Andrea Steves, Gelare Khoshgozaran, James McAnally, Nora N. Khan, Sarrita Hunn, Serubiri Moses and Zoé Samudzi
“We are in the period of November, when revolution seems to be over, and peripheral struggles have become particular, localist and almost impossible to communicate. In November, the former heroes become madmen and die in extra-legal executions somewhere on a dirty roadside and information about it is so diffused with predictable propaganda, that hardly anyone takes a closer look.”
In a scene from Hito Steyerl’s November (2004), we hear these words distinguish between the revolutionary days of October and ‘ours’ as the artist is seen participating in a protest against the US and allies’ invasion of Iraq. Yet, that ‘present’ is now sixteen years ago and separated from our present by a pandemic which has caused over 2.5 million deaths worldwide, global uprisings in defense of Black lives, massive deportations and barring of asylum seekers, major housing and student debt crises, drone assassinations and proxy wars, oil spills and environmental catastrophes – alongside ever louder calls for the abolition of the institutions of capitalism: the police, the prison and the military, among others.
In its inaugural print edition, MARCH: a journal of art & strategy occupies the first issue of October (itself a direct reference to the 1917 October Revolution) in order to reopen an inquiry into the relationship between revolutionary practice, theoretical inquiry and artistic innovation in our time. The issue traces radical departures and enclosures articulating our moment through eleven essays assessing the structural issues within visual art and its institutions through strategic criticism, critical fabulation and historiographic transmission, in arts education and its corollary study, as well as Black ecologies, cognitive capitalism and prefigurative social organization.
Through this process we ask: Can publication (the act of making public) be an act of protest (public making)? Can publication be thought of spatially and materially as a consequential conspirator? Incendiary insurrection? What strategies do (and can) we employ? Towards what goals? Can an abolitionist framework be applied to the institution of art? Can we avoid the pitfalls of allegorical thinking?
Held online December 12, 2020, this roundtable discussion on “art & strategy” brought together perspectives from Nora N. Khan, Serubiri Moses, Zoé Samudzi, Andrea Steves, MARCH founders Sarrita Hunn and James McAnally, and was moderated by Gelare Khoshgozaran with Human Resources (and thanks to Hugo Servantes) in Los Angeles. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
GELARE KHOSHGOZARAN: I want to start with a question about working locally and regionally, both thinking about James and Sarrita’s connections to St. Louis and The Luminary that operates from there, and now with MARCH having a broader international approach to collaboration and dialogue with other writers who are located elsewhere. I also want to think about that in relation to Human Resources (HR). HR is committed to serving artists from Los Angeles, but different artists based outside of California or the U.S. (mostly from the global South) occasionally have exhibitions there. HR is also a space where many artists in Los Angeles had their first solo exhibition and many projects that may not be welcomed in other spaces because of their relationship to the markets have found a place there.
What is the significance of working locally and regionally, while connecting with a larger network of conversations?
I also want to pose this question against the very common contemporary figure of the itinerant artist, which is a very colonial model that assumes a certain kind of mobility and privilege.1 I’m interested in thinking with you about the alternative to this, which is being rooted and grounded in local and regional conversations while being able to connect these nodes of local and context-based and regional conversations together through an international network.
There is no one art world.
SARRITA HUNN: Great. Maybe since you prompted it, I could answer kind of a little bit from our thinking with MARCH. For us, it’s very important that the publication’s form also reflects its content. When we founded MARCH, one of the things that we tried to do was to take the experiences that we had over the nine or ten years that we had been working with Temporary Art Review and implement them from the beginning in a different, but very intentionally international way.
When we founded Temporary Art Review back in 2011, for the first three years of the publication we were focused entirely on the U.S. At that time we were motivated by many different factors, but one of them was looking at our activities, particularly outside of academia and outside of the commercial art world. We were looking at artists-run spaces, alternative spaces that were happening in places outside of major metropolitan areas. We were specifically interested in creating a platform that would connect people who were active in places like Milwaukee and Cincinnati and Houston and Chicago that didn’t really have a national conversation happening. We would set up partnerships with editors in those places to work with us and tell us what was happening in their cities. We served as infrastructure that connected what people were already doing in these different places, and over time, of course, topically, geographically, Temporary Art Review itself became much more diverse.
Learning from those experiences, with MARCH we wanted to do somewhat of a similar thing, but thinking from the beginning on an international level. We also wanted to decentralize the role that James and I played. Temporary Art Review had over 300 contributors and we had worked with various collaborations and partnerships, but we wanted to make collaboration more central. So the first thing we did was form an advisory board. We have about twenty people on the advisory board now, who address things somewhat on a logistical level. We also wanted a group that focused on the editorial content and formed an editorial research group of about eight people which is intentionally much more geographically diverse. That way, the local can also be part of a larger international or transnational conversation.
If you think about the activities that are usually bracketed within the art world, as far as I’m concerned, the majority of activities are not typically discussed in a public sense. One of our goals is to give a platform to these activities that are already happening but maybe are not aware of each other. So, what we started to think about was how we could all come together from these different organizations and form what we call a collective research group that also includes our contributors, our readers and our members. We’re really trying to think about how we can collectively grow this conversation.
JAMES MCANALLY: When we talk about MARCH as “a journal of art & strategy” (and this is a way of getting to your question, Gelare), this idea of strategic thinking is implicitly implemented in the way that we organize. In other words, we are implicitly and explicitly trying to resist abstraction in the way that we work and the way that we organize the publication – not just in output, but in infrastructure. I think that’s all part of the question of how to get art writing and publishing and criticism to circulate less in proximity to public relations and promotion and marketing, and more towards infrastructural thinking and institutional orientation.
Presently, the art world takes terms, orientations and actions as abstractions. You see a word like “abolition” entering the art world right now, and it’s used as PR and it’s not used precisely in most cases. When you use terms like “revolutionary practice,” which we do in relation to the first issue of MARCH, the term has to enter through very immediate context. For me, it arrives both in terms of place and in terms of actual organizing. What is the work that is coming forth? From where? How do we consider local conditions without the abstractions of the art world?
GELARE: Yes. Thank you. And with that, I would like to move to another question that relates to this, but perhaps thinks about location in a broader and more abstract way. What happens when we look elsewhere? And by “elsewhere” I mean other histories of knowledge, thinking and revolution, as opposed to the European exports of thought and knowledge. And what is the role of criticism and strategic criticism in this context? With that we can also think about the centricity of English as the language in which, unfortunately, a lot of us end up having to communicate, but also what happens in translation and mistranslation. Moses, would you like to respond?
Citation is a form of solidarity.
SERUBIRI MOSES: Thank you, Gelare, for that question. Again, my name is Moses. I’m based here in New York, but I have been formed in Kampala and in Uganda. That’s really where my practice developed over the last twelve years. So, in some ways, part of my engagement in the art world has been a process of trying to translate certain things which I think have been very difficult to come across in explaining and elaborating. I also wanted to respond to some of the things you said, Sarrita, about the global local.
For me, the main challenge is always to try and think with Africa as opposed to thinking without Africa. I’ve come across stumbling blocks with people who are (I quote) “senior art critics,” “senior editors” in various journals, “senior curators” and “museum directors,” who happen to think entirely without Africa. I’m trying to have dialogues with them and realizing that it’s almost impossible because Africa is non-existent in their vocabulary and in their headspace, except as some stereotype or caricature or some language of fear and anxiety and confusion. I’m trying to find a solution and something strategic like James was talking about.
I think one of the ways to think with Africa is to cite African authors. Citation is a form of solidarity. I’m interested in challenging the perceived provincialism of Black feminism in the United States as a U.S.-centric conversation. Black feminist authors have often cited non-American or non-European authors to inform their thought process and theorizations. I’ll give a few examples.
One example is the American novelist, Toni Morrison, who speaks about the influence of African authors on her writing.2 Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author most well-known for his novel Things Fall Apart (1957), and Bessie Head, the South African novelist known for, A Question of Power (1974) among others. Her novels are not canonical at all in African literature but have this very deep, psychological and analytical perspective that engages states of consciousness, space and sociability in South Africa. Both Head and Achebe may have influenced Morrison’s own process in writing interior Black life.
The other author is Angela Davis, the philosopher, professor, and activist who in her book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, developed theories of orality and blues musical performance.3 Davis’ conception of the blues lyric as an oral text cites Micere Mugo’s thesis on African orature,4 who is a Kenyan playwright and literary critic and a strong figure in Kenya, and who collaborated often with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o to write these powerful plays5 and his proposal for “The Abolition of the English Department” in East Africa.6 There’s also Gwendolyn Brooks, the U.S. Poet who developed powerful, lyrical thoughts on social justice through her poetry, which cites politician and anti-apartheid revolutionary Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela Mandela.
Those are just some of the examples that I can come up with, but my point is that being in solidarity, for me, means citing these authors, making them visible and acknowledging them within the space of discourse. In other ways, it means speaking not merely of “creating Africa” as if it did not already exist. Rather, there needs to be a continual discourse alongside and with Africa which means having this exchange and mutual correspondence.NORA N. KHAN: As you were speaking, Moses, I was thinking of a quote from the filmmaker Ousmane Sembène who had this very famous spicy interview where they kept responding to a French interviewer saying, “Europe is not my center.”7 That image flashes in my mind a lot as a teacher. What happens when you take up other centers as a starting point? When we’re talking about critical art and design spaces where strategy is used and discussed, how do we use critique as a decentering strategy? And how can criticism help us deconstruct the very methods of critique that we’re using and their rhetoric? I think of that as actively decentering aesthetic standards, but even more important is the idea of decentering the universal back to you, which I feel is much more subtle and much more subtly violent and hard to locate.
I’ve been thinking a lot this year in isolation about my MFA experience since I’m teaching MFA students. I’ve been thinking about these various destabilizing experiences where I couldn’t tell why my writing or work or criticism was being dismissed or devalued, and I didn’t know the language for the superstructure of critique or the methods by which my work was being evaluated. And so, now in an art education classroom, I think a lot about how that is perpetuated and enacted in the structures of critique like an art critique.
So I think of that as a critic, as a mode of constant self-interrogation of my own or our own desires for dominating and capturing and controlling the kinds of legibility that we ask from an art practice, from our students or from others, how we construct knowledge and how theory can be enacted violently. A love of technical prowess or the dazzle of a technically proficient work can creep into our critique. But when we start look from a radical feminist framework, we see less of an emphasis on mastery and this desire to know it all or to be the most brilliant or proficient person in the room. How does that emphasis on mastery start to creep through without one even realizing? And how can critique be a way to just point to a problem and name it? What values do we bring to the work in front of us? I think of critique as very active and noisy and causing friction as much as possible.
GELARE: Thank you, Nora and Moses. Many of us have had that gaslighting experience in our first critiques in MFAs. As Moses was saying, the problem of translation goes beyond just the language. It’s less of being able to order something in a language and more of having the language to situate your knowledge within the knowledge that’s been perceived as the dominant mode, or as a center pivot, for everything to be defined in relation to. It’s frustrating. And it takes a lot of time to be able to not only feel comfortable with the language but also with situating your knowledge in relation to this language, or disavowing that relationship altogether.
And with that, I’m going to move in a bit of a different direction. I wanted to reflect on this moment that we’re living in. All of us remember there was a time at the beginning of the pandemic when we were still in shock, and we remember how it had affected our lives as art workers, and how we want to move forward as people who write or curate, who make art or think with art or through art, and there were a few published pieces reflecting on that urgency.
For example, James’s piece, “Critic in Crisis,” was published in MARCH’s first issue and is also available online.8 In it, he thinks about a crisis as a moment of great potential for changing the course of events. We can think of crisis as a tipping point and a moment that necessitates change by revealing the faltering structures on which the business-as-usual is built. Now there are more people saying, “There’s no going back. We need entirely new institutions. We need entirely new modes of working and being together.” As we know, there will be a push for the return of the business-as-usual, whatever that was. It’s been only somewhere between nine and eleven months, depending on where you are in the world, that we’ve been living this rather new life. I’m curious what happened and who can’t afford to go back to business-as-usual because business-as-usual was not sustainable. I’m curious who’s already back at it and feeling comfortable with that.
Business-as-usual exploits and extracts.
ZOÉ SAMUDZI: I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of crisis. For context, I study genocide. So, what does it mean when there is this notion of crisis as a singular event or this notion of crisis as a process of continuous events? The pandemic has made obvious the kind of capital flows and the deep inequities that are a part of art institutionality. There are inequities that have been successfully mystified by institutions and by artists themselves. Art becomes mystified when we see work existing in a vacuum, when we are compelled to appreciate art for art’s sake and for aesthetics’ sake. When the social relations that are part of the production of art are erased, an art labor becomes thought of as derived from creativity and derived from esoteric inspiration, as though the creation of art is somehow completely removed from every other relation of labor and capital that exists in the world.
Going back to business-as-usual in the art world is a terrifying prospect. There was a think piece that argued that philanthropists are dying.9 “Will millennials save the market?” And I’m just like, We can’t pay our student loans. We can’t pay rent. We’re living with our parents. How are we supposed to save the art market when we have been so beaten down by this kind of hedge money? How are we supposed to return to this exclusive system of patronage? Businesses-as-usual is an art world where discourses, visual trends and market trends are driven by people who are not creators and who actually have no interest in creation. Business-as-usual is exploitative and extractive.
When the Whitney thing happened earlier this year, a friend of mine said, “That is so 2020.”10 And I said, It’s not. I think we are just in a situation where everything is being laid bare so clearly that we are able to see what’s going on. I think that there are histories of unethical acquisition. It just became particularly clear in this moment when the Whitney was buying works that were intended for fundraisers specifically for COVID, specifically for Black folks, for trans folks, for all of the people who’ve been particularly marginalized and harmed by the pandemic. Then also with the postponement of the Philip Guston retrospective that I think was one of the saddest and most cowardly institutional performances that I have personally seen.11 In this moment where there are all of these protests happening and the museum suddenly cannot find anyone who can carefully write about why this Jewish man would feel compelled to draw pictures of the Ku Klux Klan? I think that there are some reasons that are pretty obvious, but it also has to do with how this past year has been wearing on us. I think that there was a point where we thought this year was salvageable, or we didn’t anticipate how psychologically and emotionally brutal this would be. How brutal it would be to watch the death rates and watch government inaction, and then to continue to organize and build resistance. I don’t think anybody was prepared.
I also think there’s a demoralization of watching institutions really superficially adopt these maxims about Black lives mattering and making commitments to diversity and equity, but then every time they want to do a project and you ask for money their suddenly running a tight budget and, “…maybe next time.” There’s just been so much inertia and refusal to change because of the ways that art institutionality is such a critical site of the circulation of capital. We know what the art market is used for. I’ve been revisiting Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism,12 for a piece that I wrote for Art in America and just in general, and there’s something so potent about how we are thinking about “crisis” right now.13 From 2016 until election day 2020, it was the crisis of fascism. Now that we have been saved from fascism, the solution to the crisis of fascism seems to be neoliberalism. But neoliberalism is and has been a crisis in itself. I don’t want to be fatalistic, but there’s just something so potent about this idea of us being unable to imagine an alternative. I think that’s the purpose of MARCH, that’s the purpose of Human Resources, that’s the purpose of all of the different spaces that are created, and I would like to believe that there are new epistemologies and new ways of practicing.
But when it comes to institutions, when it comes to these big structures that are so stuck in the functioning of the market, in the exploitation that enables everything to exist, I think we have to stop thinking about crises as being these acute moments and think about these emergencies as being not only long-term, but also necessary for the maintenance of the state, for the maintenance of power structures and for the maintenance of an equity. This may seem gloomy, but at the same time, it makes me feel hopeful because then I can just focus my energy on building outside of the system. I don’t know if we can change the system, but I know that we can hold one another accountable in particular ways. I know that we can do all kinds of beautiful things outside of it.
Andrea Steves is an artist, curator, researcher, and organizer currently based between New York and Vienna, Austria. Her recent projects deal with museums and public history, monuments and memorials, and the complex legacies of the Cold War. Andrea also works in the collective FICTILIS and is co-founder of the Museum of Capitalism. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Center For Capitalism Studies at The New School.
Gelare Khoshgozaran is an undisciplinary artist and writer who, in 2009 was transplanted from street protests in a city of four seasons to the windowless rooms of the University of Southern California where aesthetics and politics were discussed in endless summers. Her work has been presented in solo and group exhibitions at the New Museum, Queens Museum, Hammer Museum, LAXART, Human Resources, Visitor Welcome Center, Articule (Montreal), Beursschouwburg (Brussels), Pori Art Museum (Finland) and Yarat Contemporary Art Space (Baku, Azerbaijan). She was the recipient of a Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant (2015), an Art Matters Award (2017), the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (2019), and the Graham Foundation Award (2020). Her essays and interviews have been published and are forthcoming in contemptorary (co-founding editor), The Brooklyn Rail, Parkett, X-TRA, The Enemy, Art Practical, Ajam Media Collective, The LA Review of Books and Temporary Art Review, among others.
James McAnally is a strategic critic and dependent curator based in St. Louis, MO. He is the co-founder and editor of MARCH: a journal of art & strategy, the co-founder and director of The Luminary, an expansive platform for art, thought, and action, and a founding member of Common Field, a national network of independent art spaces and organizers.
Nora N. Khan is a writer of criticism. She is on the faculty of Rhode Island School of Design, Digital + Media, teaching critical theory, artistic research, writing for artists and designers, and technological criticism. She has two short books: Seeing, Naming, Knowing (The Brooklyn Rail, 2019), on machine vision, and with Steven Warwick, Fear Indexing the X-Files (Primary Information, 2017), on fan forums and conspiracy theories online. Forthcoming this year is The Artificial and the Real, through Art Metropole. She is currently an editor of The Force of Art (Valiz) along with Carin Kuoni, Serubiri Moses,and Jordi Baltà Portolés, and is a longtime editor at Rhizome. As The Shed’s first guest curator, she organized the exhibition Manual Override, featuring Sondra Perry, Simon Fujiwara, Morehshin Allahyari, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and Martine Syms. Her research and writing practice extends to a large range of artistic collaborations, which include librettos, performances, and exhibition essays, scripts, and a tiny house.
Sarrita Hunn is an interdisciplinary artist, editor, curator and web developer whose often collaborative practice focuses on the culturally, socially and politically transformative potential of artist-centered activity. She is the co-founder of MARCH, a journal of art & strategy; artistic coordinator for Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art; and managing editor of artbrain.org. Additionally, she is the co-chair of Liebe Chaos Verein, and founding member of Cypher Sex.
Serubiri Moses is an independent writer, curator, and educator based in New York. He is co-curator of the 5th perennial contemporary art survey, Greater New York (2021), founded in 2000 at MoMA PS1, Long Island City, and previously was on the curatorial team of the 10th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art (2018). His current research focuses on theories in African visual art and art exhibitions.
Zoé Samudzi is a writer and doctoral candidate in Medical Sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, Art in America, The New Inquiry, The Funambulist, and other places, and she is a contributing writer at Jewish Currents. Along with William C. Anderson, she is the co-author of As Black as Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Our Liberation (AK Press, 2018). She is currently a fellow with Political Research Associates.