Bristling with political resonances, Jesse Jones picks apart hidden histories of dissent and resistance. Her installation Tremble Tremble, represented Ireland at this year’s Art Olympics, the Venice Biennale. It features iconic theatre artist Olwen Fouéré and was inspired by research into witches and other feminist histories that are still relevant to contemporary Ireland. Caitriona Devery caught up with her to chat about art and politics.
How do you think the witch has functioned as a cultural symbol and what brought you to it?
My interest in the witch came about over a long time, but specifically there was an exhibition in 2014 in the British Museum and it was called Wicked Bodies, a kind of thesis exhibition about the representation of witches since medieval times, including amazing works by Goya and incredible artwork. But I was very disappointed by the contextualisation of those images. At no point was it really contextualised that these images were a form of political propaganda and were often used to illustrate the demonic sensibility and otherness of women. In a lot of ways that othering of women justified their exploitation.
At that point I began to realise that there was something still relevant about that representation of female power, abjectness, horror and fear that could be in some way mobilised as a way of thinking about the role of women politically in the world today. It just became a kind of act of imagination, spurred on by a political position. For me as an artist it’s really important to see those things going hand in hand. I never want to think about making an artwork as being super didactic about my political position.
The exhibition title comes from the chant by the 1970’s Wages for Housework movement; ‘Tremble, tremble, the witches have returned!’. Central to this movement was feminist academic and activist Silvia Federici, who wrote a foundational book linking the witch trials to capitalism. Can you tell us about your attraction to her ideas?
Marx’s idea of primitive accumulation in terms of how capitalism developed as an economic system is really important. But I was really drawn to Federici’s way of thinking about what happened during the witch trials, which set out the conditions for primitive accumulation. Almost like a kind of prehistory to that moment, and that prehistory was the division of people based on their gender, during the witch trials; the dispossession of 50% of the European population during that period of agency and power and property. What’s really incredible about Federici’s position is just how logical it is. You can see how the genealogies of misogyny that emerge with the instigation of private property.
It’s not so much thinking about it from the position of Marxist primitive accumulation but thinking from the position of the enclosures and the invention of private property, and how that really sets out a gender based violence within capitalism. In terms of the possession of private property, the dissolution of the commons and then I guess the kind of dissolving of the deep connections between women and their relationships, autonomy, agency and role within a shared society. It really shifts that into something else, and I think the invention of private property is the thing that really instigates that.
I’m a working class woman from a working class neighbourhood in Dublin. I live in a working class neighbourhood in Dublin. I was aware of class politics before I was a feminist, but it was the explanation of class based Marxist feminism of Silvia Federici that made the most sense to me.
Ireland has a very particular history of colonialism, then post-independence a very powerful church, with huge control over women’s lives. What effect do you think that’s had?
Yes it has. But not just the Church. The State in the 1930’s became a very counterrevolutionary, regressive force. Everybody on the left knows that. What it did to the relationship between women and the public sphere is shocking. I think everybody on the left should be acutely aware of how women have, in particular as political subjects, been incredibly dispossessed by that movement in the 1930’s. And still are to this day.
What has the resistance to that been like?
There’s a great feminist movement in Ireland today but I really am hoping that we can deepen that into a critique of capitalism. Feminist anti-capitalism is the way I see out of the other inequalities and injustices that we experience as women, in different variations, whether that be ethnicity or class background or economics. Our ability to access agency as women is also incredibly variegated based on these terms. A solidarity that is across class and gender divides is how I see this movement progressing.
Tremble Tremble is about the power of symbols, ideas, culture. Do you believe that trauma is transmitted through cultural memory?
Yes, even through ideas of the epigenetic, not to be so literal about it. We do have a shared consciousness that is somehow transmitted between us. One of the ideas that really helped capitalism establish itself is the idea of individuality and an individual self and an individual consciousness. And I think in a lot of ways, as people on the left, we need to think creatively to break down that assumption of capitalism and modernity, because all it serves to do is divide people into competitive consumers of things and services and reality. And actually to have a more shared understanding of the permeability of our shared consciousness. To think about that in a more expanded and artistic way is a really helpful political act for the left. Sometimes people think you’re flaky on the left when you talk like that.
Do you think there’s a resistance to certain kinds of thinking and creativity on the left?
If what we want to do as anti-capitalists is completely transform political and material reality of the world, we have to be experimental and expansive and imaginative in our thinking. We have to deconstruct the master’s tools. One of the master’s tools is rational scientific ways of analysing reality. They’re totally approaching it with the same rationality that invented capitalism in the first place.
It’s a counter rationality – Federici is counter rationality, she creates a different type of knowledge economy, that’s based on solidarity and bodies and shared temporalities, and also shared unconscious. There’s a kind of – there’s a dark potential magic in that, that could be used by the left if they were not so square sometimes.
How do you negotiate that difficult relationship between art and politics?
Art is a very different type of communication than political discourse. It really tries to access us in a completely different way cognitively, than language or textual discourse. For me as an artist to communicate things that might be around our political unconscious is really important. For many years I’ve been very interested in the idea of the political unconscious and what might be holding political reality together for us in ways that we haven’t articulated or understood yet. And that might be something that’s connected to our shared unconscious in a kind of Jungian sense. So for me archetypes and images are always political acts of opening up that shared unconscious.
I suppose that’s one of the things about my position on an artistic relationship to history, I argue that we need to have an artistic and a somatic relationship to history as well as a political and analytical one. To find the truths of history, rather than the factual, practical facts of history – what are the universal truths that history teaches us. So there’s a kind of strand of poetics in how we might interpret history.
I feel like art might be the last place that we have as a refuge of really experimental and challenging political thought. When we think about how many other spaces within the public sphere have become incredibly generic and have become muted in their ability to express political thought. But I think there’s something about the space of art that still allows us to challenge our own thinking and create doubt.
Are you hopeful about the possibility of change for women, in particularly around bodily autonomy, in Ireland?
I think that Repeal is definitely part of a really long fight that’s been going on for a very long time. There’s an incredible generation of women that have taken up the placards again. But there was a generation before them, and before them again. So I see it in a continuous genealogy, and I think it’s an incredible moment and one that’s part of a very long historical process. It took a lot for us to get this far.
I think that something has really changed in terms of the courage and imagination of Repeal movement. It was able to imagine a way of thinking about the legalisation of abortion in an entirely new way. And set that alight in consciousness, so you objectively see reality and say hang on a minute, you know, so there’s a different cognition with the politics, because the Repeal movement has really shaped the argument and aestheticized it in a way, that can make links with people’s imaginations. I think it’s very powerful what’s happening. It shows what can happen so quickly in a culture.
You can find out more about Tremble Tremble here. The exhibition will come to Ireland in 2018.