Which Side Are You On?

Annabel Daou’s art work ‘Which Side are You On?’ (2012) features an old television, a still image, a tape recording of the artist asking the titular question ‘which side are you on?’, and a recording of people’s answers to that question. That’s it. It seems simple enough. But this work represents the doubts and desires of millions of young people today.

Looking at the art work from a distance, it’s just a TV. Not even a new TV. You know, one of those flat screens, with high definition and all. A TV with 3d vision. With surround sound. None of those things. It is just a plain old television. A massive white frame made from metal and plastic. Antennas. Chunky buttons. An analogue screen on which you can discern the individual colours if you come close enough. What makes the television looks even more quaint, is what it transmits. It doesn’t transmit (when did this word come to sound so antiquated?) moving images. Not even the subtle lines of a facial expression. It shows a still image of something that reminds some of a mashrabiya latticework whilst making others think of a confession screen: a plate from which crosses are cut out evenly horizontally and vertically.

As you come closer, you hear a tape recording. It is a recording of the artist asking various people the question ‘which side are you on?’ along with the answers the people have given. Some people take the question seriously, giving answers pope, presidents and other populists would be proud of, such as: ‘the good side’, ‘the right side’, ‘the side of humanity’, ‘the side of the 99 percent’ and so on. Others think more lightly of it, offering humoristic replies like ‘my side’, ‘the dark side’ and ‘the sunny side’. But however serious or lightly the respondents take the question, and whatever their answer, you hear doubt in their voices. You hear uncertainty. The question is straightforward. So why is it so difficult to give an answer?

The first difficulty with this question is that it is an open question. It could refer to everything and anything. Consequentially, it can merit any one answer. It would be as legitimate to reply with ‘the right side’ as it would be to reply with ‘my side’, ‘Eastside’, or ‘the side of Darth Vader’ (some of the answers my students gave when I re-enacted the piece with them). The question leaves the respondents with all the choice in the world.

Second, the question demands a decision that few people today are willing to make. In fact, it is a decision many of us have been taught not to make: the decision to choose one thing over another. We have been taught, by Lyotard, by Derrida, by Baudrillard, not to choose one ideology over another because to support one ideology over all others is to fall into the modern trap of the grand narrative. Similarly, we have been taught not to value one truth more than another, because no one truth is essentially more valuable than something else. ‘That is your truth’, we learn to say. ‘That is your opinion.’

‘Which Side Are You On?’ demands we choose one side over, literally, all others. It says: ‘you’ve got all the choice in the world, but you need to choose one thing’. For if you answer Daou’s question with ‘the right side’, it means that you distance yourself from all the other sides which you apparently consider wrong, even though you feel they may sometimes be partly right or not wholly wrong. Of course, your answer may also be interpreted by people as meaning ‘not-left’, which opens up an entirely different can of worms. Similarly, if you answer with ‘my side’, does that imply that you don’t care about the sides of other beings? People who think differently? People who look different? Poor people?

Daou’s draws attention to the double-bind that emerges when you are forced to intuitively choose a side, even, or perhaps rather especially, if you know that no one side is preferable over another per se. It seems to me that this double-bind is representative of the situation we are in today. The geopolitical, economic and ecological crises have forced a generation which was always said to have all the options in the world to choose a side, to take a stand. Yet we have all learned during history and philosophy classes that taking a stand is problematic.  For from which position are you taking a stand? Is that stand really so good? And are those other stands really so bad? For many years, we could just put one foot on one stand, the other on another. And just stand there. Maybe complain about the solidity of one stand. Or make some jokes about the structure of the other stand. But remain standing on the two stands. Yet as the gap between the elite and the rest widens and the political centre disintegrates, we need to jump to a side. At least as a first, knee-jerk reaction.

It is fitting, then also, that the medium through which Daou transmits this double-bind is a television set that is out of date. For to pick sides, to choose one thing over others, is a relic from days gone. Similarly, it makes sense that the picture on display is reminiscent of both a mashrabiya and a confession screen. A mashrabiya is a window whose structure prevents outsiders from looking in whilst allowing insiders to look out. A confession screen is a screen that separates while simultaneously stimulating shared intimacy. To pick one side over others means to fully believe in something without being able to see it in its entirety; and it means to blindly share with others your intuition, your gut feeling. It is self-evident that this is as enticing as it is dangerous, potentially disastrous even. Daou forces us to take a leap of faith that defies reason. And isn’t that – for better and/or worse – precisely what we see happening all around us today?

Image: Annabel Daou (2012), Which Side Are You On?  SD Video (3.06 min). Color, Sound, TV. Grundig Super Color 1631. Courtesy Galerie Tanja Wagner.

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