Gregory Sholette | Natural’s not in it: Documenta 14, Disinvestment Cycles and other Capitalist Disasters

The text was first presented at C.A.S.A's To The Future Public exhibition, 5-7 September 2017, at KMMN Kassel. 

 

 

 

Planned capital disinvestment involves the deliberate infrastructure collapse of specifically targeted ethnic groups, neighborhoods, cities, or sometimes even entire countries as we see today with Greece and Puerto Rico where disinvestment operates through the calculated withdrawal of finances, and the refusal to provide new investment money. Meanwhile, austerity measures and compulsory interest payments on what have become literally an un-payable loan portfolios has lead to the boarded up of schools, collapsed social services, widespread joblessness, personal despair and abandoned properties scattered about such cities as Athens and San Juan among other regions. But capital disinvestment is only one step in a predatory financial cycle that can last decades, deeply impacting the livelihood, well being, and culture of entire populations for the profit of a few predatory investors. It works like this:

 

Sooner or later disinvestment is followed by ‘regeneration’ as an influx of creative producers including artists, artisans, gallery owners, start-up entrepreneurs and specialty food shops take advantage of low rents. But these creatives are themselves later displaced by wealthier, more established professionals and middle class gentry as property values continue to rise. But the process does not necessarily stop there. In certain instances the urban gentry are themselves displaced as financial speculators such as ultra-wealthy oligarchs, sheiks, and corporate investors purchase property as a source of future profits, thus becoming a type of ‘absentee gentry’ who do not even live in such places as New York, London and San Francisco. And yet, even this phase is sometimes not the predatory cycle’s endpoint because capital must constantly keep moving and growing, necessitating a new cycle of destructive disinvestment, a point that I will return to below.

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Another way of framing the stages of this cycle is as follows: first drain away local capital while undermining regional governance and infrastructure within a vulnerable community; do not impede replacing recognized economic modes with contraband methods of commerce including drugs, prostitution, gangs and crime, or put differently, allow a different set of criminal operators to take over from the commercial bankers and corrupt politicians. After land prices are drastically devalued, investment capital can begin to reenter these spaces via risk-taking speculators and marginal cultural practitioners, followed by real estate developers and speculators. All the while local people, already beaten-down by a failing social system, are expelled from the area as property is transferred to the moneyed classes.

 

I first encountered similar processes of predacious financial extraction almost four decades ago when I moved from Philadelphia to New York City in order to attend art school. It was the late 1970s and the low-income and predominantly Latino neighborhood known as the Lower East Side of New York City, or Loisaida, was buckling under the weight of municipal neglect and sustained economic plunder, as were numerous other regions of the city populated by people of color. In 1979 I produced a work about this situation focused on the dubious financial practices of a major commercial institution, First National City Bank, better known as Citibank. My artwork was entitled ‘The Citi never sleeps, but your neighborhood may be put to rest’ the title making an ironic détournement of Citibank’s actual slogan The Citi Never Sleeps, which promoted their innovative use of 24 hour Automatic Teller Machines throughout the city.

 

My Citibank piece focused on their practice of redlining certain neighborhoods including well as Bedford Stuyvesant, East Harlem and the South Bronx. Redlining involves banks illegally conspiring to de-fund a region of the city by encircled it with a red line. Once identified the bank refuses to provide loans and mortgages to local residents, even though these same residents deposit savings to the bank. According to a study by Ralph Nader Citibank was one of the leading financial institutions involved in redlining 1. But there is more. Even as Citibank disinvested capital from poor New Yorkers the corporation was also lending money to the white South African government, which was then engaged in a losing battle to save its Apartheid regime. Drawing connections between these various nefarious activities my artwork visually metamorphosed Citibank’s minimalist corporate logo into an aerial missile, a spinning saw blade, and a blood-sucking tick. 2 Today, some thirty-eight years later, those very same neighborhoods have either already been gentrified, or are undergoing a contentious process of ‘regeneration,’ that operates either brazenly out in the open as it in New York City today, or more indirectly through policy paradigms such as  ‘placemaking’ or the ‘creative city.’

 

Artists frequently facilitate this re-investment phase, sometimes unwittingly, although in 2017 any claim of innocence is dubious. Bringing me to Documenta 14 and my most recent visit to Athens this past May. After unpacking at the Best Western near Omonoia Square I took a short walk and was immediately confronted by the sight of a young man, syringe in hand shooting up in broad daylight just outside the hotel. I was instantly transported back to the Lower East Side of the 1970s, noting to myself that since my previous visit to Athens only a year earlier the socio-economic situation of the city had even more visibly deteriorated. And yet, after walking a few more blocks North, I abruptly transitioned into the Kerameikos area, a part of town with hipster restaurants and trendy clothing shops. Visible now were all the signs of a city undergoing an economic tug of war between the forces of disinvestment brought on by crippling EU austerity measures and those of gentrification, or pre-gentrification as risk takers and speculators nibble around the edges of neighborhoods filled with potentially undervalued property, but also social crisis and human despair.

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This tension was clarified even more profoundly and tangibly while visiting several squatter spaces and cultural collectives with James Simbouras, an artist, curator and founder of CASA: Contemporary Art Showcase Athens. First up was a visit to Communitism, a collective of artists operating out of an enormous but crumbling neoclassical building in Metaxourgeio where a growing number of galleries and cafes now enliven the badly neglected neighborhood, while also hinting at encroaching gentrification. Communitism is attempting to defuse any potential displacement of Metaxourgeio residents by focusing on renovating spaces targeting local community needs. Though from my experience in New York, once the juggernaut of gentrification gains full steam it is impossible to halt without militant local resistance conjoined with municipal support from sympathetic politicians. Avdi Square was our next destination, alive with graphics supporting refugees and anarchist actions, followed by a welcome beer at the Nosotros Social Center, and finally arriving at Empros Theater where I was generously offered an opportunity to present my new book Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism in conversation with both James Simbouras and curator Iliana Fokianaki within the context of a program entitled To The Future Public. 3

 

The networked oppositional culture thriving within these crucial Athenian battleground neighborhoods is generated by local socio-economic and political circumstances involving the particular history and culture of the region. Nonetheless, it also reveals distinct similarities to oppositional art from other cities, including New York’s Lower East Side, but also urban areas I have visited or spent time living or working in over the past few decades including Chicago’s South and West Sides, the waterfront port of Barcelona once home to squatters only a decade ago, Vienna’s Museums Quarter where the Depot alternative space previously flourished, Beirut’s Achrafieh, Ras Beirut and Mar Mikhaël neighborhoods now increasingly hip and expensive, large areas of Detroit and Zagreb as well as Berlin’s Mitte and Kreuzberg areas that are already ‘upclassed,’ and San Juan Puerto Rico’s Community Land Trusts or Fideicomisos where imposed austerity has transformed the country into the ‘Greece of the United States,’ and even in tourist-saturated Venice, Italy where locally vibrant culture endeavors to survive in Cannaregio, Guidecca and parts of Dorsoduro as activist squatters and autonomous cultural spaces including S.a.L.E. Docks and Garden of Ca’Bembo resist the cultural and environmental wreckage from massive cruise ships and absentee gentrification run amok. 4

 

Free Autonomous EMPROS Theater, at Kerameikos area in Athens, where Gregory Sholette's talk and presentation of his book Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism took place on July 8 2017, in the context of To The Future Public program in Athens in collaboration with:  Avtonomi Akadimia: http://avtonomi-akadimia.net/ / Void Network: http://voidnetwork.gr/ / Free Self-Organized Theater EMPROS: https://www.embros.gr/. Special thanks to Joulia Strauss of Avtonomi Akadimia and Tasos Sagris.

Free Autonomous EMPROS Theater, at Kerameikos area in Athens, where Gregory Sholette's talk and presentation of his book Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism took place on July 8 2017, in the context of To The Future Public program in Athens in collaboration with:  Avtonomi Akadimia: http://avtonomi-akadimia.net/ / Void Network: http://voidnetwork.gr/ / Free Self-Organized Theater EMPROS: https://www.embros.gr/. Special thanks to Joulia Strauss of Avtonomi Akadimia and Tasos Sagris.

We see a similar, asymmetrical triumvirate of forces engaged in an urban battle for the very soul of modern cities all over the world today as: 1.) local residents and activists seek to hold on to common space through squatting or other mechanisms, 2.) artists and informal collectives give birth to street art, graffiti, theater and music, and cultural collectives sometimes in cahoots with, but also at other times at odds with the first group and 3.) meanwhile the financial and real estate sectors carry on their nefarious profiteering as outlined above. All of this is so abundantly visible, so entwined with the art establishment, and so impossible to avoid in Athens today, nevertheless, this all-too-obvious conflict was almost completely absent from the smart and sophisticated installations of Documenta 14, the renowned curatorial showcase for contemporary art that occurs only every five years and traditionally happens only in Kassel, Germany.

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Provocatively, as well as problematically, the 2016-2017 edition of Documenta was also installed at several locations in and around Athens, Greece. One of these host institutions was the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST), initially established through the 37 million dollar renovation of an abandoned brewery and intended to house the museum’s excellent collection of contemporary art. However, thanks to the ongoing fiscal crisis and political infighting, EMST has remained shut for over a decade. In 2016 Documenta 14 stepped in with the resources to change that situation. However, instead of reopening EMST as it was originally designed, Documenta installed its own temporary exhibitions in the museum’s long vacant galleries, and meanwhile transported the permanent collection to Kassel. Did more visitors get to see and appreciate the EMST works in Germany, therefore honoring the quality of the Greek collection? Perhaps. But at a symbolic level this maneuver seemed to reenact the appropriation of national treasures by wealthy countries such as Germany, France or the United Kingdom from places such as Greece, Egypt and the Middle East throughout the 19th century.

 

Exceptions to these criticisms did exist in Documenta 14, including Maria Eichhorn's project "Building as Unowned Property" at EMST in which the artist documents her legal efforts to transform an abandoned building in central Athens into a property that no one can ever own, but that can be used as a residence and exhibition space or even a homeless shelter. If successful, Eichhorn will have invested something of value back into Athens, although of course not without stirring up all of the inevitable complications wrought by potential artist initiated gentrification in the process alas. Other projects by Dan Peterman, Postcommodity, Naeem Mohaiemen, Hans Haacke, and Rick Lowe, Pope.L, Artur Żmijewski, Stefanos Tsivopoulos and Rick Lowe were among the handful works directly engaging issues of immigration, wealth and poverty, alternative historical memories, ‘Third World’ political struggles, and economic subterfuge directly relevant to the region. But meanwhile, the marginalized protest culture found in and around Avdi Square, the Empros Theater and on the streets of Metaxourgeio was only doubly isolated by its complete exclusion from Documenta 14. Lost was the possibility of engaging with broader socio-economic issues actually taking place outside the sphere of the academically oriented, white cube art world.

I mentioned earlier, however, that the capital disinvestment cycle does not always come to an end with the hyper-gentrification of a given location because capital must keep moving and growing, thus re-initiating the disinvestment cycle whenever the chance arises. The process can be rebooted in several ways, including after a major financial collapse, a war, or through the means of a so-called natural disaster. Just as Documenta 14 was drawing to an official end in Kassel, both the United States Gulf region and Asia’s Bay of Bengal coastal areas were devastated by unprecedented storms and floods, displacing up to 13 million people in parts of Texas and Louisiana, and affecting over 41 million in Bangladesh and India.5 Except these disasters not entirely ‘natural.’ Not only are such storms increasing in power due to man-made climate change, but human profiteering and land speculation place many populations directly in harms way, thus making the aftermath of natural disasters far worse than they otherwise would be.

 

Not part of Documenta 14, but a memorable project from the Athens Biennial was Artists At Risk, an exhibition organized by Marita Muukkonen and Ivor Stodolsky and located in the central market Varvakeios where video and photo works by Syrian and Turkish artists such as Pinar Ogrenci reflected dangerous and/or precarious circumstances.  

Not part of Documenta 14, but a memorable project from the Athens Biennial was Artists At Risk, an exhibition organized by Marita Muukkonen and Ivor Stodolsky and located in the central market Varvakeios where video and photo works by Syrian and Turkish artists such as Pinar Ogrenci reflected dangerous and/or precarious circumstances.

 

Artist Rick Lowe was invited from the US to Documenta 14 where he produced a participatory social sculpture at Victoria Square in central Athens. Since the 1990s Lowe has been developing a similar endeavor in Houston, Texas known as Project Row Houses. Located in the city’s Third Ward African-American neighborhood Project Row Houses is a combination of installation art, cultural residency, community service center and non-profit real estate venture. Although Lowe’s project was spared destruction by Hurricane Harvey it did not prevent the artist from reflecting on the broader meaning of the tragedy, precisely in terms of the planned disinvestment, gentrification and destruction cycle.

 

"The problem is unmitigated development that does not avoid putting families at risk by developing places prone to flooding without proper infrastructure. People talk about the growth of Texas and Houston in particular, but this based on an economy that put people at risk and most importantly plays into the hands of developers and builders who benefit from the initial investment, and then again when flooded properties must be rebuilt. It's a crazy cycle, like typical gentrification guided by natural disaster. Instead of disinvestment the way it happens in urban areas, ie, disinvest in an area to drive them to "disaster" leaving the property cheap, then come back in to buy up cheap and redevelop selling high, then wait for the time to disinvest, driving the area back into "disaster," so they can get it cheap again, and so on and so on.... it's sick!" 6

 

It is impossible to avoid the obvious comparison whereby predatory financial extraction and devastating super-storms play essentially the same role with virtually the same tragic outcomes. And all the while unavoidably entangled with these same patterns of profiteering and destruction is the contemporary art world. The task at hand is for artists, critics, curators and cultural institutions to first map out their complicity in the capital disinvestment cycle, and then openly challenge its seemingly inevitable hold over us. As the post-punk rock band Gang of Four once intoned: "Natural’s not in it…This heaven gives me migraines."

 

-Gregory Sholette September 3, 2017

 

All images courtesy of the author.

 

 

1 David Leinsdorf, Donald Etra and Ralph Nader. Citibank; Ralph Nader's study group report on First National City Bank, New York, Grossman Publishers, 1973.

2 A photocopy version of the art work can be viewed here: http://www.gregorysholette.com/?page_id=2133

3 More about To The Future Public and the event is found here: http://www.currentathens.gr/events/event/339-delirium-and-resistance-activist-art-and-the-crisis-of-capitalism and a link to the book is here: http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/D/bo26304430.html

4 For more about the situation in Venice see my report: ‘Venice Biennale – meet the activists repurposing the global art show,’ Political Critique, July 26, 2017: http://politicalcritique.org/world/2017/repurposing-the-venice-biennale/

5 Hurricane Harvey made landfall August 17, 2017 and dissipated September 2nd; the flooding in Bangladesh and nearby regions reached its peak August 11, 2017.

6 Rick Lowe in a Facebook message to Sholette, Sept. 2, 2017.

 


Gregory Sholette interview with M. Katritsis, Y. Ktenas, D. Haliasos for Kaboom

5.6.2017

 

Q: How do you define the term "Delirium", which holds a central place in your most recent book?

GS: Thank you for these questions M. Katritsis, Y. Ktenas, D. Haliasos. First off, my primary reference regarding the use of the word delirium in the title and chapters of the new book is to the following pithy citation written just after the 2008 financial meltdown by the late, brilliant British theorist Mark Fisher:

“To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.”

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009)

Or as the theorist Kim Charnley who edited my new book adds in his introduction:

“The art system, bloated by finance capital, has become delirious and cynically disenchanted. Art has been insulated against the crisis tendencies of neoliberal capitalism but also restructured to serve the interests of finance capital. After 2008, the art market showed itself to be immune to financial collapse, not least because it became a useful place to hedge investments, using the money pumped into the system by “quantative easing.”

Poster-action at the Athens School of Fine Art  for Gregory Sholette's talk for To The Future Public. Image: James Simbouras

Poster-action at the Athens School of Fine Art  for Gregory Sholette's talk for To The Future Public. Image: James Simbouras

Please be aware however, that I place the word delirium in close proximity to the word resistance in the book title in order to highlight both the connectivity and tension between these two terms. Much has happened since 2008, including as you know all too well the austerity measures and debt spiral that one could only describe as delirious. Most recently, following Brexit and the 2016 US, we also witness a feverish global upsurge of nationalist populism and xenophobia. Now the delirium and the crisis of neoliberal capitalism has spread into the realm of liberal democracy. And this condition has also begun to infect the world of art and culture. While capitalist crisis does not begin within art, art reflects and amplifies its effects. As I and Kim Charnley also insist: this combination of deliria, crisis and resistance generate not only negative, but a few positive outcomes, some of which are explored in the book, which I note is primarily focused on the situation in New York City over the past four decades because this is the place and the politics I know best. If these conditions of delirium and resistance, of gentrification and hyper-gentrification, and of what I call “Bare Art” and the “Dark Matter” of the art world also relate to conditions here in Greece than this is all for the better. You will need to decide that possible end result yourselves however.

 

Q: Your approach to art refers not only to artists and works of art, but also to the social institutions through which the art is presented, such as museums and galleries. Do you mind telling us some things about the way capitalism affects these institutions? Furthermore, do you think it is acceptable for an activist artist to use the tools that capitalistic or politically hostile institutions can provide in order to achieve that his radical artistic message will be reaching and perhaps affecting more people?

GS: A great set of questions, but first I think it is important to note that in the US context most major art institutions are not supported primarily by the state but by private interests including foundations, wealthy donors, and of course business corporations. The smallest portion of income for a place like the Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim comes from federal or municipal money or tax breaks for their collections. So this highly privatized high art world cannot be separated from the apparatus of capitalism to the degree you might be able to do it here in Greece or other parts of Europe. Though I suspect this is changing as well because as the fiscal crisis continues to fester there will be increasing pressure on privatizing culture, which in the US and UK began with “public/private” partnerships during the introduction of deregulated neoliberal policies in the 1980s.

This means that in reference to your second question about activists using or leveraging the cultural and financial capital of such major art institutions it is for us in the United States at least, a lived reality that is all but impossible to completely avoid. Asymmetry of power is also part of that reality when we engage the mainstream art world as a type of dark matter or archival surplus operating with what James C. Scott describes as the “weapons of the weak.” That does not mean we are helpless. On the contrary, activists can easily project a very large shadow onto the institution by knowing how, when and where to engage. Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF), Occupy Museums, Decolonize this Place, Liberate Tate, all of these recent agents of direct cultural protest intervention operating within mainstream art establishment institutions have been highly effective getting their message across using spectacular tactics that the art world and general news media gobbles up. But there is more to this activism, because their actual, real-time interruptions of the business-as-usual art world generates a condition for those present –both activists and bystanders alike– a significant liberatory moment, however fleeting, that is nonetheless like a kind of action-object, which immediately speaks to a widespread desire to realize not only another art world, but also another world in which our lives and our future are not subsumed by capital or by state institutions. (This is also why in the ultra-deregulated economy of the US we find artists generating ersatz institutions or what I call “mockstitutions” that imitate the function of a now almost completely decayed social institutional realm, but as artificial works of art that, ironically, often function better than the institutions they are seeking to mockingly imitate! For more on this please see from my last book Dark Matter.

 

Q: In this context, what could we think of the street art? Is it a way to challenge the instituted boundaries between the public and the private sphere? (In the sense that the private work of art is exposed to the public view, perhaps even through the use of private property – a painted wall, for example.

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GS: I think you might be able to extrapolate from the comments I made above about activist and interventionist art to the question of street art, but with this important caveat: work made in and for the street is only as good –politically speaking– as the street is itself as a space of action and critical reflection in the first place. Because art cannot by itself transform delirium into resistance, not without the nearby proximity of collective political praxis and social organizing.

 

Q: How can a radical artist protect his art from becoming superficial and void of meaning in his attempt to deliver a political message? We have seen that many artists have visited and are staying in Athens during this time of political and economic crisis, wanting to “capture the moment” and find inspiration. Can it degrade into a type of safari to see the wildlife or can it offer true and sincere art from an indeed needed exterior and different point of view? Jacques Ranciere, in his recent visit to Athens, highlighted the turn of contemporary artists towards tribalism, anthropology, rituals etc. How would you comment this movement? Is it perhaps an effort to re-instill some "meaning" in a disenchanted world?

GS: One task of social movements might be to educate artists as well as curators and other art world professionals about the actuality of conditions “on the ground” so to speak. This will never in itself eradicate the tendency towards superficiality or the production of a “zoo” in which strange species are put on display. We know the history of art and of cultural spectacle is built on precisely these acts of seeing, or as my friend the theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff puts it, who has the “right to look.” Clearly this is ultimately about the anthropological spectator: the one who has the political power to detach himself (usually male) from life in order to reflect on it from a space of dispassionate reason. I think we know the whole narrative about this type of aesthetic detachment by now. However, just as with all of the activists I discuss above and in the book, leveraging the position of weakness is not impossible, even if limited perhaps and tactical. That is why having a strategy to place these interventions and “inversions” of this gaze within as a political praxis is very important.

For me, therefore, the re-enchantment of a lost world does not begin, or does not remain with individual artistic actions or small tribal gatherings and practices no matter how imaginative or clever, but it appears with demands for another art world, one that is a non-elitist and democratic that emerges from within what I call the shadow or surplus archive of a vibrant dark matter imaginary. Any possibility of a future public must recognize the relevance of this vital non-presence to present cultural and political circumstances as well as to that horizon of hope, which has yet to come.

 

Thank you so much for your time!

 

Published at : https://kaboomzine.gr/g-sholette-paralirima-antistasi-ke-o-kosmos-tis-technis-mesa-ston-kapitalismo/