The New York–based Racial Imaginary Institute examines the idea that race is a construct for all of us. Spearheaded by the poet, essayist, playwright, and 2016 MacArthur fellow Claudia Rankine, the institute plans to host exhibitions, performances, lectures, and talks. It is an antidote but not a rejoinder to the new administration in Washington, DC, because, as Rankine notes below, “Trump is not the beginning of this; he’s just a blatant manifestation of it. It was in the air for a long time.”
Here, she discusses her plans with artforum.com managing editor Lauren O’Neill-Butler.
LAUREN O’NEILL-BUTLER: Where does the institute currently stand?
Claudia Rankine: We have a curatorial team, which seemed to make sense since what we want to do is curate events. This team includes Casey Llewellyn, Beth Loffreda, Monica Youn, LeRonn Brooks, Meg Onli, Margo Okazawa-Rey, and Sara’o Bery. And we have an advisory board. Right now, we are getting ready to launch our website, which will be our online home.
LOB: Will it be a roving, mobile space before you set down roots?
CR: Yes, until we find the space. We have had a number of people offer space to us. It’s been lovely actually. Tilton Gallery and Howl Gallery down in the East Village. The Brooklyn Historical Society as well, for talks, and things like that. We are also partnering with the Institute of Contemporary Art at University of Pennsylvania. The rush to find a site is no longer as immediate because we’ve had people come forward.
LOB: You mentioned that you want the institute to be among the galleries in Chelsea.
CR: Yes, it’s still what we’re looking forward to doing, but it’s an expensive endeavor, so it’s a step at a time.
LOB: Is is there an intention to appeal to people in the New York art world specifically?
CR: It’s not a question of location but it is a question of being in dialogue. Culture drives a lot of things, including our understanding of who we are. It’s certainly the gestalt that tilts our perceptions of self and other. I think it’s important that we not be missed, and placement is important to me. It would have been easier for me to bring it to an academic space. I would have had more access and things would have moved much more quickly, but then we would have been inside an elite and closed space, and it would be harder to enter the mainstream, which is basically where we want to be. I mean, what would be lovely is if one of these galleries just had an extra space that they would let us use as an extension of their own programming…
LOB: I’m imagining a visitor looking at Robert Ryman paintings, at Dia, for instance, and then maybe stepping into the institute to hear a dialogue on whiteness that could affect their perception of the whiteness of those works.
CR: Exactly, so that you could have a framing. One of the things I love about Toyin Ojih Odutola’s paintings is that she is asking us to think about what it means to color a colored person or a black person or a white person. I went to her recent show at Jack Shainman and there was Prince Charles, in black pen and pencil, but still as presented as white as you remember him. How that whiteness traveled through this black surface was interesting to me.
We are bombarded with images of whiteness all the time, but not framed as whiteness. Instead they are framed as normality, as American life, as suburban life, as extreme wealth, but never as this thing called whiteness. What does it mean to make work that has that conversation as part of its making?
LOB: You’ve talked about going into an art bookstore and asking to see the books on whiteness, and no one could find them for you.
CR: The person working there looked at me like it was crazy. He was like, “What are you talking about?”
LOB: But if you had said blackness he might have pulled out several books.
CR: Exactly. That white thing: White people aren’t considered “white artists.” And that means that what they do is transcendent. This is art of the highest order. Yet, there are many books on whiteness—by Richard Dyer, by Nell Painter, and more.
Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Treatment I, 2015, pen ink, gel ink, and pencil on paper. 12 x 9”.
LOB: Whiteness is also being manipulated by the so-called “alt-right” as well.
CR: The way American culture has made words like white supremacy, white dominance, and whiteness such a non-thing contributes to why there’s so much surprise about our new administration. Because now you actually have people in the administration who are white nationalists and no one knows what to do with that. The campaign to keep all of this silent and to transform it into a state of normalcy, rather than the state of whiteness, has worked.
LOB: What would you say to someone who thinks this is intrinsic to capitalism?
CR: It would make me feel better if I could think that this was really about the economy, or capitalism writ large. But I don’t think so. The KKK was real. It was formed immediately after the Civil War—immediately. The black codes were real, and they were formed with the intent of keeping people of color out of the economy and destabilizing their ability to have any kind of normalcy in terms education, housing, and other aspects of their lives. So while I would like to believe the rhetoric around capitalism and the economy driving all of this, I just don’t. A good example is the people who are on the Affordable Care Act who say they want to keep it but who also want to get rid of “Obamacare.” They understand that the ACA is useful to them, but they don’t want anything that is proximate to blackness near them. That’s not about the economy.
LOB: When did the institute begin for you?
CR: Basically, when it occurred to me that we as a culture have no practice talking about race. The minute race comes up, everybody is armed and defensive, and all social graces disappear, the camps are formed. So at that moment, instead of responding to what was coming at me, I just thought, “Why don't we take a minute and talk about why we don't know how to do this?”
I did a call for people to write about why they do or won’t write about race. And those essays became the book I then edited with Beth Loffreda and the artist Max King Cap in 2014, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. The idea that Beth and I had at the time was that we would go on. We weren’t calling it an institute, but we were asking, “Why don’t we have a kind of online collection of art and response and dialogue around this?” We were thinking it would be like Siskel and Ebert or something where we’d be like, “So such and such a film just came out, and how does it address race?” Or, “I saw this show, and she was doing this with race.”
Around that time, I published Citizen. I had no idea that it would become such a public book. It meant that many things I was moving ahead with got put aside. And that lasted longer than I anticipated. Suddenly 2014 was 2016. But then things started to quiet down, relatively speaking. And then I thought, wait, this might be the time for us to start this again.
It didn’t happen in response to Trump. Because Trump is not the beginning of this; he’s just a blatant manifestation of it. It was in the air for a long time.
LOB: Is there a mission statement?
CR: Yes, here goes:
Race is one of the prime ways history lives in us.
Our name “racial imaginary” is meant to capture the enduring truth of race: It is an invented concept that nevertheless operates with extraordinary force in our daily lives, limiting our movements and imaginations. We understand that perceptions, resources, rights, and lives themselves flow along racial lines that confront some of us with restrictions and give others uninterrogated power. These lines are drawn and maintained by white dominance even as individuals and communities alike continually challenge them.
Because no sphere of life is untouched by race, the Institute gathers under its aegis an interdisciplinary range of artists, writers, knowledge-producers, and activists. It convenes a cultural laboratory in which the racial imaginaries of our time and place are engaged, read, countered, contextualized and demystified.
LOB: What kind of shows are you envisioning?
CR: We’re depending on the kindness of strangers. People are loaning work to us for the shows. At this point, we’re asking artists to make pieces for us with the considerations I just outlined in mind. We’ve also had many people come to us and say, “This is my work, it might be of interest to you.” Some of us are artists too so we are making work thinking about it.
I can show you a piece that I’m working on. I’ve been trying to think of a thing in our culture that we all partake in, and yet which always lands in the same place. For me, blondeness is one of these things. The minute you think blonde, you’re going to think white. Even if you see it as freedom, if you see it as beauty, if you see if as youth, it creates its own lexicon around whiteness—so whiteness is freedom, whiteness is beauty, whiteness is youth, whiteness is desirability. I’m also fascinated by blondeness as something that is used in white supremacy as a signal of purity, but now it’s been taken up by everyone, and in a way that doesn’t even pretend to suggest that I was born this way. And so I made these stamps. We’re going to start mailing them out.
And I hope this is what artists will do—think about extending their practice in a way that is in dialogue with how whiteness functions in the culture.
LOB: The institute’s audience is everyone.
CR: Yes, and if that weren’t the case then I could have stayed in academia. It was the academic institutions that created the false histories, language, and science around whiteness, race, and blackness. That allowed the justification of dehumanizing and killing populations. Even when it was then debunked as fabricated, it didn’t matter. It was already in the water. And that was that.
Sometimes people ask me, “Why aren’t you angry with white people?” But I think it’s not individuals. It’s the culture itself. People are born into this. I also think that people believe in their goodness and they think they’re good people. They don’t identify as a community of whiteness because that’s part of how whiteness is constructed. White people are individuals. They don’t belong to the community of whiteness. So to speak about a community of whiteness is appalling to them because they’re individuals, they’re good people.
There’s a fantastic critic named Robin DiAngelo. She’s responsible for the phrase “white fragility,” which is the sense that people are so sensitive to being called out that their responses will go everywhere from tears to murder. She says that what white people should do is begin from the place where they know they’re racist. That is, if white people could just accept the fact that they’re racist because they’re part of a racist culture, and that they belong to a group that has been bred on internalized dominance—that’s her phrase—then we could start to have actual discussions about what’s going on.
Tricky, “Brand New You're Retro,” 1995.
FOR MANY PEOPLE, 2016 was the year that a fantasy of progress contorted into exasperation: “I can’t believe it’s 2016 and people are still racist!” This feeling of belatedness is always beginning to give way to the evident fact that the passage of time alone, in either personal or collective historical life, is not enough to fix catastrophes. For a wound to heal, its cause has to stop. Thus transatlantic slavery, to give an important example, keeps insisting on its unhealed historical reality. An optimistic astonishment that a Black president was just as capable of presiding over drone bombings and lethal police as any other is now mirrored in the astonishment that not every single one of Trump’s outrages originated with his presidency, with many repeating the forms of oppression established by former US presidents. The disaster has already happened, and this is all aftermath.
For all the comparisons to European fascist dictators, a very uncomfortable truth is appearing in wider view: The USA is a white supremacist state since its foundation; the USA is white supremacy in action, alongside its allies, like my home country of Britain. Previous presidents have invoked an inhuman humanist ideology even while killing, imprisoning, disabling, and impoverishing millions. Trump’s shit feels new because he does not pretend to believe in the things these other presidents pretended to believe in: due process, checks and balances, careful paraphrases, inclusion. Because all these things have comfortably coexisted with horror, my anxiety at their collapse feels complicated, like I thought I’d pulled up all the roots of my habitual attachment to the present social order but find them still there, springing back like weeds, a truth about myself. Yet, despite the apparent novelty of all-American fascism, Trump’s shit feels old because it is old. Capitalists have been eating us alive for a very long time.
These monstrous times are primarily creations of the white imaginary: If “Jihadi Obama,” as the frog people call him, can be president, why not an elderly Hitler-cosplay kleptocrat? If Black people can rise up with the demand that the police stop killing them, the red hats ask themselves, why can’t white people rise up with the demand that they be allowed to kill whoever they like? When and where the glossy surface of capitalism frays, the apocalyptic and communal tendencies that are its contradictory engine get exaggerated. At all moments of capitalism, even without a Trumplike goblin to fan the flames, it rolls along at a frenetic pace of death-production, trapping people in poverty, labor, and disease.
If goodness is a category that cannot comfortably include the perpetrators of genocide, mass incarceration, and slavery, then there has never been a good president, although some do more violence than others. Some people have known this forever, but knowledge is complicated and doesn’t proceed naturally from either identity or experience.
What once appeared to me as ancient history giving a shimmer of interest to the family tree—the camp, the ship, the plantation—lately reveals itself as a continual unfolding in the present and the future. No one is inherently safe from the violence of capitalism, and whiteness is a violently upheld dream that safety is real. What once appeared as to-come—the fascist dystopia—in fact lies behind and all around us. Some people are smart or hurt enough to have known since forever how nothing has ever stopped happening, that the genocides and exclusions are ongoing and as urgent as when they were first enacted. How are the rest of us to grasp this gridlocked time? To understand the nature of capitalist society we must understand its foundational and ongoing violences. To understand our relation to the governments who issue our passports and regulate our lives, we collectively reencounter a deep and long-ago pain, as if for the first time. Though it can feel apocalyptic, this pain or fear of pain is not the end of the world, because there has never been a world: The image of a coherent world, a supplement to the ideology of whiteness, is upheld in the violence of the border, the nation, even the law. Let it go. In place of a world there is the disorganized and proximate texture of the everyday; there are close friends and closer enemies. There is the particular body. There is this room.
In an atmosphere of delirious threat, the newspapers report the President’s every move, from drone bombings to tweets, as if it were an extraordinary and never-before-seen phenomenon. “Fake news” and “alternative facts” abound, new terms for propaganda, and retroactively reveal a truth that you could learn in a high school classroom: that news, like history, is partial and partisan and has always been so. Everything that seems self-evident can be turned slightly and, in this altered light, appear as its opposite. And there is always the everyday shrug, the gaze that trains itself on the minute and pressing difficulties of everyday life, that get bigger and bigger the broker you are.
But it’s hard to shake the feeling of past and future, of better and worse. Last summer I was panicked by the Brexit referendum vote. All the various forms of dispossession that are my possession, my inheritance, loomed large in my head and just like in childhood I was delivered back to a fear of imminent apocalypse. I spoke to myself sternly: Go to Black neighborhoods where helicopters circle above and residents can be stopped by police at any moment for a list of infractions that include “furtive movements”—go there and say that you’re worried that there’s been a fascist coup. Go to Aleppo, to its ruins, and say you’re worried about the apocalypse.
Go anywhere and tell them that you think something bad might be happening. Everyone already knows, but it’s nice to be together and talk. I tell myself I won’t look at the news today. I have to work. In a cafe near Prospect Park, two strangers at a nearby table are in an intense discussion: “This atmosphere of white supremacy…” is the fragment I overhear. I get an email from my lawyer: “…the problems that some Iranian clients are having, which is a very sad reflection on the values of our country.” I go to buy a phone-charger, the salesman tells me he’s Pakistani but has been here for twenty years. “So you’re American now,” I say, making small talk. “After this week, I don’t even know any more,” he says, and we both laugh, for no reason at all. On a Facebook thread some people in London are horrified that an anti-deportation protest might disrupt train schedules. My friends are sad and afraid.
Environmentalists make much of the long historical time in which the full expanse of human life from the earliest peoples up until now has all taken place in the blink of an eye. In this long time, we are still reeling—a word that means both a dance and the preparation for a fall—from the catastrophes of transatlantic slavery and colonialism. This atmosphere of aftermath has been theorized by Christina Sharpe as in the wake of the slave ship. This prevails literally as our presence here, which comes after the slave ship, after the Holocaust, after the settler colony, and so on.
It’s too late and he just got started. It is too late even though we only just got started. It is too late even though many of us are young. It is too late, but it has been too late for a long time, and everything that happens is fated to happen belatedly, after its time, after its proper use. And yet we will go on finding belated uses for all the things rendered useless by their wrong time.
Hannah Black is an artist and writer from the UK.
Andreas Angelidakis, Antonio Negri, and Paul B. Preciado at the opening of the Public Programs of Documenta 14 at Parko Eleftherias, September 14, 2016. Photo: Stathis Mamalakis.
ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE MOMENT: Greece is at the center of a convulsion in global capitalism. Athens, the birthplace of democratic ideals, experienced one of the earliest documented economic crises in the Western world, in the fifth century BCE. Even now, as an early warning sign of things to come for the European Union—and the epicenter of the biggest refugee crisis in history—Greece is a natural case study. Adding to the fracas is the inauguration this April of one of the world’s largest art exhibitions, Documenta 14: “Learning from Athens (Working Title),” directed by Adam Szymczyk.
Szymczyk proposed the concept for his edition of the Kassel, Germany–based quinquennial after attending the opening of the fourth Athens Biennale, in October 2013. Titled “Agora,” it took place in the city’s former Stock Exchange building and largely eschewed the exhibition format in favor of an open forum for the exchange of ideas. “I am trying to figure out a way to move to Athens,” he said at a tavern later that night amid a euphoric, rowdy crowd infused with copious wine and raucous rebetiko.
Initiated in 2007, the Athens Biennale has inhabited any number of evocative unoccupied spaces, from structures built for the 2004 Summer Olympics to a former gasworks, now a municipal cultural center called Technopolis. “Nobody could foresee the crisis in 2007,” said cofounder Poka-Yio. “The name, ‘Destroy Athens,’ was like a premonition.” Last summer the no-exhibition model of the Athens Biennale reached its apex in “Omonoia,” intended to unfold over two years in a series of meetings, or “synapses,” under the leadership of Massimiliano Mollona, an anthropologist specializing in labor politics. At the inaugural conference it was already apparent that art-world habits of exclusivity conflicted with desires to promote social change. Later an anarchist group running a refugee squat refused to collaborate, among others, thwarting the biennial’s attempt to incorporate political and community groups around the city.
It was clear by last summer the format was not working, and Mollona resigned, followed by biennial cofounder Xenia Kalpaktsoglou, leaving Poka-Yio to pick up the pieces of an ambitious show with few resources and appoint Whitechapel curator Nayia Yiakoumaki as new director of research and international networks. The next edition, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” will open in April 2017 as an exhibition cocurated by and around the work of Romany artist Delaine Le Bas and her family archive, displayed in the suggestively decaying Bageion Hotel and other vacated ruins around the central Omonoia neighborhood. “From postwar depression and civil-war damage to a society of false prosperity, the buildings are emblematic of what’s happened in Greece over the years,” said Yiakoumaki.
Spaces left empty by the crippled economy are an open invitation to artists and curators, who have filled in the gaps with DIY residency and exhibition programs, often financed through crowdfunding. Creative collectives are proliferating. Daily Lazy—currently comprising artists Stelios Karamanolis, Irini Miga, Tula Plumi, and Yorgos Stamkopoulos—began as a blog with nomadic exhibitions and will soon launch a space in the basement of the café-bar Εφημερίδα (Newspaper). “Like it or not, Greeks have had to reinvent themselves and find new means of working and exhibiting,” said curator Christopher Marinos. Sited in a former parking garage owned by artist Vasilis Papageorgiou’s family, Enterprise Projects alternates between studio and exhibition space. Founded in 2012 by artists Paki Vlassopoulou, Chrysanthi Koumianaki, and Kosmas Nikolaou, the storefront 3137 Office showcases collaborative projects, most recently “After the explosion…you hear the light,” a series of discussions and exhibits focused on revolutionary art practices of the 1970s. Many Greek artists have returned from living abroad, including Georgia Sagri, who spearheads Ύλη[matter]HYLE, “a semipublic, semipersonal space that aims to bring together art, politics, and sciences” in an apartment building populated mostly with the brass plaques of former tenants.
Foreign creatives are moving in, attracted by the mild climate and low cost of living, with the idea that they can somehow withdraw from or at least mediate their participation in the commercial market. Documenta has injected a sense of excitement into this system, and the anxious political situation offers plenty to talk about—or, more cynically, to be “inspired by,” most famously for Ai Weiwei, who followed his controversial work about asylum-seekers on Lesvos with an exhibition last summer at the Museum of Cycladic Art. German artists Lukas Panek and Paul Makowsky found the premises for Super—opened in October with “Free Drinks”—on a real-estate website before ever setting foot in Athens. Around the corner, French architect Matthieu Prat resides in an unfinished building as a collaborative design experiment called Kassandras, initiated in a 2016 workshop with students from Prague’s Academy of Art, Architecture, and Design. Currently he and British artist Navine G. Khan-Dossos are working with residents of the Eleonas refugee camp to design a communal space with tables for playing távli (Greek backgammon), a game that is common across the Near East.
Yiannis Pappas in “As One” at the Benaki Museum, March 10, 2016. Photo: Cathryn Drake.
Public funds have disappeared along with the market. The National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) has sat empty since its completion in early 2014. First the pristine white elephant caused rancor in the art world after the firing of founding director Anna Kafetsi, seen by many as a casualty of the Piraeus Bank president’s spouse’s desire to control the $35 million structure. The retrofit of the Fix Brewery building, truncating the impressive horizontal lines of Takis Zenetos’s original modernist structure, has been roundly criticized too. Current director Katerina Koskina has braved the troubled waters, and last October finally succeeded in mounting a show, “Urgent Conversations: Athens–Antwerp,” which intertwined the collections of EMST and Belgium’s MuHKA. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Minister of Finance and principal player in the 2015 negotiations over the Greek debt crisis, attended the opening with his wife, artist Danae Stratou, who contributed the immersive 2004 video installation The River of Life. Critic Margarita Pournara, in the newspaper Kathimerini, noted however that it was hardly cause for celebration: Only a portion of the building had opened, more than a decade late, and the collection will not be accessible for at least most of next year while Documenta uses its spaces. Culture minister Aristides Baltas was sacked just a couple of days after appearing at the show’s inauguration and replaced by actress Lydia Koniordou.
Private foundations such as Cypriot collector Dakis Joannou’s Deste and the Neon Organization, founded by collector Dimitris Daskalopoulos, are taking up the slack in arts funding. This includes mounting major international exhibitions in places like the cash-strapped Benaki Museums, taken over last spring by Marina Abramović’s “As One,” a showcase for young Greek performance artists organized by Neon. The annual grants awarded by Outset Greece, a program sponsored by Neon, have been the driving force behind most recent local activity. It provides support for Radio Athènes, a new nonprofit launched by Helena Papadopoulos; State of Concept, founded by curator Iliana Fokianaki, which hosts projects with emerging artists and curators from Greece and abroad; and curatorial duo Locus Athens, whose show “The Thickness of Time” is currently reanimating the spaces of the former foreign press club with films by six artists and a revival of its vintage bar.
Into this dynamic milieu landed the spaceship Documenta, greeted by many with enthusiasm, while others viewed it as a mission dispatched by an alien race to study a troubled, once seminal civilization. Almost immediately, a group of young artists expressed skepticism in a declaration stenciled on city walls: DEAR DOCUMENTA: I REFUSE TO EXOTISIZE MYSELF TO INCREASE YOUR CULTURAL CAPITAL. SINCERELY, THE NATIVES.
In September, the writer and philosopher Paul B. Preciado kicked off the first events of Documenta 14’s public program, “Parliament of Bodies: 34 Exercises of Freedom,” in a former Greek Military Police headquarters used for interrogation and torture under the junta in what is now called Freedom Park, a block away from the US embassy. Amid modular seating designed by Andreas Angelidakis to evoke the ruins of the Pnyx, artists, academics, and activists have been presenting lectures on subjects such as international arms trading, conducting digital-detox meditation sessions, and even leading a “Torture and Freedom Tour of Athens.” The Apatride Society of the Political Others, an ongoing forum for disenfranchised peoples—such as those compelled to migrate across the borders of gender or nations—recently gathered the heads of local immigrant organizations to air concerns, for example, over the inability to get citizenship for children born in Greece.
The Greek press responded with scathing reviews, questioning its relevance to a nation searching for practical solutions as the refugee crisis reaches critical proportions and camps have become ghettos with unacceptable living conditions. Stefanos Kasimatis, a political writer for the mainstream Kathimerini, made fun of a session on ecosex led by Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle as promoting “masturbation al fresco” and argued that the Documenta curators express aversion to the very capitalists who pay their “fat salaries.” As always, but especially here, art is unavoidably politics: While the German-funded Documenta 14 aims to give voice to subjugated populations, Angela Merkel is teaching beleaguered Greece a lesson and German corporations are snatching up Greek companies, including newly privatized airports and a major phone company. “The criticism is that they are not really dealing with the Greek issues, what’s happening now,” explained Neon’s director, Elina Kountouri. “What got them into trouble is the title, Learning from Athens, which created a lot of expectations.”
View from Documenta workshop at the Polytechnic School, sculpture commemorating student deaths on November 17, 1973, by Memos Makris. Photo: Cathryn Drake.
As it happens, Documenta is learning how to navigate the tricky realities of a country that has suffered centuries of colonizers and untrustworthy governments. “The most controversial point is the fact that they are occupying historically loaded spaces,” said Elpida Rikou, cofounder of the anthropological research study Learning from Documenta, established by professors of Athens’s Panteion University. During former President Barack Obama’s visit in November, violent protests exploded on the street outside of Documenta’s workshop at the Polytechnic School, located just inside the gate demolished by government tanks in 1973 to crush the student uprising against the CIA-backed junta. Last month Preciado fielded concerns at the think tank’s panel “The Politics of Curating,” characterizing the very production of the exhibition in Athens as an act of protest. “There is a struggle between the institution of Documenta and the project of Documenta 14, and this is not a smooth relationship,” he explained. “We are learning what Athens means beyond the city itself as a cultural question for Europe today,” he added, “and we won’t be able to fully understand it until we go through the whole process of making the exhibition.”
“So far the most important thing Documenta is offering the city is this engagement in the conversation, even argument, between people who are trying to answer all these questions,” The Breeder’s George Vamvakidis concluded. “Even the bad reviews and criticism are positive because it’s energy being circulated.”
Indeed, Athens is a gregarious organism bursting with connections and contradictions, fermentation and disorder. The street corners and cafés are still the best place to get news—and that is why, to learn anything true, you must stay a while. This much we know: The revolution won’t be funded, and this spring Documenta will mount a spectacular exhibition throughout city museums and archaeological sites. “Everyone is triggered by Documenta and is programming around it,” Yiakoumaki says. There will still be much more to discover in the open city—and there may be a new government, and even currency, by then too.
Cathryn Drake is a writer based in Athens.
Ridykeulous, It’s NOT What You Think It is: Banksters, Pineal Glands and Microtubules, Examined in a Meandering, Friendly, Nonlinear, Nonclinical Way (From Pineal to Penile to Penal: Western Civilization at a Glans), 2017, mixed-media and artist text on vinyl.
It’s NOT What You Think It is: Banksters, Pineal Glands and Microtubules, Examined in a Meandering, Friendly, Nonlinear, Nonclinical Way (From Pineal to Penile to Penal: Western Civilization at a Glans)
We’re all inspired by the future. Can we remember, human people, that everything is sentient? Monarch-butterfly people know it, bird people know it. And contemporary ding-dong science can’t take that away from us. Hello, PS and by the way, money doesn’t exist. Will the liberal order survive?
Who wants to know? And what are you talking about. And survive for what? We can’t even keep a bee alive anymore. Devolution, the US’s #1 export. Depression, tyranny, genocide, genetically-modified intestines. Personal Soul-Encrushment Machines™—the latest in trash-compaction technologies made by Ronco! And redwood-sized toothpicks! According to the experts at Berlin-SanDiegoPlatz, there’s not a dull moment living through the 2nd Indouchetrial Revolution. And we feel fine!
According to CIA whistleblower-types, without whom there is nothing but the giant rubber REDACTED stamp of the choad buried twenty stories beneath the White House, said choad is having a hard week because this whole drone thing has encroached onto his cubicle, cutting it into a shard of carpet remnant within which he and the flayed muscles of his overdeveloped forearm can hardly fit anymore as she/he/it, informally known as S.H.I.T., mechanically pounds his tool on all Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, classifying and reclassifying everything from Camille Paglia’s home supply of ICBMs to the texts your mom keeps sending to inform you that she’s “going on a Walkabout. See you in 10 years lol, why don’t you take me seriously??!!”
The macroeconomic is personal. We’re locked in a zero-sum tradeoff of black prison bars substituting for soft rainbow worms, placed eternally in close proximity to a frosty jigger of RoundUp. Preposterously large and very very tiny screens—what the Gnostics called “Black Mirror Magic”—are crowding the forests. Populism vs global-ism vs Are you fucking kidding me?! The real question right now is: Which book for Book Club? And after that, Is deep government really hiding in the deep time of no answers whatsoever? And then the next question is: How many civilizations does it take to hide the things that are really happening? Answer: Yes, no, do you still like me?
Never mind that. Let’s just start with the bones of giant humans hidden in vaults of the Smithsonian (just ask Charlatan Heston—he knows). PS We’re not even joking. It was on TeeVee! And we’re not talking Public Access. Hint: NBC! Self-healing properties are being withheld from us at this very moment, while the international order crumbles under the lie of progress known as The Security Umbrella. And btw, fyi… by “Humanomics,” we don’t mean anything except reality is a trade deficit, the architecture of hideous right angles, fluoride pourovers and a soupçon of asbestos encrusting your pineal gland, which btw fyi looks like an eye because it actually IS an eye. See our forthcoming opera: Detoxifying The Third Eye: Adventures In Medical Scraping Procedures.
Let’s do this instead: wymmin perform rites in secret sacred groves. The search for certainty is a lie. We’re a shred forgetful, the human race, but let’s not forget: headdresses of Nightshade, lightning from the cosmic Yoni over the Elysian Fields, the mysteries of Isis and her bffs Neith and Nut. Forget the hypnotizing whippoorwills of mortgages, aka dead money, dead pledges, dead ends.
Here’s an interesting thing: Isis said in her best-selling autobiography, How I Made The Universe, “OUCH! Pushing out a baby sun ain’t no one’s idea of a party. Plus, I am Nature, the parent of all things.” She stated this loudly and drunkenly at every spaceship bar in the firmament.
Bottom-lining it now: The leviathans in the financial ocean lubricate a collective in a patch of dead swamp flowers known as Bohemian Grove. Which means your pension funds are burning down the Amazon and killing toads so that you can waddle around taking selfies as you watch yourself get killed from the sidelines—which sounds physically impossible but, look! It’s Happening! Baby boomers are the economic equivalent of a locust swarm, through no fault of our own. Oh yes, we di’n’t! PSS—we’ve been lied to, ensorceled, and roofied into obliteration, Mr. Gentle Rapist!
It may surprise you that we need to fight wars, create fiat currencies, and rebuild entire continents, aka “learning as we go.” What about safety? When we talk about post-crISIS reforms, are we talking about what happened to me this morning? The thousand plateaus of psychosis? Coincidentally, the terror alert system coincides with our periods. This is the last time we’re going to say it: If you want a teacher, try a waterfall.
The best guesses are lies. The world could be anything. Just lick whatever toad is left, you’ll see.
Ridykeulous is Nicole Eisenman, A.L. Steiner, and honorary guest Laurie Weeks. This text appears through March 10 in the exhibition “Divided States of America,” curated by Alison Gingeras, Stuart Comer, and Robb Leigh Davis at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York.
INITIALLY, I RESISTED THE PUSSY HAT, that simple, pink, knitted or crocheted rectangular stocking cap that forms “ears” with its top corners, which became, thanks to grassroots efforts gone viral, de rigueur for the Women’s March. I quietly recoiled from that playful symbol seemingly at odds with my grave and militant agenda, not to mention my personal style. (During winter, I wear a felt beret in black, burgundy, or camel.) And while I’m usually game to celebrate the beauty and valor of women’s traditional work in the home, the crafty hats rubbed salt in the wound: I’d hoped, of course, this week that we’d see a woman breaking with tradition instead, starting work in the oval office. But my friend gave me a beautiful cap that she’d knit from chunky, dusty rose yarn. It was big enough to scrunch to the side in a beret-simulation, and I wore it in the cold outside the Party City near Brooklyn’s Barclays Center at 4:30 AM as we waited to board our bus on Inauguration Day.
Arriving in downtown DC just before the dreaded ceremony commenced, the profound utility of the pussy hat became crystal clear. You could instantly identify feminist or foe in the streets, and in all its proud homemade iterations, the pink hat was a relentless, effortlessly taunting, indisputably made-in-America riposte to the deplorable red MAGA cap and the pussy grabbing it represents. The stunning visual effect of the pussy hats en masse is well documented by the field-of-fuchsia aerial photos from Saturday’s marches, but it was also amazing to see them dispersed around the city in the mix of protests and inaugural events on Friday, as the marchers gradually gained critical mass. Rosy, abstracted cat-ears descended on the city in a constant stream, their wearers cheerfully greeting one another in restaurants, bathroom lines, and on public transportation as the Trump people skulked away. Later, at the hotel bar I watched the empty parade bleachers on CNN and my spirits soared. It seemed we would be granted one wish, at least—turnout for the Women’s March would beat the inauguration’s.
Saturday, as my little group tried to get close to the rally stage or jam-packed march route, a few friends texted me from their respective charter buses, still on their way to DC, mentioning their pussy-hat ambivalence. It’s infantilizing; essentialist. I was too caught up in the moment to respond at length about my own about-face, assuming when they arrived, they’d get it, too. You had to experience the scale and repetition of the hat to feel its power as a symbol not for vaginas or femininity but for a mass consensus of outrage, and (fingers crossed) commitment to defend every progressive gain and constitutional protection assaulted by the Not-Our-President. I didn’t choose the pussy hat. I don’t particularly “like” it, but I ecstatically surrendered to its iconic magic. It was ingenious and ubiquitous and will time-stamp each image of Trump’s humiliating Day Two, a historic moment for the nascent opposition.
Johanna Fateman is a musician, a writer, and an owner of Seagull Salon in New York. She is currently coediting a collection of Andrea Dworkin’s writings for Semiotext(e).
I-395 protest on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017, Washington, DC. Photo: Zak Kitnick.
OUR GROUP OF FOUR drove down to DC two days prior to the Women’s March so we could also participate in the Inauguration Day demonstrations, thanks to a last-minute motel room on the outskirts of the city, miraculously obtained online by my Light Industry partner Thomas Beard. Gliding into an unexpectedly quiet city on late Thursday afternoon, we took advantage of the early arrival to check out the Virginia Dwan exhibition at the National Gallery. Only when we exited the building did we spy our first recognizable cluster of Trump supporters—a small group of men and women in identical red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN ball caps—trodding down the edge of the largely empty National Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial. Our crew wandered in the same general direction, eventually stopping at the Washington Monument to look downhill at the Memorial, which was then flanked, from our vantage, by a series of Jumbotrons along the edges of the Reflecting Pool, each displaying what seemed to be a rock band performing. “Is that a live rehearsal or a music video?” my fellow-traveler Zak Kitnick wondered aloud. “I’m pretty sure they’re just doing a sound check,” I offered, unable to spy much of a crowd. Only later did we realize that we had accidentally witnessed 3 Doors Down perform at the official Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration Concert. Sad turnout!
Friday morning, we linked up with the Democratic Socialists of America at McPherson Square, where a scrappy, determined assembly had begun to form. As we marched and chanted we were taken aback by the relatively minimal police and military presence; compared with the mass protests in Manhattan, there seemed to be very little formal security in place. Reaching one of the inauguration entrance security checkpoints, we saw Trump supporters grumbling as they waited in a clogged-up queue made even more chaotic by the mass of protestors milling about. One chunk of the DSA group broke off to march a few blocks over to get a view of the Capitol steps, and we eventually followed the throngs up a nearby highway onramp, where we and hundreds of others suddenly found ourselves blocking traffic both ways on I-395. While much has been said about the diversity of attendees on Saturday, the highway-blocking gang seemed just as varied; it was a mix of protest veterans—a Black Lives Matter T-shirt here, an Antifa back-patch there—and folks who probably weren’t as experienced in civil disobedience: moms and dads with little kids in tow, gray-haired elders in fleece jackets, even a woman casually walking her dog down the Interstate. A Parks Department chopper circled overhead as a halted big rig honked rhythmically in support and DC commuters waved enthusiastically out of their car windows.
We four eventually walked down an exit to find food in the city proper, unexpectedly intersecting with crowds of Trump supporters apparently leaving the ceremony. It was a veritable bestiary of right-wingers in town to celebrate their dubious victory—rich Republican fur-clad ghoul-women, their faces stretched taut against their bones; supersized suburbanites in XXL mall-wear; ’Muricans sporting Duck Dynasty camo and beards; gangs of young preppy assholes in Trump football scarves (“J.Crew fascists,” our friend Collin Leitch put it). Some Trumpers seemed genuinely surprised to see any protesters in DC that day, and a few felt emboldened enough to confront us directly after noticing our RESIST TRUMP placards. As we made our way through the city, some angry deplorables called us losers, crybabies, and “snowflakes” (an obscure right-wing term for liberals that one of us had to google); a particularly colorful character in a homemade JESUS SAVES leather jacket called me a sinner and a “libtard,” and a Southern woman who apparently wasn’t caught up with the news cycle told us to “move to Russia if you don’t like it.” The vibe became menacing enough that a lone protester from LA asked if she could walk with us to her Metro stop, and not long after we left her, an older Midwestern couple tagged along for the same reasons. But more remarkable was the fact that the opposing crowds, despite some angry interjections, largely jostled past one another without comment, and we never personally witnessed any instance of physical violence between the camps.
Toward the late afternoon, we collapsed on park benches near L’Enfant Plaza for a break. Two workgear-clad guys in their twenties stopped to inquire what our red armbands meant, perhaps unsure if the color indicated we were down with MAGA. “We’re socialists,” I snapped back, Thomas no doubt wondering if my big mouth was finally going to get us in trouble. The two guys stopped for a beat, as if processing the information. “Like Bernie?” one of them asked. “Yeah,” Thomas answered, “Like Bernie.” The pair just nodded and moved on.
Ed Halter, a founder and director of Light Industry in New York, teaches as critic in residence at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.
DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS.
Zoe Leonard is an artist based in New York.
THE WOMEN’S MARCH SAN FRANCISCO: resolute despite the rain, damning amid the darkness. The march began at 5 PM. Was the later start time so that folks could attend both the Oakland and SF marches (collective coordination) or a result of the annual anti-abortion Walk for Life rally that had booked the route for the afternoon (antagonistic antitheses)? I heard both as the reason. Either way, as day turned to night, tens of thousands of protestors from throughout the Bay Area descended on San Francisco. The march progressed along Market Street from the downtown Civic Center to the waterside Ferry Building, passing tech hubs for Twitter HQ (#Twitler) and Uber (whose CEO recently signed onto Trump’s economic advisory board). Tech’s complicity in the city’s stifling gentrification and Trump’s horrific ascent is no joke.
Downpouring rain washed over the chants of the crowd. Shared umbrellas and a solemn air: The rain and darkness brought us together. I find myself believing more and more in pathetic fallacy these days. Gloom-and-doom go hand in hand.
PS: Best sign: “I’ve seen more intelligent cabinets at IKEA.”
Alex Fialho is programs director at Visual AIDS and a writer and curator based in New York.
IT IS 4:00 AM and you wonder why your alarm is going off and you go to turn it off but you realize in a panic that you must get to the bus. It is Saturday and what else were you going to do today anyway but mope around and try to get some writing done and drink too much coffee and bemoan the state of the world while reading the New York Times. Instead you start walking at 5:20 AM to meet your friend Cole and you hop on the L train at Graham Avenue and then on the 6 train at Union Square and in thirty minutes you are at Astor Place. Laurie envelops you in a big hug and you are welcomed. Standing at the entrance, Mary says hi and tells you she is getting you a star for your #starsofallstripes campaign with MoveOn. You get on a big pink bus; you fall asleep for a few hours until it is 8:30 AM when everyone is abuzz. Anne is reading a real book and you are reminded of her poem “The Glass Essay”:
At 4 A.M. I wake. Thinking
of the man who
left in September.
His name was Law.
Maybe because you expected we’d break the glass ceiling in November and maybe because you’re thinking of President Obama, the man who left yesterday and whose name also evoked law—not only what is legal but also what is human—what the ancients called natural law. Everyone is handing out something: caps, sandwiches, cookies, buttons.
Laurie’s fingernails are painted red, silver, and blue instead of the usual silver. She stops to talk to me and I ask her what it was like organizing this trip, she says, “Three nights sleep lost, because we now have a sense of urgency. It is never too late to march. I started at fifteen protesting the war in Vietnam at the Pentagon in October of 1967. Can you believe this march is the fiftieth anniversary of me marching in DC?” Marilyn echoed the statement: “I’m an old gal. This might be my last major march. I marched for Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam, Clinic Defense, for ACT UP, and the WAC Women’s March. We march because marching works.”
You get to Maryland faster than you think. And someone is handing out transit cards and you take the redline all the way to Union Station. There, mainly black men are hocking gear and the crowd is awash in knit pink hats. Your favorite signs are there: “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” And new signs: “Impeach the Peach” and “Twinkle, twinkle, little Tsar, Putin put you where you are.” People are at a standstill; there are 500,000 on the parade route and marching is slow-going but a peaceful family affair. Where are the universal protest songs of our time? We don’t have them yet and so we’re singing Woody Guthrie’s 1940 hit “This Land Is Your Land” and chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Passing the Newseum, you see that they have printed a giant banner iterating the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights to our Constitution. They have printed a small banner beneath the big banner welcoming the new president Donald Trump. No room for subtlety here. “This is just the beginning,” says Marina. “A symbolic gesture so they know we are watching. We need small and great acts of civil disobedience. We need to remember the moral choice. Remember slavery was once legal but it was not right.” Some of us head back to the bus and others stayed in the capital. A flurry of emails followed the next day. Perhaps we were all reminded of our civic duty. Perhaps we have forgotten to act like citizens, delegating the nasty task to others to microfocus on life in our family units, in our friend groups, and on our careers. Protesting for change is tedious business, boring even after decades of effort. In this country activism is rarely dangerous or hard, but it is necessary. You get on the bus.
Andrianna Campbell is an art historian and writer based in New York.
For more on the new world order, read Michelle Kuo’s Editor’s Letter in the January issue of Artforum.
Takuma Nakahira, Untitled (C-215), 1971, black-and-white photograph, 20 x 24".
IN 1970, the Japanese photographer Takuma Nakahira was asked by a publication to respond to the topic of “urban rebellion.” He took the assignment literally, relaying the successive images that took shape in his mind:
Urban and rebellion, somehow these words stir up an image within me that must be at night, where a fire burns bright red, as if to make the night exist all the darker. In addition, it must be filled with terror and disquiet. Described in this manner, my image of urban rebellion is very commonplace, something that can all too easily be related to any of the spectacles like that of the Shinjuku riot on October 21, 1968, from ten to twelve PM, and the scene around Kamata Station on the evening of November 16, 1969. Even so, why do I always imagine a fire? And why night?
I’ve been thinking about his response for a while now, coming back to it over and over again this past year and especially in these past few days. It’s those doubtful and ambiguous questions that still seem crucial, that I find myself asking too: Even so, why do I always imagine a fire? And why night?
One of the implicit forces driving those questions is a total frustration with the role of familiar images, informing a wider sequence of experimentation within Japanese militant film, organizing, and critique in those years. (And at least partially contributing to Nakahira’s decision later that decade to burn most of his negatives and prints, torching proxies of Tokyo in lieu of what always seemed to put out the flames in time.) The frustration came from an obvious gap between the messy, expansive process of revolt and the still images used to frame it, whether literal photographs or the stilted historical categories that try and define what is political in the first place. That gap is never neutral, and it isn’t a problem of simply not enough images or too few photographers, although it certainly involves too few of them willing to put down the camera to intervene in what is happening directly in front of them. What the gap marks instead is the way that both our readily available images—that ample archive of fire, night, barricade, riot cops, burning dumpsters, clouds of gas, a dog stalking the periphery who barks and barks…—and the conventions that shape what new ones get taken or formed tend to reiterate well-worn tropes, crowding out other possibilities. And as Nakahira makes clear, almost apologetically, this fire and night is indeed “an old fashioned image”—but one that just keeps coming back all the same. “[W]hen I envision urban rebellion,” he writes, “this is the scene I always imagine.”
Here, on the eve of the coronation of one who dreams of being an emperor—of increasingly explicit attempts to plunge millions further into sickness and debt, to coddle the fascists and decimate the vulnerable, to further criminalize and expel any threat to the coherence of racial capitalism—we’re coming into weeks and months of open rage, refusal, and planning. Part of this surely means that night comes to mean fire, that as has been the case for so long, night is a time for conspiracy, for being ungovernable, and for changing what the ground of the next day looks like. This is part of the answer Nakahira gives to his recurring fantasy: He can only imagine this way, this flame and chaos, because the very spaces where he lives and fights have frozen into a material image of what allows no way in, an impossibly smooth network of function, circulation, and profit where every element, from highway to cafe, verifies the legitimacy of the order that the cops kill to protect. So any revolt against that order means that it will have to lash out everywhere and must refuse to accept the sites, actions, and channels that have been already sanctioned as adequately political.
What lingers unanswered in Nakahira’s essay yet seems to drive the doubt of those questions is the other side of this: the day that comes before the night, the night that the cameras don’t bother with. Asking why do we imagine fire, why night also means asking what else we don’t imagine, asking if rebellion ever really happens within so narrow a scope. To limit its range like that, to restrict the articulation of absolute dissent to just what we’ve gotten used to thinking of as revolt, reinforces something that needs to be ruined in full: a politics of public presence, national belonging, and civic representation. Because that is the understanding that has historically been used to dictate who gets to count and be counted, cutting from the scene any considered anathema to the spheres of liberal society constructed around their ongoing exclusion, use, and abuse.
Against that, it seems we need to keep asking why only fire, why only night? What about the other work that lays the tinder and weaves fuses into the bales, even if it doesn’t strike the match on camera? What about what happens unseen, not because it is clandestine and we’ve already taken out all the streetlights, but because it takes place at noon, at dawn, all through the day and night continually without rest, in forms that don’t get the opportunity for grand revolt or that refuse to show themselves and be named? Who chooses night? What is never seen to burn because its fire is expected to always be lit, always ready to warm those who need it most?
Evan Calder Williams is a writer and artist who lives in upstate New York. He is a founding member of the collective Thirteen Black Cats and teaches at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.