Opinion

Forensic Architecture’s Documentary on Kanders Doesn’t Absolve the Whitney Museum

A documentary at the 79th Whitney Biennial may detail horrors funded by the Whitney’s own chairperson Warren Kanders, but don’t applaud the museum for the self-criticism.

A still from “Triple Chaser” showing various Safariland teargas canisters (image courtesy Forensic Architecture/Praxis Films)

Nicole Eisenman’s Bosch-flavored sculptures on the Whitney’s terrace may be the most Instagrammed works at this year’s biennial, but the most buzzed-about project is undoubtedly Triple-Chaser” (2019). With computer programming and more traditional documentary techniques, the 11-minute film by Forensic Architecture — an independent research collaborative based at Goldsmiths, University of London — outlines in unsparing detail the harm done by tear gas and bullets manufactured by companies backed by Whitney board member Warren Kanders. Migrants choke on the US-Mexico border. A man’s leg is blown open in Gaza. The phrase “possibly aiding and abetting war crimes” is uttered.

The video is nothing short of technical wizardry, and has been rightly lauded for its investigative work and for raising awareness about international struggles, police states, and nefarious institutional funding. Downstream of this praise, however, has also appeared a solemn respect for the Whitney itself, an institution cast as brave and worldly enough to exhibit a self-critical piece in its most anticipated event of the year. New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, for example, effused in his biennial review, “Props to the Whitney for showcasing this work, which is sure to come down on them like a ton of bricks.”

Never have laurels been so unearned. This decision is no struggle session for a museum trying to atone for taking money from an arms dealer with a Greenwich Village address. Instead, it is a calculated, even cowardly move by a cultural institution looking for an easy way out of a tough decision.

The connection between Kanders and his companies has been known since at least 2015, so if the Whitney considered his board membership anathema to its mission, they’ve had plenty of time to do something about it. Instead, an institution that’s happy to broadcast itself as a cultural leader has washed its hands of the responsibility of deciding what kind of financial support it deems ethical. Now it seems this decision will be left to the masses and based on the reaction to Forensic Architecture’s film: If there’s a loud outcry about the video, the Whitney can get rid of Kanders and say the public has been heard and justice has been done; if there’s a muted response, they can keep him around and continue with art-world business as usual. The museum didn’t specifically commission an anti-Kanders piece, but it is nonetheless leveraging any criticism aroused by it to maximal advantage while minimizing its own exposure.

“Triple-Chaser” thus does double-duty in giving the Whitney a veneer of self-reflective cosmopolitanism while offloading the labor of museum governance to artists and visitors. When the cultural arbiters lose the will to arbitrate, they lose their value to society. Just as curatorial choices shouldn’t be beholden to popular tastes but directed toward education and illumination, so too should we expect cultural gatekeepers to be similarly forward thinking in their operational duties.

But as major museums continue to evolve into aestheticized outgrowths of private and corporate capital, becoming as identified with the brands and individuals that support them as the works they house, what is happening at the Whitney is bound to repeat itself elsewhere. For example, just this past week, one need only look at the Metropolitan Museum’s announcement to stop taking opiate-linked Sackler money for the time being: a choice of moderation made for public mollification. Large institutions today behave more like businesses than cultural emissaries, changing their worldview to soothe their turnstile shareholders without actually standing for any core beliefs.

Visitors should undoubtedly watch “Triple-Chaser.” They’ll come away angry yet excited to see how Forensic Architecture will continue to deploy technology in the name of justice. But visitors should also give credit to the artists and activists who are working hard to push this conversation forward — Nan Goldin and Decolonize This Place to name just two high-profile examples — not to the institution that so far has been disinclined to act.

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