Can artists change the world? Can petitions save Ai Weiwei?
…..more and more artists around the world are devising projects that harness their creative sensibilities—and, significantly, their international profiles—to both raise awareness and improve living conditions. Brooklyn-based Swoon, for example, helped build a community center and shelters in Haiti. Vik Muniz advocates for Brazil’s garbage pickers. Most famously—and ominously—Ai Weiwei criticized shoddy construction in schools in China’s earthquake zones, along with other government policies, resulting in his detention last April.
The art world swiftly and unilaterally denounced his arrest, and the Guggenheim launched an online petition demanding Ai’s release. Whether Chinese officials will see the 127,789 (at press time) signatures is an open question. But again, what’s the alternative? The petition keeps the story alive and lets people feel their voices are heard, at least by someone. The prospect of more tangible measures—sanctions or a boycott—was regarded by several museum directors I spoke to as beyond the bounds of feasibility, given the realities of traveling exhibitions and loans, among other cultural, political, and financial entanglements.
But others are considering boycotts as a strategic option for activism. A group organized by artists Walid Raad and Emily Jacir released a petition demanding closer regulation of labor conditions for migrant workers at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi; some signers are already boycotting the museum until “fully verifiable procedures for protecting the rights of the workers” are in place. The museum responded that Human Rights Watch paints an “inaccurate picture” of the progress it has made and continues to make. Another petition was launched by anonymous artists to protest the firing of Sharjah Art Foundation’s director, Jack Persekian, over a purportedly offensive piece in the emirate’s biennial this past spring. Some signers of that petition have also raised the possibility of a future boycott.
It’s clear from these efforts that as centers of power in the art world emerge beyond its longtime traditional capitals, questions of how to evaluate and influence human-rights issues have become more complicated. “I don’t think these are the last petitions we’ll see,” says Creative Time chief curator Nato Thompson, who likens them to social-network activism in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. “These are new equations. Artists are finding they can organize and have power in a way they didn’t used to,” he notes. “They’re finding ways their community can demand ethical behavior….”
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