Interview with Gregory Sholette

Transcript of the entire interview with Gregory Sholette, Brooklyn College Library, 8 February 2014 (English)


Krenn: I would like to show you a short promotional video clip about Microsoft’s Gigapixel Art Zoom project that could serve as a starting point for our conversation. The role that artists and street performers play in this project also reminded me of your analysis of the relation between arts and neoliberalism in your book Dark Matter. This video clip is about the making of a 20 gigapixel panoramic image of Seattle involving artists from the local art scene. Their role is to make small performances at several locations in the town which are then photographed from a rooftop on Capitol Hill. The final result is a 20 gigapixel panoramic image that is presented on Microsoft’s website Technically, when you visit their website you can zoom in on the image and thereby find the artists and when you click on them a short video-clip and other information about the artists pops up.

Sholette: Well, I think I should have showed this to my students though. So, what do you think?

Krenn: There are several interesting aspects related to this example. First of all I think this project presents itself as if it was a project that supports the arts scene in Seattle. As if it was a career opportunity that one could be promoted in such a way. Some artists involved in it are art students; some seem to be related to community art, others even have already made art works for the Seattle Art Museum. I seems to me that it was not too difficult to find artists for this project. Second, the project promotes the newest technologic research of Microsoft by enriching it with some cultural value.
One need not take this project too seriously because it is really not interesting in artistic terms, but there is a metaphorical aspect in it that I think is of importance and that I would like to outline. The image seems to represent the landscape of the city as well as its cultural life by showing local artists. Microsoft’s interactive project reminds me of the game ‘hide and seek’. You have to zoom in on the image to find the artists. To attract your attention the artists try to catch your attention. Their art is not challenging the perception of the viewer in a provocative way, as it is common in performance art; their performances are reduced to only one aspect: self-promotion by attracting the attention of the viewer. They try to catch one’s eye by being different from other passers-by in the image. Depending on how you navigate through the image some of the artists will be found and others will remain unnoticed in it. The whole project can also be described as a digital Panopticon that controls the activities of the artist in advance, even before they may become visible. Because no matter what the artists are doing, they are caught in this image; an image, that is owned as well as created by a global corporation. Interestingly in opposition to the classical institutional building in this Panopticon there is not only one watchman who observes the workers in the factory or the prisoners in their cells. Everyone who visits the website can take his place.

Sholette: I wonder what the process was. How the artists got chosen. Whether they submitted ideas first and then some were selected or whether they had to present themselves to a faculty member of a school and maybe then they were chosen by that instructor and submitted? I’m curious you know because I wonder who wasn’t shown and what the “editing” process deleted and why?

Krenn: I don’t know but I guess there would be no chance if the art performances were critical about Microsoft. So criticism is excluded from this project in advance because it is controlled by the company. But internal criticism could be possible, if this project were funded by the city I think that in the name of the freedom of art more or less critical art would be allowed.

Sholette: But I also wonder if the city of Seattle itself didn’t also have something to do with it as well Martin. They have a long tradition of fairly progressive public policy, or had one in the past at least. Many years ago, sometime around 1996, I served as a juror for this Seattle public art commission selecting artworks. I presume I was brought in specifically because they wanted to get away from just placing [PLOPPING DOWN] a sculpture at some PUBLIC place. So me and a couple other people, we made sure we chose people who were going to work with the neighbourhood to create a project that local people would get involved with interactive whatever, around ethnic histories of Asians in the city etc. etc. I don’t know how much of it was eventually built. Once my job as juror was over I came back to NYC. But the Seattle arts commission I’m pretty sure was later decommissioned. That said, Seattle used to boast about having a lot of public art and this was true, everywhere you went in the city there was an art work, some more engaging than others. The influx of high tech capital has certainly impacted the city’s approach to public space and public policy as much as it no doubt influenced the
“social practice” type art project that you just presented to me.

Krenn: Is it a new phenomenon in society or has this type of inclusion and exclusion been around for quite some time?

Sholette: Years ago Zurich Switzerland [see: ] decided to commission artists to decorate full-sized fiberglass cows and place them around city sidewalks.  I guess the idea was to have tourists get excited about the city. Later on that same project also took place in Chicago and there have been variations of it since then in other US cities. And so the Chicago based artist John Ploof (who is also a member of the collective HaHa btw) proposed to install one of these plastic cows sticking butt end up out of a particularly polluted part of the river where the enormous 19th Century Chicago meatpacking plants once tossed their organic waste. Remember the 1906 muckraking novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair that brought public attention to the horrors of that industry? [see:]. Apparently waste gasses still bubble up out of the water to this day. Anyway, Ploof’s cow would have been the vent! It was unfortunately rejected for inclusion in the public art project.
But the point here being that this Microsoft project seems like the next step up from the fibreglass cows, where instead of a physical but temporary sculpture you have somebody doing an ephemeral yet ‘interesting’ performance piece. I think the young lady in the video even said that it’s “playful” and “fun.” (1:35 on the video) It only really remains in a physical space for a short time but is then archived in digital space indefinitely. You don’t have the expense of putting the decorated cow sculpture there and remove the cow, you just have the kids standing on the blocks snap, snap some pictures. You know. That’s clean, and it costs a lot less money too I’m sure. So I could see this being, These same qualities may in fact be the hidden appeal of social practice art and its increasing acceptance by cultural institutions. In terms of public art policy in cities I could see this becoming a template for a lot of places beyond Seattle. And of course Microsoft gets to add their branding to it as well.

Krenn: Social media such as Facebook, Youtube and most of the other networks are controlled by large companies; who actually earn a lot of money with it. On the other hand people are using social media to organise several forms of protest ranging from revolts against their governments to activities such as occupy wall-street. They are using social media to connect with each other to engage politically and socially. The art system is also based on a hierarchical structure in which only a small number of people and the established art institutions profit on the globalized workforce of the mass of amateur artists and so called failed artists. The formula here is, as I would put it, that everyone can become an artist, but only a few artists will earn his/her living from art. What do you think about that paradoxical situation?

Sholette: You could think about it in a classic sort of sense whereby capital during the industrial revolution drew peasants together into the factories to produce commodities in the production of proletarian etc.. It also, paradoxically, gave them the opportunity to discuss working conditions with each other and to confront their mutual exploitation. So if you look at it in a certain way you can say: sure, on the one hand capital innovates new forms of production and exploitation, but by doing so it also generates an opportunity to some degree to self-organise, to self-realise the social identity. So, I don’t think anything has really changed that much when it comes to these kind of production technologies. Maybe the difference here is it is less clear that people are actually producing something. Here people are both producers and consumers or ‘pro-sumers’ as some call this, and what they produce is knowledge. But now if we are talking about studio artists in particular, then they traditionally are not engaged in social production, or more accurately they don’t perceive themselves to be social producers. They tend to work individually in their studio, which reinforces this perception. They don’t always realize to what degree other artist-producers are in exactly the same position with exactly the same problems as themselves. Though curiously, in our post-industrial US or Europe this isolation also becomes the condition for most workers. If I can’t meet my mortgage that’s my problem, I’m a failure. Could we speak with enough people we might discover that it’s not “my” failure, and maybe there is something else going on here related to the system and the broader political economy. These kind of social connections are being enhanced and expanded through new communications technology and that is very positive.  And a growing awareness of the socialization of production is even emerging now amongst artists, especially since the financial collapse of 2008-2009 and the occupy movement’s chant of “we are the 99%.”

Krenn: One example is the group W.A.G.E. that you also mention in your texts.

Sholette: Yes, W.A.G.E. or Working Artists and the Greater Economy [] is actually a small group of people but they are trying to create a kind of seal of approval for those art institutions who get money from the government, that is to say public funding. Those institutions who disperse that money fairly to artists will get certified by W.A.G.E. [see:]. It’s based on a somewhat similar system devised by Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des Artistes Canadiens (CARFAC). They were actually an outgrowth of the Artworkers Coalition back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the challenges of course for artists in the USA is that in Canada there is still more public cultural money that’s dispersed and to some degree artists can live off that or they once could do so (neoliberal privatization is affecting all countries including Canada). In the United States there is a lot less money distributed to artists, first of all. Second of all, the commercial market is really very dominant and often steers the process by which artists become successful and even the ways that they think about their work. What W.A.G.E. has come up with so far, at least as far as I know, doesn’t address the commercial side of the art world at all. And there is little or nothing in way of a threat to hold over a commercial gallery to make them treat artists fairly except on ethical grounds and public shaming. The Guerrilla Girls did try this of course when they called attention to the lack of women artists in major galleries and so forth. Also Gulf Labor Coalition, that I belong to, is doing something similar in so far as we (a group of cultural workers and activists) have called for a boycott of the forthcoming Abu Dhabi Guggenheim Museum in the UAE refusing to cooperate with them until they improve the working conditions for immigrant labor building their architecture.

Krenn: Could you explain your concept of Dark Matter  and how it developed over the last number of years?

Sholette: It comes out of my own experience as an artist and someone working with artist groups for many years. I realised that there was no one writing history on what we were doing collectively and that it seemed unlikely anyone would bother to write that history. So I began to self-historicize, you might say. That in turn gave birth to this idea of Dark Matter  that asks what if the majority of productivity going on in the cultural sphere is not only visible, but it is actually intentionally kept invisible, and is yet completely necessary for the “architecture” of the art world to operate and reproduce itself? Which would then mean if that is true that art institutions like universities or colleges help to produce invisible foundations of “pre-failed” artists in a highly organized and hierarchical system that is presented as totally “natural” and based on mysterious and expert functions of talent, taste and judgement. But the really interesting question was, to what degree is this structure dependent on this hidden foundation, and how would one begin to think and act upon things differently? How could you begin to question this naturalized artifice? I also came to the conclusion that, to a certain degree, because of changes in the economy, changes in technology, and in the way labor is organized, a lot of these once invisible substructures are actually becoming visible anyway, whether we like it or not. Dark Matter  it is not so dark anymore. And that has consequences for the system, both positive and negative.
So what is Dark Matter ? I am really just borrowing this term from astrophysics, actually cosmology to be specific, which says that according to the standard model of expansion following the “big bang,” the universe began as an infinitesimal singularity and then expanded very rapidly and continues to expand. But the question cosmologists ask is: why hasn’t it just become one infinite and uniformly cold universe instead of one with residual heat and so many specific structures such as galaxies and solar systems? When physicists try to measure the amount of mass and energy in the universe they realize that there is a problem: there isn’t enough visible that would account for slowing expansion and creating these structures, including the one we live on. At least 95% of the mass and energy needed is missing. They come up with a solution: actually it’s all there, we just don’t know what it is and we can’t detect it using existing technology. Thus we get “Dark Matter ” and “dark energy.” When you map that solution onto the cultural sphere you could say that well, what is the missing mass that is essential for the art world universe? I suggest there are at least three species of artistic Dark Matter . First, all those people, who produce creative work and consider themselves artists, you could call them the amateurs or weekend artists. These “creatives” don’t really think about themselves in professional terms and their cultural production is informal. Nevertheless, according to statistics this is a great many people in the US context at least. That is one type of Dark Matter  and how it interacts with the art world is an intriguing question that I try to take up in my book.
The second Dark Matter  “species” consists of the many professionally trained artists who, as we said before, are already pre-failed in terms of the mainstream art world. As artists they may continue to make art, but to make a living they are going to do things like fabricating other people’s art or administrating peoples’ studios or designing websites etc… A lot of them eventually drop out and never make art again. This is pretty well studied and of course it has to do with the tremendous redundancy of most artists, a phenomenon that has only increased in recent years as the few successful producers outdistance the majority of artists by ever greater degrees, again, not unlike the neoliberal enterprise economy in general with its “winner takes all” ethos.
The third “species” is a very small number of artists who become self-conscious about the political economy of art, and who begin to resist it while openly identifying with the invisible and redundant cultural labor of Dark Matter . This is of course where my practice has been located for a long time. That said, there is nothing about cultural Dark Matter  as I see it that is inherently good or progressive in terms of politics. For example in the US we have a very active right wing culture associated with the Tea Party Patriots and their public displays of media oriented artisanship focused on the imagery of the American Revolution and the US Constitution and so forth.

Krenn: I think, we both have chosen to work with and in this Dark Matter, an interesting example that I can give is the work of the IG Bildende Kunst, the Artists Association of Austria. I was elected the chairperson of it and my colleagues on the board and I, tried two things: first, we wanted to expand the association by changing the admission criteria. There were only professional artists allowed, but the difficulty was to decide whether one is a professional artist or not.

Sholette: Lack of criteria…

Krenn: Yes … it was problematic. We discussed the applications and the respective portfolio. Without objective criteria, arguments such as: ‘he/she is not a good artist’ lead to a rejection of the applicant. This was highly subjective. The admission depended on the people of the board. After the board changed we expanded and clarified the criteria and put them on the website. From that moment on it was easier for people to get into the organization. Artists being amateurs were also allowed as long as they had an exhibition practice. Everyone who has studied art was automatically taken.
Second, we politicized the whole Association by inviting politically engaged artists to become members and we also launched several projects related to political topics in our small gallery. Because of that, we got more and more members and thereby got stronger. And it was important to increase the number of the members for gaining more independence, being less dependent from public funding and therefore being as critical as necessary. For example, Austria changed the law for immigrants in 2006. Since then, non-EU immigrants were no longer allowed to stay automatically in Austria because of their profession as artists. From then on they could be expelled of the country without any reason, even if they had settled down years ago. We wrote open letters to the government and did interventions together with the activist group
Marriage without Borders (Ehe ohne Grenzen) in public space. One happened on the 3rd TransnationalAactionday Against Migration-Control 2006 and was called Blast the Alien Law!
But we also faced the problem that the less successful artists of our organisation, who have turned away from the contemporary art world and often had a very conservative understanding of arts, could not be won over for our contemporary and politicised art practice. On the other hand the more or less established artists often didn’t take the “failed artists” too seriously.
However, we succeeded in realising projects together with migrant’s organisations, or feminist and lesbian groups.
Amateur and hobby artists as well as failed artists form an important area in your
Dark Matter theory. What are your experiences in projects with so-called failed artists, hobbist artists etc.? Which personal experiences do you have in cooperating with people outside of politicised circles? Could you successfully collaborate with amateur artists who had a completely different background than you?

Sholette: I think what you say makes a lot of sense, because what would be the reason why these people would necessarily have art politics and want to think deeply about art necessarily, that’s a product of our academic background to a large extent. I have no doubt that there are people who are not professional artists who probably have very good (progressive) politics but it is probably not the majority, at least not these days. And they come out of middle class or lower middle class or very conservative kind of situations. There are many young people involved in the Tea Party here for example.  My family background is pretty typical in this sense. I am the only person who attended post-high school and their politics are quite unlike mine and more centrist, which in the American context is fairly conservative on many issues as you know.

Krenn: But there are also opportunities that pop up when you work in this invisible space generated by Dark Matter. You can, as much as you have independence in Dark Matter and are able to avoid these Black Holes develop things differently, without having the need to fulfil any expectations. There are many examples in the art movements of the last decades that you are also describing in your books. Mock institutions, as you call them, such as The Yes Men, develop a radical art practice outside the museum and intervene in media discourse by using methods of over-identification and subversion to attack specific corporations as well as neoliberal politics in general, or, if we think back to Documenta X. The network, label and campaign no human is illegal was founded on this occasion, which from then on, made very interesting projects revolting against racist laws and deportations. It still exists as a loosely connected network of activists, artists and theoreticians.
How is the political potential of Dark Matter related to amateur art?

Sholette: I think the potential is there and I would go back to the work that Kluge and Negt present in their counter public sphere involving liberating potential of fantasy that iis not constantly being instrumentalised or monetized for capitalist markets. This begs the question: why do people get involved into the arts in the first place? They have the desire to free themselves from something oppressive. That is, to get away, even for a brief moment, from structures that discipline them and their desires. So it seems to me that this is the key connection between the political and art, though it is only a potential and remains so in most instances. So I guess part of my project as an artist, organizer and writer is to say to other professional artists: do you remember why you became an artists, before you became so obsessed with the art world?  Wasn’t it like many amateur artists desire to enjoy their work? And yes, maybe some of what they do, or most of what they do is very silly and formally conservative by your standards, but they are actually enjoying themselves. Are you?

Krenn: Yes I also thought so …

Sholette: But it doesn’t mean that all art making is always pleasurable either. It can be hard work. And yet it’s the kind of “practice” that still brings pleasure. Something not typically found in the everyday world of labour, especially as so much of it in the post-industrial context veers towards relatively unskilled service jobs with low levels of personal satisfaction. Which is why this question of finding a loophole or way out of the system somehow, even if it is on a small scale, seems to me very important today.

Krenn: I think so too, it would be important to strengthen solidarity between artists to be more “efficient” in opposing new neo liberal developments in the art world as well as ‘participatory’ projects such the Microsoft 24 billion megapixel project.

Sholette: But this is absolute evidence that capital is so sophisticated or is so flexible that it is going to monetize and data mine all of this creative human stuff as it bubbles up. I mean there is no question about it. It is doing it left and right. The question is: what is being filtered out? That is the $200 million question. But if this is what we are training our students to do, standing on books on a street corner some place to get photographed and get inserted into a panorama by Microsoft Corporation then maybe we should just give it up!

Krenn: I have experienced when I was involved in projects and in collaborations that an integral part of this Dark Matter is these kinds of Black Hole, as I would call it, for example the precarity of the artists and activists. It often seems to suck in everything, all the creativity and energy that one invests. Activist or artist groups often split up, because people are tired of being engaged in a matter without getting results. Or when it turns out that your project will not be financed and you can’t realise it although you already put so much work in it. One of the most dangerous situations is when you get seriously ill and you can’t make applications anymore, can’t realise projects without getting paid adequately and you can’t even do a stupid day job anymore. Who of your comrades and colleagues will really help you then? There is no real safety net for engaged artists. So, because of these Black Holes many of my colleagues and friends quit art. This permanent risk and lack of solidarity in the art world was not worth it anymore.

Sholette: Yes, I recently gave a talk with Jacques Servin, also known as Andy Bichlbaum from The Yes Men and basically his position was you should just completely turn your back on the art world. Which I can understand on one level, but on a different level even he also recognized that the art world has actually assisted The Yes Men quite a bit in many different ways and that this is useful, and that it has resources. So, I think you are always in that position when you have to decide what resources can I make use of: which ones work and which are something that I should avoid. Being someone who teaches at a public university I’m still in the position where I have to constantly prove myself as an artist or as a theorist because otherwise I wouldn’t get a pay-check. So you do have to participate in the system in some recognizable way, even as you are criticizing it. That’s kind of inevitable. So the question is what resources can I draw and leverage to then do something interesting with? On the one hand of course I’m reinforcing the system, but maybe at the same time I can try to create some sort of opposition in the process. It’s an old problem and an old paradox.

Krenn: As I am concerned I also tried to create some sort of opposition, as you said, in the context of my work at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. The question was: how can the University as an institution support a political art project? So in the course of my seminar Interventions I and my students came up with the idea to make an official Open Call by the University to transform the Karl Lueger statue into a monument against anti-Semitism and racism in Austria. This statue glorifies the well-respected ex-major of Vienna who governed this city in the beginning of the last century and who was unquestionable an anti-Semite. This is a fact, which hardly anyone knew at the time. Everyone was invited to propose his/her ideas. We got more than 220 proposals, from amateur artists as well as from professional artists from all over the world.  After a jury had chosen the submission by Klemens Wihlidal we have started to put pressure on the City of Vienna to realise his concept that proposes to tilt the statue by 3.5 degrees. We haven’t achieved it yet but it is still in discussion in the media. Given the participatory aspect of the project we also invited all the participants to collaborate with us and to publish their ideas on the website as well as in a book.

Sholette: That’s great and you also chose something that’s in the public realm that gives lots of opportunities to people to gain interest in because they see it as part of their world, which is great. So did you include everything in the book that was submitted to you?

Krenn: Yes, we included everything except for one proposal, because actually the artist didn’t want to be in the book. He is a quite well known artist and he was so upset that his proposal was not chosen by the jury that he refused to show his work in the book or on the website.

In your text Let’s Do It Again Comrades, Let’s Occupy The Museum!, you discussed an action and intervention that happened in the Museum of Modern Art New York in 2012. In the text you analyse the intervention as follows: “the first step could be to hang transparencies in the museum to demonstrate against the Status Quo, but that is not enough. In addition and parallel to that, you argue, that the real occupation of culture will not begin until a different set of values is developed, both between artists, and between artists, their audience and the institutions of the art sphere.” The text ends here, therefore, I would like to ask you, how do you think one can achieve these different set of values?

Sholette: I think that we are talking about what is going on right now, the present moment. And like your project Occupy Museums is a good example of artist who are trying to attempt to rethink the public sphere by focusing on what they know best: the art museum: basically an ideological institution that has been preserved beyond its original historical use or logic as a nation-building repository of accumulated material culture. I think that probably the thing Occupy did best was to generate an exciting and wonderful moment where a lot of people asked ‘how do WE organize?’.  In other words, “we” creatives who the system promised so much to and who now are being shut out of the economy. And Occupy was still doing that for quite a long time after Zuccotti Park closed down, although it is pretty much disappeared now except for some still functional smaller groups including Art and Labor and Occupy Museums. My big issue with Occupy Museums was more about their objectives once they did “occupy” the museum. For them it was a little bit like: hey let’s go in, let’s make a fuss and let’s talk about this thing called art and art and labor. But hey didn’t have a strong sense of the history of these kind of actions by artists including the work of Art Workers’ Coalition in the late 1960s and early 1970s whom I discuss in my book Dark Matter . What is it you want to occupy the Museum for I would ask them? Why occupy the museum because if you want to change the way that we think about culture and the political economy of art then why go to the museum at all? You are just risking using the same validation system all over again. So the question really is a more fundamental one: how do you begin to rethink completely the cultural labor situation without reproducing it all over again, not even unknowingly, by accident so to speak?