12 06 06

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

Gregory Sholette

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

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

No doubt many who read this will praise this young man's ethics and bravery. Then why is it, in the wake of curator Chris Gilbert's letter of resignation from the Berkeley Art Museum, has there been a divided response from within progressive art circles with many people questioning this young man's motivation? (Gilbert's letter is copied here at Bay Area indymedia: with responses posted on Mute and Nettime )

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

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

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

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

Gregory Sholette