ERASE is a digital festival and conference on the poetics and politics of erasure. It is a hybrid event, taking place online and on-site. It blends the festival and conference format to showcase commissioned video presentations of creative works, and to contribute to a critical debate on the theme of erasure. ERASE invites international guests to reflect on how the poetic, literary, and artistic practices of erasure relate to wider discussion on aesthetics, technology, and politics.
ERASE brings together poets, artists, and critics from Angola, Chile, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Portugal, Taiwan, and the United States. The participants include Florian Cramer, Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, Daniel C. Howe, Hung Hung, Raquel Lima, Bruno Ministro, Winnie Soon, Carlos Soto-Román, and Juliana Spahr. ERASE is curated by Álvaro Seiça and designed by Manufactura Independente.
At a point when the COVID-19 pandemic prevents us from meeting in person, and perhaps makes us exhausted with restrictions and non-stop video conversations and meetings, the ERASE series seeks to find ways to overcome the challenges of current live festivals and real-time conferences. It seeks to create a format that can be intellectually stimulating and generative. The alternative format of ERASE aims at giving its audiences the opportunity to follow all of the events freely, at times that best suit them.
From September 20-24, 2021, poets and artists including Daniel C. Howe, Hung Hung, Raquel Lima, Winnie Soon, and Carlos Soto-Román showcase their work via events that range from artist’ talks to video essays, and from screencasts to documentary and video poem formats. Their creative works employ erasure marks or techniques as ways to engage with past and present social and political issues. They weave together various concerns related to erasure in such diverse locations as Chile, China, Portugal, São Tomé e Príncipe, Taiwan, and the United States.
In response to the artists’ videos, critics Florian Cramer, Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, Bruno Ministro, and Juliana Spahr were each assigned two divergent videos. They then delivered short reviews on these works for the event website.
The main goal of this pairing of artists with critics is to articulate different perspectives, and to foster comparative analysis at the end of the ERASE event. All of the participants will contribute to an essay anthology on the topics raised by this exchange of ideas and knowledge.
The ERASE series is part of the research project “The Art of Deleting,” which addresses the theme of deletion and redaction as a poetic, aesthetic, and political act. “The Art of Deleting” is a 3-year project (2018-2021) led by Álvaro Seiça at the University of Bergen, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Coimbra. The project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 793147 (ARTDEL), and the Research Council of Norway.
“The Art of Deleting” focuses on works of poetry that use elements of material erasure as forms of resistance and activism in digital culture. It tackles these topics by concentrating on post-Second World War and contemporary China, Portugal, and the United States, but also recognizes the widespread use of erasure, and opens up for other perspectives. This comparative approach explores the cultural and political contexts of production and reception of poetic, visual, and digital artworks, the control and regulation of the literary field, and restrictions of artistic freedom. It also addresses the measures of “hard” censorship applied to works of poetry in fascist and communist regimes, and the mechanisms of “soft” censorship applied in contemporary democratic and network societies.
Obviously, the censor, the poet, and the artist delete for different reasons. But how are the material, graphic, or technological techniques used by the censor reflected back in the artist’s work? What links can be established between the material marks that remain in legal and political documents processed by censors, state institutions, or corporate agents, and the visual, literary, or algorithmic erasing techniques used by artists?
The main premise of the ERASE series is that erasure cannot be discussed independently of its sociopolitical dimensions, even though it can be employed in a creative work independently of its sociopolitical dimensions. As a verbal and visual art form, which is often characterized by brevity, poetry appears well suited for the employment of erasure as a technique. But other visual, sound, and digital art forms also employ erasure for the purposes of composition and display. Poets and artists tend to use techniques such as deletion, cross-out, blackout, whiteout, destruction, or degeneration across a wide variety of media and formats.
The Oxford Dictionary of English states that the verb “to erase” has its origins in the late sixteenth century and derives from the Latin eradere, to “scrape out.” Today, to erase means “to rub out or remove writing or marks; remove all traces, destroy or obliterate” or to “remove recorded material from” print, analog, or digital media.
Erasure is tied to the way in which the state apparatus has controlled and surveilled writers, as well as the modes of production, circulation, and reception of literary and artistic works. In authoritarian regimes, the implementation of these methods is often associated with the scale and the degree of visibility of journalistic, citizen-generated content, as well as intellectual, artistic, or political activity. The autocrat seeks to maintain power and the status quo by fighting against pluralism and dissident voices. This context was clearcut in those authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century that implemented prescriptive or repressive censorship that included book and artwork burning, censoring or prohibition of mass media and books, direct and indirect control of cultural activity, repression and fear as a catalyst for self-censorship, operational interventions, search warrants, financial selection or restriction, imprisonment, and torture.
Despite the proclaimed ideological differences between the United States and Portugal during the Cold War, archival documents reveal the identification of common threats to the state apparatus and national security, especially under McCarthyism and Salazar’s New State. Surveillance and censorship were exercised on the grounds of nationalism and patriotism (“not patriot enough”), political subversion and communism, moral conduct, and pornography. Along with the surveillance and repression of oppositional voices, the contempt for sexual diversity, or the negation of class, gender, and race equality is atrocious. In China, during, and after the post-Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, we find similarly repressive measures on the grounds of class struggle and the fight against Western capitalism and imperialism.
Today, we see these resurgent methods across the world, particularly in Europe, in countries with populist or autocratic leaders in power. But the hard censoring and suppressing methods implemented by these governments seem to have been complemented by soft digital mechanisms that are perhaps more difficult to measure and account for. Contemporary modes of online and offline surveillance, intimidation, persecution, repression, or censorship are today applied in different guises across the Portuguese, Hispanic, English, and Chinese-speaking world. How has the COVID-19 pandemic accentuated or legitimised this trend? What kind of impact is it having in the curtailment of artistic freedom or the precarious labor of writers and artists?
It is urgent to think how the life and work of writers, poets, critics, and artists was, and is impacted by these control and surveillance measures. From this angle, it is possible to question how the superstructures of state control, surveillance, and censorship influence contemporary works of poetry and art. More importantly, how are writers, poets, and artists reacting to such phenomena? What use do they make of source material, documents, and erasure processes under these conditions? How do erasure projects tackle the limits of speech and artistic freedom? How can memory be reworked? Are artists responding by adopting erasing techniques as a means of denouncing and fighting back, and to protest, resist, or renew the social and political fabric? If so, do these tactics facilitate the re-visibility of the archive?
It is true that erasure has been employed as a graphic, literary, or artistic strategy with the purpose of unveiling a new verbal or visual artwork out of appropriated sources. But it is also true that such creative processes have been amplified by social or political events. Yet erasure can also be employed as a fictionalized form or simulacrum—with fictional documents, or without documents at all—and as a strategy for denouncing censoring or suppressing acts, or as an iconoclast gesture, even as a graphic trope. This can be deduced by the antecedents or references that authors cite as inspirational, their use of references, or by simply searching for “erasure poetry” or “blackout poetry” in social network sites.
Thus, the ERASE series stresses that the relation between erasure and poetry, and erasure and art practice, is more complex than the recuperation of a simple label, graphic recognition, processual procedure, or workshop exercise. It advances this argument by debating the ordinary and out-of-ordinary techniques employed by writers and artists to reflect, mimic, camouflage, détourner, or sabotage media and infrastructures of control, surveillance, and oppression, as shown by:
- The literary state censorship mimicked and mocked by Heinrich Heine
- Cancellare as an aesthetic and political act of subverting the authority of image, icon, and word as painted by Emilio Isgrò
- The intervention on declassified information as a means of highlighting unlawful action and raising governmental transparency as re-scaled by Jenny Holzer
- The inhumane treatment of black bodies as merchandise perpetrated by centuries of slavery as unearthed by NourbeSe Philip
- The secret documents related to Chile’s democratic coup backed by the Americans, and the effects of Pinochet’s dictatorship as reworked by Carlos Soto-Román
- The systemic racism, social inequity, and incarceration of minorities as addressed by Reginald Dwayne Betts
- The violence and militarization of American society and language as repurposed by Solmaz Sharif
- The offline-online surveillance and censorship entanglements operated by the Chinese one-party regime as reprogrammed by Winnie Soon and Daniel C. Howe
- The Afrodiasporic critique of Raquel Lima’s Portuguese decolonial poetry or the “small politics” of Ricardo Tiago Moura
The ERASE series invites guest poets, artists, and critics to counter and debate some of these topics and questions, or to raise additional ones:
- How do poets and artists erase to (un)veil? How do critics unveil the erasures?
- How do the practices of rewriting and reworking, by removing, repurposing, or adding respond to acts of suppression or the impact of information overflow?
- What is the role of selected sources? Is the documentary form as a material layer per se a decisive appropriation?
- How can source and intervention highlight social, political, racial, or gender obliteration?
- How do artists change or co-opt the very same documents that have been used to obfuscate them or others?
- How does the materiality of censored documents play a role in artistic erasure?
- How are artists addressing past and present methods of state and corporate surveillance and censorship in their works?
- How are the patterns of algorithmic surveillance rewritten by artists?
- Web services are now controlled by big corporations that also dominate social and artistic domains. Where are the spaces of resistance? Can erasure works serve that goal?
- How can erasure explore the repression exerted by authoritarian regimes such as the former Southern European fascist dictatorships and the Eastern Bloc communist regimes?
- How can it explore the obfuscations of the Chinese one-party state, or the American two-party electoral system?
- What role can erasure play as a tactic of denouncement, resistance, and progressive change under neoliberal economics and policies?
Thus, this event forges its path via an exchange of knowledge and viewpoints in order to understand what kind of historical awareness poets and artists call for, and to what extent the use of documentary sources is fundamental to answer the ultimate question: what role can erasure play as a tactic of denouncement, resistance, and progressive change under neoliberal economics and policies?