The Blaktism. Megan Cope. 2015. Screenshot courtesy the artist, THIS IS NO FANTASY and Dianne Tanzer Gallery

At the end of Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle Azdak, the ‘good and just’ judge accidentally appointed by the emperor, gives a farewell dance to disguise his escape. It is an ostensibly celebratory and joyous occasion, yet one that also marks, diegetically, the return of normality after a failed coup – leading to the escape rather than the freedom of its protagonists. Similarly, at the end of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest there is also dancing, and Churchill’s play eloquently addressed the uncertainty of the success of the revolution by using dancing in this sequence. In the end, it seemed nothing much had changed there either – a return to normality, which in this case, meant madness and oppression, and was emblematised in the sudden dance. The problem, succinctly presented in these works, is that the dancing that people like Emma Goldman suppose revolutions will result in – the celebratory and euphoric movement of change – seems to be less simple than desired. There is a dichotomous nature to dancing and music that adds to this problem, and can be seen in these two plays presentation of it as associated with both liberation and pacification. Theodor Adorno begins his essay, on the fetish character in music and the regression of listening in outlining this basic problem: that ‘music represents at once the immediate manifestation of impulse, and the locus of its taming. It stirs up the dance of the Maenads and sounds from Pan’s bewitching flute, but it also rings out from the Orphic lyre, around which the visions of violence range themselves, pacified.’ There are even more direct and insidious examples of music’s potency and political mechanisation. To look at the Turkmenistani president giving his subjects a sample of his electro-pop tunes provides us with a prescient image of the subject pacified by/inflicted with music. It reminds me unbearably of the loud pop music we are frequently surrounded with in places like shopping malls.

 

Megan Cope’s The Blaktism provides us with an image that is closer to home: the ‘blaktism’ of Cope is enforced through ‘clubbing’; the double entendre within this term seeming more appropriate as the near-violent subjugation and conditioning implicit in the act begins to rear its head. The nature of party music is such that we can all predict how it will play out. It is part of its joy, but it is also disturbing for its enforced, military regularity. The music and dancing here strangely enforce the authoritative power of the commonwealth that is put on ironic display in this work. Rather than seeming as separate, the two forces appear to exist in a dangerous and paradoxical joint attempt at coercion. In this manner, Cope addresses the dual indictment of contemporary Australian culture towards Aboriginal people: to politicise in bureaucratic manners their existence, and erase or oppress their cultural and societal strength – in perpetually celebrating such events as Australia Day, and its implication of a wholly unified country that is entirely content within itself.

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The Blaktism. Megan Cope. 2015. Screenshot courtesy the artist, THIS IS NO FANTASY and Dianne Tanzer Gallery

 

While there are undoubtedly possibilities to resistance in music as well (we can consider Autechre’s AntiEP as a particularly specific political antagonism to a system that would regulate listening habits) music is also prevalently employed to oppressive ends. The imperative of the consumerist homogeny is to enjoy, and Cope’s work draws on the incessant and obligatory party-culture of our capitalist society, where hedonism is (as Zizek so aptly put it on Q and A) – more and more the ruling ideology.

 

////Interlude: Is that Michael Jackson’s white glove?

In the extended ending of Black or White, Michael Jackson smashes up a car and breaks windows in an alley while engaging in a highly sexual dance (in post production, racial slurs were added to the destroyed objects to make his violence appear more acceptable). Black or white is a paradoxical song, clearly about equality, the song’s video yet demonstrates the normalising processes of global capital flow, in which race, gender and individuality come to the point that they are exchangeable and interchangeable – particularly in the infamous ‘face changing’ scene, where constantly smiling people morph into each other. An idea I first heard from Francis Russell was that Michael Jackson, in this extended end scene, embodies the sexless, genderless, race-less being of the subjects of global capitalism that this song presents, trying to reproduce themself in a perpetual act of self-copulation, and that they destroy the world in their frustration and inability to do so. I am not sure if I glimpsed Michael Jackson’s white glove or not in the strobe-like lighting of the video, but it seems like an appropriate predecessor to Cope’s attack on the standardised, bureaucratic manner in which aboriginality is decreed by the power of a colonial government, and in how citizenry is enforced by cultural mores such as clubbing. It seems, against the standardisation of Jackson’s subject, that it does matter whether one is black or white; but that what causes it to matter is who has power and who does not. ////

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The Blaktism. Megan Cope. 2015. Screenshot courtesy the artist, THIS IS NO FANTASY and Dianne Tanzer Gallery

 

The people with this power remain the Australian government, and we can see how deeply ingrained the elision of aboriginal people in our country is in that we do not yet have constitutional recognition for aboriginal people, but that aboriginal sovereignty has, to my knowledge, never even been discussed in parliament. That Australia refuses to acknowledge that it might have a bit to make up for after a few centuries of oppression – and a continuation of this oppression – is damning. I consider one of the incitements to enjoyment Cope’s work addresses to be the idea (which I have heard espoused) that aboriginal people should be somehow happy with Commonwealth domination and culture. The ‘recognise’ campaign, however, and the celebration of Kevin Rudd’s ‘apology’ (as if that were enough, and everyone could all move on), continues to sublimate the aboriginal subject into (and ultimately subordinate it to) a colonial power’s whims. Against this, the desire for a treaty among some aboriginal leaders has yet to be given adequate attention or consideration before parliament. The bureaucratic control of the situation is what is particularly difficult, and is contained this artwork as well, exposing a continued vestment of power in the commonwealth, that remains based in racist and colonial histories.

 

Cope’s work addresses this control and its demeaning character in the principle activity of the video. This activity involves a priest-figure administering Cope’s certificate for being an official aboriginal. This is combined with the painting of black face over Cope’s character. The parallel of once-acceptable and now derogatory practice with the suggestion that the colonial government currently and still decrees who is aboriginal, and that Cope is somehow needs her aboriginal character officiated, provides a powerful and necessary argument: that our government continues to be remarkably insensitive and controlling, and that it demeans aboriginal people in this manner.

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The Blaktism. Megan Cope. 2015. Screenshot courtesy the artist, THIS IS NO FANTASY and Dianne Tanzer Gallery

 

Cope’s work was an exhilarating evocation of the absurd circumstances aboriginal people are faced with, trapped in a bureaucratic and social nightmare. That the work is not only focused on the bureaucratic absurdity of Cope’s recognition by the government as an ‘official’ aboriginal person, but also on the absurdity of Australian cultural celebration and enforcement makes for a stunningly powerful work. It is one of the most incredible things I have seen this year. The whole of the show it was in, Dead Centre, was full of remarkable art, and although the premise of the show was loose, the strength of each individual artwork made it an extremely successful exhibit.

 

words by Graham Mathwin

 

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