How should the artistic community respond when an art space, explicitly or implicitly, associates itself with right-wing sentiment?
Pablo Larios is associate editor of frieze. He is based in Berlin, Germany.
In a world increasingly riven by stark political and social polarization, we are witnessing a confusing cross-pollination between digital and non-digital contexts. These days, even a meme can provoke a riot. Artistic and cultural groups are similarly polarized over questions of visual culture and politics, and what one is allowed to express in ‘public’ – a confusion that goes hand in hand with a conflation of ‘private’ and ‘public’ contexts, and a sectarian made-for-me media-scape.
In late January 2017, a Facebook flame-war broke out after Lucia Diego, the director of the LD50 art space in Dalston, London, was outed for sharing a long (private) message that sympathized with US President Donald Trump’s immigration policy with an artist. This followed LD50’s organizing of ‘71822666’, an exhibition named after a thread on the website 4chan that predicted Trump's victory. The exhibition explored visual strategies adopted by the so-called ‘alt-right’, as well as a related symposium with authors such as Peter Brimelow, Nick Land and Brett Stevens. ‘71822666’ included tweets and memes inspired by alt-right groups, as was made clear in an article condemning it, entitled ‘Is it OK to Punch a Nazi (Art Gallery)?’, published on the Metamute website by the pseudonymous author 'O. D. Untermesh'. After widespread accusations that the space was providing a platform for alt-right ideology, and therefore promoting it, a campaign began for the gallery to close: Shut Down LD50, who organized a demonstration outside the gallery on 25 February. The space has now been forced to close.
In an unrelated event, at the other end of the political spectrum, in January 2017, a right-wing mob held a protest at the base of Monument (2017), a sculpture by German-Syrian artist Manaf Halbouni that was recently installed in the centre of Dresden. Germany’s right-wing AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland) party described the work as an ‘abuse of artistic freedom’: the sculpture, comprising three vertically-propped busses (modelled on a photograph of a similar barricade in Aleppo, Syria) was accused of being erected in order to block the marches of Germany’s far-right Pegida, which convenes nearby. (Ana Teixeira Pinto wrote about this particular protest in a recent piece for frieze, here.)
In Zurich, Switzerland, an event scheduled to be held in a public theatre this month was cancelled after protesters organized a campaign condemning the participation of Marc Jongen, a member of the AfD party. (frieze editor Jörg Heiser wrote on Marc Jongen and Germany’s far-right, here). Opponents of Jongen were condemned in an open letter for agreeing to speak publically alongside an AfD member.
Elsewhere, on 13 March 2017, the New York Times ran an Op-Ed under the headline ‘Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury that Gave me a Concussion’, within which the author, Middlebury professor Allison Stanger, described her experience of being violently attacked by students after planning to moderate a campus discussion with Charles Muray, a scholar who, in his 1984 book Losing Ground, argued against affirmative action for minorities and the poor.
While none of these examples are identical – one took place at a privately-funded art space, the other at a public theatre, the last at a university – such events seem not to be isolated instances. Is ‘free speech’ really under threat, or has that notion – a long-standing liberal value of democratic society – been co-opted by radicalized groups both on the right and left? Is conversation today between different groups possible or desirable – or, per the protests of many, are invitation and air-time equivalent to authorization and endorsement? The answers to these questions may not be so simple.
For this online survey, frieze asked Jörg Scheller (a writer who was involved in the Zurich theatre affair), artists Daniel Keller and Caspar Jade Heinemann, and writer Ben Eastham for their views on the question: ‘How should the artistic community respond when an art space, explicitly or implicitly, associates itself with right-wing sentiment?’
Ben Eastham is co-founder and editor of The White Review, assistant editor of art-agenda, and associate editor of South as a State of Mind, the documenta 14 journal. He is the co-author, with Katya Tylevich, of My Life as a Work of Art (Laurence King, 2016).
My simple answer would be: in the same way that a responsible individual responds to the expression of right-wing sentiment in any other context: in proportion to the sentiments expressed, and according to his or her own convictions. When those sentiments are racist, misogynist, and violent, then the proportionate reaction is angry opposition.
To complicate that simple answer, I'm wary of this question’s characterization of the artistic community as an entity of single mind, when I'd hope that it would more closely resemble a diverse parliament. Equally, I'm wary of identifying all ‘right-wing sentiment’ with the hate speech that marks out the resurgent, repellent far right. The metaphor of a political spectrum in which only one wing is welcome seems to me less useful than that of an arena with agreed limits. Recent, well-publicised events have seen facilitators of violent racism excluded from the arena. That is welcome and right. But there should always be a place for the expression of divergent opinion that doesn't contravene the basic principles of open discussion, if the art world isn't to become an echo chamber of received and by extension empty and untested wisdoms.
A great deal of the art being exhibited in London today could be said to embody, albeit unconsciously, ideological principles of which I'm suspicious. We all – not least critics – need to examine more closely the conditions that support the community. I'm sure I won't be the only correspondent to warn that we risk being distracted from the causes of today's problems by its more egregious symptoms.
Daniel Keller is an artist who lives in Berlin.
In March 2017, I prepared a presentation entitled ‘Targeted Individual and Meme Magick’ as a lecture to be given at Goldsmiths University in London. My intent was made clear in the lecture’s blurb: ‘Against all odds, it appears that the Alt-Right shitposter’s 'meme magick’ succeeded in 2016. In 2017, can we learn to reverse engineer these tactics and apply them to a metapolitical agenda in opposition to the chaotic nihilism of r/The_Donald, /pol/ and Frog Twitter?’
This event, on the invitation of Suhail Malik, was to be a 30-minute talk as part of Malik's ‘Power Now’ series – a programme aiming to examine ‘new conditions for power’, asking whether or not conventional critical forms within contemporary art are capable of presenting viable alternatives to recent right-wing populisms generated by new technological paradigms ‘transformed by the rapid increase in the common use of super-powerful, large-scale and anonymous computational infrastructures.’
Between the planning of the lecture and the date it was to occur, the mega-drama around the art space LD50 started to escalate. To me, LD50 was a tiny gallery some friends showed at, with an interesting programme and some potential. When I first saw the documentation from the ‘alt-right’ show, I thought ‘wow, finally somebody in the art world is tuned in enough to address the visual culture surrounding the ‘meme magick’ of the ‘alt-right’, which seemed to be the most decisive (and divisive) aesthetic developments in a while – one with palpable impacts within larger political history. With 4chan ‘shitposter’s going so far as claiming to have ‘memed’ Trump into the White House.
For what it’s worth, I didn’t care what the gallerists' political views are — I feel like I’m visually-literate enough to contextualize the artwork I view, without the burden of knowing the artist or curator’s intentions. I think there has been a kind of epistemological shift wherein galleries no longer have the framing power they once were perceived to have. The idea that ‘shutting down’ LD50 will deny offensive beliefs a platform seems rooted in an archaic notion of a galleries role.
Somehow, in the past month, some screenshots circulated among the burgeoning ‘Shut Down LD50' Facebook community showing that I had ‘liked’ some of LD50’s installation views on their instagram account. This act of ‘liking’ was the extent of any association of mine with this exhibition or that gallery, but was taken (extremely literally) to signify some kind of endorsement of alt-right ideology.
In the following days, I was called a 'LD50 fan and alt-right devil baby' and more bizarrely, a ‘dogbagel’ by @horriblegif, a film canister neck-tattooed, ‘Brixton’ bike-messenger-hat hipster, affiliated with the ‘Shut Down LD50’ group, led online and in London by a significantly more congenial spokesperson Andrew Osborne.
Afterward, going by what he'd seen online, Malik informed me that my talk would be heckled in order to effectively ‘no-platform’ me. Subsequently, thousands of neurotic words were exchanged between Suhail and I about the topic. Malik wished to manage the potential fallout from the event. (For the record, I have a lot of sympathy for him in this situation. I’ve heard this is not an uncommon occurrence at Goldsmiths.) In order to proceed with my lecture as planned, he told me via email that supporters of Shut Down LD50 demanded me to:
‘- stop making *any* further online comment on LD50/protest/etc.
- stop liking or RTing LD50 feeds.’
A few days later I was informed by Suhail that he had spoken to the students, and that those involved in the Shut Down LD50 campaign would agree to not heckle my talk provided I carry out the following:
(i) a clear renunciation from me of affiliation or allegiance with [LD50] and the views it is understood to espouse.
(ii) my direct endorsement of the campaign against the space
(iii) a counter-presentation to my talk from Shut Down LD50
For my part, I object to having to preface any citation of free speech with the well-worn caveat that ‘I’m no free speech zealot, but ...’ But, in response to what I viewed as preposterous demands, I decided instead to ‘no-platform’ myself, cancelling the talk and writing Suhail the following message:
I really appreciate how much careful consideration you’ve given to this issue and I’m really sorry that it seems to be eating up so much of your time and energy, it must be exhausting. I’ve also been trying to decide how I feel about all this and I have to admit, the situation has made me increasingly anxious.
I’m totally fine with refraining from discussing LD50 any further on social media, as I have no interest in giving them further attention anyway. However, I am NOT cool with being asked to renounce or endorse anything in order to be permitted to give an artist talk at an art school, even one as important as Goldsmiths. I don’t think it should require any clarification that I’m in absolute opposition to people who *admire Anders fkn Breivik*.
It really disturbs me to be subjected to this kind of ‘McCarthyist-esque’ treatment. I think giving in to it would go against my principles and set an unacceptable precedent (and also I guess bruise my ego, but that’s another story lol).
But not only do I not want to endorse the anti-LD50 movement, I think the way they have personally targeted and dehumanized people is disgusting. I believe their intentions are in the right place but their tactics are so counterproductive— the definition of 'punching down, not punching up’. Watching the video of dozens of demonstrators screaming ‘Nazi scum off our streets’ into the face of the sole counter-protester (who as far as I can tell…isn’t a Nazi) made my skin crawl. Why not try to reason with him instead?
Yes, Lucia Diego is a Trump supporter, but these protesters need to recognize that there are another 100 million people who agree with her. This tactic does absolutely nothing to persuade any of those people to change their minds, it only alienates them and further entrenches their misguided beliefs.
I see how pulling out at this stage might seem like decisive proof of a secret sympathy for white supremacy (ha, seriously can’t help but laugh at this). But I don’t know how to justify further involvement. Without the tutorials, I’ll end up spending most of the honorarium on transit alone...to in effect, convince some hecklers that I'm not a Nazi? That does not motivate me.
I was really looking forward to this, but regrettably I feel that I am left with no choice but to cancel my participation.
: ( Daniel
Should I have gone ahead with the talk? Maybe. After all, I do not support LD50 or agree with any of the ideas they espouse. However, I think it is a really dark indicator for discourse in general if we retreat into our own bubbles and refuse to examine and learn from the groups to which we are opposed.
Casper Jade Heinemann
Casper Jade Heinemann is an artist and writer living in Berlin.
When viewed in relation to bell hooks’s term: ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’, contemporary art is structurally dependent on right-wing sentiments inasmuch as such sentiments are intrinsic to current economic and social formations.
I don’t believe that there exists a single artistic community, but as a white artist working in a Western context, any response has to take into account the extent to which I, and others in similar positions of relative privilege, have been complicit in a cultural discourse predicated on exclusion that implicitly or explicitly upholds white supremacy and misogyny, and which many of us continue to socially and economically benefit from. It is legitimate to feel shock at recent failures of the art world to keep up the pretence of a tolerant or inclusive position, for example in LD50 providing a platform to white supremacists. It important too to recognize that such an inclusive, tolerant position has always been a pretence. A useful reaction is not limited to outrage at such overt instances such as this one. But it recognizes the emergence of a situation where these perspectives become publicly admissible is indicative of deeper, ongoing structural violence.
Jörg Scheller (trans. Elias Pitegoff and Stanton Taylor)
Jörg Scheller is an art historian, journalist and musician. He teaches at Zurich University of the Arts.
At the beginning of 2017, the Zurich theatre Gessnerallee announced a provocative experiment. ‘The New Avant-Garde’ would be a discussion between the right-wing nationalist Marc Jongen from the AfD party and the right-wing libertarian activist Olivier Kessler. They were scheduled to share a platform with two members of the liberal democratic movement Operation Libero: Laura Zimmerman and myself. The goal was to stage a debate (outside of a hysterical setting on social media or talk-show news) in which the meaning of terms such as ‘liberal,’ ‘right’, ‘conservative’, and ‘progressive’ would be discussed from the perspective of the panel’s participants. Public debate is a necessity – everything else just leaves those rightly or wrongly excluded to radicalize themselves in their own filter bubbles.
The Swiss newspaper Wochenzeitung claimed that the panel failed to include an explicitly leftist voice. Then, a slew of curators, authors, and artists signed an open letter demanding the cancellation of the event. Yet this open letter distorted my personal stance on the issue – since 2016, I have clearly positioned myself in opposition to the AfD and the resurgence of reactionary sentiment in numerous texts.
I published a rebuttal. Meanwhile in Zurich, pressure on the institution grew from its own peers. The artistic scene threatened to storm the event. Some voices online even called for ‘Black bloc’ protesters to intervene. Eventually, the theatre gave way under this external pressure and cancelled the discussion, even though the majority of the media had spoken in favour of the event. The unfortunate consequence of this controversy turned veritable media spectacle marked by threats, defamation and verbal abuse was that the progressive scene was once again divided.
In the end, a Carl Schmitt-like ‘friend or enemy’ logic dominated – unlike an opponent, an enemy must be muzzled and politically annihilated. Though the panel was cancelled, the event took place nevertheless, in the mass media. This was exactly the place where the initiators didn’t want it to go: an arena where the Wutbürger (the ruffian) always wins. Instead of a small discursive stage in front of the theatre’s critical, predominately left-leaning audience, the right-wing populists were granted mass-media coverage, where they could stage themselves as victims, and even as the true upholders of democracy.
Main image: Documentation of a demonstration organized by Shut Down LD50, 25 January 2017. Courtesy: Kristian Buus/In Pictures/Getty Images