Nkule Mabaso: Could you tell me more about your experience as an as artist, educator, writer has contributed in the way you view collaborative work?
Gregory Sholette: As I see it, there are no hard and fast lines between my artistic practice, my research and writing, or my teaching or political activism, Nkule. That follows from my belief that there are no sharp lines delineating aesthetics from civics, or art from politics for that matter. Under current global circumstances with wars and dislocated peoples everywhere, and with the extremes of wealth on one side, and a bleak emptiness about our collective future on the other, the very role of the artist is paradoxically an extremely weak force, and simultaneously a practice swept up into all these complex matters. I recommend listening to Okwui Enwezor’s interview on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman just last week, where he articulates these relations between art and the world quite well I think [see: ]. Basically, I think I agree with my friend, the artist Rick Lowe, who likes to say: “Please check your categories at the door.” In other words, it is time to stop worrying about what we are, and begin to ask what we do.
NM: Would you say there is currently a general resurgence of interest in working together as exemplified by the number of collectives, and artists dou’s, etc. that are currently visible? How do you see shared practices evolving in the coming years?
GS: If it is evolving, collaboration amongst artists, to be a serious force for critical analysis and change, it will need to be more than merely collaborative labour but actually move towards communalized collective practices that recognize and seek to liberate the socialized labour inherent in all human endeavours including art and culture.
Collective social form is always first and foremost a fetish—a part that substitutes for the whole, a clerical or lordly or bureaucratic or symbolic epiphenomenon that stands in for the phenomenal reality of lived experience—and that’s the way it should be: witness, for example, even such a latter-day scion of that old critical propriety as Louis Althusser, who was certainly right when he proclaimed with uncommon longing, and without any of the technocrat’s customary qualification or contempt, that a communist is never alone. The newness of the new e-collectivism, like the newness of the new Arab street, is only a rebirth of intensity, the welling up of spirits from the past, a recall to the opportunities and battle lines of old.
NM: So if the intention of collectivism is to no longer compromise the individual artist in the face of the institution, how should we understand the role of the institution formed by the artist collective? (This address constitutes the experience that forms the community, albeit being divided along the hierarchal line of the affecting/affected relationship.)
GS: My thinking on these new institutional efforts is best summed up with this definition I wrote for this online glossary [http://www.veralistcenter.org/art-and-social-justice/glossary/ ]:
Mockstitution, n. (neologism) similar to the concept of Artificial Institution (see Marina Naprushkina), or para-fictional institution (C. Lambert-Betty, C. Bishop), a mock institution or “Mockstitution” is an informally structured art agency that overtly mimics the name and to some degree the function of larger, more established organizational entities including schools, bureaus, offices, laboratories, leagues, centers, departments, societies, clubs, bogus corporations and institutions. Mockinstitutions thrive within the voids left by an increasingly fractured social framework whose coherence is faltering thanks to rampant privatization, economic deregulation, ubiquitous social risk and day-to-day precariousness. Inserting themselves into these deterritoralized spaces, Mockinstitutions typically sport their own ersatz logos, forged mission statements, and fake websites, all the while engaging in a process of self-branding not aimed at niche marketing or product loyalty, but rather at gaining surreptitious entry into media visibility itself. The Yes Men, for example, embody stereotypical business executives with such uncanny precision that they gain access to “real” corporate conferences, press events, and mass media coverage in order to carry out “image correction” on these same business enterprises. Likewise, the Center for Tactical Magic mixes together Wicca paganism and interventionist maneuvers in an effort to bring about “positive social transformation.”
Curiously, the longer a Mockstitution manages to operate the more likely its ironic identity will migrate from the sphere of rhetoric to that of logistical necessity, as if the fictional organization was doomed to re-enter the realm of true institutional authority through the “back-door.” One question this giddy confusing raises is whether or not a simulated institution functions as well as, or perhaps even better than, a so-called actual institution? At the same time, the overall spirit of this new, social-interventionist culture reveals a curious similarity at times with the anarcho-entrepreneurial spirit of the broader neo-liberal economy, including a highly plastic sense of collective identity, and a romantic distrust of comprehensive administrative structures (see Participation).
NM: What was the impetus for the formation of the groups REPOhistory and PAD/D, and what functions did they seek to fulfil?
GS: In 1979, I became involved with the artists’ collective called PAD/D or Political Art Documentation/Distribution, which was co-organized with Lucy R. Lippard, among others. About a decade later, I co-founded the group REPOhistory with another gang of artists, educators, and activists including Jim Costanzo (AKA Aaron Burr Society today), Tom Klem, Lisa Maya Knauer, Todd Ayoung, Lisa Prown, and Neill Bogan, among others. The name is a spin on the 1984 indie film Repo Man with Harry Dean Stanton, but our objective was to “repossess” lost or forgotten or suppressed histories of working people, women, minorities, and radicals and then mark these in public spaces around New York City.
In one of the projects from 1992 we managed to get City permission (under Mayor David Dinkins) to install dozens of temporary, metal street signs around lower Manhattan revealing such things as the location of the first slave market on Wall Street, the shape of the pre-Columbian island coastline, Nelson Mandela’s historic visit to New York just two years earlier, and the offices of a famous 19th-century abortionist named Madame Restell—once located where the Twin Towers also once stood. One side of each sign had an image. The other told the story.
NM: How does the art collective situate itself inside/outside normative, mainstream ideas and art institutions while simultaneously extending its artwork towards the inside/outside its tropes?
GS: PAD/D and REPOhistory had little relation to mainstream art and still less decades later. Gulf Labor, however, is embedded in significant ways in the art world and in fact requires that entanglement to be successful. It depends on the group. Critical Art Ensemble is a fair example of an inside/outside collective doing engaging work today, as is Gulf Labor Coalition.
NM: When working within a collective, how you do balance your individual voice or style and still operate within the identity of the group? Does the collective approach have the potential to withdraw the limelight from the one-man-show to more discursive models based on reciprocity and exchange?
GS: In a limited way it might work, yes, but probably only by getting beyond ideas of star curators and ideas of artistic success as defined by the global art market exemplified by events such as Art Basel, etc. We live in a highly individualistic society on one level, that masks a very collectivized productivity on another level, so the real task is not asserting one’s individual identity or position, that happens regardless; it is learning to not assert one’s voice, at least not as often as one is compelled to do normally, but to point to the deeply socialized nature of life under world wide capitalism, and then focus on how to overturn the dominance of the economic sphere over life in order to let peaceful, social, and cultural activity dominate the world of money and finance instead.
NM: Art collectives historically have generally been borne out of a desire to resist institutional endorsement at every level (spaces such as museums, galleries, and biennials), so why has it become necessary or even relevant for these groups to be present/presented in this context?
GS: But it is necessary and relevant for whom, Nkule? For the art world and its institutions, the answer is above in the previous response, for the artists’ collectives and groups themselves it could be that they need some level of recognition; after all, it is only logical, and/or perhaps they require more resources to leverage in their work. I think Critical Art Ensemble is a good example of a small collective that uses art world opportunities to do interestingly critical social projects.
NM: How have your various projects been funded?
GS: Primarily by me, as I supplement my art by working, teaching, lecturing, and consulting. But this self-funding also includes untold hours of labour that can never be counted. This is, of course, what the entrepreneurs of neoliberal enterprise culture really covet about what they call “The Creative Class”, or so-called “Knowledge Workers”.
NM: Do you think having ample resources is a major factor in contributing to success?
GS: It is said by some statisticians that people who are financially precarious are more prone to depression and personal defeat. I would say that is also true for cultural initiatives in the long run if they are not able to sustain themselves and their members. Yes, sometimes, limitations can be joyfully overcome in the short-run, and at the start of a campaign, if one is working in collaboration with others. But to develop a lasting practice of critical opposition, my definition of success by the way, means garnering enough resources to make that possible. Not great pots of wealth, that is not what I mean, but ample resources are needed as you suggest Nkule, yes.
Those I have been involved with have been barely funded at all. Remember that in the USA most funding is private, not governmental. Here is a breakdown of the three major groups I have worked with over the years:
PAD/D (Political Art Documentation/Distribution, 1980-1988): we got a few grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, but mostly it was our own labour and some funds raised directly from supporters through letter-writing campaigns asking for money, though it was never enough to pay any members for their work or to hire staff; most of the money was used to cover a modest rental space downtown and for the cost of publishing our journal Upfront [go here to see back issues online: http://www.darkmatterarchives.net/ ]
REPOhistory (1989-2000): we also got some foundation money for a few projects and a handful of members were paid token fees for helping to direct specific projects over the years, though most of our minimal funding went to the cost of producing the street projects themselves, as well as to a press person to help get the word out there. So, as with PAD/D, the majority of REPOhistory’s support was generated through a great deal of labour by members, especially a core group of about a dozen people who worked very hard to make the group’s temporary street projects a reality. More about REPOhistory is here: https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=repohistory
Gulf Labor Coalition (2010-present): most of our projects are again self-funded through personal labour, but for the recent research done with the Venice Biennale, we managed to raise money from several sources including an Indiegogo crowd-source campaign, and this cash went to cover flights, hotels, and a few other things related to our research and public presentations, as well as a modest sum to a press person, but no actual salaries or fees have ever been paid to GL members.
NM: What have your most successful collaborative efforts been, and what do you think has been the main reason for their success?
GS: All collaborations are complicated and riddled with moments of success and longer periods of uncertainty or failure. Right now I am working with Gulf Labor Coalition, and we have had a lot of visibility in our campaign for fair labour practices by the Guggenheim Museum building a new facility in Abu Dhabi. But these are always complicated things, and what is successful today, might be less so in the future. Which is why it is important to struggle, and to celebrate success, but also to be cautious about declaring victory. As Gramsci put it: Optimism of the Will, Pessimism of the Intellect. Or maybe my spin would be: Optimism of the Struggle, Pessimism of Conquest and Control.
NM: In general, would you say that working in a group is personally satisfying, or is it more pragmatic? Is collectively produced work more beneficial to one and one’s overall happiness?
GS: Working in groups, Nkule, is both satisfying and pragmatic at times, yes, well as at other times very difficult and often very expensive as well! It is exhilarating and frustrating, just like life and love and politics, so I guess the shared work is not simply beneficial, it is fundamental and unavoidable.
NM: In 2015, do you have another movie analogy to describe this experience of collective working?
GS: I also used such pop-cultural examples as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and something you may know from the history of the ANC, which was an American-produced TV series in the 1980s simply entitled “V” about human resistance to invading extraterrestrials that, according to at least one of my South African friends, used to be splashed on walls as graffiti during the anti-apartheid years?
Gregory Sholette is a New York-based artist, writer, activist and founding member of Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D: 1980-1988), REPOhistory (1989-2000). The PAD/D Archive is now available to scholars and artists at the MoMA, REPOhistory began as a study group of artists, scholars, teachers, and writers focused on public signage exploring the politics of history within NYC. Gulf Labor's research about the intersection of precarious labor and high art was recently featured at the 2015 Venice Biennial. Sholette’s publications include It’s The Political Economy, Stupid co-edited with Oliver Ressler, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture, both Pluto Press UK, as well as Collectivism After Modernism with Blake Stimson University of Minnesota Press, and The Interventionists with Nato Thompson distributed by MIT. He has contributed to such journals as Eflux, Critical Inquiry, Texte zur Kunst, October, Art Journal and Manifesta Journal among others. His recent art installations include Imaginary Archive at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania and the White Box at Zeppelin University, Germany. His collaborative performance project Precarious Workers Pageant premiered in Venice on August 7, 2015. Sholette is a graduate of the Whitney Independent Study Program in Critical Theory and is an Associate of the Art, Design and the Public Domain program at the Graduate School of Design Harvard University, served as a Curriculum Committee member of Home WorkSpace Beirut education program, and is an Associate Professor in the Queens College Art Department, City University of New York where he helped establish the new MFA Concentration SPQ (Social Practice Queens).
Nkule Mabaso, b. 1988, graduated with a Fine Arts degree from the University of Cape Town and received a Masters in Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts. She has worked as Assistant Editor of the journal OnCurating.org and founded the Newcastle Creative Network in Kwazulu Natal. As an artist, she has shown work in Denmark, Switzerland, South Africa, Germany, and Zimbabwe. She has curated shows and organized public talks in Switzerland, Malawi, Tanzania, and South Africa. Currently a PHD Candidate at the Rhodes University as part of the research team SARChI Chair 'Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa', and curator of the Michaelis Galleries at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town.