Part One: An Historical and Theoretical Discussion of the Project
“We keep those trapped in our internal colonies, our national sacrifice zones, invisible.”1
Chris Hedges & Joe Sacco
The genealogy of community- or site-oriented art in the United States can be traced back to mid-twentieth century tendencies which sought to literalize art as a form of critiquing medium-specific assumptions of high modernism — shifting focus from the surface of the medium to the museum space, from institutional frames to discursive networks, filtered through socio-political movements such as feminism, civil rights, etc, marking a cultural turn.2 This turn was hinged on the assumption that the site of artistic and political transformation had moved from the galleries and museums into communities marginalized by the dominant culture: senior citizens groups, women’s groups, African American communities, LGBTQ societies, Hispanic communities, and so on. “Culture in Action”, an exhibition project directed by Mary Jane Jacob in 1993 in Chicago, typified this political rhetoric of democratizing art (a value advanced by Constructivists and Dadaists earlier in the twentieth century) in what would eventually be termed by Susanne Lacy as ‘new genre public art’.3 The cultural other in the United States had become the subject of community-oriented art and in whose name the committed artist, so called, contests the capitalist status quo or institutions of art — galleries, museums, the academy, the market, etc. By this time site-specificity had evolved from an inseparable relationship between art object and physical environment to a conceptual one unhinged from its intrinsic reliance on literal space.
When a dialectical prescription was proposed in the 1930’s by Walter Benjamin to “operative” artists charging them to palpably take a position within the means of production — which to Benjamin is the site where inequality is produced— thereby massifying the means to construct alternative imaginations to the bourgeois status quo, the caveat was that it was a revolutionary struggle being “fought between capitalism and the proletariat”4. Benjamin further expresses a cautionary note that “to supply a production apparatus without trying, within the limits of the possible, to change it, is a highly disputable activity even when the material supplied appears to be of a revolutionary nature. For we are confronted with the fact […] that the bourgeois apparatus of production and publication is capable of assimilating, indeed of propagating, an astonishing amount of revolutionary themes without ever seriously putting into question its own continued existence or that of the class which owns it.”5 Regarding the revolutionary struggle, I found an interesting equivocation by Benjamin to place an idea (capitalism) in antagonism to a personage (the proletariat). This may have been his way of buttressing the vulgarity of the problem. For who invents these ideas and/or implements them in the first place? But he was drawing attention to the disparity between a soulless economic system whose set of assumptions and imperatives, thriving on scarcity and exploitation, work to the detriment of disempowered masses. In this way, if it is not done away with or altered radically it can only offer what its logical outworking compels it to in the pursuit of profit accumulation and power.
Sixty odd years after Benjamin’s call, Hal Foster’s seminal essay, published in The Return of the Real (1996), juxtaposes the former’s ‘Author as Producer’ model (which reads its subject in terms of economic relations) to a contemporary model termed by Foster as ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’ which reads its subject in terms of cultural identity. Foster demonstrates that both paradigms share three common assumptions: Firstly, that the site of political transformation is the same as that of artistic transformation. Secondly, that this site is always located within the field of the other (be they the exploited underclass or marginalized communities). Thirdly that if the artists in question are perceived of as other themselves, they then possesses automatic access to this transformative power which is essentialized as belonging in the field of the other — in the one instance, people of color, in the other, poor people. Foster goes on to make the point that the inclinations of contemporary artists in the ethnographic epoch runs the tendency of committing the abominable sin termed by Benjamin as “ideological patronage” by performing their critique solely on the basis of cultural identity and not, as well, on economic affairs. Because they become more concerned with the politics of alterity, their critique is therefore done through an ethnographic lens: anthropology becomes their choice discipline as it is the discipline of social science which concerns itself with the study of culture.6
A recent example could be cited with Dutch artist, Renzo Martens’s reflexive documentary “Enjoy Poverty” — where he critically exposes this tendency on the part of the artist as well as his audience — in which he attempts to use art as a tool for capital accumulation: as a way of making the poor class in that part of Congo also benefit monetarily from their condition of poverty (through photography) as were the media, mining, humanitarian and other corporations operating in the region. karî’kạchä seid’ou, philosopher and lecturer at the College of Art in KNUST in Ghana, analyzes it in this way: “In Martens’ estimation, politically engaged art today typically changes the way artists and audiences talk about exploitation and inequalities and so forth by showing work to elite audiences while being indifferent to the work’s position within the exploitative processes of production and spectating.”7
The only people who do not benefit from poverty are the poor people themselves.
I am of the opinion that the Benjaminian imperative still holds relevant for many of today’s pseudo-ethnographer artists who mostly manage their projects in communities plagued by conditions created by global corporate capitalism. Not only must these artists be sensitive to identitarian politics of difference and human rights but they must also to come to terms with the material causes of the exploitative systems which lead to the extremely narrow concentration of economic power which create these communities as “places of intervention”. This kind of interaction with the said communities may be in collaboration with an art/cultural institution based in those communities or elsewhere and often triangulates the dynamic between artist, institution and community. Here, both the artist and the institution claim to be acting in solidarity with the disempowered community they are in relation with. Even though these two entities may sometimes exist in tension — the artist and the institution — they are not necessarily in conflict in this context since they both profess to have the same objective which is intervening in the socio-economic struggle on the side of the marginalized. But this also means that they are both prone to the tendency seid’ou talks of as “being indifferent to the work’s position within the exploitative processes of production and spectating” however well-intentioned they may have set out initially. I shall discuss this in more detail in part two of this essay.
The ominous tendency of narcissism in such a practice cannot be taken for granted by the artist and ought to be mitigated in order not to mimic the distance which determines the position of the underclass from the capitalist in the first place. A heightened sense of awareness of this tendency would be needed for any critical engagement of the situation. This also rings true for the cultural institution or organization which claims political allegiance to these marginalized groups.8 For it is this tendency that Benjamin warns against in “Author as Producer”. On this, Arundhati Roy paints a severe picture of the complicity of what she refers to as corporate-endowed NGOs in the cultural sector: “[NGOs] have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals, and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation, ushering them in the direction of multiculturalism, gender equity, community development — the discourse couched in the language of identity politics and human rights.”9
The rise of NGOs within neo-liberal corporate globalization as an apparatus of co-option attests to the resilience of capitalism as an economic and political system which is able to subsume all other sectors of social life. Here, Roy echoes Benjamin’s caution against the modes in which oligarchic elites inoculate themselves, through the apparatuses they set up, against any dissenting or counter-perspective. In short, my point is that the institution which seeks to intervene in this problem is very much, like the artist, in danger of being tamed, defanged and assimilated back into the status quo without posing any real subversive threat to it.
When we locate the production of inequality solely in the arena of the cultural we are led to think that the way to resolve it is by asserting and securing our [human] rights. The oppressor can guarantee equal rights to the oppressed and still manage to exploit them in other ways. Chris Hedges states it more clearly when he writes of the victory of the civil rights movement in the United States that “[It] was a legal victory, not an economic one. And the economic barriers remain rigid and impenetrable for the bottom two-thirds of African-Americans whose lives today are worse than when [Dr. Martin Luther] King marched in Selma. The violence of overt segregation ended. The violence of poverty remains. Wealth was never redistributed.”10 Post-apartheid South Africa shares a similar narrative of not seeing through a policy of wealth redistribution. The violence of poverty remains. Legal reformations have been won but economic hurdles are yet to be scaled as gallantly. Wealth was never redistributed.
Community-oriented art and its practitioners today cannot afford to think while sequestered in the symbolic solutions art offers to capitalism’s poverty industries. We cannot afford to think it idle, for instance, to take into account the role of which the Bretton Woods Institutions (IMF and the World Bank) have played in perpetuating obscene poverty through structural adjustment programs in so-called third world nations by “arm-twisting” governments to conform to neoliberal economic policies such as deregulation and “Privatization of Everything” — state-owned resources and industries from the sectors of military, health, financial, communications, etc. Corporate globalization makes it nearly impossible to speak of an ‘over there’ or ‘right here’ with respect to exploitation. It [neo]colonizes indiscriminately. And so in effect, if Philadelphia, for example, with a 26.3 percentage of people living in poverty11 and an estimated population of 1,567,442 as of July, 201512, finds itself in a poverty crisis, it can be said to outweigh that of Iraq’s 25% whose estimated population was 37,056,169 in the same year13 in terms of population density14. What they have in common is in the fact that both sites, Philadelphia and Iraq, could be classified as colonies of Empire; the former internal, the latter external. Poverty, in the context of corporate capitalism, is fundamentally designed and remains a condition to be profited from.
In a world plagued by violence, mass surveillance, control and obscene inequality, North Philadelphia becomes a case in point and, in my case, a site of intervention based on the assumptions of the SPACES Artist-in-Residency initiative at The Village of Arts and Humanities. According to Paul Glover, “[p]overty is one of Philadelphia’s major industries. Tens of thousands of jobs — public and private— depend on managing poverty” in this post-industrial city.15 The city’s manufacturing industry has declined over the past thirty-odd years to see a boom in the service/hospitality industry. “The Village [of Arts and Humanities] sits at the intersection of three police districts and two council districts. In recent years, every single high school in the neighborhood has been closed. Eighty-six percent of our area’s households have incomes below the poverty line. We are bordered by an ever-growing higher education institution, corporate conglomerates, and the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods in lower North Philadelphia. These realities surmount to tremendous socio-economic challenges for our community.”16 These are the socio-economic conditions which inform my community-based project in North Philadelphia.
Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist who lives and works in Kumasi, Ghana.
1. Chris Hedges & Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction: Days of Revolt, 2012, Nation Books, pp 65
2. See “The Return of the Real”, Chapter 6: The Artist as Ethnographer by Hal Foster, Cambridge, Mass : MIT Press, c1996.
3. See Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific and Locational Identity, MIT Press, 2002.
4. Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer, Verso, 1998, pp. 103
5. Benjamin ibid, pp. 93-4. Benjamin critiques Activism and New Objectivity movements of his time stating that “I wish to single out two of these movements, Activism and New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), in order to show by their example that political commitment, however revolutionary it may seem, functions in a counter-revolutionary way so long as the writer experiences his solidarity with the proletariat only in the mind and not as producer.” pp. 91
6. See “The Return of the Real”, Chapter 6: The Artist as Ethnographer by Hal Foster, Cambridge, Mass : MIT Press, c1996.
7. Enjoy Poverty: A History of its Reception, Sternberg Press, New York, ed. Els Roelandt and Renzo Martens, forthcoming May 2017
8. See this article headlined Resilience is Futile: How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty. http://jezebel.com/resilience-is-futile-how-well-meaning-nonprofits-perpe-1716461384
9. See Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Haymarket Books, 2014, pp. 34. Roy contextualizes the phenomenon of NGOs as an apparatus of control in corporate globalization by stating: “As the IMF enforced structural adjustment and arm-twisted governments into cutting back on public spending on health, education, child care, development, the NGOs moved in. The Privatization of Everything has also meant the NGO-ization of Everything. As jobs and livelihoods disappeared, NGOs have become an important source of employment, even for those who see them for what they are. And they are certainly not all bad. Of the millions of NGOs, some do remarkable, radical work, and it would be a travesty to tar all NGOs with the same brush. However, the corporate or foundation-endowed NGOs are global finance’s way of buying into resistance movements, literally as shareholders buy shares in companies, and then try to control them from within. They sit like nodes on the central nervous system, the pathways along which global finance flows. They work like transmitters, receivers, shock absorbers, alert to every impulse, careful never to annoy the governments of their host countries.” ibid, pp. 33.
10. Chris Hedges & Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction: Days of Revolt, 2012, Nation Books, pp 65
11. Black Work Matters: Race, Poverty and the Future of Work in Philadelphia, http://powerinterfaith.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Black-Work-Matters-Report.pdf, pp. 6
16. The Village of Arts and Humanities briefing packet for SPACES: 2015 International Artist-in-residence initiative. In addition, the United States has five percent of the world’s population and twenty five percent of its prisoners — it incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on the planet. The People’s Paper Co-op — a social entrepreneurship and legal advocacy project based in North Philadelphia which works with artists, lawyers, activists and community members — summarizes the situation as such: “In the United States, there are more than 70 million people with criminal records (more than the entire population of France). People of color are arrested at alarmingly higher rates than their white counterparts and African Americans are more likely to be arrested than any other racial group. In Philadelphia, where we work, African Americans are stopped, frisked, and arrested at higher rates than any other group, and 1 of every 5 residents has a criminal record. These records create obstacles to employment, housing, education, healthcare, and social mobility, while stigmatizing and shackling people to their past. While upwards of 700,000 U.S. prisoners are released each year, nearly 70% of them will end up back in the system within 3 years.” – http://peoplespaperco-op.weebly.com/about.html.