Occupy Your Institutions

How can art institutions be better?

The following is an excerpt from As Radical, As Mother, As Salad, As Shelter: What Should Art Institutions Do Now?, a collection of essays and Q&As published by Paper Monument, n+1’s contemporary art imprint. The book is available in our store.

In light of recent political shifts across the globe, have you sensed a change in the position of the art institution vis-à-vis political activism?

Change is always already coming into being within each of us, and I think that each of our bodies contains the capacity for radical work and radical pleasure. But institutions aren’t going to change until we collectively demand that they change. It seems that we keep returning to the sameness, the stagnancy, of the institution because we have been trained to believe that our actions have no weight outside of that context. Or in other words, we have been tricked into believing that the institution can stand in for the power of collective action. It cannot.

So, to paraphrase the late great Mark Fisher, it is now up to us to convert our private suffering into a collective anger, to create unions, to withhold our labor en masse, and to start demanding again and again that our decadent institutions stop exploiting us and start working for us.

Can an art institution go from being an object of critique to a site for organizing? How?

If I have to be a part of another panel discussion or symposium at an institution purporting to take that very same institution to task, I will scream.

Honestly, we can’t talk our way out of this. We know that our institutions were built on genocide and slavery. We know that capitalism will keep throwing us the same smoke-and-mirrors democracy, never stopping to listen to us gab on these panels; we know it won’t suddenly take stock of its algorithmic injustice after attending one of our symposiums. We know that this is how it holds us, its operatives, in a fugue state. It allows us our Marxist dissertations, our impotent institutions, because the cult of individuality ultimately leaves us feeling depressed and fragmented, alone in our pretense of intellectual and ethical superiority.

And institutional workers: I know you. I see you. I am you. We are disillusioned civil servants padding our curriculum vitae with underpaid teaching jobs, unpaid curatorial ventures, publications that we wrote and printed through credit card debt—evidence of our daily misery. For the most part, our labor goes unnoticed and our value to art and artists seems negligible at best. Sometimes ennobled by university degrees and a loose understanding of dialectical criticism we hold panel discussions espousing systemic change. This is another way to sniff out the next form of intellectual chic while still clinging to the pernicious coattails of the old world order. I, for one, fail miserably to give good critique.

Still, I think that it is here, entrenched in failure, that I can commit myself to listening at the margins, simply because everything that the state has rejected from the center will be central to its undoing. And while I am listening, I can also throw wrenches in the machine of capitalism. Not “critique,” which boils down to using language to defend our nebulous claim on a pseudo-democracy, but rather, I can actively create problems for the state.

My program at the Lab depends on creating a template wherein I give artists who—as a result of gender, class, race, sexuality, geography, or the nature of their work—are not traditionally granted the financial resources, time, and freedom to challenge our institutional structures. I discover so much in this process—it changes me, and it forces me in turn to challenge our granting agencies, our patrons, and the policing structures we place around artistic practice. How do we empower art that retains ambiguity while simultaneously addressing the ethics of power? Also crucially, I wrote into my contract when I first joined the organization that my work would aim to stabilize the organization financially, secure our space, and then, in June 2020, that I would turn the Lab over to a person of color who could reframe the organization outside of the perspective of my privilege.

And there are already so many precedents for this work. Solidarity movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter demonstrate how to inhabit the world of desire. We come together simply to show that we can be in but not of this governing system, acting out the audacity of our pleasure in ways the state considers nonsensical. This solidarity thing is new to us and it feels at first strange and uncomfortable, but it soon becomes interactive, resonant, formative, and also, it’s great for sex. You know, we really should do it more often.

Should the art institution play this kind of role? What other roles can or should it play?

The power of art lies in its capacity to dismantle systems of perception. It does this to us on a singular level, bedeviling our knowledge and showing us how our senses disobey our rational minds. I believe it is art’s right to refuse to make common sense.

Art institutions, however, thrive on creating common sense. And I understand this impulse—working at a museum for seven years meant crafting hundreds of texts that carefully placed artworks within a context, valuing them, binding them to a kind of narrative that could be understood by any English speaker who had received a sixth-grade education. However, ultimately, I felt that in doing this I was stripping each piece of the power of its awkward singularity, the pleasure of its unknowability. This institutional voice felt neutralizing precisely because it lacked artistic imagination.

Now, when I dream of better art institutions I dream of a kind of free, public commons. A place where we gather to provoke actions rather than proscribe conversations, to tell jokes, to panhandle, to collect anecdotes, and to perform deviant acts, to lose ourselves in front of art. Basically, I dream of seizing institutional space simply so that we can act weird in public.

Until then, institutions should do everything in their power to create organizational models that reject the implicit violence of the state. This means performing a meaningful function in the lives of artists and art workers by providing living wages, and by reversing some of the damage of coercive exploitation by clearly and publicly undoing gender binaries and by giving reparations on the basis of race in their leadership, collecting, and commissioning strategies. This also means providing publicly accessible space where non-English-speaking communities, the displaced, and many differently abled people can gather. All of our wages and working conditions improve when we lift up bodies from positions of abjection.

What other institutions, curators, or publics do you look to in formulating your own institution’s position?

I only subscribe to the mailing lists of institutions that are current with their W.A.G.E. certification. If you are an organization that is paying people fairly, Lise Soskolne and the W.A.G.E. team have made it incredibly easy to get certified, so not being certified is an embarrassing indication that an organization is exploiting its workforce.

There are too many inspirations to name them all—Fred Moten, Chus Martínez, Philippe Pirotte, Constance Lewallen, Silvia Federici, Anne Ellegood, Dora García, Rita Gonzalez, Hamza Walker, for a start. Primarily, I just try to work with people who treat me with dignity, but who also challenge me and take me into unknown territory.

Recent controversies over curatorial choices have foregrounded the different ways in which institutions envision their audience(s). In your experience, is this process changing? How should it proceed?

I can’t give form to an audience. These days, cultural participation is too imperative—people move in packs determined by social media algorithms. When we have finally captured their data set, we tell them to move, play, participate, relax, or critically engage.

I’m looking for a more unrestricted kind of sociality. How can we hold space where we can talk, walk together, work, dance, suffer, laugh, improvise, affect, and be affected? So much of that isn’t about choosing through some individual curatorial voice, but being drawn out of yourself, and trying to augment and differentiate who you can be from who you once were.

For each project, we try to transform the Lab into a sensory experience by altering the layout, the lighting, the perceptual conditions as much as possible to create a space for waking dreams, for fiction making, and even sometimes for generative conflict. If the artwork itself is allowed to break into our singular experience of the world, maybe it can deliver us from the domination of form. I can’t say that this always happens, but at least each project presents us with that opportunity.

How can an institution address the dichotomy between art as cultural entertainment and art as political inquiry? What is the role of the curator in mediating this? How does this compare to the artist’s role?

Both entertainment and politics seek to govern our experience of the world. Art seeks to ungovern.

The Lab commissions three projects per year. Artists receive $25,000 – $90,000 each, keys to our space for up to ten weeks, the login for our website, and the option to revise every aspect of the Lab’s operations. We want to know how far they can take that inquiry and how much we can bend to make the project of art possible on every level. What happens when their work conflicts with the way that we operate the Lab? How do we make visible the limits of our freedom, and is it possible to reveal those limits to our community? I see my role as doing everything possible to ward off the forces that want to define and institutionalize art and deliver it into a sterile, powerless vacuum. In this way, the relationship between the curator and artist is to enact an ongoing, performative speculation about how to invent a place, in space and time, where the artwork might actually come to exist.

How can art institutions be better?

The NEA just released a report stating that the arts sector contributed $763.6 billion dollars to the US economy. This is 4.2 percent of the GDP and four times more than what is contributed by agricultural workers. This also means that if the 4.9 million people who are employed as art workers walked out of the job today, we could effectively cripple the US economy and change the face of politics. Organize in your workplace, occupy your institutions, coordinate a walkout. Radical work leads to radical pleasure!

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate to support n+1.