PRINT September 2004

Tactics Inside and Out: Critical Art Ensemble

"To the Research Labs, Sirs: You may be proud
As peacocks. You've endowed
Us from the start with freedoms that entrap.
We are the red-eyed mice on whom your maze
Is printed. At its heart a little cloud
Thins and dwindles—zap!—
To nothing in one blink of rays.

—James Merrill, from The Changing Light at Sandover

“IN THE 1990S, MANY ARTISTS USED the term ‘intervention’ to describe their interdisciplinary approaches. While intervention specifically means to stand between things, or to bridge a situation, in the case of the arts, it points to practices that use the strategies of art to engage a larger public.” So wrote Nato Thompson in his curator’s statement accompanying “The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere,” a show currently on view at Mass MoCA that includes work by such artists and artists’ collectives as the Atlas Group, William Pope.L, the Yes Men, subRosa, and Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). An exhibition that embraces overtly political art is an anomaly at this moment, purposely curated against the grain of contemporary trends, but “The Interventionists” ended up becoming political in a way that couldn’t have been anticipated by its organizers or participants. Weeks before the opening, CAE founding member Steven Kurtz became the target of an FBI investigation that led to his detention. His house was searched and condemned as a biohazard. This was followed by a flurry of grand-jury subpoenas to Kurtz’s colleagues under the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act. The FBI impounded Kurtz’s personal property, including lab equipment and materials to be included in Free Range Grains, 2004, CAE’s project for the Mass MoCA show. [See “The United States of America v. Steven Kurtz.”] When “The Interventionists” opened on May 30, it did so without CAE’s contribution being fully realized. Their half-finished installation stands eerily in place, with statements explaining the circumstances posted around an empty refrigeration unit. Prevented from participating in a major museum show and advised by legal counsel to remain silent, CAE were effectively gagged by the government’s wildly incommensurate response to the discovery of bacteria-laden petri dishes in an artist’s home. But the group’s tactical politics, on the other hand, proved itself irrepressible, as a network of activists operating both within and outside the art world mounted almost spontaneously an impressive, immediate, and highly effective publicity campaign on behalf of Kurtz and CAE: No one could deny that these “interventionists” had successfully penetrated the social sphere, and in a way not encountered in more than a decade.

CAE make experimental art. Formed by Kurtz and Steven Barnes in 1986, CAE was from the start intended to be, in their own words, “a collective of five artists of various specializations dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics, and critical theory.” The job of the contemporary artist is too large for any single individual, they reasoned. The labor entailed—theorizing, writing, planning, funding, executing the work, travel—could be competently handled only by a team. (After all, the proper nouns under which so many artists’ oeuvres appear are merely brand names, backed by office workers, assistants, and sponsors.) So the five original members of CAE—though membership is no secret, they prefer anonymity—organized into one entity.

Like many groups that formed in the late ’80s, CAE is a descendant of the leftist political struggles that ran aground in the ’70s. Those of us left searching amid that wreckage tried to formulate novel, pragmatic, and effective approaches to activism. Co-arising with the emergence of the term “tactical media,” CAE defined their precepts largely through their practice: “Tactical Media is situational, ephemeral and self-terminating.” Tacticians address short-term goals and achievable aims. They work collaboratively, in small autonomous groups loosely aligned with similar constellations of actors. Their approach comes out of a distinction drawn from military theory: Strategy is how you win a war; tactics are how battles are decided. The aids-activist movement, which also arose in the late ’80s, likewise adopted tactical approaches to achieve its aims. It is interesting to note that CAE’s Cultural Vaccines, 1989, a work that addressed HIV infection in the US, led to the formation of Florida’s first ACT UP chapter, and several CAE members were instrumental in its founding.

Writing theory is a central feature of CAE’s project. Their first two books, The Electronic Disturbance (1994) and Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas (1996), are benchmarks in discussions linking art to activism on the playing field of the virtual. These treatises argued that mass demonstrations and picket lines no longer seemed effective. Extensive TV coverage of the civil rights struggles in the ’50s led the yippies and the Black Panthers to greater spectacular extremes in the ’60s. By the end of the ’70s, all of it—the previous two decades of upheaval—had been reduced to mass-entertainment cliché. In the ’80s, emergent technologies—from consumer camcorders to personal computers—created a new ground: a global network society in which information became the primary commodity. On this new terrain, online coalitions of hackers, avatars, and bodies-without-organs of all kinds might possibly succeed where past efforts failed. The digital revolution not only affected electronic media, it worked directly at the level of biology. In the mid-’90s, CAE shifted attention from info-tech to biotech. Questioning corporate science’s reach deep into the human body became the aim. Flesh Machine, 1997–98—a book as well as a project combining performance and audience participation in scientific procedures—investigated how the industry of human reproductive technology revitalized eugenics theories. The on-site lab work invited participants to “assess the potential value of their bodies as commodities, and hence their place in the new genetic market economy.” With Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media (2000), much of what was written in the early books was rethought and extended, based on assessments of past practice. Molecular Invasion (2002) moved the tactics into counterhegemonic science, speculating on the possibilities of bioresistance—what well-informed “unauthorized” researchers could accomplish. CAE offer models for “direct biological action,” reasoning that people have limited resources to resist domination by corporate forces and the food industries have been rapidly and quietly overtaken by big-business biotech. It seems increasingly unlikely that consumers will be able to stop the unquestioned introduction of genetically modified foods into their daily diet. Considering this challenge, CAE ask, “How can we develop tactics using biological materials and processes?” Some are horrified by the idea of people taking science into their own hands, but consider that there are millions of amateur scientists around the world. Artists must be able to take ownership of new technologies and produce work critical of the modes of production now shaping our lives. (Walter Benjamin argued that.) Is the home chemistry set very different from the digital camera or the PC?

CAE investigate “official” science, which—not to ignore its many positive contributions to living standards around the globe—has throughout modern history been commandeered by governments and corporate interests for the purposes of militarism, social control, and even genocide. The history of science’s collusion with the gods of war is what motivates this group of proudly “amateur” scientists. Thoughtfully, carefully, and with great skill, CAE perform scientific work outside the arena of official research, which is too often underwritten by interests hostile to the needs of people. CAE’s practice is not rhetorical; they actually develop and perform research that tests their ideas in the world. They’re interested in the failures as much as their successes. The work raises consciousness by practical example.

Another tactic within the CAE tool kit is live participatory theater (as we saw with Flesh Machine). At their exhibitions they often perform in the guise of a corporation or, in one instance, a cult (Cult of the New Eve, 1999). One can trace lines of their genealogy back to the Living Theater and Bertolt Brecht. CAE’s installations are therefore in some ways backdrops to a theatrical production. Walking into the gallery, a viewer is immersed in a manifold environment—computer screens, surveys, projections on the walls, a working lab with microscopes, DNA testing, petri dishes—all mediated by flesh-and-blood performers. Of the utmost importance is the presence of the viewer’s body in close proximity to the bacteria, organisms, or biological processes moving beneath the glass surface on the table before her. Art becomes science demystified, made real.

One CAE installation (GenTerra, 2001), which investigated issues around the release of lab-altered organisms into public space, featured a machine with a robotic arm that would randomly expose one of ten plates of bacteria to the air at the viewer’s push of a button. The apparatus resembled a high-tech roulette wheel. One of the ten plates on the wheel contained a transgenically altered substance. Of course, the transgenic bacteria exposed in GenTerra—a harmless strain of E. coli, most commonly found in our intestines—posed absolutely no public-safety threat. But the audience would have no way of knowing this. Beatriz da Costa, an engineer, artist, and assistant professor at UC Irvine who worked with CAE on this project, joined several other CAE members impersonating lab technicians from a fake, environmentally friendly biotech company, GenTerra, and they engaged the audience in dialogue about the science behind and safety concerns surrounding transgenically altered bacteria. “The ability to mix the genomes of unrelated species has opened the possibility for a variety of new organic technologies. New transgenic applications will have a profound impact on the environment, health, and even on evolutionary process,” she warned. “Some of these applications are solely for profit and function against the public interest.”

CAE frighten us like an episode of Creature Feature—make us cringe and laugh at the same time. They bring us into contact with material reality—largely ungovernable, increasingly abstract, and yet not at all remote from our bodies. Fear and laughter is a critically productive combination. It strikes us with wonder. Art’s organic relation to activism lives in the germ of a poetic act. Inspired by Breton, whom Kurtz often cites, CAE know that imagination is the substance of poetry, and poetry is always revolutionary. Turns us around. Turns us over. Returns us to ourselves never the same, always somehow different. That’s the modernist ideal: Art gives rise to experiments born of the longing for something else, something new. In that longing, utopian potential always risks proximity to horror.

WHAT MAKES A WORK OF ART “POLITICAL”? I asked the artist Andrea Fraser in an e-mail. She responded:

That’s a difficult question. One answer is that all art is political, the problem is that most of it is reactionary, that is, passively affirmative of the relations of power in which it is produced. This includes most symbolically transgressive art, which is perfectly suited to express and legitimize the freedom afforded by social and economic power: freedom from need, constraint, inhibition, rule, even law. But if all art is political, how do we define political art? I would define political art as art that consciously sets out to intervene in (and not just reflect on) relations of power, and this necessarily means on relations of power in which it exists. And there’s one more condition: This intervention must be the organizing principle of the work in all its aspects, not only its “form” and its “content” but also its mode of production and circulation. This kind of intervention can be attempted either self-reflectively, within the field of art, or through an effective insertion into another field. However, I’m rather pessimistic about the latter approach, except in cases of cultural activism based in collective movements. Most other artistic “excursions” into the so-called “real-world” end up reducing that world to signifiers to be appropriated as a form of capital within art discourse.

I owe the idea of pairing Fraser with Kurtz (CAE) to circumstance: I am simultaneously engaged in conversations with both artists, and I feel somewhat torn between the two models they employ—though I don’t think their differences need to be reconciled. One is hats, the other shoes. They are not opposed. Both labor hard to extend the still-relevant (and urgent) concerns for artistic autonomy. CAE and Fraser occupy two positions along a continuum that extends from the historical avant-garde, which both recognize as no longer existing. In this vacuum, “political art” becomes popular under circumstances of pressure, when it’s absolutely necessary, even unavoidable, to recognize the inherently political nature of culture. There is no work that is more or less political than any other. Rather, movements within history necessitate the framing of all cultural production as politically consequential. We are entering a crisis moment when what is pictured and what is said carry great weight, determining the kind of life we want to lead. Fraser cares mainly about the question, How do we continue to make genuine art in an increasingly moribund cultural apparatus? CAE’s passions burn hot around the question, How do we think and respond to a culture rationally organized toward irrational ends? Both of these questions reveal the shared inherited problematic of the Frankfurt School, and both practices are struggling to get beyond that legacy. Fraser and CAE link up theoretically around the use of science. Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology is Fraser’s guiding light, while the writings of Paul Farmer and Richard Lewontin inspire CAE. For the artists in question, like their Frankfurt School predecessors, Marxism—in and of itself—is not sufficient.

An unresolved tension animates Andrea Fraser’s corpus. Over the course of two decades, she seems to have cycled through all the tactics available to creative practice in the twentieth century: irony, mimesis, collage, scientific method, withdrawal from nineteenth-century notions of “aesthetics” (which lingered long into the twentieth century). She has presented herself, in live events and on videotape, as a museum docent, a revolutionary, a samba dancer, a gallery viewer, and, most recently, a prostitute. In Official Welcome, 2001, she emptied her own body of unique substance and collapsed the affects and emotions of many art-world figures into one monologue. Through this twenty-year-long accretion of poses, affects, and tactics, Fraser has attempted to capture in a single practice all the feints and gestures of the historical avant-garde. She has led us to contemplate the figure of the artist arrested in the face of seemingly insoluble problems: As artists we continue to be alienated from our labor; our work, our art continues to be captured from our intentions. Our efforts are used to make profits for others in a system largely hostile to creativity; a system that institutes conformity by reducing the meaning of our work and the products of our labor to an exchange-value equivalent of countless products in a vast market. These problems are no doubt familiar to many of us, and I cringe as I once again list them for publication—yet I must, regardless of their seemingly permanent and intractable nature. They outline the features of an intensifying impasse that remains central to the very definition of modern art. We cannot ignore them because we are not beyond them. To pretend that we are is tantamount to accepting our own irrelevance. We are at the very least relevant, even vital to the perpetuation of culture.

For tactical artists like CAE, artistic autonomy must be addressed according to the situation confronted. I recently discussed these problems with Kurtz, who maintains that for CAE institutional critique is only one tool in their kit. Sometimes it’s not appropriate to entirely give over focus to the surrounding institutions of exhibition. GenTerra was once staged in a fruit market. Should CAE shape their efforts to the venue and explain political economy to the fruit sellers and farmers who are themselves all too painfully aware of the forces constricting their production? Institutions can be useful, and the tactical approach to art relies on a shifting set of methods deployed according to context. With CAE’s work that context often includes places far outside the art world. Or one might say that there are many art worlds at the moment operating independently of one another and that CAE and like-minded artists operate within an art world far removed from the international art market and the attendant professions and institutions that legitimate it. CAE require that all their works have apparent politics. Kurtz says that you have only five minutes with most viewers; what gets conveyed in that brief span is crucial to the work’s lasting effect.

Situation is also a key term for Fraser. The strength and effectiveness of her institutional critique rely heavily on how her gestures are captured by a commodity system. Indeed, her critique is legible only within that system. She detonates her fireworks in the commercial world, and it is there that her work is most risky and dangerous. To wage battle in the commercial field, Fraser must necessarily exclude all references to social conflicts beyond it. The burdens of her framework necessarily limit the ability to directly engage currents outside the gallery. Fraser revolts against the homogenizing conformity of the art-world apparatus by using a time-honored tactic of factory workers: She works to rule. She gives the art world exactly what it requires and demands, unmitigated and unadorned. By conforming strictly to the demands of the situation, her performances foreground an uncontainable excess of emotion. Fraser’s pathos—her irrepressible desire to be freely determining—burdens the viewers with a nagging impossible question: What do you want? Only someone who truly loves art (as Fraser does), someone who passionately rejects the latent violence against creativity (barely hidden beneath the surface of the market), can possess the concentration required to reformulate, repeatedly and insistently, an incisively precise, corrosive, and unflinching critique. There’s an enormous amount of optimism here. Fraser refuses to stop believing that the system can be different, better, truly committed to creativity. She remains one of the great experimental artists of her generation.

CAE, proceeding in altogether different ways, can also be counted among the signal experimenters of their time. They are included in Fraser’s understanding of critical art as an example of genuine “cultural activism.” Their interventions draw impetus from Félix Guattari and poststructuralism. Unlike Fraser, they reject psychoanalytic theory. Instead, they practice what William James termed “radical empiricism”: They respond to what they can directly observe while retaining a healthy humility with regard to the limits of knowledge. For Fraser, the limit of conscious knowledge is the starting point. Where political economy fails, psychoanalytic theory holds explanatory promise, but not exhaustively. The lessons of psychoanalysis often lead us directly into the inarticulable, irreparable conflicts at the core of each psyche—difficult, if not impossible, to mobilize politically. That is exactly why CAE have little use for psychoanalysis.

Fraser’s methodology allows for exploration into areas where pragmatism fetters CAE. Although they are committed feminists, gender difference, sexuality, and desire are necessarily suspended problematics for CAE. Their front-burner concern is epistemology. The nonrational areas of the psyche are referred to and sometimes engaged, but not thoroughly analyzed in CAE. That’s not their mission.

Their project is a protest against institutionalized forms of violence, against, for example, weapons research being at the center of our national scientific enterprise. Threat of annihilation—of autonomy or of life itself—is what motivates these artists. Freedom is a myth; liberty is not. Freedom is an existential category: We don’t get to choose the circumstances of our birth, and unless one opts for suicide, death takes us regardless of any act of our own volition. What unfolds between birth and death may be a small set of minor navigations that appear hugely significant only to the living. Liberty exists, however, as a matter of the social. The choices open to us, whatever their import or abundance, are determined by rules and the latitude they provide. The public sphere and the choices allowed within it are all defined by politics.

If the artist who operates within the power structure of the official art world is necessarily compromised and the artist who operates outside it is marginalized, are the efforts of artists futile? No. The tactics may have changed over the past century to account for structural shifts under capitalism, but the stakes remain the same, and the existential quandaries are no less complicated. Art and culture endure as vital arenas where fundamental social and political problems are answered provisionally. These answers provide momentary resolutions to largely irresolvable conflicts. What matters more than any particular resolution, however, is the manner in which we negotiate the conflict, whether old or new. Negotiation is basic to liberty. And negotiation is not the same as compromise.

An artist and activist, Gregg Bordowitz is the author of The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings, 1986–2003, forthcoming from MIT Press in December.