Feature

Artists Must Eat

But at what price asks Lizzie Homersham

Rachel Maclean <em>Please, Sir…</em> 2014

Rachel Maclean Please, Sir… 2014

In July and August 2014, as Israel conducted another major airstrike offensive on Gaza, news of an escalating death toll prompted several Palestine solidarity marches on the UK parliament. More than 100,000 protesters joined the largest of them, participants in the London art world making up a small portion of their moving number. In the same period, several tweets appeared on social media drawing attention to the suspected complicity of the influential London-based art collectors, Anita and Poju Zabludowicz, in the affairs of the Israeli State. At the time of writing, more than 20 Twitter posts could be found containing links to bdzgroup.tumblr.com (BDZ standing for Boycott, Divest from Zabludowicz). If one clicks on this link today, a standard message appears, generated by Tumblr for its dead blog posts. According to information I sought from an activist, Tumblr Trust and Safety terminated the bdzgroup account in the last days of August 2014. An official Tumblr Support email stated that the blogging platform did not, as stated in its policies, allow impersonation.

The terminated account unofficially aligned itself with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, via whose website one can access the 2010 Corporate Watch report ‘Corporate Occupation: Tracking corporate complicity in the occupation of Palestine’, which refers to Poju Zabludowicz’s interests that year in a shopping centre in Ma’ale Adumin (a highly controversial Israeli settlement in the West Bank, as Channel 4’s Dispatches noted in coverage of the same story in the 2009 TV programme ‘Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby’) and whose relevance to an art world that has adopted boycotts as an activist tactic is increasingly felt (‘To Boycott or Not to Boycott?’ Dave Beech AM380 – and Beech reiterated his position at an Artsadmin event about ethics, funding and art, ‘Take The Money and Run?’ on 29 January 2015.) On 3 February, for instance, the Brooklyn-based forum Hyperallergic published its ‘Report on the Cultural Boycott of Israel’, the ‘first in a continuing series exploring BDS and its connection to the art world’. Its author, Chen Tamir, an art writer and curator based in Tel Aviv, noted ‘the recent trend to boycott’ institutions and events including the 2014 São Paulo Biennial, New York non-profit commissioning agency Creative Time’s 2012 summit and travelling exhibition ‘Living As Form’, and ‘Sites of Passage: Borders, Walls & Citizenship’, a joint Israeli-Palestinian exhibition due – before its eventual cancellation – to be held in May 2014 at Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh.

A public Facebook group that pre-dates bdzgroup.tumblr.com remains uncensored: ‘Say no to the Zabludowicz art collection’ has, since its creation on 30 July 2014, played host to more than 300 members, streams of posts, comments, and links to material supportive and otherwise of a boycott of the Zabludowicz Collection. Although Facebook is a highly compromised arena for activism – since, as Martin Moore noted in the New Statesman on 9 February, it puts information regarding political opinion and organisations in the hands of a US media behemoth – the group has arguably been of use in promoting solidarity with the Palestinian people. On 9 August, a ‘Say no…’ group member shared a link to bdzgroup.tumblr.com. Other members have shared the bdzgroup message in another form since 11 December 2014, on which date Mute magazine took the responsibility of hosting the censored content as an online editorial post. Spread across five subheadings, the call to boycott made a series of allegations against the Zabludowicz Foundation, concerning its implication in arms dealing, pro-Israeli lobbying, property development, donations to the Conservative Party and ‘the ongoing capture of public funding’, specifically in the arts, by private philanthropy.

International art audiences were reached in the transfer of Mute’s post on 12 December to ‘e-flux conversations’, a public discussion board spearheaded by writer Karen Archey who also curated the ‘Art Post-Internet’ exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in March 2014. On the same day, radical publisher Verso highlighted the call to boycott Zabludowicz by means of a blog post authored by London-based artist Huw Lemmey. Market-oriented Artnet News hedged its bets and waited a few days before publishing a piece by Coline Milliard, which combined selective quotation of Mute’s post with the comments of a detractor and, more helpfully in terms of supporting the boycott call, a link to the 2013 Spinwatch report ‘The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre: Giving peace a chance?’, which interestingly omitted the final question mark.

Spinwatch’s lengthy report presents a degree of substantiation for several concerns expressed by the boycott call. It reports Poju Zabludowicz’s divestment of his father’s defence interests, including those held under the Soltam company name, prior to founding the (initially private) art collection with his wife Anita in 1995 (Flash Art, Vol XL, October 2007).1 Ultimately, however, it is argued that the activities of BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) – including ‘attempting to undermine critics of Israel, especially activists arguing for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ – put it out of step with international law and the rights of Palestinians, despite its projection of a moderate, pro-peace, pro-two state solution stance. Poju Zabludowicz was, as his profile on the Jewish Leadership Council’s website states, chairman of BICOM from 2001 to 2013. In 2009, the Guardian reported that he was BICOM’s biggest donor, quoting company accounts in receipt of £937,995 in 2007 and £341,694 in 2006. Meanwhile, an Open Democracy report by political commentator Peter Osborne noted Poju Zabludowicz’s ‘role at Conservative Friends of Israel as a significant donor’ and, following coffee with David Cameron, he made separate donations of up to £15,000 to the now prime minister’s election campaign (part of the total £314,000 given to the Conservative Party since 2005, according to Electoral Commission records cited by Spinwatch). The campaign offerings, Osborne writes, were made through Tamares, the private investment group over which Poju Zabludowicz presides as chairman and CEO. However, while the focus of Tamares is on real estate, technology, leisure, media and mining, its official website indicates its establishment over 60 years ago ‘as the corporate arm of The Zabludowicz Trust … which owns the Zabludowicz Collection, and supports emerging artists and art organisations in local communities’.

On 4 December 2014, the Zabludowicz Collection hosted ‘Then Nothing Ever Happens Because Nothing Ever Does’, which was billed as a performance evening ‘of video work and live readings that explore notions of transgression in the physical and virtual environments of late capitalism’. Conceived as a complement to the first UK solo exhibition by Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin, it featured work by Holly Childs, Sandra Lahire (1950-2001), Jesse Darling, Rosie Hastings and Hannah Quinlan Anderson. All of these artists have been promoted independently of the Zabludowicz Collection by Arcadia Missa’s founding director and curator Rózsa Farkas, who contributed a pre-existing video text to the December event that reflected on Lahire’s work Arrows, 1984, and ‘the meaning of the term #nofuture’.

The timing of Mute’s reissued call to boycott, precisely one week after this event, was no coincidence: in response to concerned comments posted subsequently, the Mute editorial collective appealed to those artists who participated to ‘publicly defend, or offer a rationale for, their decision to participate, and to oppose the debilitating discourse which says that austerity and artists’ personal dire economic straits mean they can’t make conscious decisions over patronage, or can’t act collectively for a better distribution of cultural funds.’

This appeal was addressed in a small way at an informal open meeting held at Westfield shopping centre, Shepherd’s Bush, on 3 January 2015. The Facebook event description for ‘Where do you draw the line?’ asked the question: ‘where do you draw the line between your personal politics, politics with a capital P, the politics that regulate the art you make and the spaces in which you show?’ Though absent from the meeting, Darling had indirectly answered such questions already in her publication on 2 December 2014 of ‘A Letter from a Friend’. Transferred from a one-to-one correspondence to a one-to-many communication via Tumblr, the anonymised writer expressed sadness at the presentation of Darling’s work by the Zabludowicz Collection (bravenewwhat.tumblr.com). Emotive allusions were made to the Israel-Palestine war as one involving such biopolitical tactics as ‘the controlling of calories of food let into Gaza so people have just enough to survive but are always hungry’. (According to a document made public in the New York Times in 2012, the Israeli military calculated the number of calories needed by Gaza residents to avoid malnutrition during a blockade imposed from 2007 to mid 2010.)

Whether for actual food or visibility and career success, artists are hungry too. In the wake of austerity policies and the entrance into the mainstream art world of the term post-internet, refusal – of opportunities offered from a position of power – has not been a widely adopted strategy. Or, its adoptees have been less visible than those who have accepted compromise. I do not seek to condone not eating, present in the form of anorexia in the aforementioned work by Lahire, but I do wish to make a case for a strategy of refusal in which food does not predominate. Such an argument is relevant to art after the internet, in which Mute and Arcadia Missa have been particularly invested in London. It is of more pertinence to post-internet artists, understood here in line with the claim that ‘every artist working today is a post-internet artist’ (Darling, You Are Here – Art After the Internet, 2014), but with attention given to those who have been most visible to me in London, both online and offline.

As a panel member speaking at ‘Post-Net Aesthetics’ alongside Farkas, Mute editor Josephine Berry Slater, artist Harm van den Dorpel and moderator Karen Archey at the ICA in October 2013, Ben Vickers, an agent in post-internet art’s institutionalisation, ventured that post-internet art ‘got lost’ when ‘the material reality of having to feed oneself on a daily basis … led to many people taking jobs in existing institutions rather than building their own’ and by the choice of many artists to be represented by commercial galleries.

In two memorable tweets posted in the months before the call to boycott Zabludowicz appeared, non-commercially represented and recent White Building artist-in-residence Huw Lemmey quipped, ‘Top diet tip: I’ve lost 6 pounds since I started relying on arts organisations paying invoices on time in order that I can eat.’ And again, immediately afterwards: ‘Nothing tastes as good as freelance feels.’ Artists are kept hungry, it appears, whether or not they accept the opportunities extended to them by the Zabludowicz Collection, since I know two artists who waited a year to be paid for artistic services rendered. Meanwhile, themes of hunger, austerity and artistic performance before one’s patrons have been treated more formally in artworks such as Please, Sir…, 2014, by 2013 Jarman Award nominee and 2014 Zabludowicz invitee Rachel Maclean. The opening sequence of this 25-minute, two-channel video describes the drift of an Adidas-clad rough sleeper into dreams of integration among ‘jewelled and gilded princelings who lived in vast palaces’. Its exhibition at Rowing Projects in December last year at the height of boycott furore struck me as timely.

In the art world, the hunger of collectors and institutions and their role in directly (by means, for example, of artist dinners) or indirectly feeding artists is an issue, too. The appetite of Anita Zabludowicz for the work of young artists is considerable: in an interview published by Apollo magazine in October 2008 she describes her approach to collecting emerging art as being ‘a thirst, a lovely feeling of “we shall go hunt and seek”’. In the same interview, she goes on to describe her first auction buy, a Ben Nicholson that came on the market in the 1990s: ‘The sale was long. I was nervous and hungry so I left a bid and went off for a sandwich. I came back in time to bid, bid against myself and got it.’ Since October 2013, post-internet art has also been sold at auctions such as Phillips’ digitally oriented sale Paddles On! because, to quote online magazine AQNB in ‘The Problems of Paddles On!’ from July 2014, ‘People need to eat’. In its focus on the work of emerging artists, Paddles On! assigns monetary value to work of a freshness that, since the heyday of Charles Saatchi, Anita Zabludowicz was almost alone in wanting to buy. In October 2014, W Magazine reported her complaining that ‘there are too many players now, and they’ve moved into my field’. Among those new players, according to a New York Times Magazine article published in December 2014, is collector Stefan Simchowitz, who apparently paid for the medical fees as well as for the work of Paddles On! participant and Arcadia Missa-represented artist Amalia Ulman at a time when she was ‘very desperate’, without ‘anything to eat’. A November entry to ‘Anita’s Art Diary’ about the exhibition ‘Private Settings’ at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw in September 2014 – ‘the most comprehensive post-internet show I have seen to date’ – indicated that Ulman’s work, featured in her solo show ‘The Destruction of Experience’ at Evelyn Yard, was also in Anita Zabludowicz’s sights. While it is unknown whether Ulman has sold work to Zabludowicz, a solely market-based reason for giving preference to Anita over Stefan might be made on the basis of the latter’s notoriety in the business of ‘flipping’, whereas the former’s collection is not ‘a selling collection’ (Apollo magazine, 2008).

What is it that is specific to post-internet art that makes its authors not only more accepting of political compromise on the grounds of their own personal struggle but also more comfortable with an art-market integration that is proceeding at a pace and on a scale unknown to previous generations of London-based artists? Arguably, it resides in the ‘personalisation’ of technology, the hinging of post-internet art’s existence, circulation and promotion on social media – a present-day realisation of HSBC’s prediction that ‘in the future, the food chain and the supply chain will merge’ – and on the tendency of post-internet artists to use social media in ways that entail the conflation of public and private in new and evolving ways. In some cases, such as Ulman’s Instagram performance Excellences & Perfections (April-September 2014, and presented in October 2014 as part of ‘First Look’, the series of digital projects co-curated and co-presented by Rhizome and the New Museum), the body of the artist is hard to distinguish from the body of work. Speaking in October 2014 at the third ‘image-body’-themed talk in the ‘Do You Follow? Art in Circulation’ series curated by Rhizome director Michael Connor, Ulman described her enactment of gendered archetypes, including ‘cute girl’ and ‘crazy bitch’, in a finely scripted narrative in which a faked breast enhancement operation led to different forms of reception – including confusion, anger and appreciation – among her friends on Facebook (who saw an expanded version of the performance) and a wider audience on Instagram.

‘Anita’s Art Diary’, a publishing platform for trips to private parties and private views, is an instance of a similar phenomenon. Where Ulman’s institutional platform has been the New Museum website, Anita’s has been that of the Zabludowicz Collection. Of critical difference is the transfer of her Art Diary from institutional support to social media – one finds Art Diary posts shared to Anita’s personal Facebook profile and images of art she likes on Instagram. For all their apparent oversharing, the performances of Ulman and Zabludowicz depend upon revealing little: both are highly contrived. Their particular ways of conflating public and private are, however, reliant on strategies of high visibility to captive art audiences. Poju Zabludowicz, on the other hand, might be said to use low visibility as a tactic, among both art audiences and a wider public that is generally speaking ignorant of his interests in political affairs. A Middle East Monitor online review of Spinwatch’s report quotes research indicating that BICOM, once chaired by Poju, was ‘an opaque organisation’. In The Electronic Intifada’s summary, again citing Spinwatch, one reads that ‘BICOM’s original mission was: “to bring about a significant shift in opinion in favour of Israel amongst the general public, opinion-formers and the Jewish community”. However, the ambitious objective to shift public opinion appears to have been quietly abandoned … its website now makes no mention of public opinion, while referring twice to opinion formers.’

Thus, while London artists have been compromising themselves for the sake of visibility, the political manoeuvres of one of their greatest financial backers are made behind closed doors. When BICOM acts without the transparency to which post-internet artists often subscribe, how can an informed decision to boycott or not to boycott Zabludowicz be made? In a paper given on 12 December 2014 in the context of UCL’s ‘Marxism in Culture’ seminar series, poet Danny Hayward spoke on the subject of austerity and artistic immiseration which, he acknowledged, entangles the individual in ‘a multiplicity of real and contradictory economic interests’. The state of ‘split consciousness’ such a ‘petit bourgeois’ position entails might, however, be made into ‘a real and living problem in contemporary art’ – a problem whose diagnosis might be followed by contemplation of what an aesthetic of refusal might entail. One would imagine such an aesthetic to require refusal of the Zabludowicz Collection. It might be helped by refusal of Facebook and the other social platforms which Facebook owns. Lower visibility, as the example of Poju might suggest, can also be the basis of strength: politically, aesthetically or otherwise. Alternatively, the very social media on which post-internet art depends could be turned to making demands on the Zabludowiczs and the UK government alike, to demanding more funding from less compromised sources. Hyperallergic’s ‘Report of the Cultural Boycott of Israel’ states that, while boycott critics claim ‘that artists “bit[e] the hand that feeds them”’, the tools to counter such criticism, and perhaps even to resist dependency, are digital: ‘Notwithstanding any cynical allusions to “armchair activism” or “clicktivism”, the internet naturally lends itself to grassroots organisation.’

Some artists will see neither refusal, the political organisation nor the origins of their funding as issues they wish to pursue. Ulman is among those who appear not to wish to. In her blog post ‘The (Middle Aged) Man With The Pearl Earring’ of July 2013, she recounts her response to Mark Leckey’s suggestion that the peculiar atmosphere of private dinners held by public galleries might be difficult for a young artist to bear: ‘I don’t really feel that bad because all my work is political and I would be putting this experience to good use. My work is about poverty, class divisions, and hierarchies, so all this serves a good cause. For me it is research … All I can do is look around and try to use this for good. I also haven’t eaten in the whole day and this dinner is really nice.’ In the same blog post Ulman reports that, were she not to accept such invitations to private gallery dinners, where she might ingratiate herself with patrons, she would otherwise be raising funds through sex work. In ‘Dirty Commerce: Art Work and Sex Work since the 1970s’ (differences, Vol 23, No 2, 2012) art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson argues that, while paid sex work sometimes supplements art practices, it is misguided to conflate the two: ‘To imply that art work and sex work are mirror economies of each other is to ignore the real struggles, exploitations, and hardships of sex work and to diminish the real privileges, access, cultural value, and capital that accompany artistic work.’ What might more easily and usefully be conflated with post-internet artwork than sex work is pornography, defined by Beatriz/Paul B Preciado in his 2013 book Testo Junkie through an appeal to Linda Williams as ‘embodied image’, an image that incorporates itself as body and captures the body at the ‘encounter with an eroticised technological apparatus’. This description fits the post-internet ‘body-image’ just as well, bound up as it is with the artist’s body and circulation via media that – in Wendy Chun’s description at the ICA’s seminar Lunchbytes in May 2014 – ‘work technically and socially by breaching and thus bizarrely sustaining the boundary between public and private’. In her 2006 book Control and Freedom, Chun writes that pornography was a catalyst for the ‘internet going public (by being taken over by private corporations)’ and is ‘central to the two issues that map the uneasy boundary between public and private: regulation and commerce’.

When one thinks of artists working in commercial and politicised contexts with their bodies today, the words of Judith Butler come to mind, in a speech given on 4 February in London in the light of debates about human shields used in Gaza over the summer. While bodies are often presented in calculated ways – as commodities or as statistical figures – by artists, by funding bodies or in war reports, Butler warned against regarding bodies as capital. One may make calculations, careful judgements and plans, but we don’t act with our bodies because we have calculated the effect, she said, ‘we do it to affirm the incalculable’.

Today, UK artists suffer not only from a government and an art funding situation that often seem to work against them but also a ban, in December 2014, on the representation in online video-on-demand porn of sex acts that span fisting and female ejaculation. Artistic appeals to the pornographic as well as to strategies of refusal might be transformed into tools with which to address the problem posed by the phenomenon of private power. Though the calls to boycott the Zabludowicz Collection in August and in December last year have been controversial, and the cause of many fractures in the fragile network of an art world that binds enemies and friends, more importantly, the calls have also provided a welcome provocation.

1. Between Poju Zabludowicz’s 1978 appointment as director of Tamares Ltd and promotion in 1990 to leadership of the Tamares Group (p16 Spinwatch ‘Giving Peace a Chance?’), the New York Times (‘Aide urged Pentagon to consider weapons made by former client’, April 1983) described Tamares Ltd as a London-based trading company and ‘wholly owned subsidiary’ of Etablissements Salgad, a company founded by Poju’s father Shlomo Zabludowicz which owned other companies acting as sales agents for Soltam weapons, manufactured by Soltam Ltd, whose ‘early contracts included supplying artillery to the Israel Defence Forces’ (p14 ‘Giving Peace a Chance?’).

Lizzie Homersham is a writer based in London.

First published in Art Monthly 384: March 2015.

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