A-C Meetup: The Pallid Bust of Snowden: Collaborative Art the Conceptual Way by Northsylvania

( – promoted by TMC)

Marxist theory holds that there are no heroic individuals in the art world. Even the most solitary practitioner depends on the people who manufacture their supplies, the understanding of the people for whom the art is intended, and in the best cases, the critics who write about it. I suppose an artist could, in theory, draw on the beach with a sharp stick, let the tide erase it without anyone else seeing it, and be satisfied, but for the overwhelming majority of us, art is a form of collaboration. This piece is about the difficulty in negotiating that path in conceptual art, of trying to have a work carry a message that is understandable to its intended viewer without becoming either so simplistic that it becomes polemic, or so difficult that the audience refuses to engage with it. The works of this kind I find most interesting incorporate collaboration, either on purpose, or by fortunate accident. Recently a particular piece in Brooklyn, ironically starting out as a statement about a heroic individual, Edward Snowden, has ended up showing how collaboration provides layers of meaning, and so gives greater insight into both the original subject and to our own role as the viewer and ultimate collaborator.  

When Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message”, he meant that the way information is delivered is important. We react to the information depending on how we come by it. An example might be the difference in reading about a horrific crime in a newspaper and seeing raw police footage of the crime and interviews with the victims on television. For most, video is a much more immediate medium because print information needs to be visualised, translated into a narrative we understand.

In the academic art world, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is one of the basic art theory texts, but putting the principle into practice in static visual art can sometimes be difficult or even counterproductive. Overthinking can sometimes cause more problems for artists than not. I knew an excellent painter whose eloquent way of applying paint to canvas in great looping brushstrokes brought her at least local renown. She was also intellectually curious and became interested in incorporating critical theory into her own practice. Unfortunately, by doing so, she lost the expressive quality in her work and the message she was trying to convey was ultimately lost.

Others pursue the path well enough to appeal to other intellectuals, who are aware of critical theory, but sometimes their reception by the general public is either uncomprehending or outright hostile. A successful example would be installation artist Judy Chicago, whose Dinner Party is considered one of the first examples of feminist art. Its subject is 39 women, both historical and mythical, who have influenced history. The media used are an assortment of traditional women’s crafts, from needlework to ceramics. The way in which it was done, in collaboration with many female volunteers, is also important in that cooperation in pursuit of a shared goal is traditionally considered a female attribute. A less successful example would be Jana Sterbeck’s Vanitas: Flesh Dress For an Albino Anorexic, which consists of 50 pounds of lightly salted flank steak draped on a silver mannequin, which desiccated and became hard as it travelled from one show to the next. In this piece, the explanation provided to the viewer could be considered necessary.

The flank steak is meant neither to be eaten nor to look like something one might want to eat. Rather, it concretizes the self-consuming anorexic body, the body that refuses food. This is a body without a mouth. The portal is closed. The skin of such a body becomes literally a flesh dress draped upon a hard frame, an emblem of the anorectic body as corpse.

This is the kind of art that the casual museum visitor passes by, holding their nose, on their way to the Rembrandts, and so the message, which might have provided insight to at least some of those people, is also lost because the medium, while it might be valid from a critical standpoint, is not universally understood.

Conceptual art is particularly prone to misunderstanding, and if a political point is being made, comprehension by the viewer is critical, which is why the recent Edward Snowden installation in Brooklyn works on both a critical and universal level. It was originally intended to be an “intervention”: changing a familiar object or environment to give it different meaning. Last week, three anonymous artists attached a 100 pound bust of Snowden to a war monument in Brooklyn. While reversible, the execution was faultlessly executed and looked quite permanent. Their choice of that particular monument resonated as well as explained in their artists’ statement.

Fort Greene’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is a memorial to American POWs who lost their lives during the Revolutionary War. We have updated this monument to highlight those who sacrifice their safety in the fight against modern-day tyrannies. It would be a dishonor to those memorialized here to not laud those who protect the ideals they fought for, as Edward Snowden has by bringing the NSA’s 4th-Amendment-violating surveillance programs to light. All too often, figures who strive to uphold these ideals have been cast as criminals rather than in bronze. Our goal is to bring a renewed vitality to the space and prompt even more visitors to ponder the sacrifices made for their freedoms. We hope this inspires them to reflect upon the responsibility we all bear to ensure our liberties exist long into the future.

The original intention was laudible enough, garnered some publicity and, depending on their opinions, either amused or annoyed those who heard about it. However, the portrayal of Snowden as a heroic bronze bust, even to those of us who are grateful for his whistleblowing activities, implies that he alone was answerable for getting information on domestic spying to the general public. While he was primarily responsible, Glenn Greenwald, his partner David Miranda, and Laura Poitras all contributed as journalists, and the Guardian, the Washington Post, and the New York Times took the risk of publishing the excerpts. In the end, our understanding of the reach of the NSA has depended on quite a few people.  

However, what happened after the original artists installed the statue has taken the work beyond the realm of an elaborate prank and into both critical and universal excellence. The authorities, of course, behaving according to their natures as the guardians of the status quo, removed the statue and presumably disposed of it, returning the statue to its former state. This is what they are paid to do by the people of New York. As such, they were, and in a sense all the taxpayers who empower authority, were collaborating on the final piece.

After the bust of Snowden was removed, another set of activist artists projected a hologram of Snowden to replace the bronze bust the authorities had removed, saying

Our feeling is that while the State may remove any material artifacts that speak in defiance against incumbent authoritarianism, the acts of resistance remain in the public consciousness. And it is in sharing that act of defiance that hope resides.

They were also collaborating, and by doing so made the entire intervention more profound. A hologram projected on smoke is ephemeral by nature, yet like a ghost encountered unexpectedly on a dark night, quite memorable.  Snowden may or may not be a hero to you personally, and even if he is, he is not a singular actor. However, his influence, like the spectre at the feast, reminds us on what shaky moral ground our capitalist system is constructed. The totality of the piece conforms well to McLuhan’s precepts. The various media employed were entirely appropriate to the subject. A singular hero is cast in bronze and displayed for admiration just as many people regard Snowden. Authorities tear down that image and remove it from sight just as the government has tried to cast down Snowden and force him to stay out of sight in Moscow, and others show that their actions are futile, but that holding his actions and the aftermath in our collective memory is also important. Our understanding of the system under which we live has fundamentally changed, but changing the system itself will require collaboration on many levels. Conceptual art doesn’t get much better than this.

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Writing about art without using images seems strange, but in this case necessary. Our dear friend and instigator, NY brit expat, while well enough to cross post articles to other forums, is suffering under the influence of a horrific toothache, so I am trying to go easy on her and not use the wonderful Kos image library. If you’re curious about meat dresses, please use the handy link and, in the meantime, please send out love and healing vibes NY brit’s way. She needs it.