Working at the crossroads between economic and social inequity and art practice and its institutions, Noah Fischer‘s sculpture, drawing, performance, writing, and organizing practice fluctuate between object making and direct action. The initiating member of Occupy Museums and a member of GULF/Gulf Labor, he is a regular theatrical collaborator with Berlin-based andcompany&Co. Fischer’s collaborative work has been seen both with and without invitation at MoMA, Guggenheim, Brooklyn Museum, ZKM, and Venice, Athens, and Berlin biennales, among other venues. Here, he looks at the year’s top moments of art and activism as part of our annual series, 2016: The Year According to.
2016 you seemed like such a round and balanced number. Why did you take off the gloves, put on iron knuckles, and continually punch us in the gut and face? You ran us over with trucks by the seashore, machine gunned us as we danced, burned us inside of Ghosts Ships, drowned us in crowded boats as we were fleeing your wars. Your courts and hedge funds extracted massive national debts from the poorest of us (Puerto Rico, Argentina, Greece, etc.) and then gave us a little tantalizing glimpse into where this loot goes: your Panama Papers of post-national 1% wealth accumulation, your nationless nation.
2016, something essential seemed to change: your fearful shadow grew into angry bigoted nationalist movements from England to Poland to India as if we were back in the black-and-white photographs of the early 20th century. And finally it happened here: you gave the keys to the largest economic and military powerhouse in the world to a white nationalist billionaire mega-liar and his team of propagandists.
2016, we did not wait around for your benevolent turn. People resisted, organized, marched, convened, rode on spirit horses. We mourned, wrote, created, sang. So, 2016, this is not the most positive report, but I won’t turn away from the ugliness that you showed us, 2016, because the lotus grows out of the mud.
Taking on Museums and Winning
Saying NO to injustice is an affirmation of what we care deeply about, and it’s a YES to our own responsibility in stepping up protecting it–the vigilance that democracy requires of us. This understanding of NO is why if you care about the arts, pushing back on art museums that trample on worker and environmental rights is vital. In 2016 we saw a couple of key wins in this department: The year began with David Koch kicked off the board of the American Museum of Natural History by Natural History Museum’s powerful campaign to organize scientists. Then, after six years of action and organizing, London’s Liberate Tate forced British Petroleum to take its (relatively small amount) of funding out of the Tate’s coffers and to remove its climate change–normalizing logos off the walls. That was in March. Then, near the end of the year after a long campaign by Checkpoint Helsinki, Perpetuum Mobile, and other activists, the Guggenheim Helsinki was voted down by the city council–banned from its McMuseum expansion on taxpayers’ euros. Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong lamented that Helsinki wouldn’t receive the “Bilbao Effect,” but in 2016 workers in Guggenheim Bilbao went on strike and were summarily fired to be replaced by a corporation called “Manpower Group.” You won’t see activist groups mentioned in the linked articles as an effort for the philanthropic elites to save face, but their efforts is where this positive change from the status quo.
Denormalizing NYC Streets
In 2016 we were glued to the OLED screens even as we walked down the street and through traffic. One problem (besides running into people and things) is that content in this space is programmed, and post-election we can finally see the dangers of our algorithmic bubbles. That is why a hardcore pair of anarchist NYC street performers Uniska Wahala Kano and Kalan Sherrard are doing essential work. These performances in subways, streets, while being arrested, which also extend to unlikable Facebook posts, are a self-sabotaging challenge to maintain the state of poetically breaking through the violence-masking reasonableness of our times and connect to the electric charge of the NYC streets. “LIKE TODay the best DAYYYY OF MYYY LIFE OR WHAT>?!?!??!?! I FINALLY FOUND A HOME AND IM GONNNNNA STICK TOOO IT!!” They invoke the spirit of conflict which is at the heart of democracy. As Saul Alinsky said, “If you were going to express democracy in a musical score, your major theme would be the harmony of dissonance. All change means movement, movement means friction, and friction means heat. You’ll find consensus only in a totalitarian state, Communist or fascist.”
Undeniable Accelerationism: 9th Berlin Biennale
You’ve got to respect an art institution that can make strong statements in this day and age. This is hard to do in the US where philanthropic funding dictates a closer relationship to markets, and large-scale exhibitions therefore usually resemble art fairs. But its happened at recent editions of the Berlin Biennale: the 2011 chaotically politicized edition (with Occupy Museums as participant) that people still have a hard time processing, and this year, The Present in Drag, the 2016 Biennial curated by cyber-fashion magazine crew DIS, which did something few exhibitions of its kind do: conjure a specific cultural aesthetic. In this case: Accelerationism. My feeling was that most of the artists were as much Kool-Aid drinkers as critics of the slick internet utopianism on display. However the cumulative effect was impressive. Work like Simon Denny’s blockchain currency booths installed at the liberal European School of Management (former GDR Staatsratsgebäude building), Cécile B. Evans cyber evangelist video What the Heart Wants and DIS’s fashion store created the sense of a clear mirror held to our media-tech-fashion-self obsessed world—a perfect echo of the Snapchat unreality that my freshman art students live inside of.
Decolonize this Place + Holding Space
What began as a Palestinian-solidarity direct action against This Place at the Brooklyn Museum ended in the one of the most robust political organizing platforms that the art world has seen. My GULF comrades Amin Husain, Nitasha Dhillon, Yates McKee, and Andrew Ross of MTL collective have developed an uncompromising critique of colonial and racist threads woven into the artwork and art institutions from the Columbus’s “founding of America” to the present moment. By tying the art world from institutions to works on the wall into the normalization process of Palestinian occupation, gentrification, and police violence they challenged a sacred cow at the center of the present definition of contemporary art, proposing to Strike Art and highlighting direct action organizing as a vital art form. Organize they did. For three months, a downtown Manhattan space became a POC-centered revolutionary space where collective actions were hatched, innumerable discussions from Standing Rock to post Trump organizing took place, and a community formed.
RIP Juan Gabriel: Muse of the Border
As if to underline the fact that a more innocent and musical time has passed and silent winter is upon us, many of our most beloved musical artists left us this year–those whose voices to us are equal to friends, family or lovers. Prince and Bowie and Sharon Jones (who brought so much magic to the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn) are gone. But one musician who is talked about less around here but looms just as large is the Mexican singer Juan Gabriel. To those from the US/Mexican border (like my partner), Juan Gabriel, who is from the now drug-gang overrun border city of Ciudad de Juarez, is a god. The king of sass and Mexican soul and romance, he was a free person among a macho culture who, when asked directly about his sexuality, laughed and questioned why he was so interested. Then he gave a simple answer: “They say that what you can see you don’t ask, son.” To understand the power of his performance, watch this video.
Spirit Horses Push Back Police Line!
It was months into the Dakota Access Pipeline protest movement but weeks before police would unleash biting dogs on protesters bringing the movement mainstream coverage. A video came across my feed of Lakota riding “spirit horses” around in circles, whooping menacingly and driving back a police line. It was a fierce protest, a display of physical power and tradition, but I think most of the power was in the ritual of being such a free and energetic force in relation to the immobile line of cops representing the government and oil and gas companies and banks that financed them. Rituals are important. In Berlin every May Day, protesters hit the streets, throw rocks, and drive the cops back in a display of potential revolution, but in the US the philosophy of those that are sanctioned by the state to kill is never show weakness. The Spirit Horse dance revealed the cowardice hiding behind power, and so it’s no surprise that the government eventually backed down as the movement was able to sustain itself into the cold season.
Agitprop!—From Curating to Organizing
It was brave of the curators in the Sackler Center of the Brooklyn Museum to relinquish so much control in curating an exhibition about activist art. They set up a temporally unfolding concept in three “waves” letting each group of political artists pick the successive one. What they got in the end was something more than the representation of activism. An organizing process was sparked to life when the museum hosted a Developer Summit a month before Agitprop! was set to open: a particularly poor choice as the museum sits in the middle of one of New York’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and tries to cater to the community.
To make a long story short, artists in the show ended up working together with community groups at the core of the displacement struggle such as Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP) and Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network (BAN) to reorient the exhibition toward the most blatant reality around it by organizing a People’s Monument to Displacement and an explicitly anti-displacement summit at the museum. It’s to the museum’s credit that they followed through with this process; let’s hope they never again open their doors to the power brokers of gentrification.
Report from a Art Nazi Bunker
All through 2016 Americans were shocked about Trump, but around the world people are aware that Fascist seeds can insert themselves into democracies and quickly fester. The Poles know this well, and the contemporary museum (MWW) in Wroclaw is constructed around the need to remain vigilant—a fact it cannot forget being housed in an indestructible sea of concrete, a World War II Nazi bunker! The museum has focused on telling the story of Communist-era conceptual art, and the in-house sociologist (Bartek Lis) hosts progressive conversations on topics like queer identity and “White Power and Black Memory”—topics at the edges of what is possible to openly discuss in Polish society….or perhaps possible a few months ago. Now that Poland has taken a decisive turn toward the right with its Law and Justice Party foreshadowing Brexit and Trump, progressive museums are under threat, a fact which was clear to a group of us, including Maureen Connor and Artur Zmijewski, while conducting a deep-tissue institutional project that consisted of interviewing the entire staff about their work in relation to the political changes. During the project the progressive director of the museum, Dorota Monkiewicz, was removed from her position, and we now hear that Polish curators are being fired for too much Jewish content. Good things like art bring with them the necessity to remain vigilant because history repeats itself.
RIP Arnold Mesches
A very special artist passed this year. Arnold Mesches came from a time, way back in the day, when “artists took it for granted that their medium was a form of public address and a vessel for public passions.” He worked in Hollywood before being blacklisted under McCarthyism and continued to create illustrations for leftist political journals while being (admittedly in a way that now seems so low tech it’s almost sweet) tracked by the FBI and informed on by friends and lovers while always painting. Later, Mesches made a body of paintings using his 800-page FBI file as subject matter, after he finally got hold of them through Freedom of Information Act. I was lucky to see this work in one of his last shows in Brooklyn, and to meet him at about age 91. He immediately sat me down and photographed me and my partner (and everyone else he met) for his next series of paintings. “The nerve-racking truth, Mesches seems to be saying, is that we are in a bad way and things are bound to get worse,” Robert Storr wrote ten years ago. “He is able to say it in the grinning irony of an old man who has come to terms with the knowledge that no matter what comes next for the rest of us his own fate is soon to be sealed.” Mesches was wise: he spoke through his art all his long life and died the day before Trump was elected.
Total Displacement Vision (with art at the center)
About 85 percent of conversations I had in New York this year (actually, everywhere I went) consisted of shell-shocked litanies about the class warfare unfolding in broad daylight. 2016 was the year that gentrification cranked up to such raging speeds that if you lived in a major US city, it was the landscape: the closing of family-owned stores and opening of well-leveraged ones and upscale ones on street level; the well-heeled investment groups from Connecticut or anywhere in the world touring neighborhoods deep in Brooklyn to scope out bundled portfolio opportunities; the daily looks in the faces of communities of color being invaded platoon by platoon; the luxury towers and cranes soaring up in the sky letting you know who owns the city; and, looking in the mirror, one’s own complicated place in it. Even before the Soho Effect and the Creative Class Effect, artists had a recognized role as “pioneers,” priming lower-income communities for mass eviction. In 2016 we saw people rising up. Betty Yu and the Chinatown Art Brigade organized tenants against eviction. The Latino community of Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights targeted galleries with names like MARS (Museum as Retail Space), refusing to give them a pass—as in this video, which may be hard for some who are conflict-averse to watch: this is what it looks like when tensions that exist all the time are expressed and disempowered voices speak—“No-one is an innocent actor in the fine art of gentrification.”