On the Consumption of Protest Art in Real Time

Today’s New York Times carries a story describing efforts by “preservationists, historians and art lovers” to capture and share art produced by the ongoing occupations in Hong Kong:

Because most of the art is still on the streets, the archiving is largely digital. Some digital renditions and objects are already running alongside the “Disobedient Objects” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Umbrella Movement Visual Archives and Research Collective, led partly by academics, is creating open-data platforms and Google maps to mark the locations of art pieces.

A new group—Umbrella Movement Art Preservation, or UMAP—has “rescue team members” on the ground, armed with cellphones and ready to mobilize volunteers to evacuate art on short notice. They have received offers of help from sympathetic truck drivers and about a dozen private galleries…

“It is all installation art,” said Mr. Wong of UMAP.

This process strikes me as unavoidably exploitative. The objects of this preservation campaign are art, but it is art that is meant to serve a specific and immediate political purpose. Removed from its original context and displayed online or in galleries, protest art becomes a form of found-object art. The “discovery” and display of these objects produces aesthetic and, in some cases, commercial value for its conveyors and consumers, but those returns are not shared with the original producers. Preservers, gallerists, and viewers inevitably engage in appropriation as well as appreciation.

More important, these preservation efforts give onlookers a way to enjoy the art without getting enmeshed in the politics. They treat the demonstrations as a creative performance, a kind of entertainment—”It is all installation art”—for the benefit of the viewer. In so doing, they implicitly ignore the strong political claims that this “performance” and the objects it generates are meant to produce.

The location of the original production is an essential part of its political meaning. The fact that it is confrontational and therefore dangerous to produce and display that art in those places is precisely what imbues it with any political power. By removing the art from that location, preservationists give distant onlookers a chance to enjoy the show without directly engaging in those politics. Politics is suffused with symbolic expression, but in situations like this one, the symbols are meant to serve a political purpose. When you try to separate the former from the latter, you implicitly ignore—and thus, in a fashion, reject—that purpose.

This rejection becomes less problematic, or at least less consequential, with the passage of time. When done in the moment, though, the decision to consume the aesthetic without engaging in the politics can have political consequences. “Wait, let me just move this sculpture out of the way before you smash everything to bits…” could imply that you care more about the sculpture than the people who produced it. More likely, it implies that you feel powerless to help defend those producers. I imagine that neither of those messages is particularly encouraging to the protesters or discouraging to those who would do the smashing.

I arguably engage in a related form of exploitation in my own work. My trade is explaining and forecasting political calamities that often involve substantial human suffering. To make my work more credible, I avoid public advocacy or activism on the topics and cases I study. So, I am finding and exploiting commercial value in the actions and suffering of others while adopting a public posture of indifference to that suffering. I’m not sure what to do with that fact right now, but I thought it only fair to acknowledge it in a post that scolds others for the same.

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