Essays

The Power of Protest One Year After the #J20 Art Strike

How have our ideas of strike and protest changed and what should we learn about their utility today?

A sign from the 2018 Women’s March in New York (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

On January 20, 2017, many people in the art world came out on a strike called J20 to protest the Donald Trump inauguration. It came in response to a call for which I was one of the signatories: “no work, no school, no business.” A strike in galleries, museums, art schools, and universities is necessarily different to a strike in a factory or other conventionally unionized workplaces. A year later, it’s time to reflect on how different modes of resistance have unfolded. What does striking mean now? What has happened to all the promises of commitment and engagement that were made a year ago?

Take the complicated case of the Whitney Museum. It held a widely-covered Speak Out in 2017, a platform organized by Occupy Museums. It was nonetheless held in the museum, meaning staff had to work, people had to get tickets on a pay-as-you-will basis, and the theater filled to capacity, shutting many out. Not a perfect strike, then. And despite director Adam Weinberg’s pledge to “stay strong over the years ahead,” there’s nothing on at the Whitney this year on J20.

The main voice out there this year is the all-star Art Action Day, which has defined J20 as “silence.” In this view, the “strike” is simply a negative, or an absence. If the strike is framed in this fashion, it takes away one of the oldest, most flexible and effective tools available to those challenging authority. J20 did not make a negative call. Its refusal to comply with business as usual was intended to “ramify into the future” and to create the conditions for “ungovernability.”

To strike in this sense is a positive movement over time away from the society of control toward becoming ungovernable. To unleash the capacity of being ungovernable is a set of actions. It’s being accountable to specific people and communities. It’s knowing that there are many different histories, presents, and imagined futures. It’s taking responsibility for the fact of settler colonialism and acting to decolonize. Put together, these actions would form a general strike. Three strikes and we’re out of this colonial regime.

Ungovernable does not mean chaos: rather, it’s a mutual sense of possibility and responsibility. In education, for example, this place is what Fred Moten and Stephano Harney call the “undercommons,” rather than the top-down, tuition-driven, diploma-granting institutions that we have, whose clearest outcome is $1.48 trillion of student debt, up 50% since 2012.

To strike is to be active and claim agency. Rather than withdraw from the Modern Language Association (MLA) because it has banned all discussion of BDS, go on strike against it. Don’t just cancel your subscription to Artforum because Knight Landesman is still an owner, go on strike. In each case, it means going public and trying to get the support of others. At MLA, I can report, the strike idea catalyzed engagement from members and anxiety from Association officers.

An image from the Artist Bloc No. 1 zine, which was created by a group of Bay Area artists, scholars, and writers in 2011. The zine in available for download at Daily Serving. (via Artist Bloc No. 1)

A strike is the refusal to comply with a normative regime because that norm sets the terms for existence in unacceptable ways. It can take many different forms. In 2013, the performer Erdem Gunduz simply stood motionless in Gezi Square, an action that was widely understood as a challenge to the entire Erdogan regime. When the successful Palestinian hunger strike of 2017 began, even many of those in support did not expect the prisoners to win. It was their willingness to persist at risk to their own lives that led the Israeli government to concede.

J20 was not on that level. It was more like the upcoming March 8 Women’s Strike, a single-day event designed to create new social relations and new solidarities. Museum, gallery, and university staff might have found common cause with administrators, artists, faculty, and students. The first step to becoming ungovernable is for people to make connections with each other in a society designed to produce isolation and commercialize “friends.”

Occupy Musems banner for #J20 event at the Whitney Museum in 2017 (courtesy Occupy Museums)

Let it be conceded that this process has not yet been fully successful, despite important initiatives like Decolonize This Place’s anti-tour of the American Museum of Natural History, conducted after negotiations with museum staff to put them at ease. But this is not yet over. What can be learned from past strikes? What futures can be imagined? How can people engage in visionary organizing, as Grace Lee Boggs called it, to “make a life rather than making a living.”

A first step is to “strike art,” as the MTL Collective recently put it: “We strike art to liberate art from itself. Not to end art, but to unleash its powers of direct action and radical imagination.” The three-month residency of Decolonize This Place at Artist’s Space in 2016 was one example of how that happens. In a moment where it is being argued that “art unites us,” why strike art? Because in a year that has seen unending division over art, from the Whitney Biennial, to anti-gentrification protests inside Laura Owens’ Whitney show and the Chinatown Art Brigade actions at the James Cohan Gallery (to reference only downtown Manhattan), it is clear that there is no simple “us” for “art” to unite.

To strike, it’s important to know who the enemy is. The J20 call spoke of “oligarchy.” Since then, it has been increasingly common in mainstream media and politics (which is to say, mostly white people) to call this repression “fascist,” as has long been said in more radical circles. It was in 1961 that Frantz Fanon pointed out in The Wretched of the Earth that fascism is really just colonialism in the metropole. That is to say, if fascism is colonialism coming home after its long journey abroad, all anti-fascism is decolonial.

Molly Crabapple’s poster for the 2012 General Strike (via Just Seeds)

The sound of the strike resonates across time. It is the legacy of Irish resistance to British colonialism, the model for settler colonialism. Irish sailors first decided to “strike” the sails of vessels in 1768 London and when 1,400 Irish match girls came out on strike against appalling conditions in the East End of London in 1888, they created the new trade union movement. The struggle of these young women — some were as young as 12 — was invoked by the artist Molly Crabapple when she put a match girl in her poster for the General Strike called by Occupy Wall Street in 2012.

For all its faults, Occupy was an effort to reclaim urban space for the dispossessed that it called the 99%. It was what writer Toni Morrison has called a “re-memory” of actions like the Paris Commune of 1871. The Commune was named by Lenin as a “carnival of the oppressed” and became ungovernable, even though there were armies all around the city. The poet Rimbaud declared: “Work now? Never, never. I am on strike.” The strike was the transformation of everyday life. Rent was controlled. No police. And they pulled down the Emperor Louis-Napoleon’s statue. Knowing that their rebellion was about to be crushed, they sent messages to the future by posing for photographs. Most recently, Tahrir Square received the message in 2011, and from there it has gone global, bringing reaction in its wake.

If the repression is everywhere, from ICE raids on 7-11 to the Federal Courts, the strike must learn to be equally widespread. It is all the ways possible to withdraw from the regime as a strategy to unleash power, on multiple fronts: labor, yes, but also caring, debt, housing, education, the arts. Whatever people do can be done on strike. Whatever people can do to support the strike, they should. Wear black to support the women’s strike on March 8, for example, if withdrawing labor is not an option.

The #J20 Art Strike outside the Whitney Museum of American Art (photo courtesy Noah Fischer)

This strike cannot only be the withdrawal of labor, while so many are precariously employed. Self-employed, contract, state, and other employees can’t strike in the classic sense. But even being at work can be striking when done horizontally. Factory occupations, often with the continuation of work in the face of a shutdown, were a key tactic after the 2001 financial crisis in Argentina, under the slogan: “Occupy. Resist. Produce.” This production is the making of community not that of profit. There are now cooperative and occupied hotels, restaurants, and universities across the country. In Detroit, the collective Soulardarity supplies solar-powered street lights where capital and the state have withdrawn them. This is literally visionary organizing.

Despite all this, it is often said that people cannot afford to go on strike. It’s more accurate to say that people can’t afford to go on living. Utility cut-offs that impact the least well-off the most are up 64% in California since 2012 for a 2017 total of over 700,000. Household debt peaked at $13 trillion in 2017, a higher level than that of the financial crisis in 2008. If you’re in debt — and who isn’t? — try to imagine it as being on strike. Maybe it doesn’t turn on the lights but it might make you feel empowered or at least not powerless.

Why do any of that? Because these struggles need to become general to succeed. To follow the example of debt, it’s not debt relief in a specific area that is needed but a debt jubilee. As authorized by the Old Testament. Divide and rule is the oldest trick in the book. Being ungovernable means acting collectively.

The general strike is not a strike of all of the labor force all the time. It forms what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (following W. E. B. Du Bois) calls “a collectivity of disenfranchised citizens.” As Rosa Luxemburg, one of the first writers to imagine the general strike, put it: “Freedom is always the freedom to think differently.” To think of oneself as part of the general strike, rather than as a precarious individual under permanent surveillance, is, then, the practice of freedom.

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This post was written in conversation with MTL+ Collective, to whom love and respect. All opinions are my own.

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