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Art Strike Anyone?

By Thom Donovan

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The following is from an essay forthcoming in WIG, an off-line poetics journal devoted to writing and labor practices edited by Kristen Gallagher and Tim Shaner. Given Sina’s fruitful posts about poetry and work, I thought I should post it to Harriet with the permission of WIG, which I urge everyone to support. For more information about WIG please check out Rodney Koeneke’s write up about WIG vol. 1 at his blog Modern Americans.

I wrote “Art Strike Anyone?” almost exactly a year ago. I would like to rewrite the essay now, having changed my mind and complicated some thinking since then. Work stoppage/slow-down, hiatus, sabbatical, redistribution of effort/energy/labor are ideas that I’d like to keep exploring in relation to previous endeavors by poets and artists. Another line of research (unexplored here) that I’d like to eventually follow concerns the history of poets/artists aligning with other laborers, of which there are obviously many compelling precedents in the 19th and 20th centuries.

***

Art Strike Anyone?

The only two art strikes I am aware of (that go by the name “art strike”) are one proposed by Gustav Metzger in the 70s following the closing of New York City art institutions in May 1970 by the Art Workers’ Coalition, and another proposed by Stewart Home in the late 80s, which resulted in quite little participation as far as I can tell, however much documentation (see the Neoists’ Art Strike Papers online).* In the case of Metzger’s strike, the strike was aimed at what we would call nowadays “institutional critique.” By asking artists to not participate with galleries, museums, and other venues for the reception and distribution of art, Metzger intended to call out art as a commodity, and address the social value of art when it is not serving as an object of fetishistic exchange and cultural evaluation (the making of tastes, fashions, social hierarchies, etc.)

While institutional critique remains a vital problem among artists, it is a realm of art that constantly risks being subsumed by the object of its critique insofar as art institutions tend to recuperate these critiques into its presentational modes and economic dynamics. A telos of this subsumption can be found in Andrea Fraser’s work, who went from giving tours of museums that parodied the ‘authority’ of the tour guide, to a situation in which she was selling herself as the product to the highest bidding collector. One can perceive a similar limit in live artists from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, many of whom now seek to reify their apocryphal works by providing photo-documents and other ephemera from the original events and, more recently, ‘reenacting’ them for live art biennials such as Performa in New York City.

Home’s art strike turns a skeptical eye on art as a cultural force elevating some to prominence while submerging others. What Home intended, it would seem, through his proposed art strike, was to level the social in relation to the cherished position of the artist as cultural purveyor. Home states such a position in response to Alain Jouffroy’s 1968 article “What’s to be done about art?” (the seed of Metzger’s and Home’s strikes) wherein Jouffroy states:

“It is essential that the minority advocate the necessity of going on an ‘active art strike’ using the machines of the culture industry to set it in total contradiction to itself. The intention is not to end the rule of production, but to change the most adventurous part of ‘artistic’ production into the production of revolutionary ideas, forms and techniques.”

In response to Jouffroy, Home writes in an article entitled “About the Strike”:

“The problem with this proposal is that without ending the rule of production, avant-garde artists would simply swap one privileged role for another. Instead of providing entertainment for a privileged audience, artists are to form themselves into a vanguard providing ideas, forms and techniques for the masses. While such a role may be attractive to the artist, it does nothing to alter the oppressive domination of a so called creative elite over the rest of society.”

While many of Home’s propositions are attractive, my problem with Home’s art strike is that it will not acknowledge an inherent value of stopping work, whereby one may recognize the production of art as a labor practice and not working (hiatus or striking) as a particular expression of one’s responsibility as a cultural producer. Likewise, while Home rightly frames the problem of Jouffroy’s art strike as one of privilege—and specifically the artist’s privilege to make and evaluate culture—what he does not affirm is that the artist can act in socially transformative ways beyond the making of works of art, or the artist’s involvement in art institutions, economies, and systems of distribution.

This past year saw the release of the Taiwanese artist, Tehching Hsieh’s, first comprehensive artist’s monograph with MIT press, Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh. This monograph describes the artist’s career from the late 70s until the present. Inasmuch as the trajectory of Hsieh’s work is to stop making work, talking about art, or entering a gallery, museum or other space for the distribution of art works for a year, and to eventually give up making art in order to merely “survive” through the century, Hsieh’s work offers a vital precedent for any further stopping of work by individual artists or artists organized to strike.

Hsieh’s problem of stopping work begins in the 70s, when for a year he decides to stay in a cell placed in his TriBeCa art studio. During this time he rents out space in his 5,000 square foot studio to fund his activities. He determines to do nothing except to perform the basic activities of a prisoner confined to their cell; he talks to no one, and only receives basic sustenance from routine visitors with whom he does not speak. While Hsieh will not discuss art (or anything else for that matter) with anyone during his confinement, he does produce documentation of the performance that will allow him to frame the work for exhibition and retrospection. This documentation consists of photographs taken daily of the artist in his cell. For each day that Hsieh is confined to the cell, he takes a single photograph from the same position of the cell. Collated in the MIT monograph, theses photos appear a crystallized time-lapse mug shot of the artist over the course of 365 days.

In subsequent pieces, Hsieh determined to punch a time clock in his studio everyday for a full year, and remain outdoors for a year. For another year, he committed to being roped to the artist Linda Montana while purportedly not talking to or touching his collaborator. Yet another year was devoted to not making art, discussing art works, or entering buildings in which art was being shown, discussed, or sold.

Examining the documentation of Hsieh’s one-year performances make me think about all that the artist must have experienced while not making art objects, that is, while withdrawing from an economy involved with visual art. And this seems the point of the work: to imagine the vanishing of art itself for lived social practices as a limit of aesthetic autonomy. What, for example, could have kept the artist’s mind and body active while refusing to go outside the confines of a cell for a year (an experience obviously lived daily by actual detainees)? What social difficulties and practical dilemmas did the artist encounter while remaining outdoors in the streets of New York City (the state of necessity, obviously, of all homeless, itinerant, and displaced people living in the city). What daily struggles does one face with another individual whose most private needs can not be extricated from one’s own (a fact we all face cohabitating with others, only not usually on such extreme terms)? Finally, what can we consider the work of art when what comprises the work itself is the avoidance of working—to not give one’s labor power to art as it is expressed by a set of cultural practices and activities?

In an interview with artists Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey for The Brooklyn Rail in August of 2003, Hsieh discusses his work since his “five year plan,” claiming this work to have been one of surviving into a new century. Since the arrival of a new century, Hsieh’s interviewers wonder how his work has changed. Hsieh’s answer is nothing less than a flat refusal to account for his life activity in terms of art per se. In the place of this activity, the artist provides selected artists with studio space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn without charging rent. As the artist himself describes in the interview:

Rail: Yet the fifth piece where you did not make art is similar to what you are doing now, isn’t it?

Hsieh: That was a piece of art. This is not. Action is not necessarily art. But I don’t really care about what is art and what is not. I want to know if something is interesting and that doesn’t have to be art. If there is an interesting message, let’s talk about it. Otherwise I am not interested. I say I have done six pieces, not more. I continue to say this. But I am now not doing, and I am not an artist now. Some times people say, “Oh, the kind of work you are doing now is art,” but it is not. If you want to call it art, it has nothing to do with me. You try to do something that is not art, but has a good art quality. That is meaningful to me. Not making a form like art, but pursuing a quality. If I am painting a house, people say I am painting or I am doing a performance. But it is not. I am doing what I have to do in life. I have a building in Williamsburg and I let artists live there for free from 1994 until now. There are different artists in there every year. They have a thousand square feet to work in. I don’t call that art; it is just a visiting artists project.

Rail: You bought buildings there?

Hsieh: I bought a building, renovated it, and built another building that was entirely new.

Rail: You financed it yourself?

Hsieh: Yes. You see, before I came to the U.S. I was a painter and I did many paintings until 1973. In 1994, they were all sold at an auction and I made about $500,000. I have four floors. One floor I rent to cover expenses. The rest I give to visiting artists. This year, one is a Mongolian filmmaker and another is a Ukrainian folk singer.

Rail: How do you find the artists?

Hsieh: I have a person who helps me select the artists. And that person gets one floor, and the other two floors are given to two artists a year. But again, that is not art to me, because to me any person can do that kind of “art.” Rich people for example can do it without any problem. So, that is the kind of action I do, the life I create.

Hsieh’s work makes me imagine the use of stopping work in order to record and discuss what happens when we are not working. It also makes me think of how much work poets already do that seemingly has little to do with writing poetry. In my own life, I not only write poems, but criticism and scholarship about poetry, art, and other forms of cultural production more often than not without pay. I also curate a reading series, host poets in my home, edit a magazine, catalogue a digital archive of poetry recordings, and teach. What would happen, I sometimes wonder, if all this activity were to fall by the wayside and myself and other poets were to do something else with our time?

What if this work stoppage was organized? What if other poets were also to decide to stop working and document what they do when they are also not working? Would this documentation then be a kind of poem? Would the effort spent not attending poetry as a form of work have more value then the writing of poems? Would our sensibilities, achieved through a life devoted to writing poems and all that goes along with being enmeshed in communities of poets, then allow us to do different kinds of work that were also meaningful? Many of us already have jobs discrete from anything involved in the writing, teaching, or general culture of poetry. Many of us have day jobs, night jobs, odd jobs, but then use our jobs to sustain, if not inform, what we do as poets. To what extent do what we do as poets also inform what we do as part of a job or social activity? I don’t doubt that being a poet, in many of our cases, cannot be separated from what we do for a living, even if what we do for a living is not supported by our writing poems, or being involved in a culture of poets.

In Robert Kocik’s 2001 book, Overcoming Fitness, Kocik speaks of “poetry outsourcing”:

“DEFINITION Poets ‘placing’ themselves by pursuing new roles, omitted modes of operation and revenue generation at once provides perfect architectural specifications for a location out of which such modes may be facilitated. Outsource simply means taking the role of the poet out into society in novel and necessary ways as well as taking into poetry concerns, resources, substances and practices ordinarily considered extrinsic to poetry.”

Can we see the work that we do when we are not writing poems or involved with poetry culture as a ‘side-project’, or better yet, as a way of using what skills we have cultivated as poets to inform different modes of activity? What if we kept track of the work we “outsourced” from our regular activities as poets? What if this became the work, or worthy of reflection in a way that poetry or art should also be worthy of reflection? One possible activity during an art strike could be to document and discuss what we would like to do as poets who are no longer engaged with poetry. Who are, thus, outsourcing their labor (since it is difficult for most of us not to have some kind of work at all times).

An art strike could also be an opportunity for poets to discuss problems that underly poetry, but are not usually considered of the craft itself. These problems may concern how we gather, what we eat (diet), how we make homes/where we live, politics, economics, ethics (the consequences of our actions), sexuality/erotics, pedagogy, ecology, science, health. Though we tend to organize these realms of activity through the poem anyway, what if our discussions about them displaced the making of the poem itself? What if the making of the poem were no longer our concern, and our concern became the mediations of these subjects and the way these subjects become addressed within social practices? What if we formalized a gathering dynamic beyond institutional formations such as the museum, gallery, and the academy? What if in the process of the strike we could carve out new spaces, spaces that would exist differently than those we have (and too often settle for)?

Curating Peace On A events series out of my home on Avenue A in Manhattan for over two years, I realized the inadequacy of gathering when we do not feel cared for by our environment/gathering space. What if we created new environments where we didn’t have to settle on a bar to commune after a reading? Where poets from out of town could stay the night? Where the reading could turn into a party and/or heated conversation and/or series of palm readings (as it did during a Peace on A event thanks to Julie Patton one night). Now that I no longer live on Avenue A I have heard many friends and colleagues lament that this space is no longer available for gathering. Thankfully, such a sustained space is now in-the-works by none other than Robert Kocik, who is trying to gain financial support to design and build a “prosody building” somewhere in Brooklyn. What if others were to help Kocik design, build, and operate such a necessary resource for poets who would like to outsource their skills and organize their activities collectively?

What if poets were to enter into conversations with workers from other fields and disciplines during this time? What if we were to share research, and put heads together? What if this also were to be done outside the framework of the academy, where most of the money now goes to the sciences for the development of military-related technology? What if artists were to conspire with poets to circumvent their own economies, where visual art is fueled too much by commodity, and poetry so much by gift exchange and courtesy? What can models of poetry economy and community have to show artists frustrated with the pursuit of problems within a hyper-commodified economy? What if sustainable spaces can be created outside these economies? Spaces that don’t ignore their relation to the commodity, but foresee other economic and social modalities? Spaces that, likewise, feel comfortable laying bare their own relation to the commodity as a source for both pleasure and exploitation?

Poets have many of the tools necessary to redirect culture, and they have learned these by apprenticing themselves to a fellowship of poets, and to the making of the poem within a series of discourses and communities. What if this ‘skill-set’ were applied to a different activity? Were this activity documented as the work, what would it have to offer others? How to create new spaces, new conversations, new modes of being against existing frameworks identified as undesirable? How to rechannel the energies and resources of power differently? How to assert our many competences among other competences?

An art strike would only lead to more work, and reflect so much of the work we already do in the absence of poetry per se. What if many of us committed to an art strike for a certain amount of time, in hopes that time itself will open new possibilities for poetry as but a small, but consequential, part of social experience?

*Gustav Metzer called for a three year strike in 1974 as well. There is also currently an art strike ongoing until 2012, led by Spart.

Comments (2)

  • On March 23, 2010 at 10:37 pm Frieda Maraya wrote:

    Thanks very much Thom.

    This reminded me of a piece of poetry-art-journalism written in 1994 by Mark Allen, which begins:

    ‘There’s not any cruising in here at all!’ my friend Alphonse complains, looking around. He’s right. The predominantly queer crowd of ACT UP members stuffed into Revolution Books on Avenue B in New York’s East Village is rigid, alert, and crisp with conversation and debate. The group’s usual Monday-night meeting at Cooper Union was moved at the last minute to this makeshift location, via last-minute flyers and ACT UP’s “phone tree.” The cramped quarters heighten the intensity.”

    Luv it.

  • On March 27, 2010 at 10:35 am billdozer wrote:

    During the Great Chicago Flood of 1992 northbound subways were re-routed along the elevated Green Line tracks. At the time there was a clear class division between the North Side and the West Side. Unless you absolutely had to get to Oak Park, you weren’t likely to ride the Green Line at night while White.
    On one of these April nights I had a window seat when the diverted Red train made it’s first Green stop. I was reading a pulp anthology with a painting of an evil clown on the cover. A wiry, thirtyish guy sat down next to me. After a minute he asked “Is that John Wayne Gacy?” “No, just a clown” I answered. “I just got out of Stateville. I was locked up with Gacy” he said.
    There was an implicit challenge in this sharing, but I was at a loss for the proper response. Finally I made eye contact and said “Oh.”
    I had to make a choice. I knew my train would be changing tracks in a stop or two and my seat mate would likely transfer to the Green train proper. What I couldn’t know was if this revelation was a threat, the opening gambit of a hustle, just a show of power, or least likely a simple invitation to chat. Did he want me to flee so he could have the seat to himself? The path of least resistance seemed to be to return to my book and it’s artful tales of supernatural anxiety. A part of me, even in the instant, was regretting not taking the opportunity to confront the reality of this man’s life.
    I’m sure my body language said otherwise, but my eyes stayed engrossed in the page. The next time the train doors opened I experienced a shock of pain and the snap of my head against the window. I had been clocked by an expert. Before I even knew which way was up my seatmate was out the door and gone. People were coming to my aid. Calls of “Did you see that?” “You got sucker punched!” “Are you OK?” “Did you get robbed?”
    After being handed my eyeglasses, which I wasn’t aware I had lost, I gathered myself and declined any further assistance or the involvement of the conductor, and certainly no police. There was pain but no damage. There had been no theft, it was just an expression of anger. Thank you for your concern, lets just move on.
    In the following days, friends and coworkers were sometimes bemused by my lack of malice toward my attacker. I just shrugged and said I understood that I had disrespected this guy. According to the status quo I was on his turf. He had the stage. But for the Flood, I would never trespass. Not to say I deserved it, but I could imagine feeling and reacting the same way in his shoes. Even if the Stateville claim were bullshit.
    Despite my middle class sympathy, and romantic engagement with the idea of lumpen rage, I have never in the years since imagined that I could be motivated to a similar action. Now after reading this overview of the work of Hsieh, and Thom’s thoughtful revival of the notion of an Art Strike I have to wonder. If I am ever in transit and find myself next to a conceptual artist reifying telos in the margins of hir manuscript, will I experience the somatic thrill of my fingers curling and my elbow cocking?

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Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, March 21st, 2010 by Thom Donovan.