On Decolonizing Art: Everything Is Impossible Until It Happens

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Art and photo by Banksy

In "a seismic shift in the art world," weeks of fierce protests and growing boycotts have forced the resignation of war profiteer and Whitney Museum board vice-chairman Warren Kanders, who as Safariland CEO has amassed a $700 million fortune from manufacturing police body armor, billy clubs and holsters, IDF munitions and so much tear gas fired against so many unarmed innocents from Ferguson to Standing Rock to Palestine to the southern border that furious artists rebranded the signature Whitney's Biennial "The Tear Gas Biennial." Kanders' departure comes after Decolonize This Place and other activist groups held a nine-week Art and Action campaign at the Whitney, including the burning of sage there to highlight the dissonance - "Sage is medicine, tear gas is poison" - of the museum's association with him.

There were also an open letter against Kanders' model of "toxic philanthropy" signed by over 400 writers, curators and artists, another letter by over 100 of the Whitney's own staff, and the withdrawal of at least eight artists from the prestigious show, running through September, charging the museum's inertia over the issue "has turned the screw, and we refuse further complicity with Kanders and his technologies of violence." The latest withdrawal was by London-based Forensic Architecture, who planned to replace its 10-minute video about the global spread of Safariland tear gas with newly found Sierra bullets in Gaza directly linked to Kanders. After this grisly discovery, they argue, the Tear Gas Biennial should be renamed the Sierra Bullet Biennial.

The activism surrounding the Whitney is just part of an expanding wave of resistance aimed at embracing current moral and political issues, following the maxim that, in troubled times, "You had better make some noise." Some of these actions seek to make mainstream cultural institutions more socially responsible - hence, the push in recent years to sever museums  from corporate evil-doers like Mercer (climate change denial), Sackler (opioids,) and the Koch brothers (democracy itself.) Others are determinedly grassroots efforts to use art for change, from online tinkering with the Trump robot at Disney World's Hall of Presidents to a recent performance piece in Germany wherein climate protesters hung themselves from mock nooses while standing on blocks of ice to highlight that "time is running out" on climate change.

Australia's proposed Adani coal mine, dubbed "the world's most insane energy project" and "an act of climate vandalism," has likewise met with determined, creative resistance, from a student climate strike to Extinction Rebellion activists gluing themselves to the street. The Queensland project threatens both wide swathes of the majestic, endangered Great Barrier Reef and fewer than 1,000 surviving black-throated finches - what many see as a small but potent symbol of a "greater mass extinction...happening under our watch." Cue the Black Finch Project, begun by Melbourne artist Charlotte Watson, which to date has sent over 1,400 artworks representing the finch to Australian politicians in hopes  "art can maybe cut through all the noise (and) bring home a heartfelt, passionate plea." For Watson, the effort felt "a little bit healing, just to know you're not the only one grief-stricken (and) feeling powerless...We are simply holding up a mirror. What politicians do with that is up to them." The finch, like the role of Kanders at the Whitney, represents "a stand-in for an entire system...a signal that you grasp the historical moment." The fundamental truth of that moment: "When we breathe, we breathe together."

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Art by Deirdre Boeyen Carmichael

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Cologne climate change protest. Photo by Franziska Schardt

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Warhol-inspired teargas art by Kyle Goen

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The finch fights back

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