‘What does it mean that private life accompanies us as a secret or a stowaway? First of all, that it is separated from us as clandestine and … it furtively shares existence with us. … And the weight of this faceless companion is so strong that each seeks to share it with someone else – and nevertheless, alienation and secrecy never completely disappear …. Here, life is truly like the stolen fox that the boy hid under his clothes and that he cannot confess to even though it is savagely tearing at his flesh.’  (Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, 2016)

In the 1950s, theorists including Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno described the ‘end’ of private life: its destruction through the intensification of capitalism and the rise of ‘mass society’. In the 1970s, feminist artists, theorists and activists mounted an incisive challenge to the separation of the ‘public’ realm of work from the ‘private’ realm of the home and the labour of social reproduction, with the demand for ‘wages for housework’, and polemical challenges to the ideology of ‘love’ and the forms of exploitation it sustains. More recently, theorists including Eva Chiapello, Luc Boltanski and Fred Turner have pointed to the ways in which earlier avant-garde, utopian aspirations for the overcoming of the distinction between private and public associated with the rise of bourgeois society might seem to have been realised in nightmarish form through the latest economic developments, including the phenomena of pro-sumption and the gig economy, which entail the idea that we are at work when at home or at leisure. Constantly mediating images and information about ourselves, Airbnb landlords of our own homes, what meaning does ‘private life’ have in an era of mass surveillance and data harvesting? Seeking to defend against some of these threats, the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, has returned to the problematic of private life, seeking to articulate a zone he terms the ‘clandestine’, characterised by an ‘opacity’ that holds out a ‘genuinely political element’. ‘Only if thought is able to find the political element that has been hidden in the secrecy of singular existence …. will politics be able to escape from its muteness’, he asserts. But how useful or plausible is this proposal?

Artists throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries contribute to this thematic in a variety of ways, and for this conference, we invite submissions which examine particular artistic explorations of the questions raised by the idea of ‘private life’. Under what circumstances does the ‘private sphere’ become an important political space, and indeed, perhaps the only space where radical political action is possible? Conversely, how does the fantasy of ‘private life’, as a space that provides a retreat from the political, function to enable political domination? Where does the division between ‘private’ and ‘public’ originate, and how does that division function today? How do feminist theorisations of the home, domestic labour and social reproduction, alter our understanding of the ways in which politics is interwoven with the private sphere? How do new technologies and the forms of contemporary labour, including sex work and the gig economy, put pressure on the idea of private life? How have artists tested the boundaries between ‘private’ and ‘public’, exploring tentative constructions of categories, such as the ‘commons’, for example? How do contemporary technologies and social media reframe our sense of the private, and does any sense of privacy evade or perhaps emerge from these framings?

Academic and/or practice-based contributions are welcomed from any discipline. Proposals of around 250 words (with or without images) should be sent to [email protected] and [email protected] by the deadline of 8 April 2019.

Keynote: Dr Josephine Berry (Goldsmiths, University of London)