Slant

The Tear Gas Biennial

Central Americans try to avoid tear gas deployed by US border police agents during an attempt to cross the border between Mexico and the US during the first minutes of January 1, 2019, in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo: Josebeth Terriquez/EFE/Alamy Live News.

WARREN B. KANDERS DIDN’T EARN HIS PLACE as vice chair of the board at the Whitney Museum of American Art through his good taste alone. He has also used some of his estimated $700 million fortune to make tax-deductible donations to support exhibitions at the museum. What successful enterprise has made this generosity possible? Thanks to the collective, years-long effort of activists, students, and reporters to bring everyday brutality to light, we could tell you quite a lot about Kanders’s company Safariland, which does a brisk trade supplying batons, handcuffs, holsters, and body armor to police and security forces including the IDF and the NYPD. But let’s talk about the tear gas.

Tear gas is a chemical weapon: a mist of toxic particles that inflames mucus membranes and triggers pain receptors wherever it touches. The skin burns, the eyes water, the throat swells, it’s almost impossible to breathe. This is a “less-lethal” product, but can kill and has killed people, like Layla al-Ghandour, an eight-month-old baby who died last year in Gaza after tear gas inhalation; Osman Abubakir, a sixty-two-year-old man who choked to death in February of this year in Khartoum, Sudan; and the thirty-seven people killed by tear gas in the back of a police van in Cairo in 2013. After it was trialed on the battlefields of World War I, tear gas was outlawed for military use in 1925. That same year, Federal Laboratories, a company now owned by Safariland, manufactured the first tear gas police batons for use against civilians. “The use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world,” proclaims the 1925 Geneva Protocol. But tear gas remains legal to use in peacetime, by governments on their own citizens.

Because the power of protest comes from our capacity to gather and act together, tear gas is useful to the state because it forces people to disperse. For this reason, it has been used against a vast spectrum of struggles and uprisings: American students were teargassed at Kent State in 1970 just like Sudanese students were teargassed at Khartoum University this year. In a now-infamous photograph published last November by the New York Times, a woman at the border wall in Tijuana grips the arms of two little girls in diapers as all three flee a plume of tear gas streaking from a launched canister. US Customs and Border Protection—whose agents are currently overseeing concentration camps across the country—purchased that tear gas from Safariland. Kanders’s thriving company also made the news a few years ago: It supplied tear gas and other counterinsurgency equipment to police tasked with suppressing the passionate collective response to the murders of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Both the counterterror era inaugurated by 9/11 and the heightened unrest and instability since the 2008 financial crisis have led to a sharp increase in profits for tear gas manufacturers, a market dominated in the US by three companies. One of them is Defense Technology, a subsidiary of Safariland. In 2015, Safariland chemicals were launched at water protectors at Standing Rock in North Dakota, after which the company was sued by a protester because a canister mutilated her left arm. Safariland also made the tear gas used to disperse and defeat a 2018 May Day anti-austerity protest in Puerto Rico. “Your face starts to itch, you start crying, you have to run, you can’t really breathe well,” said Lucía Ruiz Cedeño, a nine-year-old girl teargassed at the demonstration.

We know all of this because many people—reporters, activists, inhabitants of Palestine and Ferguson picking up empty tear gas canisters with their hands and looking for a corporate logo—wanted us to know, and made it possible for us to know. This knowledge should have been enough to drive the artists in this year’s Whitney Biennial to make the most unequivocal gesture of opposition to Warren B. Kanders: withdrawal from the show. There should have been a boycott. 

The Biennial is a prominent platform, and the teargassing of asylum-seekers, including children at the US-Mexico border a few months before its May opening, has thrust Kanders and Safariland into the public eye. And some of the artists involved have sincere political commitments and surely feel concerned that their work is being instrumentalized to cleanse Kanders’s reputation. Outside of the sphere of career artists, the movement against Kanders has been remarkably successful in galvanizing community organizations of the sort that rarely take interest in “art-world” affairs, and the art press, too, has been largely consistent in their condemnation of Safariland. Even now, it remains possible that artists could act according to their conscience, political sensibility, or instinctive revulsion and remove their work before the exhibition closes in late September. It would be in every sense of the word a shame if this opportunity were to be entirely missed.

Only one artist, Michael Rakowitz, has so far refused to participate. Weekly protests against Kanders were led by the activist group Decolonize This Place, which has no professional connection to (and therefore limited leverage against) the Whitney. After a Hyperallergic article revealed Kanders’s connection to the teargassing at the border, there was a laudable open letter from the Whitney’s staff (signed by just one of the Biennial’s two curators) professing their horror and demanding, among other things, that leadership “consider asking for Warren Kanders’ resignation.” Whitney director Adam Weinberg replied with a plea for civility and “kindness.” Kanders himself insisted that his products are nonlethal, that he doesn’t throw the grenades himself, that riots are dangerous and bad anyway, and that he knows all this because he spends a lot of time with the police. A letter demanding Kanders’s removal was signed by over 120 critics, scholars, and theorists, and was then sent to artists. Of the participants in the Whitney Biennial, the majority of whose works have some political valence, only about two-thirds signed. (Some of the artists who didn’t sign were nevertheless outraged when the “radicality” of their work was questioned in reviews.)

A boycott would boost the force of every one of these statements and actions. But the art world imagines itself as a limited sphere of intellectual and aesthetic inquiry, where what matters, first and foremost, are inclusion, representation, and discussion. This ignores art’s ongoing transformation into yet another arm of the culture industry, for which, as in other industries, the matters of chief importance are production and circulation. The Biennial is a major site of this activity—and thus a choke point, where the withdrawal of work has potentially powerful economic as well as symbolic effects. More than just a gesture of solidarity with victims of state repression, withdrawal of work from the gallery disrupts the actual circuits of valorization—not only of the work and its display in the prestigious museum, but of the museum and its stated interest in progressivism and socially committed art. There are moments when the disembodied, declarative politics of art are forced into an encounter with real politics, i.e. with violence.

What has made refusal seem inappropriate or impossible? There has been resentment among artists, expressed privately and on social media, that the original (opaque and bungled) call to boycott or strike came from the art activist organizations Decolonize This Place and W.A.G.E.—the latter derided by some as the pet project of just one white woman. But criticisms of these groups, true or not, are not adequate substitutes for a genuine assessment of the political circumstance or what it asks of us. We’ve heard, too, that the effort to politicize the Biennial amounts first, to racism, because it places an unfair burden on artists of color, who ought to be celebrated in this majority-minority Biennial, and second, an expression of class privilege, because “artists must eat.”

This argument flies in the face of history and turns the very notions of strike and boycott on their heads—as if they were marks of luxury, rather than acts of struggle. Although in some cases made in good faith, this view promotes the reactionary fiction that marginalized or working-class people are the passive recipients of political activity as opposed to its main driver. Opportunities to collectively refuse are not unfair burdens but continuations of collective resistance. The insistence that artists alone—unlike teachers, incarcerated people, and Uber drivers—are unable to act because of their financial and professional circumstances is a career concern masquerading as class analysis. Among other things, it reflects artists’ fear of being sidelined (canceled, perhaps?) by the arbiters of art value for having the wrong politics. By refusing to be totally compliant with the demands of the institution, artists are taking a risk. That’s precisely what makes these actions impactful and even inspiring: that they have stakes.

At the same time, those who do choose to align themselves publicly with political struggles are accused of making calculated career moves in an art world—so goes the story—in which political commitment is irrelevant at best and elitist at worst. Which is it: that artists are helpless to act politically for fear of losing their livelihoods, or that political commitments among artists are blandly congratulated and even encouraged?

Many people who socialize and work in the art world regard it as an improper place for political action and are at pains to remind agitators that their efforts would be put to better use elsewhere. Art professionals seem to be quietly convinced that art is basically irrelevant to normal people and real politics (except when the two worlds are conflated under the heading “social practice”). This includes Kanders himself, who stated: “[T]he politicization of every aspect of public life, including commercial organizations and cultural institutions, is not productive or healthy.” For Kanders, both the workers who create value for commercial organizations and culture itself are not at all political; there simply is no class/race struggle, no gender violence. Adam Weinberg’s response to his staff’s open letter also denied the institution’s specific role in the ongoing counterinsurgency, with the truism that the museum “cannot right all the ills of an unjust world.” Given the situation, it seems all the Whitney can do is exacerbate them.

But artists can and do bite the hand that feeds. Two recent examples spring to mind. Participants in the 2014 Biennale of Sydney organized to withhold their work when public attention was drawn to the fact that the Biennale’s founders and chief sponsors were managing the facilities on Manus Island, where migrants were being—and remain—indefinitely detained. These offences were not new. But artists rose to the occasion by politicizing the exhibition, and the Biennale cut ties with its corporate patron. In the US and the UK, Nan Goldin’s remarkable success in spearheading a global campaign of divestment from the Sackler family, who have profited enormously from the opioid epidemic, testifies to the real power of even a single artist willing to organize with others. Now, of course, even Kanders’s most robust defenders decry the Sacklers—they’re really evil, and broke the law! But the fact is that institutions abandoned the Sacklers not because they were self-evidently evil, but because Goldin had the audacity to fight. 

It happens that Weinberg’s note to his staff alludes to another art-world philanthropist, who has since been ousted: “As one director colleague describes the contemporary museum, it is ‘a safe space for unsafe ideas.’” That “director colleague” is Yana Peel, CEO of London’s Serpentine Galleries. She was recently revealed to be an indirect owner, through her husband Stephen Peel, of NSO Group, a cyberweapons company whose spyware has allegedly been licensed to authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, who may have used NSO technology to target an associate of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who was assassinated and hacked to pieces in Istanbul last year. Mere weeks ago, amid mounting public outcry, Peel resigned. Kanders remains.

It is naive to believe that history proceeds according to a moral calculus. Things happen contingently, accidentally, among real people and not according to some algorithmic measure of worse and worst. But thankfully, when we are called to act politically, we are not only invited to exercise an abstract moral judgement, but to respond to an unfolding circumstance. When you call us up to ask us to contribute to your friend’s fundraiser, it would make no sense for us to say, “But there are millions of people about to be evicted! Why should we care about this one?” We understand that what has singled out this person are the social relationships, activities, and desires that fill our lives and give our lives meaning. Kanders may well be no more malign than many of his peers on boards around the country, and it’s to an extent true that, as people like to say, “all the money is evil,” i.e. capitalist accumulation has as its basis the exploitation, misery, and boredom of people all over the world. But if we believe that our capacity to act against this evil is limited, we should take every opportunity given to us to act.

What is exceptional about Kanders is that activists in Ferguson, students at Brown University (where he is also on the board), and, presently, staff at the Whitney, have all worked to make him vulnerable to protest. The current struggle represents the culmination of years of research, organizing, and action, by the likes of the War Resisters League and college undergraduates, whose efforts coincide with the present and catastrophic spectacle at the border. The movement against Kanders is not random or impulsive. The case against him has been building, and has now been delivered into the hands of artists, who have an extraordinary capacity to speak and be heard. As Fred Moten put it, on the subject of solidarity with Palestine, “the boycott can help to refresh (the idea of) the alternative [. . .] even in the midst of reaction’s constant intensification.”

Two of the authors of this statement have recently rejected offers from the Whitney in explicit protest against Kanders. But these were private negotiations, private gestures—which we are now making public as a way, we hope, of joining our efforts to those of colleagues and friends who also wish to contribute to putting collective pressure on the institution. We have heard that it would be impossible to remove Kanders; everything is impossible before it happens.

“If this was an instance of a #metoo scandal,” reads the letter from Whitney staff, “would we call for resignation? If this was an instance of overt racism, would we call for resignation?” Yes and yes, because the political commitment favored by the art world’s managerial class has made “radical” art party to any and all barbarism—as long as that barbarism is structural (that is, implanted in the bureaucracy of institutions) rather than a matter of the sins of particular leaders. 

In line with global politics, the art world is in the midst of a hard rightward swing. But we are concerned less with the state of the art world than with what this world does to our friends, peers, and elders, when professionalization at all costs becomes the condition of their practice. The ease with which left rhetoric flows from art is matched by a real poverty of conditions, in which artists seem convinced they lack power in relation to the institutions their labor sustains. Now the highest aspiration of avowedly radical work is its own display. Even the strategies of the historical avant-garde (oppositional independent salons, for instance) seem to have vanished from the realm of possibility, or no longer appear desirable, as institutions are treated like an omnipotent, irresistible force.

In 1970, Robert Morris shuttered his own exhibition at the Whitney in protest of the killing of students at Kent State, the suppression of the Black movement, and Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. This ignited weeks of agitation by artists, students, and workers, culminating in the historic New York Art Strike Against Racism, War, and Repression, in which hundreds joined to amplify Morris’s gesture with concrete political actions and demands. They formed pickets, withdrew their work from exhibitions, and organized within the culture industry, mobilizing against both state violence within the US and an appalling foreign war. Adrian Piper, in lieu of artwork she intended to exhibit at the New York Cultural Center, submitted a statement that resonates today: “The work originally intended for this space has been withdrawn. The decision to withdraw has been taken as a protective measure against the increasingly pervasive conditions of fear.” 

In 2014, Safariland tear gas was pumped into the streets of Ferguson in raging, massive clouds, as police officers throttled an uprising sparked by their murder of a teenage boy. This summer marks the five-year anniversary of the uprising—that is, five years of intense and even painful self-interrogation by many of us about our power and purpose in an age of escalating crisis.

We know that it’s hard: hard to survive, hard to act. It’s hard to remain sensitive to horror in an art world bored by its own obscenity. The rapacious rich are amused by our piety, and demand that we be pious about their amusements. Against a backdrop of prestigious inertia and exhausted critique, it can be hard to marshal our most vital feelings: our anger, our love, and our grief.

We know that this society is riven by inequities and brutal paradoxes. Faced with this specific profiteer of state violence, we also find ourselves in a place to act. It is not a pristine place. But we must learn—again, or for the first time—to say no.

Artforum is committed to considering a variety of viewpoints for publication. Responses to this or any of our opinion pieces can be submitted to letters@artforum.com.

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