by Ruth Erickson
The temporary occupation of space to confront powerful institutions has been on my mind as the Occupy Wall Street movement passes its month-long mark. The protestors condemn the increasing concentration of wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer people and the precarious existence of the other 99%. They have set up camps across the country, assembling patchwork plots of sleeping bags, hand-written signs, and stations for first aid, food, and media. The camps’ ad-hoc aesthetics visualize the very precariousness of the occupiers, who have been arrested, pepper sprayed, and beaten by the hundreds, but whose outraged sentiments seem to only grow with time.
In late September two events took place in New York City to draw attention to the inequalities and machinations of the art market through the temporary and insurrectionary claiming of space. On September 22, Occupy Wall Street activists infiltrated a Sotheby’s auction to protest the company’s anti-union policies and to show support for art handlers who have been locked out of contract negotiations since mid-summer. One by one protestors disrupted the auction by standing up and making damning pronouncements about, for instance, the CEO’s salary increases and the art handlers’ dwindling wages before being escorted out by Sotheby’s security.
On September 23, the longtime politically engaged French artist Fred Forest planned his Oeuvre Invisible for the Museum of Modern Art, which consisted of measuring a square meter and then occupying this space by placing ultra-sonic sound emitters. The project relates to Forest’s conception of objects as invisible systems in his book L’Œuvre-Système Invisible (Harmattan, 2006) and continues four decades of culture jamming actions by the now 78-year-old artist. Forest’s career of détournement began with his 1972 work Space Media when he inserted blank spaces in newspapers, the radio, and television and invited consumers to fill in the space with their free expressions and thoughts, thereby reversing the conventional direction of mass media communication. Oeuvre Invisible brings together two themes, in particular, that have occupied Forest throughout his career: critique of the art market and invisibility.
Fred Forest, Space Media, January 1972, Channel 2, French National Television, courtesy of the artist
For his project Artistic Square Meter in 1977, Forest purchased land at the border of France and Switzerland and attempted to re-sell parcels at an art auction to illustrate speculation in the art market. When French authorities outlawed the sale, Forest replaced the square meter of land with a piece of fabric, which he bought, declared a “non-artistic square meter,” and sold for a couple thousand dollars. At Documenta in 1987, Forest created a 14,000 Hertz electromagnetic field by secretly placing transmitters in the within the Fredericum and then used local press to reveal the existence of the uninvited work. Continuing his critique of institutions, in 1994, Forest requested that the Centre Georges Pompidou make publicly available the price paid for Hans Haacke’s work Shapolsky et al. (1971), in which Haacke charts Shapolsky’s dirty real-estate dealings around New York City. Haacke’s work was famously censored at the time of exhibition by the Guggenheim Museum but has since become a canonical work of institutional critique, purchased by many major museums for millions of dollars. The publicly-funded museum refused, and in order to reveal this lack of transparency and speculation, Forest sued the museum in a multi-year court case, which which was finally founded in favor of the institution (see Forest’s Fonctionnements et dysfonctionnements de l’art contemporain, Harmattan, 2000). From March to September of 2011, Forest lived in New York City as a resident at Residency Unlimited and quickly set his sights on the MoMA for his next playful critique.
The project for the MoMA was the insurrectionary insertion of an invisible work, which would always remain beyond the grasp of institutional acquisition. Upon arriving with his group of volunteers at 4pm, Forest was greeted by three security agents who prohibited the work and threatened to call the New York City police if any performance took place. A twenty-minute conversation between Forest and the guards ensued about freedom of expression within the museum. The MoMA, Forest learned, only exhibits acquired or borrowed works, that is, works that have already participated in the art market. This is the very market being attacked sixty blocks further south by Occupy Wall Street and just a few block north by protestors at Sotheby’s. This is the market that Forest had made visible through the failure of his Oeuvre Invisible. After being trailed by security guards until leaving the building and area, Forest declared the creation of a new work, “The Conversation.”
Video Documentation of Sotheby protest: http://www.truth-out.org/occupy-wall-street-activists-disrupt-sothebys-art-auction/1316784991
Video Documentation by the Biennale Project of “The Conversation” by Fred Forest: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_5rXN6nkx4, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wo4pneZF-0E, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92XnYf829i4