Featured image: Untitled (from Lockdown) by Dread Scott, 2000–2004. Gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the artist.
WHETHER OR NOT Tolstoy was right in suggesting that only art is capable of setting violence aside, artists have long been uniquely positioned to rouse, revolt, speculate, complicate, tell the truth, and offer protest and possibility in polarized and violent times.
In collaboration with Creative Capital, the nonprofit known for supporting provocative and progressive work, and which in 2019 celebrates its 20th year of funding and advising artists, LARB will publish 12 essays over 12 months on issues facing contemporary art in the United States. Each contributor focuses on a particular year of Creative Capital’s history and/or on a specific artist, beginning with Johanna Fateman’s introduction to the series, which reflected on the founding of Creative Capital (1999) in response to the subsequent decreases in federal funding for individual artists. In this essay, Eunsong Kim focuses on the year 2001, in which Creative Capital supported works like Mel Chin’s Operation Paydirt, Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre’s Maquilapolis, Dread Scott’s Lockdown, and Gaye Chan’s Historic Waikiki (the latter two of which are Kim’s focus here). Together, these essays reflect the current state of arts writing as a field, just as they reveal the myriad ways that art matters now as much as ever.
[T]he underlying theme is that all this violence is coming down on us and there is not enough revolutionary violence going up against the system.
— Dread Scott
Do you walk on graves?
Is your hotel built on stolen land?
— Gaye Chan, Historic Waikiki
There are pasts that protract powerfully into the present. Take, for instance, the year 2001. This was the year that the United States — then led by present-day amateur painter George W. Bush — refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change and began providing welfare to corporations under the auspices of “economic growth,” making the most recent withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and tax breaks for the rich part of an active continuum. 2001 was also the year the “War on Terror” was declared, preceding the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs: a growing accumulation of perpetuated wars. Thus beginning a generation of cameras, phones, and all kinds of information that would live fully and unbeknowingly under the apparatus of the Patriot Act, invented in 2001, recently revived as the “USA Freedom Act” in 2015 into once again, the present. As if on cue, one month after the Patriot Act was installed, television programming began celebrating total surveillance with shows such as 24, fictionalizing a landscape in which the US nation-state could regain control through the use of more torture, more violence. Writers such as Don DeLillo have explored whether “terrorists have seized control of the world narrative […] the historical imagination,” a fiction that continues most seriously in the present day.
Of course, the notion that one can see the full spectrum of “the historical imagination” is parcel to the operations of colonial aesthetics, the preemptive suppression of what could be disciplines fiction, desire, and otherwise. Theorist Lewis Gordon has described this chess move as “epistemic closure,” as in, through its conviction that some trees are dying, it denies the transformations taking place in the forest.
If 24 and the glorification of perpetual wars were attempted epistemic closures, then Dread Scott’s Lockdown (2000–2004) and Gaye Chan’s Historic Waikiki (2001) offered vents, holes, and openings into history and how its narratives become imagined. Their aesthetic imprinting remains with us today.
For the past three decades, Dread Scott’s oeuvre has critically examined the prison industrial complex and antiblack violence through revolutionary art that “propel[s] history forward.” In Lockdown, Scott visited prisons and worked with formerly incarcerated men to capture their portraits and record their stories. The series consists of 11 black-and-white gelatin silver prints that range in posture, angle, and form, along with audio recordings of their thoughts and experiences. There are close-ups of faces, so close their freckles and dimples are clearly defined, and then there are portraits that reveal their prison uniforms. One sitter portends lucidly, “The difference between me and the president is that I’m forced, and other people like me are forced, to commit crimes. […] But his crimes don’t go punished. Mine do.” Lockdown intervenes into the assured morality of incarceration by offering a narrative path to abolition. The speakers challenge the listener to reimagine the boundaries separating criminality and power. Utilizing their lived experience, they deconstruct the totality of the prison-industrial complex, offering a premise in which the abolition of prisons might be imagined.
Of Lockdown, Scott states that the series works to “neither romanticize nor exoticize” incarcerated persons, as both tropes further abstract the crisis of incarceration. While prison abolition has become more visible in the past few years, its roots can be traced back to this moment. Groups such as Critical Resistance began organizing in pursuit of prison abolition in the late 1990s, hosting its first “Critical Resistance East” conference in 2001, which led to the development of local chapters and the abolitionist strategies with which some might be familiar today. In a similar vein, Scott’s Lockdown lays out the possibilities of politically engaged, abolitionist art and forges a future landscape in which artists can actively interfere into the prison-industrial complex.
When asked about the public reception to Lockdown in 2001, Scott states that the reception to the series was “muted” and that “not a lot of people were engaged with these questions at the time.” Although supported by a Creative Capital Award, the series was not exhibited in major galleries and museums. Furthermore, the newly ratified “War on Terror” restricted access to prisons and incarcerated persons and in turn constricted Scott’s initial quest of visiting multiple prisons and mailing the portraits he took of the inmates back to them. While the approach of Lockdown was novel in scope and form, its execution became limited by both art and political gatekeeping. By impeding access, prisons and museums made the existence of series such as Lockdown more difficult.
Nonetheless, by composing complex critiques of the prison-industrial complex and by refusing their abstraction, Scott’s Lockdown presents a potential for how politically explicit works could thrive. Scott states simply that he hopes he has “made it easier” for artists creating politically engaged work, but that he “doesn’t want to take credit” for the work younger artists are doing — a refreshingly generous statement about potential and its future.
In 2001, Gaye Chan’s Historic Waikiki could be purchased at shops in Honolulu, including “Native Books and Beautiful Things,” a Hawaiian-owned store on O‘ahu. One version of the souvenir is a pamphlet that displays a nostalgic sepia-toned tourist image: a figure with an umbrella on the beach, fresh pineapples for sale, boats, a glamorous hotel. The accompanying text reads, “Cement your Memory with / an Authentic Piece of Waikiki’s Past,” and below the text is a plastic bag containing the fragment of cement.
The text inside another pamphlet prompts, “Does your enjoyment justify desecration?” Another prompt asks, “Does your convenience obliterate culture?” The pamphlet guided the reader through a timeline of US colonialism and violence in Hawai‘i, including details into how Hawaiian royal compounds, fishponds, and taro fields were seized by developers and converted into resorts.
Chan’s Historic Waikiki parallels the formal clairvoyance of Scott’s Lockdown. Historic Waikiki forges an intervention into Hawaii’s souvenir market by reimagining the “pet-rock” commodity as the “authentic” piece of cement from Waikiki. Through an understanding of tourist market dynamics and its love of kitsch, Chan rooted activism inside the unexpected space of the souvenir. Of the project, Chan writes, “Historic Waikiki are real souvenirs. […] [P]eople who buy the products pay for information about injustices that American and foreign businesses have a vested interest in keeping hidden from consumers primed to purchase myths of harmony in paradise.” In this way, Historic Waikiki implanted into the souvenirs tourists purchased the very critical information required to challenge their vacation’s fundamental premise.
Like Scott, Chan hesitates about how Historic Waikiki speaks to present-day anti-colonial projects. Instead, she thinks of the project as hacktivism and as part of a tradition that pushes for aesthetic spaces to become spaces of demonstration. In a conversation I had with Chan, she shared her critique of Historic Waikiki: the project ultimately proved to be so successful that she was invited to speak to students in the School of Tourist Management on the possibilities of “non-exploitative tourism,” institutional acceptance that would have been ideal if she was starting a souvenir business. She hypothesized that Historic Waikiki occurred at a moment in which Hawai‘i’s tourist economies were being revived through the commodification of “authentic” Hawaiian culture, which included the facade of respect toward Hawaiian elites. The tourism industry worked to rebrand itself as historically and culturally sensitive: the images artist-activists were using to critique colonialism became the very same images carted out by the tourism industry as its new potential. Rather than prompting inquiry and intervening into the politics of US colonialism, the sepia-toned images induced nostalgia for an encounter with the colonial as past.
Chan recounts how the political events of 2001 also shaped her project, as tourism and travel fundamentally changed after 9/11. While initially wanting to work with hotels by offering to replace the chocolate-on-the-bed service with her souvenir cement, in this new context, this gesture no longer seemed appropriate. Chan redirected her energies toward “information dissemination” about colonialism and capitalism in Hawai‘i via an accompanying website and book.
Perpendicular to DeLillo’s approach to the singular historical plot line, theorist Edward Said developed methods on how we might grapple with representations of power. Concerning art that refused to flatten and beautify the dynamics of oppression, Said wrote, “There is no sound, no articulation that is adequate to what injustice and power inflict on the poor, the disadvantaged. […] But there are approximations to it.” Politically engaged art from 2001 tracks the ongoing push of art in our current moment to move toward something else than the power we already know; toward approximations of something else for the incarcerated, colonialized, the dispossessed.
The previous essay in this series is Joanna Fateman on the founding of Creative Capital.
The following essay in this series is Yxta Maya Murray on artists' responses to 9/11.
Eunsong Kim is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Northeastern University.