I Can’t Work Like This: On the Art of Boycotting
“The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.”
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
I Can’t Work Like This is a reader on boycotts in contemporary art published by Sternberg Press in early 2017. The publication results from a workshop led by the editor, Joanna Warsza, at the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in 2015 where many of the twenty participants now serve as as co-editors. As the curator of public programs for Manifesta 10, Warsza notes that she found herself in a difficult place; she “empathized with the claims of the boycotters, yet [she] didn’t think that quitting was an option. [She] felt that the show must go on, but it should not go on undisturbed.”1 The workshop was later organized in an effort to grapple with the ongoing debacle over whether ‘to continue’, and if so, when and how. The course and the corresponding text address the popularity of the boycott within recent biennials by looking closely at four case studies: 13th Istanbul Biennial in 2013, Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg in 2014, 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014, and 31st Bienal de Sao Paulo in 2014.
The release event for I Can’t Work Like This held at Proqm in Berlin took place on the evening of the 28th of March, only eleven days after the artist Parker Bright stood in protest wearing a t-shirt, sharpie emblazoned with ‘BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE’ in front of a painting by a white woman of Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse, and only a week after Hannah Black published an open letter to the curators and staff of the Whitney Biennale calling for the paintings’ removal and destruction. On August 28th, 1955, Emmett Till was lynched at the age of fourteen after being accused of flirting with a white woman. In an interview with Andrew Goldstein of Artnet regarding the perplexing decision to create such a work in our time, the artist admitted “I always had issues with making this painting, everything about it. And it is still uncertain for me.” When asked if the public reaction to the painting would influence the future of her artistic practice she responded “I’m sure it has to.”
I still have so many questions; like for one, how even can you? But also, seeing as the painting was for some reason not removed from the exhibition as a direct result of the public outcry, what can we learn from the successes and failures within the history of boycotts inside and outside the sphere of contemporary art that might make our campaigns more successful? Or, at least, what can we learn that will embolden us in the future?
With these questions in mind, I eagerly headed over to the release event in Mitte. Despite the fact that the controversy was very much on the lips of the internationalist crowd between puffs of cigarettes before the official discussion began, the goings-on failed to be covered in any meaningful way aside from a cursory mention of how ‘topical’ the discussion was that week. This was troubling, but unfortunately not unexpected. That is, it is not surprising for the space of critical discourse within the arts community in Berlin to fall short of having any relevance to real actions going on in the world, apparently not even when those actions actually impact art world elites.
The event featured brief presentations by Warsza as well as three of the publication’s contributors. Ahmet Öğüt, artist and ‘sociocultural initiator’ opened by discussing the successes of the boycott at the Biennale of Sydney in 2014 and emphasized the collective nature of this boycott, citing the solidarity with simultaneous local struggles as a contributor to the boycott’s success. Tirdad Zolghadr noted that artists are inherently already complicit in the structures of power the boycott seeks to address, and that it would behoove them to learn to ‘stop disidentifying with power’. Julieta Aranda, contributing editor of e-flux, reminded us that as calls for boycotts continue to mount and their sexiness soars, there must still be those of us willing to set roots through practices grounded in building the kind of world we wish to see.
As a post-studio approach to artmaking becomes normalized, artists and cultural workers increasingly experience an implicit pressure to derive a sense of authorship from the actions they perform in daily life. The declaration of an auteur is integral for the artist to position themselves in the art market. How does this requirement impact the effectiveness of the boycott in contemporary art? Can we use the term ‘boycott’ to describe the process of artists refusing to present their work in the context of the biennale, if the arts are produced under conditions of ‘sponsorship’ that is related to, but distinct from that of ‘ownership’?
The first to speak, Öğüt offered a basic timeline and overview of the protests leading up to the 19th Biennale of Sydney, where nine artists planned to withdraw their participation in response to calls from local activists to boycott the biennale due to its relationship with Transfield Services Ltd. On February 4th, 2014, Australian art educator, Matthew Kiem kickstarted the proceedings when he published an open letter to colleagues outlining the chain between the company and the injustices taking place on the Manus Island and Nauru detention centers, ultimately claiming that “profits from mandatory detention fund the Biennale.” Öğüt was clear to point out that the group of artists involved did not refer to their actions as a boycott, but as a conditional withdrawal. “We never used the term boycott, we were also targeted by the boycott call because we were part of the institution.” When certain conditions were met, namely that Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, director of Transfield Holdings, stepped down as chair of the board and the Biennale cut all ties with Transfield, seven artists resumed their participation, including Öğüt.
As he closed, Öğüt emphasized the distinction between sponsorship and ownership as it pertains to the culture industry and cultural workers’ capacity to make waves through collective engagement. “The Sydney Biennale is not owned by the sponsorship, the biennale is not dependent on the sponsors entirely. Ownership here is a cultural heritage thing so it is owned by all Australians but also the international community that contributed to the biennale… If you have contributed to something in the past that puts you in the position, I believe, to say a word about the future of that institution. It is basically a collectively created cultural heritage and we have to take care of it for the long term.” His statement, as well as the small victory of the Sydney Biennale boycott, reflects the way in which artists who choose to act, or not, are always embedded in a cultural apparatus that extends beyond the specific form or content of the works they produce for public display. Cultural production today is embedded in not only a network of institutional support and patronage, but a supply chain that links viewership to the manufacturing and service sectors, whether these relationships are made visible or not.
For many today, ‘boycott’ alludes to the consumer boycotts popularized by the anti-globalization movement of the early 21st century. When we look at the boycott in more historical contexts, we can see that what notably characterizes the tactic at large is the application of social pressure towards concrete demands. The term ‘boycott’ is actually an eponym for the campaign of ostracization inflicted on the land agent and Englishman, Charles Boycott in late 19th century Ireland.
Deep in the Lough Mask of County Mayo, the newly-formed Land League insisted that Boycott temporarily reduce rents by 25 percent when poor harvests made famine likely for his tenant farmers. In a speech to locals, Charles Stewart Parnell of the League encouraged the refusal of any communication with those who did not meet their demands. Thus when Boycott failed to comply and attempted to evict eleven of his tenants, local housewives swiftly caught word and began throwing mud and manure at the carriers until they left with their notices in hand. Soon after, locals stormed the estate, urging Boycott’s workers to leave their positions. Likewise, workers in nearby shops, the blacksmith, the laundress, the postman, and others refused service to Captain Boycott and his family.2
Boycotts have never intended to function along the same material economic basis as the strike. One of the primary ways to distinguish the boycott from the strike is the boycott’s emphasis on embarrassment and the use of social pressure. Often, a boycott is a tactic employed when there is no possibility to strike in the traditional sense, or when a strike would otherwise be ineffective. The boycott makes use of collective power in a kind of performative social campaign, often with media attention playing a crucial role, to call attention to the scorned subject. In the case of Charles Boycott, a strike would have been nullified by the immense access to wealth and capital Boycott elsewhere had access to when compared to that of his farmer tenants.
The boycott against Boycott actually garnered international attention when he wrote to the The London Times detailing his plight and requesting aid. Funds were raised to send fifty volunteer harvesters – and more than 1,000 Royal Policemen to protect them – to bring in what was left of the crops on Boycott’s estate. Over £10,000 was spent to harvest a yield worth about £500 and Boycott returned to Suffolk shortly thereafter. Boycotting quickly became a staple in the toolbox of the tenants movement in Ireland, and later, for political mobilizations at large. Fast forward two centuries later, and it is clear that in the case of the Sydney Biennale, international press attention played a major role in the director’s decision to step down. In both these cases, it is clear that successful boycotts do not happen in a vacuum; they happen when social actors from a number of fields apply pressure in tandem.
Julieta Aranda, contributing editor of e-flux journal, likened the stance of the artistic boycott to that of Bartelby when he utters the enigmatic line ‘I would prefer not to’.3 Reflecting on the #J20 Art Strike, of which she was a participant, she noted that she would prefer “that we keep our spaces open, actually addressing what is going on and proposing alternatives.” She expressed concern that art’s affair with activism challenges the autonomy of the arts. She is simultaneously worried that artists who withdraw their participation are not doing the grunt work of building social movements and that some artists, accustomed to self-promotion as they are, make their careers out of their participation in the boycott.
Remember the popular adage from the leftist Twitterverse, “There is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism”? Well, the same is true for where we get our money, as the labor theory of value would help us understand.. If we actually take this to its logical endpoint, the only ethical thing we can do is abolish work entirely (and reduce our consumption as much as possible), but this is not something we can do alone. This is why I find the critique of political actions within the arts on the grounds that artists ‘benefit’ to be off base. Or as Tirdad Zolghadr put forward during the Q&A in response to the idea that boycotting is a sexy career move: “I encourage you to give it a shot and I think you’d be surprised. You can show me an artist who has made a career off of boycotts and I’ll show you 200 who have made a career out of schmoozing and kissing up, or more actually. Who in this room can honestly say that they are not pursuing a career? I think that if you are pursuing a career out of something that is as (…) as boycotting, I don’t have a problem with it.” We can call folks out for their dirty money – or social capital, as it were – but to start digging around in the arts with these questions, we risk opening up Pandora’s box to all the filthy capital floating around.
There are plenty of artists out there, enough of them to be making a career out of pretty much any kind of act, or its documentation. Does it leave a bad taste in the mouth of those who are not seeking to up the ledger of their social capital for their involvement in the boycott or the strike? Sure, and I don’t blame them. But I don’t think it makes very much sense to judge the efficacy of a political tactic on the basis that there are artists cramming their part in that activity into their portfolio. This is a separate problem. Tirdad continued, “the issue is how to familiarize yourself with power and to stop disidentifying with it in a way that assumes that the art world is the same as it was in 1968. If that is something you manage to pull off by means of boycotts, then more power to you.” This is not to say that we shouldn’t open the jar full of evils, but we have to be prepared that when we do so, we might end up finding that the only way to clean up the arts is for all of us to abandon it as a profession altogether. And wasn’t it Ranciere who reminded us that the category of the artist, as we understand it today, is only a necessary one – and therefore it exists as a distinct role – under the conditions of alienation felt by those working for a living.4 To render the profession unnecessary would be to spread the aesthetic regime across the salt of the earth, would be to change the world. If we were trace our complicity in the structures of power, rather than blowing smoke when offer to speak truth to it (if we do at all), we would at least be left with the sliver of hope that keeps us moving forward.
In an interview with the reader’s editors, Aranda claims that making ethical demands on the arts results in a narrowing of the field and that the imposition of moral imperatives erases the autonomy of the arts. She says that to demand that artists act ethically “amounts to saying that all art should only be about good things and good deeds, about fixing the world, about saving the whales, etcetera. But if we make all our work about these issues, what happens then to transgression, … form, … structure, … technical development, what happens to all the other things that have normally preoccupied artists?”5 Aranda’s point is a logical one, but I’m not so sure who or what the autonomy of the arts is intended to serve in this case. Maybe I’m biased, but I would rather have an art world that is concerned with its ethical implications than one that is preoccupied with structure and form.
Frederick Jameson, in an attempt to articulate the role of aesthetics in late capitalism insists on an aesthetics of cognitive mapping6, a way of actually locating our position within the complex social order we are stuck in, making sense of the neverending data streams and variables of a millenarian era, in order to navigate towards post-capitalism. This is necessary in a time when the impacts of production are illegible in the center, felt in the peripheries, but the source remains abstract. It is precisely contemporary art’s preoccupation with the technical sublime – a term borrowed from political writer Nick Snircek – that prevents contemporary art from offering anything to us as political subjects, prevents it from doing anything but serving elite interests. We need to imagine a better world and put it into action, and to do so we need a way of pinpointing our disposition.
Art has an important role in fostering this utopian imagination, in developing this affect, in helping us imagine something other than being stuck in, as Mark Fisher puts it, this capitalist realism, but it can’t accomplish this if it insists on prioritizing the subjective encounter of the viewer with the work. When I think of Zolghadr’s observation that contemporary artists insist on disidentifying with power, I am reminded that semantic indeterminacy is one of the defining features of contemporary art practices. We cannot do anything to move towards a post-capitalist world if we demand an autonomy that is not actually indicative of the way in which artists are not only in bed with power, but embedded within a network of existing social and economic relations with other workers and other fields. In short, maybe autonomy that Aranda is worried about losing might already be lost (if it ever existed), and is not worth fighting for anyway.
When responding to the question “Does art need ethics?,” Aranda summarized her position the following way: “I always explain it with this sentence: I would not trust a plumber to perform heart surgery. A plumber does plumbing and a heart surgeon does heart surgery. Art is not going to fix the world; artists are going to make art, not solve the migrant crises. They might make you look at the problems of the world, but fixing them is something else.”7 Humorous and disarming at first blush, there are a number of ways that this analogy breaks down. For one, heart surgery is an operation that absolutely requires years of training to perform, but nonetheless I would contend that most individuals are actually capable of obtaining this level of expertise if they do so desire. In the United States, where only one percent of plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters and steamfitters are women, I know some folks in the Midwest actively working to help women and gender non-binary folks receive the education needed for these positions. Although this union job does have its own training requirements, for those without bachelor degrees in the US, plumbing is one of the few middle class professions still available. The point is that there is nothing integral to a profession that should bar anyone else from participation if they will to do so, but mobilization doesn’t work that way anyway, or at least it shouldn’t. No one benefits from limiting participation in social movements to supposed experts.
In much of the movement work I’ve participated in, concerned with prefiguring horizontal modes of action, we value the alternation of roles, if there are roles at all. While the commonly held belief that specialization improves the efficiency of production can be challenged in this practice, the more crucial point is that encouraging a diversification of tasks and responsibilities leaves everyone better equipped to participate in mobilizations as needed and based on their own desire to opt-in. Theoretically, this practice is intended to remove the coercive elements typically associated with ‘work’ and therefore much of our activity today. The intention is to prefigure an alternative to the alienation that the worker commonly experiences from themselves, from other workers, and from their work under capitalism. This alienation depends not only on specialization itself, but principally on the category of the artist holding the reins of culture.
Artists8 are understood as those who are able to make a career of professing and practicing an imaginative art. We would not need this special category if the nature of work, in general, was such that all workers professed themselves imaginatively through their work. There should be no hierarchical impulse with respect to who is able to produce images of the world they seek to inherit. It would be better to abolish the autonomy of the arts altogether than to insist on their encasement within an imaginary vacuum.
Of course, implicit hierarchies are an inherent aspect of our social relations whether we intend for them to surface or not, but it is in the space of negotiating how to accomplish a shared goal together in a meaningful way that the so-called ‘work’ of changing-the-world is done. We’re learning something new. Perhaps we can agree that signing an online petition itself might make you feel good, but it grants you a kind of dangerous complacency in a similar way that buying your third wave coffee does. None of these are compelling substitutes for direct action. But perhaps we can also all agree that we need a diversity of tactics. We can agree that there is no individual mode of resistance that can alone radically alter the existing order, but there is also no individual, no particular role that can take the task on independently and no singular profession responsible for doing so either.
- Warsza, Joanna ed., I Can’t Work Like This: a Reader on Recent Boycotts and Contemporary Art. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017, pg. 11. ↩
- Clark, Samuel, and James Donnelly, Jr. Irish peasants: violence and political unrest, 1780-1914. Madison: Univ Of Wisconsin Press, 1986. ↩
- Melville, Herman. Bartleby, The Scrivener : a Story of Wall-Street, 1853. ↩
- Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. Continuum, 2006. ↩
- Ibid, 67. ↩
- Jameson, Fredric. “Cognitive Mapping” in Nelson, C. & Grossberg, L., ed. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. University of Illinois Press, 1987. ↩
- Ibid, 68. ↩
- “Artist” Merriam-Webster.com. 2017. https://www.merriam-webster.com (13 May 2017) ↩