Pink Collars – #CCF

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Carla Freeman’s High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy (2000) is described as an “ethnography of globalisation positioned at the intersection between political economy and cultural studies”.  Don’t be scared off by this heavy description—chapter one opens in the Barbados Harbour Industrial Park, where ‘minivans with open doors are parked tightly’ and women are ‘proudly dressed in suits and fashions that identify them as “office” workers’.  With the symbolism of high tech and high heels firmly in place, Freeman’s text introduces the jargon.

The above excerpt is from Amanda Domalene Haynes’ review of Carla Freeman’s High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy: Women, Work and Pink Collar Identities in the Caribbeanthis week’s addition to the Fresh Milk Books Tumblr – the online space inviting interaction with our collection in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room.

For new Critical. Creative. Fresh reviews every week, look out for our #CCF Weekly posts and see the great material we have available at Fresh Milk!

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A View from the Mangrove – #CCF Guest Review

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A View from the Mangrove is the final part of the late Cuban writer Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s Caribbean trilogy.  Like most of his work, this short story collection deals with the making of the “New World” both historically and in the formation of Creole identity. 

The eleven stories span several centuries.  The first ones bring to life historical chapters of the Caribbean as the “cockpit of Europe”, with European powers battling each other for a greater share of the loot. The first of these stories is a tale of the notorious slave-trader John Hawkins’s pursuit of Spanish gold.  Others involve French buccaneers, a Spanish governor sent to suppress autonomy in the colonies and of a reluctant priest trapped in this struggle.  A few centuries later, there is a human drama told by multiple narrators against the backdrop of the final stages of the Haitian Revolution, and later, an infirm and burnt-out soldier wasting away in a mangrove during the Cuban War of Independence.  The penultimate story is about Haitians fighting against Batista in the Cuban Revolution and against racism and exploitation at the hands of their comrades.  My favourite story of the collection though is “The Broken Flute,” on the last Tezcatlipoca; a tragic tale of an “old god” being swallowed up by the chasm that opens up when worlds crash.

The above excerpt is from an anonymous review by ‘The Book Guy’ of Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s A View from the Mangrovethis week’s addition to the Fresh Milk Books Tumblr – the online space inviting interaction with our collection in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room.

For new Critical. Creative. Fresh reviews every week, look out for our #CCF Weekly posts and see the good reads we have available at Fresh Milk!

A Review of FRESH MILK XV – The Age of Infobesity

Visual artist Ronald Williams reviews Fresh Milk’s last event, FRESH MILK XV, which took place April 10, 2014 at The Milking Parlour Studio.

Photographs by Dondré Trotman.

McLean Greaves presenting 'The Age of Infobesity'. Photograph by Dondré Trotman.

McLean Greaves presenting ‘The Age of Infobesity’. Photograph by Dondré Trotman.

On Thursday April 10th, McLean Greaves, renowned media industry veteran took centre stage at FRESH MILK XV. He presented a brief, but ironically informative, lecture entitled ‘The Age of Infobesity’. Derived from the medical condition obesity, where there is an unhealthy excess of body fat, infobesity refers to an overabundance of information which can have dire physical and cognitive effects.

According to McLean, when we gain information it triggers a high reward center in our brains—the same area that responds to pleasurable stimuli like food and sex. This combination of high reward value and the availability of social media devices make information extremely addictive. Our information craving is evident in everyday life; from hours spent obsessively playing social media games to the average office worker checking their email 30-40 times an hour.

The fact that the media industry is well aware of our addiction and readily exploits it is perhaps more disturbing. It is now widespread knowledge that many, if not all of our online activities are being observed, but the internet itself is designed to distract us. The time spent on sites, the amount of words most likely to be read on a page, the most click-worthy zones on our screens; it is all monitored. McLean states that as a result, the search engines, pop-ups and pop-unders are tailored to suit our individual internet presence, as if catered by some omnipotent being.

However, he is quick to point out that this godlike entity is one of a sinister nature. Given the statistics he presented, I would have to agree with him. The average attention span of humans has fallen 33% since 2000, from 12 seconds to 8 seconds – To put that into perspective, a goldfish’s attention span is 9 seconds long. McLean continues to say that not only has our ability to focus been affected, but our face to face social interactions have suffered as well. Just 5 hours of internet surfing changes the way the brain works, with the decision making and problem solving areas of the brain showing less activity.

Furthermore, according to McLean, the average American teen owns 6.7 devices (slightly less for the Caribbean) and is almost constantly connected to the information network, making them the most susceptible to the effects of infobesity. Quite understandably, as this is the internet age—the only age many young people have grown up in—the older generation’s attention span is more resilient than that of the youth. Needless to say, this does not bode well for the future as projected productivity levels will decrease while stress levels increase. However, the situation does not need to be tragic, as solutions lie in the problem.

There are various programs which control and monitor the time expended on computer activities, and while still controversial, video games have shown promise in the effort to increase the attention span in children. Like any addiction, or even a medical condition like obesity, it takes time and discipline to correct. As we are well into this age of infobesity, it would seem wise to utilize the technology to solve our problems, rather than fight a seemingly unwinnable war.

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About Ronald Williams:

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Born in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1990, multimedia artist Ronald Williams developed an interest in art from a very young age.  His art education in the Barbados Community College’s Fine Arts program forced him to view art as a powerful cog in society. Currently, Williams’ work focuses on race and sociology, investigating how sports and the black athlete fit into popular culture. Ronald manipulates popular imagery to compose computer generated images, using digital collage to speak about a multiplicity of issues, i.e. society’s perceptions, stereotypes, fantasies and various nuances about the black athlete.

Therese Hadchity Reviews Alberta Whittle’s ‘Hustle de Money – A Performance by Bertie aka Big Red aka General outta Glitter Zone’

The rude boy and the contemporary artist:
Alberta Whittle’s performance ‘Hustle de Money’

Performance art seems to be taking root in Barbados, and this can not the least be ascribed to the possibilities opened up by a private, non-commercial space like Fresh Milk. In late November, the platform thus hosted ‘Hustle de Money’ by Alberta Whittle (‘aka Big Red aka General outta Glitter Zone’).

The performance ostensibly responded to a familiar dilemma, not just of the socially engaged artist, but of every conscientious contemporary citizen: how do we negotiate the daily challenges to our personal sensibilities and residual morality? How do we, as women, respond to stereotyping, objectification, predatory behavior and what might be perceived as other women’s self-degradation? Are chauvinistic dancehall lyrics and lewd comments from the rude boy on the street inexcusable, ignorant or the self-defense of a wounded masculinity? And if it is – do we denounce it, patronizingly describe the ‘perpetrators’ as victims or withdraw from commenting on what we do not understand? In ‘Hustle de Money’ Alberta Whittle instead set out to ‘try it on’!

The event was preceded by the circulation of a number of witty ‘mock-posters’ in which the artist appeared as both male and female icons of popular culture. In sexually suggestive outfits and postures, Whittle thus advertised the event, but also exposed the fixation on sexuality, which infuses a range of contemporary industries, from music to tourism.

The performance itself, however, changed the tenor from that of benign satire to that of a deliberately contrived ritual. Whittle’s open-air stage was the front yard of the Fresh Milk main house and the audience was standing in a semicircle across from the front-patio, leaving enough space for the performance to unfold around a door-sized screen. In the background, presumably to set the scene, two small tv-screens ran looped video-sequences of male dancers.

For the 10-minute duration of ‘Hustle de Money’, the artist enacted movements and recited phrases suggestive of the over-wrought and fetishistic machismo of Caribbean ‘fete-’ and street-culture. Each sequence started and ended with the artist emerging from or returning to the cover of the screen, where she would adjust her costume (alternating between male and female identities: torn up black tights for the female, simple track-pants for the male).

The moves were caricatured – Whittle edged, inched, wriggled, wined and crept across the ‘floor’, but the incantatory enunciation of insistently cocky and provocative rude-boy (or -girl) phrases (‘Get gal easy ’, ‘I beat me chest, ‘cus I know I is the best’ or ‘Bad boy no good. Good boy no fun. I love my Mr. Wrong’) was without theatrical effort as if she was merely tasting the words or trying to appropriate another person’s mantra: the voice laid distance to (or vainly tried to evoke) the meaning of the words, but also put forward the possibility – and this was to my mind the biggest scoop of the performance – that such phrases, also in their regular usage, may serve the purpose of deflective self-distancing.

The morally neutral inflection of the verbal mimicry thus alternated with a less detached irony, which not only came across in the caricatured movements, but especially in the sequences involving an exchange of bananas between the artist and members of the audience. As a phallic symbol, the banana was an obvious reference to the cultivation and insecurities of extreme masculinity, but it also put the more scathing ‘monkey-metaphor’ on the table and thereby lost mimicry’s strategic advantage of ambiguity.

This apparent ambivalence induces the question of objectives: did the artist invite the audience along in an attempt at coming to terms with popular culture, or did she seek to ‘talk back’ and show chauvinism up to itself? And this is where certain problems arise, for in the latter case, the location of the performance is clearly mistaken, and, in the former, the message and its reception becomes circular – Whittle and her audience will be unified in their common uncertainties and redouble the distance to the ‘other’. Moreover, in the cerebral environment of a venue like Fresh Milk, an event of this nature always, in the final analysis, becomes its own subject-matter – and the danger is for the aesthetic to make a mere pretext of the message.

Whittle’s ‘Hustle de Money’ thus exposed the tragic predicament of artists, who – fervently and nobly – seek to reach beyond the confinement of their discipline, but invariably are returned to it. The critical subtext of this event was therefore not, after all, how we should understand or respond to rude-boy calls and hisses, but whether art, if it can only ever gesture towards problems it cannot transcend, must keep trying all the same?

Therese Hadchity, December 2012

All photographs © Dondré Trotman

Fresh Milk III review

By Natalie McGuire

 

Fresh Milk III: A Broad View

 

January 15th 2012 saw the third Fresh Milk event and first one for the year with inspiring discussions of two parts: the MFA experience and the theme of ‘Abroad’, topics both separate but connected at the same time. With the ‘Abroad’ section, speakers had ten minutes to talk about twenty images and how they express their interpretation of the chosen theme. The panel consisted of Alberta Whittle, Harriet Rollitt, Dorothea Smartt, Linda Deane and Adrian Greene, a healthy mix of visual contemporary artists and writers.

 

Alberta Whittle (via skype) commented on the benefits of her experience completing a MFA in Glasgow. One of the main points she highlighted was that it added a new dimension to who she created for, the concept of an audience interacting with her work became much more relevant. This actually reflects a current complex amongst some artists practicing here in the Caribbean. Creating anything outside of the conservative is usually not easily received by the general population here, so for Alberta as an installation artist, it is understandable how she withdrew into creating for herself.

 

Alberta’s installations look a lot at the themes of mysticism, and she spoke about the use of the traditional ‘Shaggy Bear’ character with the ‘Harlequin’ character as a way of integrating Caribbean mythology in a European context.

“I decided to use the Shaggy Bear character with the Harlequin character and look at basically bringing the Shaggy Bear into a European context. Playing with I guess the ideas that we have of masculinity and mythology, ideas which we can’t construct, history has such bias in one direction, it’s nice to find a way to actually play with mythology.  It makes it more vibrant, and I guess more personal to me, the idea of displacement has become very apparent to me living in Scotland for so long and finding a way of resolving you know my feelings of difficulty with being in the UK, and looking at British mythology as a way of comforting myself. Also I think my feelings about being a woman have been so much informed by my feelings of not being a man, how all my ideas about femininity have been informed by the absence of masculinity. And the Shaggy Bear character is very much this kind of aggressive character in the video, someone who almost embodies the darker side of masculinity, which we don’t really like to talk about, you know in Barbados it seems very much that masculinity is a specific idea, whereas femininity is something you can play with more easily. So the Shaggy Bear, he is kind of dancing between these two ideas of masculinity and the purer, softer, I don’t know maybe more sensual side and the sort of vibrant, aggressive, sexual side of Harlequin. In a way then it is Shaggy Bear but it’s also Harlequin, the costume you see on Shaggy Bear you see all over the world, he’s built up so much in mythology in Europe, in Africa, in the Caribbean, he’s not just our Shaggy Bear.”

This fresh perspective on a part of culture that is so ingrained in the Caribbean mentality is a vital illustration of how relevant artists like Alberta are to the contemporary Caribbean condition. It suggests that our culture is not necessarily definite within the boundaries of our own festivals and myths, but is integrated in cultures that tie with our colonial past and the present Diaspora.

Harriet Rollitt was the next to speak about her experience doing a MFA at Newcastle University. She stated that what motivated her to pursue a Masters was her frustration at the consumer driven concept of art seen here in Barbados, where she found herself producing works which were solely aesthetically pleasing for the ‘potential buyer’.  “The best thing about doing the Master’s degree was that there were people there with so much knowledge, they would constantly give me references for other artists, so I was just learning and learning so much.”

 

Harriet’s work for her Master’s degree was a reflection of her displacement of identity felt, something that she reiterated powerfully in her interpretation of ‘Abroad’.  Her experience of the term abroad is the most unique and under discussed. Linda, Dorothea and Adrian during their interpretations all talked about the complexities of maintaining the Afro-Caribbean identity, Dorothea and Linda in their melodic prose, and Adrian in his strong lecture. For example Dorothea looked at the notion of hair associated with identity in Afro-Caribbean women, where Adrian looked at the imbalance of Barbadian culture as produced by tourism and the expectations attached to that industry. Such as when he discussed the expectation of ‘cultural unity’ in his humorous delivering, showing a slide of the Mother Sally figure dancing on a tourist whilst saying “..when it comes to Barbadian art form and Barbadian culture and Barbadian performers, this is more akin to what they where expecting.” Linda talked about the comfort of nostalgia for the Diaspora through the familial preservation of West Indian folk songs. And although what Linda, Dorothea and Adrian discussed in their presentations was interesting and engaging and definitely expanded the meaning of the term ‘Abroad’ in expressive ways, these topics have been looked at and emphasized many times before, in fact they symbolize the absolute when it comes to thinking about Caribbean identity.

 

Harriet’s version of ‘Abroad’, however, was contemporary and addressed a different and somewhat ignored type of struggle with identity, the Euro-Caribbean complex, you might say. What she outlined was that being born in England but growing up in Barbados she felt like she was both and neither at the same time, mainly due to stereotypical perceptions of what it means to be British and to be Barbadian that she could not relate to through her personal experience. And its true, to be Euro-Caribbean is to be displaced. White people are always questioned as a person from the Caribbean due to the colour of their skin, even if they were born here and can trace their ancestry back to colonization. There is no ‘Euro-Caribbean’ ethnicity box to tick like there is an ‘Afro-Caribbean.’ Why is that, when logistically we all contributed to the forming and development of the region at the same time? There is no ‘indigenous’ ethnicity currently in the Caribbean. I suppose it could be that white people are assumed to have ethnic loyalty to Europe, but that seems to slightly oppress their right to identify as a Caribbean people too. At one point in her presentation, Harriet stated “I began to envy the trees as they had roots, and I wanted roots.” This illustrates perfectly the complex, and the metaphor has been used by other Barbadian artists in the past such as Annalee Davis in her ‘uprooted’ series. The majority of what is ‘Caribbean culture’ has been derived from the African side of our heritage: Carnival, Calypso music, the Creole language. It seems the ultimate backlash to the horrors of slavery was to strongly emphasize and ingrain these traditions as ‘ True Caribbean’ rather than more European traditions. So how do Euro-Caribbeans find a sense of their personal heritage through these aspects of culture?

 

Ultimately, what makes Fresh Milk platforms like these so important is the questioning of our own cultural circumstances, taking what is deemed as ‘truth’ and exploring its flexibility. Each speaker’s presentation illustrated this, and Harriet’s final quote encompasses the zeitgeist of the event:

 

“Truth is the sand on the beach of beliefs, constantly shifting in the tides of temporality.”