Beyond Reactionism: What is the deeper and continued work of anti-Fascism?
This is the third segment of statements read at the antifascist speakout at the Whitney Museum on January 20, 2017. The speakout was structured to inaugurate a new era of resistance made urgent by the concurrent swearing-in of a white nationalist demagogue in Washington.
This week we hear from artists and activists on the deeper work that long preceded this moment. We hear about issues upon which our mutual survival depends, which have been drowned out by a fixation on the demagogue’s every tweet. These voices ask: What are the commitments that must not only be maintained, but brought to the foreground? What considerations should be hosted as we unite for a common purpose while continuing to hold difference on multiple fronts?
As we hear from these artists and activists, we feel the emergent call to maintain a struggle of multiple movements—movements working against racism, against sexism, against discrimination, against Islamophobia, against ecological ruin, against gentrification, against ability bias, against white supremacy, against erasure. We sense the necessity to weave them together into a unified front while maintaining difference, where our multiplicity of experiences and commitments function as pillars and not boundaries.
Simone Leigh and Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter asks us to trust black women, to address policies of global white supremacy and affirm the group’s commitment to a world where black bodies are “free, safe, and able to thrive.” Baseera Khan discusses the power of education and the relative fears of both cultural exclusion and inclusion as muslima; she also suggests that we not use the word “intersectional” but be intersectional. Kim Fraczek points out the new Whitney Museum’s physical position sitting atop the Spectra Pipeline: a fracked gas conduit nearly running through the museum’s basement. She calls for deeper community responsiveness and for the Whitney to host a dialogue around fracking. David Rothenberg writes that art practice must not turn away from its commitment to quality and aesthetics in such times, and Mark Read reminds us to think strategically and more deeply reaffirm our allies and our demands. Madison Zalopany discusses how issues of access reinforced by our built environments connect disability activists to other excluded groups, and the Chinatown Art Brigade connects the fight against economic, racial inequity, and gentrification in NYC to the necessity for sustainable cultural and art-making processes. Alicia Boyd of Movement to Protect the People also speaks passionately from inside the local NYC struggle against displacement of people of color by developers. Andrew Weiner focuses on the possibilities and problematics behind a call for solidarity and how a new one might be expressed and enacted.
Each of this week’s contributors provide us with a lens through which to consider the multiplicity of movements that together form an antifascist network deeply invested in justice and equity, action and commitment.
SIMONE LEIGH AND BLACK WOMEN ARTISTS FOR BLACK LIVES MATTER (NONTSIKELELO MUTITI, TIONA MCCLODDEN, AND DANIELLA ROSE KING)
We are Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter.
We have gathered in the face of the erasure, exclusion, and outright violence against Black bodies that has flourished under ongoing policies of global white supremacy.
We are a collective of Black women, queer, and gender non-conforming artists.
We believe in the interdependence of care and action, invisibility and visibility, self-defense and self-determination, and desire and possibility in order to highlight and disavow pervasive conditions of racism.
We prioritize the sanctity and knowledge of our own bodies and experiences. Our work emanates from that powerful center.
We recognize that we have structural power as a group independent of institutional constructs and confines that often erase and exclude us. In coming together, we are committed to our collective liberation, our visibility and our value.
We continue to gather in order to reassess and collectively engage in future actions, build community with each other and actively create artwork for a world where Black people can be free, safe, and able to thrive.
We work in response to the continued institutionalized violence against Black lives.
We believe that a unified and polyvocal front is a powerful agent of change.
We refuse to capitulate to the world in which we currently live, one in which the bodies of all of our Black friends, family, and lovers are always on the line, in which excessive comfort and commodity is privileged over creating a more just society, and in which we allow our lives to be dictated by limited imaginations that have been shaped by a small, yet powerful few.
We refuse complacency in the face of such incredible limitations, and we believe in change enacted through pressure applied from multiple directions.
In the midst of a culture of mounting unchecked police violence against our community, Simone Leigh invited us to utilize the space of her residency and exhibition at the New Museum to convene a series of meetings and work towards a public action. On September 1 we occupied the New Museum with performances, screenings, interventions, and disseminated materials. Since then we have expanded outward to include convenings in London and LA. We are an independent non- hierarchical collective. If you want to support our work, find us afterwards. We plan to continue to gather with Black Women Artists in other cities and countries until the violence ceases.
We work in the name of:
Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, Rekia Boyd, Alberta Spruill, Shantel Davis, Shelley Frey, Kayla Moore, Kyam Livingston, Miriam Carey, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Alexia Christian, Meagan Hockaday, Natasha McKenna, Gynnya McMillen, Jessica Williams, Kisha Michael, and countless others.
CHINATOWN ART BRIDGADE (BETTY YU, LIZ MOY, AND TOMIE ARAI)
We are the Chinatown Art Brigade, a collective of Asian American artists, media makers, and activists with roots in NY Chinatown. Our work is driven by a deep love for our community and the fundamental belief that fighting against racial and economic inequity is central to our cultural and art-making process.
Since it’s founding in 2015, the Chinatown Art Brigade has facilitated a series of community-led responses to gentrification and displacement, created in partnership with the Chinatown Tenants Union and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, who have been organizing for tenants rights for over ten years. While change is inevitable, gentrification is not. We need community-led rezoning policies that put people before profits. We must preserve and protect low-income tenants, immigrants, the working class, and people of color who are the lifeblood of New York City, while respecting and honoring that we all live on Lenape land. The Chinatown Art Brigade and organizations like CAAAV are working together to demand that the mayor approve a community rezoning plan—one that is eight years in the making—that will protect Chinatown and Lower East Side low-income residents from losing their homes.
By creating more intentional spaces for dialogue and engagement in Chinatown, the Brigade has aimed to put a more diverse human face on gentrification. We have done this through large-scale public projections, placekeeping walks, panels, exhibitions, protests, and convenings with galleries concerned about their role as gentrifiers. We are actively working with other cultural collectives like the Illuminator, Decolonize this Place, and Mi Casa No Es Su Casa to mobilize a city-wide public resistance against gentrification and the forces that enact it.
With the core belief that self-determination should be a leading principle in our work, we’ve given local residents a way to tell their own stories of displacement, and celebrated their resilience and resistance. And we believe that our women-led, community-driven creative process is just one of many new and powerful organizing models for change.
At a time when hyper-development and real-estate investments on a global scale now threaten to evict and displace the residents who have called Chinatown home for over 150 years, we also recognize that this is not just a Chinatown issue. It goes way beyond Chinatown. We know this is driven by corporate greed and capitalism.
Historic neighborhoods across the country, from Boyle Heights in Los Angeles to Treme in New Orleans to Harlem in New York City, are now facing destruction and erasure, of our people and culture as never before. Luxury development and widespread artwashing threaten to displace generations of families and small business who are the heart and soul of these communities. As artists and as activists, we must act now to protect our homes and communities from an uncertain future.
What does it mean for artists to work collectively at a time when our new president is a billionaire real-estate mogul who has made billions off of scamming and exploiting working people? We will not let this new administration or anybody divide us along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, or abilities. We stand united with our comrades in the immigrant rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ, climate justice, labor rights, racial justice, anti-white supremacy, and international movements fighting hate and injustice.
This is the time for us artists, cultural workers, and the creative community to continue to create art to win hearts and minds, to agitate, to provoke people to take action. We must stand in solidarity with those on the front lines who are the most oppressed and exploited, and resist and organize together in these uncertain fascist times.
Let’s close with a chant: when I say “Donald Trump,” you say “Not My President.”
“Donald Trump, Not My President”
“Donald Trump, Not My President”
“Donald Trump, Not My President”
Let’s take the streets!
My name is Baseera Khan. I’m many things. My intention with my comments today is to make friends. But we will see …
My values? First of all they are not universal. Second, I spend most of my time really trying hard to find out who I am, and every day I get further from the answer, before one day I can truly say I am American, iamuslima.
My values come to me by way of my personal politics, my lived experience, and in no way do I ever want to impose my order onto you. I have a real struggle and understand that each one of us in this room does as well.
I fear exclusion and inclusion and the envy that they both breed.
So, from here on out, I continue to step lightly on this earth. I think of strangers as though they are my own blood, I care for pedagogy and believe that the only way to take back what we built in this country is to dedicate ourselves to training and sharing knowledge with youth. We owe this to our First-Nation families that lived here before immigrants came from Europe to title this geography “America.” I love my students—they are my heart even when they step into class late. I love my family even though they except me to wear a hijab and move back to Denton, Texas and live a quiet Muslim South Asian normative life and work at Dillard’s, because that’s apparently creative too? That life—it includes lovely things, but also it comes with male-driven patriarchy and nationalistic class and color prejudice, which is unacceptable for the future of us as a whole. This I firmly believe. I continue to love my friends and will make space for you, and listen to you—I will continue to love my lovers—and I love my enemies … whoever you are.
I ask those of you who think you are open to Muslims, to Islam, to African and Asian, Black and Brown heritage to seek therapy. Do some psychological homework—most people that proclaim support are passive and use mantras and affirmations to feel a part of the future, and this was important at one time, but now I ask, please start your openness by really looking into yourself—what kinds of work are you drawn to? What are you programming? Who are you teaching? Who are you working with and letting into your inner sanctum? Don’t use the word “intersectional.” Be intersectional. Who is you?
Are you ready to fight for my comfort? That is how open I need you to be. I need you to let go of some of your historical comfort. The comfort that was stolen and pillaged from my Asian-Mother and my African-Ancestry. We are all traumatized—the oppressed and the oppressor—we all need to seek forms of therapy that allow us to open up and see who we really are—to not repeat, to not indulge our pain, which in my opinion has very clearly led to our majority Senate, which has clearly lead to our current administration.
The junk food that it is, I vow to never post images or use the current president’s name. I refuse to feed into online algorithms valorizing him in our history.
I’ll leave you with something I’ve never shared with my art folk friends before: a prayer, something my mother taught me to recite when I was scared, or felt unsafe, or wanted to dream:
الْحَمْدُ للّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
مَـالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ
إِيَّاك نَعْبُدُ وإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ
اهدِنَــــا الصِّرَاطَ المُستَقِيمَ
Ameen. صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنعَمتَ عَلَيهِمْ غَيرِ المَغضُوبِ عَلَيهِمْ وَلاَ الضَّالِّينَ
Al hamdu lillaahi rabbil ‘alameen
Ar-Rahman ar-Raheem Maaliki yaumid Deen
Iyyaaka na’abudu wa iyyaaka nasta’een
Ihdinas siraatal mustaqeem
Siraatal ladheena an ‘amta’ alaihim
_Ghairil maghduubi’ alaihim waladaaleen _
In the name of an entity that is capable of oneness and openness, who is infinitely compassionate and merciful.
I admire this soft space, this entity that spins our worlds of happy and sad events every day without complaint, this soft space that you provide.
The compassionate, the merciful. The one who spins our worlds who is an open and kind judge, especially if our worlds end.
Your oneness and your openness I do consider on a daily basis, and I feel safe knowing I can turn toward you for help in my time of need.
Thank you for providing me with an old and traditional holistic practice that will heal my pain in my moments of need.
I recognize the power in understanding who I am, and this practice gives me guidelines to help me exist with sovereignty;
This practice shows me how not to oppress the peoples around me, and develop paths of resistance for those that seek to oppress me, I will not follow those that seek to colonize.
Ameen Summa Ameen.
This is my personal feminist-queer translation of Al Fatiha—the traditional translations do not reflect all that it could be. Peace.
Hello, my name is Madison Zalopany. I’m the coordinator for Access and Community Programs here at the Whitney, an artist, and disability activist. “Activist” is not a word I always identified as, it grew from personal advocacy. Being a disabled woman I was taught by my society that in order to have access to spaces, opportunities, and experiences I needed to ask to be accommodated; that I had special needs that needed to be granted externally, separately from my peers. And if my request was denied, I was personally responsible to find an alternate way of gaining access or miss out altogether. And while this might attribute to me becoming an excellent problem solver, it was ultimately a false narrative. It wasn’t until I met others who in some way embody similar experiences of limited access and participation that I began to think of access broadly; about who has it, who doesn’t, and why.
Something I use a lot to talk about inaccessibility, something I’ve borrowed and adapted from others, is the notion of barriers; namely social, physical, and financial barriers.
Social barriers are the attitudes we as a society create to define groups of people as other. They create stereotypes. They set high or low expectations on groups of people, based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, or ability. These social barriers manifest themselves in big and small ways, from flat out discrimination to microaggressions.
Physical barriers are the physical manifestations of social biases. Inaccessible architecture and design are oppressive; and not just to the disability community. Yes, a building with a stairwell may prohibit access to people who use a mobility device, but an austere façade might also be purposefully intimidating to people. Social barriers will teach people that they do not belong in certain spaces and the architecture reinforces the belief. They may look at that space and think that it does not reflect or welcome their class, income, or culture. Buildings with only binary restrooms, women or men’s stalls, might violently message their standard of gender normativity rather than welcoming fluidity. The social model of disability states, “I am not disabled by my body, I’m disabled by my environment.” I and other people with disabilities are often excluded from design choices, because there is a prevailing notion that there exists a normative way that our bodies are supposed to function and look. This idea of an average user affects non-disabled people as well. If you are of short stature, for example, but everything is built assuming the standard is for a person that is 5’ 8”, you are being disabled by your environment. You might not notice it because it’s temporary, but you are being disabled by the shelves that are too high to access independently.
And finally, financial barriers are systems put into place to make sure people who embody a certain identity do not have the same opportunities regarding financial accessibility. From people who do not have the economic means to do an unpaid internship, to job discrimination, to unequal pay. Financial barriers reinforce social biases and rationalize inequities.
So thinking about these barriers together, how they are created, and how they are sustained brings me back to the question of access: who has it, who doesn’t, and why. And when we speak about access, I invite you to think about it holistically, with room for nuance and intersectional identities. Because what makes something accessible to one group of people benefits everybody. Making sure all subway stations have working elevators does not just ensure that people with disabilities have access to safe and affordable public transportation; it benefits all of its users. From the parent with a stroller, to the tourist with heavy luggage, to those of us who just feel tire. Even accommodations that seem specialized benefit everybody. The induction loops built into this room enable more people to be present in this conversation and the interpreter to my left provides choice to how a person might choose to experience that conversation. More voices heard, more perspectives shared, and more commonalities found. That’s what I value as person, as an artist, and as a member of this institution. Thank you.
Hello my name is Mark Read. I’m an artist-activist, I’m involved in a project called The Illuminator, we project light onto buildings. We’re propagandists, it’s what we do. I didn’t really prepare a statement but I did write down some thoughts.
I’ve been watching the shit show that’s been going on for the last year along with everybody else and what I’m struck by is just the general state of confusion that’s everywhere all the time now, including my own. What’s Real? Did the Russians hack or did they not? Glenn Greenwald says one thing, Rebecca Solnit says another, like I’m just going out of my mind I have no idea what’s going on. It’s not just that, of course, it seems like everything is muddled. And it’s this generalized confusion that allows space for a demagogue to emerge. No one’s telling the truth. It’s all fake. Then someone shows up and says here’s what’s real, and just keeps on repeating that they’re the one that has the answer until people begin to give into it. This confusion actually extends to our own political organizing in own activist communities. Are we suddenly allies of the CIA and the NSA like is that who are allies are now? Or the neoliberal Democrats, the Clintonistas, are they are allies now? I vehemently say no to either one of those and yet the terror of the moment creates panic and confusion about where we’re supposed to line up, and with whom we should be in formation. We need to be both cognizant of the fact that strange times make for strange bedfellows—temporary alliances and all that—but not be confused about who we are and not be reactive to every single tweet and every single outrage. We need to remain focused on the material realities that a Trump administration actually portends, which is not a rupture with the past but a continuation of the same economic policies we have seen for decades. He put Goldman Sachs in control of the government just like every other administration has. That’s where he’s weak, actually, from a public relations perspective, but we lose sight of that with every outrageous and disgusting thing that he says. There’s a protest that’s been going on for the last few days called Government Sachs, where they actually camped out in front of Goldman Sachs for the last three days. We should look to, and emulate, actions like that, actions that keep their eyes on the prize. The crisis that we’re facing now was created by neoliberal capitalism. The rise of proto-fascism is made possible by the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. This isn’t news. The crisis has always been capitalism.
Many people have made the point that this election signaled the rejection of elite institutions similar to Brexit. It’s also rejection of left-liberal culture, which is embodied by institutions like the one we’re in right now. It’s a rejection of a left-liberal culture that’s overly focused on representation, and practices a politics of manners rather than one based in material reality. The intersectionality that we insist upon frequently often ignores, well, “poor white trash,” to put it bluntly. I grew up in rural Maine. I know people that voted for Trump. Frankly, they’re the group that people like us in this room find easiest to mock. They’re all-too frequently the butt of the jokes that circulate through the Culture Industry that is based in liberal enclaves like Hollywood and New York City. And that’s a real danger, in my view. Not being aware of, and sensitive to, the material concerns and struggles of poor people of any color is a real weakness of left-liberal culture. We need to be a little bit more attuned to that.
Lastly, I think we need to ask ourselves what we are going to do in this current climate, not just as artists but as people. I have a small anecdote to share in this regard. One of the things I feel best about doing in the last couple weeks was phone banking for my Adjunct Union. I went in for a couple of hours and made cold calls, one of the most awkward feelings in the world, really. It’s the sort of simple grunt work that’s easy to overlook or see as beneath us, especially as we may perceive ourselves as having something more important to offer. But when I think of it in terms of what sacrifice means, I think differently. We tend to think of sacrifice as something large and overwhelming, but sometimes it’s actually not that big a thing. Just a little awkwardness, you know? A little bit of inconvenience. A little bit of time. We know that the next few years are going to call upon us to make sacrifices, but we don’t have to feel overwhelmed by this. Sacrifice can come in many forms, some of them very humble, and one thing we are going to need along with our courage and boldness, is a humble willingness to do the small things that need to get done. Keep your eyes and ears open, and do what you can. Onward.
I’m impressed by what Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking, Fast and Slow, showing that people are actually most sure about what we know the least about. Our firmest convictions lie around things no amount of new information will change most of our minds about: evolution makes monkeys out of us, GMOs will kill, the fetus is a person, vaccines cause autism. People who believe these things generally do so out of a firm sense of faith rather than the review of a lot of information. Indeed, more often than not we say information numbs us with its proliferation, rather than enlightening us.
Stories enlighten us, music, art, beautiful and emotional offerings of the human and natural spirit. We need these more than ever now, and we need fewer pronouncements that divide us or set one of us against another. Kahneman speaks of fast thinking and slow thinking. He won a Nobel prize in economics for these concepts and he is the only non-economist to ever be so recognized.
Artists do have a responsibility to do good work in such bad times. That means we must not be afraid to talk about what quality in art really is. We cannot shun aesthetics in such desperate times. Take a stand on your work, on others’ work, don’t just accept it all. If you like something, figure out why you like it. Teach others to like it, explain why there is better and worse in art just like there is better and worse in government, politics, production, and argument.
If you make art take a clear hard look at your own work. Is it getting better? What would make it better? Is it as good as it can be? Not only is it effective, touching, beautiful or ugly but is it the best that you can do. It must be the best that you can do. We should not settle for anything less.
I want to speak briefly about the concept of solidarity, which is something a number of people have already mentioned today. I’m really happy to be asked to speak about this as a value, because I think the language of values has been hijacked by the right wing in this country over the course of the last two or three decades. In my view, which is of course biased, we have better values, ones that are worth standing behind and fighting for, and now is a really important time to be doing that without any sort of hesitation. I also think that art is a really interesting subject for reflecting on value, because the sort of aesthetic values that we associate with art lend themselves to commercial exploitation, on the one hand, but also to all kinds of thinking and ethical action that aren’t possible elsewhere.
The notion of solidarity has fallen out of favor somewhat, and I might suggest that this is because the term was central to two of the major political movements of the second half of the twentieth century, both of which the US opposed. One is the Second World insurgent dissident socialist solidarity that we know from the Polish movement of that name; the other is the broadly based transnational decolonialism that first emerged in the moment of the Non-Aligned Movement and then passes through Tricontinentalism, and is manifest today in some interesting ways. Even though those of us on the Left are used to speaking of solidarity—and it’s been really nice to see that coming back into use, even just at the end of emails—I think we often do so without reflection, and now is an important moment to think about how we might think and practice solidarity differently.
My question today is: What might solidarity mean in our current context? I’ve helped to organize a number of discussions in the aftermath of the election, and one high point for me was hearing activists from Decolonize This Place begin to talk about the sort of connections that might be drawn between groups fighting for justice in Palestine and other progressive struggles, such as the Movement for Black Lives. A few weeks later we had a discussion, and I was in a small breakout group with an African-American artist who said, in a way that really stayed with me, “I don’t think that’s what my community wants or needs right now.” Her comment took a second to register, and at first I wasn’t sure what she meant by it. I thought about it, and continued to think about it—as I think we all might—and tried to ask myself what it might mean to respond to the kind of concern that she was voicing.
I certainly don’t have an answer, but I want to suggest that one might begin with a real respect for difference, and maybe a more radical and destabilizing type of difference than we’re used to. We should be thinking about distance and autonomy, but then also values and feelings like trust, and humility, and empathy, and even something like love. I think that the practice of solidarity—and I think it’s very much a practice, and a very hard one—is one in which questions are really important. These are some questions that I’ve been trying to ask myself, and that I want to share with you all.
One is: How can I speak out? Another is: How can I help other people speak, and how can I speak with others without speaking for them? Another is: What can I share?, whether that’s privilege, or access, or time. Others are: When should I be silent? To whom can I listen? What can art do differently?
To close, I want to suggest that the practice, work, and commitment of solidarity could well entail alliances that we don’t know yet, alliances that might be extended not just to red states, but to red parts of our own city, like Staten Island, and to places like Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and the Phillipines. These are all places that might have things to teach us, and with which we might explore new solidarities. This is something we can do as members of a democracy, but also as members of particular communities or institutions. I think that events like this might serve as a model for a kind of solidarity that we might work for, and that they give us the opportunity to build on that potential and create other forms of thinking, sensing, working, and acting together.
All videos: Owen Crowley, 2017.