The ubiquitous sounds of protest filled the intimate, transparently constructed exhibition space: people yell, groups chant, impatient drivers honk their horns, police blow their high-pitched whistles. These are the familiar noises that greet you when you enter YoungArts' Basel exhibition, "Zero Tolerance." Curated by MoMA PS1 Director Klaus Biesenbach, the title references the infamously ugly police policy adopted by New York City in the 1990s.
Zero tolerance was meant to drastically reduce crime, but the human toll was immediately evident: thousands were incarcerated for minor drug offenses and the policy targeted the city's most vulnerable citizens. The phrase itself -- "zero tolerance," rife as it is with authoritarian overtones -- is now common enough in schools and the workplace, a kind of seepage of tyrannical abuse into the domestic sphere.
And the YoungArts' exhibition explores the effects of totalitarian policies like zero tolerance, bringing together a group of artists whose work delves into the "tensions between freedom and control." There are familiar names in the exhibition: YoungArts' alum Doug Aitken, Yoko Ono, Pussy Riot, and Joseph Beuys; artists whose bodies of work have largely challenged the abstract principles of freedom and speech. The video installation of one of Pussy Riot's punk-inspired public protests was, as always, unsettling. In part because it never ceases to surprise that the group's politically charged works elicited the strong arm of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, but also because Pussy Riot's righteous anger transcends nationality.
Voina's Kiss Garbage (2011) -- a video installation documenting a multi-day action during which the members of the Russian street-art group kissed and embraced unsuspecting police officers -- was the most compelling work in the exhibition. Confrontational and political, Kiss Garbage is uncomfortable to watch. Because the police are all women (as are Voina's members), there's an undertone of sexual assault; the police react violently -- they push the members off, put them in headlocks, resist as many women would. Voina turns an affectionate gesture on its head; without consent the embrace turns threatening, the monopolistic violence of the state -- of the police -- is returned in an act as unsettling as an unwelcome kiss.
The power of art as protest emerges as a theme in "Zero Tolerance," and the exhibition's cogency and political relevance made it a welcome stand out amidst much of this Basel's bloated artificiality. And this year Basel -- more so than in previous years -- seemed particularly out of touch. In the middle of die-ins and national protests over racially-focused police brutality, the moneyed glitz of Basel seemed like a fantastically constructed fortress of the one percent. There were works, of course, that dealt with the deaths in Ferguson and Staten Island directly, Robert Longo's charcoal drawing, Untitled (Ferguson Police, August 13, 2014) done in the "tradition of epic historical battlefield paintings," was hard to miss. But in the insular world of Basel, the narrative turned away from the protests that have swept nearly every major American city and towards the spectacle of bodies and Usher's iPhone.
YoungArts' "Zero Tolerance" tried to slip global unrest back into Basel's scenery. A poster from Deborah Kelly's choreographed Talk Man Tango: A Tiananmen Memorial (2009), serves as "a monument, a memorial on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, built of dancing bodies," and other work references the Arab Spring and human rights abuses in South America. Weirdly absent from the exhibition is political unrest in the United States post the Vietnam War. But the era of Vietnam protests has, perhaps, always been the heyday of American unrest.
But if "Zero Tolerance" suggested more radical possibilities, then the protests over the weekend confirmed a kind of artistic hunger for political intervention. An estimated 300 protesters shut down the streets of Wynwood on Friday, both as an act of solidarity with national protests and also to remind Art Basel revelers that police brutality had profoundly impacted Miami's own art community. In August of last year, graffiti artist Israel "Reefa" Hernandez was Tasered by the police, an act that likely caused the 18-year-old's death.
The protesters carried large banners that read "Brutality" and "Authority" and signs by Occupy-affiliated artist Molly Crabapple. "Art is about resistance," artist Sharika Shaw told Hyperallergic, "it's about making the uncomfortable comfortable and making the comfortable uncomfortable. That's what we're doing here. It's about how we use it."
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Maybe that political consciousness will find its way into next year's Art Basel. Maybe that's wishful thinking.
Perhaps though, it will continue to mold Miami's own art community long after Basel is gone.
Thanks to Jillian Steinhauer for permission to use her photographs. See more here.