Brian Holmes on Wed, 31 May 2006 08:10:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Event: Chris Gilbert's resignation

Here is a tightly argued text, qualifying an important act, 
by a rare category of the human species: a curator with an 
ethics of solidarity. - BH

Chris Gilbert - statement on resigning 5/21/06

I made the decision to resign as Matrix Curator on April 28, 
but my struggles with the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film 
Archive over the content and approach of the projects in the 
exhibition cycle "Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path 
of the Bolivarian Process"
go back quite a few months. In particular the museum 
administrators -- meaning the deputy directors and senior 
curator collaborating, of course, with the public relations 
and audience development staff -- have for some time been 
insisting that I take the idea of solidarity, revolutionary 
solidarity, out of the cycle. For some months, they have 
said they wanted "neutrality" and "balance" whereas I have 
always said that instead my approach is about commitment, 
support, and alignment -- in brief, taking sides with and 
promoting revolution.

I have always successfully resisted the museum's attempts to 
interfere with the projects (and you will see that the ideas 
of alignment, support, and revolutionary solidarity are 
written all over the "Now-Time" projects part 1 & part 2 -- 
they are present in all the texts I have generated and as a 
consequence in almost all of the reviews). In the museum's 
most recent attempt to alter things, the one that 
precipitated my resignation, they proposed to remove the 
offending concept from the Now-Time Part 2 introductory text 
panel (a panel which had already gone to the printer). Their 
plan was to replace the phrase "in solidarity" with 
revolutionary Venezuela with a phrase like "concerning" 
revolutionary Venezuela -- or another phrase describing a 
relation that would not be explicitly one of solidarity.

I threatened to resign and terminate the exhibition, since, 
first of all, revolutionary solidarity is what I believe in 
-- the essential concept in the "Now-Time" project cycle -- 
but secondly it is obviously unfair to invite participants 
such as Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler or groups such as 
Catia TVe to a project that has one character (revolutionary 
solidarity) and then change the rules of the game on them a 
few weeks before the show opens (so that they become mere 
objects of examination or investigation). At first, my 
threat to resign and terminate the show availed nothing. 
Then on April 28, I wrote a letter stating that I was in 
fact resigning and my last day of work would be two weeks 
from that day, which was May 12, two days before the 
"Now-Time Part 2: Revolutionary Television in Catia" opening
I assured them that the show could not go forward without 
me. In response to this decisive action -- and surely out of 
fear that the show which had already been published in the 
members magazine would not happen -- the institution 
restored my text panel to the way I had written it. Having 
won that battle, though at the price of losing my position, 
I decided to go forward with the show, my last one.

One thing that should make evident how extreme and erratic 
the museum's actions were is that the very same sentence 
that was found offensive ("a project in solidarity with the 
revolutionary process in contemporary Venezuela") is the 
exact sentence that is used for the first Now-Time Venezuela 
exhibition text panel that still hangs in the Matrix gallery 
upstairs. That show is on view for one more week as I write.

The details of all this are important though, of course, its 
general outlines, which play out the familiar patterns of 
class struggle, are of greater interest. The class interests 
represented by the museum, which are above all the interests 
of the bourgeoisie that funds it, have two (related) things 
to fear from a project like mine: (1) of course, 
revolutionary Venezuela is a symbolic threat to the US 
government and the capitalist class that benefits from that 
government's policies, just as Cuba is a symbolic threat, 
just as Nicaragua was, and just as is any country that tries 
to set its house in order in a way that is different from 
the ideas of Washington and London -- which is primarily to 
say Washington and London's insistence that there is no 
alternative to capitalism.

I must emphasize that the threat is only symbolic; in the 
eyes of the US government and the US bourgeoisie, it sets a 
"bad" and dangerous example of disobedience for other 
countries to follow, but of course the idea that such 
examples represent a military threat to the US (would that 
it were the case) is simply laughable; (2) the second 
threat, which is probably the more operational one in the 
museum context, is that much of the community is in favor of 
the "Now-Time" projects -- the response to the first 
exhibition is enormous and the interest in the second is 
also very high. That response and interest exposes the fact 
that the museum, the bourgeois values it promotes via the 
institution of contemporary art (contemporary art of the 
past 30 years is really in most respects simply the cultural 
arm of upper-class power) are not really those of any class 
but its own. Importantly the museum and the bourgeoisie will 
always deny the role of class interests in this: they will 
always maintain that the kinds of cultural production they 
promote are more difficult, smarter, more sophisticated -- 
hence the lack of response to most contemporary art is, 
according to them, about differences in education and 
sophistication rather than class interest. That this kind of 
claim is obscurantist and absurd is something the present 
exhibitions make very clear: the work of Catia TVe, which is 
created by people in the popular (working-class) 
neighborhoods of Caracas, is far more sophisticated than 
what comes out of the contemporary art of the Global North. 
The same could be said for the ideas discussed by the 
Venezuelan factory workers in the Ressler and Azzellini film 
that is shown Now-Time Part 1 
(,en_GB). (Of 
course, it is not because these works and the thoughts in 
them are more sophisticated that we should attend to them; 
what I am saying is simply that it is clearly an evasion and 
false to dismiss anti-bourgeois cultural production -- work 
that aligns with the interests of working class people -- on 
grounds of its being unsophisticated.)

To return to the museum: I believe that the enormous 
response to the "Now-Time" cycle -- there were 180 visitors 
to the March 26 panel discussion that opened "Now-Time" part 
1 and if you google "Now-Time Venezuela" you get over 700 
hits -- put the class interests that stand by and promote 
contemporary art in danger, exposed them a bit. I suppose 
some concern about this may have given a special edge to the 
museum's failed efforts to alter my projects.

I think it is important to be clear about the facts that 
precipitated my resignation: that is, the struggle over the 
wording of the text panel, which fit into months of struggle 
over the question of solidarity and alignment with a 
revolutionary political agenda. That issue is discussed 
above. However, it is also important to understand the 
context. Again, it is too weak to say that museums, like 
universities, are deeply corrupt. They are. (And in my view 
the key points to discuss regarding this corruption are (1) 
the museum's claim to represent the public's interests when 
in fact serving upper-class interests and parading a 
carefully constructed surrogate image of the public; (2) the 
presence of intra-institutional press and marketing 
departments that really operate to hold a political line 
through various control techniques, only one of which is 
censorship; finally (3) the presence of development 
departments that, in mostly hidden ways, favor and flatter 
rich funders, giving the lie to even the sham notion of 
public responsibility that the museum parades). However, to 
describe museums and other cultural institutions as simply 
if deeply corrupt is, as I said, too weak in that it both 
holds out the promise of their reform and it ignores the 
larger imperialist structures that make their corruption an 
inevitable upshot and reflection of the exploitive political 
and social system of which they form a part. Such 
institutions will go on reflecting imperialist capitalist 
values, will celebrate private property and deny social 
solidarity, and will maintain a strict silence about the 
control of populations at home and the destruction of 
populations abroad in the name of profit, until that 
imperialist system is dismantled. Importantly, it will not 
be dismantled by cultural efforts alone: a successful reform 
of a cultural institution here or there would at best result 
in "islands" of sanity that would most likely operate in a 
negative way -- as imaginary and misleading "proof" that 
conditions are not as bad as they are.

In fact, with conditions as they are, a different strategy 
is required: there should be disobedience at all levels; 
disruptions and explosions of the kind that I, together with 
a small group of allies inside the museum, have created are 
also useful on a symbolic level. However, the primary 
struggle and the only struggle that will result in a 
significant change would be one that works directly to 
transform the economic and political base. This would be a 
struggle aiming to bring down the US government and its 
imperialist system through highly organized efforts.

We live in the midst of a fascist imperialism -- there is no 
other way to describe the system that the US has created and 
that exercises such control through terror over populations 
both inside and outside. History has shown that to make 
"deals" or "compromises" with fascism avails nothing. 
Instead a radical and daily intransigence is required. 
Fascism operates to destroy life. It installs and operates 
on the logic of the camp on all levels, including culture. 
In the face of that logic, which holds life as nothing, 
compromises and deals at best buy time for the aggressor and 
symbolic capital for the aggressor. One should have no 
illusions: until capitalism and imperialism are brought 
down, cultural institutions will go on being, in their 
primary role, lapdogs of a system that spreads misery and 
death to people everywhere on the planet. The fight to 
abolish that system completely and build one based on 
socialism must remain our exclusive and constant focus.

Chris Gilbert

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