“You can’t talk about indigenous struggle without indigenous people involved,” artist, activist, and MTL+ co-founder Amin Husain told Hyperallergic in a phone interview. He was explaining a core principle of Decolonize This Place, a three-month residency that brought together multiple movements at the New York nonprofit Artists Space for art making, organizing, and activism, all based around direct actions targeting five issues: Free Palestine, Indigenous Struggle, Black Liberation, Global Wage Workers, and de-gentrification.
Artists are in a unique position to critique institutional power as they are both the victims of oppression — through processes like student debt and low wages — as well as its enablers, whether through showing work in museums and galleries whose benefactors and partners may support neocolonial exploitation around the world, or by leasing spaces that were once the homes and workplaces of low-income residents displaced by gentrification — of which artists are always eventually victims as well. Rather than self-flagellate or ignore the problem, the goal of Decolonize This Place was to acknowledge artists’ privilege and use it to lift up the less powerful, to admit that “we’re all occupiers of territory that is stolen,” as Husain put it. “In our complicity, we recognize our power to take action.”
After hearing about MTL+ — which Husain co-founded with Nitasha Dhillon — through Yates McKee’s book Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition (Verso, 2016), Artists Space invited the collective to program the space for three months. The resulting collaboration with MTL+ (the “MTL” refers to Dhillon and Amin, the “+” reflects their collaborators in this residency, among them McKee, Andrew Ross, Kyle Goen, Amy Weng, Aiko Maya Roudette, Marz Saffore, Crystal Hans, Ramy Zabarah, Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu, Lorena Ambrosio, and Samer Abulaela), according to Artists Space Assistant Curator and Web Editor Harry Burke, allowed both sides to “challenge certain common models of the relationship between institution and artist and curator and artist,” and “question what it is that a typical art audience is expecting from an art space.”
“It’s not just about making political art,” Dhillon told Hyperallergic in a phone interview, “there’s a lot of art that happens in the space that is political, but it is in the context of a movement, not separate from that.” The residency involved getting artists and galleries located in gentrifying areas to partner with housing activists to protect low-income tenants; rallying for the passing of a Chinatown rezoning plan; a march to the headquarters of arts organization Artis to demand that it to demand that it publicly support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement; fighting for fair wages for museum employees and other low-wage workers; and staging a tour and protest at the American Museum of Natural History to demand the removal of the Teddy Roosevelt statue at its entrance and that the institution confront its history of glorifying white supremacy at the expense of indigenous cultures.
That pushing and questioning paid off. There was a palpable sense of urgency in headquarters and in all of the actions. Each in-house discussion or event was tied to a direct action. On any given night, a visitor could come expecting to learn about a movement — say, BDS — and instead of walking away with a just a brochure, they walked right into the Artis protest, complete with art and projections.
The residency sustained a level of organization and creativity that those of us struggling with how to best approach the specter of a Donald Trump presidency would do well to look toward as inspiration for a broader resistance. As Betty Yu, a participant and co-founder of the Chinatown Art Brigade involved in the residency’s de-gentrification strand, told Hyperallergic in a phone interview, some people “don’t want to go to the same old protest. We need to think of new ways to win people over with creative means.”
Free Palestine was one of the more contentious of the movements included in Decolonize This Place, but also one of the most impactful. As Dhillon noted, “we don’t usually have a problem until we start talking about Palestine, and that’s usually because of funding.” However, it wasn’t all problematic, as Amin added: “Free Palestine presented challenges, yes, in the sense that the institution faced external pressure from donors and friends of Artists Space, and that in turn made things more difficult to do, but the strand itself was a success.” The residency’s Free Palestine event was one of its most well-attended and publicized, and more importantly it sparked crucial dialogue about the conflict and the art world’s complicity in it. The strand is also propelling MTL’s upcoming feature length documentary project about the Palestinian struggle, On This Land.
The legacy of the residency, according to Yu, is in the connections established between organizations supporting all five strands, and realizing just how intimately those strands are connected. For instance, she said, “Gentrification is intimately tied with police violence and Black Lives Matter.”
Yu also credits her time at Decolonize This Place for getting more involved with gallery owners and other art institutions, that “took our work to a whole new level.” Prior to the residency, she said, “we weren’t getting as much traction in holding galleries accountable” for their roles in making low-income, immigrant neighborhoods attractive to real estate developers. Now, she said, “we are able to garner a lot of support [from institutions] and that was directly tied to Decolonize This Place and Artists Space.”
The residency was also an opportunity for a collective that frequently challenges both the curatorial and economic choices of arts institutions to set up shop in one. “It was powerful for us to give MTL+ a lot of trust in terms of trying to remodel these relationships, in ways that are outside of our usual work,” Burke said. “A lot of the project [for Artists Space] was about taking a step back. More than just co-producing a project, it was about questioning what collaboration should be and how we might not replicate existing problems.”
This work, Burke was adamant, will continue beyond the initial residency. “MTL+ did provoke the institution to take seriously the work that happened here as not a one-off project that happened in isolation,” Burke said. “It’s unfortunate that there was an incident on the last evening,” he added, referring to the attacks on LGBTQ activists as they were leaving Decolonize This Place’s closing party by Trump supporters, “but the defining incident was the joy that was so evident in the room, a very political and important joy.”
Dhillon echoed Burke’s sentiment: “In the context of Artists Space specifically, of course, yes, the project definitely changed a lot of people, the staff definitely […] but [that impact] remains to be seen with institutions.” To stimulate that process, MTL+ published a letter on Hyperallergic to the incoming Artists Space director, challenging him or her to continue the work.
“The path to liberation,” Husain said, “is to have a million Decolonize This Places, all connected.”