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After Being Ignored by MoMA PS1, Michael Rakowitz Paused His Video in Its Gulf Wars Exhibition

The artist posted a statement next to the paused video, demanding two of the museum’s trustees divest from private prison companies and defense contractors.

Artist Michael Rakowitz after pausing his video work at MoMA PS1 (photo by Jillian Steinhauer, courtesy of Michael Rakowitz)

Artist Michael Rakowitz paused his video work RETURN at the MoMA PS1 exhibition Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 around noon on Saturday, January 11, in solidarity with activists who have been demanding that MoMA’s trustee Larry Fink divest himself from private prison companies. The artist also installed a plaque with a statement next to his work, which included a clause that the statement should not be removed as it was a part of the artwork. However, the museum later unpaused the video and removed the plaque against his stated request.

Rakowitz first requested the work be paused in November of 2019, the same month that the exhibition opened. The artist told Hyperallergic in an email that the museum has denied his request to “update his work” by posting the statement and pausing the video on three different occasions.

In the statement he posted at the exhibition, which he later provided to Hyperallergic, Rakowitz called on Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, to divest from the private prison companies GEO Group and Core Civic. He accused the companies of being “responsible for approximately 70% of all immigration detentions,” which he described as “part of a racist, carceral system which has made the U.S. the largest jailer in the world.”

In addition to Fink, Rakowitz’s statement targeted Leon Black, the chairman of MoMA’s Board of Trustees, whose company is invested in the defense contractor Constellis Holdings, formerly named Blackwater. The company, according to the statement is “infamous for its role in the Nisour Square Massacre, during which Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 more.”

Rakowitz posting his statement next to the paused video (photo by Robert Chase Heishman, courtesy of Michael Rakowitz)

“I kindly request that Larry Fink and Leon Black please divest from these companies so that I may unpause my video and press play,” Rakowitz’s statement read. “If this is not possible, then I kindly ask that MoMA please divest from Larry Fink and Leon Black as trustees so that I may unpause my video and press play. And if this proves impossible, then I kindly ask that PS1 Contemporary Art Center please divest from its relationship with MoMA, so that I may unpause my video and press play.”

MoMA PS1 has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

“I posted the statement and paused the video on my own accord,” Rakowitz told Hyperallergic wrote. “It is my right as the artist and the work may not be altered without my permission. Removal of the statement or presenting the video unpaused would be damaging the work.”

Spanning the museum’s entire building in Long Island City, Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 examines the legacies of the American invasion of Iraq with 250 works by 82 artists, of whom 30 hail from Iraq. In October of 2019, artist Phil Collins withdrew his video work from the exhibition citing reasons similar to Rakowitz’s. The removal was announced just days ahead of the exhibition’s public opening on November 3.

Despite his request that his work be paused Rakowitz applauded the exhibition in his statement and clarified that he does not wish to remove the work from public display.

“I am humbled to be presenting alongside so many artists I admire from my mother’s ancestral home, from which her family was forced to depart in the 1940s,” his statement read. “To have such crucial work presented here is momentous. Indeed, it is not the artists who need to depart, it is museums’ dysfunctional and abusive relationship to toxic
philanthropy that should go away.”

On Sunday afternoon, the museum held the event the Politics of Conservation as part of its programming for the exhibition. A panel discussion on the destruction and preservation of cultural heritage in Iraq was followed by a concert with Iraqi musicians. “It is striking that on a day where PS1 focuses on cultural preservation that they damage artwork,” Rakowitz said after learning about the removal of his statement.

Read Rakowtiz’s full statement here:

I’ve decided to press the pause button on my video, RETURN, so that we can discuss some recent events.

Activists have called on MoMA Board Member Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, to divest BlackRock (and its subsidiaries) from the prison corporations GEO Group and Core Civic, in which they are among the largest shareholders. Why? Because (a) these companies, under contract from I.C.E., have been responsible for approximately 70% of all immigration detentions, (b) these companies are part of a racist, carceral system which has made the U.S. the largest jailer in the world, and (c) BlackRock also controls funds that have purchased billions of dollars of shares in weapons manufacturers.

I broaden this activist call and also ask that the Chairman of MoMA’s Board of Trustees, Leon Black, divest his companies from Constellis Holdings. Constellis Holdings, formerly called Blackwater, is infamous for its role in the Nisour Square Massacre, during which Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 more.

The opposite of RETURN is DEPART, which is derived from dispertire, which means to divide, to separate, to take leave of each other, to go away.

And yet, I wish to remain in Theater of Operations and not depart. What makes this exhibition exceptional is the bringing together of artwork made during and in response to the ongoing Gulf wars by artists around the world, with a particular focus on Iraqi artists who made art in the midst of the continuous traumas of siege, sanctions, and occupation. I am humbled to be presenting alongside so many artists I admire from my mother’s ancestral home, from which her family was forced to depart in the 1940s. To have such crucial work presented here is momentous. Indeed, it is not the artists who need to depart, it is museums’ dysfunctional and abusive relationship to toxic philanthropy that should go away.

I kindly request that Larry Fink and Leon Black please divest from these companies so that I may unpause my video and press play.

If this is not possible, then I kindly ask that MoMA please divest from Larry Fink and Leon Black as trustees so that I may unpause my video and press play.

And if this proves impossible, then I kindly ask that PS1 Contemporary Art Center please divest from its relationship with MoMA, so that I may unpause my video and press play.1

PS1 is a home for art and I respect all that has been done here by artists since the 1970s when it first opened. I would hate to depart.

Michael Rakowitz

PS: This statement constitutes an essential part of my ongoing artwork RETURN and cannot be removed.

1- On Sunday, November 3, along with other participants in the exhibition, I met with MoMA PS1’s Director and curatorial staff. We were informed that PS1 has a separate Board of Directors than MoMA and that Larry Fink is not on PS1’s Board and therefore contributes no money directly to PS1. That may be. But this place is called MoMA PS1, Leon Black serves on its Board in an ex-officio capacity, and PS1 is responsible for the company it chooses to keep.

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