Barbara Kruger, Untitled, (You Thrive on mistaken Identity), 1981

“Thinking about my own sense of identity, I realise that it has always depended on the fact of being a migrant, on the difference from the rest of you.

So one of the fascinating things about this discussion is to find myself centered at last. Now that, in the postmodern age, you all feel so dispersed, I become centered. What I’ve thought of as dispersed and fragmented comes, paradoxically to be the representative modern experience!… It may be true that the self is always, in a sense, a fiction, just as the kinds of ‘closures’ which are required to create communities of identification – nation, ethnic group, families, sexualities etc. – are arbitrary closures; and the forms of political action, whether movements, or parties, or classes, those too are temporary, partial, arbitrary. I believe it is an immensely important gain when one recognises that all identity is constructed across difference and begins to live with the politics of difference… Ethnicity can be a constitutive element in the most viciously regressive kind of nationalism or national identity. But in our times, as an imaginary community, it is also beginning to carry some other meanings, and to define a new space of identity. It insists on difference – on the fact that every identity is placed, positioned, in a culture, a language, a history. Every statement comes from somewhere, from somebody in particular. It insists on specificity, on conjuncture. But it is not necessarily tied to fixed, permanent, unalterable oppositions.It is not wholly defined by exclusion.”
Stuart Hall speaking at the ICA conference ‘Identity: The Real Me’, 1986

“I think it’s important for viewers to understand the rhetoric of realism – how it is a depiction of what is real, and that it is not real. That this rhetoric permeates the pictures that we see whether they are still photographs, whether they are filmic, or whether they are broadcast for television. And just to say as a reminder that in fact what you are seeing is not me but a representation of me, which is being framed and photographed and edited and inserted within a larger narrative of which I have very little control… I think to label something political within culture today is really to disarm it in a way, and I think that it tends to ghettoise particular activity. I think that there is a politic in every conversation we have, every deal we close and every face we kiss, and that sort of ordering and that sort of hierarchy permeates every social construction, and I read that as a political arena.”
Barbara Kruger speaking in the Channel Four series ‘State of the Art:Ideas and Images in the 1980s’, 1987

‘The Real Me’ sounds like a feature article from a lifestyle magazine: perhaps an article about ‘me-time’ or individual self-expression. It’s hard to believe, almost twenty years on, that this was the title of a conference, organised by the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in the autumn of 1986 to explore the question of identity. When lifestyle magazines today talk about identity, they are invariably talking about individual lifestyle choices. Everywhere you look in print and broadcast media, private and individual identities appear to have eclipsed any notion of a collective or public identification. While the question of a shared identity is largely seen as the preoccupation of a marginal few whose race, ethnicity or religion sets them apart from mainstream society and culture.
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In 1980s Britain, however, the dominant idea of a settled, homogeneous, mainstream identity that could be easily invoked for the nation and society was being challenged by a number of wholly different artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers. From Derek Jarman’s dystopian vision of the future in Jubilee (1977) through to Stephen Frears’ more celebratory depiction of multi-racial, multi-sexual Britain in My Beautiful Launderette (1987), the decade from the late 1970s to the late 1980s marked a radical shift in the social and cultural urban fabric of Britain for which London was the central stage. The dissonant tones of The Sex Pistols’ irreverent reworking of the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’and The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ were the discordant theme tunes of a changing society where the comforting rhetoric of ‘one nation’ Britain had become fractured not only by the three-day working week and the souring of relations between government and trade unions but equally by the changing face of its cities and the experience of its citizens. At the same time as conflicts were erupting on the streets of the metropolis from Notting Hill to Wapping (ostensibly between representatives of the state and its citizens), London was forging a new identity which was to become synonymous with the multiple identities of its inhabitants and their inter-relationships. Articulating a spectrum of new social, cultural and artistic connections which criss-crossed the city and transgressed discrete racial boundaries and comfortable social conventions, London’s creative heterogeneity and cultural miscegenation found form not only in the novels of Hanif Kureishi and the songs of The Clash, but also in the works of a new generation of artists, writers and filmmakers.

The ICA conference ‘The Real Me: Postmodernism and the Question of Identity’ brought together writers, philosophers, scientists, psychologists, social theorists and historians including speakers as diverse as Homi Bhabha, A.S. Byatt, Richard L. Gregory, Stuart Hall, Jacqueline Rose, James Lingwood and Terry Eagleton to discuss subjectivity, social identity and political action. The politics of identity were equally in evidence in the ICA’s exhibition programme throughout the 1980s featuring solo exhibitions of artists such as Barbara Kruger, Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman as well as ambitious projects like Difference: on Sexuality and Representation and Sandy Nairne’s ‘State of the Art: Ideas and Images in the 1980s’ which was anchored in a series of television programmes on the newly-launched television station Channel Four. What was striking about the work of artists like Kruger, Mapplethorpe and Sherman was their preoccupation not only with identity politics but also with the politics of representation itself. Barbara Kruger’s experience of working on fashion magazines had inspired her to question the ways in which film and photography mediate and frame our perception of reality. In a very different way, Mapplethorpe’s highly aestheticised and sexually-charged photographs (which provoked much controversy at the time) challenged conventional representations of men (Ken Moody) and women (Lisa Lyon).

By the mid-1980s, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London had become a meeting place for black artists, writers and thinkers who heralded a significant shift in the wider British culture and society. This new generation of artists, filmmakers, writers and musicians who emerged in the early 1980s contested the settled image of Britain as a mono-cultural society and the capital was frequently the focal point for cultural and political struggles to redefine Britishness and British culture. The works of Kruger, Mapplethorpe and Sherman were not only backdrops to these discussions and meetings but a significant influence on this younger generation of artists and image-makers. Among them was the artist Sonia Boyce whose works were saturated in the narratives of the city and the intersecting relationships of its inhabitants. In works like Talking Presence (1987) where two naked black figures are silhouetted against the London skyline, Boyce quite literally projected difference against the familiar map of the city’s architecture. While not referencing the city directly in his work, Rasheed Araeen’s Ethnic Drawings (1982), make reference to the grafitti that covers its physical surfaces, defacing its urban structures and disfiguring with racist abuse its non-white inhabitants. Hand-drawn in Arabic script, Araeen’s series of intimate self-portraits unhinge the possibility of neutral representation in modern art in the same way that Kruger’s poster images challenge the notion that photography’s representation of the real can be unmediated.

In a series of performances set in Brixton and entitled Roadworks (1985), Mona Hatoum renders her entire body as artwork against the backdrop of the city. In one performance with Stefan Szczelkun, Hatoum and Szczelkun take turns in tracing the outlines of their prone bodies with chalk on the paving stones. Contingent on each other, they move through the street leaving traces of their presence like forensic evidence of a crime or rather crimes committed. In another performance also entitled Roadworks – but this time, a solo performance work – Hatoum walks slowly one step at a time, her Doc Martens boots tied to her ankles with string and impeding her every step. The two performance works speak eloquently about our inter-dependency and the constraints on our movement through the city – the things we can’t see or that lie outside of our control but which effect our capacity to move freely and unhindered.
Black Audio Film Collective’s Twilight City (1987) maps a visual journey through London in the late 1980s, negotiating the contradictions of the metropolis from the now forgotten and erased Cardboard City (the cardboard structures that housed London’s homeless people and populated the spaces between the railway arches of South London) and the then emerging brave new edifices of London’s former Docklands in Canary Wharf. A different kind of navigation takes place in Steve McQueen’s Super 8 film Exodus (1992/1997) which follows two elegantly dressed middle-aged black men negotiating the city’s traffic, carrying exotic plants that evoke a different space far removed from London’s heaving urban sprawl.

The idea of living with the politics of difference has all kinds of unwanted connotations in the aftermath of the London bombings in July this year. In the tidal wave of commentary that has sought to understand or explain the suicide bombers that attacked the tube and bus – icons of London’s metropolitan identity – the idea of London as a multicultural city has been invoked for diametrically opposed political ends. London’s mayor Ken Livingstone has underscored London’s identity as a city home to diverse communities whose personality is forged from difference. The ultra-right wing British National Party (BNP), on the other hand, has used the image of the exploded number 30 bus as a metaphor for the destruction of the city (and by extension of the nation itself) wrought by immigrants.

Once again, London is the focus for contested visions of Britain’s future and its identity as a nation. The representation of the city and its inhabitants is once again a manifestly political arena. In London, perhaps more than any other place in Britain, as Barbara Kruger says, ‘there is a politic in every conversation we have, every deal we close and every face we kiss.’

Originally published in The Real Me‚ as part of the publication London in Six Easy Steps edited Rob Bowman & Jens Hoffmann, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 2005

Published in Photoworks Issue 5, 2005
Commissioned by Photoworks

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