A bottomless sea
Some notes on artists’ writing, Gran Fury on social media and anti-alternative strategies.
Gran Fury, The Pope and the Penis, 1990, ink on PVC, 2.4 × 5.5 m. Courtesy: Gran Fury and Avram Finkelstein.
Hi – I’m currently working on a project about artists’ writing from around the 80s. Writing from the kinds of artists who turned their attention towards photography, TV, advertising and propaganda, and in turn, offered a critical look at the relationship between capitalism and mass media. Something different but related came to my attention and I was keen to share some thoughts on it with you.
Gran Fury came a little after the people I’m focusing on at the moment, but everything in the spirit of their work is still there – the sense of urgency found in bold graphics, the wilful appropriation and subversion of the visual environment around them, a youthful rejection of what came before. frieze recently invited Gran Fury cofounder Avram Finkelstein to reflect on the legacy of the collective, presumably with the prompt to consider how the tactics and strategies they deployed would – or perhaps, wouldn’t — translate to a social media context. It’s the kind of question which can easily prompt boring answers. But I do think they touch on something quite special.
Finkelstein begins with a more grounded point of reference: the communication technologies which were available at the time, but didn’t make much sense to them back then. ‘In the 1980s, I frequently spent months in London, and I couldn’t understand why everyone I knew either had or wanted a cell phone. My colleagues seemed fascinated by the prospect of constant accessibility – an idea that hadn’t hit America yet.’
Anecdotes about the impact of the internet are often framed with a similar humour. Imagine not realising how everything would change. Anyone who questions the utility of the internet and digital technologies, even when they were useless, is looked back on now as a kind of warning lesson. But everything did change, as did the pace of change. Finkelstein writes they ‘can’t imagine life now without its constant slipstream of information’ and in some senses this is understating the issue.
But part of what fascinates me about artists who pre-date the internet is how they navigated rapid social change which was accelerated by communication technologies, and what lessons we might pull from this for our time. The original prompt – how would the agitprop strategies of Gran Fury translate to the contemporary moment – invites a wide ranging exploration around what can be boiled down to tools and structures of distribution, and what role, if any, artists can play within that.
Gran Fury’s (contentious) participation in the 1990 edition of the Venice Biennale is offered as a case study. It was contentious, firstly, amongst the collective themselves. Finkelstein writes:
In fact, not only did I strenuously object to participating in the XLIV Venice Biennale, I refused to travel to Italy to work on this piece. Our practice was devoted to public projects and we only showed in galleries if the work was mounted in public-facing windows or if it included a public component. Since the biennial offered no such assurances, I opposed our presence there.
And at times, it felt as if fate was set against them:
As threatening as the saga of the Venice Biennale was to the collective in real time, it also had a slapstick aspect to it. The details are chronicled through the collective’s recollections in the 80WSE exhibition catalogue, Read My Lips (2011). These included: seizure of the work by Italian customs; a visit by the United States Information Agency; threats of arrest; a boycott of its censorship by other artists; our hiding the work near the garbage containers of a pizzeria; a visit by magistrates; proposed legal action by the Italian Parliament; and national tabloid coverage of the work that far exceeded its exposure in art-media outlets.
The last point there is one the most important ones: ‘National tabloid coverage of the work that far exceeded its exposure in art-media outlets.’ It’s curious how artists from the 80s and 90s renegotiated new and often strange relationships with the media, often going in a counter-intuitive direction. Writing about an ‘anti-alternative’ turn within late-twentieth century art, Gwen Allen, in her book Artists Magazines (2011), wrote:
As the alternative spaces of the 1970s began to appear increasingly institutionalized in the 1980s, artists sought out novel methods of making and exhibiting work in temporary, provisional, and unofficial spaces, outside of even the alternative gallery system. As the collective Group Material insisted, "We never considered ourselves an 'alternative space. In fact it seemed to us that the more prominent alternative spaces were actually, in appearance, character and exhibition policies, the children of the dominant commercial galleries."... Dubbed an "anti-alternative space movement" by Colab member Walter Robinson, this new species of alternative practices borrowed from and exploited public and commercial venues such as billboards, magazines, the sides of buses, bars, and movie houses… Other collectives of the 1980s, such as Political Art Documentation and Distribution (PAD/D), the Guerrilla Girls, Gran Fury, and the nationwide campaign Artists Call against U.S. Intervention in Central America, relied upon commercial forms and spaces to increase the political effectiveness of their activist-oriented practices.
When Finkelstein describes the unexpected backlash from the tabloids, it is distinct from the cynical hijacking of tabloid outrage deployed by the yBas, for example. But it’s perhaps better described as unintentional or predicted, because the confrontational and attention grabbing nature of the work was of course intentional – and the added attention was welcome, as long as it boosted their urgent message. The public sphere was a kind of material for them, too. This is why a major industry moment like the Venice Biennale would prompt ambivalence and conflict among the collective – the art world felt small, narrow and restrictive by contrast to what was possible on the ‘outside.’
Towards the end of the article, Finkelstein returns to the original prompt and asks:
Would this work have garnered attention without the firestorm caused by its unsheathed sexuality, its questioning of the Vatican’s mystical beliefs in its home country, or its go-fuck-yourself feminist and queer defiance? The art press covered the controversy, but how extensive would that have been if it hadn’t been fanned into a blaze by the tabloids?
Gran Fury was one of many collectives who used the vernaculars of advertising for their own ends, a visual vocabulary which Finkelstein describes as ‘the folk language of capitalism.’ In the 80s and 90s some of the most cutting-edge work was made in this way. It’s not possible, of course, to revive strategies from another time; and efforts to translate the same logic, such as substituting advertising for social media, have been tried but often to much less of an impact.
Where Finkelstein and others were galvanised by AIDS amongst other crises, this lent their formal innovations a purpose and a perspective – to read this history through the lens of advertising or graphic design alone would be to miss the point.
Finkelstein offers another more timely case study for us to consider, and suggests that a younger internet-era generation are exploring a complicated relationship with attention itself:
Moreover, through years of mentoring young queer artists, I’ve observed that the successors of Gran Fury not only have a new relationship to public messaging, they have more of a relationship to it than previous generations. An international survey show of queer artists that I assembled for the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York last year, ‘OMNISCIENT: Queer Documentation in an Image Culture’, probed generations of queer artists, who vividly map our image commons along the continuum Gran Fury utilized, and who see our digital landscape as an intricate ecosystem of power narratives representing fantasias of egalitarianism bridging the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, and who articulate the tensions between access and limitation, literacy and legibility, marking and erasure, identity and colonization, agency and refusal… And, while the internet poses as a universally accessible tool, it is actually a bottomless sea.
As a metaphor, a bottomless sea captures the multifaceted dynamics that shape a digital public sphere. It’s vast, and can swallow up all the content you throw at it; attempts to struggle against it can capture the imagination, but are in the end futile; and the ways in which attention flows shapes what is possible on social media platforms. That a generation of young queer artists have opted instead to swim against the tide and reject simplistic notions of access and distribution promised by technology makes sense, and marks a significant shift from Finkelstein’s generation, although one which follows the same strategic logic – to reimagine art as an intervention into the ‘attention economy’, but not to play the game on its own terms.
Installation of The Pope and the Penis (1990) in the Aperto section of the 44th Venice Biennale, 1990. Courtesy and photograph: Bruno Jakob.
Some things I’ve been reading:
Tribune republished William Morris:
‘I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.’
Rose Higham-Stainton writes in MAP about domestication and care as control in the work of Yalda Afsah:
‘In a discussion with Arthur Jafa about race and identity within film, the late bell hooks asks ‘how do we break free of the frame,’ what is going on ‘outside the frame’ of a film and who is positioned outside the frame of the film, or marginalised. She continues, ‘how do we move away from the frame of the film in which our representations have to be ‘real’ in ‘the imagination of the estranged filmmaker’ and move into the frame that ‘honours a kind of charismatic humanity in which much is possible.’ Afsah’s illusory and staged documentary challenges these mechanisms of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’. But she is also acknowledging and then undermining surveillance culture, which, hooks reminds us, is another kind of violence.’
Michaële Cutaya appears on the Art Monthly podcast to discuss her feature on the surface from the March issue (listen here).
The Art Newspaper reports the rich stay rich as ‘the global art market bounced back to above pre-pandemic levels in 2021’; and that British Council workers go on strike over planned cuts that could reduce arts team by up to 20%; and Damien Hirst makes big profits from Covid supports while sacking staff.
Last but not least: Bryony White writes about her ambivalence towards psycho killer lesbian trope in Art Review; Bookforum talks Gramsci; and I feel seen by memes about twenty-somethings loving Adam Tooze in response to a NY Mag profile.