Interview: Nitasha Dhillon and Amin Husain - MTL Collective
Natasha Dhillon (ND) and Amin Husain (AH), are MTL, a collaboration that joins research, aesthetics, organizing and action in practice discuss in conversation and through drawing Art and Research.
Annabelle Boissier (AB): How did you start to work together? How do you work with Art and Research?
AH: Can I have a paper and a pen? Let’s get started! So, here’s MTL which is us, and then here are the projects we have initiated and in the process created larger formations: Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy, a movement publication in-print and online, Strike Debt and Rolling Jubilee, Global Ultra Luxury Faction, which is the autonomous direct action wing of Gulf Labor Artists Coalition, Direct Action Front for Palestine, Decolonial Cultural Front which organized an action against the Brooklyn Museum, and Decolonize This Place, a movement space and formations organized around five strands of struggle: indigenous struggle, black liberation, global wage worker, free Palestine, and de-gentrification.
We name these projects upfront to answer your question in part because there is no one answer.
We can start talking about how this started with Occupy Wall Street.
… So, this is where we are.
… So, what we will talk about is art, research, organizing and action, as an art practice.
ND: Me and Amin began MTL. Amin is from Palestine, he grew up in Palestine, raised there, came to the USA to study. He studied law and practiced for 5 years in law and finance, afterwhich he quit law and went into photography, studying at the International Centre for Photography (ICP) in New York City in 2009.
I received an undergrad in mathematics from St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. I picked up photography in my second year, and decided that afterwards to pursue photography. And so I started with wildlife photography and then began exploring documentary photography. I came to ICP to study the same year as Amin did in 2009. That’s where we met each other. Quickly we realized that our work overlaps in several ways, especially because, as you know, Amin lived through military occupation and was part of the resistance at an early age in Palestine, and my father served for many years in the Indian army.
AB: When was that?
ND: We decided to collaborate and start MTL together in the beginning of 2010.
The first project we did as MTL involved us going to Palestine. We took landscape photographs, filmed, and had conversations, to better understand how the occupation works visually, using mapping techniques. (This research would later inform another trip to Palestine in 2013 which later resulted in three dispatches between 2013-2014, titled The Slow, Sure Death of Palestine, Cartography of an Occupation, and What is a Refugee if There is no Nation-State?).
That was our first project – and right after that, the Arab revolutions began at the end of 2010 with Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire in Tunisia. We did a project around that in New York which was called the Arab Uprising Newspaper. We took newspapers from 7 different countries. Tunisia was one of them, along with Palestine, Syria, Libya, Egypt (I’m forgetting the other two). We translated the headlines on the front-page into Arabic, printed hundred of copies on 11×17 inch paper and put them in public parks in New York City with a rock on the stack for people to pick up.
Later that year, in 2011, we began organizing for Occupy Wall Street, before it was even called Occupy Wall Street. We were involved specifically in the direct action working groups, facilitation groups, education groups, empowerment groups; however, in addition to these action-oriented engagements, we were researching and facilitating the development of theory through establishing the movement-generated theory magazine, Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy.
We produced four issues, the last being in 2012. Tidal was our response to thinking about, as Occupy Wall Street was going on, how to theorise it at the same time, simultaneously, people like Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler, David Graeber, Michael Hardt, Silvia Federici who were were writing short, accessible articles dealing with immediate questions in a practice way, along with people on the ground who were organizing every day, doing direct actions, and holding space in all the ways imaginable. Art, research, the archive, and non-representational nature of the publication, the way it was funded, i.e. not by any NGO or foundation, made it an important component of our movement.
We offered the story of our engagement, along with Occupy’s failures and success, in Occupy Wall Street: A Possible Story, which exhibited in Oslo at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in 2013, and has since been reproduced and supplemented as a living document in later in-print publications, such as Global Activism: Art and Conflict in the 21st Century (MIT Press, 2015).
AB: What does “research” in this specific case mean? What were you doing at that time?
AH: MTL very quickly approached its work as a researcher-militant, and that comes from the idea of knowledge excluded by power. We focus on the knowledge production itself, knowing that such knowledge exists in people who are fighting their condition. We seek to have those knowledges circulate among our movements and organizing spaces. Consequently, we are on the ground to be able to connect to such knowledge, build on and around it, in order to better understand our conditions, as well as points of connectivity and areas of complicity. This idea comes from two texts, Colectivo Situaciones: On the Researcher-Militant and R-Words: Refusing Research. Interestingly, our first engagement with a museum in New York was as part of a symposium at the New Museum on this topic in 2010 titled, Museum as Hub: Revolution in New York – Experiments in Collective Research and Action: Some Proposals.
AB: What does “organizing” look like?
AH: Organizing for us means a specific kind of organizing that Grace Lee Boggs refers to as ‘visionary organizing’, while in the process of acting we are organizing against dominant power and material conditions while rehearsing the future we want to see, usher in, constantly asking ourselves, What time is it on the clock of the world? This can look like familiar things, a banner-making party, a direct action, but it’s motivation and where it seeks to go is beyond what the act can communicate. It has to do with this building and strategy and values in the process of doing.
ND: it can just be a conversation.
AH: All of this, whatever you’re organizing for. It can be over food, very important, and so often, the type of organizing could be just listening to where people are at. So, for example, one of our engagements that offers a good example is ‘Occupy Sandy.’ We wrote about this type of organizing to deal with environmental disaster where the state retreats in Superstorm Sandy: Seeing Beyond the State. Does that answer your question?
AH: That’s what organizing is: vision, research, imagining, and doing.
AB: When you try to get people together, to get these meetings going, how do you do that, how do you mobilise?
ND: it looks different depending on the contexts. We never recycle logic. One of the things that we do in organizing is re-present the research in the form of action. It’s not about having the organizing separately from the research, but rather they are extremely connected to each other and to the people who show up and are involved in visioning the action, and what we are trying to achieve, i.e. the action logic within the context of tactics and strategy discussions.
The Occupy Wall Street movement was a starting point for our work. It was on a much bigger scale. We had physical space in Zuccotti Park. There were a lot of people there, more than 200 people organizing together, in the beginning. The movement itself was centered and class and class-based resistance. It came about because the so called ‘middle class’ in the United States after the financial collapse in 2006 were being demoted class-wise and they were realizing that the ‘American Dream’ was a lie. They were saying we do not see a future, we see debt. We do not have enough jobs and this capitalism sucks.
Some of the work we were trying to do is insert narratives that were outside of the context of the United states, thinking about having the privilege of being in New York, and what do you do when you are in the belly of the beast. So that was something that we were working on, having voices within the education and empowerment working groups, trying to bring in people like Gayatri Spivak, who is a post-colonial theorist, relevant to the moment. This education was in the form of conversations and free. Spivak talked on one of the days of the movement to everyone on the square and what we should consider and do. So Tidal was doing that work, bringing several people who were theorizing the moment with people who are doing these direct actions every day and not necessarily getting a moment to reflect on where we are and where we are going.
At that same time, there were several newspapers coming out of Occupy Wall Street, but they were all more journalistic. They were talking about events and speaking to the outside world. In contrast, Tidal was helping us speak to each other in the movement while simultaneously helping us ask better questions.
Tidal organized public gathering when we saw Occupy Wall Street losing the battle against the state. Out of these thematic assemblies that happened every weekend over the Summer came ‘Strike Debt’, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street that sought to articulate debt as both a basis of togetherness and where leverge of the people lies.
Prior to Strike Debt, physical space was the main way we organised ourselves. The movement had spaces. Consequently, every day in the morning if a person wanted to get involved they knew there would be people at Zuccotti Park. But once the occupation was taken away by the police we had to construct another space where people could organize around, and so ‘debt’ came about or rather surfaced. We started thinking about debt as a condition and a weakness of the system. This was important because for the longest time people focused on labor and not debt in the United States with regard to how exploitation takes place.
There are lot of people around here that have student debt, there’s medical debt, payday loans, housing debt, the society is built on the idea of having debt and all these kinds of debt, but we were not thinking about debt only as financial but also to the debt we owe one another, so we trying to bring in a different understanding. However, the problem of ‘Strike debt’ and ‘Occupy Wall Street’ was, we realized that in the organizing and building people of colour were rendered invisible, racial justice was not central to the analysis around class, and white supremacy ran deep even amongst the most well-intentioned. For example, even though we were organizers of colour and a lot of the work was done by organizers of colour for both of these movements, somehow when these movements got represented or thought about, it was considered or viewed as white. This became very apparent with Strike Debt, when Kimani Gray was murdered by NYPD in East Flatbush and some of us wanted to put out a statement linking the debt analysis to the police and do something about poverty, race, and predatory lending like payday loans affect communities of colour the most. We wanted to respond to that moment, and that’s when kind of the entire organizing broke down, and there is an article that came out then where we talked about what white supremacy does to movements.
The article titled Defined by Debt: How the Strike Debt Movement Redefined Occupy speaks to the lessons learned from organizing around debt and what we mean when we we say ‘white supremacy’.
AB: Can you tell more how you arrived to financial debt and how race divided that movement, which began strong?
AH: going back to your point about organizing, with Occupy, we organized by a space and a date, so that meant assemblies. People saw a call and everyone met each other for the first time, worked very closely but never knew each other’s names. When we had the Park, Zuccotti Park, the space-organized people, when we lost the space, we chose a date, which was May Day, to organize the work, so that created the community and there were more people getting involved. When May Day, we figured out the date didn’t work because no bigger things happened and the space no longer exists – what do we do? so we chose debt. But what we were thinking about debt was that it was us making an anti-capitalist movement, which Occupy always was, without saying it was “anti-capitalist”, and we knew that debt is an organizing principle, because nowadays everyone has debt, to the point that we say “we have gone from a welfare state to a debtfare state”.
The idea of everyone has debt created a broad base but inadvertently flattened complexity, because when people came with their debt white people just wanted it to go away, but poor people who were mainly black or of colour either couldn’t get debt to begin with, or, if they had debt, it was not the type that was regulated, and so there was a difference is the positionalities, which meant strategies and tactics and direction would vary because though everyone had debt in the short-term their interests were not identical. There were also different histories and structures of oppression at play and different lived experiences, and people in the group in a way owed each other debts that they were not yet willing to acknowledge.
When we wanted to transition into struggle, and come out more explicitly as anti-capitalist with racial justice central to the class analysis, we identified Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (MLK Day) as a day to do so, since towards the end of his life he connected militarism, racism and poverty together in his famous speech Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence. These three things are about debt and this is how we connect things.
Unfortunately, the people in the room said we shouldn’t do it on MLK Day because we are not them. We realized the assumed we of the group was by default White, and that was earth shattering to those of us who are in the group and Black or otherwise of colour.
Later on, problems around race surfaced more frequently around issues of strategy. For example, as part of a creative direct action dubbed Rolling Jubilee we had raised US$700,000. Several of us had gone to Detroit and wanted to purchase land for the community there so that we could create autonomous zones to be protected legally by holding it collectively in land trusts. White people or those performing whiteness said no. We realized that we had failed once again and we needed to learn from our failure and continue on.
ND: … and just to add both of these were very much specific to the United States as a nation-state, and none of us, when we think of organizing a movement, think of being accountable to the United States in that movement. We come from different places. We use New York as a strategic point of intervention, but it’s never only about New York or the United States for that matter.
AH: Yes, because part of this work is prefigurative. Each juncture on this path is about learning and unlearning. Each one of those projects is research, but research that feeds into action, in a way, beyond praxis, where theory and practice are folded onto each other to take a step together. We create different groups and formations based on the target and the objective. Rather than do something, then someone writes about it, or do something then reflect on it, we do these things and more all together by bringing together a wider group and participants with a host of skills that can make that happen.
MTL realizes it needs a +, so we go find the +s’, with beautiful people like Yates McKee, Amy Weng, Marz Saffore, Kyle Goen, Andrew Ross, Crystal Hans, Aiko Maya Roudette, Lorena Ambrosio and Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu who are each brilliant, hard working, and engaged in struggle, and with which we have a shared politics.. We work in affinity, some people carry over and some people don’t, but the big constant is us two as MTL.
AB: So how do you two work together as MTL?
ND: (laughs) We, miraculously, are in tune, and we get along really well, intellectually and socially. It is rare and special. I think our similar upbringings as well as social and economic backgrounds are aligned.
AH: As MTL, Nitasha and I were both dealing with issues of power and its relations very early on, and we were in sync that “art” is what we want it to be. Art has to measure up to us and not the other way around.
ND: Art is just one name for what we do, but could (and often is) called simultaneously something else. For us, art is a space to do the work that we would want to do. It’s one umbrella for what we do in life. We often say, too, that we strike art to liberate art from itself. Not to end art, but to unleash its powers of direct action and radical imagination, in part, by delinking it from the circuits of racialized capitalism, debt, settler colonialism, patriarchy – all these things. We touch on this briefly here in Art as Training in the Practice of Freedom.
AH: Another thing that Nitasha and I shared separately, which is why it made sense to collaborate from the beginning is this idea that if my work is only about Palestine, it would be a failure; and if Nitasha’s work is only about India, it would be a failure. This is not to say we do not retain and affirm the specificity of each struggle, but that such specificity has to be informed by a broader sense of what ‘decolonial freedom’ and collective liberation looks like.
In a way, our engagements over the course of seven years now have been about mapping power and sites of injustice and sources of people power with our bodies, always using different acronyms so that actions give meaning, beginning with MTL, which itself does not stand for anything. We wanted people to imagine what ‘MTL’ stands for based on the work done, and for it never to remain stagnant, or become fixed. People would ask, what does ‘MTL’ stand for, and we would say ‘what do you think it stands for’?
AB: So, how did you choose the acronym ‘MTL’?
ND: MTL does not stand for anything.
AB: Why was it important for you that it does not mean anything, but that it can also have a lot of different meanings?
ND: Yes, it’s the latter, that it can have a lot of meanings that change over time. That’s what’s important for us, because we do our work – of research, organizing, aesthetics and action – and results in unlearning and undoing, among other things, which then feeds back into debriefing and analysis, which, leads us to start over again, and we need a name that does not constrain us or constrict our thinking, flexibility, and imagination.
AB: And for you?
AH: Again, ‘MTL’ mimics acronyms that factions liberation movements use. Names get abbreviated. In our minds, movements keep moving and so we don’t want a fixed meaning. Power fixes meaning. We are aware of this and don’t want to get stuck. We don’t want to get commodified. We want to keep moving. And allow what it stands for and embodies for us and others to change. It is also a generous gesture, as it creates space for people to engage with what it could/should stand for.
ND: And, so, a lot of times MTL as a participant is in the shadows in terms of projects, actions, and engagements we organize or actions we conduct. We make new names, fronts, acronyms for each project. For example, when we organized Decolonize this Place, there was a “+” added for all the new collaborators joining to make the space we imagined and to facilitate new formations emerging across various struggles. In this way, when you look up Decolonize This Place, you will see that through the collective MTL+ we organized Decolonize this Place.
AH: (Amin and Nitasha map out their projects and engagement in a Structure Chart, beginning with MTL) In a way, each of Tidal: Occupy Theory, Strike Debt, Global Ultra Luxury Faction, Direct Action Front for Palestine, projects lead us to a dead end with success and failures, and lessons learned, which we evaluated and continued to then build on our analysis, tactics, strategies, and organizing until we organized Decolonial Culture Front with friends in 2016 as a formation to take action at the Brooklyn Museum. After that effort, we felt like we figured something substantial out. We moved away from social justice framework to a decolonial framework as an analytic.
Several months later after that action, and five years later to the day from the launch of Occupy Wall Street, we organized through the collective MTL+ the project Decolonize This Place. Except this time, we had a decolonial analysis for engagement, and moved from “occupy” to “de-occupy”. It was a breakthrough, and MTL came to the forefront this time with additions to the team, creating MTL+, to do what needs to be done in order to #decolonizethisplace.
ND: It is important to introduce at this point Gulf Labor Artists Coalition and its autonomous direct action wing Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.), which MTL helped established in 2014, as a critical marker between Occupy Wall Street in 2011-2012 and Decolonize This Place in 2016. I was a visiting scholar at the Social and Cultural Analysis Department at New York University when Andrew Ross approached MTL to work on the Gulf Labor campaign to pressure the Guggenheim on worker rights and involving their Abu Dhabi branch being built. At that time, they were doing something called 52 Weeks of art and engagements to raise awareness on the labor conditions of South Asian migrant laborers in Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates more broadly.
What was important here was the idea of how can our organizing and movement building extend beyond the borders of nation-states. In 52 Weeks, each week an artist/s or collective would respond to the idea of labour in the Gulf. We participated in Week 10, launching a solidarity initiative we called No Debt Is An Island, which resulted in establishing G.U.L.F, which as core members includes Andrew Ross, Yates McKee, Paula Chakravartty, and Noah Fischer.
In No Debt Is An Island, we laid out an analysis based on extensive interdisciplinary research that linked New York, Abu Dhabi, and South Asian countries, as well as clarified how the issues at stake directly involve and implicate artists and students in New York. This was important in order to make the issues tangible and the solidarity real and not immenating from a place of simply ‘helping them’ but ‘helping ourselves by helping them’. We were interested in creating a narrative which moved beyond nation-states, linking Guggenheim as a global empire in terms of the artworld, and highlight the relationship of art and labor in the circuits of capitalism, and also labour.
So, G.U.L.F. was actually the second time we managed to connect and take action here on an issue that seems remote, but actually is not, and take action. (The first time was against Israeli Banks in New York that actively fund Israel’s colonization of Palestine and Jewish only colonies in the West Bank which are being established on stolen land). After doing the research and organizing, we took action on December 10, 2014.
So we did a lot of work in terms of research before taking action. The gist of the analysis is this: on one hand, workers leave their homeland on elusive ‘Gulf Dream’ and go to work in Abu Dhabi to construct museums on Saadiyat Island in poor conditions and worse pay in order to make a cultural haven for the 1% and push the attractiveness of luxury condos for developers with world-known brand museums in one’s backyard, all the while legitimizing an oppressive regime that is attempting to move it’s country’s economy beyond oil; and, on the other hand, you have New York University which is also on the same Island as Guggenheim Abu Dhabi graduating students with some of the highest student debt in the United States, while offering free undergraduate education in Abu Dhabi, and precarious artists get affected by this system of ‘arts capitalism’ by being pushed to pursuing a Master of Arts degree to get a slice of the pie, which usually eludes them, as they pile on debt, mortgage their future, and work precariously in cafes, restaurants and bars.
This analysis and research was used to build a coalition of actors and adopt the name G.U.L.F. G.U.L.F. conducted several actions to pressure the Guggenheim to adhere to Gulf Labor Artists Coalition’s request for dialogue and amplify the demands of the workers themselves, which remain as: a Living Wage, a Debt Jubilee, and the Right to Organize. One of the major actions on May Day, 2015 and dubbed #GuggOccupied.
AB: What was the research involved?
ND: A bulk of the research is carried out through conversations with workers either in Abu Dhabi or India. Along with Amin and Paula Chakravartty, we bring back knowledge that they passed on about their own conditions to New York to inform the campaign. These conversations/research led the campaign to articulating the three demands clearly– living wage, debt jubilee, and right to organize. We also brought that knowledge to bear and inform the direct actions by G.U.L.F., which relied on art and organizing and aesthetics to challenge the conduct of the museum. May Day’s unsanctioned action brought the demands into Guggenheim NY, asking the museum to think about these different things.
Now, in all of this, two things should be highlighted. First, a departure from a direct confrontation with the state or the police. Instead, we targeted an institution whom we feel like we have leverage on, and that we can work together to make things better, and if not then our creative direct actions can have strategic reach, in terms of the institutions itself as well as the broader community of artists and cultural producers. Second, this creative direct action by G.U.L.F., within the broader campaign of Gulf Labor Artists Coalition, creates a tactical space that can allow us to have a different conversation.
AH: Yes, we achieve this by highlighting contradictions between an institution’s mission and values and its conduct and use resources. Additionally, the act itself is a form of mapping of power, because each engagement with an institution you study its complexity, and abstractions weather, and you ask:
– How can we create a crisis with the brand to create leverage or incentive for the institution to cooperate?
– How do we build a coalition or a formation coming together that is broad enough to have legitimacy, and involves those who should be involved?
– Finally, what kind of organizing and action can have pedagogical dimensions and reach so that we can continue to build power, rearrange desires, and enact the change we want to see?
AB: So where does decolonization and Decolonial Cultural Front come in?
AH: Now, we are in 2016. Our lessons from the work with the Gulf Labor campaign is that a human rights based approach is limiting and ineffective, because it relies on structures and understandings of struggle that seek to represent others, often perpetuates notions of victimization, and offers solutions that maintain the status quo which are producing these problems we face on a mass scale. And, in the case of the United States, such campaigns often reinforce settler colonization. People are tired of talking and thinking about rights, as if they are respected. So, we felt we needed a broader framework, one that allows for multiple struggles to come together in action to amplify one another, while learning that each one of us is both an oppressor and oppressed, and that we are all implicated in some fashion, and that if we do not work on figuring out how this is true as we resist, we are never going to really be free and make this world amenable to living.
This realization corresponded with a big opportunity that, unfortunately, the Brooklyn Museum presented in 2016. The Brooklyn Museum, like many of our cultural institutions, has real estate developers on its board who engage in business that profits from displacing and dispossessing people (mainly of color) in Brooklyn, otherwise known as gentrification, and had previously hosted a Developers Summit at the museum.
Here was the situation. The Brooklyn Museum had an exhibit up ‘Agitprop!’ displaying hot new ‘protest art’ and on the same floor is another show ‘This Place’, a photography exhibit depicting the Israeli occupation in a supposedly “balanced” light while normalizing ongoing settler colonization.
Organizing with the community and Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, we made the connections between displacement that happens in Palestine and displacement that happens here, and the role of the museum and who it is accountable to. This is a good article that brings forth the analysis and details of the action in the Nation magazine, titled Gentrification and Occupation at the Brooklyn Museum and here is an example of the research we did on the funders of This Place who were attempting to bypass the cultural boycott of Israel that has been called for by Palestinian civil society to support their struggle for liberation.
For this direct action, and direct actions we do, we do not ask permission. This is important. Otherwise, our action becomes performative, absorbed, and legitimizes the status quo by engaging in the beautification of the institution and lending it legitimacy versus creating a crisis to allow for a rearrangement of relations and change of conduct.
This is where the term, “Decolonize this place!” came from! We began by hacking into the name of an exhibit, as a way to tarnish the brand of the exhibit, using it as a call to action as we denounced the occupation from Brooklyn to Palestine by linking it to the museum space itself, as another product of historic land colonization. In this spirit, we supplemented the walls of the museum by placing our own labels by the official Israeli titles, to reveal the Palestinian names.
AB: What was the reaction of those institutions?
AH: Well, with Guggenheim Museum, the administration continued to ignore the boycott and calls for conversation, until G.U.L.F. shut down the museum in NY and then again in Venice within a span of two weeks. Once we shut down the museum in Venice, the Board of Trustees agreed to speak with us. However, after a year of dialogue (and no actions) and three meetings with the board — sharing research and resources with the museum — and advising them on how you can together fight for a living wage, cancellation of workers’ debt, and support workers’ right to organize, they broke off the talks. In the case of the Brooklyn Museum, the administration agreed to hold a People’s Summer to talk about displacement and gentrification, but they refused one of their own board members who is deeply involved in gentrification, so that demand remains outstanding.
AB: Would you say you impact the museum with your actions?
ND: Yes, because these actions do a lot, beginning with the relationships that get developed before, during, and after the action. Second, the conversations that are had which is essential to understanding one another and the conditions we are living. Third, the action itself makes people feel like they are not powerless, which, in turn, helps overcoming the problem we are facing with the failure of imagination. Forth, media is generated as a by-product of the action which contributes to changing the conversation, and allows for information that otherwise would not travel in mainstream media to do so. Fifth, the action is a form of communication with one another, allowing us to find each other, or to send messages of solidarity and recognition of common struggles. Sixth, with each action where we are de-occupying an institution, reclaiming it, or transforming it, even if only for an instant, these are acts of decolonization, of identifying cracks, of multiplying cracks in systems of oppression, embodying another way of being, while holding institutions accountable. Seventh, our actions take aim at the brand of various institutions, which translate into material and financial losses, in addition to generating public relations concerns that force a set of choices on the institution in question.
[Amin begins drawing]
AH: Here is a chart that seeks to illustrate the action logic we deployed with respect to the Brooklyn Museum. You see from the bottom up: aesthetic choices, research, and organizing, preceded the actual action we took in which around one-hundred people participated. From this action, here are several impacts on the museum, some more obvious than others:
– impacting the museum in a material way (without harming the art), by forcing the museum’s loss of control of the space and potential increase in insurance because of the action’s transgressions
– questioning the role of the museum and the instrumentalization of art and artists in perpetuating displacement and settler colonization
– creating a situation that makes visible what values and voices are promoted and which are not valued and silenced
– allowing us, as participants in the action and museum goers, to imagine what other art could be and to allow that space of redefining art to happen to, in turn, spark the museum’s desire to do something different
– advancing the proposition that action is a form of dialogue and pedagogy, one that is horizontal and extends beyond the walls of the museum and concerns art, politics, and action, as a way of unsettling the status quo, rearranging relations of power, and decolonizing our institutions.
[Nitasha draws another diagram for the same action]
ND: Here, in this chart, we illustrate the nuance of an institution, which includes a director, curators, board of trustees, and guards/staff. As we mentioned earlier, one of trustees of the Brooklyn Museum is a real estate developer. The museum is located in the neighbourhood of East Flatbush where long-term residents, who are mainly black and brown landlords, are being displaced through mechanisms of gentrification.
Protests in late 2015 called into question the museum’s role in gentrification. As a token, and in the name of advancing dialogue, the museum offered a space to the community to raise awareness about gentrification in the exhibit Agitprop!.
Agitprop! exhibition was located on the 4th Floor. It displayed and surveyed different generations of art and activism. Curators selected groups, and then those groups invited other groups and so on, to explore lineages of struggle. For example, museum curators deployed posters from Moscow and Guerrilla Girls from the United States to talk about patriarchy and struggles for gender equality, and those groups, in turn, recommended other artists to be included, and those artists further recommended other artists, totally three waves of artists engaged in activism while illustrating the relations groups had to one another within a framework of social justice.
The show received amazing reviews. The New York Times wrote, “Most art is political, whether it means to be or not. In “Agitprop!” at the Brooklyn Museum, politics is the whole point. Content is didactic; the creative part lies in how efficiently and effectively it’s delivered. Photography, prints and performance are favored media because they are, in different ways, portable, readily legible and easily reproducible. In general, monuments aside, political art isn’t made to last; it’s made to work. And it has to be ready to change as the news changes.”
Yet, on the same 4th Floor, there was This Place exhibition of fine photographs on Israel/Palestine. A show that claims to be neutral, yet no Palestinian agreed to participate in it, and millions of dollars of funding came from private donors and non-transparent foundations which support the occupation of Palestine. The images themselves erase the presence of Palestinians on the land, while normalizing Israel’s occupation, displacement, and theft of land, and to the extent that any structural violence appears aesthetized and lacks context necessary to understand what is going on.
Famous artists like Stephen Shore, Jeff Wall, and others went to Israel/Palestine and came back with images of Israeli settlers, in homes, with families with kids, images of settlements, but most the times when you saw the Palestinians they were either at checkpoints, raising a humanitarian concern or you would see the Apartheid Wall, but you would not see life or joy, in a way that the humanity of Palestinians is stripped away in the images in the name of art and aesthetics. The juxtaposition of the two shows being on the same floor was difficult to understand, and yet it highlighted a common problem with our institutions.
The other point we choose to address is the fact that because we are speaking about displacement and dispossession in Brooklyn and Palestine, we cannot ignore the fact that the museum itself sits on occupied Lenape territory.
This is where the framework of decolonization came in explicitly as we thoughts about internal and external forms of colonization, and that colonization is not an event but rather a structure. The analytic of decolonization connected things. The text we used to organize and assemble the formation for the action against the Brooklyn Museum drew from the text Decolonization is not a Metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, specifically the following passage:
“Not unique, the United States, as a settler colonial nation-state, also operates as an empire – utilizing external forms and internal forms of colonization simultaneous to the settler colonial project. This means, and this is perplexing to some, that dispossessed people are brought onto seized Indigenous land through other colonial projects. Other colonial projects include enslavement, as discussed, but also military recruitment, low-wage and high-wage labor recruitment (such as agricultural workers and overseas-trained engineers), and displacement/migration (such as the coerced immigration from nations torn by U.S. wars or devastated by U.S. economic policy). In this set of settler colonial relations, colonial subjects who are displaced by external colonialism, as well as racialized and minoritized by internal colonialism, still occupy and settle stolen Indigenous land. Settlers are diverse, not just of white European descent, and include people of color, even from other colonial contexts. This tightly wound set of conditions and racialized, globalized relations exponentially complicates what is meant by decolonization, and by solidarity, against settler colonial forces.”
This analytic allowed us to articulate what is happening here and in Palestine in a way that retained the specificity without dealing with them as issue silos. The name Decolonial Cultural Front was meant to signal this. We moved away from a social justice way of organizing and struggling in favor of an articulation of struggle that begins by an understanding that most of us are settlers here in New York living in a settler-colonial state built on dispossession of the natives who continue to exist and the slaves who were stolen from their lands. This made sense and determined the kind of solidarity and composition of the formation that came together to organize and carry out the action.
The whole action articulated the connectivity of our struggles and resistance, coming together and made visible at one institution in a space and a time we shared together. We learned from one another as we supported each other.
We began our intervention and disruption inside with a text about what does it mean to resist on occupied territory. We acknowledged that we are on Lenape territory. Here are the five mic checks (or call and responses, like this) from the action.
And because this was an unsanctioned action we also had to think through how to deal with security guards who are simply doing their job when they try to bring an end to the action. We had people designated to de-escalate, explain what’s going, make sure they know we do not intend to harm the art even as we through the space like an alternative tour and supplementing the walls of the museum.
AB: How do all these things come together in your collaboration and work as MTL?
AH: We are at each step together. The way we do this work is how we’ve always worked together. In this interview so far, I have been speaking of the tactic and strategies of an action and Natasha speaks of the mechanics of the space and overall analytical framework, and those two inform each other through discussion and our thinking is modified by doing and our failures, only to try again differently.
ND: And, then, comes the research, aesthetics, and organizing, which is conducted accordingly. We open up spaces to change narratives and create other possibilities through doing.
AH: Our actions are strategic and are meant to create a crisis for the institutions and space for those who work at the institution like the director, curators and staff to push for something different.
ND: The research, organizing and aesthetic all come together with the analysis and action. The boundaries between them were intentionally blurred. We went beyond art and activism. We actually don’t believe in the specialization of activism because often the activist is not accountable to the community like an organizer is, and the idea of an activist reinforces in language if not in action that somehow only they take action, whereas others do not or should not, verses our belief that we, everyone, should live engaged lives.
I would say, with Decolonise This Place, we as MTL+ for the first time went inside the institution by invitation but rather than accept the offer to organize an exhibition of our work we convinced Artists Space in Manhattan to give us space for three months with a budget. This is project we are currently engaged in.
[Amin draws again]
AH: We convert Artists Space into a movement space and accept the resources to support the work we envisioned as #DecolonizeThisPlace, drawing from on the lesson we learned from our failures while building on our successes
ND: So #DecolonizeThisPlace carried over from the Brooklyn Museum actions as a name and also a verb. We created with friends and family an action-oriented space which was rooted in five strands of struggle to inform the political and cultural work to be done: indigenous struggle, black liberation, free Palestine, global wage workers, and de-gentrification. Activities included but were not limited to talks, workshops, screenings, meetings, and direct actions that seeks to ‘liberate art from itself…not to end art, but to unleash its powers of direct action and radical imagination’, and ‘prioritizes the presence and work of people of color and inclusive of queer, immigrant, and disabled participants – challenging the white supremacy that continues to characterize the economies and institutions of art. MTL+ successfully brought together a diverse group of art and activist organizations—both local and abroad—to not only inform visitors but to move together in action towards a commonalities of causes within a framework of decolonization. We made posters and zines which can be viewed on Kyle Goen’s website, a member of MTL+, here.
We had a headquarters inside the institution. We operated inside and outside of the institution. People would hang out and just socialized and the creativity and energy was amazing and difficult to describe. We offered movies, food, banner making parties, poetry, beer, music concerts, dance parties, conversations, children art-making sessions, workshops, security and self-defence training, and we were always doing organizing and research. Direct actions during that time took aim at the American Museum of Natural History and Artis, a U.S. not-for-profit artwashing Israel’s occupation of Palestine, among others. We supported the work of our collaborators such as Chinatown Art Brigade, Take Back the Bronx, and NYC Stands with Standing Rock, to name a few. The space allowed all these communities to overlap and emerge with deeper understandings of each other’s struggle and, consequently, new formations that can move together and support one another beyond the silos that operated in. And, today, even though we do not have a physical space, the formations have only grown and relationships we cultivated over the three months have strengthened.
AB: Why is this art?
ND: Why is this art! I mean it doesn’t have to be art (laughs). Art could simply be a tactical space. We are not outside the system that we are trying to critique. We are part of it. We participate in it every day. We are complicit in it. It may not look like the art we are accustomed to receiving or how it is traditionally defined, but we are interested in who defines art to begin with, and who curates whom?
With what we do we imagine a different kind of art, one in which the artists is engaged and not instrumentalized by institutions, and their art used as tax shelters for the rich, as opposed to being in-tune with what time is it on the clock of the world. We see art spaces and institutions as some of the few places left for us to imagine and to be able to use resources to resist and build on the path to decolonial freedom.
AH: I think there is a lot at stake in the world we live in right now, and therefore I feel this is what art should look like and do for me right now.
ND: That’s why we strike art, always!
AH: As we tell our students art, in the end, should measure up to you, not the other way around, and I think that for the same reason that you can’t be an intellectual and not be engaged, and you cannot be an artist and not be in-tune, and I refuse that someone can tell me what art should look like — art should be about our lives and right now our lives suck and we are hurting each other a lot.
ND: What I am interested in facilitating the opening up of spaces that, in turn, open on to something else beyond these categories of art and activism, or art and politics, or research and action, or theory and practice, and this makes more sense when language appears to be failing us more and more.
Interviewed by Annabelle Boissier, New York, April 22, 2017