Breathing Together

Clark Filio

Behind the spectacle of protests at the Whitney Biennial, the coordinated effort that ousted Warren Kanders.

On July 19, 2019, following the publication in Artforum of “The Tear Gas Biennial,” four artists announced in an open letter their intention to have their work removed from the Whitney Biennial—considered the country’s most important showcase of contemporary art—in protest of the museum’s affiliation with Warren Kanders. Kanders is the chairman of the board of trustees at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He is also the CEO of Safariland, a company responsible for manufacturing the tear gas used against protesters in Ferguson, Oakland, Palestine, Puerto Rico, Egypt, and Standing Rock.

The following day, another four artists announced their intention to join the boycott. By the end of the month, Kanders had announced his resignation.

Much of the discussion around Kanders’ resignation has focused on the intervention made by the publishing of the Artforum text. The art critic Ben Davis, for instance, declared that “in the pantheon of texts about art,” there are few that had the impact of “Tear Gas Biennial” because “it almost immediately triggered actual and dramatic material consequences.” What is missing from this story is the close collaboration between the authors, the artists leading the boycott, and activists.

Understanding the processes that went on behind the spectacle can give artists an image of what successful organizing looks like in the art industry, emboldening us to take more ground in future initiatives. We can see in hindsight that the clearest limit the movement hit was its inability to articulate a coherent message about race. The space for dialogue was uncomfortably small for such big ideas, and this created a messy and difficult quagmire of political confusion for artists to navigate.

On November 25, 2018, U.S. Border Patrol fired dozens of rounds of tear gas at Central American migrant families attempting to cross the border. The tear gas was manufactured by Safariland. Within days, an open letter by the Whitney Museums staff emerged, demanding the museum’s leadership “consider asking” for Kanders’ resignation, issue a public statement, and hold a museum-wide staff forum on the issue. It was signed by nearly one hundred workers from every level of the museum.

Reading the letter, one gets a sense of the tenuous relationship between the staff and museum administration going back to the 2017 Biennial. They reference their dissatisfaction with the museum’s handling of the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket.” The painting by Schutz, a white artist, was a rendition of a famous photograph of Emmett Till in his casket, a black fourteen year old who’s lynching in Mississippi in 1955 was a seminal event in the Civil Rights Movement. The exhibition of the painting at Biennial was viewed by many artists and critics as insensitive, sparking outrage, and causing a number of demonstrations during the exhibition.

After the staff letter was published, Decolonize This Place — a coalition of artists, academics, and activists that traces its roots back to the Occupy movement — immediately set about organizing a campaign against Kanders. At the time they were engaged in a separate campaign around the Brooklyn Museum, but decided to redirect their efforts because of the opportunity that the staff letter created for public visibility and potential alliances.

Decolonize became the backbone of the activism against Kanders, much of which was organized through their Instagram account, where they distributed news, updates, announcements, and calls for action. The group organized several different interventions at the museum, including a demonstration where they filled the main lobby with smoke from burning sage to simulate the visual sensation of tear gas. Early on, they were quick to note the general absence of the fine arts community at their events.

On December 3, Whitney Director Adam Weinberg and Kanders himself released separate statements responding to the staff letter. Parroting the language of national restaurant chain managers, Weinberg began his letter reminding us that the Whitney is a “family.” Both letters taken together attempted to confine the boundaries of the controversy to representation, free-speech, and the duties of the institution.

It was Weinbern’s letter that actually solidified Michael Rakowitz’s decision to withdraw from the upcoming Biennial exhibition, he told me over the phone. Rakowitz was the first artist to withdraw, and the only artist to do so before the exhibition opened. Having been invited to participate long beforehand, he had already been in dialogue with the curators over the controversy. When he asked the curators if any artist had withdrawn yet from the show, they were surprised at the suggestion that such a gesture was even on the table. The curators instead encouraged Rakowitz to respond to the controversy in his work, “which was something that I felt would reduce politics to portraiture,” he said. Reading the director’s letter, Rakowitz felt that the institution had crossed a fine line, and that he could no longer participate in good conscience.

Rakowitz’s decision to withdraw was not without careful consideration of the impact it would have on his own career and on the rest of the participating artists, so he decided to withdraw privately via a letter he to curators on December 18. The letter leaked to The New York Times. The museum was able to negotiate an embargo on the story until they were ready to announce the full Biennial roster, however, and the announcement of his withdrawal was thus simply a part of the general announcement of the roster.

By controlling the story, the museum was able to wokewash the controversy, calling attention away from Rakowitz’s protest and weaponizing the overall diversity of the roster. As the announcement in The Times made clear, the roster of this year’s Biennial would be the youngest and most diverse in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. Museum administrators no doubt thought this would help secure them public sympathy in light of the controversy escalating at their doorstep. The Times article, released on February 25, is punctuated with a quote from artist Brendan Fernandes: “I am an artist that has a political voice, and my voice needs to be heard.”

The announcement in The Times was also the first time that any of the participating artists found out who each other were. There was no successful effort among participating artists to collectively organize a dialogue around the Kanders controversy, Bob Trafford, of Forensic Architecture, told me over the phone. Trafford said there had been a large WhatsApp group chat where there was an ongoing dialogue, but characterized much of the contact between the artists as argument. The video artist Thirza Cuthand would later write on her blog: “I also didn’t feel like I had a lot of friends to talk to about it. My closest friends mostly aren’t in the art world and didn’t really even know what the Whitney Biennial is.”

There were a few meetups of participating artists to discuss the issue, Thirza told me, but she couldn’t speak to who went or what happened in them. She confirmed a feeling among the artists of resentment towards one another for allowing this issue to overshadow the exhibition. And it’s true: it seems that this scandal will be what this Biennial will be remembered for.

On April 5, just over a month before the Biennial was to start, Verso’s blog published an open letter demanding Kanders’ resignation with signatures from over one hundred critics, theorists, and scholars. Before its release, the organizers of the letter first conducted outreach on an individual basis to scholars and academics to craft the language and drive the initial push for signatures.

After the letter’s initial release, they conducted outreach to artists within their own networks and connected to the Biennial. A small group of artists involved in the Biennial informally took the lead in circulating the letter among their peers and facilitating discussions around it. These same artists later published an open letter announcing their intention to withdraw from the exhibit following the publication of “Tear Gas Biennial.” But the release of the Verso Letter would also make clear that race had become a conflict among the artists as they struggled to find collective unity in the face of the controversy.

Of the seventy-five artists involved in the Biennial, more than thirty are black. A significant majority of the twenty artists that did not sign the open letter were black. Black artists were the most uncomfortable with the activist disruptions of the museum, as made clear across various interviews and social media posts. As there has been such a long struggle for inclusion in institutional spaces like the Whitney, participation in the Biennial can mean something quite different for a black artist than it would for a white or non-black artist. None of the argument made in support of action against Kanders by artists adequately addressed this contradiction, and at its worst may have even unintentionally whitewashed the Whitney’s own legacy of boycott. While Robert Morris’ shuttering his own exhibit at the Whitney in 1970 after the Kent State shootings was a frequent point of reference, we heard very little about the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition’s 1968 picket and boycott at the Whitney.

The public conversation took a new turn on July 17, when Artforum published “The Tear Gas Biennial,” collaboratively written by three black intellectuals not participating in the Biennial, Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett. This essay presented the most coherent case in favor of an artist boycott yet. Two days after the article was published, four artists, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin, some of whom had taken the lead in organizing support for the Verso Letter, announced their withdrawal from the exhibition. The following day, four more artists withdrew. A few days later, Kanders resigned.

The artists who initiated the boycott, I’ve been told by multiple sources, had coordinated their efforts with the authors of the Artforum text. This highlights that the critical moment in this campaign wasn’t primarily artists reacting on impulse, but rather the result of organizing. Hannah Black confirmed the coordination over the phone, and in a follow up email gave me a rough diagram of how she and her collaborators got to that moment.

While they had begun working on the text before the Biennial opened, they paused their work with the expectation that the artists might organize on their own. At a demonstration outside of Kanders’ house, they made contact with organizers from Decolonize This Place and learned that they had given up on any expectations that artists in the exhibition would organize themselves. This provided Black, Finlayson, and Haslett motivation to make an argument for the boycott politically legible. Organizing efforts with artists and the document developed in tandem.

The spectacle stunt created by releasing a widely circulated text, and then having four artists immediately announce their support of the boycott, proved wildly effective. Because it appeared that the artists were spontaneously compelled by the argument of the text, the threat hung over the museum that other artists would withdraw as well. And they very well might have, because it seemed many of the artists weren’t in on the plan. To have a successful model to draw on in the future, however, it’s important to remember that this victory was actually achieved by intentional organizing behind the scenes of the spectacle.

Much of the commentary on Kanders’ resignation shares the assumption that it is a largely symbolic event. But this totally misses the point. It’s naive that anyone would think that the global elite would actually just be playing with their time and money to satisfy social curiosities. Kanders and his cohort enjoyed a substantial amount of benefits from his position at the Whitney. There is literally an astonishing amount of research to back this up. One university-funded study from 2018 (sampling 6,642 charitable donations by 667 hedge fund managers) specifically recommends arts philanthropy as a way to develop investor trust, and describes the networking opportunities inside hedge fund communities that this philanthropy provides. Museum boards are one part of the dense network of overlapping social relations that connect the ruling class, with plain material incentive.

Museums are an important site of struggle specifically because they are an essential part of the ruling class’ social fabric. But they are also a site where the ruling class has a certain amount of vulnerability and artists, through their capacity to strike, have a certain about of leverage. We should take advantage of this opening to push as far as we can.

Decolonize this Place will host a town hall to discuss the resignation of Kanders and what lies ahead at the Theresa Lang Student Center at the New School in New York City on September 7th, 11:30-3:00.