the same extends to the those other ‘white spaces’ of the Internet and tech culture in general—as though algorithms could ever be neutral, made as they are in the dominant mode.

VP: I actually feel cynical about how art and the political function together. I think many people must feel this way as of late, but then again there’s also a lot of idealising how the space of art should produce change. So it seems like an important space to explore: looking at the contradictions of art/resistance and working through that.

JD: Yes for sure. And yet, I find myself an apologist for art, or I’m conscious of trying to find intellectual moves by which to justify its practice, despite being heartbroken and emptied out by much of what the system of ‘art’ (such as it is today) relies on to support or contextualise its existence.

VP: Before it is even political, do you think that art can be transformative?

JD: Well, yeah, I do. But it’s complicated. Firstly because ‘contemporary art’ as we know it seems to have grown out of all kinds of practices that were explicitly supposed to function as transformative; religious iconography, for instance—and I also know that these developments go hand in hand with the story of modernity, which is a story of colonial appropriation: bodies and lives as raw material. You see this playing out still, of course, in various ways—the whole Dana Schutz affair at the Whitney Biennial. But on a personal level—and this is more difficult to parse—I have also experienced art as transformative, in much the same way as I have experienced music or poetry as transformative; the former more often than the latter. The immanence effect. It doesn’t happen very often and maybe that’s because art can seem to lack a certain immediacy, idk. I dislike work that demands a certain education or knowledge base of its viewer (if the viewer is to ‘get it’, presumably because they won’t feel anything otherwise, perhaps because there is nothing to feel). I think I used to dislike work that demands that the viewer pays close attention, though I don’t anymore. When I think of experiences I had as a teenager, I didn’t have much education or attention back then, so I think what I found transformative—as far as I remember, putting new words on an old wordless feeling—was this sense of permission and conviction: that someone had put this into the world. I was thrilled by that. This is not, in the first place, a ‘political’ feeling. But it is a feeling that exists in some kind of relationship to resistance, which is a creative act in that it imagines something into being that does not yet exist.

Jesse Darling, Bucephalus/Comanche (war horse), 2016. Styrofoam, plastic, cotton, feathers, aluminium, steel. Courtesy of the artist.

VP: Art that’s political often positions a kind of hyper-reality or acceleration of a current situation. I wonder if that immediacy is necessary to be effective or to hold some agency. Yet when art becomes political in an institutional context, it embodies many levels of contradiction. Most large-scale art institutions receive funding that is at odds with artwork that engages political resistance. When there’s work that speaks out about debt, exploitative labour practices, institutionalised racism, etc., there will be a list of sponsors that directly contradict the agenda of the artist/artwork. The Sacklers building their wealth on the painkiller industry is a current example of this. Political art under an institutional context is probably always problematic, as it relies on those underlying power structures and narratives of modernity that you have mentioned.

JD: I know what you’re talking about. I suppose in this case we are talking less about the work itself and more about a sort of curatorial premise that posits the exhibition as a space to address issues and politics. I feel very critical of that, though I acknowledge having ‘benefited’ (in the sense of having had my work shown and seen) through this kind of contextualisation. Though I question how beneficial this really is or was, for me and for others.

VP: I think that is essentially the question to work through: How do you acknowledge the issues of spectacle and the contradictions of the art world when approaching a project? I think for both artists and curators it can be problematic. It seems like lately it is about creating discursive spaces, but I don’t know how effective those can really be. And in being critical of these discursive spaces, it is important to think about who are they for and how can they affect action?

JD: Yes, I agree with you. There’s an optics of engagement in which the institution wants to be seen to have addressed a given issue. And this is, of course, a superficial move in which the institution—or in some cases the artist-as-institution—is seen grappling with a huge phenomenon (in which it is necessarily complicit in most cases, e.g. structural anti-blackness or gender identities as they operate in racial capitalism), while in fact effectively replicating the conditions of exceptionalism and spectacle that perpetuate the violence of these phenomena, both in and outside of the art world. And then you have all the dirty business around money and markets, which we don’t talk about much, although funding structures create forms in a very literal way. For a long while in the UK, for instance, you had a neoliberal box-ticking phenomenon with arts funding, in which one’s project was supposed to demonstrate a certain ‘engagement’ with certain groups or publics. And in the event that the bid was successful, one would also have to show how this had been achieved. So inevitably this produces certain kinds of practice. And if art at its best is immanently relational and experiential, then this engagement can’t be so easily traced. Though perhaps that’s not the most important issue beyond the fact that it pushes the work into quantitatively measurable forms: units of data as units of capital.

Jesse Darling, Untitled. 2016. Digital collage. Courtesy of the artist.

VP: It seems that this has been an issue for decades, and several art movements have tried to work through it: Institutional Critique, Relational Aesthetics, Social Practice. But somehow it keeps coming back to the same kinds of obstacles. Once those movements become institutionalised, artists want to veer away from identifying with those movements because they feel part of the spectacle. We see it happening again with the Whitney Biennial or any other large-scale event or exhibition that takes on a political agenda.

JD: I don’t want to talk too much about the Whitney thing (except to say that I’m firmly on the side of Hannah Black and the signatories of her letter), since others have spoken about it so eloquently already. In curatorial terms, I think the Whitney story is really about the failure of ‘the political agenda’, a story about what happens when this agenda is understood in terms of spectacle and the optics of engagement to the detriment of the individuals and communities with whose bodies those optics are concerned. For me this demonstrates an ambivalent relationship to art itself, which I think is consistent with the crisis of postmodernism. On the one hand, we’re behaving as though politics and affect can all be dealt with on the gallery wall. But on the other hand, we refuse to take seriously the fact that the work itself might be imbued with power, both structural power and the power to signify. And you are right about this being a central problem for artists working in the realms of ‘the political’. I think it’s interesting how most have in fact capitulated to some degree, although there are examples of artists who resisted and continue to resist this kind of spectacle. I wonder, though, if there’s not a dozen forgotten refusalists for every Hammons or Lozano.

VP: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. For artists working more in the margins or on the outside, effectively working against becoming co-opted by the art world, I think there are certainly important things happening that don’t get recognised and are more activist in a way that defies aestheticisation or institutionalisation. Also, it’s not really sustainable for artists or curators to work in those outside spaces sometimes.

JD: This was one of the big hopeful ideals of Internet art, right? As I’ve said before, it’s not that online art is properly democratising, since you need a computer and software and so on. But in theory, it went some way in allowing artists to refuse participation in physical spaces in which [their] bodies would be met and intercepted by the institutional encounter. Of course this hopeful premise was at least a partial fail in the end. I would love to believe that this is because of the immanent nature of the art object, but I doubt it. Everyone wants out of the browser and into the white cube: one needs that validation or thinks they do. And then there’s the way that this indexes with markets and money, in that there’s still this weird culture of disposability around digital objects. And even those artists who made good dollar from the post-Internet curation boom all ended up printing their .jpgs and .tiffs on canvas to hang in rich collectors’ houses.

VP: That’s definitely the kind of work that is the most heavily circulated.

JD: Yes, though the more interesting work is necessarily less salable because it tries to destabilise the object or imagines a different kind of spatiality or whatever. But with this stuff you have a good illustration of how the art world works to produce value where none exists. As I’ve said before, we’re in the business of value creation here, at the bleeding edge: capitalism at its most advanced and avant-garde. You see this illustrated in the case of Damien Hirst. He’s someone who once had a certain vision and I think a kind of rage that animates his early works—he really had something once upon a time. I saw a big retrospective of his not so long ago, and some of his early pieces felt impossible to dismiss. But walking through this retrospective, effectively charting the progression of his career, you could see the work becoming slowly more bloated and cynical, almost at times desperate. It felt like he was asking to be called out on it almost. Maybe I’m projecting, but in any case the works just got more and more expensive (to produce) and further and further away from the artist’s own gesture. And now they can hardly give ‘em away: investors are all like ‘QUICK, SELL YOUR HIRST WHILE IT’S STILL WORTH SOMETHING!’—the implication being that it won’t be for much longer. And while this might suck for Damien Hirst—though no tears for the rich man, I guess—I love the story because it illustrates the fact that art might actually mean something. And this ‘meaning’ might give it a value that is not determined by these hype cycles or by the market. So I think with net art and post-Internet, we may still be waiting for the truly great work to emerge—art made specifically for this space in its particularity, not as a version of other spaces but as a space in itself. Nota bene: I just saw that Damien Hirst has unveiled a new work for Venice, which rips off the aesthetics and concerns of high-end post-Internet figuration stuff in a sort of bait ‘90s jux thing; all these ‘treasures’ are supposed to have fallen from a shipwreck, but of course they resemble Egyptian statues and Eritrean carvings and so on. The work riffs on museum aesthetics without acknowledging the museum’s part in colonial piracy. All those stolen artefacts sitting there in glass cases for white Europeans to gawk at. Unsurprisingly, the work does not problematise this relation. In fact, it seems to rely on the continuing dynamics of this relation in order to exist.

VP: It is interesting because before his work was hyper-commercial, the Freeze exhibition that started Hirst’s career was super DIY and seemed to pick up on a Zeitgeist for emerging British artists. He effectively opened up a channel or established a platform for himself, as well as many other British artists / curators. Part of it is also thinking about accessing power through other people that way or how it trickles down.

JD: Totally. He’s both the success story and the cautionary tale! And I think that some of those post-Internet success stories actually function in a similar way, i.e. their work maps out a possible trajectory for others’ careers. This isn’t an option for everybody; there is a certain naturalised complicity required in order to get to that point, I think. Naturalised in the sense that compliance is only possible insofar as the dominant mode is willing to extend itself to you. And even in cases of tokenism or exceptionalism, I feel like this extension is conditional on a certain degree of ‘good behaviour’.

VP: And in response to your prior statement on Internet art, I feel that the full potential of how art/the Internet can work together hasn’t been fully actualised. Because it seems to always go back to trying to resemble a gallery show or work like a gallery does, instead of being something totally alien to how that pre-existing physical space operates.

JD: Well, it’s not totally alien, and I think that’s the tricky part; all technologies are built in our own image. So there are ways in which the English-language social Internet functions like the ‘white cube’ space—complete with policed protocols, best practices, white ‘walls’, i.e. the use of white as ‘neutral’ or backdrop (one might recall that in early computing, one typed in white or green against a black background). In this way, the Internet with which I’m most familiar seems to function like many of the showcase spaces of capital flow within the context of white Western capitalism, including and exemplified by the art world.

Installation view (left to right) Stay With Us Let It Carry You, Bust, Masc Irade, Material Girl, The Veterans & Gun_1, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

VP: Yeah, that’s true. It’s subject to those power dynamics. That also makes me think about the topic of surveillance that was brought up in an earlier exchange, and you mentioned that you didn’t want to be be contributing publicly to that conversation, as it was largely led by white men and their paranoias surrounding data. In relation to this topic of what potential the Internet holds for art and resistance, I wonder how artists can do things online without necessarily learning how to use code or work the infrastructure of the Internet and obtain those tech skill sets. I know that a lot of people are making efforts to disperse those skill sets to other populations and empower people. But I wonder if that is the answer...

JD: I feel like the paradigm shift is probably something that neither you nor I can imagine, coming from our respective places of sited subjectivity. As to the subject of surveillance: most of what we mean by ‘the Internet’ now is a social web, the user web—which is to say, a bunch of products and services marketed through various portals and networks that mimic and construct the idea of the social. But it’s not just an idea, right? Facebook, for instance, is always rolling out new features based on some notion of how people work in relation to one another, but most of these seem to fail in that they feel at best over-engineered and unnecessary, and intrusive and counterintuitive at worst. They are, of course, all of those things. The average user intuits very clearly when they are being sold a bunch of bullshit in the guise of a better ‘experience’. And the failure of platforms to hide their intentions in the soft naturalised register of ‘the social’ seems to point to the fact of there being a genuine sociality in there somewhere—often something that arises despite the intentions of developers and CEOs. And it is here in this space that communities find one another, and in doing so produce forms of use that effectively subvert the practises of zoning and collating data that are now pretty much synonymous with online spaces. So this is my issue with the ‘sovereign paranoia’ of the largely white Western digital discourse. Only through a colossal lack of ingenuity and imagination—and a vested, fetishy faith in the power of the machine—does one come to believe that ‘they’ are ahead of ‘us’ in this regard (usual caveats around the pronouns).

A lot of it seems to come from a feeling of disillusioned utopia, like Internet 2.0 comes after the fall of Internet 1.0 and its promise of endless green pastures of cyberspace for everyone, which sounds like some old-world colonist’s idea of a terra nullius; just one more nostalgic white world dream of a time and place in which one’s sovereignty goes unchallenged. And then there is the fact that for many users this networked sociality, or sense of the collective, is what helps people keep going. It’s tough out there and it’s tough online, but here and there exist pockets of togetherness, however surveilled they might be. Anyone who thinks that surveillance itself forecloses any possibility of intimacy or joy has never lived their life on the receiving end of a gaze. This pretty much leaves white able-bodied men—and latterly, the lean-in white feminists who believe that the gaze is something to be marshalled and weaponised. What is consistent in this kind of practice/politics is a disidentification with the user, and I find that to be a class position consistent with how the Other is positioned in most political rhetoric produced by white European men since the Enlightenment.

VP: What do you mean by the disidentification with the user? I think your criticism of that kind of work vs. publics that are truly vulnerable in the virtual/irl realms is really important.

JD: I’ve written and spoken about this stuff before, but I think what I’d add here is that these narratives of surveillance evoke the idea of ‘the commons’, which of course must be problematised (in virtual as in physical space). The commons—as notional safe zone where all can roam free—is not and has never been common; throughout history the commons have been fought for by given populations in the face of violence and marginalisation. The white man’s commons looks very different from the perspective of a black man or a trans woman, of course, and in this way the idea of ‘public space’ as a site of democratic potential is a false promise. Even the concept of ‘freedom’ is rooted in Eurocentric Enlightenment ideals predicated functionally on the fact that freedom is possible only because many are unfree. Recent conversations around e.g. Gamergate or the appropriation of black online content by white-run businesses for (real and cultural) capital only serve to illustrate what we already know (and I wanna express my gratitude here to the scholars of colour who have given words and shape to ideas that white culture seems to have no apparatus with which to acknowledge). ‘Sovereign paranoia’ is how I privately describe the discomfort of the sovereign subject when [he] encounters a sense that [his] (data)body is a commodity, or that choices pertaining to this (data)body are no longer his to make. I don’t have to spell it out: this is something that others have known and felt—and found ways to resist and transform—for a long time. So no tears for the sovereign, like I say.

Border Sphinxes I & II (boundary boys), 2016. Styrofoam, plaster, fiberglass, textile, barbed wire, silicon, steel. Courtesy of the artist.

VP: That’s true and there seems to be more glorification of the kind of work that poses an idea or mode of resistance but never makes clear for whom that resistance is actually the most necessary. How do you approach those topics in your own practice?

JD: Good question, ha! I think a lot, a lot, a lot about representation and its failures, about appropriation, about the source of one’s crisis and the site of one’s wound. I think there would be a far more interesting conversation around these surveillance questions, for example, if the white establishment framed its concerns around an understanding of where these mechanisms have been used before, in data and in culture—the ‘muslim database’ or no-fly list, for example, impacts people’s lives in a way that e.g. targeted facebook ads do not. This could be a starting point for solidarity rather than a set of petulant gestures for the futurists in the peanut gallery. And as to how my own work figures into all this? Well, everything about the curatorial premise of ‘post-Internet’ made me want to run screaming, in the end. I see the same mechanisms at work in every subsequent curatorial trend that purports to be new or radical (and which in every case is neither). This wasn’t about ‘computers’ or ‘technology’, because these things are still very interesting for me, but about the superficial criticality—and outright cynicism—of both artists and art worlds in that context. And in a way, my current practice grew partially out of wanting to alienate myself from all that anxious, compulsive, fashy obsession with ‘contemporaneity’ (which also equates to an obsession with youth and a fetishisation of capital) in favor of historicity and ethics. I wanted to reject the conversations I was being drafted to address, but I also wanted to work out my politics in a less performative way. And though it felt reactive at first, I also found that increasingly I was invested in the material quality of bodies and objects. And I’m invested in stories, which live in materials. So I became a sculpture nerd and shut my mouth for a while, and perhaps I lost that audience entirely, thank goodness.

VP: I totally understand that impulse to move away from that association. When I saw your 2016 exhibition at Company Gallery in NYC, it did somehow make sense that you would have made that move. I mainly became familiar with your work through an interest in alt-lit and poetry, and I think your writing still resonates amid the physical work.

JD: Yes, for sure the text-based/poetic aspect of my work is still a big part of my process. I just needed to be silent for a while and stop speaking on panels or publishing essays so that I could feel like my words were my own again; to speak from a place of speculation or even desire, rather than always in opposition to something. I think it’s okay to break the silence a little bit now.


Jesse Darling is an artist working in sculpture, installation, video, drawing, text, sound, and performance. Their work is broadly concerned with what it means to be a body in the world, though what that means is both politically charged and culturally determined. Their practice draws on their own experience as well as the narratives of history and counterhistory. Imagining the “high church of the modern” as a moveable or precarious tabernacle, JD’s works and writing feature an array of free-floating consumer goods, liturgical devices, construction materials, fictional characters, and mythical symbols detached from the architectures, hierarchies, and taxonomies in which they have their place.

Vera Petukhova is an independent Brooklyn-based curator focusing on performance and media. She received her MA in Curatorial Practice from the School of Visual Arts and has worked with the curatorial teams at Performa and The Kitchen. Her research interests include the performative turn, digital culture, the experience economy, language and communication, cultural histories, film theory, feminist and gender theory, community/support structures, Soviet conceptualism, and contemporary art in Eastern Europe. She has curated video art programs and organized art exhibitions and performances in Seattle and New York. Her writing has been published in Blouin Artinfo and Performa Magazine.

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