Art as Training in the Practice of Freedom
You have asked me what function art should serve with regard to environmental and social concerns. It should be said that we live in a world where art as we know it is corrupt, exhausted, and weak. We see shimmering edifices of cultural wealth erected on the backs of hyper-exploited labor—the pyramids and coliseums of the 21st century—on land turned into concrete. We see museums, galleries, and public art projects serving as the avant-garde of displacement and dispossession. We see so-called “social practice,” the well-funded bureaucratization of alienated people’s desire for community, effectively normalizing oppression rather than engaging in struggle. And we see theoretically savvy “discursive platforms” that speak of radical democracy, militant ecology, and even communization, while recoiling at the prospect of deploying their considerable resources, skills, and potential for the purposes of building a transformative movement. The answer thus cannot exclude the fact that we are all implicated, and that the art world is so thoroughly intertwined with capitalism that there is no space (and little time) left outside of it.
When I think of art after Occupy, I imagine “art” under erasure. We strike art to liberate art from itself. Not to end art, but to unleash its powers of direct action and radical imagination. Imagine a refugee camp collaged into the symbolic heart of finance capital, a self-organized commons installed at ground zero of empire, an empty minimalist plaza flooded with bodies and voices and cameras, blasting a collective cry to the world: “Sorry it took so long, we are awake now!” Imagine a general strike in New York City, and a never-ending process of experimentation, learning and undoing, resisting and building in the unexplored terrain of an historic rupture. Or, imagine an alternative museum tour of the Museum of Natural History, calling it out for what it is: “a monument for white supremacy,” mic-checking in the Hall of Forestry on “gentrification, natural disaster, displacement, and white supremacy” in one breath, instigating the unlearning, complicating narrative where it matters most, where knowledge is both produced and disseminated.
Finally, let me say (with love) that today we are obsessed with whether the above is “art” or “activism.” Although these frames are useful analytical tools, they are limiting. There is a war being waged in the imagination, and we are urged to ask, “How do we live?” and then, despite the feeling of helplessness, to act. It is by acting that we learn a new way of thinking, or, as the Zapatistas say, “asking we walk.” As a member of MTL Collective, I am engaged in a practice in which the artist’s work does not add only an artistic flair to this or that campaign, but rather contributes theory and research, action and aesthetics, debriefing and analysis—this entire dialectical process is the art practice. Gulf Labor, and its direct-action wing, G.U.L.F.; #BlackOutTour; Occupy Museums; and Direct Action Front for Palestine are examples of such a practice. They take aim at a range of targets: labor exploitation, white supremacy, the capture of public space, climate colonization, gentrification, police violence, Israeli apartheid, rape and sexual assault, and more. Yet, they do not work in silos. They take action in New York City while making connections to each other, as well as other geographies and struggles. Today, the artist is an organizer, recognizes capitalism has always been hostile to human and non-human life, and understands that people fight where they are. We maintain the specificities of struggle as we build a coalition among equals and move toward a shared horizon of liberation. So let art be training in the practice of freedom.
NITASHA DHILON is an artist based in New York and New Delhi. She holds a BA in Mathematics from St. Stephen's College, University of Delhi, and attended the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York and the School of the International Center of Photography. She's a cofounder of Tidal: Occupy Theory magazine; MTL, a collective combining research, aesthetics, and activism in its practice; and Global Ultra Luxury Faction, the direct action wing of Gulf Labor Coalition. She is also a core member of Gulf Labor Coalition. Nitasha is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Media Study - University of Buffalo in New York.