Atlanta has been experiencing growth in its art community, particularly within the past few years. Organizations like Dashboard Co-Op look to the abandoned and uninhabited spaces of the city as sites to host exhibitions. Efforts to expand gallery spaces to downtown are underway; note the addition of Mammal Gallery to Broad St., Eyedrum to MLK and its attempts to expand into another building downtown. The newly created Low Museum by students and former BFA students at Georgia State University. In one way, this particular development is specifically Atlantan; in another way, maybe this work could be in any other city. Maybe not.
Lucy Lippard claims in her 1997 book The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society that she had been “lured to the subject of the local by its absence or rather by the absence of value attached to specific place in contemporary cultural life, in the “art world,” and in postmoderns paradoxes and paradigms.”
Symptomatic of this clinging to a postmodern fragmentation is the 2012 book Noplaceness: Art in a Post-Urban Landscape, published by Possible Futures which inaugurated Atlanta Art Now, a print biennial that examines contemporary art in Atlanta. Yes, we could comment on Lippard’s incredible privilege that enables her to easily live in multiple places either diachronically or synchronically. This does not mean, though, that we should throw out “place” entirely. The introduction to Noplaceness states that the book is “a study of Atlanta artists’ responses to an urban condition now made global” (3). Further, the book proposes “noplaceness” as “an attempt to describe the quality of space rendered abstract by the conditions of postindustrial capitalism and global information flows” (3). The introduction ends with a question: “Where is our common ground when the space we occupy doesn’t add up to a place we can define?”(5). I’d like to address this question and the problem of the local and the global as it maps onto the city of Atlanta.
My last article addressed the cave as both a literal and figurative site for artistic practice and examined the conditions which produced this specific project’s way of creating, maintaining, and navigating its art world. What I’d like to do in the space of this piece is address a few artists’ sculptural practices that evoke/provoke reflection on the state of affairs. Mind you, these works are not meant to be specifically about Atlanta as place or its development as an art hub. Rather, I am interested in how these works because of their complexity in terms of materiality and conceptuality, enable us to point to our present condition and begin to pose it questions. These works, though not tied explicitly to Atlanta, all make manifest the material and social conditions of this place. Indeed, this is a place.
Drew Conrad‘s 2013 solo show at Get This Gallery, Backwater Blues, consists of assemblage-esque sculptures that show themselves as burnt remnants of a home that once stood. However, the materials making up his works are not salvaged, like the other artists I will be discussing in this piece. Rather, Conrad uses raw materials that he distresses by hand. It would be too easy to jump to questions about authenticity, here. Rather, what this process of ruination prompts us to question concerns our own involvement in degradation and destruction in our world.
Being a native Midwesterner, it is difficult not to envision images of Detroit when viewing architectural char and when thinking about urban decay and renewal. Photo books and photo essays abound that use Detroit’s ruins as subject. This unconscious association of mine inflects works I see here in the South that address similar issues of degradation. Upon seeing these remnants that appear charred, though in fact are not, I am reminded of the industrial-soot-blackened facades of the Motor City. Or, I could instead see these ruins as products of time and erosion, either the gentle wind and water forces that inhabit the Bayou State, or the aggressive inundations that occur (i.e., Hurricane Katrina). Or, considering Conrad’s being New-York-based, Hurricane Sandy. Particularly with the artist’s references to Christian Boltanski’s work (i.e., the lights and hanging electrical cords), the works scream a trauma; it is difficult to view these ruins as products of mere time and weather. Though Conrad only uses dirt, rust, and stains – no fire of any kind – these ruins take on a violent past, one that involved Ku Klux Klan instigated arson and murder. This reading may not be the artist’s intention, but when situated within particular conditions of geography, history, materiality, society, etc. the artist’s decision to destroy becomes a powerful reminder of what we have destroyed, what we are currently destroying, and what we will destroy in the future. In an email interview Conrad states: “I would claim that works of art do not exist anywhere or that their histories do not have a direct route. I want the sculptures to be a jumping off point where the viewer completes the missing pieces and writes their history of the object’s past. So the sculptures, which fall in the titled series of Dwellings, hopefully exist somewhere in the in between.” This in-between is a poignant place. I would argue with Conrad though about where this in-between is situated; it is somewhere.
I spin through the glass revolving door and enter the lobby of Midtown Plaza, a nondescript office building located in the liminal space between Atlanta’s Midtown and Buckhead. I am told to use the elevator to go to level M where the exhibition COSMS is located. After stepping off the elevator, I turn into a whole level gutted interior of this office building. Dashboard Co-Op, a non-profit art organization, looks for spaces such as this to host their exhibitions. Dashboard’s mission is to curate shows in these “forgotten haunts,” these spaces devoid of people and purpose. The works in the show are supposed to respond to the site of this vacant space, and one work in particular stood out as a potent intervention into this concrete, barren place.
Chris Chambers‘ untitled (powder room) is a daunting sculptural installation, a bathroom jacked up on cinder blocks, perilously titling off kilter. The viewer walks into this confined space to find a 1/2 bathroom complete with toilet, sink, cabinet, mirror, ceiling with a skylight, closet, tiles, carpet, and potted plant. Standing inside this powder room, orientation becomes confused. Exiting becomes treacherous. The floor seems to slip away from its usual groundedness as a perpendicular plane. Seeing this powder room, which is nonfunctional and eerie made me hyperaware of this particular office building’s infrastructure: so, if I’m not to use this bathroom, where might and what might the usable one be like? This room, reminiscent of installations by Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller, takes on a sinister quality, pointing towards the infrastructures of public and domestic spaces and their demise. Important to the sculpture is the source of these materials. Chambers, who also works as a builder and remodeler of homes, finds his materials through what people discard. The wallpaper is a horrendous 1990s pattern that you might have experienced in homes or medical offices growing up during that time. It covers these powder room walls in a “skin” (Chambers’ term) of the old, what is gotten rid of in order to update, to become more hip to contemporary interior design.
Chambers’ other installation work incorporates CRT (cathode ray tube) televisions and collected VHS and the environment builds around the technology. Speaking with Chambers in his studio, he describes how his installation work grew out of the video work; the installations ground the video work in a certain place in which the viewer can situate herself and watch. His installation Untitled (Kevin) creates a living room situation complete with rugs, house plants, lamps, and television, though for this piece there were over 40 TVS, all playing videos made from footage of Kevin Costner. As a child of the 80s, I can connect to the aesthetic of the decor coupled with Costner’s face (Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was both terrifying and awesome to me growing up). In a way, this creates an inter-geographical relation. However, this work does not lead to a privileging of supposedly immaterial telecommunicative space. Rather, in this world of televisions and globally recognized faces, this work grounds itself in the place of the living room, which maybe significantly is here.
Important to the work is the disposability of technology. Televisions, the big boxy ones of the 80s and 90s, are on the outs. With the change from CRT televisions to LCD and LED screens, the shapes have changed.Â With the rise of digital cable, the use of analog broadcast technologies for television have faded; out with the TV antenna, in with the satellite dish. We are led to believe that telecommunications technologies is where our “place” is; we can believe that because we have these technologies, we don’t need to actually exist anywhere. The idea of the “cloud” furthers this sentiment. It allows us to so easily forget the material conditions that contribute to and make possible this ethereal networked space.
The Goat Farm Arts Center is a 12-acre complex of artist studios (some live/work), performance/exhibition spaces, a coffee shop, a local agricultrual endeavor Fresh Roots Farm, and goat pen. The particular history of this site is important. The place was an industrial cotton gin at the turn of the 19/20th century and then a munitions manufacturing site during WWII. This is a pretty gruesome history that comes with the site which has served as an artist compound of sorts since the 1970s when the complex was bought by Robert Haywood, who died in 2009. Since his death, the site was bought by Hallister Development, headed by Anthony Harper and Chris Melhouse, and artist studios continue to live there and grow.
In 2013, Justin Rabideau installed his works Echo and The Distance of the Moon at The Goat Farm, both of which create a certain kind of environment and landscape in this place they are installed. As part of the culmination show for the 2011-13 artists-in-residence for The Creatives Project Momentum: Exit to the Future, The Distance of the Moon situates itself within the context of Atlanta’s fiscal, material, and social histories. What does it mean to install a work that gives the viewer a staircase to the moon, which cannot be walked up?
Justin Rabideau’s use of found materials to construct his sculptures alludes to the material conditions of the production of art and where it is made. Speaking with Rabideau in his studio, he described to me that his practice changed dramatically when he moved to Atlanta a few years ago. Since his practice involves gathering materials, mainly natural elements, he finds in his surroundings, he noticed that what he was finding most was discarded building materials and detritus left over from collapsed and disintegrating structures in this urban environment. One of Rabideau’s works made shortly after his move to Atlanta titled, An Illusion of Stability, which was installed in his exhibition with James Bridges Waste Not, speaks to a possible art historical trajectory of the Surrealist found object to land art, Anarchitecture, and site-specific art. What do we find when we go searching for something in a certain place? Drew Conrad mentioned that these sorts of materials are not easy to come by in New York, so why are they in Atlanta?
These materials including the TV antenna find their way into The Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kenessaw State University, just north of Atlanta, by way of the exhibition See Through Walls, which instates the museum’s recently opened expansion. The show examines the physical infrastructures that undergird architecture and art display.
Casey McGuire‘s piece in the show, Terrestrial Apparatus Poised for Lights Out (2010), presents the viewer with a wooden structure positioned in a precarious situation. Made of salvaged materialsfrom abandoned homes and foreclosure renovations in her local surroundings, including a TV antenna, the structure is described as a “box trap.” Propped up on a stick and connected to a rope, the viewer is “lured” in closer in hopes to “trap” her in this strange housing situation. The strategy used for trapping the viewer is soft playback, soft enough that the viewer has to lean her head up inside the box, of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” for McGuire a “tongue-in-cheek” response to the nostalgia that she references – “American dreams based on structure and home and the decaying reality of these ideals.”
The inclusion of the antenna on the roof of this “box trap” points to the disposability of technologies. In a time when all things globalized promote telecommunications as a way to secure one’s place everywhere and nowhere, this antenna forces us to consider our communication choices.
Adding another layer of complexity to this work is the context surrounding it, both histrocially and art historically (i.e., Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 Splitting). Atlanta-based artist Ruth Stanford’s (of particular interest for this article too is her 2006 exhibition at The Mattress Factory In the Dwelling-House)Â commissioned work A Walk in the Valley, which responded to Kennesaw State’s acquisitioned property that had belonged to Corra Harris, was removed from the exhibition by the University’s administration. (The administration has since agreed to re-install the work.) Harris’ prominence as a writer solidified with her 1899 letter to the editor of The Independent, “A Southern Woman’s View,” which argued to uphold lynching as a practice. This history and the subsequent censored artist-commissioned response to it further solidifies the importance of place and our recognition of it. Yes, we live in a globalized world, but that does not mean that we exist nowhere within it and that the specificities of where we live, work, and surf the net don’t inform our ways of navigating this international telecommunicative system.
What Can We Still Say About Place?
Writing about the evolution of site-specific art, from land works to public art, Miwon Kwon states in her 2002 book One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity:
“In this sense the chance to conceive the site as something more than a place – as repressed ethnic history, a political cause, a disenfranchised social group – is an important conceptual leap in redefining the public role of art and artists.
But the enthusiastic support for these salutary goals needs to be checked by a serious critical examination of the problems and contradictions that attend all forms of site-specific and site-oriented art today, which are visible now as the art work is becoming more and more unhinged from the actuality of the site once again – “unhinged” both in a literal sense of a physical separation of the art work from the location of its initial installation, and in a metaphorical sense as a performed in the discursive mobilization of the site in emergent forms of site-oriented work. This unhinging, however, does not indicate a reversion to the modernist autonomy of the siteless, nomadic art object, although such an ideology is still predominant. Rather, the current unhinging of site specificity indicates new pressures upon its practice today – pressures engendered by both aesthetic imperatives and external historical determinantsâ€ (Kwon, 30-1).
What is this “unhinging” and what does it mean? If taken in a certain positive sense, a utopian-inflected sense, this unhinging leads to Noplaceness and its commitment to the celebration of a supposed postmodern fragmentation. Arguably, this functions as a re-uptake of the autonomous, siteless, and nomadic art object Kwon urges us to put pressure on. The works addressed here are certainly “unhinged” to a certain extent. They are certainly not installed in the places where their materials originated, but they are, in a sense, still tied to them. This could be said for many of the works Noplaceness uses to underpin its ideology. The work of the idea collection John Q for example: their work cannot be thought in terms of noplace. In their work Memory Flash, discussed in the book, the collective created a performative experience for the viewer of specific locations chosen for specific reasons.
Displacement and unhinging do not necessarily lead us to noplace. It is unclear to me how Noplaceness situates itself in relation to the concept of non-place, re: Marc Auge’s Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. This could make for a different conversation altogether. Sure, we are “no longer secure in our identity or sense of home,” (Noplaceness, 53) but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep considering what place is.
Kwon writes that the “drive toward a rationalized universal civilization, engendering the homogenization of places and the erasure of culture” is what has led to critical regionalism, a postmodern architectural practice developed by Kenneth Frampton and included in the seminal postmodern text The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, which proposes to cultivate :diverse local particularities” (157). Kwon is quick to point to the problem of nostalgia for place, however, and I would agree.
Many of the artists mentioned in this article use the word “nostalgia” in talking about their work. It is not always clear how they approach the term at times. In taking Kwon’s suggestion to consider the dialectics of place, a la Henri Lefebvre, maybe the works here serve as one pole of the dialectic. These works force us to consider the multiple layers of place: space, location, culture, environment, inhabitants, etc. We have to struggle with our own dialectical battles of nostalgia and futurity; location and dislocation; loss and gain. In regards to this dialectic, it would be too easy to get caught up in a circular conversation concerning authenticity; a conversation that I think undergirds the claims made in Noplaceness; paradoxically it has to rely on an originary authenticity in order to dislocate it. If we start from a fundamental sense of unhinging, however, we are able to traverse the notions of the definite and locatable with all their complexities. If a generic Starbucks in Atlanta “which is indistinguishable from a Starbucks in Singapore or Paris,”(Noplaceness, 3) for whatever reason seems liberating, I think we’ve found ourselves in a very strange place indeed.
By Autumn Hays
This past Friday I attended The Operature an exhibition by the collective ATOM-r (Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality) at the National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago. This exhibition was held in two parts an interactive installation and 90 minute performance showcase. ATOM-râ€™s participants include Mark Jeffery (choreography), Judd Morrissey (text and technology), Justin Deschamps, Sam Hertz, Christopher Knowlton, and Blake Russell (collaborators/performers).Â The ATOM-r collective explores the application of forensic science and anatomical mapping, as viewed through the through the scope of performance, technology, and language. What struck me most about the exhibition was the poetic consideration of the body and the layering of segmented perspectives visually, technologically and through dance. This is especially true of the performance where the dancers bodies move like they are being examined for medical display, like they caressed with love or sex, like in battle, and like the ritualistic laying out of the dead all in one sequence. When combined the layers of sourced gesture seem not as if disjointed but in an embracing collaboration of movement. I feel my observation of this exhibition is like looking through a magnifying glass peeping in to catch glimpses at what is a large body of accumulated research.
The installation included a 15 monitors that displayed the interactive exhibitionâ€™s language poetry and digital art that seemed like entries dense with interconnecting references selected from an accumulation of archived materials. The Operature. Attendees are able to pick up cards with medical and anatomical imagery and show the QR-code to a camera provoking a response and changing the exhibited material as a corresponding text begins to dance across the screen blinking in and out. On other screens images of head cut into thin slices spin resembling the process of cross-sectional scans of bodies under anatomy study, or the presentation of anatomical evidence on glass slides. The dissection of slices is also seen in the exhibitions use of language fragmentation and the multifaceted perspectives created by technology that includes both in the installation and performance.
Upon entering attendees are prompted to download an app that allows them to interact using their smartphones during the installation and performance. Audience members found themselves taking on the roll of investigators drifting around the exhibition looking for signs, images, and codes that they could scan using their camera phone. Once scanned, these images display technological overlay ghost images and text that seem as if they had already been there, invisible, waiting for you to discover them. Often I find technological interactions to fall short but there is something consistent about the concept of a phone app that allows you to view an augmented reality layer in an exhibition based off anatomical theaters, where the audience becomes an investigator of anatomy. It was one of the best uses of interactive technology I had experience in an exhibition. This inclusion of the technological other worlds slips in and out of the subjective, pushing realties/non-realities together and is an integral interaction when used during the performance piece.
The collective stratum of reference is something you encounter in every aspect of ATOM-râ€™s performance. One can view the piece from multiple vantage points choosing to sit in pews, walking among the performers, or standing above the performance looking down on it as in an operational theater. As the performers dance Judd plays the role of conductor, controlling projected displays of text reiterating those used in the installation, and reading them aloud as he performs.
He also provides the attendees with a technological viewpoint, displaying his live video of the performance showing the virtual reality ghosts we first encountered in our own investigations of the installation. The spoken language of the piece was delivered in the same cold cut tone as a scientific manual but had the touch of deeply personal poetics of the struggle with the body. The text provides us with many concepts such as the examination of the body as house, the treatment of the dead, and the histories of anatomical theater. One of the most interesting sources is the text sourced from the â€œstud fileâ€ of writer Samuel Steward describing details and observations about his various erotic encounters with men. These excerpts when juxtaposed with the anatomical body texts create an interweaves narrative of the gay male body.
The expert choreography composed by Mark Jeffery and his collaborators holds the audience captive while working in correspondence the technological devices. The all male group of performers embraced, wrestled, fell, carried one another around the room like corpses, posed for examination, removed and readjusted each otherâ€™s buttons and zippers, each performer functioning simultaneously as the displayer and the displayed. Even the lights become dancers moving around the room and repositioned by performers. Observes peer into the dancers bodies, guided by the ever-present examiners lights. As the scenes are constructed I am reminded of the painter Thomas EakinsÂ and his paintings of medical theaters. The audiences enters ATOM-râ€™s The Operature like a crime scene, attempting to paste together all the clues given through the use of dance, poetry and art as evidence. To quote text from the exhibition, â€œthe evidence looked back at you awkwardly and defiantlyâ€, asking you investigate the margins of these clues. Your reward for your exploration is an involved and richly layered experience that speaks to the poetics of anatomy and left me feeling touched to the bone.
If you would like to see it for yourself the exhibition continues till March 29th. There will be two more shows this coming weekend on Friday and Saturday. The interactive exhibition is open at 6pm and performance begins 8pm. National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago, 175 W. Washington, $15 at the door. Here for more info.
(images provided by ATOM-r. Photo Credit: Katie Graves Photography)
Guest post by Jacob Wick.
I met Renzo Martens at his hotel in Little Tokyo while he was in town for his solo exhibition at The BOX Gallery in Downtown LA. We walked to CafÃ© DulcÃ©, in Little Tokyo, for coffee, which happened to be the same place I had gotten coffeeâ€”and a spirulina rollâ€”on my way to meet him. Several tour groups walked past us during our conversation, which lasted about an hour.
Our introductory conversations led me to ask if they have cellphones inâ€¦
JW: Do they have phones?
RM: No. When we went there was no network, so there wasâ€”only the company had a satellite thing, from which one could e-mail, or Skype possibly, sometimes, depending on the weather. But now, recently, some company installed a antenna, so now the phone thing has started. And obviously people want it. It’s really…
JW: Is that good?
RM: The funny thing is that whatever wealth is accumulated in places like that, it’s used to escape, basicallyâ€”whether through talking to the outside or getting to the outside.
JW: But is there anything for people if they stay? Or is that something that IHA is trying to provide?
RM: I read this book recentlyâ€”I have a lot of problems with the book but it certainly makes one point quite clearâ€”this book called Why Do Nations Fail or something. It’s really famous. It’s political theory, but like light, for the masses. But based on research. They’re very prominent scholars. I forget their names. But, so, one big difference between colonization in, let’s say, the US, or Mexico, would have been that, in Mexico you had a highly stratified society, and an enormous population density, and so the Spanish, all they needed to do was control the leaders, and they controlled everybody.
RM: So, you know, they killed the leaders, or co-opted them or what have you, and they could put a highly extractive model on society. You know, everybody has to pay taxes and allegiance to the Spanish guy. And so institutions are meant to extract. Now obviously when the British sent some settlers here, they tried to do the same: get the local people to work. The thing is there weren’t enough local people, and they would just flee, and the land was so big you couldn’t find them anymore, and so you couldn’t have them work for you. So no other option but get these English guys to work for you, but they could flee, too, or you knowâ€”there was no reason why they…So graduallyâ€”or quite quickly over the course over the course of 50 yearsâ€”local settlers demanded more rights than they would ever get in England: we want the right to own property, we want to a have council that is going to decide on problems, rather than some guy from England who does it; so it created inclusive structures, institutions. And now, I do think…and this has had the result that even if we are now probably copied by whomever wants to, we think at least that we are able to have any conversation, pretty much. So it creates an environment in which people can come up with ideas, and that’s like the model of capitalism, right? People have ideas, have incentives, make money off it, and because there’s rule of law, this spurs the economy.
JW: But it also needs a subaltern class to do the all the actual labor.
RM: Yeah. So that’s the funny thing. What the book doesn’t acknowledge in any way is that…yeah, but even you’re a subaltern laborer and you have a really good idea, chances are you’re not going to get to Yale and figure out how to license or set up a business. Edison, or I don’t know whom, was the kid of some normal guy, so many people…maybe it’s more difficult now, but anyway the idea is that this modelâ€”is that institutions are to some degree inclusive. Of course at the same time you have slavery and the Indians were killed, but within a faction of society at least, there was inclusivity. And that would be very different from Mexico, for example, where you still have these extractive institutions. And if you’re at the top of the pyramid, if you have an opponent that wants to challenge you, all you have to do is call your friends and they’ll find a way to block this other guy, far more so than here. Of course what the US does in its foreign policy is making sure that all these other countries on which resources and labor we dependâ€”we make sure there are already these extractive institutions and that we’re on top of them. And so in the Congo in this place like Botekaâ€”and anywhere elseâ€”the institutions are highly extractive. They’re really meant to bleed people. And of course we come with an opposite model, in a way. And so the first thing the company did, as soon as they found out, is make us leave. I don’t know whether you got that story, but they pushed us out at gunpoint. A Canadian company pushed us out at gunpoint.
JW: Really? Wow. I hadn’t heard that.
RM: I haven’t made it public. So…I will, at the right moment. So creativity, however inconsequential it is here, and art, and you know…art is used for other purposes. You know, capital accumulation or gentrification or…
JW: Did they give you a reason for pushing you out?
RM: No. They just said we were illegal.
JW: Were you?
JW: Do you think you’ll go back?
RM: Yeah. I mean, we have kind of an interesting situation, where there’s a place where we really can’t work, and another place where we kind of can. So that’s organically created a research setting that you could otherwise only dream of.
JW: That’s amazing that they found you so threatening. Were they employing all the miners that you were…
RM: They’re palm oil plantation workers.
JW: Oh, ok.
RM: No, and also there was so many better ways of co-opting us. You know, I would say…I mean, I’m interested in co-optation, that’s what I want to research. So they should just have given me $100,000 and said Renzo, any activity you do, we’re happy to sponsor you, and any activity you do, just check with us first. And I would say, yeah, let’s do that, because that’s what I’m all about.
JW: What’s your interest in co-optation? Where did that stem from?
RM: Well, we tend to think that art is this free zone, right? And it is, within the gallery. But the gallery space and whatever art is in it is then in itself very strategically used for other goals, you know? Maybe not if you’re just an artist in your little studio, but as soon as the people in power decide that your work is really good, then it’s used forâ€”to make cities and neighborhoods attractive, for, you know, it’s justâ€”it’s this whole creative class model of Florida, that of course we oppose, too. And yet that’s why biennials and new museums are being financed. That’s how studio spaces move from one area in New York to the other, because, you know, some people in city planning think about these issues. And real estate investors think about these issues. So that’s where you find yourself working on your critical art, in these places. And it’s fine, it’s great, and maybe the content of the critical art has relevance and social or political impactâ€”maybe it doesâ€”but arguably, the impact of your sheer presence, whatever the content of your work, and the atmosphere created by the presence of people like you and I, let’s say, in the galleries, in the cappuccino bars, and the this or the that, and then ten years later in the designer jeans and the boutique hotels, and then the museumsâ€”that’s far more important than any quote un-quote â€œcontentâ€ that we might produce. And so we are really strategicâ€”we are, I mean people are really strategically thinking about where to do it, and so however much we like to dislike Floridaâ€”because he doesn’t attribute any intrinsic value to what art is or what it may do, it’s not a place for dissent or real analysis, it’s just a place for coolness and thereforeâ€”we all hop the centers that are the living proof of his theory. You know, sure, if Thomas Hirschhorn does something in the Bronx, I’ll go to the Bronx, but otherwise I never go to the Bronx. I hang out in the Lower East Side, and the remainders in Chelsea of previous moves of that same thing. And Martha Rosler hangs out in the Lower East Side, you know, and that’s where e-flux magazine has its headquarters, and et cetera, et cetera.
JW: I feel like that makes sense, though, in the history of art. Like beginning in the 50s, with Seth Siegelaub and the conceptual art zone. His thing was selling immaterial artworks by selling an ethos, or an atmosphereâ€”like come to my house, you’ll meet the artist and have a drink with him and see this work, or come to Max’s Kansas City and have a drink with the artistâ€”like, Douglas Huebler did an inert gas pieceâ€”he released some gas out in the desert outside of LAâ€”and Seth Siegelaub made a poster with I think a picture of the desert and some other information, and sent the poster to a very select group of addresses in LA, of collectors and curators and critics and maybe artists, so he’s leveraging, like you say, the coolness of art to create value. Thatâ€™s how the value was created, was from its own coolness. Itâ€™s not in the…
RM: It’s not in the material.
JW: It’s not in the material.
RM: Sure, and that was, at the time, probably it was very often phrased as an anti-capitalist thing, right?
JW: Yeah, but it was totally, completely capitalist. It was perfectly capitalist. Because there doesn’t even need to be a thing.
RM: Well then, yeah, in the inside that’s what we realize. Nothing material is being traded. I mean, sure, yeah, you need a lot of stuff to produce things, maybe more so than before we had these machines [Martens picks up the phone that is recording the conversation], but what drivesâ€”it’s really opinions and emotions. And value attributions based on opinions and emotions. That’s what drives the economy. And so inside many people make the analysis that it was this whole immaterialization of the artwork was perfectly in line with the emergence of capital markets and of speculation of many sorts.
JW: I mean, I feel like advertising andâ€”they were very unabashedly aligned throughout the late 50s and throughout the 60s.
RM: Advertisement and what?
JW: Like, advertising strategies and what Siegelaub was doing. No one was bashful about the interaction there.
RM: Well the cool thing is that you advertise nothingness. And we maybe still would like to do that, you know. I guess many people are still very, very tempted by the irony and theâ€”having a work of art that really means nothing at all. That’s still the ultimate cool: for something to be completely devoid of meaning. It’s really cool.
JW: So, I guess I mention that because in the video of the interview you do with Richard Florida, he’s talking about the three T’sâ€”it’s like something, Talent, and Tolerance…
RM: That’s just what he comes up with, that’s just the main of his, uh…
JW: But yeah, the talent thing is so confusing to me, because I feel like in the art world talent is a completely subjective thing that’s determined by lots of other factors that have nothing to doâ€”like, talent is just coolness, or an ethos, it’s not like…
RM: I think he uses talent in the way of talented people. Your talent is likeâ€”the guys or girls who have talent. Who have talents. That’s your talent. It’s not a quality within people, it’s people with these qualities. One of his issues is that in order to have your talents, you need to be inclusive ofâ€”you need to allow for gays, and Hispanics, because, you know, they have good ideas, too, maybe even better than yours, and so you need to attract these people, make sure they want to stay. So you have to be tolerant to whatever strange habits they have, because that’s automatically, you know, human creativity is such an automaticallyâ€”good sense will come up, and there’s some money for it, and there’s technology, and technology and tolerance, then you know, you’ll have Google or Apple.
RM: And so art is one of the factors that…
JW: Does art attract talent or does art create talent?
RM: I actually don’t know. I actually never read his book.
JW: I’ve read like one article that is like Richard Florida, you’re an asshole, and then one article by Richard Florida that’s like no, I’m actually great, here’s why.
RM: I should read that. No, I read a little bit of that of course. And you know, Martha Rosler, like â€œDon’t Gentrify, Occupy,â€ and it’s great, and it happens on a symbolic level, but on a real material level, it’s just…yeah.
JW: Whatâ€™s the goal of the Institute for Human Activities?
RM: Well, I guess there are three goals, maybe, or four. I’m really interested in the suspending apparatus of art and the material conditions of its production. So in that way I really feel really aligned with 1960s minimalism. I really love that. But I also have a real interest in income inequality and in trickery and deceit, and how it’s used, and the media representations of poverty, which are really part of the trickery and the deceit. So that’s a completely different interest altogether, but somehow I figuredâ€”you know, Unilever isâ€”did you see this long film I made, Episode 3? At the Box?
JW: No…oh, the…
RM: Enjoy Poverty.
RM: Ok. So that’s like an earlier work. It gets really dirtyâ€”I think it’s a good work, but I’ve kind of moved on. I would never make it again. I want things to be much cleaner.
JW: What do you mean by dirty?
RM: It’s very dirty. I mean, I really get my hands in the dirt. And I smear my own face with it, basically. And it’s likeâ€”and also there’s no escape from it, somehow. All the avenues of the sense are kind ofâ€”I show how they are all co-opted, every single one of them. The resistance against it is part of this whole…stage, um, what’s the word? The resistance is part of the carnival. And all the outside forces that could intervene, like stop the bad things happening, they’re all involved already, they’re all part of the carnival, and I really tried to show it as such and show that there’s no outside position to it. I’m part of that charade and my critical art piece is also absolutely part of that charade and, you know, there’s no way out. So ok, that was that.
RM: So I’m interested in these material conditions, and I just found out not too long ago, that these big Unilever plantations in the Congo were a big constituting part of Unilever’s business empire. Unilever’s one of the biggest consumer companies in this world. It’s huge. And on the other hand, it’s funded, for example, the Unilever series at Tate Modern, includingâ€”did you come to my talk? Because I talked about this.
JW: I didn’t come to your talk. But I was reading on your…
RM: Yeah. I think we removed the whole thing about Unilever at this point, or it’s really understated.
JW: Maybe. I mean, you mention that they sponsored a bunch of exhibitions at the Tate, including work by critical artists, whoâ€”I don’t remember the specific people, but…
RM: So that’s great, I mean, why not? It’s fantastic. But it’sâ€”you know, the surplus being spent at Tate has somehow something to do with the $20 a month maximum that people get on the plantations, and then if the art shown at the Tate that’s critical about economic relations, about political power, aboutâ€”some is not, some is sheer poetry, and that’s fine, but some if it is really critical about all these issues, and then somehow these works don’t seem to acknowledge that they are critical, funded by something that is very material, which is people’s labor that goes unpaid. So I don’t want to employ any moral position here, I just want the art world to come to terms with its own material conditions. That’s all.
JW: Is that the way that you were viewing making Enjoy Poverty, too, like not taking a moral position, just…
RM: I tried, I tried, yeah.
JW: …reflecting something back at the art world.
RM: Yeah. I mean, I guess I succeeded to some degree. I mean certainly the person I am in the film doesn’t seem to make choices based on morality.
JW: Well, it’s sort of like a really naive morality at work in that person.
RM: Yeah. And I think the pieceâ€”that pieceâ€”of course by exhibiting all that it’s deeply moral. I guess.
JW: It produces a lot of intenseâ€”like the discussion slashâ€”it was mostly an argument that followed it at the Kadistâ€”was very moralistic.
RM: Oh, you were at the Kadist, right…
JW: Yeah. Does that bother you that it produces almost entirely moralist conversations?
RM: Yeah, it does bother me. I mean, I’m just copy-pasting here, I’m not doing anything other than what’s constantly being done. It just shows that people have no clue, is what I think.
JW: Yeah. I don’t disagree.
RM: People have no clue. And so that’s the problem with I think 99 percent of socially-engaged artists is that they have no clue. They’re trying to make an exception to the status quo and therefore obscure the status quo in their little art space center, and then this is, if they’re really lucky it gets into God knows what network, and then the people who may well be the funders of the systems that are being attacked in the socially-engaged work get to have it both ways: you have the benefits of the extractive system, and you have the beautiful art pieces that somehow counterbalance all of that.
JW: And you have the really pleasing self-knowledge that you acted critically against this…
RM: Yeah, yeah. And I mean it’s funny if you don’t take it seriously, and then it’s fine, but people take it very seriously, and then I think it’s just dumb, basically. And its dumbnessâ€”it’s not that they’re not intelligent â€”it’s dumb based on, in my mind, a lack of acknowledgement of one’s own position within this global stratification. I mean, I understand that you start thinking about any and all of these issues because you’re deeply disturbed that people die of hunger just because of some silly misallocation of resourcesâ€”you know, that’s the reason, basicallyâ€”and it’s deeply disturbing, obviously, and so you start making work that wants to, on a symbolic level, address that or break that inequality. But if you don’t go through the phase first, or intermediary of, addressing the structural issues, and your own implication in these structural issues that produce that misallocation of resources, then you end up just making postcards, like postcards ofâ€”like I often equate it to Baroque medieval trompe l’Å“il paintings on church ceilings, you know? It creates this beautiful image of the heavens without addressing any of the multiple tricks and strategies that have been used to put it there, to make it visible for you, very elaborate games with vantage points and scaffolding that was there, I’m sure, all that is taken away, and so this beautiful picture of heaven, it’s never going to be reality, it’s just there to look at, to be mesmerized by. And so maybe that’s good enough, but it belongs to the realm of poetry, it’s not political at all. So if you do something with refugees or immigrants and it’s only about poetry, fine, but if you think it’s political then I think it’s really crucial to somehow acknowledge the material conditions of art production. Which involve, while we have this talk, global inequality and war pays the bills.
JW: Yeah, exactly.
RM: And so, let’s at least integrate that….
JW: Like the materials that are inside this phone were probably mined illegally in the Congo.
RM: Sure, and if they were legally, it’s worse.
RM: Yeah, because if it’s illegal, then at least…what is called “legal” is that people have the right paperwork do the job.
JW: That’s what I was thinking. I heard a radio program about Apple, or some big tech companyâ€”Intel, maybeâ€”that’s like we’re not going to get any more tantalum from mines that don’t have the proper certification, and everyone is like really applauding themselves and being really happy and then I was like, it’s just a piece of paper!
RM: I mean, the idea is maybe good. You have all these illegal mining things, you have local militias controlling them, kids doing the work, et cetera, you know, it’s abhorrent, people get AIDS, they’re drunk all the time, ok, so let’s stop that. All right. So what happens is that the mine is closed up – same happens in diamonds, the Kimberly Process, you had all these blood diamonds, right?
JW: There’s a lot of LA that exists because of them.
RM: Yeah. So now the diamonds or the coltan or what have you needs to be certified, so it means that the people who can’t get the certification going are out of business, so that means anybody who doesn’t have a Yale degree basically, right? If you’re an African guy, you know, you have your mine that happens to be there, you rounded up your friends, you’ll do itâ€”you’re out of the game. So the UN will intervene and say no no, you don’t have the right paperwork, let’s call up Banro Co, or AngloGold Ashanti, and they’ll do the job, and then the people doing the mining, they get into UN programs to start raising rabbits or something. They’re kind of out of the game. And it sounds goodâ€”like let’s regulate this businessâ€”but of course it also means let’s give the business to people who can afford $500 per hour lawyers. That’s what it also means. Or $5000, maybe, I don’t know. There’s no UN push to start up collectives of miners regulating themselves and adhering to really important rules, no! I mean, that would be greatâ€”like let’s collectively mine this stuff that’s in our ground here, and let’s collectively decide that we’ll comply…
JW: …how much we’re going to sell it for, and how we’re going to mine it, and…
RM: Yeah, and let’s stick to the regulations that the Kimberly Process wants for us, why not? If these are the rules of the game then let’s adhere to that. But no no no, that’s not going to happen. So it’s a matter of appropriation, basically.
JW: Is that something that you saw or still see the IHA as helping to…?
RM: So I was talking about the different goals. Maybe they’re twofold, or fourfold even. So one of them is to somehow recalibrate critical artistaâ€™ practiceâ€”and therefore art’s mandateâ€”in a way that the settlement is an opportunity for people to come to termsâ€”to see the material conditions that are an integral part of their art production. It changes the way you’ll have your cappuccino in the morning if you see the guys picking the cocoa, the coffee. It just changes it. That’s a really good starting point to then do something with the rest of your day. Because most of the critical theory is, you know, kind of invented on the planes between those gentrified centers of New York and Berlin and all that. So I think few of those people ever visited a plantation like that. So we’ll have an artist residency, and the goal of the artist residency is for people to, you know…
RM: …see, and therefore rethink what the nature of their critique may be. So that’s one thing. That’s the residency program. We also have a gentrification program. We build an arts center, so that it spurs the local economy, the way it does in New York and Berlin, has cappuccino bars and all that, and then, you know, economic diversification is quite interesting and important because now people have subsistence farming and underpaid plantation labor. And they’ve been offering the proceeds of that stuff for a century now to us, but it never was accompanied by their ideas, or their emotions, or opinions. While that is exactly what may be their biggest contributions to the world â€“ their ideas and emotions. They actually may make money with it. And that would be quite novel, that a critique on Congolose labor conditions would have an actual economic impact in the Congo, in the place where these labor conditions occur.
JW: Would the proceeds go directly to the Congolese?
RM: Yeah. Well, not entirely directly, because nobody ever had a $500 check in their hands. It’s going to create a lot of trouble, unless we make sure there’s a buffer zone in which it has communal advantages and all that.
JW: Is that how you’d fund building things like the cappuccino bar or whatever?
RM: No no. The money goes to them. They can come have a cappuccinoâ€”if they want to open their own cappuccino stores, we’ll gladly help them. The guy gets the money, but rather than just handing them a $500 bill, we’ll say, you know, maybe: “Here’s 100, but let’s think also about these other 400, how you can maybe invest it in a way that’s a little bit more sustainable, and make sure it’s not going to be stolen for you by the police,” for example. So we have to get them all involved. That’s all. But it’s money, I meanâ€”but you need to manage it a bit because otherwise it’s going to create a lot of trouble. People deal with $20, $30 budgets on a monthly basis. That’s kind of…
JW: Yeah, I was just thinking…I was going to make some kind of point about how a lot of the art economy functions on unpaid interns and underpaid gallery workers, but here underpaid is like $12, $15 an hour, which is…
RM: Yeah, that’s what I pay my people.
JW: But it’s like…that’s a month’s work.
RM: Well, I must confess, I think it’s a really crucial issue, the idea that the art worldâ€”not the art world like Gagosian or even Mara [McCarthy, Principal/Curator of the BOX Gallery] or Paul [McCarthy, artist]â€”but the art world, all the kids, are all working for nothing, obviously, and are like a labor pool, almost endless labor pool, and are attracted by the same coolness. You know, what a lifestyle! This is work, somehow. Just talk about your own ideas and somebody else’s ideas that are fun and write about it. So many people talk about precarious labour in the arts, and it’s important I think, but it seems to be blind for half of the world’s population that never has a fucking cappuccino while thinking about one’s own ideas because they’re just working in mines and cleaning bedrooms and god knows what they’re all doing. And I think they’re as much part of the material conditions of art production as these gallery interns.
JW: If not more so. They made the shit that everyone is sitting on.
JW: How is the IHA funded? Is it through…
RM: Public and private.
JW: Dutch public?
RM: Dutch, German, hopefully British. Scandinavian, hopefully American. Belgian. This thing is a big idea. You could do it small, actuallyâ€”you probably could do it with $200,000â€”but I think that it could cost $2 million over the next 5 years. So I want that. So I’m going to work on it until I get it. So it’s really stressful, and also…
JW: I feel like there’s a lot of irritating conversations that you have to have in order to do this. Not irritating, but kind of likeâ€”using a lot of buzzwords.
RM: No, it’s not. I mean, most people that want to work with me obviously they see value in the thing, and so it’s not irritating. But still, again, it’s about times and contracts and the more you stack of these the more you have to become accountable to them and respond to them and, you know. And they’ll say, “oh no, this show, we thought we’d do it in 2015, but now we’re not going to do if its 2016,” it’s kind of hard if $200,000 is attached to it. In the end, I’ll do what I need to do, butâ€”you want another coffee?
JW: I’d love another coffee.
RM: What kind is it?
JW: Just an Americano would be fine.
RM: With milk in it?
JW: No, no milk. Thanks.
[Renzo leaves to order more coffee and returns.]
JW: You mentioned that the funders see value in this. Do they see the same value in it that you do?
RM: It depends on the funder. Some funder likes the idea of making creativity, or critical thinking, into a tool to generate economic growth, rather than funding mosquito nets. So some people are interested in that. And other people are interested in the recalibration of art’s critical mandate aspect to it. But they’re really intrinsically linkedâ€”they’re really connected. So I don’t personally see any disparity between the fact that on the one hand we have very real aspirationsâ€”and even targetsâ€”as a social impact thing locally, and on the other hand have very real aspirations in generating knowledge on art’s position in the global economic system. They’re really one and the same. I mean, we can’t do the one endeavor without the other and vice versa. So of course I’ll talk with them, and I’ll explain to them what I’ve explained to you, and I see what they’re interested in, if anything at all. Yeah, so there are no secrets to it. I mean, I think it’s important to stress that we’re really working within capitalism. We are. Again, because I think…
JW: I mean, you are, but then if your goal is to take this group of workers out of this bottom rung of capitalism, somebody else is going to have to fill that hole.
RM: Sure, that’s how it goes.
JW: How do you address that? Do you address that at all?
RM: It’s a good point. I actually have not addressed it. Indeed, some people will turn out to be really talented, so they’ll maybe take their chances and start making art. And then somebody else is going to fill that hole, for example, in the subsistence farming or the plantation labor. Maybe wages will start raising. We’re moving away from the plantation where we work, so it’ll just…
JW: Even though you got forced out at gunpoint?
RM: No, we’ll move to another settlement. Hopefully we’ll stay there for many years. But what I’m pointing at is that we’re notâ€”it’s not like the people who make new opportunities through our presence, they’re not going to move away, they’re going to remain there, because that’s where the market is. We’re an entryway to the market, in a way. So I think people will benefit, even those who stay working on the plantation. Because the guys that I will work with, maybe they’ll open up a taxi serviceâ€”which is a bicycle, right? you sit on the backâ€”or maybe somebody will open a store for flip flops…
JW: Or now that cellphones are going to be there, maybe somebody will open a cellphone charging place or whatever.
RM: Yeah, or maybe we can do something collective also. Maybe we can haveâ€”organize something with just one really good internet connectionâ€”I mean, the cellphones drain so much money out of places like that, it’s sick. So I would be interested in finding another way of doing that, maybe also by finding a way of working with the cellphone company. We’ll see.
JW: Our coffees are ready. Do you want yours to go, or…?
RM: No, I’ll drink it.
[Jacob retrieves the coffees.]
RM: Thank you partner.
JW: There you go. I even got complimented on my sweater.
RM: Oh yeah, and it matches your socks also.
JW: Yeah. I don’t knowâ€”I guess I’m very excited and curious to see what happens next. Because if or when you are convincing people to leave these labor conditions in order to do something else…
RM: I’m not going to convince them.
JW: You’re not going to convince them?
RM: No. We set up shop and we say, “You want to make some drawings? Make some drawings.” And then maybe two persons make really good drawings, and I say oh, would you mind if we show them, like in Frankfurt or something? And they’ll say no, show them in Frankfurt. And we’ll make sure somebody buys them, and we’ll say, hey, we sold your drawings, here’s $500, what shall we do with it? And then, you know, chances are…he’ll have a tiny bit of agency. He can say to his boss, “I would like to get a better job in this company, and I can afford to ask for it because if you don’t give me a better job I’ll just make more drawings.” So it creates a tiny opening. But I really have to stress how non-revolutionary we areâ€”we’re just going to do what art does, which is create a really tiny alternative economy which rich people really like to have around, and then see how it goes. And the bigger goal is on the one hand, that has effect locally, but especially it creates a lot of knowledge about what art does and also what it does not doâ€” what we can make it do in the real world.
JW: Do you think that rich people will move to the Congo?
RM: I don’t know, maybe. I mean certainly we should start a hotel. I’m talking about bamboo huts.
JW: Hotel, coffeeshop…bar?
JW: What else exists?
RM: Hotel, coffeshop, bar, restaurant…
JW: A coffeeshop would be good, too, because a lot of coffee grows in the Congo.
RM: Yeah, we just need to teach them how to make cappuccinos in a proper way, get one of these…
JW: It could be local.
RM: Well, they don’tâ€”people don’t drink so much coffee there. And they grind it and they put some other herbs in there, like ginger, so it’s like a medicinal drink, to drug you a bit. I mean, it’s the same, but it’s not covered up by the sweetness or softness of milk, for example. Also there’s hardly any milk, all the milk is imported. People do have goats. Maybe we can try and get goat milk cappuccinos. We’ll figure it out.
JW: How do you find the funding institutions?
JW: How do you isolate the funding institutions? Do they find you or do you seek them out?
RM: I seek them out. It’s a lot of work. But they’re the usual suspects. It’s quite easy. And we’re trying to getâ€”there’s some private money in it. But maybe what I really need is for somebody who can just put on a million, say this a great idea and put on a million. That would save me from a lot of headaches.
JW: I feel like that person exists in LA. But I don’t know who it is.
RM: Yeah, I do think that’s true. And also I have to grow into a position and a presentation, and we need to prove a couple of things in the Congo, and we have to have sold these drawings in Frankfurt, and, you know, our test run needs to be a little bit moreâ€”the knowledge needs to be deepened before somebody will put in a million, I think. Or maybe not, we’ll see.
JW: When you present the Institute, are you presenting it as you, or are you presenting it as a character, like you were describing…
RM: Neither. No, it’s an institute. I happen to be this artistic director, but I’m not the financial director. I’m just the guy that came up with the main ideas in the beginning, and then many of the things I’ve told you have been developed collectively, with other people. We had an opening seminar, in Congo, just to kind of think all these things through, and we’ll have another one soon. I mean, it’s an art project, the whole thing is kind of a big social sculpture, but I’m not the author of it. It’s an institute.
JW: Do you think of it as an artwork and an institute, or just an artwork, or just an institute? An institute that’s an artwork? Because those seem like two different things, maybe.
RM: No, I think the way I got through it is that it’s just searching a higher level of abstraction to create a space in which art can be made thatâ€”create a space that creates an opportunity for art to come to terms with its own existence. So I told you the problem if I’m a critical artist and I do it from my studio in Brooklyn, for example, so if I don’t take into account the bigger economic structures, my work is just going to be a little thing in a machine, and it won’t reflect the machine itself, other than symbolically, and even that symbolic reflection will function in that machine, right? So what I need to do is own the machine. So that’s the level of abstraction we need to work on in order to generate knowledge about art and the machine. So that’s why we can’t be an artist, we can’t be a curator, we have to be an institution, but even more than that, we need to be the economic forces that are derived from that institution. So that’s why we’re a gentrification program.. And you could call that an artwork…
JW: Do you need to call that an artwork?
RM: Not necessarily, but it certainly is an artwork.
JW: The most recent project I did I wasn’t sure whether it was an artwork or not, and also I wasn’t sure if I cared.
RM: Well I care. I care, because I really believe in art. As I said in the beginning, I don’t use moral arguments to do it, or I try to avoid to. And so the arguments I use come from this huge and very complicated tradition in the arts of an art piece, or art, being the one place in culture where the suspending apparatus for image or knowledge production is kind of…made part of the equation. Not just the outcomes, like the trompe l’Å“il thing, but also the suspending apparatus. And so that’s something that’s highly singular about art production is that it does that, or that there is this tradition. And so that’s what I’m dependent on. And that’s why it’s kind of important to pay allegiance to that tradition. It couldn’t have come out of any other realm of life that I know of. Maybe philosophy, but I don’t read enough books for that.
JW: But probably not. I guess there’s an ancient tradition in philosophy of establishing schools, but there’s not really a tradition of things that involve other people. Philosophy seems like a very solitary endeavor. I guess art does, too.
RM: Hmm. Yeah, schools. Yeah, maybe it’s going to be a school, in that way.
JW: An academy.
RM: Hopefully. Come around sometime. Like in a year or something, it’ll be kind of up and running. If we get physical/material stability, then it’s nice to have you out there or something.
JW: Yeah, I’d love to. I’d have to find some resources of my own to get there.
RM: It’s not expensive. The ticket’s going to cost you $1000, and life’s very cheap. If you don’t want to stay in the equivalent of this hotel [gestures towards Hotel Miyako], but you’ll just make do in our hut that I’ll give you. So it doesn’t cost anything really. You eat local food and all that, right?
RM: It’s fun. It’s good. You’ll learn a lot.
JW: Do you see yourself living there?
RM: Yeah. As soon as we can. That’s why I really have to make sure my wife trusts me.
3rd Language Issue #4: Publication Launch & Group Exhibition, work by Amina Ross, Jory Drew, Ashley McClenon, Camille Laut, Emily Schulert, Hiba Ali, Ale-Ale, Jake Vogds, Joel Mercedes, Margaret Bo-Bo Dancy, Naqeeb Stevens, Oli Rodriguez, Olive Stefanski, Bow-ty, Sarp Kerem Yavuz, Stevie Hanley, and Tavia David.
Defibrillator is located at 1136 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm. $10 suggested donation.
Work by Keiichi Tanaami.
Corbett vs. Dempsey is located at 1120 N. Ashland Ave. 3rd Fl. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Lucie Fontaine, Brendan Fowler, Gaylen Gerber, and Autumn Ramsey.
Night Club is located at 2017 W. Moffat St. #1. Reception Friday, 7-9pm.
Work by John Wanzel.
D Gallery is located at 623 S. Wabash Ave. Rm. 717D. Reception Friday, 11:45am-12:45pm.
Work by Corinne Halbert.
Peanut Gallery is located at 1000 N. California Ave. Reception Sunday, 5-9pm.
editors note: We have updated the name of the show at Night Club.
Guest post by Sonja Hornung
When the shit hit the fan about three weeks ago, this image came up in my Facebook feed, along with the caption ‘Transfield is everywhere’:
The lead-up to the 19th Biennale of Sydney has been riddled with controversy. Just three weeks before opening, the Biennale’s only private sponsor, Transfield Holdings, has ended its forty-one year relationship with one of the country’s longest-running international arts events. This happened after Transfield copped heavy criticism from artists, the public and international government agencies for its commercial involvement in Australia’s system of mandatory detention of asylum seekers.
In 1975, Australian painter Ivan Durrant dumped a dead cow on the steps of the National Gallery. The media went wild and the public was outraged. Back then, at the end of the Vietnam War, this reaction threw the public’s ability to overlook far worse horrors into stark relief. For Australia possesses a sort of covert public hangover derived from two-and-a-bit centuries of enjoying a wealth built on colonial exploitation and xenophobic border politics. At certain moments the silence is shattered and we are forced to address the elephant (or dead cow) in the room using more than the usual token gestures. The scandal surrounding Transfield’s involvement in the Sydney Biennale presents us with one such instance.
Perhaps there is some information to be shared here for artists and curators elsewhere wondering about how to negotiate the murky territory of compromised funding sources.
Here are the ‘knowns’ of the situation:
The current Australian government ‘outsources’ asylum seekers to its former territory Nauru, an island in the South Pacific, and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. These two island detention facilities are located on the edges of the Australian territorial imaginary, but they sit at the dark heart of the controversy over the sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale. Transfield Services has run the detention centre on Nauru since February 2013. At the end of January, it secured a governmental contract to take over ‘garrison and welfare services’ on Manus Island, previously run respectively by Transfield’s rival service provider GS4 and the Salvation Army.
Australia has been detaining immigrants without papers since 1992. Today, both Australia’s ruling coalition and its political opposition support a mandatory detention system where asylum seekers can be detained for an indefinite time period. Moreover, mid-last year, the previous Labor government designed a ‘solution’ in which confirmed refugees were to be resettled not in Australia, but in Papua New Guinea. This meant that when the Liberal-National coalition was elected late last year, the new Immigration Minister Scott Morrison could freeze all asylum seeker applications for Australian visas, even though the terms of the ‘PNG Solution’ have not yet been accepted by the PNG government.
The situation’s ‘unknowns’ are best expressed by the asylum seekers of Manus Island themselves, who on the 17th of February issued the following questions to the detention centre management:
Is there a process? What is it?
How long are we going to be here?
When will we have our freedom?
Will transferees who have been deemed refugees in other countries be given priority in processing?
Why is there no PNG Partnership?
Some of the transferees have been interviewed some time ago, what is happening with our process? What is the hold-up?
Who is responsible for us here on Manus – PNG or Australia?
Why wonâ€™t Immigration (department) allow media to come here and interview us?
Will the Australian Government take responsibility for our mental health problems?
The Playfair lawyer said there was a third country option, why can’t we be sent to this other country?
Why are our human rights not respected?
The asylum seekers received only one answer to their questions: that they have definitively no chance of resettlement in Australia whatsoever.
On the night of the 17th of February, clashes on Manus Island took place between asylum seekers, security guards, PNG police, and island locals. No less than 62 asylum seekers were injured. Iranian Reza Berati was killed, allegedly by multiple blows to the head with a plank of wood, according to a leaked PNG police report which also details the use of rocks and weights as weapons, and points out that blood could be seen on the boots of detention centre security staff as they patrolled the centre on the following day.
The results of the autopsy of Reza Berati, the exact details of the situation, and likely the final investigations of the Manus Island incident remain unknown, as media access to detention centres is strictly controlled by the Australian and PNG governments.
And what of Transfield? As a result of its new contract to take over Manus Island, worth $AUD 1.2 billion, Transfield Service’s previously shaky share prices shot up by 21%. Transfield Holdings, which holds a 12% majority stake in Transfield Services, reaped the rewards accordingly. Transfield Holdings is the sole private sponsor of the Sydney Biennale.
After a series of public meetings twenty-eight Biennale artists penned a carefully worded open letter to the Board of Directors of the Biennale of Sydney petitioning it ‘to act in the interests of asylum seekers. As part of this we request the Biennale withdraw from the current sponsorship arrangements with Transfield and seek to develop new ones.’ This letter, dated the 19th of February and widely circulated in the Australian press, was subsequently signed by 41 of the 94 participating Biennale artists.
The Board issued a response to what it reasoned were ‘claims over which there is ambiguity’, and ‘assertions and allegations that are open to debate’, stating that ‘the only certainty is that without our Founding Partner, the Biennale will no longer exist.‘
In light of this statement, the ensuing events have landed the Biennale of Sydney with a decent amount of egg on face. On the 24th of February, the first five artists withdrew their work from the Biennale, stating that ‘We do not accept the platform that Transfield provides via the Biennale for critique. We see our participation in the Biennale as an active link in a chain of associations that leads to the abuse of human rights. For us, this is undeniable and indefensible’. On the 5th of March, an additional four artists withdrew their work.
What precipitated the final break between Transfield and the Biennale of Sydney was not a response from its staff members, nor was it a reaction from curator Juliana Engberg, who has remained more or less publicly silent on the topic. The break between the two entities originated from the very curious reaction of Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, Chair of the Biennale and Director of Transfield Holdings. On the 7th of March, Belgiorno-Nettis resigned as Chair of the Biennale Board taking with him Transfieldâ€™s money: this, despite previous claims that the Biennale could not exist without Transfieldâ€™s support.
Reading between the lines, it seems that Belgiorno-Nettis is both indignant and insulted. To put this in context, the Sydney Biennale and Transfield have been in tight collaboration since the eventâ€™s inception â€“ so much so, that in its early days it could just as well have been called the Transfield Biennale. Transfield’s executive director was then Luca’s father Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, a well-moneyed Australian Italian who established the first Biennale in 1973 guided by ‘civic-minded boosterism, nostalgia and philanthropy’, and inspired, apparently, by the mother of all Biennales in Venice. The exhibition, a conservative selection of mainly local artists presented in the brand-new foyer of the Sydney Opera House, was funded largely with Transfield money and staffed largely by Transfield workers.
1973 also saw the establishment of Australia’s current arts funding body, the Australia Council. When Transfield secured significant Council funding for its second Biennale, Transfield’s involvement in philanthropy extended slowly to the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and numerous other community and art-based ventures. Thus, when Transfield Holdings cut its ties with the Sydney Biennale, one of Australia’s longest-standing private/public funding relationships came to an end, leading to fears that, under the current conservative political climate in Australia, other public-private funding relationships could be jeopardised. These fears have been confirmed by Australian Arts Minister George Brandis’s less than constructive response to the situation: a letter urging the Australia Council to punish arts funding recipients who reject private funding on political principle.
But where does the rest of Transfield’s money come from? Over the decades, the company has acquired significant contracts from the Australian Department of Defence worth over AUD 400 million, not to mention a series of businesses providing services to the oil, gas and coal sectors in Australia, India, the Gulf Region, Chile and North Dakota. Undisclosed proportions of Australians’ retirement funds are invested in the company. Tony Shepherd, the former chairperson of Transfield Services, now heads Australia’s new Commission of Audit, which is mandated with recommending spending cuts in the public sector. Transfield is, indeed, everywhere, but its omnipresence seemingly does not equal omnipotence. Instead, it has become a slave to the bottom line.
For Belgiorno-Nettis’ decision to end Transfield Holding’s relationship with the Biennale sits in direct contradiction with his own principles. Belgiorno-Nettis has heavily criticised the ‘spectacle’ of contemporary politics as a process caught between ‘two candidates on different sides of an issue, each attacking the idiotic ideas of the adversary.’ His own NewDemocracy Foundation agitates for forms of citizen involvement that draw on the model of juried collective decision-making as an alternative to bi-partisan representative democracy, a process not dissimilar to the community consultation artists undertook in the lead-up to their withdrawal from the Biennale. In a recent interview, however, when asked what he thought of Transfield Service’s involvement in the mandatory detention industry, Belgiorno-Nettis proclaimed that Transfield Services are ‘doing nothing wrong anyway, in our view’, arguing that the company’s role is simply part and parcel of a government policy voted in by the people of Australia. Putting aside the dubious ethics behind this statement, this position sits in total contradiction with Belgiorno-Nettis’ own doubts of the efficacy of the democratic system.
Clear thinking is here undermined by complicity: in this case, a financial complicity. There are, however, other forms of complicity that are perhaps more universal. The complicity of being an Australian citizen who voted for the current government. The complicity of being an Australian citizen despite having voted differently. The complicity of enjoying the wealth of a country that has put a barbaric system of mandatory detention to use since 1992. The complicity, more generally, of being a person who uses a passport when there are people who cannot. The complicity of being human when other people are treated as if they are not.
The following is addressed to the many media commentators, politicians, and individuals who, over the last two week, have criticised the artists of the Sydney Biennale who took a stance against this unbearable complicity, attempting to steer the narrative away from the inhumane mandatory detention of asylum seekers. To those who would accuse these artists of ‘sheer vicious ingratitude‘. To those who would argue that the artists’ actions will make no difference to government policy. To those who will say that artists who have a problem with governmental policies should also now reject all forms of public funding (should senior citizens or those on disability pensions then also reject government funding?). And especially to those who say there is no alternative to this muddle of policies designed to satisfy some cruel regime of border control we should have left behind in the nineteenth century:
1) Complicity is an unbearable part of being human. Its very unbearability makes us turn away. When someone faces their complicity in all its complexity, when someone faces their imbrication in a system of horror, when someone acts in a situation where action makes no sense, the rest of us have a responsibility to listen very carefully.
2) Where we are not complicit is where commercial bodies have the run of power. A policy of mandatory detention upheld by governmental institutions is subject to the democratic reckoning of voters and governmental transparency, ideals that â€“ as Belgiorno-Nettis himself argues â€“ are troubled enough as it is. A detention process executed by private contracters and subcontracters, on the other hand, acquires an unbridled trajectoy and opacity of its own, filching away from the right of the people to determine the conditions of their own political existence.
3) Artists exercise the right to unbridled and uncensored freedom of speech. Those who seek to draw a division between art and politics are also those who are afraid to listen.
It may well be that, when voting in the current conservative government, the Australian people indeed ‘imagined what they desired’, and, in a perverse reversal of Engberg’s own slogan for the Sydney Biennale, they also got it. But now, pardon the bad joke, the proverbial dead cow is on the steps of the gallery. It’s a indictment on the Australian political system that some people have to get hurt for other people to take action, and a twisted irony that, in the very moment when we realise that our day-to-day life is built on such horrors, our right to have a voice in shaping our political reality is being eroded at the edges by incremental processes of privatisation. In this context, the dissenting Biennale artists have confronted our complicity, acting in defiance of a situation where, if you ask Transfield, the Australian government (including its Arts minister), the Biennale Board, and the mainstream journalists, action makes no rational sense whatsoever.
It is worth noting that Durrant’s cow-dumping occurred neither inside the gallery, nor on the steps of Parliament House. The carcass was left on the steps of the art institution, at that troublesome threshold between art and the street. In his case, as in the case of the nine artists who refuse to take part in the Sydney Biennale, the power of art lies in its withdrawal from the institution and its reappearance elsewhere, in a space where it might be confused for madness or activism, for an attempt at dialogue or a rash act of love, where it might disturb a public order we can no longer bear.
The Biennale of Sydney will open on the 21st of March.
The names of the artists who have withdrawn their work are: Libia Castro, Ã“lafur Ã“lafsson, Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri, Ahmet Ã–ÄŸÃ¼t, Agnieszka Polska, Sara van der Heide, Nicoline van Harskamp and Nathan Gray
Sonja Hornung is a Melbourne-born artist and writer currently living inÂ Berlin. She is undertaking her Masters in Spatial Strategies at Weissensee School of Art.
Â Â Â Anthony Gardner & Charles Green, ‘The Third Biennale of Sydney: White Elephant or Red Herring‘, Humanities Research, Vol. 19, No. 2, May 19 2013.