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Cross-Tisch: Artist as Witness

Wednesday, Mar 30, 2016


A panel discussion with Waffa Bilal, Carol Dysinger, Malik Gaines, and Anna Deavere Smith, moderated by Andre Lepecki.

This Spring session of Cross-Tisch will gather Tisch faculty whose artistic and scholarly practices attend to the fundamental political function of the artist as witness. In recent years, a critique of witnessing has lead to the proposition of a “forensic aesthetics” -- an expression coined by architect and critical theorist Eyal Weizmann. Behind such aesthetics lies a suspicion that humans are too emotional, affective, subjective, and implicated in events in order to give an objective account of those events. In this sense, forensic objects should replace the testimonial role of the witness. But, what if it is precisely the artist’s direct implication in the turmoil of events that turns their subjective experiences into the most urgent and necessary kind of witnessing? What if, “bearing witness to the flesh” as Alexander Weheliye recently wrote, is what turns artists and the works they create into the most urgently needed kind of witnessing?

The four Tisch faculty invited for this session, working in and across the areas of theater, film, photography, and performance art, have all, in and through their art, deeply implicated themselves into the turmoil of events. They do not shy away from the complexities, antagonistic forces, and violence present in the events they document, embody, retell, bear witness to, experience and interpellate. Their very different approaches to art making demonstrate how witnessing poses crucial challenges to contemporary artistic practices.


Associate Arts Professor, Photography and Imaging

Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal is known internationally for his on-line performative and interactive works provoking dialogue about international politics and internal dynamics. For his 2010-2011 project, 3rdi, Bilal had a camera surgically implanted on the back of his head to spontaneously transmit images to the web 24 hours a day – a statement on surveillance, the mundane and the things we leave behind. Bilal’s 2010 work, and Counting…, similarly used his own body as a medium. His back was tattooed with a map of Iraq and dots representing Iraqi and US casualties – the Iraqis in invisible ink seen only under a blacklight.

Bilal’s 2007 installation, Domestic Tension, also addressed the Iraq war. Bilal spent a month in a Chicago gallery with a paintball gun that people could shoot at him over the internet. The Chicago Tribune called it “one of the sharpest works of political art to be seen in a long time” and named him 2008 Artist of the Year. Bilal’s work is constantly informed by the experience of fleeing his homeland and existing simultaneously in two worlds – his home in the “comfort zone” of the U.S. and his consciousness of the “conflict zone” in Iraq. Bilal suffered repression under Saddam Hussein’s regime and fled Iraq in 1991 during the first Gulf War. After two years in refugee camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, he came to the U.S. where he graduated from the University of New Mexico and then obtained an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2008, City Lights published “Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun,” about Bilal’s life and the Domestic Tension project. Read more ›

Associate Professor, Graduate Film

Carol Dysinger directed the documentary "Camp Victory, Afghanistan," the first in her trilogy about Afghanistan post 9/11. It premiered in competition at South By South West 2010, and played at a numerous festival including MOMA Doc Fortnight, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Movies that Matter at the Hague. It played on Public Television in the States, in Europe and Japan. The second part "One Bullet Afghanistan" is projected for completion in 2016 -- and is supported by Sundance Documentary Institute, NYSCA and Catapult Film Fund.

Prior to directing docs, Prof. Dysinger edited many documentaries and features, including "DEADLINE" for Big Mouth Productions (Sundance, and NBC), RAIN for Lola Films, M.Scorsese Executive Producer (Sundance, Venice International) SANTITOS for Springall Pix, John Sayles Exec (Sundance, Guadalajara, San Sebastian) and PUNK (Warners) which was a finalist for a national Emmy. She edited "Rock the Casbah" for the Clash. Read more ›

Assistant Professor, Performance Studies

Malik Gaines is a writer and artist. His work deals with performance practice and theory, black representation, and queer social tactics. His first book Excesses of the Sixties: Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left is forthcoming through NYU Press.

Gaines has performed and exhibited extensively with collaborators Jade Gordon and Alexandro Segade as the group My Barbarian. Their work uses theatrical and critical techniques in order to playfully act out social difficulties. The trio has presented work at venues including MoMA, The Kitchen, New Museum, Studio Museum in Harlem (New York), LACMA, REDCAT, MOCA (Los Angeles), SFMoMA (San Francisco), ICA (Philadelphia), Power Plant, (Toronto), ICA (London), De Appel (Amsterdam), El Matadero (Madrid), Peres Projects (Berlin), Torpedo (Oslo), Galleria Civica (Trento), Townhouse Gallery (Cairo), and many others. My Barbarian has had solo exhibitions at Gallery 400, University of Illinois, Chicago (2014); Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects (2013); Yaffo 23, Jerusalem, Israel (2013); Transformer Gallery, Washington DC (2012); Human Resources, Los Angeles (2012); Museo El Eco, Mexico City (2010); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2010); and Participant Inc., New York (2009). The group was included in the Whitney Biennial (2014), Baltic Triennial (2009), Montreal Biennial (2007), California Biennial (2008, 2006), and Performa Biennial (2007, 2005). My Barbarian has received grants and awards from the Foundation for Contemporary Art (2013), Creative Capital (2012), City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs (2010), and Art Matters (2008). Read more ›

Professor, Art and Public Policy

Anna Deavere Smith is an actress and playwright who is said to have created a new form of theatre. In popular culture as an actress - Nurse Jackie, Blackish, Madame Secretary, The West Wing, The American President, Rachel Getting Married, Philadelphia, others. Books: Letters to a Young Artist and Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines. She has created more than person shows based on hundreds of interviews. The best known of those are Fires in The Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles, and “Let Me Down Easy”. “Fires” and “Twilight” look at US race relations. The latter deals with health care. They were all performed in US regional theaters, and “Twilight” was on Broadway. Her current project “Notes From the Field: Doing Time In Education, looks at what is now called the “school to prison pipeline” –disciplinary practices in schools in poor communities that increase the likelihood that those youths will spend part of their lives incarcerated. Three of her plays have been broadcast on PBS. Read more ›

Associate Professor, Performance Studies

André Lepecki works and researches at the intersection of critical dance studies, curatorial practice, performance theory, contemporary dance and visual arts performance. Selected curatorial work includes Chief Curator of the festival IN TRANSIT (2008 and 2009 editions) at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. Co-curator of the archive Dance and Visual Arts since 1960s for the exhibition MOVE: choreographing you, Hayward Gallery (2010). Curator of the lecture series Points of Convergence: performance and visual arts (2014) and Off-Hinge Off Center: alternative histories of performance, for the Museum of Modern Art of Warsaw (2014 and 2015). Also for MoMA-Warsaw he curated the series Performance in the Museum (2015). Read more ›


With generous support from the Office of the Dean and the Tisch Initiative for Creative Research.