Chris — Statement on Resigning 5/21/06

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Chris Gilbert – statement on resigning 5/21/06
I made the decision to resign as Matrix Curator on April 28, but my
struggles with the BAM/PFA over the content and approach of the
projects in the exhibition cycle “Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the
Path of the Bolivarian Process” go back quite a few months. In
particular the museum administrators — meaning the deputy directors
and senior curator collaborating, of course, with the public
relations and audience development staff — have for some time been
insisting that I take the idea of solidarity, revolutionary
solidarity, out of the cycle. For some months, they have said they
wanted “neutrality” and “balance” whereas I have always said that
instead my approach is about commitment, support, and alignment — in
brief, taking sides with and promoting revolution.
I have always successfully resisted the museum’s attempts to
interfere with the projects (and you will see that the ideas of
alignment, support, and revolutionary solidarity are written all over
the “Now-Time” projects part 1 & part 2 — they are present in all
the texts I have generated and as a consequence in almost all of the
reviews). In the museum’s most recent attempt to alter things, the
one that precipitated my resignation, they proposed to remove the
offending concept from the Now-Time Part 2 introductory text panel (a
panel which had already gone to the printer). Their plan was to
replace the phrase “in solidarity” with revolutionary Venezuela with
a phrase like “concerning” revolutionary Venezuela — or another
phrase describing a relation that would not be explicitly one of
I threatened to resign and terminate the exhibition, since, first of
all, revolutionary solidarity is what I believe in — the essential
concept in the “Now-Time” project cycle — but secondly it is
obviously unfair to invite participants such as Dario Azzellini and
Oliver Ressler or groups such as Catia TVe to a project that has one
character (revolutionary solidarity) and then change the rules of the
game on them a few weeks before the show opens (so that they become
mere objects of examination or investigation). At first, my threat to
resign and terminate the show availed nothing. Then on April 28, I
wrote a letter stating that I was in fact resigning and my last day
of work would be two weeks from that day, which was May 12, two days
before the “Now-Time Part 2: Revolutionary Television in Catia”
opening. I assured them that the show could not go forward without
me. In response to this decisive action — and surely out of fear
that the show which had already been published in the members
magazine would not happen — the institution restored my text panel
to the way I had written it. Having won that battle, though at the
price of losing my position, I decided to go forward with the show,
my last one.
One thing that should make evident how extreme and erratic the
museum’s actions were is that the very same sentence that was found
offensive (“a project in solidarity with the revolutionary process in
contemporary Venezuela”) is the exact sentence that is used for the
first Now-Time Venezuela exhibition text panel that still hangs in
the Matrix gallery upstairs. That show is on view for one more week
as I write.
The details of all this are important though, of course, its general
outlines, which play out the familiar patterns of class struggle, are
of greater interest. The class interests represented by the museum,
which are above all the interests of the bourgeoisie that funds it,
have two (related) things to fear from a project like mine: (1) of
course, revolutionary Venezuela is a symbolic threat to the US
government and the capitalist class that benefits from that
government’s policies, just as Cuba is a symbolic threat, just as
Nicaragua was, and just as is any country that tries to set its house
in order in a way that is different from the ideas of Washington and
London — which is primarily to say Washington and London’s
insistence that there is no alternative to capitalism.
I must emphasize that the threat is only symbolic; in the eyes of the
US government and the US bourgeoisie, it sets a “bad” and dangerous
example of disobedience for other countries to follow, but of course
the idea that such examples represent a military threat to the US
(would that it were the case) is simply laughable; (2) the second
threat, which is probably the more operational one in the museum
context, is that much of the community is in favor of the “Now-Time”
projects — the response to the first exhibition is enormous and the
interest in the second is also very high. That response and interest
exposes the fact that the museum, the bourgeois values it promotes
via the institution of contemporary art (contemporary art of the past
30 years is really in most respects simply the cultural arm of
upper-class power) are not really those of any class but its own.
Importantly the museum and the bourgeoisie will always deny the role
of class interests in this: they will always maintain that the kinds
of cultural production they promote are more difficult, smarter, more
sophisticated — hence the lack of response to most contemporary art
is, according to them, about differences in education and
sophistication rather than class interest. That this kind of claim is
obscurantist and absurd is something the present exhibitions make
very clear: the work of Catia TVe, which is created by people in the
popular (working-class) neighborhoods of Caracas, is far more
sophisticated than what comes out of the contemporary art of the
Global North. The same could be said for the ideas discussed by the
Venezuelan factory workers in the Ressler and Azzellini film that is
shown Now-Time Part 1. (Of course, it is not because these works and
the thoughts in them are more sophisticated that we should attend to
them; what I am saying is simply that it is clearly an evasion and
false to dismiss anti-bourgeois cultural production — work that
aligns with the interests of working class people — on grounds of
its being unsophisticated.)
To return to the museum: I believe that the enormous response to the
“Now-Time” cycle — there were 180 visitors to the March 26 panel
discussion that opened “Now-Time” part 1 and if you google “Now-Time
Venezuela” you get over 700 hits — put the class interests that
stand by and promote contemporary art in danger, exposed them a bit.
I suppose some concern about this may have given a special edge to
the museum’s failed efforts to alter my projects.
I think it is important to be clear about the facts that precipitated
my resignation: that is, the struggle over the wording of the text
panel, which fit into months of struggle over the question of
solidarity and alignment with a revolutionary political agenda. That
issue is discussed above. However, it is also important to understand
the context. Again, it is too weak to say that museums, like
universities, are deeply corrupt. They are. (And in my view the key
points to discuss regarding this corruption are (1) the museum’s
claim to represent the public’s interests when in fact serving
upper-class interests and parading a carefully constructed surrogate
image of the public; (2) the presence of intra-institutional press
and marketing departments that really operate to hold a political
line through various control techniques, only one of which is
censorship; finally (3) the presence of development departments that,
in mostly hidden ways, favor and flatter rich funders, giving the lie
to even the sham notion of public responsibility that the museum
parades). However, to describe museums and other cultural
institutions as simply if deeply corrupt is, as I said, too weak in
that it both holds out the promise of their reform and it ignores the
larger imperialist structures that make their corruption an
inevitable upshot and reflection of the exploitive political and
social system of which they form a part. Such institutions will go on
reflecting imperialist capitalist values, will celebrate private
property and deny social solidarity, and will maintain a strict
silence about the control of populations at home and the destruction
of populations abroad in the name of profit, until that imperialist
system is dismantled. Importantly, it will not be dismantled by
cultural efforts alone: a successful reform of a cultural institution
here or there would at best result in “islands” of sanity that would
most likely operate in a negative way — as imaginary and misleading
“proof” that conditions are not as bad as they are.
In fact, with conditions as they are, a different strategy is
required: there should be disobedience at all levels; disruptions and
explosions of the kind that I, together with a small group of allies
inside the museum, have created are also useful on a symbolic level.
However, the primary struggle and the only struggle that will result
in a significant change would be one that works directly to transform
the economic and political base. This would be a struggle aiming to
bring down the US government and its imperialist system through
highly organized efforts.
We live in the midst of a fascist imperialism — there is no other
way to describe the system that the US has created and that exercises
such control through terror over populations both inside and outside.
History has shown that to make “deals” or “compromises” with fascism
avails nothing. Instead a radical and daily intransigence is
required. Fascism operates to destroy life. It installs and operates
on the logic of the camp on all levels, including culture. In the
face of that logic, which holds life as nothing, compromises and
deals at best buy time for the aggressor and symbolic capital for the
aggressor. One should have no illusions: until capitalism and
imperialism are brought down, cultural institutions will go on being,
in their primary role, lapdogs of a system that spreads misery and
death to people everywhere on the planet. The fight to abolish that
system completely and build one based on socialism must remain our
exclusive and constant focus.
Chris Gilbert