FUCK THE POLICE, FUCK THE STATE, FUCK THE TATE: RIOTS AND REFORM
Bear with me, and read this generously; this text has come from an anger that I don’t know how to contain or hold onto, an anger that doesn’t belong to me alone. Writing this has been difficult, I have really struggled with trying to temper and condition my destructive impulses into something coherent. But I need to say this, and some of you need to hear it. Fuck these institutions, fuck these institutional players. No more gestures, no more empty words. We outnumber them, and we can just rip it out, topple it all and throw it into the nearest river.
The past week has seen a focus on conversations of reform versus abolition of the police and other institutions that uphold white supremacy. We have gained some new readers in the past fortnight who might not know where we stand, so we want to take a second to say: we do not advocate for reform, we advocate for abolition. We mean this for the police & prisons, but we believe it should be applied to art and cultural institutions too. There are too many limits to what reform can facilitate, and this obsession with reforming old, inherited exclusionary policies in organisations has held up real change for decades. We are tired of watching the art world pretend to want to be better.
Last week when these galleries and museums posted their black squares, they were rightly met by full force anger from their audiences and some staff too who called them out on their bullshit hypocrisy. Last Sunday, we platformed a spreadsheet documenting BLM responses by major London galleries. It was created by Layemi Ikomi & there were email templates too that she had written with Aye Ikomi and Eibhlin Jones. On Wednesday, the first institution tagged us in their public statement about the actions they’re taking to be more ~diverse & inclusive~. The limits of my rage knows no bounds. I do not personally rest my hopes on a conversation about who has a seat at the table; fuck the table, fuck the room, fuck the building. I am aware that even when given the opportunity and resources to reflect, institutions will use the hope of reform to twist away from accountability and change. They are not interested in changing for real, nothing permanent; they do not hold the solutions, they do not care about liberation.
Reform in the arts represents a static position; it places a heavy focus on a politics of representation & inclusion, and assumes that diversity in and of itself is an end point. It is not. There are plenty of people that’ve done a lot of work detailing the ways in which institutions have remained static at their white monied centre, while populating their surface with as much ~diverse~ busywork to deflect from their core inertia. A really good text to read on this is Jemma Desai’s <this work isn't for us>. The paper’s first chapter details the history of institutional diversity policy and its varied failings, and it points out the writing of others (like Naseem Khan & Richard Hylton) that explore the same. A fact that Jemma points out is that institutions have been speaking about reform towards a more diverse and inclusive position since the 70s. The history of these decades of diversity policy and the attempts at inclusion in the arts are a history of continual institutional failure; a badly kept history that is not widely known, except maybe in a £60 book here, an out of print/untraceable pdf there. The diversity policy of the past that failed is almost exactly the same - in intention, reach and measure - as the declarations and public statements that are coming out now. The Tate promises to publish a guidebook on allyship; Arts Council England promise to change their recruitment process; others promise to develop diverse audiences; tag in BAME* board members; say they will increase public programming; on and on and on. None of it represents a fundamental change that benefits the collective liberation of marginalised people, none of it centres the protection or care of black lives; the only benefit in sight is for the institution, its public perception and viability. None of it is any different to what was proposed before, what was done before, or what is being done now in different forms: professional development, outreach, public program. The cyclical forgetting of the history of reform and diversity policy is intentional, it traps us in the belief that reform is a viable solution. Reform does not work. If our demands are capped at the static level of reform, we will be trapped in a cycle at that perpetual point of beginning.
If reform doesn’t work, what’s left as alternative, I hear u ask. While the rest of the world is getting to grips with the politics of abolition entering the mainstream, the arts need to do the work of catching up. Perhaps abolition makes more sense as a distant concern, away from the art world. It more directly relates to the deep state; policing, prisons, legislation, drug policy, components of a system that affects society more intimately. Art is one degree of separation from the state but it’s still tied to it; its institutions align with white bourgeois interests, actively represent those interests, they are propped up by white bourgeois hierarchies that centre and preserve white bourgeois power & supremacy. The institutions of art are not exempt from this conversation; if we are talking about dismantling systems & structures then we need to apply it to the arts. If reform is incapable of holding space for the dismantling of those systems and structures (it is most definitely incapable), then overhaul is the complete reconfiguration and flattening of those systems and structures. Reform presents us with platitudes, the sweet promise of action, of new people and faces, but it is fundamentally the same shape. Overhaul presents us with a structure that has a radically different shape entirely, with different priorities, and different operational models (different people is just an added bonus). We cannot just swap out the people, inject new audiences and new workers into the different roles that already exist, leaving the structure unchanged. The structure is the problem. If reform presents a static model, where power is protected, remaining in a white bourgeois center; overhaul presents a dynamic model where that power is dispersed. I have written about this briefly, most recently a month or so ago in <ideas for a new art world>. Hassan Vawda [1 & 2], Tobi Kyeremateng , Janine Francois , Harry Josephine Giles [1 & 2], Dhelia Snoussi & Laurie Mompelat , Teresa Cisneros , Zain Dada  & Jemma Desai [all linked] have written about different models and approaches we could follow on various different scales, from a sector-wide shift to more specific fixes. Languid Hands , not/nowhere, Black Ticket Project , Amahra Spence (both with the Black Land & Spatial Justice Fund & MAIA), are actively doing; they’ve created spaces, practices and models that represent a significant break, that exact dispersal of power and reconfiguration of priorities. These are just examples from the surface of who’s in my immediate reach on a Thursday evening, but there is a wealth of writing and thinking out there that can widen our collective imaginations for the potential reconfiguring.
This call for overhaul isn’t a fringe concern, this isn’t the singular bias of my destructive impulses creeping in and contaminating my ability to write objectively. This is a collective mood that I am putting in the plainest, least sentimental way I possibly can so you can all hear me and treat these words with the weight they were intended to have. You must take this seriously. This is what we are owed, what we are entitled to. The art world and its institutions belong to us too. I once heard Madani Younis say, ‘I’m surprised people haven’t started burning down public buildings… if it’s public money being used to underpin these institutions and we the public are dissatisfied, how are we given permission to have a meaningful discourse with that institution? This is the fundamentally flawed nature of public funding; we take money from the public, but the public are never allowed to hold these institutions to account. What would happen if the communities in South or East London had a much stronger presence in the decisions these institutions make? What version of our cities would then emerge in these institutions?’ We are owed a debt, we are owed accountability which we have no course of access to.
These institutions owe us, not just by fact of their existence and the way they still stand in our streets and gladly extend a hand to the state for our funding. It isn’t just a passive participation; the white bourgeois interests they align with are (re)produced actively by the very shape of their operational model and the way they work to deliver art to the public, for the public’s own good. They get to define what constitutes Art, a definition that all too often centres whiteness. Janine Francois tweeted; ‘Outreach & engagement models in the cultural sector are so rooted in colonial missionary politics; 'we need to save the poor.’ These people can't fathom that marginalised people privilege their own culture-making above Culture (with a capital C) because white middle class 'Culture' is valueless & meaningless to us in how we produce culture. This position defies the deficit model: us lacking the knowledge/taste to engage with 'Culture.' And this model is colonial because it's based on: 'how can we make these people just like us?' Whilst economic, hostile & exclusionary conditions affect participation, this isn't the only reason why. If museums understood how our culture making doesn't centre whiteness/middle classness, they would see how culturally rich we already are and why we don't attend their museums. Museums should be making themselves accessible to us, but it requires a complete decolonising of what they consider engagement/outreach. Often because our engagements are ghettoised, sidelined to 'special events' that are not sustainable, often temporary & reactionary. More PoC & working class staff would be the answer, but representation is meaningless without activism backed with structural change (marginalised people can reproduce dominant behaviours like class & white supremacy).’ What Janine is providing here is an incredibly valuable analysis that’s not just limited to outreach & engagement, but to the wider field of art & its institutions.
In the more rigid realm of exhibitions, this colonial politic impacts our considerations of who is included, whose/what work is deemed exhibition-worthy and most importantly: why, what about this work makes it exhibitable. Behind the scenes in the open-plan curatorial offices; who gets to make decisions, and what are those decision-makers really representing, valuing and enacting when they make those decisions. This is something that Jemma Desai writes about, again, at length in <this work isn't for us>. She discusses how these institutions take the shape of the bodies they prioritise, and they allow access conditionally to marginalised people that conform to their white/middle class priorities. If we take that into consideration alongside the Warwick Commission’s report on the Future of Cultural Value, and its findings on Engagement and Participation, this all leaks out into a pervasive outcome. ‘high socio-economic background, university-level educational attainment and a professional occupation are still the most reliable predictors of high levels of engagement and participation in a wide range of cultural activities… The gap in participation between the white and BAME* population is widening… The ‘participation gap’ they highlight, which cultural organisations are endeavouring to close, is not caused by a lack of demand among the public for cultural and creative expression… That low engagement is more the effect of a mismatch between the public’s taste and the publicly funded cultural offer – posing a challenge of relevance as well as accessibility.’ I don’t think it’d be dramatic for me to call this a de facto social and ethnic cleansing of the arts; if you’re still paying attention, that’s what this all amounts to. The Warwick Commission’s report is written in a way that continues with a white liberal sensibility, yet even in that, it still manages to confirm what’s at stake. That, alongside Janine & Jemma’s analyses confirm to me - and I hope to you - that if we are to truly change these institutions for the better, for audience and cultural workers alike, we need to change not just the people within them, but the priorities they hold; from the limits of their societal role, to the practical considerations of how they operate on a daily basis, right down to their very definition of culture itself.
In the meantime and pending overhaul, what do we do with ourselves? How do we trigger these overhauls, what can we do while these institutions are shook? Not to wimp out on answering, but that is such an intimate and subjective thing, it is not for me to decide or define. I have been holding on to the idea of secession privately and amongst friends; quietly questioning the validity and weight of separatism. idk whether it holds as an idea that can be conditioned into something publishable here, or if it’s the hard edge resurgence of those same destructive impulses. Despite the click-bait title, I am obviously not didactically calling for riots in the absence of overhaul. I just think we have reached a point where it’s widely acknowledged that racism is systemic, yet the loudest calls for action are still looking to that same system to fix racism. This is wholly a white ppl problem, and focussing on what we, as creative labourers from already marginalised identities (i’m lumping us all in here because these institutions are now looking to us as a lumpen whole, using words like BAME when they should be saying Black), could or should be doing right now - that all kinda misses the whole point. I think as soft a thought as it is, separatism and withdrawal of our labour has never looked more viable, more needed, more protective or valuable. Whether it’s indefinite or just about taking a month off; these institutions need to sort themselves out away from us. The most didactic I’ll get here is to speak specifically to nbpoc cultural workers and say: we are being called on by these institutions to be complicit in a narrative of reform that would represent a continuation of violence against black cultural workers. We absolutely must not do that; our withdrawal here is important. To use this moment as an opportunity for our own professional advancement would be to perpetuate the systematic anti-black racism that is at the core of white supremacy, that we have historically been a part of; not only is it shit politics, but history has shown, it also works against our own long-term interests.
In my soft undefined thinking, it is worth investigating separatism as a way of us moving forwards, away from the centrality of whiteness so artists and creative labourers can be safe and empowered in their practices. It is of the utmost importance that we take the time to prioritise our own safety, organise ways of caring for each other in self-sufficiency, because it is markedly clear that these institutions will not provide that care or safety. In my soft thinking, this soft speculative future already partially exists; in the margins, away from institutions and their money/power, in the examples of thinking & practice I gave earlier. I don’t know what this all looks like yet; whether it’s a complete long term withdrawal of labour, whether its collective action, silence, riots, or demands for white directors and curators to yield the floor & resign. I don’t know, and I’m not the one to answer that. But we need more than expressions of solidarity, we need active complicity in dismantling; and we really can’t sit with this for much longer.
On June 14th 2017, at least 72 people died in Grenfell Tower. The survivors of this disaster & the families of those lost have not yet seen justice, instead they have faced government neglect and silence; 23,000 homes remain covered in flammable cladding despite the government’s June 2020 deadline for its removal. I urge you all to write to your MP & council members to demand they apply pressure to the government to remove flammable cladding immediately, and add Justice for Grenfell to the (hopefully) long list of community & grassroots orgs that you regularly donate to.
from this text:
other reading lists that could be useful:
from <ideas for a new art world>:
Lola Olufemi, <Feminism, Interrupted - Disrupting Power>
Morgan Quaintance, <Teleology and the Turner Prize or: Utility, the New Conservatism>
Morgan Quaintance, <The New Conservatism: Complicity and the UK Art World’s Performance of Progression>
Morgan Quaintance, <Galleries Against Gaslighting: How can the UK art world respond to Grenfell?>
Amrita Dhallu, <Chisenhale Research Project>
Stephen Pritchard, <Artwashing Social Space>
GDLP, <How I got a gallery>
GDLP & ZM, <I LITERALLY HATE THE ART WORLD>