North Adams

“The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere”

In this expansive survey of contemporary art pledged unapologetically to political intervention, curator Nato Thompson brings together the work of twenty-nine international artists and collectives targeting “racism, global labor, homelessness, genetic engineering, war.” What broadly links the exhibition’s offerings—many of them activist tools or video documentation of direct action—is the concept of “tactical media,” an opportunistic approach toward materials and conventions aimed at achieving political ends “by any means necessary.”

Michael Rakowitz, for instance, worked with homeless people to create ParaSITE, 1998, a personal inflatable shelter equipped to siphon off heat from air vents in winter. His design for an itinerant encampment, a quasi-Minimalist structure adapted to meet urban codes, is currently used in several cities and joins Kryzsztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle, 1988–89, and Lucy Orta’s activist structure, The Mobile Intervention Unit VI, 2002, to form part of “Nomads,” one of four categories into which “The Interventionists” is divided.

A section named “The Experimental University” consists of oppositional pedagogical models including Critical Art Ensemble’s scientifically informed Free Range Grains, 2004. The project would have entailed assembling a laboratory in the gallery to test organic foods brought by visitors for genetically modified organisms, had the bioterrorism-obsessed FBI not intervened, arresting one of the group’s members and confiscating materials during its perfectly innocent preparations for the show. In its place are numerous press clippings that document the resultant—chilling—legal saga. Although Thompson attempted to distinguish this grouping of artist-activists from previous generations by emphasizing its relatively lighthearted mixture of subversion and humor, and its favoring of the dialogic over the declamatory, the authorities still didn’t get it.

Unapologetically breaking the law (and with flair), the Barcelona-based performance troupe/anarchist collective YOMANGO, or “I Steal,” creates what they call “clothing for civil disobedience.” One of their multipocketed bags designed for shoplifting is part of “Ready to Wear,” the show’s third section. The fourth part, “Reclaim the Streets,” features Alex Villar’s Temporary Occupations, 2001. In this mesmerizing video the artist uses his own body to probe tiny spaces between buildings and behind gates, disrupting urban spatial organization and nodding playfully to Gordon Matta-Clark’s fascination with liminal sites and the Situationists’ psychogeographical dérives.

While the video documentation of performances helps to animate the props on display, it also raises the specter of the objectification of process-based work. Artifacts like Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle were laid out on black tiles, decontextualized and untouchable, transformed into static museum art. Yet this is forgivable, even unavoidable, as the exhibition only momentarily engages with the activist projects and gives them a second, contemplative, life. The feminist art collective subRosa add a reflexive moment with Can You See Us Now? Ya Nos Pueden Ver?, 2004, which uncovers the history of MASS MoCA’s refurbished site, once an electrical component factory now relocated to the border town Ciudad Juarez. A complex arrangement including maps, historical documents hidden beneath wooden floorboards, and an informational poster, the installation pointedly juxtaposes the situation of laborers in deindustrialized North Adams with their disenfranchised Mexican counterparts, revealing disconcerting similarities—including rampant violence against women and the encroaching presence of Wal-Mart. Rather than aestheticizing politics, this piece is exemplary of the exhibition’s success in showcasing tactical media that is at its most powerful when visually compelling.

T.J. Demos