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C M L -Interview GregorySholette

C M L -Interview GregorySholette

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10/06/2011

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C_M_L in an interview with Gregory Sholette | January 2009
What follows are excerpts of an exchange between the editors of C_M_L and Gregory Sholette, one ofthe founders of Political Art Documentations/Distribution (PAD/D), a collective whose activitiesincluded the creation of an archive of politically agitational and socially progressive art centered inNew York City. The archive was initiated in 1979 by critic and curator Lucy R. Lippard as an open call.Other members of PAD/D included Barbara Moore, and Mimi Smith, Jerry Kearns, Vanalyne Greene,Mickie McGee, Janet Koenig, Herb Perr, Keith Christensen, Jerri Allyn, Beverly Naidus, Irving Wexler,Ed Eisenberg, Jody Wright, and Charles Frederick. The matter collected by PAD/D has been housed inthe archives of the Museum of Modern Art since 1989.
 
 This poster was collectively conceived of during a meeting of the PAD/D Not For Sale anti-gentrification committeein 1984. Janet Koenig was responsible for realizing theactual design, and the posters themselves were silk-screenedat the Lower East Side Print Shop. Members of the NFSCommittee included: Janet Koenig, Michael Anderson, Jody  Wright, Ed Eisenberg, Glenn Stevens, Karen Kowles,Eileen Whalen, and Gregory Sholette.
C_M_L: Judging from the multiplicity of projects that PADD realized over the years, it seems thatit was far more than being 'just' an archive? What role did the archive have in your activist work,and what role did art have in this context? Did you see your self at that time being part of a biggermovement?
Gregory Sholette: As you can tell from PAD/D’s occasionally grandiose mission statement the group didindeed perceive itself to be part of a larger social and political movement that was sometimes simply referred to as
The Movement 
, as if its existence was simply self-evident. But pinpointing the contours of thislarger Movement is not so easy. I would say that PAD/D mixed its identity together with elements drawnfrom the Civil Rights, Feminist, Anti-Vietnam War and the Anti-Nuclear movements of the 1960s and1970s. The group also sought to look beyond domestic politics. One of its bolder objectives was the forging of “an international, grass roots network of artist/activists who will support with their talents and their
 
political energies the liberation and self-determination of all disenfranchised peoples." Given the events of the early 1980s it is understandable that our political focus centered largely on opposition to United Statesmilitary intervention in Central American, especially in El Salvador and Nicaragua. At the same time thegroup’s swaggering rhetoric reveals something tragic-comic about PAD/D that sets its little-known history apart from other political artists’ organizations at the time including Group Material (founded just a few months earlier in 1979). Let me elaborate by first pointing out that PAD/D was initially PAD.
C_M_L: In your first newsletter Upfront you write, "the development of an effective oppositionalculture depends on communication." Why is PAD/D Archive then not still operating today andhow did it become institutionalized? Why and when did the fight end?
GS: Clive Philpot, then Director of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) Library, proposed the namePolitical Art Documentation (PAD) during the group’s first gathering on February 24th of 1980 at PrintedMatter Bookstore (then located on Lispenard Street, just South of Canal). But in the months that followed,members decided to add the second ‘D’ for Distribution. My sense is that some group members, perhapsmost, wanted to engage in a more dynamic way with culture such as making art rather than solely serving asarchivists for what appeared then to be a growing, broad-based Left opposition. From our vantage pointtoday, a quarter-century later, it is clear that the political zeitgeist in the USA, UK, Canada, and elsewherehad already shifting towards the right. This is what I mean by tragic-comic: PAD/D’s ambitious effort toinaugurate a national, even international progressive cultural network, took place at a time of severe politicalretrenchment. But it was also a time of stupendous growth for contemporary art. That said, most PAD/Dmembers chose not to participate in the commercial side of the art world despite the latter’s growing cultural influence, financial rewards, and global expansion throughout the1980s. One might describe thisrejection as naïve or even self-defeatist, but one could also recognize in it a desire to avoid acting in badfaith, even if that meant choosing an increasingly isolated position linked to some broader notion of radicalchange. Ironically, by the later 1980s, the mainstream art world was ready to cautiously embrace some typesof “political art,” and did so in a series of fairly high-profile exhibitions including one at MOMA in 1988.(Let me add that something similar is happening today in 2008 with multiple large-scale exhibitions justopened in New York that focused on art and social engagement at Exit Art, Creative Time, andParsons/New School. Needless to say, this most likely signals an end-point in a cycle of cultural activismthat peaked in 1999 in Seattle.)Strictly in terms of what is now housed at MOMA one could describe the PAD/D Archive as aquantitatively impressive mass of documents and artifacts about artists that few have ever heard of,organized by artists who few have ever heard of. In other words, the PAD/D Archive is a tribute to theoverproduction that art historian Carol Duncan once called the “natural” state of the art world. In a way,this redundancy is born out by the circumstances of PAD/D’s very formation. The February 1980 meeting from which the group emerged was called together by Lucy Lippard. The well-known critic and activist hadbeen inundated with slides and other documentation by the “many good, socially active artists no one heardof.” Lippard had used the backside of an exhibition invitation from Artist’s Space to call on unknown artiststo send her material about their work. And they did ––in numbers she had not anticipated, thus her call toorganize an archive.If we flip my reading of the PAD/D Archive upside down and view it from the bottom up its very superfluousness challenges normative ideas about cultural valorization. Which is to say that the PAD/D Archive––like other, similar collections––represents a window onto a still vaster archive or
corpus 
of creative
 
activity that surrounds normative cultural practices. It is this shadow activity that makes possible individualartistic articulation and every claim of authorial originality (I have described this elsewhere as the dark matter or missing mass of the art world). Somewhat astonishing today is the degree to which this unseensocial production is being forced into the light not by critical theory or political activism or “keeping thefaith,” but via global communication technologies integral to neoliberal capitalism. (see: Arte y Revoluciónin the Age of Enterprise Culture ) Determining whether or not this “brightening” of the archives or “dark matter” leads to a radical shift in cultural politics, or simply winds up enclosed by corporate interests as anew source of profiteering, will be the stakes of the political battle to come.
C_M_L: Looking at shows such as the Real Estate show in 1979 and Martha Rosler's show (If YouLived Here) at the DIA, and the more recent re-reading of the 1980s at the Grey Art Gallery'sDowntown Show in Jan. 2006, it seems that the 1980s are being characterized as leaning towards astrong theorization of subjectivity geared towards the urban individual as an autonomous rights-demanding subject.
GS: Hmmm…I think I grasp what you mean by describing the 1980s as obsessed with the theorizing of subjectivity, but I would strongly caution against dismissing or subsuming the presence of importantcounter-tendencies during this same period. For instance, the three exhibitions you refer to are markedly dissimilar in some key details that, at the very least, manifest differences about the critical social response of artists during the era of deregulation and privatization. Let’s not forget that
The Real Estate Show 
was anillegal squat “gallery” organized without institutional support by a group of artists (splintering off of COLAB) who broke into a boarded-up, city-owned building on Delancey Street in 1979 right on the cusp of the triumphant (for some) arrival of neoliberalism in a fiscally devastated New York City. Not only was the work in this hastily organized action intended to mock real-estate speculators and the warehousing of potentially useful housing by the Koch administration, but as a “direct action”
The Real Estate Show 
wasanything but a normal exhibition strategy useful for valorizing individual careers. (I suspect few peopleknow any of the artists who were involved except perhaps Joseph Beuys, who appeared briefly in support of the squatters the day after the NYPD closed down the exhibition.)By contrast, Martha Rosler’s monumental, three-part exhibition was organized a decade later for a major art world venue and involved many individuals (myself included), groups of artists and non-art activistscollaborating with Rosler. Finally, the Downtown Show at New York University––which is itself one of thecity’s largest real estate owners––took place fifteen years after the Dia show, and two and a half decadesafter the Delancey Street action, but most significantly it was a traditionally-curated affair with a good dealof range although ultimately invested in representing the East Village of the 1980s as the last artistic andsocial Bohemia of the Twentieth Century.

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