Deutsches Haus at NYU presents a conversation among the visual activist Nicholas Mirzoeff, the Berlin-based artist Candice Breitz, and the writer and critic Zoé Samudzi about Mirzoeff’s new book White Sight: Visual Politics and Practices of Whiteness and Breitz’s recent video installation Whiteface.
The conversation will examine the condition of whiteness, the ways in which white supremacy is sustained both through visual culture as well as our everyday vocabulary and grammar. In addressing and making visible the hierarchies and casual manifestations that define the societies we live in (including, but not limited to, the U.S. and South Africa), this conversation marks an intervention, a strike – in Verónica Gago’s sense of the term – which hopes to offer strategies and ideas on how to dismantle them.
About “White Sight: Visual Politics and Practices of Whiteness:”
White supremacy is not only perpetuated by laws and police but also by visual culture and distinctive ways of seeing. Nicholas Mirzoeff argues that this form of “white sight” has a history. By understanding that white sight was not always common practice, we can devise better ways to dismantle it. Spanning centuries across this wide-ranging text, Mirzoeff connects Renaissance innovations—from the invention of perspective and the erection of Apollo statues as monuments to (white) beauty and power to the rise of racial capitalism dependent on slave labor—with ever-expanding surveillance technologies to show that white sight creates an oppressively racializing world, in which subjects who do not appear as white are under constant threat of violence.
Analyzing recent events like the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd and the Central Park bird watching incident, Mirzoeff suggests that we are experiencing a general crisis of white supremacy that presents both opportunities for and threats to social justice. If we do not seize this moment to dismantle white sight, then white supremacy might surge back stronger than ever. To that end, he highlights activist interventions to strike the power of the white heteropatriarchal gaze. White Sight is a vital handbook and call to action for anyone who refuses to live under white-dominated systems and is determined to find a just way to see the world.
Over recent years, Breitz has collected and archived a wide range of found footage fragments that document “white people talking about race.” Her archive includes the voices of prominent political figures, news anchors and talk show hosts, as well as those of lesser known and anonymous YouTube bloggers, covering white perspectives that run the gamut from neo-Nazi ideology and far right propaganda to everyday racism and the posturing of ‘good white people.’ “Specifically,” Breitz says, “the archive observes the rising anxiety of white people as long-standing calls to dismantle white supremacy proliferate and intensify across the globe. As such, it offers insight into the ongoing backlash against anti-racist movements, as white people struggle to come to terms with public discourse that highlights phenomena such as ‘white privilege,’ ‘white fragility,’ ‘white rage’ and ‘white guilt.’”
In Whiteface, Breitz appropriates and ventriloquizes dozens of voices drawn from this archive, channeling them through her own white body. Wearing nothing but a white dress shirt and zombie contact lenses, the artist conjures up whiteness in a variety of its guises, rotating through a series of cheap blonde wigs as the work unfolds, among which her own platinum head of hair is featured. Breitz’s un-wigged appearance among the characters that populate the piece, serves to acknowledge the artist’s own embeddedness in whiteness. Yet, while Breitz and many of the disembodied voices that she lip-syncs may be recognisable in Whiteface (Tucker Carlson, Rachel Dolezal, Bill Maher, Richard Spencer and Robin DiAngelo all make vocal cameos), specific white folks are not the primary target of this stinging satire. Rather, it is the condition of whiteness that Breitz seeks to prod into visibility. Dislocated from the white people who originally uttered them, the words that stream through Breitz accumulate to provide a scathing study of the vocabulary and grammar underlying this condition, a critical survey of the language via which whiteness frames, normalises and leverages its power.
Breitz’s deliberately theatrical performance in Whiteface draws attention to the constructed nature of whiteness and other racial categories. Her bleached presence and deadened eyes locate the fictions that naturalise and perpetuate white supremacy squarely within the genre of horror.
About the speakers:
Candice Breitz is a Berlin-based artist whose moving image installations have been shown internationally. Throughout her career, she has explored the dynamics by means of which an individual becomes him or herself in relation to a larger community, be that the immediate community that one encounters in family, or the real and imagined communities that are shaped not only by questions of national belonging, race, gender and religion, but also by the increasingly undeniable influence of mainstream media such as television, cinema and other popular culture. Most recently, Breitz’s work has focused on the conditions under which empathy is produced, reflecting on a media-saturated global culture in which strong identification with fictional characters and celebrity figures runs parallel to widespread indifference to the plight of those facing real world adversity.
Solo exhibitions of Breitz’s work have been held at Tate Liverpool, the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), Museum Folkwang (Essen), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Power Plant (Toronto), Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Humlebæk), Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Moderna Museet (Stockholm), Castello di Rivoli (Turin) and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Her work has been featured at the Sundance Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. In 2017, Breitz represented South Africa at the 57th Venice Biennale (alongside Mohau Modisakeng).
Nicholas Mirzoeff is a professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU Steinhardt, a visual activist, working at the intersection of politics, race and global/visual culture. In 2020-21, he was an ACLS/Mellon Scholar and Society fellow in residence at the Magnum Foundation, New York. His many publications include White Sight: Visual Politics and Practices of Whiteness (MIT Press, 2023), The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality (2011), How To See The World (Pelican, 2015 and Basic Books, 2016). The publication of White Sight: Visual Politics and Practices of Whiteness will be accompanied by a weekly newsletter for which you can sign up here.
The Appearance of Black Lives Matter was published in 2017 as a free e-book, and in 2018 as a limited edition print book with a graphic essay by Carl Pope and a poem by Karen Pope, both by NAME Publications, Miami. Since the 2017 events in Charlottesville, he has been active in the movement to take down statues commemorating settler colonialism and/or white supremacy and convened the 2017 collaborative syllabus All The Monuments Must Fall, fully revised after the 2020 events. He curated “Decolonizing Appearance,” an exhibit at the Center for Art Migration Politics (September 2018-March 2019) and is currently collaborating on a global public art project with artist Carl Pope, poet Karen Pope and gallerist Lisa Martin, entitled “The Bad Air Smelled of Roses.”
Zoé Samudzi is an SEI Fellow and Assistant Professor in Photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of California, San Francisco in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. She is also a Research Associate with the Center for the Study of Race, Gender & Class (RGC) at the University of Johannesburg. Zoé Samudzi is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Art in America, Artforum, Bookforum, The New Inquiry, The Architectural Review, The New Republic, and other outlets. She is an associate editor with Parapraxis Magazine, a member of the editorial board for […] Ellipses Journal of Creative Research, and was a guest editor at The Funambulist Magazine. She is also a contributing writer at Jewish Currents and co-author of As Black as Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation (AK Press). She is represented by Alison Lewis at the Frances Goldin Literary Agency.
"Whiteface / White Sight: A Conversation among Candice Breitz, Nicholas Mirzoeff, and Zoé Samudzi” is funded by the DAAD from funds of the German Federal Foreign Office (AA).