The Paradox of Non-Participation

Essay on The Paradox of Non-Participation and the long history of artists’ boycotts and strikes seen as speech acts. Commissioned by the New Museum in New York City, Six Degrees series on the theme of Voice.

Full text at here.

Editor’s introduction:

Art historian and curator Lauren van Haaften-Schick’s project Non-Participation (2012–ongoing) is a collection of letters from artists, curators, writers, and others that were written to decline cultural opportunities on the basis of various ethical and political reasons. The motivations, occasions for, and style of delivery of each statement vary as much as the demands made within them: Some are written in response to insufficient compensation for their artistic labor or to protest nonpayment, others address a perceived complicity of the cultural event with a corrupt political context or speak to the misguided leadership of an institution, and yet others seek to expose hidden acts of censorship against artworks, articles, or even academic courses.

This project comes out of van Haaften-Schick’s earlier exhibition and publication “Canceled: Alternative Manifestations and Productive Failures,” which presented the legal and political histories behind a selection of canceled shows, alongside the projects that artists and curators created in response to these conflicts. Throughout the development of “Canceled,” artists’ and curators’ acts of “non-participation” emerged as unique from other forms of cancellation, as, in these cases, it was the practitioner and not the institution that initiated the withdrawal. Shortly before last summer’s events in Gaza spurred renewed and impassioned discussions on the impact of artistic and cultural boycotts on broader economic and political systems via the BDS movement, around the time that the HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? (Yams) collective withdrew from the 2014 Whitney Biennial in opposition to what they viewed as systemic racism enacted in the exhibition, and after artists withdrew from the Sydney Biennial in relation to their founding sponsor Transfield (a company that contracts with the Australian government to manage its controversial offshore mandatory detention centers for asylum seekers), I approached van Haaften-Schick to share some of her research under the framework of our R&D Season thematic of VOICE. As an art historian who has focused on legal mechanisms in conceptual art and institutional critique, her research considers the strategies employed by cultural producers (namely artists) to control the production and dissemination of their art/work, thereby altering the broader economies and cultural contexts through which art is distributed. Departing from the understanding that it is a luxury to have the choice between visibility and withdrawing in the first place, and presupposing agency in the act of negation, van Haaften-Schick argues that there is power in this form of invisibility that is based in the refusal to endorse an exhibition or to supply one’s time and labor.

While the exhibition largely lets the letters speak for themselves with minimal contextual information (some of which are provided in the Additional Materials section below), in “The Paradox of Non-Participation” van Haaften-Schick examines several case studies of historic refusals as well as recent incidents, looking at both general strikes and those targeted toward particular exhibitions, drawing upon various thinkers to go beyond the binary of withdrawal versus engagement. In considering various strategies for effecting systemic change, she considers when the spectacle surrounding public protests adequately shifts discourse and reception of an artwork, and when this gets recuperated by the very forces it seeks to critique or merely consolidates power around a certain artist.