Around 2010 I scanned a black and white photograph from the artist Allan Sekula’s series “School Is a Factory” (1978–80) included in the catalogue Performance Under Working Conditions.1 Then I printed and pinned the image above my desk to remind me of what it means to perform—or not—under working conditions. In hindsight my relationship to this photograph was circumscribed, but not necessarily off base, insofar as the contradictory logics of quota systems enframe the un/imaginable. In the photo, a young woman, who sits across the table from a middle–aged man, is called upon to represent the slim survival rates of students and faculty of color and women in the academy. The image’s unnamed participants enact its caption.
When I first encountered this photograph, I looked at it and looked again. Could it be? In 1992, protesters in the Women’s Action Coalition held up a banner in front of the then SoHo branch of the Guggenheim Museum. It queried, “Where is Ana Mendieta?” In “School Is a Factory,” the Cuban–American performance artist stands in for both an historical moment and a set of power dynamics that depend upon the shock of recognition, irrespective of positive identification of the photo’s sitters. For some time I’ve read the specificity of Mendieta’s body in this image–text as marking a present that I’d still shorthand as the “presumed incompetent” era of faux integration.2 From affirmative action to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, the “here and now” of this assemblage is not its “then and there.”3 My mind refreshes the photo–caption’s takeaway argument with a pessimistic periodization that exceeds the temporal frame of Sekula’s project: the culture wars never ended and higher education’s permutations remain key sites of struggle for political and aesthetic representation. Although Sekula in “a quasi Brechtian move” deliberately chose not to identify his subjects by name in works that he completed in the same time period as “School Is a Factory,” happenstance in August 2016 spurred me to rethink Mendieta’s presence in this image in distinct relational terms.4
This essay owes its revised existence to a mistake. Until recently, I mistook the man, who sits across from Mendieta, for Sekula. That misidentification—itself an interpretative mise–en–scène—depended upon my unconscious elision of the photographer and his subject matter. When I solicited permission to reproduce the photo on Volta, Ina Steiner, the Allan Sekula Studio manager, requested that I correct my factual error. For the record, Mendieta’s interlocutor is none other than Allan Kaprow, originator of happenings and then professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. Before the art historian Sally Stein, Sekula’s widow, cautioned against reading this image as “staged,” I reframed the encounter it portrays as a mock job interview. The artist Martha Rosler, Sekula’s contemporary, confirmed Stein’s hypothesis that the image documents an actual job interview at one of the College Art Association’s annual conferences. Rosler explains that in the mid–1970s, Kaprow interviewed several candidates, including Mendieta, for a UCSD job at CAA. Because Sekula had maintained connections to his alma mater, he was granted access to these interviews. In this context, Sekula was neither a candidate nor an interviewer for the job. Instead, the photographer was teaching part time at several schools up and down the California coast and making art about artists’ incorporation into academia.
Such anecdotal information complicates an already complicated picture. Multiplying this photo’s meaning, it sheds new light on the power dynamics that the image–caption captures, including encounters—possibly “questionable” or “inappropriate” —that transpired between a photographer and his subjects. All told, when I return to this photo, I experience afresh the shock of recognition. I bear witness to a circuit of exchange—a triangulation of Kaprow, Mendieta, and Sekula. Knowing the proper names of those who populate this fragment of a photo essay’s “performance under working conditions” makes a difference. But, that difference is only a matter of degrees. Moreover, it follows the critical and creative trajectory of Sekula and his generation’s reinvention of documentary realism.
Specifically, Sekula’s visual citation of Kaprow and Mendieta reinforces the same difference in a word. “Performance” in this image–caption functions as a double entendre. Two performance artists come to stand in for performances—raced, gendered, and classed—more prosaic than poetic, that we reenact when we teach and/or take classes, request and/or write letters of reference, interview for jobs—sitting on either side of the table—make art and/or write about any of the aforementioned. Performance here is irrevocably smudged, straddles the political, the economic, and the aesthetic. It powers the intransitive verb that links school and factory in Sekula’s series to which this photo–caption belongs.
“School Is a Factory” treats “the politics of education and the traffic in images” in the United States, post–World War II.5 The captions Sekula assigns to its photographs situate them as portraits of social roles and statuses but also problematize the genre. Students of welding and keypunch operations share the space of this series with a computer programmer, a mathematics instructor, and a graduate of “an elite creative writing program,” turned taxi driver. Other components of “School Is a Factory” throw portraiture into even more productive confusion. Several image–captions, which feature sets of disembodied hands in front of an art museum, an abandoned shopping center, and an industrial park, further challenge photography’s claims on verisimilitude, transparency, and objectivity. Rosler clarifies, “Sekula was re–creating or referring to a type of imagery used by some of the photographers/artists of Neue Sachlichkeit and others—including US government information manuals—who adopted symbolic representations of social positions, such as ‘capitalist’ and ‘worker.’”6 Heavy–handed, yet uncaptioned, the series’ final photo, along such assembly lines, portrays hands, grasping a hammer and chisel, poised at the ready to dismantle a building affixed with the label “Administration.” Significantly, that photo faces the John–Woo–esque “face/off” of Kaprow and Mendieta. A tension between “truth” and “fiction” mediates the concept of performance and consequently the conceptualism behind, these photographs—one captioned, one not—in conversation. As performance figure–eights performativity, conceptualisms join the feedback loop of Conceptual-isms (think the critic–novelist–playwright Sylvia Wynter’s unique take on “genres of Man”), crowd the two–page spread, pressing in on my interpretation of it like ghosts.7
“In School Is a Factory” and across his corpus, Sekula offers still remarkably salient ways to wield the conceptual and the performative to renovate documentary genres from photography to film and the essay. Across their own practices, Mendieta and Kaprow offer equally compelling models for mobilizing the conceptual and the documentary to treble the performative. The aggregate of these artists’ efforts reminds me why I can neither discard the concept of conceptual poetry nor accept the power invested in, and divested from, the Concept, as of late elevated to the singular with a capital “C.” I distrust debates that fall back on binaries like the Conceptual and “We, the People…”
The efforts of Sekula, Mendieta, Kaprow, and, I’d add, Rosler evidence the myriad powers of conceptualisms to display poetry, art, and criticism’s interpellations into larger systems of control and domination. In this spirit I see in Sekula’s image of Mendieta and Kaprow, or rather in my ongoing projection onto it, hauntology as a recycled ontology (times two or maybe three) of institutional critique. The interaction between the interviewer and interviewee secures one of Sekula’s arguments for “School Is a Factory” in the realm of representation: Conceptual-isms scaffold and sculpt the university industrial complex, mediate “scenes of subjection” in higher education’s enunciations from the community college to the public Research I and the Ivy towers that the latter’s administrators frequently aspire to re/scale, with this important caveat.
If school is a factory or even a School, then all the more reason to organize in lieu of mourning. Power, like art or poetry (or criticism)—power in art, poetry, and criticism—is never uniform. Not necessarily a uniform. Allies, like agents, are or aspire to be agents of change, toil and trouble genres in uncommon locations and vocations, including the “undercommons.”8 An affirmative action, a durational performance under working conditions: pinned into place, I’ll be keeping this image above my desk for at least the next three months.
*Many thanks to Evie Shockley for soliciting this essay; Ina Steiner and Sally Stein for granting me permission to reproduce Allan Sekula’s photo and for pushing me to rethink my reading of it; Martha Rosler for offering me a firsthand account of this photo’s production and comments on an earlier draft of this essay; Andrea Huber of Christopher Grimes Gallery for putting me in contact with Steiner and Stein; and Ricardo Dominguez and Zé Carroll–Domínguez for listening.
1 Allan Sekula, Performance Under Working Conditions, edited by Sabine Breitwieser (Vienna: Generali Foundation, 2003), 238.
2 Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, and Angela P. Harris, eds., Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2012).
3 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
4 I quote from August 23, 2016 correspondence with Sally Stein.
5 Sekula, Performance Under Working Conditions, 240.
6 I quote from August 27, 2016 correspondence with Martha Rosler.
7 See, for instance, Sylvia Wynter, “‘No Humans Involved:’ An Open Letter to my Colleagues,” Forum N.H.I. Knowledge for the 21st Century, vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 42–73.
8 Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe/New York/Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013).