Walker Art Center

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Art of Opposition
Karen Mirza and Brad Butler on Aesthetics and Activism

By Julie Caniglia

In 2007, London-based artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler found themselves literally trapped inside the National Gallery in Islamabad, watching as mass protests by the Pakistani Lawyers’ Movement—and subsequent violence from government authorities—unfolded outside. For them, this experience became a dramatic example of the ways that museums and the broader art world are cut off from contemporary social and political realities. In response, the duo developed The Museum of Non Participation: a roaming, ever-evolving collection of audio-visual works, workshops, presentations, and other activities that has traveled to Egypt, Pakistan, Germany, and the UK. Created as a way to initiate and build dialogue around issues of direct action, activism, and resistance that specific to its temporary locations—and as an alternative to traditional museums as repositories of coveted objects—the Museum of Non Participation is paradoxically dependent on participation. In an e-mail interview, with Walker managing editor Julie Caniglia, the artists explain the concept of “non participation” and discuss their work both in London and abroad, as well as the ideas and experiences that spark its development.

Julie Caniglia

You have been working together for 17 years. How did that collaboration come about, and how has it evolved?

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler

It started as an assignment at art school that resulted in a black-and-white silent film, Asylum. We could never have expected back then that we would continue to work together. Karen was making site-specific film installations coming out of the discipline of painting, while Brad was working from anthropology toward avant-garde film. We were speaking different dialects but we did instinctively shared core ideas: an interest in politically and philosophically motivated cinema; a feeling of general dissociation from the coveted art in the late ‘90s; and a desire to be part of a constituency seeking change. In consciously challenging ourselves to find the edges of cinema’s authority, we eventually broke out of film and video to continue our natural desire to investigate terms and social conditions through performance, political theater, photography, and installation work.

Caniglia

You also established a cooperative, artist-run space in London. How does this organization—as well as the larger “space” of London—relate to your own practice?

Mirza and Butler

We founded no.w.here in 2004 as a means of supporting both our own autonomy and our community. no.w.here supports critical theory, radical pedagogy, and production around marginal, political, and experimental film practices through events, exhibitions, and screenings; it also has an artist-run film lab with unique expertise. One of our core values is that a subsidized membership of £10 a month provides unlimited access to all these resources. A key pressure point for artists in the UK is the freedom to produce work without having to first articulate the final product in order to receive funding: we value the precarious status of a work of art as unproductive labor, risk, process, research, and potential for failure. Over the years, significant film works have been made on-site, and more than 3,000 people have taken workshops.

no.w.here remains both highly valued and extremely precarious. Thus in 2008 Tate Modern celebrated it as one of the 50 most important artist-run, not-for-profit organizations in the world, while each year we are forced to re-legitimate our existence in London, a capital of competition and rising property prices. Over time the question as to how no.w.here relates to our practice has also inverted: how does our practice relate to no.w.here as it strives to hold its ground? We are proud that it continues to provoke the question of where artistic practices can exist in the space between the market and the state.

Caniglia

Your upcoming exhibition at the Walker is part of your ongoing Museum of Non Participation project, prompted by that incident in 2007 in Islamabad. But you’ve since enlarged on your ideas around non-participation, noting that it’s a much more complicated concept than apathy. Can you describe this phenomenon and how it applies to all of us beyond the art world?

Mirza and Butler

One aspect of “non participation” is to acknowledge that it is a life condition, one both consciously and unconsciously exercised by each of us. Internationally it exists in the excess of one’s own society, which is often gained at the expense of another’s nameless plight elsewhere. Locally it is recognizable when, for example, people encounter something that they believe is valid or necessary—say, homelessness, the right to protest, the Iraq War—but in that simultaneous moment they ignore it or reject it.

It is a condition embodied in the need to participate and the simultaneous desire to withdraw, including the question as to how withdrawal can be made visible—how “non participation” can be active and critical. As you say, we feel this is much more complicated than just apathy. Rather than a binary negation, non participation is a threshold—a kind of political plastic that expands and contracts, that is both unstable and malleable. This impasse is experienced by many as a condition of privilege, but it is deeply embodied in places like Palestine, Cairo, Karachi, Amman, and Belgrade—where people experience post-independence struggles, where the political economy of oil is key, and where former centers of empire are fiercely defended by the United States and the UK.

In relation to museums and institutions, we see non participation not just as a condition, but also as a structure including, in the UK, the filtering of government and corporate policies and agendas through the arts and arts funding. Museums also interrelate hierarchy and exclusion, social critique and (post) colonization. So our Museum of Non Participation refers to an institutional critique that is embedded in its very title—and yet it is released from being an actual museum. It can travel as a place, a slogan, a banner, a performance, a newspaper, a film, an intervention, an occupation—anything that enables it to “act.”

Caniglia

As artists, how do you work against common conceptions about an art world that is based around the production of objects, and a market that assigns value to and trades in these objects?

Mirza and Butler

We do not completely disavow art objects, but are driven to dislodge them from their central position within the field of art. In London we tend to experience “art” as a market—unregulated, unaccountable, unelected, and driven by a distortion of real estate values. We choose to look past the art object and relate to the etymology of “object,” from the Latin obicere, meaning to present, oppose, or cast or throw in the way of. We explore obicere through multiple, ephemeral processes: artworks as well as events and actions that neither we as artists nor museums possess through sole authorship. In a similar vein, we see “collecting” as not merely assembling objects, but as an act that assembles and ushers forth action and agency and does so through disruption. Our own practice involves presenting work that is hard for the art market to reconcile or redistribute. In this way The Museum of Non Participation aligns itself with conceptual art and the legacy of the dematerialized art object.

Caniglia

Your work frequently involves travel. Why is this, and where do these journeys take you? How has travel become an integral part of your practice?

Mirza and Butler

Early on we traveled mostly to learn from non-Western perspectives and artists that challenge the US/Eurocentric histories dominant in the UK. One very formative experience was working with Shai Heredia on the Experimenta Film platform in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore from 2002 to 2007. This exposed us to other modernisms and set in motion what we sometimes refer to as a process of personal unlearning and de-colonization.

When we crossed the Indian border into Pakistan in 2007, hosted by the artist collective VASL, we were already thinking about the politics of translation and representation, and the psychological lines of partition across class, language, gender, race, and privilege. It would take further visits between London and Pakistan for these experiences to form the Museum of Non Participation; our research is a long-term process prioritizing deep engagements with places.

Our extended experience of different cultures also starts in London. For example, as artists in residence at the Centre for Possible Studies’ Edgware Road Project in 2009, we had daily contact with the city’s large Middle Eastern community, just prior to spending time in Cairo at the Townhouse Gallery. We have also collaborated with individuals and businesses in our very local community in London’s East End, which is largely Bengali, Pakistani and Turkish.

Reflecting on this question of relational geography, it has become apparent that our patterns of migration follow a post-colonial, post-communist trajectory of countries—for example, Pakistan, India, Serbia, Egypt—that belong to the Non-Aligned Movement, countries united in their struggle against imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism, racism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, or interference, as well as power and bloc politics. It was founded in Belgrade in 1961 and as of 2012, the movement has 120 members and 17 observer countries.

Caniglia

You have multiple projects underway at the same time, a series of ongoing collaborations at various stages. How do you come together with international collaborators to develop a project, and how do the projects outside your home base of London tie back that city?

Mirza and Butler

In conversation with Khalid Abdallah from the Cairo media collective Mosireen, he commented that “different strategies are needed to speak to different locations of power.” This helps explain our interest in different forms of collaboration. We think about and explore collaboration as a set of tools and tactics that are site-specific and that speak to particular sets of power relations within a state or the media or other kinds of institutions. Sometimes this results in an exchange of information or skills, infrastructure or ideas. However, many collaborations do not result in artwork; sometimes they are hard to categorize, and some people argue that they fall into the space of “activism.” But we prefer to ask the question “Where does an artwork begin and end?” By this we mean that the work of art does not readily display itself to be consumed, but is often found in the interstices of negotiation and conflict, the violence of participation. Of course your last question here is also key. Throughout our collaborations we take great care never to represent or speak on behalf of a place or a struggle in which we have not stood.

Caniglia

One point of The Museum of Non Participation is that it changes wherever it’s presented. At the Walker you’ve added a subtitle: The New Deal. What’s behind that amendment?

Mirza and Butler

Firstly, it refers to the Walker’s 1939 transformation from a privately funded museum founded by T.B Walker into a public art center, via the Works Projects Administration, which was part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal focusing on “relief, recovery, and reform”—that is, relief for the unemployed and poor; recovery of the economy to normal levels; and reform of the financial system.

“The New Deal” also refers to a work we are making for the exhibition using four United Nations Resolutions on Iraq: two dated 1990, and the others from 2002 and 2003. These Resolutions are significant not just in their claims and content, but also in their voice, grammar, sense of authority, and rule under law—each is a single legal sentence of escalating length.

Our aim is not to attempt to represent Iraqi sociocide as an image—it is, after all, impossible to depict the scale of the violence of what has happened to Iraq’s people as well as its entire societal structure and culture. Ultimately, this work goes beyond the facts as to how Iraq is erased, implicating these UN resolutions as a script authored by the “Deep State.” That term is widely used in Turkey to address the largely covert “state within the state” that utilises violence and other means of pressure to manipulate political and economic elites, and to ensure specific interests are satisfied within a seemingly democratic political framework.

“Non participation is recognizable when, for example, people encounter something that they believe is valid or necessary—say, homelessness, the right to protest, the Iraq War—but in that simultaneous moment they ignore it or reject it.”

“We do not completely disavow art objects, but are driven to dislodge them from their central position within the field of art.”

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, Act 00136, 2009

Courtesy waterside contemporary, London, and Galeri NON, Istanbul

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler

Photo: Marcus Kern

Brad Butler performing Act(ion) 000167 at Blackwood Gallery, Toronto

Courtesy SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Center), Toronto and Blackwood Gallery, University of Toronto Mississauga

Still from Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s The Exception and the Rule, 2009

Courtesy waterside contemporary, London, and Galeri NON, Istanbul

Still from Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s Hold Your Ground, 2012

Courtesy waterside contemporary, London, and Galeri NON, Istanbul

Video still from Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s Direct Speech Acts, Act 00157, 2011

Courtesy waterside contemporary, London, and Galeri NON, Istanbul

Video still from Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s Direct Speech Acts, Act 00157, 2011

Courtesy waterside contemporary, London, and Galeri NON, Istanbul