One shares its name with an exhibition on view at Massachusetts' MASSMoCA through March 2005: The Interventionists. These artists seek to "enter physically," writes Nato Thompson in the show's catalog: "that is, they place their work into the heart of the political situation itself." By changing the context--going into the streets or bringing the "real world" into gallery--art makes the much-touted, yet little realized, leap between art and life. For example, the exhibition features mobile shelters for the homeless created by Krzysztof Wodiczko and the Danish art group n55 that could easily be relegated to a museum show on design. But fabricated for actual use outside the gallery, these constructions serve dual roles of giving practical help to the homeless while using aesthetic means to raise the visibility of the easily overlooked urban poor.
Does art have the capacity to catalyze social change? Or is artist Martha Rosler right when she says, "The total freedom of the artist in Western society also ineluctably signals total irrelevance"?Well known to culture-jammers is a form of intervention described by the Situationist term detournement. "One tactic is not to present something that we all recognize as shocking, but to present the shocking aspect of what is comfortably familiar; or to defamiliarize the commonplace," writes Jean Fisher in the catalogue for Documenta 11, a recurring exhibition in Kassel, Germany, that frequently addresses geopolitical concerns. This flip is demonstrated by Mexico City-based artist Minerva Cuevas, who has repurposed corporate mechanisms, from consumer brands to the very structure of a corporation, to "make information available, readable . . . and to translate social campaigns into their visual or graphic form." In an early project, Cuevas founded the Mejor Vida (Better Life) Corporation, a nonprofit once housed in Mexico City's tallest trade tower, to do work that doesn't compute in bottom-line-driven circles: give away unscratched lottery tickets (and any winnings), distribute barcode stickers to give shoppers fair prices at supermarkets, create MVC student IDs so cardholders can get free admission at publicly funded museums and discounts on public transportation.
"One tactic is not to present something that we all recognize as shocking, but to present the shocking aspect of what is comfortably familiar; or to defamiliarize the commonplace," writes Fisher.In one of Cuevas' more recent projects, she spotlights little-known American history: in 1954, the CIA backed a coup in Guatemala that overthrew a democratically-elected leader who sought to nationalize the powerful United Fruit Company. Cuevas' wall-sized mural features a Del Monte label for canned tomatoes with red juice flowing onto the gallery floor, puddling like blood. Accompanied by the words "Pure Murder," she references either the CIA's assassin trainings or the half century of violence the coup triggered--or both.
While such work responds to current events, it's not reactionary. So, unlike earlier forms of protest-based art, it goes beyond proposing the inverse of that which it opposes to deconstructing the underlying memes. Forgoing the binary view of Del Monte (the company that bought United Fruit's land when it folded), she complicates the reassuring design of a corporate label, hinting that the purity of our food includes not just its ingredients but the practices by which it's harvested and sold in the global marketplace. The problem with oppositionality, writes Fisher, is that, by itself, it seldom sustains a change in perception because it leaves the basic or system intact: the system is well able to absorb any message, provided its code remains unchanged. But by making alternate narratives, the memes can be exposed and, hopefully, eroded.taking back" the history appropriated by Griffith. "Basically I'm holding the remix of the film up to America in a way that says, 'Another world is possible,'" Miller explains. "How do you make it real?"
And perhaps that's art's strength--it creates a language of possibilities for our consideration, "endless alternatives," as Walker Art Center curator Philippe Vergne says. To ask it to be something else is wrongheaded. After all, it's art, not advertising, entertainment, or electoral politics. We don't hold our poets accountable for the effectiveness of their verse nor do we judge the aesthetic standards of our senators. But when art is successful--when it moves its viewers to act--it feeds a network of others who are using various tools, from protest to policy, voting to community organizing. "Art is a part of the struggle," says Durant. "It isn't itself the cause of some radical change but can be part of the movement for revolutionary change and social justice."
My recent essay on art and activism, from Adbusters' current issue, "The Big Ideas 2005."
Top to bottom: Minerva Cuevas' Montte Pure Murder; Sam Durant's Justice, promotional poster for DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation.