Whitney Biennial’s Sponsors Sacked Due to Artist Exploitation… Well, Not Really.

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking

The Whitney Biennial web occupation
by Matt Seaton
Tuesday 28 February 2012

An artful web hoax announced the sacking of the Whitney Biennial’s corporate sponsors and apologised to artists for their exploitation. So whodunnit?

This week, the Whitney Museum in New York City gives over most of its exhibition space for its 2012 Biennial, showcasing the work of more than 50 contemporary artists. As in previous years, the Biennial is sponsored by Deutsche Bank and art auctioneers Sotheby’s. The co-curators of the show, Elizabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, describe some of their criteria for inclusion:

“Artists are bringing other artists into their work – a form of free collage or reinvention that borrows from the culture at large as a way of rewriting the standard narratives and exposing more relevant hybrids. There is also the radical production of new forms, fabrication on a more modest scale. Artists are constantly redefining what an artist can be at this moment and this Biennial celebrates that fact.”

An unknown number of artists/activists – with notably good web skills – took this brief of reinventing and borrowing for the purpose of rewriting the Biennial’s “standard narrative” a few steps further than the Whitney had anticipated. First, on 24 February, Occupy Wall Street’s Arts and Labor Group issued a letter calling for the end of the Whitney’s Biennial in 2014, citing:

“The biennial perpetuates the myth that art functions like other professional careers and that selection and participation in the exhibition, for which artists themselves are not compensated, will secure a sustainable vocation. This fallacy encourages many young artists to incur debt from which they will never be free and supports a culture industry and financial and cultural institutions that profit from their labors and financial servitude.”

This statement might have made little impression outside niche arts media, but then, on Monday, anyone googling the Whitney might easily have happened on this web page – presumably, a “more relevant hybrid” of the Whitney’s own website. The faux-Whitney web page announced that the show’s two major sponsors, Deutsche Bank and Sotheby’s, had been sacked – the former for “reckless and even fraudulent financial speculation”; the latter for a lockout of unionised art handlers.

The statement went on to issue an apology to artists for permitting wealthy corporate sponsors to “whitewash their image and to hide the social costs of unchecked capital accumulation behind a façade of charity”. A matching, artfully fake press release was also sent out to art news sources.

Twitter was soon abuzz with the story – first, with congratulations to the Whitney for supposedly taking this stand; and then, as realisation set in that it was a hoax, speculation about who was responsible.

A call to the Whitney’s press office confirmed that the museum has nothing to do with the web page, and had no comment to make on the impersonated “apology”. The lead sponsors of the Biennial are intact, and the Whitney says it is seeking to have the whitney2012.org page taken down.

The domain name was registered on 18 February, but with no clue as to agency. But some Twitter leads soon turned up a spokesperson for the “intervention”, which was the work of, in their words, “anonymous cultural workers”.

“This is neither a prank nor a hoax,” said my anonymous cultural worker (ACW). “It is a gesture to encourage an influential institution to stand on the right side of history – which is to say, with the 99%.”

The gesture’s immediate objective was to publicise the labor dispute at Sotheby’s, but as to why the Whitney Biennial was targeted, the ACW says:

“Because this exhibition is the cutting edge of contemporary art. Viewers expect it to take risks, reject the status quo, and explore tough questions in art and society. In fact, curator Elizabeth Sussman had even remarked earlier that ‘We’re delighted that we naturally got involved with Occupy Wall Street.'”

I suspect Sussman is getting more creative involvement than she’d bargained for. As ArtInfo reports, a number of Occupy Wall Street-aligned artists are taking Sotheby’s locked-out teamsters as their dates to Tuesday’s Biennial VIP preview party.

“As for art exhibitions, we are not interested in simply shutting them down,” maintains the anonymous cultural worker:

“We love art and art exhibitions. But the art system as it is currently organized is unjust and unsustainable, and we are confident that new alternatives will emerge based in principles of inclusion, mutual aid, and collective creativity “¦ as we all begin to imagine the possibility of art institutions being unshackled from the interests of the 1%.”