Meet COM Professor Mike Watson

Professor Mike Watson, an art theorist and curator holding a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Goldsmiths College, joined John Cabot’s faculty in 2015. He curated for the Nomas Foundation at the 55th and 56th Venice Biennale, and authored multiple articles in Frieze, Art Review, and Radical Philosophy. Prof. Watson’s first book, Towards a Conceptual Militancy, published by Zero Books, is coming out on May 27. He teaches COM 111 Introduction to Visual Communication at JCU.

Could you tell us something about your book?
The book traces the recent history of political art making and attempts to contextualize it within a wider history of conceptual art and political opposition to capitalism. It focuses on the current poor political conditions of my native U.K. and particularly on the cutting of funds to University level education. Above all, the book attempts to investigate the role of art in challenging a cold and controlling neoliberal system.

What prompted you to write this book, and why now?
I have been interested in the link between art and politics since I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree in Painting and Art History in the late 90s. This led me to go on to a Master’s and Ph.D. in Philosophical Aesthetics. The book presents a very Italian situation – the occupied cultural spaces of Teatro Valle and Cinema Occupato in Trastevere, as well as the Isola and Macao in Milan – as means of summarizing a wider historical moment and asking where to go next. Ultimately, the book asks if something in art may teach us how to reclaim our individual freedom in these very complex times, and if from there we can reach out and build stronger communities.

What is your teaching philosophy?
Most students today have grown up in a fast moving media age where sitting down to closely read a book or focusing intensely on a painting isn’t easy. I hope to help them acquire the tools to do this and to reflect on mass media in a more informed way, yet I don’t want to tell them what to think when they do it.

Name a challenge you have encountered throughout your career as a professor. How were you able to overcome it?
I will refer more to the arts and media than to academia now. People often abuse their power, exploiting hopeful young artists or media workers, offering them low pay or none at all, for example. So one has to stay quite determined to get anywhere in these fields.

What are the benefits of studying communications, and specifically media theory in this day and age?
We are receiving thousands of images a day, all aimed at getting us to make certain choices. A simple left wing ideological analysis would argue that images are a means of keeping wealth and power in the hands of the elite by maintaining certain values. I think students understand this, but it’s not enough to complain about it. The study of media theory should aim at establishing how to overcome the damaging conflicts that arise between the individual and media culture. Media students of this generation have a lot of powerful tools to help them find new ways of living with the media, as well as actively producing it.

What is your impression of JCU?
The size of JCU allows for a lot more interaction between professors and students than in other institutions. It’s also very well situated in a city that has a lot more to offer than the obvious tourist attractions. Its geographical position makes it an indicator of where Europe and the West are heading. In the 8 years I’ve been in Rome its demographics have changed radically with many more Africans and Asians coming here in recent times (often in desperate situations, it must be said). I’d be interested in talking to students involved in practical projects that aim to critique society or to rethink how we reach out to marginalized groups. It’s always good to see how different generations and people from different backgrounds respond to these issues.