gregory sholette on Sat, 10 Jun 2006 12:38:17 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Chris Gilbert's Resignation: Service In the Name of Whom?

Dear Nettime,
Would it be possible to have this posted in an appropriate place on your 
thank you - gregory
from: gregory sholette

Chris Gilbert's Resignation: Service In the Name of Whom?

With conditions as they are, a different strategy is required. Chris

28 year old 1st Lt. Ehren K. Watada of Honolulu disobeyed orders of
deployment in Iraq by tendering his resignation on grounds of moral
indignation over the war. The army refused to grant his request and
Watada now faces a dishonorable discharge as well as several years in
prison for defying commands.

"Never did I imagine my president would lie to go to war, condone
torture, spy on Americans, or destroy the career of a CIA agent for
political gain. I would rather resign in protest, but the army doesn't
agree." (Watada.)

No doubt many who read this will praise this young man's ethics
and bravery. Then why is it, in the wake of curator Chris
Gilbert's letter of resignation from the Berkeley Art Museum,
has there been a divided response from within progressive
art circles with many people questioning this young man's
motivation? (Gilbert's letter is copied here at Bay Area indymedia: with responses
posted on Mute and Nettime
rch%21 )

When a soldier walks away from serving in Iraq we praise her or him
for the ethical conscience expressed. When a curator walks away
from what he believes is service to the same imperial interests he
becomes suspect. Why is it so difficult to accept Gilbert's letter
at face value? Do we immediately see every player in the art system
as inherently flawed and opportunistic, unlike the ethical purity of
the soldier? What does this say about the nature the art world as an
institution, something we inevitably support through our labors, even
when we do so with reservation? I find all of this curious.

In times of past US wars, the art world's players have protested,
even gone on strike against the institutions that fed them. Art
Workers Coalition, Black Emergency Coalition, Guerilla Art Action
Group, Artists Meeting for Cultural Change among many others directly
targeted prominent museums, their wealthy supporters, and their Boards
of Directors demanding action in solidarity with those opposed to
the War in Vietnam. Something similar happened in the mid-1980s with
Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America. Yes, these
were collective actions, not individual resignations, or solitary acts
of protest, and that is a notable difference with Gilbert's situation.
And yes, the soldier - curator comparison is somewhat of a stretch, I
admit, but examples of scientists, or government employees resigning
as a response to the current state of US politics are difficult to
find. (Although they will no doubt rise in visibility as this horrific
war drags on.) And yes, Gilbert's resignation took place in friendly
territory, the people's republic of Berkeley. Still, I wonder if
the museum had been located within a "red" state would people be so
quick to doubt the principles behind his actions? Nevertheless, what
Gilbert's letter specifically focuses attention on is the nature of
the institutional position he was supposed to uphold: the a-political,
unbiased, cultural administrator.

This was not the first clash between Gilbert and cultural institutions
over politics. Prior to his position at the Berkeley Museum of Art
he was the Contemporary Curator for the Baltimore Museum of Art
(BAM). While employed there Gilbert opened up a breach within that
traditionally reserved institution's edifice with his four-part
series entitled Cram Sessions. Inviting collectives, local activists,
theorists, and students to participate, including myself, Gilbert
produced several temporary, inter-active exhibitions that not only
highlighted interventionist modes of art making, but which also began
to generate a sustained inter-activity with local artists, students,
and activists. The museum made it clear this work was not deemed
appropriate, yet Gilbert stood his ground right on up to the moment
that Berkeley hired him.

There is another angle to this story, a collaborative element in fact.
Gilbert's long-time partner Cira Pascual Marquina was employed by the
nearby cultural center known as The Contemporary, which is also in
Baltimore. Temporarily crowned "acting director" about a year ago,
Pascual Marquina quickly moved to amplify the activity Gilbert had
generated at BAM. She chose not to keep the seat warm while the Board
of Directors selected a permanent executive, but instead pushed the
administrative structure she was handed full-throttle into supporting
an intense, summer-long program of critical engagements not set inside
the institution, but outside, in the warp and woof of Baltimore's
urban politics. For like other post-industrial cities starting with
New York in the 1980s, Baltimore is now undergoing its own version
of the neo-liberal makeover. Gentrification, displacement, loft
conversions, capital concentration, de-funding of social services,
there is no need to elaborate because most of us know the score,
even battled it in our own locale. But Pascual Marquina's project
Headquarters is a truly daring effort to redirect institutional
funds into local acts of sustainable resistance. One group of
artist-interventionists that call themselves Campbaltimore have been
meeting for months not with other artists, but with the fragmented
array of community housing, labor, and urban activists opposed to the
systematic privatization of the city's resources. Gilbert's recent
actions therefore have a rich and forceful history, one that I wish
his passionate letter, no doubt written in collaboration with Pascual
Marquina, had made more evident. (Or would more focus on his past
career simply added fuel to those who read his act as self-serving?)

Gilbert's resignation and the letter that explains his deed are part
and parcel of one person's effort to radically transform the role
of arts administrator into that of engaged, political participant.
I suspect nothing less than that seemed appropriate to him in light
of the material he selected, or that selected him, for his inaugural
exhibition about current revolutionary circumstances in Venezuela.
For despite all of the structural, economic, and historical reasons
that efforts to transform the affect of arts administration from
one of passivity to passion, from neutrality to commitment, will
end in some form of defeat --my own, short-lived curatorial tenure
at the New Museum included-- there is every reason to seize these
opportunities to reveal, as Gilbert states, the museum's bourgeois
values which are "really in most respects simply the cultural arm of
upper-class power." After all, it is the institutional frame and the
servitude it extracts that must be demystified, most especially now,
with conditions as they are.

Gregory Sholette June 8, 2006

gregory sholette
280 Riverside Drive no. 3E
New York , NY 10025 USA
alt email:

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