A Summer of Missed Content: The Need for a Radical, Ethical Migration Art

Earl Miller

The summer of 2019 has been a time of reckoning for the art world over its role in the migrant crisis. Protests and petitions at the Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale respectively have been prompted by these cultural institutions’ refusal to respond to increasing demands for ethical migration politics. The roots of this reckoning lie in three prominently-publicized, apparently disparate events that actually are linked.

First is Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra, his controversial installation at the 58th Venice Biennale comprising the exhibition of a salvaged migrant boat as a “memorial” for the over 800 Libyan passengers who died in a horrific 2015 sea disaster. Installed without labels or didactic panels, an unaware public adopted the imposing displaced boat as an ideal selfie backdrop. Next is the resignation of Whitney board vice-chairman Warren B. Kanders over his teargas manufacturing company, Safariland, selling canisters used on Mexican migrants at the Mexico-US border. Finally, there is Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello’s viral see-saw installation in protest of the Mexico-US border wall. Kanders, Rael and Fratello, and Büchel, as well, connect geographically to that border wall. Büchel in a 2018 propositional art work claimed Trump’s border wall to be land art and called for its preservation under the US Antiquities Act.

This shared geography reveals, on the one hand, that contemporary art’s ties to migration are too often artistic exploitation and institutional complicity; on the other hand, it indicates how certain migration art works can transcend this status quo to hold potential to elicit change in contemporary art and beyond. Contemporary art’s appearance at the border perfectly illustrates the current crossroads of institutional complacency and activist reform.

For many, including this writer, Christoph Büchel’s shock jock antics at this year’s Venice Biennale, May You Live in Interesting Times, are problematic. One must wonder why Ralph Rugoff, the Biennale’s curator, did not question Büchel’s sincerity following his police-shuttered contribution to the 56th Venice Biennale (2015), The Mosque, for which the artist orchestrated a makeshift functioning mosque in a Catholic church near an area of Venice still known as the Jewish Ghetto.

Like The Mosque, Barca Nostra quickly faced accusations of self-indulgent insensitivity. On May 16, just five days after the Biennale’s public opening, art writer Siima Itabaaza initiated an online petition, now with 366 signatures, to remove the memorial, citing its unfortunate location near a cafe; the lack of identification as a work of art; and its inappropriate popularity as a selfie site. It continued by accusing Büchel, a white male artist without prior commitment to either migration art or identity politics, of “appropriating Black bodies.” Unconvinced by the Biennale catalogue’s assurance that “Barca Nostra is dedicated to the victims and the people involved in its recovery” (Büchel himself, perpetually silent, declined to comment on the piece), a sizeable social media, print media, and blogosphere supported the petition, at times with raw outrage.

Even with this media storm, the condemnation of migration art as spectacle exploiting the vulnerable is not news. Such a critique had already arisen in response to Ai Weiwei’s 2016 recreation of the iconic 2015 news photo of a drowned three-year-old boy, Alan Kurdi, lying face down on a beach in Lesbos, starring his celebrity artist self as the child in a photograph by collaborator Rohit Chawla. Some critics, R.M. Vaughan for one, viewed the photograph positively, in his case, as a criticism of how media images like the one Weiwei reenacted instill collective sympathy but only superficially and temporarily. Still, most read it as exploitatively opportunistic. However, this flurry of editorial criticism attacking Weiwei’s piece disappeared nearly as quickly as it was penned.

What is newsworthy in 2019 though is the more aggressive opposition to Büchel’s piece -an ongoing petition for removal, not just ephemeral criticism - and how it reflects the heightened pitch of current artists’ protests. The beginnings of this art activist turn, which falls chronologically between the making of Weiwei’s and Büchel’s pieces, is best demarcated by Hannah Black’s 2017 divisive “the painting must go” letter to the Whitney that went as far as recommending the destruction of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016). The Schutz painting did stay, but two years later, museum protests are beginning to realize active response from the return of stolen artifacts to the refusal of the Sacklers’ donations. Indeed, a more recent protest letter Black co-signed in protest of the Whitney Museum succeeded in its intent.

Black was instrumental in pressuring the Whitney for Kanders to resign over his ownership of the tear gas manufacturing company Safariland. Six months after Hyperallergic broke the story of Kanders’ business interests in Safariland, she and two other activists, ¬Ciarán Finlayson and Tobi Haslett, published a letter titled “The Tear Gas Biennial” in ¬Artforum on July 19, demanding the biennial artists withdraw their work. Until the “tear gas biennial” letter, after which eight artists promptly left the exhibition, only one artist, Michael Rakowitz, had withdrawn his work despite ongoing protests at the museum by Decolonize This Place. Whether the eight withdrawals in July came too late is debatable. Undeniably, waiting several months into the exhibition allowed the protesting artists to benefit from the exposure of biennial participation and not face condemnation for ethical compromise. What is more important is their protest cornered Kanders, leaving him little choice other than to resign.

By way of Kanders, the Whitney crash landed on the wrong side of the global migration crisis, leaving the institution as an enabling artwasher for violence against migrants already facing what can legitimately be called concentration camps. This relationship debunks the claim of art world insularity that the Whitney’s Museum Director Adam Weinberg perpetuated in his public response to the controversy: the museum is “a safe space for unsafe ideas.” This disingenuous statement, with its cringingly self-conscious adoption of campus Leftist parlance, begs the question of just how safe a space is when to use Greenberg’s famed pithy statement on money and art, it is joined by a “golden umbilical cord” to the worst of late capitalism.

The increasing intolerance for institutional complicity is exemplified by the initial contribution and later withdrawal from the Whitney Biennial by the Turner Prize shortlisted Forensic Architecture. Their included video Triple Chaser (2018) investigated Safariland’s role in teargassing migrants, an institutional critique intended to shed further public light on Kanders. Their good intent was unfortunately tainted by context: the strong possibility that the Whitney agreed to exhibit it not for institutional critique but for PR back pedaling. Ostensibly, the video echoes Hans Haacke’s 1988 solo exhibition at the Tate Modern in which he exhibited work criticizing Tate trustee and iconic collector Charles Saatchi for his business connections to South Africa’s apartheid government. Thirty years ago when political art exhibited in museums was comparatively controversial, Haacke and the curatorial team risked real career consequences with such content even if, like Triple Chaser, it stopped at institutional critique without proceeding to reform. Indeed, Haacke set precedent for today’s radical art politics, which is to say, he is more closely aligned with Black and with Forensic Architecture, once they withdrew, than he is with the Whitney.

On July 20, a day after the Artforum letter, Forensic Architecture, one of the eight dissenting artists, removed Triple Chaser, not citing the letter as motivation (although the timing suggests otherwise), but announcing that through ongoing research, they had retrieved a bullet on a Palestinian protest site in Gaza manufactured by a weapons company that Kanders partially owned. This discovery followed Israeli crackdowns on Gaza protests (according to UNHRC stats, in 2018, the Israelis had shot over 6,000 Palestinians protesters, resulting in nearly 200 deaths). Whatever the motivation behind their decision to leave the exhibition, what stands important is they transitioned from institutional critique to active, fruitful protest.

Further indicating Forensic Architecture’s critical motivations was their participation in an exhibition concurrent to the Whitney Biennial titled Sink Without Trace at P21 Gallery in London (June 13 - July 13, 2019), a comprehensive, contextualizing exhibition of art concerning the refugee crisis that stands quietly as a dramatic counterpoint to Büchel’s comparatively publicized but cryptic installation. The 17 artists in Sink Without Trace approach the subject in sundry ways. Forensic Architecture’s contribution, Liquid Traces (2014), which was based on research by Forensic Oceanography, a subsidiary of the Forensic Architecture group, presented surveillance footage and interviews to seek answers to the death of 63 migrants adrift on a boat in a NATO-surveilled zone. Similarly offering insight into the discursive field surrounding migrant deaths, Max Hirzel’s Migrant Bodies, an ongoing project launched in 2015, documents the forensic examination of the actual vessel Büchel installed in Venice. Other work comprised materials rescued from migrant boats and anonymous drawings by refugees transported on them. Collectively, these projects reject spectacle in favour of an archaeology of a recent tragedy that grants at least some visibility to those who died anonymously. But the most important methodology for radicalizing migrant art practice that arises from this exhibition is the steely dedication to fully experiencing the refugee’s plight that Lucy Wood’s exhibited project T06411 (2013) embodies.

Wood replicated the journey thousands of migrants make annually to continental Europe from the Italian island of Lampedusa. Four months after an arduous, potentially life-threatening sail that began at Lampedusa, she docked in London. To stay true to what migrants undergo, she traveled on a salvaged migrant boat with only the help of brief navigation lessons. For viewers with first-generation conceptual art knowledge, her piece echoes the 1975 sea journey of Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader; notwithstanding, his Sisyphean embarkation on it was comparatively romantic and ultimately fatal.

Wood’s project may resonate within art discourse, but it has not, Ramsay notes in her 2016 article titled “Reframing the debate: The art of Lampedusa,” received the public attention the artist desired. That dearth was not for a lack of effort on Wood’s part. Indeed, she placed her sea-battered vessel on public display and even convinced the Pope to travel to Lampedusa to bless it. Prior to Sink Without Trace, for which the boat was displayed on a canal near the gallery, it was moored unnoticed in the seaside town of Sheerness, UK.

What likely confounded Wood’s attempts at garnering public interest is the disconnect between the public and conceptual-influenced projects, which is likely precipitated by conceptualism’s distancing from subjective experience. That distancing does not meet more common expectations of an expressionistic interpretation of the refugee crisis, a contemporary Hollywoodesque Raft of the Medusa perhaps, but whatever the case, an art work with sufficient emotional drama to instill empathy and to attempt the impossible: to confront the massive scope of the refugee crisis on a comparable epic scale. One could refer to this stance as the Guernica phenomenon: a desire or a belief that the comparatively emotive, grandiose art of the past held more political agency than conceptual or post-conceptual art. Naturally, Gericault and Picasso may move the public to overcome horror with catharsis. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Sontag, a nostalgia for an irretrievable art history is as hopeless as is unrequited love. And it as conservative as any movement, of which there are currently many, seeking a return to a supposedly brighter past.

A more realizable, progressive approach is to consider contemporary social practice art for engaging wider audiences. An example of such a work is, in fact, Rael and San Fratello’s border wall installation. Working from Rael’s 2009 drawing titled Teeter-Totter Wall, the pair installed three pink see saws directly on the Mexico-US border wall, reaching Sunland Park, New Mexico on one side and Anapra, Mexico on the other, so that children on both sides could play together. Even though it remained for only a day (July 30, 2019), the installation continues to be significant for politicizing the playful interactivity of relational aesthetics.

The installation’s connection to Carsten Holler’s slide pieces of the mid-2000s is obvious. Still, Rael’s and San Fratello’s politicizing of relational aesthetics marks an advancement from Holler and other “nomadic” relational artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, whom in the words of their advocate, some would say promoter, Nicolas Bourriaud, use global culture “to inoculate [themselves] from the very [regional] networks that stifle us.” This desire to overcome “stifling” borders reflects a neoliberal philosophy, a system, of course, founded on a leveling globalism opening borders to the free flow of capital to the benefit of the wealthy. Bourriaud and the nomadic art world of biennials and fairs are part of this affluent group. Meanwhile, with a certain hypocrisy, neoliberalism closes borders to migrants if their potential human resources do not benefit a given country.

Rael and San Fratello’s “teeter-totter” breaks from a globalist agenda by interacting with those who experience its downside and arguing for their cause. Nonetheless, the sentiment of seeing migrant children happily playing while others are detained in cages detracts from its effectiveness as an art work. For that reason, it must be considered as a transitional piece, one indicative of a recent turn towards protest in migration art that exhibits potential for further inquiry and debate. As it stands now, it is the only migrant art project to receive mass public attention and one of the few to interact directly with migrants by placing itself in situ. At the Mexico-US border Rael and San Fratello’s protest installation came to a loggerhead with Safariland’s empty teargas canisters.

Büchel, one of the contemporary art circuit’s global nomads, makes a cameo at the border wall, too, with the tellingly disturbing declaration that Trump’s border wall prototypes hold “significant cultural value and are historical land art.” He is indifferent teargassed migrants may not see his bad boy, shit disturbing irony when he analogizes Trump’s racist pet project to, say, Spiral Jetty.

This impervious-to-suffering proposal, like The Mosque, frames Büchel’s Barca Nostra. And within that frame the biennale glitterati perform in a bizarre danse macabre around the wrecked ship. Eva and Adele, the androgynous art fair celebrities who have appeared for decades at countless international exhibitions in what could best be described as matching space alien drag, pose all smiles and in all pink before the salvaged migrant boat, reminding us not to rain on the biennale parade with such heavy themes as migrant deaths. In sharp contrast to the regressive Barca Nostra, another work at Venice encapsulate radically changing times. As part of the Armenian pavilion, Revolutionary Sensorium (2019), artist Narine Arakelian arranged for a group of performance artists and feminists to bang pots and pans in Venice’s winding streets, a reference to the feminist activists who performed the same action as an act of civil disobedience during the 2018 Velvet Revolution in Armenia. A rowdy, cacophonic call for revolution that accordingly can signify a death knell for reactionary art and the institutions supporting it, it marks with bangs and clangs this summer’s transformation from compromised migration politics to active reform.