Power is not manmade. Power exists in Nature in all manner of manifestations: from the predator’s power, to the power of the hive and the swarm; and so-called “acts of god,” like earthquakes, floods, and storms. Energy is accumulated and unleashed powerfully because of aggressive hunger, self-defense, geological pressure, and seasonal, severe weather patterns. Civilization did not invent power. It was part of the powerful human animal long before civilization constructed itself through widespread repression of instinct, need, and dream. However, that collective psychic repression is what bestowed civilization with its power harvest.
Power may be acquired through political, economic, religious, and technological means; and through gender construction: patriarchy and matriarchy as forms of infantilizing oppression. But there is an evolved form of power that interests me as a conscious cultural producer in society: the combined power of truthful information, experience, and knowledge. The ethical power of wisdom, claimed.
People are fond of saying that money is the root of all evil. But that is not accurate. Egotism is the root of all evil, whether rich or penniless. Cruelty knows no economic status. So, what does it mean to be wise in the world? What is the ethical authority, the ethical power that maturely emanates from wisdom? Is there a difference between possessing artistic ego as opposed to artistic character?
I understand character as diametrically opposed to ego. Ego is a socially based construct imperiously seeking to fulfill personal needs and wants, raw instinct and selfish fantasy. Character, on the other hand, is an ethically formed psychic entity that seeks to trigger and sustain consciousness in the world. Character is powerful by its very nature, because it requires a collection of insights, if not basic enlightenment. Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Mohamed, and Zoroaster were powerful. Anthony, Pankhurst, Gandhi, and King were powerful. They were perfect imperfects, imperfectly perfect. They embodied moral power, carried within cracked and even broken clay vessels. Theirs was an ethically gained moral power meant for collective good.
Socially engaged artists receive a lot of power during their projects. An institution, a curator, and a community give them power to gesture on their behalf. We need to learn how not to abuse this gift; we need to learn how to manifest it for them, positively and fruitfully. We must exercise a nearly ruthless self-criticality. If I am an ethical being, if I can get to know and trust who and what I have become through study, meditation, and experience, then I am not afraid of being episodically invested with power. I am free and confident to harvest it, to share it, and to perform it publicly.
I often write and rewrite the history of my projects. Sometimes it is a history of meditative walking; sometimes it is a history of empathic listening; and sometimes it is a history of the right exercise of power.
Socially engaged art has its roots in site-specific installation art and sited performativity. Socially engaged art is currently an exciting cultural chapter, leaving the elitist disconnect of modernity behind. But if artists are back in society, what happens next? Then what? I keep asking: is it about a redistribution of wealth, based on our American notion of abundance that was and remains globally unsustainable, then and now, always at the expense of others? Or is it about a new goal? What is the ultimate goal of social practice in the 21st century? Is it the redistribution of power? Is it the redistribution of powerful American myths?
It is my deeply held belief that the ultimate goal of relocating artists within society is the individual and collective achievement of consciousness; of the fact that we are interconnected and interdependent, of the message that we are one. We have been each other and we will be each other. This is neither religious thought nor spiritual, pious talk. This is a scientific fact. We are recycled; everything has been and will be recycled. Even if we found a way not to kill each other and become better stewards of the Earth, our sun would burn out at some point and we would end, even if we all became saints in organic farms. We are but one more life form cycle. It is humbling. It is powerful.
This long-term, prophetic, humbling and empowering message is the power of the conscious cultural producer in society. I know of no other. But yes, African-American young men must be defended against a bigoted police force. Black lives matter; women’s lives matter; queer lives matter—all lives matter. Refugees living in camps, escaping ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, poverty and civil war, daring dangerous migrations, must all be helped by all means possible, including cultural means. They must be empowered. But their ultimate empowerment is not about eventually accessing credit and entitlement to material resources, the traditional American way. Their relocation must not lead to that bankrupt myth. Our true empowerment is the knowledge of our humble and powerful place in the universe.
I do not need to be powerful if my message is powerful. Therefore, I am vulnerably engaged in the birthing of a healed culture of consciousness as a lifelong practice. I have often said publicly that this is an embarrassing practice and message. Radical humility remains an embarrassing social stance and text delivery because in America, still caught in the mythology of “global power,” it can come across as the foolish message of a loser for the weak. In an empire of spectacles, it is not playful; it is not entertaining. In a dictatorship of pleasantries, it is not nice. Yet, it is the ultimate message I believe that we should practice because, within its countercultural personal embodiment and public enactment, lies our best hope for a truly grounded form of good power. Because speaking the truth, even if with a bloody mouth, is intrinsically powerful.
Ernesto Pujol is a site-specific performance artist and public choreographer with a socially-engaged art practice. Pujol creates silent, durational, walking performances as collective portraits within mythical landscapes and historic architecture, aiming to reveal their psychic underlay in the Jungian sense. Pujol is a student of the human condition, inhabiting dreams, secrets and visions as intangible but vital fragments to understanding and healing history. He is interested in contributing to greater collective consciousness through mindful presence, achieved through deep sight, profound inner silence, and considered gestures. His durational performances have often served as ephemeral mausoleums or monuments to forgotten, or remembered but unresolved, social issues that have been mourned or reflected upon during the experiences. Pujol is the author of Sited Body, Public Visions: silence, stillness & walking as Performance Practice; as well being a contributor to publications such as Awake: Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art.