Space Invaders: Insiders / Outsiders’ Ontological Complicity

 | by Nirmal Puwar |


Processes of inclusion/exclusion will be discussed here from the point of view of positions (spaces) historically and conceptually reserved for specific types of racialised, classed and gendered bodies. The challenges posed to how we today construe marginality when outsiders are also on the inside of organisations, invites us to consider the messy lines of ontological complicity. Complicity is not used here as a moral baton but rather as an analytical tool which does not shy away from taking a close up view of how marginality and privileges so often co-exist in an entangled web of relations, bodies and space.

Adopting the language of Simone De Beauvoir[1] and Jean-Paul Sartre, it can be argued that it is ‘bad faith’ not to pay attention to our conditions of inclusion and to only focus on marginality. The checkerboard terrain of competition, support and habitus invites us to pay close up and honest attention to ontological complicity; involving the many privileges we (otherwise) take for granted.

This discussion will touch on the imagination of the other, as well as the other as a real body, and is most especially concerned with arrival. These themes will be addressed through the space of the nation as well as institutions across the cultural and political landscape.


In 2004, David (Michelangelo’s life size depiction of the biblical hero who braved Goliath) turned 500 years old (1504-2004). To celebrate his 500th birthday the Accademia Gallery in Florence invited five international contemporary artists to work on David (Forme per il David).  In a large two screen piece, aptly titled ‘Birthday Boy’[2], Robert Morris invited audiences to think about the heroic white masculinity that David personifies. In the installation two wine swilling speakers stand at lecterns to ask us why we worship David, why we brought David in from the Palazzo Vecchio in 1872 (where he was placed by the  Republican government) and why we have cleaned him up—of the pigeon shit and weather—and placed him the Accademia (where he now stands) for audiences to admire from all angles for eternity. The two art historian lecturers—one female and one male, both of colour—put these questions to us in a tempo that picks up speed while they swill more wine. Over the course of the multi-screen installation, on one side of the screen the statue of David metamorphoses into a black woman and on the other side he becomes an old man.

Robert Morris, still from The Birthday Boy (2004), dual-screen projection, 35 mins. [Simon Fraser University Gallery, Burnaby BC, Mar 29-May 3]

Robert Morris, still from The Birthday Boy (2004), dual-screen projection, 35 mins. [Simon Fraser University Gallery, Burnaby BC, Mar 29-May 3]

At the very least this installation de-mythologises the heroic idolised figure of leadership or what we could call the somatic norm. Though however much we de-mythologise this figure it is this figures’ space we metaphorically walk into when we attempt to take up positions of leadership, when we take up the speaking platform. David, in one sense, is the yardstick that we are measured by when we take up the platform in whichever institution – in law, in art, in academia, in politics. And it is especially the case for consecrated spaces.


If we turn to another statue. Again of a male figure who is idolised. But for different reasons and with different histories. This figure lost the struggle to be installed in London’s Trafalgar Square. There was a legal battle over the attempted inclusion. It is a nine foot bronze statue, fully clothed, (unlike David) of Nelson Mandela. Objections to the position planned for the statue in Trafalgar Square were raised. The Mandela Fund wanted to place him in front of the National Gallery, the place from where anti-apartheid protesters had confronted the South African embassy. Westminster Council objected to this and considered it more suitable to plan the instalment right in front of the embassy, which is in the outer perimeter of the Square and not the Square proper, so to speak.

Westminster Council also raised objections to the shape of the statue – it was argued that the hands were too large. Ian Walters, the sculptor, spent several weeks at Mandela’s home before constructing the statue to his and Mandela’s liking stated. It is not the hands but rather the posture – where Mandela is not represented peacefully smiling but goading the crowd with his frown and hands – that is the unspoken objection. Eventually, the statue of Mandela did not make it into Trafalgar Square. Instead he was installed in Parliament Square; one of the most difficult sites from which one can organise politically, due to legal restrictions on protesting.


“Nelson Mandela statue, Westminster” by Warko.


In the current context it is worth pausing to consider how we are seeing a form of multiculturalism where hitherto excluded bodies are invited to the table. There is in fact what Gayatri Spivak[3] has called a ‘multicultural hunger’ in operation today. Looking at her own situation as diasporic Indian academic situated in North America she has stated that she if often invited to speak today for the precise reason she wasn’t in the past. What were previously the terms of exclusion have now become reasons for her inclusion. Her comments invite us to interrogate the question of What kind of speaking position is made available. What is she expected to speak about? What is she not expected to speak of? There is a ready made audience that expects her to speak of the third world, third world woman, to be confessional, to be autobiographical and to be anthropological. But she is a disappointment if she speaks on Derrida, whom she translated at the age of 21. Even if she does speak of Derrida or Marx, will she be heard? There are ethnic pigeon-holes being made for women within the public domain that can straight jacket them.

So while they (we) enter the public domain they (we) are not the somatic norm. Not being the somatic norm their (our) bodies are out of place. Entering positions which are not historically and conceptually reserved for them (us), they (we) are out of place, enduring processes of invisibility and visibility. The rest of the discussion will turn to these processes [for more detail see the book Space Invaders: race, gender, bodies out of place, 2004].


Being in positions they (we) are not expected to be, as lawyers, writers, artists, public speakers, the presence of women of colour in some leadership positions can generate a sense of unease. People do a double take; their presence in specific positions can jar and throw people, causing process of disorientation. The normalised bodies are disoriented by their presence. On what terms do they accept them?

We can consider the example of Dianne Abbott, the first female black MP to be elected to Westminster in the UK. When she walked into the Smoking Room in Parliament soon after she was elected the MP Tony Banks was with her and noted that everyone turned around as if to say what is she doing here and she is not even the cleaner? The ‘black’ female body is known through a pre-fabricated lens as cleaner, victim, down trodden or as an exotic, dark dusky beauty.

A second process can be observed, which is infantalisation – where bodies for whom the positions are not conceptually and historically deemed to be their natural domain are judged to be a lot more junior and a lot less skilled than they are. Thus their capacities are, at least initially, doubted. They exist under a burden of doubt. This means that they have to constantly prove themselves. Their capabilities are not assumed but doubted.

While they (we) are in this sense invisible, in another sense they (we) are hyper-visible. They (we) exist under a sort of super-surveillance, where the most minor of mistakes are amplified and seen to be evidence of this body being out of place, as being unsuited to the position. They (we) are also visible as sexualised bodies. Women may often remark that gender equality will exist when women in leadership positions can be as mediocre as the men.

There is another process that follows on from super-surveillance, which can be termed as amplification. One or two bodies, because they are not the somatic norm as naturalised bodies in space, become amplified in imaginations as four or five, especially if they work together. Should they form collective initiatives they can even incite organisational terror as they become seen as a potential trouble making bloc.

Ontological Complicity

When we think of race and gender, we do not do ourselves any favours when we use the language of straight forward exclusion or marginality. If we keep saying that people or women of colour are marginal we don’t actually look at how they (we) are often both outsiders and insiders simultaneously. We don’t look at the complexity of subject positions. Moreover there is a danger of romanticising marginality. We may even valorise shouting out about marginalisation. Not that processes of marginalisation don’t endure. But focusing on marginalisation at the expense of a consideration of the privileges of inclusion becomes a skewed and disingenuous analysis of being outsiders on the inside.

To be inside organisational positions which have not been historically and conceptually reserved for specific bodies, one has already endured processes of inclusion. Following on from Pierre Bourdieu[4], this can be termed as a case of ‘ontological complicity’. Hereby elements of one’s being, habitus, educational trajectories and networks cohere with the demands and requirements of the field one works in. After all, people are sifted in/out or endorsed on the basis of a ‘corporeal hexis, of a style of expression and thought, and of all those “indefinable somethings”, pre-eminently physical, which we call “spirit”[5].

Any of us occupying inside positions within institutions can be asked – what enabled you to arrive at this point? This telling question, in terms of the conditions of inclusion and exclusion signals how endorsers, as well as the relative weight (carriage) of endorsements, educational routes, networks, class backgrounds (imbued in the bodily habitus) and value systems enable our co-existence. Implicit to becoming insiders is what Bourdieu has termed as a ‘feel for the game’ (le sens de jeu) or ‘a practical sense’ (le sens pratique). You have to have this sense to be included and promoted. At the same time, though, people are differentiated as to the extent to which they are included and the extent to which they are insiders in accordance with how well their habitus is adjusted to the demands of the field. Speaking the legitimate language, having the right gait and cadence in social situations, cultural capital, as well as social capital (by way of the right networks) are all part of the tacit markers of acceptance and respect. Outsiders (in terms of race and gender) especially need these attributes to carry weight in the field and become ‘acceptable’ outsiders.

Race and Gender as Categories

Given the varied constellations women of colour are located in we need to bear in mind that race, gender, sexuality, class (the list of course can go on) don’t add up. While they clearly intersect in our lived realities they don’t add up. They don’t generate neat alliances either within or between these different categorical groups. We need to keep in mind Stuart Hall’s[6] remark that there are ‘no guarantees’ that the experience of racism will be experienced in the same way or that it will generate the same politics. Or, as June Jordan once stated (in conversation with Pratibha Parmar[7]) – so what if you are black, a woman, a lesbian and disabled like me, this does not mean that we automatically share a perception or indeed a politics together.

Thus we need to open up of our neat categories and our neat alliances. We always try to clobber anything new into our existing categories of knowledge. In his essay on dissemination, Homi Bhabha[8] mentions an Indian Folk tale about some people who saw a pig for the first time. At first they were bewildered then one of them confidently claimed that it was an elephant, shrunken due to starvation. Another said it was a rat that had over eaten. Neither was willing to give up his or her categories and admit this was a new experience. When something new or unknown appears instead of admitting the failure of our categories we tend to clobber it into our existing idioms.

In our re-definitions we need to pause. Here I would like to turn to the work of the artist Mohini Chandra. In a work titled Album Pacifica[9], made up of her family album she has a piece that consists of a glass cabinet (of the kind that might have at one time included objects from distant places, including the colonies). The cabinet contains photographs of her family including her mother. As we approach these cabinets she has the photographs turned around. So we only see the back of the photographs and not the faces. Instead we see signatures, oil marks, stamps – traces of the photographs journey. This type of looking invites us to look again, to bring a different approach to the object, the object we reach towards and peer at. It does not allow for a seamless experience of looking. In fact, it almost pushes the question back at us – what are you looking for?


Mohini Chandra, Album Pacifica

Mohini Chandra, Album Pacifica

Mohini Chandra, Album Pacifica

If we go back to David and Florence, and the square where the statue was once located, today you will find street traders there—from Africa, China and Eastern Europe—selling insects made of grass, tattoos, replica prints, including those of David himself, small toy trains with individual pieces made of letters to spell out a child’s name. As tourists, these figures haunt our memory of Florence as does the monument of David. It reminds me of Che Guevara, in the film made about his travel as a young student through South America called Motor Cycle Diaries[10]. In one part of his journey he met a man and a woman who were walking across the desert. They ask Che and his friend, ‘why are you walking,’ and they replied, ‘we are travelling.’ The man and woman look at each other bemused and say, ‘we walk in order to survive, to look for work.’ In the diaries Che notes that these two figures haunted him and brought him back to South America in later years as a revolutionary.

Today, ‘other’ people from different parts of the world are increasingly in our streets, in institutions and some are even entering consecrated places. There is proximity. I would like to end with a piece of art by Antony Gormley.

Gormely has created in Mexico, the Amazon Basin, Sweden, Britain and most recently in China (which represents the largest scale of the project to date, consisting of 190,000 pieces) Field[11]. For each of these, Gormley works with local communities to create thousands of figures. Each participant is instructed to mould a ball of clay which comfortably fits their hand (this could be a child or an adult), and to shape it into a figure who has two holes for eyes and stands up. These are then baked in a kiln at different temperatures which effects the colouring. In the display they densely pack the floor of a whole room which consists of nothing but white walls and lighting. Importantly, all the figures, each less than a foot high, face the entrance to the room, the point from which the audience views them. The viewer is blocked from inspecting the gallery space by the presence of the figures whose gaze, through the two holes in the head, look upon us rather quizzically.


Anthony Gormley, Field

Gormley argues that in one sense these figures are the world in our front rooms and it makes us feel uncomfortable. Their gaze looks back at us, questioning our positioning, questioning our right to look and our right to occupy the space of the gallery. Thus the object becomes the subject and we the spectators become the objects of the gaze.


[1] De Beauvoir, Simone, The Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. Bernard Frechtman, Citadel Press, 1948
[2] Morris, Robert, ‘Birthday Boy’, Academia Gallery, Florence, 2004
[3] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, The Spivak Reader, eds. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean, Great Britain, Routledge, 1996
[4] Bourdieu, Pierre, Homo Academicus, Oxford, Polity Press, 2001
[5] ibid, p.56
[6] Hall, Stuart, ‘The Problem of Ideology – Marxism without Guarantees’, in B. Matthews (ed.), Marx 100 years On, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1983
[7] Parmar, Pratibha, ‘Black Feminism and the Politics of Articulation’, in J. Rutherford (ed.), Identity: Community, Culture and Difference, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1990
[8] Bhabha, Homi, “DissemiNation: Time, narrative and the margins of the modern nation”, in The Location of Culture, London, Routledge, 1994, pp.139-170
[9] Chandra, Mohini, ‘Album Pacifica’, London, Autograph, 2001
[10] The Motorcycle Diaries, dir. Walter Salles, 2004
[11] Levinson, Stephen; Self, Will; Blazwick, Iwona, Anthony Gormley: Some of the Facts, London, Tate Publishing Ltd, 2001

A version of this paper was presented and written for Punto de Partenza in Florence at the request of Mercedes Frais. It has been published in Italian.


Nirmal Puwar is Senior Lecturer in Sociology & Co-Director of Methods Lab, at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has authored Space Invaders (2004) and edited/authored 17 Collections.