Necessary Force: Art in the Police State

At the opening for Necessary Force: Art in the Police State at the University of New Mexico Art Museum, an older woman interrupted the murmur of sociable art conversations by approaching a microphone stand fashioned into a police baton. The woman grabbed the microphone (which was Mel Chin’s 1993 piece, Night Rap) and proceeded to inform all assembled about her son’s abuse at the hands of the police. Given that her approach to the microphone was so sudden, it was hard to be sure who she was exactly, but I believe she was the mother (or other close relation) of Victor Villapando. Victor was shot by Espanola, NM police back in June 2014 and the confrontation between Victor and the police is represented in carved and painted wood in the piece Love and Respect, Victor Villapando, El Ballador by Nicholas Herrera.

She might have just as well been talking about Charlene Teters’ It Was Only an Indian, which documents the scene of the 1973 death of UNM student Larry Casuse who was shot down in a gun battle with police. Casuse had kidnapped Emmet Garcia, the recently elected mayor of Gallup. Casuse was protesting Garcia’s ownership of a deadly saloon operating near the Navajo Nation in Gallup and Garcia’s recent appointment to the Board of Regents for the University of New Mexico. Bodies of dead or murdered drinkers had been regularly found outside the bar for years as Garcia profited off of the misery his establishment inflicted on the Gallup community. The police shooting of Casuse ultimately mobilized the city against the mayor. Both of these pieces were almost directly in front of this woman and just beyond OtaBenga Jones and Associates’ overturned police cruiser installed as, We Did It For Love. The overturned car with its “Plantation Police” logos and audio related to the various riots stemming from police violence was planted in the middle of the museum floor and added a certain revolutionary energy to the woman’s already emotional speech.  

The audience responded with a gradient of reactions ranging from muted horror (as they realized that someone who was not an “authority” was speaking), to earnest attention and onto gleeful support. Chin’s microphone/baton served its purpose at the most appropriate time, and pointed to one of the key components of the curatorial mission of this show: outreach and education. Artist talks abound, participatory workshops for all ages ensure that there is constant traffic through this show by school children, college administrators, and the ever curious public. If you live in Albuquerque and attended some of these events you might have found yourself surprised to find a great many Santa Fe-ans made the trek – a welcome reversal.

A photo posted by Nani Chacon (@nanibah) on

Even with all of this fanfare, in the days after the opening, I recall walking to my office through the College of Fine Arts building (which houses the museum) and seeing Kym Pinder, one of the show’s curators, standing in a circle with a few civilians and a couple of UNM police officers. Normally, I might not have thought twice about that assemblage, as Kym is also the Dean of the College of Fine Arts, but my reaction highlighted for me the fact that there was a mild undercurrent of unease throughout the College of Fine Arts that began two weeks before the show. People started to notice a giant panel with big bold letters spelling out “CIVIL. WAR.” This work is a collaboration by internationally celebrated Albuquerque artist, Nani Chacon and New York artist Jacques Fragua (both from the indigenous artists group, Honor the Treaties), and it hangs over the entrance to the museum. In the text that accompanies the show handed to everyone as they enter, Chacon and Fragua emphasize that the work is titled with two periods ‘CIVIL. WAR.’ to encourage a meditation on the words both independent of one another and together as a phrase. Whether it was intentional or not, the 9/11 opening of the show was laying down a sort of gauntlet for a community that continues to seem at war with its police department. Civil. War. clarifies that challenge. “By adding periods at the end of each word we are alluding to the idea of a Civil…. War. We are also encouraging the idea of nonviolent protest, which is supported by the aims of the Honor the Treaties collective.” Where can we find civility in this debate where lives hang in the balance?

Necessary Force was brought to the UNM Museum by Museum Director Kym Pinder and co-curator Karen Fiss from California College of the Arts. In her simultaneous role as Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Pinder possesses academic tenure at UNM as an art historian. Prior to Dean Pinder’s temporary additional appointment as Museum Director, the Museum Director position was always a non-tenured staff position. In Albuquerque specifically, public institutions are a primary way for the majority of the population to experience art. Administrators at these institutions share the distinction of being non-tenured, which also makes them easy targets for political winds. Kym Pinder makes no secret of the fact that a show like this would be impossible without the guarantees of academic freedom provided to a tenured faculty member.  

It is hard to view this show independently from the many ways in which it worked to head off various forms of criticism. The unveiling of the show was as much a political act as the existence of the show serves as a political statement. The UNM web site posted two short videos on September 10th (a day before the 9/11 opening of the show) one prominently featuring the Provost speaking about the importance of the show as an example of academic freedom and another featuring Kym Pinder offering explanations of various controversial aspects of the show. One might see this caution as a form of weakness or compromise, but one might also see it as an ultimately successful attempt to maintain civility as we march forward. I have been told that the Provost and the President have visited the show many times, and are not just tolerant of the show, but pleased with the result.

The UNM community were perhaps all wondering early on how deep the conservative politics of our Board of Regents (appointed by very conservative and business friendly Republican Governor Susana Martinez) would go, and whether there would be push-back or censorship of the show. This was a natural concern in a climate where the city’s Albuquerque Police Department is in a showdown with the Department of Justice over mandated reforms after a year long investigation found “APD officers too frequently use deadly force….” against people who are a minimal threat, are mentally ill, or who are passively resisting. In conversations with curator Kym Pinder it became clear that one of the questions she most frequently faced in response to the title of this show was “Do you really think we live in a police state?”.

According to a 2012 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute, New Mexico has the widest gap between rich and poor in the nation. The “economic recovery” very clearly is funneled upward here, and those at the top who are never the target of police are, of course, the first to be up in arms about any critical voice toward those who “serve and protect.” As money flows upward, and the middle class shrinks, many formerly middle class individuals and families, who may have once considered themselves above police scrutiny, are finding themselves slowly and gradually placed more squarely in the sights of the surveillance state…the police state. When discussing this point, Kym points to airport security after 9/11. We just take it for granted that we need this level of “security.” The airport is a quick and easy reference point of an area where even the relatively privileged are inconvenienced by a police presence. Only recently have we seen that for $85 and a brief interview with a TSA representative, you might be approved for “TSA pre ✓” that allow a privileged few to bypass large portions of airport security. Do we ever ask who benefits from increased police presence? It’s no coincidence that race politics necessarily enter into this conversation. It makes sense then that the show starts with iconic civil rights era protest photos and references to Larry Casuse’s militant Native American protest from the 70s in New Mexico, and extends to present day concerns about border patrols, and community policing from L.A. to Ferguson to Baltimore to Albuquerque.  The police presence that marginalized communities have experienced since the 60’s has not ended. It has expanded its reach.

The show seems to use the extensive museum photo archive as a starting point to offer a meditation on the historical persistence of the problem of law enforcement violence and to help us understand how we might define or understand a “police state.” Charles Moore’s photography documents fire hoses being turned on protestors from 1963, as artist/provocateur Dread Scott’s video documents his attempts to withstand the pressures of a fire hose in his 2014 performance, On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide. Hank Willis Thomas’ Amelia Falling 2014 forces us to see ourselves reflected in, and ultimately implicated in, an iconic photo by Spider Martin of civil rights hero Amelia Boynton Robinson, being carried, unconscious after being tear gassed and beaten. Willis masks out the background of the photo to reveal the viewer in a mirrored glass surface behind the photo. Willis’ ornately framed mirror is flanked on either side by Danny Lyon’s photos, Taylor Washington yells as he gets arrested, Atlanta, Georgia and Women are held in Leesburg Stockade after being arrested for demonstrating in Americus, GA. They have no beds or sanitary facilities, both from 1963. There is a line that is consistently drawn between artist’s views and responses to police from the 60s and 70s and artists responses to police in the present day. It would be easy to dismiss Larry Clark’s Police Informer images from 1971 as simply a relic from another time, but we start to quickly put pieces together in other parts of the show that reveal how the only change from the use of human informers in 1971 is that we are now informed upon by our computers and phones, gps and financial data. The “police state” monitors us through our data, and manages crime through mass incarceration not any notion of rehabilitation.

A collection of data visualizations occupies a large back alcove with a table of useful texts, ranging from the self-published zine, to mass produced paperbacks which surrounded by the three walls. The walls are covered with various visualizations including images of a 3D model of a printable firearm known as “The Liberator” that is distorted into abstraction by gun death statistics, with each coordinate point in the model being matched to a country, and each point’s position distorted by the handgun homicide rates of that country. This data filter is applied by artist Jeremy Mende. The resulting abstractions offer a moment to meditate on the various ways that guns proliferate in our society. I imagine when looking at these images: If handgun deaths internationally were eliminated would there be no change in any of the points in this model? Would the visualizations reveal an unaltered fully functional and printable gun to foul a world devoid of gun violence?

Current events add another twist, as Albuquerque Police Officer Daniel Webster was shot in late October by a career criminal who had already served 11 years for a murder and who was recently released after being arrested on charges of illegally carrying a firearm because of a lack of evidence. Oddly, in Albuquerque, the news media decries the bail system and lax sentencing in the court system, with no mention of our national gun control laws that make it so easy for a convicted felon to be in possession of a firearm used to shoot a police officer, even after he was very recently arrested for illegal possession of that same firearm. While I do not think the killer of Officer Daniel Webster printed out a “Liberator” to commit his crimes, I hardly think it matters. The fact that an internet downloadable firearm called “the Liberator” even exists seems irony enough in this situation.  

Josh Begley offers two pieces in the show Prison Map which offers a digitally projected aerial view of our country’s 4916 prisons, and Profiling.Is (Locations of Concern and Information of Note) which presents documents of various sorts generated from an investigation of the New York Police Department’s Demographics Unit that extensively investigated primarily Muslim-owned or affiliated businesses, and “never generated a lead.” These two installations show the extent to which law enforcement since 9/11 has invested resources to incarcerate profiled individuals, and the expense and expanse of the prison system that benefits from this “proactive” approach to policing. Another form of “proactive policing” is documented in Laura Kurgan and Eric Cadora’s Million Dollar Blocks. A poster reveals “It cost 17 Million Dollars to imprison 109 people from these 17 blocks in 2003.” Quite simply in Brownsville, Brooklyn, “prisons are becoming the predominant governing institution in the neighborhood.” Do we still wonder if it is appropriate to call the system we live in a “police state”?

In two separate installations, Max King Cap and Nafis White offer a different more visceral take on data visualization. Cap’s We Own the Night documents the relative landing points, through a floor drawing, of the 41 bullets shot by four New York police officers that ultimately killed Amadou Diallo in 1999 when he reached for his wallet. Nafis White’s Phantom Negro Weapons, apparently inspired a 7th grader visiting the museum to quickly announce that the work was clearly “about Trayvon Martin” because of a fairly standard commercial image of a pack of Skittles is the first from the top of the gridded installation. The 7th grader was right, Amadou Diallo’s wallet is also in the grid, revealing the various objects that black victims of police shootings were holding when police reported they saw a weapon or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, when a shooter felt threatened. Trayvon Martin’s Skittles were number 1 of 24, plenty of incidents to consider as we are confronted by the tendency for law enforcement to morph so many commonplace items into weapons capable of deadly force.

Lest this show seem like didactic intellectualism or pure propaganda to the unsympathetic, we are ultimately confronted with one of the celebrated sound suits of artist Nick Cave. If you at first wondered about the inclusion of this work in a show about police violence, you could certainly be forgiven. The work has been promoted in a number of ways relating to the overlapping of art, design and fashion, since the first one in 1992, often with little mention of the social and political dimensions of the project. In his talk at UNM Nick Cave offered some insight into those specific often ignored inspirations. The sound suits originated in 1992 as Cave’s response to the verdict and subsequent riots in the case of the Los Angeles Police Department’s beating of Rodney King. The initial suit constructed of various sized twigs was a suit for protesting; it made sound, and it hid the wearers race, gender and identity, thus forcing an unprejudiced evaluation of the wearer’s actions. This twig suit is presented as a photograph of the artist wearing the suit for Necessary Force, while a more ornate suit adorned with beads and sequins is installed out on the floor of the museum. Cave’s work offers a meditative and purely aesthetic moment in a sea of information, but even that moment comes with baggage. The photograph of Cave in the “twig suit” is key to his inclusion in the show. It is no mistake that we see its creation was so clearly inspired by what many consider to be the prototypical act of police violence for the post consumer video world.

FBI director James Comey recently suggested that citizens needed to take fewer videos, because fear of cameras was prohibiting police from doing their jobs. It seems to me he has a point – the problem, however, is that the police have always seen their job this way. Albuquerque had riots in the wake of Ferguson and our own scandals over the shooting of a schizophrenic homeless man named James Boyd that lead to the current ongoing investigation and supervision of the APD by the Department of Justice. Kym and I discussed whether we were seeing an increase in violence or an empowerment of communities as smartphones have become more ubiquitous and are now used to document the incidents that black and brown communities, in particular, previously had to simply witness. Where witnessing these incidents serves to cement police power in these neighborhoods, with cameras in play these events also provide evidence of inequality to stunned and/or disbelieving communities nationwide.  

The recent death of Officer Daniel Webster, the drive for justice after a road rage shooting of a 4 year old girl by a serial violent offender, the lingering unease at the death of James Boyd, the irrefutable statistics about APD’s excessive use of deadly force, and the anti-union hostility toward police from a deeply Republican city and state government combine for some deeply conflicted feelings here. Necessary Force offers space for consideration of facts, and necessary dialogue in the face of a system of government and enforcement that persists and grows even as it sometimes seems to be destroying itself. Under the auspices of Art, this discussion can be undertaken with some nuance that may be briefly breaking down the political binary that seems to stunt political discussion in our political media.   

Tomorrow, Aaron Gach of the Center for Tactical Magic will be in conversation with commercial curator Nancy Zastudil and Necessary Force co-curator Karen Fiss for an event titled True Tales from the Tactical Magic Trenches: How To Make Art in a Police State. Other instructive possibilities continue at the heart of the exhibition. Shortly after Necessary Force opened, artist and activist Lashawnda Crowe Storm visited as part of the exhibition. She referred to herself as an “artivist” and described her Lynch Quilts Project, which she has brought to Albuquerque. The Lynch Quilts are developed out of conversations with community groups about lynching and racial violence. The striking and disturbing quilts depict lynchings and names of victims. They are called Her Name was Laura Nelson, A Partial Listing and RedRum Summer. For this show she led a Saturday workshop to initiate the creation of a seventh quilt based in Albuquerque and tentatively titled All My Relations. This piece, which is not seen in the museum, is perhaps the most powerful binding agent for the show. As the show closes the All My Relations quilt will just be coming into being giving voice to the effects of the police state on the families of Albuquerque. Until that quilt is completed and hung we can only guess at the range of results that this exhibition will have locally. From where I sit, there is much work to be done, and quiet, beautiful art, is only one small part of the chorus of voices that give shape to a response to our militarized past and future. Necessary Force provides a necessary piece to a very difficult puzzle. We need more shows like Necessary Force, in more communities like this.

Necessary Force successfully makes its point; we do live in a “police state.” UNM Museum is not the first to make this point. Smack Mellon in New York recently had a show called Respond, that was perhaps more expansive, and probably more provocative. Necessary Force, however, helps to contextualize the very localized symptoms of police power in America as part of a dialogue that has localized implications. Through various public programs the community is brought in to discuss the difficult ideas of how we function within this state, and how we respond to it with grace, humor, thoughtfulness, and outrage, all at the same time. The curators of the show seem very interested in taking this show to other communities, and if they can find room for local artists in every community the show goes to I can think of few more important goals for a show like this to have. In the meantime, Albuquerque has been graced with an opportunity for productive meditation on an increasingly difficult issue.  




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  1. Barbara

    I appreciate the dialog generated by the exhibition. I continue to question the use of the word “riots” to describe the protests following the James Boyd murder. Unruly bands of youth roaming for hours back and forth between UNM and downtown, vocal and unpredictable though they were, did not constitute “riots.” There was a bit of spray painting (not proven was who did it), but otherwise there was no destruction of property. The crowd was disorderly, but the show of force by the police was over the top, with tear gas deployed near UNM. Perhaps it was the police who rioted?

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