September 22, 2008 -- It’s been a fierce week. A financial meltdown took place in New York City as mysterious to most as the failure of Chernobyl. And a great double-header of political art shows opened – “Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now” at Exit Art and Creative Time’s “Democracy in America: The National Campaign” at the Park Avenue Armory.
In a lunchtime conversation at the 16 Beaver Group (it will be webcast), I suggested that one strategy artists might use to work through the coming difficult times is to raise the dead – that is, the generations of committed risk-taking activists who brought labor reform to the United States, and built popular power during the Depression of the 1930s.
That is what Dara Greenwald and Josh MacPhee did at Exit Art. The graphic work of left artists worldwide is grouped by issue, making the lines from past to present crystal clear. It’s an exhibition as copybook for the international legions of street artists who like to put a newsy edge into their tags. (And for Shepard Fairey’s ad agency, too, sure as Gollum followed the Ringbearer.) The show features an extensive video program.
At the “Democracy” show, MacPhee and Greenwald have a video documenting their intervention (exactly that) into a downtown Troy, New York Victorian Christmas stroll. They invaded the genteel costume party with a crowd dressed as workers striking for an eight hour day.
Reenactment too is the guts of the well-funded Port Huron project run by Mark Tribe. This series of actor-delivered speeches by radical leaders of the 1960s is named for the Michigan city where the Students for a Democratic Society drafted their platform. It became a key text of the U.S. New Left. The speeches look great, played on two abutted wide screens. It’s a Cinerama of the rhetoric of our radical past brought back alive here and now on the original sites.
Digging two centuries deeper, Red 76, a Portland, Oregon gang around Sam Gould, are running a tavern at “Democracy” called The Battery Republic. The project evokes the watering holes of secret societies, the sites of the colonial-era plots that launched the American revolution of 1776.
(I had the pleasure when in London of visiting a prototype, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a 17th century pub of labyrinthian design. While eating pie with my anarchist cicerone, a translator of Italian autonomist texts drifted past – an anomaly in this tourist joint. My pal leaped up, and a deal furthering the worldwide conspiracy against corporate absolutism was concluded.)
The conceit behind Battery Republic cribs shamelessly from the ’04 RNC NY theatrical protest troupe Greene Dragon, named for a Boston pub favored by Paul Revere. I was a claquer for this band from “colonial Williamsburg,” under the nom de guerre of Seethin’ Allen. I cried “Down with King George and his ministers!” as we quaffed in full costume at the Fraunces Tavern.
But precedence doesn’t matter in this work. That’s a modernist concern. As in David’s day, emulation is encouraged. An excellent outcome of this sort of practice is viralization, creating a powerful social meme like the Radical Cheerleaders, the folks who wave pom poms at antiwar demos all over the country. (The Missile Dick Chicks swung it at the opening night of “Democracy” in the soap box entryway.)
Sprawling easily and genially through the monstrous space of the Armory, “Democracy” is a party, or a convention for a party that doesn’t exist. Speakers stump, speaking high-mindedly amidst the clatter and gloom, claiming the attention of a crowd in the gigantic former “drill hall.” (The martial atmosphere of the Armory is actually quite appropriate – another wonderful term of 18th century political aesthetics – since the content of “Democracy” connects pretty cleanly with this extraordinary collection of 19th century interiors and decors.)
But this party does exist – it’s a global network of cultural producers who cannot abide post-socialist neoliberalism.
At the 16 Beaver lunch, theorist Brian Holmes called ours a moment when “neoliberalism as an ideology of purely economic governance is dead.” After the financial reorganization by Washington and the November election, in January in the U.S. we will face either a neo-fascism or a neo-socialism.
At the same time financial giants fell into the abyss – the second fall of the towers – Damien Hirst’s auction of new artworks jumped the gallery system and netted near on a quarter billion dollars.
What does this mean? Well, besides wondering aloud how many houses he owns, Mr. Hirst could fund a “Democracy” a month out of his pocket change.
The mysteries of the art market are explored in the installations by Stephan Dillemuth and Nils Norman at Reena Spaulings Fine Art. The two recreated the architectural forms of a “public plaza” in the Wall Street area as a gallery installation, giving pointed titles to a group of abstract paintings. These works, crafted in the anemic vein of corporate lobby décor, are called “Premium Discount Window” (closed and open), “Collateralised Debt Obligation” and the like.
In the center of the room three TV monitors hang suspended in a falling configuration with clipped TV images like Ukrainian mogul collector Victor Pinchuk and wildman TV financial analyst Jim Cramer. (His famous Cassandra-like discourse is described in the early September press release for the show as “mad apocalyptic ravings” – ahem.)
As the duo point out (elliptically) in their fascinating video “I’m Short Your House” (it’s a Torrent download), art is an unregulated capital commodity which the current (now past) market is seeking to regularize, that is, to bring enhanced predictability and tradeability to what has always been an “exotic asset.”
Everyone with a foot in the art market is wondering what will become of it. One well-informed artist predicted an 8 to 10 month shadow of prosperity will persist before….
Meanwhile, public artists soldier on, with sugarplum dreams of revolution in thought bubbles over their heads. As one of Quixote’s modern legions, I believe our only chance is to connect with local activists and communities worldwide to build a large-scale democratic resistance and empowerment movement in the United States to either resist or expand (depending on the election outcome) whatever mode of governance will come our way next year.
Many academics in putatively public institutions feel urgently the need to connect with the communities in which they find themselves. Artists are doing it by drifting – striking out on exploratory missions to see what and who is out there in the worlds they know only by sketchy rumors and reports.
In “flyover country,” Claire Pentecost and friends organized the “Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor.” (A pamphlet digests the intriguing results, “A Call to Farms.”)
Drifting is a preferred method of Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri of 16 Beaver Group as well as Sam Gould. In this again they have no patent. In art it recalls Surrealist and Situationist practice. Now the tour is a staple of life as a rock ‘n’ roller. It ramifies into new circus and ‘zine cultures, as artists and activists regularly ride the circuits in this country, visiting compadres in odd spots.
What is this mysterious route?
Could it be that the economic questions we will face in the times ahead can be solved by inter-dimensional travel?, that is, a simple shift into the systems we already have but cannot seem to see.
Perhaps, if we all wish very hard, our Tinkerbell will come back to life.
But at least it is clear that in this century we are witnessing an altogether post-modern fusion of artistic and political practices as democracy itself increasingly becomes as obsolete a medium as chemical photography. And, like the visionary and fantastic, the obsolete is the stuff of art.