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NOVEMBER 14, 2006 8:07 PM

We here at CfWTO have been contemplating and thinking in ciricles regarding Chris Gilbert's resignation from the Berkeley Art Museum's Matrix Center.

Chris Gilbert was the curator [or "organizer," as he would like to be known] of the Matrix Center at BAM. Gilbert resigned, specifically, over an argument regarding the wall text that was to accompany the exhibition entitled Now Time Venezula Part 1: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process. Per Gilbert, the exhibit directly empathized with the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuala led by Hugo Chavez. Gilbert asserted that the wall text include 'in solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution,' but this seemed too overt for the museum. After the museum's refusal, he drafted a resignation letter [which can be read at MetaMute, as well as comment and reaction].

The museum ended up retaining Gilbert's originally intended wording, yet he maintained his resignation and bought a one-way ticket to Venezuala, where he is apparently teaching English [ironically a tool of the economic/cultural hegemony that the Bolivarian Revolution directly contests]. Don't misundstand my position - I think I sympathize with Gilbert.

Now the questions regarding this action abound. What is the role of a public insititution [ie Universtiy of Berkeley's Art Museum] in presenting information, art, etc? Was the museum in the right in terms of its weariness to align itself with overt political ideology [aside from the fact that the exhibition was politically counter to the government with funds it]? Are culutral institutions barometers of state of politics in their given nation? Was it wrong to retain Gilbert's orginally intended wording? In Gilbert's resignation letter he states that “[o]ne should have no illusions: until capitalism and imperialism are brought down, cultural institutions will go on being, in their primary role, lapdogs of a system that spreads misery and death to people everywhere on the planet. The fight to abolish that system completely and build one based on socialism must remain our exclusive and constant focus.” Is this true? If so what is the role of those believe this? Is there a possibility to both navigate the institutional infrastructure and work outside it?

Gilbert's position as an individual brings up an entire other set of questions. Is it better to refuse the institutional framework? Is it more productive to take a more tactical approach by promoting such ideologies within the institution, as Gilbert had been doing in the past at both MATRIX and Baltimore Museum of Art? Which is the more ethical decision? Would it have been more effective had Gilbert resigned in solidarity with a group of others who felt the same way, rather than an individual act?

Continue reading to take a look at the beginning of paper proposal regarding this topic

With the recent resignation of Chris Gilbert from the Berkeley Museum of Art, the ‘art world,’ seems to have polarized when considering the politics of cultural institutions. In Gilbert’s final paragraph of his resignation he states, “One should have no illusions: until capitalism and imperialism are brought down, cultural institutions will go on being, in their primary role, lapdogs of a system that spreads misery and death to people everywhere on the planet. The fight to abolish that system completely and build one based on socialism must remain our exclusive and constant focus.” These statements are precluded by claims that contemporary art of the last 30 years that has been legitimized by institutions is nothing more than the, “cultural arm of the upper-middle class.”

Nato Thompson, in an article written for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, calls for a “radical infrastructure,” of venues and resources to show art work that may be political and to communicate ideas through venues that are free from the politics of institutions with which they may be affiliated. Miwon Kwon in One Place After Another, asserts, in considering John Ahearn’s bronze statues cast at Fashion Moda in the S Bronx, that “works which are built within the contextual frame of governmental, corporate, educational, and religious institutions run the risk of being read as tokens of those institutions.” [Serra]. Kwon also alludes to public art discourse being the battle ground for defining democracy. Can this also be true for the cultural institution?

Some of the assertions and questions mentioned so far may be obvious to some, but they can also act as a starting point to discuss issues that consider the role of the cultural institution as either a “lapdog of the bourgeoisie,” as Gilbert asserts, or as a litmus test for the state of democracy alluded to by Kwon. Gilbert’s situation is very charged with arguments concerning the ethics and solidarity of the cultural institution, but one of the larger concerns brought about by his resignation is whether or not reformation can better be achieved within the institution or operating autonomous from the institutional framework. In a response to Gilbert, Liam Gillick states, “Whether you feel he is overstating the obvious or else coming to a conclusion that for many people is the starting point, there is an increasing call for Gilbert to return to Berkeley and continue pressing at the limits of curatorial rhetoric in a context in which it might be possible to shift the terms of engagement.”

1. was his subtitle for the exhibit in line with the original artistic vision of the exhibit/artists?

2. how would any alternative venues be created if he didn't fight from within (resign) almost as a whistleblower about what the actual intent of the exhibit was about.even within alternative venues for art, there needs to be dialogue both about the good and the BAD.however it does sound as though his experience at the museum was a bit of a power struggle more than differing opinions.

3. to a certain extent, i understand the museum's interest in maintaining a non-controversial stance,possibly to please their constituents, however, art is not about safety, its about risk-taking and anyone who knows anything about art knows that it is intrinsically political and therefore does not aim to please everyone, because how can you? this raises the question of whether there is more allegiance to the constituents or to the art/artists.

that's all for now. i am goin to read it again.

emma | November 14, 2006 9:32 PM

Tempest in a teapot.

I think it was weak that he had to tagline his exhibition. If the project is in solidarity with the revolution, the message of that would be the project's success. It would also have allowed him to subvert the institution.

jdawe | November 14, 2006 9:58 PM

re: jdawe

that is one of critiques. though, the exhibition was successful in communicating its stance through its content - Gilbert was still adamant about the wall text.

what is so important about wall text? I don't think that is the question.

Was Gilbert not about to settle for subversion? I think often subversion is dismissed -

also, the fact that this all happened in the People's Republic of Berkeley makes it questionable for some, even dismissable.

benner | November 14, 2006 10:03 PM

i'm not sure that the cultural institution as a 'lapdog for the bourgeoisie' and as a litmus test for democracy are really opposite interpretations, read althusser, 'ideology and ideological state apparatuses,' appealing to middle class interests is often what democracy is all about
but thats also just grad-school theory-babble, are you posting your paper? id like to read it

abel | November 15, 2006 12:16 PM

Chris Gilbert and I teach English at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela, the revolutionary university that was started some three years ago by the government of Hugo Chávez Frías to respond to the educational needs of the Bolivarian process. Your contention that there is a contradiction between learning English and the anti-imperialism of the Bolivarian revolution ignores the fact that students at the Bolivarian University rightly take much interest in learning English, not only because it is today's principal lingua franca (Bolivarianism has a strong international dimension), but also because it is important to understand, as a way of resisting, the language spoken by the imperialist United States. Here the maxim of Fidel Castro -- that it is important to know the language of one's enemy -- is central to our aims in teaching UBV students this language that unfortunately has such currency and power around the world.

-Cira Pascual Marquina

Cira | November 24, 2006 10:06 AM

Cira - first of all, my comment regarding the English language being a tool of the economic hegemony was more or less a joke. Your and Gilbert's actions are commendable - not many people who engage such beliefs actually employ them, at least to the point of making the sacrifice of leaving the comfort zone of one's habitual life.

After thinking more about the "Now Time" show, I began to ask myself a different question, "Was this show successful?"

Aside from the understanding the museum's role in this late-capitalist [or even post-modern] climate, the fact that the content of the work in the show was removed from any sort of local or regional context made for something autonomous from the majority of the viewers, only able to sympathize with the situation "down there". If the intention of the show was to "establish lateral connections with other struggles," then where was that connection? Haven't guerilla-style media outlets been prevalent in Berkeley for the last 30+ years? Why weren't they included in the show? Maybe this is something that was planned for the future "Now Time" exhibits.

In a recent interview Brian Holmes offered this position, "[The] illusion that a single, globalized, or "networked" logic could account for the diversity of conditions across the world has come to its close. We must go back to making careful judgments that assess our own local situation with respect to very different ones."

benner | November 29, 2006 7:47 PM

Ben, a few pieces of your picture of the Now-Time series’ relation to its context are missing, along with important information about the organizer’s very deliberate strategy in relation to that context. The first thing to know is that in NT1, together with Azzellini and Ressler, Chris carried out interviews with local media -- specifically on KPFA’s labor show -- met with members of the local SF longshoremen’s union prior to the opening; then he, Azzellini, and Ressler gave talks to New College students and to a largely Latino community in Monterey -- all of which the museum did not know about; done, as we say, “quietly.” Then, in NT2 he and two Catia TVe representatives met with Berkeley Community Media and carried out two closed (also secret, more about that later) television production workshops with Latina women’s organizations in the Bay Area. All the above was done more or less beneath the radar of the museum, because -- apart from our knowledge that only very specific sectors of the US’s class structure are potentially revolutionary -- by the time of the Now-Time shows Chris and I had both become aware of how systematically museums work to “capture” and make a spectacle of any community-based component of a project, capitalizing on them through advertising or cocktail party conversation with funders. For both of us this led to developing programs outside of the museum -- parallel to what was actually in the gallery. In Chris’s case this led to his pursuit of a representational, socialist realist aesthetic in the gallery spaces and parallel programming that was largely invisible to the museum. My own strategy in Headquarters at the Contemporary Museum was less schematic, with “social” components both above and below ground.

I relate this because I think that this learning, which was acquired from hard experience, may be important for young curators to think about -- coupled with the caveats we offer in our recent Letter from Caracas (www.joaap.org/webonly/ciragilbert.htm). By the way, even though your intentions are generous, it is wrong to present our leaving the US as a sacrifice of comfort. Nor is our leaving “commendable” since primarily what we did is cease to pay taxes to an imperialist war machine and withdraw from its cultural and educational institutions. (It is also true that, as much as possible, we have been contributing to Venezuela’s socialist and anti-imperialist projects like those at CatiaTVe and Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.) Desisting from committing a crime is not “commendable.”

cira pascual marquina | December 4, 2006 5:13 PM


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