Nomadic studios, mobile homesteads, inner-city gentrification, corporate underbellies, queer fashion abstraction and Detroit nostalgiai dominated the Whitney Biennial this year, not that corporate bohemia is lawfully chic any longer. In fact, nobody even went this year because they were too busy standing in line in the rain to see sweaty hipsters aka "Bruces" chugging PBR and throbbing to Tina Turner en masse beside an Art-Star bedazzled mosaic of floor to ceiling artworks. Jerry Saltz was spotted at the door of 159 Bleeker during the Brucennial opening begging a lowly blogger to help him get in. It's "The single most important art exhibition in the history of the world. Ever," says the anonymous troop of MFA-clad free-schoolers comprising the Bruce High Quality Foundation.
Meanwhile, a sly hacker faction of Arts & Labor, a "working group" of Occupy Wall Street, is helping the Whitney get its act together. Through their construction of a fake webpage, the group announced to the art world that the recent actions of the seventy-sixth Biennial's corporate sponsors Sotheby's and Deutsche Bank had led the museum to give back the donated funds and revoke their fiscal partnership: "Regretfully, the Whitney entered into a sponsor agreement with Sotheby's before the auction house locked out forty-three of its unionized art handlers once their contract expired in July 2011. Last year saw record-breaking sales with profits over $100 million for Sotheby's; the pay of the CEO alone doubled to $6 million. Yet Sotheby's has sought to break organized labor by starving their workers into submission—locked out of their jobs and without wages since August, these workers and their families lost their health care benefits at the end of 2011."
The page goes on to say that "The Museum understands the importance of providing working people—including artists who must work second jobs to support their careers—with the livable wages and healthcare for which the Sotheby's art handlers are fighting. Sotheby's actions are a direct attack on the Museum's mission to support and collect the work of living artists."
Coinciding with the prank Arts & Labor published a letter demanding the end of the biennial show altogether. Amongst a general call for the leveling of the playing field and the tearing down of institutions built to maintain the wealth of the 1%, the letter states: The biennial perpetuates the myth that art functions like other professional careers and that selection and participation in the exhibition, for which artists themselves are not compensated, will secure a sustainable vocation. This fallacy encourages many young artists to incur debt from which they will never be free and supports a culture industry and financial and cultural institutions that profit from their labors and financial servitude.
Allan Kaprow once said, "The Hope is that Modern museums will be converted into swimming pools or night clubs" and yet, today it's his work we see monumentalized within their static space. It goes without saying that none of the Arts & Labor group artists were selected to be in the Biennial this year, nor did any of the selected artists deny participation due to political reasons. K8 Hardy, known for her work with W.A.G.E. (Working Artists for a Greater Economy) staged a queer fashion show and, well, Mike Kelley committed suicide. Said the late artist in 2009, who the curators have since dedicated the Biennial to, "I chose to become an artist because I wanted to be a failure. When I was young, if you wanted to really ostracize yourself from society, you became an artist."ii Is suicide the ultimate failure? Is failure the ultimate success?
It's a confusing time to have so much raw passion and so much debt, when it seems like your options are selling out or blacking out. If you can do both before 27 you're like the wet dream of the governing elite. Rest assured, contradiction and hypocrisy have always been the pump and flow of the avant-garde. That said, the Brucennial opening seemed like a better place for dranking and getting it in than looking at art (I happened to miss it because I was busy attempting to persuade another neo-Basquiat to move to the ocean and put a baby in me, having recently watched the late 90's film Basquiat both events appear to be supported more or less directly by Schnabel money). SAME OLD SHIT.
The following night at the Whitney, looking at Latoya Ruby Frasier's photos of Braddock, Pennsylvania's emergency and health care free slums made me feel guilty for even stepping foot in the Whitney, not that I paid admission. It was enough to make me want to scrub off my MFA and stop slumming for laundered blue blood scrill. But let's face it: no artist in their right mind would reject a Biennial invitation and no artist can survive in New York without a healthy dose of megalomania and a warped over-appreciation of sex, money and power.
There must be other options – like that Lisa Frankesque Pony Painting hung in the corner. Or just moving to Detroit where it all goes down. Says Leslie Thomas, former New Yorker and Detroit native, "We had metal detectors in high school long before they had them in Brooklyn. That's why we're not impressed by this whole gangsta rap bullshit. When Eazy E got on stage they shot at him. Niggas was like wait wait wait. That's why we'd rather hear about titties and ass than guns." iii Lucky for Biennial curators and the rest of us, sex and death are classic old wave arsenal. In times past, they have even served as anti-institutional Bertolt Brechtian-style strategy.
Enter blood, chickens, and slaughtered babies. Because we're not the first or the last generation of artists to give a hoot about our slavish position amongst the 99%, we're just one of the first with unfettered high-speed Internet access.
Back in the sixties, on the tail winds of the Civil Rights movement emerged the Art Workers Coalition (A.W.C.) and several off-shoot organizations. A.W.C. used sixties' era tactics like the picket, protest, petition, march and sit-in to pressure the city's museums – especially MOMA – into implementing various reforms. They also advocated for women's and civil rights and the end of the Vietnam War. Out of A.W.C. came a subgroup called Women Artists and Revolution and the Guerilla Art Action Group (G.A.A.G.). A small group of non-fixed members, G.A.A.G. was a reaction to the A.W.C. and the perceived ineffectiveness of its tactics. G.A.A.G. offered their structure as a model anyone could use. Adopting the Happening as a form of ritualistic destruction devoid of the illusionism of theater, G.A.A.G.'s main aim was to solicit a response, of any kind, from the museums.
G.A.A.G.'s 'Bloodbath' staged at MOMA Nov 18, 1969 was their most iconic work. The group tore each other's clothes and squirted tubes of concealed fake blood as they deposited pamphlets calling for the immediate resignation of the Rockefellers from the MOMA board due to their corporate interest in the mass manufacturing of weapons for Vietnam. In a parodic statement about the elevation of Dada into the museums, two members of G.A.A.G. snuck chickens into the grand opening of the Dada exhibition at Moma and made a quick exit after the animals pooped in the center of the show. Explains art historian Caroline Wallace, G.A.A.G.'s work highlighted the museum as a classic form of oppression; not an enlightening or educating experience but merely a diversion from the realities of war and social crisis. iv
In some instances G.A.A.G. and A.W.C. joined forces, one instance being a memorial held in front of Picasso's Guernica at the Met satirizing museum curator's treatment of artists. Eventually, in the wake of Bloodbath, a meeting was called between the museum trustees, curators and various artists of both groups. Recalls G.A.A.G.'s cofounder Jon Hendricks, the meeting resulted in the Artists' Poster Committee action, a joint project of the Art Workers Coalition and the Museum of Modern Art to create awareness around the My Lei massacre in Vietnam. The poster content was inspired by a television interview in which Mike Wallace questions soldiers that had taken part in the massacre. Hendricks recalls the televised dialogue:
"And you killed men?"
"And babies" in Times font with a massacre image from Life Magazine was the resulting poster, which subsequently caused the MOMA board to renege on the deal altogether, refusing to let the MOMA name be included on it. Because the committee had already found means to print 50,000 copies of the poster for free and no one was getting paid anyway, the Artists' Poster Committee went ahead and produced the print sans Moma with a new stamp giving the history of the museum's broken agreement.v
Over forty years later, big players like the Whitney and MOMA are still getting punk'd, but to what effect? Where's the beef? What are we willing to do as artists and how much are we willing to sacrifice to get there? Or have we already sacrificed too much? The New York art world is the kind of joint that will turn your poop to ribbons.
Don't be the butt of the rich man's riddle. The Whitney will always be part of the corporate underbelly to which artists turn to both scorn and beg. In fact, the bloated waistline of the commercial black market is protruding far out into the urban frontier causing Marina Abramovic sightings in Bushwick as of late. Are you content to let the rain tidy her celebrity heel dust because the street sweepers rarely make it out this far? What's my advice as someone that's never participated in a Biennial of any stripe? Ground yourself in the earth and worship the sky. Forgive yourself and everyone else. Push the libido up into the heart. Work for the greater good. Start small so you can go hard when it counts. Give more than you think you have to give.
This article was originally published online on the Native Shout Blog www.nativeshout.com/ March 2012
i. Kate Levant's installation was built of scavenged materials from a burned down inner city Detroit home and Mike Kelley's "Mobile Homestead" is a replica of his childhood home located in the Detroit suburb of Westland.
ii. Mike Kelley, Interview Magazine, Glenn O'Brien, 2009
iii. Lesley Thomas, Confessions of a Super Groupie: An Interview with Leslie Thomas in Bomb the Suburbs, William Upski Wimsatt, 1994
iv. Caroline Wallace "Happenings As Institutional Strategy" in Happenings: Transnation, Transdisciplinary, panel at the CAA Conference 2012, Los Angeles
v. Jon Hendricks interviewed by Christina Linden, Curatorial Fellow at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College March 24, 2010