Yes, No, Maybe
There are many different shades of No. To begin with, there is what you might call ‘withdrawal’. You complain about the exhaustion, compare yourself to Bartleby, turn down a commission or two. 1The said narrative has little to do with Melville. Nor is the “indeterminacy” described below a faithful rendition of Barthesian Third Meaning or Derridean différance. I am not addressing authorial intentions here but their effective deployment within the existing contemporary artworld. Eventually, you turn up at an art fair for a panel discussion on “Refusal,” and quote Paolo Virno. Given that not everyone can afford a temporary retreat, this kind of tristesse royale often privileges the already privileged.
Withdrawal-as-artwork can abide by the above, though not necessarily. Lee Lozano took her Dropout Piece to uncompromising conclusions. A brutal one-way burnout, meticulously executed. Making itself knowable without allowing for the possibility of capitalizing on that attention. It’s that impressive shade of No that rises to the challenge of betraying your own class. 2See Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s brilliant Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece (London: Afterall Books, 2014).
A third shade of No, paradoxically, amounts to the precise art of saying Yes. Though you do not self-deport exactly, your compliance is toxic enough to make integration a little more difficult. Instead of exhibiting belletristic defiance, you enact it, by forfeiting the making nice and the muddling through for the quiet pleasures of the here and now. Like Abdel Rahman Badawi, who did not show up to accept the 1999 Mubarak Prize for literature, preferring to send in his bank details instead. 3Oraib Toukan, “We the intellectuals: re-routing institutional critique” (lecture presented at the symposium Cultural Production: in dialogue with Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt, AdBK Nuernberg, 13 June 2013).
A blunter shade of No is the thud of the slamming door. Edward Fry comes to mind, the curator who was fired for defending that fateful Hans Haacke exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1971. Fry’s career took an irreversible blow, but, luckily, he still is referenced now and then, most notably by Haacke himself.
The above are all individual decisions that are, in various ways, authored, heroic, and expressive. They are also anthropomorphic as they allow for the fantasy of pure agency to be granted a human face. A boycott, which is yet another shade of No, does the opposite. The individual voice is substituted by strategic abstractions.
Admittedly, anthropomorphism may be inevitable, as people look for mouthpieces. Boycott delegates, however, are beholden to group decisions. Take Rosa Parks. To be honest, I always assumed she was just a courageous, no-nonsense Alabaman with sore feet. (Shade of No #4.) When in point of fact, her actions were collectively prepared, rehearsed, and orchestrated. The very idea of a spontaneous cri de coeur was engineered by means of a deft exercise in group organizing. 4Alternate ROOTS (presentation at the Creative Time Summit: Living as Form, Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York University, 23 September 2011).
Any other kind of mouthpiece can be a liability. The boycott of the Cologne Art Fair in 1971 paid a high price for the bungling Joseph Beuys, who both supported the protesters at the door, and allowed his art to be sold within. Critics had a ball. “Beuys harvested the acclaim of emblematic social action while his dealers used the acclaim to increase the sale of his work at the very fair he was boycotting. Artists without similar influence or a similar dealer network paid a far greater price to support Beuys’ initiative than Beuys himself paid.” 5Ken Friedman, “The Wealth and Poverty of Networks,” New Media Poetics, 1 (2003). See also: Der Spiegel, “Prinzip Gerechtigkeit,” 38, 1971.
The individuals who are actually boycotted are equally essentialized and submitted to criteria that are technical, financial, geopolitical. Which brings me to another distinctive feature of a boycott—that it cannot do without a recognizable dose of symbolic violence. “All conversation,” Hans-Georg Gadamer suggested, “presupposes that the Other may be right.” A boycott replaces this flexibility with something chewier. It opts for strategic essentialism, a victory of form over context, in which an incongruous situation is magically summarized into a seamless narrative. Allowing a strange new voice to speak through a miraculously formed body.
Can This Work in Contemporary Art?
My query is whether boycotts can be considered antithetical to a dominant paradigm within contemporary art, namely, a strong and under-examined faith in indeterminacy and the resulting rejection of all particularity in terms of politics, and of all didacticism in terms of meaning. 6Much of my recent work is based on theorist Suhail Malik’s series of lectures at Artists Space, New York, in spring 2013, all available online. Even when a particular artistic agenda is at play, it is usually contained and mitigated by the category of contemporary art, as something infinitely indefinable and inherently complex. Art, apparently, can only be a category that—and in that it—defies all others. So the telos of art becomes one of routinely countering and ‘questioning’ all the structures that surround it. As previously argued here, this tropography runs straight through the field; and is prominently featured in my own writing over the years.
In sum, my assumption is that the widespread skepticism toward boycotts is linked to deep-seated epistemic assumptions. After all, a boycott is typically faced with more emotionalized drama than its actual demands would usually call for. Even Ahmet Ögüt, an articulate figurehead of this year’s Biennale of Sydney protests, shuns the word altogether: “The term ‘boycott’ implies something different. A boycott is a destructive act that cuts off the opportunity for dialogue.” Rather than simply a negotiation by other means, the idea is usually dismissed as an overzealous case of sabotage and rupture.
And yet, boycotts are not uncommon in the arts. I spent 2010–2013 in New York, where I watched the pressure build on Sotheby’s, and, shortly thereafter, on Frieze. Both organizations had opted for non-unionized labor, and both relented (albeit in different ways, and for different reasons). A more recent example is the said Sydney boycott, where the withdrawal of biennale participants led to the severing of ties with a major sponsor, Transfield (a contractor for Australia’s immigrant detention centers). Needless to say, not all boycotts culminate in Mandela scenarios. Few remember the 2010 picketing of Tate for its ties to BP, a firm that makes Transfield look like a Paolo Virno reading group. However, whether of the meek or glamorous variety, boycotts have a short shelf life in artworld memory. Which in turn strengthens their reputation of being nuclear options: very rare and a little barmy.
If you go beyond the strict definition of boycotts—which operate through economic sanctions specifically—to collective acts of refusal in general, the list is even longer. Consider Harald Szeemann’s fabled documenta V, 1972. In open letters and petitions, scores of leading artists declared their refusal to participate, simply because the curatorial framework was too overbearing. These days, the anecdote comes as a shock. Who would ever hope for that kind of drama today? It’s the shock value itself that is interesting. The fact that boycotts may well be out there, but are so rarely theorized. When exactly did lines in the sand gain such an exotic reputation? 7Lozano’s “Boycott” piece, for which the artist stopped speaking to women, was not a boycott at all, but a counterintuitive, individual response to the disempowerment of women in the artworld at the time. (The piece was never titled “Boycott” by the artist herself.) And yet it’s another helpful example. In an underhanded violation of her own guidelines, Lozano reportedly continued to talk to a certain number of women, through which discussions with both genders must have gained in awkwardness, reflexivity, and charge. See: Lehrer-Graiwer, Lee Lozano, op. cit.
In the strict sense of the term, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel (BDS) is an important reference. The initial organizers looked to artists’ initiatives for models for their own wording, such as the 2001 appeal by Emily Jacir, Anton Sinkewich, and Oz Shelach, and the movement is still supported by a surprising number of artists internationally. However, only a minority have explicitly voiced support in public, especially within the Euro-American circuit. And in contrast to other fields—dance, theater, academia, music, film—Israeli funding poses little threat to a critical reputation.
Creative Time, an organization dedicated to art and activism, has allowed Independent Curators International (ICI) to take their exhibition Living as Form to several Israeli venues. Including the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology, which plays a decisive role in developing the military technology of the occupation. Yet the show includes artists who openly subscribe to BDS—and who were reportedly unaware of its traveling to Israel. It’s telling that ICI feels no need to justify its political position to begin with. While in response to the outcry, curator Nato Thompson continues to commend Creative Time events for “helping correct injustices done around the globe,” “honoring international standards of human rights,” and “leading to a more just world” no less.
Boycotts and/or Dialogue: Five Examples
When the Sharjah Biennial fired its director Jack Persekian in 2011, ostensibly over a blasphemous artwork, an outraged petition gained 1600 signatures. The following Sharjah edition, however, pursued the brilliant move of hiring Yuko Hasegawa, a curator with an interest in Arabian courtyards. These became the master trope of the show, and in her curatorial statement, Hasegawa railed against the imposition of a “Western perspective,” insisting on a culturalist approach: “In selecting artists, we sought out individuals who have a deep interest in the culture in which they were raised […]. This process produces hybrid knowledge and intercultural products that could potentially constitute the genetic material for a novel culture.”
The postcolonial appeasement, along with other, more strong-arm PR tactics, all did their bit. Two years on, the list of names on the petition pretty much covered the list of hotel guests at the Sharjah Rotana. Two years after that, the March Meeting conference is commended for cultivating a “spirit of genuine critical inquiry ” in the pages of Artforum. In light of all the peace and quiet, it’s ironic that boycotts are seen as silencing, anti-dialogical things in themselves.
At the end of the day, the 2011 petition did spark a good deal of discourse, even if most of the conversation has moved offstage. 8I appreciate artist Yazan Khalili’s candor in this regard. For further reference, see our interview for WdW Review. Generally speaking, boycotts aside, even in cases of refusal, denial, censorship, or criminalization, silence is a logical impossibility. You do not have to be Jacques Derrida to realize that all language will only ever spawn more language.
Take the Gulf Labor Initiative, which aims for an improvement of working conditions on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi construction sites. Extensive negotiations both preceded and continue to accompany the ongoing petition. 9Paraphrased from Walid Raad, Skype interview with author, January 2014. On which other occasions are artists as rigorously vocal as this? Even BDS proponents will insist that the movement has amended, not thwarted, the conversations. They are more selective, to be sure, but also more painfully transparent.
Meanwhile, responding to efforts to cancel the upcoming Manifesta in St. Petersburg, curator Kasper Koenig suggested: “[We] have to make sure not to censor ourselves. […] We hope to exhibit substantial artworks that do not resort to cheap provocations. The environment and the possibilities for this exhibition are very rich and it would be a mistake to reduce our possibilities down to the level of just making a particular political statement.” 10Koenig has since grown more skeptical, even if his fundamental position remains unchanged: http://calvertjournal.com/news/show/2633/manifesta-kasper-koenig-biennale-has-hit-impasse.
This brings us back to the dominant contemporary art paradigm mentioned above. In the case of Koenig, art’s indeterminacy dovetails with the classic liberal argument of freedom of speech. But consider a narrative more subtle than Koenig’s, such as Negar Azimi’s strong response to the many political gestures during the heady days of 2011. Azimi contrasts a wide range of efforts, from boycotting the Shah’s Iran and Apartheid to latter-day infrastructural initiatives such as Townhouse Cairo and Decolonizing Architecture with an equally broad range of examples of more facile protestation. Azimi offers an early-Susan-Sontag-ian warning: “Easy Listening Art in the name of the political leads to the sedation of our aesthetic and critical appetites.”Then, taking her cues from Tania Bruguera, Azimi vouches for an “art of uncomfortable knowledge,” for “knowing that we actually don’t have all the answers,” and for “an art that refuses to serve as a moral compass.” The boycotts and other examples commended by Azimi do undeniably embody “answers” and “compasses.” But the contemporary art paradigm makes that harder to acknowledge.
In e-flux journal, Ghalya Saadawi took on the same intoxicating context of 2011. Saadawi offers an equally compelling range of case studies, and strikes a comparably skeptical note regarding art and protest (“Let us be clear about an age-old and inevitable relationship between art [and] money.”) before pointing to new horizons (“Yet could and should the idea and the category of art be understood solely under these terms?”). The text culminates in a plea for defining new structures, as opposed to castigating older ones: “This is exactly the time to learn from the Arab revolts, from [their] organic self-organization, and their rejection of hegemonic structures […]. Could now be the prescient time to re-imagine an alternative?” Though stopping shy of refuting institutional structures outright, the argument does ultimately make the classic case against “professionalization,” citing Group Material and others.
When art is unfettered from Russia, moral compasses, or the professionalized institutions of old, it can speak in more “rich” (Koenig), “uncomfortable” (Azimi), or “serious” (Saadawi) fashion. For all their stark differences, these three writers propound the established, conventional belief that there are sites—be they exhibitionary, epistemic, or institutional in nature—where contemporary art can and should become extricable from the structures around it.
Our field operates on the premise that, when unencumbered, the open-ended, indeterminate murmur of art represents something disruptive in and of itself. In order for this innate mode of subverting, undermining, and questioning to unfold, art cannot be contained—not by institutions, nor by their boycotteering critics. (The said murmur has been theorized most lucidly, thus far, in Jacques Rancière’s essays addressing what he terms “the redistribution of the sensible.”) To state the obvious, the above is not some personal opinion of mine, but a professional ideology that is enmeshed with broader, predominant ideas of freedom of choice and expression, and which we all mirror, to varying degrees, often unsuspectingly.
Needless to say, boycottophilia is no automatic departure from indeterminate orthodoxy. Consider Mostafa Heddaya, who is widely referenced for hard-hat boycott positions. Heddaya has very eloquently argued against art as a “diplomatic chip,” and warned against “playing ball with tyrants” in countries where censorship prevails. 11See, for example, Mostafa Heddaya, “When Artspeak Masks Oppression” and his response to Richard Armstrong. When censorship ends, art can speak—and wherever art genuinely speaks, censorship is, ipso facto, upended. At least for the duration of the Tania Bruguera performance.
I am aware that old-fashioned censorship prevails in some places more than others. I do occasionally work in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But I also know that, more often than not, whether in Brooklyn or Tehran, the watering down or abortion of a given project rarely happens in a confrontational fashion. It usually happens over coffee. Technical, financial, administrative, and/or meteorological reasons are evoked with regret and consternation.
As associate curator of the 2005 Sharjah Biennial together with Ken Lum (Persekian was chief curator), I neither considered our show a dungeon room, nor an oasis of free speech. It was eerily representative of the field at large, where critique is anything but ubiquitous and institutionalized, as so many assume. 12There is no room, alas, to go into the intricacies of the “post-critical” debate here. Here and elsewhere, critical matter had to be parleyed and negotiated. For every blazingly oppositional artwork, out there in plain sight, there are some twenty to thirty international artists who accept compromises, happily or begrudgingly, for reasons evoked with regret and consternation and so on.
In point of fact, we do not always need those technical and meteorological reasonings over coffee any more. We have learned to quietly preempt, respect, or outsmart them from the outset. Such is the magic of the corridors of power, where art has long arrived. Whether in the bowels of a Guggenheim, or an independent platform with grassroots credentials, the Galileo scenario of art being threatened by heaving hegemons is self-serving at best. And in a context such as this, the forte of a boycott is not wagging fingers at the Sheikhs. Rather, it lies in recognizing how art should be shaping the discourse as a hegemon in its own right.
Leverage, or the Strange New Voice of the Artist
To be clear, there is little cause for despair, cynicism, or Bartleby. When artists use expectations invested in them against the apparatus that requires their services—whether in Sydney, Jerusalem, Sharjah, or New York—the clout of contemporary art does not impede their agency. As a textbook case of biopolitics, it allows for the leverage to unfold in the first place. Take the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, where you have a museum in need of a collection tout de suite. This has allowed for a marvelous bargaining chip at the artists’ disposal.
By way of historical comparison, consider the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which began collecting only shortly before its opening in 1977, and where the very same bargaining chip materialized. Although everyone knew of the Pinochet methods applied to the Iranian Left, you would be hard pressed to find visual artists with qualms about the monarchy’s museum. 13Dancers, musicians, and choreographers did protest, see Azimi, “Good Intentions,” though to my knowledge the only—rumored—exception in terms of visual artists per se was Lawrence Weiner. The fate of the Left in the 1970s (or its subsequent retreat into the academy) is a leitmotif at many contemporary art symposia, but examples of complicity in this demise are less common. The art remains victim: of censorship, exile, instrumentalization, and so forth.
It’s hard to imagine what the Tehran scenario would amount to today, at a time when positions are circulated at the speed of Like. Even in 2001, Sontag could still accept a prize from Ariel Sharon without too much headache. Few even knew about it. 14Toukan, “We the intellectuals,” op. cit. Today the limelight is ubiquitous, and part of what lends you the aforementioned leverage. The presently ongoing online call for a boycott of the Creative Time exhibition at the Technion is an important test case in this respect. Its success would imply that the above leverage has reached even more astonishing levels yet.
A context such as this adds new salience to the classic dilemma of “art alongside politics” as opposed to “art as politics.” Although it does not exactly resolve the dispute, it certainly weighs in with renewed emphasis on the body and voice of the artist, as opposed to material displayed in publications or shows. To be sure, the content is never eclipsed. It will always hold an agency of its own. And even an ambassadorial mouthpiece will need a convincing body of work to fall back on, somewhere along the line. But the discursive positioning, or the refusal to board the airplane, or to FedEx the work, have gained traction. A traction that is not as immediately tied to the work as was previously the case.
The funny thing about all these examples is that, for all the sound and the fury, they are hardly all that radical. Or, rather, their radicality lies in the realpolitik precisely.
From a contemporary art perspective, the oomph of a boycott is a very particular one. Namely that its exactitude sits uneasily with the constitutive indeterminacy of the field. As curator Matthew Poole puts it rather elegantly, we uphold a culture of “plausible deniability.” Our rhetoric is so sweeping, and our proposals so broad, no one can possibly hold us to them. 15Matthew Poole, introduction to the Anti-Humanist Curating seminar (Whitechapel Gallery, London, 25 November 2010). Take Thompson’s impressive laundry list of correcting injustices around the globe, honoring human rights, a just world, and so on. Or, consider how Hasegawa called for a “novel culture” almost in passing. Compared to clear, simple requests, indeterminate hyperbole allows for quite a bit of leeway.
One may object that boycott initiatives are no less sweeping, especially when they subscribe to a measure of intersectionality. BDS and the Gulf Labor Initiative are alliances between artists and other pressure groups, including, in the case of Gulf Labor, a parallel initiative tackling NYU Abu Dhabi. The resulting cross-references to broader political economy debates have lent them sway. But even here, the point of departure remains the crux of the matter, and that point of departure is simple, concise, and consensual above all else. “Please stop treating construction workers like serfs.” Or: “Please stop building racist detention camps.” BDS, too, relies heavily on a language of UN resolutions, and stops shy of the economic redistribution a more radical (and controversial) approach would imply.
Which is why, for all the intersectionality, the ‘complexity’ argument will always be invoked against a boycott, willy-nilly. Nerds like me, who squirm at the idea of collective action, are recognizable by long lists of complications we passionately insist on. (“Why Abu Dhabi and not the Tate? What about the kids who built your MacBook? Why the low-hanging fruit?”) What we need to remind ourselves of is that insisting on fundamental complexities is the best way to ensure that the momentum will be short-lived, if it ever gets off the ground to begin with. Even the canonical Art Worker’s Coalition (AWC) subsisted for only two years, 1969–1971, before succumbing to the entropy of wildly conflicting agendas.
The NY-based collective W.A.G.E. explicitly invokes lessons learned from AWC, and is a helpful comparison here. 16The author is a W.A.G.E. board member. It is deliberately myopic in scope. (“Artist fees, please.”) Instead of novel cultures or regime change, W.A.G.E. carefully proposes uni-dimensional criteria. At the same time, the agenda does hint at long-term, systemic ambitions. After all, as items on the budget sheet, artist wages could slowly lead to decisive decelerations. To smaller shows and/or less of them. Which may have far-reaching implications in turn. 17See Hans Abbing’s Why Are Artists Poor (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2002) for an extensive discussion on this particular version of less-as-more.
The radicality here resides in a potential domino effect. What if the Gulf Labor thing were to not spread outward, to more far-flung museums, but boomerang right back to the labor conditions in New York? What if the Sydney initiative had consequences beyond sponsorship? The fallout of the boycott has been brutal; Australian government officials may soon retaliate by withholding public funding. But a biennale that scales down, and revisits the standard galacticism of the format, can have considerable impact—discursively, curatorially, politically, even aesthetically speaking.
In other words, a modestly worded point of departure has more explosive and lasting prospects than the plausible deniability described above. It can genuinely result in a slippery slope that may lead in any direction whatsoever. If you really want indeterminacy, it doesn’t get much better than this.
My thanks to Arlen Austin, Negar Azimi, Emily Jacir, Yazan Khalili, Brian Kuan Wood, Walid Raad, Ghalia Saadawi, and Oraib Toukan for their generous input.