The star of ‘engaged art’ is on the rise. The number of artists creating, performing, and exploring in the world of social and political reality is mushrooming. Or maybe that’s the way it has always been, and new technologies are allowing us to do end-runs around gate-keeping curators and mainstream media. Either way, we are discovering whole worlds of politically engaged and celebrated artists that not so long ago would just as likely have been escorted from the hallowed houses of high art for disturbing the peace.
Call it what you will — engaged art, social practice, avant-garde, dialogical aesthetics, community art, public art, activist art, radical art — audiences for the confounding, beautiful, horrible and hilarious kinds of symbolic dissidence these practices describe are growing. When Art Threat started three years ago there was only a few websites like us. Now there are dozens. This is a very good thing.
A top 10 (or 9) list is a necessarily troubled compromise made up as it is by hierarchy and exclusion. On the up side it’s like a map — something to help navigate an increasingly complicated and at times overwhelming volume of cultural choices. So here’s my map of people and organizations to watch for, some better known than others, but all involved in making art that gets under the skin and changes — at least I hope it does — in some undeniable way those who encounter it.
Voina is a gutsy artist collective taking on the intellectual, imaginative and legal (not to mention dangerous, as human rights defenders can attest) injustices in Russia. Formed in 2007, they staged Fuck for the heir Puppy Bear! (see performance photos) for the 2008 presidential elections (that saw Dmitry Medvedev elected into what many have described as a puppet position under Putin’s increasingly autocratic and violent authoritative rule). Five couples had sex in Moscow’s State Museum of Biology (Medved means “bear” in Russian).
The group also staged a mock public hanging of two gay men and three immigrant workers for the installation In Memory of the Decemberists — A Present to Yuri Luzhkov (see video of the performance). Luzhkov is the current mayor of Moscow who has been criticized for homophobic and racist comments, and for doing little to prevent the high number of murders of immigrant workers in the Russian capital.
In September this year, Voina staged an anti-corruption installation in Saint-Petersburg, near the historical St Michael’s Castle, where the Russian emperor Paul I was killed. The installation, called Royal Overflow, involved locking Moscow police inside the castle with a bike chain on a gate and then tipping over their police car. Their goal was to draw attention to police and government corruption and to show how state forces can be resisted by people’s direct actions.
As a result, the artists have been arrested and face up to seven years in jail.
International support is being directed here.
The Conflict Kitchen Collective
Artists Dawn Weleski, Jon Rubin and John Pena have created a public installation in the form of a take-out restaurant complete with a real kitchen and real take-out food. But the kitchen only serves food from countries that United States is in conflict with. Anti-war protest meets fast food in this quintessentially American art installation and performance.
Their first kitchen served Iranian food, and now they are serving Afghan food to Pittsburgh’s hungry and curious crowds. Every four months the identity of the resto will rotate to take on another country’s cuisine from the sadly long list of countries that the US is in a state of conflict with.
Their goal of course is not only to feed curious patrons, but through food itself, wrappers, conversations with customers, and special programming (such as live skype dinners with artist groups in conflict countries to talk about daily life and experience) to create dialogue around the role of US foreign policy in international conflict, culture, and politics.
How to describe the work of Canadian Rebecca Bellmore. It is a rendering — at times heart wrenching, whimsical, brilliant, beautiful — of the difficult, tragic and rage-making histories of colonial pasts and presents in Canada through performance and ritual. Her work encompasses sculpture/installation, performance, video and photography.
From traveling with a giant, wood megaphone to First Nations communities across the country and asking elders to speak to the land, to hanging herself cocoon-like from a gallery wall, to sleeping in a gallery under a bedspread made from human hair, to performances of remembrance and grief for the murdered and missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, Bellmore’s work is wide-ranging and responsive to contemporary Canadian social and cultural tensions. (The image above, Belmore’s Fringe 2008, appeared on a billboard in Montreal.)
It is with some sadness that we report that Belmore’s most recent performance Worth may have been her last. Worth was a personal statement about a nasty legal conflict with a gallery over the sale of her art. She is being sued for close to $1 million in damages. Exhausted after four years of legal wrangling and legal fees, Belmore scrubbed the sidewalk near an entrance to the Vancouver Art Gallery, laid out her bedspread of human hair, lay on it beneath a sign that read “I am worth more than $1 million to my people” and then, after a time, packed it up and shouted “I quit” apparently signifying her quitting the art world (see the video).
We hope not.
For those who want to help, supporters have set up a legal defense fund.
Artist Wu Yuren was arrested by the Chinese government earlier this year apparently for organizing opposition to the seizure of his and a group of other artists’ studios by the local government. Their highly visible protest went past Tiananmen Square, well-known to be a sensitive region of the city in connection with public demonstrations of dissent.
But Yuren was also signatory to Charter 08, a manifesto demanding a variety of political changes in China including an independent legal system, freedom of association and the elimination of one-party rule. Charter 8 is not so popular with the current administration.
According to his wife, Canadian Karen Patterson, who has seen him twice since his arrest, he was beaten by police after he was arrested.
Yuren’s work is considered among the most innovative being produced in China today. In the Imperial Criminal (2001) series, for example, Yuren displays twelve passport-like blue tinted photographs with fluorescent brands stamped on their foreheads to indicate ancient/modern crimes – the brand is exposed when placed under ultra-violet light. In The Sparks Program (10,000 Years Art Exhibition, Oct 2005), seven labourers strike a pile of flint in a dark space for three hours with metal batons, producing a heavy knocking sound with flying sparks — a commentary on the situation of peasant construction workers in Beijing’s real estate boom. And in connection with his resistance to land development, he transformed White Box Museum of Art into a large demolition site. According to ML Art Source (a Beijing-based promotional website for contemporary Chinese art with the self-stated goal of serving as “a platform that will bridge the art to the people and the people to the art”) the controversial nature of Yuren’s installation at the White Box has ensured that there is little information available about it.
Yuren’s trial began on November 16 (for more information about the trial check out YWR’s Incarceration blog). His wife Karen Patterson, who is Canadian, has been trying to rally international support for his case. Some of China’s most well-known artists have turned up at his trial to offer support including Ai Weiwei, who designed the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics, and another Charter 08 signatory; and Gao Qiang, one of the Gao brothers, internationally reknowned for their political art.
If you feel the urge to incite diplomatic efforts on behalf of Yuren, write to your MP and the foreign affairs critics for the Liberals, NDP and Bloc and tell them that Canada should express concern for Wu Yuren’s safety and fair treatment.
The Hemisphereic Institute for Performance and Politics
This remarkable institute offers resources for artists working at the intersection of scholarship, artistic expression and politics. Created in 1998 by art instructors from Brazil, Peru, Mexico and the US as a series of multilingual, collaborative graduate programs, HI has evolved into a nexus of gatherings and workshops that bring artists, activists and academics together to explore what they call “embodied practice” — performance as a vehicle for the creation of new meaning and the transmission of cultural values, memory, and identity. In 2010, they hosted three workshop conferences: (1) Trauma, Terror and Performance; (2) Stages of Conflict: Latin American Theatre 16th-21th Centuries; and (3) Art and Resistance.
The Institute has developed an international network throughout the Americas with their annual conference/festival Encuentro, first held in Rio de Janeiro in 2000, and since in Monterrey, Mexico, Lima, Peru, New York City, Belo Horizonte, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
This is an organization to watch for anyone interested in the place where politics and art dance the dance of dissenting joy.
Broken City Lab
This crew of young artists is plying their art trade in an effort to help re-imagine the postindustrial social realities of Windsor, Ontario — sister city to Detroit, Michigan and suffering similar malaise in the wake of a mortally wounded automobile industry.
Engaging communities in public memory projects and public decision-making through high-profile visual interventions, Broken City Lab is concerned with how problems are defined and who gets to define them. Walking tours to abandoned and underused urban locals, creative uses for abandoned storefronts that allow public imagination to flourish in public spaces, creative research and engagement with policy-making processes are all part of this group’s art practices.
The engaged practice of Broken City Lab calls on community imagination for its strengths and flourishes in the public spaces they share with local residents.
The Pinky Show
The Pinky Show received a lot of attention in 2010 and for good reason. Using unstoppably cute animation, the creative duo behind The Pinky Show is presenting unflinching critical analysis of some of the most difficult political issues of the day. Up for consideration: the relationship between colonialism and the construction of memory through museums and world’s fairs, the Hawaii indigenous sovereignty movement, the role of public education in producing conformity and subjugation, academic freedom, creepy children’s toys …
What makes this project so noteworthy is the way complex and abstract meditations on power and oppression are rendered in entirely accessible ways — a rendering of discourse to match the simplicity and yet charm of the animation. There are resources galore here for teaching, if addressing the obscured consequences and marginalized experiences under the current global regime — whatever it is: colonial, capitalist, democratic, fascist — is your goal.
Wafaa Bilaal first came to Art Threat’s attention a few years ago. He set up a website that allowed anyone to shoot at him with a paintball gun. He lived in a small room for 30 days and endured an unceasing attack by the public at large. His goal was to bring attention to the experience of Iraqi people living under American occupation. More than 65,000 shots were fired from 136 countries shot at him (Domestic Tension, 2007).
Another controversial project of Bilaal’s involved hacking into Quest for Saddam, a video game that is pretty much what you’d expect, and creating a character for himself as a suicide bomber sent on a mission to assassinate President George W. Bush (Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi, 2008).
In May this year, Bilaal mounted a twenty-four-hour live tattooing performance called “..and Counting“. He had his back tattooed with the names of Iraqi cities, 5,000 red dots representing dead American soldiers and 100,000 dots representing the official death toll for Iraqis.
Most recently, Bilal installed a camera in the back of his head that will take a pictures and upload them immediately to the internet. The project (titled 3rdi) went live on December 15 and can be watched at http://3rdi.me/index.html. The project was commissioned by the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar.
No matter what he does, it’s fascinating.
White Pillows Collective
This quirky and courageous Canadian art group took on the problematic cultures of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and received only a fraction of the fanfare they deserved.
In Re-directing Traffic, artist Heidi Nagtegaal redirected traffic on major artery feeding the downtown Olympic core. With 4 crotched pylons and a Flaggers Uniform she steered traffic off of East Hastings corridor for more than 20 minutes sending drivers into a nether region of side streets without any direction of how to reroute. The intervention pointed to the ways daily life in Vancouver and mobility had been transformed unilaterally and imposed on the residents of Vancouver. When the police arrived, they asked her to stop, and they left.
In Nationalism and Sports, the only way to love artists Emilio Rojas & Patrick Blaeser donned the dress of fanatic patriot Canadian Olympic fans: faces painted with red maple leafs and Canadian flag capes. This was the uniform of the hooligan sports fans screaming their chants up and down Granville Street in heart of the Olympic hoopla. Rojas and Blaeser joined the revelry shouting their love for Canada and Olympic sports in
the midst of the Olympic crowds, and then they made out, kissing and smooching while onlookers freaked out. This installation pointed to the ways Olympic culture and its particular brand of hyper masculine nationalism erases diversity.
In Salut to the Game, artist Chun Hua Catherine Dong walked throughout the Olympic red zone in army fatigues and stopped to salute every time she encountered the Olympic symbol publicly displayed. Security at first was concerned, but she told them that she had always wanted to be in the army but was too small.
They then escorted her about the Olympic zone allowing her to carry out her mission. This installation pointed to the fascistic qualities of the ways the International Olympic Committee and its local counterpart used the therat of police violence and dubious legal manouvers to stifle freedom of expression, harass activists, and stigmatize and exclude the poor.
Of Hunger, Homelessness, and Spectacle involved artist Emilio Rojas sleeping in the storefront window of the Vivarium Gallery in Vancouver, turning it into a home while fasting and later wheeling a shopping cart through the city including through the crowds of Olympic revelers downtown.
We wish the White Pillows Collective would do more …