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.”

Obieg: Summary of 2013

Summary of 2013

(translated from the Polish)

In response to the request of the editors of “Circulation” send a subjective summary of the past year. Usually on such occasions I read in summary, they do not like to do that, do not see themselves in that role, or do not feel. I first instinct too, so I reacted. But then it started to follow me around, until I realized that such a summary of yourself to me useful to recapitulate the conclusions from my own experiences. Since I lack clear criteria, but I wanted to avoid ranking.Finally, I decided to evaluate in this way only three categories of events the most interesting, the most embarrassing and most inspiring public institutions. Other indications I created alphabetically or chronologically. Most of them tried to somehow better define or justify. I realize that, as a critic put only the first steps, I did not recognize yet all institutions, artists and events, so my list is not exhaustive. However, it is an honest opinion of this matter, which over the years he had learned.Time will tell, of course, where I was wrong, and where I am right. I’m curious.

Winter Holiday Camp at Ujazdowski Castle – an unprecedented experiment studying the mechanisms of power in the field of cultural institutions and seeking ways of democratic transformation. Initially admitted to the CCA, then torpedoed by the management, then – under pressure from the media and the environment – re-adopted (in part). The project was attended by artists and art-activists of the Polish, Germany, USA and Hungary, among others, Pawel Althamer, Noah Fischer and Arthur Zmijewski. Formulated their demands radical egalitarian in the management of cultural institutions derive from the experience of the international Occupy movement and represent an interesting model of society (not?) Distant future.

Financial Times: Kunstenfestivaldesarts

The Kunstenfestivaldesarts – so cool it doesn’t need spacing – takes place over three weeks in theatres and exhibition spaces around Brussels. This year’s festival features premieres of works by choreographers Aydin Teker and Bruno Beltrão, and artists such as Dan Perjovschi, Benjamin Verdonck and New York-based Noah Fischer, noted for his “four-dimensional lo-tech installations” and collaborations with various theatre-makers and musicians. The festival will be the first chance to see the work of Japanese choreographer and dancer Zan Yamashita in Europe. His previous works include Sailors and It’s just me Coughing, winner of the Kyoto Art Center’s theatre award. Other highlights include the premiere of performance artist Kris Verdonck’s END, which depicts the final stages of society. The festival runs until the end of May.

The New Criterion:Commune plus one

They were madmen, but they had in them that little flame which never dies.
—Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The Museum of Modern Art is far from a blameless institution. For all the brilliance of its permanent collection or the triumphs of its special exhibitions, the museum has built itself into a fortress of modernism. Its over-expanded campus now conveys all the joys of an airport terminal. From the modernist evangelism of its Rockefeller beginnings, the museum has come to resemble a corporate juggernaut eager for its next leveraged buyout, with one adjacent building after the other falling under its control. As a zealous acquisition program continues to add to its holdings, its legal team fights off Holocaust restitution claims made on its collection. Then there is MOMA’s director, Glenn D. Lowry, who lives rent-free in a $6-million apartment in the museum’s residential tower while collecting aCEO-level payment package topping several million dollars a year in salary, trust income, and other benefits. For anyone concerned about the legacy of this institution, these numbers are impossible to reconcile against a faltering economy and the museum’s ever-rising admission price, which recently increased to a mandatory twenty-five dollars.

When a division of Occupy Wall Street set out to “Occupy Museums” on October 20, the Occupationists knew they had an easy target in moma. Yet like the Occupy movement in general, this particular protest made little attempt to expose new details of the museum’s operations or to promote realistic institutional reform. Led by an artist named Noah Fischer, who often wears a mask shaped like a large quarter, the Occupationists instead outlined their position through a manifesto. “The game is up,” they declared:

we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%. No longer will we, the artists of the 99%, allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite. . . . The Occupywallstreet Movement will bring forth an era of new art, true experimentation outside the narrow parameters set by the market. Museums, open your mind and your heart! Art is for everyone! The people are at your door!

On the afternoon of October 20, after occupying the uptown Number 4 Train from Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, a dozen or so Occupationists stationed themselves in front of the museum entrance. Their protest was tame, even lame, by Occupationist standards, but it was revealing of the movement’s trajectory.

“Purge the world of bourgeois sickness! Purge the world of dead art!” Quoted from the dead movements of art history (in this case, Fluxus), the slogans of their protest were not about to reform Holocaust restitution law. They would not even knock a dollar off Glenn Lowry’s dry cleaning bill.

Occupy Wall Street has been energized by a host of grievances. Yet the Occupationists have never offered realistic solutions because “what they want” misses the point. As the “Liberty Square Blueprint,” a wiki-page of defining principles edited by several hundred Occupationists, has argued, “Demands cannot reflect inevitable success. Demands imply condition, and we will never stop. Demands cannot reflect the time scale that we are working with.” Instead, the movement finds its solution in the process rather than the products of its Occupation. Occupy Museums was one small act of this pageantry.

Occupy Wall Street is but the latest revival of a spectacle that has been performed many times before—not necessarily in the Arab Spring, which saw regimes toppled through political means, but in certain incarnations of idealistic vision that emerged out of a seventy-two-day experiment in Paris nearly a century and a half ago. Before there were the Tompkins Square Park riots, the student takeovers of 1968, or Occupy Wall Street, there was the Paris Commune of 1871.

The Commune was born in a moment not unlike our own. After the extravagant Second Empire of Napoleon III came crashing down in the Franco-Prussian War, the establishment of the Third Republic left French radicals with unrealistic expectations for the new government. “A majority of the Republicans in the 1870s proved to be more conservative than they had been under the Liberal Empire, even less interested in social reform than before,” writes Roger L. Williams in his French Revolution of 1870–1871.

On March 18, two generals from the new government entered Paris and ascended Montmartre to recover cannon left over from the Prussian siege. A Parisian militia, along with some regular soldiers, turned on the generals and executed them. Local women desecrated their corpses. In The Terrible Year: The Paris Commune, 1871, reissed as The Fall of Paris, The Seige and The Commune, 1870-1871 (Penguin), Alistair Horne recounts how “maenads from the mob squatted and urinated upon them.” Many years later, the Sacré-Cœur basilica would memorialize their deaths and the thousands that followed, including the death of the Archbishop of Paris, murdered in cold blood.

As the Republican government fled, the city created its own communal government. Rather than merely reestablish municipal services, the Commune attempted to inaugurate a “new political era, experimental, positive, scientific,” declared by manifesto: “It is the end of the old government and clerical world, of militarism, of monopolists, of privileges to which the proletariat owes its servitude, the Nation its miseries and disasters.”

The barricades went up, and the Commune set about becoming an idealistic autonomous body inside the French state with much to hope for and little that could actually be done. Among its few lackluster achievements was the suppression of pawnshops and the prohibition of night-baking, reducing “all Paris to stale bread.” As Lord Elton writes inThe Revolutionary Idea in France: 1789–1871: “Upon one thing they were in substantial agreement—the principle of the Commune. The principle of the Commune was the indispensable preliminary to the new Revolution. . . . The Commune was revolutionary not because of what it did but because of what it claimed.”

Caught in the middle of the euphoria was Gustave Courbet, by then a celebrated Realist in his early fifties. “For Courbet, the Commune was, all too briefly, the fulfillment of his dreams of a government without oppressive, domineering institutions, the Proudhonian Utopia of social justice come true,” explains the leftist art historian Linda Nochlin. Yet for all of this idealism, Courbet’s legacy during this brief period only proved to be destructive for himself and for the arts of Paris.

Already tapped to be the head of the city’s Federation of Artists, in April and early May 1871 Courbet set about suppressing the Academy, the École des Beaux-Arts, and the Schools of Rome and of Athens. A May 10 report dedicated his Federation’s efforts to the “radical rejection of the authoritarian principle which has been the very essence of the former administrations.”

The episode of the Vendôme Column became his undoing. A year before, Courbet had petitioned the government to tear down the monument, which Napoleon I had modeled after Trajan’s Column in Rome to memorialize the French victory at Austerlitz. “I wanted to have that mass of melted cannon that perpetuates the tradition of conquest, of looting, and of murder removed from your street,” said Courbet.

On April 12, the Commune agreed and set about engineering its destruction. Late in the afternoon of May 16, with its foundation undermined and cables pulling on its sides, the Column crashed down to the street and broke into several pieces as a band performed for the assembled crowd.

Courbet’s glory was short lived. When French troops entered the city two weeks later, the government suppressed the uprising and killed an estimated 20,000 Communards. Courbet fled but was arrested soon after. The artist’s fame quickly turned to infamy. After a brief prison term, Courbet went into exile in Switzerland, and in 1874 the French courts ordered him to pay to resurrect the Column. After the artist lost on appeal, the government billed him 323,091.68 francs to be paid in 10,000 franc yearly installments. His work in France was seized and liquidated through a fire sale at the Hôtel Drouot. Despondent and struggling to pay his debt, the artist drank himself to death a few days after the sale on December 31, 1877.

Courbet was lucky to have survived the Commune at all, even as he eventually gave his life over to an uprising that offered him nothing in return. “Even those who were to die unhesitatingly beneath its red standards could hardly give a coherent definition,” Horne writes, “and today one’s fingers clutch awkwardly at vague slogans, conflicting ideologies and nebulous abstractions.”

For those of us who watch from the sidelines, the Occupy Wall Street movement may appear sympathetic to our own concerns. At the very least, it seems to offer a safety valve for others to vent their frustrations. Yet the history of idealistic occupations suggests this will also end poorly, with a polarized public and the movement collapsing in ruin.

Like the Commune, Occupy Wall Street is about the perfection of itself rather than the reform of others. This is a reason that the Occupationists differ from other protesters who go home at the end of a long march. For the Occupation, the tents do not come down until perfection is attained or destroyed.

The heart of OWS is therefore in its internal mechanics, especially its strictly “non-hierarchical” code of conduct. The manifestations of this code might appear foolish, but they emerge from a formula meant to challenge if not supplant our current system of government with the Occupation’s own forms of egalitarian command and control, a formula that grOWS ever more doctrinaire and insular for those who practice it. Many of these devices are still being developed in the “General Assemblies” of Occupationist cells. OWS already employs several to limit open speech, especially when the purity of the Occupation is confronted by the impurities of our existing laws and precedent.

The repudiation of American law at the heart of OWS means that the Occupation is not just another voluntary association or another utopian community with its own set of parliamentary procedures. The Occupationists have never acknowledged the right of Brookfield Properties, the private owners Zuccotti Park, to announce their own rules for the use of the park. Nor do they recognize the right of city government to ask that the park be vacated to allow for proper sanitation—a role that the Occupationists had theatrically taken on themselves with questionable results. This denial is only now coming to a head as police reassert authority over the encampments. The routine call and response ofOWS—“Show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like!” and “Whose park? Our park!”—is revealing in that the rhetoric ofOWS always circles back in on itself. To the Occupationists, they are what democracy looks like, and the rest of us are not what democracy looks like. They have the right to occupy whatever space they choose, while the rest of us, including our agents in law enforcement, do not.

The first Occupy Museums of October 20 presented another venue for the Occupationists to assert this sense of entitlement. They took up their positions at moma in a circle facing inwards rather than out. Since their interests are mainly insular, their speeches ultimately concerned themselves. As different protesters came up to the top of the “stack,” or what OWS calls its list of approved speakers, each statement was repeated line by line by the rest of the Occupationists. “Mic check” is the Occupation’s code commanding the crowd to repeat whatever a speaker says, from “Down with bourgeois art” to “Have you seen my cell phone charger?” A complex system of arm and finger waving is another development.

OWS may claim that these practices came out of the need to broadcast a speaker’s words in a park that does not permit megaphones. In a small gathering like the one at Occupy Museums, it merely serves to channel speech into a cult-like spectacle of repetition and hand-signals, all the while drowning out opposing voices.

The painter Loren Munk, who creates YouTube videos under the pseudonym James Kalm, is an artist who has gone against the grain by questioning the intentions of the Occupation. Recently he has turned his lens from documenting museum and gallery openings to filing reports from the barricades. After stumbling upon Occupy’s Brooklyn Bridge protest of October 3 while riding his bicycle from his home in Red Hook to Manhattan, Munk has uploaded over a dozen videos of the Occupation to his YouTube page called “Rough Cuts” under the title of “Resist we much: a continuing critique of Occupy Wall Street.” By questioning the protesters in ad-hoc video exchanges, Munk has sought to expose what he sees as the inconsistencies and dangers of the movement.

Munk’s presence at the first Occupy Museums protest, seen in a video he posted on YouTube on October 21, proved to be illuminating. About eight minutes into the video, as Munk narrates into his camera from the protest circle, the Occupationists attempt to silence his report.

“We need to speak together,” Noah Fischer admonishes—a statement, like everything spoken in this exchange, immediately repeated by the group through the “human microphone.”

“I’m not part of the group. I’m the 1%,” Munk responds.

“Then why are you on this side of the barrier?” demands the group.

“Because the 1% has the right to be where they want to be, right? Isn’t that what freedom is all about?”

“We have a process. In our process we don’t talk while other people are speaking. You are welcome to stay here. But you need to honor the process.”

“What happens if I don’t honor the process?”

“Then nothing gets accomplished.”

Another Occupationist went on “to point out to this gentleman who has joined us, who decided to shout over us and not respect the process, that he clearly demonstrates that he is part of the 1% in using his voice to try and drown out the voices of others who are trying to use a democratic means of communication.”

The protesters’ indignation at being interrupted on a public sidewalk might seem ironic if not laughable. When you realize that Munk’s words are regarded as unsanctioned and unprotected by the Occupation’s own codes, then Occupy Wall Street takes on a frightening aspect for anyone—artists especially—who speak out in ways that do not advance the Occupation’s own political processes.

Perhaps no image illustrates the vision of the Occupation better than the poster used to promote the initial encampment of September 17. Created by Adbusters, an anti-capitalist Canadian magazine dedicated to “culture-jamming,” the poster features a female dancer balanced on the head of the Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull, the statue on Bowling Green that has come to represent the Wall Street bull market. In the background, obscured by dust and tear gas, is a charging scrum of riot police wielding clubs and pushing towards the center.

“To me it was a sublime symbol of total clarity,” says Kalle Lasn, the Estonian-born founder of Adbusters.

Here’s a body poised in this beautiful position and it spoke of this crystal-clear sublime idea behind this messy business. On top of the head it said, “What is our one demand?” To me it was almost like an invitation, like if we get our act together then we can launch a revolution. It had this magical revolutionary feel to it, which you couldn’t have with the usual lefty poster which is nasty and visceral and in your face. The magic came from the fact this ballerina is so sublimely tender.

Yet like the riot police charging towards the dancer, the “magic” of the sublime moment is predicated on its eventual destruction. From the start, the founders of OWS have hoped that its idealism would end in confrontation. After two months of delay, the city’s new enforcement, initiated during the police clearing of Zuccotti on November 15, will undoubtedly play into the Occupation’s own eschatology, endtimes that have only just begun, although the surgical NYPD operation did not give the Occupationists the bloody finale they may have sought.

Whenever Lenin wanted to suggest the success of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, he compared it to the mythical seventy-two days of the Paris Commune of 1871. For Lenin, the seventy-third day of Bolshevism became “Commune plus one.” “All through his life,” writes Horne, “Lenin studied the Commune: worshipped its heroism, analyzed its successes, criticized its faults, and compared its failures with the failures of the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905.” At his death, Lenin’s body was wrapped in the red Communard flag.

In 1964, a Soviet Voskhod even rocketed to space carrying a shred of an original Communard banner. By restarting a clock that ran for a couple of months in a Paris spring, the Communists consigned tens of millions of people to death and ruined half the nations of Europe. They then saw fit to celebrate these achievements by sending the Paris Commune into space before, eventually, their own idealistic creation came crashing down to Earth.

Marx called the Commune the first “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Lenin’s Bolsheviks identified closely with the Commune and shared the same name. Yet the Communists were far from the last to be taken in by its myth.

There is an undeniable romance in doomed idealism, even if the ends are worse than the beginnings. The deadliest form of idealism invites its own ruin, either from outside or within, so that the purity of the ideal can be measured against the severity of its destruction—cataclysm as a defense against compromise. “The Commune ruled for a brief seventy days before expiring in a holocaust of fire and bloodshed far in excess of anything perpetrated during the Great Revolution of 1789,” writes Horne, “but it left behind an indelible mark that was to spread far beyond the boundaries of France.”

The legacy of the Commune was an idealistic promise that can never be fulfilled. To resurrect the Commune therefore means to restart the countdown to ruin. Herein lies the deadly mechanics of the Commune and the movements it inspires. Listen closely and most of the failed idealism of the last century has the tick of that Commune clock, from the terror of China to Cambodia to many smaller time bombs including, now, Occupy Wall Street.



James Panero is the Managing Editor of The New Criterion.

Teamster Nation: Sotheby’s Teamsters take action against Museum of Modern Art

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York last night got Occupied again — by Teamsters from Local 814, Occupy Wall Street, museumgoers, artists, arts enthusiasts and culture activists.

The groups gathered outside of the multimillion-dollar exhibition of Diego Rivera’s legendary murals and disrupted museumgoers’ quiet viewing experience.

Organizer Noah Fischer addressed the crowd, giving them an alternative interpretation of Rivera’s art:

Work by Rivera.

They’re not miracles of art. They’re works.

The action was chiefly the effort of Occupy Museums, an Occupy Wall Street working group that fights against the influence of the 1% in the arts. As outspoken supporters of the locked-out Teamsters, Occupy Museums activists fight the “Sotheby’s economy” — a system of elite influence that works to “support” the arts with one hand, then grabs at its profit with the other.

MoMa deals with Sotheby’s, which threw 43 art handlers out of work because they demanded a fair standard of living from the mega-rich employer.

The visit followed the action last Friday, when Occupy Museums took to MoMa in collaboration with labor activists from Occupy Sotheby’s (who had last been seen getting jostled in the picket line clashduring the Nov. 9 auction.

Felix Cardinal, an art handler of 4 years who came to MoMa assembly, said he appreciated Occupy Wall Street’s support:

We know that OWS can take action and walk the walk, but now I’m even more impressed by this level of conversation taking place. I’m inspired that people who seriously care about art are doing something to help our cause, that this issue stretches way beyond just Sotheby’s.

Rivera’s works, which depict scenes of life, labor and inequality in the new industial world, were commissioned in part by corporate mogul and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller. When he saw that they depicted a pro-worker message, Rockefeller wouldn’t let the work remain on display in 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Arts activist Ariel Lugo pointed out that the exhibit’s success resulted from art handlers’ skill:

The art handlers who installed this exhibit had their work cut out for them, because these murals were painted on cement. They were painted on cement because Rivera thought they’d be shown in a public space, not in a museum with corporate-subsidized admission.

Harrison Magee, a member of Occupy Sotheby’s, said:

Rivera wouldn’t have wanted his paintings here. His works stood for the interests of working people, whose voices are being silenced everywhere.

As Sotheby’s enters a new auction season having once again broken sales records in the fall, they have still yet to reach a fair agreement with the Teamsters union. Estimates predict that the lockout has by now cost the company more money than they would have spent over the course of the 3-year contract as proposed by the union. with new parts of the movement now getting involved, OWS is throwing the weight of the 99% back into the fight to end the lockout.

Posted by Teamster Power at 9:20 AM 


Art in America: Occupy Museums Targets MoMA trustees

by brian boucher 01/17/12

On Friday, The Museum of Modern Art was once again targeted by Occupy Museums, bringing their protest inside the building on a bitterly cold evening. Occupy Museums has staged a number of demonstrations since October; this was a homecoming of sorts, since the first protest took place at MoMA.

Over the two-hour event, protesters, ranging in number from one to several dozen, led a group discussion about art, capitalism and class struggle in the galleries devoted to the exhibition “Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art,” and held a general assembly in the second-floor atrium. They were joined by representatives of the Arts and Labor Group of Occupy Wall Street, artists’ group 16 Beaver and Occupy Sotheby’s.

The main thrust of the occupiers’ complaints was that two MoMA board members, James Niven and Richard E. Oldenburg, are also involved with Sotheby’s (as a vice chairman and consultant, respectively), which has locked out its unionized art handlers over a contract dispute. A representative of OWS Labor Outreach (who gave his name only as “Alex”) proclaimed in the Rivera exhibition, “The fact that MoMA will show Diego Rivera while breaking labor is a disgrace.” Noah Fischer, the artist who is the main organizer of Occupy Museums, repeatedly asserted that Sotheby’s has spent more on locking the workers out than it would have on their wages.

Friday’s protest aimed at a more specific and relevant target than some of the group’s previous actions. Occupy Museums was widely derided in the blogosphere at its inception, partly due to the Khmer Rouge undertones of Fischer’s call to action, which opened, “The game is up: we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%.” Their second protest, after beginning at MoMA, was to proceed to the Frick Collection, to criticize union-buster Henry Clay Frick, whom they called “the worst CEO in history.” This was greeted online by a collective shrug.

In the Rivera galleries, protesters distributed, and partially read aloud, a 1938 text signed by Rivera and Andre Breton, titled “Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art.” Security guards interceded only to prevent photography, which is prohibited in special exhibitions. Protesters asserted loudly in the crowded galleries that art is not a luxury item, but rather part of the commons, the inheritance of all people.

Creative Time curator Nato Thompson, a participant in the protest, pointed out that while The New York Times was slow to cover Occupy Wall Street, it was fascinated with the Egyptian revolution. He saw a similar phenomenon in MoMA’s exhibition of Rivera: “Rivera can be abstracted from the present. Would he really want us to passively enjoy his murals? If you really love this show you’ll get off your ass and overthrow your boss!”

The occupiers chose MoMA’s Free Fridays, which are sponsored by Target, partly for historical reasons: free public hours grew out of demands by the Art Workers’ Coalition, a group of artists protesting war and capitalism in the sixties. “It’s now branded as free Target day,” said Rene Gabri, an artist representing 16 Beaver. “It’s absurd.”

Christopher Kelly, visiting New York City with his family from the upstate village of Painted Post, engaged the protesters with pointed questions: Why is Target suddenly so evil? Doesn’t someone have to pay the guards, and to keep the lights on? And doesn’t someone always have the power when money is involved? “But brands destroy art,” Thompson rebutted. Another protestor called out, “But everything today has become a commodified product.”

During a general assembly in the second-floor atrium, currently home to the show “Sanja Iveković: Sweet Violence,” protesters briefly hung a banner from a fifth-floor walkway. It read, in part, “Hang art, not workers. End your lockout.” The protesters cheered, then broke out into smaller groups to discuss, as Gabri suggested, “What kind of resistance will be necessary to alter the trend of corporatization of public institutions, including art institutions?”

Various suggestions were floated, such as art historian Ben Young’s recommendation to use sympathetic spaces such as New York’s ABC No Rio, a center for activism; another demonstrator called attention to the threat of tuition being charged at Cooper Union. But soon enough, it was 8 P.M., closing time, and the protesters made their way out of the museum along with the rest of its visitors.

Visitor reactions varied. “Some of us came to see the art,” one woman huffed in the Rivera galleries. Christopher Kelly’s 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, was optimistic. “As long as they stay organized,” she predicted about the protesters, “they’ll go far.”


Artnet: Occupy MoMA

On Friday night, Jan. 13, 2012, a trumpet sounded outside the Museum of Modern Art at exactly 6 pm and a banner was unfurled by its front door, announcing the presence of Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Museums, a working group of OWS, had decided to take advantage of Free Fridays at the museum and enter the premises for a well-organized teach-in. It was a band of approximately 20 participants — a group that included professional arts activists like Creative Time curator Nato Thompson, Queens College art professors Greg Shollette and Maureen Connor, and Jim Costanza, a founder of the once-active collective Repo History.

“What would Diego have said?” asked one. Among the answers was a demand to end the lockout of Teamsters Local 814, the Sotheby’s art handlers, who have been on the picket line for the past four months. Then, a speaker stepped forward to read Rivera’s own manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art, co-authored with André Bretonin 1938.Once inside the museum, they quickly collected in front of The Uprising, Diego Rivera’s 1931 painting of a labor demonstration that shows a soldier and a worker being separated by a woman cradling an infant (a picture that MoMA has used throughout the subway system to advertise its Rivera exhibition). Someone shouted “mike check” and the protesters immediately formed a human microphone, Zuccotti Park-style.

“We can say without exaggeration that never has civilization been menaced as seriously as today,” starts the manifesto, sounding a bit like a parody of contemporary Republican talking points. The chant-reading and repeating continued for ten minutes, providing a rousing accompaniment to the Diego Rivera murals in the gallery. The performance was made all the more visceral by the guards hovering just a few feet away and surrounding the group. Some museum visitors joined in while others kvetched, “Are you done yet?”

But Occupy Museums wasn’t done yet. It went from the Rivera exhibition down the hall to the museum café, where the group continued to harp on the Sotheby’s lockout and MoMA’s ties to the auction house. According to Occupy Museums, two MoMA boardmembers — director emeritus Richard Oldenburg and Sotheby’s auctioneer James G. Niven — are also on the board of Sotheby’s, along with restauranteur Danny Meyer, who operates the museum cafes.

Artist Noah Fischer, who launched Occupy Museums in October, shouted to diners that they would not be so comfortable eating if they knew about the situation at Sotheby’s. The waiters applauded. “It’s all interconnected,” said “Alex” from the OWS Labor working group. “It’s very incestuous.”

The protest then moved into the museum atrium, where, beneath Sanja Ivekovic’s soaring Lady Rosa of Luxembourg obelisk, the protestors called for a “general assembly.” Flyers fluttered down from above and Occupy Museums members hung a banner from the fifth floor balcony, reading, “If Art Insists on Being a Luxury, It Will Also Be a Lie,” a quote from Albert Camus. Charges against MoMA were made repeatedly, including the perfectly true if inflammatory claim that “MoMA sells its art through Sotheby’s.”

Still, the protest held the attention of the museum audience, which surrounded the group and watched from above. MoMA did a good job of exercising restraint, allowing the action to continue unimpeded, rather than risk any kind of publicity disaster.

In the past two decades, “political protest” has become almost routine at our museums, as curators commission such work in the name of “participatory art” and “relational esthetics.” Museums have long been subject of political analysis, from the Art Workers Coalition to Hans Haacke, the Guerrilla Girls, Andrea Fraser and many others. As for Occupy Museums, it’s not hard to dismiss its earnest activity as a tired rehash of longstanding objections to the corporatization of American art institutions.

(In fact, as Occupy Museums itself noted, in the 1970s the Art Workers Coalition staged protests at the museum to criticize the connections of MoMA boardmembers with the military industrial complex, to demand the removal of Nelson Rockefeller from the board for his bloody handling of the Attica prison uprising, and to demand free hours at the museum. MoMA responded by establishing Free Fridays, now Target Free Friday Nights. Occupy Museums noted that the public pays a price when Target gets free advertising.)

Unlike many of its predecessors, however, the Occupy Museums protest was straightforward and political, not “dressed up” as an art event. And as it drew to a close, it was clear that Occupy Museums raises important questions. Why, for instance, does our highly developed art scene ignore important issues of financial and social justice yet deliver up spot paintings to great acclaim? Why cannot museums function as contemporary commons, rather than as reputation-laundering facilities for hedge-fund managers and corporations?

MoMA spokesperson Kim Mitchell was on hand at the event on Friday, with a worried look on her face. “Our official position is no comment,” she said. Meanwhile, Occupy Museums is waiting to hear about the fate of its banner, confiscated by museum guards. “If they agree to our conditions, we will let the museum acquire it for the permanent collection,” said one member. He wasn’t talking about money. He was asking for the museum to take action.

If you want to restore your sense that change is possible in the art world, I recommend that you check out Occupy Museums on Facebook (and keep an eye out for its dedicated website, scheduled to open soon). If you’re too cold or old to come out to an action, or if you own a Damien Hirst, just pass this information on.

BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China(Timezone 8 Books).


New York Times: Taking the Protests to the Art World


The Occupy Wall Street movement took on the art world, sort of, this week, with a splinter group, Occupy Museums. Convened on Thursday evening through a FacebookTwitter and Tumblr posts, about 20 people made their way from the Museum of Modern Art to the New Museum  to a downtown gallery, protesting what they say is the conflation of art and commerce, the snobbery of the art market and high ticket prices at museums, which they called the “temples of the cultural elite.”

Outside the New Museum they chanted: “Museums, open your minds and your hearts, and listen. Art is for everyone! The people are at your door.” Standing in a circle on the sidewalk, they used the call-and-repeat system known as the people’s mic, which has become a hallmark of the movement. The people’s mic is an “art form,” Noah Fischer, an artist and organizer of Occupy Museums, said later, promising that it was only the first new artistic tool to emerge from the protests. “I thing art is going a change from this movement,” he said, “because it’s going to unstick the current paradigm, which is based on money.” 

After a  reading from a text, which called museums a “pyramid scheme” in which “the wealthiest one hundredth of one percent claim ownership of culture,” the Occupy Museums group opened the floor to supporters to speak. One woman noted that the New Museum had recently collaborated with a group called WAGE – Working Artists and the Greater Economy – to take on the issue of artist compensation in an exhibit called “Free.” She wanted to acknowledge the museum for paying artists fairly for their work in it. But she added, “This should not be an exception, but rather a rule.” She called upon artists to be brave and stand up to gatekeeper cultural institutions. Together, she said, “we are stronger than the threat of obscurity.”

At MoMA, the protesters had been cordoned off by the police, but at the New Museum they were unencumbered. Three police officers casually watched the proceedings, leaning on their squad car. Museumgoers, too, seemed to take the spectacle in stride (though a protester in a gorilla mask, a woman who said she worked at an art museum, drew a few double takes). Some passersby stopped to listen. “It makes sense,” one 60-ish man, a neighborhood resident, said of the group’s comments, before heading on his way.

Mr. Fischer, 34, a Brooklyn sculptor, performance artist and Fulbright scholar, has been a supporter of Occupy Wall Street since it started five weeks ago, though he has  spent only one night at Zuccotti Park, the movement’s epicenter. “My girlfriend, she would not appreciate me sleeping there every night,” he said, as his girlfriend looked on, nodding. He has, though, committed himself as an artist to protesting. “Right now, this is my practice,” he said. (He teaches at the Pratt Institute and rents out artist studios to make ends meet.)

Even in its first day, Occupy Museums, which is meant to be a weekly event, had drawn some criticism online, but Mr. Fischer said dissent was welcome. “This is our moment to expand people’s thinking about what part of our culture is controlled by the one percent,” he said, “and people who think about it will figure out pretty quickly that MoMA is.”

Over the summer Mr. Fischer and several others were involved in a performance of their own on Wall Street, “Summer of Change.” Wearing an oversized mask that resembled the head side of a coin (a penny or a quarter), Mr. Fischer and his compatriots gave out vast amounts of change – 400 quarters, 1,000 dimes – in an attempt at redistribution of wealth. (The project was funded by a Kickstarter.) “It’s time now, in the movement, to look beyond Wall Street and notice that a culture of economic inequality flows to all parts of our city, and all parts of our culture,” Mr. Fischer said.

At the New Museum, a protester mentioned White Box, a small gallery off the Bowery that was having an opening that night. After a consensus vote, the group marched their protest over to its doors. But the exhibit there, “WALLmART,” turned out to be in solidarity with the 99 percent movement. So after a few minutes, the Occupy Museums group abandoned their sidewalk chants and went in.

“We occupied, and now we’re going to schmooze,” Mr. Fischer said.



Art21 Blog


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We invited artist Noah Fischer to write about his current project, Electrical Forest: Made in Troy, a site-specific installation in Troy, New York.  — Ed.

During my initial research missions to Troy, New York I met a colorful bunch of historians, painters, potters, professors and arborists, and was struck by the miniature grandeur of the city. There was a need to respond to its historical aura; going to Troy was stepping into another world. This was interesting to me because it’s not a gentrified international destination; it’s more or less a graveyard of American industry, a city of the Rust Belt.  Working with The Arts Center of the Capital Region and independent curator, Lauren Wolk, who invited me to Troy for the project, I crafted the outlines of Electrical Forest: Made in Troy.  It was to be a project that depended on the community of Troy to harness the aura of their city. Electrical Forest: Made in Troy would tell the story of a small American city set deep in the landscape of progress.

The project had two stages. The “Factory Phase” was a challenge to produce 10,000 “leaves” in one week on a human-powered assembly line.  The line consisted of many stations, each with a volunteer who would repeat one action on the synthetic leaf as it moved past on a conveyor system. Toward the end of the line, each leaf would be scanned and uploaded to an online database at, creating a linear movement from industrial age to information age. For the “Forest Phase,” we headed into the woods to gather trees; re-imagining the linear architecture of the assembly line as a woody ecosystem and finally hanging the manufactured leaves on an electrical light-filled canopy. Ultimately the “Forest” overtook the “Factory,” but left traces of what had been there before. Tree trunks grew up through workers’ tables, branches pushed tools aside, a canopy of leaves covered the ceiling.

When I sketched out the assembly line, I was drawing on the history of the region, which was revealed to me by geologist, collector, artist, and local historian Bill Skerritt, who drove me around to old factories in his station wagon. As another Troy historian, Tom Carroll, contends, Troy was the Silicon Valley of the 19th century, a model of high-tech and efficient industrialism. Here, factory workers manufactured products from precision instruments to shirt collars distributed via steamboat on the Hudson River and Erie Canal, and by rail. Troy was famous for cast iron stoves, bronze bells, and the ability to stamp out a million horseshoes in a week, supplying the Union Army during the Civil War. Yet, the assembly line in Electrical Forest was not quite a historical re-creation. Rather, it was an experiment that asked a group of twelve people to sync up in a giddy rhythm and engage in serious play.


Not only did the community play this instrument, the songs were original, personal, and inspired. We worked in two-hour shifts—twelve volunteers per shift; three shifts per day. The experience for each volunteer was to be drawn into a choreographed dance of industry: energetically producing leaves that echoed those falling outside the gallery window; to be part of a machine, though a natural one. Onlookers heard the sounds of laughter, singing, and an eclectic funk and whispering organ soundtrack spun on vinyl records punctuated by bells. A big bronze bell cast in Troy in 1854 by the Meneely Bell Co and loaned to me by Bill Skerritt was rung with a hammer after every 10 leaves produced. Groups of professors and professionals came by on office development days and ended up “letting their freak flags fly,” as they got into the infectious rhythm of production. One woman found it therapeutic. Others came to many shifts until they learned each step in the process and took on empowering roles overseeing, fixing, and modifying the assembly line. One older retired man who seemed at first a little grumpy surprised me when he showed up the next day. He didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to spend the afternoon playing.

The forest is the other side of the industrial coin. Upstate New York had been filled with vigorous deciduous forest until the 19th century, when almost all of it was logged for buildings, railroads, and fuel for factories. At this time, which predates modern environmentalism, forests were seen as natural farms; trees were crops to be harvested and clearcutting was the norm. Existing deep ecological systems were not acknowledged or preserved. But the Hudson River School paintings make it clear that the natural landscape exerted a forceful, if troubled, pull on the culture as painters such as John Frederick Kensett captured a pre-industry Garden of Eden in the local landscape. I think that during the age of progress 150 years ago, the natural environment was defined by a contradiction of desires to be both cradled by primeval nature and to modify the landscape for human utility. Still, today we desire our fast new computers, luxurious SUVs, along with fresh air and natural landscape.  Wrapped up in progress is this contradiction, which I wanted to highlight in the second phase of Electrical Forest.

I worked with a man named Jack Magai, who is an arborist, dancer, and father of two sons whom he homeschools. Jack and I went into the woods of Troy and looked at trees as we discussed the ethics of cutting them down for an art installation. While my friends from New York City found it wrong to chop, Jack and others I met in Troy didn’t see the problem. Trees were everywhere and often the conversations would turn to trees falling on houses during storms; people here loved trees but life with them was complicated. Jack taught me that trees near the edge of the forest grow in graceful curves away from the competition and toward the light, and we sawed down young Buckthorns and Ashes for the installation. I bought some big logs from a kind-faced father and son named Burt and Peter, who had a firewood operation on their property, and it took a small group of straining volunteers and Jack’s dancer’s ingenuity with the weight and balance to get the massive logs into the gallery. Once inside, we arranged tables from the assembly line into a circle and used them as anchors for the branching trees, onto which volunteers attached the 10,000 manufactured leaves. To this, we added motorized halogen light units and a textured electronic soundtrack by Brooklyn composer Rafael Cohen. The lights created a complex phenomenology of moving shadows, as if one were in a thick woods at night with cars passing by.  Shadows, leaves, and people are ephemeral, but combined, these elements created a monument to the community of Troy.

Noah Fischer is an artist based in Brooklyn, NY.