Magazine

The Artists Bringing Activism into and Beyond Gallery Spaces

I.

It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon, and Eyal Weizman is at his central command — his London living room, which has been his base of operations since the outset of the pandemic. A vase of peonies is visible on the table behind him. His dog, Bernie, leaps into the frame, something about his shaggy visage evoking his eponym. His teenage daughter wanders through, making goofy faces to distract her father. His phone buzzes incessantly.

It’s a stressful time for Weizman, the founder of Forensic Architecture, a roughly 30-member research group comprising architects, software developers, filmmakers, investigative journalists, artists, scientists and lawyers that he started at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2010, and which has become well known in the art world for data-driven museum exhibitions that serve as detailed investigations into human atrocities that history has tended to ignore; he describes their headquarters as a cross between an artist’s studio and a newsroom.

This summer at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Forensic Architecture unveiled a new investigation into the cybersurveillance of human rights workers; at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, it presented new evidence in its inquiry into the 2011 shooting by London police of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old Black man (thanks to F.A.’s investigation, Duggan’s family was able to negotiate a financial settlement). A third show, “Cloud Studies,” at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery, included a major new investigation in Louisiana linking the development of land on the Mississippi River by petrochemical plants — land on which burial grounds of enslaved people have been found — to centuries of human and environmental exploitation. The day of our conversation in May, Weizman had just gotten off the phone with the Colombian Truth Commission, and had earlier taken a call from a lawyer involved in an inquiry into London’s 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. (Forensic Architecture is making a film recreating the event, which killed 72 people, a disaster that evidence seems to show was partly caused by the construction’s failure to meet fire-resistance requirements.) Meanwhile, bombs had been falling on Gaza for over a week, and colleagues and sources there and in the West Bank were in danger. His own world had shrunk, too, the cost of doing the kind of work he does; he’d been advised not to travel to Russia or Turkey after investigations involving those countries; even the United States was off the table.

Welcome to the life of a 21st-century activist artist, whose work is as likely to be exhibited at an international human rights tribunal as it is a museum, and in which death threats and cyberattacks are all in a day’s work. Forensic Architecture was a finalist for the 2018 Turner Prize in part for an investigation it presented at Documenta in 2017 involving the 2006 murder of a German man of Turkish descent by a neo-Nazi group in Kassel, Germany — in the presence, as F.A. proved, of a national intelligence agent. “In the art world, the reviews were saying, ‘This is evidence, this is not art,’” Weizman recalls. Later, it became part of a parliamentary inquiry. “And when it was taken to the tribunal, the tribunal said, ‘That’s art, that’s not evidence, you cannot have it here. How can you pull out a piece of art from Documenta, which we know is an art exhibition, and put it in a parliamentary commission?’ But it didn’t help them, and the agent that we found complicit in killing was actually made to watch the artwork at the parliamentary commission. So to a certain extent, we love it, being not this and not that. It’s part of our power.” 

A 2020 work by Decolonize This Place about how to topple a racist monument. The New York-based group campaigns against systemic racism and human rights violations in museums.Credit…Content by Sarah Parcak, 2020, courtesy of Decolonize This Place

Activism has become a powerful force in contemporary art of late — exciting, resonant, even potentially reparative in nature, rather than irritatingly salubrious. In recent years, the photographer Nan Goldin helped popularize this new era of cultural institutions as the site of active protest by staging die-ins at museums including the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to highlight the philanthropic support of the Sackler family, owners of the company that produces OxyContin. This led to a host of institutions, including the Guggenheim, the Met and the Tate galleries embargoing further donations from the family. This year, the art collective Decolonize This Place, which has organized actions at the Brooklyn Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, among other institutions, was one of the groups involved in Strike MoMA, which originated as an effort to call attention to the ties of the former board chairman and hedge fund billionaire Leon Black to the accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. In March, days after Strike MoMA announced a series of protests calling for an end to “toxic philanthropy” and for Black’s resignation, he told colleagues that he would not seek re-election for his position. The tipping point for these shake-ups in institutional power came in 2019 when Warren B. Kanders, the C.E.O. of the munitions company Safariland, stepped down as vice chair of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s board of trustees. The movement, in this case, came from inside the museum: After articles connecting Kanders to the company appeared online, staff members at the Whitney wrote a letter to the museum’s leadership condemning his position; Decolonize This Place organized protests to support those efforts and the sculptor Michael Rakowitz declined his invitation to participate in that year’s Whitney Biennial. Forensic Architecture, for its part, showed what is probably its best-known work in the United States: the 2019 11-minute film “Triple-Chaser,” a collaboration with Laura Poitras’s Praxis Films that illuminates the link between Kanders and Safariland. It includes unsparing footage of migrant families being tear-gassed at the U.S.-Mexican border and a protester being shot in Gaza, his leg ripped apart by a bullet. (The film’s title comes from the name of the tear-gas grenade that separates into three pieces in order to allow “increased area coverage.”) This synergistic response to a war profiteer’s effort to launder his reputation with philanthropic efforts felt galvanizing.

II.

We’ve always been fascinated by art that has a real-world impact. But why is there so much of it now, and why is it suddenly so effective? Art is, as Barbara Kruger puts it in a 1990 essay, “What’s High, What’s Low — and Who Cares?,” a way of showing and telling, through an eloquent shorthand, how it feels to be alive at a particular point in time. But certain times are more volatile than others, and art has risen, once again, to meet the politically charged moment, in which desire for accountability has taken hold across the culture, from #MeToo to Black Lives Matter. This fall marks the 10-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, which led to a greater understanding of the structures that uphold inequality, including the cultural institutions that prop up the forces degrading the values art and culture purport to protect. The very concept of freedom has been co-opted by bare-chested men in coonskin caps storming the U.S. capital, or legislators constraining teachers’ discussions of the racism endemic to American history. We’re free to be killed by a lunatic wielding a military-style weapon at the supermarket; we’re free to be taxed a quarter of our incomes while the wealthiest pay one-tenth of 1 percent. What use is freedom these days, really? As a concept, it’s always been of limited use, depending on where you were born or the color of your skin. It’s no wonder, then, that the conversation around art is one that calls for reckoning and repair.

Hans Haacke’s “MoMA Poll” (1970) asked visitors of New York’s Museum of Modern Art whether or not they would support Governor Nelson Rockefeller, whose family remains one of MoMA’s major donors.Credit…Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society (Ars), New York/Vg Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of the Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

These groups operate in different modes — Decolonize This Place recognizes the emotional impact of protest and spectacle (close to a thousand people attended a 2018 protest at the American Museum of Natural History), while Forensic Architecture seeks to build a legal case — but they share a belief in art as a revolutionary practice, and an emphasis on the value of collaborative efforts between artists and the public. They recognize common cause across a host of issues, including police brutality, Indigenous rights, income inequality and gentrification. (Both groups have also stoked controversy among their ideological opponents, most recently pro-Israel activists, who have said their support of Palestine has helped contribute to antisemitic violence, an accusation that members of Decolonize This Place and Forensic Architecture vehemently deny.) In the same way that Safariland tear gas can be used in Palestine, Ferguson, Baltimore, Egypt and at the southern border of the United States, or that ultranationalism and self-victimization have global reach, this new fusion of art and human rights work crosses borders of geography and identity, rather than siloing causes. As with other social justice movements worldwide, there is a collective structure to this work that serves as a rebuke to the artist as superstar, the narrative of the great man or woman as creator. Anticommercial and antiauteur, the emphasis is on the relational, a recognition that by working synergistically and across areas of professional expertise, everyone becomes emboldened to address entrenched asymmetries of power. 

What these groups also share is a belief in art that’s self-aware — transparent about process, explanatory in nature, seeking to pierce the fog of complication and misinformation with data — the tool by which we hold people, institutions and corporations accountable. That so much contemporary activist art is centered around marshaling and corralling data also speaks to our moment, in which willful ignorance is arguably more widespread than at any other time in history. In a fake news, post-truth world, in which conspiracy theories and foolishness (rigged elections, space lasers) have flourished faster than Silicon Valley coders can intercept them, data has become the de facto authority, summoned up to debate everything, from the pandemic to critical race theory to bias in general, not just within institutions but in one-on-one arguments. No one really has credibility anymore; we assume everyone is distorting information to suit their interests until we see hard proof. Accompanying the dissemination of untruths are the constant undermining and defunding of those who do, in fact, buttress factual information, such as universities, scientists and journalists. The desire for something resembling definitive truth is all-encompassing. It makes sense, then, that we would want art that not only incites empathy or starts a conversation but that makes our fragmentary, mediated world graspable and actionable. Thinking of art — in this hyperverified form, meticulously crafted — as a kind of tool against injustice is undoubtedly like bringing a flash drive to a sword fight. But it may be the best weapon we have.

III.

Inequalities are visible everywhere we go in the modern world. It’s the West Bank security wall; it’s which neighborhood gets a beautiful new park and which one gets the petrochemical plant. Weizman, 51, who is Jewish and grew up in Haifa, Israel, has written at length about the ways in which the structures of power and politics manifest themselves. “Israeli apartheid is evident in everything in the built environment, from the way the city is organized to the way that communities are clustering, in where roads go and where forests are being planted. It’s in where new settlements are being established. It’s in where there is a flyover, and where there is a tunnel. Politics is actually a physical architectural reality, it has that sort of immersive dimension. You’re in politics. It’s not something you read about; you can bump your head into it,” he says. As an architecture student, he was drawn to writing and researching; as a young adult, he volunteered at the Palestinian government’s Ministry of Planning in Ramallah, where he was tasked with photocopying Israeli documents like maps and aerial images that Palestinians could not access.

A 2019 protest in front of the Pyramid of the Louvre in Paris, opposing the museum’s ties to the Sackler family. The demonstration was organized by the activist group P.A.I.N., or Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, which was founded by Nan Goldin.Credit…Stephane De Sakutin/AFP via Getty Images

Often, though, the powerful forces that shape our lives and well-being can be difficult to see and touch. We can pull down racist monuments (the statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of New York’s Natural History museum, a locus of D.T.P. protests, is set to be replaced next year), but structural racism remains. Over the past decade, a number of prominent artists have been focused on making those unseen forces visible and tangible. Think of Trevor Paglen’s work in artificial intelligence that “sees” us, or Hito Steyerl’s 2019 video installation at the Park Avenue Armory, “Drill,” which was built around gun violence testimonials. In the case of Forensic Architecture, this “making visible” often involves deploying the very technologies that surveillance states and corporate entities use against us. Compiling data fragments of all kinds — witness accounts, leaked footage, photographs, videos, social media posts, maps and satellite imagery — they create platforms to compile the information, cross-reference it and uncover the hidden connections between dispersed events. In the 21st century, revolution is still about winning hearts and minds, but it’s also a technology war.

When I ask Weizman if he considers himself an artist, he brings up the German filmmaker Harun Farocki, an early inspiration for F.A.; Farocki was making a film about Forensic Architecture when he died in 2014. “He compared what we do to a bird building a nest,” Weizman says. “You take a little bit of reed, you take some nylon, you take some plastic, you take some leaves, and somehow one assembles shape from there. So there’s an act of construction, and in an act of construction there’s always imagination that comes into it, but it does not mean that it reduces its truth value. The truth comes out of that aesthetic work.” Using satellite imagery, aerial photographs and centuries-old historical records, F.A. creates a timeline of evidence; that evidence is used to close the gaps between probable and provable, meeting a burden of truth (something that, Weizman has said, we need like air and water). Unlike Farocki, who used security camera footage in his work to make a point about our disembodied reality, or documentary filmmakers such as Errol Morris, who creates re-enactments to show us the subjective nature of memory and testimony, F.A. makes video work that strives to bear the scrutiny of judicial interpretation. Protecting sources is paramount to F.A.; meetings involving sensitive information are conducted in a special room called the Fridge, in which cellphones aren’t allowed; identifying information on vulnerable sources is written down instead of stored on computers.

Forensic’s work assists the imagination by pulling together vast quantities of fragmentary evidence, moving backward in time to establish a record of accounting. Sometimes, this timeline can be short — the shooting of Mark Duggan, for example, transpires over the course of a few seconds; other times, it can be vast: The Louisiana investigation involves a time span of three centuries, from the first arrivals of enslaved people on the Mississippi River to today’s Cancer Alley, so named in the 1980s for the skyrocketing cancer rates among the largely Black communities living there. Increasingly, the area is referred to as Death Alley, making the history of exploitation clearer. “Our ancestors are ultimately at the front line of resistance to this industry,” says Imani Jacqueline Brown, the project’s coordinator. “Slavery,” she notes, “not only established this notion of sacrificing populations from whom life and labor can be extracted in order to produce profit for others but also literally lay the grounds for the petrochemical plants to come in.”

A rally, organized in part by Decolonize This Place, outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019.Credit…Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

F.A.’s work often physically manifests itself as short videos that closely examine their source material and their methodology. It is not visually unappealing, but it has the look of a formal presentation, almost like an exhibit at a criminal trial. The Louisiana project was, tellingly, unveiled this past June to the public not in a gallery or museum but on The New York Times home page, in a short film produced with the paper’s video team. The fact that a phase of the project, which includes 3-D models and detailed cartography that illustrate how the Louisiana landscape has changed over time, was part of an exhibition at an art space across the Atlantic from the actual site the group is investigating is also not an accident: Nearly every cultural institution in Louisiana is funded by the oil and gas industry. One irony of contemporary art that critiques or transcends the institution is just how central the institution remains to it. Indeed, the complexity of the art ecosystem as a reflection of global power is at the heart of F.A.’s origin story. In 2002, Weizman was asked, along with his partner in his Tel Aviv practice, Rafi Segal, to represent Israel at the World Congress of Architecture in Berlin. But their project, which examined in detail the spatial form of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and how their physical layout is informed by politics, was abruptly withdrawn by the Israel Association of United Architects. That widely reported censorship created an immediate buzz, and the work was exhibited instead at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2003. In 2004, Weizman co-curated with Anselm Franke an exhibition called “Territories,” which focused on spatial warfare — the way in which dominion is built into the construction and destruction of the landscape, housing and infrastructure. It was part of a shift in architecture away from flashy luxury developments and toward a more politically engaged construction, practiced over the past decade by everyone from Shigeru Ban to Rem Koolhaas, which explicitly tries to respond to issues like climate change and inequality. When Goldsmith’s hired Weizman to establish an architecture program in 2005, it was with the goal of creating an alternative paradigm to existing studio-based architectural education models, a refuge for architects that want to take part in reform and activism.

“We thought, ‘Art will allow us to do what we need,’” Weizman tells me wryly. “And then we realized, ‘No, we have another war to wage here.’” F.A. had already been invited to contribute to the Whitney Biennial when he read the articles linking Kanders to Safariland. Weizman immediately thought of a 2016 demonstration in the West Bank in which he’d participated. “I was running with a young woman toward the Israeli army, and they shot a tear-gas canister at us, and she got hit in the head,” he recalls. “And after tending to her, I looked at the thing, I took a photo of it. And when we heard about Kanders, I realized that that canister was actually something I had breathed: You breathe with your eyes and with your nose, and it’s kind of like everything is watering, an extremely unpleasant, intense sort of sensation. Fast-forward to 2017, and we realized, ‘OK, hold on, that stuff that was thrown at me is now funding our contribution.’ We knew that we had a slightly different role than other artists because we had a capacity: We had people on the ground, we had the technology, we knew that we could investigate. We wanted to turn the art world into a site of accountability.” 

The Death Alley investigation will be exhibited in October in Louisiana at community spaces, and eventually, Brown hopes, the platform will be handed off to local activist groups. While the stories F.A. tells aren’t designed to elicit emotion or push aesthetic boundaries, these things have a way of seeping in. If violence has an aesthetic, so do the physical traces it leaves behind. Looking at the aerial imagery Brown and her team scour for anomalies, clues that might indicate the site of an unmarked burial ground, she points out a lone oak — the last remaining descendant of trees once planted by people who didn’t have access to stone to mark the graves of their loved ones — and for a moment, neither of us can speak.

Forensic Architecture’s “Cloud Studies” (2008-2021), at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery.Credit…Courtesy Forensic Architecture and the Whitworth, the University of Manchester

IV.

It’s impossible, in thinking about what transpired at the Whitney, not to recall one of the earliest examples of what would later be called institutional critique, Hans Haacke’s 1970 installation “MoMA Poll.” Visitors to New York’s Museum of Modern Art were asked to deposit their answers to a question — “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?” — into one of two transparent plexiglass ballot boxes, one for “Yes” and another for “No.” Nelson Rockefeller, whose family money had funded MoMA in the first place, was up for re-election, and was a major donor and board member at the museum, but in this case his reputation went relatively unharmed, even though, by the end of Haacke’s exhibition, there were twice as many “Yes” ballots as there were “No” ballots. While the flow of money hasn’t changed much since Haacke’s day (several Rockefeller family members remain on the museum’s board), the call for transparency has grown very loud; hence, the rise of the term “artwash” to describe the way in which art and culture are used — by institutions, by the state, by individuals — to normalize and legitimize their reputations.

Activist art has a way of capturing our attention during culture wars. By the 1960s, conceptual art movements had taken art out of museums and into the wider world; that inspired the political art movement of the 1970s, as well as the ecological and feminist art movements. Institutional critique reached its apotheosis in the 1980s, when artists historically excluded from museum spaces began to take on the mainstream. In 1989, Andrea Fraser made “Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk,” in which she performed the role of a museum docent in order to mock the robber baron mentality of art connoisseurship; the video work was produced at a time when federal cuts to cultural funding meant that museums increasingly had to rely on corporate sponsorship and private donors. But in the years since, that irreverence has fallen away. In 2016, Fraser published a 950-page study titled “2016 in Museums, Money and Politics,” breaking down the donations of 5,458 museum board members to party-aligned organizations during the general election. There was no wit, or cheekiness, here, only the numbers telling their own inarguable story: The people who support cultural institutions that fly the flag of diversity and inclusion are also major donors to conservative politicians who fight against those very causes.

Then there’s the rebirth of collectives, a mainstay of ’60s-era art, which have also taken up the cause of post-institutional work. In the 1990s, the Artnauts, a group founded by the sociologist and artist George Rivera, created actions and self-curated installations in locations that drew attention to issues that generally fell outside of art’s traditional purview, from post-Pinochet Chile to the closed borders at the Korean DMZ Museum. Decolonize This Place, with its sit-ins and eye-catching graphics, draws from a lineage of activist art established by the Situationist International, or S.I., which was founded in 1957 after the French theorist Guy Debord brought together a number of art collectives in Alba, Italy, for a meeting of the First World Congress of Free Artists. The Situationist manifesto draws from philosophers like Gyorgy Lukacs to examine culture as a rigged game dominated by powerful interests that squelches dissent or commodifies subversive thinking, and now feels uncannily current.

A 1987 poster, “Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney,” by the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous feminist collective that has spent decades examining gender disparity at arts institutions across the world.Credit… © Guerrilla Girls, Courtesy guerrillagirls.com

One of the more iconic progenitors of today’s data-driven activist art collectives is the Guerrilla Girls, which arose in 1985 amid a frustration with the commercialism of art. The Guerrilla Girls, who wear gorilla masks and use the names of deceased female artists as noms de guerre, targeted spectators in public with posters and slogans that challenged the status quo using language borrowed from advertising. “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” one 1989 poster asked, beside a graphic of an odalisque wearing a gorilla mask, noting in the text that while less than 5 percent of the artists in the Modern section were women, 85 percent of the nudes were female. Then, as now, critics of these movements suggested there was a certain hypocrisy afoot, given that many artists involved in institutional critique were having their work funded by and exhibited at those very institutions. But this was, according to the artists, always the point: Rather than purifying the art world, it’s about liberating it.

“We still do street posters and banners dissing museums, but we also diss them right on their own walls,” Käthe Kollwitz, a longtime Guerrilla Girls member, wrote to me in an email (her name is a pseudonym). Their latest project, “The Male Graze” (2021), is a series of billboards that reveal a history of exploitative behavior by male artists. Their focus remains largely unchanged: “We say to everyone who cares about art: ‘Don’t let museums reduce art to the small number of artists who have won a popularity contest among big-time dealers, curators and collectors,’” Kollwitz writes. “Unless institutions show art as diverse as the cultures they represent, they’re not showing the history of art, they’re just preserving the history of wealth and power.”

Revolutions, like art, begin as works of imagination: a reshaping of the world in a new image. Nitasha Dhillon, a co-founder, along with Amin Husain, of Decolonize This Place, points me to a 1941 essay by the surrealist theorist Suzanne Césaire, in which she envisions a “domain of the strange, the marvelous and the fantastic. … Here are the poet, the painter and the artist, presiding over the metamorphoses and the inversion of the world under the sign of hallucinations and madness.” We can all agree that the world has gone mad; can the art of reckoning and trauma show us a way forward? 

The fact is, there’s no blueprint for decolonization; nothing involving people working together for greater justice is especially utopian or marvelous. There will always be disagreement, imperfection, more to learn, more work to be done. This kind of art is nothing if not effortful; it comes at a personal cost. And so, while groups like Forensic Architecture and Decolonize This Place have already had their proven successes — in courts of law, in art spaces — I can’t help but think that it’s the less measurable impact that might, in the end, be the more powerful one, as models of cooperation and correction in a cynical, self-interested and often violent world. If nationalism and greed are globally transmissible, then so, perhaps, is idealism. Accountability, in the end, means paying attention to whose suffering is footing the bill for our lifestyle, our comfort, even our beauty. The fear of being canceled is, after all, about the fear of facing those hard truths and being found complicit. The question, maybe, has never really been whether or not art can heal us but rather to what extent we have the courage to heal ourselves.

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