Monday, February 24, 2014

Is This The Future of Art?

source photo by Hrag Vartanian. This mylar site-specific 'artifact' was put up on the wall of the Guggenheim in Manhattan on Sat. Feb. 22 by protesters taking up civil disobedience to draw attention to labour injustices that are part of contemporary museums.

The cited passages below are from Vartanian's article "Protest Action Erupts Inside Guggenheim Museum" published Sat. Feb. 22, 2014 on Hyperallergic, a website that explores art and its discontents.Thanks to my friend Diana McCarty for posting the article on FB.

Specifically, the various groups that banded together ("a diverse group of artists, professors, students, and activists loosely affiliated with Occupy Museums, Gulf Labor, and various NYU-related groups"), staged this action at the NYC Guggenheim to draw attention to the unjust working conditions of migrant workers who are building a new Guggenheim museum, Louvre-branded museums, and a NYC-affliated university in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The museum/art activists link the exploitation of migrant workers with the rising debt that artists today incur and question the forced complicity that this then produces between artists and exploited labourers, which benefits elite museums and universities and their power structures. This intervention is an example of students and professors taking their words out of the academy, working with artists and activists, and putting their words into action in the community, that is, taking up education to help make social change.

Sociology professor Andrew Ross, who was part of the intervention at the museum, explains that

We’re trying to make a connection with chains of debt that are transnational, and in the various locations we’re looking at, Bangladesh, Abu Dhabi, NYU, and the art world, there’s an enormous accumulation of debt in each of these places, and the money is getting extracted by the transnational creditor class....And artists are more and more [in debt], and in order to practice art, you’re required to take on a big debt burden … so there’s a connection across many continents.....Artists should not be asked to exhibit in museums that have been built on the back of abused workers … that’s what it boils down to. When you’re acquired by a museum that does that, that’s unfair. Your complicity is being bought along with the artwork.

Expanding on the links between museums and the conditions of exhibiting, and the importance of opening a discussion on the politics of exhibiting, artist Natasha Dhillon explains that the action was “a call for solidarity and a call for museums to do the right’s important for museum goers to understand what kind of system they are participating in.” Her comment makes clear that part of the goal of the action was to interrupt the viewing practices of museum goers, to disrupt familiar ways of looking and interpreting what is in a gallery or museum, what makes up that space, where do the walls of a gallery or museum actually end, and what exactly makes up the contextual field of "the museum" or "the art gallery."

Interestingly, the action for public education on museum practices coincided with the Futurism exhibit and Carrie Mae Weems retrospective at the Manhattan Guggenheim, both which raise discussion on the connections between museums, art, and the politics  and power relations of exhibiting; as Vartanian explains: "Futurism sought to combine art and politics, while Weems is a champion of those who have been historically excluded from museums." The intervention then broadened the context of interpretations that the exhibits had opened up. Weems work intervenes in the historical silencing of African American art and ways of making meanings; the museum protest intervenes in excluding migrant labour workers from the understanding of what constitutes museum space and practices. In the UAE, migrant workers who come from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India are racialized and subordinated through hierarchies of race, ethnicity, class, and nationality; they comprise a large percentage of the total 7.8 million migrant workers in the UAE in 2013 (While this number also includes highly-skilled workers, I am not sure if it includes teachers and "expats," a term linked with Anglo and Western white-collar workers that hierachizes and grants race-privilege to non-native workers in higher paid/status jobs, who benefit from the exploitation of racialized migrant workers.)

Making the ideological connections between Saturday's intervention and the two exhibits currently on display, artist Amin Husain,  who has contributed to No Debt is an Island, as part of the art project 52 weeks by the arts collective Gulf Labor, explains that "the context is really appropriate, because they [the Futurists] talked about restructuring the universe, so clearly the museum is giving that some thought at this moment, and we want to talk about restructuring the universe without fascism and without slave labor.” What Husain's words suggest is that museums like the Guggenheim are in some sense showing themselves to be interested in opening up "the Grecian urn" to larger discussions, including the political and the economic, and the intervention last Saturday pushed open that door a bit further.

The action also included a collective chant (see Vartanian's article for the whole chant), which included a challenge to contemporary institutional practices of museums, exposing their embeddedness in an unequal transnational capitalist economy aka neoliberal globalization and questioning the future direction of museums but also asserting that museums need to address justice and take up action towards it:
Museums Should Protect Their Workers,
Museums Should Stand Up For Human Rights
Museums Should Be Raising Labor Standards, Not Lowering Them.
Is This The Future of Art?

photo by Hrag Vartanian. Museum visitors reading the manifesto tacked to the wall beside the introductory text to the Italian Futurism exhibition.

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