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Dark Matter as a Metaphor for Arts Activism

Activists are like hidden forces operating in the dark, their effects unfolding behind the scenes.

Gregory Sholette, “Occupy Museums: Pergamon Alter, Berlin” (2016) (photo courtesy the artist)

At first blush, Gregory Sholette depicts art activism in dark tones because these are dark times. He gives chiaroscuro’s gravitas to drawings of GULF, Standing Rock, and Occupy Museums protests, such as at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, among others. But there’s more to the darkness in these scenes. Sholette is offering a new metaphor to discover: dark matter from outer space as an analogy for activism amidst the plight of our age.

Dark matter describes all of the matter we can’t see in the universe. Astrophysicists know it’s there because of math. They can calculate and pinpoint gravitational pulls upon apparent matter from this invisible matter, which doesn’t reflect light from the sun or other stars.

What if we thought of activists — often left in the shadows by the mainstream media, but changing hearts and minds on the ground — as dark matter?

What if we thought of the individuals who buy museum memberships, show up at arts events and panels, and read art magazines — providing a form of support outside of the spotlight — as dark matter?

What if we thought of MFA students — taking on debt, rarely getting shows, and then supporting art institutions in low-paid, often hidden administrative positions — as dark matter?

Sholette developed this cosmic metaphor as an art writer in his books and other writings to articulate the often hidden influence of activists and people whose participation undergirds the arts economy. What’s exciting about his exhibition Darker at Station Independent Projects is how dark matter is visualized and activated in mixed media works that explore recent moments of protest.

Gregory Sholette, “Water Protectors, Standing Rock, North Dakota” (2016) (photo courtesy the artist)

When Sholette depicts the protests at Standing Rock in dark tones, the intent is not only to acknowledge the bleakness — it’s also to celebrate activists as hidden forces operating in the dark, making a big difference anyway. Prior to the protests, many people in the country were blind to the implications of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Standing Rock proved that activists — many of whom are not known by name — could make a collective impact.

Gregory Sholette, “Decolonize This Place, AMNH” (2016) (photo courtesy the artist)

In one drawing, Sholette depicts the October 2016 Decolonize This Place action at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Despite the radical advances in the field of anthropology since the time of Margaret Mead, most of the wall text at that institution perpetuates racist, essentialist, and colonialist narratives. The refusal to update deserves to be called out. How this action influenced decision makers and curators at the museum is hard to tell. (Some progress has arguably been made with David Koch leaving the board.) But once again, many of the effects of this action in years to come will be undetectable and outside the spotlight. So dark matter becomes an appealing metaphor for the hidden gravity and pull of such actions.

Gregory Sholette, “Preparing for War” (2016) (photo courtesy the artist)

In another work, “Preparing for War” (2016), Sholette shows a scene from the May Day occupation at the Guggenheim in 2015, organized by GULF (Global Ultra Luxury Fashion). A woman entered the museum in a wheelchair, sitting on and concealing a large banner. She later stood up and unfurled the banner with other protestors in an action that took over and shut down the museum. Once again, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact effects of the action on the Guggenheim leadership or staff. Most likely, they will unfold in the dark and behind the scenes.

Cynics might criticize the comparison to dark matter as a stretch. Is it overwrought to project a metaphor from the cosmos onto our terrestrial political affairs? Well, there is actually a major precedent for such astral borrowing with that word “revolution.”

Jan Matejko, “Astronomer Copernicus: Conversation with God” (1872) (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

To condense history, revolution gained a new meaning in 1542 when Copernicus demonstrated the earth’s revolution around the sun. In the late 1600s, England’s intellectuals were searching for a new word to articulate the dramatic political shifts of their times, which involved messy power transitions and usurping, executing, and restoring kings. So those intellectuals appropriated “revolution” to express how politics, like the stars, seems to work in cycles. One hundred years later, everyone knew to call the storming of the Bastille the start of a French Revolution. Centuries later, we use revolution unaware of its cosmic etymology.

Dark matter is a compelling analogy for how activism influences decision makers and changes scenarios in ways that are often hard to detect and see. The entire debate over political art’s efficacy often degenerates into bickering over “preaching to the choir.” What is often lost is how everyday people — often outside the spotlight — find their minds changed, and act, decide, and cast votes differently after witnessing activism. Developing a richer understanding of activism in the dark is crucial as we galvanize and mobilize for 2017.

Gregory Sholette’s Darker continues at Station Independent Projects (128 Eldridge Street, #2F, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 29th. Gregory Sholette and Dread Scott will host a public conversation on the “Aesthetics of Resistance” at Station Independent Projects on Sunday, January 29, 4pm. 

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