Studies into Darkness: The Perils and Promise of Freedom of Speech. Edited by Carin Kuoni and Laura Raicovich. Published by Amherst College Press and Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School, 2022. Designed by Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Julia Novitch.
Curators Carin Kuoni and Laura Raicovich recently collaborated on their open access second book, Studies into Darkness: The Perils and Promise of Freedom of Speech, co-published by Amherst College Press and the Vera List Center for Art and Politics—a center for research at The New School that examines the intersection of art, culture, and politics through fellowships, public events, and publications. The book project, which arose from the center’s thematic focus for 2018-2020, “If Art Is Politics,” is a carefully considered collection of essays that attempts to reframe our current understanding of free speech from the perspectives of artists and activists. The inspiration for the project came, in part, from the work of multidisciplinary artist Amar Kanwar. Within Kanwar’s film Such a Morning, Kuoni and Raicovich found a methodology from which to reconsider free speech and what it means in our culture. In a conversation with Public Seminar’s Lindsey Scharold, Kuoni and Raicovich share the thoughtful curatorial sense behind Studies into Darkness.
Lindsey Scharold [LS]: Let’s begin by talking about how this book came to be.
Carin Kuoni [CK]: At the Vera List Center, we structure all of our programs around two-year research topics. We call them “focus themes.” And for two years we embark on a joint learning journey with the public, and with the presenters at our events, in order to grapple with and gain a deeper understanding of something that’s “in the air.” By that, I mean a subject that’s pressing, that’s urgent, that is of broad general concern far beyond the art world. Building up to the Trump presidency in the U.S. and, at the same time, coinciding with the rise of authoritarian regimes in democracies in Europe, Hungary, and Italy years prior to that, it seemed very important to look at the Right and its complete embrace of freedom of speech in a skeptical way.
That thinking was informed partially by our collaboration with Indigenous artists some years prior—but also by looking back at the very beginnings of the Vera List Center in 1992, which emerged out of the culture wars in the early nineties, when freedom of speech and questions of censorship were incredibly pressing. Reliving some of these questions and formulating a different approach to them almost 30 years later was really important to us.
Laura Raicovich [LR]: It actually comes out of the previous book that Carin and I worked on together, Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production. Working on that book, we followed this structure of engaging with a topic that we felt was in need of excavation and reconsideration. Essentially, the evolution of this project took place over the course of seminars that we planned, and resulted in commissioned essays for this book.
At the beginning of what we now understand to be Trumpism, it was clear in that moment that freedom of speech—particularly American free speech absolutism—had become a keystone of many people’s conceptions of what freedom of speech actually means as a right. We decided that this was something we wanted to delve into and, with what we learned from our previous collaboration, we wanted to be sure that we were not only excavating this on historical, political, intellectual or rhetorical terms, but also on poetic and artistic registers that might further inform these subjects.
LS: How did you choose to work with these authors? Tell us about how that process went.
CK: Considering the resources that make the Vera List Center what it is in an expanded way—not just looking at the staff, not just looking at its history, but also looking at the history of, for instance, the buildings and the land we’re sitting on or working from, and the organizations that we draw from—it seemed really important not simply for us to produce these seminars, but to tap into the deep knowledge and expertise that we don’t have through other organizations here in the city. We can bring this conversation to students, faculty, and The New School’s various centers and networks, but it would be presumptuous, unproductive, and silly not to use the experience that is available to us through these organizations.
The first organization that came to mind was the National Coalition Against Censorship, which has been presenting events with us over two or three decades. The New York Peace Institute curated one of our seminars as well. And then the last organization is Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn. Each of them curated a program, so it became a very dispersed collective of people and organizations strung together through this initiative, who looked at speech from very different experiences.
LR: There were many more people involved in the seminars—given their breadth and where they took place—than we could possibly include in the book. We invited certain participants in the seminars to make contributions to the book in very particular ways. For example, we really wanted the National Coalition Against Censorship contributions to flow through the book as a history, a really straight up history of free speech and moments of historical importance.
We also didn’t want that to be the only reading of the way that speech, or withholding speech, could be framed. I think we all agreed that troubling some of the assumptions about free speech, particularly free speech absolutism, was really important in this project. We wanted to make sure that this wasn’t the predominant, overarching voice, but to acknowledge that there are certain historical events on which a lot of our contemporary questions are pinned. Then we very particularly commissioned different writers and poets and artists to make contributions that we thought would nuance, interrupt, and question that baseline.
LS: You write that Studies into Darkness is an “art-informed overview of recent debates on freedom of speech.” Could you talk a little bit more about why that’s an important political framework, perhaps, like you’ve said, as an alternative to the political and historical ways we tend to look at the issue?
CK: Being at The New School—and looking at our own history of building this university, from the get-go, on art and nonacademic practices and disciplines—that’s one reason that it feels absolutely natural to include practices that are not necessarily discursive, but that are visual, that are more emotional. The affective must be invited to play a significant role in shaping our community. On the one hand, it’s this deep belief that art and creative practices contribute to community-making. On the other hand, it’s also an expanded notion of what politics means and how the political space gets constituted. But if you look at politics as a way of creating community or solidarity and dedication to a shared enterprise—educational, environmental, social—then it’s pretty clear that straightforward traditional politics or academic disciplines are not sufficient.
LR: Carin and I both share a very strong belief in the power of art and the imagination to transform the ways we think about received knowledge. Part of each of our ongoing desires in the world, but also in working with one another, has always been to mind the ways in which artistic and cultural production can actually open the imagination in ways that, perhaps, are not typical, or even encouraged by other disciplines and other ways of thinking. Particularly on a subject like freedom of speech—when you’re thinking about how to reconsider that whole body of received knowledge, it’s often not very nuanced. We needed disruption that wasn’t reliant solely on the argumentative or rhetorical, but perhaps from a place that one might not at first consider, and which might be only accessible through cultural production.
LS: Could you go into more detail about “Letter 7” from Amar Kanwar’s Such a Morning that you reference throughout the book?
LR: Such a Morning is a very layered and complex artwork. It comprises a film, several installations, even paper making, and these several letters. These are letters from a professor who hides himself away and removes himself from day-to-day life to reconsider everything. He retreats to a train car in the middle of the forest. He attempts to block out all the light coming from the sun, to really sit in darkness quite literally. These are the letters that he writes once he begins to understand what his reconsiderations mean. “Letter 7” was particularly important to us because it talked about how you might structure a curriculum for whatever subject you wanted to unpack in that darkness. Part of what our conversation had been from the beginning with Amar was around devising a curriculum for studies into the darkness of freedom of speech.
LS: I think it’s really interesting that the book sets up a relationship between darkness and speech. Would you speak about that relationship more, as you see it?
LR: We imagine needing a space of darkness because if we think that freedom of speech needs to be reconsidered, then what kind of darkness do you need to be in? What we provide in the book, they’re all studies into the darkness that is necessary to reconsider freedom of speech. What were the conditions, the tools, the things that we needed to know, in order to reimagine what freedom of speech might be?
CK: I think that’s also the approach that these incredible designers, Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Julia Novitch, really reflected in the design of the book. The salient information that we collected comes to you as a combination of various colors and inks that is combined to eventually render black lettering.
LR: It was such a joy to work with Nontsikelelo and Julia: not only did they embody the full concept of the project, they actually made the material presence of the book create the darkness that we were trying to evoke. To me, it makes the physical presence of the book actually rhyme with the intellectual and conceptual underpinnings of the project in a way that doesn’t usually happen. For me, this is a very special book because of that rhyming and constant going back and forth. It’s been one of the most rewarding knowledge-producing projects I’ve ever worked on because of that recursive element. Because it also defines this process—I’ll say this because it also defines what, to me, is special about the making of knowledge—not as a linear enterprise, but as one that is recursive and as one that is oftentimes disjointed.
LS: Is there an essay in the book that you’re fond of, or that you feel is particularly resonant in terms of what you wanted to accomplish?
LR: I think the Natalie Diaz presentation is really very important, in part because it takes the form of both a poem and an image. I think that, in some ways, it combines the desire to contend with a different register of knowledge production and conveyance. What she says in that poem is really important around knowledge that we might not have access to in traditional ways, particularly around indigenous knowledges. I think that the literal gesture of her self-portrait as blurry is also about what our desire to study freedom of speech was: it was not about clarifying to a point of new definition. Perhaps it was about muddying the waters a bit more, and complicating the ways in which freedom of speech is understood or utilized—or embodied.
CK: An interesting counterpoint, to me, is the ending piece, “In the Mouth of This Dragon.” It is partially because they move away from the individual body and occupy different spaces. At the seminars, they produced this most beautiful and haunting concert where five or six singers sang different tunes and spoke different lyrics from the book. These lyrics become maps—maps of the sites where incidents that are part of the concept of the suite took place. But rather than having territory or geography or street names define a place, they use lyrics and songs. Merging time spans, and a dismissal of linear time and physical space is a lovely counterpoint to Natalie’s piece.
Click here to read an excerpt from Amar Kanwar’s introduction to Studies into Darkness: The Perils and Promise of Freedom of Speech (Amherst College Press and Vera List Center for Art and Politics, The New School, 2022).
Carin Kuoni is the Senior Director and Chief Curator of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, editor and co-editor of several anthologies, and the recipient of a 2014 Andy Warhol Foundation Curatorial Fellowship.
Laura Raicovich is a curator, former President and Executive Director of the Queens Museum, and author of several books, including Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest (Verso 2021).
Lindsey Scharold is a journalist and MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School, whose arts writing has appeared in Cultured Magazine and Mn Artists.