Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Slowly Turning Nasty

The feeble watery conceptualesque style that has been the official art for the last twenty five years or so was built from the stylistic mannerisms of the earlier conceptual art of the late 60s and 70s. Where the earlier conceptualism was as much a political protest movement as it was an art movement, the later conceptualism was more a marketing movement than an art movement, a way of producing cheap easily marketable clone art but also a way of drawing the claws of political conceptualism. Thus we have had the travesty of institutions entrepreneuring artist that they claimed were ‚Äúsubverting the institutions‚ÄĚ and various other examples of the way capitalism can absorb and destroy all protest.

But it does not always work and the earlier conceptualism was an example of that. It launched many artists (including me) into activism where we used our art skills as tools in a variety of political struggles. The basic catalyst of this activism was the Vietnam War, an unjust and pointless war that provoked an intense scrutiny of the institutions of any country that supported it. We all came to the sudden and horrifying conclusion that so much of the art we admired was being used to promote imperialism, regardless of the intentions of the artists.

That period in the late 60s was in fact terrifyingly similar to now. It is one of the reasons that I have been arguing that social art is an effective form of resistance far more radical than it at first appears. But other things are also starting to happen . The crypto-fascism of the Howard Liberals (and Beazleys Amateur Liberal Party) is quite tolerable compared to the overt fascism that is developing in the US which is now starting to develop resistance even within the institutions.

In that context, read the following story about the resignation of curator Chris Gilbert from the Berkeley Art Museum. So that the sequence can be read more easily I have lifted it in its entirety from a post by Brett Bloom at the great Temporary Services , plus a subsequent post, a letter from Gregory Shollette. I think it will be seen as another defining moment in the culture war that we are all part of whether we want to be or not.

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Chris Gilbert's resignation letter from the Berkeley Art Museum
May. 24th, 2006 | 10:35 am


Chris Gilbert is one of the most thoughtful curators that Temporary Services has ever worked with. He was working at the Baltimore Museum of Art when we first met with him. He organized a series of shows called Cram Sessions, which sought to bring new and critical practices into one of the most conservative museums you can imagine.

I had the pleasure of seeing Chris's latest curatorial efforts at the Berkeley Museum of Art last month when in the Bay Area for a presentation of Prisoners' Inventions at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It was the first installment of a year-long series. It was called "Now-Time Venezuela Part 1: Worker-Controlled Factories."

http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/exhibits/nowtime/index.html

This ambitious and deeply inspiring video installation was by Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler. It was a gorgeous documentary broken up into several smaller parts. Each video consisted of interviews with workers at several worker-run factories. Interspersed between the interviews were stunning shots of machines making the different items produced at each factory - chocolate, ketchup, aluminum and more. This installation was both drop-dead gorgeous and politically relevant. It challenges both the ways in which we can think of how businesses are organized as well as the kind of art work museums can present. During the entire time I spent watching the videos, I kept thinking "What if Chris tried to re-organize THIS museum. What would that look like and how would the art change?" This work really stood apart from the other work on display at the museum, which did act to reinforce the dominant ideology of museum culture and by extension capitalist forms or sociality. Chris's letter is a partial answer to my speculations. It would be amazing to see a museum the size of BAM regularly devoted to work that didn't always come straight from commercial galleries via the collector-class - like the incredibly vapid work of Jeanne Dunning that had just been there!

Way to give them hell, Chris!

---

Chris Gilbert - statement on resigning 5/21/06

I made the decision to resign as Matrix Curator on April 28, but my struggles with the BAM/PFA over the content and approach of the projects in the exhibition cycle "Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process" go back quite a few months. In particular the museum administrators -- meaning the deputy directors and senior curator collaborating, of course, with the public relations and audience development staff -- have for some time been insisting that I take the idea of solidarity, revolutionary solidarity, out of the cycle. For some months, they have said they wanted "neutrality" and "balance" whereas I have always said that instead my approach is about commitment, support, and alignment -- in brief, taking sides with and promoting revolution.

I have always successfully resisted the museum's attempts to interfere with the projects (and you will see that the ideas of alignment, support, and revolutionary solidarity are written all over the "Now-Time" projects part 1 & part 2 -- they are present in all the texts I have generated and as a consequence in almost all of the reviews). In the museum's most recent attempt to alter things, the one that precipitated my resignation, they proposed to remove the offending concept from the Now-Time Part 2 introductory text panel (a panel which had already gone to the printer). Their plan was to replace the phrase "in solidarity" with revolutionary Venezuela with a phrase like "concerning" revolutionary Venezuela -- or another phrase describing a relation that would not be explicitly one of solidarity.

I threatened to resign and terminate the exhibition, since, first of all, revolutionary solidarity is what I believe in -- the essential concept in the "Now-Time" project cycle -- but secondly it is obviously unfair to invite participants such as Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler or groups such as Catia TVe to a project that has one character (revolutionary solidarity) and then change the rules of the game on them a few weeks before the show opens (so that they become mere objects of examination or investigation). At first, my threat to resign and terminate the show availed nothing. Then on April 28, I wrote a letter stating that I was in fact resigning and my last day of work would be two weeks from that day, which was May 12, two days before the "Now-Time Part 2: Revolutionary Television in Catia" opening. I assured them that the show could not go forward without me. In response to this decisive action -- and surely out of fear that the show which had already been published in the members magazine would not happen -- the institution restored my text panel to the way I had written it. Having won that battle, though at the price of losing my position, I decided to go forward with the show, my last one.

One thing that should make evident how extreme and erratic the museum's actions were is that the very same sentence that was found offensive ("a project in solidarity with the revolutionary process in contemporary Venezuela") is the exact sentence that is used for the first Now-Time Venezuela exhibition text panel that still hangs in the Matrix gallery upstairs. That show is on view for one more week as I write.

The details of all this are important though, of course, its general outlines, which play out the familiar patterns of class struggle, are of greater interest. The class interests represented by the museum, which are above all the interests of the bourgeoisie that funds it, have two (related) things to fear from a project like mine: (1) of course, revolutionary Venezuela is a symbolic threat to the US government and the capitalist class that benefits from that government's policies, just as Cuba is a symbolic threat, just as Nicaragua was, and just as is any country that tries to set its house in order in a way that is different from the ideas of Washington and London -- which is primarily to say Washington and London's insistence that there is no alternative to capitalism.

I must emphasize that the threat is only symbolic; in the eyes of the US government and the US bourgeoisie, it sets a "bad" and dangerous example of disobedience for other countries to follow, but of course the idea that such examples represent a military threat to the US (would that it were the case) is simply laughable; (2) the second threat, which is probably the more operational one in the museum context, is that much of the community is in favor of the "Now-Time" projects -- the response to the first exhibition is enormous and the interest in the second is also very high. That response and interest exposes the fact that the museum, the bourgeois values it promotes via the institution of contemporary art (contemporary art of the past 30 years is really in most respects simply the cultural arm of upper-class power) are not really those of any class but its own. Importantly the museum and the bourgeoisie will always deny the role of class interests in this: they will always maintain that the kinds of cultural production they promote are more difficult, smarter, more sophisticated -- hence the lack of response to most contemporary art is, according to them, about differences in education and sophistication rather than class interest. That this kind of claim is obscurantist and absurd is something the present exhibitions make very clear: the work of Catia TVe, which is created by people in the popular (working-class) neighborhoods of Caracas, is far more sophisticated than what comes out of the contemporary art of the Global North. The same could be said for the ideas discussed by the Venezuelan factory workers in the Ressler and Azzellini film that is shown Now-Time Part 1. (Of course, it is not because these works and the thoughts in them are more sophisticated that we should attend to them; what I am saying is simply that it is clearly an evasion and false to dismiss anti-bourgeois cultural production -- work that aligns with the interests of working class people -- on grounds of its being unsophisticated.)

To return to the museum: I believe that the enormous response to the "Now-Time" cycle -- there were 180 visitors to the March 26 panel discussion that opened "Now-Time" part 1 and if you google "Now-Time Venezuela" you get over 700 hits -- put the class interests that stand by and promote contemporary art in danger, exposed them a bit. I suppose some concern about this may have given a special edge to the museum's failed efforts to alter my projects.

I think it is important to be clear about the facts that precipitated my resignation: that is, the struggle over the wording of the text panel, which fit into months of struggle over the question of solidarity and alignment with a revolutionary political agenda. That issue is discussed above. However, it is also important to understand the context. Again, it is too weak to say that museums, like universities, are deeply corrupt. They are. (And in my view the key points to discuss regarding this corruption are (1) the museum's claim to represent the public's interests when in fact serving upper-class interests and parading a carefully constructed surrogate image of the public; (2) the presence of intra-institutional press and marketing departments that really operate to hold a political line through various control techniques, only one of which is censorship; finally (3) the presence of development departments that, in mostly hidden ways, favor and flatter rich funders, giving the lie to even the sham notion of public responsibility that the museum parades). However, to describe museums and other cultural institutions as simply if deeply corrupt is, as I said, too weak in that it both holds out the promise of their reform and it ignores the larger imperialist structures that make their corruption an inevitable upshot and reflection of the exploitive political and social system of which they form a part. Such institutions will go on reflecting imperialist capitalist values, will celebrate private property and deny social solidarity, and will maintain a strict silence about the control of populations at home and the destruction of populations abroad in the name of profit, until that imperialist system is dismantled. Importantly, it will not be dismantled by cultural efforts alone: a successful reform of a cultural institution here or there would at best result in "islands" of sanity that would most likely operate in a negative way -- as imaginary and misleading "proof" that conditions are not as bad as they are.

In fact, with conditions as they are, a different strategy is required: there should be disobedience at all levels; disruptions and explosions of the kind that I, together with a small group of allies inside the museum, have created are also useful on a symbolic level. However, the primary struggle and the only struggle that will result in a significant change would be one that works directly to transform the economic and political base. This would be a struggle aiming to bring down the US government and its imperialist system through highly organized efforts.

We live in the midst of a fascist imperialism -- there is no other way to describe the system that the US has created and that exercises such control through terror over populations both inside and outside. History has shown that to make "deals" or "compromises" with fascism avails nothing. Instead a radical and daily intransigence is required. Fascism operates to destroy life. It installs and operates on the logic of the camp on all levels, including culture. In the face of that logic, which holds life as nothing, compromises and deals at best buy time for the aggressor and symbolic capital for the aggressor. One should have no illusions: until capitalism and imperialism are brought down, cultural institutions will go on being, in their primary role, lapdogs of a system that spreads misery and death to people everywhere on the planet. The fight to abolish that system completely and build one based on socialism must remain our exclusive and constant focus.

Chris Gilbert

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Chris Gilbert's Resignation: Service In the Name of Whom?
Jun. 11th, 2006 | 10:35 am

Chris Gilbert's resignation letter has caused quite a stir bringing him both supporters and detractors. Gregory Sholette recently sent out this letter about Chris's resignation and the controversy it has caused.

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Chris Gilbert's Resignation: Service In the Name of Whom?

"With conditions as they are, a different strategy is required."
Chris Gilbert

28 year old 1st Lt. Ehren K. Watada of Honolulu disobeyed orders of deployment in Iraq by tendering his resignation on grounds of moral indignation over the war. The army refused to grant his request and Watada now faces a dishonorable discharge as well as several years in prison for defying commands.
"Never did I imagine my president would lie to go to war, condone torture, spy on Americans, or destroy the career of a CIA agent for political gain. I would rather resign in protest, but the army doesn't agree." (Watada.)

No doubt many who read this will praise this young man's ethics and bravery. Then why is it, in the wake of curator Chris Gilbert's letter of resignation from the Berkeley Art Museum, has there been a divided response from within progressive art circles with many people questioning this young man's motivation? (Gilbert's letter is copied here at Bay Area indymedia: http://www.indybay.org/news/2006/05/1824808.php with responses posted on Mute http://www.metamute.org/?q=en/node/7834 and Nettime http://www.nettime.org/cgi-bin/search.cgi?q=rosler+gilbert&ul
=&cmd=Search%21
)

When a soldier walks away from serving in Iraq we praise her or him for the ethical conscience expressed. When a curator walks away from what he believes is service to the same imperial interests he becomes suspect. Why is it so difficult to accept Gilbert's letter at face value? Do we immediately see every player in the art system as inherently flawed and opportunistic, unlike the ethical purity of the soldier? What does this say about the nature the art world as an institution, something we inevitably support through our labors, even when we do so with reservation? I find all of this curious.
In times of past US wars, the art world's players have protested, even gone on strike against the institutions that fed them. Art Workers Coalition, Black Emergency Coalition, Guerilla Art Action Group, Artists Meeting for Cultural Change among many others directly targeted prominent museums, their wealthy supporters, and their Boards of Directors demanding action in solidarity with those opposed to the War in Vietnam. Something similar happened in the mid-1980s with Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America. Yes, these were collective actions, not individual resignations, or solitary acts of protest, and that is a notable difference with Gilbert's situation. And yes, the soldier - curator comparison is somewhat of a stretch, I admit, but examples of scientists, or government employees resigning as a response to the current state of US politics are difficult to find. (Although they will no doubt rise in visibility as this horrific war drags on.) And yes, Gilbert's resignation took place in friendly territory, the people's republic of Berkeley. Still, I wonder if the museum had been located within a "red" state would people be so quick to doubt the principles behind his actions? Nevertheless, what Gilbert's letter specifically focuses attention on is the nature of the institutional position he was supposed to uphold: the a-political, unbiased, cultural administrator.

This was not the first clash between Gilbert and cultural institutions over politics. Prior to his position at the Berkeley Museum of Art he was the Contemporary Curator for the Baltimore Museum of Art (BAM). While employed there Gilbert opened up a breach within that traditionally reserved institution's edifice with his four-part series entitled Cram Sessions. Inviting collectives, local activists, theorists, and students to participate, including myself, Gilbert produced several temporary, inter-active exhibitions that not only highlighted interventionist modes of art making, but which also began to generate a sustained inter-activity with local artists, students, and activists. The museum made it clear this work was not deemed appropriate, yet Gilbert stood his ground right on up to the moment that Berkeley hired him.

There is another angle to this story, a collaborative element in fact. Gilbert's long-time partner Cira Pascual Marquina was employed by the nearby cultural center known as The Contemporary, which is also in Baltimore. Temporarily crowned "acting director" about a year ago, Pascual Marquina quickly moved to amplify the activity Gilbert had generated at BAM. She chose not to keep the seat warm while the Board of Directors selected a permanent executive, but instead pushed the administrative structure she was handed full-throttle into supporting an intense, summer-long program of critical engagements not set inside the institution, but outside, in the warp and woof of Baltimore's urban politics. For like other post-industrial cities starting with New York in the 1980s, Baltimore is now undergoing its own version of the neo-liberal makeover. Gentrification, displacement, loft conversions, capital concentration, de-funding of social services, there is no need to elaborate because most of us know the score, even battled it in our own locale. But Pascual Marquina's project Headquarters is a truly daring effort to redirect institutional funds into local acts of sustainable resistance. One group of artist-interventionists that call themselves Campbaltimore have been meeting for months not with other artists, but with the fragmented array of community housing, labor, and urban activists opposed to the systematic privatization of the city's resources. Gilbert's recent actions therefore have a rich and forceful history, one that I wish his passionate letter, no doubt written in collaboration with Pascual Marquina, had made more evident. (Or would more focus on his past career simply added fuel to those who read his act as self-serving?)

Gilbert's resignation and the letter that explains his deed are part and parcel of one person's effort to radically transform the role of arts administrator into that of engaged, political participant. I suspect nothing less than that seemed appropriate to him in light of the material he selected, or that selected him, for his inaugural exhibition about current revolutionary circumstances in Venezuela. For despite all of the structural, economic, and historical reasons that efforts to transform the affect of arts administration from one of passivity to passion, from neutrality to commitment, will end in some form of defeat --my own, short-lived curatorial tenure at the New Museum included-- there is every reason to seize these opportunities to reveal, as Gilbert states, the museum's bourgeois values which are "really in most respects simply the cultural arm of upper-class power." After all, it is the institutional frame and the servitude it extracts that must be demystified, most especially now, with conditions as they are.

Gregory Sholette June 8, 2006

3 Comments:

Blogger Gricegrocers said...

This could make quite an interesting play.

2:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where did you find it? Interesting read »

5:54 am  

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