curated by Raul Zamudio and Juan Puntes, co-curated by Blanca de la Torre
WhiteBox, NY, NY, February 1-21 2016
Opening February 1, 2016 6:00-9:00pm
By GREGORY DE LA HABA, APR. 2016
"Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit." –Mahatma Gandi
The exhibition #makeamericagreatagain first transpired in January of this year when WhiteBox Director and Founder Juan Puntes invited independent curator and writer Raul Zamudio to organize a show to fill a time slot unexpectedly vacated in the gallery's scheduling. Knowing all eyes would be on the upcoming Republican and Democratic primaries, Mr. Zamudio thought it appropriate and timely to focus on them. Respected and known internationally, Raul Zamudio enjoys obfuscating boundries and pushing buttons and will, at all turns, blurr or tweak exhibition structure to fit, enhance, or work in favor for his curatorial agenda. His raison d'être to appropriate Mr. Trump's campaign hashtag #makeamericagreatagain was with the idea, or the intent, of converging a physical exhibition with that of the non-physical entity –yet much larger arena– of social media, where both components would ideally overlap and morph into one another. And from the moment invited guests the world over started uploading their art and commentary with the hashtag #makeamericagreatagain –instantaneously becoming part of the show– WhiteBox on Broome street transformed itself from a local New York art exhibition showroom into an international hotbed of political discourse for the advancement of democratic expression.
It was, as Mr. Zamudio called it, "trolling as an art form and curatorial strategy."
Mr. Zamudio believed Trump would be an ideal springboard for an exhibition that targeted the primaries because of the outrageous comments made by the Republican primary frontrunner. Further adding fuel to the fire was Juan Puntes' reaction to Donald Trump's boasting he “could stand on New York's Fifth Avenue ‘and shoot somebody,’ and still not lose voters." Mr. Puntes, and Mr. Zamudio, enlisted Ms. Blanca de la Torre, and vowed to call upon every single one of their contacts to join them in reacting to–as Mr. Puntes calls it– the “2016 presidential election charade.”
Apart from acting as show title, the hashtag #makeamericagreatagain incites a powerful curatorial call to action to participate in the political discourse/process. According to Mr. Zamudio: "#makeamericagreatagain thematically rubs up against the demagoguery prevalent in the current American social and political landscape and rhetoric espoused by primary candidates to engender fear in the American public."
Unfortunately, demagoguery is nothing new and has played a role in American politics long before Trump arrived on the scene. A stone's throw from WhiteBox, on the corner of Houston and Lafayette, stands the grand, cast iron Puck building that during the late 19th and early 20th century was home to the nation's premier magazine of graphic humor and political satire. Named after the Shakespeare character in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck magazine featured as company mascot a half naked, cherubic looking character in top hat admiring himself in a hand-held mirror with the accompanying caption cum motto "What fools these mortals be!". Puck played an important role as a non-partisan crusader for good government and the triumph of American constitutional ideals. The magazine's main target in the 19th century was the Irish controlled, corrupt body politic of New York's Tammany Hall and their foreign potentate ruled cronies, the Roman Catholic Church. Puck took a firm stance against their allegiance and power which was viewed as a serious threat to America's democratic soul. Puck's mightier-than-the-sword satirical approach to change is long gone but unfortunately corruption still thrives. Enter Puntes, Zamudio & Co., keepers of Puck's formidable flame.
Antagonistic and reactionary, #makeamericagreatagain is no painting survey like the one recently staged by Gagosian and Deitch during Art Basel Miami Beach but a politically charged hodgpodge of varying things gathered almost overnight via Juan and Raul's robust social media rallying cry to mobilize and participate. The fact that so many artists (approximately 80 for opening night alone with many more participating throughout the duration of the show in New York and elsewhere) says a number of things both about the exhibition itself and the current state of affairs our country faces. First, the sheer number of participants to 'react' within a short period of time is both a testament of respect these curators command while also showcasing the incredible power of social media's ability to reach out and gather the tribe on a moment's notice. This unmitigated power in numbers is also one of the show's absolute strengths in proving the voice of dissent still matters, can still thrive. Seen and heard around the world by thousands on radio, Facebook, Instagram or channeled live via video stream from Ohio, #makeamericagreatagain may also one day be seen as threat to the establishment, for it was executed without Juan, Raul or Blanca having to register in Albany as lobbyist. For now, as curators, they're safe.
"Take a look at the Lawman, beating up the wrong guy…"
–David Bowie, Life on Mars
Upon coming in to the space on Broome street, the art-seeking observer is confronted with a rather large and unappetizing mound of McDonald's hamburgers heaped approximately two feet high and seemingly left languishing on a waist-high, white wooden stand. If ketchup had been dripping off a giant foam fingertip or, perhaps, off a plastic mold of Prince Charles' penis or some other type serving vessel dangling from the ceiling, one would've thought immediately a tasty and ready-to-eat food installation by Jennifer Rubell. But these burgers were absent any dripping red fructose corn poison and had–firmly planted atop the highest stacked burger–an plastic American flag. The work, aptly titled The Battle of Hamburger Hill, by Joaquin Segura, set the stage for the politically themed, socially charged exhibition with commentary on malfeasance, American expansionism, exploitive capitalistic practices and of course 'The Donald' that media rhetoric and hashtags galore forever imply are all fucking up country and We The People bad.
Oddly, the insitu composition of burgers made me think of the lunar landing in 1969 and Neil Armstrong's "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" and I got to thinking about then (1969) and now (2016) and for some reason heard David Bowie's Life on Mars (first recorded in 1971) playing in the background and realized a parallel exist with #makeamericagreatagain and, yes, Life on Mars.
David Bowie was both a critic and creator of pop culture. To his postmodernist songwriting credit, he had the ability to turn pop culture on its head in order to use it against itself to make lasting, meaningful art. Life on Mars, recognized as one of the best songs of all time, one of Bowie's most complex and, like the man himself, mulit-faceted, can be viewed as rallying cry for anti-capitalism, anti-consumerism, marxism or as socialist revolutionary anthem. But above all, Life on Mars is a parody of Paul Anka's My Way, the one that became Frank Sinatra's most popular, signature hit. When he released the song, Bowie described it as "A sensitive young girl's reaction to the media" but further elaborated in 1997 "I think she finds herself disappointed with reality... that although she's living in the doldrums of reality, she's being told that there's a far greater life somewhere, and she's bitterly disappointed that she doesn't have access to it." And when looking beyond the silly or childish one liners emanating off the walls at WhiteBox, like Alberto Borea's "Make America White Again", isn't this–providing access to things essential for a good and healthy life– what #makeamericagreatagain is supposed to be all about?
A big problem in this country however is that everything today is commoditized, from elections to education to art and a big dilemma therefore, for artists and the working man alike, is finding the zen and meaning of life in the ashheap of disorder and malcontent in order to decipher what's real and necessary from the flotsam. How is it possible to stay real (think Jay Z rapping about the street when he's worth 500 million or a billionaire like Trump understanding the plight of the little guy let alone the Black Lives Matter movement) or believe in truth when so many are truly hurting and genuinly disfranchised?
Whitehot Magazine spoke with Juan Puntes and Raul Zamudio a few days after the opening.
WM: As curator[s] of the show, you're calling on visitors and artists of #makeamericagreatagain to get engaged in the political process via social media and creative dialogue. How's the participation rate of artists on social media going?
Raul: It’s going great, as the expansion into social media, I think, is a brilliant curatorial strategy that reflects experimentation with exhibition ontology.
Juan: Besides the mediatic, we connected with colleagues and spaces in Des Moines, Iowa on the first, Bethlehem NH on the 9th and will finish with SC and Nevada live web stream on the 20th. 8-10 pm.
CPI (Creative Practices Inc) holds a round table “On Trumpery Politics” as an invited guest event on the 20th. To be radioed live web-streamed via whiteboxny.org
In conclusion, the curators reached out into the ‘thicket’ securing collaborators beyond the ‘gallery walls’ and included an array of potent international voices adding their take to this incredibleTrumpian moment(um) in US and World history.
WM: What was it that you did in Iowa, some stunt or something? Did it go over well?
Raul: The “stunt” as you call it, was also an example of curatorial inventiveness where art would be indistinguishable from life; in this case, political life; since Iowa-based artists created a performance where they posed as journalists and infiltrated the Iowa Caucuses to interview people and to videotape anything that interested them, which was then projected as live stream into WhiteBox on opening night.
Juan: Three screens were connected to WBX via web stream. From the Red Texas Truck cabin -an art piece by ANVIL Collective containing all electronic gear, PA system and projectors- Igor Molochevsky, a member, manned the switchboard controlling three incoming video feeds selecting which one to project on rear architectural wall. He fluctuated from the Rep Caucus headquarters to the Dems, as the action required, interspersing action feed from a third screen reporting on a performance work by an Iowa collective gathering recycled American suburban construction materials, proceeded to build a house at high speed to be finished matching the time-cycle of the caucuses, in a mere few hours!
It added an absurd touch a Laurel & Hardy gig to the phenomenon.
The photograph of the completed house (strange looking, pairing the charade characters at play!) hangs in exhibition lower level of the WBX’s Project Space.
WM: Would you say there's a marxist flare, a quasi-proletarian aesthetic running throughout the show? It seems most are anti-Trump, are they therefore pro Bernie Sanders?
Raul: No, I wouldn’t say there was “a quasi proletarian aesthetic running throughout the show.” If what you mean as a deliberate deskilled aesthetic, then yes, there are some works that use that as a formal ruse. In the so-called art world, there are works that can ostensibly be simple yet conceptually complex and poetic. Likewise, they are incredibly well made artworks that are inane and boring and serve nothing more than wallpaper to match the furniture or are investment commodities. There only two works, if I can recall, that referred to the Democrats. One was a painting by Louise Fishman with the text, ANGRY HILLARY. Since I did not want the exhibition to take any political slant in terms of Hillary or Bernie, it was imperative to counter the Fishman piece by a Jaime Martinez's painting of Hillary based on a NY Post cover replete with its acerbic punning that that tabloid is known for.
Juan: There was no hint –in the concept and carry through of the project– that referred to a ‘proletarian’ effect or affecting. The voices we three selected, I think, were solid-state strong, varied, multifarious, eclectic, and yes in it’s own chaotic order of disorder, hummed a poetic cacophony to great extent paralleling the political ’noise’, as in “for art to be of an era, it must reflect the times”…
WM: The exhibition had a sound component to it which I didn't get a chance to hear at the opening and I heard Joel Charabe, founder of EMF (Electronic Music Foundation) played a part in #makeamericagreatagain, is this true?
Raul: Joel Chadabe is one the most interesting composers of the post-John Cage era whose broad musical purview encompass minimalism, atonality, concrete music, electronics and so forth. This is not a visual artist gone audio, but a bona fide composer who thinks completely different regarding sound. His contribution was also very much in tune with my general curatorial aspirations; and that is to push the limits of what an art exhibition can be.
Juan: Yes, he requested we tape the entire sound of the show on both floors using a ‘field recorder’, running from the entrance to the back of the space, covering the entire periphery plus the lower level. He will upload #makeamericagreatagain as an audio show in his Ear to the Earth website. Joel understood exactly what Raul and I hinted at sonically, a great part of the exhibition, indeed.
WM: Art and politics have become so commoditized like everything else, do you think revolution too has become just another kitsch brand?
Raul: Bernie Sanders is running on the platform of Political Revolution, so the term hasn’t’ quite become an anachronism as you allude in your question. And even though revolution may be, as you describe, another commodity, there is a real world within and beyond our borders in which people are attempting to take their lives back. I used to be a cynic and somewhat laissez faire about what happens "out there," then a bomb landed in my backyard blowing up the roses.
Juan: I see this precise moment as a timely exercise, a perfect opportunity for artists to express a condition of ‘belonging to the “Social Contract” Rousseau pertained to. Cynics and realists can participate alike expressing opinion, demur, or any other form of political authorship based on the theme the exhibition commands. #makeamericagreatagain, in my eyes, doubles up as a de-facto referendum on the artists themselves, on where they stand in front of a most telling moment in history, perhaps brewing actual revolution!
What we have in action is, luckily, a beautiful concoction, or deep-hued mosaic of stupendous, vital contemporary international voices-from three generations and many credos- ranging from the most existentialist, profound artworks as in Teresa Margolles dark, doomed projection and Kyle Gohen’s fatidic facade mural seen only through a flash of light, to the great absurd, caricaturesque motif in the moving video tryptic of Federico Solmi’s 3 generic, painterly computerized, robotic front runners evoking anger and doom, There is a good amount of K.O. comic, healthy humorous works such as Pablo Helguera’s lighthearted participatory Trump piñata, then, some more exact political works such as Cris Gianakos upside down US flag in distress devoid of stars over a great valued hued gigantic idem mural flag by Isaac Aden, and Juanli Carrion’s liturgyc cactus, the image built out of text from the latest immigration bill, notwithstanding the genius of Joaquin Segura’s Hamburger Hill and Alberto Borea’s illegally stitched white thread on black leather canvas spelling Trump’s languid dictum speaking for our anachronistic silent majority “Make AmericaWhiteAgain”.
WM: To ponder the show's hashtag title #makeamericagreatagain is to ponder the idea that America in actuality fell from the mantle of greatness. Do you not believe America is great?
Raul: I don’t think any country is or ever was “great” in the sense of how Trump employs the term. Language is not transparent; so to me the word “great” has a chauvinistic subtext when used to describe any nation; #makemamericagreatagain was lifted verbatim from Donald Trump’s Republican primary slogan to metaphorically refer to myriad of things that plague the American political and social landscape as well as becoming a curatorial intervention into Trump’s social media orbit. Without sounding self-contradictory, however, I do believe our show did make America great again.
Juan: As a draft evader, I take the Fifth on this one.
WM: Ok, that's funny. But weren't you born in Spain, Juan, under the dictatorship of Franco and know first hand what happens when the voice of the people truly gets silenced. Taking the Fifth is afforded very few people in this world without serious consequence.
Juan: Boy, that’d lead us into material for another show, youth prison days for an ideal and such affairs… Don’t want to go there this afternoon, Gregorio, but thanks for the reminder.
WM: When the creative dialogue stops, that's when the real shit hits the fan. And as of today, every artist in the show still has the right to create. As Devil's advocate I need to ask, what's the beef these artists share towards America and/or for Donald Trump?
Raul: I can only speak for myself, but I don’t think anyone in the show has a “beef” with America as an ideal nor to our fellow citizenry. I'm not an activist, but see it imperative to make the world a better place but that needs to happen locally. Thus within the sphere of my activities, I attempt to do that through curating, writing, and teaching. It may seem naive to think those activities can do that, but if the shows curated and texts written and courses taught can make the viewer, reader, and student think about the world around them and affect them in anyway, then I've accomplished something. Shows I've curated engendered blowback, exhibitions censored. In Shanghai, one was closed by the Iranian government via their Chinese proxies. I wear that censored exhibition, as well as the others, as a badge of honor; to think that I made a repressive regime want to close a show I curated is testament that art still has power. #makeamericagreatagain, is, however, one of the few shows that wears its politics on its sleeve. Certain moments in history demand this kind of art exhibition, and I believe our current political and social milieu necessitates that. As per Donald Trump, he just happens to be the current embodiment of a political mindset that is regressive and even dangerous in its xenophobia, Islamophobia, and related remarks that reveal a rather twisted mentality. It's frightening to think he could become President. What does "#makeamericagreatagain" mean to him? To return to an era before the Civil Rights Act? To turn the clock back on all the progress we've made for a more socially equitable country to a homogenous and complacent world where the "other" was non-existent?
Juan: Concur with Raul.
WM: Have either of you a final thought on the show you'd like to share?
Raul: I would like your readers to meditate on this: a work outside of WhiteBox by Kyle Goen based on the 43 “disappeared” Mexican students who are probably in a mass grave somewhere, and US anti-Mexican xenophobia, economic policies such as NAFTA, American illicit drug consumption, the military industrial complex, money laundering through art, and the Mexican Drug cartels. If Mark Lombardi was alive he could visually connect the dots of that cannibalistic constellation for those who lack a critical imaginary.
Juan: Certainly Kyle Goen went the extra mile as expressed by Raul. Teresa Margolles’ work projected from within the Red Texas ANVIL truck cabin over a black screen merits a deep stare, a meditation.
A final thought from WM: An interactive work by Pablo Helguera, a piñata of The Donald, invited guests to grab a bat and take swing at the main GOP contender.Viva la opposición! this is not. In a very puckish way, the piñata–in a mexican nutshell–screams more Off with your head! monarchial vitriol instead an intelligent, peaceful and non-threatening-to-the-opposition, lead-by-positive example, demonstration of tolerance and respect –something much needed and lagging horribly in current political discourse and especially in the run for the Whitehouse. Hate exercised in the guise of comedy is still hate, and the piñata bashing participants, mostly children while adults egged them on and laughed, are learning what? To knock down and destroy those that don't fall in line with thier (parent's) views? To be a bully? Effigy bashing is nothing new or original, and its sheer banality often witnessed on the evening news and reserved for fanatics in the Middle East burning mock Uncle Sams or a George W. Bush statuette–or worse, much worse, an actual Marine in the streets of Mogadishu. Satire printed inbetween pages of a magazine or hanging on the walls of a gallery is one thing; aggressive physical action in a public space in the name of free speech and art is quite another, and is tantamount to intolerance. WM
Complete Artists list:
Mac Premo + Duke Riley | Louise Fishman | Regina Jose Galindo Kyle Goen | Federico Solmi | Ivan Navarro | Cris Gianakos | James Hyde Jaishri Abichandani | Conrad Atkinson | Isaac Aden ANVIL Collective | Luis Alonzo Barkigia | Majeed Benteeha Terry Berkowitz | Hans Breder | The Blue Noses | Alberto Borea Robert Boyd | Juanli Carrion | Paolo Cirio | Tony Conway | Joseph DeLappe Dread Scott | Eduardo Gil | Mathew Grenier | Glenn Goldberg Pablo Helguera | Richard Humann | Samuel Jablon Juan Lazaro + Jevijoe Vitug | Alexander Kosolapov | Teresa Margolles Ferran Martin | Susana Pilar Delahante Matienzo | Mary Mattingly Yusef Merhi | Igor Molochevski | Robert Priseman | Fariden Sakhaeifar | PS3* Joaquin Segura | Vitaly Komar | Edgar Serrano | Elliott Sharp Wolodymyr Starosolsky | Quintin Rivera Toro | Terreform ONE | Wojtek Ulrich Ruben Verdu | Roberto Visani | Johan Wahlstrom | Jordan Weber | Roger Welch Hans Winkler | Irena Lagator Pejovic | Antonio De La Rosa |Micha Das Bach Luis Alonzo Barkigia | Aliana & Jeff Bliumis | Carla Gannis | Jamie Martinez Jean Pierre Muller | Ben Sakoguchi | Khaled Jarrar | Lee Wells | Ligorano/Reese and more