Art You Can Believe In
In 1999, at the height of the WTO protests, someone scrawled “We Are Winning!” on a wall in downtown Seattle. Framed by a cloud of tear gas and a phalanx of cops in riot-gear, this message had a defiantly utopian tone, reminiscent of “Under the paving stones, the beach,” which was written on Parisian walls just over thirty years earlier. And yet beyond the celebratory slogans, festooned puppets, and protest ready-wear, are we really winning? And what would it mean to win?
Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now, a massive exhibition of posters, photos, video, audio, and other ephemera currently on view at Exit Art Gallery (through December 6), is a retrospective glance into social movement histories through the cultural materials they produced. This incredibly ambitious show, curated by longtime political artists Dara Greenwald and Josh MacPhee, spans several decades, continents, and causes—from racial and national self-determination to gender and sexual liberation, from anti-apartheid struggles to anti-capitalist struggles, from the counter-culture movement to the alter-globalization movement. While Signs of Change is first and foremost a celebration of art practices in the service of what are largely marginalized social movements, at the same time it offers some of the raw materials that allow us to reflect on the relationship between art and social change. Because many of the works were produced anonymously and are not attributable to a single artist, the exhibition complicates more traditional narratives of art’s role in social movements by focusing on collective rather than individual cultural production and the potential this has to create new forms of social action.
With few exceptions, the artistic practices in Signs of Change are consciously embedded within sizable social movements and/or spring from them. Although the character and goals of these movements—and the historical conditions in which they operated—vary, what they have in common is a desire for social change expressed through an aesthetic dimension. They also all originate on the Left. Not the liberal Left of electoral politics and majoritarian rule, but the Left of “the personal is political;” the do-it-yourself Left; a diverse network of individuals and groups that attempt to practice more direct forms of democracy based on active participation and shared support; the more militant Left of anarchist and libertarian Marxist traditions—in all, the self-proclaimed “radical” Left.
Greenwald and MacPhee told me that they see Signs of Change as the first stage in a process. They realize that the exhibition (with over 800 total pieces) is a lot to take in, but their hope is that it will be a springboard for people who want to investigate these histories more deeply. They would like it to push people interested in political art to think more rigorously about how they might participate in social movements, and for social movement actors to think more deeply about how culture and aesthetics play a role in their movements. But the main reason for mounting the show was to bring to light material that is almost entirely unknown:
“Even though a lot of the groups and movements that produced this culture were influential in some ways, the origin of the influence has been erased or absorbed,” MacPhee said. “This was an opportunity to expose a much broader audience to the fact that these social movements produced this work. In some ways we’re attempting to repurpose an art venue to mount an historical exhibition that you would never see in a history museum.”
This is probably the first time many viewers will see a lot of this work, especially the international pieces. After a lot of research, locating and securing many obscure materials, and then systematically organizing, reproducing and presenting them, the curators have given us a “people’s history” in cultural production over the past forty years. This is a laudable task. But aside from introducing viewers to unfamiliar artistic or political practices and the movements they are part of, does this retrospective offer the possibility for judging the effectiveness of the art as propaganda, or perhaps more importantly, the effectiveness of the politics behind the art? What are the politics behind the art? Are they self-evident in the images? How will the particular images and movements, and more significantly, all of them as an aggregate, be interpreted?
In order to help contextualize the work, a series of film screenings, panel symposiums, printing workshops, and educational and public tours were programmed into the exhibition. According to MacPhee, “We wanted to give people the potential to gain context and to find out more if they’re interested, but not in a way that the contextual info becomes a bludgeon and people turn away because it’s too overwhelming. Movements from different places and times that on the surface may seem to have similarities, but whose motivations and goals are very different.”
But the result is that the actual politics, or the ideologies and forms of organization of the movements that are represented, are not really addressed. The viewer must glean the deeper picture from the graphic symbols and words on each piece, with a little help from an introductory text about the movement and a brief description of the material being displayed. For example, on one wall you can see a poster from the MEDU Arts Ensemble, a group of South African artists who fled to neighboring Botswana in 1977 where they printed posters and smuggled them back into South Africa, until they were raided and murdered by South African Defense Forces in 1985. A few feet away are several photographs taken in 2003 in the United Kingdom of outdoor billboards that have been torn down with a brief explanation behind the motivations and intentions of destroying advertisements.
Two distinct practices, each from a specific time and place, are thus responding to very different social conditions and political circumstances. Political art has to function differently under a brutal regime of legalized segregation than it does in an allegedly democratic society. To subsume them both under the banner of “Left political art,” as sameness-in-difference, ties them to commodity logic despite their intentions. But perhaps more important is that the process of commodification renders commensurate a work’s individual part in the whole. This effectively empties the work of critical historical content: the political consciousness of the maker and the reasons they chose the aesthetic practices they did. In this way, the politics of Signs of Change could be seen as the sum of its parts. Subsuming each particular into the whole affirms each one as equally valuable. This closes off rather than opens up the possibility of raising deeper questions.
I’m not saying that those who see the work in Signs of Change will neither know about nor consider the specificity of the contexts in which the work was made. However, I do think that rather than provoking critical reflection of the work and interrogating the political consciousness of its producers, the art and the movements will largely be affirmed as a collective history of cultural resistance. The danger is that the specific history of each piece, how and why it was made, the politics of the movement it was a part of, and the political differences between these movements—which might vary from reactionary to revolutionary—will be flattened into a monolith and stamped “radical cultural production.”
Another critical question raised by the show is whether it is even possible to make radical art in a mature commodity society. What about the way it is made or received makes the work in Signs of Change radical? Is it because it is rooted in social movements? The word radical is from the Latin radicalis, meaning having roots, going to the root or source. Next to political organizations like the Democratic Party, or the culture industry and the mass of information it churns out each day, anything even slightly non-conformist or anti-commercial could appear to be radical. Many on the Left use the term “radical” much in the same way George W. Bush uses the term “freedom.” An identity is made between the concept (how it is conceived in thought) and the object (how it manifests in reality). Bush’s America is synonymous with freedom, while many of us have conceptions of freedom that we do not equate with existing reality. For many Left political artists, their practice is synonymous with being “radical.” But if it is indeed radical, we should be able to determine what it is going to the root or source of. We also should have some way to gauge its effectiveness. But my fear is that the concept of “radical,” like the concept of the “Left,” has become so individually determined, so dissociated from any collective goal, that it can signify, well, almost anything.
I’m not advocating we stop mounting shows like Signs of Change in order to sit around and think about how to mount shows like this. Our practices—the process of putting this exhibition together and the work in it—are, as the curators have said, a site for thought, a beginning. If it maintains a self-reflective component, active experimentation can be a form of thinking and rethinking. But constant doing sometimes precludes us from ever really asking certain questions, questions that would necessarily place more value on certain ideas and actions and less on others. It is when we become trapped in doing—in a compulsion to act, then to affirm that act with more of the same—places us at risk of making history rhyme. This is illustrated in the WTO graffiti I mentioned at the beginning.
It is probable that the quality of sameness-in-difference and a tendency toward self-affirmation that inhibits self-reflection could combine in Signs of Change to reproduce the logic of a progressive idea of history, the idea that we are evolving, through diverse social relationships that involve messy and contentious (re: democratic) public debate, to something better. Yes, positive change does happen: an eight-hour workday, reproductive rights, the Civil Rights Act. I think that most of us could agree though that capitalist society doesn’t go on day after day free of social conflict, but because of it. Clearly, these movements share a strong desire not to conform to the prevailing social order. But rather than undermining that order, is it possible they articulate a norm for controversy within it? If history is identical with progress, if the collective actions of the social movements represented by the art in this exhibition are the diverse expressions of a desire for freedom—are indeed synonymous with freedom—the logic follows that what is needed is a quantitative increase. I would argue that a kind of self-affirming pluralism is the dominant ideology behind Signs of Change and Left social movement art in this country in general. Is it possible that, rather than offering an occasion for judging what may or may not be working and why, Signs of Change is perpetuating an ideological impediment that may actually be preventing us from “winning?” Before you try to answer that, go and see the show.
Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now runs from September 20–December 6, 2008 at Exit Art, 475 Tenth Avenue. For a full listing of the events related to this exhibition go to www.exitart.org
ERIC TRIANTAFILLOU is a Chicago-based artist and writer.