on curatorial neutrality

by Megan Wright

Zero Tolerance
MoMA PS1, Long Island City
October 26, 2014-April 13, 2015

For The Glory
Mica Sigourney (with Larry Arrington, Sarah Biscarra-Dilley, Xandra Ibarra and Maryam Farnaz Rostami)
CounterPulse, San Francisco
January 30-31, 2015

The body never lies.
- Martha Graham

A choreographer who shall remain nameless said: “The body never lies”. Such a remark is based on that disgusting old modernist myth bogged down in Judeo-Christianity. The body is not the sanctuary of truth, authenticity or uniqueness. It is deeply subjugated to culture, politics and history.
- Jérôme Bel

MoMA PS1’s Zero Tolerance is an exhibition of activist art from the twentieth century onward. Its scope is international, with pieces responding to oppression in places as diverse as Belgrade, Beijing, and Sao Paulo. Despite its range, the exhibit’s themes and techniques consistently question art’s relationship to activism.

Zero Tolerance takes its name from the United States’ criminal sentencing policy of mandatory punishment of infractions. It’s a policy without much evidentiary success, as it overloads courts with minor first-time offenders and discourages community-based policing. The term first came into use in New York in the 1990s under Police Commissioner William Bratton. This exhibition’s timing coincides with Bratton’s re-appointment to that same position, after nearly twenty intervening years, in Los Angeles, Oakland, and elsewhere. To come into the museum with that knowledge raises the question: if we recycle methods of punishment, do we also recycle methods of response?

If the work in Zero Tolerance is any indicator, the answer is yes. Halil Altindere’s   music video Wonderland (2013) thunders on loop in a first-floor gallery. Its subject matter is the demolition of the Sulukele neighborhood of Istanbul. Home to Romani communities since the Byzantine Empire, Sulukele is slowly but forcibly being torn down in the name of urban renewal. Wonderland might be Turkish, but with its swooping overhead shots, shouted lyrics, and police chases, it’s as straight outta Compton as anything Ice Cube or Dr. Dre did in the aftermath of the Los Angeles Riots. It’s not hard to imagine Altindere, born in 1971, picking up their style in his teenage years only to unleash it now.

Quieter methods of protest also circulate. Mircea Cantor’s 2003 work the landscape is changing is film of a staged protest with a dozen marchers holding mirrors aloft in lieu of banners as they walk through the streets of Tirana, Albania. The work wasn’t explicitly political at the time. But in the past year the mirror protest has reappeared. In August 2014, protestors at an Oakland rally for Oscar Grant and Michael Brown held mirrors up to lines of police. In December 2014, protestors in Kiev, Ukraine did the same to commemorate the anniversary of the violent police breakup of a student gathering in Independence Square. In January 2015 protestors in Ferguson potently reworked the method by hoisting a mirrored coffin on their shoulders. The mirror protest is social intervention without slogan.

In a different vein of activist art are those works that document rather than counter oppression. Igor Grubić’s 2008 two-channel video work East Side Story is projected against two adjoining walls. On one wall, documentary footage of gay pride events in Serbia and Croatia in 2001 and 2002 shows neo-Nazis organizing acts of abuse that intensify as passers-by join in. On the other wall is a film shot six years later in the same spaces showing four dancers performing movements and postures from the television footage. They move around one another with a dry efficiency that makes their roles universal, and makes the anger of the actual participants seem toothless in light of the long arc of human bigotry.

Lorraine O’Grady’s joyous Art Is… photo series dominates the front hall of MoMA PS1. An acquaintance told O’Grady that avant-garde art had nothing to do with black people. In response, she took a huge gold frame into the middle of Harlem’s 1983 African-American Day parade and photographed anything that came into the frame. Where East Side Story moves the experience of oppression into the body of the artist, Art Is… moves oppressed bodies into the framework of art.

Rage, disruption, acknowledgement of trauma, reclamation of identity — the range of artists’ motives to make activist work is wide. Other works on view explored the ability of lone artists to present themselves as “moral experts” in crises when other citizens feel they cannot (as Howard Zinn discusses in his Artists in Times of War).  The late Amal Kenawy, crawling through the streets of Cairo to protest economic inequality in her work Silence of the Sheep, is an example of this. Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujicǎ’s exhaustive Videograms of a Revolution, compiled from 125 hours of footage from the 1989 Romanian Revolution, came out of the urge to preserve and document: ars longa, vita brevis.

Whatever the motive, every work pushed me to be more aware of the power structure behind the exhibit. A protest in the streets calls out the oppression that drives it. A gallery does not call out the privilege that drives it. Instead, museums and other art venues strive towards a façade of neutrality. But I’d paid to get in; somebody else had paid for the exhibit to come together; somebody else had paid for the museum to exist. This was a space of privilege.  Museums and theaters have to present themselves as neutral or they’d narrow their appeal. The onus is on audience members and museum-goers to examine the economic, social, political, and cultural factors behind the art they’re seeing — regardless of whether or not the art asks them to do so.

After I considered this, it was refreshing to see Mica Sigourney wreck the façade of curatorial neutrality in his piece For The Glory, performed at San Francisco’s CounterPulse in January 2015. For The Glory was marketed as an evening-length solo about whiteness, racism, colonialism, and appropriation. In the program notes for the work, he named how privilege enables “neutrality”: “This theater was built and someone authored that. This is a loaded space, not a neutral one.”

Sigourney opened the evening with an oblique monologue about his father and grandfather. He wore a suit and tie and adopted a Irish accent for the speech, periodically retreating upstage and repeating phrases until he had the vowels right. At the monologue’s completion he dropped the brogue, climbed up on a chair, and explained the premise of For The Glory: he had been awarded a grant to make a solo work about whiteness. He’d re-granted the money to three queer women of color. He’d given no stipulations regarding how they chose to use the money or what they chose to create (if anything). They did have to accept the money, and they had to meet with him monthly in the lead-up to the show. The performance of For The Glory was the act of re-granting. His explanation of it was its epilogue.

The remainder of the evening was a showcase of the works his grantees had made. Xandra Ibarra and collaborator Sophia Wang performed a writhing duet, bodies rendered embryonic by head-to-toe pantyhose. The knockout Maryam Farnaz Rostami sang a classy and caustic version of David Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging. Sarah Biscarra-Dilley’s installation not the ghost of a chance, settler presented a video patchwork of historical San Francisco, backed by the kind of educational voiceover that dredges up memories of middle school study halls.

Inasmuch as each creator had answered Sigourney’s request to make whatever they wanted, they were successful. But each work felt muffled by its inclusion within the framework of For The Glory. Sigourney had billed the piece as a performance of whiteness. To perform whiteness truthfully is to perform privilege, and specifically the privilege to present as neutral. Neither Sigourney’s own queerness (his drag persona Vivvyanne ForeverMORE is one of the best-known queens in the city) nor his comments deriding the lie of neutrality in both the program and the press could erase my unease that this might be the recapitulation of a power dynamic rather than its subversion.

But Sigourney’s creation of this disquiet was intentional. He made For The Glory’s process of construction and curation transparent in a way that Zero Tolerance had not. He acknowledged the systems that had brought these bodies onto this stage, and in doing so demanded that I acknowledge my role as a paying audience member. The granting committee wasn’t neutral, the theater wasn’t, and neither was I. My own history of whiteness, queerness, and woman-ness loaded every moment of my experience of Sigourney’s work; it loads my writing now. For The Glory was a reminder that there is no degree of technical proficiency or intellectual rigor that can extract a body, a work, or a venue from its cultural, political, and historical context.