on the relationship between art, activism and academism
by Annika Lundgren
Connecting back to the overarching theme of the Performing Resistance-seminar, you described yourself as an artist and an activist, and there is no doubt that you are also an academic. How do you negotiate those different identities in your practice?
When I make art, or write a text, engage in activism, or lecture in a classroom there is no inner character, no “me the artist” who mumbles under his breath “how does this relate to your other practices Sholette?” All such inner negotiations broke off long ago. What remains is a string of encounters with certain objects and materials and ideas, certain individuals, groups, institutions, and historical moments. Only when viewed from a certain outside do these seemingly different identities count for anything, or appear to be a performance if you prefer varied roles. I think the real question really is this: for who does differentiating functions into neat categories really matter, and to what ends? After all, what substantial difference is there between the production of a work of art, researching and writing an essay, teaching or organizing collective actions? When all is said and done for me “art” is simply how I think my thoughts in a more tangible, plastic form that reside alongside, rather than above or below, writing, teaching and organizing.
Looking at the western field of political and activist art, I get the impression that there is a difference in terms of perspective between the US and the European point of view when it comes to the relationship between art and activism. Do you agree on this, and if so, what does it consist of and why do you think that is?
“Politics” is viewed in the US as simultaneously entertaining and offensive, or even something dirty. “Being political” is equated with having a stake in governance, and governing is perceived, by the Right, but now also much of the center, and even many on the Left today, as an unnecessary supplement to an individual’s given autonomy. Politics is in other words, a denigrated category in America. Only traditional, old-school political liberals still approach governance and politics as a necessary addendum to the natural “dispassion” of the marketplace in which capital’s indifference to those who don’t make it, or who simply can’t “make it,” is balanced out by policy from above. Conservatives view governance, as well as also politics and politicians, as an “insiders game,” and one that is played by a professional class who, no matter what they might say to the press, are really indifferent to people’s day-to-day needs. There is even a growing category of people—Right, Middle and Left—who see politics as completely external to their lives, as if it were a dark tangle of asymmetrical power that contaminates anything that comes near it.
This currently reigning American zeitgeist may help explain, to those of you who live outside of the US, the popularity of Donald Trump, the New York City real estate developer turned presidential candidate. Trump’s proven skill set is leveraging other people’s assets (his own investment projects were bankrupt on a number of occasions in fact). Trump is banking on the deeply held ambivalence, even outright hostility, people hold towards politics, politicians, and the government. Yes, certainly all of the Republican presidential campaigners are playing to these same attitudes to one degree or another, but what Trump grasps and the others don’t is how to play the role of a ludic trespasser who has somehow managed to get inside the game in order to reveal it as a farce. He delights in pulling back the curtain in order to reveal nothing but a cabal of little men pretending to be wizards, men who appear even less honest than Trump himself with his ostentatious dress and obvious hair-piece. The only thing that can follow that act is offering salvation through the marketplace, which is of course the very mechanism that has given Trump his shot at the presidency. But of course the “Donald’s” only lightly disguised xenophobia and misogyny signals to his mostly white supporters that the market he envisions is not really “free” for all, but is instead a space of white privilege.
Trump is therefore the profane anti-politician who quite literally embodies the paradoxical mixture of obscenity and pleasure that constitutes politics in America. By contrast, activism in the US is something quite different. It is a fundamental characteristic and extension of the American psyche. It involves engaging in direct vigorous efforts to bring about specific concrete social transformation usually in one’s immediate community. This embrace of activism over politics is as true of a black bus boycotter during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, as it is of a white middle class environmentalist who chains herself to oil company equipment to protest hydrofracking, and it is also true of Tea Party fundamentalists who dress up like Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson and demand an end to big government, the national debt, and property taxes. Even though I personally disagree with this assessment, most Americans do not see activism as a form of politics, but believe it to be instead a “natural” expression of the sovereign American subject. In short, activism is anti-politics in the US. Making the link to neoliberal enterprise culture and its economic credo of “every man for himself” appear all too apparent if you live abroad, though it is not very obvious for most of those ensnarled by this ultra free-market ideology over here.
My sense is that while similar, anti-political, anti-governmental sentiments do likely exist in some parts of Europe they have not as yet become fully established as they are in the US. Maybe this is because it is hard to completely reject political governance at the parliamentary level given that so many different nations and cultures border each other within a relatively compact physical space?  The debate within different EU entities over how to manage the ongoing refugee crisis is one illustration of Europe’s strong investment in politics as a problem-solving discourse, even if it does not always work. Compare the media coverage of Syrian families in Croatia, Hungary, and Germany with the media reporting in the US earlier this year about the enormous wave of children illegally migrating over “our” borders from Mexico and especially Central America. The discussion that dominated the media here was about blaming someone (Obama, the government, liberal policies etc…) for letting this happen, rather than debating how to work with neighboring countries to address the causes and long-term challenges of such political and economic displacement. I am not saying that such sensible discourse did not take place in governmental policy circles, only that the mainstream media’s representation of the crisis typically fed into American cynicism about governance as nothing more than ineffective waste of taxpayer money. The door is wide open to the anti-politician.
If my assessment of these different political landscapes is correct, then by logical extension there is also a degree of dissimilarity between how engaged art is practiced in the US versus how it unfolds in Europe, with the former favoring direct action, and the latter preferring a more mediated type of politicized art. These distinctions are further reinforced by the different approach to cultural funding. On one hand the EU model of direct financial encouragement to artists and art institutions undoubtedly helps build some level of trust towards government, or at least the idea of governance and politics. While on the other hand our highly privatized American system of arts funding pits all against all in a “society” permeated by highly individuated risks in which there is no expectation that some “higher” governing authority holds the power to resolve conflict or crisis, even if it desired to do so. Thus we arrive at “Trump Nation,” the location from where I write to you now.
You spoke in your keynote address about the progressive artistic interventions that combine previously developed theories of cultural dissent with post-Occupy Wall Street tactics in order to protest the status quo of neo liberal control and to resurrect an inclusive public sphere. Could you sum those new strategies up? What would you say characterize them?
The emergence of a strong emphasis on the economics of politics, and on the politics of artistic economies is a highly visible key concern of the post-Occupy artistic temperament. We see this with groups such as bfa/mfa/phd.org, Working Artists for the Greater Economy or W.A.G.E. and also Debt Fair in the US. In Europe there is Liberate Tate in the UK, the Slow Free University in Warsaw who are engaged in research into what they call the Art Factory, and there is in Belgrade the work of Rena Raedle and Vladan Jeremic Corina Apostol and Danilo Prgnjat among others who are looking into what they call the possibilities of transformative art production and coalition building http://transformativeartproduction.net/about/ And this is only to scratch the surface of this tendency, which finds its compliment in a new willingness to experiment with sustainable institution building. This sharply contrasts with the near total rejection of institutional structures by a previous generation of socially engaged artists who were more motivated by tactics than strategies, to use a dichotomy borrowed from Michel De Certeau and favored by Tactical Media activists of the recent past. What I see now is a host of major private funding institutions scrambling to address the uptick in political engagement by artists. Whether or not this new wave of artistic activism will merge its goals and interests with these foundations is anybody’s guess. What makes the odds difficult to determine at this point is the distrust of organized governance that still lingers among activists, especially in the US (see above).
Where do you see the development going in terms of activist art? What would you consider would be the ultimate strategy for it to take today?
I can only reiterate something Group Material once proposed as their ultimate desire, which was to, “occupy the ultimate alternative space, that wall-less expanse that bars artists and their work from the crucial social concerns of the American public.”  Only to reiterate this sentiment today we must substitute “global public” for “American public,” while no longer thinking of this location as an “alternative space,” but instead as the space that we must collectively de-privatize and return to some version of an inclusive public sphere.
During the seminar, art activism was described as a genre of art. Do you agree on this statement? And if so, how does it affect the political content of the work?
Isn’t dividing art into genres really about managing the affliction of disorder that is actually central to the political agency of contemporary art itself? I mean by privileging one type of practice over another not only is one style of cultural production always ranked as more valuable and significant than all others, but when all is said and done, isn’t this process of ranking really about setting up commercial priorities? Sure, I suppose, long before the art market officially emerged, artistic genres existed that reflected religious or mystical hierarchies (though it could be argued that even this grading often boiled down to a question of power and money sooner or later). But doesn’t the sequence: History Painting, Portrait Painting, Landscape Painting, Still Life Painting, Plein Aire Painting, and Art Activism seem a bit odd? I mean even if we approach this string of genres with a disinterested logic it doesn’t contribute much to any interesting discussion. Instead it seems to be about containment. Then again, without categories, no matter how ill-fitting they are, it would be impossible to subvert the process of classification itself. So yes, on second thought Annika, sure, I am all for calling art activism another genre. Now, lets get to work revealing all of the ways this genre refuses to stay within its proper brackets, and instead leaks out to contaminate the whole process of categorization and its regulatory status, much like those grotesque drolleries bored medieval monks drew in the edges of illuminated manuscripts that parodied the sacred content around which their profane playfulness formed an often obscene margin.
I have been thinking lately about the concept of the “activist”, which I find problematic (as opposed to “activism”). How, in your opinion, does being an activist relate to being a citizen?
Of course I don’t know why it is problematic to you, [perhaps you could add something after my comment to elaborate?] but in the US context an “activist” is a politically minded agent who often operates with a larger political change agenda, while by contrast, activism is the normative response by any individual or population who is pushed to act by external social or political circumstances. This dichotomy falls along similar lines to the one I outlined above with regard to politics and activism. One term is considered neutral and is naturalized, in this case activism, while the other term is suspect: activist, but also political, governmental, politician etc… In actual practice, these divisions are not clear at all. An activist in Syria today may have been a small shopkeeper or housewife five years ago. In the schema above she is engaged in activism, but is not a “professional” activist. While I would not want to use the term professional I would argue that anyone engaged in an activist struggle with such intensity has become skilled at what she does and is no longer operating out of a spontaneous response to circumstances, if she ever was. Similarly, the famous Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person in the highly segregated city of Montgomery Alabama in 1955, had previously received training in civil justice related resistance techniques at the Highlander Folk School in nearby Tennessee. So to my mind the division between activist and activism is largely an ideological one, but I am curious what your thoughts are Annika?
Well, I was thinking along similar lines, but in terms of responsibility—the first term suggests that political resistance is a job to be undertaken by a select group of people rather than being the duty of all citizens if democratic agreements are not being upheld.
Moving on to your own body of work, your political engagement seems to be founded mainly in art related matters. Are you sticking to an area where you feel at home, or do you see the issues you are addressing as applicable everywhere in society? “The freedoms of artists are connected to the rights of workers?”
My art is mainly focused on art related matters? Hmmm. Maybe. Though I don’t see Gulf Labor Coalition that way. Do you? Oh sure, we use the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project as our entry point to address issue of labor injustice. But then, that is only logical. One leverages whatever cultural “capital” one has at hand in such situations. And a few of my other projects address such issues as:
Racism, apartheid and banking
The Citi Never Sleeps, But Your Neighborhood May Be Put To Rest (1979) http://www.gregorysholette.com/?page_id=2133
Art of the Pentagon (1980)
Savage Vision (1982)
US intervention in Latin America
Wars on children
Historical representation of labor, women, minorities…
Labor and high culture
Culture & Barbarism (1991)
Eugenics and forced sterilization
Little Workers Collectibles
Modern office working conditions
The Cold War haunting the present
Fascism in the age of George Bush Jr.
Real Estate Speculation
Invisible Labor in Lebanon
Exposed Pipe (1913)
Labor in the Gulf region
Saadiyat Island Workers Quarters Collectable, 2013
Alternative history and the archive
Imaginary Archive (2008-2015, ongoing)
In GULF Labor, the method of your group seems to be full frontal conflict rather than subverting the institutions of neo liberalism and using them against themselves. How do you think about those two different approaches?
It is important to know that Gulf Labor Coalition does not engage in direct action. Global Ultra Luxury Faction or G.U.L.F. does. G.U.L.F. is an offshoot organization that has led the highly visible interventions and occupations of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and also in Venice, Italy. G.U.L.F. is engaged in an effort to identify correctly the Guggenheim, as The Yes Men would likely describe these actions, while Gulf Labor Coalition on the other hand is the organization that initiated the boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and has led negotiations with the Guggenheim administration seeking to improve working conditions in that nation. Our aim has been all along to have the museum and its partners in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) finally agree to a set of verifiable procedures that will greatly improve living and working conditions for the thousands of South Asian migrant laborers who will soon be engaged in building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (most likely in the next year or two).
Gulf Labor has three key demands that focus on eliminating or greatly modifying the injustices of the Kafala system of employment that is common to that region of the world.
First we are asking that the museum and its partners refund any recruitment fees that are charged by subcontractors to South Asian workers being procured for labor in the UAE. For many of these workers honest efforts at repaying this money leads them into a state of debt bondage in which wages are garnered sometimes for years to come. It is not unusual under this system for a worker’s passport to be held by a subcontractor during this time, making it impossible for the him to even consider returning home as a way of escaping this state of severe indebtedness.
Second, for many of these workers once they arrive in the UAE, the ideal contract they were offered back in Pakistan, or India, or Bangladesh disappears, and new terms appear that include illegal salary deductions and unhealthy, overcrowded living conditions.
And third, there is zero tolerance in the UAE for any form of worker organizing or active resistance to these deplorable conditions. We are demanding this change. Though it is important to point out that despite intimidation, imprisonment and deportations, many of these migrant workers do in fact attempt to organize themselves including going on strike to protest against this modern system of human bondage.
Our focus is on the Guggenheim Museum because it will become a major regional showcase for the work of living artists. In March of 2011, and only after a year of attempted negotiations with the museum administration, Gulf Labor Coalition launched an online, public boycott that was soon signed by some two thousand cultural workers. The boycott however, did not prevent us from continuing to dialogue with the museum. As Mariam Ghani has eloquently put it, Gulf Labor’s boycott seeks to engage through dis-engagement. (See her piece in Manifesta Journal, “Notes from a Boycott”: http://www.manifestajournal.org/issues/situation-never-leaves-our-waking-thoughts-long/notes-boycott.) And in fact, Gulf Labor is poised now to begin a series of very high-level meetings with the museum administration that will, if all goes according to some recently agreed upon planning, include members of international human rights and labor organizations who were barred from participating in talks with the UAE before this time.
So to answer your question above Annika, if we look at both Gulf Labor Coalition and G.U.L.F. together there is actually a dual engagement in both forms of direct action and methods of institutional critique. At least in our case this combination appears to get results.
In your presentation you also brought up the relationship between the early 20-century avant-garde and contemporary political resistance undertaken by artists. Could you expand on this and in what way this period of time is mirrored in what is happening today? For example, in Boris Groys´ article Art Activism, published in e-flux 2014, he discusses the avant-garde and a process of revolutionary artistic aesthetization that defunctionalizes objects and concepts by transforming them into corpses or mere representations. Do you agree with his perspective, or do you have a different perspective about the avant-garde and contemporary expressions of politically engaged art activism?
Art Activism is usually described as a “made for the media” form of public intervention, one that is aimed at accomplishing a specific goal such as an end to racism, xenophobia, or class privilege, or the overturning of bad government policies or perhaps an entire economic system. I would suggest counter-intuitively, that art activism might also be thought of as an event-object, one whose singular constitutive agency is ultimately not geared to the media spectacle, but is instead a “bad deed” that opens up a space of possibilities that are in opposition to the routinized state of un-freedom that we live in today. This even-object appears to glide around the mediation and the blockages presented by conventional expectations, including those of traditional and contemporary aesthetics, as Groys suggests in his engaging essay that you cite Annika, but also the type of cultural politics that has long-defined socially committed aesthetics now for several decades.
With some important exceptions such as the Situationist International, though otherwise throughout the Post-War era we see the influence that artists and other cultural producers possessed giving them the power to focus public attention on challenging political and social circumstances that were not directly tied to their own professional working conditions. Newspapers, academies, even television presented the novelist, painter, playwright, or musician as a spokesperson for civil liberties, fair pay, even anti-capitalism. Amplified by the mass media the cultural worker appeared to stand on almost equal footing with corporate chiefs or heads of state. These Western public intellectuals clearly gained their prominent societal role thanks to the politics of the Cold War. From at least the 1950s on up till about 1989 the American idea of artistic freedom clashed with the Soviet idea of cultural responsibility. Here in the US this generated direct financial programs that assisted even the most “decadent” and avant-garde forms of aesthetic expression. Not surprisingly, state support of individual artists and intellectuals collapsed precipitously in the US following the break-up of the USSR. In tandem with economic privatization and deregulation that withdrawal of support for autonomous culture continues to spread across the globe today. After all, ISIS is not competing with the West, or with Russia for that matter, through the kind of cultural competition we saw during the Cold War, so the coming war will not likely be a boon to artists, though it will enrich weapons manufacturers and spur new forms of defensive security technology.
If progress today amounts to the expansion of the military and surveillance state apparatus then I agree with Groys that contemporary art must enact a “u-turn” on this particular “road to the future.” However I am not in accord with his equation of the Avant-Garde with a hidden or avert celebration of failure. I do concede Groys’ argument with regards to Marinetti’s ambivalence about technology in the famed Futurist Manifesto of 1909, his overt call to “metalize” the human body well over a quarter of a century later is not equivocal at all in its fascist desire to “aestheticize” war. The Futurism of the earlier, more anarchistic poet is not the same one whom Benjamin decries in his famous call to politicize art, not aestheticize politics. And my understanding is this call to artist politicization is not necessarily about changing what kinds of content someone paints, but is instead about radically transforming the very means of artistic production and reproduction itself so that it comes to terms with “real-time,” and a constantly working class imaginary. That is to say, art becomes about this moment.
In both of Benjamin’s most influential anti-Fascist texts—The Author As Producer (1934), and Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)—there is a pivotal dialectic at work whereby conventional forms of artistic practice and aesthetic experience are subsumed by more instantaneous modes of production and appreciation. We also find a focus on the immediacy of action playing a central and innovative role some fifteen years earlier than this in the early Soviet Union when for example the constructivist artists Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner exclaim in their 1920 Realist Manifesto,
“today is the deed. We will account for it tomorrow. The past we are leaving behind as carrion. The future we leave to the fortune-tellers. We take the present day.” ( http://www.terezakis.com/realist-manifesto.html )
Here the singularity of the deed liberates us from the weight of everything that preceded this moment, including not only the past in a general sense, but also its historical interpretation. This does not contradict Groys’ argument that art, including avant-garde and contemporary art, “accepts the status quo as dysfunctional, as already failed—that is, from the revolutionary, or even postrevolutionary, perspective.” But it does reject his idea that such historical failure also completely subsumes activist art in its attempt to, as he puts it, “function as an arena and medium for political protest and social activism.” Groys essay argues in other words that activist art is both a new phenomenon, which it is not, and that it is already tainted with the general aesetheticization of everything today, including politics, contrary to Benjamin:
“Art activism cannot escape a much more radical, revolutionary tradition of the aestheticization of politics—the acceptance of one’s own failure, understood as a premonition and prefiguration of the coming failure of the status quo in its totality, leaving no room for its possible improvement or correction.”
(All citations from: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/on-art-activism/ )
I would argue quite differently by suggesting that what is actually most unsettling to conventional forms of artistic production and reflective aesthetic interpretation, is not so much the way an art action, or as I am suggesting to label it an event-object, temporarily erases both historical baggage and utopian imaginings, but instead the recurring presence of such artistic interventions over many decades has to do with the powerful disruptive energy released in which a hole in our day-to-day societal narrative is temporarily created, thereby jamming our implicit and “commonplace” state of repression. It is this blank spot that poses the real threat to the status quo. It is also where we would likely locate an aesthetic dimension if it exists in relation to art activism, and I think it does, but not in either the reflective manner, or in the pragmatic design modality or even in some comingling of both tendencies, as the Groys essay proposes. In fact I would not see this temporary opening-up of the event-object as always leading to a progressive outcome. In the best sense yes, an art action will lead directly to another kind of experiential knowledge that is also experienced as both pleasurable and motivating. However, in some instances this unblocking is experienced as terrifying, and therefore paralyzing or even enraging. Violent anti-progressive outcomes can result from the latter.
Still, in its most positive manifestation this temporary de-normalization through direct action constitutes an assault on neoliberal enterprise culture by pushing back against notions of privatization and deregulation in which “everyone is for themselves against all others.” Activist art rejects post-democracy and also capitalism’s hope to bring history to a conclusion, though not as Francis Fukuyama once infamously argued following the end of the cold war as the Hegel-inspired liberation of the human spirit, but instead through the financialization and monetization of every aspect of day-to-day life: human and non-human, political, biological, mechanical, and even the mental and spiritual dimensions of existence (we know there are even technologies being developed that will mine and profit from our dreams). This is where activist art makes its detour towards not an unknown but a different horizon, and not a u-turn into failed conventionality.
This reading also suggests that any historical archive, even that of activist art itself, could become a burden to developing new forms of direct art action, unless, I would argue, we can find a way to appreciate that the outcome of our actions far exceeds the cultural treasures associated with art. As G.U.L.F. writes in its recent online manifesto,
“We see our proximity to the system as an opportunity to strike it with precision, recognizing that the stakes far exceed the discourses and institutions of art as we know them.”
See: GLOBAL ULTRA LUXURY FACTION: G.U.L.F. in e-flux Journal for the 56th Venice Biennale, http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/authors/gulf-labor/
Here we find the group simultaneously acknowledging its privileged social position while seeking to leverage this entitlement against the system well beyond the world of art or aesthetics. Therefore when Groys writes with admirable conviction that “contemporary art activism does not rush to abandon art but, rather, tries to make art itself useful. This is a historically new position,” I would counter that it is precisely the maintenance and reproduction of high culture and its normal art history that Groys and other leading figures in the art world continuously reproduce, which may indeed have to be sacrificed in order to realize this new position. As G.U.L.F. also insists in their recent manifesto:
“We act to strike the global ultra luxury economy in the interests of making a new space of imagination, one that builds power withpeople and facilitates the re-arrangement of our own desires in the struggle for justice and freedom.”
Any new wave of politically engaged art activism is not only not new, it is entirely new, it is a repetition of the type that can only happen once, and then once again, and then once again. And what this repetition of singularities represents is the very possibility of the liberated subject.
 Bear in mind that less than half of all citizens in the US even vote, a statistic that is among the lowest in the developed world. In fact we are the fourth lowest in with Belgium, Turkey and Sweden at the top of the list. And in case you’re wondering, Norway is eight! See: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/06/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/ .
 Only about 36.5% of Americans hold passports, underscoring the general disinterest in world affairs and geopolitics. http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports/statistics.html
 See: Caution! Alternative Space! 1982 Manifesto by Group Material: http://98bowery.com/return-to-the-bowery/abcnorio-related-groups.php