WSJ: Activists New and Old Jab Art World


May 7, 2015 9:07 p.m. ET

Last weekend, the art-activist group the Guerrilla Girls engaged in a typically bumptious gesture: projecting images from their latest campaign on the side of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s building in lower Manhattan as a block party to fete the new location wound to a close.

“Dear Art Collector,” read the message, traced in bright light from a mobile projector run by another New York City activist group, The Illuminator Art Collective.

“art is sooo expensive!

even for billionaires

we totally get why

you can’t pay all your employees a living wage”

It has been three decades since the Guerrilla Girls first began plastering New York’s art districts with funny, statistic-filled posters decrying the dearth of female artists on museum and gallery walls. Now the group—along with a new generation of artist-activists—continues to skewer what they see as the art world’s hypocrisy and corruption.

Never mind that the Whitney, which declined to comment on the “Dear Art Collector” projection, now owns more than 90 works by Guerrilla Girls. Or that some of the group’s members—clad in their trademark gorilla suits, to preserve anonymity—mingled with curators at a recent artist reception at the new building. An exhibit of their posters, stickers and billboards opened this month at Abrons Arts Center downtown, and the Guerrilla Girls have embarked on a new campaign.

Targets include everything from the art establishment’s lack of diversity—an issue that by some measures has made only marginal progress since 1985—to labor issues and soaring prices paid by wealthy collectors in today’s turbocharged art market.

“We are the agitated outsiders, the creative complainers, and we like it that way,” a Guerrilla Girl who identified herself as Käthe Kollwitz said in a recent interview. (Members assume the names of dead female artists.)

Recently, the group has teamed up with newer groups of activist artists. They include the Illuminator, as well as Occupy Museums and the Gulf Labor artist coalition, which on Friday shut down the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum with a protest over labor practices at Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, where the museum is planning to build a new branch.

Another Guerrilla Girl, Frida Kahlo, said she was heartened to see a new crop of artists engaging in political art, many of them in collectives that operate outside the traditional art market.

“They are veering away from the idea of the lone individualistic genius,” Ms. Kahlo said. “They don’t want to participate in the art system.”

Take Noah Fischer, a Brooklyn artist and activist involved in the action at the Guggenheim organized by Gulf Labor, a group that has staged multiple protests over what it sees as exploitative conditions for the largely migrant workforce on Saadiyat Island.

Trained as a sculptor, Mr. Fischer, 38 years old, said he quit showing his work in traditional galleries amid the financial downturn, having concluded that the same economic system that led to the crisis was also fueling the art market: “I thought, I want to be challenging that system, not trying my hardest to be supported by those people.”

In 2011 he joined the Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccotti Park and wrote a manifesto that catalyzed the Occupy Museums movement. Occupy Museums mounted a protest in September at the Metropolitan Museum of Art over the new plaza endowed by billionaire David H. Koch and recently helped stage an action outside the Whitney over an adjacent natural-gas pipeline.

On May 1, also known as International Workers Day, Mr. Fischer was among the protesters who dropped leaflets from the Guggenheim’s top tier and unfurled a red banner urging the institution to “Meet Workers’ Demands Now!” Some sat on the floor and refused to leave, while others, including some Guerrilla Girls, marched outside. Ultimately, museum officials shut down the building for the day.

Museum officials said in a statement that they have kept “open lines of communication” with representatives of Gulf Labor and that the Guggenheim has been working with authorities and its partners in Abu Dhabi to “advance progress on conditions for workers who will build the future museum.”

The Illuminator is a frequent partner in museum protests and other political actions. Teaming up with the Guerrilla Girls “was a way to collaborate with our forbearers and our sisters,” said Mark Read, 48, an Illuminator founder who also teaches at New York University.

The NYPD returned the sculpture of Edward Snowden that was placed in Fort Greene Park in the early morning hours of April 6. PHOTO: GEOFFREY CROFT/NYC PARK ADVOCATE

Last month, the collective projected an image of a bust of Edward Snowden over a column at Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. It was a tribute to an action by a separate group of artists, who earlier that day had glued a 100-pound bust of the former national-security consultant to the top of a monument there honoring Revolutionary War prisoners. (The bust was swiftly removed.)

On Wednesday the New York Police Department returned the bust. In return, two of the artists each agreed to pay a $50 summons for being in the park after hours, according to their lawyer, Ronald Kuby.

For the Guerrilla Girls, years of activism have conferred a sort of legitimacy that makes some members uneasy. The group’s work has been shown at the prestigious Venice Biennale and major museums including the Tate Modern in London and Paris’s Centre Pompidou.

Women artists and artists of color have more visibility than they did 30 years ago, and some museum curators are making efforts “to cast a wider net,” Ms. Kollwitz said.

But, as one sticker from the group’s current campaign points out, women still accounted for only a fraction of the one-person shows last year at the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Officials at the latter two said the sticker undercounted the number of solo shows by women in 2014 at the Met, and in 1984 at the Whitney.

“I always feel uncomfortable about this museum attention, because we want to be the royal thorn in their side,” said fellow member Ms. Kahlo. “We are here as the art world’s conscience.”

Eflux: On Art Activism by Boris Groys

You can download the full article PDF here:

Excerpt below:

Aestheticization and the U-Turn

Thus, modern and contemporary art allows us to look at the historical period in which we live from the perspective of its end. The figure of Angelus Novus as described by Benjamin relies on the technique of artistic aestheticization as it was practiced by postrevolutionary European art.6 Here we have the classical description of philosophical metanoia, of the reversal of the gaze —Angelus Novus turns his back towards the future and looks back on the past and present. He still moves into the future—but backwards. Philosophy is impossible without this kind of metanoia, without this reversal of the gaze. Accordingly, the central philosophical question was and still is: How is philosophical metanoia possible? How does the philosopher turn his gaze from the future to the past and adopt a reflective, truly philosophical attitude towards the world? In older times, the answer was given by religion: God (or gods) were believed to open to the human spirit the possibility of leaving the physical world—and looking back on it from a metaphysical position. Later, the opportunity for metanoia was offered by Hegelian philosophy: one could look back if one happened to be present at the end of history—at the moment when the further progress of the human Spirit became impossible. In our postmetaphysical age, the answer has been formulated mostly in vitalistic terms: one turns back if one reaches the limits of one’s own strength (Nietzsche), if one’s desire is repressed (Freud), or if one experiences the fear of death or the extreme boredom of existence (Heidegger).

But there is no indication of such a personal, existential turning point in Benjamin’s text—only a reference to modern art, to an image by Klee. Benjamin’s Angelus Novus turns his back to the future simply because he knows how to do it. He knows because he learned this technique from modern art—also from Marinetti. Today, the philosopher does not need any subjective turning point, any real event, any meeting with death or with something or somebody radically other. After the French Revolution, art developed techniques for defunctionalizing the status quo that were aptly described by the Russian Formalists as “reduction,” the “zero device,” and “defamiliarization.” In our time, the philosopher has only to take a look at modern art, and he or she will know what to do. And this is precisely what Benjamin did. Art teaches us how to practice metanoia, a U-turn on the road towards the future, on the road of progress. Not coincidentally, when Malevich gave a copy of one of his own books to poet Daniil Kharms, he inscribed it as follows: “Go and stop progress.”

And philosophy can learn not only horizontal metanoia—the U-turn on the road of progress—but also vertical metanoia: the reversal of upward mobility. In the Christian tradition, this reversal had the name “kenosis.” In this sense, modern and contemporary art practice can be called kenotic.

Indeed, traditionally, we associate art with a movement towards perfection. The artist is supposed to be creative. And to be creative means, of course, to bring into the world not only something new, but also something better—better functioning, better looking, more attractive. All these expectations make sense—but as I have already said, in today’s world, all of them are related to design and not to art. Modern and contemporary art wants to make things not better but worse—and not relatively worse but radically worse: to make dysfunctional things out of functional things, to betray expectations, to reveal the invisible presence of death where we tend to see only life.

This is why modern and contemporary art is not popular. It is not popular precisely because art goes against the normal way things are supposed to go. We are all aware of the fact that our civilization is based on inequality, but we tend to think that this inequality should be corrected by upward mobility—by letting people realize their talents, their gifts. In other words, we are ready to protest against the inequality dictated by the existing systems of power—but at the same time, we are ready to accept the notion of the unequal distribution of natural gifts and talents. However, it is obvious that the belief in natural gifts and creativity is the worst form of social Darwinism, biologism, and, actually, neoliberalism, with its notion of human capital. In his lectures on the “birth of biopolitics,” Michel Foucault stresses that the neoliberal concept of human capital has a utopian dimension—and constitutes, in fact, the utopian horizon of contemporary capitalism.7

As Foucault shows, the human being ceases here to be seen merely as labor power sold on the capitalist market. Instead, the individual becomes an owner of a nonalienated set of qualities, capabilities, and skills that are partially hereditary and innate, and partially produced by education and care—primarily from one’s own parents. In other words, we are speaking here about an original investment made by nature itself. The world “talent” expresses this relationship between nature and investment well enough—talent being a gift from nature and at the same time a certain sum of money. Here the utopian dimension of the neoliberal notion of human capital becomes clear enough. Participation in the economy loses its character of alienated and alienating work. The human being becomes a value in itself. And even more importantly, the notion of human capital, as Foucault shows, erases the opposition between consumer and producer—the opposition that risks tearing apart the human being under the standard conditions of capitalism. Foucault indicates that in terms of human capital, the consumer becomes a producer. The consumer produces his or her own satisfaction. And in this way, the consumer lets his or her human capital grow.8

G.U.L.F. Labor banknote designed by Noah Fischer for the Guggenheim protest of March 29th, 2013.

At the beginning of the 1970s, Joseph Beuys was inspired by the idea of human capital. In his famous Achberger Lectures that were published under the title Art=Capital(Kunst=Kapital), he argues that every economic activity should be understood as creative practice—so that everybody becomes an artist.9 Then the expanded notion of art (erweiterter Kunstbegriff) will coincide with the expanded notion of economy (erweiterter Oekonomiebegriff). Here Beuys tries to overcome the inequality that for him is symbolized by the difference between creative, artistic work and noncreative, alienated work. To say that everybody is an artist means for Beuys to introduce universal equality by means of the mobilization of those aspects and components of everyone’s human capital that remain hidden and inactive under standard market conditions. However, during the discussions that followed the lectures, it became clear that the attempt by Beuys to base social and economic equality on equality between artistic and nonartistic activity does not really function. The reason for this is simple: according to Beuys, a human being is creative because nature gave him/her the initial human capital—precisely the capacity to be creative. So art practice remains dependent on nature—and, thus, on the unequal distribution of natural gifts.

However, many leftist and Socialist theoreticians remained under the spell of the idea of upward mobility—be it individual or collective. This can be illustrated by a famous quote from the end of Leon Trotsky’s book Revolution and Literature:

Social construction and psychophysical self-education will become two aspects of the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music, and architecture will lend this process beautiful form … Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movement more rhythmic, his voice more musical … The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.10

It is this artistic, social, and political alpinism—in its bourgeois and Socialist forms—from which modern and contemporary art tries to save us. Modern art is made against the natural gift. It does not develop “human potential” but annuls it. It operates not by expansion but by reduction. Indeed, a genuine political transformation cannot be achieved according to the same logic of talent, effort, and competition on which the current market economy is based, but only by metanoia and kenosis—by a U-turn against the movement of progress, a U-turn against the pressure of upward mobility. Only in this way can we escape the pressure of our own gifts and talents, which enslaves and exhausts us by pushing us to climb one mountain after another. Only if we learn to aestheticize the lack of gifts as well as the presence of gifts, and thus not differentiate between victory and failure, do we escape the theoretical blockage that endangers contemporary art activism.

There is no doubt that we are living in a time of total aestheticization. This fact is often interpreted as a sign that we have reached a state after the end of history, or a state of total exhaustion that makes any further historical action impossible. However, as I have tried to show, the nexus between total aestheticization, the end of history, and the exhaustion of vital energies is illusionary. Using the lessons of modern and contemporary art, we are able to totally aestheticize the world—i.e., to see it as being already a corpse—without being necessarily situated at the end of history or at the end of our vital forces. One can aestheticize the world—and at the same time act within it. In fact, total aestheticization does not block political action; it enhances it. Total aestheticization means that we see the current status quo as already dead, already abolished. And it means further that every action that is directed towards the stabilization of the status quo will ultimately show itself as ineffective—and every action that is directed towards the destruction of the status quo will ultimately succeed. Thus, total aestheticization not only does not preclude political action; it creates an ultimate horizon for successful political action, if this action has a revolutionary perspective.

Occupy Museums at the 7th Berlin Biennial


Occupy Museums (OWS) participated in the 7th Berlin Biennial from June 1-14th.  We saw this as an opportunity to share ideas, resources, tactics, challenges, and solutions with our international partners in a world struggle for economic justice.  It was as a risky experiment between activists, governments, and cultural institutions which could possibly offer unique exposure and international connectivity. The risk was co-optation of our movement’s grassroots power. We hope that the relationships we build will open lasting lines of communication for this global- movement. It’s time for people to come together across national boundaries. A global system of economic oppression requires global organizing in response.

Here is an Occupy Museum’s member’s account of our work in Berlin,

also found here:

Arriving at the “Occupy Biennale,” the Occupy section of the Berlin Biennial, was shocking. Although interesting lectures and discussions were held in our ground-floor space, architecturally it was a sunken pit, a fishbowl. Visitors could enter and stand on an elevated viewing platform to observe the occupiers go about their activism. Seemingly unaware of the institutional frame within which they were viewed, the occupiers who had organized and decorated the space painted the walls with slogans and hung banners to create a kind of Occupy themepark. We dubbed the space the “Human Zoo.” The setting was complicated further by a very strong curatorial frame, based on Artur Zmijewski’s desire to display only effective political action, and not “art” per se. Zmijewski, an internationally renown artist in his own right, has a track record of using people as marionettes and creating ethically and politically ambiguous scenarios. We were afraid we unwittingly agreed to play a role in his latest piece, an Occupy time-capsule and tomb that historicizes and deactivates the movement.

In reaction to this stifling curated space within the Kunst Werke (KW) where the Biennial was held, our participation was present, future-oriented, and inviting. We scheduled our open action assemblies in the courtyard of the KW. After our first action, a pots-and-pans banging Casseroles at Deutsche Bank and the Canadian Embassy in solidarity with the Quebec student strike, the meetings attracted activists from around the world. Recognizing that our global crisis requires a global response, we drew on new international connections to develop a global action network that synchronized our actions with actions in other countries. We focused on targets outside of the Biennial including the Pergamon Museum, Deutsche Guggenheim, and Deutsche Bank. Our presence in the Biennial was limited to the occasional banner inviting people to actions and large action meetings in the courtyard that were open to the public.

While our actions could perhaps leave the deadening frame of this Biennial, we recognized that we would need to address our role within it and could not leave the institutional frames unchallenged. The curators may have framed the show, but framing the curators were the staff of the Kunst Werke and its director, Gabrielle Horn. Framing the KW was the Kulturstiftung des Bundes, the Foundation for Culture, a German government fund for art. Each needed to be addressed together and separately. To address the curators, we invited Zmijewski to join our political actions throughout Berlin and stand with us against art world abuses. He showed up. To address the frame of the KW, we organized a meeting with all the staff and opened a space where workers could openly and if necessary, anonymously, share their grievances. The well-attended discussion ultimately focused on the below minimum-wage salaries of the museum guards and further work was pledged to examine the budget closely to determine how they could be paid more.

We then submitted a proposal to the curators titled, “You can’t curate a movement,” calling for the Biennial and the KW to adopt a horizontal, non-hierarchical organizational structure. The curators would become the former curators and the director the former director, to be replaced by working groups operating within a consensus-based process. We consensed on the proposal and moved forward immediately, organizing assemblies and working groups. Meetings were convened to further clarify the budget, to discuss treatment and compensation of guards, and to determine the information available to the public on the Biennial’s website. The process for implementing this new horizontal structure has just begun, and a continuity working group that includes KW staff, Biennial staff, the former curators, occupiers, and members of the public are helping to oversee the transition. Working group meetings are open to all staff and the public.

It is safe to say that we have not yet successfully implemented a non-hierarchical structure at the KW. But we are making progress, and perhaps it more importantly, we are experimenting with new tactics to challenge the corporate logic of cultural institutions. Indeed, if we want a democratic culture, we will need democratic cultural institutions. Occupy Museums has gained a great deal from this experience; new connections with activists abroad, a better understanding of European arts funding models, and experience pushing institutional boundaries from the inside have refined our vision and strengthened us.

Here is an interview about Occupy Museums and the Biennial experience: