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The InterventionistsArt in the Social Sphere


  • Archive, Archive Exhibitions, Exhibition

  • May 29, 2004 - March 20. 2005

Over the course of the 1990s, the term “intervention” was increasingly used by politically engaged artists to describe their interdisciplinary approaches, which nearly always took place outside the realm of museums, galleries, and studios. A decade later, these “interventionists” continue to create an impressive body of work that trespasses into the everyday world — art that critiques, lampoons, interrupts, and co-opts, art that acts subtly or with riotous fanfare, and art that agitates for social change using magic tricks, faux fashion, and jacked-up lawn mowers. The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere, MASS MoCA’s 2004-2005 exhibition, opened May 28, 2004, and surveyed recent and current interventionist practices, showcasing the works of 29 artists and collectives, including eight newly commissioned works.

In contrast to the sometimes heavy-handed political art of the 1980s, interventionist practitioners carve out compelling new paths for artistic practice, coupling hardheaded politics with a light-handed approach, embracing the anarchist Emma Goldman’s dictum that revolutions and dancing belong together. The projects in The Interventionists — whether discussions of urban geography, tents for homeless people, or explorations of current labor practices — were often seasoned with honey rather than vinegar.

The Interventionists, as an exhibition and as a catalogue, was divided into four subcategories:

Nomads: The works in this section were tools for a mobile society — tents or vehicles which in many cases are intended for displaced peoples — made by e-Xplo, Haha, N55, Lucy Orta, William Pope.L, Michael Rakowitz, Ruban Ortiz Torres, Dré Wapenaar, and Krzysztof Wodiczko. This section featured new commissions by William Pope.L, e-Xplo, and Haha.

Reclaim the Streets: Actions that occur within the public sphere — on sidewalks, in parks and malls, and tailored to specific communities — were featured in this section. Artists included: Craig Baldwin’s Billboard Outlaws, Biotic Baking Brigade, God Bless Graffiti Coalition, Haha, the Institute for Applied Autonomy, William Pope.L, Oliver Ressler and Dario Azzellini, Reverend Billy, StreetRec, Valerie Tevere, and Alex Villar.

Ready to Wear: These artists produced tools and clothing for specific political uses. Designed like a suit of armor or gear for a specific sport, these clothes provide shelter and protection and facilitate political activism, among other things. Artists included: Lucy Orta, Ruban Ortiz Torres, Krzysztof Wodiczko, The Yes Men, and YOMANGO.

The Experimental University: Artists in this section used anthropology, biology, geography, and other scientific disciplines for artistic or political purposes, rather than for scientific goals. By taking experiments out of the laboratory and placing them in new contexts within the museum or on the sidewalk, these artists seek to give viewers access to new information, and the capacity to reach their own conclusions about technical or environmental matters that might otherwise seem remote and untouchable. Artists included: 16 Beaver, Critical Art Ensemble with Beatriz de Costa, Tana Hargest, J. Morgan Puett, Spurse, subRosa, and The Atlas Group.

The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere was curated by MASS MoCA assistant curator Nato Thompson. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalog which serves as an introductory guide to — and survey of — interventionist strategies. This user’s manual of interventionist practices includes essays by Gregory Sholette, founding member of the New York art collective REPOhistory (1989-2000) and PAD/D or Political Art Documentation and Distribution (1980-1986), Nicolas Mirzoef, Associate Professor, Art History at SUNY Stony Brook since 1998, and Thompson. The catalog is distributed by MIT Press.

Right wall: God Bless Graffiti Coalition, On the 8th Day
Left to right: Dré Wapenaar, Rubén Ortiz-Torres, Lucy Orta, Dré Wapenaar, N55, Michael Rakowitz
photo: Art Evans