Late last year, the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel launched MAGA, a nonprofit ostensibly lobbying and petitioning to have the eight prototypes for Donald Trump’s US-Mexico border wall designated a national monument. The project, which the artist maintains is apolitical, includes tours that take paying customers from a meeting point outside the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (MCASD) to Tijuana and then to the prototypes near the Otay Mesa border crossing. Today, a group of 25 artists, arts workers, and writers released an open letter calling on cultural institutions “to work against the promotion of white supremacy by joining us in repudiating these prototypes as ‘Art.'”
“To me, borders and walls can never just be abstract ideas to be conceptualized from a distance allowed by an exuberance of privilege and mobility,” Gelare Khoshgozaran, the LA-based artist and writer who spearheaded the open letter, told Hyperallergic. “They are everyday lived experiences that have affected my body, my well-being and mental health, my family, my racialization and mobility, as well as my art and writing careers. Seeing how casually, not just one, but two US art institutions were participating in the promotion or facilitation of the wall prototype tours, and thereby normalizing the project as ‘art’ — as if we just forgot who had published the call for proposals in the first place — I could not afford to remain silent. I reached out to my friends and community to help me think, process and write. The letter is the result of that collective effort. ”
The letter’s signatories include Sasha Ali, the manager of exhibitions and communications at the Craft & Folk Art Museum; artist and curator Matthew Lax; artist and Los Angeles City College instructor Oscar Miguel Santos; Geneva-based art adviser Myriam Vanneschi; and Carol Zou of the Asian Arts Initiative. They criticize not only Büchel’s project and the MCASD’s apparent complicity in it, but also mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth (which represents Büchel) for promoting MAGA on social media MAGA, and the New York Times for its uncritical coverage. (The MCASD has made clear that it is not involved in the project in any way, see the update at the bottom of this article.)
“Büchel’s petition, The New York Times’ coverage, Hauser & Wirth’s promotion of the tour, and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s allowing the museum to be a meeting point for the tours, make blatant the failures of Contemporary Art: concerned more with spectacle and irony than critically dismantling oppressive structures that undermine the lives of the most vulnerable,” the letter reads in part (it is included in full below). “We are deeply affected by, and therefore attentive to, how our institutions position themselves in response to the atrocities of our times, and we are committed to the labor of holding them accountable.”
The full letter — which readers who wish to do so can add their names to through this Google form — is included below.
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Letter to Art and Cultural Institutions: repudiate MAGA’s White Supremacist US-Mexico Border Wall Prototypes as “Art”
February 6, 2018
Violence and art have never been strangers. There are countless ways Contemporary Art colludes with power structures. Whether in the relationships built between galleries and developers, or arts funding institutions that rely on resource extraction and labor exploitation, Contemporary Art is not exempt from power and its abuse, and often reinforces it.
Today’s example is Christoph Büchel’s petition, which he deems a tongue-in-cheek “art world critique” by demanding the protection of eight prototypes for the wall marking the border between the United States and Mexico as “national monuments.” The artist has also offered $20 tours of the prototypes, sponsored by his nonprofit called MAGA (a reference to Make America Great Again), with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s downtown branch serving as a meeting point. On January 29th, Hauser & Wirth—a self-described “leading international contemporary and modern art gallery with spaces in Zurich, London, Somerset, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Gstaad”—uncritically posted the promotional video of the wall-prototype tours on their Instagram and Twitter feeds, referring the viewers to the MAGA website and thereby condoning the artist’s work.
Büchel’s petition, The New York Times’ coverage of it, Hauser & Wirth’s promotion of the tour, and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s allowing the museum to be a meeting point for the tours, make blatant the failures of Contemporary Art: concerned more with spectacle and irony than critically dismantling oppressive structures that undermine the lives of the most vulnerable. The simple fact that these border wall prototypes—symbols and tools of the white supremacist “Make America Great Again” campaign—can so easily be co-opted into the language of Contemporary Art—as “sculpture,” “land art” or “minimalism”—shows how Contemporary Art is no force in opposition to power and its abuse. Not only do Christoph Büchel, Michael Walker (of the New York Times) and Hauser & Wirth Gallery fail at critique, they reinforce the use of art to euphemize and aestheticize state violence, and mock the lived experiences of those most affected by that violence.
We, the signatories of this letter, want to say it loud and clear that nothing about a xenophobic and white supremacist project, artifact, wall or building should ever be spectacularized and promoted by artists or arts institutions. We know that art institutions have not historically been sites of revolt or resistance. There are cumulative and complex ways in which art institutions and contemporary artworkers are complicit in holding up the oppressive status quo. Yet the support and promotion of violent, white supremacist art is an unacceptable act of violence in itself. Institutions have power, and power requires responsibility. We are deeply affected by, and therefore attentive to, how our institutions position themselves in response to the atrocities of our times, and we are committed to the labor of holding them accountable.
We call on all art institutions to actively shift the status quo of complicity, to work against the promotion of white supremacy by joining us in repudiating these prototypes as “Art”. Additionally, we demand an apology from Hauser & Wirth and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego for their promotion of fascism, not as absolution, but as the first step towards reparations. Until then, we, the signatories of this letter, are calling for a boycott of Hauser & Wirth and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. As writers, we refuse to report on, or write about their exhibitions; as editors we refuse to solicit writing on their shows; as artists we refuse to visit their galleries; as art advisors and curators we refuse to patronize these institutions and will advise our clients to do the same. We, the undersigned, refuse to support Hauser & Wirth and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego for their support, promotion and facilitation of a distasteful and violent project sponsored by a white supremacist group.
We call upon artists and cultural workers to join us in our stance by adding your signature.
Sasha Ali, Craft & Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles
Morehshin Allahyari, artist & activist, NYC
Kyle Bellucci Johanson, artist, Chicago
Dan Bustillo, artist & writer, Los Angeles
Aleesa Cohene, artist, Los Angeles
Jenna Crowder, artist & editor, Portland, Maine
Niloufar Emamifar, artist, Los Angeles
Arshia Haq, artist, Los Angeles
Taraneh Hemami; artist, educator, activist, SF
Maryam Hosseinzadeh, cultural worker & tour organizer, Los Angeles
Andre Keichian, artist & educator, Los Angeles
Shirin Khalatbari, artist, Berkeley
Gelare Khoshgozaran, artist & writer, Los Angeles
Matthew Lax, artist & curator, Los Angeles
Nazafarin Lotfi, artist & educator, Tucson
Alli Miller, artist, Los Angeles
Nooshin Rostami, artist & educator, New York
Maybe Jairan Sadeghi, artist & registered nurse, Pittsburgh
Oscar Miguel Santos, artist & educator Los Angeles City College, Los Angeles
Jimena Sarno, artist & educator, Los Angeles
Joshua Smith, artist, Los Angeles
Penelope Uribe-Abee, artist & educator, Los Angeles
Myriam Vanneschi, art advisor & curator, Geneva, Switzerland
Samira Yamin, artist, Los Angeles
Carol Zou, cultural worker, Philadelphia
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Update, 2/7/2018, 10:30 pm EST: The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego has issued a statement clarifying that it is in no way involved in or affiliated with Christoph Büchel’s project. The statement, originally posted on Facebook, reads in full:
The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is not affiliated with Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel’s project about the border wall prototypes, nor was MCASD consulted about serving as a meeting point for its tours.
For over 30 years, MCASD has presented exhibitions and programs that boldly address questions related to the US/Mexico border. We remain committed to supporting artists in San Diego and Tijuana that foster conversations and actions about the urgent issues of our binational region.