News

Artist Phil Collins Withdraws From MoMA PS1 Exhibition in Solidarity With Prison Divestment

The video artist withdrew from Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011 days ahead of its public opening.

Installation view of Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Video artist Phil Collins announced today, October 30, that he is withdrawing his video work baghdad screentests (2002) from an upcoming MoMA PS1 exhibition in solidarity with a prison divestment campaign targeting MoMA and its trustee Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock. The artist will instead screen his film in various locations in New York in coordination with the MoMA/BlackRock Divest coalition.

Collins was slated to participate in the exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011, which opened to the press today and will open to the public on Sunday, November 3. The exhibition features 250 works by 75 artists who examine the legacies of American-led military engagement in Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. Participating artists include Afifa Aleiby, Dia al-Azzawi, Thuraya al-Baqsami, Paul Chan, Harun Farocki, Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Guerrilla Girls, Thomas Hirschhorn, Hiwa K, Hanaa Malallah, Monira Al Qadiri, Nuha al-Radi, and Ala Younis, among others. The exhibition will sprawl over PS1’s entire building in Long Island City.

Installation view of Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“This decision is an expression of solidarity with the millions of human beings currently held in cages in US prisons and jails, with their communities and loved ones, and with friends, colleagues, organisers and campaign groups working tirelessly to call out, resist and counter the social violence perpetuated by the prison system,” Collins writes in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “The times we live in are not business as usual,” the artist continues. “Museums and cultural spaces, their collections, exhibitions and programs, should not be aligned with or funded by investments in mass incarceration, war profiteering, ecological catastrophe, debt ownership, devastation, oppression and the pain of others.”

While criticizing MoMA and Fink for their investments in private prison companies, Collins still maintains a positive opinion of the upcoming exhibition. “The impulse to examine US/UK and Western imperialism in the Middle East is important,” he writes. “I admire the artists included in the exhibition and their work, and hope that my action can contribute to the global momentum to protest inequity, occupation, labour extraction and disenfranchisement, and to see, together, better days.”

In response to Collins’s withdrawal, a spokesperson for MoMA tells Hyperallergic: “It’s important to be absolutely clear that neither the Museum of Modern Art nor MoMA PS1 invests in for-profit private prisons, and neither museum’s pension fund is invested in Fidelity.”

Wall text at MoMA PS1 explaining the removal of baghdad screentests (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Earlier in October, activists from New Sanctuary Coalition, Art Space Sanctuary, Decolonize This Place, and other groups crashed a VIP preview party at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), four days before it reopened its $450 million refurbished galleries to the public. The protest followed an open letter signed by hundreds of artists and scholars, including Collins, who urged the museum and trustee Fink to divest themselves from private prisons. Other signatories included Tania Bruguera, Hito Steyerl, Xaviera Simmons, Andrea Fraser, Claire Bishop, Omar Berrada, Hal Foster, Chloë Bass, Alejandro Cesarco, and Nikki Columbus, and many others.

“We denounce MoMA’s connections to mass incarceration, global dispossession and climate catastrophe, and demand that MoMA’s Board member Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, divest from prison companies, the war machine and the destruction of the global environment,” the open letter read. “Stopping the global cycles of dispossession, displacement and detention, and reinvesting in the basic necessities of food, shelter, health and freedom are the best ways to ensure that communities worldwide thrive.”

Phil Collins, baghdad screentests, 2002 (courtesy of Shady Lane Productions)

Collins is a Runcorn, England-born and Berlin-based artist who is best known for his video work in conflict zones. In baghdad screentests (2002), the artist filmed Iraqis sitting silently for screen tests for a non-existent Hollywood film — a riff on Andy Warhols’s famous series — while the country was still under the rule of Saddam Hussein. One of the artist’s other projects, they shoot horses (2004), consists of two seven-hour long videos featuring teenagers from Ramallah in the West Bank performing a disco dance marathon. In 2006, he was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize.

Read Phil Collins’s statement, reproduced in full, below:

In light of recent actions organised by MoMA/BlackRock Divest coalition, and information made public by activists and campaigners, I have decided to remove my work baghdad screentests from the exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011 which opens at MoMA PS1 this week.

This decision is an expression of solidarity with the millions of human beings currently held in cages in US prisons and jails, with their communities and loved ones, and with friends, colleagues, organisers and campaign groups working tirelessly to call out, resist and counter the social violence perpetuated by the prison system.

My work over the years, both inside and outside prisons, with those directly impacted compels me to speak out in opposition to the ongoing expansion of the prison industrial complex. Prison companies are a part of the racist, state-sanctioned carceral system of the United States — the largest jailer in the world — that places a massively disproportionate number of people of colour behind bars, and decimates communities and individual lives. Even after their release, people remain confined and punished by invisible barriers, physical, emotional and economic.

The times we live in are not business as usual. Museums and cultural spaces, their collections, exhibitions and programs, should not be aligned with or funded by investments in mass incarceration, war profiteering, ecological catastrophe, debt ownership, devastation, oppression and the pain of others.

The impulse to examine US/UK and Western imperialism in the Middle East is important. I admire the artists included in the exhibition and their work, and hope that my action can contribute to the global momentum to protest inequity, occupation, labour extraction and disenfranchisement, and to see, together, better days.

In coordination with members of MoMA/BlackRock Divest coalition, baghdad screentests will screen over the coming months in communities around the city that are affected by dispossession, war, detention, and incarceration economies and policies.

With thoughts of everyone who cannot be with us right now,

​Phil Collins

comments (0)