Part 3 : Art as activism vs. activism as art
CW: When I first started organizing I looked at [it] as a mental escape from the rat race of grad school and I really liked it. It was emotionally good for me. But now, three years, four years later, I’ve seen enough of organizing and I’ve felt enough jealousy that I think that sometimes that Hunger Games feeling is actually everywhere. And that’s just maybe the condition of late capitalism.
VD: You said something that I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say, which is that you started [your organizing] almost as an antithesis to your experience of the art world.
CW: I think there’s a very big separation in my life between my art and my organizing because of the things I’ve mentioned before, because I don’t think my paintings can be political the way I can be political, and it’s just a philosophical thing. We’re in late capitalism, we’re trying to be super-specialized — everyone has to be really specialized in something, otherwise they don’t make money. We have to stop doing that thing that the scientists did when they discovered how to make an atom bomb. The scientists who discovered how to make an atom bomb were really really good at their jobs, but they may not have been really good at being humans. So we have to stop being so good at our jobs as artists and start being better at what you said, better at being human.
VD: You mean coming together collectively.
CW: Yeah. And I really don’t agree with the premise of the Rauschenberg Grant to a certain extent. Because it says Artist as Activist. Artist as activist is really freakin’ hard. But artist and activist, maybe that’s more exciting to me, maybe there’s more possibilities.
VD: So in terms of your whole life experience, is activism a newer part?
CW: So my art is about my emotions, and my organizing is the only way I can deal with my ego. My ego is constantly under threat. My ego as a “good person,” a “good person of color,” someone who is anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-sexist — that self-identification in my ego is constantly being threatened because I have racial and class privilege. So how can I participate in a system where my parents identified with the white settler colonial system? As immigrants coming to America they did not identify with the indigenous or enslaved population. So how do I deal with that history, that legacy? How do I contain my ego of being a good person with that legacy? Organizing is the only way that I’ve found that. And my art is totally ridden with guilt.
VD: I was just explaining to somebody how important it feels to me to have my own art practice happening right now at the same time as I’m doing this really emotionally intense thing of traveling with and installing YJC’s memorial that’s been created by hundreds of young people in juvenile halls, schools [and] juvenile camps all across Los Angeles. It feels so important to me to have my own art practice. Not because I’m like, “Oh, my art practice is sooo special,” but because I need to have my ego in something else other than this memorial project. It’s to avoid the insidious underbelly of socially engaged art projects — or community art projects, or social practice — where your identity as an artist becomes wrapped up in something that’s actually somebody else’s lived experience.
CW: You know what I think is really important? The last piece you did that I experienced, which was that audio piece [that] you presented at Analog Dissident. There was a really good conversation, and out of the conversation I realized that your piece was to a certain extent about how to be a white ally.
VD: How was it that for you?
CW: Because when I experienced it and when we talked about it afterwards, that piece was about amplifying the voices of the people who were directly impacted and putting their thoughts and analysis at the forefront, and stepping back. And using your white privilege to ask the policemen a hard question. Does that make sense? That’s really freakin’ hard! It’s hard to have privilege in a space and not be an asshole.
VD: Yeah it does. I see how my artwork, my sculptural work, has been so much about dysfunctional systems, and the structures that support dysfunctional systems. And suddenly it’s like, I saw this process of recording and producing an album as a system that could actually function as a tool to amplify people’s voices, like [you were] saying, and to collect their stories. The stories I’ve been recording are people’s personal experiences of a truly dysfunctional system and all of those structures.
Part 4 : Who benefits from art? Who benefits from activism?
CW: What’s the audience for organizing and what’s the audience for art? The audience for organizing to me is all of the people who are oppressed under this really crappy system, but then the audience for art is all of the people who are complicit in this system. So my art has a certain level of disgust in it. People have said that it’s really cynical, but it’s not actually cynical — it’s just super angry. I’m just so mad at all these people. The things that are going on are so intense. Just [the] LA County jail system — the largest jail system in the world — holds 15,000 people at any given time, and they want to build more jails in LA and the cost would be $2 billion.
VD: Your position is that the people that you are speaking to with your artwork are the people that are complicit in that.
CW: Yeah that’s totally my assumption. Because if I show my work in LA, it’s people who are in LA, who either don’t know what’s going on or they don’t care. And by not caring, I don’t mean liking a Facebook post or saying, “Oh that’s terrible,” I’m talking about people just aren’t willing to take the time to educate themselves.
VD: I generally think of [my] audience as the people who I’m immediately surrounded by. And in the case of when I was in grad school, that was people I think you’re kinda thinking of, Christine.
CW: You mean art people? People with a master’s degree in the art field?
VD: Yeah, that’s who I was pretty much surrounding myself with. But working on the album, and for the past few years of doing organizing work, I’ve been surrounding myself with a different group of people.
CW: I guess the inverse of who benefits from art and who benefits from activism is how does art benefit me and how does activism benefit me? If I give the art world something to munch on, then that makes me a better artist, or a more prestigious artist, whereas if I help organize then maybe the movement can be a little bit stronger.
VD: You mean that working toward being a better artist only helps you as an individual but working as a better organizer helps the movement?
CW: I guess what I’m trying to talk about is labor hours. If I put my labor into making works of art that then get sold — or not sold — or somehow add cultural capital in the art world, that’s my labor hours benefiting the art world, whereas if I put my labor hours into the organizing world, then I think it will ultimately benefit LA County. If LA County doesn’t build the new women’s jail and the new mental health jail, ultimately that will benefit Los Angeles.
VD: I think there are so many different art worlds. I get a little bit uncomfortable, even though I also get swept into doing this as well: the idea of talking about art as though it’s this specialized thing that only people with degrees in art do. The organizing work that happens in LA in general, by organizations like YJC and Critical Resistance and North East Los Angeles Alliance, that is art work. It feels like the “art world” in Los Angeles will occasionally acknowledge art that is happening by those groups, but there’s [a restricted] view of art within the art-market-related art world.
CW: Andrea Fraser complains about the term “art world” all the time. She says the art world isn’t a separate thing; it’s still part of the world we’re living in. And it’s this huge multibillion-dollar industry, and I think that’s where my frustration comes from. It’s not a frustration with the art world, it’s just frustration with super-privileged comfortable people everywhere, including myself. And the worst part of it is that they’re in my world and they’re in the world of oppressed peoples, and they’re making some things worse with apathy. Is that too crazy?
VD: Wait what?
CW: [laughs] I asked is that too crazy? I think a lot of disgust comes across in my work, and [that] disgust happens in my organizing when I’m at the Board of Supervisors, saying they’re just as bad as Nazi sympathizers for locking up mentally ill people. No one’s doing industrial-scale murder in Los Angeles, but [there are] horrible stories of women in California prisons getting sterilized, in-custody deaths, [inmates] being denied medication [and] the overuse of solitary confinement, which California calls security housing units (SHU). The UN said that any sort of solitary confinement beyond 14 days constitutes torture and is going to cause permanent damage. And there are people in California prisons who have been locked up in the SHU for decades. And it’s our taxpayer money! So I really actually don’t think bringing up Nazis is that far [off]. People are going to be so mad at me if this goes to print. As a genocidal project the prison industrial complex is pretty compelling just in the sense that if you’re locking up mostly people of color and they’re gender-separated, then the capacity to form families and reproduce family structures is totally destroyed.
VD: The impact that locking people up has on families is tremendous, in terms of parents being removed from their children, children ending up in foster care. The likelihood that a person who grew up [in foster care] is then gonna become system-involved [is greater]. It becomes a generational trauma that reproduces itself. So actually there is a reproduction that’s happening in terms of a family unit, but the reproduction is devastating to those families.
CW: And so if there’s this stuff going on in California, and there’s the rise of very, very rich venture capitalist firms in the Bay Area, and there’s a thriving art scene in Los Angeles, and now there’s people getting rich off of the legalization of marijuana, it’s really hard for me to not get super angry. Where is the social justice in California right now?