29 05 06

Snip, Snip… Bang, Bang: Political Art, Reloaded

Gregory Sholette

Pure repetition, were it to change neither thing nor sign, carries with it an unlimited power of perversion and subversion.[1]

What can be said about the art activism of the 1980s is that it tugged at mainstream art discourse, eventually stretching it some like warm taffy so that by the end of the decade the art world grudgingly admitted culture had a basis in social experience.[2] Nevertheless, the initial response was to approach “political art,” a label no one who took cultural politics seriously found useful, as if it were a novelty. As if socially-engaged art had not been made throughout the century, even during the abstract expressionist years. Eventually, museums bagged and tagged a limited number of socially critical artworks. It was, however, a selective assimilation that favored politically ambiguous work over the directly interventionist. Meanwhile, those collectives that had been instrumental in forcing-open the question of art and politics ––PAD/D, Group Material, the Art Workers Coalition, Artists Meeting for Cultural Change, The Guerilla Art Action Group, Paper Tiger, SPARC, Carnival Knowledge–– were unceremoniously submerged, partially or wholly, beneath the waves of normative art history. The record of their activities now exists within a shadow archive brimming with other examples of anonymous histories, collectivist production, and unrecognized modes of creativity. It is the gravitational pull of the hidden archive that concerns us here.

Theorist Giorgio Agamben describes the archive as “the mass of the non-semantic inscribed in every meaningful discourse as a function of enunciation; it is the dark margin encircling and limiting every concrete act of speech.” [3] The phantom archive’s off-stage presence not only opens up this investigation, but its elliptical return also constitutes, paradoxically, the very ground from which to imagine a radical transformation of institutional power. By way of repetition something is undone.

“Repeated, the same line is no longer exactly the same, the ring no longer has exactly the same center, the origin has played.” [4] And undoubtedly, the center is in play today. Again. Exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial 2006 which reviewers have variously described as, “Short on Pretty, Long on Collaboration,” “The Collective Conscious,” or “Radical Meek: Another Whitney Biennial That Was Supposed to Break the Mold Turns Into a Solid, Stolid Survey.”

It starts like this. The return of a real, repressed not because its content was necessarily so traumatic, but because it directs our attention towards an ellipsis within the historical record where none is supposed to be. The gatekeepers of the artistic canon eye the detour with trepidation.[5] We however, recognize that interventionist art, politically motivated art, collectivized art is more than just another artistic genre, that its genealogy is more than a collection of curious anomalies useful for sprucing up the same old art historical canon. The phantom archive encircles mainstream institutions, invisibly altering them not unlike the way cosmic dark matter prods the path of planets, stars and galaxies. Often handed-down directly from activist to activist, interventionist to interventionist, this counter-history reveals attempt after attempt to re-imagine, and re-socialize, the entire practice of art from the bottom up.  This “dark” history includes makeshift institutions, radical art clubs, direct political action, labor strikes and even snake-charmers and pie-throwers. It is peopled by artists who organize and organizers who make art, made visible in alternative spaces transformed into mock art galleries or political groups or businesses, realized by curators and artists working together collectively, or who happily serve as conduits for moving material support to activists, unions, and interventionists situated on the far periphery of the art world. The only feature these phenomenon share besides a mutual “outsider” status is a cavernous indeterminacy that goes well beyond the interdisciplinary frolic of contemporary gallery art. Theorists Stephen Wright and Brian Holmes describe the interventionist as an ontological “secret agent” who is forced to don multiple identities: artist/activist, theorist/practitioner, participant/viewer, organizer/organized. No doubt the interventionist curator will find such ontological prevarication indispensable. No doubt this same existential incertitude will also return to haunt them and their careers.

Standing before the increasingly delimited horizon of global capital I can think of nothing for a curatorial practice or an institutional venue to do, no matter how theoretically astute or politically committed they may be, that will effectively intervene within the broader social sphere. Nothing that is, except perhaps to sacrifice the one commodity still valued by enterprise culture: occupational identity. For despite postmodern promises of authorial annihilation and declarations of radical hybridization, art world success still rests squarely upon the certifiable display of accumulated cultural capital. Just think of the way the Curriculum Vitae, with its titles and offices and exhibition venues, or the way one’s reliable signature, serve as letters of transit. Instruments of authenticity that provide, or deny, passage throughout the system’s checkpoints, from informal introductions at openings, to job applications, to publication opportunities. Under such circumstances in other words, who would choose to build an art career upon the shoals of ontological incertitude? Who would take a chance their papers would be found out of order or worse, to be counterfeit? Except perhaps the double agent?

[1] “Ellipsis,” from the book Writing and Difference by Jacques Derrida, (University of Chicago Press, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London and Henley: 1978), p 297.

[2] Or course modernism’s formalist firewall was breached on several fronts simultaneously. Clement Greenberg’s theoretical franchise was usurped by Feminist, Marxist, and Post-Structuralist thinkers, while many younger artists gravitated  towards a gritty punk aesthetic that, together with the new wave of politicized collectivism, abandoned  post-war conventions, including those  of  the established Left.

[3] Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz. The Witness and the Archive, p 144.

[4] Derrida, Op cit.

[5] In this sense the reified, re-creation of the 1966 "Peace Tower" for the 2006 Whitney Biennial is exactly the type of repetition we will be seeing more and more of over the next few years as the art world attempts to reign-in the potentially destabilizing energy of interventionist creativity taking place outside its parameters. (It worth noting that like so many Hollywood remakes the 2006 Peace Tower casts the senior Mark di Suvero from the original production together with younger co-star Rirkrit Tiravanija, buff and beefy with plenty of art market muscle.)

Gregory Sholette