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Artists and Activists Prepare Political Responses to Whitney Biennial

Artist Michael Rakowitz has withdrawn, Forensic Architecture announced plans to respond to the museum’s political controversy in its commissioned work, and Decolonize This Place revealed a 9-week calendar leading up to the biennial.

The Whitney Museum of American Art (via Wikimedia Commons)

On February 25, the Whitney Museum of American Art announced the 75 artists who will be participating in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. In the days following, artists and activists have responded to the hotly-anticipated event of contemporary art, which opens May 17, with simultaneous excitement and militancy.

These reactions come in response to reports identifying a Whitney vice chairman, Warren Kanders, as the owner and CEO of Safariland, a multi-billion dollar weapons manufacturer. Safariland’s tear gas has been used at political clashes including at Standing Rock, Baltimore, Ferguson, Gaza, and recently, at the US–Mexico border, where it was launched at Central American asylum-seekers.

One artist, Michael Rakowitz, was revealed to have withdrawn his participation from the biennial, and today, it was revealed to Hyperallergic that a number of artists plan to incorporate their responses into their works for the biennial.

Decolonize This Place escalation poster (courtesy of Decolonize This Place)

Last night, February 26, activist organization Decolonize This Place announced their intention for “9 Weeks of Art and Action,” beginning Friday, March 22, to lead up to the May 17 opening of the biennial. They have created a “Manual for 9 Weeks of Art and Action” to prepare for the biennial “with respect for the participants of the biennial, the curators, and the staff of the museum,” and will hold a Direct Action training on March 3 to prepare.

Activists burned sage in the museum atrium (photo by Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

In December, Decolonize This Place occupied the Whitney with a protest, filling its lobby with sage smoke, voicing their opposition to Weinberg’s remarks, and speaking in solidarity with Whitney staffers. 

Prior to the protest, Whitney staff penned a letter to the museum administration requesting the “development and distribution of a clear policy around Trustee participation” and requesting a public acknowledgment from the museum administration. In response, Whitney director Adam Weinberg released a public statement addressed to staff and trustees saying that the Whitney “cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role.”

In a statement made the night the artists were announced, Decolonize This Place explained, “We are organizing and in conversation with biennial artists on how we can pressure the museum to do the right thing, which begins with the removal of Warren Kanders. It is important to note that Warren Kanders is just the start of the crisis at the Whitney. There is no safe space for profiteers of state violence.”

Of the 75 artists selected, Forensic Architecture, a Turner Prize-nominated collective, tweeted their plans for the Biennial, saying:

In light of recent reporting by @hyperallergic & protests by @decolonize_this & others, our invitation to the 2019 #WhitneyBiennial has become a challenge which unites the political & cultural dimensions of our practice. We will respond through our contribution.

A feature by the New York Times revealed that one artist, Michael Rakowitz, had chosen to withdraw from the event in a letter to museum administration dated December 18.

In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, Rakowitz explained, “I tried so hard to visualize my work in the Biennial as a way to counter the images of tear gas canisters and the wounds they inflict at the border, or any weapon on any body anywhere. But the truth is, it can’t. For as long as Kanders remains on the board, let alone as its Vice Chairman, my work and the people and the pain of displacement I address in it can only be appropriated.”

He continued:

I tried so hard to visualize my work in the Biennial as a way to counter the images of tear gas cannisters and the wounds they inflict at the border, or any weapon on any body anywhere. But the truth is, it can’t. For as long as Kanders remains on the board, let alone as its Vice Chairman, my work and the people and the pain of displacement I address in it can only be appropriated.

I have produced work in the social and public sphere long enough to have developed a strong commitment to amplifying people, circumstances, and conditions that have been made invisible or silent. I do this in the hope that visibility within the frame of cultural production can interrupt history, as Walter Benjamin might have said. I cannot allow for my work, my beliefs or the ideas I support to become appropriated and compromised by an institution that is serving the interests of those who see no problem with silencing the voices of the most vulnerable.

Rakowitz added that he was “very excited to work with both Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta [the 2019 Whitney Biennial curators]. I’ve long admired their curatorial work and their thinking,” and that, “it is because of my admiration for what the Whitney staff have brought to light that I believe my most worthy participation in their thinking is to think with them, to stand in solidarity and to say no.”

The Whitney has declined to respond at this time.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Decolonize This Place Protest preceded the Whitney staffer’s letter to the museum administration. This is incorrect, and has been amended.

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