Sophie J Williamson



Towards Molecular Curating

In January 2012, Nigeria broke into nationwide civil resistance against the government’s elimination of oil subsidies – regarded by many of the country’s disadvantaged citizens as their only benefit from the country’s oil wealth. Directly impacted by both the oil subsidy crisis and the subsequent protests, CCA Lagos have been actively supporting artists engaged in the Occupy Nigeria movement.[1]

An e-flux retrospectively announced CCA Lagos’ event programme, Occupy Nigeria, comprising performances, discussions and exhibited works.

Translating local issues, including local urgencies and struggles, to an increasingly globalised art world is often central to the curators role, but the decision to retrospectively share this activity with the networked art world provokes the question: can curatorial mediation and art world communications actually be a useful support to activist art practices aiming to create real social or political change?


Art, Activism and the Institution

[one_half padding=”0 20px 0 0″]Publicly funded organisations, governed by neo-liberal policies, demand community-engaged projects to satisfy their public service requirements, but – somewhat ironically – are very circumspect of engaging with any real political activity. Brian Holmes has claimed that ‘when people talk about politics in an artistic frame, they are lying’[2]. He argues that the institution allows the representation of problems and efforts to change them, but only their representation, not the real unfolding of necessarily antagonistic process.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of curators attempting to actively engage the political, beyond representation; it could be argued that the curatorial gesture is after all a highly politicised act. Processual and participatory strategies such as public discussions, collaborative working methods and text production have been common curatorial tools for this. Some have even opted out of the exhibition format altogether as a curatorial form. For example, Ivo Mesquita’s 28th Sao Paulo Biennale (2008), Living In Contact, where the 30,000-square-metre Biennale pavilion was left entirely empty and copies of the front door key made available to residents so they could enter the space at any time, or the Cork Caucus[3] (2005) organized by Annie Fletcher, Charles Esche and Art/Not Art, comprising a programme of reading groups, discussions and presentations.

These curatorial interventions are no doubt genuine attempts to create debate, challenge public political perceptions, and possibly instigate political action, but there is little doubt that projects set in an art context run the risk of complete recuperation into art discourse.

[/one_half][one_half_last]The term activist art covers an array of different mediums and topics, and falls under many names, including among others ‘relational athletics’, ‘social practice’, ‘legislative art’, and ‘community art’, much of which commonly appears in institutional programming. However, the crossover between art and activism has always been awkward; more often than not one is referenced in relation to the other, often to the detriment of both. Whilst the art context can provide a useful framework for in-depth discussion and theorisation, the art audience is largely a passive one. In a recent interview Janna Graham, of activist art collective Ultra-Red, commented that speaking at a museum symposium felt like preaching to the converted, with perhaps only one person out of an audience of several hundred following up with any further interest or involvement[4]. Context determines the codes that the audience use to read work, and therefore determines the potential for action. The time spent working on exhibitions, symposiums and discussions within an art setting then becomes a hindrance to aims of these practices. ‘Unless analysis leads to action, analysis is paralysis’.[5]

Greg Sholette defined activist art as ‘the opposite of those aesthetic practices that, however well intentioned or overtly political in content, remain dependent on the space of the museum for their meaning’[6]. The three stages of activist activity – awareness raising, symbolic action and direct action – all involve tasks of organization and mediation inherent to the curatorial role. How then can curators learn from activist artists in order to better support these practices beyond the confines of an art context?[/one_half_last]


Spectacle, Détournement and Symbolic Action

[one_half padding=”0 20px 0 0″]Unsurprisingly there has been a history of artists who, aiming to create real political or social change, have rejected the art institution and its communication networks in favour of an art-into-life approach.

Guy Debord’s indictment of the alienating and divisive effects of capitalism in The Society of the Spectacle (1967) strikes straight to the heart of why social engagement is important: ‘it re-humanizes a society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalist production’[7]. Debord and The Situationists proclaimed that ‘up until now philosophers and artists have only interpreted situations; the point now is transform them’[8]. Spectacle has become a substitute for real life experience; championing détournement they aimed to undermine this condition. Offering an alternative ideology through poster campaigns, they called for workers to occupy factories and run them through workers councils, subsequently encouraging the May ’68 revolts in Paris. Appropriating or exploiting non-art communication networks has since been a common tactic in activist-art practice.

The AIDS crisis demanded not only political activism but what Douglas Crimp has called ‘cultural activism’, and resulted in some of the most persuasive claims of the transformative capabilities of artist-activist position. The iconography produced by artists, such as ACT UP and Gran Fury, was central to redressing the cultural assumptions that had resulted in an inadequate response to AIDS. The value of these graphics resided not in their aesthetic power but in their effectiveness as part of a larger movement. ‘Display material about AIDS within a museum or gallery is not the same thing as reproducing text and images on T-shirts, buttons, and posters…cultural activism involves rethinking the identity of the artist as well as the role of production, distribution, and audience in determining a work’s significance.’ [9]

Art increasingly possesses a new normativity, where talent, invention and desire have become prescriptive for the building of economy and the production of subjectivities, and communication networks are increasingly complex, competitive fields. Art activists therefore need to find progressively more creative, media savvy methods of competing with their hegemonic counterparts.

The Yes Men’s media stunts are perhaps the most successful contemporary example of artists building on Debord’s theory of détournement; ‘turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself’. Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men appeared on the BBC in 2004, on the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal chemical disaster, impersonating a Dow Chemical spokesman; under guise he accepted full responsibility for the disaster and promised compensation for the thousands of victims. The strength of the stunt was its ability to reach extensive secondary audiences, retold across international news channels and press, including interviews with Bichlbaum explaining his reasons for undertaking the action. It continues to be discussed across popular culture, political, activist and arts networks.

In their seminal text, Empire, Hardt and Negri illustrated the integral link between global communication networks and symbolic action. Taking advantage of them can be a catalyst for the rapid, and free, distribution of imagery and information to a mass audience with little additional effort on the part of the protagonist, and offer the possibility of further debate and action. Artists can play a valuable role in creating symbolic actions with an aesthetic (whether visual or poetic) that will be readily re-distributed through these networks.

Responding to the election of Austria’s far-right FPÖ party into a coalition government, Christoph Schlingensief’s Please Love Austria (2000) parodied the party’s anti-immigration policies. Amid intense public interest, twelve asylum-seekers were housed in a shipping container; complete with blue flags representing the FPÖ party, a banner bearing the slogan ‘Ausländer raus’ (‘Foreigners out’) and the logo of the Kronenzeitung, Austria’s biggest-selling tabloid. CCTV streamed their activities live as a Big Brother style reality TV show, the prize being permit to stay in Austria. Each day two participants were voted out by the audience and deported. The work bore witness to Giorgio Agamben’s thesis that the camp is ‘the hidden matrix and nomos of political space in which we are still living’ [10]. Hannah Arendt argues that it is the thoughtlessness of the individual that allows violence in society; the Brechtian jarring effect made the audience acutely aware of their inactivity in resisting the FPÖ party, the container compound can be understood as contemporary multipurpose gestic space. One man quoted in the Guardian said, ‘they showed these containers on television in Paris. In France, people are pointing to us and thinking this is a country of Nazis.’[11] Utilising the resources of media and the Internet, Please Love Austria far exceeded the ephemeral nature of live performance. In doing so it expanded the parameters of activist art by recognising the rise of interactivity as a significant mode of public discourse.

[/one_half][one_half_last]In Greek philosophy the Cynics practiced parrhesia, the manner of ‘saying everything’, even if this posed great personal risk. In doing so, they conjoined the art of existence[12] with the discourse of truth. Exploring the scandalously public life of the Ancient Greek Cynics, Foucault coined the term ‘philosophical activism’. For Foucault the Cynic philosopher served as a backdrop for a more general form of activism; an ‘activism in the world and against the world’.[13] This could be likened to the anti-globalization movement, anti-racist no-border camps, transnational migrant strikes, Mayday movements of the precarious, and more recently to the Occupy Movement.

However, activism often still has a stance that is strangely separated from people’s everyday life, even that of its own protagonists. The Occupy Movement, whilst having successfully traversed national borders, risks appearing to the general public as a militant activist subculture, with its own signs, values, and patterns of legitimisation quite separate from the rest of society. As autonome a.f.r.i.k.a. gruppe have argued, ‘the future of this global activism will depend on whether it succeeds in being capable of action at the local level, the level of everyday life, while continuing to develop its transversal, border-crossing character at the same time. The most important border that has to be crossed is the border that constitutes the activist her or himself in a separation from the ‘rest’ of society.’[14]

This is a central theme addressed in many contemporary activist art practices, where artists engage with everyday conditions, either creating artwork out of current conditions or creating a situation at a local level. Ai Weiwei is a good example of an artist who has consistently presented the everyday politics of life in China in a very accessible manner to Western audiences. Earlier this month, in protest to the constant surveillance he has been subjected to since his release from state detention, Ai installed webcams in his home with a 24-hour live video steam of his activities on the Internet. This defiant act, living as a modern-day Cynic through his web-cams, Ai posed the threat of absolute truth to the Chinese government and the web feed was promptly removed.

Tania Bruguera also appropriates the tools and mechanisms of power; whilst Ai exposes his own everyday condition as a symbolic comment on wider political conditions, Bruguera intends not to ‘represent the political, but to create the political’[15]. Her five-year project Immigrant Movement International, which she describes as an artist-initiated socio-political movement, exemplifies what she has termed at ‘useful art’. Living on a minimum wage income with migrant workers in the ethnically diverse, working class neighborhood of Corona, Queens, she situates herself within the social environment in which she intends to negate change. The IMI Headquarters acts as a resource for recent immigrants, providing services such as free legal advice and English classes. Engaging both local and international communities, Bruguera works alongside social service organisations, elected officials, and artists to examine growing concerns about the political representation and conditions facing immigrants, raising awareness of immigrant precarity to the wider public. IMI demonstrates the potential for sustaining a project in the community over the long term, focusing on the transformation of the condition of ‘viewer’ into one of ‘citizenry.’

Gerald Raunig’s theory suggests that artists such as Ai Weiwei and Tania Bruguera act as ‘micro-machines, which in their singular situativity form disobedient modes of existence and subjectivation, develop arts of existence and life techniques, as well as translocally dispersed, global abstract machines.’ [16]. These offers of alternative ways of living apply all the more to the collective Cynicism, or rather what Raunig calls the ‘molecular Cynicism’ of the new activisms today. In this kind of molecular Cynicism, it is not the individual that is at the center but rather ‘the exchange relations of singularities testing disobedient, non-subservient, industrious forms of living’. [17] This theory is a development from Guattari’s concept of the molecular revolution, where action focuses not only on taking over state power, but ‘takes effect in the pores of everyday life, in the molecules of forms of living’.[18] Whilst molecular activism is not dropping out of society altogether, it is a breaches the time regime that we live in, in order to try out new ways of living, new forms of organisation and new time relations.[/one_half_last]


Towards Molecular Curating

[one_half padding=”0 20px 0 0″]Curators have not been completely absent from activist art practice. For example, Lucy Lippard, as an independent curator, was co-founder of several important collectives including the feminist art collective Heresies and Women’s Action Coalition. During the 1980s, aiming to organise a highly fractured, post-68 counter-hegemonic culture, she played a pivotal role in Political Art Documentation and Distribution (PAD/D), developing an alternative to the mainstream art system and new forms of distribution economies. Whilst institutional curators were slow to follow suit, the emergence of New Intuitionalism in Europe over the past 15 years, has seen curators actively seeking to establish the museum as a platform for difference and conflict. This influence is beginning to be seen in the UK too, with projects such as The Centre for Possible Studies at the Serpentine Gallery, working in collaboration with politically engaged arts organisations such as the Townhouse Gallery, Cairo and Ashkal Alwan, Beirut. These models have proved some success, for example in 2000 MACBA curated a series of workshops on the theme of ‘Direct Action as one of the Fine Arts’, which evolved into a two-week meeting of activists and has resulted in several political projects that are still active today[19].

Whilst activist artists invariably work with a wide range of specialists from different fields, the interaction between art and political scenes is still intermittent, communicated more often than not through a few polymaths toggling between the two. A stronger interaction, which could become the starting point for a broader transversal praxis, still needs to be developed in concrete projects. Nato Thompson, Director of Creative Time, is playing a significant role in developing the curatorial role in socially engaged art; his practice suggest how institutions might begin to develop transversal working strategies. Creative Time’s exhibition ‘Living As Form’ in New York last year comprised documentation of more than 100 artists’ projects, as well as nine site-specific commissions located throughout the area of Essex Street Market (including Bruguera’s IMI which they are funding for five years) and an online archive of more than 350 socially engaged actions. Coinciding with the Creative Time summit, Thompson aimed to not only provide a platform for legitimating this kind of work, but also importantly demonstrate the complexity and fissures amongst its practitioners[20]. While artists like Thomas Hirschorn and Suzanne Lacy have more cache in mainstream contemporary art circles, Thompson deliberately presented their work alongside almost purposefully anti-art world cultural producers, for example the Baltimore Development Cooperative and Laurie Jo Reynolds, and non-art organisations such as the United Indian health services and WikiLeaks. The project presented a ‘sample constellation’ of projects functioning both inside the art infrastructure as well as those poised outside, making a point not to assume that there is an inherent difference between artist initiated and non-artist initiated projects; ‘consider what they do, not who they say they are’ [21].

[/one_half][one_half_last]These examples perhaps suggest that where curators can make the greatest impact is not through curatorial form, but through enabling an infrastructure for activist art practices to flourish as part of wider cultural and social production. While new institutionalism is still in its infancy, I propose that this model should be pushed further to allow for a type of curating that facilitates and supports molecular activity; where curators help facilitate frictions and experiments in the world beyond the gallery walls.

Most activists will agree that no single response can work on its own; a variety of tactics that address a variety of communities must be used. Curators, with their institutional support structure, have the resources to network transversal cultural activist practices together in a critical and meaningful way, linking disparate localities and groups. As Brian Holmes has proposed, ‘the museum has to open its doors, or better, shift these resources, towards the sources of a healthy alienation located in social and psychic spaces within the distance of dominant systems, or in direct opposition to them.’ [22] This is extremely difficult for museums to do, not only must they invent new processes for working with their publics at the risk of upsetting the internal hierarchies of the institution; they must also legitimate a free-remit, hands-off, fluid approach to funding bodies and trustees in order to allow for these projects to prosper independently from institutional obligations and agendas. But as Holmes has stated: ‘politics involves risking something essential.’[23]

Despite there being no further information about CCA Lagos’ Occupy Nigeria event series on the web, the programme seems to be commonly known about in the art world, no doubt due to e-flux’s extensive mailing list of art professionals worldwide. Perhaps the knowledge that CCA Lagos is directly engaging with political activity is knowledge enough when envisioning a future of molecular curatorial practice supporting activist endevours.[/one_half_last]


[1] The rocketing fuel prices and the subsequent protests accumulatively resulted in the cancellation of the exhibition Contested Terrains co-organized by CCA Lagos and the Tate Modern.

[2] Brian Holmes, ‘Radical Artists & Mainstream Institutions: A Marriage Made In Increasingly Hot Waters’ in Geoff Cox, Nav Haq and Tom Trevor, Art, Activism and Recuperation (London: Arnolfini Gallery Limited, 2010) p. 19

[3] Caucus is a political term referring to the establishment of a political community.

[4] Interview with Janna Graham 29 March 2012

[5] Menendez-Conde, Ernesto, ‘Art, Social Criticism and Mass Media. An interview with John Perreault’ Art Experience NYC, Volume 1, No. 2, (2011)

[6] Gregory Sholette, ‘News from Nowhere: Activist Art and After‘ (1998) <>

[7] Claire Bishop, ‘Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now?’ in Nato Thompson (Ed.), Living as Form; Socially Engaged Art From 1991-2011 (New York: Creative Time Books, 2012)

[8] Situationist International as quoted in Gerald Raunig, Art and Revolution; Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007) p. 131

[9] Ann Cvetkovich, ‘Video, AIDS, and Activism’ in Kester, Grant H. (Ed.), Art, Activism & Oppositionality; Essays form the Afterimage (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), p. 183

[10] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, (Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1998) p. 166

[11] John Hooper, ‘Foreign farce Immigration play causes uproar in Vienna’, The Guardian (Friday 16 June 2000)

[12] Foucault defines ‘arts of existence’ and ‘life techniques’ as ‘those reflective and voluntary practices by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make of their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria’. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume Two (Middlesex: Penguin 1984) p. 10-11

[13] Gerald Raunig, ‘The Molecular Strike’ (2011) <>

[14] autonome a.f.r.i.k.a. gruppe, ‘Communication Guerilla – Transversality in Everyday Life?’ (2002) <>

[15] Tania Bruguera speaking at the Creative Time Summit (2010)

[16] Gerald Raunig, ‘The Molecular Strike’ (2011) <>

[17] Ibid.

[18] Gerald Raunig, ‘Gerald Raunig on Theory’ (2011) <>

[19] Namely ninguna es illegal and Indymedia. See autonome a.f.r.i.k.a. gruppe, ‘Communication Guerilla – Transversality in Everyday Life?’ (2002) <>

[20]Chelsea Haines, ‘A Conversation with Nato Thompson’ (2010) <>

[21] Nato Thompson, ‘Living As Form’ in Nato Thompson (Ed.), Living as Form; Socially Engaged Art From 1991-2011 (New York: Creative Time Books, 2012)

[22] Brian Holmes, ‘Radical Artists & Mainstream Institutions: A Marriage Made In Increasingly Hot Waters’ in Geoff Cox, Nav Haq and Tom Trevor, Art, Activism and Recuperation (London: Arnolfini Gallery Limited, 2010) p. 22

[23] Brian Holmes, ‘Radical Artists & Mainstream Institutions: A Marriage Made In Increasingly Hot Waters’ in Geoff Cox, Nav Haq and Tom Trevor, Art, Activism and Recuperation (London: Arnolfini Gallery Limited, 2010) p. 19