Books In Conversation
ALAN MOORE with Kathy Battista
Art Gangs: Protest & Counterculture in New York City (Autonomedia, 2011) recounts an alternative history of a formative period of contemporary art in New York, as told through “artists’ groups”, their activities, and corresponding spaces. The author’s research is an outgrowth of his work with Colab and the former East Village space ABC No Rio. Unassuming and modest in design, the book is nevertheless incredibly rich and dense in both content and sources and is an immense contribution to the topic. Moore joins former colleagues including Julie Ault and Lucy Lippard in documenting the avant-garde of 1970s and 1980s New York. This was a time when figures such as Basquiat and Haring were dominating the media, yet there was another group of artists who were politically engaged and radical in practice. Like Ault and Lippard before him, Moore proves that there was a much richer and wider set of artists and activities back then. While Haring and Basquiat made a fortune with the newfound market wealth of the 1980s, other artists chose to work collaboratively with little to no financial gain: Lucy Lippard, Daniel Ortega, Nancy Spero and many others were interrelated and implicated within the political causes of the period. I recently spoke to Moore about the fruition of the book and his inspiration and sources.
Kathy Battista (Rail): You acknowledge colleagues such as Julie Ault, Lucy Lippard, and your Colab members, who were formative in creating the practice you document in Art Gangs. Can you say something about the collective spirit of the history that you capture?
Alan Moore: Saving artists’ history is usually always a D.I.Y. job. The first book I made with Marc Miller in 1985, ABC No Rio Dinero: The Story of a Lower East Side Art Gallery, began as a reaction to a text in Artforum that said the only artists who mattered in the East Village scene were Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The rest were best forgotten. This ruthless gesture of dismissal provoked me to document our work at ABC No Rio in detail, as well as the other artists’ groups with which we were allied. Marc was then lead interviewer for the video series Art New York. He had what I considered to be a more or less mainstream point of view on contemporary art, balanced between the interests of artists, collectors, and museums. The interplay of competing interests and initiatives among these actors make up both the material and discursive conditions of the field. (This is Bourdieu, more or less.)
At the time we were working, Julie Ault and Gregory Sholette were deeply involved in their artistic projects, working with Group Material and PAD/D respectively. Both Julie and Gregory were inspired by Lucy Lippard. Lucy started on a straight-ahead institutional trajectory, and gradually and publicly reoriented her work toward the feminist and radical political poles. Of course, Lucy named the problem all of us have faced at one time or another in our work, both as artists and historians, in the title of an essay she wrote in 1999—“Too Political, Forget It.” For me it’s always been less a matter of generosity and more about mutual aid.
Rail: Do you feel that artist collectives and alternative spaces have been overtly marginalized from art history and/or major institutions? If so, what has prompted the resurgence of interest in them, as witnessed in recent exhibitions and publications such as yours?
Moore: Yes, definitely. The great anthology of texts that will never be collected is all the overtly racist and sexist baloney put out by critics major and minor in the late 20th century. And of course people were blacklisted by institutions and galleries for taking political positions and actions in the 1960s and ’70s. Faith Ringgold writes about this explicitly in her autobiography, but you won’t find the memo in the archives. And what do we know about the commie Jews of No! Art? Francis Frascina writes perceptively about the reasons why this was in “Meyer Schapiro’s Choice: My Lai, Guernica, MoMA and the Art Left, 1969 – 70.” In a nutshell, these post-1968 activists endangered the cold war deal amongst the cultural establishment to keep politics out of modern art. What changed this? The major political events of the years 1968 (Paris), 1989 (Berlin), and then 1999 (Seattle). The imperatives of radical democratic grassroots activism put so much energy behind the collective ideal that institutions—no matter how vested in capital and hierarchy they were—could no longer resist. Or, at least, they could not black out the existence of autonomous and political initiatives in the field of culture. Also the personnel changed!
Rail: Following on from above, does this collective spirit exist in New York today?
Moore: The collective spirit among artists in the U.S. is stronger than ever it was in my day. In New York, collectives may not be so visible. Outside of the market center, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles—everywhere there is an art school you will see people getting together to make things happen. Many of them have political motives, but most just want to generate some heat and make a living. That’s hard unless heads get together and figure out how that could be done. Outside of its cosmopolitan cities, the U.S. is something of a cultural desert, and all nomads need oases.
Rail: Can you comment on the relationship between music and agit-prop art practice, both during the period your book covers, as well as at present?
Moore: The key early 1970s project is Music Language, part of the Art & Language New York circle. Mayo Thompson continued that through his band Red Krayola. Thereafter, look at the evolution of the punk movement in the 1980s, especially outside of New York. The West Coast, with Dead Kennedys, and D.C. with Bad Brains—a host of great anarchist musicians and poets, with anger but also analysis. They also had a D.I.Y. action program to build the venues they needed to tour. (Among them was ABC No Rio.) Before that, there’s John Sinclair and the MC5 commune, all that Detroit stuff. (Sean Stewart’s new book On the Ground is great on this.) Music history is overlooked. For example, the Beatles funded the British art center movement, the 1960s precursor of the U.S. alternative spaces. You won’t find it in histories of art! John marrying Yoko was a real stellar conjunction. Teenagers were brainwashed by the music press to consider it a betrayal. There is a real segregation of the fields of cultural work, walls constructed between artistic disciplines. That isn’t really how artists work.
Rail: Recently the market has expanded for works previously considered “radical” or “alternative.” Do you see the same phenomenon with artist collectives from the period you document being “rediscovered”?
Moore: The artists’ groups of the past will surely be reconsidered, most likely in institutional exhibitions, probably in academic venues. There’s an emerging market in ephemera of collectives—publications and such, like the recent Colab show at Printed Matter. But I mean, can you really see a “masterwork of collective art”? See it being talked about as it goes up on the block? That’s one problem. There are collaborations—like those great Warhol-Basquiat paintings. But even the CoBrA artists and the Scandinavian Situationists, who really tried to make collective visual art, ended up copping out. Jørgen Nash forged his famous brother’s name onto collective works so they could sell as Asger Jorn’s. The artists’ groups are indubitably important, but not in the terms that the exhibiting and vending art world is used to.
Rail: Why are artists’ collectives today—Bruce High Quality Foundation, Claire Fontaine, etc.—embraced by the very institutions that they critique? What has changed in the two decades between this and the activity that you document in Art Gangs?
Moore: Gregory Sholette once wrote of a crop of other market-oriented collectives that they were “insouciant.” He contended that their presence in the institutions and markets was to cover over the reality of the many politicized collectives doing more serious work. BHQF seems to be the necessary U.S. art collective, the one the institutions have nominated in order to get with the program. BHQF are in this sense mediators. I think Claire Fontaine is another kettle of fish. They slyly, sometimes overtly, introduce high-proof radical political content into their work. They’re very smart—and getting into the market is what they always wanted to do, starting with work in and on what Roland Barthes called the fashion system. Institutional critique, particularly in its highly academicized form, seems soggy as a concept. In the early 1990s Andrea Fraser and others enunciated the idea of artists as parasites, service workers, janitors of dirty or disagreeable content, doing the jobs of cultural heavy lifting that institutions themselves couldn’t. That was hot. I think really that the anti-market, anti-institutional collectives remain simply unassimilable.
Rail: For someone so invested in New York, why did you move to Madrid?
Moore: I moved to Madrid for several reasons. First, the standard whine: New York isn’t worth the struggle to live there now, blah blah. Then, Europe is really interesting, and Madrid is great. The Reina Sofia museum is doing daringly heady and political shows. For the kinds of things I like—social practice, collective work, autonomous self-organization, historical art—Europe is a kind of paradise. Even now, a few years into it, I can’t see all the snakes. Or they seem like stuffed animals compared with the gun-toting Jesus freaks and criminal Rotarians who sometimes seem to run the U.S.
Rail: What would be the most important thing for the emerging generation of artists, critics, and curators to take away from Art Gangs?
Moore: I thought that creative people in the U.S., especially academics, became excessively timid under eight years of Bush. They could no longer insist on anything. What I always tried to say to folks was “get crusty.” Insist on what you want, because what creative people want is what other folks need. In that sense, I believe in the vanguard idea. Now, with the Occupy movement, people are again in motion toward their dreams. That is so encouraging! So now I think I have less to say to Americans and more to listen to.