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Kritica Politycza: Art needs a bailout. Noah Fischer in conversation with Jakub Majmurek
interviews

Polish Version: http://www.krytykapolityczna.pl/artykuly/kultura/20130615/fischer-sztuka-potrzebuje-bailoutu

JM: You were one of the founders of Occupy Museums Movement, which in autumn 2011 started it’s activity by occupying flag museums of NYC – like Museum of Modern Art, or Natural History Museum. What had been happening with the movement since then? In the spring 2012 you were participating in Berlin Biennale curated by Artur Żmijewski, wasn’t you? Artur asked you to join indignados activists occupying groundfloor of Berlin’s Kunstwerke. What do you think about that experience?

NF:

The Berlin Biennale was a complex experience because it required us to be entangled in the institution – this was an experience we didn’t have in our previous actions. In 2011 we marched straight from Zuccotti Park to the front of the museums. We were occupying tchem as „outsiders”,  in solidarity with activists,  unions, artists, many groups- the energy of the park was our base.  We were not invited but asked people working in that museums up to the directors to join our assemblies, but they never came. In Berlin it was different: We were collaborating with a curator, who asked us to come and paid for our journey. It was confusing, „muddy” but I think it was a necessary step for what our group is trying to achieve, which is finding a political possibilities in a time of political impossiblities. In the Biennale we broke down the simple opposition of being outside/inside the institution.

JM:

Were you not afraid, that entering the institution can lead to a pacification of a movement? A lot of Polish art critics writing about Biennale were pointing out, that an activist were contained in the space of a Biennale, like the animals in a zoo.

 

NF:

I think that’s a very limited thinking. Because it implies that there’s something like a pure space outside institutions – and I don’t think that there’s anything like that. Not anymore. For example, The same financial market is present both outside and inside.  So I think we need to be flexible and also not to fetishize poltical purity but rather take an experimental approach. We can’t forget that there’s no institution, which couldn’t be hacked. In every institution we can find a possible allies for our cause because institutions are made of people with different and malleable ideas. We’re artists making politics and we can see institutional framework as a medium. With every institution, we’d like to ask the question: where’s the leverage?

JM:

Did you find a leverage during the Biennale?

 

NF:

I think we did. Or at least we found some interesting possibilities. One was simply using resources of the Biennale, following Artur’s idea, to use it as a hub for activist all over the world to assemble and plan in person. So we made our own network of contacts with different activists at BB7 We did plan some actions with M15 and we used Berlin as an action lab.  For example we designed an „animal” action at Deutsche Bank which is a common foe in Span and the US where it is connected to the housing crisis. The other one was that we realized that we had to „horizontalize” the institution in order to be there in the right way.  This meant focusing on the community in the KW and trying to completely share power with everyone there and see what was possible from this standpoint. Neither of these two experiments has yet been conclusive. It is still to be seen, how the network we built during Biennale, will actually work in the future. Now, I’m working on a project in Europe together with Artur Żmijewski, we’ll try to hack other institutions.

JM:

In the interview for Biennale reader you’ve said, that a lot of people involved in Occupy Museums are working in art institutions. Now, after almost two years, could you say, that the activity in the movement break, or help your careers?

 

NF:

I can speak about myself. It’s not clear whether it break my career or not. My concept of what a career as an artist looks like has also changed a lot. During Occupy Wall Street, I decided to leave the commercial art world which meant quitting my gallery.  I’m not connected with any institution now, I don’t make any exhibitions in New York actually. I am still working in my studio, but very quietly these days.   I am now working mainly in the self-made network we managed to assemble since autumn 2011. That network generates of course some symbolic capital- more in Europe than the US actually, because the market is more dominant in New York. But I hope that we can invest this cultural capital in the growth of a network and the mobilization of many people against economic injustices.  

 

JM:

Were you able to enter any institution in the US recently in the similar way, you hacked the Biennale?

 

NF:

Yes – there was one--Momenta Art Gallery in Brooklyn, NYC. Its a very good non-profit space which has been around a long time.  They basically invited us (Occupy Musseums)  to do whatever we want with their space. So we opened the space as a common resource for the Occupy movement, for different groups and artists. We organize different discussions there. One of them was focused on philanthropy. In the US we have a different system than in Europe, we have no art institutions supported by the government by more than 10-15%. Even the institutions that have a public mission are supported by private donations and grants, so philanthropy is the most important topic for art. Institutions and always getting more important. In the reaction to that discussion one of Momenta’s board members actually step down. Which shows how dangerous topic it is to discuss about, it shows that there is probably a lot of self-censorship going on in the arts because people are scared of their funders. 

JM:

Were you ever trying to convince American authorities to adapt a more European approach towards financing art?

 

NF:

No. It wouldn’t work.  We are just too far away from the reality where the government supports culture in the US, and we are still walking the wrong direction.  In the US, you can shoot down sucha n argument immediately by calling someone a “socialist”--- it’s still a big insult in the US. There is not much language for speaking about collectivity- and art. And culture is seen as the ultimate space for individuality.  So for now, we are working toward  autonomous activity of the social movements and also for small models which we can try out, not on advocating changes in the funding structure of the government. Maybe in the distant future state-supported art would be possible in the US, but not now, I think.

JM:

What else, besides Momenta, are you doing now?

 

NF:

We’re beginning work with a group of Native Americans. We’ll try to hack Indian Museum in NYC and Washington, D.C. It’s an extremely interesting and important topic which takes us back to the foundation of museums. In the US we have discussed the issue of slavery, but the problem of the primal genocide of Native Americans is still to be discussed. They were the very first victims of American greed, the relationships with them shaped American attitude towards the other ethnic groups, land and war.

Museums of Native Americans also point to another interesting problem. Most of the artifacts exhibited there were stolen from their rightful owners. Actually most of the greatest museums in the world possessed their treasures due to an act of theft, very often accompanied with the violence. Our common action with Native Americans is aimed at emphasizing this fact and building a foundation to completely rethink cultural institutions.

JM:

So, summing it up, after autumn 2011, did you entirely give up occupying spaces like MoMa?

 

NF:

We;ll, of course we might always do it again,  but we did move to the next stage which is looking more deeply into contexts, longer term collaborations, and setting up models. Every social movement has to develop, come from one stage, to another. We’re changing very rapidly. In 2011 we had  many people dedicated to constant street actions almost every day and we also had a kind of access to national and international media we don’t have today- this was a lot of power and allowed things to develop quickly.  But meaningful change is a long term project and its necessary to search for a different form of action, to focus on less spectacular projects and go deeper.

JM:

The similar thing seems to happen with OWS movement. After the protesters had been evicted from Zuccotti Park, the movement a kind of disappeared from public attention.

 

NF:

Well, it went underground (laughter). OWS also went de-centralized and switched to less spectacular projects. The most important of tchem currently  is Occupy Sandy, which is a direct respond to Hurricane Sandy. It tries to create a new model of mutual aid, able to address environmental disasters like that. And it is actually working very well. There’s a program addressing a problems of debt

[JM1]

 , called „Strike Debt” They are concerned about the large amount of personal debt Americans possess which is one reason s omany peoople lost their houses in the 2008 crisis. They are figuring out how to organize debt strikes and also clevel economic actions for people to buy off cheap debt and fogive i.  Then there are lots of Occupy environmental groups working to stop the XL pipeline from coming to New York.  There are different art groups organzing and creating actins for the media.

Although each of the Occup groups faces a steep climb to do their work, I think now is a very good time for activism because the market optimism of the growth economy seems to have stalled. Now that the economy is really in a bad shape, people can see, that we need a new model. Now we have to fight against a growing police state and the environment of fear and technological control, but people are waking up all over the world, and this is a great chance.

JM:

In 2011 you were criticizing the contemporary model of communication between the art world and general public, organized around big, rich galleries and the people who run them. What kind of model of communication between artist and it’s public you’d like to build?

 

NF:

We need much less hierearchy, closer communication, and more human respect. It’s necessary to find a language for culture which is less tied to money, less tied to class. Currently, art Is more and more associated to art Fairs like Art Base lor to auctions which are special markets for the ultra-rich.  Lots of money laundering goes on there, also lots of top tier social climbing--why should most people care? They don’t, or they feel left out.   Only a shared language and effectively shared institutions can make art really powerful and socially important. But there is a counterforce which is stopping this from happening.  I think that the greatest problem in the contemporary art system is speculation. Art is treated as an asset, which can be put into speculative game on the market. It works with art in the same way as it does with derivatives, or gold. And this is one piece in the puzzle of global capital. It’s a very bad situation for the social relevance of art.

JM:

What does this exactly mean for the artists?

 

NF:

That some of them are making other people very rich, which makes them quite financially successful. And the artists, who are not making anything for the rich people, are practically starving- or their labor is not valued. This is the first thing we should address: art shouldn’t be an unregulated speculation asset. Another  important mechanism here—especially in the US-- is pesonal debt. Many of the artists are heavily indebted. The people who collect art are kind of bailing out some of the artists from their debts but of course, only a tiny fraction.  But since most are in debt, they have no choice but to try to beomce that small fraction and that means nasty competition and de-politicization of artists. We need an alternative model to address artist’s debts, so that more artists could serve a social functions.  We need a kind of artist union- some network of leverage.  We need to rethink the art market.

JM:

But how could we build the alternative model of art circulation? How could it look like?

 

NF:

We live in the information age, which makes it very easy for things, images and things to circulate- at least as information. And its easy for people to connect together in horizontal networks. This is potentially threatening to the hierarchical functioning of institutions. I believe we actually can build an alternative model which adds a lot of transparency which is missing now.  Unfortunately all these tools aren’t good or  neutral, they can easily be used also for opposite goals: For more inequality, greater concentration of power, information and other resources in the hands of the few and for converting everything into statistics which can easily be manipulated.  This is happening now in the arts where some projects are trying to convert the whole Art World into a rating system for the market. But we can do a lot with networking tools and we must try. for example I witnessed a success of  an action of Strike Debt, where people used the internet to bail out  medical debts of other people.  The key is to encourage collectivity- that our fate is bound up together instead of everyone being in economic competition.  I’m now working on a model which connects art circulation to personal debt so that selling art only goes to pay off debts. I’d like to see if the artist and public would be willing to share in their struggle with debt so that spending money on art becomes a way to suport culture from the roots rather than making the wealthiest wealthier.  Maybe if people have access to more information and a good network and exchange system, they will prefer such a market and maybe it can act as a creative impulse for the artists.

 

06/16/2013