There’s a difference between activism and organization, between activist artists and artists who organize, between curators who organize radical images on walls and organizers who activate radical ideas through the people. Working Forces, curated by Jehra Patrick, does the good work of raising audience awareness to the conditions of artists working as laborers and activists. With an opening party (11/12) and a closing gathering at the Soap Factory this Sunday, December 18, it’s a traditional exhibition. Seamlessly arranged throughout an unwieldy space, which once was a genuine industrial soap factory, Working Forces stops short of committing to its own theme, as do most projects in this genre of curating activist art.
The show presents sculptures, performances, prints and installations, 13 works from 10 artists. These works together dramatize a range of progressive “ideologies from production and consumption, the professionalization of the artist, corporate identities, manual functions, languages of management, objects of labor, support structures, and art as industry.” Audiences are led to consider artists asserting “their voice not only as a working class, but as agents of social change.” Patrick’s deft spatial design weaves a cogent idea for folks to think about labor and equity and the Singularity and employment and planet earth and pockets and prisons and schoolyards and fields. The symbolic density of each artwork deserves its own paragraph, but let’s focus here on the spirit of the entire exhibition as a potential political movement. In the language of working forces, what can galleries do, and what does this particular exhibition actually get done?
Jordan Weber: “American Dreamers (Final Phase),” (2016)
Heather R. Buechler: “OSM Model No. 000001,” (2015)
Curator Jehra Patrick
J. Myszka Lewis: “Wreck Don’t Wreck,” (2015)
The challenge for exhibiting activist art is no longer to select the best works to honor the theme, which the Soap Factory’s Program Committee did, or to hang the art well, which Patrick did. Raising awareness to activist ideals is one crucial step in the path for progress, and art galleries are uniquely positioned to build toward the next step, the new challenge: converting audiences into volunteers.
Exhibitions representing activist art and its ideals welcome the rigor of being held accountable to their impact on lived social progress. As Patrick considers it, Working Forces spotlights “the artist’s role as activist. There’s an intended outcome through force, and it’s a complete sentence. Working forces what? Working forces something. The potential for outcome is interesting in relation to the title.” Working forces join forces. Working forces forces working. Art galleries tend to present work that poses questions, and host discussions for people to put voice to those questions, and the activist genre of curating tends to rest on the laurels of a call to action. But calling to action without taking care of the action called goes to work more like lip service to the cause. The extracurricular programmatic use of an art space determines any exhibition’s potential for outcome.
Of course art and its exhibitions can only go so far—everyone has a role in the ecology of forward thinking and action. Art helps us feel and think, especially in the moment of a gallery, but it might not persuade us to enact those thoughts elsewhere. Working Forces closes in a few days, and its spirit continues. After asking who’s coming here to the gallery, successful programming for exhibitions of activist art asks where we can go.
The safety and security of interior art spaces create opportunities to foment agitation through education, but they tend to insulate the momentum to organize out in the wild. Art is never enough or alone. Next time, let’s meet outside the gallery, ascend the steps of City Hall, tour bonafide factories. Art’s working forces need more oars in the water.