The Chavista Curator: Chris Gilbert and Now Time Venezuela

Ben Schaafsma

It is important to consistently push both the boundaries of curatorial practice and consider different ways to navigate both the institutionalized world, as well as those worlds which are developing [or will never develop, but always exist].

There are many different ways to approach this, whether it be like Nato Thompson, who calls for an alternative, or "radical," infrastructure to support work and ideas that may be too tactile for Museum or are counter to institutional frameworks, or Brian Holmes, who leans towards re-thinking and re-working existing structures. Lastly, there is the approach of Chris Gilbert - abandon the institutions and the murderous country that supports them.

In March 2006, the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive presented the first, of what was intended to be a series, of exhibitions about Venezuela and the process of the Bolivarian revolution. The exhibition was entitled “Now-Time Venezuela.” 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 Venezuela Part 1: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process.” Per Gilbert, the exhibit directly empathized with the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela led by Hugo Chavez. He asserted that the wall-text would include the phrase “in solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution,” but this was too overt for the museum and they suggested something less blatant, such as “concerning revolution.” After the museum's refusal, he drafted a resignation letter. The wall-text was obviously the tip of an iceberg, which is evident in his resignation letter.

Gilbert’s resignation is filled with classic socialist rhetoric that shows no hope or mercy for the Museum, “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.” With these extreme views, why was Gilbert working within the art world at all? Is the role of the arts administrator that of passiveness or passion? If passion, then how far can the limits of curatorial rhetoric be pushed?

Through an examination of this specific exhibition and the events and discussions surrounding it, “Now-Time Venezuela” will be discussed in terms of the role of the Museum and that of a passionate curator, as well as a catalyst to understand the effectiveness of this exhibition dealing with politically and socially charged work and the need for a local scope.

Now-Time Venezuela:

The Now Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process [NT] exhibition series aimed to be a yearlong cycle of shows concerning the process of the Bolivarian revolution that began in Venezuela in 1998 under the leadership of Hugo Chavez. The goal of the series was to present material that both documents the Bolivarian process and also contributes to it. “Now Time Venezuela Part 1,” which exhibited from 3-26-2006 through 5-28-2006, consisted of five documentary films by the German artist Dario Azzellini and the Austrian artist Oliver Ressler, entitled 5 Factories – Worker Controlled in Venezuela . The films documented the climate of worker-controlled factories after, “withdrawal of transnational corporations, [now] worker occupations and resulting cooperative or co-management schemes have become an important feature of Venezuela’s new social and political landscape.” “Now Time Venezuela, Part 2: Revolutionary Television in Catia,” which exhibited 5-14-2006 through 7-16-2006, consisted of work produced by Catia TVe. Catia TVe is an activist broadcasting network that operates out of Catia, one of Caracas’ oldest barrios. The station’s name derives from a pun on the third-person conjugation of the Spanish word “to see,” which is “Ve”. Loosely translated, the phrase means “Catia sees you.” The exhibition consisted of samples from the station’s archive as well as two newly commissioned works made especially for the exhibition: a self-reflexive piece describing Catia TVe's working methods, and a series of messages for the people of the United States from the Catia barrio.

According to Gilbert, these exhibitions were not meant to merely be a set of works for contemplation, but as agents of the Bolivarian process and its “strong international dimension” . In his resignation letter he makes it evident that his position is one that, “is about commitment, support, and alignment – in brief, taking sides with and promoting revolution.” Gilbert’s goals were not necessarily to present work that should be considered within the boundaries of the museum, or to even present “art” for that matter. Though, Gilbert does mention, “on a secondary level, too, the Now-Time cycle contributes to a theory about art and its relation to political activism.” His position becomes more apparent in a letter written in the November 2006 issue of ArtForum, “revolutionary struggles are not primarily cultural ones, that cultural institutions (such as museums and ArtForum) are part of a deeply corrupt bourgeois representational context, but to target them as them as the primary site of struggle is not radical in that it does not go to the root of the problem.” If then, according to Gilbert, cultural institutions cannot advance these values he has aligned himself with, then why did he continue to work within the Museum? The fact is Gilbert did present this exhibition within an art museum, so then we must consider what the Museum means for the role of passionate (activist) curator or arts administrator.

The Museum and the Curator:

In a response to Gilbert’s resignation letter, 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.” In a letter written by both Gilbert and his long time partner Cira Pascual Marquina, they make it obvious they have no intentions of so, “the reworking or replacing or elimination of these “major” institutions is not a key task of the revolution. That will come in due time: as the revolution goes forward on the economic, educational, military, and political fronts that are actually at its center.” For those of us that are not willing to abandon culture, only for it to be determined by politics and the economy – what is our role?

In the title essay of Art and its Institutions, Nina Montman begins by bringing up the sometimes, especially in this case, contentious expectations of the art institution. While most other institutions, such as civil services, are expected to take a specific political stance and often act upon it, the art institution is often expected to be merely a reflection of what is happening “outside.” In these times of social and political friction and an art market that is making history with record sales, it is important to try and understand what the role of an art administrator or curator should be. Not many people can empathize with Gilbert and Pasal Marquina with their anti-U.S. extremes, but that is not to say their concerns are invalid. Then, what are the options for a passionate curator or art administrator who hopes to engage the contemporary art world, political issues and social issues simultaneously?

In an essay entitled, Contributions to a Resistant Visual Culture Glossary, Nato Thompson suggests formation of a “radial infrastructure” of venues and publications outside of the “major” institutions in order to perpetuate the productions of resistant visual culture by giving it a place to be presented without, “running the risk of being read as tokens of [major] institutions.” It appears as though now is a time of transition, slowly, resistant art, as well as curatorial practices, are being legitimized by larger institutions such as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. This seems due, in part, to the personal values held by passionate curators, as well as the increased importance and visibility given to the curator. This is not to say that market forces do not still drive art production for the most part, but that the possibilities for a more democratic climate is possible. Brian Holmes holds a similar viewpoint suggesting that if we want to really live within a democracy we must re-imagine, derail and deconstruct our institutional frameworks, while at the same time building new ones and re-adapting old ones. “Shall we then abandon the museums? They can be occupied like any other distribution mechanism within the communication society – and should be occupied, to generate decisive conflict over the kind of society they help produce.”

Gilbert’s lack of patience and urge to speed up organic processes [read: revolution], cannot be used as a viable model working within institutions. Gillick’s suggestion is a much more workable model, that of pushing and challenging the boundaries of curatorial practice, as well as models suggested by Holmes and Thompson of working both inside and outside the Museum simultaneously. But most importantly continue a positive discussion of the “left,” in terms of designing supportive infrastructures, instead of a constant masochistic approach evident in Gilbert’s recent letter in the November issue of ArtForum.

Critique of Now-Time Venezuela:

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." As Miwon Kwon points out in her book One Place After Another: Site Specific and Locational Identity, terms such as “site-determined, site referenced, site conscious, site-related,” and most recently the word “place,” have only surfaced within contemporary art practice over the last 10 years. Kwon claims the reason for this is a reaction to the ways in which “site specificity,” whether the physical, geographic or social site, have haphazardly been adopted as just another genre of art by institutions. These new artists hope to reconsider the relationship between an artwork and its site, yet distinguish themselves from their predecessors . These terms that once signified “criticality” and “progressivity” have become so ubiquitous that they have lost almost all association with anti-market mentalities and institutional critique.

“This argument would insist that if the aesthetic and political efficacy of site specific art has become insignificant or innocuous in recent years, it is because it has been weakened and redirected by institutional and market forces.”

Kwon’s statement holds true, yet there seems to be other reasons as to why ‘site specific’ art has lost its political efficacy. In her book, The Lure of the Local, Lucy Lippard makes the observation that, “While the notion of place in art has become more broadly interesting to artists and institutions in the last few years, it is applied so generally as to become locally meaningless.” It is because of my own similar observation that I make the correlation between the aesthetic and political [and social] inefficacy of contemporary art exhibitions and their lack of local scope. Terms such as “site,” “location,” and “place” should no longer be abstracted as simply the generic “borders, boundaries, margins, peripheries, migrations and centers,” but used to reaffirm and reclaim the importance of actual location in terms of the physical, social, political and geographical local in reaction to a globalized [art] world. Not only does allow for empathy, but often a conflation of center and periphery within an art world.
Upon first observation of the “Now Time Venezuela” exhibition, its lack of this local scope was my largest criticism. 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 plus years? Why weren't they included in the show?
It was not until later that I learned that Gilbert did indeed organize events and meetings in hopes to establish lateral connections with local struggles, but on much different terms than one would expect. Through a chance conversation with Pascual Marquina via the internet, she noted that, “together with Azzellini and Ressler, Chris carried out interviews with local media -- specifically on KPFA’s labor show -- met with members of the local San Francisco 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.”” The fact that both Gilbert and Pascual Marquina felt the need to operate outside BAM, who was fully supportive of the “Now Time Venezuela” series, is interesting to note. Pascual Marquina offered this insight as to why this decision was made, “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.” Upon contacting the Museum to try and better understand this tension due, this response was offered, “My personal view is that I don't think Chris ever fully realized or appreciated how hard so many of the staff here at BAM/PFA were working to help him realize his exhibitions. It's a real shame that, to him, that relationship was apparently always an adversary one.”

Chris Gilbert’s actions and resignation has called into question the past, present and future role of the curator. Though, his ideologies and actions may be extreme, it is important to not let them go unnoticed. Though, this situation brings up many issues in the context of the contemporary cultural institutions in the United States, as well as most of the Western world, the ability of an arts administrator to be able to navigate institutions in order to push the boundaries of curatorial practice is of most importance. It is in my opinion, that Gilbert’s actions and weighty rhetoric were ineffective in doing such, though his noticing the need to address the local and “establish lateral connections with other struggles,” should have not gone unnoticed. Gilbert’s claim that everything but culture “matters,” is one that is surely false – as, according to Kwon, “art is able to deal with pre-existing social systems and to carry on a dialogue with the public,” which leaves room for other possibilities.

Works cited:

Gilbert, Chris. "Chris Gilbert's resignation over Venezeulan Exhibition." Mute Beta. (31 May 2006). Appendix A.
J, Leary P. Z, 14 April 2004.
Schaafsma, Benjamin J. Center for Working Things Out. (14 November 2006)/ Appendix B.
Gillick, Liam . "Yes we are still Mute/Metamute, or Liam Gillick on Chris Gilbert's resignation." Mute Beta. (12 September 2006).
Gilbert, Chris , and Cira Pascual Marquina. Letter from Caracas: State of the Arts, No Magic Bullets.
Montmann, Nina , ed. Art and its Institutions. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006.
Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity. Boston: MIT Press, 2002. 88.
Holmes, Brian . "Artistic Autonomy: And the Communication Society." utangente.
Herbst, Robby. "Hinting at Ways to Work in Current Contexts: An Interview with Brian Holmes." Journal of Aesthetics and Protest 1, no. 4 (2006): 2-17.
Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity. Boston: MIT Press, 2002. 88.
Lippard, Lucy . Lure of the Local. New York , N.Y.: The New Press, 1997. 277.
Schaafsma, Benjamin J. Center for Working Things Out. (14 November 2006)/ Appendix B.

Gilbert's replacement has been announced, Elizabeth Thomas a graduate of MA Art History program at the School of the Art Institute - Chicago.

Posted on January 25, 2007 12:44 PM


I think that in certain ways your criticism of the Now-Time Venezuela show, in relation to American audiences, is accurate, however the way in which the project of organizing the show helped to consolidate programmatic operations in Venezuela must also be considered. Having worked with Cira and Chris in the past, I think that it is important to note also Cira's work at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, where she worked horizontally with numerous local agencies and grassroots initiatives, helping to productively further the development of coalitions between such groups. Though it should not be proposed to fully describe their past or current praxis, I believe that seeing a similarity between curatorial organization and labor/political organizing has been a key facet of their work in the past. While they may have a different interpretation for their actions than I, I can see a similar shift in my own work, as I have been moving from working to focus on local political issues as an artist within art contexts to working more and more within a non-profit model of organization, as it provides for a greater latitude for involvement in these issues.

Posted by: David Sloan on April 12, 2007 12:40 PM

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