Stable Vices

In a new book published by Mack, Joanna Piotrowska remedially examines themes of protection, freedom and oppression

The opening pages of Joanna Piotrowska’s Stable Vices begins with a chorus of hand gestures: fingers placed to the eye, and then to the pulse points; the heart and the wrist. The images, in some ways, signal the beginning of a story, or an event about to unfold. But do we brace ourselves in anticipation, or sit back steadily, and let the heart rate drop for a moment?

Similar to a musical introduction, the opening sequence seems to precede the themes (or lyrics) found in the rest of the publication. It’s establishing the tone and structure, not least the rhythm and pace of the main body of work. And in the case of the Polish and London-based photographer’s Stable Vices, published by Mack, we’re seeing a collection of three series combine – all of which are centred around the notion of protection, freedom and oppression. And in that order too.

Following the overture, we’re taken to the first series. A similar fashion to that which came before, the images are inspired by illustrated self-defence manuals – where postures and arm placements are used to signify a protective force of action. It also touches on the work of American feminist, ethicist and psychologist Carol Gilligan, notably with her work Psychology and Resistance. Carol is an acclaimed scholar and author who argued that girls exhibited distinct patterns based on relationships, care and responsibility for others; that they’re at risk of losing their voice from patriarchy. So when placed in the context of Joanna’s imagery, it raises many questions as to how and why women have to defend themselves. You’re not sure who the subject is confronting, but the awkward poses, cropped frames and intentionally disfigured forms are used to challenge the pressures that women have to face in society.

The next series displays a sequence of domestic sculptures, replicating the DIY dens of our childhood and makeshift abodes of those who may be without a home. Blankets, chairs and clothing amass to build these formations, during which Joanna’s subjects take refuge, hide or nosey inside. And lastly, the third series looks at the idea of entrapment, denoting the cage in all its myriad forms – be it a bird house, zoo enclosure or a line of thick rope. These themes are incredibly poignant and reveal themselves in a formulaic and repetitive manner. Almost like a novel or strategic balled, organised with an intro, climax and resolution. Except in this case, we’re not quite sure whether it’s a happy ending. 

Joanna has predominantly shot in black and white throughout the entirety of her career, and often she’ll be lensing themes of memory and society – combing her signature use of repetition and clusters of threes. Around seven years ago, she published her prolific series Frowst, which was also published in book-form by Mack and was the winner of the 2014 Mack First Book Award. The pictures are of a similar ilk to her newest ensemble, which Mack had described as an “uncomfortable album” of staged family shots, questioning the notion of the family in a modern context.

Stable Vices, in this sense, is Jonna’s latest inquest into societal expectations, only this time her pictures are themed solely on the role of the woman. The arrival of this book comes at a pivotal moment, what with increasing awareness surrounding sexual harassment and safety of women on the streets. There’s so much to be done to ease the fear and pain that women face every day, and Stable Vices almost replicates the types of daily traumas that many may go through: the preparation of defence, the need for a safe space and oppression. At once concerning and here to evoke change, we must also think of her photography as a form of remedy; both for Joanna and for all that end up viewing her work.

Stable Vices is published by Mack and includes essays from Sara De Chiara, Joanna Bednarek and Dorota Masłowska.

Jesse Ball: On Freedom

Freedom is often considered a byword for individual liberty, and nowhere more so than in the US. Perhaps it’s time for a new definition.

Image courtesy of Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

Let us picture a room, a rather small room, but one outfitted sufficiently that people may live there. Let us say four people can live there. These people wash their clothes, cook their meals, conduct their toilet, sleep, socialise – and all of it in the space of the room. Suddenly, one day, one of the inhabitants says: “It is my right to have one quarter of the space. None of you can come into that space. In that space, I may do as I like.” He has a toilet brought in and installed, a shower, a mini-kitchen, a washer. That quadrant of the room now is piled high with things. He sits in the middle of it. Meanwhile, in the other three quadrants, the inhabitants go on with their existence. They bowed to his demand, but in truth, the overall happiness of the denizens has decreased. This is because, in permitting him to go his own way without regard for anyone, they have lost several things. They have lost one quarter of the space. They have lost the workings of consensus as to what happens in the overall (still contiguous) space. And they have lost him – a person, who, though perhaps somewhat selfish, helped them all to pass the time. The division of the space into quarters, and the taking of one quarter, is an artificial thing, and in its artifice, it injures the community as a whole.

If you were living in that space, many things that you like doing would come to an end when the partitioning occurred. The full space of the room is no longer available for momentary uses, for games, celebrations. After the washing of clothes, there might not be much room for hanging. In any case, a rude wall must now be stared at, with all its negative implications. And then worries would begin, at first on the basis of empathy: What is going on in the other quarter? Why he doesn’t he want to share life with us?These feelings might eventually turn to distrust, tribalism.

*

Freedom is thought of in many ways. As a word, it is, like any other, not just subject to use, but, in fact, is its use. It is the aggregate of its use. And so we cannot say a person is wrong to use the word freedom in one way or another simply because we disagree. There is nothing to disagree with. You can call your dog Freedom. 

We can, however, say that a particular use of freedom turns it into something vile. Or that a use of freedom is not continuous with the history of the word as we understand it. If that is true, then it is important to examine it and see how we should receive it. The advantage of cloaking the new usage of words in words that have prior sacred meaning is that it makes them unobjectionable. Why is that? It is because people do not realise they should object to what is sacred. 

In America, people love to talk about freedom. We like to talk about religious freedom, and our right to self-determination. However foolish it is, Americans are proud to have crossed the ocean, pioneered across the plains, etcetera. Why is it foolish? Because we did not do it. Furthermore, in doing it, our forefathers demolished entire cultures, eradicating them from the face of the earth. Yet we are proud of this manifest destiny, of this constant pursuit of our pleasure described as freedom.

Let us look at some specific uses of freedom.

Freedom in America has become, on the one hand – in poor America, in black America – the right to escape the prejudice of others, to escape or avoid the impossible burdens of a tortuous legal, financial, educational system – even, in some remarkable cases, to transcend, to defeat it, for a short while. We will return to this definition.

On the other hand, in the dominant America, freedom is something else, something to my mind horrific and disgusting. It is a person’s right to do as they like without reference to anyone else. 

Do we, in fact, have this right? Is this second version a meaningful definition of freedom?

I would propose that freedom is not the above. Freedom is the ability of a person to take up responsibilities to others in a community, responsibilities that are desired by others. It is the freedom to participate as an organism in the larger organism formed by interaction. The responsibilities extend not just to the members of the group, but to all other life forms on the planet. Freedom is the freedom to be a realised person in relationship with the world as a whole. 

It is not the right to separate yourself from others and behave in a fashion that injures them. You have no right to cause suffering.

Having the above definition, we now can see that the use of freedom such as it is in poor America – the right to not be endlessly and unfairly dominated so that your life is flattened into a painful degenerative prostration; the right instead to be permitted to form healthy communities, to treat others gently, to not be looking every moment over your shoulder for the supposed agents of justice – we can see that this use of freedom is legitimate because it is implied in our definition. It is a precursor to our right as an organism to form healthy relationships, our right to be responsible to others and for others.

It is this right that is ignored when a family is broken up on the slave block. It is this right that continues to be ignored in the United States, as a function of the stock market, of the prison system, of the manner of representation in government, of the rules of government, of the military-industrial complex, even of the corporate legal code, wherein a corporation is considered a person, the equivalent of a human being.

Lawmakers do not have the right to pretend that an imaginary company has the rights of a sentient being and then use those rights to push people out of their homes. Yet this happens every day. If you object to it you are ignored or, in some cases, jailed.

Americans are wrong about many things. They are human, like other humans. But being wrong about this, being wrong about freedom, and feeling somehow that freedom permits America to behave as it likes, without reference to the global situation, leads directly to a scene of eventual universal suffering. It is a juvenile definition. It is a child’s behaviour. We must act together to reject this definition of freedom.

Census, published by Granta, is out now.

This is an extract from issue 22 of Port. To buy or subscribe, click here.

The Dream of Californian Design

From political posters to portable devices, discover how the egalitarian spirit of design in California has changed the way we live, learn, work and communicate 

An ongoing exhibition at London’s Design Museum explores how Californian design has given us the tools for unprecedented personal freedom by transforming the way we see, speak, make, travel and share. California: Designing Freedom traces the roots of modern technology and the legacy of Silicon Valley – including its cultish corporatism –  back to counterculture movements and the hippie modernisms of the 1960s.

In this sweeping celebration of California as a nucleus of pioneering design and technology, curators Justin McQuirk and Brendan McGetrick make connections between the free speech movement and social media, LSD and virtual reality, self-reliant communes and online communities, as well as many other equivalents, in order to argue that design drives the egalitarian spirit of California’s techno-utopia. 

The exhibition is ultimately about understanding the age of the individual. The freedom to say, to see, make, go where, and join what you want are its five organising themes. Taking the 1960s as its starting point, some 300 items, from political posters to portable devices, come together in the first show to position the Golden State as a self-made design capital of the 21st century, highlighting how Californian products now shape our daily lives.

It is an ambitious and at times overwhelming survey, with early Apple prototypes sharing the space with a replica of the Captain America chopper from the 1969 film Easy Rider. Highlights include artist and activist Gilbert Baker’s original 1978 design for the Rainbow Flag, Ridley Scott’s first commercial for Apple in 1984, and back issues of The Whole Earth Catalog (a pre-internet publication providing access to tools, information and ideas). There is even a vitrine of LSD blotting paper. “It’s the only drug where you’re consuming a piece of graphic design,” co-curator Justin McQuirk joked. 

A question left unanswered by California: Designing Freedom is whether the spirit within which something is made is more important than its application. When drawing parallels between California’s history of counterculture and the shared values of Silicon Valley, the downsides of technology, the internet and individualism at large are not addressed head-on. New phenomenons like self-surveillance are mentioned, but their potential for abuse is never fully implicated. In other words, the cost at which some of our newfound freedom comes is left unaccounted for. But perhaps that’s a story for another exhibition.

California: Designing Freedom is on show at the Design Museum in London until 17 October