After Thoughts: A Studio Visit with Fritz Haeg, on the day Zimmerman was acquitted
“Our community of art – and by extension, dance, poetry and theatre – has done an effective job of marginalizing itself into virtual irrelevancy for the general public. We are in a self-imposed exile and the Bushes and Cheneys of the world couldn’t have done a better job of it. We carry out our business safely out of view. We sequester ourselves in the quarantined cell of the studio, at exclusive gatherings in white cubes, and at clandestine performances in black boxes. We talk to ourselves in an endlessly self-referential hermetic discourse – like a snake eating its tail. When we’re on the radar of the mainstream, it tends to be empty entertainment or record-setting auction prices, a sensational but ultimately hollow spectacle. We patrol our own borders, making sure nothing unworthy is allowed to enter and that everything inside is too precious for the rest of the world to participate in. When we do invite participation, it’s on our own terms, and we’ve already decided what will happen anyway. I don’t want to sound hostile to the communities that I love, but I speak here using hyperbole, generalizations and partially unfair characterizations to make a point.” (Fritz Haeg, Border Control, Frieze Magazine, 2009)
I arrived to our studio visit excited by the point that Fritz was trying to make.I was excited to meet an artist that seemed to suggest that the carefully placed borders between the art world and the rest of the world needed to bend,be perforated, or perhaps even begin to disappear. His claims proposed, at thevery least through an articulate, enthusiastic gesture, that the practice of art making can and should have some impact on the world, in its own distinct way; that art making in and of itself is positioned to challenge the essential structures of our culture, to expose its problems, to suggest solutions. The statement in his essay was situated in the context of the Bush regime,illuminating the fact that during the eight years under one of the most repressive administrations in US history, art virtually went unnoticed. Fritz asserts that this indicates a shortcoming of the art world, a fatal flaw, and even a negligence or complacency of artists. And according to the beginning of his talk, it even seemed as if he felt that art is actually obligated to challenge power in some way and as he put it: if it doesn’t do this, if the artist doesn’t desire this in some way …well then, what’s the point?
I found all of this very encouraging. Fritz is a wonderful speaker, warm, candid,and clear. His work appears sincere and grounded in generosity, love, and pleasure. I even left the talk feeling a little better about my general disappointment and frustration with the straddling I typically have to do,splitting my artistic concerns between spaces: locating formal, art historical or theoretical issues at (art) school, and social/political issues… basically everywhere else but (art) school. And here on this visit was an artist that seems to be lending voice to some of my concerns. I was hopeful!
My hopes deflated completely later that evening when I read the news that in Florida, George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges; found not guilty for the murder of a Black teenaged boy, Trayvon Martin. Like many others, I had been following this case closely and understood it to sit in a deep historical context in which thousands of Black people in this country have been murdered by both police and civilians, their deaths grossly overlooked by the justice system. And that Black people in this country fall victim everyday to the embodied behaviors of racism, surveillance, and mass incarceration. Knowing this history, I was not surprised that the legal system failed to extend justice to Trayvon Martin. It was not the surprise that impacted me. It was the painful reality that it happened again. Again. It happened again.
Since Saturday I have been grieving, alone and with friends. I have been blessed to have folks in my life with whom I can cry with and with whom I can think and build collective energy to recover and grow the necessary momentum to push against and eventually eradicate anti Black racism in this country.
Woven into all of this is of course a deep reflection on art and what art practices can be when they come into a relationship with our social/political lives, what they mean in relationship with the body privilege of the artist (white, gender,hetero, class, ability privilege, et al.) and how artistic thinking and collaboration can be a vital resource, directly benefiting people in concrete ways. And ultimately, how all of this can’t really be contained within the borders of the art world. It is too big. There is too much at stake. It is too real.
Where does this leave a practice like Fritz Haeg’s and many other artists that trek along the territory of the social or social engagement in their work? I suppose I just wonder at what point it ceases to be a hypothetical, a what if …and becomes something that stands to radically undermine systemic inequities? How much authorship and control is the artist really willing to give up? And in this moment, when the social or political isn’t a theory or a fiction but a very tangible, painful, dynamic reality in which bodies are on the line …Where are all the socially engaged artists?And where is the art world?
Where are the LA artists that thought Occupy LA was a radical opportunity to make artful social interventions, to practice their politics, to speculate on the parameters of a freer, more just world? Where are you when the far reaching umbrella term of the 99% doesn’t hover above the issue? When it isn’t a neat social experiment in revolution?When it isn’t a friendly state or city sanctioned garden in a park or within the safety of a museum?
And why bang your head against the obsolescence of challenging the boundaries of the art world when you can actually work to directly challenge things like colonialism, capitalism, and the prison industrial complex?
I agree with Fritz, that artists must question authority; the work must do something to challenge our thinking. I just think that this moment is asking us to go even further than that and challenge the way we even conceive of that responsibility.