Reflections on Mirrors in Every Corner, 2010

I have often been drawn to mirrors (real and metaphorical) in my work because they allow us to see ourselves seeing ourselves.  At the same time, I have never been that comfortable with mirrors because they so often distort (flipped image…etc), they egoize, and they can solidify our identity as separate (that is my finite body in that mirror right?).  When I look at just myself in a mirror it always seems so out of context and fascinating at the same time.  I am made in the context of the world, but all of a sudden there I am, just me in the mirror.  Is that image an illusion or proof of who I am? 

This is the illusion of an autonomous identity of whiteness:

In 1962, James Baldwin wrote, white people live in the ‘tyranny of the mirror’, at once so fearful of being judged and anguished by the need to be seen that we can not escape this distorted image of ourselves, for if we move, that shining image disappears, and if we stay, ‘death by drowning is all that awaits one there.’

Growing up, I knew of no common understanding, or even articulation of white identity that was multi-dimensional, or even honest.  While I may have grown up vacillating between the shimmering reflection and drowning in that mirror, I couldn’t see the reflection of other white people in their mirror, and I assumed others couldn’t see mine.

Which is a very different mirror image than this one:

“The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.  Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.”         

 -Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks   (As found in Orientalism by Edward Said)

Gramsci is writing about a historical process in the grand sense of history, but I also believe it relates to a more intimate and personal sense of history.  Because if that history is written in an honest way, or even if one is open to hearing it, the “shining image” begins to flicker and falter.  And even more, if the process of writing that inventory is done in an open way, the entire structure of the telling begins to change.  And what that means is that the specific hierarchal power that exists because there is no inventory begins to be called into question by those who hold that power.  Which begs an important question: how do we or you or I respond to a vacuum of power?  With violence, control, guilt, creativity or love?

The above Baldwin quote is one that I have carried very close for a long time, because it reminds me to reflect on an identity that is paradoxical. (What else did Baldwin say? The mouse knows much more about the cat than the cat ever will…)  But it is only paradoxical if you can truly accept this; “no one is free till all are free.”  Which, as a sugar cube is an easy thing to accept, because it is short and sweet and easy to pass over.  But taken as the medicine that it could be, it is a bit harder to swallow.  It means, you are not free, you are suffering.  Go ahead, check it out.  You can really only see it by looking in the mirror of other people, really looking, seeing yourself.  And this can only be done by realizing that destructive power, oppression, creates a mask with eyes closed.  To extend Baldwin’s insight, why would the cat ever even think that the mouse had anything to share other than its flesh?

In my own life, as that tyranny of the mirror and the lack of inventory became more and more obvious – through skillful teachers, reflection, taking risks, making mistakes, opening, reading, listening, patience and love - I began to look for ways to create new forms of power that weren’t hierarchical, that were instead producing. 

Take three definitions of power:

1)The ability to make someone or something do what one wants them to do.

2)The ability to do what you want to do regardless of what other people or the situation allows for.

3)The ability to create with oneself or other people through love.

The first one is what I most often hear, it is the type of power that is about force, violence and will.  It happens all the time and is largely the basis of the foundation of this country (i.e. slavery, movement west, railroads, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan…).  The second though is the most indicative of how I see power playing out on a day to day basis through white privilege.  I’m going to do what I want to do and what happens in my wake happens in my wake.  It’s an issue of where you stand, because if you aren’t going to get hit by the splash, then of course you can throw the rock in the muddy puddle.  (This is very different than the power of resistance, subversion and agency, for which I would substitute the word want with need, changing the meaning to the ability to find certain types of power within the context of the first type of power).

The third type of power is what lies beyond the mirror, what lies in the multiple mirrors.  It is the action on the path of the realization of interconnectedness.  

And this is the power, I believe, of a radically open collaborative practice.  It supports the telling of stories, the sharing of skills and the practice of dialogue.  (How hierarchy plays out within a “collaborative” process is of course constantly being navigated, as the real material privileges don’t disappear upon entering into a collaborative process).  Through my short time trying to practice a collaborative approach to art-making I have seen that the more open I am to what other people bring to the table, the more powerful the work.  Because if I’m not really willing to listen, why not just work at home by myself?  

But of equal importance is that I am empowered through the relationships made through doing the work together.  The more that I see the expanding and infinite realities of the world through the sharing of stories and experiences, the more I am myself – a sense of identity founded on love that is both here in my body but is also quick to laugh at the weakness and going to die-ness of that body and identity.  It is a power that rests in seeing reality as a disco ball.  It is the action of realizing I am never just I, and that my actions never just affect me. 

-Oakland/Berkeley 2010

evan bissell