A survey of more than 50 respondents from over 30 countries
Given the current political climate, we here at frieze have been reflecting on the role of art in responding to conflict. With this in mind, we invited a cross-section of artists, curators and writers to answer two deceptively simple questions: ‘How important is art as a form of protest?’ and ‘How effective is it as a conduit of change?’ Responses could take the form of a statement, an image, a film or a combination of all three. The submissions, by more than 50 respondents from over 30 countries are provocative and enlightening. Further contributions to the print version are included here, from around the world. (Click on the artist’s name below to jump to their entry.)
Jonathas de Andrade
Jonathas de Andrade lives in Recife, Brazil. His video The Uprising will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as part of ‘Unfinished Conversations: New Work from the Collection’ which runs until 30 July. His solo show, ‘O Peixe’, at the New Museum, New York, runs until 9 April. His work is included in the Sharjah Biennial until 12 June.
Art must be a sign of resistance to a political model that is increasingly hierarchical, diffuse, global and standardized. The public stage has become a sort of orchestrated video game – a frivolous, ridiculous operetta with a few recited parts that are performed daily before a people overwhelmed by the consequences of the crisis. The audience is immediately proscribed by the mass media and, therefore, defused before its fellow citizens dare ‘boo’ from the stands. This is the criminalization of protest, which leads to the brutalization of audiences implemented by refined political techniques – in short, to audiences that dare practise disobedience to the rules imposed by the institution, such as transgression, insubordination, the creation of new political experiences or the rehearsal of new voices. Democracy has become an aesthetic matter. I want to get away from unilateral, closed discourses affording no possibility for response, participation or interaction. We artists have a political function that requires clear ethical positions. Language can change the world – or should. This is one of the artist’s most effective tools.
Andreas Angelidakis lives in Athens, Greece. His work is included in documenta 14. In November, he is curating Regionale 17 at Kunsthalle Basel. Until the end of the year, he will continue to work on Kalejdohill, an experiment in citizen participation in Stockholm.
For the last five years, I’ve been working with the legendary transgender activist Paola Revenioti. Originally, my aim was to make her work known to a broader audience outside of Greece, so we began in 2013 with an interview in Candy magazine and then organized a show of her photographs at Breeder Gallery. Her work is pure protest; her magazine Kraximo (Gay Bashing) was the only outlet for reports of police brutality against LGBT+ citizens in the 1980s. There is a transcendent quality to her work, even if it’s just a Facebook post, a YouTube video or an archival photograph. I don’t know if showing her work in an art context would qualify as protest, but it certainly shed light on the history and current state of the fight for trans visibility and human rights. Last month, Revenioti’s documentary about Dimitra, a trans woman living on the island of Lesvos, was broadcast on national television: that’s a long way to go for someone whom society only expected to prostitute for a living. Change takes time, but every effort is worth it.
Two weeks after the election of Donald Trump, I held a small event in Amsterdam in a place called the Hubertus House, which was designed by the architect Aldo van Eyck in 1959. I called it An Open House. I have been working on this project for quite a long time; I was invited to do it by the curating collective If I Can’t Dance I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution. Van Eyck designed two interconnected buildings to host single mothers and their children in a private foundation that provided day care, as well as other support. Initially, I didn’t plan to work on this project in the way that I did but after the shock of the election, I couldn’t think of anything else apart from reacting somehow.
The project included 12 women, myself included, from different backgrounds and origins – we all look very different from each other. Tess van Eyck, the architect’s daughter, joined us, sitting on a sofa reading her newspaper. For one hour, we all stood on the balconies of the building and behind the windows. The public was told nothing about what they might see; they were allowed access to one of the two buildings, but not the one we were occupying. We were all dressed in the 12 different colours that Van Eyck used.
Kader Attia lives in Berlin, Germany. His solo show at theMuseum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, runs from12 April to 30 July; his solo show at S.M.A.K, Ghent, Belgium, runs until 1 October. This year, his work will also be included in exhibitions at Lehmann Maupin, New York, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano.
Walead Beshty lives in Los Angeles, USA. His solo show at Petzel, New York, USA, runs from 20 April to 17 June; his solo show at Rat Hole Gallery, Tokyo, runs until 29 April. ‘Picture Industry’, a provisional history of the technological image (1860 to the present), curated by Beshty, will be on view at the Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, from 23 June to 10 September.
Art is a discourse about aesthetics staged through aesthetics. (I use that word in the original Greek sense, referring to perceptible things, the study of which concernsthe means by which something becomes knowable to the senses.) Art’s political potential derives from expanding the conditions of aesthetics, of what can be perceived, and distributing this perception in new configurations while being grounded in a set of parameters, i.e. its history, its venues and its conventions. In this sense, art modifies what is held in common, and it does this by tweaking and thereby challenging aesthetic conventions a few at a time; its movement is an improvisation within tradition, and its effect is gradual.
Art’s most potent political impact is achieved by its ability to intervene within conventions that are intertwined with histories of dominance and subordination, inclusion and exclusion, denaturalizing them and, by extension, democratizing experience. But, to exist, art requires infrastructure – to call something art is to assume a massive system of institutions and professionals, buildings and bureaucracies, histories and discourses. For this reason, art can rarely, if ever, intervene in civic life on its own terms. Instead, it acts within the systems it is inextricable from – and these systems are slow to evolve. Protest, on the other hand, is an expression of institutional crisis. It is a civic act in both production and execution. Protest is quick, fluid, forceful and, by definition, it eschews the solidity of institutions. Protest appears when the social contract has been violated in some way; it defies the institution’s authority to decide who has permission to speak and who does not, and the form that speech can take. Protest arises when institutions can no longer adequately contain the flow of the polis. It is a rupture and is evidence of a failure of institutions, thus it acts outside of and in opposition to institutional strictures. Protest circumvents the orderly arrangements of institutions; it does not negotiate with institutional parameters as art does; it does not tweak its rules, it refuses them on the basis of their corruption. Protest is a means to become a public, a citizenry, outside of the avenues prescribed by institutions.
In the face of crisis, art often reverts to the false promise of institutional inclusion, for it claims, albeit tacitly, that the institutional voice can speak for the excluded: the very failure that gives rise to protest. In the moments that necessitate protest, the voice of art is insufficient at best and oppositional at worst: for, the institutional system through which it speaks is the very thing that protest questions. When art masquerades as protest, it undermines its own capacities to expand perception; but, more troublingly, it nullifies protest by creating a false representation of it, institutionalizing that which is opposed to the institution itself. The former is relatively harmless – it just results in mediocre art – but the latter is insidious, since it forecloses the pathways that only protest can open up, offering a placebo where real action is required.
David Birkin lives in New York, USA. His project ‘Cyclura nubila’, about the iguanas of Guantánamo, was recently published in Cabinet. Later this year, his work will be included in ‘Looking for the Clouds: Contemporary Photography in Times of Conflict’ at Casino, Luxembourg.
In ‘Art, Truth and Politics’, his acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, Harold Pinter observed that there is no one truth to be found in drama – there are many. ‘These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other.’ Not so in politics. There, he argued, truth and falsehood are mutually exclusive. Weapons of mass destruction either exist or they do not. The Bowling Green massacre either happened or it didn’t. GB£350 million a week will either be spent on the National Health Service or it won’t.
But, political truth can be mercurial and fragile – never more so than now, in this climate of fake news and alternative facts. Artists, like journalists and activists, need to define the truth and defend it. If protesters get shut down, we need to amplify their voices, as Mark Wallinger did by reconstructing Brian Haw’s censored Iraq War placards at Tate Britain in 2007. If governments engage in Orwellian doublespeak, we need to uphold the Quaker creed of the late US civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and ‘Speak Truth to Power’. We need to do this with anger, joy, beauty and wit. Because, in the words of bell hooks: ‘We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humour.’
It’s time to look beyond the Eurocentric constraints of art for art’s sake. The poet, cultural theorist and first Senegalese president, Léopold Senghor, described an alternative perception of art that ‘assimilates beauty with goodness and especially with efficacy’. We shouldn’t be afraid to be polemical. We all have a dog in this fight. Or, if we don’t, we should be supporting people who do.
For me, art is first and foremost about a personal relationship to truth. Any notion of beauty springs from that premise. We cannot separate ethics from aesthetics. In this age of moral relativism, John Keats’ 1819 ode has never felt so political:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Daniel Boyd lives in Sydney, Australia. His work has been selected for the 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, ‘Defying Empire’, which will take place from 26 May to 10 September at the National Gallery of Australia.
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin live in London, UK, and Berlin, Germany. Earlier this year, they had a solo show at Lisson Gallery, Milan, Italy. Their project documenting the demolition of 100 migrant boats will be displayed in London in September as an Art on the Underground commission.
Last week, we were in Italy filming the official demolition of 100 migrant boats. They arrived laden with refugees from north Africa and, while their human cargo was either sent home or absorbed into the asylum system, the vessels themselves were never returned to their owners. There has been much debate within local government about how to deal with these hulking craft that lie beached like giant mammals on the concrete forecourt of Porto Pazzallo in Sicily. It’s a striking and melancholic scene. The decision to demolish them was both pragmatic as well as political. The boats are no longer sea-worthy and they are taking up valuable space in the port. But watching them being dismantled was oddly emotional. A digger can be remarkably tender when it wants to be, as it scans the wreckage for human debris, shoes, clothes and juice cartons. The demolition of these boats took a biblical 40 days and felt like an act of violence, undertaken by the state against objects that speak of culture and loss. We have forensically recorded this destruction. It may not be art. Perhaps it’s just a memory of something.
Tania Bruguera lives between Havana, Cuba, and wherever art takes her. She researches ways in which art can be applied to everyday political life, focusing on the transformation of social affect into political effectiveness.
To resist is not enough. Use chants as if they were drums to spread the waves of commitment and slogans to highlight all the things that are wrong. But the streets are not enough. Be an active individual: it shows them you are not afraid. Learn the language of power, use the verbs they are scared of, publicly unveil their worst nightmares – act for them, not for us. Behave on a one-to-one scale with those you consider to be responsible. Laugh intelligently but never before you begin. Laugh after your goal is achieved, after your opposition is tricked, conflicted and incoherent because you took their power away with a simple human gesture. Don’t laugh about what they do, laugh about what you were able to do to them. What we know is not enough. Be persistent without tiring others. Use forms and actions that are legible for the resistance but new to the repressors. The time you have is the time they are using to figure out how to respond. Feeling good is not enough: create a political moment.
Kudzanai Chiurai lives in Harare, Zimbabwe. He has a soloshow at Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, in August; in September, a survey of his work will open at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town.
All art is a form of protest. Artists find the urgency to make art by identifying something in the world that doesn’t yet exist, filling that fissure with images, actions or matter, and then sharing that vision with others. Whether the work is celebratory or critical of the world, if it is really art, if it is new, it must always emerge from a challenge to a world that was blindly carrying on without it, all off-kilter. Each artwork protests a lack, an imbalance, an excess in realitywhilst it performs a wonderful but awkward leap in the dark in order to ‘fix’ it, hoping never to be complicit with, or repeat, the reality that lay before it.
Does this mean that, by extension, today’s art is always a protest against yesterday? As a conduit of change, art is highly effective but on a slow, barely perceptible level. Art changes reality by proposing new realities. Unfortunately, politicians and big business have now got wise to art’s magical properties and have begun to shape new and increasingly bizarre realities, disregarding empirical truths but also – through megalomania – human rights, equality, etc. As a result, art is increasingly in the few impatient hands of the very powerful. Art as a conduit of change only functions if it is made by the powerless artist.
Neha Choksi lives in Los Angeles, USA, and Bombay, India. This year, she will have solo exhibitions at Commonwealth and Council in Los Angeles, Los Angeles Museum of Art at Occidental College, and Manchester Art Gallery; in 2018 her work will be included in the Dhaka Art Summit, and 18th Street Art Center, Santa Monica.
Art began when humans stood up. We rose from all fours, looked each other in the eye and saw visions. We opened our diaphragm to air and song; freed our hands, our most important natural tool, and got to work: the work of art. 39,900 years ago in Sulawesi, Indonesia; 37,300 years ago in El Castillo, Spain; 34,000 years ago in Chauvet, France and 9,300 years ago in Rio Pinturas, Argentina. A single handprint in Indonesia becomes a cacophony of protesting hands in Argentina. Stop. I am here. I am making a mark. I am saying I exist. I matter. We matter. We matter together.
Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann
Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann live in Berlin, Germany. Creischer’s solo show at Culture Gest, Lisbon, Portugal, runs until 30 April. Earlier this year, Siekmann had a solo show at Barbara Weiss Gallery, Berlin.
We think appropriation works like a cocoon that wraps itself around contents and their promises. We see how academic cocoons – Migration Studies, Gender Studies, Queer Studies – wrap themselves around formerly activist contents, and how the same system weaves our former collective practice of research and self-organization into the cocoons of Artistic Research or Artistic Curating. We see how political and artistic practices are rigidly dissected into administratively traceable elements, surrendered for tenure-track points and fed into a register of academic property long since turned over to the efficiency Terror of economized knowledge. At the same time we see the way politically engaged art, weaved into ‘Art and Activism’ cocoons, finds a niche in Documenta, the biennials and issue-based exhibitions. The ‘engaged’ huddle at conferences in an imaginary polyphony that’s really just inflationary: ten minutes of speaking time and / or three-day speech marathons, each locked into its own genre and padded for standard polemics (Israel / Palestine, Anitcapitalist / Antisemitic, utilitarian / idealistic ...). A blueprint for the politically correct Codes of Conduct of the new exploitation regime: NGO-ized, sentimentalized, wholly drained of sense, turned cynical.
‘Salons, the Utopian Salon and Substantial Shops’ by Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann, in Utopian Pulse Flares in the Darkroom, edited by Ines Doujak and Oliver Ressler (2015).
Protest is important as a form of art because it can change the effectiveness of all conduits. It’s our responsibility; it’s our right. Now.
As part of human culture art has the power to influence society. We artists enjoy the privilege of having dedicated audiences and infinite aesthetic resources to cultivate intellectual processes that can potentially generate positive social change. An artwork doesn’t necessarily have to present political references or enter a separate classification to be a part of that process. The kind of social transformation that art can generate is not measurable, as with activism. Protest is human dialogue: we can experience symbolic artworks but the final exchange comes from that dialogue, not from objects. Art is a hammer.
Michael Dean lives in London and Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. This year, he will exhibit new work as part of Skulptur Projekte Münster, which runs from 10 May to 1 October, and Portikus, Frankfurt, from 1 July to 3 September.
‘How important is art as a form of protest?
‘How effective is it as a conduit of change?’
It’s not clear to me, to be honest, but it has to help.
Where there is injustice, it is necessary that we protest. But, seeing that making art is neither a job nor a profession, protesting injustice by using art is really difficult. For me, no more difficult than trying to make art for decorating a room. What do we want in life, individually? It would be good for me if everything I do is on the side of liberation. An interesting and full way to live.
Ibrahim El-Salahi is a Sudanese artist based in Oxford, UK. His work is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; in ‘Art After Catastrophe’ at Tate Modern, London. Earlier this year, his work was included in ‘Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945 – 1965’, at Haus Der Kunst, Munich. His work will be part of ‘Treasures of Islam in Africa from Timbuktu to Zanzibar’ at Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, which runs from 14 April to 30 July.
Listen here to an excerpt of Cevdet Erek’s, Room of Rhythms - Long Distance Relationship, channel no: 5, 2016, a four-minute excerpt from one of the eight sound channels used in Room of Rhythms - Long Distance Relationship (2016) for the 20th Biennale of Sydney, Australia, a work that tries to connect dance beats, and the stopping or slowing down of work, as a means of protest.
Protest in art is particularly powerful when it engages the poetic.
Less a call to arms than a challenge to feel.
A whispered reminder of what may be lost.
And what may yet be discovered.
Mariam Ghani lives in New York, USA. Her work will be featured in ‘Outcasts: Women in the Wilderness’ at Wave Hill, New York, from 4 April to 25 June. Later this year, it will be shown in ‘Waste Lands’ at San Telmo Museoa, San Sebastian, and ‘Field Research’, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow.
I’ve said before that I believe an artwork only effects lasting change when it acts as the thin end of a wedge. By this, I mean that artists whose work engages difficult, complex places, issues and ideas – like structural inequities in particular cities – often find their engagement spatiallyand temporally limited by the rules of the current art system. When the artist leaves, often the network of relationships built through the artwork fades out of existence. So, artists either have to exit market-driven cycles and work over much longer durations or they need to collaborate with individuals and groups that have a longer-standing and deeper-rooted engagement with the place, issue or idea the artwork is addressing – people who can enter into the temporary autonomous zone or space of possibility created by the artwork and transform those possibilities into actions on the ground.
Similarly, for art to be an important form of protest, artists have to consider what it might mean to be artists working within movements – to make and circulate work not from positions of autonomy, but from a network of positions in solidarity. What would this look like? We could follow the example set by past solidarity movements (for Palestine, against Augusto Pinochet, against apartheid) and use artworks strategically, creating shows that generate both revenue and attention. Artists could be asked to create graphics and identities for specific campaigns. Artists might also have to take uncomfortable stands against patrons who support or enact policies antithetical to free expression. Some artists may choose to use their work, exhibitions or public appearances to transmit or reinforce the messages of their movements, or to invite those movements to address spaces and audiences to which they would not otherwise have access. Some of this is already happening, of course, but in order for it to take on greater significance, disparate efforts would need to be connected, overlaps reconciled and intersections amplified: institutions will need to join individuals in building this network, though the positions they stake out within it may be quite different. So much activism has been reconfigured around intersectionalityin recent decades, not just in theory but in practice, precisely because long-term advocacy campaigns found renewed strength in connecting to other struggles; these are the examples we should be looking towards if we want to make an art of protest (or even just a protest of art, by turning the present rage for reform onto our own structural inequities) now.
Núria Güell lives in Vidreres, Spain. Her work is on show in ‘Vocales’ at CAC Brétigny, until 23 April. She is currently in residence at MUAC, Mexico City.
For me, art itself is a form of protest: it voices a feeling of unrest. This discomfort is related to structures that tie our subjectivities to the norm. Art can open them to other affective and perceptive possibilities. The transformation it can bring depends on how it affects, interpellates and generates ethical questions around consequences – not intentions, which is why I avoid slogans. Communities approve the public denunciation of an injustice, but positive approaches rarely change or break with the establishment. I seek to create unexpected alliances, opening the cracks of that which is imposed upon us, thus forcing us to take a position.
As a child, I never experienced protest: my parents were doctors in the army. When I was five years old, my father would tie my arms behind my back for two hours whenever I drew or painted on the walls of our family apartment. He had been posted to Algeria in 1966; at the time, he was working for the Egyptian secret service. I never protested, nor did I ever stop drawing on walls. Today my father is 90; we are best friends and we laugh about the hand-tying days. In my adolescence, my revolt was silent: I was forced to study medicine, which I did, but during those six years I also secretly studied at the evening classes of the Cairo Fine Arts School. Only my younger brother knew about it.
Throughout my career, I have protested with my ‘politically incorrect’ videos and films. I was born in Cairo and we never demonstrated; we were programmed not to revolt. But, in 2011, I broke my protest virginity: I demonstrated – along with a few million other people in Egypt – after an artist friend lost his life while protesting.
Today, I am 53 years old and politically disappointed. I prefer to change the world through painting and filmmaking, fuelled by my memories of a revolt unfulfilled.
Hands Off Our Revolution
Hands Off Our Revolution is a not-for-profit coalition of over 200 artists, theorists, curators, writers and educators. It is based in New York, with satellites throughout Europe, Latin America and Africa.
We affirm the radical nature of art. We believe that art can help counter the rising rhetoric of right-wing populism and fascism, and its increasingly stark expressions of xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia and unapologetic intolerance.
We know that freedom is never granted: it is won. Justice is never given: it is exacted. Both must be fought for and protected, but both have never before been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp, as at this moment.
As artists, it is our job and our duty to reimagine and reinvent social relations threatened by right-wing populist rule. It is our responsibility to stand in solidarity. We will not go quietly. It is our role and our opportunity, using our own particular forms and public spaces, to engage people in thinking together and debating ideas, with clarity and openness.
Lubaina Himid lives in Preston, UK. Her solo show at Modern Art Oxford, runs until 30 April. Her work is included in the group show ‘The Place Is Here’ at Nottingham Contemporary, until 30 April, and will feature in the Folkestone Triennial, in August. In October, she will curate an exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
If we do not protest, can it be assumed that we concur?
Most of the work I have made during the past 40 years exists because of my desire to protest against the injustice of inequality and invisibility. Protest must lead to conversation then, inevitably, to compromise, but change happens eventually and the freedoms of contemporary art in tandem with the constraints of the museum have been a central part of that shift for me during the past 35 years.
Trying to measure the efficacy of art as a form of protest denotes a shared metre / conduit for change, but I don’t think there’s a common metrology for that kind of flux. I think however you experience art, it can provide solace, healing, a space away / to / in.
Neoliberalism functions through holding a monopoly on so-called moderate and centrist positions so that it can refer to everything that lies outside / in contradiction with / in refusal as immediately ‘radical’, ‘extreme’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘off-centre’. Yet, neoliberalism’s own extreme foundations are constantly in the process of being hidden and denied. Any resulting privilege is founded on colonialism, misogyny, racism and incarceration and is the outcome of that very complacency / denial. In order to uncover or circulate a vision that shifts neoliberalism away from a monopoly on the centre, I’d ask you / myself to judge how to act through the means you / I have: Is it your art? Are they your fists (real / imagined)? It is your privilege / power / citizenship? Is it all of these means? How do you really avoid pandering to the ongoing political project of devaluing and reducibility? How are you implicated in it?
Khaled Jarrar is a Palestinian artist who lives in Tucson, USA, where he is researching Donald Trump’s proposed US/Mexico wall. He is also working on a series that documents his month-long journey with a group of Syrian refugees, who travelled to Europe in 2016. Jarrar is a recipient of the 2016 Anni and Heinrich Sussmann Award, which recognizes artists who are committed to the ideals of democracy and antifascism. In May, Jarrar’s work will be included in ‘The Restless Earth’ at the Trussardi Foundation, Milan.
I lived under occupation in the West Bank. Access to the sea, to mobility, to every autonomous aspect of my life, was taken away from me from the moment that I left my home. Therefore, art for me is about access and the artist is a witness. I believe that protesting is a form of witnessing before it’s a form of resistance.
For me, the encounter with art was transformative: from being employed as a professional soldier, I became a professional artist. Art on its own cannot do anything for society.
Bouchra Khalili lives in Berlin, Germany. Earlier this year, she had a solo exhibition at Lisson Gallery, London. Her work will be included in documenta 14.
In Imider, southeast Morocco, a coalition of seven rural villages and their Amazigh inhabitants (the native population of North Africa) has organized a long-running protest camp, Movement on the Road ’96 (Amussu Xf Ubrid N 96, in the original Tamazight language), in opposition to Imider Metallurgical Society (SMI) – the biggest silver mine in Africa – which exploits local water resources and pollutes its environment.
On 1 August 2011, the villagers – women at the forefront – cut off access to the mine’s main water valve and occupied it. The occupation gradually became a permanent camp. Over the years, the population has developed forms of resistance decided upon by an Agraw: a traditional Amazigh egalitarian assembly. For more than 300 weeks now, the inhabitants of Imider take turns day and night to guard the camp.
During the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP22, which was held in Marrakech in November 2016, the Imider delegation expressed its ‘unwavering solidarity’ with the Standing Rock Sioux protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline: ‘Like you, we are part of a confederation of native tribes. Like you, we resisted courageously. Like you, we have suffered and continue to suffer from the expropriation of our land. And, like you, we have set up a protest camp to prohibit access to our lands and resources.’
A protest that can be expressed through silence is the final word in artistic language. It was propounded by Mahatma Gandhi who was, and is, the greatest Indian thinker since Buddha. Creativity stems from silence: it can stun people into silence and, with all of its ebbs and tides, begins and ends in silence. Gandhi knew that art is an act performed in solitude so that the audience is silenced and moves towards withdrawal, boycott or non-action. Khadi – or Khaddar as we Malayalis in southern India call it – is a hand-woven cloth. It is spun into yarn on a wheel called a charkha: a silent, productive object which, during the fight for independence, became a symbol of resilience to undemocratic rule and oppression by colonizers. It was art-making in its finest form. The spinning of the yarn had a simple message: let me be, so long as I let you be.
Imagine you were an anti-colonial proletarian. Imagine you were angry. Imagine you were in a protest against authority. Play The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night at a relatively low volume, pretending it is from the military speakers 200 metres away.
Fred Lonidier lives in San Diego, USA. Earlier this year, he had a solo show at Silberkuppe, Berlin. In 2016, his work was included in ‘The Uses of Photography: Art, Politics, and the Reinvention of a Medium’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
Protest is a big part of my documentary photo/text/video works for, and about, class struggle. Just as important is the representation of unions in the face of invisibility, which includes pedagogy around history, current struggles and the diversity of the modern working class: it’s a long list. The effectiveness of any form of protest to push for change is always a question and is not always easy to answer. But, doing nothing usually gets you nothing or worse. My view is largely from the USA, and I focus here on a host of responses to the latest rightwards move in politics. Very little protest in the arts appears to be directly connected to movement organizations. With few exceptions, there is a disconnect between groups that have been working for decades for change. Most of them relate to, use and/or commission art, but not from those with standing in our field(s), although I think we need to build bridges to other cultural workers. I recognize that making these connections can be difficult and I ought to know; for all the experience I have as an artist working with unions, it is still an uphill struggle most of the time. It would help if artists would also recognize themselves as citizens, even if undocumented.
Protest in any form visualizes conditions of precarity: in art, in language, in action, in metaphor – it’s as vitalas blood. We’re endlessly squinting to peer through life’s pitiless fog and, whether as philosophers or policemen, every human body on this planet should juggle with problems of lost morality and hidden judgement. The contemporary global condition is a dreadful spectacle that cannot be rescinded, images that cannot be cajoled into language pleasant enough to act up with conventional restraint. How can violence take shape and consider itself flirtatious, breaking into brand new feelings that rape attention into balancing chequebooks? For those who say an artwork is not political enough: look harder, think further. We cannot live with teeth marks neatly on the median of absolutism but, instead, permit strategies of vocality that inflate and burst beyond our personal comfort zones. Protest does not implement solutions, but it does mobilize thinking beyond the chromatically ill-engaged, the etiolated and the miserly: even the provisional is a soaring proposal for re-evaluation.
Kristian Mondrup and Liu Shiyuan
Kristian Mondrup lives and works between Copenhagen, Denmark and Beijing, China. Liu Shiyuan lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. Their work is included in the exhibition ‘.COM/.CN’ at K11 Art Foundation, Hong Kong, which runs until 30 April.
For this work, we thought about the problem of the art world and its institutions as an obstacle for art to really engage with politics. Just as artworks often mock the political and economic powers, these powers mock art by placing artworks within an exclusive and elitist context, thus often disarming whatever critical content there might be. When asked to respond to a question about how art functions as a conduit of change, we felt that this issue somehow had to be addressed.
We hired several, anonymous, crowdsourced workers through an online marketplace and asked them to protest in front of their webcams. We do not know who or where they are, and we couldn’t ultimately predict what would result from our request. We couldn’t disagree more with some of the protesters, particularly those sympathetic to the US president, and yet we could not ignore them. Maybe the internet itself has become a form of protest to preconceived ideas of class, public space and employment?
Global information flows are unpredictable and multi-directional. Each nation has a local Reynard figure – bamboozling the origin as much as the recipient. Events occur in adjacency to remind us that double standards are global. Every community is cursed with inversion of sight: ever-larger areas of blindness.
And what is a ‘Muslim’, anyway? Are you one? Am I? It’s now the 21st century’s all-purpose container for every form of other: black, brown, migrant, woman, queer. But the definition is also always changing, while the expulsion impulse stays constant – just ask Polish Jews, Iraqi Kurds, Bengali Hindus, Turkish Armenians, Japanese Americans.
‘Muslim’ is not an empty container. All-purpose is not the same as empty, I think; better to say infinitely elastic, enough to be occupied positively, and hijacked negatively by, respectively, light and dark. Statistics tell another story. Thirty percent of American Muslims are white, 23 percent are African-American; 76 percent of Arab-Americans are Christian and other religions. As the poet Shame-e-Ali Nayeem says: ‘Islamophobes don’t care how pious you are. They don’t even care if you are Muslim!’
Shana Moulton lives near Yosemite, California, USA. Recent solo shows include Kunsthaus Glarus, Galerie Crevecoeur, Paris, The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg Florida, and a long-term installation at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris.
While studying performance art, I imagined staging actions like Julia Butterfly Hill’s 738 days tree-sit (1997–99). She effectively saved the 1,500 year-old California Redwood and surrounding trees from being logged and I saw it as a durational performance.
I haven’t figured out how to respond to the Trump crisis with my brand of humorous/surreal/ambivalence and I’m compelled to direct all activist energy into concrete actions: calling representatives and showing up at marches and protests. But artist Rachel Mason has managed to bring some inspiring absurdist-comedy to the US’s current crisis with her Future Clown persona, protesting at airports and lip-syncing the inauguration.
Shahryar Nashat lives in Los Angeles, USA. This year, his work will be on show the ICA, Philadelphia; Kunsthalle Basel, and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Earlier this year, he had a solo show at Rodeo Gallery, London.
It’s 4 February at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I’m here to attend a tribute to David Antin, who passed away three months ago. Family and friends are gathered to pay homage to his poetry and his brilliant mind. His voice is omnipresent – talk-poems. He will be missed, I think, because though his written words will survive him, his argumentative voice was just as important a conduit for his stance on art, literature and politics.
A day later, at a movie theatre in Hollywood, I hear the voice of James Baldwin. He stands gamely at Cambridge University, debating civil rights with a conservative stiff. His dissident eloquence is a disarming weapon. The voice of the artist, again.
Art is a unique witness. It is a repository for observation. It is a mirror of the unrest and the struggle of a troubled, sometimes desperate, society. It is important for the conversations it will inspire and the conversations that inspired its making. It is a subjective time capsule. It is effective and yet, often, its greater impact will be recognizedin retrospect, when political activism and organized dissidence will have paved the way for change.
I published this statement in 1972, after 26 British soldiers shot dead 15 unarmed civilians in Derry, Ireland:
I will sign my work ‘Patrick Ireland’ until such time as the British military presence is removed from Northern Ireland and all citizens are granted their civil rights.
This being accomplished by the Good Friday (and other) Agreements, in 2008 Patrick Ireland was ceremoniously buried in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, in his 37th year.
Ahmet Ögüt lives in Berlin, Germany, and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. His exhibition with Goshka Macuga will run at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, from 17 June to 31 December.
I don’t think it’s a given that art is a form of protest, but every creative protest is a form of art and every platform for art can be a powerful stage for creative and effective acts.
Uriel Orlow lives in London, UK, and Zurich, Switzerland. This year, he will have solo presentations at Corner College, Zurich; Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, Parc Saint Léger, PAV, Turin, and LaVeronica, Modica. His work is also included in Sharjah Biennial 13, until 12 June, and the Schwarz Foundation, Samos.
Seeing world events unfold from South Africa, where I am currently working on a film project, provides a useful historical perspective on the question of art as a form of protest and as a conduit for change. I am reminded of the rich history of artists who took up the camera or a brush as weapons against oppression: Omar Badsha, Dumile Feni, David Goldblatt and Thami Mnyele, to name but a few. I recently visited the South African History Archive, an independent human rights organization dedicated to documenting and supporting past and contemporary struggles for justice. The incredibly rich collection of artwork as part of protest posters, pamphlets and T-shirts is a timely reminder that public space is an important exhibition space. And Bongiwe Dhlomo-Mautloa’s starkly beautiful linocut for a flyer promoting a national women’s unity movement shows us how necessary it is to connect different struggles and fight on all fronts at once.
Over the last few months, my thoughts keep returning to an unexpected artwork. As an instrument of provocation and dissent, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) is about as blunt as it gets. I’ve become more and more haunted by Piss Christ’s crystal-clear protest, despite the fact that the piece is at odds with my own sense of aesthetics and politics. The rising authoritarianism in the US and Europe is characterized in no small part through a rejection of facts and a destabilization of norms. In that context, I wonder whether the unambiguous provocation that is Piss Christ might be a more effective response to the political situation than the subtleties, prevarications and studied ellipticism that is the aesthetic bread-and-butter of so many critical artists.
Claus Richter lives in in Cologne, Germany. He staged Wonderland Avenue, a play for actors and animatronic figures, in collaboration with the writer Sibylle Berg at the Frieze Art Fair, London 2016. His solo show at CLAGES, Cologne, will open 6 April.
To protest in the streets assures me that I am not alone in my anger. As old as this form of protest may seem, its still very empowering. As it is generally difficult to measure the sociological impact of contemporary art, it is even more challenging to think of art as something that must have an effect on systems beyond its own strange inherent codes and rules. Art as a form of protest is, in the worst case, a paper tiger patting itself on the back. But at its best, it has some great tools to counter injustice: caricature and farce, for example. There have always been, and still are, great and even funny options to protest in a way that only art can provide. Art can and should be much more than a comment on day-to-day politics, and I guess that’s where its strength lies. From time to time it can reveal the ludicrousness of the ones who think they stand above everyone else – and that’s not too bad!
In chaotic times, like the ones we are experiencing now, art in a public space can be an important form of protest.Art questions established truths and fake beliefs. It can promote a break with certainties and hierarchies. It allows us to re-invent and to discover viewpoints that are beyond the accepted discourse.
Politically charged public artworks that are presented in conventional, familiar spaces can temporarily transform the meaning of these sites. When they are altered, the narratives of power that have been assigned to them are also changed and so become debatable.
Art has its own tempo; it operates in a kind of geological time. It is through time that art nurtures a sense of discernment and endurance. Fortunately, art does not always have a direct and immediate effect on its viewers/participants. Art as protest encourages a critical view; it problematizes established interest, approved truths and immobile identities. Events and narratives that have been taken for granted can be questioned through art. The current political situation prioritizes simplistic discourse, polarizing worldviews and uncritical thinking. For this reason, it seems to me that, nowadays, art’s immemorial role as a producer of critical thought should be the basic element of political protest.
Marinella Senatore lives in Paris, France. Her solo show at Queens Museum, New York, runs from 9 April to 30 July. Later this year, her work will be part of MOVE, at Centre Pompidou, Paris, and ‘ACTION!’ at Kunsthaus Zurich.
I am so sorry, but since you asked me to write about art as a form of protest, I just didn’t have time to sit down and write anything. It’s crazy-making, but added to an already bursting schedule and set of deadlines for an artist/professor-who-also-writes-and-makes-animations, in the past two weeks I found myself needing to participate in multiple-times-weekly actions: marches, protests, meetings about art professors in a state of emergency, meetings with students who have immigration issues, and all this on top of being asked to do other normal things (working on a book, writing another essay, doing an interview, and writing a million letters of recommendation for students.) I apologize. But I’m also in the studio every afternoon, trying to carve out space for my own work, which is shape-shifting in the contemporary political scenario – or, at the very least, it’s under new pressures and vexations. But I also still deeply believe in and practise a form of art that is open, porous and questioning on many levels, yet is a distinctly different thing from political action per se. I feel privileged to be able to pursue such a form, which is filled with pleasures, problems and contradictions that are not quite the same as politics. It brings me to the heart of matters to welcome these problems.
Slavs and Tatars
Slavs and Tatars live in Berlin, Germany. Their mid-career survey opens at the Pejman Foundation in Tehran, Iran on 5 May and then travels to Salt, Istanbul, Turkey; CAC Vilnius, Lithuania; MOCA, Belgrade, Yugoslavia; and Albertinum, Dresden, Germany.
In attempt to ape and shape history, art as protest often revolves around the explicitly political gesture: the demonstration, the boycott, the mobilization, amongst others. ‘To focus on the visible coastline of politics and miss the continent that lies beyond,’ in the words of James C. Scott. His book Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990) argues for an often over-looked area of dissent and protest: the infrapolitical jokes, folk-tales, songs, rituals, rumours – as invisible to the naked eye (like infra-red), but no less important in giving a voice to subordinate groups and challenging the official narratives of power.
SUPERFLEX is an artist group based in Copenhagen, Denmark. In the past year, they have had a solo show at von Bartha, Basel; staged ‘One Year Project – The Liquid State’ at 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, and created a billboard for the Hayward Gallery, London.
Luca Vitone lives in Berlin, Germany. He teaches at the NABA (Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti) in Milan, Italy, and has a retrospective at PAC (Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea) in Milan later this year.
Protest as disobedience is a sign of vitality, the becoming aware of the state (State) that you are in.
Art is politics. I believe that both as an individual and as a public figure every artist has a duty to take a position. Doing that as a rebel or by following the status quo is just his or her personal choice.
Translation by Massimo Palazzi
First published in Issue 186