“What art might offer is always modest on its own, and, from one angle, art has never looked smaller. But from another angle, in the right conditions, it might offer something close to an actual survival skill.”
-- Ben Davis, Art in the After-Culture: Capitalist Crisis & Cultural Strategy
Critic Ben Davis offered this concluding thought in his new collection of essays, Art in the After-Culture. His was the final book I would read in 2022, and these words seem an appropriate summation for a time in which writing about art feels both absolutely urgent and entirely inconsequential.
Art’s “smallness” becomes apparent when measured against the sociological and environmental precarity we are facing. It appears smaller still when positioned as the antidote to this degrading reality—a narrative often promoted by those most responsible for our societal death spiral. Recognizing the tendencies of corporate entities to decouple their support of socially-conscious art from the actual impacts of their operations, Davis writes: “The entire art industry is built on the fantasy of artists as a special class of visionaries whose imagination will Change the World—it is always more palatable for powerful people to fund an art show of radical images than actually to get behind radical change.”
The idea that a single artist might correct deteriorating systems is a dangerous mythology. And yet, embedded in artistic practices and projects can be found the seeds for system change. Within this essay are three artists and culture-bearers of varied praxes who, in their own terms, gesture at “a positive shared narrative or image of the future to hold on to” (a mandate from Davis for art in this moment). By foregrounding interdependence and making space for solidarity, these projects—each of which took place in Minnesota in 2022—point us toward “survival skills” needed to weather the Anthropocene.
As participants in the larger art industry, American cultural institutions are often more invested in radical images than radical change. Given woeful underfunding of the arts across the nation, institutions keep their doors open by cozying up to private funders. These conditions benefit corporations and families who have accumulated inordinate wealth through exploitative means, providing an outlet to sanitize their public image.
Take The Guggenheim, for example: in May 2022, three years after protests led most visibly by photographer Nan Goldin spilled into its rotunda, the museum finally scrubbed the Sackler name—the family that founded Purdue Pharma, the producer of OxyContin and progenitor of the opioid epidemic—from its arts education center. Despite this momentous step, the institution’s walls remain littered with the names of other corporations—J.P. Morgan Chase, the world’s largest financier of fossil fuel extraction, and the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp. among them. To say nothing of the “Guggenheim” name itself, representing the family who made their fortune through open pit mining in the southwestern United States and Chile. Encountering the names of entities most responsible for our global precarity at the museum serves as a reminder of art’s entanglements with power.
With recent presentations at prominent museums and biennales, multidisciplinary artist Carolyn Lazard has earned the accolades to enter “a special class of visionaries.” Even so, they continue to position their practice in constructive opposition to morally-compromised institutions, specifically addressing the inhospitality that disabled artists and visitors contend with when interacting in these spaces. Through A Conspiracy and Long Take, their recent string of installations at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, Lazard manipulated the museum’s own infrastructure to question how the institution—and others like it—might make room for the needs and desires of audiences it has historically deprioritized.
Centering their personal experience of chronic illness, Lazard regularly reappropriates products of the healthcare industry in their exhibitions. A Conspiracy—which they conceived of in 2017—employs white noise machines; in its adaptation at the Walker, 48 such machines lined the ceiling of the corridor that connects the museum’s lobby and its parking garage, concealing the conversations of those who passed under its hum. During their artist talk for the concurrent installations, Lazard offered their intention with A Conspiracy: “The work in some ways is about…having a fugitive relationship to institutions, which is like, what does it mean to be here and to be hidden in some way or unheard or finding these pockets of community or collectivity or conspiracy inside of what feel like totalizing systems.”
Seven stories above A Conspiracy, inside the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery—titled for the medical device company that has spent decades lobbying against expanded healthcare access—Lazard covered the entire gallery floor in marley, a vinyl material used in dance spaces. The intervention was part of Long Take, which Lazard defined as “a dance film without an image.” With no dancer to literally view, the film was conveyed through a sound piece combining three interconnected elements: Lazard’s choreographic score, read aloud by poet Joselia Rebekah Hughes; audio of Jerron Herman, a dance artist with cerebral palsy, enacting that score—breathing heavily, his feet tapping and sweeping an unseen floor; and a verbal description—a narrative form used to communicate visual information to people who are visually impaired—of Herman’s performance. Each element was captioned on three adjoined video monitors. Trading visuality for a more universal legibility, Lazard used tools of accessibility to question how performance art ought to be presented and consumed.
Lazard also dispersed three standard gallery benches—entitled Institutional Seat 1-3—throughout the room, each modified with slightly-reclined backrests and upholstered cushions to allow for more comfortable, prolonged engagement with the 18-minute score. Such interventions highlight the many unfulfilled pledges art institutions have announced in recent years to make their buildings and the art within more accessible; these board-ratified, multi-year plans are often accompanied with sizable monetary gifts—and yet, at most arts centers, visitors are still required to request verbal description services two weeks in advance of a program. Lazard’s interventions gestured at what an institution that prioritizes a public’s varying needs and desires might look and feel like; they carved out immediate, material space within the museum for privacy and comfort, allowing visitors to imagine how institutions—artistic or otherwise—might better serve them.
As I exited the gallery, I noticed an addendum to the exhibition’s wall text: “Your care, your work, or your cash made this work possible. Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” followed by a chorus of 66 names. Lazard’s extended credits identified a broad, branching network of friends and artists (Park McArthur, Cameron Rowland, and Merce Cunningham, to name a few) who have impacted their work. Their eagerness to recognize their reliance on countless others resists an art industry that celebrates singular achievements, foregrounding interdependence on a wall space traditionally reserved for acknowledging corporate sponsors.
Leaving the exhibition, my feet again met the museum’s sealed terrazzo floor. Its polished finish contrasted the soft marley of Long Take which, as the exhibition text described, “accumulate[d] the marks of visitors’ feet, assistive devices, and strollers over the duration of the exhibition.” The constellation of scuff marks inscribed by multi-modal visitors became a physical record of the pocket of community Lazard found at the Walker. Though the museum remains entangled with power and beholden to corporate interests, Long Take suggests the possibility of finding and embracing each other within totalizing systems. By making room for an inclusive public, the demand for radical change may follow.
Similar to Lazard’s centering of community, the writer Kathryn Savage emphasizes collaboration as a survival strategy in Groundglass, her debut book published last year. Dedicated to “the daughters of a place and the mothers,” the lyric essay begins as a personal memoir on illness and pollution. Complicating the genre, Savage folds in the first-person narratives of others whose stories are connected by their respective struggles to hold industries accountable for ecological violence.
Groundglass is structured in fragments, with each a handful of pages clenched in tight prose. Named for the polluted railyard in North Minneapolis that neighbored her childhood home, the first fragment entitled “Humboldt Industrial Area” introduces the main arteries that course through Groundglass: the toxic legacies of contaminated sites and the labor of her father. Her father, the reader learns, recently died from a type of gastric cancer observed disproportionately in those who have spent prolonged time working in or living by polluted places. “He died because his body was unwell,” Savage writes of her father. “The industry we’d long lived near was a part of his cancer, I was coming to see, or maybe this was paranoid. It crossed my mind that it could be both, but I didn’t yet know.” The ensuing pages chase after an elusive causation for her father’s premature death—ambiguity due in part to the great lengths industries have gone to conceal evidence of wrongdoing.
Savage works through her grief by mapping it, assigning it to a larger lineage of violence inflicted upon this land and its people. She notes there are 1,322 Superfund sites in the United States—contaminated areas the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed highest priority for clean-up efforts. On top of that are more than 450,000 brownfields—toxic tracts of industrial land that, like Humboldt Industrial Area, remain in use. 61 percent of Americans live within three miles of a brownfield, half of whom are low-income and people of color. “The volume of polluted places overwhelms,” Savage writes. “A dailyness sinks in.”
Savage responds to this overwhelming volume by ceding the page to three other women: Keisha Brown, who for more than four decades has lived in Harriman Park, an historically Black neighborhood located alongside coal processing facilities and steel mills in Birmingham, Alabama; Gudrun Lock, an artist and Savage’s longtime friend who has become a steward of Shoreham Yards, a Minneapolis Superfund site; and Rebecca Jim, a Cherokee woman who initiated remediation efforts around the abandoned lead and zinc mines of Oklahoma’s Tar Creek Superfund site. Savage says that these entries came out of a “many-months-long editorial process that was deeply collaborative” with the authors—conversations that have continued long after the book’s release. For Savage, drawing distinction between instances of ecological violence is less important than conveying a sense of mounting collective harm with each testimony shared.
Revisiting Art in the After-Culture, Ben Davis points to the shortcomings of art aimed towards the broad goal of “raising awareness.” Responding to the trend of contemporary art that sounds the alarm on climate change’s impending impacts, he notes that many projects have had the outcome of instilling fear—or, worse yet, acceptance—rather than inspiring concrete action. “If art is going to help build for the kind of system-level changes needed, it needs to inspire exactly the opposite of these reactions,” he writes.
While Savage unearths long-buried instances of ecological violence for her reader, “raising awareness” is not her primary interest. Instead, Groundglass is a work of great generosity, its author determined to build solidarity with those who live close and those she has not yet met. By sharing the page with activists, Savage ventures beyond the naming of harm to construct an architecture of communal truth-telling. On its own, her essay might not threaten the extractive industries responsible for our shared precarity—but the narrative she has assembled with her collaborators offers a collective vision of remediation and reparation that those featured in the book are already fighting for.
Imagining an inhabitable future requires a functional environment from which that future can take root, and an understanding of how our interdependence extends to non-human species. This is the framework Hope Flanagan establishes during her plant walks. Flanagan is a Seneca elder who works as a cultural teacher at Dream of Wild Health, an Indigenous-owned farm in Hugo, Minnesota. Last autumn, she led an educational walk through Crosby Farm Regional Park—a public forest along the Mississippi River that is projected to lose a third of its trees due to the emerald ash borer.
At the walk’s beginning, Flanagan noted that, as the most recently-arrived beings on this planet, humans are “babies” on these lands. As a sign of respect to our elder plant relatives, “something must be returned” before a plant may be foraged. When she crouched down to meet a wild potato vine—or a thick stand of jewelweed growing together with stinging nettle—she first introduced herself in Ojibwemowin, and removed an offering of tobacco from a bag stored in her jacket pocket. She told the group that, when she harvests on her own, she sings as she walks to “let everyone know I’m there.”
To ensure the wellbeing of the ecosystems she tends to, Flanagan observes certain rules of reciprocity: for every 13 aster flowers counted, she may pick only one; when seeking a plant’s permission for harvest, it is allowed to say “no.” Our group had planned to hike around a pond near the park’s entrance, but we never got that far. Instead, at every turn on the crooked trail, a different species—buried in the underbrush, overhead, just in front of us—captured Flanagan’s attention. She regarded each as a relative with its own history—a being to recognize and be grateful for. As our group moved through the forest, we got closer to what Flanagan called “plant time,” a porous and patient mode of observation. She told us that, covered in the right soil, a lotus seed can remain viable for a thousand years, waiting for the right conditions to announce itself.
When she mentions this, I think of the other substances buried in this ground. Just downstream from Crosby Farm is a Superfund site that operated as an unregulated dump decades ago. Further along the river, “forever chemicals” developed by Minnesota-based conglomerate 3M continue their long bleed into local waterways; despite an historic $850 million settlement reached with the state, 3M denies any culpability. Rather than dwell on this exploitative history, Flanagan focuses on the lotus seed. Like Savage’s Groundglass, Flanagan’s walks are not designed to sound the alarm, but to broaden a budding sense of interdependence with the plant world—as with our shared histories, our fates are bound together, too.
In spite of the powerful forces they contend with and frequent shortcomings of the institutions presenting their work, culture-bearers and artists have always been able to, in Davis’ words, “explore alternative ideas to how society might work.” Sticking with Davis, the moment in which art sheds its smallness and becomes an actual survival skill occurs when artists situate themselves within an anticapitalist politic, and join their work with tangible efforts toward system change—be it contention with the art industry’s entanglements, entities responsible for ecological violence, or colonial concepts that separate humans and nature. Through the interdependence their projects foreground and the solidarity they encourage, Lazard, Savage, and Flanagan present lively visions of a future to hold on to.