[Catalogue Essay for System Error: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, a project by Lorenzo Fusi & Naeem Mohaiemen @ Palazzo Papesse, Siena]
These Guys Are Artists, And Who Gives A Shit
Scenes From A Looking Glass War
"Play some more Bach. We won't shoot."[i]
Scene 1: Mufathalle, Munich
The weekend event is part of a series called Dictionary of War. Twenty five artists and academics, presenting themes based on a word they had chosen about warfare. Camouflage, Declaration of War, Desertion, Heroes, Liberation, Mobilization, National Anthem, Negotiation, Resistance, the list was exhaustive (my word: Prisoner of War). As we present our concepts, the Lebanon war is in its second week. There are accommodations made to reflect this rude insertion into our mannered program. Mansur Jacoubi joins us from Beirut for some clunky IRC chat (somebody asks him "can you describe the situation there?", I wince). Akram Zaatari flies in from Paris to present some earlier work––stranded outside the country, he's available to us. E-flux brings in all their Lebanese videos.
I feel the cramp of anxiety. Will all these well-sculpted words have an impact outside this room? Somehow I'm missing the codec to transmit all this theoretical, creative energy into real world action. I've been scolded for seeking use-value in art, but I can't restrain this tourette-like impulse. Back in Dhaka, friends are organizing rallies to protest the war. But they are worried because the main organizers are Islamist groups. I send them the announcement for Dictionary and get a withering response by e-mail "Sitting in a room discussing war, while the Middle East burns down–– a luxury indulgence."
I try to muster up an appropriate response as to why representation, aesthetics, theory, all of this still matters, even in this moment. I believe in everything I say, but today I feel small comfort, because the external geopolitical context seems so extraordinary and extreme. In an attempt to band-aid the situation and, yes, insert "direct action" into the Munich event, I talk to the organizers. Could we issue a statement from the artists calling for an immediate cease-fire? More importantly, there is a peace rally in downtown Munich, perhaps we can take a break and join it. People like the idea in principle, although the logistics are challenging. Eyal Weizman is particularly enthusiastic. But in the end it fizzles out. Before too long, the weekend is over, everyone is bolting towards the airport–– no rally, no statement. I feel deflated, even though the weekend went as promised. But, is that all there is?
Scene 2: Soho gallery, New York
Valentin Manz of London's Vision Machine is very persuasive. Somehow he has persuaded a gallery, not previously known for patronizing political work, to host his group show. "I don't understand," I ask as we start installing my piece. "On what basis did they give you the space? Did they see the title? Rule of Law? What do they think it's about?" According to Valentin, the curators had seen his exhibition of glass pieces in Williamsburg, and that was enough. They didn't comprehend that the gnarled glass shards were exploded Iraqi heads. Perhaps, I suggested, your labels were hazy enough to succeed as illusionists.
As we put up photocopied statements by Alberto Gonzales, neatly labeling them with artist (A Gonzales), media, year, I wonder if there will be a "freak out" moment before the opening. I've been here at least once before. Everyone was all smiles until a few hours before that opening, when a museum director made the rounds and read labels. Then came frantic scuffling, a quiet meeting and then the junior curator coming over to me, and with maximum tortured, circuitous prose explaining that, well, you see, I don't quite know how to say it, but, um, there's a slight problem, no nothing big, but we were just wondering if, that is would you consider...
But somehow, this time around, the entire install goes off without a hitch. I'm not entirely delusional. It is August, "dead time" to most galleries as their patrons are away. The opening is, as a result, over-representative of the activist community. The same faces I had been seeing at meetings of Action Wednesday, an anti-war group, were out in force. The art crowd having gone on summer break, a different energy permeated the room. The staff at the gallery seemed a bit nervous. Nobody here looked like they had money, and not even in that neo-Factory, lower east side, almost famous manner.
Still everyone is polite to us until two friends start debating Hezbollah's role, liberators or destroyers, very near the drink table. The woman serving the drinks gets increasingly jittery. Very soon, there is no more wine. Valentin is puzzled–– he also bought a case of wine, that can't be gone too? Then one of the gallery assistants informs us that because it's summer, they have to close the place early. Sorry, the opening is not until 8 pm after all. It's all very rush rush, almost as if someone broke wind and the room needs to be cleared. As I walk towards the exit, I spot one potential source of trouble. One of our friends had kindly assumed -- well, from the name of the show-- that this was an appropriate venue and had left copies of the IndyMedia newspaper at the front desk. There, splashed out in garish outrage, were images of bloody warfare in Lebannon. A little too much of a reality intrusion, like Linda Blair's possessed girl walking in on a party, peeing on the carpet and blurting out: "You're going to die up there"[ii]
Enough anecdotes, let's start the rest of our conversation.
Permanent War, Elusive Peace
"Every morning, Shamshad Hussain goes to his rooftop, just opposite Red Fort, to enjoy a cup of tea after the azaan, his ears catching strains of prayers from the nearby Jama Masjid. Today, he carried two cups — the second was for the sniper on the rooftop."[iii]
It is almost banal to start by talking about the ongoing Iraq apocalypse. After thousands of lives, and many multiples more of ink and video have been spilt, what more remains to be said about this manifestation of permanent war? Those who marched in anti-war rallies can now feel some schadenfreude at the unraveling of the entire project for a New Century. But at what a terrible price we earned the right to say "we told you so". Even after all the interventionist fantasies have shattered, there is no post-war peace dividend. The madness of the Neocon project only replaced by the equally insane Islamist project of the Mahdi Army, and the ethnic cleansing and forced partition dreams of the Shiite and Sunni death squads.
The New York Times has just printed the most unflattering and bizarre photograph of Condoleeza Rice. Confronted by a chorus of furious opposition by both Democrats & Republicans (but we all know that this too will pass), Rice looks angry and cornered. Her hands are raised in martial pose, warding off noxious peaceniks and liberal harpies. A friend remarks that she looks like a Bollywood villain. Her body language spelling out a Gabbar Singh-like threat, "Mei thum sob lokogo tukra turka korenga" (all of you people, I will cut you into pieces). We have a good laugh. But a day later, newpapers carry a headline about Rice's threat come to life. Senior administration official Charles Stimson tells a radio show that corporate America should cut off business from all law firms that have represented Guantanamo detainees. He then lists all firms that are representing Muslim detainees. Even after a drubbing at the elections, the war on terror shows no signs of winding down, or opening itself up to logic. The world's largest (for now) superpower is still lost and thrashing around, doing untold damage to the world and, to a greater degree, to itself. Should we sit silently by? Well, friends don't let friends drive drunk.
It is fatuous to talk of "since 9/11" as if history started on that day and the current global conflagration is something new or unexpected. The previous century was in fact the most violent in recorded history–– ranging from world wars to colonial expansion, anti-colonial struggles, civil wars, revolution, guerilla warfare, urban war, genocide, and witch hunts. Simply to hint at the astronomical toll of the Stalinist terror alone, Martin Amis recalls this argument between his father (Kingsley) and A. J. Ayer:
"In the U.S.S.R., at least they're trying to forge something positive."
"But it doesn't matter what they're trying to forge, because they've already killed five million people."
"You keep going back to the five million."
"If you're tired of that five million, then I'm sure I can find you another five million."[iv]
Surveying the post "Good War" scenario of the other camp, Mahmood Mamdani[v] casts a cynical eye on the maximalist expansion of the US sphere of influence and destructive interventions in Africa and Latin America. In the blue-sky rhetoric of the time, countries were divided by the Heritage Foundation into compartments for "rollback" (Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, Libya, Nicaragua, Vietnam). The skeleton closet from this period seems endless. What to do, for example, with the recent admission by Peter Matthiessen that he was a CIA recruit in the 1950s and used The Paris Review as his cover? It has been far too easy for cultural figures to be drafted into larger war-strategy programs, in the past through active recruiting, and now through silent assent.
Compared to these cowboy interventions, today's conflicts seem to have a slightly finite boundary––a sizable Muslim population is needed to qualify as a threat (Nepal or Sri Lanka never grab as many headlines). This reassures until you start counting the countries, or sizing up the growing internal populations of Europe and North America. With a renewed intensity not seen since the era of "negros with guns"[vi], the state is monitoring the internal "fourth column". "Muslim" serves as an ethnicized shorthand for migrant populations that were in the past seen as an obedient taskforce (North America) or a non-assimilating welfare nuisance (Europe), but now are seen as a ticking time bomb. During the Vietnam protests, "bringing the war home"[vii] meant gumming up the daily industrial, commercial and cultural machinery that made possible the prosecution of a napalm-orange war in Indochina. Today, the term has been perverted to mean the shadow surveillance of frantic citizens.
Even in countries that launch ferocious tirades against the new Rome, there is also a move to clone its tactics against their own citizens. After a rash of suicide bombings, the Bangladesh government passed far-reaching surveillance and enforcement measures, the language of which seemed to have been taken directly from Homeland Security's playbook. The paranoid mindset of endless security checks has now infected Southern nations. During a screening at Dhaka Public Library, a bearded musolli walked into the middle of the screening, blocking the projector. We had already gone through security checks, those same security guards rushed up and grabbed the man, and a tremor of thrill and fear ran through the crowd. Was this it, is this how it all ends? "Amare chaira den, ami kichu kori nai!" cried the poor man in a feeble voice. It turned out he was the night watchman for the Library. He had been looking for the prayer room, and had stumbled into the auditorium. The madrasa recruits are an icon of fear and resentment for the Bengali middle class, just as they are to xenophobes and power structures in the US and Europe. For the Dhaka elite, madrasa graduates are people who can't afford to drink Coke, have Josh ring tones on their phone, buy bar-coded fruit at Agora mall, or wear jeans from Westecs; they cannot exist in our consciousness. A similar frisson rises in the mind of the Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris or Rome pensioner as they see the hijab-clad (over-used cultural signifier), or bearded paan chewing migrant shuffling towards their bus stop. Why don't these people learn to speak the language properly, they mutter. The pensioner may not be Goldhagen's "ordinary German"[viii], but he will agree quietly as a national security state is built up to police these undesirables.
The "Necessary" War & Saviors for Civilian Life
" What, what if they don't even want the sheik, have you considered that? What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we're doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit?"[ix]
There is now the terribly seductive idea of wars as "necessary" and a force for good. Paranoia is the driving factor, and the astonishing abundance of flags in today's American urban landscape is one demonstration of this out of control, emotional response. Fear eats the soul, as Kalle Lasn writes: “Is everybody crazy? … If you add up all the psychological ailments Americans complain of, the portrait that emerges is of a nation of basket-cases.”[x] Post-traumatic witnesses also incentivize programs of revenge killing on a micro scale and necessary war on a global scale. Amitava Kumar described this impulse in the context of the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogroms: “I saw from the way in which he recited the details that, in the name of charity and the need for news, this little boy had been turned into an automaton or an agony-machine. Insert a coin into the slot, and hear a recitation about rape.”[xi] Borrowing from Malcolm Gladwell, there is also the idea of the flash point event, whether it is an assassinated Gemayel, the purloined Prophet’s hair in Kashmir, a missing German industrialist, or a racial slur on an Australian beach, that can give rise to the "justified" response. The results are predictable–– justifiable wars inflame things even further. As the anti-war sign in Boston warned: "Bombing For Peace Is Like Fucking For Virginity"
In the middle of many righteous protest rallies, I encountered at least one conflict that truly put me in mind of pre-emptive violence. Like clockwork, another petition arrived in my email inbox, accompanied by the rote, garish, vaguely pornographic, jpeg. A large red target was drawn on Belgrade, and the slogan said "STOP NATO/STOP US". No, I have to admit, I could not cheer that slogan. We had been watching the genocide in Bosnia unfold for over two years. "Never Again" had been mouthed ad nauseum, but nothing had happened. Like the Rwandan and Darfur genocide, the world was watching (as Chicago '68 announced), but also sitting quietly on its' hands. Having read Robert Kaplan, they had concluded that "Balkan ghosts"[xii] were "primeval histories", not a place for modern intervention. In that scenario of stupefying inaction, even the Clinton and NATO bombings, however convoluted their motives, were a relief. At last, someone, somewhere was doing something. Sure enough, soon enough the Serbs were back at the negotiating table.
This was also the watershed moment when Christopher Hitchens broke with the American Left over its' refusal to endorse limited intervention. Unfortunately, Hitchens then made the leap to extend the lessons of Belgrade to Iraq. Operation Infinite Justice was also a "necessary" war that must be fought and would be won. Like many armchair pundits, Hitchens has neither experienced nor learnt from the brutality and unpredictability of war. His chorus was joined by hawks such as Thomas Friedman (on a break from touring Victoria's Secret factories in Sri Lanka), whose rhetoric recast war as a series of bloodless analogies: "You know, honey, the wheels aren’t on tight out there", "It’s O.K. to throw out your steering wheel as long as you remember you’re driving without one", "If we don’t turn around now, we may just get where we’re going", and of course re-quoting Lawrence Summers: "In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car."
With an avalanche of such bastardized reasoning making the case for preemptive war, low-level strikes, mass detention, secret prisons, and leave-no-marks torture, the idea of ends-justify-any-means has infected other spheres of civilian life as well. We see this now in the extreme prejudice and brute force being applied to law enforcement, which increasingly resembles the dystopian vision of 2000 AD's Judge Dredd or Paul Verhoeven's Robocop. The first time I saw lethally over-armed and cocoon-wrapped riot police was during the first major anti-WTO battles in Seattle. Since then, the model of machine-tooled lethal force is a common sight at every demonstration–– from Genoa to Doha, and of course always in New York.
Along with a military-level increase in the ability to police, enforce, detain, harass, spy, and attack, there is also a rise, especially in developing nations, of an expanded military role in governments. As democratic experiments fail, the idea of the benevolent dictator is back in vogue. This was evident even in genteel events like the Asia Society's Asia 21, where some Singaporean speakers battled democracy advocates by expounding on "Asian Values" and "stability not democracy." We see this played out in the images that appeared on Flickr after the Thailand coup, showing people placing flower garlands near military checkpoints––the Vietnam protest image of long-stemmed flower placed inside a National Guard rifle, played in reverse. The army man in (or out of) khaki is a specter again in countries such as Algeria, Turkey and Fiji, and Parvez Musharraf proves that opposition to military coups is always conditional and opportunistic. Reflecting on the seductiveness of warrior-solutions to the messy business of democracy, the late writer Humayun Azad predicted: "One dawn morning a General will take over the country. He will call in a judge, that stupid judge will believe that he is the one who is really running the country. Then the general will keep giving the country boot-sunglass-left-right democracy. All the famed opportunists (this word is now praise) will come to the shade of his boot. One day that General will be immortal."[xiii]
Artist in Age of Diminished Expectations
"Strangely, life was becoming almost bearable. I don the robe of hermit without a cry, he thought. On the phonograph, music played, quiet and unhurried. Outside, the vampires waited."[xiv]
Without devolving into an endless litany of all the soft and hard conflicts in the world (there are so many to choose from), we can conclude that the post millennium world is in sorry shape and in need of many interventions. And so, we can dive into the conversation about the potential, ability, and responsibility of cultural actors. In particular, many of us have felt a growing realization over the last few years that the visual arts are conspicuously absent from today's contentious political debates. An explosive art market has created a "Green Zone" inside which we are bubble boys[xv], insulated from external, grim, realities. This is not to place a relative value judgment on artwork that is not (or is) socially engaged. But we need to fight against profit calculations that marginalize and punish those artists who do choose to engage political issues directly in their practice. Also of concern is a critical impulse that reflexively categorizes such work as didactic. These cultural equations and frozen positions must be urgently critiqued and dismantled.
We live in an age of reduced expectations and diminishing returns, especially in the area of political dissent. In spite of numerous rallies over the last four years against the Afghan invasion, Iraq war, Darfur carnage, Guantanamo black hole, Abu Ghraib horrorshow, and continued racial profiling of the "other", tangible victories have been dishearteningly rare. Of course, people come out to register vocalized, visible opposition even in the absence of results. But facing an endlessly resilient power structure, the movement faces exhaustion. At the first anti-Guantanamo rally of 2007, Pakistani poet Sarah Husain sms'ed me angrily from the freezing streets: "Where is everybody?" I typed out a flippant reply from my warm apartment. That was the theme and fate for many recent organized protests. Getting bodies on the streets sometimes feels like an exhausted tactic, new methods need to supplement and replace them. I'm vaguely embarrassed even by that moment of euphoria when we were chanting "George Bush Corporate Whore/We Don't Want Your Oil War." I fear that footage from those rallies will suddenly appear on YouTube–– like Joschka Fischer's street-fighting years, we're suddenly embarrassed by youthful optimism.
The role of the cultural producer in these times requires dissection. Richard Hulsenbeck told a 1918 conference audience: “We were for the war. Dada today is still for war. Life should hurt. There is not enough cruelty.” Of course Dada had a distinct war critique, but others took on the role of creating fascist mythos that assisted in annihilation projects–– Foujita's theatrical wartime paintings[xvi], Leni Riefenstahl's paean to the fetishized Aryan body, Syed Ali Ahsan's poetry for the dictator, or Amitav Bacchan's saber-rattling in jingoistic filmi projects. There are also the military dictators who were frustrated artists, famously Hussain Ershad, who wrote poetry, and Idi Amin, who displayed filmmaking elan for Barbet Schroeder.
Beyond critiquing this impulse to grease the military machine, how do we understand and support the cultural practitioner who actively opposes war culture? Their role may sometimes be direct and confrontational, at other times a quiet, post facto reflection. For those who do take on the role of last man in front of Tiananmen tanks, it is important to understand the structures that militate against them. Looking at an exhibition of Soc-Art (or "New Red Art")[xvii], I thrilled at the documentation of blotchy, hand-lettered "Solidarnosc" slogans jammed on top of a Polish news broadcast. A live, pre-digital hijack of the television signal that gave an electric shock to Warsaw living rooms. I'm waiting for someone to similarly hijack one of the giant billboards in Soho, Times Square or Piccadilly Circus and commit creative vandalism. Why is it only Banksy who still dares to sabotage a Disneyland ride with visions of orange jumpsuits? I keep hoping for gangs of culture jammers, not within the rarefied confines of "street culture" gallery shows, but mounting full assaults on the warrior-friendly mediascape.
There are of course numerous adventurous artmakers who are tackling these issues head-on, but there are many institutional barricades that impede their path. Wishful nostalgia is dangerous, but reading the narrative elsewhere in this book of the 1980s' Artists Call project reminds us that it is possible for artists, even in a go-go art market, to find a space for meaningful political dissent that brings tangible results to people outside the gallery perimeter. There are several factors preventing a similar impulse and result today, and we can consider at least three of them:
"I heard some rumor that the CIA like, just arrested Lawrence Weiner 'cos of his beard' and I was like 'dude, that sucks. I'm gonna grow a beard in protest' and my dealer was like 'dude, that's so cool and it's gonna be real helpful in sellin' your work 'cos collectors are, like, goin' crazy over beards at the moment.'"[xviii]
First of course there is the problem of politics simply as a faddish layer or category, Just as ethnicity can be a lucrative categorization, so can a sheen of politics–– especially if it is the unthreatening, Prada-clad, faux Marxism variety. Can we think of another icon that has been so completely stripped of revolutionary or historical potential as Alberto Korda's photograph[xix], a point only (inadvertently) underscored by Victoria & Albert Musuem's exhaustive documentation of the hundred faces of Guevara. Similarly, when I look at Marianne Boesky gallery's invite for a show by Donald Moffett, I see a faux sticker with the word "IMPEACH." Later I realize it's not faux at all, in one hidden corner is a "Peel Here" tab. But will the show's visitors leave the gallery and start guerilla stickering all over town? When memorialized graffiti bombing and packaged bohemia is the bleeding edge of gallery-based "subversive" art, it is a struggle to overcome the commercial instrumentalization of genuine political positions. If political art becomes uber-trendy, the first victim is politics. Bemoaning the deafening silence of the artworld during the most recent Lebanon war, Emily Jacir wrote in her blog: " I am sure there will be conferences organized, teach-ins and always the "hero" filmmaker who will risk life to make a documentary, the readings, the art exhibits, and the art world will eat the Lebanese artists like pieces of chocolate."
"Our friend is an artist and he says his art is political, but he says it is also totally ineffectual and, therefore, is not activism."[xx]
The challenge for cultural producers is to find a meaningful balance between aesthetics and their desired political engagement. Okwui Enwezor delineated some of the issues embedded within critiques of Documenta XI when he wrote, “If we take on board the idea that combining aesthetic procedures with documentary/ethical questions presupposes the corruption of the autonomy of art we immediately face problems they each pose to our comprehension of reality in the context of art works, images, and events as they appear in exhibitions and institutions of contemporary art."[xxi] Paul Chan solves this by forcefully separating his activism from his art, Dread Scott opts for an extremely conjoined practice. There is a built-in cynicism towards perceived ideological agendas behind a direct approach. When the approach is more elliptical, it is more accepted territory (although here they may be charged with “trivializing”). An endless questioning can even manifest in negation, as in Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Happen. Some seek space in a continuum between direct and the poetic, putting into practice William Carlos Williams words: “It is difficult/to get the news/from poems/yet men die miserably/every day/for lack/of what is found/there” All this can lead to a false dichotomy between "genuine" art and "political" art, pushing the latter towards some rarefied ghetto. This logic even led to the recent pronouncement of Amiri Baraka as a "marginal figure" or as Stanley Crouch scathingly observed, "[he] could have been like Saul Bellow, but with his own style and perspective. If a writer goes into politics, he should maintain his independence."[xxii] Forceful political positions have frequently doomed artists to precisely this sort of dismissive indictment.
"I was seeing work in studios and I was realizing that this work wasn't being presented in galleries because the galleries didn't know how to contextualize, engage, and sell it. It's a whole other side of the system, it's a monster, in a way."[xxiii]
Related to the above is also the real risk of politically engaged art as career suicide, especially for the young, struggling artist. Outright censorship comes usually from right-wing institutions, as when the plans for the Drawing Center at Grand Zero floundered over Amy Wilson's Life In A Free Country. The more subtle pressures come because disapproval of (some) political art manifests itself through the quiet sidelining of these artists' careers. Or even more insidious (because self-censorship is the best censorship) is when the artist starts to move away from direct political work because they realize their careers are going into free-fall. When an artist's more socially engaged practice gets relegated to "something she does on the side", while her other work is patronized and sold, most would make the logical choice. The starving artist mythos is only romantic to those who don't have to live it. Moaning about money in the artworld has become another tired trope. Of course the market is crazy and overheated, but it has always been this way–– people have been predicting apocalyptic collapses since the 1980s (and there was of course one such dip). Anyone with a modicum of interest in the future of the arts cannot possibly be upset that artists are now able to make a comfortable living from their work, at many multiples of what was possible before. Neither is early, hyper-professionalism necessarily a betrayal of some sacred trust. The real issue is not the presence of money, but whether by its' presence it is neutering politically challenging work. It is essential to carve out a space for continued vigorous thought and dissent, protected from the punishment of the market.
Engage Or Die
"From those of us who are left behind: you will be remembered, you were the one I needed, I loved you in my dreams."[xxiv]
In an effort to jolt the hyper art market out of its' current juggernaut path, Jerry Saltz wrote: "The agenda needs to be set by artists, not the market. Supply-and-demand thinking has to shift to production-and-experience thinking. Small communities or cells of artists, curators and critics should band together, take positions, make cogent arguments, and put those things out there."[xxv]
It is our desire to stake out a clear space for engaged political art that can (once again) fulfill the potential of artists as public activists, intellectuals and agents of progressive, political change. This show came about propelled by that impulse–– not to launch a grand manifesto but at least to lob a small hand grenade into smug paradigms that "manage" the artworld as if it is a trading floor or investment fund, as opposed to something with potential to shape visions of other possible futures.
This show's title borrows partially from Chris Hedges' book[xxvi] on warlust. The title of this essay similarly came from Casey Kasem's radio rant, as appropriated by Negativland. In the original radio show, America's comforting music father figure is caught in an off-air moment railing against U2: "This is bullshit, nobody cares. These guys are from England, and who gives a shit?"[xxvii] Free-associating between U2's ferocious legal response and the Gary Webb spy plane incident that inspired Negativland's guerilla warfare, I started wondering if this would be the fate of artists making (or choosing not to make) political art interventions. As the world continues to slide towards national security panic, people who do not engage with these issues risk becoming irrelevant to vital cultural dialogue. Recent Biennials seemed to operate in magnificent isolation, oblivious to a world split asunder by violence. Now that there is blood in the water and it is safe (and fashionable) to attack the American Imperial project, they have belatedly started programming political work. Will this be a temporary dip, before the art world resumes regular programming, isolated in splendid art fair echo chambers? We hope rather that it will become a robust trajectory, fostering artists and art institutions active role in deciding political futures.
In an effort to challenge hermetic trends, this show is our small contribution to a dynamic conversation that is already under way in many locations. While a small minority of these artists have exhibited at venues such as the Whitney, Venice and Sydney Biennials, we also discovered many of these works while attending protest rallies, going to concerts, browsing a comic book store, and surfing YouTube and Flickr. Within the (soon to be expanded) silo of political art, certain conflicts tend to dominate. So we sought out and emphasized conflagrations that slip under the radar. These include the Beslan school raid, rebranded School of Americas, East Timor library, Oaxaca burning, Darfur refugee camps, Rome assassination, Iraq's managed chaos, "Safe" Area Gorazde, D.W. Griffith's Night Riders, Vietnam's burning monk, Oliver Stone's 9/11 blockbuster, Jetblue's t-shirt policy, Paris' cat graffiti, Newsweek's Rwanda amnesia, Iranian embassy takeover, Che Guevara's New York visit, Bangladesh's gun culture, and Thailand's rose coup.
The current "poverty of responsive, socially active visual culture"[xxviii] needs to be challenged head on. The best response to the question of whether political art can play a viable role in shaping mass culture, world events and politics is to look at these and many other artists who are drawing out plans for their own rebellions–– both inside the frothy art market, but also far away from white cubes, in neo-situationist art practices, independent pedagogy and teaching, rebellious intervention, aesthetic innovation, street action, and public dialogues interfacing with our daily lives.
[Naeem Mohaiemen is an artist working in New York and Dhaka. Thanks to Media Farzin, Jesal Kapadia, Brian Holmes, and Doug Ashford for comments on an earlier draft.]
[i] Response to Mikhail Goldstein's concert in besieged Stalingrad, described in William Craig, Enemy At The Gates, Penguin, 2000
[ii] Linda Blair as Regan in The Exorcist, William Friedkin dir., 1973
[iii] Charu Sudan Kasturi, "Tea With Sniper", The Telegraph, 8/15/06
[iv] In the end twenty million, as exhaustively enumerated in Martin Amis, Koba The Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, Knopf, 2002
[v] Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Pantheon, 2004
[vi] Title of Robert Williams' incendiary pamphlet, later channeled into founding of Deacons for Defense
[vii] Martha Rosler, Bringing The War Home: House Beautiful (1967-72), and also as popularized by New Left radical movements like Weather Underground and Rotee Armee Fraktion
[viii] Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Knopf, 1996
[ix] Denzel Washington in The Siege, Edward Zwick dir., 1998
[x] Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America, William Morrow, 1999
[xi] Amitava Kumar, Husband of a Fanatic, The New Press, 2005
[xii] Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, St. Martin's Press, 1993
[xiii] Humayun Ajad, Rajnithibidgon, Agami Press, 1998
[xiv] Richard Matheson, I Am Legend, Bantam, 1964
[xv] I borrowed this phrase from Asif Saleh's post at drishtipat.org/blog
[xvi] Phyllis Birnbaum, Glory In A Life: A Life of Foujita–– The Artist Caught Between East and West, Faber & Faber,
[xvii] Polish Socialist Conceptualism, curated by Lukasz Ronduda and Barbara Piwowarska, Ochard gallery, New York, 2007
[xviii] Brock Jones, "Hair Today", letter to Frieze, 1/07
[xix] Korda's daughter successfully sued Bruce LaBruce for his film riff on Baader-Meinhof Strawberry Reich because of "unauthorized" use of this icon
[xx] Mike Bonnano (The Yes Men), Who Cares, Creative Time, 2006
[xxi] Okwui Enwezor, "Documentary/Verité: Bio-Politics, Human Rights and the Figure of “Truth” in Contemporary Art"
[xxii] "A Return to Rage, Played Out In Black & White", Celia McGee, New York Times, 1/14/07
[xxiii] Dead Daderko, Who Cares, Creative Time, 2006
[xxiv] Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park, Knopf, 2005
[xxv] "The Battle For Babylon", Jerry Saltz, Village Voice, 9/16/05
[xxvi] War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges, Public Affairs, 2002
[xxvii] Negativland, "The Letter U And The Numeral 2", U2, 1991
[xxviii] Doug Ashford, "Finding Cythera: Disobedient Art and New Publics", Who Cares, Creative Time, 2006