Wednesday 12/03

VOICE: The Paradox of Non-Participation

by Lauren van Haaften-Schick, tagged with VOICE, R&D Season, Lauren van Haaften-Schick, Boycott, Strike, participation
Cover Image:

“Non-Participation,” 2014. Exhibition view: the Luminary, St. Louis, MO

In the following VOICE contribution, “The Paradox of Non-Participation,” art historian and curator Lauren van Haaften-Schick examines the long history of artists’ boycotts and strikes seen as speech acts.

Art historian and curator Lauren van Haaften-Schick’s project Non-Participation (2012–ongoing) is a collection of letters from artists, curators, writers, and others that were written to decline cultural opportunities on the basis of various ethical and political reasons. The motivations, occasions for, and style of delivery of each statement vary as much as the demands made within them: Some are written in response to insufficient compensation for their artistic labor or to protest nonpayment, others address a perceived complicity of the cultural event with a corrupt political context or speak to the misguided leadership of an institution, and yet others seek to expose hidden acts of censorship against artworks, articles, or even academic courses.

This project comes out of van Haaften-Schick’s earlier exhibition and publication “Canceled: Alternative Manifestations and Productive Failures,” which presented the legal and political histories behind a selection of canceled shows, alongside the projects that artists and curators created in response to these conflicts. Throughout the development of “Canceled,” artists’ and curators’ acts of “non-participation” emerged as unique from other forms of cancellation, as, in these cases, it was the practitioner and not the institution that initiated the withdrawal. Shortly before last summer’s events in Gaza spurred renewed and impassioned discussions on the impact of artistic and cultural boycotts on broader economic and political systems via the BDS movement, around the time that the HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? (Yams) collective withdrew from the 2014 Whitney Biennial in opposition to what they viewed as systemic racism enacted in the exhibition, and after artists withdrew from the Sydney Biennial in relation to their founding sponsor Transfield (a company that contracts with the Australian government to manage its controversial offshore mandatory detention centers for asylum seekers), I approached van Haaften-Schick to share some of her research under the framework of our R&D Season thematic of VOICE. As an art historian who has focused on legal mechanisms in conceptual art and institutional critique, her research considers the strategies employed by cultural producers (namely artists) to control the production and dissemination of their art/work, thereby altering the broader economies and cultural contexts through which art is distributed. Departing from the understanding that it is a luxury to have the choice between visibility and withdrawing in the first place, and presupposing agency in the act of negation, van Haaften-Schick argues that there is power in this form of invisibility that is based in the refusal to endorse an exhibition or to supply one’s time and labor.

While the exhibition largely lets the letters speak for themselves with minimal contextual information (some of which are provided in the Additional Materials section below), in “The Paradox of Non-Participation” van Haaften-Schick examines several case studies of historic refusals as well as recent incidents, looking at both general strikes and those targeted toward particular exhibitions, drawing upon various thinkers to go beyond the binary of withdrawal versus engagement. In considering various strategies for effecting systemic change, she considers when the spectacle surrounding public protests adequately shifts discourse and reception of an artwork, and when this gets recuperated by the very forces it seeks to critique or merely consolidates power around a certain artist.


“Canceled: Alternative Manifestations & Productive Failures,” 2013. Exhibition view: the Freedman Gallery at Albright College, Reading, PA

Acts of non-participation may take the form of artists’ boycotts, strikes, and collective or individual refusals, running the gamut from gestures that are publically visible (some propagandized) to those known only to those doing the withdrawing. There is a long and paradoxical history of such actions, and the terms for defining their “success” or “failure” are perpetually unstable at best. When presented as public declarations, these tactics are viewed as pointless by some due to their frequent inability to deliver on the alternatives they propose and are criticized by others as mere publicity stunts in which the individual(s) involved too easily overshadow(s) the politics at stake. At other times, the very idea of a withdrawal is seen as self-defeating and damaging to collective efforts, as it may destroy any potential of furthering dialogue that might result in the transformation of material conditions. In this line of thinking, an interventionist method of participation might be more productive than simply walking away from conflict. The key potential within acts of non-participation and the refusal to supply one’s time and labor may lie simply within the power of the act of withholding itself—a latent yet rarely enacted agency is revealed within such a negation.1 As artist Michael Rakowitz has written, “what an artist refuses is sometimes more important than that which he or she agrees to.”2 To say “no” is a means of saying “yes” to another option or reality that one believes can be. But how might one enact this type of productive “no” that attempts to produce a new political or social imaginary?

Because one’s personal investment, her stakes in the matter, and the cultural or political climate inhabited will always determine the shape and value of any such act of negation, the strategy employed in the utterance of a productive refusal is often dependent upon political, social, and historical context. Take, for example, the New York Art Strike Against War, Repression, and Racism, which took place in May of 1970. Conceived of by artists inspired by the activist group the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), the Art Strike’s elected leaders were Minimalist sculptor and painter Robert Morris (whose utilization of a heavy-construction aesthetic in his work supported an image of the artist engaged with labor) and artist Poppy Johnson, elected by the group as co-chair after female members “demanded their share of power.”3

In a statement distributed by the Art Strike, its members cited recent violence against student protestors at college campuses as the immediate catalyst for organizing a general strike and urged art institutions to take part as “an expression of shame and outrage at our government’s policies of racism, war, and repression.” Calling upon them to fulfill a list of demands, the group targeted MoMA and other major arts institutions in New York, criticizing their political inaction and poor relations with artists and insisting that specific actions be taken, such as: issue a statement of position in regard to racism, war, and repression; suspend all cultural functions for a two-week period starting May 20, 1970; make their main floors available for activities by artists and students to address these issues until the end of the Vietnam War; endeavor to expand these activities by initiating conversations with other arts institutions across the US; and include artist-representatives on policy-making bodies within the institutions themselves.4

Artist Takis and his work Tele-sculpture (1960) in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, after the artwork’s removal from an exhibition on view inside the Museum on January 3, 1969. The work had been included against the artist’s will. This act of withdrawal served as the catalyst that would lead to the formation of the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC). Photo published by the East Village Other on January 24, 1969

One cannot forget that these demands—and much of the art being produced at the time5—were inextricably tied to sentiments against the Vietnam War, the shootings of student protestors at Kent State University, the events of May ’68 in France, and the greater unease within the political and economic climate. It should also be noted that this strike took important cues from the broader labor movement. In early 1968, New York City saw a nine-day sanitation workers strike and, in the fall, a strike by the United Federation of Teachers. In March 1970, just two months prior to the Art Strike, US Postal Service workers in Manhattan voted for their union’s work stoppage, eventually leading to the involvement of over two-hundred-thousand postal employees and the temporary crippling of mail service in New York. Against this social backdrop, utilizing the strike as a bargaining tool emphasized the Art Strike participants’ self-defined titles of “art worker.” As art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson has noted, those taking part in the strike operated from the assumption that aesthetic practices are productive and that their stoppage would interrupt economic functions in a crucial way.6 The idea of “art work” here was not exclusively tied to physical production, as many strikes at the time were, but was more focused on controlling the visibility of art and the artist, and the economic function of art and the artist in capitalist society and the public realm. As such, these artists’ adoption of the form of the labor strike—rooted in the simultaneous refusal of work and promotion of specific goals within a field—can be understood primarily as a rhetorical gesture with little material impact, historically aligned with its time and place.

Modeling itself on strategies of the labor movement was perhaps the New York Art Strike’s weakest aspect, as the class distinctions and access to wealth were very different for prominent artists, like Morris, than they were for the blue-collar workers from whom the strike borrowed its tactics.7 Although the strike had a wide base of support from visual artists, as well as some art writers, gallery owners, and museum staff members,8 its symbolic achievements were criticized as mere spectacle and for replicating forms of racism and state violence that it professed to stand against. For example, feminist cultural critic Michele Wallace has noted that the counter-exhibitions and actions proposed by the Art Strike failed to alter the “all-white male composition” of the events they sought to criticize.9 John Hightower, then-Director of MoMA, accused the striking artists of perpetuating political forms of silencing and censorship: “putting themselves in the same position of Hitler in the ’30s and ’40s, Stalin in the ’50s.”10 Rather than close the museum temporarily, Hightower responded to the call by dropping the admission charge for the day of the strike in support of a notion of the institution’s ability to “nurture freedom.”11 When Morris and others met with the Senate Subcommittee on the Arts and Humanities in Washington, DC, to voice the concerns of artists initiating the strike, the senators dismissed their complaints on the grounds that artistic labor was not vital to the functioning of society and, therefore, its withholding could not be considered a threat.12 While many artists participated by removing their work on view in museums for the duration of the strike, and while large public demonstrations were held, museum policies weren’t revised to adopt any of the Art Strike’s proposals,13 and art production carried on much as it had been.14

Pamphlet announcing the Art Strike 1990–93

Perhaps learning from the failed theatrics of the New York Art Strike, later proposals for strikes, while similarly addressing economic and structural issues in the field of art, were more insular or self-reflexive. Gustav Metzger, a German artist and activist living in Britain and known for his Auto-Destructive artwork, seemed to build upon the logic of the artist as worker that was presented earlier in New York. As Metzger wrote in “Art Strike of 1977–80,” his strike declaration from 1974: “The refusal to labor is the chief weapon of workers fighting the system; artists can use the same weapon.”15 Metzger’s statement was written for the exhibition “Art into Society/Society into Art: Seven German Artists” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and published in the show’s catalogue. As Metzger later stated, his participation in the exhibition was finalized only after enduring great pressure from the curators, who eventually convinced the artist to take part in the show despite his desire to resist becoming subsumed by the art world and its intertwined relationship with capitalism.16 This event served as the catalyst for Metzger’s act of resistance via complete withdrawal. In order to “bring down the art system,” Metzger thought a three-year period was necessary in which artists would not “produce work, sell work, permit work to go on exhibitions” and would “refuse collaboration with any part of the publicity machinery of the art world.” Metzger’s strike proposal, however, was understood as utopian by other artists and none offered to join the effort. As noted in an interview with philosopher and art theorist Gerald Raunig years later, “The aim [of Metzger’s Art Strike] was to build up the critical potential within three years, so that artists at the end of the strike would have a different understanding, a different place in society.”17 Metzger heeded his own call and, during a period away from art production, he instead engaged in a personal project of “intensifying theory production,” which, according to Raunig, begins first with reappropriating one’s own time.18 The Art Strike fits within Metzger’s broader practice as yet another form of creative destruction, albeit a crucial point of departure from his material-based Auto-Destructive artwork. Born in Nuremberg in 1926 to Polish-Jewish parents, Metzger moved to Britain as a refugee in ’39.19 In this context, the impulse to creative destruction and the insistence on a pause in action feels like an antidote to the violent destruction of state warfare. In opposition to the aggressive clamor of the New York Art Strike, which markedly employed a militant public image and rhetorical tone, Metzger’s strategy of personal, philosophical, and ethical reevaluation finds opportunity for criticality within the act of taking pause.

British artist Stewart Home’s Art Strike of 1990–93 was inspired by the language of Metzger’s proposal and its importance as a symbolic gesture, due, in part, to its embrace of the absurd.20 This Art Strike was a stand against capitalism’s ability to recuperate any image or action, yet, instead of targeting the institutions of art as the main perpetrators, Home looked to artists themselves for their complicity in their own economic manipulation and co-optation. The journal YAWN, copublished by Art Strike Action Committee centers in San Francisco, London, and Iowa City, among other locations, launched its first issue in September 1989. Home’s manifesto, contained within, declared: “We call this Art Strike in order to make explicit the political and ethical motivations for this attempted large-scale manipulation of alleged ‘esthetic’ objects and relationships…to connote and encourage active rather than passive engagement with the issues at hand.”21 Each subsequent issue was filled with the similarly assertive language of his manifesto, and all images and texts produced in support of the Art Strike were of an explicitly propagandistic nature.22 The arguments presented around the demonstration’s concept, however, were thoroughly and intentionally inconsistent and contradictory.

As suggested in the preceding quote, the active engagement of Home’s Art Strike is not a withdrawal at all. In fact, Home continued to create artwork during the period of the strike under the pseudonyms of Karen Eliot and Monty Cantsin, thereby challenging the privileging of a singular author in the production of art, and the celebrity status that this notion of authorship enables. Home was interested “not in the prospect of the art world collapsing” but, like Metzger, in the effect the strike might have on his and other artists’ “identity.”23

Lucy R. Lippard in response to a call to strike by self-described former artist and doorman to Salon de Fleurus Goran Djordjević in 1979

As philosopher and historian Sadie Plant notes, the value of this Art Strike was in its proposal of silence—its propaganda was “more important than the deed.” If art, Plant reflects, is “an area of contestation,” which also implies that it is a space of “integration and recuperation,” then “the Art Strike is a recognition of this double role: it brings industrial struggle to art, challenges artists to jeopardize their careers and identities in the same way as other striking workers, and demands that those who continue to work justify their lack of solidarity.”24 Thus in Home’s Art Strike, all of the literal and conceptual strategies of the New York Art Strike and Metzger’s Art Strike seem to merge and, as they do so, collapse in the face of their inescapable contradictions. The proposal of silence and revolution, playing the saboteur, and the recognition of unavoidable paradoxes and failures within such efforts was, for Home and Plant, the strength of this Art Strike.25

These three examples—the Art Strikes of 1968, 1977–80, and 1990–93—all employed the tools of the manifesto, mass protest, and propaganda, resulting in a form of non-participation that was defined by a goal of broad visibility. Morris’s and Home’s strikes could also be confused with—or accused of—producing celebrity around a single artist’s acts. In their case, increased visibility for themselves and their particular bodies of work might simply have been a necessary by-product of such public refusals. But action and propaganda are not necessarily the same thing, and the admittedly symbolic and abstract goals of these strike gestures still failed to produce dialogue, engagement, alternatives, and change. The example of Metzger’s withdrawal stands in somewhat poetic opposition to the examples of Morris and Home, for his withdrawal was one rooted in contemplation and in the intellectual work of political and social action (although this aspect was only articulated in retrospect). Whether a hierarchy of these strategies can be constructed however remains unclear. Instead, we might complement these observations by considering instances of critical participation that stand as forms of protest in opposition to political and institutional repression. In these instances the gesture of refusal must yield a visible alternative, and neither silence nor momentary spectacle will suffice.

Chto Delat, The Tower: A Songspiel, 2010. Video, color, sound; 36:52 min

This is the alternative that Chto Delat [What is to be Done?], a socially engaged art collective based in Russia and founded in 2003, proposed in its statement of withdrawal from Manifesta 10.26 The roving European biennial opened in St. Petersburg last June with its central exhibition at the State Hermitage Museum amid growing international concern over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the introduction of anti-LGBTQ laws, and an increasingly repressive political regime. Chto Delat’s initial agreement to participate was “shaped by [its] local position,” and was rooted in an ideal of presence as a political act.27 The group agreed to show a revised version of its 2010 video The Tower: a Songspiel, a theatrical musical illustrating political hierarchies in Russia. In the video, characters depicting the laboring class gather en masse to voice the repression they have faced under the political regime, citing the extreme lack of stability, opportunity, and social mobility in the country. Against this, a group of political and business officials speak of plans to build the Gazprom Tower, which, for them, will serve as a symbol of modern Russia. The call and response between the two groups is complicated as schisms among the working class are revealed, and the complicity of art and artists within their own recuperation by political and capitalist forces is invoked.

The project would have had particular resonance following the political upheaval earlier this year that was driven in part by Gazprom’s politicized withholding of heating gas delivery to Ukraine. As Chto Delat wrote, “our work focuses on finding an artistic language for reflecting and opposing such issues, and therefore often meets a cold reception from Russian institutions…. Thus, it is crucial for us to show this piece to the local public.”28 In a city where, according to the collective, there was no critical contemporary art presence and little room to voice political dissent, the exhibition was viewed as a rare opportunity to make a hugely visible statement. As planning progressed, however, it appeared that a conservative view of art was favored over politics by the show’s organizers, as a statement by Manifesta 10’s Chief Curator Kasper König suggested that “cheap provocations” were to be avoided, as it would be “a mistake to reduce our possibilities down to the level of just making a particular political statement”29—a declaration that was seen by the group as encouraging a kind of self-censorship among exhibiting artists. Rather than choose to remove themselves from the context of Manifesta altogether—and therefore from the visibility it might bring within the local setting—the group instead planned a Ukrainian–Russian congress during the opening week of the biennial and “The School of Engaged Art” (2013–ongoing), a series of lectures and workshops envisioned as modeling what real artistic and political dialogue might look like.30 The meeting that was held on the opening night of the biennial was explicitly promoted as “in collaboration” with Manifesta and was paired with a presentation of the latest issue of the ArtLeaks Gazette (which compiles reports and reflection on corruption in the art world) and an open discussion on “What is to be done with Manifesta.”31

Screenshot from the Whitney Museum of American Art’s webpage on HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? While the webpage mentions the collective’s work being shown early in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, any evidence of the group’s later cancellation and withdrawal is absent

Chto Delat’s withdrawal was the source of extensive questioning and debate, with many skeptical at first of the group’s initial choice to participate and then doubly thrown by the reversal of its decision to engage more autonomously but still within the biennial’s framework. A similar controversy was seen a few months later when the collective HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? (Yams), comprised of approximately forty mostly black and queer artists from around the world, withdrew its video Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera (2014) from the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York two weeks before the exhibition’s closing and right before the video’s screening schedule. Good Stock is a visual collage of black faces and bodies prominently featured in mostly surreal settings and engaged in various mundane and performative physical gestures and actions. Yams’ first publicly circulated notice of withdrawal declared that its protest was catalyzed by curator Michelle Grabner’s inclusion of the performance Dick’s Last Stand (2014–ongoing), supposedly by Donelle Woolford. Joe Scanlan, a white, middle-aged artist, created the character of Woolford, a young female black artist, whose artwork Scanlan produces and displays while hiring black actresses to publicly portray this artist figure. Yams’ withdrawal was not only in response to the inclusion of this particular work but was also the group’s final action in a series of disputes with the museum over its lack of representation of black artists.32 Similar to Chto Delat’s first instinct to engage, the Yams collective felt from the beginning that its participation in the biennial would be a kind of protest in itself, as its very presence could subvert and call attention to “institutionalized racism” at the Whitney, in the art world, and beyond.33 What mattered for collective members Sienna Shields and Christa Bell “was actually opening our mouths and voicing our concerns and changing this system…. The entire participation was a protest, and the withdrawal was part of the protest.”34 According to members of Yams, this participation-as-protest was never welcomed by the show’s curators nor museum leadership into the discourse surrounding the exhibition itself, and after numerous attempts to discuss the racial disparity within the museum and its exhibitions, the group determined that its subversive act would not be presented and received in a way that would disrupt the current balance of power.

After its withdrawal, Yams instead screened the work at Freecandy Creative Space, a multidisciplinary co-working and exhibition space that is embedded in a black creative community in Brooklyn. This alternative presentation of the work took place in a context removed from, potentially in opposition to, and potentially less visible than that of the offending institution, and yet was an important move as it ensured that the artwork would have a sympathetic venue and audience through which it could be received. Yams’ withdrawal from the Whitney Biennial was criticized as creating a spectacle for the mere purpose of grabbing attention and power.35 Yet this act of the power-grab via non-participation is essentially what was at stake in the conflict, as Yams’ withdrawal and subsequent independent screening of its work allowed it to maintain control over the context of its artwork and its own visibility as a group of black artists.

Joanna Warsza, Public Program Curator of Manifesta 10, on artists’ withdrawals from the biennial

If this scenario of criticism toward the institution from outside its boundaries was ultimately preferred by these artists, should we classify these actions as disengagement, which, in the view of Joanna Warsza, Public Program Curator for Manifesta 10, implies a complete severing of communication? Or, can we consider them as an alternative form of engagement, one that operates through consciousness raising and by collective efforts toward finding new alternatives, instead of seeking to change the institution from within its walls? Moreover, how might we reconsider what it means for these artists to instrumentalize their work in achieving political goals and in the ways such protest actions might impact the discourse surrounding the work itself?

Rarely have such public refusals grown beyond the fleeting spectacle that surrounds the initial protest or the circulation of an impassioned manifesto. For example, the Whitney does not appear to be making structural changes to be more inclusive, and, while the opinions of the Russian government and populous may someday shift, the political situation there appears to be far from altering its course. Chto Delat’s decision to present a public event outside of the biennial’s state-governed exhibition hub, yet still in tandem with its programming, was seen simply by Manifesta’s organizers as an unfortunate sacrifice for publicity while the collective understood this move as necessary for effectively communicating a critique of state power. In the case of Yams, withdrawing and choosing to circulate its work in an alternative venue altogether is not evidence of a failed critique or of merely seeking attention for its own work but must be recognized as an important act in the history of artists setting the terms for the exhibition and circulation of their art. Both of these incidents serve as useful case studies, testifying to the fact that artists can be engaged and responsive throughout all stages of the planning, negotiation, and exhibition process; more so, they demonstrate the importance of finding the agency to seek more productive and supportive platforms when needed. In terms of their potential as methods for organizing future action, or for inspiring others to reconsider their positions, the sheer visibility of artists’ acts of refusal—a visibility that is reclaimed by the artists themselves, not granted by institutions—can be considered one form of success due to the increased awareness they inspire. This was indeed both Chto Delat’s and Yams’ goal all along—to bring awareness to political, social, or institutional issues that are repressed or under-discussed.

While these actions should be considered within a historic trajectory of alternative spaces created for the dissemination of artwork, artists’ protest actions have also gone beyond the gestural when they affect actual policy and legislated law, often where the terms accompanying an artwork and an artist’s labor are embedded within the work itself. In these cases, artists and curators reach outside the realm of art in order to alter its standard operating protocols. Lawyer Robert Projansky and curator/dealer Seth Siegelaub’s The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement (1971) proposed a solution to many of the issues voiced by AWC and the New York Art Strike regarding the artist’s right to control the terms of exhibition and sale of a work, including entitlement to a percentage of any resale and to retain authority over the political and economic context in which it is displayed and sold. Notably, the terms of the contract also stipulate that a copy of this agreement must be affixed to the physical work or its accompanying certificate of authenticity, thereby enjoining the legal agreement’s terms with the ideas of the artwork itself.36 While not adopted by many artists,37 this contract was widely acknowledged by the art and legal communities at the time and has influenced subsequent policy and legislation in favor of artists’ rights.38 Just this October, the activist group Working Artists for the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) announced a fee schedule that, after years of researching the field, articulates its suggestions for rates that exhibiting nonprofit institutions in New York City should pay artists and presenters for their labor. While not legislated law—organizations are encouraged to comply and are given “certification” status when they do—W.A.G.E.’s fee schedule stands to have a major impact on the way in which institutions negotiate with and support artists. The process and status of W.A.G.E. certification thereby serves to embed the acknowledgement of artistic labor into the very operations and financial priorities of arts organizations. Projansky and Siegelaub’s contract and W.A.G.E.’s fee schedule depend upon artists’ insistence on the use of these tools and on community pressure to ensure that terms for fair remuneration and other artists’ rights are actually enforced. To use and insist on the terms of these legal and policy-based tools is a form of non-participation against the unfortunate normalcy of exploitation. Both produce the “different understanding” and “different place in society” for the artist that was desired by Metzger and others by seeking concrete change through reforming institutional policy and law. Here these changes occur by embodying legal and institutional logics so as to reverse normative hierarchical structures, rather than reify them.

Image from the Facebook event page on Chto Delat’s “Public Program of the School for Engaged Art,” which held a series of events alongside and designed to comment upon the conditions of Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg

So what can we make of these various strategies, forms, and motives for non-participation, and how might they be taken as models to further build upon? As illustrated by the arc of Metzger’s career, the act of non-participation is not to be understood simply as abandonment or surrender, but, rather, as it relates to a dense history of poetically and politically contradictory creative destruction. Where strike actions have been invoked, the declarative “no” rejects the idea that an artist’s work is a form of labor unnecessary to the economy or that the artist should be a complicit, high-performing cog in the institutional and capitalist regime. In cases where a specific political or ethical issue is at stake or certain rights are under threat, and where suppression of certain identities is evident, increased visibility and vocal attention to what is wrong may need to occur until the issue is addressed as an injustice. In another notion of non-participation as critical engagement, operational structures of social institutions—such as policy and law—may be appropriated, altered, and introduced back into operating protocol in order to disturb established inequitable norms. Beyond an exploration of these typologies, the point is not only to consider these historic instances as models for future acts of refusal but also to reflect upon the opening that can occur within the space of refusal itself. “N-O” concludes with an opening, which may resemble a door or crack revealing an outside, or an orifice or puncture, pointing toward the internal. In the moment of its utterance, the choice between a reactive or reflective “no” requires a state of dissociation. Theorist Lauren Berlant has said that the act of dissociation is a means of not reproducing.39 As a “non-reproductive resource” it engenders space from which true critique and reform may emerge, akin to Raunig’s vision of the act of the strike as a reappropriation of time for reflection and renewal. Non-participation is embedded within this moment of dissociation—a space rendered active by the very possibilities such a rupture might enable.

Christa Bell of Yams collective (HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?) on the group’s withdrawal from the 2014 Whitney Biennial


Since the end of 2012, van Haaften-Schick has been collecting letters of non-participation, written by artists, musicians, writers, and others to refuse invitations to take part in exhibitions or other cultural events for various political and ethical reasons. This compilation will be published in a forthcoming book published by Half Letter Press in 2015. The letters have been collected via an open submission process (which is still ongoing) and through van Haaften-Schick’s research into historic incidences. Please send your letters to With your submission, indicate whether or not you wish to remain anonymous. In the publication, each letter will be accompanied by a factual account of the incident and/or any other relevant information that could illuminate the situation, as you see fit. There is currently no deadline for submissions.

Below are some tools developed by artists, curators, publishers, and others for use when negotiating terms of participation:

W.A.G.E. Fee Calculator.

The Compensation Foundation Survey.

The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement by Robert Projansky and Seth Siegelaub.

Artist Mary Beth Edelson’s model artist contract.

The Artists’ Rider, developed by van Haaften-Schick and the Luminary, a nonprofit venue and residency in St. Louis.

Artist Helena Keeffe’s Standard Deviation.

The following is a selection of letters, categorized by occasion for refusal.

Letters addressing issues of nonpayment:

W.A.G.E.’s collection of letters confronting the lack of artists’ fees.

Choreographer Sara Wookey’s objection to the poor remuneration and treatment of performers in Marina Abramovic’s piece for the 2011 Benefit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (LA MoCA).

Artist and organizer Helena Keeffe against “exposure” as a form of payment.

Letters addressing complicity of the cultural event or venue within a greater political context:

A call for artists in Creative Time’s “Living as Form” to withdraw due to the exhibition’s installation at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology as part of the traveling show coproduced with Independent Curators International (ICI). Citing a “disconnect between the artists’ orientation toward social justice and the exhibiting institution’s central role in maintaining the unjust and illegal occupation of Palestine,” the letter points out the site’s history as a research center for technologies used by the Israeli Defense Forces against Palestinians, which, it states, puts the show in violation of the signatories’ support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israeli cultural products.

The declaration by five artists in the 19th Sydney Biennial announcing their withdrawal from the exhibition due to its sponsorship by Transfield, which manages offshore immigrant detention centers.

Cairo-based collective Mosireen announces its withdrawal from the 2012 Creative Time Summit after learning of an Israeli funding partner.

Calls against an organization’s leadership and sponsorship:

Michele Maccarone of Maccarone Gallery, New York, urges artists not to participate in an exhibit sponsored by the law firm representing the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in a controversial suit against artist Christoph Büchel.

The exit of artists John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie, and Ed Ruscha from the board of trustees of the LA MoCA, in response to the leadership of Jeffrey Deitch and his dismissal of curator Paul Schimmel.

1 See generally, Jan Verwoert, “Exhaustion and Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform,” in Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want, ed. Vanessa Ohlraun (Rotterdam: Piet Zwart Institute; Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010).

2 In this case, Rakowitz declined a commission from the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies (now Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership) in Chicago after it prematurely closed an exhibition on historic and contemporary mapping of the Israel-Palestine region.

3 Lucy R. Lippard, “Biting the Hand: Artists and Museums in New York since 1969,” in Alternative Art New York: 1965–1985, ed. Julie Ault (New York: The Drawing Center; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 92.

4 Art strike’s statement, ca. 1970. Michael Goldberg papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

5 Joseph Kosuth and Seth Siegelaub, “Joseph Kosuth and Seth Siegelaub Reply to Benjamin Buchloh on Conceptual Art,” October 57 (Summer 1991): 152–7.

6 Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Hard Hats and Art Strikes: Robert Morris in 1970,” The Art Bulletin 89 (June 2007): 333–59.
See generally, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

7 In addition to class, the glossing over or blindness to racial inequalities should not be forgotten in this history either. See Michele Wallace, Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory (London: Verso, 1990).

8 Julie Ault, “A Chronology of Selected Alternative Structures, Spaces, Artists’ Groups, and Organizations in New York City, 1965–85” in Alternative Art New York: 1965–1985, ed. Julie Ault (New York: The Drawing Center; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 29.

9 Michele Wallace, “Reading 1968: The Great American Whitewash,” in Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory (London: Verso, 1990), 195.

10 Letter from Hightower cited in Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 112.

11 Ault, 29.

12 Barbara Rose, “The Lively Arts: Out of the Studio, On to the Barricades,” New York Magazine 3 (Aug. 10, 1970), 54–7.

13 The Museum of Modern Art did, however, introduce one admission-free night a week as a result of the combined efforts of the Art Workers Coalition and the New York Art Strike Against War, Repression and Racism.

14 For a concise listing of strike participants who removed their work from view, see Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers, 112–21, and Ault, Alternative Art, 29, 92.

15 Gustav Metzger, “Art Strike 1977–1980,” in Art into Society, Society into Art: Seven German Artists, Albrecht D., Joseph Beuys, K. P. Brehmer, Hans Haacke, Dieter Hacker, Gustav Metzger, Klaus Staeck, eds. Christos M. Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1974), 74. <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

16 Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Metzger’s Quest for Social Change: From the Auto-Destructive Art Manifesto and Onwards,” Art Orbit 4 (Feb. 1999), <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

17 Gerald Raunig, “Intensifying Theory Production: The School of the Missing Teacher,” (Oct. 2010), <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

18 Ibid.

19 Gustav Metzger, Damaged Nature, Auto Destructive Art (South Tipperary, Ireland: Coracle Press, 1996).

20 Stewart Home, “Assessing the Art Strike,” Jan. 30, 1993 <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

Stewart Home, et al., “Vanishing Point: Gustav Metzger & Self-Cancellation: Round Table Discussion, Chair Brian Morton,” Art & Research 3 (Winter 2009/10), <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

21 “Art Strike 1990–1993,” YAWN Sporadic Critique of Culture 1, Sept. 15, 1989 <> (accessed Dec. 2, 2014).

22 YAWN Sporadic Critique of Culture 1–6 and YAWNzzz (1989). Box 4, Folder 3. Elayne Zalis video studies archive, #8231. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. All but issue no. 38 of YAWN may be accessed online here: <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014). Issue no. 38 can be found here: <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

The final issue of YAWN that was published just prior to the start of the strike in December 1989 appears with its name appended to YAWNzzz and features a nearly blank page with the simple proclamation “Art Strike 1990–1993 Canceled!” Underneath this, a footer reads, “Free us from boredom. No part of YAWNzzz may be produced anyway,” while previous issues of YAWN noted “Any part of YAWN may be reproduced in any form whatsoever, even without acknowledgement.” These farcical allowances and restrictions of circulation worked to endorse both closed and open notions of artistic production and reproduction and, perhaps, offer the best summary of the contradictory nature of the publication’s approach: For even though reproduction of the final issue is prohibited under these terms, there was no attempt to cancel the open invitation to copy and disseminate material that was published in previous issues.

23 Clive Phillpot, “Artists’ Magazines: News of the Art Strike, Monty Cantsin, and Karen Eliot,” Art Documentation 11 (Fall 1992): 137–38.

24 Sadie Plant, “When Blowing the Strike Is Striking the Blow,” Here and Now 10 (Spring 1990): vi–vii. <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

25 “… we can conclude that as propaganda and myth, the Art Strike was a great success.” See Home, “Assessing the Art Strike.”

26 Chto Delat, “Chto Delat withdraws from Manifesta 10” <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

27 Dmitry Vilensky, “What Could Be Done with Manifesta Here?” <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

28 Vilensky, “What Could be Done With Manifesta Here?”

29 “Manifesta 10 will stay in St Petersburg” <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

30 See the Facebook event page for the “Public Program of the School of Engaged Art ‘Chto Delat,’” created by Chto Delat member Dmitry Vilensky with two others. The events took place from June 26 through July 2, 2014. <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

31 From the Facebook event page for the “Public Program of the School of Engaged Art ‘Chto Delat.’”

32 For evidence of early reactions to this protest, see the article and comments thread in Mostafa Heddaya, “Artist Collective Withdraws from Whitney Biennial [UPDATED],” May 14, 2014, Hyperallergic <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

33 Ben Davis, “The Yams, On the Whitney and White Supremacy,” May 30, 2014, ArtNet News <> (accessed Nov. 13, 2014).

34 Davis, “The Yams.”

35 Heddaya, “Artist Collective Withdraws from Whitney Biennial [UPDATED].”

36 Alexander Alberro, Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 163–70.

37 While the politics of anyone using the contract enduringly are tricky and the artist Hans Haacke is perhaps its most successful adopter, other artists have used Siegelaub and Projansky’s contract. Maria Eichhorn: The Artist’s Contract gives a thorough background on its impact on the artists who have been involved with it as well as its legacy, with discussions of artist Daniel Buren’s preceding contract and artist Adrian Piper’s subsequent one, among others. See Gerti Fietzek, ed., Maria Eichhorn: The Artist’s Contract (Cologne: Walther König, 2009).

38 It is no coincidence that two years after the contract was distributed, artist Robert Rauschenberg protested an auction at Sotheby’s in New York where a work of his was up for sale at almost a hundred times its original selling price. Infuriated by the fact that he would get nothing from this secondary sale but that the collector who originally bought it would profit handsomely, Rauschenberg launched a campaign with other notable artists and legal advocates that eventually resulted in the California Resale Rights Act of 1976 being passed, which insisted that artists receive five percent of the resale price of their artworks sold through galleries and auction houses in the state, or when the seller resides there. In 1985, New York State would pass its own version of a moral rights law through the Artists Authorship Rights Act, which stipulates that artworks or their reproductions cannot be publicly displayed or published in an altered or modified form without the artist’s consent if they are indicated to be the work of the artist, nor can they be displayed without the artist’s consent under circumstances that would damage the artist’s reputation. In 1990, the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), which includes and expands upon the moral rights terms of New York’s law, would be adopted by US federal law.

While these last two laws do not include a resale right, in 2014 Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York introduced legislation to pass the American Royalties Too Act, which would impose a resale right on the sale of works at auctions. In the hearings and arguments for and against each of these acts, Siegelaub and Projansky’s contract has been invoked.

39 Lauren Berlant, “Living in Ellipsis: Biopolitics and the Attachment to Life” (lecture, the Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, Oct. 31, 2014).

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