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Greg Sholette: Public Art, Protest, and 21st-Century Politics, Part II

August 18, 2020

Header image: Adopted in 2001 by the first World Social Forum for civil society and social justice in Porto Alegre, Brazil, “Another World Is Possible” also became a mantra for the counter-globalization movement reaching from Seattle to Genoa.

The dream of direct digital democracy did not die so much as deflate.

This is Part 2 of a selection from Greg Sholette’s essay “Can a Transformative Avant-Garde Art Survive in a World of Lolcats, Doomsday Preppers, and Xenonphobic Frog Memes? Do We Have a Choice?” from More Art in Public Eye; catch up on Part 1 here.

Why does socially engaged art, or public art, or activist art look and act the way it does, today? What exactly are artists’ choices reflective of? Who shapes who in the public sphere, in the public narrative? In grappling with such questions, artist and educator Greg Sholette simultaneously devises and unpacks a speculative genealogy of art and/as activism, one with massive historical forces acting on it from all sides and wherein the divisions between art and everyday life, politics, and cultural change are becoming less stringent, more slippery.

Sholette previously proposed that “we are witnessing today the full-on return of socially engaged cultural activism, not only amongst embedded movement artists and community-based cultural workers, but by professionally trained, MFA-bearing artists who refuse the conventional opposition separating art from politics, from current events, and from life in general” and introduced examples of such engagement, from individuals like Dread Scott and Pablo Helguera to groups like Decolonize This Place and Gulf Labor/Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF). Now we turn to the role technology — and just as importantly, the “techtopian” aspirations surrounding digital communication— has played in the development of our particular form of 21st-century cultural activism. From the all-out capitalization of the Internet by neoliberal and globalizing forces to the mass dissemination of post-financial crash protest movements, it’s a complicated relationship.

Let’s begin with a hypothetical genealogy of activist art, one that for practical reasons is focused primarily on post-1968 New York City.¹ This alternative art-historical chronicle flows forward from the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the Art Workers Coalition, Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, and Guerrilla Art Action Group in the late 1960s, through such informal collectives as Artists Meeting for Cultural Change and the Real Estate Show in the 1970s. Group Material, Political Art Documentation/Distribution, the Guerilla Girls, Gran Fury, and Critical Art Ensemble emerged in the next decade, followed by the rise of “tactical media” in the 1990s and 2000s with Electronic Disturbance Theater, Center for the Tactical Magic, and RTmark and The Yes Men, whose digital mimesis, “intelligent sabotage,” and corporate “identity correction” characterizes much of this work.² Though these antecedents aggregate into a definite and determinate argument, they do not fully explain current circumstances.

Pedagogy also plays a role in our brief analysis. Since the turn of the last century, we find an ever-expanding explosion of seemingly spontaneous collectivism and cultural activism amongst younger artists, graduates of MFA programs taught by studio faculty who made it their mission to intentionally pry open standard formalist art-historical narratives, in order to insert social and political motivation into traditional art-for-art’s-sake curricula. And yet the influence of these progressive art educators does not fully account for the accelerating wave of militant cultural activism over the past couple of decades. Dare we consider technology as its primary booster?


L to R: Faith Ringgold (right) and Michele Wallace (middle) at Art Workers Coalition Protest, Whitney Museum, 1971; photo by Jan van Raay, via Aperture. Gran Fury’s Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do, 1989, manipulated advertising and media strategies in order to reach a broad audience with information about AIDS; plastered on New York City busses from June to December 1989, the image was intentionally designed to resemble a well-known clothing industry ad campaign; photo by Aldo Hernandez, via Creative Time. Television still of the Yes Men’s Andy Bichlbaum on the BBC News in 2004, posing as Dow chemical spokesperson accepting responsibility for and promising reparations to victims of the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster in India; image via Democracy, Now!.


Permeating the 1990s and early 2000s was an alluring techtopian enchantment brought about by increasingly accessible social communication networks. When coupled with the implosion of the sclerotic socialist eastern bloc, as well as with the charismatic cyber-tactics of Mexico’s EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), it suddenly seemed that “Another World is Possible.” Adopted in 2001 by the first World Social Forum for civil society and social justice in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the phrase also became a mantra for the counter-globalization movement reaching from Seattle to Genoa. Improvising with only half-hearted irony on this speculative futurity, cultural theorist Gene Ray proposed in 2004 that “Another (Art) World is Possible,”³ carefully though clearly surfing the wave of optimism launched by new globally connected communications media.⁴

And it was unquestionably a remarkable moment. For a time it seemed possible to speak about an alternative mode of globalization that would be fundamentally different from the blanket monetization of the planet dreamt of by transnational corporations. In just such an ecstatic vein, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig opined buoyantly:

[digital] technology could enable a whole generation to create — remixed films, new forms of music, digital art, a new kind of storytelling, writing, a new technology for poetry, criticism, political activism — and then, through the infrastructure of the Internet, share that creativity with others.

But before long, post-9/11 Patriot Act restrictions tarnished the Wild West allure of early cyberspace, which was further crippled by increasing legalization, consolidation, and rapid commercialization of Internet platforms. The dream of direct digital democracy did not die so much as deflate, only to be reanimated as increasingly specialized, even sectarian, subscriber sites, internally horizontal, yes, but thoroughly disconnected from any lingering promise of an open-source, global infrastructure where everyone could share their unbridled creativity (above all think here of Facebook). Next came the cold gray “new” reality of the jobless future, an existential shockwave from the 2008 financial collapse that all but demolished the liberatory expectations of the “creative class,” at least as anticipated by neoliberal urban management guru Richard Florida.⁶ Still, resistance abhors an aspirational vacuum.


L to R: The “Friday of Victory” after Hosni Mubarak’s fall, Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 2011; photo by Lara Baladi. Occupation of Puerta del Sol Square, Madrid, May 2011; image courtesy of Public Space. Occupy Wall Street, Manhattan, November 2011; photo by Jacob Blickenstaff, via Mother Jones.


Like a sonic boom following a speeding jet, several years after the global financial collapse came the angry, bold, as well as joyful resistance that erupted in 2011 into urban squares, as citizens of the so-called “creative class” congealed into occupying, unemployed armies from Tahrir Square, Cairo to Puerta del Sol square in downtown Madrid and to Zuccotti Park in New York City. The spark soon spread across the US and Europe, into Russia and to Hong Kong and other parts of the Middle East. Brimming with improvised speeches, DIY music, social choreography and the “human mic,” these occupations shared an overarching sense of collective expectation, each city’s encampment germinating its own low-tech dissident culture made up of handmade cardboard signs taped together or trimmed down, or simply folded into manageable dimensions to maximize protest visibility.

This corporeal dissidence was also streamed online, thus mixing up digital media’s advantages with actual bodies in the street, as if suggesting that some small part of the 1990s techtopia was still alive, though now curiously taking a backseat to a host of obsolete protest media, from picket signs and banner drops to defiant public processions physically blocking traffic. Still, this marriage of low- and high-tech forms was not unprecedented — one need only recall the motto of early-twentieth-century avant-garde Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin: “not the old, not the new, but the necessary.” And yet, at this point in our hypothetical genealogy of cultural activism, we began to see stirrings of something unexpected, if not entirely novel, because these swarms of semi-organized resistance also contained a strain of regressive cultural opposition that commingled and competed with progressive protesters for visibility and dominance within the media-enhanced theater of discontent.

1. I regret that brevity requires my narrative remain narrow in scope, bypassing earlier precedents such as the Artists Union of the 1930s, as well as examples outside New York including the 1966 Peace Tower, Womanhouse in Los Angeles in 1972, Rasheed Araeen’s postcolonial performances in 1970s London, or the co-founding of the German Green Party in 1979 by artist Joseph Beuys. Thankfully, in recent years, a wave of younger researchers is busily uncovering a vast and little-known urhistory of shadowed artistic energy involving scores of feminists, artists of color, and political dissidents who often worked in now forgotten collectives, all the while laying the groundwork for much of what we take for granted in the contemporary art world itself (See my book, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, Pluto Press, 2010).

2. “Identity correction” is how Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos describe their interventions in the movie The Yes Men (2003), while “intelligent sabotage” was first used to describe the work of The Yes Men’s previous incarnation as RTmark but applies equally well to both groups. See Tim Jordan and Paul Taylor, Hacktivism and Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause? (New York: Routledge, 2004), 86.

3. Brian Holmes, “Unleashing the Collective Phantoms. Flexible Personality, Networked Resistance,” European Institute for Progressive Cultural Politics, January 2002. A PDF is available at:

4. Gene Ray, “Another (art) world is possible: Theorising Oppositional Convergence,” Third Text vol. 18, issue 6 (2004): 562–72. A PDF is available at:

5. Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (New York: Random House, 2001), 9.

6. By now Richard L. Florida and his theory of the creative class has generated many books, as well as many detractors. His most notable publication remains The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

Gregory Sholette PhD is a founding member of Political Art Documentation/Distribution PAD/D (1980–1988), which issued publications on politically engaged art; of REPOhistory (1989–2000), a collective of artists and activists who repossessed suppressed histories in New York in the 1990s; and more recently, of Gulf Labor, a group of artists advocating for migrant workers constructing museums in Abu Dhabi. His books include Art as Social Action (with Chloë Bass, 2018, Skyhorse Press); Delirium & Resistance: Art Activism & the Crisis of Capitalism (2017), Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture (2011, both Pluto Press), and It’s The Political Economy, Stupid (with Oliver Ressler from Pluto Press, 2012), and he has contributed to such journals as FIELD, Eflux, Artforum, Frieze, October, Critical Inquiry, Texte zur Kunst, Afterimage, CAA Art Journal and Manifesta Journal among others. He is a Professor of studio art and co-directs the Social Practice Queens MFA concentration and certificate at Queens College CUNY, and is an associate of the Art, Design and the Public Domain program of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Sholette’s blog is Welcome To Our Bare Art World.

Excerpts are from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.