Andrea Steves, Gelare Khoshgozaran, James McAnally, Nora N. Khan, Sarrita Hunn, Serubiri Moses and Zoé Samudzi
Continued from part 1, this roundtable discussion on “art & strategy” (held online December 12, 2020) 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.
“Is there a course in school (not just feminist theory) that teaches you, yes, you can master this very course material, even become a pathbreaker, but someone will, like clockwork, tell you that you don’t know what you do know? Is there a lesson plan on what to do when you are gaslit into thinking you don’t know what you have assiduously learned? A module on how to go on from there? Women know how misogyny infects beautiful “pure” spaces of learning. Students of color know how knowledge is gatekept, what the “preferences” for a specific style of conceptual work really means. We know how our delight, our joy, our play, is sidetracked, taken off-road, by these delightful games of proving ourselves, by a brutal evaluative system that pins our worth to our continuous output in one register, one tone.”
GELARE KHOSHGOZARAN: With this quote from Nora N. Khan’s MARCH 01 essay, “Dark Study: Within, Below and Alongside,” (now also available online) as a backdrop, I wanted to ask an age-old question about the institutions of art and art education: Is that institution itself reformable? What does thinking with an abolitionist framework in regards to the institution of art offer us?1 By institution I don’t mean the museum or university, I mean the institutionality of art itself, and that includes the legible modes of making, the modes of being assigned value, competition, marketing, collectability, trends, etc. What does an abolitionist framework offer us, if anything, when our relationship to these institutions as teachers, as artists or as writers, is a constant negotiation of even the sustainability of the relationship itself?
NORA N. KHAN: Thank you, Gelare. As Zoé said [in part 1], the crisis is ongoing. The end of the pandemic is not the end of any crisis. Something I was thinking about a lot when we went into the first lockdown was how much my attention was going into the deconstruction and decoding of the official statement, the statement of intent, the progressive language that gestures at change when the foundation doesn’t change. Most of us have been teaching online for nine or ten months now. When we started to move onto Zoom, I thought: What is the purpose of art education? And what are the ways that I have found education outside of the institution, in spaces beyond or alongside the institution?
In terms of freedom or an abolitionist framework, within education you always have to foreground that the foundation of an art school is plagued with institutional racism, down to the critique in the classroom and the language that’s used. Next is understanding (and also incorporating into one’s pedagogy) how that violence is enacted in spaces that are touted as critical and creative and why that makes it so difficult to see or name. Many young women, non-binary and non-white students, spend so much of their cognitive energy on navigating the precarity of institutional violence, on how to name it and how to speak to it. As a teacher, and as a critic, I find that one of my roles is to be able to name with them and to acknowledge that this thing is actually happening. Maybe that is more of a therapeutic kind of role. I think I see it as an interactive form of critique. I might say, Here are the structures in which we’re working. Here’s Sara Ahmed. Read this. Let’s think about citation practice and politics and all of these things are actually happening. Amidst the precarity, I asked myself: What obligation do I have as a writer and critic to the institution? What does it mean to be teaching artistic research in Zoom (understanding that Zoom collaborates with the FBI)? These things are not separate or pure or siloed in any way. So, what can criticism be if it doesn’t turn on the very mode of information delivery that we’re using?
I think of our institutions as homes for neutralizing critical practice. We can still look around us at who is teaching and how those teachers don’t change, how the anti-Black or anti-immigrant structure of an institution doesn’t change. To that point, study (as I was describing in the essay) has been the most productive way of thinking about the work that one does while in the ruins of an art institution while still dependent on it. To study, as Moten and Harney described, is to make space while still inside. I think the space in which many of us have been doing critical work exists alongside and within ruins. We are building towards this kind of interim space in which you look back, you gather and you assemble with like-minded people in clusters and within a hostile superstructure. The strategy of making space through study and the space of study alongside and within the ruins of art institutions has really been my driving questions. How do we dig into one violent experience after another? As a teacher working with young artists, I find that my role is also to enact critique, to be able to acknowledge a form of strategy for tiny coalitions to survive through an ongoing crisis.
“Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.” – Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
ANDREA STEVES: Many people have seen the Critical Resistance Abolitionist Toolkit, right? Abolitionism is always keeping an eye on an alternative vision of the world. In the case of this toolkit, they’re specifically talking about the prison-industrial complex (PIC). This alternative vision of the world and in which the PIC doesn’t exist anymore really brings us to the conclusion that the PIC is fundamentally unjust. It must be abolished rather than reformed in any way.
Zoé articulated the importance of having an alternative vision of the future that we’re constantly gaining ground towards. We’re building something that we’re maybe not going to see in our lifetime, but we’re making abolition possible in the future. I’ve been thinking about that both in relation to art and in relation to political parties. These visions will take longer than our lives.
I am thinking about MARCH in general and both what Moses said about citation practices and what Nora said about critique and the importance of our words and our language as a sort of baseline through which we can imagine these new things. We can use our language to challenge injustice. Our words are not neutral. They can support an alternative vision of the world, or they can support our reliance or acceptance of the world as it is.
GELARE: Thank you, Andrea. Your essay in MARCH 01, “Works Fall: On Ryts Monet and Ruins,” (also available online) thinks alongside the works of Italian artist Ryts Monet and goes through cycles of movement building and different ruinations that happen when things fall apart.
Let’s put the art world aside for a moment and think about an abolitionist approach to the institutions of capitalism, primarily the prison, the police and the military. I think one of the biggest challenges with building coalitions around abolitionist perspectives is a lack of imagination and the human feeling of loneliness against the fearful unknown. I think it’s in moments of conversation, collaboration and with collective imagination that we can relax our shoulders. Then it becomes more possible to go into something not knowing exactly what it looks like and to have the courage to move towards materializing that. While we’re thinking of creating new institutions and thinking about what can be built on top of these ruins, I’m going to read a couple of quotes from James’ essay, “Critic in Crisis”:
“The strategic critic is never singular – it is not a figure, but an orientation towards the task of criticism.”
“Following Benjamin and Brecht, any individual critical practice is insufficient. Criticism must be turned into a long-range arc of renewing or remaking the apparatuses of production, distribution and dissemination, and of transforming existing institutions or building new ones aligned with the wider struggles of our time. In their conversations…they go so far as to say that the ‘thinking of the individual is “disinterested” and almost always worthless. What is valuable, i.e. interventionist, is when a number of people create “committed” arguments.’.”
I particularly responded to “political communities formed around committed arguments,” which is another way of thinking about strategy. Strategists are always goal-oriented. When I think about what goal this strategy is for I don’t fully have an answer, but it makes me think about the possibilities of forming alliances and “political communities” towards those imaginaries. I want to see if anyone wants to reflect on a need or desire for collaborative and collective working, which I have found quite therapeutic throughout the years.
SERUBIRI MOSES: When you were reading James’s excerpt about Brecht and Benjamin, of course the first thought that came to mind for me was Hannah Arendt, who studied and knew them both. She was a great admirer and critic of them as well. I think one of the saddest and most fascinating things is Hannah Arendt’s essay on Benjamin, which is kind of a portrait.2 She says that he was constantly followed by bad luck. During the crisis of the forties, Benjamin had relocated to Paris where he was safe for most of the time until the very last minute. He decided to go to the border of France and Spain and in a small town is where he took his own life. Arendt said actually precisely what James was saying, that Benjamin had this ability to galvanize many people around specific concepts, or even ideas, of forms of resistance, but then there was something in him that was always propelling him towards this side of bad luck and that was often was an individual (or individualist) route that he took. Arendt talks about how that’s also what happened to his academic career. I think that these moments of individualism are a complete disaster, but I think of Benjamin the way some people think of Chinua Achebe.3 It’s almost as though there is a group of us thinking with and alongside him over time.
JAMES MCANALLY: The piece that Galare quoted from is picking up the task of a specific journal that Brecht and Benjamin were working on. It was a fully conceptualized but never published journal called Crisis and Criticism (Krise und Kritik). Even though it was never published, there was a lot of thinking captured in their exchanges about the assessments of ‘crisis’ and its relation to criticism. They look into crisis not only as something external in their historical moment, but as something that they were looking to bring about. The terms are entangled with the historical moment in which they were being captured in, but also the way in which the world that they were operating in was already a crisis that they wanted to move through, and imagine an outside of. In their use of the term “crisis,” they brought forth the medical understanding of the term, in which crisis is the moment in which you either get better or you get worse.
Echoing what Zoé and others have said, this essay builds on a recurring notion of ‘this moment of crisis’ that preceded the pandemic. We were already in need of all of these new kinds of terms and new institutions, new forms of gathering and meaning-making. That collective sense speaks to what we’re attempting to do with MARCH. The journal is oriented in such a way that strategic thinking is durational and collective. It’s not a journal in which one announcement or one person or figure arrives and describes the path through which we lead ourselves out of this. Rather, it builds towards a collective practice. That sense of strategy or orientation towards an altered future is, I think, central to the platform of MARCH and is certainly central to my thinking.
In terms of how we imagine that altered future, what has stuck with me is Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s very simple phrase, “life-affirming institutions,” which has reappeared in organizing around George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.4 I think that when most people say the word “institution,” what they are speaking to are these formational violent containers. The addition of life-affirming into the thinking of the institution opens us up to a whole way of orienting ourselves towards the enunciation of gathering as an institution, proclaiming ourselves and our insurgent forms as institutions, and orienting to this future. There is a knowable texture to that. I think that we know life as we experience it, as we see and taste it. We know how to recognize something that is affirming life as opposed to something that’s constantly denying it. This is one way in which critique as crisis, critique as healing, may be a way to orient the institution towards life.
SARRITA HUNN: I would just add to what James already said regarding thinking of crisis not only in a negative sense, but also as a strategy itself that could be potentially productive or affirming. For MARCH’s first issue, our decision to occupy the first issue of October came about when we were thinking about the question: Can publication (the act of making public) be an act of protest (public making)? We were not just trying to get away from crisis, but also trying to create crisis. Maybe there needs to be more crisis – in neoliberalism, in art institutions – but of a different kind. Also, how can we leverage the positions we may have to make those crises come about?
GELARE: There’s also a sense of agency in the fact that we have the tools, but we’ve given up the tools to other formations, to other institutions, and for different goals. First, we should acknowledge that we have some power and that power can be instrumentalized to shift things communally, as opposed to throwing our hands in the air and saying all sources of funding, all forms of participation are problematic. Instead, it’s about going from within and seeing the possibilities, and if there are none, then we’ll leave and move elsewhere.
ANDREA: I think you’re right, and this applies to both the art world and the extra-art world. We need a political approach as a response to the way the power is currently working in the system and how it’s distributed between institutions and people. Is that distribution of power violent? Is it democratic? Is it consensus-based? Is it shared? And how did it come to be this way?
James and I wrote a piece for MARCH last May titled “Art After the Future.” A lot of what we were talking about and grappling with is the fact that there’s not really a shift in conditions, only the illumination of many cracks and preconditions that already existed in the system. For me, these questions come back to power and how power is wielded, controlled and distributed. What does it take for us to build systems that counter that – or at least start to dismantle the systems that exist?
GELARE: Let’s take one or two questions from the audience. The first question reads:
I’m heartened to hear the importance placed on strategy. I would love to hear comments from anyone on the question of organization and cultural politics, given that the institutional emphasis on individualism is so effective in deeply politicizing us art workers. What are the current past or emergent organizational forms that you see as promising? For example, the Black Panther Party, Art Students League, League of Left-Wing Writers in 1930s China and the labor union. Are there any general comments we can make about the organizational forms of struggle in cultural politics today? It seems to me that having a clear critical vision is necessary, but insufficient since change requires organization, unity and discipline. What are your perspectives on organizing? Are you interested in formations as they’re organized on anarchist lines, on democratic centralist lines, et cetera, et cetera?
SARRITA: Trying to answer those questions was exactly our motivation in organizing MARCH. In the process, we hope to continue to develop not only in the content but also in the form it takes (both organizationally and structurally) because it’s utterly important not to separate those two things. Can we start to work together to make these alternative structures, as a base for those changes? The pandemic has made clear the way that digital infrastructure is a huge part of that.
NORA: This is the first year that I’ve started to think about organizing as an art worker. There’s something about the isolation of being trapped in a neoliberal system as a woman of color in a largely homogeneous space that is a fundamentally isolating practice. And so for me, criticism has always been a way to find that affinity with other people, to test the waters to see who responds – and the second you get that bad response, you try to reorient to find another group out there.
Writing is obviously very isolating, but writing is also a way to find those strategic commitments. These commitments form the basis of critical affinity, but they may dissolve based on the demands of the moment. I think that happened a lot this year. I found clusters of affinity, but then based on stress or whatever was happening this year, I had to reorient and find my people in a different way.
Regarding digital infrastructure, I think of early forums and decentralized formations that form clusters that rise up. But your criticality is a way to signal to others who share your values wherever you are roving, whether it’s in your institution or in some global way. I often return to Sara Ahmed’s idea of critique as complaint, as a way to signal to others who might have the same complaint and then you come together.6 I think of it as a roving decentralized practice, but I also live on the internet.
MOSES: Can I follow up on that? I would like to answer a question that just popped up in the chat from Zach Whitworth that’s very provocative: “How do you define ‘alternative’ when it comes to structures?” This is something that I wrestle with with my students that I teach at Hunter, where I teach grad students art history. When we talk about institutions, we return to this question again and again. And I think I had a major breakthrough this semester with that question, thinking about an essay that Ralph Ellison wrote about Harlem called “Harlem Is Nowhere.” In the essay, he talks about apprenticeships. So we always talk about alternative education, knowing that our history is predominantly Eurocentric in its nature, art education as well. There was a breakthrough moment where Ellison talks about apprenticeship:
His family disintegrates, his church splinters; his folk wisdom is discarded in the mistaken notion that it in no way applies to urban living; and his formal education (never really his own) provides him with neither scientific description nor rounded philosophical interpretation of the profound forces that are transforming his total being. Yet even his art is transformed; the lyrical ritual elements of folk jazz – that artistic projection of the only real individuality possible for him in the South, that embodiment of a superior democracy in which each individual cultivated his uniqueness and yet did not clash with his neighbors – have given way to the near-themeless technical virtuosity of bebop a further triumph of technology over humanism.7
Ellison goes on to say that given his alienation, the individual feels that “his world and his personality are out of key.” Hence, in Ellison’s articulation of “nowhere”: “One ‘is’ literally, but one is nowhere; one wanders dazed in a ghetto maze, a ‘displaced person’ of American democracy.”8
My interpretation of these statements was that, it seems there is no true apprenticeship in the city, in the urban space, such that the “real” aesthetic apprenticeship happens elsewhere. I was very moved because I felt that Ellison was evoking an “elsewhere” that may not have existed for some people because, presumably, this was the only space they ever knew. The only sphere of aesthetic education they ever knew was urban. It was the art school. It was an art history that is completely white. It was a museum without anything else in it. So it was a very interesting space, an “elsewhere” that doesn’t exist for most people, but that actually exists for some people in memory. I thought that that was really beautiful. So, rather than seeking to always create an alternative, something that doesn’t exist, I find this “elsewhere” where we find an apprenticeship to be an interesting thought to hang on to.
GELARE: That was amazing, Moses. It’s interesting to think about Eurocentric art or art school as being provincial. If you shift the point of view, that world is in fact provincial and insular.
We have another question: “Does it make sense to shift to thinking of sovereignty schools as opposed to alternative schools when thinking about epistemic imperialism or cognitive empires?”
ZOÉ SAMUDZI: That question to me evokes the ways that Ariella Azoulay is making an intervention about historiography in her newest book, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism.9 I really love the idea of thinking about sovereignty as opposed to thinking about alternatives because what you do when you’re talking about alternatives is to reify the hegemonic as your starting position, as potential histories, even if you’re going to ultimately invalidate it. Whereas if you’re considering sovereignty, you’re doing what Azoulay is recommending by forming non-imperial grammars, completely new ways of conceptualizing in which you have the sovereignty, you have your own epistemic authority in creating a completely different starting point and not feeling pressured or compelled to begin at the hegemonic center and then to move elsewhere. I’m remembering [in part 1] how the filmmaker Ousmane Sembène said, “Europe is not my center.” That’s such an important reminder that we do not need to refer to the hegemonic center in order to legitimate our alternative, anti-imperial or decolonized ways of being and considering and thinking. They can begin from wherever they need to begin. They can begin from nowhere, right?
Copies of MARCH 01 are available in our online shop.
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.